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.

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Four years

I don’t often get to pick up any of my kids at the end of the day.

Carolyn and I have worked out our schedule: she works early, from 7 to 3, and I do the more traditional 8:30 to 5. I drop the kids off in the morning; she picks them up in the afternoon. It’s pretty unremarkable.

Since Josh and Lia began going to daycare in February, I have picked them up in the afternoon exactly twice. Both times, Josh has greeted my arrival with his biggest smile, abandoned whatever activity he was in the midst of, and come running full-bore into me. He does not slow down those last three feet to lessen the impact. He meets me at top speed, with a full-body tackle/hug and laughter. It’s intoxicating.

April and Vilma, the teachers in Josh and Lia’s room, find his response to my arrival endlessly charming. “Awwww, there’s Daddy’s boy,” they say.

Carolyn and I are largely in agreement that Josh is, in fact, something of a Momma’s boy. But in that moment, or others like it, he feels like Daddy’s.

Josh

Today is the culmination of a week in which I spent much time thinking about my other boy.

Ben is never too far from my thoughts. But every year, the approach to May 10th, the approach to Mother’s Day, keeps him even more in the forefront. When Josh ran up to greet me at school Tuesday, I wrapped him up in my arms and said “how’s my boy?” and a voice in my head sternly reminded me, “you have two boys, you know.” And I felt guilty for enjoying that moment so much.

When Josh and Lia are playing so well together, or when Nora is telling us how much she loves Lia, I feel loss. Loss for Nora not having her twin. Loss for Josh not having his big brother.

When a quiet moment consumes either Carolyn or me without warning, I get angry. Angry at a situation that neither of us will ever have any control over, at a situation that both of us will have to confront for the rest of our lives.

It’s been four years since that morning, when Carolyn’s cell phone woke us up at 1:50 in the morning. Four years since I ran a few red lights on my way to the hospital. Four years since Dr. Paget-Brown sat next to us and told us to hold our son. 3:00 in the morning on Mother’s Day.

Ben

So much happens in four years. Olympics, Presidential Elections, leap years. But in four years, the only thing that has changed about May 10 is the day of the week it falls on. In two years, it will fall on a Sunday again and coincide with Mother’s Day. I have no idea whether that will make the pain of the anniversary more acute, or if it will be easier to simply pack it all into one day instead of an entire week. It will also fall on a Sunday in 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043, 2048, and 2054. I don’t anticipate still being around when it falls on a Sunday in 2065, but who knows?

Four years. 1,461 days that I’ve gotten to wonder what he’d be like today. 1,461 times I’ve gone to bed and said a quick prayer for my boy. 1,461 nights since the last time I sat in NICU Pod B and read him a story, 1,461 nights since I leaned in close to his isolette and sang in a soft whisper for him.

I will frequently sing the same song to Josh at his bedtime. Nora has a song of her own, Lia has one too. But Josh shares a song with Ben. At first, I thought Josh should have his own song too. But now I prefer it this way. It’s something Ben gave to Josh. Or maybe it’s something he gave to me, and I’m just sharing it with Josh. From one boy to another.