Tag Archives: parenting

Everyone Deserves It

I wasted time at the train station after disembarking, slowly drinking coffee and eating a donut, while waiting for the demand for Ubers to subside.  When the price of the ride returned to the reasonable rate of a minute per mile, I got in one and let it take me to the hospital that once felt like it had a room with my name on it.  As a child, I had repeated bouts of severe bronchitis and thus spent a lot of time in a building now called the old wing.  But this 21st century plaza of glass and steel was not the healing place I remembered.  Very little in the town where I spent the first 14 years of my life looked familiar, for that matter.  That fact was a bittersweet distraction.

Once at the hospital, I still delayed.  Far too much time in the gift shop to come away with a mere card – and one that said something trite that felt insincere on my part: “May an angel always be beside you.”  Not a single bone in my body believed this man had lived his life in a way that should keep him in the company of angels – certainly not the part of it that pertained to me.  He’d inflicted physical and psychological abuse on my mother and me.  He told me numerous times that he hadn’t wanted to be a father and that my existence had made his more difficult.  My mother and I were made to pay.  And so I meandered around the spanking brand new wing of the hometown hospital, the one that used to have a room with my name on it, praying for the courage to face this man who forced me to play postman at his building just to get him to come into the lobby so I could see him.  Even then, I couldn’t get him to let his grandchildren in or to come out to the car to meet them.

“…Because everyone deserves it – no matter what,” I wrote inside the blank card with the trite spiritual wish on the outside.  That I believed.  Every child of God deserves the accompaniment of an angel, no matter how damaged or damaging he may be.  “I love you!”  I added.  Through every horrible memory, that too had always been true, sometimes in spite of myself.

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When I found the room with the beautiful view of Long Island Sound, the one with his name on it, he wasn’t in it.  He was back in the old wing of the hospital undergoing stress tests on his heart.  I would have missed him even if I’d gone straight to his room without buying the card, but not if I’d bypassed the coffee and donut.  It was now going to be at least two hours before I could see him, and I had only designated six for him.  The need to be the mother and the teacher that I love being called me harder than the obligation to be the daughter it hurt to be.  That, and the fact that my business as a baker still doesn’t run without me after two years, required I return home, as long as he was stable and could make his own medical decisions.

“What time did you leave?  I could hear you in my bedroom.  Did you kiss me goodbye?  What time are you coming home?”  Such were the text message questions from my teenaged daughter, who’s on the spectrum.  The last question was, in part, to know how long she’d have to play on the computer before I was home to turn her attentions back to Chemistry and Algebra II.  But I also know that my girl must feel the love from me each day for any day to be complete. She hated my business trips when I used to have them, which always made me hate them a bit, too.

God has an interesting sense of humor.  How else can one explain such an affinity for children in the child of a man who considers children a nuisance?

“Don’t cry when you say goodbye to him, Mom; it’ll probably freak him out,” my daughter said about a student whose family was moving to the other side of the country. She was right, I knew.  So I shed my tears at home, out of sight, before giving my parting blue sash a medallion I won years ago as a goodbye present.

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Somewhere in the haze of cold, selfish, liquor-wading isolationism, I know that my father feels a measure of fondness for me that’s at least commensurate with my affection for my students.  I’ve occasionally been able to hear it in his voice, after accomplishing something he could brag about to the neighbors he didn’t want to see or the golf buddies he’s now outlived.  But I’ve spent years wishing he’d feel a little more… and now, I’m told he does.  A stroke will do that.

“He gets emotional when I mention you,” his attending physician told me.  It’s guilt.  What else could it be?  I thought, as I slowly walked from his apartment to his bank, in no hurry to return to the man who had me out running errands without so much as a “good to see you” or “thanks for coming.”

“One of these days we’re going to have to have it out,” he’d said eons ago, back when his intentional verbal cruelty could still make me livid.  But I saw no need for that. It wouldn’t have taken the fear out of a childhood long gone or made him a man who wanted a family.  It would just have been more wasted time.

I thought again about the card from the gift shop as I climbed into the Uber back to the hospital.  “May an angel always be beside you.”  Indeed… for you never wanted anyone else to be.

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Long Lines and Loss

I come from a long line of women who won’t take no for an answer – even from God.  When people told my grandmother she didn’t have the constitution to eat whatever she wanted and continue breathing, she ignored them for thirty years, until thirty feet of her intestines had to be removed.  When my father told my mother he would never marry her, she simply changed her last name to his and waited years – for nothing.  When the doctors told my aunt that an epileptic with sickle cell could not carry a child to term, she miscarried five times before menopause permanently decided the issue.

So begins a compilation of autobiographical short stories I wrote a while back.  That opening paragraph has been popping into my head for almost two weeks now, when the last of the three women mentioned in it died less than seventeen days after her ninety-sixth birthday.  That long female line of mine is down to me and my daughter.  I knew that was coming, of course, but I still wasn’t ready.

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I thought my grandmother would make it to triple digits.  Her older sister made it to 101.  But perhaps becoming the last living member of her birth family made her more ready to join her husband and half of her kids.  The longevity of the generation once removed from my own was a source of hope when the early deaths of my mother and three of her siblings made me anxious about my own mortality.  That sporadic anxiety is back.

It is now Good Friday, about a week after I first started this post.  I would love to claim that phenomenal success of the shop has occupied too much of my time to finish writing.  But mama drama is the better explanation.

My son has regressed to his 14-year-old self.  That was the year he acquired new friends and the first real girlfriend and became so out of control that I was ready to ship him to his grandparents in Texas.  Now, a lack of consideration and respect, on multiple levels about multiple big-ticket items, need not lead to a plane ticket purchase.  After all, he is legally – and financially – able to sign a lease.  While my love for him is unconditional, his ability to live in my house is not.  But that fact doesn’t keep the mama bear in me from wanting to keep him safe – especially from himself.

Loss is a natural part of life, occurring in unexpected ways, like sudden illness and teenager confusion, and expected ones, like old age or the end of childhood.  I state the obvious simply so that I can better accept a fact that sucks so profoundly.

Easter weekend was the most important three days of any year to my very religious late grandmother, the woman whose apartment was my second home when my mother was at her second job, the woman who taught me the most about baking and let her daughter provide the finishing touches.  As I receive a host of orders for end-of-Lent goodies, the absence of my baking teacher, who dealt with more loss (four children alone was enough!) with as much grace as possible, leaves me with pain both piercing and acute.

Nellie Mae made chocolate pie once a year for her youngest daughter, my aunt who couldn’t have children.   She taught me to make the ninety-something year old recipe she’d acquired as a child herself on a summer visit my family made to her house, not long after the death of my aunt.  That recipe is my most popular pie and a component of my most popular cupcake.  As long as my shop is here, my grandmother will be with me every day, even more than my mother, whether I like it or not – as will her example of how to handle child-related wounds with grace.

 


No Longer Fine

I could hear it in her voice.  It was more than fatigue.  So I asked again if anything happened during her school day that was out of the ordinary.

“I messed up my math and got upset with Mr. White.”  I asked what she meant by “got upset.”  There was a time in her life when an emotional outburst at school was an almost daily occurrence that prompted phone call and email notification.  There was a time when everyone in the neighborhood knew when she was upset because they could hear it through the stone-covered walls of our house or the bricks of the school.

“Well, I had to take a moment to go to the bathroom and calm down,” she answered, sounding chagrined.  It was a strange sound that brought me up short.  I paused for a moment and asked if she and Mr. White were okay with each other.  It was my way of trying to find out if she’d been disrespectful in her outburst.

As a child on the spectrum, she’s been through all sorts of techniques and suggestions, from parents and professionals alike, to control her emotions better, and she’s made continued progress over the years.  Though I’ve been notified multiple times this school year about mandatory study hall assignments because her homework wasn’t as done as she said it was, the last in-school outburst I heard about was a year ago.  Did I now need to expect an email from Mr. White about my daughter being rude?  I wondered.

“Yeah.  We were fine after I calmed down,” she answered.  There it was again – the sound of something totally new in my thirteen-year-old, emotionally and socially-challenged girl.  It sounded like embarrassment, perhaps even shame.  I had a sudden confusing twinge of completely contradictory emotions.  I hurt for her and was elated at the same time.

Through a lifetime of being told and taught to better control her reactions to situations and information she dislikes, Ava’s always acted as if the people upon whom she inflicted her outbursts were the ones with the problem.  As she saw it, we just needed to let her flip out and happily live with the completely inappropriate behavior.  But as she told me about this incident during her daily afterschool phone call, it was clear  that she was the one who was bothered by her own lack of control.  She’d gotten used to reacting well, and she was disappointed in herself for going backwards.

I was so proud of her I had to keep from crying, as I sat in the cubicle I’ll be leaving in less than a month.  I told her not to feel bad, that it sounded like she got it together pretty quickly and was still on good terms with Mr. White, so there was nothing to worry about it.  I told her I love her and gave her what my family calls a psychic hug.

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Ava started testing for her black belt a couple of weeks ago.  She’ll be getting her braces off a couple of weeks from now.  The application process for public high school selection (a unique ritual in Baltimore, as far as I know) begins next month.  In short, my girl’s going through a lot of changes this season, but none more significant than being disappointed in herself for behavior she once thought was fine.


The Only Variable

I took a night off from kung fu last night, which always leaves me anxious to get back a little faster.  My mind’s already in the guan. But there’s a lot besides kung fu going on in my head today; so I’m going to let things tumble as they may.

A third member of the family has begun black sash testing.  Here’s Merle post sparring practice with me, sometime last week.

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Our girl has decided that she’s not thrilled about being the only member of the family who’s not yet eligible for testing.  All of a sudden, Ava’s stepping up her game and executing some of the better kicking combinations she’s ever put out.  Today will tell the tale on whether she’s really pushing for eligibility. Today, she has the sparring practice that she dreads, and I want her to do well.  I want her to be deemed eligible for testing if she wants to be.

In her favor is the absence of a brother who’s normally a thorn in her side whenever the sparring gear goes on.  Tonight, he’s going to work.

This fact was a bone of contention of sorts last night, as I always seem to be the last to know when his plans change.  Now that Merle is testing, that can be inconvenient, with one car in the family and three people who often have different places to be that are 10 to 40 miles apart or the same place to be at different times.  I’m apparently supposed to “just chill” when a conflict arises, even if it could easily have been avoided by a sharing of information – and even though I’ve requested info sharing ad nauseum.  Such is the plight of parenting a teenager who, by definition, thinks he should be in charge of all aspects of his life at all times, legal liability and severe financial restraints aside, among other things.

Every once and while I have to stop, take a breath and say aloud, “I’m sorry, Mom,” because what goes around truly does come back around.  My son has become just as good at telling me what he thinks is wrong with me as I was at telling my mother.  And that’s just the way it is.  It’s his turn.

Here’s what I know about parenthood, regardless of how my children assess me, each other, themselves: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest kid.”

I can’t remember where I first heard that, but I remember feeling socked in the gut with its undeniable truth.  I was so moved by it when I first heard it a dozen years ago that I repeated it to half a dozen friends and co-workers, all of whom visibly had the same reaction that I’d felt.  This fact is the reason my son probably hasn’t heard the word “no” from me more than a half dozen times in his 17-plus years (and my daughter’s heard it a lot less than she should, given behavioral issues not entirely in her control).  It’s also the reason I make myself nuts getting them to where they want and/or need to be.

I am unhappy when they are.  Period.  The only variable is the extent.  I can chill all day long if all I have to care about is me, but I doubt there’s a good (custodial) parent on the planet who lives that way.

I have children living near downtown Baltimore, going to underfunded public and parochial schools, with peer influences that haven’t always been good.  But today, I’m not worried about drugs, sex, gangs or bullies – just whether my girl can get eligible for testing if she wants to and if my son can get into and afford the college of his choice.  I’m still moving slowly at becoming a duck (explained here), but I’m surely doing something right!


Not Enough

A meeting is set for next week to finalize plans for the children’s kung fu class at the gym.  My excitement grows as the days pass.  But joy is a bit muted today on this Good Friday, because I miss my mother.

Mom was raised a Fundamentalist Baptist, but by the time she died, she’d probably attended a service of every Christian denomination in North America.   Though she wasn’t loyal to the Fundamentalists (I can’t help but be a bit grateful for that), she was a church-going woman who consciously strove to be a good Christian until the day they wheeled her into the hospice center for the final day of her life.  So, from as far back as I can remember, Easter was a big deal in our household.  And though I’m not a church-going woman, it’s still a big deal to me today.

Ironically, the part of the holiday that makes me wistful for my mother’s presence is the pagan ritual.  Easter egg hunts in her yard are some of the fondest memories I have of the extended family.  And her final Easter, three months before her death, was the last time my children saw her still looking like herself, still acting like Nana.

I wish I could personally thank her for the many wonderful Easter weekends of my life – before and after my children came along.  I did so while she was living, but not nearly enough.

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The Old Man

I started my work day smiling wistfully over a father with whom I have a painful relationship.  I don’t communicate with him as often as I’d like, in part because he doesn’t own a computer and has never had an email account, but largely because he wasn’t a very good father.  He actually never wanted to be one at all – a fact he made expressly clear more than once as I was growing up.  That’s still a small bone of contention for me.

In any case, every once and a while, I’ll put a packet of pictures in the mail to him of his grandchildren and me, with a note about what’s been going on in our lives.  Today was one of those days.  (Phone calls can be a bit of a crap shoot over whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde will answer.)  This mailing included prints of my Facebook postings about the family’s medal-winning martial arts success of late.

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Perhaps that will give the curmudgeon something to smile about.  It made me smile this morning just to think it might….


It’s What We Know

“Her mom says she needs a little positive reinforcement.”  He looked at me like I was speaking in Greek.  “You know how it is, when you’re the same sash color for longer than average and you start feeling like you’ll never move up, because you do everything wrong… you know.”  He finally blinked.

“Well, you know how to get over that?” he asked with an undercurrent of sarcasm.

“Yeah, I know, do a better job.”

“Yeah!”

“But sometimes it’s like a catch-22: you keep hearing that you’re not doing well, so you lose your enthusiasm, and you don’t try so hard, so you get worse – and then you never stop hearing that you’re not doing it well.  Come on.  Just a compliment or two.  She feels like she’s being picked on.”

I knew that feeling well.  It’s where I lived when I first started learning Shaolin Fist, and that picked-on feeling stayed with me each time I got a correction from the instructor who taught me most of that form.  That relationship has long since changed for the better, but the memory of being in the same place as the eleven-year-old girl in need of positive reinforcement was vivid.

I needed Siheng to find his empathy, for her sake.  Even I had once told him with a small measure of pain in my voice, back when I was testing for black sash: “Just once, can you start your critique of my form by telling me what you liked?”  It brought him up short at the time, and it did again Monday night.

“I hear what you’re saying, but I guess that’s just not the kind of person I am.  I mean, coming up in a Chinese family, that’s not what you get.  You bring home an A- and they want to know why it’s not an A,” he said with a chuckle.

“Yeah.  Some black folks are like that, too,” I answered, remembering what was expected of me – particularly by a father who could only appreciate academic success.  Other accomplishments were nice but ultimately just decoration on the only part of the package that mattered.  It often felt like the exclusive reason to have children, in his mind, was to give him a great report card to brag about.

My children know I love and appreciate them for a plethora of reasons that have nothing to do with whether they make honor roll, but they’re also annoyed by the tabs I keep on their school work and my insistence that they do their best.  To some extent, we all copy the behavior we were raised with.  It’s what we know.  But once we notice the duplication, we have a duty to assess, I thought, as I watched Siheng look over the requirements card of our student.

Is this learned behavior something I should keep? I try to ask (though, perhaps, not as often as I should).  Should I change it entirely?  Slightly alter it at appropriate moments?

I hoped Siheng was wondering something similar.  I hoped he would suspend how he came up, just for a few minutes, just for the esteem of a long-standing yellow sash hoping so hard to become green.

As luck would have it, he didn’t need to.  She gave us her best pre-test performance to date.  And we told her so, gleefully…before telling her what she needs to correct.


Perfect Gifts

Merry Christmas, all!  Many thanks to the readers who checked in on my status after the Christmas Eve trip to the doctor.

As you can see below, I received a perfect gift, which I shall cart off to the television studio when I return to work on Friday.  Everybody at home and those closest at the day job know this already; so I’ll happily advertise it to the co-workers who don’t.

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Merle and Ava were happy and satisfied with their cash-in (that term applies far more to Ava, of course) – none of which had to do with kung fu.  They’re happy to leave the obsession to me and Aaron.

His favorite today was a gift certificate to the martial art shop.  He poured over the details of it, saying:

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“So you know where we’re going tomorrow, right Mom?”

“Of course, dear.”

“And you know they’re going to be more weapons in the house.”

“Yes, I figured the first thing you’ll buy is your own staff; then, probably new equipment for Sancho, if you need it.”

“No.  Staff and a ninja star.”

“A ninja star?  What’re you going to do with a ninja star?”

“Just have one.”

“Aren’t they illegal?”

“No, Mom,” he answered, laughing.

“They have to be illegal outside the house.”

“Hmm.  Maybe.”

I don’t know about a ninja star….

But he’ll be happy with whatever I buy him there, as he always is.  I’m a lot happier when I can talk the proprietor down to a decent discount…but I’ll worry about that tomorrow, and only for a moment, because self-training resumes tomorrow night! 🙂


Shot in the Back

I’m sitting in the waiting room of a surgical suite, awaiting a cortisone shot to relieve the bulging discs in my lower back.  I’m preemptively antsy that the doctor is going to keep me waiting again.

I got this from my mother, this impatient sense of entitlement that I be treated according to the rules.  Whatever those are.  She survived life in a one-horse town of the Deep South during the 1940s and 50s, and when she came north to a New York City suburb, fresh out of high school, she came with an attitude: Don’t tread on me.  Through osmosis, she passed that ‘tude on to me.

Relax, I tell myself.  Doctors keep everybody waiting; it’s not personal.

But I’m anxious anyway.  I’m getting a shot in the back.  My last shot to the back was the epidural when I had my daughter twelve years ago, and that was a disaster!  It gave me a headache so piercing, I had trouble nursing her the first day of her life.  And the day I came home, I couldn’t move my legs without severe pain for several hours.  That’s not a good history with shots in the back.

Mom likely would’ve told me to pass on this option.  She would’ve looked up every herbal concoction known to man that would relieve lower back pain and sciatica and shipped it to me in cases, like the care packages she sent me in college.  She would have lectured me on quitting kung fu back when the tornado kicks began screwing up my back as a green sash.

She already thought martial arts was more trouble than it was worth, after I tore my meniscus in tae kwon do.  That first knee operation almost kept me from being at her side when she took her last breath, her decline came so quickly after it.

I wonder what she would have thought about me starting up again, pushing through three more serious injuries to make it to teacher status.  I think she would have been just like me when watching her grandchildren spar, hit the floor, sometimes even bleed.  She would have winced – albeit through the phone, eight hundred miles away – then found a smile to put into her voice to encourage me to get back up and do what I needed to do.  She would have told me to be careful, to take care of myself…to succeed.  And she would have been in a front row seat the day I earned my black sash and again, nine months later, when her grandson earned his.

She would have hated me getting this shot today and told me to call her the moment I was home.  Then, she would have asked me when I was entering my next tournament.