The before and the after

When Kim would tell Maggie stories about us going to China to get her, Elena would ask “where was I?”

Maggie would look at Elena incredulously and say, “you weren’t even born yet.”

When Elena was young this was beyond her comprehension. She had always been here. How could time exist before her. She would press Kim on this and ask, “really mom, where was I?”

Kim would give her a hug and say, “right here. In my heart.”

Elena would look at Maggie and say, “see, I did go to China. I was in mom’s heart.” This was well before she would tell Maggie “I came from inside of mom you know.”

How long was Elena with us before she was born?

I know. It’s kind of a strange question. We’ve thought of all sorts of strange questions this past year. I don’t think I’ve thought so much about the finiteness of life since I was in high school.

Elena’s now been dead longer than Kim was pregnant with her. So the time since the end of her life is now longer than the time before she was born that she was a physical entity.

An odd milestone to mark.

Maybe not too odd. Kim mentioned it just after it passed and I’d had the same thought earlier in the day.

Published in: on November 30, 2006 at 2:17 pm  Comments (1)  

Thanks giving

I used to get angry at those people on t.v. who were too stupid to understand how bad their life was. They’d be standing on a hill outside of their home ankle deep in water. The camera would pan over to the home and show the water still lapping up around the window level. The front door would be open and you could see their couch floating on three feet of water.

The camera would move back to them and the announcer would say, “it looks as if you’ve lost everything in this flood.”

“Well,” the mom would say with her arms around a child clutching a teddy bear, “I wouldn’t say that at all. We were very lucky. We all got out safely.”

“Lucky?” I’d shout at the set, “Lucky? A flood came and took all your possessions away. Lucky would be if the storm blew safely out to sea.”

You just knew that this family was thankful for all that they had every single day and that this storm hadn’t changed that.

What’s wrong with those people? Don’t they see all that is wrong in their life? Where’s their anger? Where’s their indignation? And how did I become one of them?

How did I become one of those people I used to scream at through my television?

We had something happen in February that sucks more than you can imagine. Maybe not more than you can imagine, but at least as much as you can imagine. And yet, other than that, we have a pretty wonderful life.

Now before February, I realized this daily. I appreciated Kim, Maggie, Elena, our friends, our neighbors, my colleagues, and the world around me. Not in a goofy, cult-like, rose-colored-glasses kind of way. In a way where I would stop to smell the coming spring as I left the house in the morning. In a way where the day would pause when the girls came into the room.

I wasn’t always like this. I don’t remember how I got here but I can remember one of those moments where I noticed a change. Kim and I had been fighting about something and I was waiting in the rain for her to pick me up. She was late – she’s always late. Other couples argue about money. We mostly argue about time. I got in the car and said “thanks for picking me up.” And I meant it.

She looked over to see if I was being sarcastic or somehow chiding her for being late. I could well have been. I just wasn’t. I certainly had been unpleasant in similar situations during our marriage. But I wasn’t at that time. And she looked at me and said “your welcome.” And she meant it.

So here’s the thing. We were fighting but she still came to pick me up. We were fighting and she was late but I was still grateful she came to get me. We were fighting and she paused a moment to let me know that she would be there for me when I needed a ride – even when we were fighting.

And that’s when I realized that you can be angry about this thing over there and not let it change who you are and how you go through the rest of your day.

Barry Diller was recently asked about how his company IAC/Interactive cooperates in some ventures with companies that he competes with in other ventures. He said, “If you actually had some approach which is ‘because you compete with me, I’m never going to talk to you about anything.’ That won’t work today, and certainly ain’t going to work tomorrow.”

And so I have this one area of my life that sucks as much as you can imagine.

And yet, other than that one area, there is so much good around me.

On this first Thanksgiving since my six year old died, you may yell at these words the way I used to yell at my t.v. screen.

“Hey,” you can yell, “Daniel, wake up and smell the coffee. Your life is horrible. You lost a child this year.”

Yeah. I know. Not a day goes by that I don’t know that. But I also know the love of people I see every day, people I see now and then and people I’ve never met. I have fights with Kim over dumb things. That’s not going to stop. But none of that means we aren’t always there for each other.

I am thankful this Thanksgiving. I’m even thankful that those of you who are yelling care enough to yell.

Published in: on November 23, 2006 at 10:47 am  Comments (5)  

The Holes in Thanksgiving

Last year was my nephew’s first Thanksgiving. I have pictures of my girls playing with him on the floor. Pictures of Maggie looking upside down at him trying to engage him in the different shaped blocks. Pictures of Elena holding him in her lap.

The girls and I played cards with their uncle – my brother. We’d pause when the baby needed to be fed or changed. Ethan and Rona were doing these tasks together. She’d announce that the baby needed changing and he’d excuse himself from the game and the two of them would take the baby in the other room and change him.

A year later and they’re still doing this. “Love,” she’d say, “it’s a two person changing.” And he would excuse himself from talking to me and Maggie and join her in the other room.

I looked at Maggie. Except for the very first time I changed her within an hour of having her handed to me, I don’t remember Kim and I doing the changing together. For us it was always a “you do it” or “I’ll do it” sort of thing.

In a way it’s kind of sweet that they do everything together still. What was kind of funny was that even Elena at six years old noted that their ways were different than ours. “Why doesn’t he just do it?” she’d ask. Later she’d ask it the other way around, “why doesn’t she just do it?”

“Shhhh,” I’d say. “That’s just the way they do things.”

“What?” she’d protest, “I’m just asking.”

“No you’re not,” I’d say, “you’re stirring things up.” But Elena wasn’t done stirring thing’s up. She’d ask these troublemaking questions in the most innocent voice. The same question would sound mean if Maggie, Kim, or I had asked it. Elena came across as sincere. Even now looking back, I couldn’t swear she wasn’t.

“But,” she’d say, “that makes no sense. Maggie used to change my diaper all by herself.”

And she did. From time to time, when she was in the mood, Maggie had changed Elena’s diaper. That was when Elena was little and Maggie wasn’t making fun of her for being in a diaper or pull-up at an age older than Maggie had been.

“Changing boys is different,” I told her, not knowing if it was true.

“You mean ’cause of their penis?” she asked.

I suppose I did, but I didn’t want to get into that. “Kind of,” I said. “If they poop there’s more to clean.”

“Ohhhh,” she sang both knowingly and with that devilish look in her eyes. “Maybe I’ll help next time.”

Elena let that one drop but seemed to watch for other opportunities.

“Dad,” she asked, “what’s Eli’s whole name?”

“You know what it is,” I said back.

“Oh yeah,” she grinned, “Eli Maxwell Steinberg. He has the same name as me, only for a boy.”

Elena Maxine. Eli Maxwell. Sigh.

“Kind of,” I said.

“Not kind of,” she corrected. “Exactly. If Eli was a girl he’d have my name.”

“Well he doesn’t have your Chinese middle name,” I said.

“He couldn’t,” she said. “He’s not one of the Shen sisters.”

“No, he’s not.”

Later at dinner I was playing with baby Eli. He giggled and smiled as I lifted him above my head and put him on my shoulders. Some babies like that and some don’t. Elena used to whoop with delight up on my shoulders while Maggie used to grab my hair in her fist and squeeze her knees hard around my neck. Eli was having fun.

Ethan and Rona were a bit concerned with how I was treating Eli and I started to bring him down.

Only Elena decided to put in her two cents.

“Hello,” she said. And everyone looked at her. “My dad has raised two children of his own.”

And so we’re left with a big old hole this Thanksgiving.

So many times Kim and I look at each other and think “Elena would have something to say about this.” And we smile at the mixture of a memory and a day dream. For that moment we fill a hole with a happy thought of a child who filled the room.

Published in: on November 22, 2006 at 10:00 am  Comments (4)  

What scares you?

On Halloween I walked Maggie home from school. As usual, we talked about her day and then we talked about pretty much everything else.

On the way there I’d been listening to the “This American Life” episode that featured scary stories with real world explanations. A family had been haunted by ghosts that only they could see. Real ghosts that did frightening things. It turned out that they were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

I shivered.

It’s the real life frights that shake me the most. Half a dozen years ago, Kim’s cousins nearly died from carbon monoxide. When her uncle uncharacteristically missed his first two appointments in his dental practice, his son-in-law and business partner called the house.

No answer.

So he rushed over to the house and found much of the family passed out. They were life-flighted to various hospitals. It saved their lives. Carbon monoxide. Invisible like a ghost. Much scarier. Much.

We kept a carbon monoxide detector in the girls room in the old house. It still sits on Elena’s bureau. The green light still indicating that we have kept her safe from at least one invisible threat.

You protect your children from everything you can think of.

In “Father and Daughter” Paul Simon sings to his daughter that he believes “the light that shines on you will shine on you forever (forever). And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed, I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever. And never leave ’til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head.”

And so, walking home I ask Maggie what scares her.

“I don’t know,” she says.

“It’s Halloween,” I say, “are you scared of things like ghosts.”

“Not really,” she says and I believe her. “The only things that bother me are real looking skeletons and things that look like real body parts that have been cut off of people.”

I know what she means.

The symbols of Halloween feel different this year now that I have an actual person below the ground that I think of so often. Maybe that isn’t fair. Why didn’t I feel that way about my grandparents? I remember feeling it briefly with my paternal grandfather when we walked beside the simple casket with holes drilled in the bottom to accelerate the process. It was too much to think about even at thirty.

But Maggie loves gross things as long as they are alive. She searches for operations on the computer and has watched beating hearts and incisions that would give me pause. I didn’t know that she felt this way about skeletons.

A few years ago, Kim took the girls to the natural history museum. Some of the moms took the big kids into the planetarium for a show targeted at older kids. Maggie wanted to go so Kim let her. Elena didn’t.

When Maggie came out, her eyes were opened wide. She had learned that meteors hit the earth with some regularity. For several nights after she would lay awake in her bed crying. Sometimes Kim would go in and comfort her and sometimes I would – but what do you tell her. She was frightened of something real and too young to understand the chances of it happening.

One night I went in because I heard her sobbing. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“The meteors,” she said. She looked up at me and asked, “are they real? Could they really hit our house?”

“They could, but it’s really, really rare.”

“Can’t rare things happen?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. I was thinking that the house was more likely to be hit by lightening but didn’t want to give her something else to worry about. “They can happen, but the almost never do.”

Almost never. Like a six year old dying in the space of an hour.

“What can you do about it?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked back.

“What can you do if a meteor hits your house?”

“Nothing, really.”

And for some reason that calmed her down. She thought things through while she silently cried.

Across the room Elena cleared her throat.

“Yes,” I said looking over at her. “It’s ten o’clock, go to bed.”

She stood in the doorway to Maggie’s bedroom with her arms crossed and said, “when you’re done dealing with this meteor thing I need you in my room. There are monsters in my closet.”

Maggie rolled her eyes and said, “oh brother.”

Elena put an earnest look on her face and said, “for real.”

Maggie was comforted by the fact that her fears were real while Elena’s were imaginary monsters. I looked from one of them to another and smiled.

Paul Simon sings the chorus, “I’m gonna watch you shine, gonna watch you grow. Gonna paint a sign so you’ll always know … There could never be a father who loved his daughter more than I love you.”

Published in: on November 15, 2006 at 8:32 am  Comments (2)