Vegetarian Mumbo Jumbo

Scene: Nate’s bedroom, around bedtime. Nate is sitting on the floor, putting on his pajamas. Dad is reclining on the bed. Figaro, the cat, enters the room.

Dad (to Figaro): Come here, you fat, furry thing. I’m gonna eat you up.

Nate: Dad, please stop talking about eating the cat. I don’t like talking about killing animals, and eating means killing, you know.

Dad: Hm. How do you feel about having eaten turkey for dinner this evening?

Nate: Oh, I don’t mind that. I just don’t like hurting cute, furry animals.

Dad: What about an ugly furry animal?

Nate: You mean like a bullfrog… with hair? (pause) I don’t think I’d eat that.

A day in your celebration

Last year, Sandy was a bit taken aback by the sudden appearance of a birthday cake on Sarah’s birthday. This year, I made sure to ask her permission in advance. She said yes, and she also said that she was glad I had asked her first.

So last Saturday we ate chocolate cake, and thought about Sarah. I wasn’t going to sing “Happy Birthday,” but Nate knows you can’t eat the cake until you sing the song.

Our situation is hard for Sandy, sometimes. She is living in Sarah’s house, raising Sarah’s son, and in love with Sarah’s husband. Sandy celebrating Sarah’s birthday is weird, but at least you get cake.

When Sarah died, Nate was only two years old. He doesn’t remember her at all. There are a thousand stories I want to tell him about his mom; her favorite places, her favorite things. But Sandy is here now; she is here now, right now, sleeping next to me in our big warm bed. She has a thousand stories of her own to tell us, and the three of us have a thousand thousand new memories to make.

You know what I mean

Scene: in the car, driving home from the YMCA. It is a dark and stormy night. Dad is peering through the rain, thinking about buying new windshield wiper blades, and singing along to the song in his head. Nate is in the backseat, listening.

Nate: Daddy? What about the cat?

Dad: What?

Nate: It sounded like you said, “I’m two-sixty-four my cat.” What does that mean?

Someone here is gettin’ old

Scene: A picnic table at Kimball Farm. It is Nate’s sixth birthday. Nate is eating a giant dish of chocolate ice cream. Sandy is eating a giant dish of lemon sherbet. Dad has gone in search of a dessert that does not contain lactose.

Dad enters, carrying a giant chocolate chip cookie.

Nate: Can I try some?

Dad: No way. This is my dessert.

Nate looks disconsolate.

Dad: That is your dessert. This is my dessert.

Dad winks at Sandy.

Dad: “This is my rifle, this is my gun…”

Nate: This is my Slinky.

Slinky

A little family

When I was in college, the theatre department put on a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. The script called for a very young girl to play the part of The Child. Luckily, we had one handy. James, the auditorium manager, and Professor Jane, the costume designer, had three beautiful children: two boys and a girl. The girl, Nia, was six years old at the time, or thereabouts, and she was perfect.

I was in my early 20s at that time, and I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I did not want children of my own.

I don’t remember having anything to do with Six Characters. I probably worked on the electrics crew or something. But I happened to catch the tail end of an evening dress rehearsal one night. James was there too, waiting to pick up his daughter. When the stage manager dismissed the actors, Nia spotted her father. She jumped off the stage and went tearing up the aisle, screaming, “Daddeeeeee!” She leaped into his arms and he spun her around into a big hug, The Child’s ghostly white dress fluttering behind her.

That instant of pure joy stabbed me right in the heart. That was the first moment in my life when I thought, “Maybe having kids wouldn’t be so bad.”

When Sarah and I started dating, we were in our late 20s. Sarah let me know early on that she wanted kids, and I knew that if I wanted to keep her around, I would have to get on board with that. When I met her nieces, all my resistance crumbled. I fell in love with them immediately. Watching Sarah with them, watching myself with them, I finally admitted that we would be good parents.

Taking care of a newborn is exhausting work. Being a single parent is exhausting work. Being Nate’s dad is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, but there are a lot of nights when I am just tired, and I have a hard time being the sparky, energetic father he deserves. Some nights, when I go to pick him up at school, he is delighted to see me, but I am too tired and cranky to appreciate it fully. And other nights, when I am delighted to see him, he is busy playing or coloring and would really prefer if I just went away. Sometimes, he knows he’s been naughty at school, and is dreading my arrival. But in the back of my mind, I remember Nia and James, and I know that one of these days we will both be happy to see each other at the same time.

Sandy’s lease is up tomorrow. She packed up her apartment and moved in with me and Nate on Wednesday. She drove in to work with me on Thursday and spent the day cleaning the old apartment. We drove home together, and together we went to pick up Nate at school.

And Nate saw us across the crowded room.

And his face lit up, and he ran across the room, and he ran right by me and threw himself into Sandy’s arms, hugging her with all his might.

And I thought, Oh—that’s what I’ve been waiting for.

Welcome home, Sandy.

Like sugar to my heart

Last Saturday, Nate let me sleep until 8:00 in the morning, which was awesome. Then I heard a gentle tapping (upon my chamber door). I croaked, and Nate opened the door and poked his head in. “I’m hungry, daddy.”

On my bleary way to the bathroom, I tripped on the laundry basket, which I had strategically placed in the hallway the night before, specifically so I would trip on it. “Okay, buddy. I’m just going to start the laundry, you think about what you’d like to eat.”

As I poured Tide Free into a measuring cup, Nate called down the basement stairs. “Actually, I don’t want breakfast.”

Even in my semi-conscious state, I knew this was… odd. “You’re telling me you’re not hungry after all?”

“Right.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you, or can I go back to bed for a while?”

“You can go back to bed. I just want to be alone in the room where we eat.”

A brief pause, as I attempted to figure this out. Then: “Oh. I think I see where this is going.” I started the laundry and bounced upstairs. I grabbed my son and swept him up into a good-morning hug. As I kissed his cheek, I took a deep sniff. Sure enough: chocolate and peanut butter. Someone’s been into the Easter candy.

Like father, like son. I took the basket and moved it to the top of the fridge. “You just let me know when you’re ready for breakfast, my sneaky little weasel.”

With the past and the present and the future

Sarah died three years ago today.

The hospital cafeteria sent breakfast to the ICU, for those of us who had spent most of the night keeping vigil. I remember thinking how strange that was, orange juice and a bagel, and the sun coming up, and Sarah gone.

I remember Beth driving me to the rehab hospital to pick up Sarah’s things, and the Irish nurse saying, “Och, and the little one!” (meaning Nate, of course).

And Beth snapping at her, “You’re not helping,” and muttering imprecations under her breath as we waited for the elevator, holding paper bags full of comfy clothes and get-well cards. I had to laugh, in spite of everything.

I can remember everything about that day, but I would rather not. I choose to remember Sarah laughing, standing at the wheel of her parents’ sailboat, holding Nate on her hip.

And I choose to look ahead, not back.

A lesson in motion

Sarah would have turned 40 today.

As her birthday comes right on the heels of Christmas, Sarah always felt that she had been cheated out of her due. The whole fam damily would come together for nearly everyone else’s birthday, but after the holidays, everyone was just too burned out to muster another celebration. So I always tried to make her birthday extra special. One year, I took her to see the Broadway touring production of Footloose. Man, that was a stinker, but she loved it. I can’t imagine what I would have done for her 40th. Chances are she would have talked me into going to Churchill, Alaska, to visit the polar bears.

I was born a couple of years after Sarah. I am now officially pushing 40, and it is a strange feeling indeed. My son is five already; I’m on my third car. I can get an e-mail from someone I went to high school with, and say with complete accuracy that I haven’t heard from them in twenty years. And our handsome cat, who shares Sarah’s birthday, moves from “mature” to “old” today.

Figaro is 13 years old, by my reckoning. I got him when he was two. My neighbor, Liz, banged on my apartment door and thrust him into my arms. “Congratulations, you just got yourself a cat. The little bastard keeps trying to kill my kitties.” It took a while to train him not to climb inside the Doritos bag whenever it was opened, but we quickly learned to understand each other. He and I have been together for eleven years now. He recently spent a few days in the hospital, having eaten a bit of ribbon. The Christmas Turd used up one of his nine lives and cost me a cool $1200. I hated being put in this position, but I had to decide just exactly how much money I was willing to spend to save his furry behind, before giving him the needle.

It seems he will recover, but it got me to thinking. 13 is pretty old, for a cat. He may have made it through this time, but eleven years have passed awfully quickly. It will not be nearly that long before I can expect him to start peeing in difficult-to-find places around the house. He’s had a good, long life, and I wouldn’t want to see him suffer. He wouldn’t understand chemotherapy, for instance. Cats live in the now.

Which is my point, as it turns out. I wasn’t sure I had one, but I do. Sarah’s life was cut short, but even a hundred years is really not that long… and once you make it over the top of the hill and start down the other side, it goes faster and faster.

Live in the now, at least once a year. Celebrate your birthday. Visit the polar bears.

And don’t eat any more ribbon.

Down by the sea

Scene: Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey, California. There is a six-foot tall wooden sculpture of an ice-cream sundae, advertising an ice cream shop. Dad and Nonna are admiring the many typographical errors in the shop window. Nate is admiring the giant sundae.

Nate: Dad, can I climb it?

Dad: Sure, honey, but don’t lick it.

Nate immediately licks the sundae, and giggles.

Dad (resigned): Nate, do you know why I told you not to lick it?

Nate (confidently): Because it’s made of wood.

Dad: No. Because it’s covered with seagull poop.

Nate: Oh.

Nonna laughs.