Saturday, September 26, 2009

In the Slumber of Angels

No-one knows how conversations happen with kids. Subjects blurt out of the blue without context or logic, yet the questions start to require thoughtful answers. By about four or five years old, the innate b.s. detector starts to go off when a topic is sidestepped. Like any good, inquisitive reporter, they press the matter but sometimes are unprepared for the answers which may be given. “Daddy, where’s your grandpa?” Shane asked one late Friday night. He must have overheard my mentioning of my late grandfather, on what would have been his 92nd birthday. “He’s dead, Shane,” I replied. There was no point or logic in lying.
“When’s he going to come back? When can I meet him?”
I took a deep breath. “He’s not coming back.”
“He’s gone away forever?” Shane’s voice sounded sad and scared.
“For a long time…he’s in heaven now.”
“Where’s that?” Too bad the Pope wasn’t around to pontificate. I would have settled for Rick Warren or even Oprah.
“It’s the place people go when they die.” I knew what was coming next.
“Where? Just tell me where!” I tried the fourth dimension analogy.
“It’s a place that’s far away but is right next to you at the same time,” I said using a little of Doctor Who’s sense of the universe. The universe, at least as we know it, does not exist in a child’s eyes, only facts of what is or is not.
“Away?” His eyes swelled with tears. “I don’t want to go away! I don’t want to die! I want to stay alive forever!”

My son began crying and there was little I could do to console him. Death is not a subject many adults are comfortable with, let alone an innocent little boy. About a year ago, I used the Sesame Street episode discussing the death of Mr. Hooper to convince the three year old Shane not to use dying so much in his action play. That wasn’t going to cut it this time. Over the past year, he began to show a love of nature and animals, big and small. He started to notice the change of seasons: plants growing, bearing beautiful fruits and flowers. He wanted to take care of a stray little bird in the garage, hoping it would be his friend forever. Shane held the bird for a few hours and we made it a little home inside a playhouse in the backyard. We checked on his “little birdie” several times before he went to bed. I hoped as much as I could hope, that I would not see what most people see when they try to care for a bird that can’t fly. The next morning arrived not because I wanted it to, but because it had to. Some things like sunrise are just inevitable. Shane was still sleeping on our couch (which he prefers to his bed) as I walked outside to look inside the playhouse. The little bird was gone with no signs, struggle or carnage. In the midst of the night, it must have found a way to fly. It seems many of us grow cynical with age and the conventional wisdom of many still sees the tiny bird meeting an unfortunate fate at the hands of nature’s innate cruelty. I chose the optimistic approach, not just because it was better for Shane, but it is what I wanted to believe as well. Our faith was rewarded a few days later, as I saw the little bird landing on a tree in the yard. I grabbed Shane and showed him that his little friend was ok. It is those little experiences that give you faith in the universe and the forces which control it. Sometimes there is beauty beyond belief.

That experience was a few months removed from the basement incident. Shane had begun to understand what death was and there was nothing I could do to prevent it. There are as many good things as bad when it comes to growing up. We can lie to ourselves and say they don’t exist or we can accept the inevitable. Our children will not always be protected from bad things, no matter how hard we try. Shane dried his tears for a little bit and asked me “What did your Grandpa look like?”
“He was tall, had short hair and wore glasses,” I said, choking up a little.
“What else?”
“He was funny and kind. He smoked a pipe and smelled like leather.” It had been many years since I sat in my Grandpa’s lap but his smell felt like yesterday as I described it.
“What else?”
“He had one leg.”
“How did that happen?”
“A long time ago, he had an accident on the farm and he hurt his leg,” I said, recalling the story told to me many times by my Grandmother. I knew this part was not going to go over well. It’s hard to tell a child farming is something enjoyable when the consequences can be so severe.
“Was he alright?”
“Yes. God took care of him.”
“What did he look like?” Kid conversations take such an immediate and persistent turn.

I took Shane to my computer and brought up pictures I used in a previous essay about my Grandparents. I pointed out Granddad’s wooden leg.
“How did he walk?”
“He had crutches like Mommy had when she broke her ankle. He could walk very fast.” Indeed, he could. His agility had to be seen to be believed. This onslaught of reality combined with being very tired became too much for Shane. The world is a scary place, full of hazards and dangers. There comes a point where looking out for cars while crossing the street becomes real. This was that time. There was nothing I could do to help him process all this, except watch him cry to sleep next to his Mommy. I’d had enough of the circle of life for one night but I was determined to do one thing before I went to bed. I didn’t want him to wake up and be alone. I scrunched into the couch beside him and held him until I slept.

There’s a lot of parents who long just for a night or weekend to escape the daily venture into “kidland.” Actually, I think that’s all parents, whether we chose to admit it or not. Anyone who packages themselves as “super-parent” is either living a lie or trying to sell a book – Kate Gosselin: THIS IS YOU. Every parent needs a break but most of us do not have the luxury of hiring Nell Carter. The last night I spent away from my kids, I ended up talking about them. Truth be told, that was most of the nights. As much as I wanted to pretend to be a non-parent, my gut ate me up enough where I couldn’t place myself outside of the life I’ve had for almost five years. My son and daughter are a part of me, the biggest part of me that I will give to this world. I understand what it is like to long for a feeling of irresponsibility. Those days are fun but they are best left for those who have yet to feel a part of yourself which you have to love and protect. Little kids don’t fly overnight. Most aren’t ready to fly for twenty years. Every time I’m not there, I constantly think of them and what they are doing, if they are happy and full of love.

Admittedly, parenting is hard. That’s why parenting magazines and books sell better than Mountain Dew or Coca-Cola. I refuse to think or believe that my times without my children are better than the times I spend reading books, building castles or protecting them from kids who want to bury their grasshopper collection with rocks. I feel bad when I lose my train of thought in mid-day. I can list two-thousand records in my collection or every Doctor Who episode made but sometimes I forget to replace coffee lids. But I got the sippy cup in the middle of the night and held my daughter as she fell back to sleep. I can’t showcase the fun times I have without my kids as I’d rather be riding down the waterslide with them. The stress of raising kids is big, bigger than being President of the United States of America (wait – he does both). The worst thing any parent can do is give in when your kids need you most. Note to parents: YOUR KIDS WILL ALWAYS NEED YOU.

There is much talk about “helicopter parents;” parents who choose to supervise their child’s development at a miniscule scale one would think they are MIT students working on a master’s paper. I don’t advocate such intense supervision as much as being there for your kids when they need you. I have many friends who are single parents and have chosen to do what is not just natural, but what is right. They may not get the “second spring” that their exes do, but the reward lasts a lifetime. Just picking up your kid after school, playing a game like “Chutes and Ladders” or helping them with algebra provides a bigger buzz than any Saturday night at the local bar pretends to be. I feel bad for parents who think they’re lonely, for they are forsaking the unconditional love their children give to them every day. Most parents have had one good go-round of being an irresponsible child. Providing your children with a relatively happy, fun and memorable childhood requires giving up certain remnants of your youth. Not the fun parts, but all the stupid ones. If you are thinking “I don’t know what you mean” then you must have merged stupidity with fun a long time ago.

Shane started pre-school this month. I didn’t shed any tears as much as I was proud of him. He cares about people and the world around him, which is something I hope will never be taken away. He gives flowers to strangers because he thinks it will make them a little bit happier. My daughter, Romana, longs to be part of his class but she still likes a nice hug and a good book to keep her company before she destroys Shane’s Lego robot. The happiest times I have now are not at a party, but when I pretend to be asleep and they talk to each other, becoming not just brother and sister but friends. Both of them want to be cuddled with at night and who am I to refuse. There will come a time, as it is the way of things, where they no longer need nor want the comfort of Mommy and Daddy. Until then, I am happy to lie beside angels.

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