Archive for October, 2009

The Third Costume

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

It’s the fourth largest expense in our October budget. Five years ago it was the sixth. Next year I fear it will climb to second. Only the mortgage, food and school rank higher. Below it are vehicle, and gas and electric. It is the Halloween costume expense – and we are only on the second of three.

In our household, Halloween ranks a close second behind Christmas. And I married into both. If it were up to me, the Christmas tree would last a day and the house lights would go out after the fourth trick-or-treater. But it isn’t up to me and as a result we have three Christmas trees planted throughout the house thirty days prior to Christmas and Halloween lasts a full week before and after the 31st.

Never mind that last year only 30 children graced our doorstep with bags in hand – Brooke decorates the house complete with miniature ceramic Halloween villages (she has some for Christmas too), trimmings for every door and enough fake spider web to keep me cursing for months as I scrape it from the brick. Then it is my responsibility to carve the pumpkins, all 20 of them, according to the Michelangelo inspired diagrams from the latest version of Ladies Home Journal or Good Housekeeping. Both she and Gracie pick out the pattern with the witch and the cat riding on a broom across a clouded sky with a crescent moon. I carve a crudely constructed jack-o-lantern smile with triangle eyes. Gracie then picks out a pattern fashioned after the face of Dracula complete with wrinkles and hair detail. I take the same pumpkin and punch out the right and left teeth, leaving only the center “fangs”. Brooke frowns. And once again I failed the Halloween test.

Each July the planning begins. Right after Independence Day, Brooke and Gracie conspire about the next holiday with decorations. Somehow Labor Day didn’t fit the Hallmark mold. At first it starts with costumes. “What do you want to be for Halloween,” Brooke asks Gracie as we sit sweating on the porch grilling hamburgers. Gracie stops and thinks. Already I know this is an act. If she’s anything like her Mom, she’s already been planning her next costume since November 1. “I want to be an Eskimo,” she proudly proclaims. And suddenly it begins. Gracie draws her vision and Brooke searches the internet for fake fur cuffs and a stuffed baby seal. Still I know better.

By August the order is placed and the costume is on its way. I know this because it arrives on our doorstep the very same day Gracie changes her mind. “I want to be a witch,” she tells us, even before the Eskimo costume can be opened. And before I can argue, the planning is once again set in motion. Brooke looks for a hood and a wand. Gracie tells her friends. And I sit staring at an Eskimo costume wondering if it could double as a winter coat for Gracie this December.

I used to argue. I lost. Halloween has always been a sacred holiday to both Brooke and Gracie – and I’m outnumbered. So instead, I decided to start a business. Need a perfectly designed costume on short notice? We have a Tinker Bell costume with wings, a cowboy costume complete with a horse, a ninja costume with two swords and coming soon, a witch’s costume with a hood and a wand. You see, I know this is not the last costume. By mid-October, Gracie will once again change her mind and the process will begin again – this time with an urgency for the upcoming holiday.

So we plan for Halloween and set aside the college fund for November. It’s all about the fantasy and all pretend. It’s all about a little trickery and a lot of sugar. It’s all about the kids, both big and little. And either way, I still know I’m outnumbered.

Seven Going on Eight

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Gracie’s going to skip a year.  She’s had it with being seven and her seventh birthday is still days away.  So instead of going from six to seven, she’s decided to go directly to eight.  Not sure quite why eight seems like the right age for her, I know at my age I’d rather go backwards, but she now forbids us from talking about seven.

For nine years I’ve wondered what seven would look like.  I always envisioned that it would be somewhere in between temper tantrums and teenage hysterics.  It would be the sweet spot where my girls would be cute, self reliant, but still cuddle up next to Dad for the occasional hug.  My morning and night kisses would remain on their cheeks for at least a minute and boys would be a distant thought.  Elena never made it to seven.  And although the cancer certainly gave her the wisdom of a teenager, it never allowed her the innocence to remain a child.  So with Gracie, this is our first seven-year-old experience.

Already I can tell something is different and I fear that Gracie really is turning eight.  She too was aged by the experience with her sister.  She too lost the innocence.  She too is wise beyond her years.  And while her toothless grin claims to be seven, her words and memories tell us she is more like nine.

I would love to have seen what six and seven looked like through my daughter’s eyes.  Sadly I don’t ever think I will.  We will never get these years back.  All I can hope for is to enjoy eight, nine and ten with Gracie by my side.  I just hope the kisses and tickle time last a bit longer. 

Brooke has struck a deal with Gracie.  After this birthday we’ll refer to her age as “going on eight” instead of seven.  For Gracie this works.  Little does she know how right she is.

The Brush

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

I guess I knew it was bound to happen.  I just figured I had another year or two until it did.

Today after a long absence I returned to school as a lunch room parent.  With the book, work and the charity, I haven’t been back to Gracie’s school since she resumed almost 6 weeks ago.  Now going back for the first time in months, I realize how much I missed it.  Since Elena was diagnosed, Mondays at 12pm were school days.  When Elena was sick, nothing else mattered.  Servers could crash, trucks could breakdown and employees could quit, but nothing stood in the way of my duties as a father.  I may have arrived 10 minutes late and ran to the door, but once inside the phone stayed on my belt as I picked up the basket of plastic silverware and condiments and spent an hour with “my kids”.  Then, after losing Elena, it was about Gracie.  As a kindergartner, this was one more excuse to be with her.  One more chance to capture what I had lost.  One more chance to remember what was important.

Somehow lunch with my girls always reshaped my priorities.  After an hour of opening ketchup packets, cleaning up spilled yogurt and instructing first graders on the proper use of “please” and “thank-you”, no other challenge seemed quite as important.  And it was all because of how it ended.  As the bell would ring, Gracie would hold my hand as we walked to the line and then kiss me goodbye and followed the line back into the building.  And although it would only be for two hours before I would be back again to pick her up, somehow it was what I needed to remember that I was not a manager, an owner or even a businessman – I was a father.

Today it was more of the same.  Three ketchup packets, yogurt on the floor and plenty more first graders that had forgotten the lessons of “please” and “thank you”.  Still, it felt comfortable – even relaxing to be back and to remember what was once lost.  Elena’s classmates are now third graders and I can still imagine her sitting amongst them passing secrets and giggling while I’d beg her to finish eating.  Gracie would be at the other table doing much of the same, every once in a while sneaking a glimpse of her sister to see what she would be doing next year.  And I would be in the center, never realizing how lucky I was – that is, in fact, if I ever came to lunch in the first place.  But I guess that’s the irony.

So when the bell rang I figured it would be just like last year.  Gracie grabbed my hand and pulled me to the line, rushing to keep up with her friends.  I said good bye and she waved.  I tried to kiss her cheek and she brushed me away.  Apparently second grade is when it starts – or maybe when it stops.  So instead I got a punch to the shoulder (the one she bruised last night during her latest karate practice session) and a wave as she headed back to class and back with her friends.

I guess I knew it wouldn’t last.  It didn’t.  And a punch is never better than a kiss.  Still, it’s the lunch I treasure over all and next week I’ll be back.  Six ketchup packets, corndogs and yogurt on the floor – what a fantastic way to remember what’s important.

The Lucky Ones

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

We’re now one of those families.  Once four – now three.  Still, we’re in the company of hundreds we’ve met – all affected by cancer and suddenly in a place they never imagined they’d be.  Some we still talk with daily, while others have disappeared suddenly from our group.  And you never know which one you will be until you get into that car the day after losing a child and realize there’s an empty seat.

I guess we all have a choice.  After a loss, some run.  They move, change jobs, change spouses.  And I guess I can’t blame them (except for the changing spouses).  In the end, they want to forget about the pain, move on with their lives and make new memories.  I wonder if it really works.  Do they keep the picture by their bed, skip over phrases like “my children” when they may only have “a child”, and wake up in the morning worried about work instead of whose missing?  Or are they up at night just as we are tapping on the computer, avoiding their dreams and waiting for the first light of dawn? 

Others are consumed by the loss.  Four years they wonder what could have been, why me and in an effort to avoid saying “my children” avoid talking altogether.  I imagine that their hallways are filled with pictures, shrines to the childhood that remained unfulfilled.  And I know they lay awake at night just as I do.  I can see it in the 2 am internet blog postings and the sudden rush of visitors to our website at 4 am.

I guess Brooke and I are a little bit of both.  Writing this note at 2:50am, I’m sitting in a campground searching for new memories with our family of 3.5 (counting Pablo the ex-service dog) trying desperately to remember the sound of her voice and the softness of her cheeks.  Brooke sits next to me punching texts to the other parents on her blackberry, arranging fundraisers, and cursing over her latest loss on solitaire.  Still, somehow I think were different – and not just because we were the only camp lit by the glow of two laptops and a blackberry in the early morning.

There must be a third group.  Elena’s pictures still wallpaper the hallway alongside the newer memories with Gracie.  There’s a picture of the dolphin ride, the trip to the top of the Eiffel tower, even a photograph of the girl’s first time waterskiing.  Bur scattered throughout are the pictures of Gracie’s first effort snow skiing (and Brooke’s), Gracie’s newest school portrait where she refuses to smile, and pictures of the first Christmas since.  And in this way, we continue to make new memories.  Gracie would never let us do otherwise.  We live in the same house, our marriage remains strong despite the occasional camping trips and we still go to work each morning (and sometimes at 1am).

Still something is different.  The time we used to spend with Elena is now spent working on the charity.  Mornings that three years ago would have been spent making the second lunch are now spent checking other parent’s emails.  Nights are spent organizing fundraisers, completing grant applications and creating web pages.

People ask us how we find the time.  I reply how can I not make the time?  Compared to these children, I have all the time in the world, but I can’t seem to move fast enough.  And just because Elena’s gone, doesn’t mean that time is any less precious or the trivial matters of life any more important.  Every obstacle is a speedbump after you’ve become fearless.  And in this regard, we are the lucky ones.

The Cure Start Now isn’t about a legacy and it will never be about building empires.  Instead it is about doing what I wished had begun sooner.  Tonight as I write this, thousands of parents are awake, reading about cancer and swearing they will find that cure that has eluded researchers for decades.  We join them – and not because we want to and not because we lost.  Instead it’s about the living.

Everyday our memories are new.  Gracie passes on the lessons that Elena showed us three years ago.  And in this way, she is the legacy of her sister.  A charity, a picture and a webpage will never do the same.