Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Author: grandpateddy1

Transformation

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day. “Why do you…

My daughter, Abigail, called it first. “Shira’s pregnant!” she exclaimed just after my son, Nicholas, and my daughter in law, Shira, left the house that Christmas day.

“Why do you think that?” Nancy asked.

“Because she wasn’t drinking!”

“I agree,” I said, “But it wasn’t just because she wasn’t drinking.”

At one point in the day, Abigail and Henry (my oldest grandson, 3 at the time) pushed a toy stroller with two doll babies into the room by the Christmas tree and I saw Nicholas glance at Shira knowingly and reach out to touch her hand. He could have used a megaphone and it wouldn’t have been clearer.
To think of Nicholas with a baby was in a way even more mind blowing than the thought of Abigail, our oldest, with babies. Nicholas was always someone who took his time in life. When he was in grade school I got frustrated with him for refusing to learn how to tie his sho

My son, Nicholas, with his newborn daughter, Roen Lilah Page.

es.

“Don’t you want to be a big boy and learn how?” I asked plaintively.

Nicholas replied, “It’s easier when you do it.”

In school, Nicholas followed my not very scholarly footsteps. He’d get good grades in things he was interested in (writing), and bad grades in things he hated (math, Spanish), averaging out to a solid C that never reflected his smarts and extraordinary talent. After graduating from High School he went on to major in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His work was amazing, selected by the faculty to represent the whole class. But in his fourth year, he decided that attending class was somehow optional. To urge him on, I appealed to his visual sensibilities.

“Nicholas,” I said, “stop for a moment and picture yourself in your graduation gown walking across the stage to get your diploma. Once you see it, you’ll create a path to make it happen.”

And he did. A year later, he walked, beaming, across the stage of New York’s Radio City Music Hall to receive his diploma.

His transformation from someone who had to be urged to do something into someone who took it upon himself to make things happen was gradual. I could see it when he decided to woo Shira; at first she resisted, but after years of Nicholas’ dogged pursuit, she relented.

Their wedding on an estate in Waltham was marked by an epic torrential rainstorm with high winds. Everyone watched their phones for the minute-to-minute radar weather reports, which showed a break in the rain that would match the moment of their vows under a giant birch tree. Sure enough the rain paused just long enough for our families to walk across the soggy grass, under the dripping canopy of leaves, to see their luminous ceremony bracketed by the red, purple, pink, white and yellow flowers of the chuppah. Just after their vows were said and we started back towards the party tent, the storm of Shakespearian proportions erupted. It made me wonder if their marriage would be a calm counterpart to the rainy wind-tossed drama of their wedding day, or a storm itself.

Baby Roen (Roe) arrived in September. She is a beautiful, beautiful girl with her father’s big brown eyes and Shira’s lovely expressive face. When Roe wails, nearby glassware trembles as if buffeted by gusts of hard sideways rain. When she babbles, I can sense that it makes perfect sense to her, and it is I who must learn her language. When she whacks the little rabbit dangling from the mobile above her and it spins, she smiles at the revelation that things can be moved.

A photo of Nicholas holding his sleeping newborn girl, she snuggled to his shoulder, him looking at the camera with peaceful content, reminds me of all the pictures I’ve had of Nicholas in my mind over the years, the hopes I had for him, the dreams of what he could do if he put his mind to it, the paths towards success I urged him to envision to make real. The boy who didn’t want to tie his shoes had learned the art of loving determination, and because of that his world and mine have changed—the whole world has changed because Roe is now in it with us.

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Hello Charlie

It took me a while to get used to the idea of being a grandfather. When my children were born I somehow was able to plan ahead emotionally. When grandson…


It took me a while to get used to the idea of being a grandfather. When my children were born I somehow was able to plan ahead emotionally. When grandson Henry was born, it was still a shock even though Abigail and Ryan had given us six months heads up. I think this is because you can’t really be ready for something so completely new; the knowledge that this little baby, your grandson, is part of you, is a continuation of the love you have for your daughter, does not come with an instruction manual—and if it did, it would simply say, “Your life is going to change.”

Seeing Henry grow over the past two years has been fascinating and wonderful. Baby Henry morphed with remarkable speed into the young boy who leaned against the glass at the Natural History museum in New York City, consumed with amazement. And that boy started to talk. Brief words at first, “Up” and “Yes.” Then the statement I heard about two months ago when I walked from the kitchen at my daughter’s house to the living room. Henry, in his high chair, pointed at me with his spoon and exclaimed, “Bipa go poop.”

Within a few months of that profound statement, I saw a photo of Henry on his first day of pre-school. He stood on his front steps, smiling broadly, eyes gleaming, brown hair trimmed, backpack at the ready. I thought, oh, my God — that was so fast! Still a boy, but soon to be a young man.

While the speed of this transition set me back on my heels, I was starting to get used to the idea of being a grandfather. I was content with my self-image as an “older man” but not yet “old” by any definition. I have proudly shared baby pictures in meetings and with people who are practically strangers.

We were with our in-laws, Jack and Kally, one sunny day with Abigail and Ryan, when Abigail said, mischievously, “Henry wants to show you something!” She pulled off his sweatshirt to reveal Henry’s t-shirt that read BIG BROTHER. It was like I’d been in a boxing match, laying on the floor recovering from a right hook, and just starting to rise again when struck with this new revelation. My memories of my four older brothers rose up in my consciousness as if John, Nick, Charley and Calvin at that moment joined me there with Abigail. The memories of us being brothers at my dad’s strangely corporate family meetings every Sunday. Watching the original Star Trek on Calvin’s homemade pay-per-view TV. Hanging out with John, closest to me in age, on a summer afternoon at Lake Willoughby, or digging our real-life Hobbit Hole (that’s another story).

Brothers, from my experience, have a unique life-long bond. It starts when you’re very young, when your eldest bother is making pipe bombs to blow up the family playhouse, and continues into adulthood when you suspect he may be the Unabomber. Or stealing a brother’s Playboy magazine when you’re 13, and calling the same brother 40 years later for marital advice.

And here was Henry, just 2, with a brother on the way. I was so happy for him that he’d have a brother to play with. And equally happy for Abigail and Ryan that their house would become even more lively and chaotic.

Six months later, in early September 2016, Charles Patrick Moore was born. Baby Charlie. I entered their hospital room in Connecticut with a sense of déjà vu. I had just done this two years previous. Except not, because the second grandchild is actually a new experience. There is no description for being a grandfather with two grandkids versus one. You don’t become Grandpa squared. To the rest of the world, you are simply the grandfather of two. The thrill of meeting the second grandchild is not as huge as meeting the first. The threshold is smaller. The child, though, is no less profound.

I held Charlie in my arms and sang “Oh Shenandoah”, gently rocking him. He was a long nine pounds, definitely Page-like in stature. He had been eating like a champ and had already started gaining weight. After I’d held him for a bit, it was time for Henry to have his turn.

Having been through the birth of my son, Nicholas, three years after Abigail was born, I know how the new entrant can cause resentment in the oldest. After Abigail had experienced his little brother for a few days, and seen how much she was no longer the center of attention (and how much Nicholas cried) Abigail implored us to “Put him back!” So I was a little worried about how Henry would react to his little brother.

Henry climbed up in his chair and Ryan gently laid Charlie in his lap. Henry looked a little stunned at the sight of baby Charlie—“what is this?” he seemed to be thinking. But he did know, instinctively, that this baby was a precious thing, a strange thing, a new thing, even a delicate thing (he gripped Charlie’s back leg to keep him steady in his lap). Abigail and Ryan pointed their phones and cameras and said, “Say cheese, Henry!” and Henry obliged, looking up and smiling.

He was used to picture taking. But it was when the cameras were put down, and Henry really stopped to look at Charlie, that a stillness came over him. All the other sounds of the hospital, the beeping monitors, the cries of babies down the hall, the chatter of parents and grandparents, faded away, and in this silence there was only Henry looking—really looking—at his brother for the first time. Henry gently touched Charlie on the head. There was no artifice to this gesture. At two, Henry could not have known what to do in this situation. Like me, he didn’t get an instruction book. There was simply something inside him that made him reach out, brother to brother, for that first touch.

I think of all the times in an imagined future where Henry is pushing Charlie on a swing, or taking him for walks in his red wagon. Or running down the stairs together on a Christmas morning to find presents under the tree. They will, with luck, have many such moments together, and over time their bond will increase, but here at this first moment it was the purity and simplicity of the gesture that made me stop and take note. There are the cameras we hold in our hands. And there is a camera in our minds. This first connection, brother to brother, will always be in the photo album of my mind.

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Having a Ball at 56

Two years ago when I learned that I was going to be a grandfather, I pictured myself as a new kind of grandpa. Not the old infirm kind with a…

Two years ago when I learned that I was going to be a grandfather, I pictured myself as a new kind of grandpa. Not the old infirm kind with a cane, but one that would scale mountains with my grandkids. A proud defyer of age. When Henry was born, I reveled in the comments of friends who could not believe Nancy and I were actually grandparents at the relatively young age of 56. In strolls through Central Park, strangers complemented us on our baby.

My hale and robust grandfatherhood was sweet while it lasted. In April of 2016, during a particularly stressful period at work, my illusion of invincibility was visited by a pain in my lower back, followed by a dull, persistent pain in my left testicle. I ignored it for about a week. But on vacation with the family in Vermont, while Henry ran around playing with his toys, I lay on the couch – exhausted – the pain in my ball increasing. My mental switch was similar to what people go through when they are renovating their kitchens and start to think about cabinet handles. When you’re shopping for cabinet handles you can’t stop thinking about them; you see them everywhere you look – in other people’s kitchens, or even in Quentin Tarrantino movies.

And so it was with my left ball.

My left ball grew in my mind’s eye to the size of a dirigible. It floated, massive, hideous, bloated, above the couch. My left ball filled my dreams, a Salvador Dali painting of my ball dominating a barren landscape.

And joining my ball was a morphing of my back ache, a sensation like a million tiny fingers arcing up from my lower back and tingling every nerve right up to my brain. I had a constant urge to run, screaming, out of my own body.

My right ball was like a twin brother unaffected by it all, staring at his sibling ball with an expression of, “What’s your problem?”

In the past, whenever I experienced minor physical trouble, my instinct has always been to walk it off. I went down that path again with my left ball in tow, trudging through the woods of New Hampshire with friends, in the rain, determined to hike myself back to health. But my ball became my ball and chain. It seemed to lag behind and drag through the mud and stones. That night my ball stayed awake like an evil pet constantly demanding attention, scratching at the door of my mind.

My doctor diagnosed me with Epidymitis. An inflammation of the cord that carries sperm from the testicle to the seminary duct. He put me on an intense antibiotic, glibly informing me at the end of the visit that the drug could in some cases cause retinal detachment, or permanent damage to ligaments. My left ball only laughed at the drug, hiding behind its castle wall of veiny flesh and taunting me in French. After a testicular ultrasound that turned up nothing unusual, a second doctor put me on a second course of intense antibiotics. Within 9 days, while my ball still ached, my mouth and tongue turned white and felt like animals had crawled in and died there. This was apparently a condition called thrush. At the same time, my intestines became bloated and painful. All the beneficial bacteria in my body was being slaughtered in Game of Thrones fashion, leaving my ball untouched at the Red Redding.

I dragged my body, ball in tow, to one of the top urologists in Boston. At this point, six weeks into hell, the simple act of walking felt like both balls where church bells clanging between my thighs. Hot weather was setting in, making my balls pendulous, throbbing, and huge. I was bowlegged as I walked into the doctor’s office. He’d seen this many times before. He said it was likely chronic but it would nevertheless go away in time, probably. His blithe name for it was arthritis of the ball.

Like the old man in Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, I felt compelled to tell my ball tale of woe to everyone; I “stopethed one of three” – even people I didn’t know very well – to tell them all about my left ball. After a few seconds, I could see the looks in their eyes change from passing, sympathetic interest to a desire to slowly back away. Why, they thought with growing horror, was Ted telling me all this? What’s wrong with Ted?

Well, what was wrong with Ted was that he could not believe what was happening to him.

I could not reconcile my own self-image of hearty mid-life grandpa with the bowlegged, ball-dangling grandpa I had suddenly become. And when I looked around me, I realized that a lot of older men walk funny. I wondered, are their balls being clanged like church bells by the Quasimodo of aging? Do they also have ball arthritis? Groucho Marx once said that he would never want to be accepted into a club that would have him as a member. I don’t want to join the society of infirm grandfathers. But it turns out I may not be in charge, and no earthly living thing is, in the end.

Within the past six weeks, a Chinese doctor half my size – Dr. Lu – has jumped on my lower back like it was a trampoline, and inserted tiny throbbing needles, convinced that a nerve in my back that’s connected to my ball has somehow been damaged. The treatment has helped somewhat, but I’m still deep in the woods, and anxious that the damage – whatever it is – may be permanent.

Today, I was supposed to be in Connecticut helping my daughter paint the room for the new grandson due in September, but I didn’t feel up to sitting in a car for three hours and the resulting pain, followed by a day of painting. I do better laying down.

I think that ultimately I will be cured, either by Dr. Lu, Western medicine, or just by time. Time really is the best healer. And time is what led me, after 56 years, to the pure joy of grandfatherhood. So I must embrace time and the challenges of aging equally, for nothing is ever purely bad, and grace can be found in the most unlikely places. Including my left ball.

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No Bed of Roses

People will say that sickness is part of life, but the truth is that sickness has a life of its own. Sickness is a bubbling cauldron of living bacteria, a…

People will say that sickness is part of life, but the truth is that sickness has a life of its own. Sickness is a bubbling cauldron of living bacteria, a cornucopia spilling over with every manner of infection. Sickness is a field of blooming viruses, blood red and bobbing in the spring wind. These other forms of life, the uninvited guests that Poe described so horrifically in his Mask of the Red Death, are to us the ultimate party crashers, robbing us of the health and life we feel we are entitled to. And yet the bacteria and viruses are simply doing what all living things do, going about the business of thriving. They could easily protest that we are the ones crashing their party, when bodies give up and melt into the grass. We are, after all, literally the hosts of the party, and when our doors close they have no place to live either. So this battle goes on daily, and sometimes the toughest survive, or it has nothing to do with fortitude and everything to do with lucky genetic variations that make some immune enough to heal.

The calls and texts from Abigail crescendoed over a period of days. First, Henry had a cough. Then he had a bad cough. A really bad cough that was keeping him, Abigail and Ryan up all night. There was a worrisome rasping sound coming from Henry’s chest. A wheezing. A high fever that would not go away. They took him to the emergency room. Henry was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with RSV – a lower respiratory infection. They put him on oxygen. Put in an IV. Henry, flat on his back and listless, would recoil in speechless horror when the nurses came to take blood or check his vital signs. If he were older than 17 months, he’d have full sentences to explain his terror – “Why is this happening to me?” “Who are these people who keep sticking me with needles?” But all he could say, or scream, was the word no over and over.

Nancy dropped everything and rushed to the hospital in Connecticut. I got a text from her that night that read, “Poor Henry is so sick.” Nancy is a very grounded person by nature, not prone to worry, but I could hear the deep concern in her voice when we talked that night. Most kids will get this particular sickness before the age of two. Henry’s case, however, was particularly severe. When the nightmare of the needle-fingered nurses relented to sleep, his oxygen levels dropped dangerously low, even with the oxygen tube taped to his face. We were sent pictures of Henry in his hospital bed, or sleeping on Abigail’s shoulder as she camped in a chair at three am under the florescent lights that can make even healthy people look ill. The bacteria in Henry’s chest was having a rager. A spring break. A ghoulish frat party. The more sickly the glow of the hospital lights, the brighter their revels.

It’s at these moments when you ask yourself something you can’t even think, and in conversations with your loved ones you can’t even say in words, so you speak around them with questions like, “How serious does the doctor say this is?” And the responses tend to trail off, the ellipses at the end of the sentence speaking volumes of dread, “Well, this happens to a lot of kids, and he’ll probably be fine, but…”

This question is inevitable and natural. It’s the one that’s on the surface that we ask in conversation with our spouse, our kids – the young parents toughing it out with our grandchild. It’s a question that goes deeper, though, much deeper, when we close our eyes and pray. I call myself a non-practicing Unitarian, which some would say is redundant. Churches and dogmatic teachings never meant much to me. But when your grandkid is sick, there is a God. And if there is a God when your grandkid is sick, then there must always be a God. I reached out to God and asked for help in healing Henry. I did point out, in my very reasoned Unitarian way, that I rarely asked for help from the Divine. So maybe this solitary plea might be heard, as if God had some kind of spreadsheet where she tallied the number or requests from mortals.

In my prayer, I pictured Henry in his hospital bed, sleeping. I was there, above the whole scene, creating a loving embrace that could let Henry know that he was not alone in his fight to turn off the stereo at the all night bacteria party. It was time for the partiers to go home. This place was no longer for them. They could continue their party someplace else, but this party was over.

I am convinced, through repeated experiences, that there is in fact a force of some kind that connects all of us, and it connects our families to an even greater extent, no matter where we are on Earth. Underscoring this connection is a river that holds all knowledge and awareness, a river that runs unseen beneath our conscious reality. All of the answers are there. When we listen to it (very intently, shutting off the noise) we know what we need to know. This river doesn’t use a lot of words, only the most important ones. That night, when I prayed for Henry – when I listened for Henry – I heard that he was going to be all right.

Three months later, I walked down to the beach on Lake Willoughby with Henry, Abigail and Ryan. It was a cool early April day, the sky mostly cloudy. Half the lake was still covered in ice. The grass along the shore was still brown. Henry ran around happily in his bright orange coat, picking up sticks – “Sticks!” and laughing as Abigail’s dog, Rory, leapt into the freezing gray waves.

HenryBench

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Ode to Joy

When I was growing up our house in Lexington had music flowing out of every window; my brother Nick practicing string bass or singing at the piano, Charlie’s rock and…

HenryLookingatMe

When I was growing up our house in Lexington had music flowing out of every window; my brother Nick practicing string bass or singing at the piano, Charlie’s rock and roll guitar, my mom’s accordion being played with wheezing gusto, my dad’s booming baritone – “This land is your land…”, or me playing trombone, or singing Bing Crosby Tunes like Pennies from Heaven. The piano was front and center as you entered the house, with various instruments leaning against it like pals. On Christmas Eve, every year, we gathered with our neighbors in the cold white darkness, my brothers and I huddling with our mayonnaise jar candle lanterns in one hand, carol music in the other, going door to door to sing Joy to the World and The First Noel and a dozen others. Singing was so much a part of our lives that it seemed perfectly natural to walk through the woods singing and harmonizing, like elves, or doing the same thing in downtown Lexington. It would have seemed strange to us not to sing.

When my dad was in his last days, long after he had forgotten what a spoon was, he would join us to sing all the old songs, remembering every word and intonation.

When my daughter, Abigail, was in the womb, I would sing her the Beetles’ Goodnight song, softly, “Now it’s time to say goodnight…”, and I’d picture her curled in her velvet blanket, soothed to sleep – and I’m sure in the months after she was born there was a hint of recognition as I rocked her to sleep on my shoulder at 2:00 am, “Good night, good night.”

Both Abigail and my son, Nicholas, sang throughout middle and high school; choruses, madrigals, musical theater. They both had high school trips to Armenia with their chorus, traveling throughout the country. While their repertoire of songs was extensive, it was the traditional Armenian folksongs that were the hit of their shows. Older Armenians would come up to them after each show, their faces wet with tears; during the long years of communist rule, they explained, they were not allowed to sing these songs, and hearing this group of American kids sing them – beautifully – was absolute happiness for them, a liberation. They were so grateful.

And here comes Henry. Christmas 2015. 15 months old, busting out of his shoes with energy, nearly sprinting from room to room (although a little unsteady, as if tipsy with life), playing with some cups one moment, the next holding up a set of newfound keys triumphantly and shouting “Keys!”, then chasing a cat beneath the kitchen table. At his age just entering a house is a kind of treasure hunt. I’d show him one thing, a book, a toy, and he’d play with it for a few minutes then move on to the next new discovery. What, I asked myself after a half hour, could I interest Henry in next?

I went into the living room and sat down at the piano and started to play a simple melody from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Henry came into the room, smiling, and I invited him to join me at the piano. I sat him on my lap and kept playing, singing along with the melody. Henry immediately reached out both hands and started banging the keys, as all kids do.

“No, no,” I said, “We don’t bang them. We play them.” I held his index finger and pressed it onto middle C. He giggled happily and, right away, repeated this with another note and another. He actually created a harmony hitting C and E at the same time. We laughed together, “You did it!” I said, “You’re playing!”

As I held Henry and he played the notes, I had the feeling – I guess you could call it a revelation – that Henry was not discovering the piano, but remembering it. The way he held his hands over the keys and extended his fingers, striking down with purpose and delight, the position of his wrists, the pure sounds that reverberated up through the old oak of the piano and the sounding board within.

Abigail captured the moment with a picture: Henry striking a note, perhaps his very first note, and looking up at me with an expression of joy, his Ode to Joy, played as only a fifteen month old could do. Whether he is a budding Horowitz, or simply another one of us – a person inclined to sing on hikes up Mount Washington or through the cool green woods – doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he’s on the path. I think music in some way will be part of his life. And perhaps someday this old piano of mine will be his, and his family’s instruments will lean up against it, ready for another get together when everyone’s gathered around it, not worried about a missed note here or there. The TV will be off. The stupid smart phones will be banished. And if I am very lucky, I will still be there to add my voice to the chorus.

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Blueberries

There is a point when babies go from babyhood to boyhood. One minute, seemingly, they are bundles of pink, interacting with us through howls and smiles, eating and pooping and…

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There is a point when babies go from babyhood to boyhood. One minute, seemingly, they are bundles of pink, interacting with us through howls and smiles, eating and pooping and peeing, and the next they are people. This transformation happens all the faster when observed from afar, as a grandparent. We don’t always have a chance to see the micro-moments building up to the change. We get a photo on our phones that says, “He took his first steps today!” And a video where he says, “Dad!” And we think, “Wow, that was fast.” It seems like such a miracle, even though this is happens a million times a day with a million children, and it always has, and that’s why there’s humanity.

With Henry, it was month 11 when it all started to happen. At the beginning of that month (August) there were the first steps, and an increasing number of words. And by the time I saw him at the end of the month for our family vacation in Vermont, the tentative steps had become more confident; he was practically sprinting. The first words, like “Dad” and “Down”, led to more complex shades of meaning, like “Yellow”. And more than this, much more, there was a recognition in his eyes when he saw me. I was grandpa.

Nancy had a cold that week and tried to limit her contact with Henry so as not to get him sick as well. Which meant that more often than not I was the one on the floor with Henry playing with blocks, stacking one on top of another, or running the plastic trucks across the carpet. Or sitting with Henry in mealtimes, talking with him, handing him the stray nibble of peach or bagel. Henry smearing his hands through the food bits and gooey yogurt, leaning sideways in his highchair, smiling like someone at a bar who’d had a lot of beer. Me commenting on each kind of food, asking what he liked best. Henry saying “na-na” (the closest he could get to banana) as Abigail or Ryan doled our more deliciousness.

In the lake on a warm, sunny day, Ryan and Abigail put Henry in a floating duck. At first Henry looked amazed, almost stunned. What was this? The whole idea of floating on water, the sense of the cool water, the fact that he could run with his feet beneath the surface and never touch ground. As we pushed Henry between us, projecting him across the surface, he smiled and giggled. A very happy duck.

As the week progressed, Henry kept changing fast right before my eyes. It occurred to me that I was also changing. Months ago, when I picked him up, I felt tentative. It didn’t seem like he was fully comfortable with me yet. I was still a stranger. But as each day passed, more and more I smiled broadly when he saw me, and held out my hands and said, “Come to grandpa.” And gradually, a little more every day, he did. He’d walk to me, arms outstretched like mine, and fall into my embrace. I’d pick him up, both of us accepting this now, me no longer a stranger.

On Saturday morning, it was time for Henry to go home to Connecticut. Abigail and Ryan were busy packing up all their stuff – a LOT of stuff. I’d forgotten about the flood of things required to care for a child. It was a beautiful day. I felt sad they were leaving. The week had gone by very fast, and I wished they could stay a few more days. I held out my hands to Henry and said, “Henry! Let’s go for a walk!” I picked him up and walked out into the field in front of our house. It was this field that I had imagined I would walk in with my grandchild back in February when Abigail first told us she was pregnant. The image I dreamed then, with my grandson walking as I held each of his hands, had come true. When I wrote a poem about that dream, I didn’t know if it would be a boy or a girl. So that blank had been filled in. It was now Henry in all his 11 month old glory, walking with me through the grass, his hair slightly ginger, his eyes beaming as he journeyed with me on this adventure.

We came around to the front of the house where, thirty years before, my mom had planted blueberry bushes. The bushes where were now six feet high, with bunches of ripe berries on each branch. I picked Henry up and rested him on my thigh, and picked a berry, “Oh look, Henry!” and popped it in his mouth. He chewed it with delight, and pointed at the bush hungrily, and I gave him another. This was clearly a whole new concept for him, that yummy food wasn’t just something that appeared on his high chair tray. It was out in the world, hanging on branches, and all we had to do was walk out and pick it. I could feel a connection between my mom’s planting the bushes, and Henry – who she never had a chance to see – enjoying the fruits of her labors. If there is a heaven other than the one Henry and I were already in that day, then mom was there, too.

When Abigail’s car was all packed and Henry tucked into his car seat, Nancy and I waved. Henry smiled, paused for moment, then waved back.

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Henry on Top of the World

As the youngest of five brothers, I always thought that when I had a family I would have five kids. I loved our brotherly banter, the hubbub of five, stuffed…

TopOfTheWorld

As the youngest of five brothers, I always thought that when I had a family I would have five kids. I loved our brotherly banter, the hubbub of five, stuffed in a van playing cards, joking constantly; this all seemed like the natural state of what a family should be. But after having two kids by the time I was thirty, I started to second-guess having more. Abigail plus Nicholas did not equal two; more like 4. Between juggling our jobs, daycare, the late night homework sessions, shuttling to and from soccer games, Nancy and I were both fulfilled and exhausted. I pored it all over in my mind. Was two enough? Nancy and I talked about it many times. On the one hand, we told ourselves, it would be nice to have a third baby, but even the prospect of having just one more child seemed overwhelming. We decided that the two wonderful kids we had were enough, a boy and a girl. We were done.

When I neared 40, I had a vasectomy; I didn’t want to chance a pregnancy. In the operating room, the doctor played Lou Reed’s Wild Thing. Before he started cutting, he looked me thoughtfully in the eye and asked, “Are you ready?”

Lou Reed sang, “Wild thing. You make me Cra-zey!”

I hesitated just for a second. Then said, “Yes.”

About a month later, the dreams began. I felt myself hugging a child close, the child’s head nestled to my shoulder so I could never see his or her face. I felt the child’s warmth and love. And her sadness and hurt that I didn’t want her. I wept because I knew this was the third baby I could never have, severed from my future by the surgeon’s blade. I felt the child yearning to be with me, silently asking, “Why did you not want me? Why?” The dreams came on regular basis. A horrible longing to see and hold the child I had decided not to have. I wanted so much to hold my third child and see her face. I wanted to raise him as I had Nicholas and Abigail, to see them playing with him. The fact that this could never be was like what I imagined amputees experiencing as a phantom pain in a leg that was no longer there. What had I done? Each time wakefulness neared, I felt the child clinging to my shirt, hugging me, not wanting to let go, but knowing we had to say goodbye, that this life could never be. I said I was sorry. So sorry. I’d wake up sobbing. Then, a few nights later, like a child’s knock on my door, the dream would come again.

I considered having the vasectomy reversed, but decided against it. A lot of times it doesn’t work, and (I told myself, trying to convince the inner me) that the time to have my very best children had passed. I already had the best children. But that didn’t stop the dreams.

Over a period of five years the dreams occurred less and less, almost as if the third child started to give up on me. I didn’t want to play, so she went somewhere else. Or he felt too hurt to keep showing up and not be my real child in life.

Meanwhile, Abigail and Nicholas grew up. In hindsight it’s all in fast motion, but in the moment it was a richly layered experience in real time, the pencil marks on the wall showing their height gradually rising higher like sunflowers in a garden.

Last week, Nancy and I babysat our grandson, Henry, while Abigail and Ryan took their first trip since having the baby. We went for a walk in Central Park, pushing Henry’s carriage along the winding paths. The park was vibrant with all kinds of people bustling through, performers dangling puppets before delighted toddlers, tourists from every country snapping selfies, bike carriages weaving around joggers. It was early May, with beds of pink, red and yellow flowers bursting in patches along the walkways; a really happy place ¬–¬ but Henry was not happy at all. Usually when he’s in the carriage he’s cheery, or he falls asleep. That day, though, he was fussy – possibly from a tooth coming in. Nancy and I had to take turns carrying him to stop the crying. At one point, remembering what I used to do with Abigail and Nicholas, I put Henry up on my shoulders. I’m six foot six inches tall, so Henry had one of the best views in New York. He quieted down as we walked along, making cooing sounds and tapping the top of my head.

This is the part of the story where it’s tempting to tie everything up with a bow, but real life doesn’t fit so neatly in that box. I know the third child who visited me in my dreams will never be, and perhaps never was. Maybe she was my remorse at having to close the door on parenthood, and I know that he may visit again when I’m 90. And that’s ok. I can live with that. When you love your kids, you’re carrying on the love your own parents gave you, and that cycle of giving and sharing continues. It is in fact unstoppable. Henry, sitting on my shoulders on top of my world, smiling up at the trees and the big buildings and the great sky over Manhattan, made me feel content, and at peace with all my decisions that led to that moment. And a day later, when it was time to go back to Boston, I gave Henry a hug, and said goodbye.

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Henry’s First Solid Food

My life these days is sprinkled with little clips of magic that arrive on my phone when I’m in the middle of thinking of mundane work things – a meeting…

My life these days is sprinkled with little clips of magic that arrive on my phone when I’m in the middle of thinking of mundane work things – a meeting I have to prepare for, something I need to write for a client – and PING I have a new text message from Abigail with a photo or video of Henry that blows my mind. The latest was this video of Henry experiencing solid food for the first time. How can such a momentous thing fit on such a tiny spoon? In the not too distant future, Henry will grab a slice of pizza before a mid-term exam. And not too far after that, perhaps he’ll prepare a meal for his family. But here in his highchair, this unexpected world of food is still a fresh bright gift. I expect I’ll be thinking about this when I put chicken on the grill tonight. It won’t be the first chicken I’ve ever tasted. But I will pretend it is.

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In Praise of Grandmothers

My grandmother, Harriet Fish – always just ‘Gram’ to me – was an extraordinary woman. My Gramp, Frederick Fish, was a successful salesman, and Gram didn’t have to work, but…

Airplane 3

My grandmother, Harriet Fish – always just ‘Gram’ to me – was an extraordinary woman. My Gramp, Frederick Fish, was a successful salesman, and Gram didn’t have to work, but she chose to work hard anyway as a national leader of the Girl Scouts. She met Gramp when they were students at Middlebury College, and married just before he shipped off to France as a pilot in the Great War. She was smart and sophisticated, a lover of poetry and hymns, strong willed and intense as the gusts that blew in off Lake Willoughby to the porch of her homestead. Her hair was red, though grey by the time I knew her. I picture her now at a family Bar-B-Q, 1966. Her cream colored Jackie Kennedy-esque dress tightly fitted to her five foot four, wiry frame; her nose angular, hair pulled back, chin up, one arm planted on a hip, a cocktail in the other hand, grinning at the excellence of the day.

She adored her two children, my mom and my aunt Lois, me and my four older brothers, and my three cousins. Adored us with an unabashed pride. She’d stand amidst my six-foot-six tall brothers and look up at us if she’d come across a forest of redwoods, and proclaim, “Isn’t this marvelous to have all you boys here today? It truly is marvelous!”

Gram was small but tough and rooted firmly in her conservative outlook and Church of Christ faith. She believed in God devoutly, while my own mom (perhaps reacting to her strict upbringing, thought all religion “a bunch of hooey”). Gram’s maiden name was Myers. She’d come from a family that had immigrated from Germany in the mid-1800s, and there had been some conjecture that perhaps the family had been Jewish and converted to Christianity upon arrival in America, something Gram denied.

Gram was a member of the John Birch society until she had an encounter with a member who asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No,” Gram replied.

“Well,” the man said haughtily, “You have all the attributes.”

Gram resigned her membership on the spot, forever disgusted by their bigotry.

When my mom had her first baby, Calvin, Gram showed her the ropes with an efficiency and thoroughness worthy of a girl scout merit badge. Baby bathing, feeding, dressing, holding, check-check-check-check. It was the kind of crash course required for any young mother at the start of the baby boom. Good thing, because mom had five of us between 1948 and 1959, all boys. All huge.

Mom made no secret about wanting to have a girl, a yearning that only grew with time after each brother was born. I was her last effort, after which she gave up and got a dog, a chocolate lab she named Holly. When Holly had puppies, mom singled out the females and tied little pink ribbons around their necks. So when my eldest brother Calvin and his wife, Marcia, had a girl – mom’s first granddaughter – she was ecstatic. Mom’s whole life had been dominated by boys and men, all of us tall and constantly hungry despite the giant vats of macaroni and salad and the gallons of milk and roasting meat by the tub and the cornucopia of her garden consumed as if by a marauding hoard, plus the endless stacks of hidden Playboy magazines, the fist fights, not to mention Calvin’s homemade pipe bombs (as adults, my other brothers and I suspected Calvin to be the unibomber and carefully read the manifesto in the New York Times for clues). And suddenly, miraculously, quietly ¬– without any birth pain of her own – here was Laura. A girl at last! Mom immediately began sewing pink dresses by hand.

Mom was thrilled when our first child was born in 1986, another girl! It had taken a generation, but the genetic roulette wheel was finally spinning mom’s way. Nancy and I would have been equally happy with a boy or girl. The big thing for us was that we felt totally clueless in the ways of parenting, and were isolated from our far-off New England families. We lived in a third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn, way before this part of the city was cool, and certainly before we were “ready” to be parents. We’d read all the parenting books, of course, and Nancy had done her share of baby-sitting, all of which amounted to roughly nothing as this little baby girl, this totally new thing – our beautiful Abigail – squirmed and screamed in her crib. Was she ok? Why was she making that noise? Was the baby getting the right nourishment from breastfeeding? I remember that feeling of absolute terror of not knowing, the fear that I wasn’t holding her right, that something might break. When Nancy and I gave Abigail a bath, it wasn’t a joyful thing as I’d thought it might be; it was horrifying. What if Abigail slipped from our soapy hands and went under and got water in her lungs and drowned? At night, as Abigail lay in her bassinet, I’d lay awake straining to hear her breathe, deeply worried she’d stop.

During this time our telephone became so important to us, because in the dark heart of a Brooklyn night, it was our only link to my mom. The phone was our hotline for all things motherly. Nancy’s mom, Dorothy, was a help as well. But there was something about my mom’s surety, knowledge and firmness that was especially reassuring. Abigail, we learned, would not break so easily. Babies had somehow survived bathing and diaper changing and all manner of sickness for millennia, and Abigail would pull through as well.

When we did manage to span the distance between Brooklyn and Northern Vermont where my mom and dad lived, Abigail was soon in mom’s total embrace, riding her hip as she stirred dinner on the stove, being cuddled and kissed, being tucked in and read to at night. It was as if Abigail was mom’s baby number six, the one right after me, and no time had passed at all.

And last but far from least in my grandmother chronicle is Nancy, my wife of nearly thirty years. Nancy exemplifies a new breed of grandmother for our time, Henry’s time. She is five foot seven, with long wavy brown hair, lively and funny and curvaceous and fit and active. She works out a lot and looks ten years younger than her age. Nancy has an extraordinary strength, and above all a belief that “everything is going to be ok.” While others are holding their cheeks in tragic parodies of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” over the latest insurmountable worry (honestly, that’s me, I own it), Nancy just marches through it all and comes out the other side. It’s like she has her own force field. An avalanche of boulders would just bounce off her.

When Nancy holds Henry, she beams. A wide, joyous smile, eyes lit up. “Hi,” she says, “Hiiiii.” And Henry, no matter what mood he has been in up to that moment, beams right back. He coos with delight. Who would not?

This past week Abigail had a meltdown. She’d been working three days a week as a speech therapist at a school for special needs children. Henry had not been sleeping well, often waking up at 2am and staying awake for long stretches. In addition, his daytime naps had become a struggle because he refused to sleep on his back and would scream bloody murder for hours in protest. If he was placed on his stomach, he’d fall asleep instantly, but the pediatrician was adamant against stomach sleeping because of the danger of SIDS. The numbing fog of sleep deprivation, coupled with the drive to excel at work and prepare for the parent teacher conferences, plus the tiny New York apartment; plus the demanding dog; and the cat that didn’t like the dog and resented the baby (to the point where it took a dump on their bed in feline protest); plus [insert worry x, y,z here] all came to a head suddenly like wires overloading a circuit and Abigail broke down in choking sobs. She felt she was doing it all wrong. She was so busy at work and so incredibly tired she was doing a billion things but none of them well. She didn’t even have time to call back her friends who left messages of support. It was all too hard, too much.

Nancy got on the phone with her and helped her through. Everything Abigail was feeling was normal. Henry’s screaming fits were normal. Abigail herself went through a period where she refused to sleep. Abigail was actually doing a really good job. She was, in fact, a good mom. The grandmother hotline worked again, a line from one state to the next, a voice of experience to guide a daughter through the rough waters. But in a larger sense, a line that extended back to my mom, and Gram, and back through time hundreds and thousands of years, maybe to Eve herself.

Grandmothers, you see, are the glue of the world. They are the ones who have been there, through all the pain and heartbreak and happiness. They raised their children well, and now it’s all coming back to them; the wisdom they gathered as young parents is blooming again. To share and comfort, to be strong, to touch a baby’s head softly so even just the touch makes him calm down. They know what temperature to keep the bottle. They know the meaning of each type of crying, they can read baby poop like mystics analyzing tealeaves to predict the future, the onslaught or retreat of sickness, or whatever needs knowing that Google could never answer or dream or imagine.

They know, I think – all of them, every last one – from Boston to Bombay and all the lands between, that everything, every little damn thing, will be. All. Right.

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Henry at the Museum

It was a fine January day in Manhattan, the sun and frost vividly bright, as we bundled four month old Henry into his stroller on West 74th street and headed…

HenryMuseum

It was a fine January day in Manhattan, the sun and frost vividly bright, as we bundled four month old Henry into his stroller on West 74th street and headed off to the Museum of Natural History, me and Nancy and Abigail and Ryan side by side. When I had suggested to Nancy that we take Henry to the museum that Sunday morning, she was hesitant. “Isn’t he a little young to appreciate it?”

“He’ll love it!” I replied, not 100% sure he would but knowing that I would.

Henry was in his furry brown bear suit with only his eyes peaking out. This level of insulation on a four month old is similar to a space suit worn for a moonwalk. You know there’s a person in there somewhere. Henry went to sleep almost immediately when we started walking, but when we entered the museum he stirred awake, and before long started to get fussy. The side entrance to the museum that allows for strollers leads into a multi-story area devoted to space exploration; a huge bulbous white structure rose above us like a space ship that had recently landed, so Henry in his own furry bear space suit – now with his little arms waving – resembled a tiny astronaut in distress. Abigail lifted him out and rested him against her shoulder, which did nothing to calm him down. The thought that he was indeed too young to appreciate the museum occurred to all of us, but we’d already paid our admission fees and chose to continue our mission to go where this baby had not gone before.

Abigail and Ryan teamed up to peel the bear suit off of Henry and took turns carrying his cranky self farther into the museum. As a grandpa, Boppy, I found myself rediscovering the process of trying to understand why Henry was fussing. Diaper need changing? Hungry? Tired? Maybe, or maybe he just needed time to orient himself and wake up after his journey through the Manhattan outer atmosphere.

We entered the section of the museum devoted to mammals of North America. I remembered being there years before when Abigail and Nicholas were little. So here I was, instantly – it seemed – transported to a future where I was a grandfather, walking possibly across my old footprints to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains and their myriad beautiful beasts.

In case you haven’t been to the Museum of Natural History in New York, I’ll paint a picture of it for you. The museum, established in 1869, has wood paneled walls that open onto glass enclosed vistas designed to showcase animals in their natural habitat. The glass for each showcase is around twelve feet high, and as much as twenty feet wide, the taxidermied animals frozen in poses like photographs you’d see in National Geographic, amidst rocky landscapes or grassy vegetation, with beautifully painted dioramas that extend far off into the distance. The rooms with these exhibits are kept dim and mysterious, so that when you come upon a showcase the light of the whole scene glows with an invitation to explore.

And it was at the first case we came to that the natural world in all its glory was revealed to Henry. I can’t recall now if it was bison, or elk, or panthers shimmering behind the tall glass; I think I can’t remember that detail because it was the look on Henry’s face that transfixed me. Abigail held him up by the glass so that his feet stood on the railing; his whole face was transformed with wonder. His eyes went wide, his little jaw dropped slightly as if to say, “Oh!” I remembered my dad telling me that we adults should “never lose our capacity for wonder,” for it was this ability to see the world with wonder, with all its magic, that allowed us to be fully alive and discover new things with the same delight as a child. Henry was lit up like a twenty-pound living light bulb of wonder. It was all so new to him, so extraordinary. What was this THING before him? There was no point of reference for this vista, this animal (what is an animal anyway?). It was just pure awe. It was amazing for Henry, and it was extra amazing to see him being so amazed. We snapped a picture that captured the moment; the best thing about the picture is the reflection of Henry’s face in the glass.

We moved on and visited other animals and other places, and while Henry was curious, it was clear watching him that these other animals, just as beautiful as the first one he saw, could not equal the first one. There is, after all, in all our lives, only one first moment when we see the first giant and amazing animal shining behind the tall glass in one of the world’s most beloved museums. After that the sensory bar has already been raised and it might take something on a whole new level to bring back the wonder that my dad cautioned me to never lose. But I do think, for me, that I have surely not lost my capacity for wonder, for that’s what I felt when I saw Henry at the museum.

Henry got cranky again about an hour later, as babies do (diaper, hungry, tired?), and Abigail bundled him back into his bear suit for the journey back to West 74th. Ryan and I peeled off from the expedition along the way to get takeout from Shake Shack. It was one of the best burgers I’ve had since I was a kid.

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