Archive for August, 2009

Grey days

I’m zoned out most of the time. The world rifles by and I shuffle and bumble and stare at my shoes and don’t notice much of anything as weeks speed past.

But every so often I capture a sliver, the words “Forgive Me” spray painted on an overpass, the color of my eyes reflected in a window, Sally making peanut butter cookies with Eli in the kitchen.

A few nights ago, rooting around for a book on my night stand, I chanced upon a picture, under a pile of magazines and books, taken last autumn at the hospital. The whole family is in the photograph—Sally, Slade, Eli, and me—and I’m holding Slade, who’s wrinkled and weighs barely three pounds. It looks like we’re all smiling.

family NICU

 
The picture sent my head back, to those grey days, to the fluorescent lights in the hospital, to that tiny boy with the tubes and the sensors and the wires.

That was a tough time. Sally had lost all that blood and Slade was teetering and the leaves were dying and every day I had to walk past the nursery with the healthy babies and their proud relatives staring through the glass. Most days, I wanted to yell at those happy gawkers at the nursery. I wanted to punch their grinning mouths.

But looking at that picture the other night, I realized the anger and worry had dripped away and what remained of those grey days was longing. I drove Eli to preschool that fall, and we’d talk about monster trucks and soccer in the wagon. I found myself missing that as I gazed at that picture. I visited Slade every afternoon in the hospital, and I found myself missing that, too, the mystery of that wrinkled baby who I wanted so desperately to grow big like the babies in the nursery.

*******************

Last week, Slade started day care. I checked on him the first day, and when I poked my head in his room, he was sitting on a mat, gnawing on a rattle, drooling. He smiled at me. He kicked.

“How’s he faring?” I asked Miss Vicky, his day care provider.

“Great,” she said. “He’s a sweet boy.”

“How you doin’, boy?” I asked Slade.

“Ahhh-baa-baa,” he blabbered.

And then yesterday, Slade crawled for the first time. Eli had dropped a truck on the carpet, and Slade grunted and stretched out and scooted across the room to gum his brother’s toy. I yelled for Sally to come in, and as she watched him move across the floor, she cheered for Slade.

Then she looked at me. “And so it begins,” she said, almost ominously.

*******************

Monday, Eli started kindergarten. He lugged his oversized backpack down the stairs and all the way to his class without any help. “I’ve got it, Dad,” he told me.

Tuesday, in the school parking lot, he asked, “Dad, can I not hold your hand? I’ll be very careful.” I said he could.

Today, he walked without me by his side to his class. I watched at the doorway as he rolled his backpack down the hallway, shorter and thinner than the other children bobbing along. A few steps in, Eli turned around and waved. Then he moved straight and confidently away. He didn’t turn back again.

But I do. I keep turning back. I can’t seem to let go.

These boys are growing up, and they need to. They need to crawl. They need to go to school. They need to travel. They need to fall hard for a pretty girl.

And I need to let them walk down that hallway, but I know won’t be able to completely. Some part of me will always be there, watching Slade breathe in the hospital, catching Eli as he jumps into the cold lake, holding tightly to those grey days last fall.

Who pooped in the Cheerios?

This is reason number 3875 why I’m immature and uncool and probably unfit to be a parent: I think the word poop is funny. I slip it into conversation almost every day.

Take this morning. I made up a stupid song about poop making me happy. I thought it was witty, but Eli, who was eating Cheerios as I sang the song, disagreed.

“Dad, you shouldn’t say poop,” he admonished, eyebrow raised. “Poop is not a good word.”

“Good point,” I replied agreeably. “But it sure is fun to say. Poop. Poop. Poop.”

“Dad, please don’t say that. POOP IS A BAD WORD.”

“Okay, I’ll stop. Promise. Hey, you know what would be tasty in those Cheerios?”

“What?”

“Poop.”

A few minutes later. . .

Me: “Eli, it’s time to brush your teeth.”

Eli: “Why?”

“Because if you don’t, you’ll get cavities, and your teeth will turn black, and your breath will smell like poop.”

“Dad, I told you three times already. DO NOT SAY POOP.”

For the record, Eli had actually told me at least 10 times.

This rock star life we lead

This is 6:30 in the morning. Slade, who awoke at 5:00 to nurse, is on the bed, kicking and cooing.

“Oooh. Oooh, ” the nine month old says. “Oooh.”

Snurp, our cat who is dumber than a donut, has found his way to the bed, too. He’s curled up and purring in my armpit.

Eli shuffles into the bedroom and climbs on the bed.

“Dad, dad,” the five year old whispers. “Can I watch a cartoon?”

“Not now. Your mother and I are still sleeping,” I tell him.

A few minutes later, with Slade smacking, Snurp meowing, and Eli rolling around on the bed, I give up on sleep.

Christ.

It’s not even 7:00.

As I creak out of bed, Chuck, one of three dogs in the bedroom, rolls over on his back and his tail goes thump, thump, thump on the floor. Ella—a sweet and submissive Rottie mix we’re taking care of—goes “rrrrroohh,” her tail making happy circles. Snurp meows.

With Snurp strutting in front of us, his tail straight up in the air, I tote Slade into his room to change him. The dogs and Eli—thumb in mouth, favorite blanket in hand—follow behind. Every morning it’s the same, these friendly stalkers lurking close by as I wander from room to room.

I lug Slade downstairs, Snurp dashing ahead, the dogs clattering behind on the wood steps, Eli bringing up the rear.

I scoop up Snurp, drop him outside, and fill up his food bowl. That’s one down. A couple walks by on the street as I’m pouring cat food into the bowl. They wave. I wave back. I remember I’m wearing nothing but underwear. Hell.

I order Chuck and Wiley outside, and they slink through the door. That’s three down.

“Let’s go, Ella. I know you have some business to take care of, ” I command to the one remaining canine. Ella doesn’t budge. Damn. I plead, I coax, I offer treats, and finally, fed up, I grab Ella by the collar and drag her out. Ella pees on the floor as I slide her along the tile. That’s four down.

“Dad, I’m pretty sure Ella peed,” Eli shares, pointing at the yellow spots, trying to be helpful.

“Uh,” I grunt.

I clean up the mess. I turn on a cartoon. I toast bread for the boys. I make coffee. I sit, still in just my underwear, staring out the yard, unsure if it’s Wednesday or Thursday.

A few minutes later, Sally comes down the stairs.

“Thanks for letting me sleep in,” she says. “Hey, it smells like urine down here.”

*****************************

This is 11:30 that night. Slade is crying. I listen for a few minutes in the hall outside his room, hoping he’ll settle himself, but sniffles turn to wails turn to screams. So I go in.

“It’s okay, little dude,” I reassure him. “Mom and Dad and Eli are here.” He’s silent for a few seconds, then he screams again.

Hell.

I pick him up and carry him out of the room, accidentally kicking Chuck who is sacked out on the floor.

“Damn it, Chuck,” I mutter. “Move.” Chuck rolls over on his back. His tail thump, thump, thumps.

Holding the baby, the dogs and Snurp at my heels, I make my way down the stairs and outside to the deck.

I lie down on the plastic lounger with Slade sitting on my stomach. The evening is warm, the temperature in the 80’s, with a whiff of damp wind coming up the canyon off the lake. The baby and I stare up at the sky, me looking for shooting stars, Slade kicking and cooing.

“Oooh. Oooh. Ba-ba-ba,” he babbles.

“You’re right,” I reply. “It is a perfect evening.”

Chuck growls at something unseen, and the dogs explode into the yard, yipping and barking and eventually howling.

Slade goes, “Ooh. Aaaaaah.”

“You’re right. Those dogs are terrible, but they’re family, which means we have to love them anyway.”

We lounge outside for a few minutes, seeing exactly one meteor streak across the sky.

I shuffle back inside—the dogs and Snurp following again—and amble up the stairs with the boy. I put him back in bed.

As I walk into our dark bedroom, I bump into Wiley.

“Damn it,” I blurt out, and Wiley’s tail thump, thump, thumps.

About suffering they were never wrong

I keep thinking about this guy David, who I used to ride bikes with. David was gregarious, competitive, and confident. He smiled almost all the time.

David loved cycling. In winter, I’d meet David and a handful of other regular riders before sunrise at the Upper Crust Bakery. We’d slurp coffee, crunch on pastries, and talk bikes and races. As the sky greyed, we’d pedal through the cold city streets.

David, 10 years or so older than the rest of us, often struggled in the hills on the early part of the ride. But towards the end, where the route turned flat, he’d be out front, setting a 20-plus MPH pace, dropping all but the strongest riders.

I last pedaled through town with David sometime in early 2004. Fatherhood loomed that winter, and my priorities had shifted. Racing had stopped mattering much, and I couldn’t bring myself to get up at 5:30 on Tuesday for those hard rides.

I’d see David from time to time in the years that followed, going the other way on the greenbelt or in the parking lot at the start of a charity bike ride. I’d say hey, and he’d say hey back. I’m not sure if he even remembered my name.

Last month, David sold his well-loved bike, a Giant NRS he’d owned since the days of those early morning bakery rides, and unloaded his professional tool set.

A week or so later, he emailed his family and friends. “Life’s a beach,” he wrote.

On the local cycling message board, he posted the same words. Life’s a beach.

Then he drove his van to Port Aransas on the Texas coast, placed his wallet on the dashboard, stared at the sand and the waves, and committed suicide.

I have a hard time imagining that David, the man in his apartment alone, the cyclist selling off his well-cared for gear, the 50-something scheming to end his life. 

Last week, Sally and I loaded up the boys to go to Port Aransas for boogie boarding, fried fish eating, pool-side lounging, and late night talk with our old pals, the Tubres. As always, the trip ended too soon. We dig the beach life, its simple days of flip flops and iced beer and too much sun. We could float through the summer there.

I didn’t know of David’s fate then. I didn’t know that his van with the Bike Mojo sticker that I’d seen so many times had been towed off the beach the day before we walked onto that same sand. I didn’t know that David had gazed at the ocean in those final moments just as I would a few days later.

I wonder if, like me, he was awed by the Gulf, its vastness, its violence lurking inside its green water. He probably wasn’t.

My guess is that his insides were clouded and dim as winter as he stared at that Gulf that went all the way to the sky.

But I’d like to think that he got the power and beauty of that place that final morning, that he felt stilled and lucid as the light left his world. And I’d like to think that right now he’s on his Giant NRS, his body muscle and vein, grinding up a steep hill at the front of a wheezing group and smiling all the way to the podium.

That’s what I’d like to think.

But what I believe, what churns in my gut and sloshes in my head, is something entirely different.

Note: I wrote this a week or so ago, alone, late at night, in a strange mood. When I read it the next day, I hated it. I despised the tone, the maudlin narrative, the platitudes about suicide, pretty much all of it. And I wasn’t sure if I had the right to write about David, a guy I didn’t know in any meaningful way.

Today, I saw the post sitting as a draft, and I reread it. To be honest, I still didn’t like it, and I still wasn’t sure if I should share it, but I decided to click publish anyway. I’m not sure why. Maybe I just needed to get this story out and then move on.

Also, the title comes from a W.H. Auden poem on suffering called Musee des Beaux Arts. You probably knew that. You’re smart people, all four of you Bad Chemicals readers.