Music for a man who couldn’t sing ….

Tomorrow marks twelve years since an event that changed my life, and the lives of many others: the sudden death of my father, Cecil. This is us, on the last day we spent together. He was gone less than three months later.

img004-edit

In the years since his death, I’ve written pages about him. Diary entries. Poems. Tributes. Facebook statuses. Long, rambling emails to family and friends. All flowing from a wound that was inflicted the moment I found out that he was gone. Sometimes, the words are inspiring or even funny, if the wound has formed a thick enough scab. Sometimes, they are soggy with a grief that lingers even after all these years – or even angry, if the scab’s been ripped off by some trigger or other. At times, the words come easy – tripping over each other, sounding just right together. This is not one of those times. Rather than wrestle with words, as I often do, I’ve decided to turn to music. Dad loved music. He loved it loud. He loved it to the point of rattling cars and pictures popping off walls and blown speakers. I’ve put together a few songs he liked, and a few songs that remind me of him. I’ve included links, so you can listen along if you’ve got the time. (Sorry about all the advertisements at the start of the videos – I tried to avoid them, but they’re everywhere.)

He liked country music alot. In fact, he liked all things country. Cowboy hats and boots, broken-in jeans, big belt buckles. He had a whole collection of a big belt buckles; I wear them now. He liked wide-open skies, and the romance of the road. Every summer, he led a caravan of his siblings on six-week road trips from Newfoundland to Florida to California to the Yukon (and all points in-between). Some of my most enduring (and endearing) memories of him are from those trips, perhaps because, even as a child, you sense when your parents are truly happy – and you soak it in. “Big Wheels in the Moonlight”, by Dan Seals, a song he had on a well-played mix tape, captures it well. As does “City of New Orleans”, by Arlo Guthrie – a song he could sometimes be heard singing on those road trips. Badly, since the man could not carry a tune – yet, he sang all the time. This is something I still love about him.

The summer I was thirteen, we drove to Alaska. All the way there and back, a Johnny Horton tape made the rounds between the vans of families. “North to Alaska” by Johnny Horton was broadcast daily over the CB radio. Yes, every van had a CB in it. It was used for everything from announcing pit stops to tracing a van that had gotten lost to telling jokes. Sometimes, us kids would play with it – “breaker, breaker, any takers”, and you just might get one. Other kids, lonely truckers, concerned police officers and God knows who else.

Dad did everything fast – he ate fast, fell asleep and woke up fast, worked fast, drove fast. He loved Alabama’s “I’m In A Hurry” – that song was him. Everyone who knew him was always telling him to slow down. Now that he’s gone, I’m glad he never listened to any of us. He was only forty-four years old, and what killed him was a massive heart attack caused by an undetected birth defect. According to the autopsy results, had he been treated for his heart condition, he might have lived another year. In other words, he was never meant to last long. I believe that he sensed that, on some level, somewhere – that there was a voice inside him urging “go, go, go – you don’t have much time, do it all now”.

Maybe it was this same sense of urgency, of the preciousness of time, that helped him truly live. Because he didn’t just work hard, he played hard. He had an I-dare-you grin and a loud laugh. He held onto the wonder and joy that many people lose soon after childhood. A rainy night, to him, meant a clean car in the morning. He loved it, like Eddie Rabbitt’s song. He could often be heard singing “Centerfield” by John Fogerty – he was always ready to play. Baseball, yes, but his best game was hockey. He drove his snowmobile like the wind. He loved roller coasters and water slides. Sometimes, he was the biggest kid on the swings at the playground. As a teacher, escorting his students on field trips, he entertained busloads of teenagers by singing, over and over, Todd Rundgren’s “Bang the Drum All Day”. He knew they weren’t laughing with him, but at him, and he didn’t care. He was getting a day away from the classroom! Being talked about or laughed at never bothered him. Whenever I hear Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party”, I think of him and what he used to say. “People talking about you says more about them than you. Imagine what a sad life they have, with nothing to think about but what you’re doing!” And I try to live my life without worrying about what anyone else thinks of it …. There is such freedom in that.

Another song that comes to mind when I remember my father is “Oh Very Young” by Cat Stevens. Forty-four years really is “a short while”. This feels more and more true, the closer I come to it. There is a part of everyone that thinks their parents will last forever …. I never realized that I thought so, until I had to say goodbye to Dad – the shock of it was like a solid object, something I could touch and hold. And then there’s “Forever Young” by Rod Stewart. Beautiful words from a parent to a child, plans and hopes and dreams for a life of integrity and joy and love. But it wasn’t me who flew away – in the end, it was Dad. No matter. He gave me enough in his twenty-one years with me to last my whole life. Walk in like you own the place. Shake hands like a man. You’re as good as anyone else, and better than some. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Never give up. Sing from your guts. I love you. Like the Cooper Brothers sang, “The Dream Never Dies” – just the dreamer. The dream, like the song, is what lasts forever. I don’t run as fast as he did, but I don’t hesitate much. I know now how dear my life really is, and the people in it. When I want something, I’m not content to say “someday” – because I know that not everyone has a someday. Losing Dad was a hard, heart-twisting way to discover this truth, but I’m grateful that I did. I’m doing everything I can to make sure that I’ll have no regrets, and nothing left unsaid or undone. Thanks, Dad.

The song I’ll end this post with is a country song – “Daddy’s Hands” by Holly Dunn. The video is filled with cowboys and cheese but the words could easily have been written about my Dad. I’ve never forgotten the love in those hard-working, hard-playing, calloused, filthy, part-time-mechanic hands – or the pride and happiness in his face, that deep sense of contentment from a life lived well.

For when they leave me ….

EmptyNest

These days, one of my resolutions as a mother is to stop doing for my girls and start teaching them how to do. When I’m tired and busy, like I almost always am, it’s easier to pick up that trail of toys and books and junk that leads from wherever they were to wherever they are, than it is to tell them to do it, and then wait while they huff and puff about it and put everything in some other place where it doesn’t belong, and then tell them to do it again, properly this time. It’s easier to get them that glass of milk than it is to age five years in five minutes watching them carry the heavy jug to the table and slop milk everywhere while seemingly tossing it in the general direction of the glass. It’s easier to make those ponytails in their hair than it is to try to direct their unaccustomed fingers in the complicated twisting and looping of the scrunchie. It’s easier to change the batteries in their toy than watch them fumble with the screwdriver and the plastic cover, and jam the batteries in the wrong way twice before they get it right. It’s easier to read the ingredients on the cereal box for them than it is to listen to them trying to sound out riboflavin and thiamine.

But parenting isn’t supposed to be easy all the time, right? These are things I’m supposed to be teaching Fiona and Bridget to do, and then standing back while they practice. Yes – but if it’s a choice between us being late again and me doing whatever-it-is for them just one more time, I’ll do it. Guilty as charged …. The other night, though, we weren’t going anywhere or even doing anything. There was time. Fiona asked if she could have her earrings changed. I said “no, you can’t have them changed – tonight, you’re going to do it yourself”. And, after a few ouchy jabs and some frustration, she did. Clearly proud of her efforts, she said “this is great, Mommy, I’ll know one more thing for when I leave you”.

For when I leave you. For when she leaves me. They’re going to leave me.

She said it so casually, not even looking at me, completely unaware that she had just given my heart a very tight squeeze. For a few seconds, I couldn’t respond. I stared down at the bathroom counter through a film of tears. Forcing them back into my head, I cleared my throat and said huskily “yes, that’s right – my whole job as your mother is to make sure you’re ready to leave me someday”. She was still examining her earrings in the mirror, her face serious and winter-pale so that her scattering of freckles stood out. Her dark eyelashes sweeping up and down, her silky blonde hair falling into her eyes from either side of her widow’s peak. Her bow-shaped lips pursed in concentration. Bridget was brushing her teeth. Her caramel-coloured locks pulled back in a messy ponytail, her dolphin forehead, her dark eyelashes making shadows on her baby-round cheeks, her cartoon-animal brown eyes. Toothpaste foam all over her chin. Both of them wearing their thick, fuzzy sleepers. It had been an ordinary moment. Bedtime, the nightly routine for years now. Pyjamas, teeth-brushing, story, prayer, kisses and hugs. More kisses and hugs. Requests for water. Questions they could have asked any time over the past few hours, but it’s only now that they want an answer. Fiona’s sentence, though, changed my view of our evening. Suddenly, it all seemed precious – and fleeting.

After they were tucked in, I cried. I stifled sobs while making lunches for the next day, swiping tears from my cheeks before they could fall on the sandwiches. I don’t know why this hit me so hard. I know they’ll leave me someday. This is not news. I’ve known this since the first time I saw their red, wrinkled newborn faces. Somehow, though, in the everyday scramble of alarm clocks and meals and housework and shopping and school and daycare and the office and appointments and breaking up fights and doling out punishments and hitting milestones like targets in a pinball game …. I forgot.

Years from now, and those years will fly by – people who’ve been there and done that, and are now wearing the t-shirt, love to tell me that – my house will be quieter and cleaner. Shopping and meals will be for two. Much less complicated, and less expensive, too. Nobody negotiating with me for three carrots and two cookies instead of five carrots and one cookie. No schlepping them from school to daycare to activities to playdates to birthday parties. Walking across parking lots will mean heading toward the entrance of a building, free hands swinging – instead of a death grip on one small hand, while watching with a tight throat as the other kid practices her street smarts. Bedtime will mean getting myself ready for bed, and no one else. There won’t be any questions manufactured for the sole purpose of staving off lights-out. No homework remembered at the last minute. In some ways, this will be lovely. I’ll be able to read and write as much as I want, and my time will be truly my own for the first time since Fiona was born. But what if the cacaphony of day-to-day life with kids is actually the background music? I guess I won’t know til it’s switched off …. you know, when they leave me.

Don’t be stupid and selfish – vaccinate!

When our daughters were babies, one of the most difficult parts of caring for them was taking them to our family doctor for scheduled immunizations. Watching them either sleeping peacefully or dispensing toothless, sloppy grins at the other people in the waiting room, knowing what they were in for, I felt like a criminal. Holding them still while the injection was performed, and hearing the sharp intake of breath, followed by the howl of pain …. For Fiona’s first vaccination, I held her facing me. Oh, the looks she gave me! Shock, and then terror, and then red-eyed reproach as noisy sobs slowed to the occasional hiccup. After that, I always turned her toward the doctor. Not fair to him, I suppose, but today she has a great relationship with Dr. Kasbia – as does Bridget, who, between the ages of one and three, used to start bawling as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the clinic.

As hard as it was to cause those babies pain, I never once questioned the decision to have them vaccinated. Not even when my mother mentioned that there might be a connection between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) immunization and autism …. This was based on a myth perpetuated by Andrew Wakefield, a now-disgraced scientist whose false report scared thousands of parents away from the MMR vaccine. He was proven wrong in 2010. My belief in the science of vaccination, and my desire to protect Fiona and Bridget from terrible diseases, made having them vaccinated imperative for me. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way. Many parents have decided to delay – and even skip – vaccinations for their children. In some cases, it’s based on fear of the side effects of vaccines. In other cases, it’s rooted in their religious beliefs. Either way, their actions – or, rather, lack thereof – have had, and will continue to have, dangerous consequences for all of us.

This is a map showing recent outbreaks of diseases for which we have safe, effective vaccines:

Image

Measles is represented by red, mumps by brown, rubella by blue, polio by orange, and whooping cough by green circles. The yellow circles represent a group of other, less-common diseases.

For those of you who feel like you’ve heard this from me before, you have – it’s a drum I beat every now and then, usually after a story about another nearly-eradicated disease that has returned to haunt us because of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Today’s drum solo is brought to you by the return of measles to Ottawa. Measles is scary. It can lead to inflammation of the lungs, and encephalitis. It can cause miscarriages and birth defects. It kills thousands of people every year. Mumps can cause miscarriages, and infertility. It can lead to pancreatitis, and encephalitis. Rubella is best prevented because of its effect on the fetus of a pregnant woman if she contracts it. It can cause miscarriage or still-birth. If the child lives, he or she can be born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Victims of CRS suffer from heart defects, blindness, deafness or other life-threatening organ disorders. Polio causes rapid paralysis. In some patients, the severity of the paralysis is such that they require the help of a machine to breathe. The flacidity of muscles can lead to skeletal deformities such as scoliosis and equinus foot. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a virus characterized by a cough so harsh it has been known to cause fainting, hernias, and even collapsed lungs. Common complications include pneumonia, seizures and encephalopathy. The younger the patient, the more likely these complications are to occur.

Why wouldn’t everyone want to take advantage of the tools at their disposal to eradicate these horrible diseases? Maybe the images of children in iron lungs and polio victims trying to walk on twisted legs, the sad stories of ancestors who died in childhood of measles or whooping cough, the clustered tombstones of whole families struck down by diphtheria, have disappeared from the minds of this generation of parents? No matter. If we keep going the way we are, we’ll have created our own fresh gallery of horrors, experienced first-hand by our children.

What’s in a car? Well, in our case ….

mazda_3_4dr_01

We Chepitas love our cars. Hard. I’m talking daily-commute, weekend-adventures-anywhere-within-a-300-mile-radius hard. May-2-4-jaunts-all-around-New-England hard. Annual-multi-thousand-mile-vacations hard. Big summer road trip destinations of the past include Wyoming, New Orleans, Arizona, Florida, Mexico (in the good old days when you could cross the US-Mexico border without fear of never being heard from again), Oregon, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, and Mississippi. When we get where we’re going, we drive around some more, exploring the area. So, we change cars more frequently than most people we know. We’re picking up a new one tomorrow, in fact, and trading in our current ride. There are two benefits to this: 1) we will have a perfect, never-driven vehicle to use and abuse and love into the ground and 2) we will not have to clean our car, a task that would make even Mr. Clean lose his perpetual grin (and maybe even uncross his arms).

However, so as to maintain our dignity (and to keep Mazda from refusing to deal with us ever again), we have removed all surface debris from our outgoing vehicle. There was an impressive pile of trash – used kleenexes (shudder), crumpled candy wrappers, broken crayons, bedraggled hair accessories. Under Bridget’s booster seat, there were crumbs from all four food groups, plus the ones known mainly to parents of young children, such as “chocolate”, “animal-shaped” and “neon”. A handful of gummy bears have made themselves part of the floor. It took us years of popcorn-encrusted mats to figure out that Cracker Jacks, being covered in caramel-flavoured Krazy Glue, are not a wise travel snack for toddlers. Now we know that gummy bears in a car parked in direct sunlight in the Great Basin Desert will become primary-coloured puddles – and, days later, on a near-freezing night in the mountains of Montana, acquire the sticking power of old gum. Life is a journey of learning, right?

Aside from trash, in addition to the usual boring essentials like glasses and lip balm and coupons, we’ve acquired quite a collection of travelling companions. Not really knowing why I was writing, as writers tend to do, I made a list. Because this is BethBlog, you get to read it ….

– Ryan’s ratty North America atlas, which has accompanied us everywhere (Manitoba’s page is really hurtin’)

– a faded bandana, from the bad old pre-air-conditioning days (some of which were spent in El Paso in August)

– Ryan’s Buddy Holly sunglasses, immortalized in pictures from our honeymoon – he doesn’t wear them anymore, but he can’t seem to part with them

– my four pairs of Dollarama sunglasses, because I am a Beth of extremes and cannot ever have just one of anything

– two perfectly smooth rocks from the Hamilton beach strip

– an empty bubble container from our wedding, with orange and green ribbons still wrapped around it

– a business card and (non-working) pen from Rick’s DJ Service, also from our wedding

– a Jump-All-But-One game from some Cracker Barrel, somewhere

– a (working) pen from some Days Inn, somewhere, and a (non-working) pen from a Super 8 in West Greenwich, RI

– business cards from Sandy’s Deli Diner (Renfrew, ON), Amanda’s Village Motel (Saranac Lake, NY), Budget Lodge (Warren, PA), Econolodge (Drums, PA), Open Gate Motel (Warwick, RI) and Hitch’n Post RV Park (Wray, CO), where we tented with coyotes

– a rock with “Culbertson Museum” scribbled on one side, and “Montana 2007” on the other (If you want to see mannequins in everything from Davy Crockett caps to painted- lady pasties, and stacks of old newspapers and magazines, and an entire barnful of everyone-in-Montana’s-great-grandmother’s-household-appliances, and a jaw-dropping conglomerate of rusted farm machinery, you must visit this place! We’re still glad we did.)

– a “passport” containing stamps from every little town along Nevada’s Highway 50, “the loneliest road in America” (If you want a certificate with your name on it, signed by the governer of Nevada – and, of course, we did – all you have to do is make it through what used to be the Pony Express, getting your passport stamped all the way. It is a breathtaking drive, and well worth the creeping fear that you might end up a pile of bones under a pile of sand under a pile of tumbleweeds under a blazing sun, because you havn’t seen a fellow human being in 150 miles.)

The last item I give you, beloved readers, is a list (yeah, I know, me and my lists) I made in 2011, on our way to and from New Mexico, of all the items Bridget claimed to dislike. Background note: Bridget was a notoriously disagreeable – dare I say surly – child for a long time. Here’s what really got her goat back then: apple crepes, apple fritters, some apple juices, avocado, bean dip, bloomin’ onion (an appetizer on the Outback Steakhouse menu), cantaloupe, chocolate chip pancakes, chocolate donuts, cooked oranges, cooked tomatoes, corn tortillas, graham crackers, green chile sauce, guacamole, honeydew, lemon-butter chicken, M’n’M cookies, muffins (yes, all muffins), olives, onions, orange-mango juice, pepperoni, raspberry cakes, roast beef, seasoned fries, smoked turkey. Not sure what she actually ate during those two weeks …. Maybe she was living on found-food from under her booster seat? Or ABC gummy bears? Someday, I will show her this list, and we’ll laugh and laugh …. and then I will tell her what I want for Mother’s Day.

You’re probably thinking that, with all this junk, getting a new car is a great way to purge. Nah. We’re just gonna put it all in our new car, and drive around acquiring more of the same.

A girl and her hamster ….

Image

One Christmas, when our little Bright Eyes was six, one of her presents was a piece of paper. On it, Ryan had drawn a clock and …. well, he said it was a hamster. In my opinion, it looked more like a jackalope, but I digress. The caption read “It’s hamster time!”. It was basically a homemade coupon for a shopping trip to the small animals section of a pet store. She had had several sad and traumatizing experiences with fish, but – eternal optimist that she is – she was excited to leap headlong into hamster ownership. On a freezing night just a couple of weeks later, we went to PetSmart. Each girl chose a hamster from a litter of nearly-grown furballs. Fiona chose an orange and white long-hair, and named him Fifi. Yes, Fifi, for a boy hamster. Hey, gender-bending is trendy now, right? Fiona was ahead of the curve …. Hamsty, Bridget’s choice, met a sad (and nasty) end. He’s been replaced by Fuzzy “Luke” Pom-Pom. Yes, that is his name. He’s a lovely little grey critter, with a face more like a mouse than a hamster. Fifi is with us still. And thank Heaven for that, as Fiona utterly adores him.

Every day that she can, she sets aside time for Fifi – building him tunnels from empty paper towel rolls or mazes from blocks, or just letting him sit on her lap and nibble a treat. She checks his eyes and claws and tail to make sure he’s healthy. At some point during her time with him, each person in the house will be presented with Fifi, and hear her singing his praises. He’s so cute and so sweet and so gentle and so smart and …. If she’s too busy for time with Fifi, she feels guilty, and she’ll slip him an extra cashew or blackberry. All guests must be introduced to Fifi at some point during their stay. When she’s looking forward to a playdate, she’ll always mention that she’s excited to show Fifi off to whichever friend is coming over. If his dish is only half full, she rushes to top it up, discarding the pellets and grass seeds, at which he turns up his wiggly little nose, to make room for his favourites (sunflower seeds, which she picks, one at a time, out of the hamster food bag by hand). If there’s a bare spot on the floor of his cage, she carefully sweeps the shavings over it so his little paws won’t get cold. Never in the history of humans and animals bonding has a rodent been so loved.

But Fifi’s old. He was almost an adult hamster when Fiona chose him as her pet. That was more than two years ago now. We have the rodent equivalent of an eighty-year-old man on our hands. My mother has suggested that he’s living on love. He’s as deliciously soft as ever, but the orange patches of fur are fading. He sleeps alot of the time, and he moves slowly when he is awake. He still runs on his wheel, but not as fast or as long as he once did. His eyes are a little cloudy, and I’m pretty sure his hearing is not as sharp as it ought to be. He sleeps through top volume dance parties. Fiona understands how old he is – at least, I hope she does. I’ve explained to her that the life expectancy of hamsters is not much more than what Fifi’s had – that he will be lucky to make it to three years. She is so gentle when she handles him, and even lowers her voice when he’s in her hands – this from the loudest, most rambunctious little girl I know. She’s protective of him, and watches him like a mama bear watching her cub when he’s in someone else’s hands. If he makes a funny noise, she presses her face to his cage, anxiously checking to see that he’s ok. Oh, my heart ….

She’s fully convinced that Fifi is the best pet in the world. When some of her friends talk about their new bunny or kitten or puppy, she doesn’t register the slightest flicker of desire. She doesn’t want a brand-new, bright-eyed fluffy ball of novelty. She’s got her Fifi, old and slow and wearing out, and he’s enough.

Most of the time, our children learn from us. Sometimes, though, we learn from them.