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Archive for July, 2009

mayaleft 001Tuesday morning I woke Alani twenty minutes early.  I’d decided to re-instate our custom of walking Max, her German Shepherd mix, every morning.  Stepfamily and Alani’s burgeoning extracurricular activities had shoved the morning walk tradition aside.

Alani now bristles with electronic devices – cellphone, I-touch, digital camera, and that little hand-held electronic game kids play.  It’s hard to get face time with her.  Even before those distractions, our morning walk was the best time for talking. 

I ironed my pants and shirt the night before – instead of the usual frantic morning ironing – so I’d have time for the walk.  I warned Alani that she’d be rising early.  She didn’t complain.  

Tuesday morning I showered, made Alani’s lunch, and woke her.  At seven am I slipped the choke collar and heavy blue leash around Max’s head.  His eyes bulged with excitement. 

I led him to the door.  Maya, the black puppy I got for Rachel six months ago, trotted after us. 

“Are you taking Maya?” Rachel asked.

Uh-oh. 

It’s hard to avoid the notion that Max, who I brought home as a tiny puppy for Alani in a cardboard box, before I met Rachel, is “our” dog – Alani’s and mine – and that  Maya  is “their” dog – Rachel’s and by extension Michael and Jack’s.  And vice versa.

“Not this time,” I said.

Even though Max is in theory Alani’s dog, Rachel has walked him, fed him, applied his monthly flea medication, and picked up countless piles of steaming Max-poop.  She cleaned up after Max entertained himself with the contents of our pantry.  He’s occasionally dragged her into oncoming traffic after spotting a dog on the other side of the street. 

I know what Rachel’s thinking: After all she’s done for Max, I won’t take Maya, “their” dog, for one measley walk? 

But I don’t want to bring Maya.  What I’d pictured was the resurrection of a pre-stepfamily tradition – Alani and I, strolling down the sidewalk, talking, Max trotting obediently at our side.  If instead Alani walked Max and I walked Maya, we would not be able to walk side by side. It would be tangled leashes and “Maya, NO!” instead of easy father-daughter conversation.  

“I’ll walk her tonight,” I called out to Rachel as I opened the front door for Max.

“You won’t be able to,” Rachel said.  “I’m taking her to the vet.”

I’d forgotten the vet appointment. Still, I proceeded with my Max-only plan.

I opened the door for Max and Alani.  Maya tried to dart through.  I pressed my leg against her, pinning her against the door frame.  She wriggled past, onto the front porch.  I grabbed her collar, pulled her back, and shoved the storm door shut.

Maya whimpered, staring through the glass at us.  Then she wailed.  It grew in volume and pitifulness the further down the front walk we got.  I kept going.  Several houses away, we could still hear her.

Alani and I walked around the block.  She told me her favorite Led Zeppellin albums. She demonstrated some dance steps from her summer camp revue, pretending to hold a hat on her head at a rakish angle, singing, and throwing down some Bob Fosse jazz steps on the sidewalk. 

When we rounded the corner on the way back, Rachel’s  grey Mariner backed out of the driveway, lurched into drive, and headed down the street.  Away  from us.  I was surprised that Rachel left without saying goodbye.  Was she mad that we left Maya behind?  I called her cell. No answer. 

I called later in the morning, after dropping Alani off at summer camp. 

She answered: “Hi babe!”  She didn’t sound mad, but she has a cheerful telephone affect that doesn’t always reflect her actual mood.

“You didn’t say goodbye this morning,” I said.

 “Oh,” she said cheerily,  “I had to get Maya to the vet.”

 Still, I think. 

 “Hmm,” I said.

 “And I was mad because you didn’t take Maya on the walk,” she said.

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hollywood 001I am talking on the phone to a talent agent.  For Alani.  This same agent was not interested in meeting Alani a few months ago.  But then Alani got a small part in an actual  Hollywood movie, a few lines.  She auditioned for it, got called back for a second audition, and got the part.  They filmed it here, in Michigan.   I’m wasn’t surprised Alani got it.  She’s talented and has worked hard at acting.

The agent emailed after learning that Alani got the role, congratulating us and inviting us and Alani to meet him. Alani’s mom thought it would be a good idea to talk to him.  So we’re having a phone conference with him.  Kevin.

Kevin mentions the possibility of auditions in L.A.   I tell him we’re not interested in L.A., or anything else out of town.  I tell Kevin that Alani’s 12, and I didn’t want anything that would disrupt her regular school life. Kevin seems to understand, but a few minutes later is talking about auditions in Chicago, “commercials” and “tutors”.

Kevin seems nice enough, but he  doesn’t care about my daughter.  He’s an agent.  He makes money off kid actors.  The more willing they are to travel, the more marketable they are.

Would I send my eighth grade daughter to L.A. for a month-long  babysitting job with people I didn’t know, in the middle of the school year?  Of course not.  So why would I send her for a movie or commercial?  Because the money’s better than babysitting wages?  No.  It’s not a kid’s job to make money.  Because  it’s glamorous and exciting?   That doesn’t seem like a good reason to yank a kid from school, either.

I’m wary of this business.

I flipped through a People Magazine  the other day.  It’s hard to resist.  I find a story about Mischa Barton, a young woman who was in the t.v. show “O.C.”.  People Magazine shows a picture of her a few years ago, and a picture now.  In the first picture she is thin and beautiful, her hair coiled in long tresses.  In the second picture her face is bloated and jowly, her mascara thick, her hair greasy and unkempt.  She looks like an overweight woman you might see at the 7-11, buying a carton of menthol cigarettes.  She had a breakdown.

I skim the article.  Mischa got her first film role at age 12 (Just like Alani!).  She moved to Hollywood and became  a huge success!  She made friends with other L.A. actor kids! Discovered alcohol and drugs! Disintegrated!

My theory is that kids deprived of their childhood become screwed-up adults.

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Rachel and I are sitting across from a fertility doctor.  A big, smooth mahogany desk stretches between us .  The doctor is a young woman with a confident demeanor.  Want a baby?  She can make that happen.

We’re in the doctor’s office even though, two months ago, Rachel decided, finally and definitely, that she did not want to have a baby.  Every practical consideration weighed against it:  Our ages, finances, and jobs;  the fact that we already had three kids between us and too many pets.

It’s my fault.  The weekend after my Dad died Rachel and I were standing in the living room of my Mom and Dad’s apartment in South Bend.  Relatives had been swirling in and out, but for a moment it was just us.  

“I want to have a baby,” I blurted.

 “Ok,” she said.

It turned out that, despite her very rational decision two months earlier not to have a baby, Rachel was full of maternal desire.  My sudden statement was the lit match.  She combusted.   She said she wanted not one, but two babies. 

Driving home from South Bend, she scrolled on her Blackberry, researching the science of baby-making.  Medical procedures.  Statistics.  Rachel is a pharmacist.  She gets this stuff.  Because of some medical issues, professional assistance would be required.   Because of our ages, she said, we should get started immeditately.   It was now or never.

As we headed east on I-94, I said something about the baby. 

 “Zuh,” Rachel said, emphasizing the plural.  “Baby-zuh”

 A boy, we decided, would be named Henry.  It’s my Dad’s father’s name, and my Dad’s middle name. Hank for short.  Rachel  made a face at “Hank”, but agreed. 

I asked her what we would name a girl.  Teale,  she said, after her Dad’s mom.  Her grandmother doted on Rachel, and kept a special bedroom just for her visits.  She died when Rachel was twelve.  Rachel told me that at the funeral, she stifled her own tears because she felt that the loss was really her father’s, and it was he who was entitled to grief, not her.

I nod.  I tell Rachel I like the name a lot.  I look over at her.  She whips a tear from her cheek and looks out the window.  “Sorry,” she says.

Rachel gets us in to see the fertility doctor two weeks later.  The office is nicer than the doctors’ offices  I usually visit.  In the waiting room it’s just us, another couple, comfy furniture, and a giant flat screen tv.  No horde of hacking patients, no Golf Digests.   Pleasant women in blue medical uniforms ask if we’d like some coffee.  

The doctor shakes Rachel’s hand first, medical professional to medical professional, and asks what sort of pharmacy work she does.  It’s clear that she’s read our questionnaire carefully.  As we sit down she notes that Rachel is obviously fertile – she has a history of getting pregnant quickly.  I hand her my paperwork and she compliments me on my motility and count.   

For a moment, with this experienced doctor exuding confidence, praising my spermatozoa and Rachel’s womb,  it feels like it’s a done deal.  The doctor, her eager staff and gleaming facility are at our baby-making disposal.  Rachel’s as good as pregnant.

Then the doctor pulls out a well-thumbed medical textbook.  The binding has started to rip away on the back,  and the corners are blunted.  She opens it and lays it in front of us.  The pages have the dull sheen of an old textbook.  On the open page is a chart.  It shows, for various ages, the chances of a baby with Downs Syndrome, and the overall chances of a baby with some genetic abnormality.

For us, it’s a 1 in 82 chance of Downs Syndrome, a 1 in 50 chance of any genetic abnormality.  The numbers feel grim.  I immediately wonder if they  can be improved by various treatments I’d read about.  I look up from the book as I start to ask my question, but the doctor is already shaking her head.  No.  She’s heard these hopeful questions before.    The textbook is old because the chart is set in stone.  The numbers have never changed.

By the time Rachel and I walk across the black asphalt parking lot, I’m letting go of the idea of having a baby.  It’s not just the chart.  My sudden desire to have a baby was kindled by my Dad’s death.  I wanted to fight death with life.  It was a natural, emotional reaction, but not a good reason to have a baby. 

Rachel took longer.  Having tasted it, it was hard for her to let go of the idea of being pregnant, giving birth, raising a child together.  She lay sleepless some nights.  She cried.  In fits of passion she tried to convince me, and herself, that we should still do it.   But in the end she knew that our instincts two months ago were right.

I feel bad for putting Rachel on this emotional roller coaster, but I love her for saying “ok” that afternoon.

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onions 001Rachel wants some of my onions, which irritates me.  We’re standing in my sister’s kitchen.  I just chopped two big white onions for the enchilada sauce I’m making.  I need four more. I tripled the recipe to feed us and my sister and brother’s families, thirteen in all.   

Rachel stands on the other side of the counter.  She’s making a rice dish for the dinner.  She needs a cup of chopped onion, she says.  Just a cup.

This request exasperates me.  Weren’t we just at the grocery store? Hadn’t I explained that I needed six large onions to make the enchilada sauce?  Rachel told me in the store that she’d brought four from home, so I only bought two more – the big white ones.  Back at my sister’s house, I get the onions Rachel brought out of the bag and discover that they are the smaller, brown-skinned ones.  The recipe says six large onions.  And now she wants a cup of my onions?

My wife’s eye’s tear up, either from my nastiness or the fumes from the pile of chopped onions. Or both.

My Dad died two weeks ago.  I am making the enchilada sauce at my sister’s house to assure myself that my brothers and sisters are still a family.  My mom and dad had been our sun, holding us steady in their gravitational pull.  But what happens when the sun goes away?  I worried that we would drift apart, that our family would disintegrate.  I called my sister last week and asked if we could come for a visit Saturday.  I called my brother from Chicago and invited him and his kids, too.  My sister lives halfway between us.

I told them Rachel and I would cook dinner.  A really good enchilada dish with sauteed onion, garlic, and fresh cilantro, I hoped, would hold us all together.

My Dad died on the Fourth of July weekend, in South Bend, Indiana.  For over a year, we’d planned a family reunion in South Bend for that very weekend.  Everyone arrived the Thursday night before the Fourth of July, from Florida, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan – fifty or sixty cousins,  grandchildren, uncles and aunts.  Some came to the hospital.  My dad, who had been ill and struggling for a year, died the next morning.

The gathering became half reunion, half wake.  We played volleyball, kickball, and spud, drank beer, smoked fat cigars, joked, laughed. Some of us burst into tears unexpectedly.  Some of us sat silently, saying nothing. 

On Sunday afternoon of the Fourth of July weekend, Rachel and I got in the car to leave South Bend for home.  The funeral would be Tuesday.  I needed to get my black suit.  Most of the family was leaving.  The reunion was over.  Some would return to South Bend in two days for the funeral.  We’d just said goodbye to my brother Tim and his wife. 

As I headed the car out of the parking lot, my chest tightened and tears rushed to my eyes.  I tried to talk, but my throat closed.    Finally, I told my wife, “I feel like as long as we’re all together, Dad’s not dead.”  She reached across the seat and put her arms around me. 

At my sister’s house two weeks later, Rachel and I rise early the morning after the enchilada dinner.  We go for a run.  It rained the night before, and the bushes and trees are dripping.  We walk the last mile.  Rachel stops to show me some blackberries growing by the sidewalk.

“I”m so sorry about the onions,” I tell her.  She smiles and presses her lips to mine.

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