People I’ve Never Met

I was in Chicago the weekend before Thanksgiving for a conference. The Saturday night tradition in this traveling technical show is for the speakers to go out to dinner together. I wasn’t speaking but I had been interviewing the speakers one by one and so they invited me along to dinner.

While we waited for everyone to show up, I spotted someone I’d been looking for all day. I didn’t think that he knew who I was but I needed to speak to him. I waited politely while he finished his conversation with an attendee. They wrapped up and he looked over at me. He had no idea who I was.

Months earlier he and his wife had sent us a large display of flowers when Elena died. It meant a lot to me then. I can’t explain it, but it meant even more to me there in Chicago when I realized that it was an act of kindness from a man who didn’t really know me.

This year has been full of discoveries like that. People have pointed to this blog and sent me kind notes. There have been people who have suffered losses like a mom who has lost more than one child to a man who lost both his twin and his wife. Some have been neighbors who I have not yet met and some have been from countries I have never visited.

They wrote to me in February, in March, and in months since. To me, even though they wrote to me at all times of the year, I associate this reaching out with this time of the year. This giving to people we might not know.

There have been people who haven’t suffered losses who have written and posted. Perhaps that’s not correct. Everyone has suffered a loss. It’s probably more correct to say that that’s not why they are writing and posting and linking. There’s a woman in England who links in from time to time. I’ve just recently noticed that she grew up quite close to where I did. There are fathers and mothers who have written to say they look at their children a bit differently.

Often I learn a lot and am touched the deepest by talking to these people.

After that dinner I rode the elevator up to my room with another speaker I hadn’t met before tonight. He reads the blog. He told me that his mom had died a few years earlier at a very young age. He hadn’t realized until then how often we reference mothers in our traditions and every day life. It was such a nice comment that connected deep inside to Kim and my situation.

Thank you all for your thoughts, your time, and your support. Whether you’ve responded or just read. Whether you check in daily or just now and then. It all helps in ways I can’t explain.

Whether you’re a long time friend or one of the people I’ve never met.

Published in: on December 19, 2006 at 12:26 pm  Comments (2)  

Almost Christmas

Until this year, I seldom cried at real life.

Give me a sappy movie and I’ll cry when I’m supposed to. I know I’m being manipulated but I’ll cry every time I see the scene at the end of “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner’s character is “having a catch” with the ghost of his father.

I was flipping through the channels the other night and the movie was on. It was the scene where James Earl Jones and Kevin Costner stop to pick up a hitchhiker. As the kid sleeps in the back of the van, Jones asks Costner about his relationship with his dad. Kostner had rebelled against his father and hadn’t had a chance to make things right before his dad had died.

I started crying at that point and cried right through the end of the movie.

Right through to the part where Kostner first sees the ghost of his dad as a strong young ball player with his hopes and dreams ahead of him. Kostner introduces the ghost to the daughter-in-law he would never meet and to the granddaughter he would never know he had.

I heard Kim’s voice echo in my head as she looked at Elena’s coffin. “She’ll never grow up to get her heart broken by some boy,” she said.

As the ghost met the people who had entered the life of his son I wept for all of the things Elena never lived to experience. Selfishly, I mourned for all of the things that I never got to see her experience. She embraced life so aggressively. She would have been fun to watch.

Every once in a while I can feel her on my chest. I miss that most of all. Her head resting on my shoulder, her arms wrapped around my neck, and me giving her a big hug.

Merry Christmas, baby.

Published in: on December 18, 2006 at 9:32 am  Comments (2)  

Ticking

I once had a student named George who  had Tourette’s. He sat in the back of my  Calculus class so as not to disturb other students.

It couldn’t be helped.

He would make these odd little sounds as if he was lifting a heavy object. His body would convulse. Every now and then his voice would get very loud and he would have what sounded like an unintelligible argument with himself.

Another student came to see me before the first exam to ask if George could be tested in another room. She was embarrassed to make the request but feared that his outbursts would make it too difficult to concentrate. I understood her  concern and talked to George.

Conversations with George could be difficult. It obviously was a great inner struggle to express himself. He understood his classmate’s concern and said he would feel more comfortable taking the exam on his own in my office.

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s like there’s a ticking in my head,” he said. “It takes so much energy for me to control the ticking and the talking out loud that I can’t concentrate on the math.”

“What about in class?” I asked.

“When I take notes I have difficulties,” he said.

I asked a student I had had before if she would mind sharing her notes with George. One of the offices on campus had some special paper so that she could take her notes and a copy would be imprinted on a second sheet. At the end of each class Janine quietly tore off the bottom sheets and handed them to George.

The change in George in class was immediately obvious. He twitched less, he made less noise, and he was better able to listen to what I was saying at the board. Listening, taking notes, and dealing with the ticking was too much. He couldn’t do all three.

I don’t pretend to know what someone like George has to live with. I don’t even pretend to have adequately represented his situation. But I thought of George yesterday as I was driving to meet a friend for coffee.

I got in the car and backed it out of the driveway. As I shifted into first I flipped on the radio. The Browns’ pregame show was on. Nothing much there. I flipped to another station and began crying uncontrollably. I turned off the radio and it slowed. I turned it back on and it started again. There was nothing special on the radio.

I thought of other times when I’ve broken down like that recently. There are times when something specific triggers a memory of Elena or a feeling of loss and sadness. Those I understand. But I’m beginning to think that my grief for Elena is like George’s ticking. I can control my outbursts but it requires effort. Most of the time I’m not aware of the effort it requires.

These holidays have been exceptionally hard. From Maggie, Kim, and my birthdays to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas. Each one requires a certain amount of concentration to get through.

We have friends and family members who understand this and others who don’t. At Halloween they wanted to make plans for Thanksgiving.

“We just need to get through this week,” Kim would explain. “We can’t even begin to think about that right now.”

Some people understand and some don’t. They don’t feel the ticking. They don’t know what is required this year to just make it through some of these days. We sometimes snap at someone who is just trying to help but is pushing too hard. You have to help us on our own terms. Find out what we need. Take notes for us. It doesn’t have to be a big and public gesture. Quietly tear off a sheet and hand it to us.

With George, I had him come to the small classroom next to my office to take his first exam. I watched as he shook and raised his voice. Halfway through I looked at his paper. He was not doing well. I knew he knew this material.

“Go to the board,” I said.

He did. I asked him to explain to me the first question. “What would you do next?” I asked him. He told me. He explained all but the last question perfectly. He made a standard type of mistake on the last question and was not able to complete it. I marked it as I would any other student and told him his grade for the exam. He thanked me.

For each of the remaining exams, George would show up in my office and we’d walk next door to the classroom and he would take his exam on the board. I wouldn’t clue him in as to whether what he’d just written on the board was right or wrong. It was painful to watch as he would sometimes erase what had been a correct answer in favor of one that was not longer right.

After his final, George stopped in my office to thank me.

“I want to take you to dinner some time,” he said. “I just got my driver’s license.”

I explained why it would have been inappropriate for me to have accepted and wished him well. I thought a lot lately of this man who couldn’t control his outbursts while he was concentrating on other tasks. I’ve thought of him driving while trying to remember the directions to someplace unfamiliar.

I thought about it in the car yesterday while driving and listening to the radio. That second little stimulus that kept me from controlling my ticking.

Published in: on December 17, 2006 at 9:15 am  Comments (3)  

Chanukah Gifts

I was in Florida just before Chanukah and spent some time with my Uncle Barry and his wife Kathy. I was telling them that my kids got way too much for Chanukah and Christmas. He asked what my parents gave us as kids. He said that they’d gotten three gifts which they opened on the first night.

I remember opening something every night. We’d have special nights. One night we’d get clothes. We’d often get a game that we could all play. The last night was the night for the big gift. My favorite night was book night. We would get a stack of books one night. I think that’s still one of my favorite things to receive.

I’m sure we got more than we needed but things seemed different then. I remember my mom spending ages making clothes for my sister’s Barbie. She sewed Barbie several new wardrobes for Jill to play with. Now, if Barbie needs a new wardrobe, you just buy a new Barbie who wears that outfit. It’s a small difference, but it’s an example of the overabundance that my kids have.

I know that each year my mother is going to give a bag of gifts for each night. Kim’s mom is going to go over the top at Christmas.

That’s nice. I love how much my children have been embraced by their grandparents – but it’s more than the kids can possibly appreciate.

Kim and I have taken to giving the kids just a few gifts for the holidays because we know they will get so much from our parents.

When I got back from Florida, Maggie sat talking to me while I unpacked my bag. I pulled a green squishy ball out of the bag. One of the conference sponsors had been giving them out at their booth.

“Ooooh,” she said, “a green, squishy ball.”

“Yep,” I said. I left to throw my dirty clothes down the clothes chute.

“Can I have it?” she asked when I returned.

I thought a moment. I’d gotten it for her but I wasn’t ready to give it to her yet. “Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll give it to you for Chanukah.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You know what else?” I asked.

“What?” she replied.

“You have to wrap it for yourself.”

She rolled her eyes again. I wasn’t done.

“Oh, and I want you to look really surprised when you get it.”

A couple of nights later we went to see someone I know at an author signing. We stopped at Office Max before we went to see him at the Borders next door. She needed ink for her printer and lead for her pencil.

“Oh good,” she said, “I suppose you’re going to make me wrap these for Chanukah gifts too.”

“What a great idea,” I said.

She rolled her eyes. I think it’s part of preparing for her teen years.

“You know,” I said, “you will look back on this someday and say ‘this was the worst Chanukah ever’.”

“Someday?” she said in a sarcastic voice, “how about now?”

But we’d made a game of it and she knew that she’d get more gifts than she’d need.

The first night of Chanukah came and Maggie got a little hand-sized massager called a Puff. She loved it. But she wondered, “where’s my squishy ball?”

“Did you wrap it?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Well if you want anything tomorrow you better wrap it.”

The next night she got up suddenly from the table and headed down to the basement. A few minutes later she came up for scissors.

“What do you need those for?” Kim asked.

“To curl the ribbon,” Maggie said.

“Ribbon for what?” Kim asked.

“For my present,” Maggie said and went back to the basement.

I smiled. Kim rolled her eyes. Could be that that’s where Maggie got it from.

After dinner we lit the candles and sang the blessings. Maggie unwrapped the package with the curly blue ribbon on it. “Ooooh,” she said with her best faked look of surprise on her face.

“What is it?” asked Kim.

“It’s a green, squishy ball,” said Maggie with a big smile.

Another night I gave her just the black ink for her printer and another night the pencil lead.

I think my favorite year of gift giving was the year I made each of the girls a felted purse. In November I took them to Susan’s Yarns and they picked out the colors they wanted. Each would have a purse in their color that was trimmed in the other girl’s color. Maggie chose a bright Magenta and Elena chose a deep gold. The colors worked well together. I found a pattern and knit the purses in front of them. They looked floppy and shapeless and kind of ugly. A friend suggested that I finish each one with some yarn that looked like orange colored Golden Retriever hair.

On Chanukah I took Elena downstairs and we put her purse in the washing machine with the temperature on hot. The yarn started to felt. It shrunk and the consistency changed. “Tell me when that’s enough,” I said.

“Not yet,” she said.

When she finally said, “now”, we laid out the felt purse on the table and arranged it so it would dry right. It was Maggie’s turn. Together, she and I went to the basement and felted her purse. When the felt dried, the girls showed everyone.

Soon after the holidays it joined many of the other gifts that they didn’t play with. Elena’s hung on her door for months. I don’t know if Maggie still remembers that purse. It was, in a big way, like my mom making all of those doll clothes for my sister.

Published in: on December 16, 2006 at 10:48 am  Comments (2)  

Sharing and Chanukah

I celebrated Chanukah before Elena. I even celebrated before Maggie. I remember working evenings at the WAVE and packing my menorah and candles in my bag along with my headphones.

Gato Barbieri’s “Caliente” would start “Cleveland after Dark” as always. Thirty seconds in I’d pot the music down and open the show. I’d talk about music coming to town, events in the news, thoughts on the season and wrap things up in time for the music to swell and the saxophone to come back in. Then, with the microphone off, I’d turn down the studio monitors and light the candles and sing the blessings.

I didn’t always use a menorah. Some years I’d drink down a Diet Coke and stick the candles to the top after dripping a little of the melting wax. Kim was the one who pushed me to start using a real menorah. She still rolls her eyes at the menorah I didn’t buy. I saw a beautiful glass one in Philadelphia that burned oil instead of candles. She told me to buy it and I didn’t. It seemed extravagant at the time. She knew it wasn’t.

In fact, even though Kim doesn’t celebrate Chanukah with me, she supports my efforts. She’s noted in a talkback to the Christmas tree story that just as I buy her Christmas tree, she or her mother are the ones who buy the candles each year.

A few months after we brought Maggie back from China we celebrated her first Chanukah. We lit candles each night and my parents gave her way too many presents.

A year later on Maggie’s second Chanukah she had a nine month old sister to share with. Maggie was old enough to light the candles with my help. One of the gifts was a box from Harry and David filled with eight smaller boxes. Each night we would light the candles and Maggie would open the little box for the night. One night it was an apple another night it was chocolate. There was a dreidel, colored candy, and a pear. Each night something different.

One year later, Elena was still too young to help with the candles, but she could open some of the little boxes. Maggie had to share Chanukah with her sister.

We moved into our current house just before Maggie turned five. For our first Chanukah in the new house we had an established routine for sharing the duties so that both girls were involved each night. One girl would choose the candles we would use that night and the other one would light them with my help. The girl who chose the candles would also open the Harry and David box for the night.

Each year we would start with Maggie lighting the candles on the first night. She would wait to light them while Elena looked at the new box of candles filled with so many choices of colors.

“Come ON Elena,” Maggie would whine impatiently.

“I’m thinking,” Elena would say, milking her role.

“It doesn’t matter,” Maggie would growl.

“Do I want the blue one?” Elena would ponder.

“Just pick two stupid candles,” Maggie would snap.

“O.K.,” Elena would say, realizing she’d stretched things out as long as she could. “I am choosing a yellow one and a blue one.”

“Finally,” Maggie would sigh.

One year my parents got each of the girls their own Harry and David box. It was too much. We didn’t need two apples or two dreidels. Maggie liked some kinds of the candy and Elena liked other kinds. One box worked out fine. They had to share and it helped balance the candle lighting duties. The next year we returned to one box and order was restored.

This year there was no box of boxes.

This year Maggie chose the candles each night.

This year Maggie lit the candles each night.

It’s not that Maggie isn’t enough. Had we never had Elena, Maggie would have certainly been enough. We would have celebrated each year with Maggie choosing the candles and then lighting them. Nothing would have felt out of place.

But we did have Elena. And each girl was the yin to the other’s yang. One put the candles in the menorah and the other lit them. Of all the things we lost in Elena, this is such a small thing. Like the menorah itself, however, it seems symbolic of something bigger.

Elena always selected the candles for the first night.

Maggie always lit the candles on the first night.

You can’t light a candle that’s not there.

Published in: on December 15, 2006 at 10:47 am  Comments (3)  

Kim’s Tree

I know plenty of mixed religion couples who celebrate both religions in the home until there are children. I’ve known couples who compromised by adopting a religion that was neither of theirs to begin with. I have a Jewish friend who went to Quaker meetings with his family every weekend and Kim has a friend whose Jewish husband banished Christmas trees and other symbols of Christmas from his home once their son was born.

We have taken none of these paths. Kim and the girls – now Kim and Maggie – celebrate the Christian holidays; and me and the girls – now me and Maggie – celebrate the Jewish holidays.

The tradition that crosses the line is the annual buying of the Christmas tree. I’ve gone along on the trip to get the tree for years. On the way there my role is to remind her of all of the tree-choosing mistakes in year’s past. I think this has become part of the ritual because soon, I know, I will have to pay for this teasing.

Once there I stand while the tree is chosen. This can take a really long time. It turns out that the amount of time it takes has nothing to do with how many trees are in the lot. It seems to have to do with the weather. The colder and nastier the weather is, the longer it takes them to pick a tree. I then take a picture of them holding up their tree and smiling. While the attendant makes a fresh cut on the bottom of the tree, Kim asks me if she’s made a good choice. I’ve learned that question is a trick. It’s only a three on the “do I look fat” scale, but it’s on the chart.

Then comes my favorite part of the ritual. Kim looks at her tree and pats her pockets as if she thinks something might possibly be there. “Honey,” she says to me. By now you know that she never calls me “honey” unless it’s followed by the phrase, “do you have any money?” And so each year in our family, the Jew pays for the Christmas tree. I know that all of our money comes from a single bank account, but it always makes me laugh that the actual bills come out of my pocket.

I know Jewish families who always buy and decorate a Christmas tree. They even have a meal on Christmas day that their children come home for. I’ve never really understood that. I love helping Kim celebrate her holiday. But it’s her holiday.

I carry the tree into the house and put it in the stand. Kim makes hand motions until I’ve adjusted it just so. I bring down the ornaments and she and the girls – now she and Maggie – put them on the tree. I carry the boxes back upstairs.

It’s the way it goes every year.

We used to have one of those little metal stands with the red water pan and the three green legs. You’d put the tree in the stand and try to hold it still while you screwed the screws into the wood. Invariably you’d have to unscrew the screws to straighten the tree. The tree would stand up straight until we added the water. Then someone would bump the tree and the water would spill.

One year the metal legs splayed under the weight of the tree. I went to replace it and I saw the metal version and, for twice as much, a deluxe plastic version where the part that attaches to the tree is a separate piece. You put that piece on the tree and screw it in. Then you lower the tree and the plastic piece into the base. What sold me, though, was the foot-pedal that you step on and adjust the angle of the tree until it stands up straight. At this point I was muttering under my breath about the money I’d just spent on the tree and the time I’d spent putting it into the other stand and now the stupid thing broke and it’s … So spending $30 on the deluxe model seemed reasonable even if it only lasted for this year.

There are parts of the tradition that have changed over the years. Kim tends to wait until really close to Christmas to buy her tree. At that point the pickings are slim and we often get a tree that is dropping needles from the time it enters our house. I can count the number of years that the tree actually took in any water on one hand. We use every trick we know. We use warm sugar water on a tree with a fresh cut. One year I took the tree out of the stand and drilled holes up the trunk.

When I taught at John Carroll, the baseball team used to sell trees over on the tennis courts. We’d go there even though they had ripped Kim off one year.

“What kind of tree do you want, ma’am,” the guy helping us asked.

Kim winced at being called ma’am but said, “a blue spruce.”

“We have a few of those left,” he said.

The sun had gone down but the tennis courts were lit. He took us over to a couple of decent looking trees and said “here you go.”

Kim looked carefully at the trees. “I don’t know,” she said. “These needles don’t look right for a blue spruce.”

“Nope,” said the guy, “these are blues. Aren’t they nice?”

He may not have known he wasn’t telling the truth or he may not have cared. To me it sounded like a bit from Monty Python’s parrot sketch about the Norweigian Blue and its beautiful plumage. Kim picked one of the blue spruces and the guy took my money, made a fresh cut, and tied it to the top of Kim’s car.

We drove off carefully and had gone about a mile when a new tradition began. That’s the tradition where the tree falls off of the car on the ride home, in the dark. It’s the one where I get to put it back on top of the car and Kim drives while I stick my hand out the open window in the freezing cold and try to hold the tree in place. It’s the one where we realize that the tree is so dead that the branches I am holding snap and the tree slides off again.

We got the tree home and brought it in the house. We learned two lessons that year. The first is that you should bring the tree stand with you when you choose a tree. The tree didn’t fit into the stand without quite a bit of sawing, and shoving, and swearing. The second is that Kim’s instincts were right. The tree was not a blue spruce. It was, however, a spray painted pine. That may not be a variety you’re familiar with. It’s when you take a very dead tree and you “spruce it up” by spray painting it with color that makes it look somewhat alive and vibrant.

“They did not,” Kim said when I told her.

“Yes they did,” I said and pointed to the paint dots on the trunk on the piece I’d just cut off.

You’d think that would have been the last year we bought a tree from those guys. It wasn’t. We didn’t mean to the following year. Kim had a friend bring us a live tree. I dug a hole in the back yard in October and filled it full of leaves. Her friend showed up a few days before Christmas and the two of us carried the tree onto our front steps and then stopped. First of all, a live tree is very heavy. Second of all, this one was too big. We couldn’t get it in the front door. He and I carried it back to the back yard and put it in the hole I dug. Then Kim and I headed back to the home of the blue spruce to buy this year’s tree.

We went back to support the team the next year and Maggie got to choose the tree. The guy held it up and it looked nice. I had my tree stand with me that year and after he made his fresh cut he easily slipped it on. We shoved the tree in Kim’s trunk and tied it in. I was coming from work so we had driven separately so I followed Kim home as we drove slowly through the snow with her Christmas tree.

When a tree falls off of your roof, you feel it go and you see that something has changed. This is not the way it works when a tree falls out of your trunk. The open trunk can keep you from seeing that the tree is gone. And if, like Kim, you are playing the radio really loud, then you might not hear your husband honking his horn to let you know something is wrong. In fact, it might be a block or two before you realize he’s not following you anymore and you come back.

We got the tree back in the trunk of the car and safely home and in the house before we learned yet another valuable lesson. When the guy at the tree lot stands the tree up straight, even if the tree looks straight at the top, you should also look for the curvature of the trunk. Our tree had scoliosis and it was not easy to get it to stand up straight no matter how far we adjusted the angle in our deluxe stand.

Kim reminded me that “that’s the tree that Maggie wanted.” And Maggie loved that tree.

At some point Kim realized the folly in her ways and decided to buy a tree from the lot outside of her church. We pulled in and everything seemed different. Kim and the girls – yes the girls – picked out the tree they wanted. The man pulled it off of the stand and carried it to where his saw lay. He called Kim over and said, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to sell you this tree.”

She looked puzzled.

“Look here,” he said. “It’s rotting. You don’t want this tree.”

So Kim and the girls walked back to the lot and picked out another. The man made a fresh cut, tied it to the top of Kim’s car, and took my money. We drove the tree home and the tree stayed on top of the car the whole way. We carried it into the house and dropped it into the stand and it stood up straight and tall. Kim poured in a container of water and the tree drank it down fast. She poured in a second container. The tree was thirsty and fragrant.

Maggie complained that the needles were scratchy when she hung the ornaments but that’s a Christmas tradition that remains constant.

Since then Kim has bought the tree from Our Lady of Peace each year (except for the year that she waited until the twenty-third and they had sold out and she had to go back to John Carroll). Well more accurately, Kim has selected the tree from Our Lady of Peace. In our family, it is still tradition that I pay for the tree.

Published in: on December 14, 2006 at 9:38 am  Comments (5)  

Santa’s gift

There is a context for everything.

In the months since Elena has died, friends and co-workers have lost parents, siblings, and spouses. I tell them how sorry I am and they always respond the same way. “It’s nothing like your loss.”

True. But not in the way that they mean it.

Nobody’s loss is like anyone else’s. Losing a child is unnatural. There has been nothing worse in my life. But that doesn’t make your loss any less painful to you.

I was leaving the Arabica Coffee House the other day when a man in a Santa hat came up to me. “You don’t recognize me,” he said.

As soon as he spoke I knew who he was. I’m much better with voices than faces – and besides I hadn’t really looked closely at his face. I was busy taking in the Marine Corp insignia on his jacket coupled with the red Santa hat with white trim.

It was Rich. I’ve known him for twenty-five years. Ever since I taught with his wife at Laurel School for girls. I see him maybe once or twice a year and usually at this Arabica.

“I’ve been playing Santa over at Legacy on weekends,” he said. He didn’t really have the physique that you associate with Santa, but he was perfect in every way that mattered. Always a smile. Leans forward when you talk. Always asks how you are in a way that conveys that he really wants to know. And so it was clear where we were heading in our conversation.

“How have you been?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you in a year.”

I paused. And then I told him. I still feel funny about telling people. I don’t know if they know or not and don’t know what they’ll say.

“When?” he asked. “When and, if you don’t mind, how?”

I paused. And then I told him. He’d been away for three months at the beginning of the year doing some work in Africa. He told me that his daughter, a former student of mine, had just had a miscarriage. I was sad for her and told him so.

He didn’t say the usual meaningless things. He put his hand on my arm and looked me in the eye and said, “people will tell you that they know what you’re going through. They don’t. They can’t.”

It was surprisingly reassuring to hear this said out loud.

“No one knows but you and Kim.”

I thanked him. It’s true. I don’t really feel the depth of your loss. I can’t. I think I know what it feels like, but I don’t.

I got home and took out the stationery that Kim had left for me several days earlier to write to a colleague. She had lost her husband suddenly. He had died of a heart attack while they were out taking a walk. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse. I look at Kim and just can’t imagine the hole in my life without her.

I was able to write the note without any comparison in my head of my colleague’s loss to mine. My loss is not greater. My loss is just mine.

Such a wonderful gift from an old friend in a Santa hat.

Published in: on December 12, 2006 at 4:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

How MapQuest Saved Christmas

Just before Thanksgiving 2000, Kim and I decided to show our parents the house we were considering buying just a few blocks away from our current house.

We were on dial-up then and when Maggie, then four would hear the familiar modem connection and handshake she would end up in my office asking “Whatcha doin?”

“I’m going to MapQuest to draw a map and get directions for mamma and pappa.”

“What’s the purple line?” she wanted to know.

“That’s the path you stay on to get from here to there.”

She nodded.

Kim dropped off the directions at her parents house on the way to work and that night she and I hosted my parents for dinner. Afterwards I put Maggie and Elena in their child seats and headed over to the house we were looking at.

Our realtor Jesse was already there opening up the house and turning on lights. Kim’s parents were next. By the time Kim arrived with my parents, our daughters were running and playing in the front yard. Jesse saw the look on Kim’s face and he knew the sale had been made. A mom, beaming at her children playing in their own front yard – surrounded by their four grandparents.

After a month of meetings and inspections and negotiations and a ream or so of paperwork, the house was nearly ours.

I drove over to do the final walk through with the sellers agent. As we came out the front door, a woman walking up the street with a covered dish hollerred across “are you our new neighbor?”

“He is,” the realtor answered pointing at me.

“Tonight’s the night of the block’s progressive dinner c’mon and meet everyone.”

And so I did.

I returned home an hour later, finally as excited by our move as Kim had been for the last month.

We closed on the house December 22nd but Maggie had the look of a very worried four year old. “What if Santa can’t find us in our new house?” she asked.

“We won’t be in our new house yet. We’re having Christmas here this year.”

“But what about next year?” she pressed. “He’ll come here and we won’t be here.”

Now it might have been Maggie or it might have been me, but one of us remembered the purple paths that MapQuest can make and the printer can print. We created directions for Santa from our current house to our new house.

Maggie solemnly left the note for Santa – the begin and end were clearly marked … and the optimal path from here to there was explained so simply that even a man who spends most of his time with elves and reindeer could understand.

Christmas morning came with the overabundance that our children, the only grandchildren on both sides, had come to know.

We packed up the car to head to Kim’s parents house for Christmas dinner. Kim suggested we stop at the new house along the way. Elena at a year and a half remained bundled up in the warm car with Kim while Maggie and I trudged up the snowy walk and opened the front door.

It was cold inside, we could almost see our breaths.

But there, by the fireplace, were two small gifts. One labeled Maggie and one labeled Elena. And under Maggie’s gift was the neatly folded map with a check mark next to the purple path and the handwritten response

“Dear Maggie,

Found it.

Love,

Santa.”

Published in: on December 10, 2006 at 9:14 pm  Comments (8)  

The upgrade

Kim and the girls were flying out to meet me in Portland, Oregon at the tail end of the Open Source conference. Their plane had been delayed many times and it was getting late Portland time. It was already early the next morning Cleveland time.

Sarah waited with me in the lobby of the Doubletree. She probably should have gone up to bed long before but she wanted to see Kim again and she wanted to meet the girls. It must have been 10:30 when their cab finally pulled out in front of the hotel. Usually it was Elena that would come running to me, but this time it was Maggie who saw me and took a running jump into my arms yelling “daddy”.

There may be nothing better than that feeling in the whole world.

Elena shook the sleep off and came running up behind Maggie and gave me a big hug as well. I started out to help with the luggage. Kim walked in the front door of the hotel and said “hi honey. Do you have any money?”

I fought the urge to lecture her about being prepared and about how it was dangerous to travel without money. I paid the cab driver and got the luggage.

The girls love hotels. Elena announced that she was hungry and so we stopped at the front desk for their free cookies. Each girl had their cookie and their mini travel bag on rollers and we headed for the elevators. Kim tried to talk to Sarah but the girls had latched onto her and were performing. They bounced off each other – talking to her – showing off the things they knew – asking her questions.

They paused in the elevator to look out through the glass walls as the lobby disappeared below. Once out of the elevator, they spotted the ice machine. Could life be any better than that?

We headed to the room and Elena convinced Sarah that she was still hungry. Sarah snuck into her hotel room quietly so as not to wake her roommate and brought Elena back an apple. Elena talked about that for months.

One week later we were back in the same hotel getting ready to leave Portland. We stopped at the front desk so the girls could get one more cookie for the road and took the light rail to the airport. The line was long and the Continental counter was crowded but we were still well over an hour early by the time we got to the front.

“Oh,” said the man behind the counter, “you’ve been upgraded.”

“Thank you,” I said, but I really can’t leave my wife in coach with our two kids.

“Well,” he said, “I have room to upgrade one of them as well.”

We talked about it a minute and Kim decided that me and Maggie could sit up front. We made our way to security and I got pulled out of line going through the metal detector. I had set something off.

“Anything in your pockets sir?” the guard asked.

I felt for coins, keys, or other bits of metal. “Nothing,” I shook my head.

“What about your belt?” he asked.

“I’ll try it,” I agreed. I took my belt off and set the metal detector off yet again. They pulled me to the side and used the wand detector on me. And there it was. I’d put my cell phone in my shirt pocket and forgotten about it. The guard rolled his eyes. I apologized. At that time I was traveling two weeks out of the month. I was so worried about getting my kids through that I’d done something this stupid.

The kids weren’t alarmed in any way. Kim used to get pulled aside for her shoes before they made everyone send their shoes through the scanner. We picked up our stuff and repacked our bags and headed for the gate.

Maggie settled into first class and pulled out a book and a snack as if this was where she belonged. Did she want a drink before we took off? No thank you. Not yet.

It’s a year and a half later and Maggie still complains about the meal. The truth is, she loved it – except for the soup. But for some reason she remembers how much she hated the soup. I loved watching how grown up she was and how well behaved she was. It was one of those dad moments when I thought I was going to burst.

Elena came up to visit us. “So,” she said with her hands on her hips, “how’s it going?”

“Pretty good,” said Maggie. “I liked my chicken but the soup was horrible.”

“Ooooh,” said Elena, “you have your own bathroom.” Elena used the bathroom a lot that summer. She never met a new bathroom that she didn’t want to try. She made eyes at the stewardess and the woman let her use the bathroom instead of sending her back to coach. I asked Maggie to help her and she did without a fuss.

After Elena finished in the bathroom and Maggie was back in her seat, Elena gave us the classic stewardess farewell “Buh-bye”.

“See ya,” I said. And Elena headed back to rejoin Kim.

After the movie I asked Maggie to go back and switch with Elena. Elena sat in her seat and listened to music in the headphones. She kept looking at me and then looked away when I would look back. She wanted me to notice what a big girl she was. She sat with a magazine in her lap. The stewardess had brought her a drink. Elena didn’t really need first class on an airplane. All she needed was a lime or a lemon in her drink and she felt pampered. She sipped her ginger ale with a lemon and chatted to me about this and that as if she were making small talk on a date.

We started our descent and the stewardess asked Elena if she wanted a cookie.

“Yes, please,” she said. “And can I have one for my sister?”

The stewardess gave her a second cookie and stood out of the way while Elena raced back to coach to give Maggie her cookie. Again, a year an a half later, what Maggie mainly remembers is that Elena didn’t give her a choice of which cookie she could have. Half full offered a cookie to half empty.

We landed in Houston and had to rush across the concourse to our connecting flight to Cleveland. We were one of the last to board the plane. As the gate agent swiped my ticket it beeped.

“Sir,” the gate agent said, “you’ve been upgraded.”

I looked at Kim. “Take it,” she said.

“You take it,” I said back. I turned to the gate agent and asked, “Can my wife have that upgrade?”

“Sure,” she said, “we’ll just put it on her ticket instead.”

Maggie and Elena and I settled into the first row of coach while Kim sat in first class. This was the perfect configuration for an airplane for us. Right in front of us was the wall of the bathroom. Elena was as close to the bathroom as she could possibly get without sitting inside it.

“Daddy,” she said, “I need to go to the bathroom.” I asked Maggie to take her. You could hear the girls talking and singing inside. The passengers around me laughed.

The pilot announced that we would be delayed taking off. The girls went up to visit Kim in first class. Two trips to the bathroom later we were ready to take off.

I sat in the middle seat bracketed by my girls. We ate, we played, we read, we colored, we watched the movie. I’d been upgraded.

Published in: on December 6, 2006 at 10:44 am  Comments (2)  

The big game

Remembering the Big Game

Like music, sporting events are wormholes through which I travel back in time.

My friend Scott knocked on my hotel room door in Chicago a few weeks back.

“Watcha doin?” he asked.

“Just catching the end of the game,” I answered.

He had the decency not to ask “what game.” He suggested we head down to the hotel bar for a beer to catch the last quarter. We took the elevator down and threaded our way through wedding guests and over to the oversized television. A few Michigan fans sat right in front of the screen as the waitress put down fresh beers and picked up their empties.

Ohio State was holding on to a lead in a game that was way closer than it should have been. I don’t think I could have named half a dozen Ohio State players and yet this was my team. They wore the scarlet and grey that I’d been raised on and yet one quarter to one third of the players changed each year. Like the cells in my body being replaced with regularity and yet this collection of the new cells is as much me this year as it was four years ago with a completely different set of cells.

This was the team I’d watched as a kid coached by Woody Hayes. I’d watched them coached by Earl Bruce, John Cooper, and now Jim Tressel. Cooper who’d learned the hard way why the big game was so big. You could have a winning record – heck you could have an undefeated record going into that last game – but if you couldn’t beat Michigan none of that mattered. In thirteen tries he only beat Michigan twice.

The rivalry was bitter. Back in the days when sports mattered more to me than it should have, I cared a lot about who won the big game. I remember visiting my friends Laurie and Rick on Saturday mornings. Laurie would walk by their eldest, then two, and say “Go Blue.” The child would repeat something that sounded like “go blue.” Rick would then walk by her and lean over and say “Go Buckeyes.” Dutifuly his daughter would repeat something that I took to be “go buckeyes.” Each parent doing their part to raise their child to follow their religion.

Laurie’s dad died five years ago. I always think of him this time of year. He was a historian with a passion for architecture but I always think of him around football season. He’d played football for Oberlin College and always maintained an interest in the team. Even in the last year of his life he remained the good natured, good looking man I’d known for forty years. A cleft chin, a twinkle in his eye and warmth in his voice.

Ohio State’s center fumbles a second snap. The Michigan fans cheer and buy another round. It looks just as bad on the replay. I sometimes wonder whether it’s a blessing or a curse that we don’t remember clearly.

I remember moments from my thirtieth birthday. My dad took me to my first Ohio State game. It might have been one of my best birthdays ever. We got down to Columbus early enough that we could watch the marching band concert before the game. Then into the stadium. There was an energy in the crowd that I’d never felt before. The Buckeyes lost a close but badly coached game to USC that was eventually called due to weather. I think they would have played out Ohio State’s drive if they’d have recovered an on-sides kick.

I don’t really remember the final details of the game except that we talked about it as we  walked back to the car in the rain. Just me and my dad.

A flashback within a flashback – I’m transported from that moment back to decades earlier when we would walk over to the Oberlin College football games on those crisp Ohio fall days. The division three players looked as impressive to my five and six year old eyes as Ohio State would twenty-five years later.

The waitress finally brings our beer. Scott catch up a bit on how each other’s families are doing while Michigan stops an Ohio State drive. The Michigan fans cheer and decide it’s too soon to have yet another round. They are right. They didn’t see the flag on the field. The buckeyes get great field position and end up scoring. I don’t remember whether they ended up running it in or throwing it in.

It’s 1990 and my dad’s father has just died. We had called him big grandpa. Mom’s dad was little grandpa. I remember the mailbox outside of their apartment with his name B.G. Steinberg. When I was little I was pretty sure that the B.G. stood for big grandpa. It didn’t. It stood for Bernard George.

Bernard died before Thanksgiving but his body and his family had to make it up to Boston for the funeral. I remember the ceremony in the funeral home in Brookline. I remember us grandchildren walking  next to the casket as it is wheeled out to the hearse.

At the cemetery I took a hard look at my dad and his siblings. I don’t think I’d looked at them with adult eyes until then. This was my last grandparent to die. I remember looking at my parents generation and beginning to understand that the next family funeral I attend will be for one of them.

I am, of course, wrong.

We left my grandfather’s grave and headed out to Marilyn’s house in Framingham to sit shiva. Friends showed up with food – it’s what you do. Some of us sat quietly in the living room watching the big game. Ohio State – Michigan.

It was another game that was closer than it should have been. A low scoring game that Ohio State had plenty of opportunities to win. Ohio State started moving the ball down the field. They might turn this loss into a victory. And then my great-uncle Mel walked up to the television and turned it off.

“What the hell are you doing?” my uncle Barry asked.

“It’s time to say prayers,” Mel said.

“So say them,” Barry said.

“I need to face east,” Mel said.

“So face east,” Barry said.

“This way is east,” Mel said pointing to the television set.

“There’s an east in every room in this house,” Barry said.

Of course they were both right. Mel had lost his brother and this is what he needed to do at that moment. He needed to say the prayers and he needed to say them right here right now.

Barry had lost his dad and was doing what he needed to do. Spending some time with his brothers doing what they’d done together so many times before. They didn’t have to look at each other while they watched the game and traded stories. They faced east together and watched the big game. At least that’s what they were doing when Mel turned it off.

By the time we were able to check the score later that afternoon Ohio State had lost. Cooper was blamed for poor coaching. At least that’s what I remember.

But here’s the thing. It couldn’t possibly have happened that way.

In 1990, Ohio State played Michigan on a Saturday the way they always do. Jews don’t bury their dead on the Sabbath. So how do I have such a vivid memory of the exchange over the game?

Other members of the family have told me the story of the exchange in front of the t.v. set. Half of them remember that the game being played at the time was the Ohio State Michigan game and the rest don’t remember which game it was.

The things I remember may not have happened. They may not have happened the way I remember them. Even the vivid memories that I can see so clearly might be wrong.

I am now in a race against my mind to capture as much as I think I can remember about Elena before all I have are memories that might not have happened.

A cheer goes up across the bar and the Michigan fans order another round. Their team has just scored again. Time is running out. Scott and I are meeting a group out front to head to dinner. We put on our jackets while watching the final moments of the game. Ohio State holds on to win. I think Michigan tried an on-side kick.

I don’t really remember.

Published in: on December 2, 2006 at 10:22 am  Comments (1)