You Thinking What I'm Thinking?

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Location: Vancouver, WA, United States

There are some things going on in this world that bother me ... that offend me ... that don't make sense, and never will. I dedicate this site to those who seek truth even where it is difficult to find, and who are willing to agree and disagree in principle, while steadfastly refusing to let irrelevant detail overshadow core truth.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Note to My Congressperson

There they go again, there in the sandbox, throwing sand up in the air … at each other, and crying. A scene familiar to all parents, right? What a mess. Where’d they learn to do that? We didn’t teach them. Don’t they know someone always gets hurt?
Except this time we’re not talking about the sandbox – but about our own congress. The behavior is the same; the outcome as well. Someone always gets hurt. Everyone is so driven to protect “their interests” that they overlook the common objective: What’s good for the country, for the people.
And what are we fighting about today? The economy, the debt ceiling. The Democrats want to tax the rich and save the poor. Republicans want to protect the rich and effectively place the burden on the middle class. And what about us, those that will ultimately be affected by all of this? Well, we’re either oblivious to the whole thing, going about our lives in the belief that there’s nothing we can do about it anyway; or, we're busily choosing sides, lining up behind whichever side we think will protect our position the best … keep the most money in our own pockets.
What a mess. Someone is going to get hurt. I’ve got something to say to you … Stop it! Look across the aisle – that person, “the opposition” that you spend so much time blaming didn’t create this mess any more than you did. You both inherited it, so blaming each other isn’t the way to solve the problem. In fact, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place.
The simple fact is that, as a country, we’ve spent more money than we’ve made for a very long time. If we were an individual or a corporation, we’d be on the brink of financial ruin. We cannot let this go on, and the political haggling and finger pointing makes us look ridiculous. We’re the most powerful, most affluent country on earth, and yet we behave like those children in the sand box. I am ashamed of this behavior, saddened because it’s telling me that our form of representative government is losing its grip on reality.

Now, you are some of the smartest people on the planet … our elected officials. Yet, you act so stupid! Worse, you treat us like we are stupid. For example, in a recent media presentation (don’t get me started on the media; we’ll save that for another discussion), there was a chart that looked something like this to explain why some advocate cutting Social Security and Medicare, “entitlements” they call them. The chart is supposed to represent the fraction of the federal budget allocated to these items and I don’t know whether these figures are real or not. But I am offended by this entire discussion – and its use to persuade us to go along with your reasoning. First, Medical and Social spending should not be considered a part of the general budget because they should not be funded by general revenues. Yet they are. Why? Because the money we’ve put into these programs through payroll deductions intended solely for them has been mismanaged and mishandled, the funds comingled with general funds. Some of that is my money, given over to the federal government in trust for my retirement. If private companies treated their pension funds the way our government has handled our social security, the executives would be imprisoned. We’ve heard for years that these social programs were in trouble; bankrupt. We’ve heard that they will not likely last and that our children might not be able to expect to have them, whether they continue to contribute to them or not. I call BS on that!
Let me give you an example, my facts derived from my last Social Security Statement, and official government document. Over 45 years, I (and my employers on my behalf), contributed slightly little more than $240,000 to Social Security. When I retired at age 66 in 2010, the Social Security Administration determined that they would pay me $2200/month. Assuming that my $240,000 didn’t, and won’t, earn any interest, my money on deposit would only last until I am 74. This is one of the reasons the system is bankrupt, because the money on deposit has not been increasing in value over time. And this does not consider the fact that the money has been used as part of the general fund.
In a bank, drawing simple end-of-year interest of 2%, the cumulative value of that when I retired would have been $317,000; at 5% $520,000, which means that my money would have lasted until I was 78 or 86, respectively. Invested in a mutual fund over the same 45 years would returning an average of 10% (way low, as far as I can determine), would have been worth $1,450,000, and I could have drawn $4,000 per month until I was 96 before it was tapped out.
Why do you target “the entitlements”? Well, first of all they are easy targets. Cutting Social Security by 10% could provide $73 billion/year or so with very little administrative effort; one program, one stroke of the pen. Likewise for Medicare/Medicaid. Yet, combined these two reductions would drop spending by less than $160 Billion/year.
I think President Obama is right about one thing. There is no short-term fix for the mess our government has gotten us into. Look at the chart, below (Source: White House office of Management and Budget). Our deficit spending for fiscal 2011 alone is $1.3 trillion. Excuse me! Wrong! I call BS.
Can we fix this mess in one fell swoop? I say nay, nay. There is no one thing that can be done that will accomplish that feat. Simply balancing the budget won’t reduce the debt, and we will forever be paying a quarter of a trillion dollars in service of that debt. This is going to hurt everyone, but it’s high time we realize that the cost of saving the world is too high for us to pay alone, the impact of raising the debt ceiling and borrowing more money is catastrophic!

This entire process has underscored a number of realities for us. Even doubling personal and corporate income taxes will only balance the budget at the current level of spending. We’ve got to curb the spending, stop the bleeding. To mention but a few:
  • $850 billion on military – this is NOT defense, this is an offense. We can’t afford to be the world’s protector on our own income.
  • There are huge tax loopholes – incentives to farmers to “not produce”, tax breaks for oil companies generating billions in profits, the rich paying less taxes as a percentage of their income than the middle class, etc. Yet fixing them alone will have minimal impact to the deficit, that's just wrong.
  • What is this “other discretionary” spending of a half-trillion dollars?
  • Even us old folks – while it’s wrong to reduce the income for which we have already paid, the money doesn’t exist. It has already been squandered. I’m not saying we pay the entire bill, but as a pro-rate reduction in spending, I’m afraid we have to face the music along with the rest of the programs.

So, what is the solution. I’ve an opinion, too.
Balance the Budget. Don’t spend more than we make. Duh!
  • Cut military spending by 60% 537 billion
  • Cut other discretionary spending by 40% 208 billion
  • Cut all mandatory spending by 10% 216 billion
  • Eliminate loopholes 120 billion (est)
  • Increase individual and corporate income taxes 15% 210 billion

That's a total of 1.291 trillion dollars

  • Accept the fact that we won’t be able to accomplish this in one year’s time, that it might take 2-5 years to get to this point, and that will require raising the debt ceiling until we do. But once we’re back on a balanced budget, make it unconstitutional to spend more than we make and treason to propose otherwise.

Ladies and gentlemen of the congress: Your predecessors have made a muck of it. This is hard. You took the job to represent us, and unless you’re complete idiots, you knew what you were getting into when you did so. Stop bickering. Stop trying to blame the other party. Stop throwing sand at each other. Now it’s up to you to fix it. I won’t like the fact that I’m going to have to live on less income and pay more taxes, in fact, I’m going to hate it. But unless I accept the fact and learn to live with it, financial ruin for my country is inevitable in my lifetime.
Do your job … or resign.
P.S. Oh, by the way. Those pensions you get. They should be cut in proportion to Social Security. Moreover, in any given year the budget doesn’t get balanced, they should be funded at $0.00!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jenni

Jenni wasn’t always the middle child, nor was it her defining circumstance; but, for a span of more than twenty years, that reality was the pea under her mattress. At first, she was too young to appreciate the advantage of being the youngest. Her brother’s birth less than two years later, forever robbed her of that opportunity. It wasn’t until a number of years after Janice died, that she finally and fully assumed her role as the elder. All the time in between had its moments.
By her reckoning, I was guilty of countless unfair practices directed toward her in her youth, playing the “too young” or “too old” cards at will, while her older sister and younger brother obtained the very prize or favor that she coveted at the time. I am certain it is exactly that parental conspiracy that she set out to correct when, years later she undertook a family of her own. Her solution was simple: she spawned four.
To say Jenni was willful, or even stubborn, is an unreasonable overstatement, but I have never met anyone with more determination to follow his or her own path, right or wrong, happy or sad, easy or difficult … than our “middle child,” and it has proven to be the seed of countless challenges in her life. I’m not really sure where she got it, although she has often told me, “Dad, I got two things from you that I’d return in a heartbeat: your legs and your bullheadedness.” OK, I’ll cop to one-out-of-two; the legs are too apparent to deny. The other would no doubt require years of therapy to which I’ll not likely succumb.
Early on, I knew life with Jenni would be interesting, a lifelong, “climb upon the hill of shale because it is there” kind of adventure. Beautiful and robust at birth, we also knew she would posses a physical strength to reckon with. Her mother had to give up nursing way earlier than planned because Jenni’s draw was just too painful. Fortunately any potential guilt was quickly assuaged, as Jenni took to the bottle without protest; and as I recall, “Baba” was her first word, although to her mother it sounded a lot more like “Mama.” In those days, it was still acceptable to lay a child to rest with a bottle of warm milk; and so we did. I’d always been an early riser, but in those days I was seldom the first to awaken. Invariably, we were jolted by the loud CLACK-CLACK-CLACK of her empty bottle careening around the room, punctuated immediately thereafter with a deafening, “BABA!” I’m sure her mother obliged her a few times, but my recollection stands firm: I was always the one who had to go find the discarded empty (once on the window sill, behind the blinds on the other side of the room; once firmly wedged behind the dresser beneath the same window), trudge downstairs to the frigid kitchen, refill and heat it to body temperature, and return it to Jenni’s smiling, eager face and outstretched arms. It seemed only moments after I crawled back into bed when the solitude was again shattered: CLACK-CLACK-CLACK … “BABA!”
In the entertainment business, they say one never wants to work with children or animals, for they always have a way of upstaging you. It is no different in life. One afternoon, some months before her third birthday, she tripped into the kitchen as I was chopping onions. Her eyes not quite to the level of the cutting board, she spied a large, uncut, brown-skinned onion awaiting its fate. “Apple,” she declared in eager anticipation that I would oblige her with a generous chunk.
“Sweetie, that’s not an apple; it’s an onion,” I cautioned.
“Apple!” she demanded.
“No, honey, really that’s not an apple. It is an onion. You won’t like it.”
“Apple … I want,” she persisted, as she raised her hands toward the immediate object of her desire. Then, it struck me; an opportunity to teach her a lesson and put a chink in the armor of her burgeoning tenacity. As I handed it to her, I gave her Mom a, “Psssst!” To her tiny little hands it was as if she were holding and preparing to take a bite out of a basketball. She drew it to her mouth, hiding most of her face, and bit down through the brown skin, deeply into the flesh of the onion-apple and began to chew with a relish we both expected would disappear momentarily. Her little face turned red, tears flushed her eyes, and yet this little dickens continued to chew, and swallow. Then she reached up, placed the onion back onto the cutting board, gave her Mom a glance, and looked me right in the eye. “Mmmmmm, good,” … and left the room. Child-1; Mom & Dad-0, a clear omen.
As young parents, our social lives seemed to revolve around our children. Gene was an attorney who lived in our building in student housing, attempting to garner enough science credits and exhibit sufficient commitment to be admitted to medical school and, like me, a working man, husband and father of young children. We’d just moved in and hadn’t met them as yet, and Jenni was the catalyst that wove the two families together. Gene and Molly had two sons, a new arrival, Greg, and Michael who was the same age as Jenni. Our family and theirs were inseparable for the next dozen years, but Jenni and Michael had a unique connection from the beginning. Early each morning, Jenni (actually, for some reason, in those years we called her “Neff” or “Neffer” – a name that stuck until many years later she insisted we refer to her as Jenni, with an “i”) would awaken before the rest of us, climb out of her crib, and quietly steal out of our apartment to go down to theirs, where the boys would let her in to play. Concerned that she might not always go to their house, or worse, and just short of installing a deadbolt, we made several attempts to thwart her early morning escapades. She foiled every one. She became such a regular to their early morning routine that they began to set a place for her at breakfast.
One weekday morning, Gene stepped out of the shower and there she was, blanket, stuffed rabbit and a grand smile, while he was … overexposed. His reaction was apparently quite entertaining, for it prompted her to return each morning thereafter in hopes of a repeat performance. His routine changed as well, for thereafter he kept a very large towel hanging over the stall, accessible prior to opening the shower door. From that day on Jenni’s routine was set, as soon as she received her morning greeting from Gene, she happily went out to visit the boys.
This one comes from the “parents, be careful what you say” folder, for we are all too often guilty overlooking the significance of formative moments in the lives of our children. After we all left UCI, we moved into a residential neighborhood near campus. Gene and his family moved in across the park. Our circle of friends expanded and our social engagements were invariably family oriented, typically beginning with a trek to the beach, games in the park, a barbeque, followed by the kids retiring to the rooms upstairs while the adults mixed it up over a game of canasta or, our favorite, Password. When the night was done, we’d go up to retrieve the kids from wherever they happened to fall asleep, often piled on one another on our bed in front of the TV … wherever; it was all truly innocent.
It wasn’t until many years later, during one of our many father-daughter heart-to-heart discussions that I learned about the day during that period, when Jenni, who in our opinion was still a bit young to understand the concept of where babies came from, none-the-less, asked “the Question.” As these things happen it must have been an inopportune time, I was clearly not giving the moment its due, and my response was so inane that even our five year-old saw through it.
“No, really, Dad, where do babies come from,” she persisted.
“Has Janice been talking to you?” I had a wary sense of having been set up.
“No. I just want to know. Where do babies come from … when boys and girls kiss?”
My mind clearly still hadn’t fully checked-in, and I didn’t give her curiosity its due, for I later learned that I sloughed her off with the following brain-dead response, “No, honey, they have to sleep together.” At the time, that seemed to appease her, for she left the room without another question. Little did I know that for months thereafter, she was certain that she was going to have a baby. It seems that our exchange was the morning after one of our family get-togethers, where she and Michael had fallen asleep “together” at the foot of our bed. For that I nominate myself: Bonehead Dad of the Year.
One can’t hardly help being amazed at the persistence of the young, especially considering their relatively short attention span to anything that we, as parents, consider important. How many times have we heard, “You can do anything if you set your mind to it?” Well, Jenni could have been the poster child for that campaign. On her fifth birthday, we presented her with a shiny new bicycle. Because student housing was spread among some rolling hills, I outfitted the bike with a sturdy set of training wheels … some assembly required … appendages to which Jenni took an immediate dislike. A ruckus ensued, and the wheels were reluctantly removed, but not before her Mother extracted a promise from me to commit the time it would take to teach her to ride safely.
Few moments passed, Jenni was adamant, so we took the bicycle outside to the road right next to the apartment, one un-traveled by automobiles except in emergencies; one with only the slightest of downgrade to provide a little momentum for her first riding lesson. Mom wisely stayed inside, safely behind the screen door. I held the bike by the back of her seat while she settled herself in for the first run. We began to move. She didn’t waver. We moved a little faster; she wobbled a bit and I was walking briskly.
“Let go,” she said.
Right. We picked up speed; I was running now.
“Let go,” she insisted, “Let me go!”
What’s a father to do? I let go and off she went … and down she went, accompanied by a barely muffled shriek from behind the screen door. I rushed over and stooped to extract her and the bike from the tangled clump they had become. I was rewarded by a look that could have stapled me to an oak tree, had there been one immediately behind me. The message was ab-so-lute-ly clear: back off! And so I did, watching from a safe distance at first and eventually joining her mother behind the screen.
I’ll never know what was going through her mind, what drove her that afternoon, but it must have been something like, “If Janice can ride one of these things, so can I.” We stopped counting the number of times she got back on that bicycle or the number of ways she managed to get dumped off, but it was at least two or three attempts each time she took it back to the top of the grade, often punctuated by an “Ouch” or silent tears, but always a return to the top of the hill. She was committed and nothing would deter her from riding that very day. We watched until couldn’t any more, but sat in the room listening in case something happened to which we might need to attend. On she went until, suddenly it dawned on us … not a sound; she wasn’t on the hill any more. It was quiet; way too quiet. Our worst thoughts consumed us as we rushed outside to find her riding the bicycle out in the parking lot, up and down. We were tingling as the wash of adrenalin began to dissipate and she was a mess; knees, elbows, hands … even a bump on her forehead - yet a huge smile consumed her face. It wasn’t until years later that bike riders began using helmets and other protective gear, but remembering how she looked, I certainly can understand why. And that brand new bike? It looked like a hand-me-down.
No one would have ever referred to Jenni as a Tomboy; she was quite feminine and almost always the young lady and unlike her sister, a pretty dress was invariably her preference. She did exhibit one propensity that is usually attributed to young boys, however, and that is whenever there was mischief to be done, she was always at the forefront of the action. I’m certain I’ve blocked out most of the calls we received from her grammar school over the years, but one in particular is indelibly imprinted. As the story unfolded, one day during recess she discovered a buried culvert near her school comprised of those five-to-six foot concrete cylinders placed end to end, stretching from the light of entry into total darkness. She proposed an immediate exploration of this newfound frontier, a trek into the unknown. She managed to convince a half-dozen or so of her male classmates to join her, but none of the girls. Those that she failed to convince to join the adventure immediately alleviated their shame by running to tell the tale to everyone they found on the playground. She was met at the other end of the tube by the principle of her school. Busted! Besides being a little torqued for being called out of a meeting over that one, and fortified by a snoot-full of Mom’s fears and concerns about the jaunt, that evening I half-heartedly launched into a father-daughter lecture on the potential dangers, fraught with nasty creatures, mosquitoes, potential diseases and more. Silently, of course, part of me was proud of her spirit, her sense of adventure, and her almost eager anticipation that she might really have encountered some of those nasty beasties I had so fearsomely described.
When Susan and I split up, she left the kids with me for nearly two years. Jenny was the most outwardly affected by Mom’s absence. Janice, barely ten at the time, grabbed the surrogate-mother role and left no part of it for Jenni to share. Perhaps that contributed to the strong bond that grew between her and Lawson over the next few years, a decidedly unbalanced triangle among them that remained pretty much intact until Janice’s death. Jenni and her sister found their moments of harmony, to be sure, but I always felt that it was something they both knew would grow as they matured into adulthood. With Janice's all to early transition, that expectation was never realized, and I often wonder if that had any effect on Jenni’s relationships with women since that time. Since I first wrote this paragraph, several years ago, I am pleased that her relationships with women and men are just fine and my concerns a distant memory.
It is said that life is a continual learning experience. In my opinion, parenting is one life-experience that could stand a little more preparation before undertaking. Being raised hardly gives us adequate experience to raise others and when the begetting begins we really don’t have much of a clue. It’s interesting that we do have some fairly strong opinions on the subject, like “I’ll never do unto them that which was done onto me.” Hardly the golden rule of parenting, it is never-the-less often the limit of forethought that we bring to bear on what is arguably the most important thing we will ever do. This, of course, brings up all kinds of thoughts about our purpose in life, our relationship to our God, one another and more. The cynic will point out that this one reality alone explains why so many are ill equipped as participants in life. I am constantly in awe at the power of Spirit that so many of us mortals turn out to be loving, caring and as giving as we are; that for the most part we dwell on the good rather than the bad; and that we expect good from one another, and are surprised when at times we fall short of that expectation.
On a scale of ten, I give us a six or seven as parents, but I honestly haven’t any idea what I would do differently, given another chance. If at times we were too permissive, Jenni was invariably the first to seize the moment, and she became an expert at working Mom vs. Dad. Perhaps she took compensation for being the middle child into her own hands, for she was always the one to wreck havoc with the rules, curfews, boys, sex, drinking and definitely her own version of the truth. We may never know the extent of her assault on life’s boundaries. Even now, as close as we are, I suspect it would be difficult for her to tell-all. Perhaps one day I’ll read about it in her own expose of our family, or she may take the prudent (read that, chicken) path and wait to publish until after Mom and I have checked-out. That she survived … that anyone survives the early double-digit years … is surely a proof-point that there is a benevolent force looking out for us all. If I had any hand in her getting through, or emerging any better for the experience, it was surely coincidental. That and her tremendous sense-of-self and love for us pulled her through.
I loved parenthood, but looking back from this point, I realize that one of its most rewarding aspects is when we all grow into being a parent of adult children; the unique bond that is built through raising them and then enjoying them as friends is indescribable. In fact, if one defines “best-friend” as one with whom you can and do share everything, without any fear of recrimination or judgment, where honesty and unconditional love are unbounded, then I would say Jenni is at the top of my list of very best friends. All jokes aside, I know I could tell her anything about me and it would not detract from her love or image of her old Dad; and the corollary to that is obviously true. I think the world of this person and nothing she has done or is capable of doing will ever dissuade me from that view.
One day, as Jenni and I were having one of our adult-friend talks that I’ve come to cherish, I shared an anecdote from work where I surprised to learn that some my employees were afraid of me.
“You know, Dad, that doesn’t surprise me. When we were growing up, we were all afraid of you.”
Stunned, I couldn’t respond; couldn’t relate. My children were afraid of me? Inconceivable! Time froze while I attempted to process that concept. Somehow the words finally found their way to my lips and dribbled out. “H-How is that possible? I never struck you. Don’t think I ever paddled you, or raised my voice to you.” I stammered. “Y-You were afraid … of me?”
“Yes … for years … all of us.”
“But why?” I was incredulous.
“Dad, … It was “the Look.”
OK, so maybe on that scale of 10 on parenting skills, mine were more like a four or five.
Jenni’s is a practical intellect to be reckoned with; that and her incredible gift of finding humor is almost every moment, are among her defining characteristics. They continually carry her through the twists and turns, potholes and roadblocks that life’s highway spreads before her. They have given her near-super-human endurance, incredible patience and emotional strength to seek and achieve equilibrium in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity and challenge. I know of no one that attracts these to themselves with such frequency or consistency as she, nor anyone who could weather them as well. Some of her challenges can easily be attributed to poor choices. Others, but not all, fall within a reasonable margin of chance, and the balance, well … one of faith could only envision that she is being tested, inexorably guided toward a purpose yet to be revealed.
Of our five children, all but Jenni have college degrees (a condition that has changed since this was first written; read on). Not because she’s less competent or intelligent, on the contrary, those qualities she has in full measure. But until recently, she’s always had a fairly full plate comprised mostly of family responsibilities. Right out of high school, she enrolled in Oregon State, aeronautical engineering if I’m not mistaken. Why that, one might ask; I did. Never got a real answer; she’d never shown any propensity to aeronautics or engineering. I think it was because she believed her Dad would be pleased. I wasn’t; but not for the reasons one might imagine. It simply wasn’t who she was; didn’t ring true.
Years later, when she was meeting with one of Miles’ high school counselors, surprisingly, she broached the subject of her own education. It must have been on her mind for some time, for she blurted it out before she realized what she was saying. Truth was, as a working mother of four boys, she’d become all too aware of the income limitations bearing on her. To support her family she wanted better; and for her own self-fulfillment, she wanted to create, contribute, … something more rewarding … to teach! So she asked if he knew of any programs and he recommended extraordinary one, designed specifically for working mothers and she was an ideal candidate. It seems the State of Washington is a bit more progressive than most other states, where bureaucrats there might have relegated her into the welfare system. In Washington, they look at the total picture and balance the cost-return of two alternatives: welfare, potentially for life vs. 3-4 years of education. Doing the math, it’s a no-brainer. The only question is why have so few states figured that one out?
She applied and was admitted into a program that provides for her education and sufficient living allowance that she needs only work as a supplement for the boys’ special needs. Four years later, she graduated with honors; and may one day go on for a master’s degree in literature or special education. That is who she is and whether she teaches or writes she will fulfill a handful of her dreams; a tribute to her tenacity.
Jenni’s string of questionable life-choices is best exemplified in her selection of men. Whether by drug addiction, alcoholism, lingering effects of parental abuse, or chronic mental malady, the men in her life always seemed to be her choice because of their fatal flaws rather than to spite them. That is, of course, with the exception of Andy, the present young man in her life. As is always the case, no amount of parental wisdom or warning would dissuade her from her choices. Even when, in desperation we ultimately succumbed to pointing out that each subsequent loser was a repeat of the previous one(s), it was always met with deaf ears or outright defiance, solidifying her determination; she invariably had the last word.
If determination was the catalyst in getting her into these relationships, it was also the force that nearly saved each one. Jenni is a nurturer and in every case she was determined to pull her beloved out of the private Hell into which he was mired.
Her first love was Paul and within a year of graduating from high school, they were married and an instant family of three. He was brilliant and talented, but equally troubled, the product of extraordinary parental abuse and drugs. As always with the young, love was surely the elixir to overcome all obstacles, eliminate all pain and resolve all conflict, and she believed love was their antidote for the issues he brought into their relationship. It might have been, had not a flaw of her own not poisoned the well; she refused to accept him as he was. She wanted more for him, more in keeping with his intellect and talent, and her ambition on his behalf. So she set about to change him, to make of him something that he just wasn’t ready to be; might never be ready to be. Frustration escalated; and when she believed his behavior threatened the well being of their son, she grabbed baby Miles and ran.
It seems that life’s great lessons are learned with difficulty, for we are invariably as blind to our own issues as we seem to be aware of the issues of those around us. It was inevitable for Jenni; repeating the pattern, she attempted two more similarly flawed relationships, believing that her love and her will to win could overcome any obstacles between them. In the end, she had to withdraw from each for self preservation, although one lasted ten mostly sober years; seemingly a testament to her tenacity and fortitude to make it work. In the end, his daemons were too powerful; she walked, now with four sons to care for, and an ex-husband who couldn’t care less.
In between a rocky start and the inevitable end, there were actually six or so years that gave us all hope that she (they) had finally won her duel with those daemons. The beginning was rocky and, in fact, Jenni was torn between two young men that wanted to take their relationship to the next level. One, John, was a solid young man with potential; the other, Kraig, a dashing man, older than she, who seemed to share her great sense of humor and outlook on life. John’s faults were less apparent, seemingly minor. Kraig’s were more apparent, in as much as he had a compulsion for beer. For months it was a tossup, so much so that when Jenni announced that she was engaged, we weren’t altogether sure which one would show up for the wedding. Our suspicions were confirmed, of course. In the end, Jenni’s need to nurture and heal, coupled with their common outlook made Kraig her next roller-coaster relationship. Miles was two and soon Austin was the first of the three sons out of their relationship; Levi and Sawyer followed in the next few years.
Shortly after Austin’s birth, Jenni had to make one of those, “do I dig-in … or run” decisions about her relationship with Kraig. His drinking had become pervasive. As it turns out it always was, but Kraig, like so many alcoholics, had learned to hide it extremely well by the time he got home at the end of the day. Each work day ended with one of his co-workers bringing out the cooler and sharing a few brew-skis; then a couple of them would go on to the sports pub or the “titty-bars” and with increasing frequency, Kraig was among the group that chose to stay out a little later. At this point, he either gave up trying to hide it or it had become so severe that he really didn’t care. They fought … she threatened to leave; ultimately she virtually dragged him into rehab and he stuck to it. He didn’t want to lose his family.
The result was a little more than six reasonably good years. They seemed to be truly happy. Kraig was a good Dad, and Jenni felt comfortable adding two more to the family. In many ways, Kraig was just one of the boys, the five of them going out to play basketball while she lovingly prepared the family meal. He left his job with the heavy equipment company, took some training and launched a new career as a medical technician with a clinic. His business skill emerged and he made a number of great contributions to the business, eventually taking on the role of their office and business manager as well. Life was good … if only temporarily so.
In retrospect, this time was more a testament to Kraig’s skill of deception and Jenni’s blindness to reality, but the few times we knew about Kraig falling-off-the-wagon were always explained away by one of them, with little apparent long term concern. Second hand, we noticed the frequency and severity of the incidents begin to rise; still they stuck together. As usual, it required a significant family crisis to force Jenni to face the truth. Austin had begun to exhibit some personality issues that demanded attention. As the reality and extent of his condition, later diagnosed as an early onset of schizophrenia, was realized Jenni found herself standing alone; Kraig had returned to full-out commitment to his alcoholism. He couldn’t cope with the gravity of the situation. His sister had suffered the same affliction and it, in combination with her drug addiction, eventually led to her suicide. Deniability was Kraig’s only defense to repeating the potential loss of a loved one; what better way than to drown his problem in beer? This wasn’t exactly the impetus that knocked him off the wagon, but rather the catalyst that diminished his ability or desire to hide it from Jenni and the rest of us. I don’t fully understand the human mechanism here, but in my most acute judgmental mode it appeared that it was easier to be openly an alcoholic than to take any responsibility for his son’s affliction.
At first, Jenni was so focused on what she could do for Austin, that she was blind to, or simply ignored Kraig’s indiscretions. She was angry, but didn’t have sufficient emotional energy to spend on Kraig, so she put it in a compartment for future attention. When it was time, she dug-in. She wanted it to work, and she felt she’d defeated the daemons once before, why couldn’t she do so again. Counseling ensued; or an unreasonable imitation of counseling, for Kraig wasn’t a consistent participant; the timing was never just right. Eventually, the effect of the alcohol spilled over into his ability to do his job and, after several warnings, he was fired. Jenni finally gave up, deciding if she was to be a single mom, it was better to do so just with her four sons than to be mother her alcoholic husband as well.
She went to work – doing what she could to keep income flowing in; she has many talents, painting (decorative painting, that is), personal organization … she even undertook cleaning houses for friends in her small community. They managed to stay afloat, somehow meeting their monthly obligations and began paying off some of the debts Kraig had built up in the process. As for him, his abandonment was absolute and final.
She must have felt she needed an exit strategy, an older champion, a friend, maybe someone to focus her affection, so she glommed onto one of the peripheral men in her life, the husband of a close friend. An all too familiar story, emotional venting with a friend transformed into need, then into passion and before they were aware of it, they were both in too deep. They’d gone too far. Worse, another “close friend” to whom Jenni had confided all, took it upon herself to brand Jenni with the scarlet letter, and in their small town people quickly began to choose sides; and most chose the side of the offended, rather than the offender. The formation was rather more like a circle of predators forming around the prey, for it seemed Jenni stood alone, even from her closest friends until months later when it was safe to talk to her again. Her partner in the affair apparently had a history of such liaisons, claimed the role of the victim, and was forgiven and absorbed back into the community with little further ado. Fortunately, Kraig’s attempts to brand this event as the cause of their demise were pretty much ignored; he was pretty much ignored. And while he was irrelevant, Jenni was fodder for great community gossip for months. Jenni stood painfully alone, resolute in the belief that time would heal and her relationships would return … at least those that were true. That reality unfolded a number of months later, however the tragic fallout of this time would not manifest for nearly a year.
Initially, her focus was on Austin, who now was ten. It seems that the medical community is loath to label schizophrenia in one so young and she had a bureaucratic battle on her hands. There was no insurance, a fallout of Kraig’s no longer working. Without formal diagnosis, she couldn’t get any support from the state; without support from the state the tsunami of medical and psychiatric expenses threatened to engulf them. Nor could she get him onto proper medication … at any price. The medical community officially stonewalled her, thwarting all requests to label the illness for what it was. Yet doctors and psychiatrists confessed privately what they sincerely believed it to be, yet remained unwilling to step up to a formal diagnosis. It took months and she must have spoken to everyone in the state who knew anything about schizophrenia, its treatment in the State of Washington and any possible source of support. Finally, her amazing determination paid off. Eventually she managed to wheedle the diagnosis they so desperately needed to get him the financial support and treatment to reach as much of an equilibrium as that this insidious ailment will allow.
Frankly, with the state of our medical research, the fact that we can replace nearly any organ in the body with reasonable life expectancy, it is shocking how little we seem to know about schizophrenia, or how to treat it. We spend billions seeking cures for heart disease, stroke and aids because, presumably because we fear any of them might invade our own lives one day, but remain in denial and spend comparatively little on diseases of the mind. The simple truth remains, mental illness is on the rise; a sleeper quietly growing in our presence while our attention is drawn to the more fearsome ailments of our time.
Having secured the diagnosis they so desperately needed, they began getting the required level of attention from mental health professionals in Washington. Medication carefully prescribed and administered, and regular visits to his doctors have provided much need stability; and the rate at which he was moving toward complete submission to this awful disease has been reduced to the point where he will be able to live with his family for a few more years. Eventually he will have to be schooled at home, perhaps even be institutionalized … but not before Jenni has exhausted every other, even wildly remote alternative to give him as normal a life as possible. Today he is a loving young man, very dramatic and remains a vital part of their family.
One parental lesson I have learned along the way, is that children are most comfortable when they can reach out and touch the boundaries we provide for them. Rules and taboos should be clearly defined, and the boundaries should not compress, but rather be sufficiently close to reach, allowing children the opportunity to continually test the limits. One of our parental responsibilities as they mature is to gradually relax the perimeter, expanding the barriers to accommodate their curiosity and propensity to experience life as it enfolds before them. Jenni believes in giving her sons as much latitude as they can handle, and as grandparents, we are continually amazed at her capacity to deal with those all-to-frequent, yet always unexpected, events that accompany raising children.
One day Jenni and her first-born, Miles who was a few months old, came to visit. We were having lunch in a very nice Italian restaurant near our home. Miles was next to her in the booth, content in his car-seat. We were enjoying the moment, catching one-another up with our respective lives. When Miles began to fuss, she picked him up; holding him over her shoulder, patting his back to provide comfort. As I remember, she was wearing a white sweater with random shapes of varying colors: beet red, celery green, ice blue and mustard yellow. Shortly after shouldering her son, one of the mustard shapes began a surrealistic expansion, migrating down her sweater. Miles’ diaper had let-down on the job. Amazingly, Jenni’s reaction to being doused in baby-kaka was merely, “This is interesting.” Then, she handed her son across the table to grandpa, “Do you mind, I’ve got to go clean up.” I learned something very interesting that day, as I carried miles to the men’s room to clean him – holding him a near-arms-length in front of me so as to not suffer the same fate she had. Infants in hand are even better than puppies; women apparently cannot resist coming to the aid of a man with a baby. I must have had half-a-dozen offers of help from young ladies in the restaurant as I weaved through the tables toward the men’s room. Hmm, note to self; new business opportunity, “Rent-a-baby”; target market: single men looking for an edge in the dating scene.
Miles incorporated an extensive vocabulary at a very young age, but not all elements were socially acceptable for his age. There was the time when he was barely able to string sentences together, on a warm afternoon he was riding in his car seat behind his mother, who was driving. I was “riding shotgun” in the right-front seat. The serenity was broken by a rude lady in a huge station wagon who pulled out in front of us, causing Jenni to take immediate and considerable evasive action. The screeching of tires and adrenalin rush was accompanied by the indignant lady screaming something in our direction and punctuating her point with the middle finger salute. Jenni handled it beautifully. Unflustered, with a quick look in the rear-view mirror to be certain Miles was OK, she continued our trek without further response. Moments later, the silence was cut by the tiniest of voices; the single word, “Bitch.” We gagged, stifling laughter while we absorbed that one.
Then Jenni said, “I wonder where he got that?”
Hmmm.
Through his early school years, Miles was a model student. Quiet, even to a fault, he never imposed himself onto the rest of the group. Well, almost never. One afternoon during his fifth school year, Miles came home from school and broke with his usual pattern of family greeting and snack time; in fact he immediately ran up to his room and closed the door. Sensing trouble, Jenni went up to investigate and found him very upset. He had been chastised by his teacher and didn’t understand why. He was so upset Jenni couldn’t get him to talk about it. Knowing his teacher well, Jenni made a call to see what light she could she shine on the situation.
Apparently his class was on a school outing to a local museum, a wild-west theme and apparently the group wasn’t moving past a special exhibit quickly enough for Miles to get a view. In spite of the teachers words that quiet was important, and in spite of the fact that Miles rarely spoke up, in a distinctly western drawl, his voice was from the back of the line, “Get along, there, ya li’l bastards.” His teacher’s reaction put him into a five hour funk. When Jenni finally got him to talk, she asked him, “Where’d you get that phrase? I don’t think we’ve ever used that word.”
He said, “John Wayne used it in a movie the other night.”
Jenni remembered the movie and the scene well enough to say that she didn’t think he’d used that particular word. Sensing that Miles had combined two independent thoughts into the phrase, she asked if he knew the meaning of the word. He said, from the context of the movie, that it meant little cows … calves. I’m not sure, but I’d bet it’s a word he’s never used since.
We always knew Miles had special gifts, one might say he is precocious. He has a blend of his father and mother’s intellect, and a healthy dose of curiosity. When he took interest in something, he was absorbed until he taught himself how to do it; like playing a guitar. At an early age he picked up on complex games, playing a formidable game of chess by the time he was five. Like many gifted children, however, his passion for topics waned as quickly as they appeared. His intellect matured far more quickly than he did; a fact that soon spelled trouble for him. For many years his desire to please carried him in school and his grades held until early adolescence. Like his Dad, school was easy for Miles; later trivial, so much so, that he gave up. Miles tried to explain the difficulties he was experiencing, but those explanations were always confrontational, invariably the fault of his mother, or the system. He lost interest in school completely; tended to be a loner or limited himself to a small handful of friends who were also facing similar challenges. His mother tried desperately to stay the course, get him through high school at least, to a point where the rest of him might reach a level of maturity that he could survive.
As Miles grew into his teenage years, his persona solidified. Separate from all but a handful of his peers by his keen intelligence, he began to separate from them socially as well as academically. An avid reader, his choice of reading material was unique; separatist, morose, bordering on the drop-out cultures of time 40 years previous. His circle of friends dwindled to three, all of a similar mind, and with greater influence on Miles demeanor than they should; what they discussed, he began to act out. As a couple of them were being home-schooled, he began to declare his disdain for his schoolwork to the point of out-and-out willfulness. His nearly perfect grades plummeted.
Although Jenni was nearly consumed with Austin’s well being, Miles’ difficulties rose to the point that required more of her attention. Rather than split her energy away from Austin, somehow she dug in and found incremental focus for Miles. In descending order of ferocity, his anger appeared to be directed at her, at the divorce, school, society and even some at the new man in her life, Andy. She focused and he rallied somewhat. Having been unsuccessful at convincing her to let him drop out of school, he created a series of incidents that made his continued attendance there no longer possible. She found an alternate school, presumably for children with learning disabilities, coincidentally where the two teachers were trained for gifted children as well. They crafted a self-study program for him and in his way, he took to it beautifully. He churned through semester long courses in English, math and science in a matter of a few days. He was apparently so pleased with the arrangement he took on odd-jobs to pay the $30 or so for materials for each new course.
Unaware of the depth of his malaise, Jenni believed they had gotten him over the hurdles and that the momentum thus begun and his own not inconsiderable intelligence would carry him forward. To be sure there were inklings of the drop-out kid, bursts of anger, isolation from his brothers …, but for the most part he seemed to have stabilized. In fact things seemed to be going along fairly well for them all … until one very dark day.
Andy was taking the family to a movie and dinner and, as they were departing, Miles said he had some things to do. It seemed reasonable and they agreed to bring his dinner home after their night out. The movie was great, but for some unknown reason they decided not to go out to dinner, but go home for one of Jenni’s creations instead. Had they not made that decision, Miles would have died that night, for he acted out one of the scenarios that he and his friends had often discussed: suicide. He gathered every pill bottle he could find, consumed their contents and crawled into the bathtub for what he thought would be his final rest. His daemons had gotten the best of him; he could no longer hold them at bay. The world was out-of-sync and its crossroads all seemed to be upon his back. The divorce, the focus on his brother’s affliction, inadequate schooling, kids at school openly talking about his Mom, … are only the daemons that appeared at the surface; bolstered so many that may never be revealed.
They rushed him to the hospital and his body recovered, but it took months of in and outpatient treatment to normalize him. Long drives to the hospital, meetings with him and his counselors, misunderstandings, out-and-out disagreements, were the daily routine for Jenni; Andy and the younger boys were pretty much left to their own resources for a while.
Miles finally stabilized and returned to school. He’s got onto regular medication not unlike Austin’s, and the only visible vestige of the drop-out kid was a five-hundred-plus link paper-chain that he crafted and draped around his room. Each link of the chain was a day between the present and when he would turn eighteen, when he and his friends planed to leave home to meet the world head-on. College was not part of their plan. Each day he tore off one more link.
Miles spent the ensuing years tearing links from the chain, but as he neared the end, his maturity level had begun to approach that of his mental acuity. He had decided that college was something worth a go, and enrolled in school. He ultimately tried a very special school near Olympia, called Evergreen, and would be there today had it not been for a young lady nearer to home. He moved back in with his family, works and continues to pick away at his educational requirements, believing now that his future might involve working in film making, writing, etc.
Jenni lived with the daily fear that Miles may delve back into darkness at any time; even now that fear is not far from the surface. Resolved that she must never again be so blind to his mood and temperament, she now got more involved in his life as he in return is more involved with hers. Even as the fear subsides a little each day, she acknowledges that it will always remain a part of her; her edge, another facet of this beautiful, complex middle child of ours.
How often have we shared events with our children where we wish we could retract our instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to something they said or did, even as it was being played out? Jenni seems to have had fewer of these moments than most Mothers. She has always been able to process the moment without imposing her own agenda. One day, as we were enjoying one of our frequent catch-up phone calls, I could hear quite a commotion growing in the background. The thread of our conversation was periodically interrupted by Jenni’s narration of the events being played out on her kitchen floor. The two youngest, Levi and Sawyer, having gained Mother’s silent consent to share a portion of mini-marshmallows, were having difficulty determining who should open the bag. The pace of our conversation dwindled as Jenni’s attention was drawn to the mounting confrontation. Levi, older and ostensibly more experienced in these things was most anxious for his treat, and impatient with the younger Sawyer’s seemingly futile attempt to open the bag. When he tried to snatch it from his brother’s hands to open it himself, a battle erupted. Voices rose in the background as attention refocused from the imminent snack to who would be opening the bag. Jenni tried to stay on point; but clearly the scene had diverted her attention from our conversation. Louder and louder was the din over the phone until suddenly … all was silent. Moments later, “This is interesting,” that phrase from Jenni again. “What is interesting,” I was eager to know. It seems the bag could no longer withstand the battle being waged and an explosion of mini-marshmallows rained down into the kitchen. The boys were paralyzed in anticipation of Momma’s reaction and, when they received “the look” (she apparently had gotten that from her father), they knew exactly what it meant. Our conversation picked up from where it had been dropped without further interruption.
All of the boys loved their father-friend and, even though they were all old enough to see that he was becoming less involved in their lives, they were none-the-less remarkably forgiving when he did find the time to participate. The effect of his departure manifested in very different ways among them. Austin was outwardly angry. Miles internalized his anger and masked it with seeming indifference. Sawyer, the youngest rolled with flow, pausing less than the others pay heed to the loss. Levi was the one whose pain was most apparent.
At a very early age, Levi bonded to his Dad, and tried to be a part of everything Kraig did around the house. Later, Levis’ intellect blossomed even to the extent of his brother, Miles, but there were signs of its potential that popped up even in his infancy. Jenni narrated such a moment over the phone one day. It was just before Levi’s second birthday, I remember that because one of Jenni’s comments during this call was, “He’s won’t be two until next week!” Kraig was under their car with his tray of hand tools, wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers, et al, attempting to extract a few hundred more miles from it. Levi right there with him, on his back, looking up into the undercarriage of the family car. Moreover, somehow he’d managed to wedge himself into the space between Kraig and the tool tray. Kraig couldn’t reach his tools.
Now I’d mentioned that Kraig had an advanced sense of humor, and at this moment his mind switched to an operating room: Kraig the surgeon, Levi the surgical nurse. Extending the metaphor beyond the point of credibility, Dr. Kraig said, “Crescent wrench.” Nurse Levi rolled over, picked up the crescent wrench and handed it to Dad. Blew him away! “No way,” thought Kraig as he handed Levi the screwdriver he’d been using. It went back into the tray.
Moments later, Dr. Kraig said, “Flashlight.” Again, it was produced with little delay. “This isn’t happening,” he’s thinking. So he steps up the demands, pressing the moment.
“Hammer.” That one was a bit more difficult for the tyke, for not only was it heavier than the other tools, it was awkward; all the weight at one end. None-the-less, the hammer was produced. “Jenni will not believe this.”
Truthfully, he didn’t get them all right the first time, but when Kraig showed him which tool he wanted, it was indelibly imprinted and he never erred again. Even more amazing, Levi stayed with him until the job was done.
Kraig loved basketball, playing and watching; and he was loyal to his beloved Portland Trailblazers. Often the boys would join him to watch their favorite team on television. One by one, they would soon lose interest in the game, slipping away back to other interests more typical of their age … except Levi. If Dad was there, Levi was there and atypical of 2-3 year-olds, he watched the game till the end. Later that concentration would spill over into other activities as well.
As soon as he was able to read, Levi used his new-found skill to advantage. As most youngsters, he had an imaginative curiosity. Jenni and Kraig always tried to answer his questions, but there were times when they didn’t have time, or their answer to the question of the moment was … insufficient … so Jenni introduced him to the wonder called the encyclopedia. And soon thereafter, the internet. Today, the lad can match swords with almost anyone on many topics; dinosaurs and basketball top the list. At nine, Levi can hold his own on the subject of basketball stats with his uncle Tommy, the family sports fanatic.
During a parent-teacher night, Levi’s second-grade teacher was demonstrating one of their reading activities. In the center of the room she had gathered eight or so of her students into a reading circle, and was reading to them from a book entitled, “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.” She red the title, showed the cover of the book and, before she began to read, asked a typical question of her students, “What do you suppose the title means?” Hands shot up, Levi’s among them.
She selected one of her bright young students, who responded, “There are lots of animals in the dark?”
“Good answer. Yes there are. Anyone else,” she continued.
Another shared, without being chosen, “Animals can see better in the dark than we can.”
“Yes, that’s true. Thank, you. But you must remember to wait until you’re chosen.” Then, “Levi, what do you think it means?
Levi, answered quite firmly, “Forest animals are nocturnal.”
Jenni elbowed the guy next to her with pride, “That’s my son!”
His response, barely audible, “I’m not sure what nocturnal means.”
In all, Levi is more comfortable with his gifts than Miles, and it is never an issue between him and his friends. Unassuming, he enjoys an active and full social life with his age group. Jenni’s plan is to allow him to grow at his own pace; there’s plenty of time to be an adult. Childhood should be savored, relished … celebrated.
Sawyer is the salesman, the communicator ... the politician ... and the comedian. Words are his friend, and he absorbs them readily – to be used at some future time – almost always with the same effect, “Where’d he get that?” The frequency of these is such that they’ve affectionately become known as ‘Sawyer-isms.’
Before he started in school it became apparent that he had some difficulty with his eyes. His frequent squinting and difficulty reading told the tale. So, Jenni took him in for the eye exam and he was fitted with a pair of glasses. Whether he got this from someone before the glasses, from the doctor who treated him or elsewhere, we were blown away one evening shortly thereafter when one of his Mom & Dad’s friends came by and, noticing the glasses, asked, “Sawyer, what have you got there?”
“Chick-magnets,” was the reply along with his signature smile.
Atypical of young boys his age, when you ask Sawyer, you get an answer. Even when he’s shy, he may begin with, “I don’t know.” But before you can process that one, he follows with something like, “But come to think of it, …,” as his thoughts are formed and converted into words.
Many young boys have a crush on one of their early grade-school teachers, and Sawyer is no exception. His kindergarten teacher (the same one that had Levi a couple of years before) was the one for Sawyer. From early toddler stage, Sawyer and Levi were nearly inseparable, so a few years later, having to stay at home while Levi went to school each day drove him loony. When the time came, he was thrilled to be going to school with his older brother. Unfortunately, his class got out before lunch; Levi’s not until just past 2 in the afternoon, which meant that Sawyer had to go to the day-care more than two hours before his brother. That was unacceptable. He had to find a way to stick around until Levi’s class got out.
It’s not clear whether he actually devised this scheme or whether it sort of took shape as he went along, but it exemplifies the way Sawyer’s mind works. Sawyer suggested to his beloved teacher that he be allowed to stay and have lunch with Levi. Her response was that no kindergarteners could have lunch with the other kids without supervision. Mid-morning the next day, Sawyer invited his teacher to lunch. She deferred. He persisted … over several days, each time with a more compelling reason than the day before. Apparently one of the days each week, Levi’s class let out an hour early, and on that day a week later, she finally relented, suggesting that they try it for just one day, after which he could come back to her afternoon kindergarten class for an hour until Levi’s class was released. Her account, shared near the end of the semester, was that it was actually a delightful visit. Sawyer was communicative across a fairly broad set of topics and seemed to have little interest in running off to play with his brother and the older kids.
“He was absolutely charming,” she recounted.
Later, after his hour in her afternoon class, she walked him over to Levi’s room just as the bell rang and, as he parted, he thanked her for lunch, … then just as she turned to go back to her room, he added, “Same time next week?” She’d been caught in his web and it took several “delightful lunches” to comfortably get out of the weekly routine.
As a child, my least favorite gift from my grandparents was the inevitable check that came with a birthday or Christmas greeting card. It probably wasn’t until much later that I began to label that practice as un-thoughtful, but my immediate annoyance was that as a child I couldn’t cash that check and experience had already told me that it would take months to get my Mom around to doing it for me. Only now, as a grandparent, do I understand how difficult it is to buy just the right toy or clothing for a relative, removed by time and geography. We don’t quite resort to checks and, fortunately, Jenni doesn’t have the same refined skills of procrastination that my mother had developed, so we found what we think is an excellent compromise: the Toys-R-Us gift card. The day after Christmas a few years back, Sawyer was five and true-to-form he was the one who announced that Toys-R-Us was officially open for their shopping pleasure. We bundled up and traipsed off so the four boys could do their respective treasure hunting with their gift cards.
As it happens, Sawyer had gathered his booty much more quickly than the others and grew impatient that they weren’t ready to check-out. Cranky and tired of waiting, he climbed up into the shopping cart as we followed them from department to department. None-too-soon for Sawyer, they made their final decisions and we collectively moved to the checkout stand. As we got close to the register, Sawyer stood up in his basket, pulled his card from his jeans pocket and announced in a voice for all to hear, “Charge it!” All eyes turned to Mom.
“I don’t know where he gets these things!” Sawyerisms.
Being the parent of adult children is an endless source joy and pride; the pot at the end of the rainbow. While the sense of responsibility never completely vanishes and they’ve established their own lives and begin making decisions for the good of their own families, there comes a point in time when it dawns on us: the relationship has forever changed. From the time they’re born until they are ready to leave seems a mere heartbeat and we rue their inevitable metamorphosis, wishing they would remain at this stage or that … forever. If we only could foresee the reward at the end of the “e-ticket ride” that is their childhood; that as adults they will become our best friends.
What drives us to this all-to-human condition that precludes us from leaving well enough alone; preventing us from simply enjoying, even celebrating the wonder that each person brings into our lives, without feeling that we have to somehow improve them? I’ve done it; everyone I know does, to an extent that grows in proportion to how close they are to us. The m-factor (“m” for meddling”) seems to have little to do with intelligence; I know a number of very smart meddlers. Awareness obviously has little to do with it, for I’ve reminded uncountable meddlers that they’d crossed the line in my lifetime … to no avail. Does it have to do with our relationship with our parents, positive or negative? Why, for example, do we seem to want our loved ones to be perfect? Do we transfer our own desire for perfection to those we hold dear? Is it a function of self-confidence; any correlation between low self-esteem and a high propensity to want to fix others? All of the above? … none? Surely, someone has done a study on this.
As for my own meddling in the lives of my children, Jenni is my litmus test, that and her own candor about her behavior with the men in her life have been a factor in our deep friendship and trust. In this, she is an enigma, known to meddle a great deal in the men she loves and yet hardly at all in the day-to-day lives of her boys.
There have been innumerable times when my judgmental side told me that Jenni was too this or too that with her sons. After all that’s what parents do, observe and judge their own children way too much. But I’ve always tried to hold my thoughts to myself in an effort to observe the moment in context of the big picture. I believe she keeps an incredible balance between tight leash and freedom to explore, letting them expand their horizons but at the same time always touch and feel those boundaries. Except in situations where putting themselves directly in harms way, I’d say she left them to learn life’s lessons for themselves, save for the rare, “I might have done that differently,” or “I would do that differently.” No so for the men in her life, for she was on a mission in just about every relationship that took “stand by your man” to a whole new level to “edify your man.”
Now there is Andy. Younger than she by a few years, he still exhibits some young behavior in their relationship. But as for the boys, he is surprisingly patient. In fact, when he first met Jenni, he told her that as a teenager he’d had a premonition that one day he would be the “parent” to four boys that weren’t his. Wow. To a single mother of four boys, wondering by what miracle she might ever be in a relationship again, at least until they grew up, pretty well resigned to the fact that she wouldn’t and even being OK with that fact – these words must have sounded surreal.
For the most part, what Andy does best is to let Jenni be herself, and that includes her propensity to seek out and fix his imperfections. They both have the unusual capacity to hear the other in spite of the façade of not listening, even in the most difficult of times. They hear and they process, and words like, “I’m sorry,” and “You made a good point,” and “I want to hear more about what you were thinking …” often punctuate their frequent, detailed discussions when they revisit less rewarding encounters from an earlier time. To be sure, this is often after bouts where neither wanted listen to the other and long interludes of disinterested silence and physical separation as a means to make a point. They’ve learned that unresolved disagreement doesn’t invalidate their love nor weaken their bond, and that it’s OK to love one-another, even when they’re not always in perfect alignment. I wish I’d learned that facility at their age. And they’re working on overcoming those annoying behaviors that can turn an important discussion into a fight. This is no longer a case of Jenni’s unflappable determination plowing down all obstacles, but rather two people who care deeply about one another, laying their respective fallacies and frailties on the line and having the guts to ask for and give love based on the whole package. Moreover, the boys think the world of him. I honestly believe that Andy is the one.
How do I feel about that? Do I fear that he might somehow displace part of my role in her life? Am I relieved? Worried? Happy? Concerned?
Yes, all of the above. Emotions are mixed, but the net-net is that she deserves the best this life has to offer. She’s earned it. She creates her own joy and asks for nothing. She’s created many of her own obstacles … and knocked them down. Those that she hasn’t created for herself, she usually takes in stride. She retains her sense of humor and positive outlook. And when she feels her sense of humor and outlook aren’t enough, she calls me. I’m her Dad. It’s my job.

Labels:

Janice

This is a departure
from my previous posts;
something much more personal.

She was unique; a child set apart from her peers by a fierce commitment to self, so rare among us. Even when it does manifest, it usually takes much longer to develop than had been invested in her brief time with us, a lifetime of a mere twenty-two years. In fact, it was only in her passing that we really began to appreciate the wonder that was Janice.

Her mother, Susan, and I began as second-degree friends, bonded by common tie to another, her best friend … my girlfriend. We were each engaged in our own youthful relationships, each too quickly consummated in one of those brief teen-age marriages so rampant in the early sixties. Both events were our way of coping with, and escaping, our troubled teen-aged lives, each as the eldest of three from a broken home and an abusive mother. Our respective spouses were convenient and willing, surprising in that both were from complete and enduring families, lovingly attended to the end by their original parents.

Our marriage lasted half as long as theirs, for we didn’t have the benefit of pending child to carry us through the first trivial conflict that effectively severed our pledge, “… until death us do part.” Almost immediately, I became a regular in their home, consuming dinners Susan lovingly prepared, sharing the melodrama of my wife’s transition “to a better man,” and increasing my friendship with her husband, John, as we boisterously studied well into the night, frantic to stay ahead of the draft and our country’s commitment to the Viet Nam war.

I was among the first to know they were expecting a child, as it was a primary catalyst of their marriage. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned of Susan’s resentment to my intrusion in their life, an ire that apparently grew in direct proportion to the child in her womb. In retrospect, I do remember a mounting irritability, easily attributed to her discomfort in the last weeks of the pregnancy and first weeks of wanting to create a peaceful environment for the new baby, in spite of the rowdy men carrying on at all hours of the night in their small apartment. My indifference to her discomfort peaked the day they brought Janice home from the hospital. John invited me along, I drove them home, and Susan seethed.

It was not more than a handful of those postpartum weeks that the bubble burst, and John was gone; a conveniently sudden victim to the fear of responsibility, of being a father. There we were, Susan and I, our tenuous bond weakened by my own insensitivity to her discomfort over the previous months, and this incredible child-person, one-hundred percent dependent … a thousand percent gorgeous. It was inevitable. We were married shortly after Janice’s first birthday.

We never had time to fall in love, nor for our friendship to mature to a sustainable level that often fuels successful marriages. We were parents, soon to three amazing young and wholly dependent lives. I was a student; she a mother. Our hands and waking moments were full. Yet our bond was real and we had a run of nearly ten, mostly good years. We finished growing up together, and we grew apart. In the end, we gave up with too little struggle, two-time victims of broken marriages, unprepared to live up to our vow “… for better or for worse ….” Thankfully by then, we were caring friends and friends we fervently chose to remain.

For most, persona evolves much like physical growth. It seems if you’re with children day-in-and-out, you don’t notice the subtle changes and, in retrospect, seldom can remember when that apparently new characteristic wasn’t always present. Janice’s unique character developed sporadically, with significant events cutting a rigid new facet to her mounting complexity, with a clear cause-effect relationship. Once apparent, each new facet was a permanent part of her, and she adhered to it with a tenacity uncharacteristic of the young.

From the beginning, and well into her teenage years, Janice hated being at the center of attention, especially when that attention was focused from beyond the cocoon of her immediate family. It isn’t clear that she was ever completely comfortable with direct attention, although as she matured, her range of tolerance seemed to expand marginally, as ripples in a pond. What parent, or grandparent for that matter, can resist the compulsion to outfit the first daughter with frilly pink dresses and white patent leather shoes? As these prizes were conferred upon her from time to time, the ceremony seemed to startle her even more than it had before, until one day she declared that she would no longer wear dresses, or pretty little girlie things. Not yet three, she was adamant that thereafter she would only wear pants; a conviction she held until after she graduated from high school.

Early on, Janice was not an outwardly affectionate child. Once she outlived the necessity of being held for feedings and such, she rarely sought or offered affection. In fact, clearly her favorite form of giving and receiving love was through gifts. When she received a gift, she knew that she was loved. When she gave one, we knew she was particularly loving and, although it wasn’t necessarily infrequent, it was always with a purpose. Admittedly, there were times when a smidgeon of paranoia would creep in and I would attribute her lack of affection directed toward me to her somehow knowing at a very young age that the person she called Daddy was an imposter.

Then one day, as always through the portal of a significant event, it all changed. Susan and I had long been discussing when and how to explain that I wasn’t Janice’s real father, and that I had adopted her shortly after her mother and I were married. We faced that moment with great trepidation, often postponing it to a better time. After all, she was only eight. How could we expect her to grapple with the complex issues of divorce, adoption and such? And who were we to explain these things? We might have continued to postpone indefinitely, had Susan’s parents not threatened to take matters into their own hands.

So, we carefully set the stage in a manner we hoped would give her the most comfort; created an occasion for just the three of us in the security of our own family room; fed her from her favorite menu; and gave her a small gift to demonstrate our love. The time would never be better, so we waded in.

“Janice, there’s something we’ve been wanting to tell you.”

Big eyes … back and forth … Mom to Dad … back to Mom.

Without verbal consent, we muddled on. “When Mommy and Daddy got married, you had already been born; you were nearly a year old. Mommy was married before, to your real-Daddy.” Unfortunately, the concept of birth-Dad wasn’t a part of our jargon until many years later. I hated saying “real-Daddy” for it seemed to exaggerate my own fear of being less in her eyes.

Then by some miracle, we hit upon the magic phrase that made it all seem right and, to this day, I don’t remember which of us said it, but “Daddy fell in love with us both … he chose us” floated out there, barely audible I am sure. Amazing, that such a simple comment could have had such an effect, but in that moment we both knew that all sense of fear, or worry, or not being normal, or even of too much focus of attention all melted away. She had been chosen. Somehow that was more meaningful, more important to her than anything she may have understood about how babies are made, real parents, whatever adoption meant, who her real father might have been … anything. That she had been chosen was the miracle of the moment and one of those significant life-changing events for Janice.

Almost immediately Janice transformed into an affectionate, openly loving child, most noticeably at first with me, but also with her Mother and even, though less often, with her younger sister and brother, Jenni and Lawson. She would often crawl into my lap and sit there, content, sharing moments in a way that we’d never experienced in the first eight years of her life. She would reach out to touch us as she recounted events from her day, or sit between us as we would read or watch her favorite programs on television. And although there were honest moments when she expressed curiosity about her birth-father, I was Daddy, later just Dad, and that never wavered through the many trials she endured in the next fourteen years. Even when, with my full encouragement, she finally met her birth-Dad, it was a non-event; a mere satisfaction of lingering curiosity; a check-box out of necessity, not longing. She had been chosen, she was loved, and that was all that mattered. Well, nearly all, for she never completely outgrew the sense that whenever anyone gave her something, a gift, it was always taken as a special expression of love. And, growing older was accompanied with a mounting appreciation for expensive gifts.

From the beginning, it was much clearer to her Mother and me than to her sister and brother that she really did love them deeply. To them, it must have manifested more as tolerance than caring, and I’m sure they truly believed that she wholeheartedly subscribed to the concept of a pecking order in families from Dad and Mom to the eldest, and then to whomever had the misfortune of coming thereafter. And they did love her, even if that love seemed to be filtered through the gauze of their not fully understanding their older sister. For her, especially in the pre-teenage years, every interaction with them had a purpose that served her own agenda, or it was a non-event.

Janice didn’t readily admit strangers into her world. Even some of our closest friends were treated with indifference until years later when she began to admit some of our closest and life-long friends into her inner circle. She was considered shy by most, yet all who dismissed her as such missed out on the opportunity to know a truly amazing person. Those who invested the time to break through were rewarded with a deep and lasting friendship.

I continued through school for several years while the kids were young. For three of those years, we lived in the married student housing on the Irvine campus of the University of California. The apartments were incredible. Our three bedroom unit went for $135 per month, all utilities paid. They were arranged in octets, four apartments on the ground floor, four immediately above them, with external wooden stairs leading up to them in pairs. We’d been in one of the upstairs apartments for a few months and had begun to settle into student life with all that it entails. We met friends that remain among our closest, and we continued to share them as friends even through the divorce.

One day a new family moved into the apartment directly below us and we were itching with curiosity about how Janice would react, for we knew she’d never met or interacted with black people in her young life. It didn’t take long to find out. Tim was a graduate student and the head of a newly formed interracial studies department at the university. He was tall and, one must remember this was the late sixties; he had the biggest Afro hairstyle I’d ever seen. We’d invited them up to get acquainted and were sitting in the living room talking when we heard Janice skipping up the wooden steps to our apartment. Susan and I glanced at one-another, we were about to find out how she would react.

Tim was sitting closest to, and with his back to the front door. To get to her room, Janice would certainly notice and have some reaction. The moment hung for what seemed like half-time at the Super Bowl. The door sprung open and in came Janice to the back of Tim’s head. Without missing a beat, she walked on by toward the privacy of her room. In passing her precious little hand reached out and wove through Tim’s abundant Afro … back to front. The moment held interminably, silence permeated the room. Then with a slow, deep, baritone rumble, Tim began to laugh the uninhibited, belly-laugh typically associated with primal humor.

Before Janice’s entry, we’d been talking about our respective families and some rumors that Tim had heard around the university administrative offices about a man abducting young girls near the campus. Fortified with the knowledge of Janice’s shyness and our proper parenting, Susan and I assured him that she would never fall prey to the wiles of a complete stranger, not-withstanding her recent jaunt through his Afro. “No parent can be sure,” says he. “We know our daughter,” said we. And the stage is set for a test. We call her out of the security of her bedroom to answer the tough question, “What would you do if a stranger said, ‘Come here, little girl, I’ve some candy for you.’?” Timidly she emerges around the corner, carefully we pose the question. The eyes flicker between the safety of Mom and Dad, to this unusual, large, dark stranger with whom she had just shared the brief stroke of curiosity. Wanting to please and afraid of giving the wrong answer in front of them, she paused for the longest of moments; then quietly she said, “I’d say … please?”

Throughout grammar school, Janice kept us on pins and needles through the first semester of each year. Countless parent-teacher conferences were based on their belief that she would have to be held back a year. She was not participating in class and certainly was not grasping the material. For the first couple of years, one can imagine, these conferences scared the hell out of us. We’d research tutors and private schools, and invested endless hours working with her on her homework, and with her teachers to eek out whatever special time they could afford her. By the middle of the second semester, she always seemed to rally, managing to squeak through by the end of the year. The teachers were amazed and could hardly say enough about their most improved student; what a dear she turned out to be in the end. Did she have a learning disability? Was she lazy? Unmotivated? We hadn’t a clue. None rang true, and we knew she was a smart little cracker. What then?

It finally dawned on us that her fear of strangers was her nemesis here, each new teacher began as a fright, but through the focus of attention they paid directly to her and the bond she allowed to gradually build to them, she began to work to please them, always managing in the end to catch up to her grade level and graduating on to the next year.

Still, the uncertainty over several months at the beginning of each year was more than we were willing to accept without battle. We were determined to find the secret motivator, something that would entice her to tend to her lessons from the outset. In the process, we stumbled onto another of those life-changing, redirecting moments in her life. One weekend we drove her and her best friend, down to the stables where Peggy kept her horse, well, it was a Pinto pony, actually, named Twinkle. I think it was a setup, but she never confessed. Still, not only did we all fall in love with Twinkle, but we learned in the span of that one trip that Peggy was getting a real-horse (there’s that “real” word again), and would be looking for just the right home for Twinkle … and wouldn’t it be just grand if they both had a horse to ride? To complete the setup, Peggy’s Dad was on hand to explain that the animal was friendly, gentle, well trained and that he’d let it go to us, and us alone, for far less than they were thinking of asking, a mere $300. And he’d teach me how to care for it in the bargain.

We knew we’d been had, but we didn’t let on. We agreed to talk about it overnight and to give him our answer in a day or two. Janice tried to fill our cups with her abundant enthusiasm, but we asked her to give us the time to make the right decision – fait accompli or not – we were committed to looking beyond the momentary impulsiveness to focus on the big picture; cost, time, implications on her studying for school, and more. One of our greatest concerns, aside from the time, was that this would further involve Janice in individual activities; she wasn’t a joiner. We really wanted her to appreciate the benefits of being a part of something larger than herself, to be part of a team.

Epiphany. I like to define it as that moment that comes around three in the morning, after you’ve gnashed and struggled with a concept, your thoughts failing to lead to a meaningful or acceptable conclusion, when you’ve tossed and turned in futile attempt to put it behind you and sleep on it. When the lights finally go out from sheer exhaustion, they pop back on all too soon with the answer that was there all along. Epiphany. Don’t ask me to spell it. Kind and gentle am I, so in lieu of waking Susan up to rehash everything all over again, I jot some notes and table further thought until breakfast in a few short hours, quickly succumbing to the dead sleep of the resolved.

Over coffee and corn flakes, I outlined my plan. We agree. Janice trips in to her parents smiling faces; she knows she’s going to like the answer, even if it turns out to be a compromise of sorts. The deal is simple. She can have the pony and one of us will drive her down to see it every day … but there are three conditions. First, she must take full responsibility for the care and feeding of her new friend. “I don’t clean stalls,” I laid down the law. Second, she can only go to visit Twinkle after she satisfactorily completes her school work each day and that she maintain a reasonable grade in every subject. She must never again give us concern that she might not graduate to the next grade. Third, after school let out for the summer, she had to agree to join a team sport … soccer, softball …anything, and see it through before we would buy the pony. In the meantime, assuming school was going well, she could visit Twinkle each day and begin to learn how to care for this new creature in her life. After careful consideration lasting all of a second, her one-word response, “Deal.”

The first condition was a no-brainer, we could have known that she would care for Twinkle at least as well as she cared for her beloved puppy, Shaun. As for her school work, she had turned on the moment, never again giving us concern that she wasn’t working diligently on her schoolwork. She quickly developed a reputation for not only doing her assignments, but for doing them early, to the point she once turned in a semester’s term paper the week after it was assigned, much to the chagrin of her instructor who patiently tried to explain that the paper was intended to be based on the semester’s class work; that she wasn’t ready to turn it in. Reluctantly, she took it back; turning it in, unedited, on its due date and receiving the passing grade.

For the next thirteen years, she maintained that pace as though each day she might not be allowed to see her beloved pony. Never once did she give us reason for concern that she might not complete her grade, or graduate intermediate or high school. She even surprised us by enrolling at the University of Portland the year after high school, and continued her pattern of vigorous study habits. She was never in danger of being at, or near, the top of her class, but no one worked harder or more consistently to accomplish passing grades, and I think in the end she got a lot more out of her education than those for whom it all came so easily.

As for the team event, Janice blew us away when she chose to join the community swim club as her team sport, the same one that her sister and brother had done the previous summer. Now Janice was an impressive physical presence for her age: tall, small at the waist, with broad shoulders – swimming would have been the right choice, based solely on her physicality. And she was great at the dog-paddle; she just had never swum an official stroke in her life. Who would teach her? How was this going to be a positive experience as she demonstrated her complete lack of understanding for the sport and embarrassed herself in the process? Good going Dad!

School ended and the first swim meet was just a few days away. Our panic on her behalf was mounting daily. Janice was showing the lack of concern of the uninitiated, and we couldn’t remember if she ever had come to watch her sister or brother in their previous meets. Her younger sister, Jenni, and I took her to the pool in futile attempt to teach her the strokes in time and she spent a considerable amount of time, one-on-one with her coach. We didn’t get her into the water for the first meet, or the second as I recall. She always stood back from the pool, watching her team mates swim their little hearts out. But she really wanted that pony. In the third meet, she swam a heat of freestyle and, to our surprise, her strength and natural athletic ability kicked in to serve her well, in spite of very rough form. She didn’t win, but she didn’t lose either; finishing near the middle of the pack.

Over the next several meets she improved with each race, even winning a few white and red ribbons, but as I recall, never a blue in the freestyle. The summer was nearly half gone before we convinced her to try another stroke. She’d been watching and practicing, but it took a long time for her to agree to try any of them in a meet. The first was breast stroke and my recollection is that she took third in her first, or at least her second race; ultimately winning several blue ribbons in the breast stroke.

Then came the backstroke … here she was a natural. In her first race, she came in second to the community champion of her age group, and then never lost to her again through the end of the summer. She was a sensation; her powerful strokes pulling her shoulders nearly out of the water as she distanced herself from the field. And she seemed to really be enjoying herself. At the end of the season she had amassed several ribbons and the admiration of her friends; her bulletin board a colorful array of white, red and blue. Daddy was proud and couldn’t wait until the following summer. I even began to dream about potential high school championships, college scholarships and, why not, the Olympics. The day after the final swim meet, we were all at lunch and I told her how proud she had made me. I asked her if she’d had fun. “Yes.” Did she learn something? “Yes.” Was she looking toward next year and what she might accomplish? “No, I’m done. I won’t have time. Now I’m getting a pony.”

Susan and I didn’t quite reach the ten-year mark before we packed it in. It’s a classic story with enough details to stand on its own, most of it not really important here. Suffice it to say that for the first year or so, Janice, Jenni and Lawson remained with me while Susan explored herself and finally fell in love, igniting a relationship that has flourished over these past thirty years and will endure the rest of their lives. He was and remains to this day one of my very best friends and I cherish the fact that they found in one another that which we all seek, but I had yet to find.

“Mommy has gone on a trip and will be back to see them soon,” was all I could muster, and while I know they pretty much saw through me, somehow they had the grace to allow me to stick to my story until years later when we all filled in the missing pieces. Janice was the least outwardly effected by this, oh so significant transition in their lives. In fact, at the age of ten, she slipped right into the lead female role for the family, cooking and cleaning, and taking Jenni and Lawson to task on all their childhood indiscretions. She was so intent on making the home right for Daddy, she often locked them out of the house until just before I came home from work. And they were none-too-pleased with their surrogate Mom. The space between her and the other two widened a bit, and they clung more to one another to get through this period.

I jumped into the single parent role with vigor, attempting to fill my personal with any number of young ladies, most of whom proved not to be good for me or my children. There was one with some real promise; the kids really seemed to take to her. My response to all that was some kind of silly role-reversal-rebellion – I dumped her, married the wrong lady, dumped her met one of the loves of my life, second only to my present wife who has the unnatural ability to forgive me all of my fallibilities and will be with me to the end (this is a true statement that I add here for my own protection) – and attempted to introduce her to my family of three. Janice nailed it, nailed me for that matter with the simple question, “Dad, is she younger than me?” Point taken, but this marked another major transition in our relationship and the beginning of a transition with all three that I cherish to this day … the transition from them being my children, to them being my friends. I’d always learned a great deal from them, but only at that point was I able to admit it.

There was another transition early in this period, the most difficult of them all. Susan and her husband had bought some horse property in Oregon and were moving the 1,000 miles to enjoy a very different lifestyle than either had ever known. They wanted to take our children (my children!) with them, and they wanted my blessing. Blessing be damned, this papa bear was going to fight for his cubs. Somehow, by the grace that watches over us all, and before it truly got ugly by turning our children into a battlefield, we found the wisdom to ask them what they wanted. Janice answered for them all, and it went something like: “Well, we’ve lived with you for a while and it has been great. But I think I’d like to try living with Mom for a while. You can come up and visit anytime, and we’ll be down here on vacations and stuff.” Janice was really growing up, they all were. I was secure in the knowledge they loved their Dad; but at that point in her life, she really needed her Mom; Jenni wasn’t far behind. And Susan was ready to resume her role as full-time Mom. And so she did; and so they flourished.

Janice had many interests, but there were two that occupied the top strata in her internal hierarchy of importance. She loved horses and cars, primarily high-performance cars – with one notable exception. When she turned sixteen I bought her a brand new, candy-apple red Honda Civic so she could drive herself the twenty miles or so to school. To me it was necessary transportation, but to her it ranked right up there with the Lamborghinis and Ferraris she later came to worship. At the time they were living on some horse acreage just outside of Portland, Oregon; a climate that probably sees more rainy days than dry. Yet for a span of more than three years, virtually every day she owned that Honda, she would get up early in the morning, put a heavy overcoat on over her nightgown, pull on her boots and go out to clean that Honda inside and out, just before she fed the horses. Twice a month, perhaps more often, she would also clean the engine. After three years, the car was pristine, more so than the day I bought it for her, and she ultimately sold it for considerably more than I paid for it.

All too soon, Mom overtook Daddy as the most important person in her life and it lasted until her first boyfriend. But they were always the best of friends; there was an unusual bond between Susan and Janice that was at the same time beautiful and a source of jealousy for her brother and sister. They would shop together, have lunch downtown, exchange clothes, give one another life-living advice … inseparable and dependent friends.

During her last two years of college, Janice decided she needed part time work, and found her dream job – the person tasked with detailing the inventory at Portland’s premier high-performance car lot. Shortly after she started, she was also given the job of picking up new arrivals at Portland’s port of entry and driving them back to the dealership. During these two years she refined her technical knowledge of these and many other high performance cars, to the point she was the resident expert on specifications and performance for every one. Imagine the surprise and embarrassment when, with some regularity, a cocky young man with way too much disposable income would come onto the floor to mix it up on auto specifications with whichever salesman was unlucky enough to draw him. They simply called her up to the showroom and stood back while this pretty, twenty-year-old tomahawked them with details, facts and performance data they couldn’t begin to comprehend. There were rumors that the dealership was going to offer her a sales position when she graduated from college.

Janice was a Virgo, not that I really understand any significance that may have. She was also fastidious and had I said that before I’d declared her a Virgo, those in the know would have immediately drawn that conclusion. It may be the only connection I am capable of drawing between the two. That said, she was the most organized person I’ve ever known. Everything had its place and it seemed effortless on her part to maintain a high level of orderliness that I can’t begin to comprehend or appreciate. Because of her great love for horses, early on she amassed a significant collection of model horses, all shapes, sizes, materials, colors … literally hundreds of them. And every one had its place, all in her room, on book cases, her desk, shelves, tables, the radio, window sills … every level surface had at least one. And never a speck of dust in the room, not even near a seemingly untouched figure in the furthest corner of that room.

Being her all-knowing father, I was always trying to get her to lighten up, play more, and tidy-up less. Whenever I would visit, I’d sneak up into her room and move just one, seemingly unimportant little horse a fraction of an inch or a few degrees from its previous resting place. Or I’d find two nearly identical, actually there were two that were the same as far as I could tell, and swap them taking as much care as possible to reposition each in exactly the same place of its predecessor. Later, as we were lounging around the house and she retired, within moments of her arrival in her bedroom, the silence was broken with the single exclamation, “Daaaaaaaaad!” I swear she had surveillance cameras in the room, but I never found one.

Then one day, at the age of twenty-two, she was gone. It was Christmas, and I was staying at their house while their Mom and other Dad were taking their annual trip to the desert. Janice had grown up, graduating from boys to men, and was dating a fine young man of thirty, who adored her. He drove a Ferrari which was good; what was better was that this wasn’t even in the top ten on a list of his best attributes. Well, at least not my top ten, he was a pretty special young man. I am fairly certain it was in her top ten, albeit near the bottom of that list. She cared for him, but was also determined to graduate from college and start her career before she settled down to marriage. She never admitted to me that she ever intended to produce any grandbabies for us. Some time later, Tom (the boyfriend) confided that he was going to ask her to marry him as soon as she graduated; and to sweeten the pot, he was going to give her the Ferrari as a wedding gift. This guy knew how to get the order!

Tom had been visiting his family in Southern California over Christmas and was flying back late one evening just before the New Year. I had driven up for this visit and Janice was going to pick him up in my new BMW, then spend the night with him. We had dinner and we talked some. She went upstairs to write some letters which we mailed the next day. She gave me a hug, told me she loved me … and she was gone.

Later, after meeting his plane, on the drive out of the airport parking lot, her heart went into arrhythmia and no one got to her in time. Tom was helpless; later unconsolable.

I got the call around 2 in the morning. “Mr. Smith, does your daughter take drugs?”

“Wha … what are you talking about? No, of course she doesn’t take drugs. Who is this?”

“Mr. Smith, there’s been an accident. You need to come down to the Portland General Hospital immediately.”

When I arrived, she was already cold; she’d already left the building. I wept, mumbled my private farewell and went home to tell Jenni and Lawson. Then I had to call her mother; and I don’t remember much of the next few days. Truthfully, I was numb. This is not supposed to happen. Children always outlive their parents. Denial had set in and I found that I was looking for her face on each person I encountered. There were times when I could hear her wicked little cackle that always accompanied forbidden goings-on. I had more I wanted to say and needed to hear. This seemed so final, yet hadn’t provided enough closure for me.

Around the rest of our family and close circle of friends, I was stoic … the rock; had to be; always was; wasn’t about to change now. Alone, I struggled. So unlike me, for one of the few times in my life, I avoided being alone, surrounding myself with people, but avoided the subject; keep busy; denial, denial, denial.

We held the wake at their house … everyone we could think of was there. We wanted it to be a celebration of the person she was; no sorrow-fest for us. We encouraged people to share their favorite stories about Janice. The greatest gift of the day came from the least expected source, in a completely unexpected way. Susan had pulled down one of her many photo albums to reminisce with some of our friends. After a few pages, she’d been telling everyone how Janice had become her best friend, but had to confess that she didn’t know everything she wanted to know. “I don’t even know if she knew about loving a man.” For most of the afternoon, Tom, her boyfriend, had been fairly quiet, responding but not really reaching out. Compelled to speak up, bashfully and gently, he said, “She knew. I’ve brought something to share with you, and this seems like the time to do it.” He went out to his car and returned with yet another album, this one containing not one picture, but rather a compilation of every love note they had written to each other from the beginning. The book was thick, and it was rich with some of the funniest, most heart wrenching, raunchiest and loveable notes – some long, some not so much. Her mother was reading them aloud. “I love you, Tom. I know my parents do, too; because you have a big dick.” We were on the floor, in laughter and in tears. She was with us and I could hear that wicked cackle in harmony with our own tearful laughter; Janice was loving our reaction.

Janice was a woman, and then she was gone. We heard from everyone there that in the 20 or so days before she departed, she had written each of them a wonderful note to tell them she was OK and how much she cared for them. To most of them, she’d written often; some not so often; more than a few never before until this one time. Somehow she knew, and it’s a mystery I’ll never understand but will always remain a part of the wonder that was Janice.

It’s been thousands of days since the night I got that call. Although the pain is perpetual, it is no longer acute. I used to count the number of times each day she crept into my consciousness. She still does, but I’ve stopped counting, and somewhere along the way I’ve learned how to create those moments rather than be surprised by them. Our visits are not profound or prophetic, no glimpse of the other side, no “I’m OK” or “I’m in a better place.” Yet somehow I accept these truths, content that confirmation will accompany my own transition in due time. Her visits are seldom visual or audible, generally a comforting presence and exchange of thoughtful emotion. Mostly, I keep them to myself now; it’s what I do.

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