Never ‘Less Than,’ Thanks to You

It’s my father’s birthday today, and just before I fell asleep last night, I started thinking about my childhood and the way my father interacted with me. I realized that he is most likely responsible for me never having a feeling of being ‘less than’ simply because I was a girl. It’s important because it translated directly into who I am as a woman. 

The thing is, I took this for granted as a kid. I had no idea that some might feel there were things I couldn’t do, couldn’t handle, couldn’t attempt or succeed in because I was a girl. I had a glimpse into this mentality in elementary school, possibly in fourth or fifth grade, when we were in gym class – boys and girls – playing soccer. When one of the boys kicked the ball hard, and it flew mightily through the air, each of us excitedly anticipated where it might land or whether we could stop it with our head and push it further into the air toward a teammate. 

Suddenly, our gym teacher shouted, “Be careful! Duck, girls, the ball is coming your way!” I remember being incredulous that he wasn’t encouraging us to advance on the ball, but yet he seemed to feel that only the boys were capable of handling this rough play. He continued this behavior any time we shared the field with the boys, whether it was kickball or soccer. He somehow saw us as less than, less capable and not up to snuff with the boys. I’m sure, given his mindset, he thought he was protecting us rather than encouraging us to go toe-to-toe and give the game our all. 

My brother and I didn’t have a lot of household chores; I think my parents were both too much of perfectionists to settle for our efforts, but we did have yard work assigned to us. There was no distinction over whether a specific task was directed to my brother or me. We both learned to cut the lawn, push the dreaded lawn sweeper to capture the grass clippings, weed and trim around the shed and flower beds. One particular summer, our yard was overcome with dandelions and my father offered us a penny for each we upended. I don’t recall my brother’s outcome but I ambitiously acquired about three bucks that first week – what a bargain for my father, scoring the removal of at least 300 dandelions for a mere $3.

When we were old enough to drive, we were fortunate to be given cars, more than one actually over a few years. They weren’t new cars and often needed maintenance. Just like my brother, I learned to change a tire, change the oil, a bit about replacing spark plugs and belts, draining a radiator, and quite a bit about bodywork. I could sand, patch and paint a car part, even if I did so while holding sandpaper quite gingerly so I wouldn’t mess up my nail polish. 

I was never particularly athletic, but my father often threw a ball around in the yard with us, or played croquet or frisbee. He loved badminton and was quite clever in keeping the birdie aloft while beating me soundly game after game. It’s not surprising that this was one game I learned to love and became skilled in playing.

He taught me how to throw a football, but I didn’t have much finesse in catching the ball. One evening, he threw it soundly, and I almost caught it fully when it winged my middle finger, pushing the top half back hard. I started to cry and my father came over and looked at it, insisting it was fine. He wanted to keep playing. I was mad, equally as insistent my finger was broken and I wasn’t about to keep playing. I stomped off in a huff, and I don’t think I ever played again. We never had the injury checked either. Years later I learned there was a healed fracture in the knuckle, not surprising given that my once straight finger now had a bit of a tilt to the right. 

When I was in middle school, I got in a physical tussle with another girl. I don’t recall what the situation was that led to this, and it certainly wasn’t the type of behavior I participated in as a nerdy honor roll student. When our social studies teacher pulled the girl off of me, he had a look on his face I still can recall, as he said my name in disbelief, not quite able to register that I was engaged in a fistfight.

When I got home, my mother was horrified that, one, I was in a fight and, two, that I was a girl in a fight at school. She was not happy and said to just wait until my father got home and he heard about this. I waited upstairs in my room, dreading his arrival. I heard him come in the back door, listened to the rumble of voices as my mother relayed what had happened that day. When I came downstairs sometime later, my father was in our family room, and I slowly made my way over to him, bracing myself for what was to come. 

With the smallest of voice, I said, “Hi.” He looked up from his book and said, “I heard you got in a fight today.” I shook my head in assent. “Well, did you win?” he asked. I told him I didn’t think so, and that was that. Not another word. 

My father was a man of few words, and I know he thought actions spoke louder than words. I learned a lot simply by watching him along with the things he felt it was important to teach me.

The last fall of his life, he came with my mom to my house and took a look at the washer that giving me issues. I was in a tight spot financially at the time, with a sick husband and four growing kids. He told me to pick out a new washer and dryer and let my mom know how much they cost – it would be a gift from them. Of course, he didn’t phrase it that way. I think it was something like, “Get yourself new ones and tell your mother the cost.” The gift was implied. Typical. 

But then he walked around the basement looking at wiring and some of the pipes around the hot water tank and furnace. Some of the handles associated with the pipes weren’t in the right position, and he wondered who the hell had been touching them. He adjusted them and showed me exactly how they should be. Told me to keep an eye on them. There was some other advice, most of which I can’t recall now. That would be his last visit to my house. 

Not too long after, he had a seizure at his own home and was diagnosed within the day with a brain tumor. Five months later, he’d be gone. 

I’ve often credited my mother with giving me the strength by example, for how I’ve overcome great challenges and being able to maintain a sense of humor as I did. She deserves that credit. She was a tough cookie throughout most of her life and still is pretty strong, even as she declines at 91. 

My father, though, allowed me to believe that I was capable of anything. That I could fix broken things, take care of important stuff – my family, my home, my life, financial and legal matters, taxes and so much more – and that I was bright enough to figure things out, even when they seemed too complex to get a handle on. 

This evening, on his birthday, I celebrated his memory with my mom. We raised a glass of Prosecco in his honor as we looked at one of our favorite pictures of my father. She told me she wrote on her calendar, “I love you, Fred,” today and had a little cry – and how much she misses him every day. 

I do my best to honor him, to take care of my mom through her more challenging years, to take care of myself and my family, my home and my yard.

And while I’m still not much of a fan of yard work, I have come to love cutting the grass if only to embrace that incredible smell of a freshly mowed lawn. It takes me back to my childhood, and my father, in his cut-off jeans, often a bandana tied across his forehead to catch the sweat. He never wore a shirt when he cut the grass and maintained a reddish-brown tan all summer well into the fall as a result. That’s when I feel close to him, with grass clippings across my feet and sweat rolling down my face. I embrace the scent of the yard and somehow feel at peace. 

Happy birthday, Daddy – I’ll always be grateful to have been your girl. 

To John, on His Sixty-Seventh Birthday

Today you would have been 67 – and since it’s your birthday I’m taking a rare glimpse at what might have been. Given our mutual love of champagne, I’ll pop the next cork in your honor and enjoy a glass or two for you.

I can’t even imagine what you’d be like at this age, and yet I have a feeling you’d be so much more vibrant than what your last two decades allowed you to be. 

I bet you’d still be running; perhaps even have some personal bests to feel proud of. You probably would have wrapped up your career by now, and be reveling in retirement – obsessed with the yard and working on one project or another outdoors. I confess, no one would ever mistake our yard now for one that was maintained by a professional. It hasn’t looked that way since it had your care. 

We would have had a trip in the works this fall, maybe several in the year ahead. You always loved to travel and with more time to make plans, you would have been full of ideas of where to go next. Sometimes when I’m exploring someplace new, I can’t help but wonder what you would have thought. I keep thinking about going to Montana and know it’s an adventure you would have loved.

Mostly, I think about our kids. I’m so lucky with who they all turned out to be, especially after all that’s gone down. You, of course, would be crazy in love with all of them but you’d also really like who they are. They’re good people, but you knew that from the start. They’ve created good lives. You’d be amazed by all they’ve accomplished but, more important, grateful at how close they’ve remained, to each other and to me.

They would have such a good time with you, giving you a hard time, laughing at childhood stories and building new memories to share down the road. And, you’d still be telling them at the end of each day at Newfound Lake, as we all sat down for dinner, that it was time to reflect. You’d be excited to think we still go to your beloved lake.  

Newfound Lake, Hebron, New Hampshire

This family, you know, it’s grown so much. There’s been marriages, grandchildren and good relationships across the board. So many graduations, vacations, family dinners and holidays. You’ve missed so much, even when you were still physically here. 

I think back to Marissa and Justin’s wedding, 10 years ago now. Although you were in rough shape, you were able to grasp just how special the day was. I think about you dancing with her, bent almost in half, your daughter holding you up in a way that you once did for her so many years before. But your smile was so bright; you were beaming on the dance floor with your little girl. This was a moment you anticipated long ago, almost from the time she was a baby, and it’s one of the last times I knew you were really there, present in the moment and sure of what was unfolding around you. 

By the time Sean got married, you were there but in so many ways, you were not. When Michael got married you weren’t even well enough to be able to come, and it was easier not to focus on you not being there then to let it sink in exactly why you couldn’t be.  

And then there was Logan’s birth, a bit more than 5 years ago now. You knew what was up and while you were rapidly declining, thank god there are photos to still see the connection that sweet boy made with you. When he was a toddler, you wanted to hold him up high on one hand over your head, the way you did with each of our kids, and we had to gently discourage you away from that idea – you had no clue how precariously weak you now were and how dangerous that would have been. He delighted you and even when you weren’t quite there, you somehow became more lucid when you saw his little face. 

When Skyla arrived, it was too late. We put her in your arms and her presence didn’t register at all. Another much older man at your facility took special joy in seeing her that day and I kept transferring his reaction in my brain to somehow attribute it to you, all the while holding back tears. I knew how much you would have loved her.

Now you have two more grandchildren, who will never know you by more than the stories and photos from some time ago. They’ve only joined our family recently, fostered by Michael and Hannah, now to be legally their children early next year. You would have wept at the kids’ experience in their younger years and been so proud to see your son becoming their dad – and such a good one, too, even when it’s especially challenging.

I couldn’t help but think of you last weekend, watching him at the soccer field with his kids. He’s as patient as you were and right there when they needed him, just like you were once upon a time. I remember you working on Saturdays but taking a later shift so you could coach one of the kids’ soccer teams in the early morning hours, never caring that you’d be working until mid-evening as a result.

I see you every day in the kids. I see your physicality so much in Andrew. He’s running his first marathon in a little over a week, in your honor and your memory, as part of the Parkinson’s Foundation team, raising money to help find a cure for the illness that robbed you of so many years. Most of us are going out to Chicago to cheer him on, just like your family always did for you. I’m not even going to pretend it’s not going to be emotional. I’ll probably be a mess.

He’s been reading your old running journals, seeing how you used to train. He has a picture of you running next to his bed and on his fundraising page he said he’s getting to know more about you through his training. He’s beginning to understand some of what you experienced as he experiences it for himself. Unlike the others, Drew mostly knew you while you were sick, first the Parkinson’s and then Lewy Body Dementia. 

I see your love of travel in all the kids but especially in how Marissa has incorporated it into her kids’ lives. She loves the element of surprise, just as you did – you loved nothing better than surprising the kids with a weekend getaway – and she and Justin are already instilling the importance of family and fun into everything they do with their kids. No matter how hard or long Justin works, he’s always there for his kids – and is such a good dad. You’d love that about him.

Marissa carries on the traditions she loved best from growing up and you’d get such a kick out of her with her kids. She’s an incredible mother and still the most organized person in the world. I picture her teasing you a lot these days and you loving every minute of it. 

Michael has your love of yardwork, with projects in the works constantly. Sean’s a fairly new homeowner and discovering all kinds of outdoor work to take on. I can see you out in the boys’ yards with them, surveying what’s new and what still needs to be done, and volunteering to come give them a hand with whatever they have going on. You’d take so much pleasure in that, and I imagine you out on Sean’s deck when a project was through, the grill going and each of you with a beer, feeling good about what you accomplished that day. 

Your oldest son is a lot like you. He knew you the most and had you the longest. He took on so much responsibility for your well-being and was at your side, by himself, when you passed. Your illness changed all of us but perhaps Sean the most since he was on the brink of young adulthood, a time that should have been far more carefree, when your illness took such a grip. You somehow knew it, I think, and regretted it – regretted all of it, especially with regard to each of the kids. You’d be especially happy to see the lives our kids have created and the people they share them with. 

As for me, had you never gotten sick, I don’t know how much of my life would be as it is today. There are some things I believe would be true. We’d be married (39 years tomorrow) still. We’d be kickass grandparents together because we absolutely loved having our kids, and grandparenting is even better. I’d be a writer, but not necessarily in the same capacity I am now. 

There are so many things that I’ve done over the last 20 years; most were a direct result of doing anything I could to take care of my family and especially the kids – the decisions I made, the plans I created and the work I took on when I realized I was all our family had. 

Just as your illness defined what your life became, it defined who I would become, too. It allowed me to believe I was strong, tenacious and capable enough of handling whatever was to come and to take full advantage of the opportunities offered to me.

While it hasn’t always been easy — although so easy in comparison to what you went through — my life is good and I have far more blessings than I ever imagined. I’d trade any number of them, though, to wish you a happy birthday in person and be able to share this day with you, the kids and our ever-growing family. Man, you’d sure love them all.

When I think back, I don’t think of the hard times. I think about the beginning and the middle and the fun we had. We built a life, a family and had so many good times along the way. Life didn’t exactly bring us where we thought we might go, but we had some fun nevertheless and shared a lot of love throughout.

Happy 67th birthday, John—while you aren’t here with us any longer, you’re in our hearts every single day. Your memory will be eternal.



What Sustains Us

Broken heartOur family had an incredible loss a week ago when my son and his wife experienced a failed adoption, six weeks after a beautiful baby boy was placed in their arms, given their last name and told he would be theirs from that day forward.

What transpired since that first life-changing day resulted in the awakening of such love for this sweet boy and full-on immersive 24/7 parenting until they received word this past Tuesday that they would have to surrender their son to his birth parents. The details are not mine to share other than to say this has been beyond heartbreakingly painful for them to experience – and for all that love them (and the little boy we considered our family) to witness as well as to process our own grief and theirs.

Yet in spite of this pain, regardless of their loss, they have demonstrated such strength, such care for each other and such courage throughout. I am humbled by their determination to understand what they’ve been through, to find the best in each facet of their experience and to look to the future with such hope.

My son married into a family as close as his own – and what sustains all of us, and what I hope helped them most, is how quickly our families came together, both locally and from further away, to offer love, support and even a few laughs, knowing we can’t change what happened but we’ll all get through it together.

Every family has its share of hardships and its share of joy, and as much as we enjoy the best of times, I’ve seen my own family at its very best when the worst has happened. As we came together this past week, it felt very much like smaller pieces of a magnet finding their way to one solid structure again. We’re each powerful on our own but at our strongest when we’re together.

As our family has grown, inclusive now of several extended families, I am reminded of the love and care that has resulted for and from everyone within that ever-widening circle. We have little control over difficult circumstances that come our way but what sustains us each time is what we give to and receive from each other.

And for that, I am grateful.