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.

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.

Home

I started last night to write a post about Nora’s birthday party on Saturday. But there are other things on mind at the moment. One thing, actually.

I was not born in Boston. I was not raised there. But for 10-plus years, Boston and its inner suburbs was home, and they were the best years of my life. I met too many friends, I had too many great experiences, for it to be otherwise. Above all, I met my wife there. This life I have in 2013 — this family, these children, all of it — is a direct result of my decision in the spring of 1998 to pack up everything I owned into a Penske van, hook my car up to the back, and make the trek from idyllic little Lemoyne, PA to Boston.

I was not unfamiliar with the city on my arrival. For just about every summer of my childhood, elementary school on up, summer included a trip to Boston. The genesis of these trips was always the Red Sox. Dad’s life as a sports fan begins and ends with those Sox. He was bit by the bug in the pennant-winning summer of 1946, and his sons stood no chance but to be bitten by that same bug. With so many annual trips under my belt, it seemed only natural in early 1998, as I was applying for admission to graduate school, that my eyes turned to Boston University, which offered a strong program in broadcasting. My admission being secured that spring, the next decision was an easy one, and in late August, I was off.

I was fortunate in two ways when I moved to Boston. First, while I was moving to an entirely new city, I was at least moving to a city where I had friends. Pat, Pete, and Pat, acquaintances from my days with Proteen Records* lived in Boston, and through them I was able to join a group of extended friends that I eventually came to regard as some of the best I’ve ever known. Secondly, as an incoming member of a new class of students, I was instantly immersed with a collection of friends who were as new to the city as I was. It was the best of both worlds, and very necessary to my well-being, as it became quickly apparent that my many previous visits to Boston left me with approximately zero understanding of the city beyond its many tourist attractions.

(*Proteen Records and its history will have to wait for another post.)

I’m not going to even attempt to wrap up 10 years and four months of my life in a blog post. I know this is going to wind up a bit of a disjointed mess when I click publish. But today’s tragedy leaves me feeling ill. I’m not even sure what I’m hoping to accomplish by writing about it, or about Boston. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it all when there is no sense to be made. Whether this turns out to be an act of international terrorism, or domestic terrorism, or the work of a singular and severely fucked up human being will alter nothing from where I sit.

To put it simply, I love that city. I love its people, its  little neighborhoods, its maze of one-way streets, the anarchy of its grid, the dilapidated nature of its mass transit system, its fundamentally quirky mix of Puritan aesthetics (no booze on Sundays!) and liberal progressive ideology. As I type, Carolyn reminds me of the time we had lunch at Atlantic Fish Market, which is practically today’s Ground Zero.

As I type, no fewer than 134 people are in various stages of critical care. A two-year old boy is in ICU with head trauma. An eight-year old child is dead. As I type, families grieve.

Last August, on a visit back to Boston, Carolyn and I stood together on the beach at Winthrop, talking about the future. It was the end of a lovely week visiting all of our lovely friends, and one thing became startlingly clear to both of us. We felt like we were home.

Someday, I hope to call it home again.

April

April is not my favorite month. Although in the four years since I moved to Virginia, it’s moving up the list.

For my first 37-some years, I lived in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts: states where April did not truly yield spring weather until it was practically May. In Massachusetts especially, April was just as likely to produce a day of 38-degree drizzle as it was 63-degree sunshine. That’s not the case in Virginia. Here, on only the first day of the month, we were treated to a lovely 65 degrees. I look forward to what the next few weeks will bring.

April is a metaphor. Springtime. New beginnings. Stuff like that. For baseball fans, it is the annual rite of unbridled optimism.

April is when I became a father. And while the occasion was unexpected (Ben and Nora weren’t due until June), and while the early arrivals of my children led to countless hours in the unpleasant environment of the NICU, and while all of this led inevitably to Ben’s death a scant 31 days later, I cannot keep from smiling at that initial memory. At that wave of emotion the first time I put eyes on my son, the first time my daughter opened her eyes.

April is planting seeds in the little starter pots purchased at Lowe’s, watching Nora try to fit the little trowel from her gardening kit into a seed pot that’s maybe one or two inches in diameter. April is tilling the garden, pulling winter’s overgrowth, shoveling compost, and transplanting the sprouts after they’ve germinated. That my tomato crop tends to feed the local deer more than it feeds my family is not a concern in April.  In April, in my head, we are just a few months away from a bountiful harvest, from Carolyn making and storing jar upon jar of roasted marinara, from fresh salsa (assuming the peppers and onions grow), from caprese salad appetizers two or three nights a week (assuming the basil doesn’t get dug up by the dog or some other critter). Oh, well. As Rick once told Ilsa: “We’ll always have cucumbers.”

April is the Independent Film Festival Boston, still going strong — stronger than ever — four years after my last direct involvement. Two of the last four Aprils, that has meant a return trip to Boston, to see movies and friends. We’re still up in the air over our ability to make the trip this year. But whether I’m there or not, the news of opening night and its annual success always reaches me, always leaves me feeling happy.

April is promising myself this year I’ll get back out on the golf course at some point this summer (last round of golf played: July 28, 2007). This year I’ll dig out those rotted landscaping timbers near the shed in the back yard. This year I’ll get the lawn re-seeded. This year, I’ll repair the cracks in the driveway.

No, no, no, and no. And besides, if I did all (or any) of those things, what would I have to promise myself next year? What would I have to look forward to? No, let me be content to simply make those promises, and leave the keeping of them for another April.

No, really, I should’ve been a musician

First off, let me be clear: I quite possibly could have been a musician. I did, after all, play music for several years: piano in elementary school, drums in middle and high school, plus ten years of service in the various incarnations of the children’s and youth choir at our church.

So, yeah. I probably could have been a musician. Although the onset of essential tremor in my mid 20’s would have certainly been quite a damper on any potential piano playing. And boy, I would have been right peeved if events had transpired in that fashion. But regardless how those events transpired, here I am, not a musician. My creative outlet, such as it is, is stringing words together. ‘Nuther words, I write.

Anyway, the reason I should have been a musician is because I’m lazy.

There, I said it. I’m lazy. And I don’t say that to impugn musicians. I’ve known many musicians, and lazy is not a designation I would ever assign them. But still…

If I were a musician, if I had stuck with the piano for all these years, and had become a competent-to-good pianist, I could, every evening or so, adjourn myself to my piano* and spend 10 or 20 or 30 minutes playing a little Brahms, or Thelonious Monk, or Jerry Lee Lewis, or Ben Folds, or, well… you get the idea. I might even occasionally indulge myself and play the composition I doubtlessly would have written my junior year of college in a vain effort to win the affections of a girl who was miles out of my league**. I could do any of that and feel like I had satisfactorily exercised a creative impulse.

(*in addition to my hypothetical piano, this scenario requires a hypothetical house with hypothetical space to hold said piano. I’m not sure how hypothetical kids – or even real ones – fit into the equation. I digress.)

(**this is all hypothetical, honey. You’re the only girl who was ever miles out of my league.)

The point is, as I indicated earlier, I’m not a musician. I’m a guy who puts words in order. I can’t adjourn myself to my laptop and crank out a few paragraphs of Joyce or Hemingway and feel like I’ve accomplished anything. While there is a thriving cottage industry for musicians who perform other artists’ material, no such thing exists for those of us who write. Every sentence I write has to be a new one, including this one.

And this one.

And this one.

(Okay, that last one wasn’t really original.)

So that’s what I’m getting at when I mention being lazy. I can’t just sit down and do something that’s been done before. Whatever I write, for good or bad, hasn’t been written before. It’s all mine.

So that’s what I’ll be doing here, when time permits. If I particularly like a series of words I’ve typed, I’ll go ahead and post them here for the world to see.

Have a nice day.