I Would Not Wish This On My Worst Enemy

Those were the first words his mom said to me as I hugged her not knowing how to ease her pain.

I stood out in the bitter cold for 45 minutes. The line just to get inside the funeral home snaked its way around the building even now in the 4th hour of the visitation. The line never got shorter until the doors closed 5 hours later. Hundreds and hundreds of people who loved him, loved his family came to say they were sorry and to ask “Why?”.

Scottie was 17. Smart, athletic, funny. Dozens of good friends, dated regularly. Two older brothers who were friends as well as siblings. Two loving and attentive parents. Lots of close family. Seemed to be happy.

And then came Monday night. He seemed tired and went to bed early. His parents went to bed a little later. At 4:30 the police were at their door telling them that their son was dead.

The details are sketchy. At some point he drove from his house, parked the car on an overpass above an expressway and left the car with the motor running. Somewhere around one he was lying on the expressway when he was hit by a car. The assumption is that this kid, who was seemingly happy and loved life, and according to his father “afraid of roller coasters”, jumped off the height of the overpass with the intent to die. The injuries sustained from being hit by the car make it impossible to know for sure that he jumped. Questions of why was the car motor left running and did he jump or go down to the highway by foot would be interesting mystery clues if this were a made for TV movie. Instead it is all too real life.

The bigger and much, much harder to answer question is  WHY. No note. No signs of depression or despair. Had been talking to parents and friends about making various plans for the future. Why?

The sad thing is that we will probably never know. Actually the tragically sad thing is that Scottie is dead. Not knowing why just adds to the pain. Could something have been done? Should someone have noticed something more? We will never know. What I do know that for the past two days I have been witnessing the toll of this tragedy on his parents, brothers, grandfather and uncle. All have been a part of my life for a long time, 3 of them for most of my life. Let me share some moments from the visitation day on Friday and the funeral service on Saturday.

Just one word can describe Friday. People. Hundreds of people. They just kept coming and coming. They waited in line in the cold for an hour and then inside for another hour until you finally got to the family and the casket. The visitation was scheduled from 3-9 but lasted until 11 because people just kept coming.

Maybe there are three more words, love, sorrow and hugs. Love could be seen on the numerous poster boards with pictures remembering and celebrating Scott’s life. In so many of the picture he had that great big smile that he was so well-known for just beaming. Only one of the poster boards had been prepared by the family. The others were spontaneous gestures by friends and extended family, all who loved this kid.Because the love was so strong the sorrow went so deep. So deep for so many people. All of whom were asking why.As Scott’s grandfather said, this is the worst day of my life.

The hugs. When there are no words to be said, nothing that can provide any comfort, there are hugs. There was more hugging done in these two days than I can ever remember being a part of. A hug, a squeeze, a rub on the shoulder provided some measure of comfort to all of us who mourned.

Saturday was the church service and the cemetery. What I noticed the most about the church service was when a family member  would be heart-broken and sobbing another would be strong for the moment and provide loving support. Then sometime later, often moments later, the strong would become the weak and someone else would provide comfort and strength. During one of those moments Scott’s father broke down and his eldest on just put his arm around his dad as if to say yes, this is horror but I am here by your side and I will be strong for you now.

Scott’s uncle is one of my oldest and closest friends. His grandfather and my mother lived together for almost thirty years until her death. My goal was to be strong for them. Instead as I approached them during the service I broke down and sobbed. Loudly. Not the comfort I had been planning to provide but we all understood.

The deacon led a beautiful service and many good memories of Scot were shared. His eldest brother delivered a powerful speech. He made the point that as the youngest of three boys Scott wanted to grow up fast. He always wanted what his brothers had, wanted to do what they did and hang around with their friends. We were told that to honor Scott’s life we should each live our life as we want it to be lived. No compromises and no excuses. That is what a grown up does.

After the cemetery there was a lunch. At least 200 people came. It was the Catholic version of a Shiva. People and food together help the family to momentarily ease the pain and to recognize that while it will forever be different, life will go on. I was glad to hear the beginning of some normalcy in the conversation. Somethings other than more words about a life ended and how sad it all is. There was even a discussion of the best pizza in town. Why do I find that to be worth mentioning? Because I know from experience that the sorrow ebbs and flows and will be strong for quite some time and that talk of pizza takes nothing away from the respect that Scott’s memory deserves but it does mean there is life for others after his death.

After the lunch my wife and I could do nothing more than collapse at home. I have no idea how the family could physically and emotionally endure the past few days. I was exhausted and my body hurt as if I had taken a beating.

The last point I want to share takes some set up. Through my mother and their father our families became family. At several gatherings over the past couple of years, Scott’s dad had challenged my wife, an avid tennis player, to a game of doubles, he and Scott versus my wife and son.

One of the last things Scott’s dad said to my wife yesterday was;

“I guess we will never have that doubles match”.

Drumming Circle

What creates happiness?

I am sitting on a folding chair, one of 20 in a large semi-circle, in a gym, in a small school an hour’s drive from my house. I am smiling. Everyone in the room is smiling. Why is that?

There is a short, late 20’s/early 30’s guy with a shock of wild, thick black hair in the open part of the horseshoe made of chairs. At various times during the 75 minutes he is hitting two wooden objects together or hitting some skin or dancing. He changes cadence from time to time. He is why we all came to this place. He is the instrument of the smiles but not the root cause.

The root cause is music or in this case more specifically rhythm. Rhythm causes happiness. Especially when you participate in making the rhythm.

This is the monthly drumming circle for the developmentally disabled adults that live in the Illinois group homes run by St. Coletta of Wisconsin. My younger sister just celebrated her 25th year as part of this community.

The short guy with the wild hair is a musician who for the past couple of years had lent a couple of hours every month to sharing his joy of rhythm with this community. That makes him one of life’s under-recognized heroes.

The smiles for most in the room come from banging 2 drum sticks together. playing with tambourines or bongos and generally making noise— as a group.The best was at the end when one by one they got to come up and play on the musician’s drum set. Each person had their own rhythms to share but all of them had a huge smile when they finished and received a round of applause.

This week the adults were joined not only by a few family members and the staff but by two of the cutest little girls on the planet. Elly and Eddie (short for Eden) are 6 and 4.5 respectively. I was told by Elly that there is an older sister Emma who is eight and a Brownie but she was at a birthday party. Their Dad teaches at the school and was doing some work in another room nearby.

As I said, most of the smiles were from making rhythm. There were two exceptions. My sister’s smile was in part from watching Elly and Eddie. She loves hanging out with little kids. And while I enjoy banging drum sticks together as much as the next man, my smile came from witnessing all the other smiles in the room.

Can’t wait for the next Drumming Circle.

Date Night

If I want to spend time with my son, I have to make reservations. He is very social. This summer between baseball, his girlfriend, his friends and an 18 year old boy’s general aversion to spending time with his parents, I do not even see him much let alone have a conversation. And a meaningful conversation about something other than the Cubs…it had been awhile.

So, on a weekend my wife was out of town I made a date. For Friday night. At one time he was to be working so I assumed it would be late. Then he sends a text saying he is going to a friend’s house for a karaoke night. At that point I was steamed. It seemed as I was being blown off. I sent a harshly worded text (I don’t normally like to text. I prefer talk. But D would rather text so I was trying to meet him on his terms.) Part of my anger was that given how little time we have together and that in too short of a time he would be off to college if he was not working that we would spend more of the evening together. Not his idea.

D assured me that he was still up for a late dinner. Things changed again when he found out he had a baseball game. Dinner was on but not until at least 9.

I made the second half of his game. It ended poorly. Often not the best for mood setting. Yet I only get one shot and wanted to make the most of it.

We spoke a little during the long ride home. Most of the time he was texting. Not great for my mood. Still I have only one shot.

We finally got to a restaurant. My approach to getting my son to talk is to go slowly, to give him space.

OK. Enough about the process.

Did we talk. Yes. Even some personal and meaningful stuff. He learned some new, to him, things about me. He shared thoughts about his life and his feelings. I felt like a parent. This rarely happens these days. I enjoy feeling like a parent. It was one of the best dates ever.

Since that night we have gone back to our usual routine. Too bad. I am wise enough to not expect one shared meal to have led to a breakthrough in our relationship. We just need to find more moments. I need to find more moments. Lots more moments.

The Gift of Gab

My son and I have done more arguing recently than talking.  I know what he should be doing to better his life but for some  reason at eighteen he does not just automatically say “Ah ha, you are right dad”.  Go figure.

So tonight I asked him to read the “Best Gifts For Kids” post including the entire article so we could discuss it. He agreed (I will explain that little oddity in a minute). I was hoping that reading something written by another parent might give him some insight into what I was trying to do for (to?) him.

It started off slowly but we had a great conversation. For once we both listened as well as spoke. I shared with him how I felt and where I have not been doing a good job of bestowing some of these gifts. He shared many of his feelings about my parenting style as well as what he thought about each of the ten gifts.

When discussing the gift of conflict he pointed out that I certainly did not shy away from conflict. He was, however,  surprised that I felt guilty about not spending time with him. (Both are part of the explanation of this gift.) His retort was that if I felt guilty about the time why didn’t I spend less time on conflict, he would. I responded that I never sought out conflict with him but that my priority was to let him know what I thought was right rather than to be silent  so on the surface we would seem to be sharing a peaceful moment. We went back and forth on this one for awhile.

We also explored many of the other gifts. This conversation was the one of the most intimate and intricate father and son conversations we have had in a very long time. It was worth far more than the $15 it cost.

Yes, there was a reason he agreed so quickly. A couple of months ago he committed to, at my strong request, reading for 1 extra hour per week and then discussing with me what he read. He did that twice and then stopped. I finally got tired of the excuses and stopped his allowance until he read– and talked. At the beginning of the night he was two weeks in arrears and beginning to have a cash flow problem. I offered him a quick 1 week catch up if he read the post and the article and discussed it. I try not to bribe but we needed some reconciliation. The gamble paid off big time. (And he is still a week behind.)

So  based on tonight’s experience I am adding one more to the extended list of gifts to your kids. The gift of gab–with your parents.

Best Gifts For Your Kids

No, this is not about which iPod, new phone, new car, expensive trip to get your child. It is not about how to make your child like you more. Being your son’s or daughter’s “friend” is not in my top 5 of what they need. (BTW, not trying to be your child’s friend is probably the best way to make it happen.)

I saw this list on a website for people in the north shore of the Chicago area. This is generally an area of well to do parents. Often Filthy Rich. Check out the full article here, it is well worth the click. The 10 gifts presented by these authors are:

1) Gift of Your Time, Presence & Connection

2) Gift of Feelings

3) Gift of Unconditional Love /Acceptance

4) Gift of Empathy

5) Gift of Limits & Boundaries

6) Gift of Boredom

7) Gift of Struggle & Disappointment

8) Gift of Conflict

9) Gift of Chores and Responsibilities

10) Gift of Mistakes and Imperfection

I would add the gift of intellectual curiosity and gift of imagination. Other than that I found this to be an excellent list.

IT’S SHOWTIME!

What a weekend. I spent Friday night being entertained by a brilliant young actor in his first stage role followed Saturday by a veteran performer who sang and danced like she has been on stage from birth.

And all this talent lives in my our house.

My son D took auditioned a few months ago for his first theatrical production. Everything outside of school has been athletics. I was thrilled that he stepped out of his comfort zone.

The play is Bye Bye Birdie. Honestly since he had no acting experience, no formal dance lessons and while he sings constantly in the house only about half the notes are in tune. Our expectations were that he might make the chorus. Not my son.

Hugo Peabody. For those who have seen the movie this role was played by teen idol Bobby Rydell. He is the boyfriend to Kim MacAfee, played by Ann-Margret. This is the fourth biggest male part in the play.

In this production, Hugo acts and dances but does not sing. He does do a handspring early in the first act. With D  burning the candle at both ends, starting most days at 6 am for baseball workouts and finishing rehearsals at 11 pm, for weeks now I was not sure how he would react to the pressure of opening night. What pressure. From his first line to the handspring to his dance with Kim (including a lift) and every other moment on he was on stage he was on fire. 

I know I am playing the role of the adoring parent but those that know me know that I am prone to brutal honestly and can be a touch critical. There was nothing to criticize, just a performance to enjoy. He delivered his lines with the air of a jealous high school kid, which is what his character is. He moved naturally across the stage and executed his dance number like a pro.

Right up there with the joy of watching my son was watching my son with a bunch of his buddies. Joey, Richie, David, Asher, Jon, and Mark and several others have been hanging around our house for years and years. What fun to be seeing them all act and dance on the same stage.

Several parents came up to me after the show, as well as one couple in a restaurant the next night, to tell me how well he did. I am proud. I am happy for him. He may or may not avail himself of opportunities to be on stage again. As one who believes in multi-faceted people I hope he does. And then I get to go to another show.

And this was just Friday.

Friday night people were asking me if my wife was at the show as well. No, my wife was in a performance of her own. Fortunately her show started last weekend and ends this weekend. D’s started Friday and runs next weekend as well.  So she will see the remaining 4 performance of his show–like a true mother. (Tickets still available if you are interested.)

Saturday I saw the closing night of my wife’s show.  Evey year The Women’s Club of Evanston produces a musical comedy review as a fundraiser for a local charity. My wife has participated for about 10 years. This year’s show was titled “Not Tonight Dear, I Have A Haddock”. Thirty three numbers in all.

My wife starred in such numbers as “Brain” in which she was a beautiful Zombie and “Fugue For Cyberchondriacs” in which she plays a nurse to people who self-diagnoseusing the Internet. She had a singing solo in “We All Live In The World…” in which people wistfully remember the days before recycling. Unfortunately she had some of the worst lyrics to sing including the words, verklempt, monkey snot and toe jam.

Overall, the lyrics were clever, the singing of high quality, the men had their annual dress as women number and the laughs came frequently and the dancing dazzled. Not bad for a group of amateurs.

At one time during the weekend as I told the story of my talented family a comparison was made to the Von Trapp family of Sound Of Music fame. That must make me the odd “Uncle Max”. No on stage talent in me.

Fortunately I will be able to retire as soon as talented my wife and/or talented son are discovered and become stars.

A Good Family Day

Dateline Sunday, December 28, 2008. Punta Cana, The Dominican Republic.

First real day of family vacation having spent all yesterday on planes and buses, arriving at night rather than in the light of day as expected. Fortunately, despite a night spent in two “queen” beds the size of singles— my wife and I were cramped while my son was comfortable in his own bed—we had a very nice day.

The order of things is not important to the story. The weather was warm, low 80s, but quite overcast. We were just happy to be out of the frigid, snow covered Midwest. We started the day by lounging at the pool and reading. We struck up a conversation with a family from NY for awhile. Our son hung out with us. We had breakfast. Our son D after sleeping later had gone to breakfast on his own and commented that he did not like eating alone and wanted to eat with us from now on (a parent’s dream with a 17 year old). Not even the occasional brief shower dampened the spirit of the first day of vacation.

We checked out the activities by the pool and a ping pong tournament was beginning. My wife and son are the talented players in our family and they competed. I went back to my book. My mistake. They came back to the lounges all excited. D had won the day’s tournament against some highly talented, international competition. The finals were a close match won by D 16 to 14. (More on the quality of the vacation’s ping pong in a later post.

My wife did the water aerobics, D and I went for a swim at his invitation—I know that things would change once he met some kids but I will take all the time he will give me. Late in the afternoon, my wife and I went for a long walk on the beach. Punta Cana has one of these many mile long continuous beaches. It is great for long walks on white sand.

The day ended with dinner at the Japanese restaurant, think Benihana’s,  The food was good and the service entertaining. D had a beer with dinner. Not a common occurrence.

I have saved the best for last. If you read this blog regularly you know that I love to SCUBA dive. For 6 or 7 years now we have been at resorts that have a free demonstration in the pool where guests can don the gear and feel the experience of breathing underwater. For 6 or 7 years now D has refused to participate. ALL I ASK is that he try it in the pool. I am not the athlete that his mom is so I cannot compete with him in ping pong, tennis, golf or any other son/parent sport. I have been hoping that SCUBA would be something we could enjoy together.

Once again he refused. I cajoled. He refused. I begged. He refused. I bribed. The opportunity to experience alcohol in some reasonable quantity finally won him over—much to the chagrin of my wife who feels I am leading him down a slippery slope. Too bad. I had nothing else.

The resort instructor was at first hard to find and then to understand. Spanish, not English is the primary language here. D put on the wetsuit, tanks and mask. He received instruction on when and how to fill and then release air from his BC and how to breathe through the regulator. He was without weights or fins so the experience was incomplete but down and away he went. He swam around the pool for awhile getting used to breathing underwater. I felt joys as I watched the bubbles.

He was then taught 2 basic skills. First, how to clear your mask if it fills with water and then how to retrieve the regulator if it gets out of your mouth. He mastered both which added to his confidence. I tried to let the instructor do most of the talking but was able to share my knowledge when his explanations were not enough.

Bottom line.  He liked it!!! This is not the time or place to have him take lessons. Too bad, I would have liked to strike while the moment was hot. No matter, this was a monumental step.

I am already planning our trip when he will get certified and we can dive together.

One very fine family day. Few things make me happier.