When you cried at the airport my heart shattered

We went to the airport and you wept and said that nobody loves you.  After mom pressed, you said nobody likes you. By nobody, I think you meant us.

We were in Logan Airport, having just visited my family in Billerica. On this trip, Nikki took you on a shopping trip with Mom for the first time and sprang for a lot of expensive clothes at Justice, and new wedge shoes (I think that’s what they’re called?) We also spent a fun day in Salem and a few days later spent a day at Ed’s girlfriend Joanne’s family lake house where you threw lake weed onto Uncle Ed  and teased him about a stain on his shorts. And then it was over. And we jumped into our rental. Dropped it off.

Somewhere over dinner at an airport restaurant–it’s always at a restaurant–you grew sullen, you put your head in your arms and you shut down. Are you mad at me? I think she’s mad at me. You sure she’s not mad at me? I don’t know. Honey are you mad at us? Silence. Are you mad at daddy? Silence. She’s mad at me. Why? I really don’t know. And then you cried. You told mom you didn’t know what was wrong and memories of my own adolescence rushed back–a painful “I’m depressed, I want to die, I don’t know why” conversation with my mother that got me into a therapist’s office and on antidepressants.

It’s always so hard for me to know what’s really going on, and your old memory of things will probably be so radically different from my fresh experience and guesswork, but just because this is fresh, I don’t want you to think I that I feel I’m right.

I just know what I saw. I saw a young lady who swam every day in the pool, got everything she asked for, went to bed when she felt like it, ate whatever, whenever and was showered with affection by her doting aunt. (Her gamma…not so much this time around. She’s depressed and won’t leave the couch–not sure if that hurt your feelings and contributed to this…it really may have.) And then we left. Back to a life with mom and dad, and rules and bedtimes, higher expectations, lower tolerance for all the “can we buy me one of these” requests…And you broke.

But you gave us no more to go on. Until I left to investigate food options during a quest for a smoothie. (You didn’t want to eat at the restaurant. You weren’t hungry enough.) When I came back mom filled me in. You had reported that you felt nobody likes you.

A little while after that, I was walking with you alone. Mom had gone to the bathroom and we were making our way to the gate. I think this was the hardest parenting moment of my life so far. You were feeling intense, overwhelming sadness. It reminded me of depression, which I know well. The thought of you feeling this is enough for me to do anything it takes to make it go away. But I’d just been told, in a roundabout sort of way, that I was part of the problem. Mom always seems to know what to say. I can often muster the right words in writing but in the moment, face-to-face, I rarely can. So my mind and my mouth was frozen. Your sadness was visceral, and it begged to be addressed.  I had nothing.

We sat down. Nothing. You pulled out your phone. You were going to shut me out. Quick, think of something, anything! “What are you doing?” I asked, without even thinking.

“Playing Color Switch,” you said.

“Can I watch?” I asked.

“Sure,” you said. And then I watched you play your game. I felt a little like the idiot who can’t figure out how to ask someone out so he follows her around wherever she goes, trying to build up the nerve. But then something strange happened. You warmed up. I watched you closely, commented on the game, eventually played a little too and we laughed a lot. Mom later told me that when she came back, she figured we’d had a talk and hugged it out. Nope. I just followed you where you were going and asked to be there too.

Here’s my interpretation, now, fresh: we don’t give you enough attention. More accurately, we don’t give you the right kind of attention. You’re lonely. Partly because it’s summer and you really are between close friendships right now. In a matter of minutes, you’ll be focused on your friends and will want less and less attention from us, but we make the mistake too often of choosing to live in a world of responsibility–one that we’re always aware is fully centered on you but kids don’t care about this stuff–rather than a world of minute-by-minute joy and interaction with the whirlwind of a gift that you are in our lives. We concern ourselves with your screen time, your forgetting to put your clothes away, your dragging your feet on your chores…and leave less energy for all that happens in our lives between those parenting moments. We forget to follow you where you are.

That’s the only reason I can think that you would have gotten the impression that we don’t like you (in this moment, at least). We adore you. Despite all the new emotional stuff that has entered into our relationship, you’re still getting more and more funny, more and more charming and clever and…just…awesome…in basically every way.

In the days that have followed this trip, I’ve been making a greater effort to stop moving from responsibility to responsibility and take moments to be with you.  We’ll see how it goes. My initial findings have been that this is getting harder and harder to achieve. Because, paradoxically, your maturation means you’re also pushing us away and wanting, more and more, a life defined without us.

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You and mom went to BreyerFest!

Back in March, mom and I were talking about whether to buy you a trip to BreyerFest for your birthday. I was mostly against it–worried, really, that you wouldn’t be that excited. You’ve always preferred things for your birthday over experiences. In fact, every experience we ever bought for you went over like a bland sandwich when you opened it. Even when you loved the experience itself when the time came to cash in. So I felt maybe we needed to learn our lesson and stop doing this. But mom said “but this is BreyerFest…”

Then I realized that it was on the same dates that I had a workshop for one of my plays in Lowell. I was sad again, and worried that would make the experience even worse for you. But mom convinced me it was still the right thing to do.

She was right about everything. You didn’t seem to care much that I wasn’t coming and you were off the walls with excitement over this gift! Truly. Plus we figured out some time in May, I think, that you could finally ride in the front seat of the car and the idea of you and mom doing the trip together with you in the front picking the radio stations had big appeal. You wrote a count-down on your white board “X days until BreyerFest” and every day you counted a day off.

I wish Mom was writing this blog so she could describe it here. Since I wasn’t there, the memories I have are of texts she sent me while I was in between rehearsals and writing sessions. My favorite went something like this: “Some kid just got seriously hurt on the mechanical bull and is bleeding above his eye and I have a video of Ari being a badass.”

You were in heaven. Mom was a little overwhelmed by the culture of consumerism that was being celebrated, but from what I hear it was still a pretty great trip with lots of late nights, bad food, horse crafts and SHOPPING.

Removals

This month saw two major developments in our lives. My medical problem was finally diagnosed and I had my appendix (along with six  inches of my intestines) removed and have spent this month since the 12th transitioning from agony to recovery.  You’ve been very nice and very protective. On the day I returned from the hospital, not even an hour after returning home, Bella, who had been on my lap, heard the door open and attempted a bank shot off my tummy on her way to the side door. Somehow, with spider-man-like reflexes, before I even had time to put my hands up to stop her, you reached over, grabbed Bella, and put her on the floor. You saved me from having to return to the hospital. No doubt.

And another, more subtle milestone occurred.  It’s much bigger news. Your stuffed animals are now in a bin, the lid has been closed and they have been placed into the garage. Your reaction to this has been interesting. You were definitely reluctant, and have told me that mom “kinda forced” you to do it to make room for your new dresser. There seems to be–from your perspective–both truth and exaggeration in this narrative. The exaggeration, I think, is for my benefit.

A little history…in case you’ve forgotten…

From the time you were 3-and-a-half to about the age of 9, we went into your room and I made your animals come alive and interact with you for 10 minutes every day. No weekends off. And when we missed a day, we’d “do a double,” the following day. (But triples were not allowed and you could not carry a balance greater than 20 minutes.) It was a strict, time-boxed event, with built-in warnings. “Five minutes left. Two minutes left. One minute left. OK, time for a last thing.” And looking back on this, I wonder if you think this was incredibly anal of me. In my defense, we started these play times loose and untimed. But then every session ended with a rage against its ending. I tried lots of things and finally landed on a super-rigid structure with very definite rules. That put an end to the bad times.  Then the regimen stuck.

Some time around the age of 9, you became much more busy with homework after school and trying to fit these evenings in became difficult, so I’d say we probably did this 3-4 times/week, always skipping on bath nights. By the time you were 10, we were down to once a week on the nights mom was teaching at North Park and the occasional weekend. And then since you turned 11, I’d say we’ve maybe made animals talk 3 or 4 times and each time felt like playing to a tough crowd. You don’t seem to have fully accepted this, but you’re over it. I can feel it.

I’ve seen you go from pretending to be one of the animals, to being yourself but with magic powers, to just being yourself–a snarkier, tougher, slightly too-cool-for-school version of yourself. You’ve gone from tyrannical bouts of screaming at your animal friends, even biting them, almost every night to occasionally beating the stuffing out of Monkey. I had to work harder and harder to be funny as you got harder to amuse. By age 11, I’ve definitely reached my funny-on-cue limit. I can’t make you laugh like I used to.  At first, I could just make the animals fart and you’d laugh your head off. Eventually, I had to develop consistent characters, tell more involved stories, get us (usually with your participation or even lead) into fantastical realms and serialized plots.   The extent to which this kind of entertainment is hard work for a guy  my age has definitely been lost on you.

Anyway, while I’m not sure we’ve said our formal goodbye to them yet…we have crossed a threshold. I do wonder if this is goodbye because a more formal one would be too hard on you. But…

Even if it’s not technically over, it’s over. And what do I think looking back on this? Do I  miss it? That’s a hard question to answer. I can’t pretend that I miss being so in-demand as an entertainer in my home. But every time you got me into your room and we sat down and pulled out those animals, I had a really good time. Even when I was tired or sick or had a really bad day, I would usually find myself locked in and enjoying our play times. What I can say for sure is that I miss having some kind of activity we can do together.

Is it any coincidence that this is a time when you and I are struggling to be closer?

I think we’re growing apart

 

Something is happening. I need to figure out my role in it. The bonding moments we once shared are getting fewer. The time we spend in conflict is getting more frequent. The feeling that you want me around or like me is even getting less frequent. I feel increasingly like a third wheel, the guy on the outside, the 70’s dad behind a newspaper who pats you on the head in the morning and asks you how your day went at the end.

Maybe it’s my health. Maybe it’s your adolescence and the natural separation of parent and child. But neither of us seem to like it. And I hope that counts for something.

You’re trying to get my attention, and I’m trying to get us closer and both of us are failing. My efforts to bring us closer involve conversation. I ask you questions. I try to understand the things you’ve said to me so I know exactly what you mean. You feel interrogated or misunderstood. You physically bombard me, animal like, usually throwing your face noisily into mine (among other physical disruptions). It shuts me down like a frightened pill bug. And that only makes you try harder.

But hey. I’m 43. You’re 11. This is all on me.

And then it happened (Marcus Bayiates late 2013 – April 22, 2017)

You burst into my room in tears on a Saturday morning. “Daddy! Marcus is dead! He died!”

“Oh, baby!” I found myself blurting before I had even opened my eyes. This was the second time in my life I’ve been woken up to the sound of a fresh death lament.  I threw off my CPAP, jumped out of bed and followed you into your room. Marcus was very obviously dead, stuck with rigor mortis into a permanent stretch.  We surmised that he must have died in his sleep. Or rather woke up, crawled away from his den and died.

You were crushed, of course, and we hugged. You pulled him out of his cage. After I ran downstairs to get mom, we came back into the room to find you cradling him in your lap, petting him. We eventually got you to put Marcus on some Kleenex on top of a pillow on the floor of your room (like he was having a wake), and we closed the door to keep the dogs out while you worked on a coffin.

All that worry and anxiety (which by the way, has not subsided one bit since I mentioned it in a previous post–if anything it just increased) did not in any way compare to the simple, brief, absoluteness of his passing. You recognized it yourself. You had trouble putting it into words but essentially communicated that the worry was much bigger than the mourning.  That’s life, right?

We put him in his coffin. We put his coffin in a bag. We dug a hole outside by your rose of Sharon that you and I both helped dig. We said a few words, and we buried him.

That day we talked about a new pet, maybe some more gerbils after Teddy passes, maybe even a kitten. The jury is still out. And we have to see how Teddy does on his own. You brightened up by the end of the day. As they say, you took it like a champ.

Happy 11th Birthday, Ari!

It’s going to be a weird year, in no small part because I still have this abdominal drain in me from my intestinal tear/abscess/appendix thing and that has definitely impacted our ability to make effective birthday plans.

Last night we took you out for hibachi. A man squirted sake into my mouth and we ate like Japanese royalty in front of a hot grill. This was your idea, and I LIKED IT.

We’ll have another family-only party and then later, probably in late April or May, you’ll have a friends party at Sky High which will include a silly string fight and frozen yogurt. [Update:  we had to change it to early June because you got an ear infection on the day of your party!]

With the exception of one cranky afternoon with Mom, you’ve been pretty cool about the impact on your birthday. Of course.

The year I ruined our Florida vacation

There is something  enigmatic about you that I have never been able to figure out. If you want ribs at Dengeos for dinner, but mom and I don’t want to go to Dengeos, being denied those ribs will bring a cloud of anger and disappointment over the rest of our evening. This can happen over a brownie. Mom not making you breakfast. A trip to the store. It happens weekly on Sundays as we begin our breakfast-out ritual. (It’s part of the ritual now, frankly.)

But if a vacation you’ve been looking forward to for months–one for which you’ve literally counted the days on the calendar–is suddenly cancelled, you’re fine. Yeah, you’re bummed, but you’re bummed like a 24 year-old would be, not an 11 year-old who is hyper-focused on securing her agenda. And it’s not just this episode; you’re super cool about how long it’s taking us to redo your room. You’ve been nice and understanding about how long it’s taking us to get on with that basement remodel that will net you an entire room all to yourself plus a great place to hide away from your parents when friends come over. So what’s up with that?

There’s a history to my confusion. When you were a baby, as I’m sure you’ve heard us mention, you were not easy. It wasn’t just the colic. After you got over that and began to make your way through the world, even before your “terrible 2’s,” you got angry at us a LOT and had some pretty epic fits.  We happened upon a few books and articles and learned about what are commonly called  “spirited” children.

You fit the profile. The gist was that these kids needed to not be surprised that much. They needed things explained to them in advance so that their expectations were not thwarted. So we tried it. And it worked. We still do it! All the time! You just think we’re probably anal parents who over-communicate our plans. But that’s why we’ll say “OK, so we’re going to go to the store and then after we’re going to come back but it’ll be too late to watch anything and you still have to do your homework before bed so–”

“I know, I know,” you’ll say.

This is because of our experience with you as a toddler. But something has shifted over these years that I failed to notice. At some point, you stopped sweating the big stuff.

This year my appendix let us down. After five months of not knowing why I was so sick, mom had to pick you up from school and tell you something like “We need to hurry. We have to take Dad to the hospital.” And knowing you, you had some plan for how you’d like to spend your evening that almost definitely involved all of us watching Dr. Pol or something, and in that moment your plans were ruined. You went to the hospital in good spirits and then went home with Uncle Brent and then had no dad at home for 5 days, which must have really messed up all kinds of stuff.

That night in the ER the surgeon told us our Florida trip would need to be cancelled no matter what. You were there when he told us.  It meant no daily pool visits,  no daily grand-spoiling, no gaters and water birds and lizards outside the veranda, no trip to Animal Kingdom, no air boat adventure through an animal-packed bayou…

You were beyond stoic about it. You were a trooper. I would say you were even cool.

But God forbid we should say “no” to an extra cookie.  Someday I’ll figure this out. But I’d take a daughter who sweats the small stuff but can handle the big stuff any day over the reverse.