Conversation, Kale and Kindness

The other day, our son tells me that he has noticed that after a television character dies, he or she is rarely – if ever –mentioned again in the show. They just disappear from the conversation. His comment: “Isn’t that weird? I’m glad our family isn’t like that.”

Naturally, he goes on to talk about his deceased father.

I take a moment to give myself a pat on the back. Every time we have a heart to heart about a difficult subject (the range of topics not limited exclusively to his father’s death, of course, as the child is now a teenager), I give myself a brownie point or two. Lord knows I need the credit against all the accumulated demerits for nagging, hollering, Brussels sprouts and other maternal shortcomings. The “research” says that as children reach new developmental stages of their own, they revisit the death of a parent in the light of a more mature perspective, and this theory is certainly consistent with our experience. The kids might express a new concern, or ask the same question but have a different response to the answer, or even a different recollection of specific events. I cannot imagine what it’s like for these kids to have suffered the death of a parent at a young age, but I am available to listen through all their stages.

Today the boy’s thoughts center around the fact that we still refer to his father as “Daddy.” The boy has grown well past the Daddy stage, but the Daddy himself is frozen in time as the parent of very young children. He continues to influence our lives, but his presence is more like a soundtrack in the background or a favorite black and white snapshot in our family album. Daddy plays a crucial role in our biography. He is a relationship. His life provides a foundation and our point of reference. We speak of Daddy in the language of “was” and “would be.” We wonder what Daddy might advise for the homecoming dance, or how he would navigate teaching a teenager to drive. We wish he could see his son’s basketball game or graduation. He’s not there, but still, he’s here. This boy has outgrown his nicknames and a few pet names (which I dare not blurt on the internet), but the father remains Daddy. If he were here in person, the boy would call him Dad. The boy is here, ruminating about all these facets of his father’s life and death: “Daddy never made it to the Dad stage of fatherhood.”

And so it goes that as the child goes through his own stages of development, the parent does, too. In fact, I find myself currently in the “Mama” stage of mothering, not because I have a toddler, but because my Texan son has so named me. I have been called far worse, and often by the same children who’ve also called me Mom, Mommy and Charlotte. By the same token, we have been known to call Daddy a few explicit names as well. We hurl our insults in Daddy’s general direction, wherever that might be and for our own benefit or amusement, and those conversations are ok too.

I am grateful that the boy can say it out loud. I do not believe that there is a time frame in which or a specific age at which the kids are supposed to “get over it,” although each stage does provide evidence of their maturity and continuing healing. It would be weird and sad to stuff all the evidence of Daddy’s existence in an emotional drawer, never to be opened again. The conversation continues and hearts heal.

Years ago, the boys and I were talking about whether I would ever remarry. One of the children was firmly against the idea, the other was strongly in favor of the idea, and I was completely flummoxed by the idea. In the course of our conversation, I told them that I did not know what would happen, but I did know that nobody would ever take Daddy’s place in their hearts. There is a daddy-shaped space that will be there forever. But here’s the thing: love grows. If somebody special comes into our lives, then our hearts will grow and there will be a new space in our hearts just for him. A Tim-shaped space, as it turns out. A man who takes the boys camping, coaches their basketball teams and joins them in opposition to green leafy vegetables.

A few days ago, the boy says to me, “It would be so cool to be adopted.” He continues, “If you’re adopted, your parents love you, not because they have to, but because they want to.” He is touched by how remarkable it is to be loved by someone who has simply chosen to love you.

“That’s true,” I say, “Like Tim.”

He smiles. “Yes.”

The man who is here for the boy’s Dad stage.

Through a grace I cannot take credit for, as I do kale chips, the boy has a step-dad who loves and fathers him. Daddy would be happy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe places for hard and healing conversations.

Summer Rhythm

Summer is my least favorite season. I wilt in the heat and sunburn in about 17 minutes. While I love the feel of sand on my bare feet, I hate it everywhere else, especially in my eyes and the kids’ sandwiches and all over the dog. These are the days I wonder whether Los Angeles is really an ideal place for me to live.

To be terribly honest, I don’t do especially well with extended stretches of unstructured time. I have a fantasy that this summer will be gentle and easy, with time to read leisurely, take the kids to a bunch of movies, and spend relaxing hours on the beach. I envision playing board games or putting together a puzzle, or finally finishing that scrapbook. Maybe now I will have the time and energy to sort through old files and clear out the garage. I do not daydream about nagging my kids to do their summer reading, and I’m sure they exclude that particular element from their summer reveries as well, but it is regrettably present in our reality. Probably transitioning back to work wasn’t my best planning maneuver for a carefree June, July and August. The kids are all over the map, and their so-called schedules have hijacked the long, uninterrupted hours I had intended to use for, well, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I need a break from this summer vacation.

My experience of summer is a little like jazz music. Or maybe funk. I like jazz, but I’m not exactly an aficionado. My inner perfectionist control freak struggles; it is hard for that girl to settle into the unpredictable rhythms and find the groove. The pauses come in unexpected places, and it makes me uncomfortable. The beats bump along, a bit restless without a clear direction, featuring a little swing, some improvisation, a surprising joyous moment, and then, just about the time I’m feeling synchronized, it abruptly ends. The trick is to surrender to the moment, to relax into the unfamiliar. Not my forte.

The boys’ class schedules and book lists arrive, and I am a little excited, anticipating a new school year. I am also dismayed that my plans to accomplish something summerish haven’t quite come to fruition. Plus I have so much more nothing to do. Now my window of opportunity is closing, and I experience simultaneously a desire to speed up the clock and an impulse to whack the snooze button. I’m not sure whether I need Ativan or Adderall.

I want a cosmic pause. Isn’t that what summer is supposed to be?

My interlude comes in the form of an evening at the Hollywood Bowl. It is my absolute favorite summer activity and a compelling reason to live in Los Angeles. When I was a kid, my parents brought my sister and me to a night at the Hollywood Bowl almost every summer, complete with our picnic dinner and plaid blanket. We brought hot tea and dessert for intermission. Back then, our “seats” were on the grassy knoll at the very top of the amphitheater. Now there are actual benches in that area, and instead of sitting on the picnic blanket, I wrap it around my shoulders as the evening cools. I’ve had seats all over the Bowl; there are no bad seats in that place. I love it all, and I don’t even care who’s playing – classical, jazz, opera, rock, big band, and anything with fireworks, of course. Music, friends, a bottle of wine, the moon, a breeze and a marine layer rolling in. It’s what I love most about summertime.

Only once in 40 years have I been disappointed at the Hollywood Bowl. The program was Totally 80’s. I don’t know what politics must have been involved, but scheduling any band after the B-52’s demonstrates unfortunate planning. The energy level can only go down after Rock Lobster. I’m just saying.

But here’s one more reason I love the Bowl: it‘s Tim’s and my thing. Neither his first wife nor my first husband was all that enthusiastic about attending. But we love it. As we journey along the bumpy road that is our life together, we travel some familiar territory, and we explore new places together. We even subscribed to a jazz series this summer, and I like it more than I had thought. What I’ve come to appreciate about jazz is its openness to possibility. To something new and wonderful. A willingness to try something different. To see where it flows. I didn’t think I could do it, mostly because I didn’t want to. But here I am, improvising, falling into a different cadence, finding a harmony I could not have otherwise known.

UPS arrives at my doorstep to deliver the boys’ school books. I’m mildly relieved that summer’s end is approaching, but I am going to ignore those boxes for just a day or two more. Somehow I can relax, knowing that the familiar structure and productivity are just up ahead.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a musical evening, preferably outdoors.