That Little Voice

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Warning: May induce ugly crying and the urge to call your mother.
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An 8 am teeth cleaning is not my idea of a great start to my day, but it was nice to have a clear mission for a change. Between my relaxed schedule of working from home, and being off work so much lately, I am definitely out of the habit of getting dressed and leaving the house in the morning. Falling back into the old routine helped me feel like my life is getting back to normal. I was even on time to the dentist, which is rare.

I really like my dentist and all her staff. The office is delightful, and cheery, but not frivolous. It’s a calm refuge. Perhaps a little too relaxing. I’m trying to not wear my feelings on my sleeve, so when the dental hygienist asked how I was doing, it surprised me as much as her when I blurted out that my mother had died. It was awkward for both of us. I regretted burdening her, and it didn’t make me feel any better. She tripped over herself to be extra nice to me the rest of the visit. Sigh.

After the teeth cleaning, I did the obvious thing and got a giant spicy breakfast burrito. It’s my happy place. Don’t judge me.

Leaving the restaurant, a crisp, white envelope on the sidewalk caught my eye. I started to ignore it, but a little voice in my head told me to turn back and pick it up. It was thick, as in “important stuff in here” kind of thick. It also had that intentionally generic look that banks use, and I could see the recipient’s name and address in the little cellophane window. I didn’t recognize the name, and the envelope had been opened and then folded. This was not trash. This had been dropped accidentally, and losing it was probably going to ruin someone’s day.

Well, it’s the year 2017 and I have a smart phone, so I looked up the address and drove the envelope to its owner. It was only a few miles away and somewhat on my way home. Well, sorta on my way. OK, it was totally out of my way. Sue me.

As I pulled up at this random stranger’s house, it occurred to me I should at least look him up on Facebook first. Turns out we have a few friends in common, so I opted to ring the doorbell instead of just stuffing it into the mailbox. After a few moments, he opened the door hesitantly. It’s not a subtle experience to have a 6’4″, 400 lb wild-haired Viking on your porch. Everyone opens their doors hesitantly. It’s a thing.

I handed him his envelope. He was surprised and grateful, of course. He shook my hand, thanked me, said he hadn’t realized he had dropped it. He was amazed I had brought it all the way to his house. Then his wife appeared and said hello and that she was sorry about my mom.

Wait… what?

Look, I’ll be super honest, I’m in a weird place right now. Life is busy, and I’m a giant viking with responsibilities. I’m a role model for, at minimum, several precocious children who pick up on any whiff of insincerity. I take pride in being strong physically and emotionally for them. But when your Mom dies, even giant vikings get a pass. It’s one of the few, possibly only, situations where grown, hairy-faced men are universally allowed to cry. I don’t agree with that system, but it’s the truth.

I simply don’t like to cry. I was raised that real men don’t cry, so it makes me feel weak and less of a man when I do it. And this week I’ve been flailing around in that prickly grey area between what I want, what I need, what I believe in, and what society has ingrained. It’s not a fun place to be.

Needless to say, my emotional reserves are thin. Watching your mom slowly decline over a couple of years… it stresses you in odd ways. Deep ways. Every trip to the emergency room, every event you cancel, every time you help her down the stairs, every new nurse you meet. It all drags you down just a little more. And when the optimism starts to fade, when new and worse issues keep popping up… it gets to you. And when you finally recognize that look of grim acceptance in the doctors’ faces, hear it in their voices… the floor drops out from under you.

After the heart attack, she had been in a medicated coma for a while and they had a lot of trouble reviving her. When we got the call that she was awake and alert, I rushed right over with the kids. She was smiling and laughing and all she wanted to do was play with her grand kids. Which was really nice for them, and nice for her, and frankly good for me to see. Don’t ever pass up those opportunities, you never know when it’ll be the last.

But, between you and me, I know the kids and the nurses couldn’t tell, but she wasn’t herself. She wasn’t totally sure where she was or even who I was. But, man, she loved those kids. She smiled and laughed as they climbed on her. She listened intently as they told her all their silly kid stuff. She hung on every word. She was so happy. She asked me to take a picture of her together with the kids.

A photo? My instinct was to refuse. She barely resembled the woman who raised me, with her hair disheveled, her pale skin. I did take that picture, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a great shot. She’s never looked happier, even with an oxygen tube on her face. And, now, it’s the last picture I have of her.

A week later and the next trip to the ER, she couldn’t speak. We gave her a pen and she wrote out a few things. She wanted to know where the grand kids were. She didn’t ask about money or politics or religion or food or her health. She wanted to know where the kids were and that they were OK. She was in and out of consciousness and eventually was too exhausted to communicate.  Something told me that she might never come back. I was right.

A few days later, the doctors let us know they had run out of options. Her body was starting to shut down and any efforts at this point were more likely to hurt than help. We made the decision as a family to make her as comfortable as possible, and to wait.

Early that next morning I went back at the hospital to relieve my wife from sitting at my mom’s bedside all night. As an aside, if you find a partner who will stay all night with your dying mother… marry that person. Hang on to that person. My Wonderful Wife talked to my mom all night, sang to her, told her we loved her. She made sure the nurses were doing everything they could. She brushed my mom’s hair and applied her favorite lip balm to keep her lips from drying and cracking. I am dumbfounded by the depth of the entire gesture. The Wonderful Wife says it was not a big deal, but my heart tells me it’s a debt that I can never truly repay.

So, that morning I got to sit with my mom as she lay there, comatose, struggling to breathe, dying. I held her hand and I cried big fat tears. I told her we all loved her, and everything was good, and she could leave. I told her that I was sorry for all of it, the million stupid things I had done, for every time I had gotten mad at her, for all the times I had disappointed her. I told her that none of it mattered any more and I just wanted her to be at peace.

She never blinked or stirred. I had no way to know if she could hear me. Was any part of my mother still in there? Was I being a fool by talking to this physical body that once had held my mother’s essence? Was I an idiot for holding this limp hand that had once comforted me on so many occasions?

A couple hours later, my brother, his wife, and my step-father came into the room, carrying sack lunches and ready to wait with her through to the end. I loudly announced for Mom they had all arrived to see her. She took two more difficult, raspy breaths… and was gone. They didn’t even have time to set down their lunches.

It was so clear that she had waited. She knew. She had heard everything. Somewhere, deep inside there, she heard and she knew and she waited until we were all there before she let go.

So, yes, this morning I returned that envelope. I did exactly what my mom had taught me to do when I was little. Yes, I wanted to see what was inside it. Yes, it could have been a bunch of money or something sensational or wicked. But it wasn’t mine to see. I didn’t look inside and I gave it back to whom it belonged. It was a very minor inconvenience to my day but may have made a profound difference to the owner. Or, for all I know, it may have been just trash after all. Regardless, it made me feel normal, and good.

Back on that front porch, it turns out this is a small town and I had met the man and his wife at an event just a couple weeks before. We weren’t friends on Facebook but they had seen the news about my mom on my wife’s feed. They were gracious and kind and we chatted a little there on their stoop. Mostly we exchanged surprise that our lives had intersected in such an unexpected way. Eventually, I wished them well and went home. It was a wonderful reminder that love and community are everywhere and will find you when you need them.

And, really, what can you do when your mother dies? The woman who literally and figuratively made you, who fed and washed you, showed you how to dress yourself and tie your own shoes. How do you face a world that no longer includes the woman who taught you left from right, right from wrong? How do you leave the house when you’ve lost that one person who you knew would always be on your side, no matter how badly you screwed up?

Well, now I know what you do when your mother dies. I’ve always known, and you know it, too. You do what she taught you to do. You continue being the man she raised you to be. She’s not gone. Oh, no. She’s here and alive in everything I do, every decision I make.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was her voice in my head that told me to pick up that envelope and drive it back to the owner. That voice also told me to not be too proud of myself for doing the right thing, that it should be expected and not rewarded. Her voice echoed in my head, telling me to not tell anyone what I had done because that would just be vanity and prideful on my part.

Well, I am telling you about it. I don’t always do what that little voice says. Part of the benefit of being my own person is that I can also realize she wasn’t always right. Seeking praise is not shameful, when done within reason. Asking for and accepting help is not shameful, but actually quite healthy. Admitting our weaknesses is the greatest form of strength. We all have the amazing gift of being able to question and refine our upbringings, to take the good and leave the bad, to improve and do better. I think one of the greatest accomplishments in my life is to improve on some of my parent’s choices.

But, most importantly, I will do what my mom cared about the most. And luckily for me, I’m already doing it. At the end of her life, I had always expected a guilt trip and an argument about our religious differences. I was ready for that argument. But instead, she made it incredibly clear to me that her greatest wish is simply that I raise her grand kids to be happy, productive, and beautiful people. People who pick up and return envelopes.

And, just for the record, I’m teaching my son that some of the strongest, most masculine things he can do are to cry, to share his feelings, and to ask for help. He’s going to be a stronger man than me for it, and I’m very much OK with that. And so is that little voice in my head.

Thank you, my friends, for allowing me to cry, and to be sad, and to share my pain. And, maybe someday I’ll get better about asking for help. But most of all, thanks for caring and crying with me.

Call your Mom, or remember her well. She deserves it. You deserve it.

Love and Light to you all.

VVV

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Carried Away

Someone likes to pretend she’s asleep in the car when we get home.

Someone likes to be carried up to bed.

Someone thinks Dad can’t tell she’s faking.

Someone thinks she’s a pretty good faker.

But Dad knows.

He knows she gets heavier every time.

He knows any day now she won’t want to be carried anymore.

Dad plays along and carries her, heavy, up all those stairs.

Every step, he wonders if this is the last time he’ll get to carry his tiny girl.

She feels like she’s getting away with it.

He feels her getting away.

There Will Be A Test

Her backpack thudded to a stop on the bench as she slid gracefully into our regular booth. “Why do we keep coming to this Chinese buffet? There are, like, five Thai restaurants nearby.”

I lacked her grace as I wedged my bulk into the opposite bench. “Oh, I know that. But this is the only place where I can make sure we both get some veggies. Also, they don’t care if you spread out your homework and study for a couple hours.”

“Yeah. That’s probably why I don’t like it,” she said, pulling a heavy textbook out of her bag.

“Hey, let’s change it up and eat first this week. I have a theory that humans digest our food better when we separate eating from working.” I gestured her toward the buffet. “There’s plenty of time to study later. I’ll watch your books. Go get some food.”

She paused as if to make a snarky comment, but changed her mind and stood.

“And I’m serious, don’t forget the veggies.”

Her eyes rolled as she left, but she returned with green beans alongside the usual starches.

“Hey, look, green veggies! You may live to see age 16 after all.”

“Ha ha. I get green beans every time. And why the concern? I eat better than you do.”

“Well, that’s your opinion. You eat less than I do, sure. But these days I’m eating more protein and veggies. Mostly just less processed crap,” I said, scooting out of the booth. “I worry that you’re not getting enough vitamins sometimes.”

“I eat what I like. You always say we should listen to our bodies, and this is what my body wants.” She twirled a noodle around her fork, flopping it sloppily into her mouth. “Mmmmm… carbs.”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I said, not hiding my smile as I left her there, chewing loudly for my benefit.

I returned soon enough with a crowded plate of all my favorites, and we ate together. Between bites I talked about my work, and told her stories about her younger siblings’ hi-jinx from the week. She shared energetic stories about her friends, her thoughts on gender politics, and which bands were playing nearby.

Eventually she pushed her plate away and reached for her textbooks. “I have so much studying to do,” she mumbled with the heavy sigh of the downtrodden.

“You really do study a lot. But that’s pretty much your job at this point in life,” I said, taking a big bite of chicken from a stick. “Whereas my job is finding more meats served on sticks,” I said, chewing loudly.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said with a sly grin.

“You got me.” I swallowed and showed her my empty mouth, sticking out my tongue.

“Ewwww. Gross! You’re gross.”

I chuckled. “You know you’re good at what you do, right?”

“At busting you for breaking your own rules? Yes, I’m great at it.”

“No, I mean that you’re a great student, a great kid. I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it because you’re in the middle of it, and you’re still growing. But – you’re nailing it.”

She stared at me, eyebrow raised, trying to read any hint of sarcasm on my face.

“No, I mean it, kiddo. From my heart. You’re learning to study more efficiently every week. You’re keeping up your grades, all the while having fun side activities, too.” I scooped up a piece of General Tso’s Chicken. “I mean, you’re fifteen. It’s important to have fun.”

“Right? I work so hard! All of my classes are either honors or AP. It’s impossible to do all the homework they assign us. Plus, Orchestra and Girl Scouts and 4H and babysitting. Also, keep in mind I’m in a band, which is fun, but still a lot of work.” Her eyebrows scrunched. “It’s amazing that I get any sleep at all.”

“I love that you’re so musically talented and amazed you still have the energy to be in a band. You’re a pretty cool kid.”

“Who you calling a kid? I’m a young woman, thank you very much.” She smirked, but her stare didn’t waver. “Wait. Are you trying to butter me up or something?”

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “Or, maybe, just maybe, I’m really proud of my daughter and I think she deserves to hear it. In fact,” I said, pointing my fork for emphasis. “I think you should hear it as often as possible.”

Her eyes turned back to her homework. “Yeah, whatever. It’s nice. I guess.”

I chased a wonton around my plate for a minute, then gave up. “So, what are we studying this week? World History again?”

“Physics. We have a test on Friday and I’m a little stuck.”

“Oh, physics! I love physics. And don’t sweat the test. There will always be a test.”

“That’s not helping. Can you look at number 27? They give us all these factors, but I can’t figure out where the vectors are.” She tapped her pencil in frustration.

“Ah, yes. Vectors are fun. Lemme see.”

She spun the paper around so I could see it. “Vector’s aren’t fun. They’re gross. You’re gross.”

“Thank you, I will accept gross as a compliment,” I said, examining the page. “We all enjoy what we enjoy. I really enjoy math and science. They’re just sets of logical rules to help explain what’s happening around us.”

She sat up and leaned towards the paper. “Yeah, I like math. I like physics. It’s just that the class is so stressful with all my other stuff going on.”

“Oh, I’m sure. Maybe you need to spend more time on it. But that’s for another discussion. I see your problem here,” I said as I turned the paper back to her. “You have to remember that the point of defining vectors is to show the two forces that are being exerted on a single object from two different angles. But an object can’t go two different directions. The object goes in one direction, and that resulting direction is influenced by both vectors, according to each vector’s strength.”

Her eyes narrowed a bit. “Yeah, OK – I think I get that. So the answer – the answer is what the object does, because the two vectors moved it.” She started writing rapidly across the paper. “Yeah, OK. So you basically just draw a rectangle – using the two vectors as sides for your rectangle – and the result is the diagonal across the rectangle. Okay.”

“Yeah, see, you’ve got it.” I leaned back.

Her hand moved smoothly back and forth, sketching and computing. “OK. I get this now.”

I chuckled. “I’m glad I can help a little. I still enjoy that stuff. I guess it helps that you’re my rectangle.”

Her hand stopped and she looked up. “I’m your what?”

“You are my rectangle. I’m just one of the vectors that influences your life. All of us: your mother, your step mother, your friends, teachers. We just influence you, but you make your own trajectory.”

She sighed loudly. “Here you go again.”

I reached across the cluttered table and touched her hand. “No, I’m serious. Your life has all these influences. You’re getting it from all sides. I get it. I was in your shoes not that long ago.”

“It was pretty long ago.”

“Very funny. And yes, technology has changed but high school hasn’t. I know that you’ve got people giving you shit every day and you’re just trying to do the best you can. I know that we ask too much of you, but I also know that you’re up to the challenge.”

She looked away. “I don’t always feel up to the challenge.”

“Of course not. But you are. You really are,” I said, leaning forward again. “Believe it or not, I know exactly what it’s like to crave independence so badly you can taste it. You want to fly, but you also know you still need a safety net. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

She looked back at me. “So frustrating.”

I looked into her eyes. “You are doing something truly remarkable, kiddo. You are creating a new person, a new personality, from scratch. And it’s ridiculously hard work. You’re making hard decisions every minute of every day. You’re cobbling together bits and pieces of all these sources, all these influences. You’ve got a million vectors moving you, and you get to choose which vectors influence you more than others. Those choices help to create who you become. The final trajectory is all you.”

She held my gaze. “That almost made sense. Oh, God, so gross.”

“Hey, all I ask is that you let me continue to be in your equation. I just want my vector to be part of the push on your object. Or on you. Or something. I lost the metaphor.”

“You’ve lost more than that.”

“Hush. Now, the big complication is I’m your Dad and protecting you is part of every fiber of my being. It’s not a decision I make, as much as just who I am. So, I’m obligated to tell you to always, always question those other influences. Yes, some of them are cooler than me, and all suave and hip, and up on all the cool slang. But they don’t usually have your best interest in mind.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure thing, Dad.”

“Hey, c’mon now, here me out.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t freak out. I’m listening.”

“This is important. I need you to know in your heart as you go through your day, that I always have your best interest in mind, no matter how lame it comes across when I show it.” I squeezed her hand gently. “I always have been and always will be trying to help you become the best person you can be. Whatever that means for you.”

I retracted my hand from her side of the table and slouched back into my seat. “Whether you like it or not.”

She looked down and started working on the problem again. “I know all of that. I know you’re looking out for me.”

I took a last bite of my food, and this time swallowed before speaking. “I’m really proud of you, honey. You are the greatest achievement of my entire life,” I said, setting down my fork. “And I just want my vector to be in that rectangle.”

She chuckled and shook her head softly. “It’s all so gross. But I love you, Dad.”

“I know you do.”

I pushed my plate away and let the moment quietly pass. I sat there and enjoyed the somber scratching of the pencil pushing her thoughts onto paper.

“So, tell me. Do you think your friends have Dads that say all this gross stuff?”

She didn’t look up and continued working her problem. As the pencil scracthed the paper, I heard her quietly mumble, “Maybe. If they’re lucky.”