Sunday Post 179: The Freight Train of Life

It makes me sad that I don’t love summer anymore. It used to be my favorite time of the year.

In 2009, in the three months that preceded Lisa’s diagnosis of cancer, we took a trip to Yellowstone National Park, our weeklong annual getaway to Topsail Island, a couples only weekend trip to Lake Gaston with our best friends and our August jaunt to West Virginia. The day after Christmas, 2008, I began looking forward to summer. Each day brought me closer to the excitement of time with family, a clear calendar and 4 pm Happy Hour.

It hasn’t been the same since.

Although I still enjoy the beach, DJ’s absence is noticeable. She’s employed – how inconvenient. I figure Stephanie will be in the same boat two years from now.

Clearly, DJ’s not the only one missing from our June capers.

Since Lisa’s death, I’ve fared well when busy. Without dance carpool, homework and laundry for four, I find myself re-edging a border that has already been edged. No wonder Mr. Royster’s yard in Glendale Acres, my childhood neighborhood, looked so good.  He was childless and had nothing better to do.

I realize that much of what I’m experiencing has nothing to do with the loss of my wife. My kids would still grow up and get jobs with or without their mom in the picture. The pressure of carpools would lighten with additional drivers in the house. When you’re 16, you tend to get annoyed at waiting for dad to get around to doing your laundry – when you need an article of clothing, you wash it yourself.

Maybe this is why folks end up having a midlife crisis. They can’t seem to figure out how to handle the changes so they remake themselves in an unsavory way.

It’s clear I’m not going to cheat on my wife, I don’t have one. And a sports car is out of the question – I don’t have the money, and it won’t seat three children and their pack of pals.

If you look at a life’s calendar, these changes occur over a long period of time. But at times, they seem more like a freight train.

 

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The Jungle That Is Stephanie’s Bedroom

Posted by Jesse

Most of the times I’m flying solo with the girls, I pride myself on being fairly entertaining. Not tonight. I was a tad weary from a long day and a late-breaking sports story that had me phone-watching for much of the evening. Working in sports, I hesitate to refer to anything I have to work on as “big” or “important”, but…people do like to talk sports and these people several means to communicate and, well, a lot of people used those means to ask me tonight what the hell happened to Butch Davis. If you have no idea who Butch Davis is, I currently envy you a great deal.

 So when a crisis broke out, I knew I had to spring into action with twice the usual exuberance to make up for my lackluster performance the rest of the night. After going upstairs to change into pajamas right before bedtime, Stephanie returned in tears. This itself was not the crisis, expecially considering earlier in the evening Steph had admitted that fake crying was a skill she traded on. (DJ, who may miss this post because she’s at camp, will be happy to learn this: remember the time you hit Steph with your dance bag and suspected she was embellishing the injury a bit? She was.)

Apparently the source of the tears was an animal on the looose. Not a stuffed animal mind you (though lose track of her stuffed moose and I guarantee you there will be tears, REAL tears, and lots of them), but a real, live animal. The missing creature? You guessed it, one of the vaunted Decapod Crustaceans that came back from Myrtle Beach.

My first move was to assess the tears.

“Are you crying because you’re worried your hermit crab is gone, or are you worried it’s running around your room?”

As suspected, it was most certainly the latter. And in fact, that’s not an unjustified paranoia. As has probably been chronicled on the blog before, Stephanie once had a hamster get out of its cage and bite her on the nose while she slept. Her room is where animals go to party. And bite people. That’s how we ended up with a hamster cage under a blanket behind a couch under lock and key in the unifinished, unvisited part of the basement. Poor Steph.

“I don’t care if my hermit crab is dead I just don’t want it crawling around my room!”

“I don’t see how that thing could have gotten out,” I said, examining the empty shells in the glass cage, doing my best Lenny Brisco impersonation and trying to determine if this nimble crab really could have scaled a glass bowl.

“Oh yeah, they definitely can,” offered Michelle. “My friend Kimmy had one and it got out and they found it a week later crawling on the stairs.” Glad she’s here.

I offered the sleeping downstairs option (no sweat off my back since “downstairs” means “Danny’s room”), but with uncaged animals and little girls, it is most definitely a “once bitten, twice shy” situation. Stephanie was not convinced that the hermit crab would not seek her out for retribution for being taken from his friend in Myrtle Beach. The crab had to be found.

It was about this time Stephanie recalled that she had been playing with her pet with a friend and, perhaps, could have left him outside the bowl. I confirmed this was highly likely, but the point remained: we had to find the monster crab that was threatening to terrorize the night’s sleep. And I needed a night’s sleep.

So I got down on hands and knees and after an extensive, exhausting 11-second search, was able to locate Priscilla swimming in the dust ruffle. Problem solved. Night saved. But just to be safe, everyone’s sleeping downstairs tonight.

Did something just move in the corner?

A New Birthday Strategy

Posted by Danny

There have been some changes in birthday parties this year.  I think I simply approach things in a different manner than my wife did.

The guest list

Years past:  In depth conversation about who to invite to the party.  Whose feelings would be hurt if they weren’t included.  Whose birthdays Stephanie had attended that year.  Ponderance over whether to invite school friends only or to stretch into other groups.

This year:   “Stephanie, who are your best friends?”

“How many can I invite?”

“More than 5, less than a dozen.”

The theme

Years past:  Discussion over the theme.  What to wear, where to go.  What to do.  What to eat.  Reservations and well thought out plans. 

This year:  “What do you want to do?”

“Bowl.”

“Sleepover or no?”

“Yep.”

45 minutes before the party started I was leaving work.  Did  I have reservations?  Nope.  Did I call in advance?  Nope. But I knew where three different bowling alleys were located and had a full tank of gas.

The invitation

Years past:  Beautiful printed invitations.  Lisa would either hit one of those nice stationery stores and splurge on an invitation that complimented the party theme or she would order special stationary and print the invitation herself. 

This year:  Three emails

Email 1 – Two weeks out:  Sorry this is an email and not a written invitation.  Is next Friday open for your kid for Stephanie’s birthday party?

One week out:  We’re on.

One day out:  Meet at our house at 5:30 pm.  I think we’re going bowling.

The budget

Years past:  Lisa was actually pretty budget conscious when it came to birthday parties.  Several years ago, we went to a birthday party where an animal man brought out snakes and warthogs, lizards and tarantulas.  At another party,the kid had a carnival in her yard with six of those huge blow up things you climb and jump on – she had a blow up Titanic in her yard. 

When our kids were young, we’d pull out the sprinkler and three buckets.  They were three or four years old – Lisa wasn’t spending money on extravagant activities.  She’d say, “They’ll have fun with dirt.  We don’t need reptiles to entertain them.”

One year she had a tea party – the girls came dressed up and Lisa was too – floral dress with a big fat hat.  They sat at our dining room table – cloth napkins, formal tablecloth, tea cups and pots, sugar cubes, and flowers at each child’s place.  Then Lisa played the piano and the girls sat around and sang.  I felt like I’d traveled back in time to 1956 – both in theme and cost.

This year:  Store bought cake:  $20

Bowling: $100 – They made us rent two lanes at $50 each per hour!  And then the smart alec high school student who rang us up and who noticed me about swallow my tongue when she said “that’ll be $100” told me, “It’s ONLY about $8 per kid.”  Apparently she didn’t do well in math, because it was about $11 per kid and that didn’t even include water.

Dinner:  $75

Gift:  (her first cell phone – unlimited calls and text)  $50 + 10 years of monthly service fees

Doughnuts for breakfast:  $15

Sodas, popcorn, milk and OJ:  $20

Length

Years past:  Lisa had a rule – birthday parties should never be more than 1 1/2 hours.  Leave ’em wanting more she’d say.

This year:  18 hours (OK – Lisa did let them have sleepovers as they got older.  But it was a good rule when they were young.)

I liked her parties better – but the kids had fun and that’s what counts.

Sunday Post 20: Would you do it again?

Tonight as I was putting Stephanie to bed, and with tears in her eyes, she asked me, “Dad, if you had known that mom would get cancer and die, would you  have still married her?”

It’s interesting what the kids think about – especially at bedtime.  I wonder if she’s pondered that question before or if it just came to her tonight.

“That’s easy,” I replied – my eyes beginning to fill like hers.

“I would absolutely have married her even if I’d known she as going to die from cancer.  There are two reasons why.

First, your mom gave me the best 18 years of my life.  I would not trade those years for anything.  We laughed and had so much fun together.  And loved each other so much.  I’d never experienced that sort of love before.

Second, your mom and I had three amazing girls and you wouldn’t be our Stephanie if you weren’t made up of half me and half your mom.  You’re special because of the parts of us that make you up.  I wouldn’t trade you for anything.”

And my answer is true.  If given a choice – turn in the happy memories and be pain-free or keep the memories and suffer – I’d pick the latter any day.

My Mom

I attended Open House at the girls’ school last Sunday.  You walk through their classrooms, review their work and there is a huge art exhibit in the gym.

Most of the homeroom classes have attractive assignments posted in the class and throughout the hallways.

I was standing outside of Stephanie’s class waiting for her to finish talking with a friend.  I glanced over and on the wall found this peom, written by Stephanie in February.

My Mom

My mom watches over me day and night.

She is in heaven wiht God and Jesus.

Mom is the light of my day and is bright!

She’ll do whatever she can to please us.

I love her and she loves me so much, too!

Mrs. Tanner worked hard, I love her for that.

She cared for people, especially you.

She’d be by your side in one second flat.

Seh worked hard at church, she worked hard at school.

A great mom, a good wife, a special friend.

She was witty, clever, and always cool!

Always loyal until the very end.

With me she was always patient and calm.

She’s my very special Valentine mom!

I’m glad she remembers.

Gift Usage

 
Posted By Jesse
Gift-giving is not one of my biggest strengths. Lisa was an amazing gift-giver but I think it’s because it gave her an excuse for more shopping. But even beyond picking things out, she had that sort of mind that was always thinking about the next birthday or Christmas coming up. Typically by the time Christmas shopping season came around, she was already done, having kept a watchful eye out for presents while on trips and vacations. I’m more of the “how late are you open on Christmas Eve?” kind of guy.
 
The other thing Lisa and Danny are both good at is establishing “themes” for birthdays and Christmas for the kids: they let you know what the big thing is going to be and it helps you pick a relevant accessory. Plus, if the kid is already excited about said big ticket item, they’re that much more likely to be excited about every related gift. It’s a win-win. When DJ got her cell phone, I got her a case. When Michelle got a big art easel, I gave her cool crayons and other supplies.

the picture belies the excitement of first piercing

This year one of Stephanie’s Christmas themes was EARRINGS! She got her ears pierced just before Christmas and must have gotten 30 pair of them in December to get her collection started. I joined in the theme: I got her an earring stand and a little wooden box with a design on it to hold loose ones. I was pleased with the purchase.

But not as pleased as I was a few weeks later when I first noticed that she actually uses them! Typically I’m happy if my gift gets picked up after the wrapping comes off; seeing it put to practical use is a whole new ball game.
 
Being thoughtful and sweet is something Stephanie comes by naturally, but I have learned that putting presents to use is a specific skill that she has inherited from Danny’s mother. From what I have been told she has an extra gene that allows her to mentally label every sweater or serving tray or electronic device that she ever received as a present with the name of the giver. Then, if that person is visiting, she will being wearing or using the gift. Not only that, she does it naturally, never seeming like she’s planned it this way, so it really does seems as if you have always given her the perfect gift.
 
Michelle has been learning in cotillion about the proper way to receive a compliment. Stephanie and her grandmother could teach classes on the best way to receive a gift, a way that makes the giver feel good. It’s a gift they have.

How can we remember all this?

This is how we learn vocabulary in our house when the mind just can’t take any more and the clock is ticking down.  Kids are given a word bank and a list of definitions and must match the two.  It’s all about connections.

Vigorous:  strong; energetic

I hold my big guns (biceps) up in the air – “Look Stephanie, my arms are strong and energetic and are in the shape of a V – just like Vigorous.”

Illogical:  contrary to the rules of sound reasoning.

“Do you know what logical is?”

“Yes.”

“Most people just study – they follow the study guide that their teacher sends home.  Tonight you are crying and pitching a fit.  That is illogical.  ILL – means sick.  Your logic about studying tonight is sick.  We need to get it well like it was last night.  Ill-logical.”

Subdued:  quiet; not as active as usual.

“Ships are on top of the water – moving quickly and loudly.  Submarines are quiet and sneaky under the water, like subdued.  Now what is the word?”

“Sub something.”

“Think about the time a kid pooped in the pool last summer.  Sub – like a submarine; dooed – like an underwater poop.”

“Got it.”

Invariably: constantly; always uniformly.

“Dad, the word uniformly reminds me of my uniform.”

“Well, you invariably wear a uniform to school.  And the “v” in invariably looks like the “v” in your uniform collar.  And the “n” sort of looks like a pair of short pants, just like your uniform.”

Vantage:  favorable or advantageous position for observing.

“I hate to have to point this out, but the word vantage is in the middle of advantageous.  Take advantage of that.”

Laboriously:  with much labor, toil, or difficulty.

“Do you know what labor means?”

“Yes.”

“I and Us go with Lee to do labor.  Labor is done by I, us and Lee.  Labor-I-US-LEE. ”

Loped:  Moved with a long swining stride.

A big, funny, daddy lope across the den floor.  Arms dangling like a monkey.  “I’m lopin’ baby, I’m lopin’.”

Warily:  In a careful, cautious manner.

“Let’s all sing…Warily we roll along, roll along, roll along; warily we roll along in a careful, cautious manner.”

Rancid:  Unpleasant odor or taste.

“Your uncle’s feet smell rancid.  Remember the smell.  Remember the word.”

(By the way, rancid is one of my all time favorite words.)

Respite:  a temporary period of relief or rest.

“You tired of this?”

“Yea.”

“Me too.  We need a respite.”

“Yea.”

“Let’s go to bed.”

My kids are going to fail the SAT.

The High School Decision

Posted by Danny

Lisa would have handled the high school search for DJ.  The applications, the visits, the entrance exams.  I would have been informed at some point where my daughter was going to school.  Of course I would have been consulted on finances if it was not a public institution; but, the decision would have fallen squarely to Lisa and DJ.

I don’t want to make that decision.  I like being told. 

Now it falls to me.

I have completed more bubble forms on-line than the average junior taking the PSAT.  I have typed in my address on four applications, two standardized tests, and on multiple scholarship forms. 

We have shadowed at four schools and attended five orientations.  At this point, I can’t tell you which one is  all girls and which one requires uniforms (I think there is one of each). 

I really liked the Catholic school.  I’d sort of like to be Catholic.  I REALLY like the idea of confession.  I know, I know, God forgives if we just ask.  But I like the idea of spilling the beans to someone through a small brown wooden wall and being given specific tasks to clear the slate.  When it comes down to it, I guess my desire to bear my soul isn’t a sound reason to choose a high school for DJ.

The private school in North Raleigh was beautiful.  The classes were small and the campus reminded me of my visit to Harvard a few years ago.  It was very impressive.  But, it was a pretty long drive from our house AND I would have had to sell at least one child and Jesse to be able to afford the tuition.  I considered that option, but wasn’t sure I could handle the annual clothes clean out without him.

Our base school is a large public school  where Lisa and her siblings attended.  Had she been alive, that’s probably where we would have landed.  DJ visited and enjoyed her day but she came home and said, “It’s really big.  And those were some long, boring classes.”  With my inability to be involved and stay on top of things – that concerned me.  She gets enough boring at home; I’m not sure she can take any more.

Much to her chagrin, I required her to attend the orientation for the local charter school.  It has a great reputation for academics…they stressed to the parents that the kids would have hours and hours of homework each night.  That’s punishment for me!  I’m not sure that I want to be in homework purgatory the next four years myself.  Plus, DJ “hears” that there are only nerds and geeks at that school.  She gets enough of that at home as well.

We have also received four – yes four – complete packets of information from another private school that we haven’t even applied to – I think they may send her class schedule and a bus to pick her up in August unless I drive over there and tell them we are not attending.

After much deliberation, a couple of fights, prayer (at least by my mom – I usually save my personal requests for bigger things like wives with cancer and purpose in life), and a “Are You Absolutely Sure” meeting in DJ’s bedroom, the decision has been made.

In August, DJ will attend St. Mary’s School!  It is a small girl’s school here in Raleigh with a stellar reputation for tough academics and incredible support.  I’ll have to admit I was a bit reluctant about a school  with no boys.  Although I think it’s great not to have that distraction in class, I do want my daughter to have a date before she turns 36.  But this school has a huge focus on making confident leaders out of the young women who attend.  And I can’t argue with that.

Several years ago Lisa went to an open house at St. Mary’s just to hear what they had to say.  She came home and told me, “I know we could never afford St. Mary’s but when you sit and hear their schpill, you just want to drop your kid off when she gets into 9th grade and pick her up when she graduates!” 

I think she’d approve of the decision.

The Great Clothes Migration, Part 2, The Stephanie Saga

Three weeks of work...

Look - they're all folded!!!

Posted by Danny

People in this family just aren’t normal.

On Saturday I began the Great Clothes Migration, Part 2, the Stephanie Saga.

The two of us headed up to her room and began the process.  I had her strip down to her underwear and bra so that the changing could go faster.  When we start, I focus.  No time for play or snacks or lunch or bathroom.  On – off – quick decisions! 

About 15 minutes into it, I heard noises coming from DJ’s room.  I opened the door to find DJ, Jesse and Michelle brewing up some mischief.  Apparently they had been in bed acting like they were taking a nap in the hopes that I’d come in and stir a ruckus.  But I didn’t have time for their junk.  I had work to do – Mount Kilimanjaro of clothing awaited.

Without pause, they looked at Stephanie who was about to undergo four hours of agony, and began to sing a popular song – but they changed the words from “Yellow and Black” to “Panties and Bra.”  She grinned at first but both of us grew tired quickly.  We shut her door and went on about our business.

About ten minutes later, we heard chanting outside.  Looking out of her second floor window, we noticed something unusual – three people, on the roof, glaring in the window at us.  It began with the same chant, followed by skipping by the window, dancing by the window and spinning by the window.  The grand finale was a slight mooning courtesy of Uncle Jesse (for someone with a butt as big as his, even a slight moon is fairly obvious).

Now that Stephanie was fully distracted, I’d had enough.  My glare showed my disapproval.

The show appeared to end.

About ten minutes later, DJ came in to see if she could help. 

“Do I need your help?  Yes.  Are you capable of helping?  From the looks of things, I’m doubtful.”

“I’ll help you but it’s hot up here.  Can you turn the heat down?”

Stephanie chirped in, “I’m comfortable.”

DJ replied, “You’re in your bra and panties.”

“Well I’m the one trying on all the clothes!”

“Fine, I’ll put on my sports bra with shorts and help.”

The next thing I knew, DJ and Michelle were in the room in sports bras and shorts.  I heard them holler downstairs, “Jesse, we’re having a shirtless clean out party upstairs.  Come join us”

“Un.”  I knew what that meant.

It took about ten seconds for him to show up.  Shirt off, hairy chest and stomach grossing me out.

They left the room and found Jesse a sports bra to help make him a bit more presentable. 

He claims he “helped” with the Great Clothes Migration this year.  I think “helped” is a strong word.

Jesse was about as much help as the Justin Bieber cut out.

This is the give away pile for my friend Paige. Better bring a U Haul.

Tonight’s Dinner Special: Roast

POSTED BY JESSE

Since the girls wear uniforms to school all day, we do not have a dress code for the Tanner family dinner table (other than, you know, being dressed). It is advised, however, that you bring your layer of thick skin.

This family game has been played before, and will surely be played again, and I’m not even sure who started it last night, but it was probably the world’s funniest 8-year old girl, Michelle. It started with her (or someone else) declaring: “I’m going to be Jesse,” and proceeding to imitate the family member that has been named. Everyone else quickly follows suit by naming someone they will ape and soon we are sitting around the table having a “conversation” that consists of each person repeating their chosen subjects’ favorite meal-time catchphrase: Stephanie (as Danny) incessantly asked everyone how their day was, Michelle (as me) talked about watching basketball, etc.

But the real fun comes when we all take turns playing the same person at once. The script and performance are both pretty short, and I doubt Saturday Night Live will be beating down our doors any time soon, but we sure did crack each other up for about ten minutes. Even though the parroting typically consisted of a one-liner and a prop, some of them were pretty spot on. Here’s a quick review:

  • Michelle: singing loud and laughing; fidgeting and clinging on other people, even if they were trying to eat their own dinner; asking to be picked up and tickled. Best Actor award: Me, for my portrayal of Michelle at meals, rocking, kneeling on, or standing next to her stool while eating…and then going the extra absurd step of rolling on the dinner table.
  • Stephanie: a lot of OMGs and other “net-speak”; name-dropping of 5th grade boys that she “definitely does not like” even though their names are heard a lot; complaints about “tons of homework” that will somehow get finished before American Idol starts. Best Actor award: Danny, for his role as “slow-eating Steph”, pausing between bites to take in the scenery and chewing at a cow’s pace.
  • DJ: a lot of “Oh my gosh” (note: different from “OMG”–I guess net-speak becomes less cool around 8th grade) and other teenage tone and dialect, fast-flying thumbs and a refusal to look up from a newly purchased smart phone, play-by-play recaps of what happened in Latin and science classes, and a rundown of how incompetent/unfair the rest of the world is and how it is adversely affecting her. Best Actor award: Michelle, for her cheerleader routine and broadcasting the word of a newly purchased sports bra.
  • Me: donning of a baseball cap and lots of sports-talk; an eye-lock on my phone screen while announcing funny/interesting tidbits that are rolling across Twitter; responding to kids’ stories of the day with a different viewpoint on the situation or attempting to teach a lesson. Best Actor award: Stephanie, who moved to the piano to bang out some chords and sing at the top of her lungs. (am I really that loud?)
  • Danny (who, of course, tried to end the game before his name came up): reading glasses and dumbbells, weird exercise positions, commenting that everything would “make a good blog post”, not knowing how to work his phone. Best Actor award: DJ, who drew the night’s biggest laugh for her depiction of “Father drinking milk from the carton”, turning up the gallon jug and then exuding faux-machismo by strutting around the kitchen talking about how it’s “my milk” because he “bought it from Harris Teeter”.

And with that, this round of Tanner family roasting was concluded.

Some people might think we’re cruel to each other, but I think if observed objectively most would conclude it’s a net positive: everyone gets a fair share and we don’t really dwell on others’ insecurities as much as their habits. And it can be funny and sometimes quite revealing to see which words and actions you put out there, and what the first thing that comes to someone’s mind when they’re “being you.”

Additionally, I have conceded that when it comes to physical pain, the Tanner girls are kind of wimpy and there’s not a whole lot I can do about it. I have induced tears from what I perceived to be light tickling and caused seemingly (at the time) irreparable damage to fingers during attempted sports outings in the driveway. I know they didn’t grow up being mercilessly flung into bushes and tackled onto tree roots by Ryan Combs, the 6-foot 6th grader with whom I played backyard football in my youth, but I had hoped to at least teach them the “brush off the dirt and keep going” routine. I don’t think it’s going to happen.

But there are different types of wimpy, and I can tell you that the Tanner girls are going to be emotionally resilient and mentally stalwart, armed to handle the inevitable rejections and insults that will come their way as they grow and learn. Hopefully, they won’t need all the good training we’re giving them in how to let things slide off your back. And hopefully they’ve already faced the toughest thing they’ll ever have to get through.

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