You’re a sixth grader now and everything has changed

My little young lady.

Holy cow.

Noelle had warned us that there would be a sudden shift in your personality and maturity when you started sixth grade, and wow was she right. First of all, you love middle school. You mostly tolerate/kinda-maybe-on-a-good-day-like your classes, but so far you’re having a great time being a sixth grader. You walk to school with a gaggle of girls, LOVE the school lunches (Thank you Michelle Obama), and no longer seem sad or depressed. We’re fighting less as a family. You’re hyperbole has gotten particularly hyperbolic, which is hilarious. You’re funnier, easier, still struggling with chores, but wow. I can’t get over the sudden difference. We’ll see whether it lasts.

Ellie was pretty cool on your first day and you were surprised. The two of you had grown apart during the end of 5th grade and barely saw each other all summer (if at all…I can’t remember,) so the fact that she was suddenly “in” again was a surprise.  But alas, her behavior changed back to difficult on day 2, and it seems she’s becoming more of a frenemy. You had turned your focus to your new best friend/old friend Maya over the summer, so you’re fine letting this friendship go. But since you all walk to school together every day and Ellie has no other friends, I do worry about where this is headed. You came home the other day and announced that “Ellie is out of the group,” because she let you all buy her things at Starbucks for a few days but then refused to pay when it was her turn.

Oh, Starbucks is huge right now. And the Dollar Store.

I’m a little on edge letting you walk all over Evanston, and it is really taking some getting used to, but you LOVE the freedom and that’s something I’m super happy to see. I was getting worried about you this past summer. I think next summer we may need to go to some extraordinary measures to make sure you don’t get stuck in the house too much with your parents. ‘Cause you’re getting to an age where that’s not doing you any favors.

 

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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?

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.

Milestone: you got your ears pierced!!

Elliimg_5951 got her ears pierced recently, and has been trending ever-so-slightly mainstream in her gendered ways. It’s got you thinking, and pushing some boundaries you had set fr yourself. And after telling us only a few days ago that you wanted to this, got your ears pierced TODAY. I was totally surprised. And even more so than with the whole bra thing, life is like ALL about earrings right now, dude.

Simon Chester Gallo Bayiates 6/19/04 – 8/5/16

img_5769It was a Friday. Hot. Sunny. An otherwise nondescript August day. I decided to work from home on a whim. And I saw the first symptoms in the morning while I worked on my laptop. Old Man Simon had asked to get on the bed. I’d picked him up like football and put him down next to me while I typed away. But he couldn’t stay still. He panted. He stretched. He shifted. I smiled, even giggled a little, called him a dork. Because Simon–you may well remember, was so unpredictable and odd, nothing out-of-the-ordinary was alarming.

You were downstairs with nana and mom.  And like almost every day of your life, you woke up a little after Simon did; ate your breakfast in front of the TV, not long after Simon loudly snarfed down his food in the kitchen; sat and enjoyed your show while Simon snored next to you on the couch, or tick-ticked from one side of the room to the other. You probably held your nose because he farted that morning and said “Oh Simon!  That’s nasty!”

And then at one point in the early afternoon…I already forget when, we all began to notice his behavior was not normal. Stretching. Pacing. Panting. Unable to lie still for even five seconds. First we thought he was hot. We put some water on his back to see if that would help.  No change. And then we observed him more carefully. The stretching looked funny–half a downward-facing-dog stretch that came on fast, and seemed involuntary.

Nana was visiting and she wondered if maybe it was his back, or his stomach, but I know mom and I were thinking about his brain–something about the spasmodic nature of each stretch, the panting and pacing that followed.  A tortured conversation ensued about whether or not you should go to camp, and if so, how we might pick you up if things looked bad.

Several minutes later, nana and papa were taking you to camp and mom and I were at the vet.  They really weren’t sure what it was, and to rule out a back problem, they gave Simon a shot for pain, and some steroids–and in a weird way, to me, it felt like that was when Simon’s life was over.  Simon stopped being Simon from that moment on. The pain medication made him loopy and drunk-legged for 30 minutes or so, but the steroids–those made him a thousand times more restless, hungry, panting, edgy.

And the stretching continued when we came home.  His paws began to curl. A sure sign he was having seizures.

While nana and papa were retrieving you early from camp, mom and I were speeding down I-94 on our way to the emergency vet in Buffalo Grove. Simon was in the the back seat with me, seizures following on top of each other with the regularity of contractions…though for a spell, he almost seemed relaxed…his last moments of relaxation.

I was mostly convinced that he had developed a chronic condition because of his Cushings disease, and that it would be treatable…until I saw the look on the vet tech’s face when I told her he was having seizures. Then I knew.  They took him in immediately, an IV went into him and we waited.

You arrived with a headache and car sickness from the ride with nana and papa, and shortly after, you threw up in the waiting room bathroom. Mom bought us some food and we ate what we could while we waited. Nana and papa went home. You were hopeful, I’m sure, because you’re not a negative person, and you’re always ready to try, never inclined to give up.

This is one reason we had you leave the room while we discussed options with the vet. This is also why we tried the IV of antiepileptic medication, and why we were willing to take pills home with us and see if we could treat him with those. But when he came back from the IV treatment and immediately had another seizure, when they became more and more frequent, when he urinated during one…hope was lost.

Mom was a rock. (This is something about us you may have noticed. You’ll never know which will be the strong one, but one of us always manages to hold it together. Today it was mom’s turn.) I was a wreck. I choked up in front of the doctor. I cried when you came back in and we told you what was happening. You shouted “no!!!” and you and I clung to each other and wept.

Mom was stoic, resolved–a calm came over her that was clinical, practical and in some ways resembled relief. His long, tortured decline would come to an end, and he would be at peace. You and I were immediately in the thick of grief, and could only seem to console each other.

We were ushered into a small room that was carefully designed to help families let go of their pets. The lights were dim (which was good because your head was still pounding.) There were pictures of families with pets that had passed. A large, comfy dog mattress that could have fit a German shepherd, and a shelf full of picture frames and bric-a-brack.  Our job was to love on our dog and find enough peace to say goodbye. And with the steroids that coursed through Simon, this was a challenging mission. He paced away from our hugs. He sniffed low when tried to kiss his head, and climbed the shelves and knocked over the bric-a-brack when we tried to keep him still.  Your thoughtful mother gave Simon her Red Robbin sweet potato fries and we giggled while he inhaled them from their cardboard container.  He was still hungry.

How do you know when you’re ready to kill your dog? This is an impossible question, but at some point we seemed to have an answer without trying and we pressed a little button that summoned a vet. We knelt down next to him, and listened to the doctor’s careful, soft-spoken explanation. We saw him drift off into sleep and we hugged him, kissed him, dripped tears on his jowls while we watched his tiny black and white belly rise and fall, rise and fall in a medicated sleep. And then again we were asked if we were ready for the final injection. We nodded, held hands, petted our Simon, and watched his belly go still.

I can still hear your tears. A tiny being with such an outsize personality, an expulsive, snorty, smelly, loud, ridiculous little animal, suddenly as still as a stone, as lifeless and invisible as end of a deep woods winter breeze. Gone. Just like that.

She carried Simon gingerly up and out of the room. We packed up our things, and left the hospital. While making our way through the waiting room, we were a walking tableau–two parents on either side of their 10-year-old daughter, her face tear stained, the family’s faces ashen. In the little girl’s hands, she held a dogless leash and collar.  The story told itself. One empathetic owner’s gaze after another met ours as we made the slow walk to the car. We said little during the long drive home. You and I left the car and were headed out of the garage when we noticed Mom wasn’t with us.  She was bent over the steering wheel, crying. Now it was her turn.

Zoe greeted us from the couch, her head hung low, almost submissive, but she seemed to read our sadness and enter a state of mourning–not knowing why, but joining us nonetheless.

We talked that night about your feelings. While we were still in the hospital you described the peculiar mix of emotions you were having, and we told you it was “grief.” “What’s that?” you replied. We had a lot of interesting talks over the next few days about what grief is and how you have to welcome it or else it overwhelms you.

What I’ll never forget is that you were as much a comfort to me as mom was.  It’s the first time we ever went through something like this together, as equals.  You didn’t become so inconsolable that we had to shift our attention to caring for you before mourning ourselves. Instead, you mourned with us.  We all needed and leaned on each other.  Through all this pain, that was something kind of beautiful.