Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Category: STORIES

The Trial

Simply saying the words “my father” in the opening sentence of this story gives away the happy ending,… …but this is the risk I have to take when telling you…

Simply saying the words “my father” in the opening sentence of this story gives away the happy ending,…

…but this is the risk I have to take when telling you of the courtship of my mother by the WWII Navy Lieutenant who would form half of me, and my mother’s father—the Air force Colonel who believed (unreasonably) that no man was good enough for his daughter, Janet. That Janet had some say in who she married was true, but when facing my grandfather, Fred Fish, even my strong-willed mother was surely put to the test.

Gramp, as I called him, was a Vermonter who had flown a biplane in the First World War. Six foot three, a giant by the standards of the day, he had sandy brown hair, a long soulful face, and eyes and wit that sealed the deal for the young ladies of France (and later, occupied Germany). Gramp was known as a ladies man. As such, he knew all about men and what they were capable of, and by the time he’d matured in life and rejoined the air force to fight the Nazis, his faith in MANkind was at a low point when he learned that Janet and the Lieutenant were serious.

A deep, mysterious lake would decide my father and mother’s fate.


Both Bill and Fred were on leave at Fred’s farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, staying at the family farmhouse on the shores of Lake Willoughby—a place of such rugged beauty it deserves description as a central character in this tale.

Five miles long and one mile wide, Lake Willoughby was formed when a glacier crawled down from Canada and gouged out a hole five miles long and one mile wide, forcing a large mountain to give way in its center, tossing massive boulders aside in slow motion, and leaving behind a deep blue green lake with sheer rock cliffs on either side. Eagles and hawks and ravens and seagulls and all manner of birds swoop and circle around the cliffs and lake. When storms come in, the cliffs funnel the dark clouds and push them like more boulders towards the line of red and white cabins that dot the shore. The surface of the lake is sometimes flat as glass, but more often it is a tumult of tall waves and white caps, like something you’d see and hear at the ocean.

The lake is deep. Very deep. For the glacier was intent on plowing up all in its path, its roots burrowing down to yank every possible scrap of soil and rock up and out, up and out of the way. And when the thaw came, the water—bone cold to this day—filled the void.

A depth that conceals many secrets.

On a sunny day, you can look down into the depths and follow the light rays for a few feet, knowing that beyond your sight is a blackness that chooses not to give up its secrets. Hundreds of feet down it goes, to a place where trout the size of small horses lumber about in peace. Once in a while an ice fisherman in February hauls up some monster. You can see the Polaroids at the local store. The fish are so big it’s like they’ve been photoshopped. The fishermen clutch their fish’s mammoth body and smile at the camera, part happy and part wondering in the back of their minds if they are holding something prehistoric; not really a trout at all; something that would eat them if they hadn’t stuck their hook in first.

Travel across the lake down between the mountains and no matter what kind of boat you’re in, you can feel the deepness of the lake. It’s like gravity. A force that is always there. We are guests on this part of the lake, skimming across its surface only by invitation of the deep, a temporary and frivolous guest.

And it was here, down between the mountains, that Bill took Janet one day in August of 1943. He’ borrowed the forty horsepower outboard motor from my grandfather and attached it to the small wooden rowboat.

In my grandfather’s eyes, no man was good enough for Janet.

Fred Fish had been cool to him all weekend, this young fellow who thought he was going to marry Janet. Yes, it’s true my father was also tall – six foot three. Yes, he was a fine looking young fellow who served with the Navy. Yes, the young man had seen combat at the battle of Okinawa.

None of that meant he deserved Janet. Not by a long shot. Bill had graduated from Tufts, a good school, yes, but Bill had quit the football team in his freshman year. What kind of man EVER quits a football team? Not a good sign. No, not good at all.

Janet was surely a fine catch.

Five foot ten, with long brown hair and brown eyes and an oval face that lit up when she smiled. She was smart. She had a wit that could chisel granite. “Fun” didn’t even begin to capture the sheer delight she showered all around her like rain glowing white in the sun. No wonder Bill fell for her. No wonder Fred was not ready to give her up.

Bill and Janet puttered out from the beach and set a course for the southern end of the lake, the part faced by the twin rock cliffs.

The deep part.

It was a lovely summer day, but the waves were picking up with the increasing wind as they hummed closer to the mountains. Going against the waves and wind, it took a good forty-five minutes to get close to the cliffs. Nobody else was there, so who knows what they did when they arrived there; maybe a kiss, far from Fred Fish’s disapproving eye. For Bill, this was not only a time to be with his true love, it was time away from the war. A little bit of peace out there on Lake Willoughby, far from the kamikaze horror.

He kissed her, she kissed him.

They gazed into each other’s eyes. And maybe at that moment Bill was reaching into his jacket pocket to take out the box with the ring; he was just about to shape his mouth into the words, “Will you…”

…when suddenly, for no reason aside from maybe the tossing of the boat in the rising waves, the outboard motor fell off the back of the boat and disappeared beneath the waves.

Bill stared in shock at the place where the motor used to be. Janet covered her mouth with her hand, “Oh no!”

“Damn,” Bill said.

The entire time I ever knew him, this was the toughest swear in his vocabulary. But whenever he said it, he poured so much anguish, anger and disgust into the word it became condensed in the extreme.

Hope. Sunk.

Fred Fish’s prized forty horsepower outboard was gone. And with it, Bill knew, any chance of Fred allowing his lovely daughter Janet to have anything to do with him. His marriage plans, you could say, were sunk. And not in just any piece of water. That motor had gone down in the deep part of Lake Willoughby, a place that laughs at you for trying to understand it.

Second Lieutenant Bill Page grabbed the oars. But before the first pull, he took note of the spot they were bobbing in, and jotted in his memory the longitude and latitude of where the motor had dragged his hopes to the bottom of Lake Willoughby.

Bill rowed for an hour to get back.

He said not a word, his jaw set, his eyes fiercely intent. Janet cried.

Fred Fish was waiting on the shore. The fact that Bill was rowing, and the motor was no longer on the back of the boat, was all Fred needed to know. He stood there, glowering, as my tearful mother went to him with no words to say.

Bill was gone for ten minutes. He returned with a large bundle of rope and a grappling hook. And with only a dark look at my silently judging grandfather, pushed off from shore.

What happened next would decide Janet and Bill’s fate. And I would not be a grandfather today if the outcome had been any different.

You know, of course, because I gave it all away in the first sentence, that Bill Page rowed through high waves down between the mountains, and under the stare of the rocky cliffs he took note of his position, and lowered that grappling hook down, down, down, hundreds of feet of rope down, his entire future life dangling there, the whole life ahead where he’d have five sons and many grandchildren, all of it so tenuous as to be completely hopeless to anyone but a man who loved Janet Fish so much he could not give up, and he got that grappling hook around that motor and hauled it up, the sun starting to lower and the wind rising higher and higher, and he hauled the motor like a giant fish into the bottom of the boat, and he rowed the four miles back with clenched teeth, and just as the dusk came to the sky with red and yellow streaks across the clouds he pulled the boat up onto the shore, exhausted, and went and found Janet and her father at the farmhouse.

When my father, grinning now, explained what he had done, Fred Fish slapped his knee and laughed uproariously.

And then Gramp did something he’d never done before to any man who’d ever come near his daughter, the women who would soon become Janet Fish Page. He smiled, and patted dad warmly on the back. “Well done,” he said, “Well done.”

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Band of Brothers

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but… After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got…

My mother really wanted to have a girl, but…

After giving birth to my four brothers she tried one last time, and had me. Then she gave up and got a girl dog (Holly), as if this was her way of telling Mother Nature that here, at least, she had some control over things. But Holly was just one small female addition to a situation that was never in control. Today as a grandfather of two grandsons, I understand the special chaos of boyhood, and see it through the lens of my own experience as a brother.

Brothers in an explosive childhood.

Growing up in a house with five brothers, all gigantic and constantly ravenous, was like being in some kind of nature preserve, only the walls could not keep us from spreading our particular brand of mayhem throughout the town of Lexington. My eldest brother, Calvin, made a habit of hacksawing the tops off of the parking meters and using the timing device on his homemade pipe bombs. It didn’t help matters that my father, a chemical engineer, built a full chemistry lab in our basement. Explosions were so frequent that we barely flinched when a bomb went off that shook the whole house.

There was chemistry in our birth order as well.

Calvin was the eldest troublemaker, so much so that we later in life suspected he was the Unabomber. Next was Charles, an Eagle Scout who was always trying to stand up to Calvin, as if saving us from Calvin’s bombs would earn him another merit badge. Then came Nick, the middle brother, who saw himself as the diplomat between his two older brothers, and the two youngest—my brother John and lastly yours truly, sometimes not-very-affectionately referred to as Baby Teddy. John spent much of his childhood looking torn between abject terror and complete indifference. And I, running along behind them all as the firecrackers stuffed into the walls of the makeshift dam in the backyard exploded, was the spectator to the greatest show on earth.

A trial by fire.

We brothers finished each others’ sentences. We tried and failed to avoid each others’ farts. We knew where the older brothers’ Playboy magazines where hidden. We climbed mountains together, and ran down. As the youngest, I wore their hand-me-down shoes, and I cried when they left for college.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King rouses his troops to carry on the battle—

“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

I don’t think it a coincidence that the greatest writer the world has ever known used brotherhood as the ultimate clarion call of unity and love. We five—Calvin, Charles, Nick, John and me—were our own band of brothers, we happy few who thought nothing of devouring an entire pot of macaroni at one sitting, or shot cannons (no, really) packed with gunpowder and nails, or combined the gasses from an industrial blow torch to fill balloons that made terrific explosions when ignited; a trial by fire it was, with mom and Holly, the family’s sole representatives of humanity’s better half, seeking cover.

When I see my grandsons, Henry and Charles, playing and laughing, all of my memories of the times I played with my brothers are right there in the room. The toys my grandsons play with (Paw Patrol!) may be new, yet the dynamic of play is the same. There are times when they will fight over a toy, but I know that behind every shout of “Hey, that’s mine!” is a deep appreciation of what is theirs together, a common adventure into adulthood they will never forget.

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Boxes Really Are the Best Toys

Every year we search out the toys our grandkids will love, and every year we re-learn something we knew when our kids were little—there’s nothing quite as fun as playing…

Every year we search out the toys our grandkids will love, and every year we re-learn something we knew when our kids were little—there’s nothing quite as fun as playing with the cardboard box toys came in. Boxes have a way of firing up the imagination. In the mind of a four year old, a box is a castle, a secret room, or a submarine. Maybe we should skip the toys altogether and just give boxes on birthdays and holidays. Or, maybe not.

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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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