Mr. Freddie

“Let’s see…paperwork for our Optimum installation in 2012…definitely need that. An empty box- very useful.  A back scratcher….a jar of pennies! I’m rich! I’m f*@king rich!”

I was afraid I might get kicked out of Harmon for laughing so loudly. My mother can make anything funny- even clearing out my father’s old junk.

They moved into their house almost a year ago, but, in true My Dad fashion, he still has two boxes to unpack.  She decided that today is the day of reckoning for those poor, neglected boxes.

“I’m just sick of seeing them.  Every night I put the extra pillows from the bed on them. He never even looks at them. I just want the bedroom to look neater.”

All of those things are true, of course. But there’s also the ever-present elephant in the room that drives all of our seemingly mundane tasks these days.

Dad is a lot of things.

He’s just as funny as Mom. He’s a mechanical whiz. He’s got the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever met. He loves to save old junk.

He’s also sick.

The cancer has been in remission for a while, but the COPD is quietly progressing; the knees are starting to buckle; and the mind, from time to time, gets a bit frazzled.

It knocked me completely off my feet at first. All these diagnoses being rapid-fired at my ears within a few months of each other. All these words you never want to believe you’ll have to associate with someone you love- chemo, oxygen stats, brain scans…these are not words you put anywhere NEAR my father. He, for 30 years of my life, was the strongest man in the world. The one who could fix anything,  do anything, be anything you needed him to be.

Then one day someone started saying all these words- these seemingly disjointed, unrealistic words- and I looked at him and saw someone else staring back at me.

I suddenly recognized the fatigue in his eyes, saw the pain in his movements, heard the strain of his breath.

Then it hit me (like a ton of bricks wrapped in steel rods).

The world’s strongest man was going to leave me one day.

And so, I’ve put myself on automatic. We all have. It’s our new normal. Dad is sick, but he’s still here. Dad is in pain, but he’s still working. He’s still walking. He’s still breathing without an oxygen tank. So he’s ok. He must be ok then.

We talk about things like a will and where Mom will live as casually as most people talk about the weather. He decided on his “arrangements” and then asked us to never bring it up again. So we don’t. Over the last few years I’ve watched him quietly part with the 1977 Thunderbird he had lovingly rebuilt a few times over its 400,000 mile-lifetime. I watched him give away the Kawasaki  he built from the ground up- the one that morphed from blue to emerald green, the freshly-painted pieces dangling like little wind chimes from hangers in the garage. The one he used to race every Sunday, with me cheering him on from the Pit. Not to brag, but I was the ONLY 9 year-old Pit Crew Chief at Island Dragway.

He jokes, “Guys, I’m still HERE, I’m not going anywhere!” and we reply, “You’d better not! You’ll live till you’re 90, you’ll see!”

And maybe he’ll live for years and years- you never know. But so many parts of the “him” that I knew are already gone. I don’t get phone calls instructing me to “Be careful, Baby” because it’s drizzling- and light rain always brings up the oils in the road, you know. I don’t get random, ridiculous, hilarious voicemails.  He doesn’t have the energy to jet down to the Jersey Shore, just the two of us, for some Skiball and pizza on a Friday night.

And he doesn’t remember Mr. Freddie.

Dad walked through the front door with Mr. Freddie on Valentine’s Day in 1987, and it was love at first sight. He came in a little plastic “wicker” basket (long-gone) and had the cutest little bumpy black nose (also long gone). I slept with him when I was sick; cried into him when I was sad; and chatted with him when I still believed that stuffed animals were magical.

Now I’m a 35-year old mother of two, so he no longer sleeps in my bed. He sleeps in my bedside table- obviously- and I pull him out and give him a good squeeze whenever life becomes too overwhelming. And, for the record, he is magical.

He has soothed Vince after nightmares. He has lulled Gracie to sleep when she was raging through her anti-nap phase. He has been a dad stand-in for calming my “adult life is hard” anxiety at 1am…and 2am…and 3am…and I’m fairly certain my dad appreciates that I hug the stuffed dog instead of showing up at his house. That would have been a LOT of middle-of-the-night visits over the years (because adult life is HARD).

But when I mentioned Mr. Freddie to him a few weeks ago, he just shrugged and said, “Sorry, Honey, I don’t remember him.”

Not gonna lie- I slept with Mr. Freddie squeezed in my arms so tightly that night that even as a stuffed animal he must have been having trouble breathing.

So this is part of the new normal. The old jokes are gone; the old songs that were once “our” songs, he may or may not remember them; and Mr. Freddie- well, he’s only magical to one of us now.

So, back to the old boxes. My mother was delighting me with one useless junk box item after another (anyone need a box of outdoor light roof clips? A bill from 2001?) when I heard, “The Mold Is Broken.”

Wait. I knew that. What was that???

“Before I was born, I asked God to help me find the perfect dad. I was having a hard time finding one by myself, and I knew I wanted one that was really special….”

It was the story I wrote for Father’s Day many, many years ago. The story about how God found me a dad that was perfect in every way, and then sent me to Earth, to his arms.

He had saved it.

It was in the box, under the back scratcher and the roof clips that had lost all their clipping power.

My book.

This of course elicited all the emotions that you really don’t want to feel while standing on a checkout line clutching shaving cream for your husband and a box of protein bars.

I had completely forgotten it existed, but he hadn’t.

I’m not going to say it made me feel better- there’s really not much “better” about coming to terms with the fact that your parents aren’t wizards who will somehow defy the odds of mortality.  My apologies if I’m the first one telling you this, but trust me, you’d rather hear it from me than a Urologist holding a picture of the weird Avatar-like flower-looking thing growing in your dad’s bladder.

So, ok, it didn’t make me feel much better- but it did make me feel. You know, you put yourself on automatic and you forget sometimes that they’re still HERE. All my memories are just that- memories- but that doesn’t mean we can’t try like hell to make as many new ones as possible.

Maybe I’ll even write him another little book about how he broke the mold as a dad. How I know I’m the luckiest girl in the world because I was born to the guy that ran around the delivery room sobbing, hugging all of the nurses and doctors, and exclaiming, “I have a DAUGHTER!”  How every second I’ve gotten to spend with him has taught me something that I’ll carry with me forever, and how I hope I have enough seconds left to learn a million more.

Or maybe I’ll write him a blog, go home, let myself feel all of the things this crappy, punch-in-the-gut reality wants me to feel, and then give Mr. Freddie a squeeze.

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The Pile-Up

Traffic was awful this morning.

Traffic from the house to the school; traffic from school to the highway; traffic from one highway to the next; traffic from my brain to the tightness in my chest.

Awful, all of it.

Even Grace noticed it. “Mommy, that’s a lot of cars! They’re behind us and in front of us. No one is moving! How are we going to get to my school and see my Emily friend?? Ugh, we are never getting out of this carrrrrrrr-Mommy, what’s wrong? Are you crying?”

Whoops.

On the rare occasion that I have myself a good car cry (I usually prefer the shower), I’m careful to be discreet about it, lest I become a tear-stained, booger-filled meme on social media after getting caught by a fellow driver. But I guess I got sloppy this morning and let out a lone sniffle.

One little sniffle- and my 3 year-old hawk was on top of me.

“What’s wrong?!”

What’s wrong. What’s wrong….sometimes that’s a loaded question, my dear.

Sometimes you can do everything right- cross all your T’s, dot all your I’s, and shit still goes sideways.

You can be the most empathetic, patient, open-minded parent on the planet, and encourage your children to express themselves (obviously, if you’re crying freely while shampooing your hair and during the merge onto Rt 80, you encourage self-expression)- but you can still find out that your child has made a decision about a very fundamental part of himself, and refuses to let anyone know because he’s terrified of a lack of acceptance for who he is.

You can work on a marriage, and bend and twist yourselves into unrecognizable shapes to make time for each other, but every so often it still goes a little bit off the rails.

You can love the hell out of your parents, beg them to put down the cheeseburger and pick up a piece of broccoli once in a damn while, and dangle your kids in front of them as incentives to hang around- but eventually they’re going to start fading on you.

You can be a good friend, be present and supportive, and maybe even stretch yourself so thin that you almost snap like a twig being trampled by a pit bull- but sometimes, some of those friends are going to decide that your storyline no longer fits in their book (which is weird because I’m a writer, but whatever).

You can exclusively shop from the Target clearance rack, stop buying the expensive mac and cheese, insist that weekend car trips are “vacations,” and spend so much quality time balancing your checkbook that it could probably walk a tightrope- but sometimes, you’ll still need to look for a second job because the ends just aren’t meeting.

You can relentlessly chase your passions, and write your heart out every day, and start so many projects that you very narrowly avoid posting a story about toddler boogers on your vegan food blog- but sometimes, the posts will fall flat, the writing collaborations will stall, and the freelance work will all but dry up.

You can be as careful as possible, but eventually you’re going to forget that you’re wearing your super-cute but slightly dangerous Christmas-themed socks, slip on the landing, and go flying down a flight of stairs with one arm flailing awkwardly behind your neck.

And you deal with these things, because hey, that’s life. You don’t sit there, cry over them and let them ruin your day.

Unless of course they all dance into your head at once like glittery, demented stress-fairies while you’re sitting in a gazillion-car pile-up.

So in that case, yes, you cry. You sit in your car, and you rub the arm that’s still sore from your thrill ride down the hallway stairs last weekend (and wish you could rub the butt cheek that took the brunt of each step…ooof), and you decide that you’re going to let all that crap ruin your day.

Because that’s just too much, isn’t it? That’s too much at once. It’s like standing in front of an oak tree with a broken rake and watching every leaf swan-dive to the ground at once, each giving you the finger as they flutter past your face. When that happens, you do the logical, adult thing.

You throw the rake down, you scream, “OH, COME ON!” and you storm off in search of something dipped in chocolate.

So I threw down my rake, and, being that it was 8:30 in the morning and I had no chocolate, I cried. Silently, of course, until that one lone sniffle escaped and Toddler CIA discovered me from the back seat.

“What’s wrong?!”

I mustered up my “Mommy’s being silly” voice.

“Nothing, Gracie girl. We’re just having kind of a crazy morning, right? Geezie Louisie!”

I actually say things like that- I’m often surprised my kids don’t throw tomatoes at me.

“You got this, girl.”

“I…what?”

“You got this.”

I wiped my eyes, turned around and locked eyes with a little girl who was wearing granola bar crumbs on her lips, a dab of applesauce on her nose, and an “Oh, shit, did I just say a bad word?” expression across her face.

“You, my dear, are right. I’ve got this.”

And Applesauce Crumb Couture broke into a huge, proud grin that made my heart skip a beat.

You can juggle it all, and juggle it well, but even the Cat in the Hat dropped all that crap he was dancing around with eventually.

There will be mornings when you calmly remind yourself, 87 times, “I need to take the garbage out before I leave for work,” and you’ll still pull out of the driveway, get to the corner of your street, and blurt out, “THE GARBABE!” so suddenly that your son throws the book he was reading at the ceiling.

There will be late nights when you make lunches so lovingly and creatively that you float upstairs to bed daydreaming about the adoration and accolades your children will bestow upon you the next afternoon…and you’ll forget to put those lunches in the fridge, have to toss them in the trash the next morning, and send two very disappointed children to school with soy cheese sandwiches and suspiciously over-ripe bananas.

Hey, it happens.

Sometimes shit goes sideways. All of it. All at once.

So do the adult thing. Scream, cry, find something dipped in chocolate- but then pick up the rake, and tackle one leaf at a time if that’s all you can handle.

Remind yourself that eventually the pile-up with clear and you’ll be sailing again.

And remember the lesson that was revealed to me by a very wise, snack-covered little yogi long ago (ok 3 hours ago)-

You’ve Got This.

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