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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.

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.

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