This new day

July 30th, 2011

By the time my father died, I knew that he was dying; several days – a week? – in a coma, a shunt draining fluid from his brain had convinced even me. I think I still held out some stubborn hope, in the way of children – and to watch at twenty-one your father die is to be very much a child – but most of me was willing to accept what I was seeing.

I don’t remember the very last thing I said to my father, as I ended my visit to the hospital, because although I was willing to accept that he was dying I also suspected that he could linger like that for a long time yet and I suspected there would be more visits, more one-way conversations. It would not have been what my father wanted, lingering; my father the fisherman, my father the hockey coach, my father the man who belonged under Idaho skies if ever a man did. It would not have been what he wanted, lingering in between.

I don’t remember the very last words I said, as I was leaving, but I remember what I said to him on that visit. I told him that it would be okay. To die. It would be okay, if he wanted to, to just go ahead and stop fighting. I told him I would be okay, and that for once in his lifetime of putting his children first he should just think about himself and do what he wanted, only what he wanted. And if he wanted to keep on fighting, I would visit, and read him the newspaper, and clip his nails and it would be okay. And if he wanted to stop, to just stop and rest at last, that he should do that. It would be okay, and I would be okay, whatever he did. But he should do what he wanted and not think about anybody else.

In a lifetime of adoring my father, in that conversation I understood what it meant to truly love him. He died that night, as if he had been waiting for my permission.

I do not believe in the resurrection, so I do not believe that I will ever see my father again. I do not think, in the manner of Field of Dreams, that my father is going to appear in the river grass so that we might fish the Madison together just one more time. I know that I will never look up during a hockey game and see my father in the stands across from me, watching his grandson play the game he loved.

And yet he is always there on the far bank, always hovering in the corner behind the goal. Today I cross over to that strange new life in which the after is longer than the before. The days will stack up on top of each other like stones on a cairn taking me further and further away from my father and this can’t be helped. I’m in no hurry to die. This after is also my now: my garden and my poems and my boys and the pink light of sunset on the Swiss Alps. Today. This new day.

For one day, equilibrium

July 29th, 2011

Today is the day. Today is the balancing point, perfect equilibrium, and then tomorrow I will wake for the first time into a life from which my father has been absent for longer than he had been present. Tomorrow I will wake up and I will have been fatherless for more than half my life.

The last time I visited my father in the hospital, he was in a coma. I talked to him, and clipped his fingernails, and read to him from The Sporting News – there were some summer hockey trades going on, as there are now, teams finalizing their rosters, and twenty-one years later I still remember reading to my father the news that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to Buffalo. This is what I remember. The sound of my father’s voice is lost, the last thing he said to me is lost, but I remember telling him that Pat LaFontaine was transferring to the Buffalo Sabres.

I remember nothing about his hospital room, not even if he had a private room, but I remember that a print of Matisse’s Goldfish hung in the corridor and that I passed it every day. I remember the day he was given a shunt; I remember the doctor asking me, in the hallway, “What do you want me to tell you?” and I remember replying “I want you to tell me he’s going to live” and I remember the doctor answering, gravely, “I can’t tell you that.” All of this I remember, this and Pat LaFontaine, but I do not remember the last thing my father said to me.

I would not have been aware, when he said it, that it would turn out to be the last thing, of course. It was probably “Goodbye” or “Thanks for stopping by” or “See you tomorrow” – maybe, being aware that he was dying, he took care to say “I love you.” I refused to believe that he was dying, even during that final hospital stay; even when he slipped into a coma, from one day to the next, I refused to believe that he was dying and so I did not think to press the day before into my memory, the last thing he said. That is the way of last things – we rarely know, at the time, that they are the last. First things are easy to mark: first dates, first steps, first words, first hockey games – but lasts? They take us by surprise and so often go unrecorded.

I do not remember the last my father said to me, nor can I be certain of the last thing I said to him, although I believe it might have been “See you tomorrow.”

I didn’t, of course.

Diving and driving

July 27th, 2011

I finally enrolled Small Boy in swim classes last week. We’ve always gone “swimming” – when he was a toddler he splashed around in the baby pool and when the Boychen was old enough to go into the baby pool the Small Boy was happy enough to stay in the little kids’ pool with his brother. Small Boy tolerates water, but I wouldn’t say he takes to it (the Boychen, now, he takes to it – I think swimming will be his thing the way hockey is the Small Boy’s thing), but he’s six and a half now and has already been to his first swimming pool party (the infamous party he left early in order to make hockey training on time) and couldn’t keep up with the other kids, who were jumping off the diving board and going into the pool without water wings. Strictly speaking, Small Boy doesn’t know how to swim – because I never put him in lessons.

Until last Monday, when I enrolled him in a vacation swim course for total beginners (and am very very grateful that there was another boy his age in the group so that he wasn’t the only almost first-grader in a class full of four year olds). He had classes every day for a week and at the end of the week he earned his first level badge, which basically means he jumps off the side of the pool into the water and puts his head under water – he’s still far from swimming. But he did it, and slowly came to enjoy it, and today he was retrieving objects from the bottom of the pool. Okay, it’s only one meter down but this is a pretty big step for a boy who tries to keep his head dry in the shower.

Unfortunately I signed him up for the summer vacation lessons so late that the next level classes are full for the rest of vacation; I’ll have to find something that meets once a week after school. Part of the reason I haven’t gotten him into lessons before now is that I try not to over-schedule him; he’s got hockey twice a week and I think that’s already rather a lot for a six year old boy. There is school, and there are playdates, and there is kid-time: I think there is a great deal to be learned from the throwing of rocks, the burying of mice, and the observing of frog eggs, to say nothing of the pure enjoyment factor, and I don’t want him to spend his days getting shuttled from one lesson to another. (Nor, to be honest, do I want to do that much shuttling.) But there are things besides hockey that he needs to learn, like swimming (he doesn’t need to be great at it but he needs to be competent enough that I can send him to a swim party without worrying) and things that he wants to learn, like tennis (I’m not sure where that came from, but he’s suddenly very interested in tennis), and these things are going to have to fit into the schedule somewhere. All while letting him take an hour to walk home from school, picking up every rock, feather, and flower that captures his imagination.

And the Boychen will have his own interests – he already enjoys the water more than Small Boy and is more comfortable in it, and I want to keep going with that while the enthusiasm is there. He wants to ride a proper bicycle. He likes music and would probably enjoy a music class. He also likes riding in the tractor with Grossvati, and walking in the woods with his Grossmutti, and puttering in the garden – he is a wonderful putterer – and doing anything with the Small Boy and I genuinely believe in not over-scheduling them because yesterday we walked in the woods and we spied a bird’s nest and when I held my camera-phone at just the right angle and took a picture we discovered that there was an egg in there and now there is the daily visiting of the nest to listen for the sound of a hatchling.

And I would hate to not have time for that in our day.

Utoya

July 24th, 2011

I’m back to where I was in March after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, searching for words but this is so much harder. This isn’t a natural disaster, this isn’t some horrible thing that happened, this is a horrible thing that was perpetrated. Committed. Chosen. Planned. Done. A human action, a human choice. It’s inexplicable and yet here I sit banging words together like rocks hoping to light some spark of understanding.

There is no understanding and there are no words. All I can think of is something I read after Leiby Kletzky was killed: we live in a fallen world. Most people are basically decent, but we live in a fallen world. Is that all there is then, by way of comfort? That we live in a fallen world but that most of us, most of us, do our part to hold up our corner of it? It is all we can do and yet it’s never enough, is it; the world remains fallen, remains imperfect, and those shining young people remain dead and it remains inexplicable and words fail, fail, and fail again. It’s all such cold comfort.

In March, as radiation leaked from reactors, there were songbirds outside my window. Today, as divers search the waters around Utoya Island for the bodies of those still unaccounted for, there is my dill plant being devoured by ten caterpillars and if we’re lucky half of them will become butterflies. The world forces itself upon me. Even today the fallen world forces its small beauties upon me and I accept them with both greed and guilt but very little resembling grace.

There is no grace in this. There are no words for this. All I can come up with is butterflies. It will have to be enough for today but surely it is not.

Why cycling is a metaphor for parenting

July 19th, 2011

You teach them a few fundamentals and let go. They head off down the road without you.


New Poem

July 18th, 2011

My cento “Long Ago My Father Died” (you can find a description of the cento form here) is in the inaugural issue of Found Poetry Review. You can read it here, and check out the rest of issue 1 while you’re there.

Homework

July 13th, 2011

We have the Small Boy’s first grade class schedule – called the Studenplan – and classroom assignment. There are two first grade classes here in the village, and SB will be with the teacher he wanted (he wanted this teacher based on the second-hand information that a friend’s brother likes this teacher) and is staying together with his entire Kindergarten class minus one child who for some odd reason is the only one from his Kindergarten class going to the other teacher, which strikes me as awfully unfair for this particular child. (The life, it’s all about the unfairness right now.)

The first grade curriculum looks like this: he’ll have German (reading, writing, literature – this is the same as a US first  grader having an English class); math; “Natur-Mensch-Mitwelt,” which I’m assuming is basically social studies with some physical sciences thrown in; P.E., which they just call Sport here; art (including textile work), and music. There’s still a lot of down time – he only goes to school five mornings and two afternoons a week – though I confess I have no idea what the Swiss homework situation looks like in the first grade. I’m willing to find that out as we go along and if there isn’t a lot of homework all the better since he’ll have hockey practice twice a week and an extra “class” outside of school, from me.

I’m looking through first grade curriculums this summer – at the moment I’m reading What Your First Grader Needs to Know – to figure out what U.S. history Small Boy would get in the first grade, if he were going to the first grade in the U.S. and I’m going to put together a little extra class for him outside of school. I hope to be able to expose him to the highlights primarily through stories, especially in the early grades, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m sitting at the kitchen table tutoring him. Neither of us take to that particularly well, but he learns remarkably well  – and I pass along information fairly well – in the context of a walk, outing, or adventure. But him sitting there listening to me tell him Something Important? Not so much. I can imagine if I took him on vacation to Boston, for example, he would have a blast and eat up all the stories and learn ten times more about the Revolution than if I tried consciously to sit down and teach him about it. So I’m hoping for some good children’s books to lay the ground work.

Sooooo, American readers of young children, here’s where you come in. What should a first grader learn about US history? What are some good age appropriate books or movies? What did your first grader learn? (I’m thinking specifically US history here. I’m perfectly happy to have Small Boy learn world history in the depth and order the Swiss kids do. It’s just the U.S. stuff that he obviously won’t get here that I’m interested in.)

Aaand, expat parents of children of all ages, I’m looking for your advice too. Did you teach your kids about your home country? How? How much? How often? Which subjects were the most important to you? (For example, given time constraints, did you teach the literature of your native country on top of what they were getting in the local school?) Did you present it clearly as learning about where you came from, or did you just try to sneak it in in the form of stories and vacations? When did you start, and how long were you able to keep it up? Did your kids rebel against this extra workload? I’m looking for information galore here, so please feel free to pass a link to this post along to your expat friends.

Thanks.

And spare a thought for the Small Boy, who is about to be confronted with another of life’s little unfairnesses: he has to learn the history of two countries.

There’s no such thing as too much cake

July 11th, 2011

The Small Boy got over life’s injustice fairly well. It helped that when we got home from that last practice his grandmother was here (R was out of town and my mother-in-law gave the Boychen dinner and put him to bed) and the Small Boy was able to cry to the most sympathetic person on the planet and have somebody agree with him that it wasn’t fair. He went off to school fairly happily the next day and by Friday had forgotten all about it (well, who knows if he’s forgotten it – I doubt it, actually – but it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of his mind anymore). On Saturday I surprised him with a cake decorated with his name in frosting and some things meant to represent highlights from his year: two hockey players, a soccer shirt, the ABCs, a white horse representing his school play that caused all this drama in the first place (the play had been called The White Horse). I told him it was for his year and for all the things he had done this year, and done so well, and that I was really proud of him. He got all quiet, the way he does when he’s especially pleased by something, then declared he wanted the piece with the soccer jersey on it – it was made of marzipan, after all.

I think he was happy.

Then he said he thinks there should be a cake at the end of every school year. I think that’s a fine idea, each school year closed out with a special cake, and if that means that soon there will be two cakes, for soon there will be two school boys, then two cakes there shall be. Really, what boy wouldn’t want a cake made just for him and not even on his birthday?

And truth be told, there is no such thing as too much cake.

Hockey teaches some other lessons, too, lessons I’m not quite ready for

July 6th, 2011

The hockey, it’s good. It’s also good that we have a break from now until the 25th (at which point they go onto the ice in the professional arena and the trainings move to a more reasonable afternoon time slot), because the schlepping back and forth and the Small Boy eating dinner in the car twice a week is suboptimal. It’s a price I’m ready to pay, but it’s suboptimal.

It’s also good to have break until the 25th to give the Small Boy time to get over his outrage at his trainer, who handed out perfect attendance awards after the final training tonight. An award which the Small Boy did not get (five kids out of 39 did) because he missed one training because it conflicted with a school play, and he’s pretty outraged about it. Not, exactly, about not getting the award, which was an SCB cap and scarf, but about the perceived injustice of it. He only missed the training because he was in a school play that he had to go to on the evening of the second training of the summer. The kindergarten had started practicing the play before we ever had a summer training schedule. It was a school thing. He had the lead role. It wasn’t his fault that he missed a training. It’s not as if he missed one because he didn’t feel like going, or was lazy, or we forgot, or just didn’t feel like it. It was a school thing. It’s not fair. (And it’ll likely happen again at some point, because in this house when there is a direct conflict between hockey and school, school will win. Until he’s 16 and can decide for himself, the rule is that school will win.)

I can see the Small Boy’s point that it wasn’t fair, especially when I see through the eyes of a Kindergartener, and I don’t entirely disagree with him, but it’s one of those tricky parenting moments when I’m supposed to be on his side, and agree that it’s not fair, and still teach him that coaches get to make their own rules and if you want to play on the team, you play by the coach’s rules and, by the way, life is unfair and you have to figure out how to roll with that. All while not undermining the coach’s authority along the way. Any tips?

I feel for him. He did everything right. He even, last week, chose to leave a birthday party – a swimming pool birthday party – 30 minutes early so that he would get to training on time. What kind of six year old kid decides that, on his own? I gave him the choice between staying at the party to the end and getting to training late; staying to the party to the end and skipping the training altogether (my preferred option, frankly); or leaving the party early to get to training on time and he said “Klar!” (because he speaks to me in German entirely too often these days) “doch logisch gehe ich ins Training. Hol mir einfach fruh ab.” (“That’s easy! Of course I’m going to training. Just pick me up early.”) Again, I ask you, what kind of six year old kid makes that kind of a choice? A really enthusiastic and committed one, and I’m hurt on his behalf that his commitment wasn’t recognized and honored. Of course he thinks it’s unfair. He’s not wrong.

He’ll get recognition from me (I’ve got plans, and they involve cake), but it’s not what he really wants. What he really wants is recognition from his coaches; he always has. These men who play such a role in his life. They’re going to teach him, and sometimes praise him, and sometimes break his heart, and I’m reminded again of what the head of the hockey school said to us parents once, thanking us for trusting the trainers with our children. The Small Boy’s puck control improved by leaps and bounds this summer and for that I’m grateful, but he got his heart broken just a little bit too and for that, well for that I’m sad even as I recognize that it’s part of sports and part of life.

He’s asleep now, the teary sleep of a six year old who didn’t get the reward that he genuinely believes he earned. And I’m typing this, the teary typing of a mother who agrees with him. Oh life in all your complicated unfairness, must you come knocking on his door so early?

“Ask Much, The Voice Suggested” by Jane Hirshfield

July 5th, 2011

Ask much, the voice suggested, and I startled.
Feeling my body like the trembling body of a horse
tied to its tree while the strange noise
passes over its ears.
I who in extremity had always wanted less,
even of eating, of sleeping.
Agile, the voice did not speak again, but waited.
“Want more” –
a cure for longing I had not thought of.
But that is how it is with wells.
Whatever is taken refills to the steady level.
The voice agreed, though softly, to quiet the feet of the horse:
A cup taken out, a cup reappears; a bucketful taken, a bucket.

Yes. And yes.

(From After)