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Above and Beyond

At Daddy’s nod, the twins tear open a package found in the mailbox. “Is that book about Kohl, Daddy?” Daddy reads it to them over dinner. Later, Daddy introduces them to the sender via Facebook. Their observations…

“I’m not going to dye my hair that much red. I’m just going to do strips.” (Um…)

“Is that doggie trying to get out of that pool? Can someone help him?”

“Oh, she’s so lucky. She gets to ride a convertible.”

“Daddy, she has a drink in her hand a lotta bit of times, right?”

If the deal wasn’t sealed at a package in the mail, it got there right quick upon learning that Sirius Black is from Harry Potter, the height of cool in their current world. Thanks for the gift, Lee. Above-and-beyond thoughtful.

Best. Table. Ever.

Cory comes in to the office on Monday morning while Daddy is downloading pictures from his phone. After morning hugs and kisses…

C (nodding toward the screen): Did those people read your story about me?
D: Well, they didn’t read it. Daddy read it from the podium.
C: What’s a podium?
D: It’s a thing on the stage where you stand. And there’s a microphone.
C (looking up suddenly): You were on a stage?
D: Of a sort.
C: Did they like it?
D: I think that they did. I think so.
C: They are smiling so pretty. So, I think that they liked it.
D: They were a fun bunch of people, Cory.
C: That’s a long way to go just to read a story. That’s like to Boston or something.
D: It sure is, Cory. It sure is. But, it was fun.
C: Next time you go to Lanta, you should read them a book, not just a story.
D: Think so?
C: Uh huh.
D: I’ll work on that.

She snuggles. The low point of the trip to Atlanta was probably a keynote address about putting away screens to put people first, given to a room of people, precious few of whom were not glued to their screens the entire time. The high point was sitting at the “Best. Table. Ever.” These women were the height of hospitality…and a complete crackup.

Mine was the second to last reading, just before the winner. The subjects of the other finalists’ blog posts, read before mine, included: the first time someone’s son ran away (at ten), the unexpected and eventual death of a sibling in a car accident, human trafficking/sex slavery in Southeast Asian brothels, reconciling with a mother suffering from Alzheimer’s, etc. As each came up and the tears flowed, the women on either side of me, though touched by the readings, would lean in to me and say, “Michael, is yours funny?” Then, “Michael, you gotta make it funny.” Another post. More tears. “No, seriously, yours better be funny.” The next post, about surviving a breast cancer diagnosis, is read from the podium. Very heartfelt. Her voice breaks. People reach for tissues. Not a dry eye remains in the house. Including mine. After it ends and the blogger is hugged from the stage, my sidekicks lean in again, “If yours ain’t funny, Ima have to shoot you…or myself.”

My finalist post was “‘Motherless’ Children” from this past Mother’s Day: semi-serious theme but delivered with lighter moments. Reading the mood, I tried to play up the lighter moments as I read. I tried to sell it, and the room appeared to appreciate the effort. I know my table mates did. It’s been a while since I presented in front of a crowd, pulling laughs from material that isn’t necessarily targeted directly at funny. I used to do it as a math teacher. I did it a couple times presenting on aspects of the law at my firm(s). It’s a muscle I’d definitely like to exercise more, people…but could the next opportunity maybe not be on the other side of the country at a time that requires me to fly there on Saturday and back on Sunday…?

After me, the winner read a touching post about coming to terms with divorce, and everyone came together to celebrate an hour, hour and a half of great writing.

Good, solid fun, definitely worth the trip.

Killing with Kindness

F (at dinner): Daddy, Ima tell you something.

Pause.

D: Okay, Fisher. What do you want to tell me?
F: Daddy, today Cory told me that she didn’t want to play with me.
D: She did?
F: Yah, I asked her if she wanted to play with me, and she just eh, er, ur told me no. She didn’t want to.
D: Oh, I don’t like the sound of that. When was this?
F: At recess. She just told me “no” and…
C: But, Daddy, I wanted to make…
D: Cory, hold on. Can you let Fisher finish, please?
C: But, Daddy…
D: Please let Fisher finish, and then you can “But, Daddy,” okay?
C (grunting): Okay, but…
D: Fisher, it happened at recess?
F: Yes, and she just told me “no” and walked away to play with other people. That hurt my feelings.
D: Oh, I’m sorry, Fisher. That never feels good when someone says “no” and doesn’t want to play with you. Cory, why did you say that?
C (arms gesticulating): Because, Daddy, I wanted to make new friends! I can’t just play with Fisher and Pierce and Chloe all day, and I can’t just see Fisher at home and then just play with him at recess and at the Y. Iffin I do that, then I can’t make new friends.
D (not such an easy one after all): I see. So…
F: But, Daddy, that really hurt my feelings when she said that.
D: Cory, how does that make you feel when you hear Fisher say that?
C: But, Daddy, I didn’t want to hurt Fisher. I just wanted to make new friends. And, if new friends don’t want to play with Fisher and Pierce, then how can I just play with them?
D: Well, how about this? If you can find a way for everyone, new friends and your brother to play together, can you try to do that?
C: But, Daddy, sometimes they don’t just want to play that superhero game, and Fisher and Pierce want me to, and…
F: Well, I’m your brother, Cory. So, you shouldn’t just hurt my feelings like that.
D: Cory, I just want you to try, if you can, to find a way so that everyone can play a game together. You don’t have…
C: But, Daddy! I know you just don’t want me to make new friends, and…
D: No, it isn’t that. I do want you to make new friends, but I don’t want you to hurt Fisher’s feelings either. Fisher is your brother, your twin brother, and he’s so super nice to you, and…

Cory keeps but-daddying every time Daddy tries to encourage her, without ordering her, to include Fisher in her play. She has every right to branch out. She does. But, at least right now, the branching out comes a bit more easily to her, and the idea of him standing rejected, by his own twin sister, on the playground is a little gut-wrenching. When Fisher heads off to the bathroom, Daddy picks her up in a bear hug, whispering again in her ear that Fisher is her twin brother and that Daddy just wants her to try to avoid hurting his feelings at recess, if she can. She but-daddies again, if more quietly.

Ten minutes later, it’s time to feed the dogs. Cracking raw eggs into the dog bowls is near the top of the kids’ best moments in any day. It’s tricky: don’t bang too hard or it will all come out all over; too soft, and the egg won’t come apart. Inevitably, at least a little bit of egg goes almost everywhere, including all over their hands. But, they love it. The prior evening, Cory, for some reason unknown to Daddy, couldn’t crack eggs with Papa. So, Daddy had assured her, she’ll get to crack eggs tonight.

D: There are only four eggs to crack, guys.
F: Because Kohl isn’t here?
D: That’s right. So, two eggs apiece.
C: Can I crack three eggs because I didn’t get to crack any eggs yesterday?
D: No. Two eggs apiece.
F: Cory, you can crack my eggs tonight.

Hesitant excitement starts bubbling under the surface of Cory’s face.

D: Are you sure, Fisher? You can each crack two…
F: No, Daddy, it’s okay. Cory, can crack my eggs tonight because she didn’t get to crack any eggs the nother night.
D: That’s so nice, Fisher. Cory, what do you say?
C (still tamping down a smile): Thank you, Fisher.
D: Now, Cory, can you go get the chair so you can stand on it?
F: I’ll get it, Daddy! (Dragging it over to the counter.) There you go, Cory.
C: Thanks, Fisher.
D: Fisher, you can do the green beans while Cory cracks the eggs, okay?
F: Okay.
D (while Cory tentatively cracks a first egg): Can you go get the can of green beans?
F: Oh, sure!

He returns with the can of green beans and takes out the can opener. She finishes with the eggs. He starts trying to open the can, but he still needs Daddy to close the opener on the can.

F: Cory, do you want to do a few turns?
C (looking at Daddy, who raises his eyebrows at her, and then looking at Fisher): Okay, Fisher. But, I have to go wash my hands. Can you wait until I get back?
F: Oh, sure!

After they, with a little help from Daddy, get the can open…

F: Cory, do you want to do some of the green beans?
C: Okay. We can both do it.
D: How about Fisher does Boston’s and Cory does Quincy’s?
F: Okay.

The two of them are now working in concert, sharing every remaining step of the way toward fully fed dogs, using ridiculously polite words the whole way. The harmony continues through the rest of the night, from a mini-dance party to showers to Harry Potter. While Fisher is brushing his teeth before “lay down two minutes,” Daddy picks Cory up again.

D (whispering in her ear): You don’t have to include Fisher every time with your friends, Cory. And you don’t have to play with him instead of your friends every time, but if…
C (not “but, Daddy…” this time): Daddy, I’ll try to have a game that everyone can play. (Pause.) Because Fisher is my nice brother.

He didn’t intend it, but where Daddy made little headway, that boy just stepped in and killed his sister with kindness. Sure, she got to crack his eggs, help with the green bean can, and still dump green beans, scatter kibble, etc. But, he came out way, way ahead.

Hidden Eyes and “Aromatic” Dinners

Yesterday, I got up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight. Stumbling in the dark, I started to step on something on the way to the bathroom, quickly adjusting my foot and starting to whisper, “Sorry, K…” I often nearly stepped on Kohl’s leg, outstretched in his sleep, early in the morning. But, yesterday, it couldn’t have been Kohl’s leg; it was just something random on the bedroom floor.

A couple nights earlier, during dinner, Rocco (a frequent guest dog in the house) positioned himself under the kitchen table.

C: Daddy, Rocco is taking Kohl’s spot.

Pause.

F: Daddy, Rocco doesn’t bookie like Kohl does, right? That’s a good thing because then at dinner you don’t have to ignore the smell, right, Daddy?
D (smiling sadly): That’s right, Fisher.

About every other month, I groomed Kohl myself, giving him his schnauzer cut: shaved close everywhere, except for shag on his legs and underneath, a beard that grayed over time, and long eyebrows. Those long eyebrows hid his eyes from the world. Maybe because he was jet black and his eyes were so dark, you almost never saw them, even from the side where the hair was shorter. Hidden eyes probably made him all the scarier to strangers. You basically had to be giving him a bath (when the water flattened his hair) or cuddling up close to see his eyes. Day to day, it just didn’t happen, even for a pack mate. I always thought of it as a sign of our connection that he and I could lock eyes without triggering an uncomfortable response from him, a need to look quickly away, and even with me, he couldn’t do it for all that long.

Although I don’t regret one bit having the hospital wheel him into a room where I could say “good-bye” to him in the middle of the night, one thing about our last moments together felt so eerie: his eyes. They were wide open, and the hair all around them was pushed down, sort of damp from the moisture leaking out, which I imagined, just imagined, were tears. Those eyes were too exposed. Seeing his eyes, normally so hidden, wide open and visible felt unnatural. Since then, I’ve been determined to find a picture of him that shows his eyes in life. It has been harder than I thought to find one, and when I did, I had to figure out how to lighten it enough to make his eyes visible.

The walks are easier now. (He accounted for half the weight.)
The house is quieter now. (He produced over half the noise.)
The floor is cleaner now. (He picked debris from his hair and spat it all over.)
We now buy fewer eggs and chicken legs. (He had a big appetite.)
Dinner is now less, um, foul. (He was a nasty gas machine.)

I’d take harder walks, a louder house, dirtier floors, more eggs, and “aromatic” dinners in exchange for locking eyes with him a time or two more. Maybe that would erase the image that I now have of him on that table with eyes that he needed me to close for him…which, of course, I did.

So many human connections become richer and deeper over time, usually as they get more complicated. The beauty of a connection to a pet is that it stays so simple. They remain…well, for those of you who think cats are soooo different…dogs remain, perpetual toddlers, and that simple back and forth of food and touch, without language, is simply beautiful, beautifully simple. You take responsibility for and care of them, but you can’t prevent the inevitable for them, just as no one can for you.