Carol ears

Christmas is a little tougher and a little sadder this year following the loss of my mother two months ago, but I’m also enjoying some nostalgia I’ve recently uncovered. This was unequivocally her time of year, and that meant it was our time of year. She made the entire season a wonder and a joy. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting in the living room with her and my grandmother after the sun had gone down, with all the lights out save the Christmas tree, a few candles, and an illuminated snowman village, just staring at those few lights while listening to Christmas music.

sleighridejinglebells_SX1716003That was sublime, and in recent years, I’ve remembered some of the albums we used to listen to. Mom and Nanny preferred the more somber, traditional carols, but I and some of the other siblings enjoyed the Caroleers. Does anyone else remember these folks? They recorded several Christmas albums in the 60s and 70s, and Mom naturally had picked up all of them for her many kids over the years.

santaclauscoming_caroleers518I remembered four of them: Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Frosty the Snowman; and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They included classics plus original compositions like Christmas Mountain; 10 Thousand Santa Clauses (But Not One Gift for Me); Who’s That Up on the Roof?; A Ride on Santa’s Sleigh; The Christmas Tree That Ran Away; Gonna Hang up my Stocking and Fill it Full of Dreams; The Weatherman’s Christmas Prayer; The Day Before the Night Before Christmas; Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Mama Santa’s Surprise; There’s a Hole in My Christmas Stocking; The Little Elf; and Icicles, Holly, Red Berries, and Snow.

If any of those titles spark a memory, then you probably knew the same joy I did. Granted, you didn’t have “The Radio,” so your joy might not have been quite as complete. IMG_3592This was a large piece of what looked like antique furniture that sat in our living room, although, I recently found out from my dad that he and Mom had bought in in the early 50s, so it was only about 20 years old when I first started to really regard it.

The Radio was an old GE entertainment unit that looked like a cabinet, with two small side-by-side doors on top, and two larger side-by-side doors on bottom.

IMG_3598The top right door opened to the actual radio, one old enough to have two FM bands as well as AM and shortwave, and two FM bands, along with the controls for audio source and volume.

IMG_3597The top left door was actually a drawer, which housed a turntable old enough to have four speeds: 33 1/3; 45; 78; and the already-forgotten-at-that-time 16 2/3 rpm. It also had a record changer, and I used to love stacking all four Caroleers LP records on it and watching it drop each new one after the previous one had finished playing.

IMG_3601The bottom left door opened to an LP record storage compartment, which was packed so tightly that I could barely yank out whatever record I wanted to play at the time. But I managed, and it was always worth the effort.

The bottom right door was a faux door. It housed the unit’s one and only speaker behind it — no stereo here, thank you very much — and of course it couldn’t be opened. That didn’t stop me from trying to open it time and again as a very young child, or from fantasizing about what was hidden behind it when I couldn’t get it open.

That was The Radio, and it was glorious. We would stack the Christmas records up and listen to them all night long, every night. Those were usually the times reserved for Mom’s and Nanny’s favorites, but as I intimated, the kids managed to sneak in a Caroleers album from time to time. Otherwise, the weekends were reserved for the kids’ favorites; I spent many pre-Christmas Saturday afternoons sitting in front of The Radio, listening to the Caroleers sing while I stared at the artwork on their album covers and wondered things like, Is “the day before the night before Christmas” December 23rd, or is it actually the daylight hours of December 24th?

2079016Their songs were saccharin and goofy, but they resonated with kids. Any adult listening to one without the benefit of a nostalgic connection to them, would write them off as silly kids’ music. But those of us who grew up with them? We can still appreciate them. (I wonder if my kids will one day feel that way about The Wiggles.)

For years, I searched for CDs of those old Diplomat records, but never found anything. The old vinyl ones from my childhood are either lost or scratched beyond the ability to produce a sound worth converting to digital, so I looked in vain for replacements. Early last January, I discovered that someone, somewhere, had been able to salvage some of the songs from their old copies — there were some for sale on iTunes! I immediately downloaded them with a gift card I’d received for Christmas, organized them into a playlist, and looked forward to listening to them this Christmas season. Then I forgot about them.

In October, I spent two weeks in Virginia — the first one waiting at my ailing mother’s bedside with my dad and siblings, the second one planning, holding, and recovering from her funeral. That’s a story for another day, but after I returned home to my family, I spent a bit of time just going through the motions of daily life.

I wasn’t looking forward to the holidays, but one post-Thanksgiving day during my commute, I thought I’d give some Christmas music a try, and I pulled up the multiple Christmas playlists I’ve created over the years. Lo and behold, there was one called “Christmas Caroleers,” and the memories came back in a deluge. frostysnowman_SX1714005So did the tears once I started it, and the songs sent me from I-40 to my parents’ old living room floor. Here were many of my old friends, reminding me of my childhood, my mother, and the joy she and her children shared every December.

I’ve since listened to that playlist more than a grown man should, and I’ve played it for my sons. It’s a little young for the 14-year-old, but the 10-year-old has developed enough of an appreciation for The Caroleers to request certain songs by name when he’s riding in my car. That’s been another joy — passing the appreciation on to a new generation. He might not have The Radio or the LP covers to stare at raptly, but he has the music. Maybe one day, years from now, he’ll suddenly have a desire to listen to some of those old songs he used to listen to with Dad, and he’ll wonder if they exist in whatever format music has taken by then. I hope he finds them, and I hope they bring him as much joy as they’ve brought to me.

And maybe he’ll be able to finally answer the question: When, exactly, is the day before the night before Christmas?



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The law of diminishing retinas

Last Tuesday night, as I was backing out of a parking space, I turned my head to the right to look behind me and spotted a meteor cutting a brilliant line through the sky. Which was weird, because there was no sky in my field of view.

I put the car in park to consider this, then shrugged it off and looked over my shoulder again, to continue backing up. The same meteor fell, off to the right in my peripheral vision. As I turned my head to face forward again, a suspicious theory crossed my mind. Knowing that two data points do not a trend make, I tested the theory with another about-face. Same result.

Pretty neat trick, to be able to control the heavens with a turn of my head. I chalked it up to a growing exhaustion and enjoyed it all the way home, making meteors fall on every tree, building, or plot unfortunate enough to attract my attention as I drove. I went to bed soon after I got home, forgetting the meteor shower in a bid for badly needed sleep.

Wednesday morning, I woke up even more tired then I’d felt on Tuesday night. It was a three- or four-snooze-button morning, but I finally sat up on the edge of the bed, stretched, and stood up. And nearly collapsed as the room spun around me.

I sat down and waited out the dizzy spell, then got ready for work as usual. The morning passed without incident, but I started having more dizzy spells at the office, and left early. I managed to keep the car from spinning on the way home, but when I looked at the sky, I noticed a lot more floaters than I usually have.

I’m talking about those little, amoeba-like shadows that people see inside their eyes; I’ve had them as long as I can remember, and used to think of them as cataracts. It turns out they’re called “floaters,” and I had a lot more than the four or five that I usually see. There were thousands of them. Any time I looked at a blank canvas of sorts – a large area of a single light color, like the sky or a wall – I saw thousands of tiny circles, lined up in a grid. It was like one of my floaters had exploded, and splattered itself across my entire field of vision.

I was too shocked to test this at the time, but it turns out all of them were in my right eye – the same one that had been creating meteors the previous night. But I didn’t think to determine this; rather, all I could think was, Yikes.

I took a long nap as soon as I got home, and when I woke up, I was still seeing a grid full of floaters on the ceiling. I tried not to worry about it, again chalking it up to how tired I still was. I’d been going full-throttle for a long time, and looking at an uptick in commitments over the coming month. My schedule had bested me, and I dragged myself through the rest of the evening thinking I’d probably die of exhaustion long before the amoebas in my eyes could kill me. So I went to bed early again.

When I woke up Thursday morning, it took longer than usual for my eyes to focus. I rubbed them and splashed water on them, the way I usually do when I have too much sleep in them. But my right eye just wouldn’t clear. I helped get Kim and the boys out the door, sent a message to my team that I wasn’t feeling any better, and crashed on the couch for a little while. When I woke up, my vision was even blurrier.

This time, I tested them – the left eye was fine, but I couldn’t see anything clearly with the right one. Just a big, blurry spot – like looking through textured glass. I couldn’t find an insurance card for my vision plan, though, so I tried not to think about it. Which makes no sense, because to do my job, I had to read and write a lot of things on a computer screen; that makes it kinda hard to forget I can’t freakin’ see.

But I’m the king of denial, and I persevered. When Kim got home Thursday night, I told her I think I might have a problem. I told her what was going on, and she said I would need to find my vision plan info or come up with the money, but I’d better get my eyes to a doctor’s office the next day. I started Googling, and when I saw that flashing lights and blurred vision might indicate a retinal detachment that could lead to permanent blindness, I agreed.

Friday morning, I started an IM with my manager, who helped me find the info I needed for my vision plan. I called an optometrist just up the street, but they told me they didn’t have any appointments available. Did I mention I’m going blind?! I thought-screamed into the phone in my head. It must have worked, because they offered to find me an appointment at another office, about 20 minutes away. I figured it was worth the risk of not being able to see the road, and took the appointment.

One thing you need to understand clearly here, is I am insanely squeamish about my eyes. I can’t do contacts or eye drops, I can’t stand looking into eyepieces, and that stupid air-puff test is absolute torture for me. I wear glasses, so I have to go in at least every two years for an exam, but I usually plead with them not to dilate my pupils.

But this time, I figured I had to just suck it up. I let the assistant fight to hold my eyes open and squeeze the dilating drops in, but I didn’t like it one bit. And I blinked a few times in anticipation of the air puff, but she managed to get it on the third or fourth attempt in each eye. And I stared at the stupid blinking red light while they took color photographs of the backs of my eyes. I even fought the urge to cry as the doctor asked me repeatedly, “Which looks clearer? One…or two? One…or two? One…or two?” How the hell should I know? NOTHING looks clear right now!

In the end, the basic optometrist couldn’t help me. He said there was a bunch of vitreous floating in my right eye, which was not only keeping me from seeing out – it was keeping him from seeing in. Vitreous is a gel-like substance in the eye, and sometimes a piece can break away from where it’s supposed to be, floating freely in there and casting shadows on the retina – that’s what floaters are. But this newest piece caused a little alarm on the part of my optometrist – something that caused a lot of alarm on the part of me – so he’d ordered photography in an effort to ensure my retina hadn’t been damaged when the vitreous tore free.

Sound gross? It gets worse. The real reason he was concerned about retinal damage was, the vitreous had left a trail of blood. The big glob of blur in my right eye? Blood. Inside. My. Eyeball.

He got me an immediate appointment with a retina specialist, and sent me on my way – but not before confirming that I didn’t want to stick around and pick out a new pair of glasses now that my prescription had changed. Umm, no, I think I’ll wait until I can actually see, period, before I worry about seeing better.

I got to the retina specialist’s office, and the real fun began. First, I had to sit and fill out a bunch of paperwork that I couldn’t read – which is fine, because I couldn’t write, either. You’d be surprised how much you rely on your vision to be able to write legibly, but at least there’s a tactile element to it to give a hint or two that you’re on the right track. I’ve since discovered, it’s even worse to attempt texting while half-blind. There are no clues as to what you’ve just typed.

Anyway, I had to sit and try to read and write while an elderly couple sat across from me, discussing insurance payments and mortgage rates in those loud voices that the elderly reserve for one another. Once they figured out their insurance quandary and determined that the couple currently on HGTV would, indeed, be getting their money’s worth in their selection (they went with the house from the third showing – the wife didn’t like the siding in the back, but at least it had a decent yard), they quieted down a little. When the assistant called the woman to the exam room, the man quieted down even more – until he started farting, apparently too deaf to realize I could hear him. What the hell, dude? Like my eyes aren’t already watering enough?

But soon it was my turn. The assistant took me to an examination room and told me she needed to get my blood pressure. I started rolling up my sleeve and she just smiled, shook her head, and held up a contraption that looked like a handle with a long, yellow, pointed thing on the end of it. Then the point was moving toward my left eye. She lucked out with that one – got it in there before I could react, while I was still thinking, Wait, does she mean she needs a reading from my eye? Sort of like the first time a pet-owner puts their cat in the bathtub. They only get away with that once; the next time, Kitty knows what to expect and how to react.

She tried five times to stick that damned yellow thing in my right eye. They need to let it touch the eyeball for a split second in order to get a reading, but that’s a split second too long. I kept squinking – squirming and blinking – and finally she huffed, “That’s okay, I’ll just mark down that I couldn’t get a reading. He has other ways to get it.” That last part sounded like a threat, so I told her to try it one more time, steeled myself as best I could and OHMYGODSHE’STOUCHINGMYEYEBALL and it was done.

Next, she had to dilate my pupils – even though they’d just been dilated. I warned her I’m squeamish about my eyes, and she handed me a tissue. Then she squeezed a couple drops of a numbing agent into my eyes, followed by the actual dilating solution. I’m not sure why they needed my eyes to be numb, but the optometrist hadn’t needed it. I suppose I should have been thankful the optometrist had left out a set of drops. I see them heading for my eyes and I just blink and cover. That’s where the tissue comes in handy, as the drops are deflected down my cheeks toward my mouth. I wonder if my tongue would have been numbed if I hadn’t stopped the drops?

She led me to what they called “the dark room” – a small, cozy room with a dingle dim lamp, no artwork to stare at, and a couple of couches – one with the elderly lady sitting on it. I thought about telling her what her husband had been doing in the waiting room, but she probably was well aware. Besides, she seemed sad and scared, and probably didn’t want to talk to anyone. Or maybe that’s me I’m remembering.

I closed my eyes and listened out for any warning that she had the same digestion issues as her husband, then enjoyed the solitude after another assistant came and retrieved her. When one came for me a few minutes later, she asked, “How are you doing?” in an impossibly cheerful voice, as if I weren’t sitting there experiencing the darkness behind my closed eyes and wondering if I’d soon have to get used to seeing the same thing with them open.

She led me to a room with another device, one where I had to stare into two mounted eyepieces while a bright light moved across them, burning its memory into my retinas. I have no idea what it was doing; it wasn’t the special camera I’d been sent there for, because that was in the room where she took me next. She told me to sit in the chair and test my comfort level with my chin in a strap and my forehead against a barrier as I stared into the camera; she said this was important, because I’d have to sit very still for 5-7 minutes while she took the pictures. Why don’t you just kill me, instead? That might make it easier on you. I can’t even sit still while I’m sleeping, and that’s when I *don’t* have my head shoved against a medieval torture device.

She explained how this process would work. “We’re going to take multiple pictures of your retina, but to make it easier to see it, we use a vegetable-based dye that we inject into your…” – and that’s when I damn near passed out in anticipation of the next word – “…arm.” Oh, thank God! “This is called, ‘fluorescein angiography.’ The dye is harmless, but in some cases, it can cause an allergic reaction where we inject it. Also, it’s going to cause discoloration of your urine for 24-48 hours, so don’t be alarmed when you notice your urine is bright orange, like a highlighter.”

She was almost right. It was actually bright yellow – I mean, fluorescent yellow, just like a highlighter. It was amazing. Yet oddly, I’m the only person in the house who really had an appreciation for it over the weekend.

Anyway, she brought out a cushion for my arm, and placed it on the table’s surface, next to the camera. Then she pulled out a vial of a reddish-orange liquid, a tourniquet, and a small catheter with a needle attached to one end. I think you know what happened next. I was fine with it, but I wasn’t expecting her to leave the needle in the whole time. I thought she’d just inject the dye and be done with it, but no – it’s more like an IV drip, where the needle stayed in my vein and the liquid flowed into my arm over the course of the 5-7 minutes that I was expected to sit still as if nothing was happening.

She told me to look into the eyepieces and, moments after injecting the needle into my vein, she looked into the display on the opposite side and said, “Good! The dye’s starting to show up in your retina!” I have a reasonable understanding of science, but that still blows my mind. She stuck something into a vein in the crook of my elbow, and it magically re-appeared at the backs of my eyeballs. I half-expected her to pull the empty vial from my ear.

Then it was time to focus on the center of an LED cross, where presumably the camera lens was located. For what was undoubtedly an expensive, precise piece of medical machinery, this thing had lousy graphics. The cross was made up of a bunch of little red rectangles, about the size of the ones used on TRS-80 screens in 1979. But I did my best to focus on the center, and she told me to blink twice and then to keep my eyes open until she told me to blink again. You probably already know how that went.

“Blink. Blink. Aaand, taking the picture in three…two…one. Oh no, you blinked! We’re going to have to do it again. Now blink. And hold it open for three…two…you blinked again!” I heard a lot of that on Friday afternoon. I had to look into the eyepieces forever, shifting my eyes in eight different directions – up, down, left, right, up-left, down-left, up-right, down-right – as she counted down to frustration every time. But miraculously, we got it done. She congratulated me like she would a child – “Good job!” – and led me to another exam room where she uploaded images of my retinas to a computer screen, along with two graphs of similar shape, but with one being much closer to the X axis than the other – I imagine this one as proving my right eye is deficient, as if the graphs were showing the amount of retina I have remaining in each eye. She left me to these thoughts and told me the doctor would be with me shortly.

He arrived with a third assistant, took a quick look at the computer screen, and declared he was going to have to take a good, hard look at the backs of my eyes. His assistant sat down at the computer and took hold of the mouse, awaiting his instructions as he strapped a seemingly enormous spotlight to his head and reclined my chair until I was lying flat on my back. He then turned off the overhead lights, stood over me, pointed the spotlight into my right eye, held up a strange-looking metallic object that looked like the handle of a spoon, and began to take the aforementioned good, hard look.

“Okay, keep your head facing forward, but turn your eye to the left. Look at this.” He held up the spoon handle. I looked at it and suddenly was blinded by the most intense light I’ve ever seen. I think he had a miniature solar eclipse strapped to his head, and I had just looked directly at it. I squinted.

“Keep your eye open, please.” And suddenly there was a hand on my eye, two of its fingers peeling open my top and bottom eyelids. “Good. Now look over here.” The eclipse again. I tried to blink, but couldn’t. Suddenly I had visions of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, undergoing the Ludovico Technique. I tore away and blinked.

“Nope. Keep your eye open.” The hand again. And the light. And suddenly, pain. Something was pressing into my eye socket. My God, is he pushing on my eyeball with that spoon handle? What’s going on? Somebody get this maniac away from me!

“Good. You’re doing fine.” No, I’m not! “Sarah, nothing from this angle. Sir, look to your right, please.” More pain. “Sarah, a pinpoint heem. Nasal inferior. Sir, look up. Sarah, a big heem. Temporal superior.” And lots of other words I didn’t understand, interspersed with bursts of pain. After eight eyeball positions, the eclipse disappeared and the pressure let up on my eye socket. The lights came on, and there was Sarah, attempting to draw my floaters in a diagram of my right eye on the computer. I have no idea what program she was using, but the doctor felt she wasn’t using it correctly, grabbed the mouse from her hand, and drew a much bigger splotch than she had drawn in one of the eight sectors. Then he sat down to explain what’s going on with my eye.

“Sarah, give me that eye model.” He showed me a cross-section and gave me the same explanation I’d already heard, about the liquid inside the eye and the vitreous pulling away. The good news, he said, is that he hadn’t seen any tearing or holes in the retina – but that it would be a good idea to come back for two more exams over the next couple of weeks, to make sure it’s not still bleeding, there’s no more pulling away, and I haven’t lost any vision. He warned me to call him if I were to suddenly lose my peripheral vision. As if I’d downplay that.

He said the blood should dissolve and the vitreous thin out over the next month, at which point I should be able to see better. He said nothing about the meteors or the dizziness. I still have no idea whether they were related, or if all three things happened as a result of something else. I’ve been under more stress than usual lately – probably at DANCON 1 or possibly 2, at the very least. Maybe that set off all three things. I’m just relieved to know it’s nothing worse, and I hope the doctor doesn’t find anything worse on the two subsequent visits.

In the meantime, there’s only one thing I can see clearly right now – and that’s more torture in my immediate future.

Posted in Hassles, Health | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Hearty birthday wishes

Matthew, four years ago, I wrote a piece for my Midtown column, ruminating on the emotions I felt about your brother turning ten. I vowed to do the same thing for you, but the scope of my column changed this year, and I regret that I couldn’t share this with a broader audience. But share it, I must.

You came into our lives ten years ago this morning, and while I was overjoyed that you were here, I was also afraid. I had no idea how we were going to afford a second baby, and I was scared for you. I’m sorry if I ever showed that fear to you; please don’t think for a moment that it’s tinged with even a tiny bit of regret, because there’s never been any. And it would seem there’s never been any fear on your part – that’s been a hallmark of your personality.

Mom and I have always been amazed at the strong way you embrace whatever’s next. From one stage to another, adopting one skill and the next, you’ve been an ever-onward type of child. This usually manifests itself in sports, where coaches and spectators have repeatedly told us, “He’s absolutely fearless.”

I don’t know where you get that – maybe from your mother. And I’m certain you don’t get your athletic abilities from either of us. But I like to think maybe you get your corresponding attitude from us, as you’re not the type of fearless that often turns heartless. You’re never a jerk when you play, and you don’t get so competitive as to put winning above all else. Somehow, your courage is tempered in grace, and I’m proud to see that every time.

Need a lift?

“Need a lift?”

That grace doesn’t stop in the sports arena; ever since you were an infant, you exuded – and shared – happiness. You were (and still are) joy incarnate, and I’m thankful for that joy every day. I’ve dreaded this day, because I’ve worried that your bliss is going to slough away with your childhood – but I’ve been wrong. It’s part of you, and I’m proud when I catch glimpses of the man you’re going to become. You’re always quick with a kind word and a snuggle, and there’s great maturity in both of those.

You’re the most loving, caring, helpful, uplifting person I know, and sometimes there’s so much gratitude in my heart for that, it feels like it could burst. It’s no wonder you were born with an “angel kiss” – a hemangioma – on the bridge of your nose, in the shape of a heart. You have blessed us and the rest of the world with profuse love in every encounter since then.

That mark is what you are, Matthew – all heart. Your courage, your grace, your love – all of them show heart. I’d like to keep you young, but I can’t, and it wouldn’t be fair, anyway. A heart like yours must be shared with the world, so eventually we’ll need to send you out into it. But I’m going to enjoy our time together until then.

Welcome to your second decade, and Happy Birthday to you – always.

Posted in Bain's Beat, Family, Parenting, The Kids | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Slammed unc

Psst. Hey, you – the allegedly grown man at the kids’ basketball game tonight. You know who you are – you were sharing your very candid opinions with the refs, the coaches, the players, and the parents all night, as loudly as possible. I have some advice for you. Shut. The hell. Up.

Seriously, dude. Nobody wants to hear your nonsense. That’s why the scorekeepers eventually sent the ref over to ask you to stop. That’s why there’s a policy in the parents’ handouts, forbidding the type of behavior you were showing tonight. And that’s why you should have been ejected during the first quarter.

But you didn’t see it that way. Instead, you become indignant and belligerent. Which is why the community center director eventually had to leave his office, come into the gym, and sit down where he could keep an eye on you. He gave you way too much leeway; by then you’d already insulted the refs, our coaches, our head coach’s wife, and several nine- and ten-year-old boys. Don’t you feel proud?

This was our eighth game, and I’d never seen you at one before, so I naturally assumed you were with the other team. I just couldn’t figure out why you kept yelling at our coaches to “have some confidence in your players!” This was strange, because you seemed hateful enough to enjoy seeing the opposing team not have confidence. But no, to my horror, you were with us. The head coach told me afterward, when I was talking to him about how you’d picked a fight with his wife.

I can only hope the reason you’re not a regular is, you’re not closely related to one of our players. Surely you’re not a dad; if you are, woe be to your son. I’m hoping you’re just a crazy uncle who only comes to town once a year, and whose existence the family spends the rest of the year denying.

It would probably be best for all of us if this were the case, and therefore we’ll never see you at another game. Because after what Matthew told me on the way home, you don’t ever want to see me again. It seems when he was called for travelling, you yelled out something to the effect of, “Stop playing football.”

Dude. Not cool. For so many reasons. First, the travelling infraction was slight. He wasn’t carrying the ball like a football. The refs in this league are super-prone to calling travelling. Everyone knows that; it’s just the way it is, and that’s fine. Yes, he travelled. No, it wasn’t a huge infraction. Second, the call didn’t impact the game at all. Third, it wouldn’t matter if it had. This is a children’s league. No one’s going to lose their life savings or their career over one of these games. Fourth, you’re not the coach. Fifth, you’re not his dad. Sixth, it would be a rude thing to say even if you were his coach or dad. Seventh, he’s NINE, you jerk.

I was pretty mad when he told me about this. He didn’t seem upset so much as annoyed, but he did ask me why you would say something like that. I told him there’s no good reason, that you’re just a horrible example of an adult – and of a human being, for that matter. Then I told him you don’t matter in the least bit, and your opinions shouldn’t, either. I told him you’re probably a frustrated person, more worthy of pity than of scorn.

But I told myself I would remember this. Trust me – you don’t want to address my son that way again.

So, if I’m wrong, and you end up at another of our four remaining games, you really should rein in that unacceptable behavior. I’m far from the only one who noticed, there are less forgiving parents than I, and there’s likely to be a reckoning. Quit hurting people.

You seem to love the game, but trust me – that sort of behavior doesn’t come from being an avid fan. It comes from being an asshat.

Posted in Family, Hassles, Life and How to Live It, Parenting, Sports, The Kids | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The moppet show

Today when we took the boys out for lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, I experienced a spark of genuine Christmas magic.

I had just gotten my umpteenth buffet refill and was heading back to the table when I had to stop and wait for a departing family to cross in front of me at a sort of intersection between aisles. They reminded me of a family of ducks – one adult at the front of the line, one at the rear, and the kids between the two, in perfect descending order by size. The mom had already passed, and I could have made a quick dash before the first son came through the intersection, but that would have violated several of my own rules.

The first is a law of nature – never come between a parent and their child. It’s just common sense. The second is my own personal “Yield” law; I always defer to the other party when there’s a question of right-of-way. The third is kind of tricky, and at least one person has raked me over the coals about it, although it didn’t affect him at all – I try to avoid accidental contact with other people’s children. Maybe my critic thought there’s something wrong with me. There’s not, apart from a sad sort of paranoia.

It’s partially due to having been a Cub Scout leader for more than seven years and having had the training ingrained; partially due to the accusatory nature of society; partially due to fear of false accusation; and partially due to me knowing I’m a big, ugly dude who probably looks pretty threatening to a small child. Comedian Bill Burr explains it in a less awkward way than I can; take a look. That’s how I feel sometimes.

Whatever the reason, I stood pat and let the ducklings pass by at a safe distance. There must have been about five of them, but I was more patient than I normally am about getting my food back to the table and into my belly. Had it been my first trip to the buffet, I might have been chomping at the bit, but as it was, I was content to stand back and watch the parade.

Then I noticed the last child – a tiny moppet of a girl, one I would have assumed to be about five if she hadn’t been the obvious victim of some developmental challenges. There was a bit of her mother in her face, but the look was offset by other factors that made her resemble a sort of wizened old elf. Her face was angular and gaunt, except for her wide-set eyes, which gave the illusion that her head was larger under her long, stringy brown hair. Those eyes had a distant gaze as she walked along with a shuffled gait, barely able to keep up with the sibling in front of her, but grasping the concept that she was expected to try.

The girl appeared to have some sort of chromosomal disorder, although it wasn’t Down syndrome. I’m not as familiar with others, and I’m not a developmental specialist, but chromosomal seemed like a reasonable guess. Also, I’m not trying to be judgmental, to make fun, nor to show any sort of derision/contempt. People who react like that, can rot.

Anyway, something interesting happened as she approached our intersection. Her seemingly blank gaze fell on me, and she reacted in a subtle way – she briefly raised her arm, then let it fall again. She didn’t exactly wave; her small, mittened hand never moved. But it appeared to be an attempt to be friendly, the way some men do that little head nod, minimizing their emotional investment in a greeting, but getting across the essential requirement. From her, though, it seemed huge.

Taken aback, I instinctively looked over my shoulder, to see if maybe she recognized someone behind me. But nobody was there. And as I turned my head back to face her, she did it again – just a brief lift of the arm toward me, with no change in her facial expression and no other motion save her shuffle. Still, the second attempt made it clear – she was definitely trying to wave to me. Furthermore, she seemed to have understood the need to confirm that; she recognized that I wasn’t sure she’d been waving to me, so she did it again, just to clue me in. I like to think maybe she’d even felt pity at my inability to understand her distinct communication, the way countless people have probably felt pity toward her throughout her young life.

Of course I immediately reciprocated, lifting my hand, wiggling the fingers in a childish wave, and flashing her a big grin. I hoped to get a smile out of her, but nothing doing. She kept on shuffling, returning her gaze to the distance in front of her instead of on this goofy guy to her left, and her facial expression continued to stay steadfastly blank. Her dad brought up the rear, but I wasn’t able to make eye contact with him to acknowledge what his sweet daughter had just done.

For all I know, it was the only means of non-verbal communication she’s able to use. She might not understand the concept of smiling at a stranger, or waving her hand. If that’s the case, I feel even more honored by her straight-armed acknowledgement. After all, there were other people around, but she chose me. Apart from that moment of two arm motions toward me, she hadn’t broken the formation that was surely a rote comfort to her. And I am touched that she made the effort for me, not once, but twice.

I’ll probably never see that family again, but if I could, I’d thank them for letting their daughter’s light shine. That forever-innocent little girl had a chance encounter with a cynical old curmudgeon – one who was sick and tired of the past week’s cold rain, and feeling more than a bit of post-holiday letdown – and as a result, she gave him an extreme case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

That was, and will remain, the best gift of the entire holiday season.

Posted in Christmas, Family, Life and How to Live It, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The seven-year gift

Said good-bye to an old friend last Thursday night, a steadfast and loyal friend I’ve had available to lift my spirits every holiday season for the past eight of them. It was the annual Christmas Pageant at my sons’ school. Matthew finished his last performance for this season, and will age out when he moves up to fifth grade next year.

Fourth grade was the highest grade in the school for nearly fifty years, so the tradition is that only first- through fourth-graders have a role. Kindergarteners get to watch and anticipate. That’s what Matthew did four years ago, when Christopher was a fourth-grader and getting ready to age out himself. I think that’s when Matthew’s obsession with the wise men started. Even before kindergarten, he loved We Three Kings, and would sing his toddler’s take on the lyrics: “We three kings of oriental. Barren gifts, we travel so far.” My favorite part was the first king: “Bored a king on Bethlehem Day….”

In the School Pageant, those solos (albeit with the proper lyrics) and others (Joseph, Mary, and Gabriel) go to fourth-graders who pass an audition. Other fourth-graders get to read the Gospel interludes; play tone chimes, bells, or triangles; sing in a special small choir; carry torches, the processional cross, the Bible, or the flags; or play the Star. Third-graders are the main choir, singing the bulk of the songs. Second-graders play “little children” (more about that in a bit). First-grade boys play shepherds, and first-grade girls play angels.

Thus has it ever been (more precisely, thus has it been for all 57 years), and thus is it 99 percent likely to ever be. As the rector says when introducing the Pageant, it’s the same Pageant they’ve been performing every year (although to be honest, there have been two small changes that I know of). Even his intro is mostly unchanged; every year, at the Wednesday dress rehearsal and Thursday’s two performances (for most years, anyway), he stands up and says something along the lines of, “We’re proud to present this year’s Christmas Pageant; the children have been working hard since November to make this an extra-special pageant.” (Every year, it’s extra-special; I’ve never seen an ordinary one. “Extra-special” has become the norm, and for that, I’m glad.)

Then he continues, “This is your children’s gift to you. It is also considered a worship service, so we ask that you refrain from the use of all electronic devices, including cameras. You’ll have a chance to take photos afterward, and we will make a professional recording of the Pageant.” (I guess it’s okay for professionals to sin during our services.)

It truly is a gift to us; it’s one of the most uplifting, joyous occasions I know. That’s why I’m going to miss it. I went to both of this year’s performances, as well as the dress rehearsal. But how could I not? Matthew overcame a bad cold at audition time, realized his four-year dream of playing one of the kings, and continued to fight off laryngitis to nail his solos; no parent could have missed such a thing. So my final gift was a doozie.

It’s an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. The children’s joy is contagious. It’s just too bad they usually perform it to a packed church, and the audience has to be limited to two parents per child – approximately 400 people, give or take a few. But this year, they had a simulcast in the dining hall, plus a live web stream, so others could watch. (Guess that makes three small changes in 57 years.)

Regardless, it’s a moving experience for anyone watching. After the rector’s introduction, a group of fourth-graders in black cassocks and white cottas solemnly and silently enter the chancel from side doors, process to the stairs leading down to the nave, and play a beautiful version of “Silent Night” on tone chimes. It used to be instrumental, but they added vocals this year – more fourth-graders in a sort of mini-choir, singing both traditional and alternate lyrics to the song. At one point, that choir is split into two groups, simultaneously singing different parts of the song in what I believe is called a polyphony. Whatever it’s called, it sounds fantastic.

For a moment after it’s done, the night really is silent while the kids exit as solemnly as they entered, then the huge pipe organ blares out the opening chords of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” At the front of the nave, to the left of the chancel, the door to a hallway is flung open, and the opening procession begins in song. Fourth graders pour in, carrying the processional cross, the torches, the Bible, and a host of flags. Every one of them is singing at the top of his/her lungs as they process down the left aisle. Behind them come the tone chime players and mini-choir, followed by the third-grade full choir in red cassocks and white cottas. About the time the first red robe appears at the front of the nave, the crucifer and other black-clad fourth-grade acolytes start up the center aisle, having processed into the narthex and reversed direction. Once they reach the front of the nave, they turn right and right again, and continue their procession down the right aisle.

By this time, the volume is rising, and the red-clad third-graders are still processing in through the left door up front. The procession continues to wind through the nave and the narthex, with the fourth-graders coming up the center aisle again. Meanwhile, the third-graders start up the stairs from the narthex to the choir loft, where their voices continue to fill the church with volume and joy. Once the entire third-grade choir is seated in the loft, they’re packed wall-to-wall up there, and it sounds like their only way to make more space is to blow the walls open with song. Then the fourth-graders reach the chancel and the front pews, and the song finishes. The faithful have come; the fideles have adested.

Once the echoes die down, a fourth-grader steps up into the pulpit to give the first reading, from Isaiah 9:2 and 9:6, I think. Allowing for different versions of the Bible, sloppy note-taking, and sloppier memory, I’ll paraphrase it here: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The third-grade choir then sings “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as Mary and Gabriel enter the chancel from the sacristy to the right – Mary in simple garb and barefoot, and Gabriel (always played by a girl) resplendent in huge, feathery wings.

Mary sits in front of the altar and Gabriel stands just behind her as the next reader takes a deep breath for a lot of words from Luke 1:26-28 – “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said…”

At this point, they go a little artistic, and have Gabriel deliver the line, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” The reading continues with Mary expressing her doubt and Gabriel reassuring her that the Holy Spirit will get it done, and that of her son’s kingdom, there will be no end. It’s kind of a neat lesson, with the reader stopping to let Mary and Gabriel deliver their own lines. This is the only lesson in which any character has spoken dialogue in our Pageant.

Then Gabriel faces the toughest job of the night – singing the first solo. She sets the tone, as no one has proven to her that it’s possible to sing to 400 people without dying; nope, she has to prove it to all of the other soloists, so she screws up her courage and belts out, “From Heaven High.” You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the remaining soloists, even though they’re still nervous. And Gabriel’s relief is palpable.

The next reader presents passages from Luke 2:1 and 2:3-5 – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Gabriel and Mary exit into the sacristy, and some of the fourth-graders rush to the altar to set up two-dimensional cut-outs of a mule, a cow, and a sheep, while the third-grade choir sings, “Once in Royal David’s City.” The animals have been there all along, leaning with their backs against the railing around the altar, yet somehow this is the first time the audience notices them.

The next reading is from Luke 2:6-7 – “And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Joseph and Mary enter from the sacristy with a baby doll, which they place lovingly in the manger. The third-grade choir sings, “Away in a Manger” and Joseph and Mary alternate solos in, “Joseph, Dearest” while the choir sings the refrain.

Next comes Luke 2:8-14, or as I like to think of it, the Linus passage: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Now is when the Pageant ramps up the cuteness factor by about 100 percent, as the heavenly host enters from the narthex, and every head turns to see. It’s the first-grade girls in white dresses, white tights, and white shoes, with white wings and silver halos, and it’s adorable. They glide up the center aisle two-by-two, eventually coming to rest on the chancel stairs. It’s impossible not to smile as they walk by to the choir’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” accompanied by the sound of bells being shaken in time by the fourth-graders. It’s one of the many sweet moments of our Pageant, and as tough as it is not to smile, it’s even tougher not to cry.

Luke 2:15 gives everyone a chance to dab their eyes, with a chuckle coming fast on the reading’s heels: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, ‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.’” A playful organ intro precedes the choir singing, “Shepherds Come A-Running” – and run they do. Two by two, the first-grade boys scurry up the aisle from the narthex to the chancel, stopping just in front of the angels, with the last two – the two shortest boys in the grade – getting the honor of carrying stuffed lambs and placing them gently at their feet (although occasionally one will forget, and will simply drop the lamb once he realizes he should no longer be holding it). You know all of the boys love this part, because it’s bound to be the only time a teacher has instructed them to run in Chapel.

The JCP specialThis segment also marks the last change that I’m aware of. The shepherds used to wear their own outfits, as prescribed by the school – a simple cotton bathrobe with a safety-pinned bath towel for a headpiece. It was always comical to see the cacophony of plaid from whatever JCPenney had in its fall offerings each year, but two years ago, two generous first-grade moms sewed matching tan linen robes and headpieces for the entire grade. The next year, there were more first-graders than the previous year, so a dad stepped up to sew the additional brown robes and headpieces. The tan and brown robes are a definite improvement, but I have to admit the anarchist in me also loved the gaudy sale items from Penney. There’s a goofy element to the song, and the goofy costumes complemented it. But we’ll take any help we can get, so in with the new robes, and let the goofy trot up the aisle be the complement to the tune.

The next reading, from Luke 2:16, is a perfect follow-up to the shepherds’ run: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” Now the first-graders get to sing, as the shepherds and angels combine for “The Friendly Beasts.”

He brought the heck out of that frankincense.Next come the kings – the part Matthew always wanted, and got. The reading is even from the Gospel for which he was named, Matthew 2:1-2 – “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’”

This version of “We Three Kings” has a sort of whimsical, to-and-fro organ intro, which is also the interlude between each verse. It starts out, and the star enters the center aisle. No, that’s not me being cocky about Matthew; no one kid was a star, but one played THE star – a fourth-grader dressed all in black, holding a big, golden, glittery star overhead, mounted on a long black pole. The star walks about five pews into the nave, then stops. At last Thursday night’s performance, we were sitting in the fifth pew, so this year’s star stopped right next to us, and we got a close view of the ENORMOUS grin on her face – I swear, no other child could possibly have been that happy to be playing their role that night, and her happiness was infectious. She stood and grinned while the kings began the opening verse as a trio – “We three kings of Orient are…” from the door to the narthex, then started happily up the aisle to her destination – right behind the manger, holding that star up high and bright.

Each king then steps forward to the same spot, gut-checking himself for his solo. The first one carries gold up the aisle, singing as he walks. Then there’s the musical interlude and the sung refrain, “Oh, oh, star of wonder…” while the next king steps into place. This year, it was Matthew, and he sang his heart out as he carried that frankincense up the aisle. Then the interlude and refrain, followed by the third and final king – Mr. Myrrh. Each king stops in front of the manger, kneels to present his gift, and remains there until the end, kneeling with his back to the audience – a physically difficult differentiator for the royal fourth-graders.

a_IMG_1365We then skip the readings for another two songs, and the next segment is a little different from most pageants. If you’re not familiar with our particular canon, you might wonder why there are a bunch of oddly dressed children walking up the aisle as the choir sings, “O Come, Little Children.” This is the collective role relegated to the second-graders, and they represent the children of the world. No, they weren’t mentioned in Scripture, but they’re an interesting way to handle the challenge of having an entire grade otherwise not involved in the Pageant.

Each child chooses a foreign country, and is granted leave to dress as a citizen of that country would dress. Representing a contingency of children of the world, they walk up the aisle two-by-two, and take their place on the chancel steps. I’m happy to report there was no overt racism in this year’s costume selections.

Nothing says Christmas like a boomerang....It’s always exciting to see how the children dress; we typically see kimonos, ponchos, berets, kilts, martial arts gis, furry-hooded coats, and lots of soccer jerseys. It’s all good. When Christopher was in second grade, he wanted to go as a Guatemalan child, which required a little Googling on our part. Matthew went as an Australian child. Again, all good, and all fun. The children of the world take their place, then sing, “What Shall I Give?” before the final reader steps into the pulpit.

The last segment comes from John 1:14 – “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” You can feel the excitement mounting as every child from every grade joins in, nearly blasting the roof off as they sing their final number, “He Is Born/Il Est Ne.” Yes, they sing it in English and French, and no, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard about 200 southern kids slaughtering the French dialect: “Eel ay nay, luh duhveen awnfawnt.” At once cringe-worthy and beautiful.

The final note rings out, and everything is silent for a split second before the rector steps forward, turns to face the congregation, and says, “I think they deserve a round of applause, don’t you?” That’s when the place just explodes with proud, happy parents, standing to show their appreciation for another great gift from their kids. There’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, but the rector somehow manages to get control again, and asks everyone to bow their heads for a brief prayer before performers and audience alike sing the recessional. I’m sure you know what it is. We get through all four verses – twice – before the final performer has exited via the narthex doors at the back. That’s a lot of joy to the world.

So there you have it. This is what I’ve been thinking about for seven years/eight seasons. This Pageant has impressed me from the first time I saw it. It tells a terrific version of a wonderful story, and I think it can be uplifting to those who believe and disbelieve that story alike. To have it told by a large group of enthusiastic kids, only intensifies the feeling of awe. I challenge anyone to watch such a Pageant and not be moved. If you want, you can join me next year – I’m sure to be watching the livestream.

Merry Christmas!

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Living the dream

This weekend, we drove up to Culpeper, Virginia, to see someone who wasn’t there. She’s rarely there, even though she can barely move, and although others insist they’ve seen her, I believe she hasn’t been there in quite a while.

I’m talking about my mother, who’s in late Parkinson’s and in the throes of dementia. She and my dad still live in their own house, but they have around-the-clock in-home care for her. And I’m not sure she even knows where she is. She’s confined to a wheelchair, and can barely hold onto a fork or cup to feed herself, but in her mind, she goes everywhere and does everything. That’s probably a mercy. When she speaks, she tells us of going places – from walking out onto their deck, to driving to work, to going to see an old friend – or she asks Dad to take her home from whatever event she thinks she’s attending.

The hallucinations can be uplifting or heartbreaking. She might look at an empty spot on the floor, smile, and say, “Hi, Kitty!” Or she might get agitated because she thinks her mother – who passed away 31 years ago – just walked down the hall, and is calling for her. She has imagined a Frenchman living in a bathtub in their yard, a white dog that walks in through a hole in the wall where she’s certain the contractors forgot to put the last piece of plywood when they built the house, and a strange woman she’s certain is there to have an affair with my dad.

In some ways, the world is her oyster – she can go anywhere and do anything – but in other ways, she’s a prisoner to whatever strange whims or chemical reactions take place inside her brain, and outside her control. But wherever she is, she’s clearly not there with us. We can’t tell if this is Parkinson’s dementia or the side effect of her Sinemet, which is the double-edged sword of this disease – could be the disease causing a problem, or it could be the medication she has to take for the disease.

Then again, it could be a natural progression of old age and senility. It happened to my grandmother, who spent her later years staring out the living room window and telling us “those men” were back, digging up the trees at the end of our lot. She used to send me out into the front yard, yelling toward the road to leave those trees alone, dammit. That used to do the trick, too – Nanny would be satisfied, and the hallucination would be over. (As would my reputation with the neighbors.)

With Mom, there’s no such solution. Nothing will pull her back, whether we play along or try to tell her the truth. That can make things tough when the hallucination is that Dad is cheating on her, or that Kim and I are getting a divorce – no amount of arguing can convince her otherwise. So I’m in favor of letting her stay in whatever reality she’s created. On a recent visit, she asked me if I’d seen my parents lately. I have no idea who she thought I was, but what would have been the point of correcting her? That would only embarrass her or make her confrontational. I still remember my older brother George sitting next to her when she asked me that – he looked at me, grinned, and said, “Yeah, Dan, have you?” All I could say was, “No, I haven’t seen my mom in a long time.”

Others might think that’s cruel, or that we’re having a laugh at her expense, but they would be wrong. George wasn’t grinning at Mom, he was grinning at my discomfort, damn him. And I wasn’t trying to be smarmy with an ironic answer, I was trying simply to placate her. Just like Saturday night, when she asked me, “Where’s Nanny?” What good would it do to tell her Nanny’d been dead for 31 years? I just said she’d been gone for a while. When Mom asked me where she went, I answered honestly when I told her I don’t know. Of course, if she had continued to press, I’m not sure what would have happened, but she didn’t. She was off on another journey, and like her, I was wondering where my mother had gone.

There’s one exception to this rule – I want to identify myself. When we arrived Saturday, I walked up to her and said, “Hi, Mom!” She looked at me in confusion and answered, “Hi…George.” Years ago, it would have meant nothing for her to get the wrong name; she had eight kids, and was constantly calling us by each others’ names. But she knew who we were, regardless. Not so this time; I could see in her eyes that she didn’t know me, and resorted to giving me an identity she’s familiar with. But I wanted her to know who I was, especially if we were going to have any shot at conversation that night, so I told her, “Actually, it’s Dan. George will be here tomorrow.”

Not that it mattered, because other than asking me where Nanny was, we had no other conversation. I talked to my dad and sister a little, but Mom sat and stared at me, trying to work out why this guy was sitting there in front of her, talking about God knows what. She made a couple attempts to converse with my dad and sister, but only gibberish came out – that’s the newest symptom, and so far the hardest one to witness. She’ll try to say something, but will only babble, having no idea herself what she’s trying to say.

A couple of good things happened while we were there, though. We’d brought our new shih tzu puppy along for the trip, and finally showed him to Mom on Sunday. (I was concerned Saturday evening that his sudden appearance might confuse her.) I brought him into the house in his carrier, and held it up for her to see. She peered inside, but I couldn’t tell if she recognized anything in that fluffy Rorschach test. I asked her if she wanted to pet him, and she croaked out a barely legible, “Yeah.” So I took him out of the carrier and held him up in front of her face. She reached up tentatively, and stroked his soft long hair. During that moment, Rocky was as still as I’ve ever seen him – normally, he’s a wiggly bundle of energy, squirming, licking, and nipping playfully. But while she did her best to pet him, he stayed still and let her grip his leg. I think he could sense that she’s ill, and it was a touching connection to see. She clearly enjoyed holding his leg and stroking his fur, and he was fine with it.

On Sunday, George was picking on Matthew and Christopher for being so engulfed in their electronics. My parents’ basement is a treasure trove of old, broken toys, and George told Matthew he’d found something down there for Matthew to look at. It was my younger brother Bryan’s old Mr. Machine toy, barely functional after 40 years. George had fun showing it to Matthew and telling him that’s what kids used to have to play with instead of electronics. Matthew’s too old for a wind-up toy like that, but he was fascinated with the idea that it was once fun for somebody. I explained to him that it once ran faster, and whistled an actual tune instead of giving out the pathetic toots it was producing in its old age. He devoted a few minutes to trying to make it work again, winding the key and giving it a push to see if a forced start was all it needed.

While he was doing that, I happened to glance at Mom, and saw something wonderful – a beatific smile on her face as she watched Matthew “playing with” Mr. Machine. I realized he looks a lot like Bryan did when he was a little boy, and figured in her mind, she was back in her youth, watching Bryan play with his favorite toy. And it made her happy. I haven’t seen true happiness on her face in at least five years – only pain, fear, confusion, and/or discouragement. But in that moment, she was in the happiest place on earth, watching her little boy again. George’s prank had brought serendipity.

A little while later, we collected our things to go, and I gave her a hug and kiss and wished her a Merry Christmas. She gurgled out the words “Merry Christmas” and looked at me as if I were the contractor who’d left a hole in her wall. We finished our good-byes with everyone else, and as we walked out the door, I was overcome with the feeling that I’d just seen her for the last time. That thought just descended on me with sudden clarity.

It may well be wrong; I’ve had morbid thoughts like that before, and they didn’t come true. But this one felt different. And if it’s right, it’s okay. She deserves to continue her journey, and to be whole again. Who knows? Maybe she’ll finally find Nanny.

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