Worker Bees

Grandpa Phil, with his friend June. Our wedding, March 24, 2001 – Tempe, Arizona

I should know this by now. It shouldn’t take reminding. But it always takes reminding.

It’s like smoker who can’t quite quit; the drinker who can’t quite find that control; the overeater who still struggles to make the right choices; the gambler who has to make just one more play.

We are prone to mistakes; to selfishness; to relapse.

We get wrapped up in our own self-importance; or at least, we think we’re important for the wrong reasons.

And then, time and time again, we are reminded.

Some of us, no doubt, are here to make great inventions, to lead mighty corporations, to take on the job of leading nations and tribes. But for most of us, our jobs are much more simple. We’re here to be here for the ones whom we love, for those who love us or depends on us, for those who need our words for comfort, or our labor for shelter and food.

It’s really that simple. The sum of our work will amount to very little, our individual contributions as immeasurable on a universal scale as a worker bee gathering pollen, producing honey, feeding the nest.

Our work is important, yes. Essential to survival, yes. As important as the honey bee’s to the hive’s. No more, no less. There only can be so many queens.

* * *

Incidents like yesterday’s – Beckett’s sudden onset of immobility – serve as a reminder.

Incident’s like today’s – my grandfather (the last of my parent’s living parents) – hammer the stake in the ground and say, “take notice.”

Grandpa Phil, my mom’s father, was placed in hospice today.

There are mom’s tears, the slideshow memories, the heavy knowledge that despite some serious efforts, I never did collect all those stories I needed to from him.

There is regret and anger and awe. There is sadness and smiles. There’s laughter. So much friggen’ laughter. Grandpa Phil made me laugh, a lot. And vice versa.

For some reason, I can’t shake the memory of the time he took me and two of my cousins down to Orlando. I was such a little 10-year-old punk-ass. I pushed his buttons the whole time to make my cousins laugh. I pushed just to the point he would pretend to backhand me. He’d yell, “God damn it, Eeeeddddiiiiieee.”

And then after a while, I’d just start mocking him, and because he was Grandpa Phil, he’d laugh at me mocking him. I see him in the Orlando sun, in his jean shorts (jean shorts before they were cool, when they were cool, long after they were cool) and his v-neck white T-shirt. Salem cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Hair parted and pushed back. Grandpa Phil still has good hair.

There’s so many images like that. He was an institution in my life. Dragging me around to his many jobs before I was in kindergarten. Me, riding on his floor waxing machine. Me, cruising after a day of work with him to the American Legion. Schmidt’s in a stubby bottle for grandpa, a Shirley Temple for me. And a quarter for the jukebox. You get three songs for a quarter; and the first song I play is always “The Unicorn Song” by the Irish Rovers.

All the old men at the bar, all the grizzled vets know I love “The Unicorn Song” and grandpa knows it, too. And I know now with age that most of them, though they never would’ve admitted it at the time, love that I love that song. It is something simple and pure, something predictable in a world of 17 percent interest rates, and gas shortages and the Iran hostage crisis.

A boy, 4-years-old, so in love with something as simple as a song. I see myself, I did it so many times, standing there, singing the words to the jukebox to myself, and smiling: “There was green alligators and long-necked geese/Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees /Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you’re born/The loveliest of all was the unicorn.”

It’s maybe the most innocent I ever was, that I ever will be. Back to my stool. Sip my Shirley Temple. Grandpa sips his beer, takes a drag off his smoke. “Whatd’ya say there, Smitty?” he asks me.

I’m happy here. So, so happy.

* * *

I see those moments now in my own children.

Sometimes you want to take the stresses of your day and make these kids something they’re not. We place our adult world expectations on these tiny souls, trying to make sense of big, complicated problems. Big parent problems and stresses they can’t understand.

And then they do something; or something happens to you, where you step back and go, “Jesus Christ, they’re just a kid.”

They need compassion and explanation and help understanding the world around them. Not leadership by brute force.

So I’m striving for honesty. I’m striving to not cut short my answers. To not explain with a, “because I said so,” but to communicate, as best I can, the series of events that lead to why I’m sad, or why I’m angry.

I give that same time to you, to countless readers and friends at bars and coffee houses. And I can’t do the same for my own kids? It’s inexcusable.

* * *

Today didn’t start much better than yesterday. Beck came into our bedroom with the pain and stiffness having progressed further up his legs overnight.

He complained they hurt worse, in more places. I rubbed his legs down with menthol, gave him Tylenol, and got ready for work. I needed work today.

This was a surprise, since, before bed last night, he had been pretty mobile.

That’s when Dad called, and told me about grandpa. He’s not been doing particularly well for a while, I guess. His communication has dwindled, lately he’s not wanted to eat.

I called Mom. Told her I loved her.

In the time this took, Beckett was already showing increased mobility. Yes, within 30 minutes. He was clapping his feet together. Before I left for work at 8:30 a.m., he half-ran through the kitchen.

By lunch, he was walking.

A blessing no doubt. A great sense of relief, no doubt.

At 2:30 Heidi called to tell me she took him to the doctor. Now he has an ear infection.

A minor problem, really.

* * *

I came home this evening to all kinds of stories from school, from town. The kids in Beckett’s karate class made him a get-well-soon poster. Others wrote letters to us this morning to make sure Beck was okay.

It only added to the sense of guilt I feel about placing unnecessary worry among all of you.

But it also speaks volumes to the power of community, and prayer and love in our life. I’m so, so humbled.

I think I prayed today more than I ever have in my life. I actually sought out a church this morning; a temple, if only to signify the sincerity of my thoughts and messages. The door was locked. So I gave thanks, silently, on the sidewalk.

I’ve no idea what tomorrow holds. I’m supposed to be in New Jersey a week from tomorrow. I’d like to hold Grandpa Phil’s hand one more time. Say  “God damn it, Eeedddiiieee,” one last time and harass him about those awful Westerns he made me watch.

But most importantly, I’d tell him that he’s played a key role in any success I’ve had. He taught me how to work before I was even in kindergarten. He instilled in me the thought that one could feed a family through work, determination and an idea. But he also scoffed at many of society’s formalities. I kind of like that.

Phil didn’t really know how to be different in front of different groups of people. He was just as prone to pick his ear wax with a key in front of me, as he was a customer at his hardware store, or with the president of the bank he had a contract to clean.

That last personality trait of his has probably been the biggest life tool of all. One I’ve unknowingly followed, and begun to follow more as I’ve gotten older.

We’re just worker bees; and everybody knows it. So stop trying to pretend; and get on with the doing the things you need to do to make sure those around you are sheltered, and fed and cared for.

Drone out the rest. Drone out the unnecessary noise.

– Ed


Scare Bears

Beckett, 12 months-old, January 2006

I look at that picture to the left and I think about what it’s taken just to get from there to where we are today.

I often say that Beckett will be my “Million Dollar Baby” – in that, with all his hospitalizations, he will have racked up close to $1 million in medical bills by his 18th birthday.

It’s a joke, of course. His bills are nowhere near that significant. But Beckett sure does know how to attract some of the more frightening medical conditions, complete with scary syndromes. The kind of stuff that puts parents’ stomachs on the floor.

This morning he woke me up a 6 a.m. It was the shuffling of his feet on the floor that drew my attention. Somewhere in my always on guard subconscious, I recognized that sound. The sound of improperly functioning limbs. I fear that noise. Dread it. Hope to never hear it again.

Still laying down, I looked to my right. He was wobbling at the hips; spurting and thrusting like a drunken zombie.

“My legs hurt,” he said. “I’m having trouble walking.”

* * *

For any survivor, or the family of a survivor of Guillain-Barre, those words set off a chain reactions of emotions; and the demand for an immediate course of action.

I knew he wasn’t faking it. You can’t fake that kind of pain, that kind of movement.

In fact, as I sit here typing, he’s laid out on the couch, legs up, still pretty much unable to walk without a tremendous amount of pain. It’s still insanely scary to watch. I just want to scream, or cry, or – I don’t know what – run down a hall? Run away from it like a monster in a horror movie and run into somebody’s arms that makes me safe. Make it all go away.

But life isn’t like that. You’ve got put those feelings aside and go step-by-step towards where you need to go. In our case, that was the hospital. Immediately.

Upon accepting this, my mind becomes a checklist. Get dressed, give them food (even scared, sick kids have to eat), pull together stuff to pass the time [iPod, coloring books], stop to think “man I’m glad I set the coffeemaker on timer last night – coffee, woo hoo!”, call Heidi, call the grandparents, get to the hospital.

We went to the hospital. They admitted us.

* * *

The nice thing about Beckett’s extensive history; and using the same hospital, is that medical professionals typically don’t F around when they see Beck.

The listen. They take his symptoms seriously. Beckett’s ER doctor did all the right things; checked him for limb strength in the extremities, ran some reflex tests, asked me questions.

Admittedly, after we got to the hospital and I spent some time with Beckett, I noticed conditions that were not consistent with Guillain-Barre. He exhibited strength in his toes and feet; there was no tingling present, and he was exhibiting full range of motion in his extremities, too. The doctor saw the same things – all encouraging signs.

“If it wasn’t for his history,” the doctor said. “I would tell you what your seeing is fairly normal with the flu.”

* * *

They moved us to pediatric ER any way. They drew blood.

And then we waited.

When the doctor finally came back, he said both he and Beckett’s pediatric neurologist were encouraged by the results. The blood work indicated elevated levels of markers associated with muscle inflammation and none of the markers associated with GBS.

“We both feel comfortable with these results,” the doc said. “This is good news.”

The story goes that it’s fairly common for boys Beckett’s age to get this kind of reaction from the flu or other viral infection. The condition goes by several names – but Beckett’s symptoms most resemble something known as benign acute childhood myositis, a type of myalgia.

The symptoms are supposed to go away in a few days. If anything changes for the worst, we’re to call the doctor or make an appointment with the pediatric neurologist.

And that’s where we sit now. In a waiting period.

* * *

As an aside, I have to say that I’m sorry for putting this morning such an immediate fear in those of you who follow me on Facebook. My first reaction is always to communicate with the people I care about.

But maybe the reaction was a little bit selfish, too. I think I needed – or at the very least, wanted – your prayers. It gives me strength and keeps me upright, knowing the so many of you care about me, Heidi, Beckett and Brody.

I often feel in your debt; like there is no way I can repay the love you all provide.

I’m tired this afternoon. Drained and tired. The adrenaline rush has subsided. Heidi just walked in the door, back from her trip to the Los Angeles area.

I need to rest; curl up on the couch and rest.

Maybe need some bacon. And candy. It always seems to work for Beckett.

With love, Ed

Update: In the half-hour since I wrote this, Beckett is up and moving around a lot more. I apologize for the scare this morning.

Right Round Like a Record, Baby

There’s an episode of the”The Wonder Years” which focuses on the hour after Kevin’s father arrives home.

The gist is, the family never knows what it’s going to get. Sometimes dad comes home chipper, ready to talk to the family, sometimes he comes home angry – he might grunt on the way through the door to his wife and kids. But ultimately, he pours himself a stiff drink, grabs something to read and retires to a chair where it’s clear he’s to be left alone.

The only hint Kevin, Norma and the kids have as to which dad will walk through the front door is the manner in which the car approaches, and the way he carries himself when he walks up the driveway.

My family doesn’t even have that luxury; our driveway is too short – to either alter the manner in which you pull into it, or to give anyone who might be peering through the windows a clue as to how you’re feeling.

So Heidi, I’m guessing, has to guess. I know that sometimes she warns the kids – dad’s had a long day; he might be tired; give him space when he comes home.

It dawned on me recently that this takes place quite often; that I’ve now become the dad whose mood is unpredictable.

How the hell did I get here? Where did this come from?

After some long solitary hours in the car this morning, I think I’ve found the answer.

I’m a whiny bitch.

* * *

This whole idea that we have numerous sides of ourselves; that we take on different personalities dependent upon the situation is no great revelation. You don’t behave the same way in a job interview as you do belled-up to the bar with you best pal.

But home life is something completely different. Home life strips you down to your rawest form.

The people who inhabit your home – your spouse, your children – they know you. There’s no hiding from them.

So there’s no point in playing the shell game. No point in putting up some facade they’ll be able to see right through.

So you – or, at least I, anyway- roll through the door with it all there on the surface. Pissed about the day? Not looking forward to tomorrow? Feeling tired? Or stressed? Or anxious?

Oh, emotions, how many ways can you manifest yourself?

Thinly-veiled barbs at Heidi? Check.

Irrational reactions to minor infractions by the children? Check.

Sullen retreat to the computer to do more work and answer one of the hundreds of e-mails that have piled up? Sure. Why not?

The thing that I struggle with most is: Where does this come from?

Any statistician or mathematician could tell you: my life is easy when looked at on a global scale. I make magazines for a living. I live in a squarely middle-class neighborhood with my bills paid and a roof over my head. My wife loves me. My kids are awesome. My social life includes a rich tapestry of friends and opportunities.

I don’t face the imminent threat of war, or of death. I’m not battling a major disease. I have time for leisure.

The only thing I know for sure is that these mood swings aren’t really fair.  Not to the kids. Not to Heidi. Hell, not to me.

Sometimes, in moments of reflection, I look in the mirror and I imagine I’m Bones, aboard to Starship Enterprise, grabbing my ego – which conveniently, for illustration purposes, we will name Jim.

And to Jim, I say, “Get a hold of yourself, man. You’re the captain.”

* * *

I know where all this comes from. All this whiny-ness.

And if one is to have honest communication with their readers, they might as well lay it on the line. Regardless of how embarrassing, or petty, or silly it seems.

It’s the weight.

The weight of responsibility.

The weight of knowing that four mouths depend on me for food, four bodies depend on me for shelter.

It’s the knowledge that there is no conceivable way – at least not in my mind – of throwing your hands up in the air and saying, “Ah, screw it,” and packing up your bags and heading off to London or Cairo or some other far-flung place to write in cafes and get drunk watching bull fights (what up, Hemingway?).

I can see how people – many people, in fact – would view marriage and family as a trap. Because let’s not mince words, marriage and family are a trap.

If one is to be a devoted spouse, if one is to be a devoted mother or father, they must stay in one place – not physically (families certainly move and parents change jobs all the time), but most certainly spiritually.

Decisions must take an entire unit into account; and certain options are locked away. There are doors you can’t go through once you make this choice.

In this regard, the decision to enter into a marriage or have a family are not unlike many other decisions we make. The decision to serve in the military, for example, or to be a first-responder. When you take on those careers, you realize that you will be forced – at some point – to make a decision that might be for the benefit of others and not necessarily yourself.

But here’s the other thing: when you make those career choices, typically, you do so because it’s important to you. It speaks to something about your character – that desire to help others.

So let’s be clear, even if we were to say, speaking purely in terms of definition, that marriage and family are a “trap”, they’re a trap I very much wish to be in; they’re a trap I voluntarily placed myself inside.

My wife and children are the single most important thing in my life. I want them to be safe and healthy and well fed.

And because of that I work.

But, of course, it’s that very work that keeps me away for long periods of time from the things I love most – my wife and kids. It’s that very work that often drives my post-shift mood swings.

Can you see how maddening this cycle is?

We work hard so we can give our families the things they need and deserve; but our work complicates or relationships and strips away our time.

Oh, life’s dilemmas, “You spin me right round, baby/Right round like a record, baby/Right round, round, round”

* * *

There’s something I love about the wisdom of older people. Most of the older people in my life – their wisdom hasn’t come from some great one-liner like it does in the movies. They don’t kick back in their rocking chair, look up from their knitting needles and say, “Ed, you gotta’ focus on the things that matter.”

Instead, they tell you stories. And through the stories you come to realize the things that – with years of perspective – are important to them. Grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles rarely tell you about the condition of their roof while their kids were in high school, or how this one guy in 1987 was driving 35 in a 45 on Priest Drive and they were late to work by 2 minutes and their bossed reamed them out and it ruined their day.

They might tell you things were tough; but mostly they tell stories about the little things that happened simply because they were there: present with their family and in the moment: When dad ripped his pants right down the middle at his first baseball game or how your uncle and your father almost blew each other up when they got into some chemical samples grandpa had brought home from work.

That’s not to belittle all the important things that we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about – like shelter and food and bills. Psychologists will tell you older people don’t tell you stories about those things precisely because they spent so much time worrying about them; we remember, recount and retell the exceptional, rare things in our lives.

But it also serves as a reminder to me that I’ve got to do a better job of putting the whiny away; so that the memorable moments in my life don’t only come during vacations, but during average Wednesdays after work.

To be blunt – and to take the advice my mother has given me many times – I need to get over myself.

– Ed