Sunday, May 31, 2009

On an Inspiring and Heartbreaking Story

This week has been hectic, to say the least. Some contractual issues at work have had me putting in longer than normal hours, both there and at home, and we have both been feeling the effects of the decreased “Daddy time”.

But this story is not about me.

When I walked into my office Wednesday afternoon (yes, I work at both a school and an office, but its all part of the same job), I was greeted by a colleague with “So have you heard my news?” Her expression did not leave any hint as to whether the news was good or bad, so my mind immediately jumped to the latter and I thought she was going to tell me that she had taken another job. This was (thankfully) not the case. She instead informed me that she had been granted temporary custody of a student who is now at my school, but used to be at her school. (I will give details somewhat sparingly as this child is in foster care and though I do not generally give names and locations, I would not want anyone reading this to be able to figure out who the child is, should they happen to live/work in my community.)

I asked her tons of questions, not the least of which was “How in the world did this come about?” She answered me calmly and gave me the details that I unfortunately cannot share. What came through was a sense of excitement. Not in a selfish or prideful (look at me) way, but excitement that she and her husband were going to be able to do something to keep this child from being bounced around from one foster home to another, which had unfortunately been the case during her short time in care. Through an unusual set of circumstances, they had been allowed to take her in and provide her with the love and support she was apparently not getting at her previous foster home.

At this point I will take a moment to mention that there are many very good foster homes in this country and specifically in the area where I live and work. It just appears that in this situation, the child had not felt welcomed or wanted in her current placement and was excited about the change.

This whole situation with this child and my colleague represented the epitome of the way the foster care system should work. Here was a family who got it, (even though they don’t know about this blog and therefore did not read this recent post). And here was a child who was finally going to feel welcomed in someone’s home while she waited for her family to get straightened out enough that she could return to them. It was a beautiful picture in my mind and I found myself very happy that they would all be together during this time. It almost seemed too good to be true.

I received an e-mail the following afternoon that said they would be moving the child to another home that evening.

I was upset, so I know that my colleague must have been devastated. I could not imagine why they would have taken the child out of her home when the situation was so right on so many levels. As it turns out, I discovered the reasons the very next day when I saw the student. When I talk to my students I am very careful not to ask questions of a personal nature, especially when I know there are extenuating circumstances as there were in this case. But this child is very forthcoming and told me the information of her own accord.

What it boiled down to was that social services did not like the way the situation had played out in the first place (the decision had been made by the courts) and used a series of very flimsy reasons to remove the child from my colleague’s home. I know this because the child told me as much.

What I also know is that talking about her one night stay at my colleague’s house was the only time the student perked up during our time together that day. When she talked about her other foster homes and her current placement, she did so with her head down and her tone subdued. But when she talked about being at my colleague’s house she looked directly at me, smiled, and spoke in an enthusiastic manner. Had this woman not been a friend and colleague, I still would have noticed the unmistakable contrast in her demeanor when speaking about her home and the other homes she had been in.

It was unmistakable. Undeniable. Unfortunate. Unnecessary.

It was one of those heartbreaking stories that you hear all too often regarding the US foster care system. Now, in my own defense, I had fully planned to sit down this weekend and write a post about how well the system had worked in this case (since I knew I would not have time till the weekend), but I never expected it to turn out this way. Neither did my colleague.

And neither did the child.

I had the opportunity to see my colleague later that afternoon. I did not mention that I had spoken with the student or what she had told me. I hadn’t planned to say anything about it at all, mostly because I didn’t want to pour salt in what was sure to be an open wound. But she opted to speak to me about it, and I was able to convey to her that the child had been truly happy with her (she was worried that the child would think they did not want her, when the decision to move her was out of their hands). She added details the child would not have known as to why she was moved, which made it seem all the more like a power play instead of a decision based on what was best for the child.

As I mentioned before, it was one of those heartbreaking stories.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking part came just before we parted ways when I asked her if she thought she and her husband might try to foster another child someday. Her response was that they both felt like they had been burned by a system that did not make decisions with the child’s best interest at heart. And that they did not want to do that to themselves, their own children, or the child/ren they might foster again.

It’s a sad truth in American society today. Many families who want to foster have been burned by or are afraid of the system and therefore choose not to get involved with it in the first place. It’s the very reason my wife and I had chosen to pursue international adoption instead of domestic. We had even talked about fostering kids who were not available for adoption, but neither of us felt like it was something we could do for reasons such as what you’ve just read. Unfortunately, there are many people/families who foster for the wrong reasons and end up making the child/ren feel unwelcome. This is not to negate all of the wonderful families out there who demonstrate everything that is good about the system. But it does add one more story which perpetuates the image of a broken social services system in this country. If we don’t step in to help in some way, it will never change.

And the children are the ones who will suffer most for it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On Our Magical Experience

In some of my recent posts, I have alluded to an upcoming trip, a “magical adventure” if you will. The adventure has now come and gone, but we will have the memories of it for a long time to come. (Warning: This post is really long!)

On Saturday

We arose at an hour that would be considered normal during the work week, only this day’s routine involved packing the final few items (like out toothbrushes) and getting in the van not for the short ride to daycare, but for a much longer ride to the magical place. There were portions of the drive that I have not taken before, so we made a couple of stops along the way. The drive along I-95 was not nearly has stressful or heavily-trafficked as I had been told it would be, so other than the increased time it took to get to our destination, it was a rather pleasant drive. I did encounter more than my fair share of jerks in traffic (like this line-hugger), but I managed to keep my road-rage to a minimum.

We also got to see the ocean from two new states, with very different results.

We arrived two hours late to meet some friends for dinner, but they were understanding and unexpectedly took care of the entire bill, which was more than generous, especially after having waited so long for us to arrive.

After a long day, we passed through the gates and found our way to the resort/hotel that would be our home for the next three days.

Thus began my daughter’s first visit to Disney World.

On Sunday

This entire trip came about as a result of some very dear friends of mine from college. I have mentioned them briefly in posts past, primarily by mentioning the fact that they are the one set of friends I have with whom things have truly not changed over the past two-plus years. He and I were friends (and for two semesters roommates) in college and are very much alike in both our personalities and our outlook on life. His wife and mine were ironically very alike in the same ways. He and his wife were high school sweethearts who married fourteen months before my wife and I did. We stood in each others’ weddings. We had the privilege of visiting them in the hospital following the births of their two daughters, even though they still live close to where I grew up, 800 miles away. They have spent a week with us most summers since we moved here, both prior to and since my wife’s passing. They are true friends in every sense of the word.

Still, it somehow caught me off-guard that they would invite us along on their family vacation to Disney World. When we first started planning this, he worked for a company that had connections to discounted tickets and hotel rooms, which is how this trip became so easily affordable for me (he has since changed jobs). The planning just sort of worked itself out. Including the fact that this is the only time we could have gone during the school year, since my daughter (the oldest of our three combined children) will start school next year and I would not likely pull her out for something like this.

They flew in late Saturday night from the Midwest, so we did not see them until Sunday morning, when we met to go to Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the friends we ate dinner with Saturday night were friends from high school who live in Florida now). We took what should have been a short walk to their adjacent resort/hotel and met them out front where the buses arrive and depart.

A note to anyone considering a trip to Disney: If you can possibly afford it, stay on the Disney property. The biggest travel concern we had once we arrived was having to take the bus to the monorail to get to dinner one night. It took all of the stress out of traveling! (And on another note, consider the meal plan. We did not and now I kind of wish we had.)

We hopped on the bus during what would turn out to be the only sunny day of our stay. The first characters we met upon arrival were Lilo and Stitch, of which my daughter is a big fan, and thus began our three days of frustration. Almost every time we would approach a character for an autograph and photo-op, they would suddenly have to go on a short break. These breaks normally lasted only 2-5 minutes, but it was still inconvenient to have to wait, sometimes in the Florida sun, while they did this. What was even more irritating is that they gave a verbal warning, then randomly cut off the line. There was no point that allowed you to know whether you would see the character before or after their break until their break actually began (for us, it was always after). My disappointment with Lilo and Stitch was that the park had only been open for thirty minutes and Lilo had to go “run an errand” for her sister and would not be back til later in the afternoon, so my daughter only got to meet Stitch (initially. We stood in line again later so she could meet Lilo too).

I will not bore you with a complete list of the characters we were able to see that day, but I will tell you that we missed nearly as many as we saw due to these “breaks”.

The Animal Kingdom is a beautiful, well-shaded park, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Disney long enough to see more than one park (assuming you have small children and the Magic Kingdom has to be at the top of your list). Again, I won’t bore you with a list of the rides we rode and the shows we saw, but I will tell you one of each that are simply must-see/do.

If given the chance, ride the African safari ride. I don’t recall the actual name of it, but you’ll know it when you hear it. It played out much like I believe a real safari would, only the animals were much closer and easier to view than I imagine it would be on a real safari ride (plus it beats the plane fare to Africa and I got to sleep in a resort/hotel that night). The only caution is not to sit in the back seat or two. The terrain is fairly rugged, and the four of us in the back seat were bounced around a bit too much for my daughter’s safety-meter.
The Lion King show there is also must-see. It is what I believe is called a “theatre in the round” format, so there is action from every side and a bit of audience participation thrown in as well. And my daughter got to meet Timone afterward, which was a bonus for her.

The Animal Kingdom closes at five (at least on Sundays), so we made plans for that to be the day we went to eat dinner with a princess. There is a multiple-princess dinner at the Magic Kingdom, but it is hard to get into and the kids apparently don’t actually get much face-time with the princesses, so we instead opted for the Cinderella dinner at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Magic Kingdom property (this was the dinner that required riding both the bus and the monorail). Once we were seated, it was nothing short of wonderful. Seating was the problem of the day, it seemed.

When we arrived for our previously reserved time, we were told the computers were down and were handed a buzzer and little to no assurance that we would be seated in a timely fashion. Knowing that this dinner was buffet-style, we had eaten a light lunch earlier in the day. It had started to rain, so the computer problem seemed legitimate enough. But we continued to wait. And wait. And wait. After about forty minutes, I convinced my friend that we should go back and remind them that we were still waiting with three hungry girls (and three equally hungry adults). We did. The troubling thing about it was that no one could seem to give us any answers other than “our computers are down. We’ll seat you when we can”. Now, it’s been fourteen years since my last trip to Disney, but I know that above all else, Disney is a well-oiled machine. So the fact that a computer problem could create such havoc with their reservation system is still quite lost on me. I think there was something else going on (like being short-staffed perhaps) and they were content to blame it on the computer problems. All told, we waited over an hour for what was supposed to have been a reserved time slot.

But as I mentioned before, the dinner was nothing short of wonderful. We ended up with a table in the center of the room and were greeted first by Prince Charming, who instantly had my five-year-old swooning. He even made a proposition to the two older girls (the youngest would have nothing to do with the characters, even if they looked like real people), which he made good on later in the evening. His visit was followed by Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters and Cinderella herself. And in the midst of all of that, we finally managed to partake of the wonderful buffet we had heard so much about.

The Prince’s proposition had been that he would like to ask the girls to dance, which he did toward the end of dinner, on the dance floor which happened to be next to our table. Cinderella came too and the girls were able to dance with each of them.

I think if the vacation had ended there, I would have come home with one happy little girl.

We took our separate buses back to the hotel and I carried my sleeping daughter across the vast expanse of the property to our room in a lightly falling rain.

On Monday

We met our friends at their room this time, which proved to be much closer than meeting them at the front of their hotel. Each resort property had ten or eleven separate buildings on it, and ours were both near the back of our respective properties. It allowed us to see their hotel and was a much shorter walk from ours. It was cloudy, but the rain had not officially started falling at this point.

We rode the bus again, only this time our destination was one we had chosen more for the adults in the party – Disney’s Hollywood Studios. For those of you old-schoolers like me, it used to be called MGM, but has undergone a name change sometime in the last fourteen years. None of us had ever been to that park either (it was the same with Animal Kingdom), but of the three, it was quickly deemed my favorite. There were plenty of great characters to meet (including two of my favorites from the Toy Story movies), as well as more rides and shows.

Again, I won’t bore you with the lists, but the Beauty and the Beast show was excellent. I rather enjoy musicals anyway, but for an amusement park, this one was top notch. Plus it got us out of the rain for half an hour. I really enjoyed the Toy Story ride, which puts you into a video game scenario and actually tabulates your points at the end (I didn’t know this and was consequently beaten by the other adults in my party). The ride itself is a bit jerky, but well-worth it. Other things I enjoyed were the Muppets 3-D Vision show and the Hollywood back lot tour, though the latter proved to be a little too realistic for my five-year-old and was thus a bit frightening.

Oh, and I can’t remember what the place was called, but if you get a chance find the place where they discuss animation and take a look around. My mother’s artistic ability all seems to have gone to my younger brother, but I still managed to draw this there:

While at Hollywood Studios we also enjoyed our second of two character meals (if you get the meal plan, I’d schedule as many of these as possible as they count as one regular meal), this time with some characters from Playhouse Disney. These were not characters from shows my daughter has ever really watched, but we knew she would have fun anyway, and the other girls are into the shows. My daughter, polite as ever, actually said as much to a character from Little Einsteins. As the character hugged her, she leaned in and said “I don’t really watch your show, but I like your dancing”.

Another benefit to staying on the Disney property is that certain parks are open late on certain days for resort guest only. This week it happened that Hollywood Studios was open late on Monday, so we enjoyed an extra three hours of time that night with about a third of the crowd. Since I hate crowds and during this trip added “stupid tourists” to my list of jerks (which also includes people who cut me off in traffic, people who abuse others, and people who have an absurd number of children and subsequently flaunt them on reality tv), this was also a highlight of my day.

My daughter managed to stay awake on the bus ride home, which was nice as she was able to hold her own (kid-sized) umbrella on the walk back to our room.

On Tuesday

The morning began with an unpleasant work-related call, about which I had been given warning during out visit to Hollywood Studios the day before. It was no reflection on my work whatsoever, but rather was regarding a decision being handed down from the higher ups that affects all people in my position. But I was able to put it in the back of my mind and face the cold and rain for our third and final day’s destination – the Magic Kingdom.

Our friends were actually staying through the end of the week, so this was the mid-week climax of the trip for their girls, whereas it was more of a grand finale for mine. (Hindsight and the morning’s phone call told me I should have stayed the rest of the week, but that would have cost a lot more). This time they met us at our hotel as they wanted to check out our room too, and we boarded the bus from there. The Magic Kingdom was the furthest of the three parks from our hotels, but the kids had grown accustomed to the rides and actually seemed to enjoy them.

Today the rain beat down relentlessly, so we sought out as many indoor activities as was humanly possible. The one exception was the Dumbo ride, which was the only ride all three girls had asked to ride. We were all cold and wet when it was over, but it as worth it.

Ah, the things we do for our children.

This was the day my daughter got to meet three of the other princesses, so that was at this point, the icing on the cake for her. The line to meet them was half as long as the line to meet the fairies (they’re side-by-side), so we only met the princesses that morning. We also rode the Peter Pan and Pooh rides, both of which were big hits with the kids.

At this point, it might be important to mention that my friend’s wife had had matching outfits made for all three girls to wear to the Magic Kingdom. We had received more than our fair share of stares at the other two parks, but the matching outfits really threw people for a loop. I’m used to people sometimes giving me a second glance with the “poor divorced dad” look. I’m pretty certain people don’t automatically jump to the conclusion that I’m a full-time single dad, and definitely not due to being widowed. At the very least, I figured on this trip people might think I was the single uncle who had tagged along and that all three girls were my friends’. Whatever people thought, it did not stop them from staring. In fact, one young woman did so repeatedly and unabashedly while we waited in a character line so much so that I was tempted to say “I’m with him” just to really throw her off (I didn’t).

It amazes me that in this day and age, people still want to know what people’s “situations” are for no other reason than the pure gossip-factor it might bring. (I’ve had this happen before only the other time I was with a same sex couple. That really threw people off! They all wanted to know which of us was my daughter’s daddy.) We decided next time we vacationed together we’d get shirts to help the process. Our two favorite ideas were as follows: “I’m with him” on the front of the shirt, “I’m with her” on the back or one that says “We’re just as confused as you are” (my personal favorite). If you’re still reading at this point, feel free to send other ideas!

Of the three parks, the Magic Kingdom was my least favorite, but the kids all really enjoyed it. We did go to the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor, which was an interactive show and fun for the whole family. It kept us dry, but I’d recommend it anyway. And we did get back to see the fairies that afternoon as the rain was really coming down at that point. It turned out to be worth our wait. For anyone with little girls, they were by far the most interactive of all the characters we met. My daughter is not really into them, but she was captivated during the brief time we actually got to see them (though this was the line of the staring “situation analyzer” I mentioned before and even the fairies themselves seemed a bit confused, referring to all three of the girl as “sisters”).

That night, my friend found us the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. Cinderella’s castle sat directly in front of us down Main Street and our “spot” kept us sheltered from the continuing rain. Despite the rain, they managed to put on a spectacular display, and it was a great way to end the trip.

When we headed to our respective bus stops, our friends realized that this was “it” for us and seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I have often said that the sign of a good trip (anywhere) is that you are not quite ready to go when the time comes. And so it was with this trip. We exchanged hugs and the night ended once again with me holding my sleeping daughter under an umbrella against the pouring rain.

On Wednesday

As this post has already waxed long, I will keep the remainder brief. I dreamed about the situation at work and woke up thinking about it that morning. I guess I was making up for all the time I had spent not thinking about it the day before. It was pouring rain, so we picked up a quick breakfast and some last minute gifts as we checked out of the hotel, then headed for home.

The torrential downpour continued across Florida and into Georgia. Within twenty miles of crossing the Georgia border, the rain dissipated and we barely saw a trace of it the remainder of the drive home. The trip home proved to be a bit faster than the trip there, though we did stop for a few minutes in one southern city I had never visited. I think I was a bit more confident with the route, though the traffic on I-95 still did not bother me, even in the rain.

The fact that I had now completed this trip my wife and I had dreamed of taking our daughter on since before we knew she was our daughter, also did not bother me as much as I thought it would during the trip, although it has in the days since. Perhaps it is another sign that I am finally healing.

Neither of us were quite ready to leave Disney World, but we were both very glad to be home. It will be a few years before we return there, but we’re already looking forward to our next installment of the Magic of Disney.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Signing In

Fresh on the heels of our Mother’s Day activities earlier this week, we celebrated an important milestone in the life of my young daughter – the day of kindergarten registration. Early in the school year, I had determined that I would save a “sick” day if at all possible and make this entire day about her. It is not often that we are afforded a whole day of uninterrupted time with one another, as the mundane but necessary tasks of life and single-parenting tend to encroach on our time whether they are invited or not.

But this was a day devoted to my one and quite possibly only child, and I intended to make the most of it.

There have only been a few occasions in my five plus years as a father when I have awoken before my daughter without the assistance of an alarm clock. Most Christmas mornings fall into this category. And usually the morning of her birthday. And sometimes a random day here or there.

I didn’t expect it to happen on this day.

I woke up at 8:00 without an alarm. My living-breathing alarm usually wakes me before 7:00 on days off. Then I laid there, completely unsure of what to do with the fact that she was still asleep and it was 8:00. I reveled in a few minutes of morning solitude, which I am usually accustomed to getting only after the sun has set and my daughter is tucked into bed, so it was a nice change. After about fifteen minutes, when I had convinced myself I should go get her up or at least check on her, I heard her door open and she bounded into my room in her usual chipper manner.

Forty minutes later we were in the van headed to what was supposed to be our first stop (breakfast at her favorite doughnut shop) when she asked if we could stop by the school and “sign-in” first. Once I was convinced that her hunger for a chocolate doughnut could stand the delay, we pulled into the school parking lot and headed, for her first time on two feet, through the front doors.

She had actually been to the school a few times before, when she was much too young to remember, and I was still gainfully employed there. For the first two years we lived in our new Southeastern home-state, I was part of a family that my daughter will soon get to join. It was my first real job out of college and it was truly a family to me in many ways, from the first day I set foot on the job to the day I handed in my keys. (I left on good terms to pursue my current higher-paying contract job in an adjacent county.)

Truth be told, I was more nervous about the absence of that family atmosphere than I was about registering my daughter for school when I walked through those doors. But it was all for naught. We were greeted with a cheerful “hey girl” (for my daughter, of course) from the secretary with whom we have remained friends through church and beach outings. After telling us we were the first ones to register, she directed us to a room down the hall (which had been a first-grade classroom when I worked there), where we were greeted with another “hey” and the first of many hugs of the day from “long-time, no-see” friends. We spoke with two teachers - one male, one female - neither of whom were employed there when I was, but both of whom seemed very happy to see us, nonetheless. The female teacher handed me a stack of forms to whittle down, while the male teacher gave my daughter an educational screening, all of which took place at a small round table with chairs intended to be used by people under four feet tall.

As I buried my head in the forms, I tried to do so in such a way that my beaming smile was not completely obvious as I listened to both teachers comment on how smart my daughter was and how impressed they were by her. I believe that every parent should think his child is the smartest, prettiest, bravest, fill in the blank-est. And I do. But my daughter is starting school with above-average academic skills, thanks in large-part to the wonderful teachers she’s had in daycare/preschool (from her first day as a five month old till now), and in small-part to my (and her mommy’s when she was still here) reinforcement of these concepts and skills.

It was just really nice to hear someone else go on and on about how great my child is.

Our visit with the teachers culminated with the two of them “arguing” over which of them should get to teach my daughter next year. I would have thought they were putting me on, but they were ahead of us in the hallway and I’m not sure they realized we could hear them. Unfortunately for them, they are only two of five or six kindergarten teachers there, so odds are that neither of them will get her. But it was still nice to hear that they both wanted her in their class.

As we passed back through the double doors we had entered only thirty minutes before, we were greeted with a spattering of raindrops on our faces. So we made a mad dash for the van, since the sky had been cloudless when we arrived and thus the umbrellas were in said van.

We headed to the doughnut place, where we waited in line for ten minutes behind one family who was at the register when we walked in. Normally that sort of thing gives me line-rage, but today it just meant that those ten minutes with my daughter were spent in line instead of one of the various other locations we would inhabit briefly this day. We eventually ordered and consumed our breakfast - a chocolate glazed doughnut and hot chocolate for her and one double-chocolate, one blueberry doughnut each and coffee for me.

When we left the doughnut place the rain had not yet subsided, so we went back home to wait it out. We made phone calls to the grandparents to let them know “how things went” at the school. My daughter was very excited to be able to recount her adventures at “the big school” not once, but twice that morning. The rain was becoming intermittent, so we took a chance, changed clothes and jumped back in the van. After an errand run entirely to buy time…

We drove to the beach in the pouring rain.

And we sat at the beach in the pouring rain. At one point when the rain abated, we even got out of the van and ran out toward the water. We got back in just as quickly as it was still sprinkling and the wind was a bit more biting than I had anticipated.

After about thirty minutes, with our fast food drive-thru lunches long-since consumed, the rain stopped completely. Then the sun came out. Then the sun stayed out. I tentatively opened the door and it felt at least five degrees warmer than it had been on our brief jaunt to the water fifteen minutes prior. So we took a chance and went down toward the water again. Only this time we kept walking down the beach for the final event of our daddy-daughter day.

There is a pier about a mile down the beach from the main public access point, which I have always loved to walk to. I have, on occasion, walked to it alone. But more often I like to walk to it with one of my favorite ladies.

As a young child, I walked to it with my first favorite lady, who gave me life and a home filled with love.

As a young husband, I walked to it with my second favorite lady, who gave me joy and a home filled with love.

As a young father, I walk to it with my third favorite lady, who gives me hope.

And a home filled with love.

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Things Maternal

It is not unusual for me to be awakened at an early hour. After all, I live with a five year old. She sometimes climbs in bed with me in the middle of the night. More often, she wakes me up “when it’s light out” to tell me she wants breakfast (the “light” cue is when she knows she can watch tv. If it’s still dark she assumes it’s the middle of the night). So it was no surprise when she climbed onto the side of my bed at 6:00 this morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

The surprise came when she wished me Happy Mother’s Day.

This is our third Mother’s Day without her mommy, and each one has taken a different turn. Apparently this year, she decided that the day was going to be about me. The first year we had the good fortune to be able to spend the entire weekend at a friend’s beach house. She was only three, and I elected not to mention why we happened to be going that particular weekend. So we spent two days playing on the beach during the day, and I mourned the occasion while sitting on the ocean-front porch each night after she was tucked safely into bed.

My memory is not quite as clear regarding what we did last year. I know that we went to church and suffered through the traditional sermon about mothers. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own mother more than I can say, and have been blessed to know several other good mothers in my lifetime as well. But as a widower with a young daughter, it’s incredibly hard to listen to a sermon like that, knowing what said daughter has been and will continue to miss throughout her lifetime. I think that we also spent the afternoon at the beach then too, but we could just as easily have spent it at home playing on her swing set. I do know that she understood the day better than the year before and that it was definitely about her own mommy. I’m pretty sure we both shed some tears that day too.

The Mother’s Day for Daddy theme she’s seemed to embrace this year actually began earlier in the week when her teacher handed me an invitation to the Mother’s Day breakfast scheduled to be held Friday morning. I half-expected something to be sent home, so I took it and told her thanks. Then she mentioned that I was welcome to come. Hmm. A dad at the Mother’s Day breakfast. Last year I would have found that to be an incredibly sad thought. Two years ago, I would have been devastated to think about it.

This year, for the first time, I actually found it to be humorous.

I had this vision of myself surrounded by all of these mothers and grandmothers and it just struck me as a bit funny. I have read on some of the widow blogs about finding humor in their “situations”, but had not understood that until now. Please do not take this as disrespect for my wife, but after two and a half years, I have finally been able to look at a situation directly related to my widower status and react with humor.

I took it as a sign that I’m finally starting to heal.

Thursday I received two phone calls from school regarding the occasion. The first time, the teacher mentioned that they were making something for Mother’s Day and asked me how I wanted them to handle it. Now, my daughter’s teacher is a wonderful, kind woman and I applaud her for calling to ask instead of making that decision on her own. So I hope she did not take offense when I told her to ask my daughter who she wanted to make a gift for. I told her it was fine if she wanted to make it for me or one of her grandmothers, but trailed off before saying she could make it for her mommy. She could have and it would have been fine, but I wanted that decision to be hers without any influence from her teacher or me.

During the second call the teacher asked me if we would be going to the cemetery on Mother’s Day. This teacher is new at the daycare and did not know that my wife is buried 800 miles away. So I had to explain all of that while she offered her apologies for not knowing. I told her to continue with the project the way she had planned and that if it was something we needed to take there, we’d be sure to when we visited this summer.

On Friday afternoon when I picked my daughter up from school, there was a big basket for me with the card she had made and a small “yard stake” with a laminated poem for us to take this summer when we go visit the stone. My daughter was very proud of it, and that is when she first declared that Mother’s Day was about me this year.

After my 6:00 am wake-up call this morning, I went back to sleep for a bit while my daughter watched tv (what did I ever do before she could navigate the remote independently?). Then we went to church, where I made it through an entire Mother’s Day sermon on a virtuous woman (Proverbs 31) without crying and checked off all the qualities of said woman my wife had matched.

So it just figured that this song, which I posted here a few weeks ago, would come on the radio on the way home and I would spend of the rest of the sunny drive home looking through the windshield as if it were spattered with rain drops.

If only my eyes had windshield wipers...

Those were the only tears for the day though. We went on to have lunch, then spent the rest of the day shopping, which, ironically was my wife’s absolute favorite past time. I’m not a fan of it myself (I shop like a true man on a mission), but my daughter needed some new summer clothes and it seemed like a good way to pass the time on Mother’s Day.

I was a little concerned about being so publicly solo father-daughter on a day that is dedicated to all things maternal, but we did not afford the stares I had expected. At least not where I could see them. In fact, we almost made it through three hours of shopping without it being mentioned at all.


As I finished paying for our purchase at the last store we visited, the very well-meaning cashier said “and tell your wife we wish her a Happy Mother’s Day”. I just said”thanks” as I folded my receipt and took my shopping bag. But my daughter had heard her and said “My mommy died”. These are the times when I’m glad most people don’t pay attention to little kids. The woman didn’t hear her and thus didn’t respond.

Now, I suppose it would have been fine if she had, but it’s already awkward enough being a young, widowed, single father at times without the added guilt of thrusting our “situation” on some unknowing, but well-meaning person. So I have found it easiest to handle things the way I did this afternoon. When we were out of earshot I explained to my daughter why I had not told the woman. I do not ever want her to think it’s not okay to tell people about her mommy, but I also wanted her to understand why I did not do so just then. She understood and as we continued walking out of the store, she wished her mommy a "Happy Mother's Day in Heaven.” If she had been crying, I would have too, but she said it with a smile on her face.

All in all, I think this Mother’s Day turned out fine. My daughter seemed very content in making the day all about me, the one who does all of the mommy duties now, while still remembering her real mommy, the one who would gladly be doing them now if only she could.

And she seems content in knowing that there will be two days to celebrate my parenting this year. This evening she asked me when “Daddy’s Day” was. When I told her it was in June and she realized that’s just next month, she jumped up and down excitedly.

Ironically, she gets that from her mommy.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On Social Responsibility Even in Trying Times

In a few of my previous posts, I have alluded to the idea that my wife and I were “working toward” adopting another child when she passed away. We were in the early stages of this process. We had done most of the preliminary research and were saving money for the myriad expenses adoption often entails. It was exciting to look forward to and it was a dream of mine that died when she did.

Since her death, I have been compelled to keep up with information pertinent to adoption. I have continued to educate myself on processes, programs, country requirements (for international adoptions), statistics, foundations… the list goes on and on. For any of you who have wondered about the adoption-related links in the sidebar, things should now be somewhat clearer.

I realized soon after my wife died that the fact that I was no longer in line to adopt did not mean I should give up any sort of involvement in it. There are so many children out there who are need of a loving, stable home that it didn’t seem right not to do something to help. The easiest thing for me to do was begin to financially support adoption-related organizations. I’m not rich by any means, but I do alright and I seem to have navigated the spending/saving tightrope pretty well up to this point, so I started giving what I could. Then I began to find more organizations and found I simply could not give to all of them.

I thought supporting them financially was all I could do.

Then, after work today, I was listening to my new favorite radio station and I heard about this online report. They talked about the huge number of children who “age-out” of foster care every year without finding a permanent family, as well as how people can donate their time to help, even if they cannot donate financially.

Apparently May is National Foster Care Month. I’m guessing that if I didn’t know that, many of you didn’t either. I’ve worked with and known a few foster kids through my job and have gotten to know some of the foster families as well. Most of the situations I’ve observed have been good ones – loving parents/families providing for and meeting the needs of their foster children. At least two of these families have gone on to adopt their “foster” children.

But not everyone can adopt. Not everyone can foster children. Not everyone can give financially. Not everyone can give of their time.

But everyone can do something.

I’ve included some links to encourage you all to get involved in one way or another. Ironically, I’m not the only one out here reminding people to give of themselves this week (see here and here). I think that it’s important for all of us to help each other, especially in our time of need. We’ve been doing so online and through the llf. Now it’s time to branch out and help orphaned and/or foster children as well if at all possible.

Because if we don’t find ways to help them, who will?

Please take a few minutes to check out these links:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

On Conjuring Tears

I have never been much of a crier. Even as a child, I don’t remember many times when tears would surface, let alone actually expending the effort necessary to roll down my cheek and drip onto my shirt. After my dad died, I can honestly say I cried even less than before. Not initially, of course. During those first few days I cried like a nine-year-old who had just lost his father. And rightly so. But after that, I tended to suppress the tears. I think it was my way of dealing with the pain.

Ignore it and it will go away.

Ironically, the moments when I most often allowed the tears to at least surface typically occurred during a particularly sad song or an emotionally charged tv show or movie. (There’s still one domestic overhaul show I refuse to watch for that very reason). You know, those times when I couldn’t see it coming ahead of time. But by age 29, I had gotten pretty good at forcing my tears into submission.

Now, lest you think I am some sort of heartless monster, I did cry during some momentous occasions in my lifetime. I bawled like a baby when I first caught sight of my bride at the end of that long church aisle almost eight years ago. I cried unashamedly almost three years later when the doctor announced “It’s a girl” and the nurse called me “Dad” for the first time. And, of course, I cried at the funerals of three grandparents, an uncle, a close friend/neighbor, and a favorite teacher during the course of those years as well. But other than that, my tears were mostly reserved for music and movies.

All of that changed one day in February, 2007, when my life was turned upside-down. Suddenly, the man who kept his emotions under lock and key in a sealed room with a barricaded door, wept uncontrollably for all to see. And because of the way the arrangements were made, it went on for a week with seemingly no end in sight. Though I quickly learned how to cry safely (every time I stepped to the bathroom or took a shower worked well), I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go back to being that emotionally-stilted person I had once been.

Over time, the tears have come less often. And when they do appear, they are less reflective of the raging torrents they once were. But they still come. Usually in the car. And most often on Mondays.

And to reassure those of you who are concerned that this must indicate that I am not allowing my daughter to see me cry, rest assured. There are plenty of occasions with her where I allow my tears to not only well up, but to gently spill over as well. Usually when I am reading her scrapbooks to her. Day of the week varies.

Still there are times when I know the tears are there, but it’s as if they’ve gone into hiding. My emotional state is outwardly composed, but inwardly in tumult. And I know that a “good cry” would help balance them out.

That’s when I turn to my old stand-by: music.

There are several songs that can conjure my tears, but one in particular is so emotionally gripping that I can scarcely keep them in. The cd is close-at-hand in my car for those moments when I just need to cry. Which I still do from time to time. But always alone.

That’s why I was caught completely off-guard last week on the way home from daycare/preschool. We were listening to a cd her uncle had sent her, when she asked me to play a certain song. It’s a particular favorite of mine (and one I have posted here before), so I sang along.

It wasn’t until the song ended that I realized she was crying.

There was no forewarning this time. We had not been talking about her mommy moments before. We had been listening to some other, more upbeat songs on the cd.

No warning at all.

But afterward, we did talk about her mommy. We listened to the song another time before we reached our house. And by the time we got inside, she was ready to play and watch tv.

Listening to that song had done for her the same thing that listening to other songs does for me. It helped her conjure her tears so that she could move out from under the veil of her emotions, grieve freely, and return to her more “balanced” self.

The ironic thing about the whole situation is that my daughter has no way of knowing that I do this. This is something she has figured out on her own, just as I did. I can’t help but think that this came about because we are a lot alike.

I always imagined I would have a daughter who was like a little female version of me.

I just never imagined it would extend to how she grieved.