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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Separate But Equal Vacations

“You are so lucky!” groused one girlfriend who shall remain nameless to protect her ruthless husband.  “John / Tim / Roger (fill in your choice of name) would never let me go on a cruise without him!”

I know I’m lucky to have married the man I did. But, I also know I could never have fallen in love with someone who prohibited me from doing anything.

“You know Paul / Sam / Joe just gets so jealous.”

I simply laughed. And while again, I admit I’m lucky that my spouse doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body, I have to wonder. Is it that he has no fear of me hooking up with a random seaman or is he smiling to himself thinking, “If you can put up with her, you can have her.”

Either way, his gracious spirit has blessed me with many, many trips away with the girls in our twenty-four-and-a-half years of marriage.

And so, I’m packed and ready for a cruise with Patty, my bosom buddy since high school.

This will be our fourth cruise together, the third since I've become a cantankerous adult. I like to say that Patty and I travel well together. But the truth of the matter is, Patty has learned to put up with my travel quirks.

Patty knows about my sleep issues.

She knows that I won’t leave home without my portable fan to drown out the sounds of her sleeping two feet away from me. She also knows I will bring my own extension cord after once having had to rearrange the furniture due to a plug shortage int he room. She knows that I insist on eight hours of sleep and will cut a night short in anticipation of an early morning.

Patty knows about my acclimation issues.

Although we have exchanged daily texts of excitement, she knows that when we embark I will get cranky about the crowds, bitter about the buffet lines, skeeved out by the miniscule hair found in a remote corner of the bathroom and annoyed at the size of the cabin, despite knowing the room size in advance and having sprung for the junior suite to circumvent aforementioned annoyance.

Patty will then suggest a 700-calorie umbrella drink of the day and I’ll respond with one of my many rules.

“I can’t drink until five o’clock.”
She’ll roll her eyes and toss down a shot of tequila to make me easier to deal with until I come around. And I will. Before long I’ll be sitting on the balcony watching the waves kick up in our wake shouting, “This is the life!”

And then I’ll start making friends with the wait staff and the room steward and the family from Miami who will undoubtedly be placed at our table in the formal dining room. And because it is the late seating, the three year-old will be tired and loud and I’ll do my best to provoke his tantrums. After dinner, we will stroll the decks, roaming from the craps table to the piano bar where we will sing “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” at the top of our lungs even though we hated the song in high school and hate it even more now. We’ll take in a comedy show after I adamantly declare how much I HATE comedy shows and I’ll do my best not to laugh.

In the mornings, Patty will sneak out of the room at dawn in search of coffee because she knows I hate the smell and would never allow it to be brewed in the room. No bananas either. I’ll look at my watch and see that I’ve only had seven hours and twenty minutes of sleep and wonder if I should break a rule and get up. When I do, I’ll head to the gym and fight for a treadmill, give up and power walk around the ship counting my steps until an hour has passed.

Patty will have waited in hopes that I would join her at the breakfast buffet. But since I never eat anything but an English muffin in the morning, off she’ll go alone and I’ll stoically starve. But before doing so I will debate long and hard whether to purchase an unlimited soda card. I will go over and over the pros and cons until Patty tells me yes or no.

After dipping our toes in the pool, losing 20 dollars on Bingo and walking out of the art auction, I'll start getting cranky. Patty will suggest a nap to which I respond, "I NEVER take a nap."

Patty will roll her eyes and order an 800-calorie umbrella drink-of-the-day (extra 100 calories for an extra shot of rum) at the Red Frog Rum Bar. I will look at my watch and realize it’s an hour and thirteen minutes until five o’clock.

I'll think about what Leo said to me before I went away. "Don't define yourself by your rules. You can be anyone you want to be."

"Make it two," I'll say. And we'll click our glasses to broken rules and oceans of fun.

My spouse is also taking a vacation this year. He is going to RAGBRAI.

RAGRAI stands for Register’s (as in the Des Moines Register newspaper) Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Yes, that is the vacation he has chosen. He and three of his buddies are riding 481 miles across the state of Iowa. In one week. With 10,000-plus other lunatics. They have employed the services of Pork Belly Ventures to carry their gear and deliver it from campsite to campsite. Where they will sleep. In tents. Without fans to drown out the sounds of nature. They will make use of mobile shower trailers. And Port-a-Potties.  It will be 90 degrees, hot and humid. They will ride, rain or shine. They will be given instructions on what to do in case of a tornado.

My spouse does not get bogged down with my kind of burdens.

And so, when my friends say how lucky I am to be allowed to go away with the girls, my ever-loving spouse will be laughing all the way across Iowa. As he kisses me goodbye this afternoon, he'll be beaming with love thinking, "Bon Voyage, Patty. Bon Voyage! If you can handle her, you can have her."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Pomp, circumstance and m&m's

“Are you all excited for Leo’s graduation?” my friends Ann and Gail asked me today at lunch.

And in typical Betsy fashion I answered in a typically unconventional way.  I went on a long-winded rant about how jaded I am when it comes to graduation ceremonies. After all, I’ve been to fifteen of them between the three kids and their pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, middle school, high school and college graduations. It should have been sixteen but I was blessed with acute pancreatitis and was in the ICU for Leo’s pre-school ceremony. I don’t have a valedictorian like the adorably brilliant Deijah Lee-Carroll and so what if my kid gets to wear Student Ambassador and Honor Roll sashes, I never saw him open a book the entire four years so it makes me wonder if he really earned them or maybe he paid someone, and on and on.

Poor Ann and Gail. They are two of the kindest friends I have and all they did was ask a simple question to which a simple, “yes” would have sufficed. I do this to them all the time and am in constant wonderment of why in the world they continue to open their hearts to a psycho like me.

I came home from lunch and started a half-hour texting rampage with the daughter who is riddled with anxiety over her upcoming move to New Orleans that we are forcing her to do alone. Not by choice, but by logistics. If I could, I’d be there. I am always there. But, alas, I have to be on a cruise sipping Mai Tais on the Lido deck with my friend Patty while Molly is driving. Alone. To New Orleans. Where she could get lost. Or get a flat tire. Or get held at gunpoint. Or break her ankle. Yes, she said that.

Which led me to start thinking about packing for my trip. In making my lists I realized I never bought the shoes I absolutely have to have and now it’s too late to mail order and I can’t possibly go to the mall between now and Sunday because I have way too much work to do and it’s the Hearts Tournament in Philadelphia on Saturday and Leo has to go to orientation at Rutgers on Thursday and should I wear white pants to the graduation or will they get dirty on the bleachers and the spouse is going out of town and who will remember to give the dog the Lyme’s disease pills when I’m away and I have to book a flight for Max back to Los Angeles and who’s going to do the grocery shopping when he goes back and my sister is moving to Charleston and where are we going to have Thanksgiving dinner and where is the hidden stash of M&M’s?

M&Ms never lie. When I inhale massive amounts of chocolate without tasting them, without getting a stomach ache, without breathing between gulps, I know it’s time to stop and figure out what’s going on.

And when I did, that’s when it hit me.

Tonight is Leo’s graduation.

And, no I’m not excited for my last kid to graduate from high school. But it has nothing to do with the pomp and circumstance I profess to abhor.

Actually, I kind of like the ceremonies.

I love seeing the kids. I love their white-toothed smiles. I love when the parents scream “That’s my Baby!” despite being repeatedly told to hold their applause. I even love their stupid balloons they bring to block our view. I love the speeches and the flipping of the tassels and the kids taking pictures with the grandparents who came from Florida even though the Project Graduation buses are beeping their horns the minute it’s over to get going to the overnight party that I love to chaperone.

I love seeing the future in those graduates’ eyes. I love seeing their hope, their joy, their ambition. I love remembering the shy kindergartners they once were and seeing how they’ve blossomed. And I love thinking about who they’ll be and where they’ll live and what they’ll be doing ten years down the road.  

I love the memories these kids have made. The secrets they have. The friends they cherish. I love the lessons they’ve learned. The heartbreaks they’ve had. The scrapes they’ve escaped. The things we parents will never, ever know.

I’ve loved the slamming of the backdoor as the kids paraded into my house. I’ve loved the pounds of pasta I’ve boiled on the stove. I’ve loved the empty water bottles strewn all over the basement (and yes, I will continue to believe they were never filled with anything but). I’ve loved the hundreds of high school sporting events I’ve watched and the multitudes of PTA and Board of Ed meetings I’ve attended. I’ve loved helping dozens of kids write their college essays and reading them the riot act when they’ve done something they shouldn’t have done (you know who you are).  I’ve loved the commotion, the chaos, the complaining.

Yes, indeed, just as I once sang along with Billy Joel’s record spinning round and round and round on the turntable in my bedroom,

“I’ve loved these days.”

And so, my friends, when you asked how I felt about Leo's graduation, I hope you know my lunchtime rant was just for my own protection.

I’ve had three kids and many, many years to prepare. But now that it’s here, somehow, I’m just not ready. And there's not a thing I can do about it.

So, I’ll snap a picture of my handsome son in his cap and gown, post it on Facebook, swallow another handful of M&Ms and head off to his graduation.

I’ll be the one in the back, wearing the sunglasses to hide my tears.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Peace Out, Patrick

“You ready for this, girlfriend?” I asked Mary Jo as she stood in the back of the cavernous church, graciously greeting and hugging hundreds of guests.

“Don’t you worry, Doll,” she winked. “It’s going to be beautiful.”

And it was.

Tom and Mary Jo’s nineteen year-old son had lost his two-year battle with melanoma and we were there to celebrate his short life.

Tom somehow drew the strength to deliver a eulogy that so completely captured the essence of his only son, Patrick, that I found it almost hard to cry. But it was harder not to. At a luncheon afterwards, Mary Jo spoke eloquently about their mother-son relationship and the incredible bond that strengthened the closer they got to the end. Gracie, Patrick's younger sister and biggest fan tugged at our emotions as she told us how much she would miss him. And Jenny, Patrick's girlfriend spoke with heartbreaking poise and passion. But somehow, we got through it, thanks to their humor, dignity and honesty which they they all attributed to Patrick.  

Yes, it was a beautiful day. A brutally, beautiful day.

Mary Jo, Tom and my spouse were all reporters at The Record when we were young and newly married. I often steal my spouse's friends and Mary Jo was one of them. After we started reproducing we both worked part-time and felt the same inherent need for parenting by socialization. 

And so, she and Patrick would come to Teaneck on many a Friday to hang out with me and my brood. Mary Jo knew I was a politically incorrect, no-pretenses kind of mother. She could feed her kid processed foods in front of me and I’d be the first to pour Cocoa Puffs for dessert. Patrick could play with weapons at my house and hang upside down from the couch if he wanted to. We lived directly across the street from a park so we mothers could sit on the benches and chat and our kids could play. Or terrorize, as the case may be.

Hence, the real reason Mary Jo came to my house. She was afraid no one else would put up with Patrick’s antics. He was a terror to the nth degree.

Patrick would terrorize his mother. He would terrorize random kids on the playground. He hit, he bit, he threw – objects and tantrums. The children of Teaneck would see him coming and take cover under the sliding board.

Personally, I loved Patrick’s spirit. After all, what’s better than a kid who knows his own mind? Besides, he made my kids look like angels.

What annoyed me, though was how his mother reacted to his mischief-making. She was not one of those wishy-washy women, like me, who was always giving her kid one more chance. As hard as it was for her, she didn’t threaten. She followed through.

“Come on, pack it up. We’re going home.”

And she’d stomp off, steam coming out of her ears. She’d strap her little terror into the car and off they’d go, him kicking the back of the driver’s seat all the way home to Montclair.

And there I was, left alone with my kids and no girlfriend to hang out with.

When Gracie came along, we all cringed, wondering if it would be terror times two. But Gracie was as sweet and serene as Patrick was not and somehow brought the tenderness out in him. I'll forever have a vision in my mind of his bright blond head bending over to plant a kiss on her angelic baby face.

Well, our kids got older and started school and sports and our schedules didn’t allow for Fridays in the park anymore. Over the next ten years, I don’t think I saw Patrick more than a handful of times.

I saw the grown version of Patrick for the first time last year when I came to his house to take Mary Jo to chemo. Yes, Mary Jo. In a double-whammy, Mary Jo was diagnosed with breast cancer, smack in the middle of Patrick’s melanoma.

Patrick gave me a huge hug and we had a lengthy discussion about Breaking Bad and the wonders of Walter White's twisted mind. I looked at Patrick as a young adult and saw that this little terror had turned out just fine.  He was personable and polite, articulate and amusing. But then again, he always had been.

I had lunch with Mary Jo about two weeks before Patrick died. We met at our old standby, appropriately named The Chit Chat Diner. She asked about Molly’s graduation, I raved about Gracie’s impressive SAT scores and we groused about our spouses. We laughed. Just like always.

But, inevitably, we knew we had to talk about Patrick. I marveled at the way she was able to carry on and she basically shrugged her shoulders. 

"What choice do I have?"

We talked about motoring through the motions and she assured me that I would do the same. It’s just what mothers do, she said.

But why? Why do you have to be so stoic? Why don't you crawl into bed and pull the covers up over your head? I wondered. Mary Jo simply said this was all she knew how to do. It was what her mother, who  had died of cancer way too young herself, had taught her. Her family deserved the best of her, even in the worst of times. If the rock rolled away, so would the rest of them.

And so, Mary Jo battled her cancer, alongside Patrick’s with incredible courage and grace. It makes me wonder if it's not a coincidence that her daughter bears the name of one of Mary Jo’s most beautiful character traits.

Patrick, thanks to his mother who loved him deeply and unconditionally from terror to teenager, was given a great gift. He was allowed to die free from worrying about what would happen to his family. He knew that his mother would hold them together and they would battle onward. Step by step.

Patrick left the world in peace. And, in his death, he left us all with lessons about life. And I can't help but think that they all begin and end with a mother's love.

None of us know where we go from here. And so we cook casseroles and share stories and send heartfelt letters of love. We cry and we pray. We slap ourselves when we start fretting about messy rooms and college tuitions. We stop wishing our kids would do or say or be something they are not. We go back to our ordinary lives with our ordinary children knowing we have witnessed the truest pain that a parent can know. 

And so, we just have to hope that the powerful impact of Patrick's short life will carry us. And that one day, in the not so distance future, Mary Jo and I will meet again at The Chit Chat Diner. We'll share our stories and laugh about something silly. And maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to forget the pain, if only for a minute.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Ian Graduates with Honor

Everyone loves Ian.

After all, what’s not to like? He’s friendly and funny and fearless.  He does things his way, which is not always his mother’s way, but somehow he always lands on his feet.

Ian is not my child, but he may as well be. My friend Claire and I raised our kids together. Her four boys along with my two boys and a girl covered seven grades in school, rotating their way through best friend cycles, baseball teams and even a prom date.

Ian is the oldest of the brood and so, by default, he was the resident guinea pig.  

He was the first to board the kindergarten bus, the first play in the majors in Little League, the first to go to the prom (as a freshman, no less), the first (and only) to have a ruptured appendix, the first to graduate from high school and the first to go off to college. And though he was the first to discover Big Breasted Women on the internet in sixth grade, subsequent children were actually younger than he was when they learned to google.

Ian is hands down the most social of the seven kids. He can, and will, talk to just about anyone. He is adventurous, intelligent and dear to many a heart. He had 107 friends wish him Happy Birthday on Facebook alone.  

But…and there’s always a but.

Ian, like so many of our first children, has the capacity to drive his mother crazy.

Claire is somewhat technologically-challenged and doesn’t dabble in social media. However, half of her children are my Facebook friends and I’ve caught the other two passing through my Twitter timeline. I don’t stalk the kids, rather I take their friendship as a compliment of sorts. But Claire and I have a long-standing understanding. If we learn that one of the seven kids has done something boneheaded, brazen or bordering on illegal, we have to share.

And so, when I came upon Ian’s funny Facebook post last week, I felt it was my moral duty to pass it on.  

To anyone who has possession of tickets for the College of Arts and Science graduation I am willing to pay you for tickets. Drexel sold mine in the lottery because I didn't have the funds to buy my cap and gown until now. I just need 2 tickets any help would be great.

I had to laugh. Ian had just completed a five-year program at Drexel. His parents were beaming with pride, as well they should be. They have loved and supported his bumbling-about ways for 23 years and have done everything in their power to assure his personal and financial comfort. He was able to graduate without debt and live in the finest apartments known to Philadelphia college students. He was given access to cars, money and to as many pairs of underwear he needed to keep from doing laundry between trips home. He has been to Europe three times, once managing to get himself an internship as a youth coach for World Class soccer. He has been to Disney World a dozen times.  

Claire was always the first to pay whatever was owed to secure Ian’s good standing, whether it was PTA dues, permission slips or swim team fees. She paid for the high school yearbook on first request and no doubt placed at least a half-page congratulatory ad in the back.

There was simply no way she would have allowed her son to not have the funds for his cap and gown.

And so I laughed.

But she didn’t find it funny.

As suspected, she had sent him his cap and gown money. Not once, but twice.

How is it that our kids (and note that I include mine) who are smart enough to have graduated from college aren’t able to master the simplest of life skills? We spent years trying to instill basic common sense lessons: Pay attention to deadlines. Pay your bills. Wear clean clothes. Don’t wait till the last minute. Wear your seat belt. Don’t write on the walls of your rental apartment. And yet, so little seems to have sunk in.

As Claire groaned about the ticket fiasco, I thought about the two weeks my daughter was home between her graduation and leaving to start her real-life job. Every day, and usually more than once a day, I gently suggested that she start packing, organizing, cleaning the chaos she had deposited in her attic bedroom. And every day she said she had it under control. My heart palpitated, my palms sweated, my insides shook. Sure enough, it got done, she left. But she also left behind a massive amount of mess that still needs to be packed up and shipped to her new home in New Orleans.

Claire and I are both organized people. We know that our way is the right way, if only because we’ve done it the wrong way so many times that we finally learned. We know we have to let go and let them figure it out, but when we do, it becomes our problem anyway.

And so, we just laugh. And hope that their muddles and messes don’t come back to haunt them. That they continue to squeak by right under the deadline. That they finish the half-eaten granola bars before the mice do. And that they one day see that our unsolicited advice actually serves a purpose.

But until then, they’ll baffle us with their lack of urgency and contempt for anything resembling a back-up plan. And we’ll bail them out time and time again until eventually we learn that it's time to let them live the lives that they want to lead.

As for Ian, somehow he managed to muster up the money for his cap and gown and his family was able to attend his graduation. And while they sat solemnly through the ceremony, this is what Ian was doing:

Gameboy during graduation. Challenge me!

Again, I laughed when I saw this post. But, this time, I think I'll spare his mother and just keep it between me and his Facebook friends.