Stories In Which My Son DOESN’T Die

23. The Iceman Goeth

My idea of camping generally consists of a camper, with a bathroom, comfortable bed, and a fairly decent kitchen, or better yet a motorhome with similar necessities but with a decent amount if space. Necessities you’ll notice I said, not comforts. I adore driving to the middle of nowhere, finding a rustic campground, and sitting around a fire roasting marshmallows with as few people I don’t know around as possible. But I’m not a savage. I live in the twenty-first century. We’ve developed a certain level of civilized behavior of which I see no point in depriving myself. So while my ex-wife Laurie is satisfied to rough it in a sleeping bag and tent, and my son William is young enough to see the adventure in sleeping on the hard ground under the stars as a camp counselor keeping track of a gaggle of unruly pre or post adolescence, I on the other hand find it impossible to sleep with a single mosquito buzzing my ear, or dirt lodged in places that my ancestors expected to only clean once or twice a year. Pete agrees with me luckily. That’s  one of the many reasons we’ve stayed together for over 20 years.

So though one of my very favorite trips ever was a camping trip to Medicine Lake, not too far from the Oregon border in Northern California, it was only camping in the sense that we were at a campground. Pete and I had recently purchased a rather old motorhome that had, at least, all the required accouterment. True it smelled like decades of cooked bacon, the fabrics and walls felt strangely greasy, and somehow it felt like an outdoorsman’s abused hunting cabin. However, it had a bed, a bathroom, and a fully operational kitchen. 

We were accompanied by William, around 10 years old, and his mother Laurie. They were roughing it. In a tent that is.

We had planned a weekend at the lake, complete with kayaks, campfire side dining, and marshmallow roasting. We had not counted on a wind so strong we couldn’t row away from the shore or light a fire, but oh well.

We spent time walking trails with our two dogs-a giant mutant Dalmatian Laurie and I had adopted the year before we separated and she had kept, and a husky mix Pete and I got around the time we purchased our house. We toured the volcanic features, and went spelunking. Spelunking is the art of cave exploration if you are not in the know. 

Medicine Lake is part of the Lava Beds National Monument area. A vast warren of caves, obsidian mounds, cinder cones, and other miscellany. We had a blast even with the less than perfect weather. But the highlight was our trip to an ice cave. The map didn’t have a lot of details, just directions and a name, but we were game for anything. 

We headed out around mid-afternoon, since there wasn’t very much information we weren’t expecting anything too exciting, and when we arrived at the barren field with a hole in the ground that looked vaguely like a meteor crater on a small scale, we were even afraid that it may not exist at all. After all, an ice cave in Northern California, slightly off a dusty forest road seemed a little implausible. Like so many hikes leading to a “forest lake” that was long gone, or a “meadow” that was simply a weedy clearing in a scrubby forest (you can probably tell what kind of hikes I’ve been exposed to), I was expecting a simple “historic”, i.e.. “long-gone” cave.

We made our way down into the crater, looking for what was described as a small cave entrance. It was actually a hole in the crater wall no larger than one good sized adult could crawl through. With not a little trepidation we squirmed through one by one. Wow. We were not disappointed one bit. 

The temperature dropped by many degrees, and thank goodness we had heeded the warnings to wear warm clothing, hats, and to carry flashlights! As soon as we entered we were all enthralled; it really was an ice cave. Actually, to be precise, it was a cave with an underground glacier running alongside it. We found out later that an ice cave is literally a cave IN ice, not a cave WITH ice. But who cares, right?

We gingerly made our way deeper into the cave, noticing that the rocks strewn throughout the bottom of the cave were coated with a thick layer of ice that appeared to about an inch thick. Of course it was pitch dark. You could only see exactly where you aimed your flashlight, making the entire operation extremely dangerous and that much more of an adventure. As we inched deeper into the cave, luckily being able to stand upright thanks to the higher ceiling we found inside, we saw a wall of ice to the far side. We headed towards it when William let out a blood curdling scream and immediately dropped out of sight, as if a trap door had opened under him!

I thought he was dead for sure. In seconds several thoughts ran through my mind. He had fallen to his death at the bottom of a hundred foot cavern, or he was impaled on an ice stalagmite, or trapped on a ledge and would bleed to death while we waited in vain for a forest ranger to rappel down and bring his broken body up to us. Or god knows what other horrible lingering fates.

About 10 seconds later we heard a weak and trembling, “I’m okay…” As we quickly, but cautiously made our way to the hole in the ground and peered over the lip of the gaping maw set almost precisely in the middle of the cave, our lights settled on William who was carefully perched on a gentle slope of glistening ice covered rocks leading down about 10 or so feet into a lower cavern. 

He gingerly stood up, noticed that he didn’t even have a scratch on him, and one by one we lowered ourselves down to join him. Get back up on the horse was what his three parents seemed to think.

We spent another 15 or 20 minutes exploring the fascinating crystal walls of ice that were so pure you could see about a foot into them. Then, when it started to get a little too cold for us to take any longer, we headed out. 

While leaving the cave we met a new group of about 5 or 6 adults, none of which spoke much english, dressed in shorts and t-shirts, without flashlights, jackets or hats, transferring a one year old child through the hole with them. We tried to warn them what was ahead, but they either couldn’t, or didn’t want to understand us. I’ve often wondered over the years if they were ever heard from again…

24. Still Not A Fight

The only thing she told me was that William was on his way to the hospital in an ambulance. It was my ex-wife Laurie calling me at work, which everybody knows you only do in an absolute emergency. She said she didn’t have any more info than that. The lady who called from the high school said he’d been in a fight, but as I was frantically canceling my last few clients I just kept saying, “Well, they said he was in a fight, but there’s no way William got in a fight.” I told Laurie I was leaving for the high school office to talk to somebody and find out what actually happened, and then I would her and Pete at the hospital emergency center. 

When I got to the office I was immediately met by three of William’s friends who wanted me to know as soon as I walked in that he had in fact NOT been in a fight. Apparently he was punched in the nose with no provocation. It was a good thing the kids knew because the office staff was useless. All the woman behind the counter could tell me was that he’d been in a fight and that was all she knew. I gave up and went to the hospital where I wished on gone in the first place.

I arrived to find William with blood staining his t-shirt, neck, and face, and an icepack attached to his nose. I was told his nose was broken. William looked miserable, which if you know anything about my son, is terrifying. William doesn’t feel pain like a normal person. We actually had a pediatrician warn us to watch him and if we were at all concerned to have him tested for a rare disorder called congenital analgesia, a fancy term for a child who doesn’t feel pain like a normal person. We know he does feel it, he just doesn’t seem to care. To see him so shaken and miserable was unnerving to say the least.

As the story goes, William was in his PE class on the field. The kids, not having lockers yet, had all of their possessions with them on the field. An older boy, who was apparently cutting class, was stealing skateboards from several of the other lower class-men. He would ride it until a teacher came out to confiscate it. He then went for William’s, and William resisted. My son is not easily intimidated, though at times he probably should be. As soon as the boy took his skateboard William followed after him and while bending down to pick it up said, “Hey asshole, give me my board back.” He came up to face the boy who turned around and punched him squarely in the face.

He doesn’t, or at least didn’t the last we talked about it, remember the punch, or even how he ended up on the ground. He didn’t even remember going for his skateboard, or what he said. It was all told to me (and him I assume) by his friends that were present. This is why I always stress to people that he wasn’t fighting, and he wasn’t (thank goodness) being bullied, he was a victim of felony assault. 

He recovered at warp speed like most young men. The doctors at the ER couldn’t do much since he had what they called a green stick fracture where the bone doesn’t break cleanly, it splinters like a sapling because the cartilage hasn’t hardened completely. Surgery would be required later. So he was sent home with a Neti Pot, an ice pack, and some meds. He hated the Neti pot, had the bandage off before we got to the car, and really didn’t care one way or the other about the Vicodin they just casually handed him on the way out of the emergency room.

This all occurred on a Friday afternoon, and like any concerned parents we expected to have a message from the school on the answering machine when we got home, but nope, nothing. Well, surely somebody would contact us to decide what we should do before Monday. William wouldn’t be back in school for a bit after all. They hadn’t actually caught the kid after he fled, and he needed some rest anyway.

Monday morning Pete and I got dressed for work and waited expectantly to see if somebody would call before the school day started…again, nope. Laurie walked the block from her duplex to our house and we waited a bit longer. Finally we decided to walk to the school, Laurie, Pete, and me, leaving William at home “recuperating”. It was only a couple of blocks, and a cool late summer morning, but we were definitely “warmed” up at this point. We figured maybe they didn’t know what had happened and they were waiting for us to make the first move. So we arrived at the front office, and asked the secretary if we could speak to the principle. She asked how William was doing, and said she was surprised that William would get in a fight, it wasn’t like him. To which we all scrambled to answer first with, “It wan’t a fight! It was assault.” She visibly recoiled and meekly asked if we knew which principle we wanted to see. They had 4 or 5, I don’t remember, it seemed like such a foolish concept to me, and I would be proven correct. We said we didn’t know, and she thought maybe the principle in charge of discipline. Whatever, we didn’t care who we talked to any longer.

We only waited about 5 minutes when we were ushered into a good sized conference room. After we sat down the principle, and what we assume was an aide, or even a lawyer, entered and had a seat. It felt a bit like a hearing with a judge. After introductions he asked what we were meeting about! We actually exchanged shocked expressions and reluctantly started describing what we had been told. Well, he hadn’t heard anything of it, so he asked the officer who had been sitting quietly in the corner since we arrived, if he knew the situation. He was busily paging through his notebook and distractedly asking questions such as, “What day?” and “What’s his name?”

Finally the officer looked up from his spiral notebook and simply said, “I’m not sure which case we’re discussing. I have a lot I’m dealing with right now.” We got up and walked out. Honest to god, we literally walked home, got in the car, and drove to the Catholic School that William’s best friend Collin went to, and enrolled him for the winter quarter. I’ll tell you what; those Catholics don’t mess around when it comes to education, or criminal assault.

It’s Been Too Long

21. The Award You Don’t Want

After Pete and I helped convert our disgusting – and quite useless – one-car, detached garage, into a lovely high-end studio, we kind of got hooked on do-it-yourself renovation. A few of our jobs (not including work at the salon we owned for five years) include: redwood playground equipment, multiple fences and gates, pergolas, deck/pathways, a kitchen remodel, and multiple garden installations. Perhaps the most notorious is the patio room we built to connect the lovely studio to our house to create a master bedroom suite. We pulled it off beautifully – meaning nobody died.

We hired a contractor for the foundation and main supports for the structure, which meant we had to take down the massive and tired wooden patio roof. I say “roof” because it was shingled, and completely weatherproof. In fact, I don’t believe a hurricane would have done much damage. It was bolstered with 4 by 4 inch posts, substantial 2 by 6 inch beams, plywood, and composite sheet roofing. It had most likely stood for at least 30 years, and probably would have lasted another 30, but it was so massive that it shadowed the entire porch, making the area cold, dark and depressing, so that we didn’t use it much. It had to go, but we didn’t want to waste money on a demolition crew.

My ex-wife Laurie was living in the studio at the time, and our son, William, was with us as well. They both enjoyed helping us with our projects. We were a fun crew. Laurie was particularly looking forward to helping us remove the patio roof; she’s always loved a good demolition. William was dying to help us, but at 9, we were afraid he would die helping. He would stay safely inside, watching through the French doors.

We were careful, and planned it out. The patio cover was a heavily constructed, with thick, old wood beams, and two layers of solid roofing. There were also layers of what was most likely toxic lead paint, cracking and flaking like the earth’s crust, offering glimpses of different color paints, hinting of bygone epochs. Our main concern in this project was bringing this roof down in a controlled manner. 

Pete planned what section had to be taken down first, then which sections would come next, and so forth. Every section needed to come out without causing the rest of the structure to collapse before we were ready. We didn’t want to damage the section attached to the wall of the house, for instance. Above all, we didn’t want it falling on us during demolition.

Laurie and I carefully grasped the front top beam on the left hand side of one solid 4 by 4 post which held up one side of the whole canopy. We gripped firmly with our thickly gloved hands to the main outside cross beam. We had safety goggles to protect from dust and flying debris, and helmets and thick shoes to protect us from falling chunks of roofing material. We couldn’t be safe enough when it came to taking out a few hundred pounds of roofing and solid wood beams we figured. Pete was ready with an electric chain saw, so besides his careful cutting, his most important task was to watch the electric cord. He really didn’t want to slice through an electric cord; that tends to end badly. 

We were set. Adrenalin pumping, Laurie and I braced. Pete started the saw and carefully started chewing away at the supporting beam in the ceiling while William watched excitedly from inside. Pete sliced cleanly though the old, dry heartwood, and within a minute, the roof came crashing down – the section that Laurie and I weren’t holding. 

We stood stunned for 20 seconds, then burst out with hysterical laughter, the laughter of the idiotically lucky. It was the laughter of the stupid souls who escaped a Darwin Award. Our only regret was that there’s no video. These are the kind of stupid acts that win on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Oh well, somehow I’m sure we’ll be that lucky again.

22. No Virginia, There Is No Easter Bunny

We were sitting at dinner, it must have been very early spring. I’m pretty sure it was just a family dinner. Most likely the company consisted of my mother, William, Laurie, Pete, and me. I doubt it was anything special; we usually went out to a nice restaurant for birthdays, so it couldn’t have been my birthday in February, for all I know it was my mother’s and William’s April 1st birthday dinner, though again, we usually went out. Regardless, it was definitely spring. I know this much at least, because we were discussing William going to his grandmother Betty’s house to decorate eggs. William was probably around 8 or 9. In any case, I don’t do egg decorating. It’s messy, it’s boring, and I feel too much pressure to “perform”. For some reason when you become a hairstylist everybody assumes you are an “artiste”.

Other than the egg decorating, I have always adored Easter. I love the plastic grass, the colored eggs used for deviled eggs at lunch (just because I’m too lazy to color them doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them), hollow chocolate Easter bunnies, jellybeans, peeps, all of it. I remember one year, I was probably around 8 or 9, I got a doll. It was obviously made for a boy, but it was definitely a doll. My father hated it, but I was a very lonely boy and I loved it. My step-brother destroyed it somehow. I’ve blocked the memory. But I still remember digging into that basket Easter morning; Easter is like Christmas without the pressure.

Decorate eggs though? Ick. So my mother took over the duty when William was old enough. I’m not sure why William’s mother Laurie didn’t do it with him, she’s very crafty, I have always assumed she didn’t really care that much either. But there you go, I’m sure she’ll correct me.

Dinner discussion most likely followed the same style as all of our family dinners did in those days, lots of laughing (Laurie can be amazingly funny), William and Pete both being utterly charming in their ways, my mother talking non-stop, and me going crazy in the middle of the chaos. Yup, that’s me, life of the party at work, wallflower everywhere else. But in the end the discussion would focus on getting William to my mother’s for the weekend to dye easter eggs.

I think maybe we were discussing the fact that we couldn’t do an Easter egg hunt on Sunday. I think it was going to rain. All I know for sure, is that when Laurie became a little exasperated and blurted out, “Well it’s not as if he actually believes in the Easter bunny,” the room went absolutely quiet. I remember somebody, maybe me, saying uuuum…and then everybody slowly turning to see William’s reaction. A sharp gasp, and a faint, “Oh shit,” escaped Laurie.

William said very clearly, “Well I don’t now!”

Again the room got deathly quite as the meal resumed. A minute or two ticked by until William spoke again, “But I do believe in Santa Clause, because I’ve seen videos of him,” he stated emphatically.

A general, “Well obviously” reaction went around the room, a few nodding heads and mumbled, “of courses”, and then…not another word was spoken about Santa Clause for the next 16 years. In our house, as long as you believe in Santa, he will gift you, but if you doubt, too bad. After all, would you deliver gifts to somebody who didn’t even believe you existed?

Apparently the Easter Bunny is more generous; Easter continued unchanged for many years.

It’s Just A Life 19-20

19. No Means No

When William was 6 years old he and his mother moved to Indiana so Laurie could complete her first masters degree at Purdue. It was a great situation for the two of them because they could live with her parents, a lovely couple whom I trusted unreservedly with helping her care for William. Laurie’s parents had moved there just a few years prior when her father was transferred just a few years shy of retirement.

They built a two story house with a finished basement on 12 acres of land that had snow in the winter, and fireflies in the summer. William could build snowmen, sled, cross country ski out the back door, run wild in the greener months, and help his grandfather grow sunflowers three times as tall as he was. How could I say no? The catch was Laurie had to promise to move back within two years. It worked pretty well. William would visit Pete and me in California for any holiday that lasted for at least a week, and the whole of the summer. We even managed to visit them for a number of days around William’s first grade back-to-school night.

Of course when the two years were up, as Pete and I suspected, Laurie had a new degree, but no job, and no way financially to move back to California. Since I spend a good chunk of mental capacity obsessively worrying about almost any possibility of any situation, we’d been planning ahead. We converted a ramshackle, and totally useless single car garage into a charming, and practical studio. We’d even designed it to be “Laurie proof”, meaning 100% stain proof, animal proof. Really just pretty much indestructible…not to mention rent free. In fact it turned out that we loved this studio so much that during Laurie’s two year stay we attached it to the house with a custom built patio room so that after she moved out it could become our master bedroom suite. Win win!

William moved back to California during the summer after his second year of school let out, and helped us finish the studio. Laurie moved back just before fall and finished up her master’s thesis living with us in California. The grand experiment in co-habitation started. In the beginning Pete and I figured it would be for a number of months while Laurie looked for a job, but somewhere in her second year of grad school she decided that she wanted to work towards an MBA. So a few months turned into a couple of years. Some people might think this would create a tough situation, and although it wasn’t always sunshine and puppy dogs (actually more like puppy dogs, cats, rodents, and aquariums), the two years, quite frankly, were some of the best times we’ve ever had as a family. We got to have William with us full time, and William got to have all of his parents with him without the pesky back and forth of split household parenting.

We had among the four of us: two large dogs, two cats, a parrot (at some point) and two aquariums; so when William asked me one day if he could have a pet, I laughed and said no, just chose one and it’s yours! Of course he meant one of his very own he replied, but again I said no. When your mother has a place of her own we’ll discuss it I said, but for the moment 7+ beings in this house is plenty.

Life went pretty smoothly for the first few days as we all got used to new routines, and cohabitants. Until one Saturday afternoon…

I arrived home from work, most likely around four or five PM, to an empty house, and an odd gurgling noise. At first I was panicking at the thought of a plumbing leak, or possibly a toilet overflowing, but the noise was too regular, and strangely familiar.

I prowled room to room starting in the kitchen, then the bathroom, and as I reached William’s bedroom door it hit me! Aquarium pump. Oh no he didn’t, I thought. As I entered his room I saw it. A terrarium sitting on his dresser. Oh. My. God. I don’t think I have ever been more angry at him in his entire life.

I spent the next fifteen minutes pacing through the house cursing, slamming doors and generally blowing off some steam, and soon I heard a car door shut. As William and Laurie entered the front door I said calmly to Laurie, “I think you had nothing to do with this, so keep in mind that nothing I’m about to say is directed at you.” “Okaaaay,” she said with a little trepidation. And so I started. “William, what did I say about pets?” “You said I couldn’t have any until mom moved out,” he slowly replied. “William!” Laurie gasped. “Right,” I said. “So you are going into your room, packing everything up, and taking it all back to the pet store.” “Exactly,” Laurie agreed. Pete walked in the front door sometime around here, and with a quizzical look asked what was going on. As I explained I could see Laurie getting a little more peeved at William, and William starting to get the impact of what he’d done. “You will not use us against each other,” I told William, with firm agreement all around. Then began the 60 hardest minutes of our parenting experience.

Laurie, Pete, and I headed outside to the patio to allow William to grieve and pack up in solitude. It was pure hell. We sat in a small circle, looking at each other with silent tears in our eyes, desperately trying not to break under the constant barrage of William’s sobbing and mantra of, “I just thought once you saw them you would think they were so cute you’d let me keep them,” over and over coming from his bedroom. He and Laurie had spent the afternoon setting up an absolutely adorable terrarium of fish and salamanders, and naming each one. Under different circumstances I would have been happy to let William have the joy, and misery of taking care of such an elaborate set up. But as we all sat and desperately tried not to break under the pressure of doing the right thing, we new what this battle actually meant.

Poor Laurie had the sad task of taking William back to the pet store to return it all. She had paid for it on her credit card, and there was no way I was taking on that task, that’s for sure.

From what Laurie told me later, the pet shop clerk was horrified at what mean parents we were, and as I write this with a little of Pete’s input he made a very telling comment, “I keep telling that story to process it, I’m still scarred.”

 

20. Mother Of The Year

When my husband, Pete, and I moved into the Sacramento house we’ve occupied for the past 22 years, the back yard was mostly a dog run made of gravel a foot deep, and some rather sad looking trees. This seemingly vast wasteland continued with a concrete patio, and a wood deck trimmed with a 3-foot-high, once-cute fence. Who needs two-thirds of their yard fenced off as a dog run?

I couldn’t stand wasting half of the yard, so not long after we arrived, we hired a crew to remove half of the gravel. After that, Pete and I, with a neighborhood junkie we often hired back then, moved 5 cubic yards of topsoil into the back yard to replace the gravel. It remains the hardest work I will ever do – on one of the hottest Fourth of Julys I can recall.

 

We followed plans I sketched out, which included a nice courtyard, a pond, and a new half fence to mark off the now much smaller dog run. When we started, there was a forest of wild privet trees, a persimmon, and a sad-looking peach. We ripped out the privets immediately. The peach consisted of one sickly branch on a split trunk, so we chose euthanasia for the poor thing. The persimmon tree was a little better, and since it was precisely center, it was a focal point. I decided to give it a few years to heal, which seemed faster than removing it and planting a sapling.

In time, a lovely English garden wrapped around the patio, bordered with broken concrete chunks that Pete and I salvaged from a demolition site. We even added a garish statue for a bit of whimsy – a half naked god proudly standing guard at the back corner overlooking the pond.

Twenty years later, I look back and marvel at the lessons I’ve learned from my back yard. There were the mistaken plantings where we tried for years to grow dream plants that were inappropriate for our climate zone. We made many rookie errors, such as disregarding recommendations, overwatering, under-watering and under weeding. We battled snails, rats, blue jays, raccoons, mice, cats, sparrows, and – worst of all – the pesky squirrels.

I’ve learned when scorched earth policy is your final course for eradicating a “vigorous” ground cover. I’ve learned that when a garden website lists a plant as “robust,” you’d better keep it in a pot or you will soon have it growing through the cracks in the sidewalk across the street. I know that “freely seeds” translates to “Oh, Lord, what have I unleashed?” I’ve learned weed block fabric is a waste of time. I’ve learned how to compost. And, I’ve learned – almost – that patience and a calm demeanor are powerful gardening tools.

But the best lesson I ever learned is never trust your ex-wife.

I remember the day very well. Pete, my ex-wife Laurie, our son William, my mother Betty, and I were socializing in the living room. I don’t remember why; I’m sure it was during the time that Laurie and William were living with us full time. William and I went out back to feed the goldfish. It seems weird now; It’s not like the two of us ritually checked out the goldfish. I doubt the fish ever got fed by us more than once or twice afterwards. They were mostly there to eat mosquito larva and keep the plants in check (plus they add fertilizer, a pond is a delicate dance) so we wanted them hungry.

Unfortunately, by feeding the fish by hand, we were training them to come to the surface whenever they saw a figure coming toward the pond. That’s pretty much dinner on the table for many backyard fauna like raccoons, opossums, hawks, heron (yes, heron), skunks and cats. It’s cute while it lasts, but it always ends badly for the fish.

Our fish were always simple “feeder” fish. You can buy them for $1 at any pet store. Mainly they’re called feeders because they’re given to snakes, lizards and other live feed predators, in place of baby mice or rats. Because of this, I always felt like I was giving them a second chance at life. Sadly, after 25 years, the longest one has lived is five years. Anyway…we were feeding the fish, when we noticed one swimming on its side. I gave it a gentle nudge with a small stick and it fluttered quickly and dove to the inky bottom of the pond to hide. Within a few moments the plucky little critter floated back up. We realized there was something wrong, but we weren’t sure what to do.

After a few minutes of observation, I remembered my ex-wife – the mother of my child, and one of my most trusted friends – was a fish biologist. She was sitting in the living room. Duh, she’d know what to do.

We caught the slippery sucker in a net, and William, age 7 or 8, gently cradling it in the palm of his hand, carried it in to discuss its condition with the expert. He handed it to his mom, and we explained how we found it. We were afraid it might have some kind of infection or disease. Did we need to treat the water? Should we just let them all die?

I remember Laurie didn’t say anything as she gently picked it up by its tail to take a closer look. Laurie’s not the type to ooh and ahh. She’s rather proper and level-headed. She is also one of the most ardent animal lovers I know. Most of what I’ve learned about dog training, horses, birds and animals in general, I got from her.

She held up the fish, turning and examining it in the afternoon light. Its deep gold scales, still wet, twinkled as she slowly took a finger, gently prodding the poor little thing before administering a fast, hard finger flick to its head, killing it instantly.

The room silenced. After a brief hesitation, I turned to William, his mouth and eyes gaping like the fish, and said, “That’s why you never go to your mother when you’re sick.”

It’s Just A Life.16

Being Alone Isn’t Lonely

In the late summer of 1992, I took up jogging. I fell in love with it quickly: the ritual of dressing for a run, getting your playlist (tape/CD) ready. I was motivated to enjoy it. I would jog in the evening, after work. Laurie and I had recently decided that it would be best if we divorced. Jogging got me out of the house, when the house seemed a little too small.

Laurie is my best friend. I’m much closer to her than I am to any of my siblings, and I’ve known her longer than anyone except my mother. I know that no matter who comes and goes in my life, Laurie will always be there. Calling her “sister” doesn’t seem right; we don’t choose our family. “Lifelong best friend” seems to work. 

We decided that, financially, it didn’t work for me to move out. There was no way either of us could survive on our meager salaries. I was making slightly more than minimum wage, and Laurie was at starting salary at a consulting firm, so we continued to share the duplex we were renting from my father and step-mother. In fact, for a while, we still shared a bed. We got along fine, like very close roommates. We’d been together so long, sleeping in the same bed was natural. Heck, many marriages that survive 50 years end up that way, right? But you can only spend so much time avoiding like this before things get tense. Gradually, I moved to the living room couch, and went for a jog when our down time made things “awkward.”

I jogged daily, for two weeks. It didn’t seem to take me long to get into it. Hairstylists usually have pretty good stamina (we need it). For some reason, I loved running in the evening heat, just after sundown. I’ve always been a night owl. Once, when I was around 13 or 14, I took a walk around town at 2 in the morning. I couldn’t sleep, so what else was there to do? 

Evening was when I had the most energy, and the right attitude. By the end of the first week, I was hooked. By the end of the second week, I had sciatica, and spent all of my free time on the couch. I think losing the jogging, along with meeting my first real boyfriend, Lee, was what finally pushed me to move out. 

I mean really, there was no way I could stay living with Laurie while dating Lee. It felt like I was having an affair, which is just not me. Laurie and I figured out the financial and child custody details, and I began the divorce paperwork. I had already filed the legal separation papers, so the divorce was no big deal. We had no assets and surprisingly little debt, so doing the legal work myself wasn’t a hardship. Saving lawyer fees was a huge win, and quite frankly, keeping lawyers out of it most likely saved our friendship, and years of therapy for William.

 I found an apartment that was nice enough to satisfy my desire for “elegant,” and cheap enough to accommodate my reality of “poor.” I was living single for the first time in my life, and for a few weeks, it was sublime. 

I think I was in some strange manic-depressive phase. I would think about being single and coming out, and be ecstatic. I hoped to meet the perfect man, all while  trying to figure out the dating scene. The next moment, I would think of breaking up my family, and I would grieve. 

This was the early 1990s, and the idea of creating a new marriage and family seemed all but impossible. The idea of same-sex marriage was absurd; I never expected it to happen in my lifetime. Many gays weren’t really sold on the concept of marriage anyhow, but the romantic in me was. But even if I did settle down with a “partner,” I knew I would do it without the support of most of my family. Though my mother, and my ex-wife were both wonderfully accepting, my father and two sisters were most definitely not.

And then, after moving into my own apartment, and decorating a place just for me, I made a tactical error. Lee was in a rough stretch. He had just lost his job and his residence. But he was really cute, and had the most amazing, shy smile. I was 27; he was 35 but looked 25. One night after dinner out, I realized he was sleeping in his car. When I asked why, he said his roommates had asked him to move out so one of their mothers could use the room for an extended visit. Somehow that phrase didn’t translate to “run like hell.” 

I told Lee he could sleep on the couch for a week or so, if needed. As it turned out, he was an agreeable roommate. He was tidy, and was home a lot, so he cleaned and cooked dinner. Apparently he lived off his mother’s goodwill most of the time, because he hadn’t found a long term job yet. (Again, no alarm bells, it’s shocking how naïve I was). Three months later, after many requests for him to leave, I ended up telling him if he hadn’t left by the time I got back, I’d call the cops. And if anything was damaged, I’d be making a report. 

I went to seek fortitude with Laurie and her brother Phil, who were rooming together at the duplex. I felt bad, Lee was a super nice person, but I needed my space, and he was sticking to me like glue. Rebound relationships never work, but I just couldn’t seem to get him to understand. Far be it for me to cast stones, I remember being dumped. Why do we always default to clingy and desperate when we’re dumped? 

After Lee left, I finally I had my free space! I didn’t have a TV, which was awesome. I hate random background noise for some reason. I’m not a fan of television generally (11-year-old me would be horrified). As an adult, I can watch TV virtually any time I please, and I don’t want to! So many things these days would amaze and anger 11-year-old me: Yes, I have the communicator Star Trek promised me (cell phone), but where are the flying cars? It’s the twenty-first century! Anyway, I had the only piece of equipment I cared about in my thriftily, fabulously decorated apartment: the stereo. I had tons of free time, a book and a stereo. Pure heaven. 

I don’t apologize about the fact that I like being alone. Why should I? I’m comfortable by myself. I am a classic introvert. Though I enjoy being around other people, they exhaust me. 

I think I met my husband Pete two or three weeks after Lee left. And I’m not embarrassed to admit that I had a vision a week before we met. I knew I was going to meet the man with whom I would spend the rest of my life. I’ve never doubted it in more than 20 years. I don’t think we’ve been apart for more than a week or two since. 

We moved in together pretty quickly. We were wasting money on two spaces, and I knew within hours of meeting him that he was practically my ideal man. He was cute, interesting, well-educated, incredibly upbeat, and the nicest person I’ve ever met. He understands, yet accepts me. He’s neat enough not to drive me crazy, and thoughtful enough to make dinner, clean house when necessary, and do practically any project I request. Yes, any. We built a garden room with our bare hands. 

But even Pete bugs me if I don’t get my space. Luckily, he will let me be alone, even when he’s sitting right next to me. The grass could never be greener. So while there are times when I can still be alone, I’ll never be lonely.

It’s Just A Life.15

Hurry Up And Wait

The last few weeks of having a baby is like the worst Christmas ever. Every morning you wake up and expect the presents, and oops! Sorry, Christmas isn’t today, we were wrong, maybe tomorrow. That can go on for two weeks, or more. It’s exhausting. But when that long, long day ends you have the most amazing present you will ever receive.

William was exactly two weeks late. Laurie and I had an appointment with the doctor a few days after the due date, and while we were there we expressed our concern about his being past due. Laurie had been having Braxton Hicks contractions for days, and our nerves were getting raw. Braxton Hicks contractions are just a disconcerting, but harmless part of pre-term labour. It’s one of the body’s ways of getting the mother ready for the true delivery, but they can be painful and hard to distinguish from real labor at times. We also worried, ironically, that Laurie wouldn’t go into real labor at all. Her mother had to be induced with both of her pregnancies. We were worried it could be hereditary. Nervous parents-to-be that we were, our doctor, to humor us I’m sure, scheduled an appointment to induce exactly two weeks after the due date. He said as we were leaving that in his experience his patients often went into labor the day before, or of, the appointment. For us it was the day of.

Laurie started labor sometime in the late evening on March 31, 1989, exactly one day short of two weeks. She was awake off and on the whole night. She didn’t wake me much. Afterwards all, what could I do? She can’t have slept more than a few hours. The next morning, since we were scheduled to induce, we figured we might as well just go to the 8 AM appointment at the delivery ward.

The drive to the hospital was like something out of a sitcom. To me, mind you, not Laurie. She was very uncomfortable with the contractions coming a bit sooner and harder. She swore I was hitting the cracks in the road harder than I normally did and I should please f-ing knock it off. I may have snapped something back, but quite honestly, since I didn’t have to be in labor, I hope I wisely kept my mouth shut.

When we arrived at the hospital we were greeted by a nice nurse. Laurie wasn’t in really active labor yet so they didn’t rush with admitting us. Luckily, since we were at a Kaiser hospital, there wasn’t really any paperwork, so we were escorted to a room reasonably quickly, and pretty much left on our own just as we would have been at home. And so we waited.

Occasionally, but with increasing intensity, she’d have a contraction. I could see them coming on a monitor, so I would have a chance to start preparing Laurie with relaxation and breathing techniques. She’s the type who shuts down and stiffens to fight pain, and the one thing I learned in those disturbingly frank Lamaze classes, was relaxation was the only thing I had to bring to the party. And so it went for a little over 9 hours.

I didn’t force her to get out of bed and move around as much as I should have. Things might have gone quicker if I had. At one point Laurie agreed to a drug to ease her discomfort, but it slowed the contractions down. With her mother’s help I persuaded her to go without. She’s strong, and has endured a lot of physical and mental pain in her life, so I know what she can handle. She didn’t need drugs at that time. There are plenty of things I wish I had done better, but overall, I like to think Laurie and I made a spectacular team from the moment we discovered we were expecting, to the moment we left him at college. This was one of our best moments.

William was born around 5 in the evening April 1, 1989. Healthy, 8 lb., 21 inches, and perfect. The best April fools joke ever. We both agreed he looked like an alien when we first held him, and we actually got scolded for calling him “it” several times. We found it funny because to us, since we didn’t want to know the babies sex, he was “it”. We loved him as it, but how could she know?

He was the first of his generation in both of our families. My middle sister had been trying for a few years, and I didn’t know it at the time, but my older sister was pregnant as well, but it was weird being the youngest and first. Every member of both our families showed up around 9 or 10 AM and waited. They waited the whole day to be there when he was born. What child could have a better welcome. My brother-in-law Tim took his very first baby picture. Laurie is radiant holding him as only a beaten and exhausted proud new mother can be. I don’t think she was awake too long after greeting everybody in the receiving room, but she and I both remember my mother saying how William was the best birthday present she ever got. Laurie and I were so self-involved with the pregnancy that neither of us had even realized that it was her birthday. I thought it was an awesome bonus, a special bond the two would, and actually do have. My father (divorced from my mother since I was 5), turned to Laurie and me and said, very distinctly, “You couldn’t wait one more day?”

It’s Just A Life.14

14. One Amazing Thing

My good friend Deborah (Pittman), and my husband Pete’s freshman class wrote, and performed, an opera based on the book One Amazing Thing by Chitra Divakaruni. They do this every year using the CSUS One Book. The opera has become very popular on campus. After this particular show Pete asked people to share their own “one amazing thing”, I didn’t. It wasn’t precisely that I couldn’t think of one, it was more the opposite; I could think of so many that I couldn’t decide which was the one. It actually took me several weeks to ferret it out, and interestingly, it wasn’t the story about smuggling my pet ferret to CA.

The story starts best the day my ex-wife Laurie found my gay porn magazines between the mattress and box spring. The excruciating irony of my ex discovering them while changing the sheets one weekend while I was out of town was beyond absurd. Anybody that knows Laurie will back me up here; Laurie does not clean. Especially if she was alone. I had a better chance of winning the lottery…and I NEVER buy lottery tickets. Believe it or not, that’s not my “one amazing thing”. That was merely the setup for the drama to follow.

When Laurie called me at her parents house where I William and I were staying for the weekend I could have lied. I’m an amazing liar, closeted gay men and women have to be. Laurie was understandably shaken. So part of me even thought it would be kinder to lie. I don’t believe I could actually have convinced her that the magazines weren’t mine. No, but I could have come up with a convincing enough story that we could have both “chosen” to ignore it, but I just couldn’t. It was stupid, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Besides, Laurie deserved the truth. So I told her it wasn’t what she thought…well, it was what she thought, but not exactly what she thought. Obviously no “one amazing thing” yet…

When William and I got home from her parents house the next day Laurie and I had a chance to talk. I told her I was “bi”, which really isn’t a lie, but for me, it’s not completely the truth. Though I can enjoy being with a woman, it just isn’t what brings me passion, but she and I chose to pretend it was, for a while. The irony is, the fact that Laurie accepted it so calmly was what made it easier for me to start coming to terms with my sexuality.

William was about two, maybe two and a half, and as the days and weeks went by I kept asking myself the same question, “How can I raise William in a family that is a lie?” I dreamed of William growing up with happy parents who showed him loving role models. We wouldn’t be able to do this for 18 years, and then we would simply be buying his childhood by destroying his family identity as an adult. I didn’t see that as a good path, but how could I destroy the only family he’d ever known? Then my one amazing thing comes clear…

I remember the precise moment very well. I was getting ready for work. My usual black cloud followed me into the shower where I struggle every day not to let myself crawl back into bed. And it literally struck me like the voice of god, which I do not believe it was. No, my sub-conscious had simply put up with all it could, and said enough is enough. “You’re gay.” I very clearly heard the voice say it, and my world changed in that instant. Boom. That’s all there is, I’m gay, and after 27 years of living the wrong life, I had to fix it. I could get a divorce, and I could unravel my life, and unfortunately Laurie and William’s lives, and knit them back together in a form that would show William what a truly loving family is.

I went to work that day euphoric. A weight that had followed me my entire life was gone. In those first hours I wanted to tell everybody I talked to. I wanted to be honest for the first time in my life. I came out that day for the first time ever. To a coworker who didn’t turn out to deserve the honor in the end, but that’s another story. Of course my jubilation couldn’t last, I hadn’t discussed it with Laurie yet. That occurred in the sometimes lonely, but brutally honest hours between bedtime and sleep.

Out of the silence of the dark room I heard Laurie say very clearly, “What do you want to do?” It was one of the top 10 eeriest moments in my life. Why she thought to ask on this particular night I wondered, but never asked.

Things had gotten less intimate, a little more “sibling-y” between the two of us, but nothing dreadful had occurred that I could remember. The only things we had ever fought over were Laurie’s housekeeping skills, and that was never really personal. It had gotten to be almost a joke between us by the end. Laurie knows she’s a slob, but she truly doesn’t seem to notice or care 90% of the time. The fact that it bothered me was what we were actually fighting about. Laurie was so bad that even her own mother sided with me. Now I consider it just one of her amusing quirks. So I was sure the question wasn’t coming from a hostile place. At the time all I said was, “I think we should get a divorce.” She said okay, and we went to sleep, or at least pretended to. The two of us never indulged in drama, but also had no true passion. One of them is a useless nuisance, the other you can’t live without.

Luckily the two of us understood that the commitment we had started the day William was conceived would last not just for the 18 years he was our legal responsibility. No, that commitment lasts until the day you die. We knew that Christmases, birthdays, weddings, graduations, and every single little milestone from learning to skateboard, to his wedding day and beyond, would be a shared commitment that we would experience together wether we liked it or not. We knew as well that no matter what we felt for each other, he was the one who would suffer the consequences. So together, silently, and with no real conscious thought, we vowed that from that day forward we would work toward only one shared goal: giving William the family he deserved.

I like to think that’s what we did. Which brings me to the point, in case you were still wondering, William, is my One Amazing Thing.