Dad

This post was first published on Scary Mommy:

 

This is what I remember:

My dad would rise early and take the train from the suburbs to the Loop in downtown Chicago. He’d work all day in a tall office building on Jackson Boulevard that I saw only once, on a special Saturday he brought me with him, a day I remember by the greenish glass of the train windows and the overflowing ashtrays and stacks of papers on brown desks, and by the way my ears popped as we rode the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower at lunch.

He’d come home on the same 5 o’clock train every night. When the front door opened, I’d run from the family room, through the kitchen, into the dining room, and around to the foyer to surprise him. I’d hug him, my cheek resting against his trench coat that smelled of cold and smoke and train exhaust.

He’d disappear down into the basement and I’d hear the thump thumping of the punching bag. I’d watch him take a long drink at the kitchen sink, sweat dripping from his chin. Later, I’d rest in the crook of his arm, his deep, smoky voice vibrating through his chest and into my ear as he read me a story.

This was his life as I saw it. Routine. Secure. Happy. It wasn’t until I was older that I found out he woke up every day to a job he hated.

I don’t know if he said it to me only once or a thousand times. I don’t remember how I first learned it. Whatever the case, I can see him now, shaking his head, his blue eyes sad, “Don’t ever take a job you don’t like. It’s not worth it. Do what you love.”

When my dad was a child, he loved reading. He read Treasure Island and The Ted Williams Story and Crime and Punishment and comic books. He read in his bedroom, to avoid being teased by the neighborhood kids. He read everything.

This is how I’ve known him, too. He loves a good story in all forms—books, movies, TV, music. Conversations with my dad were my first lessons in story: how to put one together, what is compelling, how to think about the arc, dialogue, setting. I remember his delight at the repetitive talk of weather in the movie, “Fargo”—that this dialogue showed not just an interest in weather, but a universal human desire to connect without having anything to say.

When he was in college, my dad thought about majoring in literature and becoming an English teacher. Someone—a well-meaning college counselor, perhaps—told my dad, “You’re good at math. Go into accounting. You’ll always have a job.”

He took that advice and as things go, he became an accountant. He got married and had a family that depended on him.  He was sad, I know, not to be doing what he loved. But my dad didn’t sacrifice himself for us on purpose. If he’d had a looking glass, and saw the years of numbers and tax documents stretched ahead of him, he wouldn’t have become an accountant. He probably would have run straight to World Literature class.

But in a way, he did sacrifice. Because it’s the mistakes of our parents that serve as some of our strongest lessons. We learn from them and, hopefully, become better, happier. It’s our responsibility to do that. Otherwise, what’s it all for?

And so I’ve followed my own path and my own heart, and I’ve never, ever considered taking a job I’d hate. I’ve worked as a reporter, a political communications director, and an author. I am guided by my love of writing and storytelling. I am guided by a true sense of what’s important, of how short life is and how responsible we are for making ourselves happy. My father gave me that.

I’m a parent now. I will make mistakes, and my children will learn. I will make sure of it, as my father made sure for me.

They will know from my mistakes, but they will also know the greatest lesson I can teach them. Because I remember, will always remember, my father’s words: Do what you love.

His grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know those words, too.

About the Author…

Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of the coming-of-age novel, The Rooms Are Filled. She lives and writes near Chicago. You can find her online at jessicavealitzek.com.

– See more at: http://www.scarymommy.com/the-greatest-lesson/#sthash.BYXsAqhc.dpuf

Counting Change

There’s definitely been something about this year.

I don’t know if midlife crises find us, or if we find them through several culminating, transforming experiences.

Either way, I think I’m in one. Though CRISIS is the wrong word. Much too harsh. Maybe it’s a Mid-life Growth Spurt. Maybe I’ve finally become an adult and this is what it feels like. I thought it happened when I had my first child, but maybe that was just the dig that set it all up—the planting that’s been watered and sunned over the last six years.

This year–I’ll use the school year in this sense–started with my daughter transitioning to a Big Girl Bed and leaving her crib behind. The ends of things have always saddened me, I wrote at the time.

Then my son entered kindergarten. There were times I couldn’t wait for my children to enter school. This, in a nutshell, is the cruel joke of parenthood. I am now, and forever will be, in a constant struggle for space and independence, coupled with lonesomeness in the moments I find it.

I’ve never seen the movie To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, but I thought of that title several times over the last year. Thirty-seven was a big one for me. My year of changes, of feeling older, of seeing the end of the road. That sounds exaggerated, over-wrought. But it’s true. I see that there’s an end to this. I never could before, in that wonderful way of childhood and young adulthood, invincibility and joy. Now, I see that time does indeed fly with great big wings. I know when I am seventy I will look back on today and see softer edges, illuminated by the glow that the past inevitably holds for me. And I will think, “Man, that went fast.”

I turned 38 in February. Unfortunately, whatever black magic 37 possessed did not disappear instantaneously.

It was in that mindset, in April of this year of change, that I found out I’m BRCA positive–I have “the cancer gene,” the BRCA mutation, whatever of the various names for this relatively new diagnosis. I therefore have a much greater chance than the general population of having certain types of cancer, namely breast and ovarian. But also pancreatic, skin, and possibly lung and cervical. And who knows what else; it seems so new and good studies are long and slow, that nothing feels solid. Then again, I’ve been in a bit of denial and I’ve pushed it all off, which is unlike me. But I was diagnosed two weeks before my first book was published and I was determined to keep it at bay until after I could celebrate for awhile.

Well, my book tour is over so now’s the time, I suppose. (Though let’s be honest, there’s no way I’m putting my book too far in the background when it’s less than two months old; it still needs some motherly love.) My sister, also positive (which is actually misleading because in our cases, we don’t even have the gene; it’s missing from our DNA), dove in and learned all she could about the gene and our options. I had a “meeting” with her the other night to get up to speed. I felt slightly numb the entire time we talked, as I have pretty much since I found out.

Once in the car, though, a simple sight broke me: I drove past a father and daughter playing softball in a field. The father pitched to the daughter and she swung the bat  just as I passed and I could have sworn it was me and my father twenty-five years ago. And then time and motion and adulthood and childhood and joy and melancholy converged, and I cried all the way home.

There have been light moments—my sister and I laughed today as we talked about getting double mastectomies together and found ourselves saying things like, “December, maybe? I don’t know, when’s good for you?”

My mother and aunt are also BRCA-positive. Meanwhile, less than 1% of the population are BRCA-positive, according to ABC News. I’ve also heard it’s 2%. Regardless, we really represent in my family. We come to the table. Once your parent is BRCA-positive, you have a 50/50 chance of being positive yourself. So the women in my family flipped a coin four times in a row, and four times in a row we got BRCA-positive. I wish money was involved.

I hope to write about our experiences here; after all, it fits right in with the theme of this blog. But over the next few months, I might not be around a lot, and this is my explanation–to the readers and writers whom I usually visit and comment and correspond with. In this year of changes, there are a few more to come.

DNA

The Case for Stopping at Two

I’ve read a few essays lately that argue for having one more child—the love a baby brings, the joy, the chance to revel in babyhood again and use all the skills you’ve honed over the first couple, why three children are better than two, and four better than three.

I’ve long dreamed of a large family and a wonderfully chaotic home, the kind you see in movies with laughter around the dinner table and children running freely. But my husband and I have two children (6 and 3) and we’ve struggled with whether or not to have one more. We continue to avoid making a decision, and the longer we do this, the more sure I am we won’t have another.

There are very real and logical reasons against having a third: we love to travel, and the cost of flying is already prohibitive. Our children are still young, and we already need twice the groceries. We have only two, and we still sometimes forget to feed them lunch.

On the other hand, it makes me want to cry to think that I am past babyhood and might never be there again, that a significant and lovely and messy part of my life is gone. That my baby is already three makes me anxious. I try to hold onto every minute and yet they still slip away like wisps of smoke. And, if I’m being honest, if my babies are no longer babies that means I am older, too. And I don’t want to be older. The single strongest lesson my children have given me is the realization that life is fragile and fleeting. I understand that now, and I’m not sure I want to be old enough to be the mom of tweens. I want to forever be a young mom of babies. I also feel a pull toward whatever person might exist—the life inside us waiting to be created. That “what if” calls to me.

Over the last few months, I’ve realized these feelings—the melancholy over something lost, the angst of what if—are the force behind my desire to have a third child.

And that’s exactly why I don’t think we should: because refusing to let go is not a good enough reason to bring a child into this world. In fact, it would be selfish.

Because, really, when I take off my rose-colored glasses, I remember that I actually dislike the infant stage. Sure, I love cuddly, giggling babies. The problem is the other 80% of the time. Having babies taught me that I am a different, more impatient, person when lacking sleep. I don’t need a lot of sleep, but I need it. They also taught me that I am easily over-stimulated. If the TV is on, my youngest is crying, and my oldest is talking over everything in an effort to educate me about dinosaurs, I lose my mind. Impatience and losing one’s mind are not good parenting traits.

I also realize that the feeling of “what if” will never go away. It will always be there; I just have to cut the cord. And if, in a few years, we decide we really do want another, there are many, many children waiting to fill a home.

For me, it has been harder to say no, even by default—to be honest with myself about my weaknesses, to understand what’s at work in my desire to have another, to realize that yes, a bigger family, the one I dreamed about, could bring joy beyond measure, but to accept that maybe we’re just not cut out for that kind of life. And the joy I feel now, spread among my wildly wonderful two, can be enough.

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Post Newtown, Is Coddling Okay?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the newish trend of driving children to school. I was a bit flummoxed as to why the parents in my mother’s neighborhood were taking their children one block to the school, why I so often see quarter-mile long lines of parents idling in their cars, waiting to pick up their kids. I advocated for letting children walk–for exercise, for mental acuity, for the environment.

I’d been mainly looking at this issue from one angle: I assumed that it mostly had to do with parents coddling their children and making everything as easy as possible for them. And some of that I still think is true, after reading parent feedback in the comments and emails. Parents also wrote to me about stranger danger, though statistically the world is as safe as, if not safer than, it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

Of all the reasons parents gave me for taking their child to school, spending sacred moments with the child on the way to school and smiling one last time before they walked through the door was the one that resonated with me the most.

I drive my own kindergartner to school. We live a half mile from the elementary school; definitely within walking distance, but we are separated from the school by a 4-lane road with a speed limit of 30 that drivers consistently ignore by 15 mph. And the sidewalk is right next to the road with no grassy boulevard to cushion the blow should you trip and fall the wrong way. My son could walk a bit out of the way and for the most part avoid the road, except where he would have to cross it, but there are no other children on our block who walk to school and he’s too young to walk alone.

I have the luxury of not needing to make the decision whether to let him walk or not.

So most mornings, I park and walk my son right up to the elementary school door and stand with him in line like the other parents, waiting for the doors to open. The few times I’ve had to drop him off from the car line, watching him walk up to the school alone, I’ve had a pang in my stomach seeing my little one march off by himself.

My father and I talked about my post later that day. I told him I thought we parents of young ones know too much now–every kidnapping, death, illness, injury is there for us to discover moments after it happened everywhere around the world. While the world is safer than it used to be, it sure seems a hell of a lot more dangerous.

Then my dad said, “It’s like you young parents are shell-shocked.”

He was referring to the general barrage of everyday, albeit horrible, events in the news, but I realized: in a sense, we are. We are shell-shocked. And what did it for me was Newtown.

9/11 set a new level of stress, an event so horrible it need only be referenced by the date. It was the first time in my life, at the age of 25, I could look out my living room window and visualize the possibility of a foreign nation marching down our streets, ordering us out of our homes. Just that awareness was startling to me.

So the baseline was already raised, and there have been many events that have continued to heighten our collective alertness. But what really did it for me was Newtown.

Now, every time I walk my son up to the school, I notice which doors are left open as children enter and for how long. I notice my son’s classroom has an extra door to the outside and I think simultaneously, “Thank God, an extra exit” and “Does that make it easier for a shooter to get in?” I notice that the buzzer at the front door is worthless in the morning because everyone holds the door open for the people streaming in behind them and I think, “All a deranged person has to do is come at 8:xx a.m. Then he wouldn’t have to shoot his way in, he could just walk right through.” Inevitably, even if just in a flash, I see the image of 20 six- and seven-year-olds crouching in a classroom as they’re riddled with bullets.

One of those thoughts goes through my head 90% of the mornings I take my son to school. Those thoughts sometimes come to mind when I take my children to the library or the grocery store. And if it’s in my mind, it’s no doubt in the minds of many parents.

That’s a lot to worry about, a lot of stressed heaped on top of the regular, everyday stress of loving and caring for children.

So I don’t know. If parents need to take their children to school and see them through the doors to help them cope, maybe that’s okay. If they want to coddle the hell out of their kids, I certainly can’t blame them.

Though if I’m right, then we have to figure out a way to get through this. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to raise a child whose hand needs to be held through every trial. I don’t want to raise a child who is startled by every possible danger, who sees the world as a frightening place. And if we make the world too safe for them, they will inevitably be debilitated by the awful that does happen within the wonderful. And, if debilitated, how will they lead?

Maybe we were a bit debilitated. And our response has been to shield our children–from bullets, from planes, from the heaped-on knowledge that feels so crushing. Our response has been to make laws, increase governmental power, add security, add fences, add screening, take off shoes.

I don’t know the answer. I’m overwhelmed just writing this. But it seems the more we shield ourselves and our children–the more security we pile on–the more burdened we feel. And doesn’t that make us weaker instead of stronger? Won’t that make our children weaker instead of stronger?

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013.  Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day last Friday.

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013. Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day.

Meet My Mom (AKA: Me)

The other night, I sat watching the Olympics. My legs rested on the coffee table with a blanket draped over them, my arms half crossed and my chin resting in one palm, my hand holding a wadded-up tissue.

Kind of like this, except without the computer:

My son, a budding photographer, took this photo

My son, a budding photographer, took this photo

I turned to my husband to say something and then looked back at the TV. Suddenly, a flash of memory, of hundreds of memories, appeared so clearly in my mind that it was almost like I was inside it: growing up, I had seen my mother make that same gesture–that blanket-draped, chin-cupped, tissue-wadded, TV-viewing gesture–dozens of times.

It’s common to have those moments when you think, “I sound just like my mom.” I’ve had plenty already. But this was the first time I felt like my mom, like I inhabited her body–the her I knew as a child.

I was already sensitive to the I’m-my-mom feeling because of the wadded-tissue thing. I don’t really remember a time my mom wasn’t plagued by allergies, by the need to exit a conversation posthaste to run for a Kleenex. She’s always had a tissue stuffed in her coat pocket. When we go on walks, if it’s too warm for a coat, she stuffs one up her sleeve. She sleeps with one under her pillow.

I never had allergies, so I never had to deal with the suffering of feeling like a little guy with a feather was up inside one nostril, tickling away.

Until recently. Now–you guessed it–I sleep with a tissue under my pillow. I always have Kleenex in my purse or coat pocket. I keep them in the car and various cabinets. I now spend the first fifteen minutes of every day sneezing in the kitchen.

Also, I now say things my mom always said, things like:

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.”

“Jesus H. Christ.” (A more formal version of the name, for business cards.)

“For Cripes Sake.” (Not sure of the spelling, since I’m not sure what this is.)

“In or out.” (said sternly on summer days when the children exit and enter the house several times per second)

“I can’t keep my eyes open. What time is it? 9:30? Sigh.”

“But you like [insert food]. Just eat it.”

So the other night on the couch was really just the culmination of what I already knew: in many ways, I’m my mom.

How about you? When did you know you were your mother?