Those Words

Hot summer evening in Texas.

I’m about nine years old, I think, outside in the front yard with Mom and Dad. They’re probably finishing up yard work, and I’m just playing, like nine-year-old boys do on summer evenings.

Dad loved working in the yard. Loved it. He took great pride in having a terrific-looking landscape, and he busted his butt for hours to achieve that goal.

This great love for yard work was a gene that definitely did not duplicate to any of his sons, I assure you. Just sayin’.

Anyway, our dog, a little toy fox terrier, is out there with us. Not a good thing; he’s supposed to be in the backyard with the gate shut, or else, he’s got the green light to take off down the street, with me in hot pursuit. So far, fortunately, he’s chosen to just stay close to us in the yard, so Dad tells me to grab him (the dog, not Dad) and return him to the backyard and close the gate. (which, by the way, yours truly probably left open, causing this situation in the first place. oh, well…)

One problem: Just as Dad’s telling me this, the dog decides he has to pee.

So I stand there and wait for him to finish. Rude to interrupt him, don’t you know; I certainly wouldn’t want anybody grabbing me when I’m right in the middle of taking a leak. Besides, some of it may get on me. Ewww.

Well, you know what comes next. Soon as he finishes, he takes off running, and my chance to just grab him is lost. Great. Now I gotta chase him again.

That’s when I hear Those Words. The words that have stayed with me from that day to this:

You idiot!!

Why are you such an idiot??

 

Ah, fathers and sons. A historically complicated relationship.

My father was a good man. He truly was.

He worked hard all his life to provide for his family. He was determined his sons would all get a college education, something he never got; he knew a degree would open a lot more doors of opportunity for us. He had a big heart for people (and animals), and would help anyone in need as much as he could. His faith was a huge part of his life; he loved God and did his best to be a loyal follower.

He also had a wonderful, wicked sense of humor, always making wisecracks and playing pranks. He couldn’t help being the naughty boy. He was the court jester, providing those around him with a good laugh.

He took me to ball games. He took me fishing and swimming at the lake. He played catch with me. He played board games with me. He patiently listened as I recited TV commercials and comedy routines I had memorized. And he laughed at the punchlines.

He told me he loved me. Often.

I feel genuinely sorry for all the people who had fathers who beat them, or molested them, or abandoned them, or neglected them, or always came home drunk, or in any other way put their families through complete hell. I know I’m one of the fortunate ones; I was raised in a stable, loving family environment, for which I’m so glad. And my father was one of the main reasons for that.

I loved him. I looked up to him. I wanted to be just like him. He was perfect in my eyes. So, what happens when such a person looks you in the eye and calls you an idiot?

When you’re nine years old, it totally crushes you.

I went into the house and fell on my bed, crying. I was certain I had just failed him beyond measure. I hated myself for being such an idiot.

Unfortunately, as I grew, it was hard to shake that feeling. See, Dad had this…tone sometimes when he talked to you. It was very condescending. You could ask him a question, and he would answer in a way that made you sorry you asked. You would end up believing he thought you really are an idiot, whether he actually said it or not.

So I resolutely held on to the belief that he thought his youngest son was the dummy of the family.

And no amount of “I love you”‘s and “I’m proud of you”‘s could totally wipe that away. I still could seldom times look at him without imagining him looking back at me and wondering how he could have been stuck with such a stupid son.

If he ever told me he thought I was smart, I don’t remember. Selective memory, I guess; it wouldn’t have fit my perception of what he actually thought of me.

And, see, I know he didn’t mean what he said that day; he was angry, and don’t we all know, we say things in anger we never really meant to say.

But that doesn’t make it hurt any less to hear.

Now, please understand, this isn’t a Dad-bashing. I really loved the man, and am forever grateful to him for all he did for me. I don’t hate him. I don’t resent him. I’m not blaming any failures or missteps in my life on him; I own all that. I’m not wallowing in self-pity over a “troubled childhood”.

I just wish he’d never said Those Words. Or, at least, had apologized for saying them.

So this is for all you dads out there, about to enjoy Your Day. Even though I’m not a father myself, I had one once, and I’m telling you…

Please, please choose your words carefully when you talk to your children, even in anger. Especially, in anger. If you say something you don’t mean, apologize, and reassure your child you love him or her. Those Words have a much greater impact on a child than you can ever imagine.

Oh, and all you sons (and daughters) out there: show some love to your dad this weekend, and the rest of the time, too.

Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad. Sixteen years after your passing, I still miss you.

And I still love you. Like always.

I Hope You Knew

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I had a terrific mother.

She took really good care of her baby boy. She cooked what I wanted to eat, even if it wasn’t what everyone else was having. She looked after me when I was sick, which was pretty often. (Of course, it helped that she was a registered nurse.) She took me to school in the morning and picked me up in the afternoon. She tucked me in my bed and kissed me good night. She held me when I cried.

She had a great sense of humor, which was essential for life with our family, ’cause Dad was a practical joker, and my brothers and I were all smart alecs. She loved to laugh, and did it often. And she had a smile that could only be measured in megawatts. Honestly. You could see the room brighten up when she smiled. (I submit the above photo as Exhibit A, B, C…)

She was a very warm, very giving person, always concerned about others’ welfare, and doing whatever she could to help. She saved a woman’s life once who was having a heart attack in church. She looked after my two oldest nieces one summer while their mom was in the hospital. Those are just two examples. She was so compassionate and caring.

She came to me one day when I was eight, and told me she’d signed me up for piano lessons. I remember my exact response as, “You what??”

I mean, come on! Eight-year-old boys don’t take piano lessons! Eight-year-old boys play ball, and other boy things!

But she saw something in me. She saw I had a knack for music, and she wanted to see me develop that. So she saw to it that I practiced regularly (which I hated!) and she came to all my recitals, and she envisioned me becoming a concert pianist one day. (That, of course, didn’t pan out, but that’s another story.)

But Mom loved me very much. She loved my two older brothers, too. Her boys meant so much to her.

I just wish she hadn’t died when I was sixteen.

 

It was a hospital screw-up.

She had gone in for back surgery. While she was in recovery afterward, someone had administered phenobarbital to her as a sedative. Problem was, no one bothered to check to see if she was allergic to phenobarbital.

Which she was. Highly.

Needless to say, that set off a chain reaction of calamities that ultimately led to heart failure and death. (I’m the same age now she was when she died; just realized that. Kind of a chilling thought.)

I didn’t even know about any of this until many years later. I was told not to come to the hospital that afternoon; just go next door and hang with my best friends until someone came home. I didn’t know anything had gone wrong at the hospital. All I knew that beautiful, starry January night was that my brother came home to tell me Mom was suddenly gone.

People started coming by that night to offer sympathy and support. Dad finally came home, slowly shuffling in with the longest face I’d ever seen on a person. He and I walked straight to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, knelt by the bed and prayed. I think I was basically numb through all those hours after I first received the news.

I couldn’t cry that night. I tried to, but only managed a few perfunctory tears. Maybe I was just too shocked. It probably still hadn’t hit me with full force what just happened.

Until the next day.

I went to school, and spent the whole day in some sort of fog; I was there, but not really. I came home and spent the afternoon with family, and later they went to the funeral home. I don’t recall why I didn’t go the same time as them, but I’ll never forget what happened later that evening. I walked tentatively into the room where Mom lied, my father and my brothers and their wives waiting for me. I started to sign in, like a guest, and one of my brothers gently told me, “That’s all right, little brother, you don’t need to sign in.”

I slowly approached the casket, where my sweet mother lay in peace. I looked down at her beautiful face, absent that megawatt smile.

And that’s when the floodgates opened. I just broke down crying, and kept it up the rest of the night.

It finally hit me. Mom was gone. Really gone.

 

She called me the morning of her surgery from the hospital before she went into surgery and I left for school. She told me to always be a good boy, and that she loved me.

That was the last time we spoke. Forty years ago.

And I didn’t tell her I loved her.

And the thing that has haunted me to this day is: I never told her. Not once. Not even in response to her saying she loved me. Not even that day. It never occurred to me that would be my last chance.

You know why I didn’t? This is so stupid. I was embarrassed.

It embarrasses me to tell someone, “I love you”, except for my wife. I don’t know why; maybe I feel like it puts the other person in an awkward position. Maybe I’m afraid there will be tears, which makes me feel awkward. Maybe I worry the other person won’t say it back.

But I let those excuses hold me back from saying what I should say more often, to more people. And it held me back from saying it to my mother.

And now, I don’t even have the chance. And believe me, I would give anything to be able to look her in the eye just once to say, “I love you, Mom”.

So, for Mothers’ Day, if your mom is still around, please tell her you love her, while you still can. Even if it embarrasses you. If she isn’t, then wrap yourself in the warm memory of the time she spent with you, and all the many ways she poured her love out for you.

And if you truly don’t love her, perhaps because you feel she’s never loved you, my heart goes out to you; that is a pain that I, luckily, never knew. I wish you comfort and, maybe, even resolution one day.

Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom. I Love You. I always have.

I hope you knew.

 

P.S. – To my wonderful stepmom: Happy Mothers’ Day to you, as well. I love you very much. I am so glad you came into our family’s life. You are one of the kindest, friendliest, happiest, most down-to-earth, most relentlessly optimistic people I’ve ever been lucky to know. Always know how special you are to me. Blessings on thee.

 

The Little Devils

There are two faces in my life that never, ever fail to make me smile:

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They came into my wife’s and my life eight years ago, when they were just itty-bitty kittens at the local animal shelter. We had been “petless” for a few years following the passing of our sweet dog, and when we finally decided to get another pet, my wife asked me if we could get a cat this time.

Sure, I said. I love cats and dogs, along with a few other animals. Animals are increasingly becoming much more favorable company to me than people. Draw your own conclusion from that.

Anyway, we started our cat search, which eventually led us to the shelter where these two sweet black kittens were. They were sisters. The lady at the shelter told us black cats were usually the last ones to get adopted; they were deemed not as pretty as other cats, people were superstitious, etc. We said, enthusiastically, “We love black cats!” We think they’re beautiful, and besides, my brother-in-law had one that was the coolest cat I’d ever known. (Here’s to you, Nicky; you were sumthin’ else.)

We hadn’t originally planned to get more than one, but these two were family, and so sweet together, so we decided we couldn’t break up the team; we had to have both of them. And so it came to pass that we took Lizzy and Izzy – the names we gave them – home that day.

We always ask ourselves now what we ever did before we had cats. They have added so much joy and hilarity to our lives.

(Incidentally, if someone else asks what we did before cats, my standard reply is, “Had nicer furniture.”)

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It’s amazing how animals can have distinct personalities, just like people. Izzy’s the happy-go-lucky, personable, attention-hungry, loudmouth chatterbox. I mean, she can go on and on and on!! She will not be denied when she wants something, usually lots of hands-on treatment. She’s hyper, too; about the only time she holds still is when she’s sleeping, which she loves to do under the covers, so she can stay toasty-warm.

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Lizzy is the more moody one. She’s as sweet as can be, but she doesn’t seek attention as much as Izzy. Really, she kinda goes through phases where she either wants no attention or a lot. You’re affectionate to her on her terms.

Also, she gets pissed at Izzy pretty regularly. These two are so jealous for Mom and Dad’s attention, and when Lizzy’s getting it, Izzy just can’t help being a pest and trying to get some, too. That’s when Lizzy hisses at her. Although, she has been known to hiss at Izzy for no other reason than just being in the same room as her. (Poor Izzy)

They have their similarities, though. They both love getting in boxes, large bags, (Lizzy especially loves those) and laundry baskets. Anytime we bring home something new, whether it’s for them or not, they have to investigate it right away; our little detectives. Even if we move a piece of furniture from one place to another, they’re inspecting it like something they’ve never seen before. They like lounging in any part of the house where the sun is shining in. (Got to maintain their tans, don’t ya know?) They like chasing each other through the house, at breakneck speed. They both like playing ball;  if you roll a ball to them, they’ll slap it away, like feline soccer pros.

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And they’re both really interested in what my wife and I are eating. We don’t feed it to them, but they certainly act willing to eat it. Lizzy’s interested in chips; Izzy has what my wife and I call “chocolate radar”, which reliably goes off anytime one of is having something chocolate.

They’re a great comedy duo. Sometimes, my wife and I will be watching TV, and we’ll quit and just watch these two instead, because they’re much more entertaining. (Of course, for a lot of TV, that’s not saying much, but I digress.) I tell them all the time that they’re a riot.

And they’re so graceful. They just jump up wherever they want and make it look absolutely effortless. We just watch in amazement.

Sure, sometimes they do something we wish they hadn’t – my wife has dubbed them The Little Devils for their mischievous antics – but we can’t really get mad at them, because they’re just so darned cute. One look at those sweet faces, and we’re just putty.

And they know it; I’m sure of it.

They’ve got us right where they want us. It’s their house; we just live in it. It’s like the saying goes, “Dogs have masters, cats have servants.”

But, trust me, we don’t mind a bit.