Two Wonderful Girls. One Day At A Time…

Archive for January, 2011

Remembering Mom

It has been 15 years since the most difficult day of my life. I was driving cross-country on my way to a new life in California and on the last leg. In Mojave, California, I stopped off to give my dad a call and check in. This was in the days before cell phones, so I had to rely on random pay phones. I found a Wendy’s and called home when my Dad gave me the news. My mom was just taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. She was technically still alive at the time, but I knew it was over. While it’s hard to believe, I swear to you that the clouds eclipsed the sun just as I pulled out of that Wendy’s parking lot and the first song that played on the CD player in my car was “Lightning Crashes”, which has the line “Lightning crashes, an old mother dies.” I shuddered and knew this was it. I am convinced that, sometimes, there are greater forces at work. I completed the drive to Sacramento and, less than 24 hours later, I was on a flight back to New Jersey as my mom had passed away overnight. While it has been 15 years, it seems like an eternity since I last saw her. You only get one mother and I miss her dearly. And as my kids get older, I think I give her even more thought.

I always tell people that when Iris first came into this world, I totally saw my mother in her face. Even now, the similarities make me smile–not only physically, but with personality. My mom was almost overly affectionate like Iris. And like Iris, my mom had a stubborn streak that was almost comical. Occasionally, I’ll share stories about my childhood with Iris and tell her about the grandmother she never met. Things that she said or did. The way she did those special little things that mothers do. But while my mom’s picture is placed prominently near our front door for Iris and Robyn to see all the time, she is relegated to being a nothing more than a character in stories as opposed to the major life force that Cherise’s mom and my Dad have become. Yet she’ll have played a greater role in the upbringing of Iris and Robyn than they could ever imagine. I think of the line from the Dixie Chicks song (yes, I listen to the Dixie Chicks): “I’m forever changed by someone I never knew.” Iris and Robyn will be forever changed by someone they never will never know.

Five years ago, when it was 10th anniversary of her death, Iris was only three months old and I was definitely struggling with fatherhood. I was convinced that I had signed up for more than I had bargained for. I was exhausted, confused, frustrated, you name it. I remember taking the long walk after I got off the bus coming home from work on that Friday night. The challenges of parenthood coupled with the melancholy of my lost parent made it one of those nights when I needed time alone to think. As I remembered my mother, the magnitude of being a parent really struck me. We only have one birth mother and birth father and those people end up shaping who you are and what you believe. I intended to use that time to think about how much I missed my mother, but I began to think less about what a wonderful mother I had and more about her imperfections. Nothing malicious, but rather those little quirks that make a typical parent-child relationship so challenging. That’s when it kinda hit me and the pressure was off. The author Tom Robbins once said, “People aren’t perfect, but love can be.” In the end, none of us ever do the parenting stuff perfectly. We continually make mistakes and learn along the way. And all you can do is love unconditionally and support in every way possible. That’s what my mother did for me. That’s what I do for Iris and Robyn.

I’m not a religious man. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife or if those who leave this world go on to somewhere better and can look down on us, but I sure hope so. I know my mother would’ve loved Cherise and the girls and I think she’d be proud of me. And in the end, that’s all parents can really ask for…

Parental Serenity Prayer

Last week, Iris read “The Grinch That Stole Christmas” out loud to me, Cherise, and Robyn. She didn’t memorize it–this was pure reading. Before this year-end performance, she had only read the book twice before. Somewhere in the story around when the Grinch turns his dog into a reindeer, I had a bit of a flashback to May. I referred to this experience in our blog once before, but the details are really interesting in retrospect. Iris and I were sitting in front of her easel which had a set of first grade words that I was teaching her. I was getting upset with her because she didn’t seem focused and she was really have trouble with words that began with “w” (“what”, “where”, “which”). While I was frustrated with why these lessons weren’t sticking with her, I had a bigger problem. Her response to her difficulty was to lose focus rather than gain focus. She began joking around, her mind started wandering, and I began to get upset with her. We had a bit of a standoff and, rather than demand she learn her words (“we’re not going anywhere until you get these words”) or let her off the hook (“that’s OK, these words are for someone two years older than you”), I tried a different approach. I gave her an out, but with a caveat. I stopped her, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “Iris, this is up to you. You can quit and learn these words another time or you can sit with me now and try to learn them. And as long as you try, I will be patient and keep working with you and not get mad at you. We can stay here as long as you want and can keep trying until you’re too tired or don’t want to do it any more. But if you don’t focus and treat me with respect, this lesson is over and you can wait until next year to learn these words. It’s up to you.” She paused and I held my breath. She then said, “I want to learn. Let’s keep doing it.” The focus came back. We got most of the words right that day and committed to getting the rest of the words the next day, which we did. As a father, it felt like I was taking a gamble on that move and risking her sweeping aside her learning. But it worked and her learning seemed to accelerate on that day.

Fast forward seven months. I listened to Iris rattle off every word of the Grinch (except “Cindy Lou Who” and “tinsel”) the day after I gave her the 3rd grade word list and she got every one of those words (we didn’t practice them–she’s just been reading so much that she knew them all before I even taught them to her). She takes reading pretty seriously now and has gained a level of confidence that borders on cockiness. Have you ever seen a cocky five-year old? It’s entertaining as hell. And I confess I enjoyed a little delayed gratification from that moment in May when we had our standoff. I think about not only the courage in the gamble, but the patience of sticking with her through the challenges, and wisdom to know what I could affect and what I couldn’t. And of course, with that, I began to think about the Serenity Prayer. Interesting thing, though: when I looked it up, I realized that (a) I had the words wrong and (b) there is an extended version was actually even better than shortened version that I’ve always known and referred to. Here it is:

God, grant us the…
Serenity to accept things we cannot change,
Courage to change the things we can, and the
Wisdom to know the difference
Patience for the things that take time
Appreciation for all that we have, and
Tolerance for those with different struggles
Freedom to live beyond the limitations of our past ways, the
Ability to feel your love for us and our love for each other and the
Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless.

I’m told this is used by members of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it’s really the rulebook for parenting. And I don’t just mean how we should act, but also how we should teach our children to conduct themselves. I can recall different moments where each of these lines was part of a lesson I have tried to impart upon the girls, especially the appreciation and ability. But it seems like Iris really adopted the “Strength to get up and try again even when we feel it is hopeless” lesson in those May reading struggles and, as a result, the Grinch wasn’t the only one whose heart grew three sizes when Iris read her story.

I just love being a Dad.

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