An open letter to my daughter, on the occasion of her fifth birthday

Dear Nora,

It’s incredible how swiftly five years can pass. There are times it seems it was only moments ago that I first saw you, first held you. And then, it also seems like a lifetime ago that I would spend entire nights on the couch with you, because you wouldn’t sleep in your crib. It’s been eons since your first steps and your first words. You are scarcely the same person anymore.

You have made me proud every day for the last five years. You were born facing a whole slew of obstacles: a 28-week preemie, you spent 78 days in the NICU. Nearly every one of those 78 days, you impressed the doctors and nurses with your strength. You reached milestone after milestone before you were supposed to. You didn’t stop impressing us after coming home, either.

You are smart, curious, kind, loving, sensitive, and empathetic. You are also goofy, imaginative, playful, and adventurous. And ticklish. Sweet, merciful heavens, are you ever ticklish.

From barely two pounds...

From barely two pounds…

Five years ago tonight, there was a full moon. I remember staring at it from your mother’s hospital room, pondering the enormity of what had just happened, what lay before me. Mom and I had just returned to her room from the NICU, where we got to finally see you after several hours. I watched as the nurses changed the masks you wore to protect your eyes from the UV lights that shone in your incubation cribs. I saw your face for the first time, and it was instantly familiar, and even now I can’t explain or understand how that’s possible, but it was.

You've come a long way, baby.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

So after too short of a stay, your Mom and I returned up one floor to her room, and I stared out that window and simply thought about everything in my life and how it would never be the same again. I knew, sitting there, that I could never hope to know the exact ways my life would change, but I knew it would change because of the two of you.

The two of you. You and Ben. I’m so glad you know about Ben, and so heartbroken that your twin is in Heaven and not here with you. Because Ben died, you know and understand more about the sad parts of life, about death, than a five year old needs to know. Yet you even manage to take that sad knowledge and make it into something beautiful. You always remember to include Ben when we talk about the members of our family. You always want to visit the park when we go to church, and play by Ben’s tree and sing a song for him. And then sometimes you do cry because, even though you know him only from pictures and stories, he’s still your brother and he’s not here. And you know you won’t ever see him for a long long time, and that is something to be sad about. And there is nothing in those moments I wouldn’t do to make you happy, but there’s nothing I can do, either. So I just try to reassure you that it’s okay to be sad sometimes. But the truth is, in those moments, you’re the one who’s reassuring me.

I am a better person today than I was five years and a day ago. That is largely because of you. Thank you for being my daughter.

Love,

Dad

 

The First Lesson

She stands, quietly, trying to keep attention. But her eyes keep darting away. The Christmas Tree still stands, in all its glory, and there are ornaments yet to be discovered.The manger scene on the nearby table is another distraction: “We have one just like that at home,” she informs the woman trying so patiently, gently, to give her instruction.

Well, yes, I think. Apart from the fact that the one at home is made by Fisher-Price, apart from the fact that Mary, Joseph, and company are interchangeable with other Little People figurines in other Little People sets, and apart from the fact that Wonder Woman and Santa Claus frequently takes their places alongside the three kings and the shepherd boy, we do have one just like that at home.

But we are not here to discuss manger scenes. We are here to see if she’s ready to begin lessons on the violin. The gift she asked for last summer, the gift she forgot she asked for, the gift she fell in love with all over again on Christmas morning.

Her attention, as it is prone to do, fades in and out. I can see so much of myself in her: she is easily distracted by her new surroundings. As with so many past pursuits, she is reluctant to receive instruction, eager to just dive in; she thinks she already knows what she’s doing. As the teacher tries showing her, simply, the proper way to hold the violin to her chin, her hands are already moving down the neck, feeling the strings. As she tries gently to place Nora’s fingers around the bow, to simply hold it, Nora wants to draw it across the strings. The impatience is achingly familiar.

I hope she’s more like her mother than like me, I think. I hope she enjoys this. I hope she wants to learn.

The teacher pauses with the hands-on instruction, addresses her directly, with rapid-fire questions: “You have to practice every day. Are you willing to do that? Playing the violin is hard work. Will you work hard?”

With every question, her head nods. “Uh-huh… M-hmmm… Yes… Yeah… I will.”

I wonder.

Mrs. Brown’s hands were always cold. I remember that. It was a Wednesday afternoon, which meant we were seated at her piano, which stood at the top of the stairway just inside front door to their split-level home. As always, she was trying to give me instruction. As usual, I thought I already knew how to do it.

I’d been taking lessons from her for at least a year. The music book was open to the Marine Corps Hymn. I knew this song, and so I began to play. Not three bars in, she would stop me, and attempt to explain what I was doing incorrectly. I am very sure Mrs. Brown saw the same faint attention, and heard the same half-whispered “yes, yes, uh-huh” that I see and hear from Nora now.

It would be years before I understood what Mrs. Brown was trying to explain: I was playing the song in the wrong key. I was playing the Marine Corps Hymn, I just wasn’t playing the notes that were on the page in front of me. I never understood that at the time, never understood why it sounded right if it was wrong. I remember frustration — or perhaps it was desperation — in Mrs. Brown’s voice as she tried to hold my attention and explain the difference to me. It was, for her, a losing battle. My attention was already on the clock. The little hand was nearly to the six. Almost 4:30. Mom would be there any minute to pick me up. I’m not sure I heard a single word Mrs. Brown said, but I’m sure I nodded my head at all the appropriate times. I’m sure I told her I understood and would practice harder.

I think we both knew I was lying.

I don’t know if that was the very last lesson I had with Mrs. Brown, but I know it was among the last.

We walk to the car, and begin to drive away. I ask Nora all the same questions the teacher just asked her.

“I’m ready,” she tells me. And I’m sure she believes she is.

I think we’ll wait a year.

Unemployed Dad

This is not my first go-round as a stay-at-home parent. For much of 2009 and 2010, I stayed at home with Nora. And when I say “at home”, I mean AT HOME. A 28-week preemie, Nora was too susceptible to the various germs that everyone else takes for granted. The lungs of a preemie are delicate things. Bugs that would lead to a sniffle or cough for a full-term infant are potentially fatal to a 28-weeker. So there were no visits to playgroup. No trips to the library or museum. No playdates. It was Nora and Dad, at home, day after day.

It’s different this time, in many ways. Most obviously, in the number of children under my watch. Basic math dictates that watching Josh and Lia (joined by Nora in the afternoons) be more challenging than watching Nora alone. Another difference: when caring for Nora, I knew I was in it for the long haul, and I was. For 14 months, Nora and I spent our days together. For much of that time, I was not even looking for employment, because taking Nora to daycare was simply not an option. Those places, as any parent knows, are germ factories, and as such, were not an option for Nora in her first year or so of life.

This time around, I am attempting to conduct a full-scale job search while also fulfilling my parental obligations. To that end, television has become my friend. Sesame Street provides me with nearly an hour to peruse job listings. Curious George gives me another 23 minutes to make necessary alterations to the cover letter and fill out online applications (Seriously? I need to attach a resume AND manually type in my entire f***ing job history for you people??? Can you not just read the resume? Is this level of pointless busy work indicative of the job I’m applying for? Because if so, y’all can kiss my arse).

This brings me to perhaps the greatest difference between then and now: age. Josh and Lia are full-blown two-year olds now. They are today some six months older than Nora was was when I retired from my first career as a stay-at-home Dad.

Pardon my French, but Holy Shit, this is an entirely new world I stumbled into.

Should the job application process take longer than anticipated, or should a monkey and a man in yellow fail to hold children’s attention, I will invariably find myself with one child in my lap, dead-set on clicking “submit” mere seconds after entering my last employer as “adfvn.lkj fnkj/,;fraq”.

(FACT: two-year olds cannot type, but they have an innate gift for mashing the keyboard and somehow clicking the “submit” button every single time.)

Meanwhile, child #2 will usually take advantage of the distraction to turn on the washing machine (not so bad, really), overturn every bin full of toys in the house (frustrating, but still not so bad), or the new favorite, climb the Christmas Tree (venturing into dangerous territory now…)

I used to say of my time as a SAHD with Nora that it was the best job I ever had: the pay was terrible, but the benefits were outstanding. Much the same is true this time around. The time I’m getting with Josh and Lia — and Nora in the afternoons — is (generally speaking) fantastic. I’m witness to moments, little signs of day-to-day growth, that I wouldn’t see otherwise, and that I wouldn’t trade for the world. The three of them have three very distinct personalities, and bets are open as to which one will be our next visit to the ER. Lia, in her early climbing phase, was the early favorite. But Josh, with his potent cocktail of fearlessness and recklessness, might be the smart money bet.

Meanwhile, the applications continue to go out. Two or three a week, some more promising than others. Some more interesting than others. I suspect it’s not a great time of year for a job search, holidays and all that. But it is a good time to watch the kids. I’m enjoying it immensely.

(Someone get me the hell out of here.)

Dog Family

Milo

Milo

Milo is the oldest dog in the family now.

I received an email from my sister. Their dog, Isaac, a big old chocolate lab, died last night. He was 11, or maybe 12. Hardly a tragic age to lose a dog. But at the same time, there’s no good age to lose a dog. They are like family.

Actually, no. They’re not “like” family. Simply, they are family. And ours is a dog family. Someone, among my parents and siblings has literally always had a dog. Before Isaac, there was Shamrock. Before him (in an inexact order, and an incomplete list) was Rusty, Shelby, Bruno, Major, and Colonel. Currently, in addition to Milo, there is Mya,  Chet, and Puzzle.

Isaac

Isaac

Isaac was a tireless fetcher, and liked to vomit lake water at the top of the ramp.

Shamrock had a barrel for a chest, and a policeman’s baton for a tail.

Rusty

Rusty

Rusty chased geese, was always under mom’s feet, and greeted me like I was the prodigal son every time I walked through the door.

Bruno was (in my Dad’s words) a giant teddy bear, and Milo’s 70 lb. doppelganger.

Major was Dad’s favorite, the “world’s oldest puppy”.

Major (L) and Colonel.

Major (L) and Colonel.

And Colonel. Colonel was incorrigible. He was ornery and sneaky. He tipped over kitchen trash cans, and threw up their contents behind the beige chair in the living room. He ran often and would not return until hunted down. He drove our neighbors (one in particular) nearly — or perhaps completely –  insane with his barking. He stole food off the table if you turned your back for a second. He was terrified of thunderstorms. He did not come when called. He bit both of my parents, the last of which led directly to his euthanasia at age 12.

My Mom often said that Colonel was like a cat, and perhaps he was. If he didn’t quite have nine lives, he still had several. He was hit by a car when he was perhaps five months old. Much later, he was nearly killed by a two pound bag of Hershey’s Kisses (foil and all). He spent three days at death’s door, lying motionless in the doghouse he almost never used, only his head visible out the door. I remember checking him on the third evening, and a cobweb had formed connecting his snout to the nearby water dish. By the fourth evening, he was back. Acting like nothing had happened.

There were other near misses, other illnesses brought on by something he ate that he shouldn’t have. Even on the day he was put down, it took two injections to do the job. The vet was befuddled; I simply knew that stubborn dog was, for one last time, refusing to die.

My Dad often said the best thing Colonel ever did was sire Major. But my Dad is wrong. The best thing Colonel ever did was be my best friend for just about every day of his existence. I held him the day we brought him home. I held him when he was put to sleep. Nearly every day in between, he slept at the foot of my bed. I was 16 years old when he died, and I cried as hard as I ever had.

It sounds weird, but I hope Nora is old enough to be similarly devastated when Milo’s time comes. He is currently five-and-a-half: 13 months older than Nora.

A few weeks after Colonel died, I got my driver’s license. To this day, I carry his tags on my key ring.

Ours is a dog family, after all.

Competitive Writing

Carolyn emailed a link to me a few days ago. It was a call for entries into a writers’ competition. She likes to encourage this little habit of mine. She’s a good wife.

This particular call for entries is being held in conjunction with an upcoming film, called “Return to Zero”. I hadn’t heard of it, so I read on:

“Return to Zero, the movie, is is based on the true story of the filmmaker, Sean Hanish and his wife, Kiley. The movie starts when the couple is preparing for the arrival of their first child. Just weeks before their due date they are devastated to discover that their baby son has died in the womb and will be stillborn.”

Uh-oh. I’ve been down this road before. I read further:

“…we are inviting you to submit your story for consideration Three Minus One. Perhaps your story, like the one featured in RETURN TO ZERO, is not only a tale of loss, grief, and despair, but one of surviving, healing, and learning to love again as well—all the while never forgetting. Whatever it is, we welcome your submission.”

Sigh.

I pick at this wound every April and May. Do I really need to scratch it here in late August? Apparently, I do. My entry into the contest is below.

If you’re reading this now, you’ve probably already read one or all of my previous essays about Ben. That being the case, you may recognize some bits and pieces that I’ve written in the past. I pretty brazenly plagiarized myself…

***

“Remembering Ben”

The best and worst moments of my life involve Ben.

April 9, 2009. 12 weeks ahead of schedule, Ben made me a father. His sister Nora followed five minutes later. The in-the-moment joy I felt when I first laid eyes on him is something that can be appreciated only by those who have experienced it for themselves.

It was a joy that lasted less than 31 days.

While I kissed my wife, and blubbered through my tears to tell her how beautiful they were, Ben and Nora were quickly whisked away from the OR to the NICU. For hours, the only news we received of them came in the numerical form of APGAR scores. With each number given, the question “is that good or bad?” immediately followed. More often than not, the answer was yes, that was good, and we would breathe a sigh of relief.

Over the following weeks in the NICU, Ben progressed in fits and starts. A minor infection here, an age-related milestone not successfully reached there. Surfactant and C-PAP were terms that entered our household lexicon. His sister, Nora, a model NICU student if there ever was one, made bigger strides from the start. But even so, no one saw any reason to believe Ben would not be coming home in a reasonable time. Not the doctors and nurses. Not Carolyn and me. No one. Ben’s progress was slower, but he was progressing.

Progressing, until my wife’s cell phone rang at 1:50 one Sunday morning. Mother’s Day, as fate would have it. “Your son Ben is having trouble,” the nurse on the other end told me. “You and mom should come be with him.”

20 minutes and several traffic violations later, we entered the NICU, greeted by the sight of a half dozen or so doctors and nurses surrounding Ben’s incubator, and by the wail of Ben’s monitors, sounding their alarm. We stepped closer, though not too close, anxiously watching the team of doctors and nurses perform CPR. Everybody doing their thing, in time. There was no sense of worry or panic. Just the look of determination everywhere. This was what these professionals were trained to do: save a child’s life. And they were going to do it.

Every so often, they would pause the resuscitation. Ben’s numbers — his heart rate, blood-oxygen level, respiratory rate — would stabilize a moment, two moments, then crash. And the team went back to work again. This cycle happened again. Twice. Three times. I lost count.

Other nurses and attendants brought chairs for us to sit in. We called to Ben. Cheered him. Told him how proud we were. Told him everything would be okay, even as it became apparent that everything wouldn’t.

The attending physician, with whom we had grown close, sat in a chair next to us. She told us what everyone on the team was doing. Told us that everyone was doing exactly what they were supposed to do. Told us they weren’t sure why Ben wasn’t responding. With my eyes fixated on Ben, I didn’t really hear what she was saying, until her last sentence.

“…and I think that it’s time for you to hold your son.”

So we did. We held him for hours. We held him close to Nora’s incubator, so she could say goodbye. We held him to the window to watch the first hints of light in the eastern sky. We held him as our priest, who answered his phone at 3:00 in the morning to come to the hospital, baptized him.

More than four years have passed since that morning. Grief therapy. Attacks of anger and anguish – and, yes, irrational joy – show up without warning, and just as quickly depart. In that time, we’ve come to accept that we are different parents than we would otherwise be. Come to accept that what is normal behavior in our family would not be normal in another one, be it a four-year old girl having a favorite song that she sings just for Ben, or a 42-year old man breaking down in tears for no apparent reason in the shoe section at Target.  Prayers are said every night, and every night the first one Nora asks God to bless is a boy she knows only from pictures and stories Mom and Dad tell.

The ensuing four years brought with them two miscarriages and, against all odds, logic, and family and medical history, another set of twins. From the moment we saw the two of them in our first ultrasound, Josh and Lia, our younger children, brought with them challenges I didn’t know I would be able to face. More visits to grief therapy followed. Anger at the unfairness of it all, at the realization that the very best case scenario we faced would involve explaining to Nora why her twin was in Heaven when her younger siblings had a twin on Earth. We are fortunate to have lived that scenario. And while Nora often tells us she wishes Ben were here with us, she has also shown to be a kind and loving older sister.

Josh, meanwhile, has grown to be quite a little bruiser in 21 months. When I pick him up from daycare, I crouch down to the floor and he comes running toward me at his top speed and crashes into me without slowing. He usually carries enough momentum to knock me off balance. As I wrap him in my arms, I will say “how’s my boy?” and a voice in my head sternly reminds me, “you have two boys, you know.” And I feel guilty for enjoying that moment so much. I try not to compare the two, but Josh’s every mannerism — his laugh, the sparkle in his eyes — makes me wonder how similar, or different, Ben would have been.

I watch Josh and Lia play with (or against) each other, and I feel Nora’s loss more than my own. My wife and I lost a son, and as great a tragedy as that is, Nora lost a best friend, which strikes me as even worse.

Nora lost a rival. She lost a confidant and protector. She lost a conspirator and an antagonist.  She lost a big brother, which is something no child should lose.

Through everything, I wrestle with the thought that, had Ben survived, we would very likely have given up on having children after the two miscarriages. Maybe after one. I know in my heart I would trade anything to have Ben here with us, but I know equally well that I would not trade Josh or Lia for anything. I often find myself staring at Ben’s picture on the wall, and searching for an answer, a way out of this dilemma, but there is none to be had. So I simply pray that Ben, wherever he may be, knows how much he is loved and how sorely he is missed.

Moving day

I hate moving more than I hate most things. I hate it, despite having made surprisingly few wholesale moves in my life. In 1998, I moved from Lemoyne, PA to Boston; and in 2009, I moved from Boston (okay, Somerville) to Charlottesville. There have been a few other small moves scattered in there. But moving within a city does not entail the level of disruption to one’s life that is incurred by moving across state lines, hundreds of miles, to an entirely new city and place.

No, I’m not moving. But our neighbors are.

It’s a little sad to watch friends prepare to leave. Tomorrow, the moving van will be in place, and then they’ll be gone. What bothers me most, however, is not that friends of mine are leaving. It’s that Nora’s friend is moving. She seems to be taking it fairly well, but I still don’t know how she’ll react when the reality hits her that Ava doesn’t live across the street any more. Even though she knows it’s coming, there’s no knowing how she’ll respond in that moment. I don’t know how she’ll react when the moving van actually drives away. I don’t even know if I want her to be there when it does.

I have this vision of her, watching the van disappear around the corner, standing there for a few seconds, then turning to look at me with tears in her eyes and a trembling lip.

Perhaps I’m over-dramatizing things a tad. But losing a friend sucks, no matter your age.

Teaching my children to swear

They caught and drowned the front man

Of the world’s worst rock and roll band.

He was out of luck

Because nobody gave a…

…My hand aimlessly fumbles for the iPhone in the center console. The iPhone that automatically connected to the car’s Bluetooth Audio system and began playing. On shuffle.

From the 1,571 songs available, it selected track number four from the 1995 album “Vee Vee”, by my favorite band of the 90′s, Archers of Loaf.

Despite the literally hundreds (thousands?) of times I have sung along with this song, the impending profanity does not register in my brain until it is too late. As Eric Bachman sings the inevitable F-bomb, I finally screech to a stop sign and find the right button to stop the song (having completely forgotten about the volume control on the steering wheel). Too late. The last thing anyone in the car hears is that word, clear as crystal. An eerie silence follows. A silence finally broken by Nora’s voice in the back:

“We sing that song at circle time at school.”

Rather than ask for further details about the musical program at Nora’s school, I toggle forward to the next album on the player, and drive off.

Nora turned four a little more than six weeks ago. To my knowledge, she has said a swear word twice. Goddammit and Shit. She learned the former from me, the latter from her Pop-Pop. Since those occasions, both around two years ago, Carolyn and I have engaged in an unspoken contest: neither of us wants to be the one to teach her the dreaded “F” word. It was losing this competition that frightened me most about this morning’s incident in the car. Then again, perhaps she’s been singing that word at circle time without my knowledge…

Swearing has a rich history in my family. My mother used the word “shit” like most people drink water. I say “used” because she gave up use of that word when my brother Paul, all of two years old, casually dropped that word (in a completely textual fashion) in front of grandparents and friends at a family function of some sort. This was before I was born, but remains one of my Dad’s favorite family stories.

Left without parental guidance in the art of swearing, I was left to learn from my brothers and their friends. Following Geoff as he mowed the lawn with an old electric mower, watching him fight with the hopelessly tangled extension cord, provided a rich education. Further lessons were imparted from Paul and his friends. There seemingly wasn’t a word Jay and (especially) Charlie didn’t know. And no occasion was inappropriate, no offense too minor, no frustration too inconsequential to let fly. The more creative, the better.

With all the newfound linguistic skills, the challenge became not getting caught. Of course, I did get caught a few times, and the fear of punishment was always worse than the punishment itself. On one occasion, a simple “I heard that” from my mother sent waves of panic through me. And while no formal punishment ever came, the glare she fixed me with when I turned to face her sent me quietly skulking off in search of a safer environment.

With the shoe now firmly on the other foot, I find myself engaged in a battle against myself to ensure that Nora’s number of swear words remains at two for as long as possible. “Goddammit” has been replaced with “Dagnabbit” in my personal vernacular. Other favorite oaths have simply been phased out. There are still slip ups, of course. One does not, after all, shed a 38 year habit without occasional lapses (my Mother will attest). But Nora either hasn’t heard, or has some intuitive, inborn knowledge that those words aren’t for her.

Back in the present day, the very next album on the player happens to be the Very Best of Willie Nelson. I am comfortable with the selection. Willie may sing of heartbroken despair, mercenary cowboys, and drunken carousing and womanizing, but at least he will not curse in front of my children. I appreciate him for that.