The Sting

Posted by Danny

Monday, January 24, was the eleven month anniversary of Lisa’s death and by 2 in the afternoon all I wanedt to do is climb in bed.  For me, the sting burns in a myriad of ways.  It can last a few hours.  I’ve had it last as long as two weeks.  It can come because of the anniversary – the 24th – I hate the 24th.  Who celebrates or recognizes an eleven month anniversary of anything?  We don’t celebrate our 11th month birthday, not even in the first year; and yet, in grief, we hang on to that day – it hits us – month after month after month.

The sting can hit when a holiday is heading my way.  It can hit because I found one of her feminine products in the bathroom drawer.  There is no rhyme or reason.  And I find myself unconsciously beginning the slide.  When I realize it’s coming, I can typically pin point the reason – “Crap, it’s the 24th.  I should have prepared.”  But you can’t prepare.  It’s subconscious.  Your body just realizes it’s time to grieve.

They say, “It’s normal.”

It’s NOT normal for me!

Never in my life have I felt this level of pain.

DJ was sick today.  I headed home mid day to make her lunch.  I checked email and knocked out a few work projects.  At 1:00 I had an hour and a half meeting that I phoned in to.  I laid on the couch listening to every word, trying desperately to focus.  But all I wanted, all I could think about was Lisa.  The sting can be paralyzing.  On the outside you may see me sitting in a meeting, having a conversation with my kid, checking email.  On the inside, my mind is in one place.  My mind is full.  My mind is consumed with my loss.

The sting makes me discontent with many aspects of my life: work, home, relationships.  The sting can clutter my mind with thoughts of future loneliness.  The sting robs me of my patience with my kids.  It is claustrophobic.  It’s gripping.  It doesn’t last forever.

We spend a great deal of time sharing the funny aspects of our  life – and there are many.  But it’s not all funny.  

I hear there are people out there reading this blog who are going through similar situations to mine.  My goal is for this to be helpful – to show that you can laugh during grief even as it hurts like hell.  What I’d share with those in similar situations is that it takes a tremendous amount of fight to see the good through the pain.  It’s exhausting.  And yet, without it, what’s left?  

It’s worth the fight.

Sunday Post 2: The Small Things

When Lisa and I would ride back and forth to Duke last year, often with bad news in tow, we’d hold hands.  I’d put my arm out, palm up proped on the rest in between our seats.  She’d place her hand over mine.  I can’t recount how many times this year I’ve ridden down the road with my arm in that position, imagining that her hand was still there. 

Stephanie is just now getting big enough to sit in the front seat without the airbag’s “off” signal shining in my face.  That’s sort of been our determining factor for sitting up front.  Most of her friends are already in the passenger seat.  With an uptight dad and an older sister, she hasn’t had much opportunity to upgrade from the back.

This past  weekend DJ was on a mission trip with our church youth group.  So when we hopped in the car tonight, Stephanie meandered into the front seat hoping I’d allow her to stay.  I turned the car on – the airbag’s “off” signal came on briefly and then disappeared.  I looked at her.  She smiled.  We turned the CD player on, the soundtrack from Wicked began.  We’d seen that play this summer in New York and the girls loved the music.  The song “Defying Gravity” was on cue.  As Steph and Michelle sang, I found my hand in the position it had been in so many times before.  But this time, Stephanie grabbed it. 

A rush of emotion overcame me.  How could I miss something so small as holding hands?  I’d lost so much – the person I shared everything with – and yet, at that moment, it was the touch of her hand that I missed the most.

Why do we go through life oblivious to the things that bring us the most joy?  We remember big elaborate vacations.  We have pictures of all our “important” occasions.  And we take for granted the small things – a hand to hold, the roll of an eye, an expression we learned to expect.

Stop.  Look.  Realize.  Be thankful.

The Casual Ditty Of The Tiger Uncle

Posted by Uncle Jesse

One afternoon last week I had the girls to myself. Stephanie was doing some homework and Michelle was in her room, downloading every new free app on her iTouch she had heard anyone mention in the previous 24 hours. I went up to her room to let her know the piano was open, and that since she had a lesson the next day it would probably be a good idea to hop on. She obliged without objection. I watched her sit down at the piano and heard her start playing. I took a brief bathroom break. When I emerged, I did not hear any piano music. I approached the piano to see if she was stuck on a part, but she had vanished. I did, however, hear the dulcet tones of Ke$sha coming from her room. Once again, I ascended the stairs.

perfect form? we're working on it“I thought you were going to practice piano,” I said with a curious tone, honestly unsure of what had happened to prevent her from practicing.

“I did.”

I looked at my bare wrist as if I were wearing a watch. I do this often when time is being called into question; rarely am I called out for not actually, you know, wearing a watch.

I had taken some reading material to the bathroom with me, but it’s not like I did the puzzles or anything. I surmised that the piano practice could not have lasted more than five minutes.

“Yeah, I’m going to need to hear those songs. I don’t think a 5-minute practice session is going to cut it.”

Protest. Shock. Not only was I asking her to resume a chore-like activity that she already considered completed, I was basically questioning her integrity. I reminded her that since she had been practicing this set of drills and songs for a week now (well, it had been a week since the last lesson–I don’t think there has ever been a “7 days a week” piano practice standard in the house) that they should basically be perfect for tomorrow’s lesson–notes, volume, rhythm, everything.

What I found when I sat to listen to the next practice was not perfection. No songThey make Cliff Notes for this stuff? went through without errors. Not once after opening the book was it viewed for the tips on how the piece should be played, the fortes and pianissimos, crescendos and decrescendos. Whole note drills were being played as half notes or faster. I decided that in addition to more practice, it was time for a gentle (ok, maybe more than gentle reminder) of what piano practice looks like.

Not surprisingly, this reminder was met with tears. But the practice pressed on, and I sat on the bench–not to look for errors any more, I assure you. I had found enough to make my point. Now, of course, I had to do the part that, more than fussy children or tears is typically the reason kids are let off the hook. I had to sit down next to her and practice the darn piano with her.

I have heard and read a lot recently about Yale professor Amy Chua and her new book on how she raised her two high-achieving daughters, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Like most of the folks who are writing, blogging, and offering opinion on Chua and her seemingly (to some) Draconian-strict methods of parenting, I have not actually read her book (this is an important question, I think, to ask anyone who seems especially fired up about Chua and her book: have you actually read the book?). I did read the excerpt in the Wall Street Journal and found it very interesting. I also suspect that Chua is a very smart woman with a very smart agent and, like the folks at the WSJ, are trying to sell as many books (or newspapers) as possible and collectively were wise enough to include some of the more incendiary revelations of the book in the excerpt.

It worked. People are talking.

I certainly did not grow up with parents who threatened to give away my toys overnight if I did not bring home perfect grades, or perform my piano pieces without flaw. But I do think I was raised with a little more of the “Chinese” upbringing with which she reared her children than some of my “Western” friends. While curfews and car rides were not met with much questioning from my parents, it was well-known to my friends not to call on the phone the night after report cards went out if there was a ‘B’ on mine. My status was “unavailable”.

[brief side story: Lisa used to combat this by lining up her friends to call at specifically calculated times, five minutes apart from each other, beginning at 8 o’clock. Each friend/caller was assigned a particular academic query and was instructed to let the operator–my Dad–know that only Lisa knew the particular answer, or who was doing what in the group project, or what pages they were supposed to read, or whatever. This served two purposes: first, it made it seem as if she were thought of as the “academic” among her friends. But more importantly, after three interruptions to “Nova” on PBS, my father would tire of relaying questions and answers, and surrender the phone. Very clever and diplomatic of Lisa. Me? I just threw my stereo down the stairs]

So unlike much of the American opinion I read about Chua and her methods, I do not think, “What a tyrant! What an awful way to raise children! She must not love them!”

Flashy cover? Check. Splashy book excerpt? Check. This thing will sell.On the contrary, I believe she loves her children very much, and that she has devoted and sacrificed much of her own time to raising them in a way she believes will lead to success and, yes, happiness for them. Her theory is not an absurd or even untested one. The thinking goes that children will kick and scream at anything that requires work and patience in the beginning, so kicking and screaming should not be deterrents. Rather, once you get through the initial push, and once a child has a taste of success, it will bring confidence. Which leads to more hard work, more mastery, followed by praise (not only from parents, but non-family members as well), all of which will lead to more confidence, more mastery, more hard work, more success, and, ultimately, happiness. Is this a terrible theory? Of course not. And, in fact, I have neither the academic training, parenting experience, nor desire to try to “set her straight” or “prove her wrong” because, again, I’m not sure she’s off base at all (though I do take issue with the way she degrades some things “Western” parents do as a way to justify her own choices. To wit: Chua says her kids were not allowed to be in school plays. Surely a child can have a small role in a performance of a school play without having “to stay after school every day from 3:00 to 7:00” and “on weekends”. And don’t even get me started on what her kids may be missing out on by not going to summer camp).

But anecdotally speaking (which, from what I can gather, is what most of her theory is based on: her own rearing and that of her children–not scientific studies on the psychology of children and parents in different cultures), I look at my sister Sallie, and think, “there has to be another way.”

I would challenge Chua or anyone to find someone who has achieved at a higher level in a more competitive field than my sister. My sister was pushed, yes, but also allowed to fail, quit the piano (and all other instruments) when she grew tired of it, choose her own field (there are no other scientists in my family–not even close), decide which activities to participate in, etc. Was she pushed by my parents? Absolutely. But sometimes after a particularly trying ballet practice in which she had felt the wrath of the instructor, my mother commiserated with her and agreed that, yes, that woman could be a…well, a meanie.

Back to Michelle and the piano. Here at the Tanner house, I am always feeling outI can't stay here for three hours a day. I just can't do it. my role. At first I concentrated on bringing the fun to the house, because we all needed it. But over time, it has become clear–and Danny will readily admit this–that we are a little lacking for Lisa’s discipline. This is not taking away anything from Danny or the girls. Again, he says over and over what a perfect pair they were, and perfectly complementary when it came to parenting. It only makes sense that, with one of them gone, something would be a little lacking, right?

But I also know I do not have what it takes to be Chua. Not even close. She is right in that many Western parents say they value their children’s independence when really they just do not want to stop watching “Modern Family” to sit next to their kids at the piano bench. And I’m no different there. I could not do it every day. Sometimes I try to crank out a silly little article before a deadline and I watch Danny move back and forth between cooking a meal, sitting at the piano bench, sitting on the couch to do flash cards, back to the meal, back the bench, and so on. I wonder if I could ever keep up the kind of energy it takes to be a “great” parent, the energy that he and, yes, the Tiger Mother, both display.

Typically, I try a little of both. I can sit on the piano bench for 20 minutes. Or I can call out flash cards for one night (hey, we have DVR, right?) But I also try to let the girls know that ultimately, and especially now that we’re down one true parent, that if they want to get ahead it’s on them.

I believe talent is overrated, and that hard work is the only way to truly achieve success. And I also believe in choices, and finding the thing or things you (not your parents) have a true passion for, and that these are the things you will want to work hardest at. So after almost every work session that begets tears (be it book work, piano work, running, dancing…any of the activities the girls are involved in at some point involve tears, I have learned), they typically hear this from me:

“Being great at anything is not easy. If playing piano were easy, everyone would be doing it. It takes work, and practice, and patience, and repetition to get really, really good at something. You are going to be GREAT at something. It may not be piano; it may be drawing or writing or leading or something else, but you are going to be great–one of the best in the world–at something. But whatever it is, you’re going to have to work hard at it. And practicing piano is a way to learn that skill. Again, I’m not saying you have to be great at piano. I really don’t care what it is you choose to be great at. But you’ve got to learn to work hard.”

Two nights ago Michelle was on the piano. I glanced at the clock to see how long she went and was disappointed when it fell short of ten minutes. But I never feel quite as comfortable pushing more piano practice when Danny’s in the house–all joking aside, he outranks me, and I worry about the one day a kid lashes back with “You’re NOT my parent!” because I’m not. But I was also fatigued from the last time we did battle at the piano bench, and I had another article to write.

But a minute later, the piano started back up. This time it had just been a pause, or a bathroom break, or a text from someone on the iTouch (since she knows how to do that now, too). But soon the piano was being practiced again, and whether it was from her desire to get better, or knowing I was within earshot and had raised the bar for what counts for practice time, I’m not sure and I don’t really care. Without getting philosophical, and without taking a lick of credit, I’d like to think that a child doubling her practice time without prompting is at least as significant as one spending three hours with hands on keys (and parent on back), banging out soulless perfection.

“Just Because You’re A Parent Doesn’t Mean You Have To Be Lame”

Posted by Uncle Jesse

I’ve seen this Toyota ad several times recently. It definitely hits close to home in our family. I like it because based on this kid’s definition of “lame”, I am the lamest uncle/parent in the world:

Two preliminary observations: 1) these kids can hate all they want, but that is a fantastic song (more on that below) and 2) I respect how the parents toss in some pretty strong harmony on the “just touch my cheek before you leave me” line.

The Tanner girls know this scene all too well. When I first moved in with the family Danny and I were usually splitting mornings driving the girls to school and driving Lisa to the hospital for chemotherapy and other various treatments.

And most of the mornings I drove to school, I would try to get a loud, upbeat, thumping song in queue on my iPod just in time for the pull-in to the drop-off line. Despite the fact that it was winter, I’d roll the windows down. Everyone at the school knew when the Tanner family was being dropped off.

The girls hated it, or at least acted like they did. But even as they rolled their eyes and moved briskly away from the minivan, I could see a few smiles–at least from their friends.

Anyone got the code to my lame car's lame stereo system? I've got lame songs to sing.

In the Fall I had to get the battery changed in the minivan, which triggered a security measure in the super high-tech 1999 Honda Odyssey’s stereo system that locked it up until someone entered the code. Only one person knew the code (and she’s laughing at me from heaven). Danny has tried, I have tried, the radio is still locked. The car is silent.

But I need to get that thing fixed. The girls have been getting off way light on the embarrassing starts to the school days when I drive. Their Dad, for the record, is like the parent in the other car in the ad–calmly driving his fancy car with DVD and TV screens in the back, so it’s not like the Tanner girls have it that bad when it comes to getting around.

See, my philosophy as a parent (or “parent” or pseudo-parent or whatever I am) is that taking great care and effort not to embarrass your child is worthless, because ultimately you’re going to slip up–or they’re just going to change the rules as to what counts as embarrassing–and your kid WILL be mortified. So I do the opposite. I ALWAYS embarrass the Tanner girls. I wear goofy clothes. I play my music loudly and sing along over top of it. I call out to them from across crowded spaces. I dance when I should just be walking. I try to make hip-sounding references around their friends that I know are tragically un-hip.

But it works in my favor in a few ways. The first is that by continually being unabashed about abashing them, I water down what it means to be embarrassed. They’re used to it, they expect it. They’ve gotten over it, accept it’s going to happen and don’t get very flustered when it does. Sometimes they even smile. The second reason it works is because on the rare occasions I do exercise a little class and dignity around them and do my best not to embarrass–like when we had a bunch of kids from the 8th grade over for dinner before a school dance–it is actually appreciated.

And the third reason? Well, DJ clued the other two into this one early on during the “loud music in the mornings” routine. As we would make the turn into the school driveway and the girls would see my hand go for the volume knob, they would play their part.

“Noooo, don’t play the loud music!” Stephanie and Michelle would dutifully cry, bound by the rules of childhood to fight any efforts to be noticed because of something their parent (or uncle) was doing.

“Why do you guys even bother,” DJ explained to them, bookbag already on shoulder, ready to sprint for the nearest buidling. “You know he’s just going to do it anyway.”

And she’s exactly right. I do it because I want them to know that it’s not going to stop, and that I’m not going anywhere.

Oh yeah, as for “Angel Of The Morning”–it IS a great song, and here’s my favorite version of it (sorry, Juice Newton fans, this one is waaaay better):

And here, as far as I can tell, is the original one. Pretty risque for its time now that I think about it. Also cool how the military-like “rat-tat-tat-tat” to start each line survived to the Juice Newton/Pretenders versions:

Christmas Eve

Posted by Danny

On Christmas Eve I was plundering through presents in the bottom of my closet, it’s a good size walk-in that I shared with Lisa.  I happened to look up at the top shelf,

a place I’d looked 100 times before this year.  There are a number of bags up there with Lisa’s stuff in them.  I had never been compelled to open them, but one in particular caught my eye that afternoon.  For some reason, I reached up.  When I opened it, I saw a Mickey Mouse dressed in a Santa suit.  I smiled remembering our family vacation trip last December between Lisa’s treatment and surgery.  Stephanie bought a Minnie dressed as Mrs. Santa and Lisa said, “I hate to have a Minnie without a matching Mickey.”  My response, “We don’t need any more frickin’ stuffed animals!”  Apparently she purchased it to give to a kid at a later date.  Isn’t it interesting that I opened that bag on Christmas Eve?  I wrapped it for the girls from mom.

If ever there was a doubting Thomas, it is I.  I like to touch, see, feel, and smell before I trust or believe.  I can almost hear Lisa defending me up in heaven.

“He really didn’t mean that.

I know, I know God but he really is a good guy.

Let me go down there and give him a sign; maybe that’ll rattle him.

You’re gonna let him in aren’t you?”

Sometimes I think that the signs are here for true hope and faith.  Sometimes I’m just too stupid to see them.

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