“I was so brave.”
“That girl did not share, and I told her, ‘YOU’RE NOT PLAYING NICE!’”
“I forgive Legoland.”
“I forgive Legoland.”
* two weeks ago, these were TERRIFYING
Like anybody’s kids, mine do things that drive me nuts, but most of the time, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do. They’re hoping that the 5,000th time they ask me for ice cream will be the one where I finally give in because I’m going to have a nervous breakdown if I have to keep saying no. The same goes for when they’re rubbing mashed potatoes in their hair at dinner or belting out “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” when they’re supposed to be napping. Even at 3 1/2, they are virtuosos at pushing Daddy’s buttons.
Sometimes, though, they can fill me with unbridled rage without even trying. Kids can drive you nuts just by being kids, doing things that are perfectly developmentally appropriate, even beneficial for them.
What really frustrates me about these things is that I can’t punish the kids for them. All I can do is quietly seethe, ride the behavior out and then write blog posts in the hope that other parents out there might relate. Please, please tell me you do.
These are 5 of my Kid Peeves:
1. Mixing Play-Doh colors.
See all those cool things the kids on the box of the Play-Doh Fun Factory are making? The bright yellow bananas and pretty pink ribbons? Well, we can make those in my house for about two minutes. After that, my kids have mushed all the colors together into one messy swirl, which never looks like it’s supposed to when pressed into the molds or wrapped around the ball gown of the Spin and Style Cinderella.
I know, it’s their toy, and I shouldn’t tell them how to play with it. It’s probably good for them to experiment and make a mess with it. But eventually, they get frustrated that all their Play-Doh is the color of puke. “Daddy, where’s orange?” they’ll whimper.
“Where’s orange? Where’s orange?! It’s mushed in with green and purple and that glittery blue so it’s all just one turd-brown mess. Good luck making something out of that!”
Then I sigh and open another can of orange… which stays orange for about 5 seconds before being pressed into the turd with all the other colors.
No wonder our Play-Doh budget is killing us.
2. Questioning my knowledge.
I thought my kids would be teenagers before they decided I was full of crap. But at three years old, they already doubt 90% of what comes out of my mouth, which is really frustrating because their other dad and I are their sources for roughly 100% of the information they seek. It burns the most when it’s something I’m clearly an expert on, like the alphabet (“I swear, kangaroo starts with ‘K’, not ‘C’!”) or One Direction songs.
“Daddy, who sings this song?”
“No, it’s the Wanted.”
“No, it’s One Direction!”
“It’s the Wanted!”
“It’s One Direction! It says it right here on my iPod. ‘Last First Kiss’ by One Direction. You can’t read it but I can, and that’s what it says. Hear that? Those are Niall’s harmonies! It’s One Direction! Admit it! Admit it!”
3. Reading the same books over and over.
A few years ago, I read the book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon, and it was so good that I read it a second time. Then, I moved on with my life. My kids do not understand this concept. We’ll get to the end of one of their favorite books, and they’ll instantly want to read it again. And again.
I know repetition is good for kids, and so are familiarity and routine. Plus, when you like something a lot, you don’t want it to end. But Daddy’s not getting quite as much enjoyment out of our 1,000th reading of “The Little Engine That Could.” We know he’s getting up the hill, dammit. Do we really need to read ten pages of “I think I can!”?
Sure, for the first few dozen times, I’m sharpening my dramatic reading of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I’m rehearsing the best way to hit all the punchlines in “Don’t Let Pigeon Drive The Bus” and just where to pause for laughs. (Attention children’s theater companies: if you need someone to play the bus driver, I’ve got the part down cold.)
We don’t even bother to hold the book of “Goodnight Moon” anymore, because we all know it by heart. The pictures are permanently ingrained in our minds, like haunting memories of misspent youth or that chilling napalm photo from the Vietnam War.
4. “Forgetting” how to do things.
Everyone’s heard the old saying, “It’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget.” Well, my kids could forget how to ride a bicycle. They forget everything. They forget how to put their coats on, how to get GoGurt out of the tube, how many daddies they have. They forget the dance moves we choreographed to that Ke$ha song, which we’ve practiced like A HUNDRED TIMES. When they’re counting to 20, they sometimes forget the number 17. Or 12. It varies.
They forget how knock-knock jokes are supposed to go. I can’t stand that the most childish form of humor has such a rigid structure that actual children can’t possibly get it right. “Say ‘Boo who?’!” I find myself shouting half the time. “C’mon, the joke only works if you say ‘Boo who?’! Say it!”
And speaking of humor…
5. Not laughing at my hilarious jokes.
Like a struggling stand-up, I’m all too used to my punchlines being met with blank stares and the sound of crickets. I bomb daily in front of my kids. Try as I might, I just can’t get them to appreciate my subtle comedy stylings. Talk about a tough room. What sucks the most is that 90% of the time, they’re the only room I have.
Forget sarcasm, deadpan, word play, insults, Borscht Belt, dirty limericks or references to supporting actors from obscure 80s sitcoms. It all goes right over their head.
Just about the only humor my kids appreciate right now are toot (i.e., “fart”) jokes and physical comedy. Sure, they love when daddy falls down. Only daddy wasn’t trying to be funny. He really fell, and he’s hurt. Stop laughing and get him an ice pack, you monsters!
Have your own kid peeves? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. And if you like mine, please share this post on Facebook, Twitter or whatever. (“whatever” btw is the name of a new social network. All the cool kids are on it.) It also makes me very happy when people like me on Facebook, so if you haven’t already, hey, won’t you please, because my kids would totally never do that for me.
I’ve written before about how my kids are obsessed with Halloween. Their favorite thing at the Halloween store last year was a spider that jumped out at you when you stepped on a floor pad. It also made this hideous shrieking sound, and its eyes glowed a chilling, sinister red.
The kids were simultaneously fascinated and terrified by it. When we went to the mall, they couldn’t wait to see it, but as soon as we got to the store, they would hide from it and make me promise not to step on the pad.
Of course, even though they couldn’t bear to be near this evil toy, they kept begging us to buy one for our home. Good thing it cost $80, because Daddy knows better than to spend that kind of cash on a cheap piece of plastic that horrifies his children.
If I could get it for $30, though…
So I went online a few days after Halloween looking for a clearance sale. I found a smaller, less scary model at a more attractive price point and decided to make it a Christmas present. That way, if it freaked anyone out, Santa could take the heat.
Bad move, Superdad.
This time there was no fascination, only terror. The kids refused to play with the tabletop jumping spider or even turn it on. It got tossed behind a mountain of other toys, where I assumed they just forgot about it.
… until a couple of weeks ago, when Bennett woke up in the middle of the night screaming. “It’s the jumping spider! He’s coming to get me!”
We told Bennett we were going to throw the spider away, but that only upset him more. I think he didn’t like the feeling that it would be… out there somewhere. He needed closure. I started thinking up a plan. Maybe we could wait for the garbage truck one day, then personally hand it over to the workers and watch them crush it in the back of the truck. Sure, and then my kid would be terrified of the garbage truck.
Drew suggested we lock the spider in our garage. At least then, Bennett would know where it was. Bennett liked that plan, but the nightmares continued.
Finally, I came up with a new idea. We could give the jumping spider away to a friend of ours, an older kid who wouldn’t be afraid of it. He would make sure the spider stayed away from Bennett, and if Bennett ever changed his mind and wanted to visit the spider, we could go to his house.
We set up the drop-off. Bennett and Sutton were both so excited to give the spider away. They fought over who got to carry it, then finally decided they would carry it together. I was afraid they might change their minds about handing it over, but when the time came, they gave it up and never looked back.
As we drove home, I was looking forward to a peaceful sleep with no nightmares. Then, Bennett called out from the back seat.
“Daddy?” he said.
“For Halloween this year, can we get a jumping zombie?”
Seriously, I’m supposed to know that?
It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I wasn’t listening for their first words every day of their babyhood. It’s just that those first two years were full of so many loony squeaks and noises, some totally random and some parroting grown-up speech. Mixed in there occasionally were various sounds which I gradually came to understand were communicating something specific. But even those weren’t always words. It’s not like one day something crystal clear arose from my kids’ babble, like this:
Goo gaa foo daa daduh baba iPhone fee fum poopoo Ke$ha
The closest thing I can identify to a first word is “pop”, and really that’s just because it was their most commonly used word as far back as I can remember. More than “Daddy”, more than “Why? Why? Why?”, even slightly more than “Ke$ha”. Have I mentioned my kids love Ke$ha?
So what’s a pop?
A pop is my arch nemesis. My Moriarty. The Tom to my Jerry. It’s a vile plastic narcotic that’s been my childrens’ master since they first wrapped their tiny, toothless gums around one. You know, one of these:
Sure, at first pops were cute. I mean, look at this. This is cute:
OK, it’s a little cute, so maybe you can understand my dilemma.
It all started so sweetly. One day, baby Sutton pointed at a pacifier that was just out of reach and pluckily chirped, “Pop!” Drew and I let out our biggest-ever “Awwwww…” and knew immediately that “pop” was our new term for pacifier, forever.
I never expected “forever” would last three and a half years.
I used to cringe when I would see anyone over the age of zero walking around with a pacifier in his or her mouth. Pacifiers are for babies, Childless Me insisted. Why didn’t that kid’s parents take it away? Were they A) not ready to accept that their kids were growing up, or B) completely incapable of standing up to the little tyrants?
The answer, I now know, is B.
Back when my kids were zero years old, we would scatter a dozen pacifiers around their cribs at night, because if they woke up and couldn’t find one, there would be hell to pay. I developed a unique superpower, the ability to locate a pacifier in the dark at 2 a.m. amid a tangle of bedsheets and Muppet dolls with only the light of my iPhone to guide me.
The only reason we stopped giving them so many pops is that they developed favorites, and they could tell the difference even in complete darkness. My kids had become pop connoisseurs.
So they got to be one year old, and they still used their pops. Big deal. Pops calmed them down, and keeping them calm was my #1 daily challenge. What was the harm?
Two and a half…
People started telling me to poke holes in the pops so they wouldn’t be as fulfilling to suck on. My mom told me how she finally got me to give up my pacifier when I was too old for it. She simply held it up in one hand, picked up a pair of scissors in the other, then la la la repressed memory la la la childhood trauma la la la.
I couldn’t do that to my kids. They were in love. How would I handle this if they were dating someone I didn’t like? I would never just forbid them from seeing each other. Likewise, a scissor attack seemed a bit drastic.
I would have to orchestrate this breakup gently.
Drew and I quietly began to roll back the availability of the pops. First, we restricted pops to inside the home or the car. No more sucking in restaurants or at playgrounds. That way, at least no one else had to know about our secret shame. A few months after that, we ruled that pops could only be used in the car or at bedtime, the places where we most wanted the kids to be quiet.
We started reading them books about how awesome it is to give up pacifiers. Pop-aganda. No less an authority than Elmo told them it was time.
Pops quietly took over our lives. I learned to drive on the freeway with one hand on the steering wheel and one permanently arched over the center console, fishing around in the back seat for one kid or the other’s dropped pop. It was safer than the alternative — listening to them scream for the whole ride because they’d lost it.
Finally, I faced the harsh truth about these ringed plastic menaces. Pops weren’t keeping my kids calm. It was more like the absence of pops was driving my kids crazy. This was an addiction. While I’d quietly enabled them, my toddlers had degenerated into Ellen Burstyn in Requiem For a Dream.
I put my foot down.
No pops. Anymore. Ever.
In the car.
I mean, I still let them use pops at bedtime. I’m not crazy. Do you have any idea what kind of fight that would’ve been?
At first, the new rule went over smoothly. They didn’t even protest. It took a day or two before they started playing dumb. “Where’s my pop?” they’d ask as I pulled out of the driveway.
“We don’t use pops in the car anymore. Remember?”
“But where’s my pop?”
“We don’t use –”
“I want my POPPPPPPPPPP!!!!!!!”
Bedtime became the new battleground. Every night, I awoke at least once to one kid or the other screaming over the baby monitor, “Daddy! I can’t find my pop!!!”
Slowly, I planted the seeds for the final phase.
“You know who could really use these pops? Your cousin, Grace.”
“Yeah, she’s a baby! Babies love pops!”
“So, the next time we see her, we’re going to leave the pops with her. And then, as a reward, we’ll go to Toys R Us, and you guys can pick out any toy you want!”
Yes, I bribed them — not because bribing is good parenting, but because bribing works, and sometimes that’s more important.
For months, it went on like this. We talked about giving up the pops, and they loved the idea, because when we discussed it, it always occurred in the future. I could almost hear them assuring me, “I can quit anytime I want to, Daddy.”
Then, finally, this past weekend, we made the trip to my in-laws’ house, where the kids would see their baby cousin.
“Are you guys going to give Grace your pops when we see her?”
“Yes! And then we’ll go to Toys R Us!”
I didn’t even have to remind the kids when we got there. They were eager to do it, as soon as they saw Grace. Still, I knew the real test would come at night. They had never slept popless before.
Once again, though, they surprised me. They were actually excited. “Sleeping without pops is fun!” Sutton announced. They went to bed without pacifiers, and without a fight. They slept, ironically, like babies.
For three days.
We cheered like lunatics for them. “You did it! You slept without pops! You’re big kids now!”
“Can we go to Toys R Us?”
“Yes! The day after we get home, we’ll go!”
The climactic showdown happened as soon as we returned home.
If Drew and I had thought ahead, we would’ve swept our house of pops before we left, but we didn’t, and ten seconds after we walked in the door, Bennett found an old one behind his bed and shoved it in his mouth.
“Bennett, we’re done with pops, remember?”
Bennett shoved his face in his pillow to hide from us.
“Bennett, give me the pop!”
It was worse than ever, and while we fought with him, Sutton demanded her pop, too. All that progress, erased in an instant.
Drew and I gathered all the pops and put them out of the kids’ reach. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t give in, no matter how bad things got. And they got pretty bad.
We fought with the kids all night long. They wouldn’t stay in bed. They wouldn’t stop crying. They played on our emotions. “Daddy,” Bennett wailed. “I miss my pop SOOOOO MUCH!!!”
“You can do it!” we told them. “The first night will be hard, but then it’ll get easier. I promise!”
This was rock bottom, but we didn’t cave. We made those kids face their demons. They stared into the abyss, tore their minds apart then built themselves anew.
It was one of the longest nights of our lives, but we made it, all of us. Dawn arrived, and nary a pop had touched anyone’s lips. Success.
I can’t say it was easy for any of us. I can’t say we’ll ever be the same again. But after our agonizing trek to the thundering gullet of Hell and back, we all agreed on one thing.
It had been worth it.
“If a baby came to my house, I would hit it so that it would leave my house.”
That’s a direct quote from my 3-year-old daughter, Sutton, whom I’ve previously declared to be the sweetest little girl in the world. I don’t say that as much anymore, and when I do say it, she’s quick to correct me.
“No,” she’ll insist. “I’m a mean girl!”
She’ll say it with the wicked delight of a Disney villainess. Speaking of those, she’s endlessly fascinated by them. “Just take onnnnnnne biiiiiiiiite,” she cackles constantly, in a creepily uncanny impersonation of the evil queen tempting Snow White with her poison apple. She went as Ariel from the Little Mermaid last Halloween, but only after we struggled in vain to find her an Ursula costume. One of her favorite YouTube clips of late is an edit someone did of Sleeping Beauty with only Maleficent’s dialogue included. Why waste time with anything else, right?
I think she’s doing research.
How did this happen to my delightful little angel? Well, the baby thing can be explained with some backstory. She said it right after a baby took a toy away from her, and everyone defended the baby. “She doesn’t know any better!” grown-ups (like me) assured her. Sutton just glared at this tiny, adorable little creature everybody loved who did something selfish and got away with it. That’s the origin story of an evil queen if I’ve ever heard one.
It wasn’t her resentment of the baby that bothered me. It was the ferocity with which she clung to it. “I don’t like babies!” she swore. “Babies should all go away!” Replace “baby” with any racial epithet and it might’ve been a Strom Thurmond speech from the 1950s. One baby wronged her, one time, and she became a raging baby racist.
By all appearances, Sutton is more of a Cinderella than a Wicked Stepsister. She’s a beautiful little girl with a sense of style far beyond anything she inherited from her dads. She knows how to pick out just the right shoes to complement each of her favorite dresses. She’s self-assured and funny, even if her favorite joke at this age is just to reply “Poopy!” to everything. She’s also ridiculously smart. A few weeks ago, we read in a book that a character’s feelings were “fragile”. She asked what that meant, and I said, “Fragile means something breaks easily.” The next day, her brother was playing with a snow globe, and I warned him to be careful with it. “It’s fragile!” Sutton shouted.
Her teacher described her as the Mayor of her preschool class, because she’s a born leader who bounces from one group to another to see how everyone’s doing. She’s incredibly chatty, and when she wants to start a conversation, she’ll just sit across from me, cock her head thoughtfully to one side and ask, “So… what’s your interesting?” (It’s become her catch phrase.) She has every quality you could ask for in a daughter. She’s smart, charming, self-confident and totally fearless.
I’ve seen “Mean Girls”. This is a recipe for disaster.
Already, she’s built up an unheard-of immunity to discipline. I might tell her to pick up her toys or she’ll lose dessert. Rather than pick up her toys, she’ll scream her head off and accuse me of being unfair. I’ll tell her if she doesn’t stop screaming, then I’ll take away one of her YouTube videos at bedtime (part of our nightly routine). She’ll scream louder, and I’ll say, “OK, you lost one video. You want to lose another one?” Scream. “OK, that’s two videos you’ve lost. Want to go for all three?”
It’s like John Bender racking up Saturday detentions in the Breakfast Club. I can’t win. The only punishment that has any impact is the first one, but then I’m burdened with enforcing an endless string of post-punishment punishments because she was too stubborn to back down. I admit it. I can’t compete on her level. And now she’s made me identify with Mr. Vernon. Curses!
I’ve been telling the kids a lot about Harry Potter lately, and guess who’s piqued Sutton’s interest? That’s right. He Who Shall Not Be Named, Whose Name My Daughter Won’t Stop Saying. She pleaded with me to show her a picture of him, even though I warned her he was very scary looking. Bennett covered his eyes while I did the Google Image search, but Sutton was riveted.I told her about the four houses at Hogwarts that the Sorting Hat can send you to, and guess where she begged to go?
“Slytherin! The one with the mean guys!”
Look, I love my daughter no matter what. Just because I’m worried she might end up as Cruella de Vil, it doesn’t mean I won’t teach her how to count to 101. I’ll probably even tip her off where she can score some Dalmatians. (Psst, firehouses!) I just want for my kids what every parent wants, for them to be cooler than I was at their age. (Granted, this sets the bar pretty low.) In Sutton’s case, I have no worries whatsoever. Who’s cooler than the villain?
Sutton’s preschool teacher also called her “The nicest thief in the world” because she likes to take toys from other kids, and then when the kid complains, she’ll drip false sincerity and reply, “Oh, I’m so sorry! Here you go!”
That’s another thing she does really well — apologies. (It helps when you’ve had as much practice as she’s had.) On some level, my daughter is still the sweetest girl in the world. She loves to dance, play and laugh, she loves to give hugs and kisses, and she tells me all the time, totally unprompted, how much she loves me. I’ve never actually seen her hit a baby — or anyone, in fact. She’s a darling little girl, honestly, a total angel.
I’m keeping an eye on her, though. Consider yourself warned.
Just about the most horrible thing you can ask a kid, other than “Do you want to watch Barney?”, is “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
My kids are 3 years old. You really expect them to have their lives mapped out already? If you ask my kids what they want to do later that afternoon, they’ll say, “Eat cookies.” That’s how much thought they’ve given to the future. But you want them to imagine a day when they’re paying into social security? Geez, let them be kids for five seconds. If you’re going to start pressuring them about their future, why not give them a sample SAT test while you’re at it?
How many jobs do you think my kids can even name? Around now, I’d guess 3: stay-home dad, TV executive and exploradora.
So I was a little disappointed when I found out their teacher asked them just that question. C’mon, I had a hard enough time picking a major in college. Can’t they just spend pre-pre-Kindergarten making snowflakes with construction paper and safety scissors?
OK, fine, the damage was already done, so I asked what they said.
“I want to be a train conductor!” Bennett announced.
“And I want to be a princess!” Sutton cheered.
It was worse than I’d feared. My kids were cliché.
I was going to discuss it further, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean “a princess”? Am I supposed to take that seriously? Should I have scolded her? “Would you really think about this? This is your life we’re talking about!” Better yet, am I allowed to hold this against them someday? “Hey, you said you wanted to be a train conductor. I’m not paying for law school!”
We were in the middle of getting some renovations done on our bathroom, and when we got home, there was a contractor in our front yard mixing cement.
“Hey, can you show the kids what you’re doing?” I asked. “It looks cool!” Princess, my ass, I thought. I’m going to show you kids what a job is.
I already knew the contractor loved the kids, so I figured he’d be on board. “Grab a shovel!” he told them. “You can help!”
So my kids learned to mix cement, and from the way they talked about it afterward, it was probably the most thrilling thing they’d ever done. (Good thing the contractor didn’t make them stick around and watch it dry.)
I admit, I felt good about myself. Instead of asking my kids to narrow down their options for the future, I was expanding their concept of what was possible, introducing them to something new.
It’s how I feel about most things my kids do. If my son wants to wear a dress, great. Let him know how it feels to wear one. He has plenty of time to figure out his identity, so I’m not going to try to pin him down. I’ll just consider it a non-issue and appreciate his desire to explore. I make sure he knows that I’ll love him no matter what. It’s his job to figure out the “what”.
We told Drew all of this as soon as he got home that night. How they picked out their future professions in school and how, afterward, they learned a new trade. While Drew was wrangling them for bathtime, my cell phone rang. Private number. I wouldn’t usually pick up, but for whatever reason, I did.
“Hello Gerald? It’s Doctor ____. We just got the results of your blood test, and I have some bad news.”
Yeah, it was one of those calls.
“You have an extremely elevated potassium level. Because it is life-threatening, you need to get retested right away to see if we got an accurate reading.”
“Our urgent care facility closes at 9pm, so if you can’t make it there by then, you’ll have to go to the emergency room. I’d really recommend you go to urgent care.”
“I’ll go to urgent care.”
I don’t know how much of the call Drew overheard amid all the kids’ shouting and running around, but apparently, the word “life-threatening” had gotten through. I could tell that much from his petrified expression.
“Do you want us all to come with you?” he asked. His face had completely drained of color.
“No. It’s almost the kids’ bedtime.”
It was only when I saw how Drew was looking at me that the term “life-threatening” really sunk in. It was as if he thought he might never see me again.
I hugged the kids and told them I loved them. What more could I do? Whisper “Goodbye forever!” just in case?
“Will you be back when we go to bed?” Bennett asked.
“Probably not,” I replied. “But I’ll be here when you wake up tomorrow.” (I hope.)
I don’t know how I made it through the 15-minute drive to the doctor’s office. I kept thinking if the potassium didn’t give me a heart attack, my anxiety about the potassium surely would. How did I get so much potassium in my blood anyway? Fucking bananas!
The urgent care center was closing down as I walked in. The gift shop was dark and gated up already. Janitors mopped the entranceway, and there were no more patients in the waiting room. I walked up to one of the two receptionists, and she gave me a form to fill out.
Under “Reason for visit”, I wrote, “Blood test”. When I handed it over, she shook her head. “Oh, sorry, honey. The lab is closed.”
She passed the form back to me. “Hold on,” the other receptionist said. “You Mahoney? Oh, yeah. Dr. ____ called about you!” She grabbed the form and nodded. “Have a seat.”
This was not comforting. If there’s anywhere you don’t want to feel like a VIP, it’s at an urgent care facility.
The receptionist picked up her phone. “He’s here!” she barked.
A few seconds later, a nurse rushed out. “Mr. Mahoney?” I couldn’t tell if the nurse was rushing because she was worried about my potassium or if she was just anxious to go home for the night. She brought me back to an exam room. Along the way, everyone we passed looked up at me, as if wondering, “Is that him?” I almost expected one of them to call out, “Dead man walking!”
Within about half a second, the nurse had taken a new vial of blood and strapped me in for an EKG. “Are you a little nervous?” she asked.
“No. I’m a lot nervous.”
“There are a lot of false positives on this test. That’s why we retake it.” She finished the EKG, ran a printout to the doctor and then pointed me back toward the waiting room. “We’ll have the results in about 15 minutes.”
15 minutes is not a long time, unless of course you’re waiting for blood test results or, worse, sitting through 15 minutes of a Terrence Malick film. Much like it did during The Thin Red Line, my mind began to wander.
Death… my dad died when he was 61… I would be 41… I was 28 when my dad died… my kids would be 3 when I died… I have a lot of wonderful memories of my dad… My kids would probably forget what I looked like… Am I really going to die tonight? Here? Should I tweet something?
I used to think about death a lot when I was a teenager. It was just kind of a rite of passage as a gay kid, I guess. Depression, alienation, death. Too much Smiths music. But there was one thing that always brought me back, that gave me hope, and that was thinking about the following summer movie season. Stop thinking about death, Jerry. It’s a great time to be alive. There’s a new Back to the Future coming out!
I didn’t understand how people could commit suicide, and it had nothing to do with all the hurt loved ones they’d leave behind. Weren’t they curious as to what Spielberg was cooking up for next Memorial Day weekend?
Sitting in that deserted urgent care waiting room, there wasn’t a single movie I wanted to see or place I wanted to visit or experience I wanted to have in my life. My bucket list was complete, except for one thing. It was the only thing I could think about.
I just wanted to watch my kids grow up.
They’re such amazing people at 3 1/2, but who will they be at 18? Or 30? A train conductor and a princess? Right now, that was the best information I had. Something told me it might not stick.
I realized in that moment that all I’ve seen of my kids so far is a coming attraction — a teaser, really — and the old kind. The kind that doesn’t give away all the good stuff. I need to see how their story turns out. I don’t want to die. I can’t die.
I want to watch my kids grow up.
“Mr. Mahoney,” the nurse said. “Come on back.” She was smiling. So either the test results were good, or she was just happy that after this, she could punch out of her shift.
“We have about 2 or 3 of these false positives a year,” the doctor explained. “The blood starts to clot before they get the reading and hemoglobin antigens capillary stat…”. I’m not going to try to recap the medical explanation for why they scared the crap out of me for no reason. All I heard was that I wasn’t going to die.
I know the sitcom version of my brush with death would end with me learning some big life-affirming lesson, like not to take the important things for granted. But honestly, I feel like I already know that. You know Debra Winger’s “I know you love me!” speech from Terms of Endearment? Well, I subject my kids to that every time they get mad at me, just in case I slip on a sock puppet and break my neck against the train table before we get a chance to make up. It could happen.
This wasn’t a wakeup call about my health either. The urgent care center didn’t send me home with a stern warning to eat better or exercise more. Just, “Bye!” It was a lab error. I could’ve stopped for a taco grande and a skillet cookie on my way home, and don’t think I didn’t think about it.
But I realized that, if I went right home, I could actually make it there before the kids went to bed. I could tuck them in, tell them I loved them for — who’s counting? — maybe the 1,012th time that day and, best of all, ask them what they wanted to do tomorrow.
They’d probably say something like, “Eat cookies.” But for now, that’s all the answer I needed.
“I’m not wearing a coat today!”
“Yes you are.”
“Honey, it’s zero degrees outside. Do you know how many degrees that is? None. That’s cold.”
“I’m wearing a sweater.”
“And you should be. But you need a coat, too.”
“I DON’T WANNA WEAR A COOOOOOOOOOAT!”
“I DON’T CAAAAAAAAAARE! Put it on!”
“I won’t be cold! I promise!”
“I’m not arguing about this. There’s your coat. Put it on.”
“What if I wear… a jacket?”
“You’ll actually wear a jacket?”
“Fine. There’s your jacket.”
(I point to her coat. She puts it on.)
“Great. Now let’s talk about gloves.”
This weekend, we took the kids to see a Thomas the Train live stage show. “Daddy?” Bennett asked me on the way there. “Will Thomas be real?”
“No,” I said.
Drew practically swerved off the road. “What?!”
“He’ll be a character,” I explained, “like when we saw SpongeBob in Times Square.”
“Yes, Bennett,” Drew emphatically corrected me. “Thomas will be real!”
It was like I’d blown the whole Santa thing or something. I mean yes, Thomas is real in our hearts, kid, but you’ve been on “real” trains. Are they rendered with pen and ink? Do they have expressive faces and buddies like George Carlin? I didn’t want to set the boy up for disappointment. The Times Square SpongeBob spoke with a thick Mexican accent and practically grabbed his tip right out of my pocket after we snapped his picture. Instead of a pineapple under the sea, he smelled like he lived in a box under the Queensboro Bridge. I wasn’t expecting much more from this show.
We filed into a theater with the barest of backdrops on stage. It was basically a green door and the Thomas logo. Even next to Times Square SpongeBob, this seemed bush league. Bennett was silent as he waited for the show to start. And waited. And waited.
This is a kid who gets antsy waiting for me to spread peanut butter on a mini bagel. He just stared at the stage for half an hour, barely making a peep.
“When Thomas comes out,” Bennett announced at one point, “I’m going to dance with him.”
Eventually, a woman with a microphone took the stage and told us that after the show we’d have an opportunity to get our picture taken with Thomas. I thought Bennett might explode. “When it’s your turn, please move quickly across the stage,” she implored us. “Also, Thomas asked that you not touch his face.”
Then, another two-legged, zero-engined character took the stage. He introduced himself as Driver Sam, and he wore an engineer’s overalls and hat. This is where having gay dads colors your perspective on things, because other parents probably thought Sam was just a delightful, enthusiastic young man belting out the Thomas theme song. As for my partner and me, our gaydars started to overheat. His go-go boy good looks and overinflated biceps could not go unacknowledged. We quietly whispered jokes about Driver Sam checking his Grindr backstage.
Driver Sam instructed the crowd to sing along with him, and we did… for maybe the first 3 times he ran through the theme song. Then he did it about 8 more times, repeating the same lame choreography over and over. “One more time!” he shouted, long after he’d lost us all. That’s when it became clear. Driver Sam’s job was to fill time.
Enough, Driver Sam! Bring on the Beatles!
Driver Sam coached us on how to properly greet Thomas when he arrived (i.e., give a big wave and shout, ” Helloooooooo, Thomas!”). We practiced it about 14 times.
Then, finally, the green doors we’d been staring at for the last 45 minutes opened. Behind the scenes, a couple of stagehands gave a push, and Thomas’ familiar face poked out about two and a half feet from Tidmouth Sheds, then came to a stop. Thomas was as tall as Driver Sam, yet despite his cartoonish appearance, he was far, far less animated than his human co-star.
I realized this was all the Thomas we’d be getting. He wouldn’t be venturing into the audience or moving across the stage. He wouldn’t be joined by any of his train friends, and he sure wouldn’t be dancing with my son.
“Helloooooooo, Thomas!” we all cheered, dutifully. I glanced over at Bennett, to see if he was as unimpressed as I was. Instead, he looked like he’d just seen Elvis.
“He’s real!” Bennett shouted. He turned to me and said it again. “Daddy, he’s real!”
At that moment, I simultaneously felt like the world’s biggest jerk and the luckiest man alive. I knew instantly that I’d be reliving that experience, that pure, perfect little chirp of “He’s real!” over and over for the rest of my life. I’ve replayed it in my head about a thousand times in just the last two days.
I’d forgotten that at my son’s age, your ability to buy into fantasy is incredibly high, while your taste in live theater is incredibly low. This was the most thrilling moment of his young life, and that made it one of mine, too, because the way Bennett feels about Thomas is the way I feel about Bennett.
Sometimes I can’t believe he’s real myself.
Just over a year ago, my family was homeless. Okay, so it wasn’t in the sleeping-outdoors, panhandling-for-change sense of the word, but technically, we were without a place to live. We’d packed up our West Hollywood condo, and everything we owned was traveling through parts of the country we ourselves had mostly never seen.
Other than our decision to have kids, it was the biggest, scariest choice we’d ever made, but it seemed like the right thing to do for our family.
We spent the holidays with Drew’s parents and siblings in upstate New York, then I came down to meet the movers and start unpacking our stuff. Each item was tagged with a number, so it was easy to see exactly how much junk Drew and I had jointly amassed in our years on the West Coast. The highest number was roughly equal to my score on the SAT verbal section. (Granted, math was my forte.) Three days later, with only about 3 or 4 boxes unpacked, I opened the door to Drew and the kids, all of whom were seeing our new home for the first time.
That was one year ago today, January 1, 2012.
It’s nice to ring in this year with some stability, because the last one started off so full of uncertainty. Would we like it here? Was this the right thing for the kids? Would we ever get unpacked?
I wish I could say I had definitive replies to those questions, but the only one I can answer for sure is the last one — no.
Earlier today, we sat down with the kids and looked through some pictures of our last days in California and our first days in New York. The differences kind of surprised us, as in this image of the moving truck:
They’re crawling! That may not shock you as much as it does me, but in my memory, the last time my kids crawled was a hundred years ago. In actuality, it was just one year, or, according to the Mayan calendar, a mere 355 days followed by a timeless void.
It took me a minute before I could remember the moment. They knew how to walk by then, but the rickety ramp was a little too unsteady for then. Just to be safe, they got down on all fours. As we got ready to leave our past behind, the kids gave us one last glimpse of their infancy.
Confidence in walking ability wasn’t the only thing our family gained in 2012. We made some amazing new friends, reconnected with some old friends and spent wonderful times with our East Coast family (by which I mean our actual families, not the loose network of Bell Biv DeVoe-affiliated artists popular in the early 90s). The kids also made new friends, they learned about 10,000 new words (only 1 or 2 of which we’d prefer they hadn’t), caught a dozen or two kiddie viruses and started school.
Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed at how happy I am in our new home. Other times, I’ve overcome with grief at the lives and the friends we left behind. I’ll ask my kids if they remember someone from our old life, and they’ll just stare back at me blankly. Los Angeles is a blur to them, and soon, it’ll be nothing but a series of pictures their dads show them when they’re in the mood to look back and reflect.
Browsing through at the photos, I admit, I got a bit choked up. As for Drew, he sobbed uncontrollably and had to leave the room. So the big question facing us now, at the start of 2013, is pretty obvious: did we make the right choice?
I’ve asked myself that at least once on each of the last 365 days, and I sat down to write this post determined to address it. Once again, though, I’m not sure it has an answer. There’s no way of knowing what this last year would’ve been like if we hadn’t moved. All I know for sure is that none of these things would’ve happened:
We would’ve made a completely different set of memories, some incredible, some undoubtedly sad. I wouldn’t have any of these pictures to treasure, but there would be a different set, one I probably would’ve loved just as much. And I’ll never know what they might’ve looked like.
That’s because changing the setting may change some things, but it doesn’t completely alter a story. Wherever we put ourselves, we’re headed forward on a similar trajectory through an uncertain future. Here or there, New York or LA, we’re still us. The same people and the same family.
We end one year tentatively crawling, and the next, it seems like we’ve been walking forever.