On Family


It’s a gardening term that is used to describe the period of time during which tender indoor-grown plants are slowly acclimated to the harsher (windier, colder, sunnier) conditions they will face when they are transplanted into the great outdoors. It’s also a term that occurred to me today when thinking about how I am raising my children. If you asked my children, I’m sure they would tell you the ways in which their lives have been difficult: the many moves of a military family, a divorce, a new family to adjust to, and a cranky, often distracted mother who believes in the value of chores, discipline, telling the truth, and keeping your word. But the truth of the matter is, my children’s lives have been easy when measured against children in the rest of the world. They have never known real hunger, never been homeless or unwanted or unloved. And yet, I don’t shield them from the realities of life. We have had many discussions on many, varied topics–politics, abortion, gay marriage, women’s rights, to name a few. They know I will never shy away from a question or give them a non-answer like, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I don’t believe in that. In fact, sometimes they have to stop me from giving Too Much Information (“T.M.I., Mom, T.M.I.!”), so strongly do I believe in being open and truthful with them. Granted, the answers vary according to age. The youngest can’t begin to fathom the things I might tell the oldest, and so I answer accordingly. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about this attitude of mine. Reassessing, if you will. Mostly from an innocent comment made by a friend who suggested that children shouldn’t have to be exposed to hospitals and sickness and death. That seems to be the prevailing feeling in America: Let them be children a little longer. Here is where my gardener’s knowledge kicks in. (Yes, I am far too prone to attributing the traits of the natural world to humans–a sort of reverse anthropomorphism, if you will, but bear with me.) Even the healthiest hothouse plant needs time to adjust to the natural world. Too much sun too suddenly will burn its tender leaves. Too much wind will flatten its fragile stems. Too much cold, too soon, will cause it to shrivel and suffer. So it is for a child, raised in an idyllic cocoon, who is suddenly launched into the world alone. So, like the attentive gardener, nurturing and strengthening his prize plants, I am hardening off my children. Last week I took the children to the nursing home to visit my...

Read More

With things so touch-and-go for my father-in-law, we’ve had a lot of trouble focusing around here. Each time the phone rings, my stomach drops. There’s a sort of unsettledness that you feel when someone you love is slowly dying. Aside from the obvious emotional upheaval, there’s a constant sense of unfinished business, of things left undone that should be done, of waiting to grieve. So I’m feeling (to borrow the word that my father-in-law kept using when asked how he was feeling) fidgetty. (Fortunately morphine has been administered for days now and now he is resting comfortably.) To fight my own fidgets and yet keep the work coming (they don’t offer morphine to the family), I’ve decided to write continually on a group of stories, one sentence at a time, advancing each one incrementally. I know a little bit about what I want them to be (they’ve been kicking around in my head for a while) and I’m not sure if this will be for another collection, or what, but at least it’s helping to counteract my fidgets and giving me lots of things to focus on other than the...

Read More

I live roughly in the angle formed by Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in Western New York. But, okay, when I really want sympathy, I tell people that I live near Buffalo, city of infamy, when it comes to winter. But today it’s almost 65 degrees outside, a new record. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the scent of newly exposed wet ground is in the air. It feels, for all the world, like spring. (Sigh.) I would that it were so, but it’s a cruel trick. Tomorrow is forecasted to be 20 degrees and snowy. Part of me wants to go out in this glorious weather and enjoy it to the fullest. The other part of me doesn’t care to be tempted into happiness by that which is merely fleeting. Maybe that’s my nature, always looking ahead, preparing for what’s yet to come. I am reminded of the times when my military husband was deployed and he would find a way to return home for a weekend. Deliriously happy at the sight of him, I would nonetheless begin immediately to fight the melancholy knowledge that he would be gone again in a matter of hours. At times, parting after so brief a visit was painful enough to make me wish he hadn’t come at all. Better to be consistently lonely than to have this roller coaster of joy and sadness, or so my thinking went. In time, I learned that if I were to enjoy his visits I had to force myself to live in the moment–each and every moment, the here and now, without thinking too far ahead. It’s a good lesson for someone like me: a plotter, a planner. I need to be reminded that tomorrow is never assured, but today is here, right before me, here to be savored. Time to go sit in the...

Read More

“Live as if you were living a second time, and as though you had acted wrongly the first time.” -Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor (1905-1997) Attending to the dying gives one a glimpse into the great retrospective of a life. As time winds down for my father-in-law, his life unfolds before us in a long, slow parade: cards, phone calls, pictures, visits from friends and loved ones, fond reminiscences all pass through his room to remind us how much he has accomplished in his 79 years, how many people he has touched. Those of us attending to him find ourselves privately taking stock of our own lives and wondering at the process of our own eventual deaths. It is in our basic human make-up to have some form of empathy, especially as it relates to the suffering of others. But it is also basic human nature to study how we are different from the suffering ones–how that suffering could never be ours, how we will be immune to that particular fate. Some, although horrified by the earthquake and tsunami images, take comfort in knowing they are not near a coastline or a faultline and so will not meet that sort of terrifying end. When my own father died from the effects of years of alcoholism, even as I grieved, I reassured myself that my death at least would not echo his. Why are we compelled to think this way? Is it the brain’s own form of self-preservation? Is it a mechanism whereby we are able to manage our daily functions despite the myriad hazards that could at any moment randomly consume us? It seems cruel, on some level, to have such “at least I am safe” thoughts, but as biological creatures perhaps that is the best we are capable of instinctively. As sentient, spiritual beings, though, perhaps we can manage better. Perhaps we can find in ourselves some form of compassion, some grateful acceptance, some version of There, but for the grace of God, go...

Read More