Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Single Parent Surgery - Round 2

The last Friday in August my daughter underwent Round 2 of her corrective ear surgery (a left tympanoplasty for those of you who like to call things by their proper names). As many of you will recall from this previous post, I had many mixed emotions about her initial surgery back in June, both before and immediately following that procedure. Her right tympanoplasty turned out well and healed just as it should, which was one of the main reasons for continuing with her second surgery so soon afterward (the original wait time was to be four to eight months to encourage maximum healing). However, the other driving reason for doing these surgeries so close together was that my insurance year changes on September 1st and I would have had to begin paying toward my deductible all over again.

What I did not know at the time was that this was a great idea for another financial reason. Unbeknownst to me, my insurance plan was voluntarily changed by my employer to the degree that if we had waited on the surgery, it would have ended up costing me twice as much out-of-pocket. Yes, you read that right. Twice as much for the same surgery performed in the same surgery center by the same surgeon. So, needless to say, I was happy that we were able to get it in before it would become an even more astronomical strain on my single-income budget.

Overall, I found that I was not as worried about this surgery as I had been about the first one. I’m certain it had something to do with the fact that she had her right tympanoplasty done only two months prior and that the healing process had gone remarkably well. It probably had a bit to do with the idea that I was preoccupied by some close friends during the first surgery itself and realized that this single parent surgery thing could be gotten through with a little humorous conversation. And I know it helped that about a week prior to the surgery another friend of ours had volunteered to come sit with me during the surgery, which was really great since most of my teacher friends had already gone back to work. And having two months’ advance notice of the surgery itself this time didn’t hurt either.

So the day before the surgery I started thinking about what needed to be done in preparation. Nothing to eat after midnight. Only a bit of water before leaving the house the next morning. Pack a pair of socks in case the OR is cold. Call the school and let them know why she would be missing her second full day of kindergarten. Read the surgery center book to her that night to ease her fear of surgery, even though she’s done this in the recent past. Bring a book in case there’s a lull in the conversation. Put in the old car seat so she would have better head support for the hour and a half drive home. I had pretty much thought of everything, and I was more than a little proud of myself for how thorough I’d been in my planning.

But nothing could have prepared me for how I would feel when the first wrench was thrown into it.

Because of the staggered enrollment process in our local school system, my daughter started school on a Tuesday, then was off Wednesday and Thursday. Her first full day with her entire class would have been the Friday of her surgery. Because I also work in the school system, but am not on a staggered return-to-work plan I had to work the two days she was “off”. So I asked our friend who had volunteered to sit with me during surgery (and whose younger daughter is the same age as mine) to watch her those two days. When I went to pick up my daughter on Thursday evening, the woman casually mentioned that she “would not be able to make it tomorrow” and left it at that. Now, I tend not to show much emotion on my face, but I am certain that she must have seen some mixture of shock/surprise/concern/confusion cross my brow at that moment. If she did, she never mentioned it. When I got in the van I asked my daughter if she had mentioned why she couldn’t come and she said it was “because she had some stuff to do around the house”. I could tell she was upset, so I didn’t press it further. But something just wasn’t adding up.

Now, there is one thing that I despise perhaps more than almost anything else: I cannot stand it when other adults make false promises to my child. I don’t think this is a kind thing to do to any child, and I make every attempt not to do it to my students. Children should be brought up with the idea that adults remain true to their word. It is a good lesson in how to deal with children when they are the adults some day and it reinforces the idea that adults should be a source of safety and security in a child’s life. But my daughter has suffered a great deal more hurt than most children her age and though she’s taken it in stride much more than I ever thought possible, she takes adults at their word. So when her best friend’s mom says she’ll call to arrange a play date for a given day, my daughter takes her at her word. And when a friend offered to “come see” her before her surgery? You guessed it, she took her at her word too. So I was more than just upset about this friend breaking her “promise” to me. I was upset about her breaking her word to my little girl.

As we drove home, I started to ponder exactly why things didn’t add up in this situation. The first thought was obvious. This friend is a stay-at-home mom who home-schools her children, so anything that needed to be done around the house could have easily been done during the days prior to or following the surgery. It was a flimsy excuse, but what was the real reason for her sudden change of heart? I wondered if maybe she didn’t want to drive the hour and a half to where the surgery would take place. I know money is generally tight for the family, so I thought maybe the extra gas and probable meal out for three would put too much of a strain on their budget. Both legitimate reasons, but why not just tell me as much? The more I pondered the situation, the more irritated I became.

Then the true reason hit me like a ton of bricks.

So on the way home from dinner with some other friends of ours, I called my mom and told her that this friend was not coming the next day. Now, I realize that this is not a fair thing to do to a mother who is 800 miles away and is already worried about her youngest grandchild enduring her second surgery of the summer, not to mention the fact that her son is still the sole caretaker of said grandchild. But my mom and I have always had a remarkable relationship, so I called to tell her what was going on. When I told her that I would be sitting alone during the hour and a half long surgery, she confirmed what I had surmised. Her words were something to the effect of, “I don’t want to put bad thoughts into your mind, but do you think it could be the husband?” Bingo Mom. You have once again hit the nail on the head. My mother, with all of her women’s intuition, had drawn precisely the same conclusion about this man whom she has only met a time or two. And sadly, I’m certain it was the proper conclusion to have drawn.

I have always been overly cautious in my friendships with married women. I work in a predominately female field and have never had any difficulty maintaining friendships with women. It was something I talked to my wife about early in our relationship as I had previously dated a girl who was very jealous (one of the many reasons I refer to her as “the one who showed me what I didn’t want in a wife”). My wife always took it stride, and was, more often than not, friends with these women as well. (To be clear, these friendships never extended beyond work unless my wife was also friends with them). It was something we continued to talk about during our marriage as well. Not that either of us were worried about anything inappropriate happening, but typically those kinds of things happen when your guard is down, so keeping an open dialogue about it just seemed like a smart thing to do.

The level of caution I used when I was dating and married could not even begin to compare to the level I’ve used since becoming a widower. As with everything else, I suddenly became very aware of how it might look if I spent too much time with another woman regardless of whether she was single or married and whether the time was spent inside of work or out. For the most part this transition time was actually that in name only. I stayed friends with my two happily married, middle aged friends at work and became better friends with the whole family of one of my other friends who is thirteen years my senior.

Here I will take a moment to mention how much I have appreciated this friend and her family. I met this friend when I worked at my first school after moving to the Southeast. By the time our daughter was born a year and a half later she was one of the few people we trusted to watch her on those rare occasions when my wife and I got out for a date. She never let us pay her and always said that the best thing we could do for her was to let her watch our daughter again the next time we went out, which we did. After my wife died, she and her husband, who attend our church, started inviting us out for lunch on Sundays. Over time it became a standing invitation, with the understanding that if one of us couldn’t make it on a particular Sunday there would be no hard feelings. Through this I have also become better friends with her husband, which is no small task since he is not much of a talker. They are some of my best friends here now. And incidentally, she and her daughters are the ones who sat with me during my daughter’s first surgery this summer (her husband had to work).

One thing I have always appreciated about our friendship is that her husband does not seem to mind that she and I are better friends than he and I are. He doesn’t seem to feel threatened or jealous or any of the other types of things husbands might feel in that sort of situation. (And rightly so as we are strictly friends).

Contrast this with the husband of the friend who backed out of the surgery. He is a prominent member of our church, and I mention this only because as such he should know better. Now, as I mentioned before, I know the importance of guarding oneself against any sort of impropriety in single/married friendships. But there has to be a level of trust involved as well. For him, that trust does not exist. Couple that with what I believe (and have observed on a minor level) is a complete and utter lack of respect for his wife and you have an idea of the dynamic that was involved in causing me to sit alone during what should have been a very scary hour and a half.

And more importantly, causing my innocent daughter to see that yet another trusted adult in her life was willing to let her down.

So that night, while I was getting her ready for bed and long after she was asleep, I did something very uncharacteristic. I got angry. And not only did I get angry, but I allowed myself to stay angry. I generally save my ire for social injustices and certain members of the local school administration (there’s a story there, but this has already waxed long), but in this moment I allowed myself to feel it for all it was worth. So I let it stew and fester for a good long while before I simmered down and headed to bed. But sadly, I lost whatever respect I had left for that man during those moments and have since been unable to bring myself to sit through his Sunday school class.

At this point I know you’re all hoping that things went well so this post will be over (if you’re still with me). And they did. My daughter was a bit more nervous than last time, but handled it amazingly well. I sat alone with my book, and was able to concentrate more often than not on the words on the page and not the images of what was happening to my daughter in the OR. When it was time to see her in recovery, her nurse (a man this time) did not ask me any questions beyond what was appropriate, so I was not forced to give an account of why I was there alone following her surgery this time. And I was facing a wall, so I did not have to see any other patients and therefore did not once have the urge to run screaming from the building. Which was good, since my daughter took about twice as long to come out of the anesthesia this time. We made it home safely (using the old five-point seat proved to be my best idea of the week) and our good friends brought us McDonald’s for dinner since we were confined to the house for the weekend.

If you can say you had a good experience with surgery, then I guess we did. Again.

But I still can’t help but be a little sad for the loss of respect we both suffered as a result of this experience.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

On the First Day of Kindergarten

On the last Tuesday of August, my daughter and I marked another of the many milestones in her life. For the first time, she embarked on a journey that lead her to what people in our area of the South commonly refer to as “big school”.

It was a day I had anticipated with very mixed emotions. The Logical Dad side of me could see the benefits in not having to drive her to daycare any longer, which is halfway across town and took us fifteen minutes on a good day, but added a minimum of half an hour to my total morning commute. But the Emotional Dad side of me stood back and anticipated the rush of tears that, according to my Facebook friends back in the Midwest, where children begin school a bit earlier in the month, was certain to come before, during, and after the big send-off. And the Regular Ol’ Dad side of me wavered back and forth between the two.

When I was in elementary school, my mom always drove us to school on the first day each year. And she always made a big deal out of it. So it seemed logical to me that I would also drive my daughter to school on her first day. This decision was made even easier by the fact that her school is on the way to my school. (No, I did not enroll her where I work as I wanted her to attend school in our home district). And she was all for it.

So that morning we got up and she put on the new pink and white striped dress I had laid out for her, followed by the brown closed-toed sandals we had searched two cities for, as the school dress code prohibits any student from wearing flip-flops, open-toed sandals, or crocs. I pulled her hair back into what has become her signature pony tail and we began the obligatory, but enjoyable, photo session, with my favorites being the ones we took on the front step before we left the house.

As is our unfortunate, but customary pattern, we arrived late, just as the bell was ringing, but this time it was of little fault of our own. They had begun some construction between our house and the school, making our five minute drive last for twelve. However, as it was the first day of school, we were not by any stretch of the imagination the only ones arriving just then.

As some of you may recall from a previous post, I worked at my daughter’s school through the year she was born. So any time we arrive I am greeted with hugs, handshakes, and pleasant conversations with no fewer than three people before we reach our destination. It’s a little bit like coming home after a long vacation.

The first day of kindergarten did not disappoint.

Once we finally arrived at my daughter’s classroom, which we had visited on Orientation Day the Friday before, we had been in the building close to ten minutes. Her teacher and teacher’s assistant were there to greet us with yet more warm smiles (no hugs though, they’re both new since I worked there). The assistant showed my daughter where to put her new Disney Princess backpack, which had been waiting patiently at the top of her closet since she received it from her grandparents last Christmas, and even let her choose which “cubby” she wanted to put it in. Then my daughter got to find her name tag on the table so she would know where to sit when the teacher said it was time. Before I left there were many hugs and kisses exchanged, but overall it was a good way to begin her official academic career. And I managed to make it through the morning without crying.

But in all fairness, I had gotten that out of the way the night before.

The weekend before the Big Day started with kindergarten orientation on Friday. We arrived during the morning session to more of the afore-mentioned hugs and other greetings. Then while I settled in to fill out the voluminous folder of paperwork (I seriously signed fewer documents when we purchased our house), my daughter was taken to another table to work on an “All About Me” collage made from various magazine pictures of her choosing, During the hour we were there, two other students came in with their parents, so she was able to catch a glimpse of what some of her other classmates would be like.

As we left the school, the rain clouds had begun to close in, and I began to wonder if it would somehow rain every day I set foot in the building with her, as the same thing had happened the day of her kindergarten registration. (It was sunny the first day of school, so presumably the curse has been lifted). We had planned to spend the afternoon at the beach, but it was not meant to be.

Or so we thought.

After several short downpours, and more than one children’s program on tv, the rain let up enough that I decided to try it. By this time I had promised my daughter a fast food lunch at the beach, so we stopped and picked up some at one of her favorite “on-the-go” establishments. The sun was shining at the beach, but the clouds surrounding it were much darker than the ones around home, and I was worried that we had wasted the effort in coming.

Five minutes after we set up our chairs, the bottom fell out.

We had just enough warning to make it to the covered building nearby, so our heads stayed mostly dry as we huddled under the awning with the thirty-or-so others who had been crazy enough to brave the elements for a day at the beach. After less than ten minutes of torrential downpour, the sun returned and so did our plans for the day. We spent the next several hours engaging in most of our favorite beach time activities, except for playtime in the ocean as then-Hurricane Bill, though out to sea, was keeping our rip current risk greatly elevated that weekend.

Saturday we went back-to-school shopping, where I had my first experience of having to wait outside of the dressing room while my daughter tried on clothes. (I thought she’d be much older the first time that happened.) We also went to several stores in our town looking for shoes she could wear with her dresses that fit the school’s strict shoe policy. And while we found lots of cute school clothes, we struck out in the school-approved shoe department. So Sunday we went to a larger city about an hour away and searched for several more hours before finally finding her sandals at a store ten minutes prior to closing time. We celebrated with dinner at an Italian restaurant nearby.

Monday was a repeat of Friday, but without the kindergarten orientation and rain. We spent several hours at the beach. And while we sat digging holes in the wet sand, things really began to sink in for me.

This was really the end of summer for us.

But not only was it the end of summer, it was the start of something completely new. So as I dug, I finally allowed the Emotional Dad side to take hold, and I really thought about what all of these changes would mean for us. And I thought about how things might have been if my wife had been here to share in them with us. And the longer I sat there pondering these things, digging holes in the sand, the more I realized that by doing so, I was trying desperately to hold on to the last few moments of my daughter’s childhood as I had known it to that point.

But that was not the moment during which the tears flowed.

We went home and completed our normal nightly routine, with the new addition of packing the backpack and setting it by the front door, and my daughter went to sleep easily, despite her anticipation of what tomorrow might bring.

When the house was quiet and she was tucked in for the night, I hopped in the shower to rid myself of the salt and sand that remained. And I listened to two songs on a particular cd, one of which I will likely share in a future post, and this one. And in that moment, the water from my eyes joined that which was already flowing overhead, and I allowed myself the luxury of a good, long cry.

It was the kind of cry I thought I would have when my daughter graduated from preschool a few months ago. I guess I had reasoned that her preschool graduation marked the end of an era and was therefore sad, while starting kindergarten represented the beginning of an era and should be primarily joyous. Not that I was na├»ve enough to think I might not cry, I just didn’t expect the emotion to hit me with that kind of momentum.

That weekend my daughter had also begun a cycle of grief that was much more intense than some in the past, and I think I had pushed my own grieving back in order to help her feel and understand hers. Though it would be several more days before she made the connection as to why she was grieving so hard during this particular time, she was able to communicate her feelings in a way that was different than she has in the past.

All in all, it was a beautiful weekend with some emotionally tumultuous spots, but we made it through together. This is just part of how life is for us now. Even the most exciting moments will always be marked with some level of grief and sadness.

And that is how we will continue to make it through. Together.

Due to a staggered enrollment process and a planned absence, which I will write about in a future post, my daughter only attended school on Tuesday that week. But when Monday rolled around she was ready to go back to school and try this kindergarten thing some more. But as is the case with us, Monday came with yet another first. About a year ago, my daughter decided that she wanted to ride the bus when she started “big school”, and true to her own desires, she readily climbed the steps when it pulled up in front of our house. Another day, another change.

I stood there briefly as the bus began to pull away, but there were no tears this time.

Only a big smile from my Proud Papa side.