Tall Tales

January 16th, 2011

I miss the good old days. The days when the girls were young and Dad was king. I could do no wrong and my tales of grandeur were taken as fact. Those were the days – and they’ll never come back.

It was our first time to the movie theater. Elena was no older than 5, Gracie no older than 4. Elena was captivated with the experience while Gracie remained obsessed with trying to balance herself of the edge of the flip-up seat. Brooke, with a soda in one hand and popcorn in the other, alternated promises of punishment with threats in an attempt to get Gracie to settle into the only peace she knew before she would quickly fall asleep. I, on the other hand, leaned in and whispered to Elena my secret. “Look above,” I said while gesturing to the ceiling, “see those panels on the ceiling? Those are Manner-Doors.” Her eyes grew larger as she looked above with some hesitation. “You see, they’re there to keep kids behaving. If you count the panels you’ll find that there’s one for every seat in the theater. Now look behind you. See the window at the back of the theater?” She quickly spun around and nodded. “That is where they watch. The moment they see a child misbehaving they pull a lever and the appropriate door opens and out falls an elephant to squash the child below.” Now frozen in place, she looked ahead. “Just don’t tell Gracie – I want to see if they drop a baby elephant or a mommy one.” Of course I knew my secret wouldn’t last between sisters and within moments Gracie too knew the secret. And for the rest of the movie, we watched Curious George while Gracie sat motionless staring at the door above.

It was the same with many of my tales – from the original taco recipe my great grandfather Earnesto Santiago Dessericho brought with him from Mexico to the story of Santa Claus (I’ve always insisted to the girls and now Gracie that he just isn’t real. Then again, ever since I stopped believing, I’ve never gotten another present for Christmas.) But with Gracie now eight, my influence is waning. I blame Gracie’s teachers. Brooke says I’ve taken it too far and it’s only logical that Gracie would grow smarter. Still, I remember the day when even Brooke believed. It was the day I introduced her to my family – taking special note to tell her not to mention my Aunt’s mustache. After all, “she’s sensitive ever since she had that sex change to a woman” I told her. That night I don’t think she noticed much else. Of course there was no mustache and definitely no sex change operation, but it did successfully help Brooke overcome the inevitable nervousness in meeting the in-laws.

Brooke believed because she was blinded by love. Gracie believes because she is gullible. I’m not sure if Elena ever believed but she never admitted otherwise for fear that I actually believed myself. And she’d never want to be the one that destroyed Dad’s delusions. But today as Gracie grows older I realize I’ve suddenly become the least mature member of the family. Brooke says I should grow up. I think I just need another ally – maybe two more children. After all, we have to outnumber the grown-ups. They just have to promise that they’ll never stop believing.

Pixie Sticks

January 9th, 2011

“What about Kool-Aid?” I call out to Gracie as I show her the package. “It says it’s orange flavored. Is that a fruit or a vegetable?”

It’s the night of Gracie’s health fair. What started out as a classroom experiment in nutritional education is now the event of the season. And we haven’t had a moment’s rest since. “Dad, you know that’s not healthy,” Gracie says as I shove another nacho into my mouth. Somewhere deep within I know this has nothing to do with educating children. This is revenge. Ever since I volunteered for “Reading Day”, Gracie’s teacher has had it out for me. All she wanted was for me to tell the children how I use reading in my everyday life. But rather than talk about emails, manuals and blueprints, I decided to take a different path. I was going to talk about writing. Writing this very journal and how it became so much more. And by “so much more” I mean ice cream (and maybe a cure for cancer). After all, what’s better than a little cream and milk to make reading enjoyable? And before I knew it, I had taken Gracie’s teacher’s admirable goals and twisted it into a considerable mess of a plan. And then I gave them all free ice cream and promptly left for the security of the office. Ever since then she’s wanted revenge.

Brooke says I’d make a horrible teacher. I can’t even stay on topic in my job, let alone with 20 third graders. Then again, maybe she’s right about something else too – I’m really not that much more mature than a third-grader. And maybe Gracie and I have yet another thing in common.

So when Gracie proudly announced that her teacher was having a health fair that night, I knew her teacher had less than admirable intentions. And when Gracie volunteered that “ice cream was junk food and bad for you”, I knew she had been coached. I can just see her teacher laughing now.

In truth, I really don’t know much about the food pyramid. To me, it’s more of a health circle. Cookies lead to ice cream sandwiches, ice cream needs whipped cream, whipped cream goes well with milk and milk goes well with cookies. It’s “Give a Mouse a Cookie” for the insanely unhealthy and I’m a walking example. Still, I try to understand. “What about this,” I ask Gracie as I hold up a bag of Doritos, “it says it has real cheese. Is this part of the dairy group?” Gracie shakes her head in shame. “And what about this,” I say, opening up a bottle of wine, “it’s made of grapes.” She stops, pondering the food pyramid in her mind. Brooke steps in, grabbing the bottle from me, “no, that’s unhealthy too – trust me.” This time I get the look that I know well after 13 years. I’m this close to sleeping on the couch.

By the time get to the school, I know I’m out of my element. Not since my trips to the local organic store with Elena have I seen so many hybrid cars and sandals. And there in the school gym I’m introduced to organic honey (isn’t all honey organic – do they have synthetic bees?), free-range chicken eggs (why are they brown?) and baby carrots (I’m convinced this is part of a government plot). Even Brooke’s in on the event – sacrificing herself to be an event planner for the big fair. I’m more of an instigator. I take note of the display in the corner. It is a fat chart. On one side is a bowl of apples. On the other is a box of Oreos. Gracie’s classmate asks me what is more healthy. “Why of course the Oreos,” I respond. The other children nearby stop talking and start to listen. “You do know that the cookie part of the Oreo is made of flour, which is part of the grain family and the center is made of cream, which is part of the dairy group, right?” I lie. “But that’s fat and sugar”, the girl replies. “True, but without fat, can you imagine how cold you’d be? After all, we do live in the north.” By now, both Gracie and Brooke have taken note. I notice suspicious looks from both. Gracie’s just like her mother. And before long, Gracie joins in. “He’s just kidding – the apples are better for you,” she replies. I counter, “But which would you prefer to dip in milk?”

Needless to say, I was accompanied around the health fair for the rest of the night as Brooke quickly took my hand to keep me out of trouble. “You know, I found the pixie sticks you packed,” she told me under her breath, “you didn’t think I was going to let you bring them and give them to all the kids did you?” True – even I knew I couldn’t get away with that.

Either way, I wasn’t about to let Gracie’s teacher win. Health pyramid or circle, I’m nothing more than a kid myself. And the note from Gracie’s teacher that she brought home the following day told me all I needed to know. “Thanks for all the help with the health fair. I hope Mr. Desserich ate all the Oreos.” I did.

Family Left Behind

January 2nd, 2011

It’s the same question every time, yet everyone knows the answer. “Does it every get any easier?” they ask. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, widows and grandparents. Emails, calls and letters. Days, weeks, months and years after losing someone they loved, the question still remains. And now, with the holidays upon us the question becomes even more poignant.

I was asked it eight time last week. “It doesn’t,” I respond, wondering if I actually even know for sure. After all, with only three years since losing Elena, I clearly lack the perspective of time. Still, not a day passes that I don’t kneel beside her grave, not an hour passes that I don’t see her in pictures and not a minute passes without reflection. By now the tears have dried, the wound has scabbed over and my expression is frozen in a practiced smile when I talk of her. Still, the truth is that it doesn’t get any easier because I don’t want it to.

This weekend, Elena had her own plan. After three years of leaving the majority of her belongings in an old closet we finally put together the courage to pack it properly in boxes and bins and move it to another room in the house. Gracie, Brooke and I still have our own memory boxes, each at the top of our own closets and each containing reminders of our time with Elena. Brooke’s has the jewelry she picked out with Elena and some of the personal notes Elena wrote to just her. Gracie’s has the school prizes that Elena gave her from the bottom of her backpack, Elena’s favorite stuffed animal and a single note saying “Gracie, go, go.” Mine has her pink sparkly headband, a wrist band and a doorbell. Tonight we add yet one more item to our memory boxes for deep within the same bag of clothes that we found some of her most recent notes nearly two years ago we found yet another reminder from Elena. And just when we thought we had found them all, Elena surprises us yet again. And tonight, all the memories return. But we wouldn’t want it any other way.

When I lost Elena I wanted nothing more than for the pain to end. At the time I didn’t understand. In truth, today I want nothing other than to feel the lingering stab of her loss. To wish for anything else is to wish to forget and I never want to forget. In some ways I want to still feel human, to feel like a father – to feel the lingering presence of my daughter. And tonight we, as a family, all feel her presence. We are thankful for the notes, but more importantly we are thankful for how they bring us back together as a family, regardless of the pain that will remain with us for years to come. We can only hope that the memories last much longer.

Don’t Eat Me

November 29th, 2010

I still don’t like Thanksgiving. It’s nothing about the turkey, the cranberry sauce or the pumpkin pie. It’s about what it represents. Four years ago it was the last time cancer was something that happened to older people or to someone else. The next day Elena was diagnosed.

So in celebration of Thanksgiving I thought it best to forget about cancer and share with you a letter Gracie wrote for her class as a “turkey” pleading for reprieve. It was exactly what we needed this Thanksgiving and for that we give thanks.

“St. Goble School for the Gobleless
165 Cherry Gobel Drive

Dear Cooks or Cooks of Turkeys,

Don’t eat me!!!! I ate a piece of elephant so you better like peanut. I thought it would be amusing to eat fire – apparently not so I caught fire. I thought it would be cool if I lived where penguinslive and do what penguins do. So I slid on ice into the water (and remember this is the artic) and now I have a cold and it’s contagious. I was helping my father and it was raining bricks and I got hit with 62,796,999 bricks and all the meat got squished out of me.

Goble Goble Gobella”

The Unsinkable Gracie Goose

November 21st, 2010

One never truly knows how some nicknames take root. Sometimes it’s a flaw, sometimes a strength, and sometimes it’s neither. As a matter of fact, you could know a person for a lifetime and never quite figure out where a nickname like “Streak” comes from. You might even prefer to leave it a mystery. Some nicknames are not even nicknames at all. I hardly consider “Jimmie” a nickname when the person’s real name is James or “Jack” when his name is John. That’s just laziness.

My wife has a nickname for me. When we took marriage classes as a prerequisite for our wedding (right after the Latin 101 and Biology 201 liberal arts requirements), they made it a point to ask each of us separately what nicknames we had given each other as terms of endearment. We agreed on both, which surprised the instructor. I call her “Dear” and she calls me “Ass”.

Nicknames will also tell you more about a person than their real name ever will. (I guess there’s a reason my wife call me “Ass”.) Still, the truth is that today a majority of baby names are picked out before the child is ever born. No one ever says, “Gee, dear, I kinda think she looks like a Margie rather than a Rhonda. Just look at the freckles under her eyes.” And so we get hung with names that don’t fit, don’t match and always seem wrong.

My daughter Grace is a perfect example. We had the name picked out about two hours after conception and we had no idea what she looked like. So when she was borne, it was already too late to change the decorative lettering over her crib from “G-R-A-C-E” to “T-R-A-C-E-Y”. I even remember making jokes to family members visiting the hospital about how we had no idea if she was going to be graceful enough. I may have even made the jokes twice to the same people, but after a 36 hour labor, no sleep and 20 cups of coffee, I could barely tell the difference between my father and my sister.

Two year later we knew we had made a mistake. It’s not that she’s clumsy, but she’s not exactly graceful either. When Gracie enters a room, she bounds onto the scene. Infused with plenty of charm and an infectious laugh she is what I like to refer to as “unsinkable”. And in true Gracie form, every fall is accompanied with an equally boisterous “I’m OK!” as if the room suddenly stopped the moment she fell into the end aisle canned food display at the grocery store – which they often did. As a result, you will never hear me refer to her as “graceful”. And so almost immediately we began to refer to her as “Gracie”. (Yes, I know, all the Jimmie’s out there are saying, “Pure laziness.”) Still, it didn’t catch. Grace rolled off the tongue as she rolled down the sidewalk.

In time we tried to rhyme. After all, no one thinks of grace and ballerina type elegance when you yell across the playground “Gracie Goose – did you skin just one leg or two?” Instead they’re focused on the “Goose”. Did that man actually refer to his darling little girl as fowl?

In time, it stuck and soon we dropped the Gracie altogether. We yell “Goose” across the playground, we cheer for “Goose” at the first-grade play and whisper “Goose” at the movie theater. She responds and we slowly change her name to fit her personality.

One day it will end. When she’s old enough to be embarrassed, she’ll insist that I start calling her “Grace” again. Something tells me that it will be the same time she stops holding my hand on long walks. But then again, maybe by then she’ll be graceful enough to not need it for balance. I just hope that she keeps her unsinkable spirit.

Elena’s Plan

October 31st, 2010

I remember that night as if it were yesterday. That kind of memory never fades. We had just learned of Elena’s diagnosis hours before. Still in shock, Brooke and I decided that it would be I who would stay with Elena and coordinate with the doctors while she would return home to deliver the news to Gracie and our family. I knew I had the easy job; that night I would sit in the chair beside Elena’s bed at the hospital while Brooke would fake the confidence and courage to make our family believe it would be all right. But neither of us were convinced and neither of us would sleep that night. Looking across the room I saw Elena’s profile by the glow of the IV machine. She was also awake and so began our journey as we would talk for hours about her plans while I held her hand in mine – yet my mind drifted back to Gracie. Brooke and I would survive, but what about Elena and Gracie? Best friends for life, they were constant companions, separated only by 18 months that melted the moment Gracie was born. Elena was the first person to make Gracie laugh and since then it was Gracie who kept Elena laughing all the while. I dreaded the news that Brooke had to deliver to Gracie that night – that her and Elena would be separated for the next month as she sought treatment and Gracie continued with school. Only a month; Brooke and I prayed that this would be the worst.

And so that night I started to write, first on the back of the folders I had brought from work when we originally thought it was just strep throat. Oh, how I wish it was just strep throat. Each letter addressed to Gracie, in the hopes that one day the journal would be forgotten when Elena was cured. Still, that day never came and the notes continued.

Two weeks later the journal became an email, eventually carried online at the prompting of relatives. Coincidentally it was also the first time I saved it to my computer as one letter to Gracie: “135 Days with Elena – Notes Left Behind.” The 135 days came from our first meeting with the doctors. They told us to expect three months after radiation, nothing more. The notes left behind came from the notes I was leaving for Gracie about her sister. That day was the same day I took the picture of Elena walking away from me down the halls of the hospital. And for 256 days, it was that picture that gave me the courage to keep writing. Today it is the cover of the original version of the book.

Ultimately, we would discover that we were not alone, for while we were capturing notes and memories for Gracie, Elena was creating her own. And today, the title of “Notes Left Behind” has another meaning. Ironically, when the journal was posted on the Internet, I omitted the title of “notes left behind,” fearful that it foretold of a fate that we still denied. Instead, I used “135 days”, confident that she would beat the odds. She did. Though, now, we use the title of “notes left behind”, aware that to many 135 days has no meaning in a story of hope and inspiration.

Tomorrow as “Notes Left Behind” is released in paperback throughout the U.S., I’m reminded that this is not so much a book about cancer as it is a note shared between two sisters who are the best of friends. We’re just lucky enough to be the messengers. This was Elena’s intention all along.

Bathroom Concerto

October 10th, 2010

I can hear her all the way down the hallway. She couldn’t hold it any longer. After an hour of waiting for the doctor she had to go and now I stand by the drinking fountain waiting for her to come out of the women’s restroom. People pass me in the hallway and laugh. I just smile and wave. They make the connection and know I’m waiting for her.

When she was little it was the alphabet song. I think she inherited this habit from my mother. I know because she doesn’t know the words. Today it’s the latest tween pop song she heard on the radio. And she still doesn’t know the words. “Boom boom clap, boomty clap,” she starts at the top of her lungs, “shuffle and jump with your hands on your hips.” Is she dancing now? A woman opens the door and walks out of the bathroom shaking her head and covering a smile with her hand. “She’s mine,” I tell her. She already knows.

By now it’s been eight minutes. I start to pace. Still I hear her singing. So does everyone else. “Don’t worry,” my wife told me once, “she’ll grow out of it.” That was three years ago when she used the restroom at the church. I’m surprised she wasn’t recruited for the chorus after that experience. That was about the time that she loudly commented to Brooke how pretty her pink panties were. Even I heard that comment from outside the bathroom. After that, we went to the bathroom in shifts. Now all we have to contend with are the occasional comments about “what’s that smell” and “that lady didn’t wash her hands”. I can’t blame her, I’ve always wanted to ask people about washing their hands too.

Brooke swears next time she’ll send her with me. I counter with tales of men’s room filth and the lack of privacy. As far as she knows every men’s bathroom is fashioned from an old rusty bucket or a hole dug into the ground. They’re lies, but they do the trick. From the men’s room I can her next concerto, this time louder than the last. I love my wife.

You’d think as the years go on she’ll become more discrete. Instead the singing grows louder with every year. Then again, why wouldn’t it? Many a concert hall has been designed after the acoustic model of the classical rest area bathroom. With tiled walls and concrete floors her echo is the perfect accompaniment to her melody. Thank God for the captive audience. Maybe she’ll get a standing ovation.

Dining with the Queen

September 18th, 2010

I never understood the novelty of the turkey leg. A chicken leg – sure. Turkey with a side of mash potatoes, possibly. But a turkey leg?

Every year the circus comes to town. But instead of tattooed ladies, trapeze artists and clowns we get queens, knights and jesters. It’s time for the annual renaissance festival. I know because Gracie tells me so. Must be all the commercials they run advertising duels, jousts and Shakespearean plays. Always sounds so appealing on the television commercials. I wonder if it would sound the same if they described it as “death by sword”, “man impaled on a long staff” and “a play you’ll never understand”. Still, to Gracie, it’s pure bliss – probably because I’ve never taken her to one.

It’s been a while since even I went to the renaissance festival. Mostly I remember paying $17 a person and walking around a hot field for an hour. I haven’t been back since. My friend tells me I missed the best part. He says it’s all about the turkey leg and the wenches. I tell him he can probably get the same effect at the local KFC. Then again, maybe not – they sell chicken after all. Still I doubt that even the wenches are worth $17 a ticket. Gracie wants to see a joust. For $17 dollars a person I’m considering a reenactment with a broomstick in the back yard and the riding lawnmower. Brooke thinks I’m being cheap. I think I’m being practical.

So when I travelled 700 miles to a Cure Starts Now event in Minneapolis, it must have been the ultimate irony that I ended up camping at a campground across from the Minneapolis version of the renaissance festival. And now, as I write this, I am surrounded by knights, queens and kings, apparently unaware that the festival closed hours ago and they’ve suddenly been transported back to the 21st century. And yes, there are wenches. The ultimate irony is that I sit at a picnic table between two groups of dueling knights on beer and tap on my laptop while they exchange Shakespearean insults that not even they truly understand.

Tomorrow the morning will come too early. The Race Against the Odds event in Minneapolis begins at 6am and I can’t wait to make a lot of noise at 4am as I close up camp and get an early start. Maybe I’ve even yell out a morning greeting of “Thine have fun” as I rev the engine and head out in the name of cancer research. After all, it would be too early – both for turkey legs and for the wenches.

No, I’ve never understood the novelty of the renaissance festival. To me it always seemed like an antique Star Trek convention. Still, for Gracie I will do anything. And next weekend, you will most likely find me paying $17 a ticket and walking around a hot field with a turkey leg in hand. Maybe the following weekend it will be a Roman Colosseum Gladiator reenactment. At least then we can skip the turkey leg.


August 29th, 2010

He follows us wherever we go. The hotel, the airport, the amusement parks, historic monuments and even rest stops along the way to our destination. Sometimes he even follows us home. He’s a master of disguise, sometimes showing up as a tree, a flowering bush or just a simple spider plant. And his name is Fern.

It started as a joke. After our second trip to Disneyworld with the girls we had it all figured out. Want to get a picture with a character? Stand in line. Then, after 15 minutes of anticipation, you’ll get to the front of the line only to be told that it’s time for Pluto to take a break and “he’ll be back in 15 minutes”. And so Fern was born.

Now Fern doesn’t quite have all the qualities you’d expect of a mainline character like Mickey Mouse or Cinderella. He doesn’t have his own show, a clothing line or feature stories, but that’s a good thing. Fern also doesn’t have a line and he’s never too tired to pose for a picture. The girls claim it’s just me hiding behind a bush, but then again you can never tell from the pictures – all you see is a bush with two hands extending from either side. Gracie says Fern even has a ring like mine. I argue that it just looks like my ring – after all, he’s probably married too. Maybe her name is Ficus.

After awhile Fern developed quite a fan base. We have pictures of the girls posing with Fern in front of fountains, next to rides and even next to Minney Mouse. After all, everyone has pictures with a stuffed mouse, but how many kids get a picture with a potted yucca plant? And somewhere there’s another family sharing in our distorted tradition because they too have a picture of their kids standing with Fern while Minney Mouse looks on with her hands on her hips.

You’ll be amazed at all the places you can find Fern. He’s especially popular at National Parks, but will occasionally even make an appearance indoors in the lobby of a hotel or at bus stops when we have a little extra time. And although sometimes his hugs come with a little extra sap, he’s never too busy to stop and pose with the girls. I just hope that if we ever travel out west he never takes the form of a cactus – for both the girls’ sake and mine.

Three Months Out

August 22nd, 2010

Three months out – still never enough time. Three months preparation for most is plenty. Even fewer people shop for Christmas three months before the deadline. Still, when it comes to Halloween, three months might as well be tomorrow for Brooke and Gracie.

Today a Halloween costume catalog arrived in the mail. I know because I found Gracie and Brooke wrapped around it at the kitchen table. “How about this one,” Brooke would ask. “Maybe – it ranks as one of my ten favorites,” Gracie would reply. And so it continued with Gracie ultimately selecting her top 20 favorites of a catalog which would follow us around for the next month. I know better than to get involved. The last time I did it cost me money – three costumes to be precise. You see, not only is Gracie indecisive, but Brooke sees no problem with spending hundreds – if not thousands – on a holiday that Hallmark still doesn’t write cards for. (Who knows, maybe they read about Brooke’s obsession with Halloween and decided to fund another wing of the company. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it coming to a local store near us.) From ninja to wizard and Greek goddess to a detective, I have no doubts this will fuel a bonding experience for the girls for the next 90 nights – or at least until they need to decide on a face for their pumpkin.

Brooke’s as guilty as Gracie. After all, she started it. Last year alone we bought three costumes, 9 pumpkins, over $200 on decorations (which looked just like the ones we had the previous year), 4 lbs. of dry ice, 6 bags of candy and had no more than 20 trick-or-treaters. Still, it won’t be long before the nightmares start once again. And by mid September I’ll be awakened no fewer than twice a night by my wife with anxiety over not having enough candy for all the visitors. You think I’m joking, but I’m not. And for the next six or seven times she goes to the store, she will come home each and every time with another bag of candy. Of course, I oblige and fulfill my obligation in the consumption of a bag or two prior to the holiday, but we always have plenty of nut based chocolate bars and smarties left over for the two dozen kids brave enough to hike up the mountainside which is our street.

Today it starts. Three months from now I will breathe a sigh of relief and welcome the lazy Christmas season with open arms, albeit a bit sick from consuming half a bag of Milky Ways. Of course, in our household, the girls refer to Christmas as that holiday after Halloween. And once again, Brooke will set her plans, bring out the costume book and attempt to reconcile her mistakes in the pursuit of a perfect Halloween. But this time she has an accomplice in Gracie, now old enough to obsess right alongside her mother. Can’t wait.