Sunday, December 25, 2005

epiphany

Shortly after 3 a.m. on December 25th, I finished wrapping the last of the presents for my thirteen-year old son, Brendan. As I mentioned in yesterday's post, I have raised him on my own since his mom passed away when he was three. After the final present was wrapped and put in place, I sat in the room in silence with the lights from the tree providing the only illumination. I looked up at some of the sentimental ornaments and thought back on some of the Christmas mornings that had come before. In particular, my thoughts went to the first Christmas that Brendan and I had spent on our own.

Growing up, my parents always strove to make each Christmas special and filled with wonderful traditions. Elizabeth's childhood had been similar, and when we started our own family we had both looked forward to making the same type of memories for Brendan. The picture at the top of the page is from the last Christmas that he and Liz shared together. The delight in Brendan's expression from playing with his new talking Elmo book is topped only by the joy on his mother's face as she takes in her son's smile.

As the first holiday after her death approached, I desperately wanted to do what I could to make up for her absence as Brendan awoke that Christmas morning. I was 29 at the time , and in hindsight, I was projecting my own feelings of loss somewhat onto my young son. Not that there is ever a good age to lose a parent, but a three-year old doesn't experience the same grief and comprehension of permanant loss as that of an older child. It still would be a little time before he would realize from talking with his new friends at preschool that he was the only one in class whose mommy lived in heaven.

I tried to compensate for our situation by going overboard with presents that year. When he walked down those steps on Christmas morning to see if Santa had come, I wanted him to be overwhelmed at the sight before him, in the misplaced hope that a room full of toys might make up for his mother not being there. To put the icing on the cake, I picked up one of those electric-powered cars that kids can sit in and drive with a working steering wheel and gas pedal (at a breakneck top speed of 2 mph.) As a kid, I had always wanted a go-cart for Christmas, and it was one of the few items in my annual letter to Santa that never was fulfilled. It was a little expensive, but I rationalized the purchase as a one-time indulgence to make up for this unusual holiday.

I woke Brendan up and went through the same routine that my father had gone through on Christmas morning when I was a child: "I think I heard hooves on the roof last night--do you think Santa really came?" Brendan smiled broadly in anticipation and I told him to wait at the top of the stairs while I went down to turn on the lights for the Christmas tree. "Oh my gosh," I exclaimed after the tree was plugged in, "he really did come--I don't believe all of this stuff! Come on down and see!!" Brendan bounded down the steps and was stopped short by the sight of all of the presents that awaited him. His eyes grew wide as he looked from wall to wall, and then got even wider when they settled on the electric car in the middle of the room. In a few moments however, I would be the one finding myself overwhelmed.

Brendan first ran up to sit in the car and turn the wheel from side to side. He then hopped out and began to go from present to present, some of them without any wrapping paper (as I had run out) but all of them with Christmas tags on them. He paused after taking a quick look at them all, and the excited smile was soon replaced by the beginnings of a frown. He checked a few more presents, and then walked over towards me with a look of concern on his face. I began to worry that my efforts to distract him with the sheer quantity of presents had failed, and asked, "What's the matter, buddy?" He reached up to hold my hand, and with his eyes brimming with tears said, "Daddy, Santa didn't bring you any presents..."

I was speechless for a moment and had to blink back tears myself. I knelt down to hug him, and assured him that Santa had brought my presents to Nana & Pop-Pop's house, which was my parents' house that we would be traveling to later in the day. I told him that Santa knew what an extra good boy he had been that year, and that he had wanted him to enjoy these special presents all for himself. The smile quickly returned to his face, and soon he dove back into the ocean of gifts and started tearing off wrapping paper to discover one new toy after another.

I sat back and was blown away by what had just happened. A lot of people feel that Christmas has become too commercialized, and that the true meaning of the holiday has been replaced by excess. I had played right into that stereotype, thinking that a room full of gifts might make up for a missing parent. But it took a child able to ignore all of the material things that surrounded him to focus on what was most important, putting compassion for another person ahead of his own feelings. Looking back on it now, I realize one other thing--Brendan and I were not alone that morning. Elizabeth was there as well, our angel watching over us from on top of the tree. She had already filled our hearts with a gift that we would be able to open in year after year: love.

Friday, December 23, 2005

tag, you're it...

I had been tagged by LadyLongfellow to list 5 weird habits about myself, so not wanting to incur a horrible blog curse by breaking the chain, I set to work...

Here are the rules;

“The first player of this game starts with the topic. “five weird habits of yourself,” and people who get tagged need to write an entry about their five weird habits as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose the next five people to be tagged. "

1.) I need caffeine in the morning to get going, but generally don't like coffee. So I will drink about six cans of diet soda before lunch, but I have to alternate between diet Coke and diet Pepsi each time.

2.) Whenever I climb into a bed with the sheets all tucked in, I have to kick and push them loose. I can't fall asleep if my feet and legs are all scrunched in...

3.) Ever since a really bad case of food poisoning several years ago, I won't eat any leftovers beyond the first night in the fridge. It wouldn't matter if the food was inspected and certified by the Food & Drug Administration and the Homeland Security Biohazard Unit--it's still going in the trash at the end of day two.

4.) I love to read but have found that I just can't read two books at the same time. It doesn't matter if it's the suckiest book ever written--I have to slog through to the end before I can begin reading the next book.

5.) This last one isn't weird, except in the sense that I haven't written about it before in over three months of blogging. I have a thirteen-year old son, Brendan, whom I've raised on my own since he was three when his mom passed away ten years ago.

Well, those are the top five...and I'm sure that I could continue to go on listing things for awhile.

Since it took me some time to get around to posting this, it looks like alot of people have already been tagged and went on to tag others. So I won't tag anybody at this point, but feel free to copy and paste the rules at the top and start tagging on your own...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

a.f.a. (a friend always)


On Saturday afternoon I drove up to Connecticut for a holiday party being thrown by a high school classmate and her husband. Actually, Patty and I first met in kindergarten at St. Ann's grade school, and she is probably one of my oldest and closest friends that I have. She and Scott have thrown a big Christmas party in each of the eight years that they've been married, but due to family or relationship commitments I had never been able to attend before. In light of the fact that I had recently been laid off, I thought that a change of scenery with a close friend would be a great way to spend the weekend.

Thankfully the traffic was light, so I made the drive up from Philadelphia in just about three and a half hours. I had offered to show up a little early to help with the set-up, and after catching up for a few minutes, Patty asked if I wouldn't mind downloading songs onto their I-Pod while she and Scott finished getting ready, as apparently her previous parties always seemed to break out into dancing as the night (and drinks) continued to flow. I spent the next hour putting together my own DJ "TJ" dance mix, and only gave a moment's notice to an email notification that popped up briefly with the words "re: Bad News..." in the subject line.

They live in a fantastic home overlooking a small lake, and Patty had done a wonderful job decorating the various rooms with a number of distinctive touches. My favorite part was walking around looking at the pictures of their daughter Anna, who was now eight months old. I didn't know it at the time, but Patty and Scott went through an extremely difficult period of about three years before Anna was conceived, with repeated attempts of hormone pills, fertility shots, artificial insemination, and finally in-vitro fertilization. She had only shared their experience with her family and her two closest friends from college while she was going through everything. It turned out that all three women were experiencing various types of fertility issues, and from the emails that flowed back and forth they ultimately wrote a book, The Conception Chronicles, that was just recently published this year. The majority of the writing had been done by Patty, since her experience had been the most challenging and had covered the entire gamut of fertility procedures. I was blown away by the depth of the book, full of honest humor and heartbreaking loss, as she and her husband struggled to cope with the pain that followed from each unsucessful procedure for month after month on end. Happily, all of the physical and emotional setbacks were finally rewarded with the birth of their beautiful daughter Anna in April.

The party soon rose to full-swing as the house filled up with about forty guests, most of them neighbors, coworkers, and other couples that they had met in their birth class. I have spent the past month conducting my job search primarily on my own from home, and I soon relished the chance to once again engage in a face to face conversation with another person that did not simply end with the phrase, "Here's your receipt...have a nice day!" I was like a roving talk-show host: moving from one small circle of partygoers to the next, asking several follow up questions about jobs, children, and most interestingly, about how each couple met. The responses provided all sorts of encouraging stories --from coworkers finally confessing a mutual attraction to each other, to a successful love connection through a response to a profile on J-Date. From time to time Patty would come over and join in the group, telling various funny stories about our growing up together, and laughing at how she had put me to work for the party with the I-Pod assignment as soon as I had walked through the door. She laughed each time that I assured each group that the choice of music had been placed into good hands, and that the dance floor would soon come alive with my featured selections from the Oak Ridge Boys and Weird Al Yankovic.

Several hours into the evening, Patty motioned for me to join her over in a small family room off of the kitchen, away from the main party. We each sat down on the corner of an adjoining couch, and I congratulated her on a great party and thanked her again for inviting me. She thanked me in return, and said that it had meant a lot to her that I was there this year especially. Her smile faded and she looked down at her hands as she shared some bad news that she and her husband had just received. About two months ago they found out that she had gotten pregnant again, and they had been estastic that this pregnancy had happened relatively quickly after the extreme efforts that they had gone through to conceive Anna. But just several days before the holiday party, Patty had gone in for a scheduled check-up and found out that the pregnancy had failed. Her face clouded over and she burst into tears. Through her crying she explained that her doctor had advised her to wait until she miscarried naturally in a few days, so she was still carrying her baby inside of her. They had only told a few people, and I realized that this was the bad news referred to in the email that had popped up while I was downloading songs at the computer to their I-Pod.

I quickly moved over to her couch and put my arms around her, and she buried her head against my shoulder while her body began to wrack with sobs as her sorrow poured out. She wondered aloud why something like this would happen, when she and Scott had already been through so much with Anna's conception. She asked how I had dealt with everything after Elizabeth's death, and then the death of my mother and later, my father. She wondered at how I had been able to keep such a positive outlook following such painful losses. I told her that I believed that sometimes things do happen for a reason, and that sometimes one loss might, in the end, prevent a bigger loss down the road. The way I look at it, my wife's accidental death from a food allergy could have happened at any point in her life--whether we were married or not. Since we had met through a somewhat random sequence of events that brought us both to the same rehearsal on the first night of that particular season, I considered myself lucky to have had the chance to spend even just three years with someone whom I loved so much. I told Patty that maybe this miscarriage might have prevented a greater loss later on, like a complication in childbirth that may have taken both of their lives, or a random fatal accident one day in the future as she drove that child and Anna on some baby-related errand, an errand that she would not be taking as a result of this pregnancy ending now. And I pointed out that my mother had miscarried once before I was born, and if that baby had been carried to term, then I would not be here today.

Her tears began to subside as she considered what I had said. She kept repeating that she knew that my being there at the party this year must have also been for a reason, to help her come to terms with this sudden heartbreak by sharing my own experience in dealing with loss. Her husband Scott wandered into the kitchen, and after doing a slight double take upon seeing his wife sitting there with her head on my shoulder and my arms around her, I quickly motioned for him to come over and explained as he got near that Patty had just shared their bad news. I stood up and Scott took his place beside her, and after a few more moments to catch her breath, she agreed that it was probably best if she called it a night. She thanked me again for being there, and then Scott led her to their bedroom to put her into bed for the evening.

After taking a few minutes, I made my way back downstairs to where the main party had begun to move. I spent the next hour mingling with more of the guests, and then noticed a slight commotion as people started to turn their attention to something behind me. I followed their gazes as the room began to fill with applause, and soon saw Patty standing at the top of the stairs, a smile on her face as she modeled her latest wardrobe change. In place of her sleek black holiday dress and new black boots, she was now wearing her pink flannel pajamas and fluffy white socks. The cheers grew louder as she began to descend the stairs, and Scott went over to their main stereo system to plug in the I-Pod. While most of the credit goes to Will Smith for helping everyone at the party to start "getting jiggy wit' it"--as I watched Patty begin to whirl around the dance floor with a care-free smile on her face, I was glad that I had been there this year to do my part, in some small way, to help a friend get back on her feet. High school yearbooks are filled with empty promises to stay close and keep in touch, but with Patty, I am fortunate to have known one person in my life who can truly be called a friend. Always.
_______________________________
That's our kindergarten class picture at the top of this post, which I recently found while going through some old papers. That's me in the bottom row on the left in the white turtleneck and blue vest, and Patty is in the top row on the right in the white shirt and red dress.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Like a virgin (part 2)

I drove around Brigantine looking for a quiet spot, and finally parked in a secluded parking lot at the far north end of the island. I suppose I was hoping against hope at this point, but still not sure how far Jackie wanted to take things. I turned the engine off but left the radio on, and within minutes we were kissing. She seemed just as into it as I was, if not more, so after awhile my hands began their normal wandering, stopping first at her chest, and meeting no hesitation, eventually moving further south. After several more minutes of mutual fumbling with buttons and zippers with a stick shift and middle console between us, Jackie suggested that we move to the back seat. It dawned on me that I had finally received the signal waving me in from third base that I had been waiting for all of those years.

We moved to the rear of my two-door Ford Tempo, and after she slid over into the corner of the backseat, the rest of our clothes were off within seconds. I knelt before her in the wheelwell, and I still remember my exact thought at that moment: "This is actually going to happen." I also became distinctly aware of a song that began to play on the radio, "Hell is for Children" by Pat Benetar. Having been raised in a strict Catholic upbringing to that point, I had a momentary thought that this might be some ham-handed sign from above to pause and stop things before committing a mortal sin. But as twenty years of pent-up desire were about to be unleashed with this beautiful, naked girl before me, a choir of angels could have appeared overhead singing "Ave Maria" and I still would have gone for it.

Any other concious thought totally left my mind from that point, as I moved closer and positioned myself just above her. Jackie reached down and guided me the rest of the way, and I was overcome by the warm sensation that surrounded me. My body began to act on its own as we moved together, and Jackie closed her eyes and kept saying my name over and over. While male pride might tempt me to embellish the story at this point, I'm sure that things reached their climax for me shortly after the song reached its final refrain. (For the record, the playing time is listed at 4:55.) We both sat back, flushed and breathing heavily, and after a while made nervous jokes about being sure that we weren't related and wondering what her uncle and my dad might say if they saw us right then. While my youthful exuberance had resulted in an abrupt finish to our first time together, on a positive note it also allowed for me to be ready to go again in about fifteen minutes. We picked up again where we left off, and this time things lasted for several songs.

I drove Jackie back to her apartment, and we shared a knowing smile the next morning as everyone said their goodbyes before making the journey back to their homes. I remained in Pennsylvania while she lived in Florida, and we kept in touch briefly over the phone and through letters but soon lost touch. After finally experiencing sex after so many years of anticipation, I soon began to make up for lost time, with my confidence growing with each new partner. Looking back on it now, that first time will always have its own unique spot in my memory, and I could not have been more lucky to have shared it with someone like Jackie, who made the experience completely natural and exhilarating.

About 10 years later, Jackie got back in touch to let me know that she would be in New Jersey to visit another family member that was living there temporarily. I picked her up at her relative's house and took her out to a restaurant in Philadelphia. There was a bit of nervous small talk as we first began to catch up on our lives up to that point, and it just so happened that neither of us was in a relationship at the moment. Dinner lasted for several hours, and then I suggested that we go out dancing at a nearby club. Now I was the one leading her onto the dance floor, and fortuntately I had developed a couple of new moves over the years to add to my routine. There was that same energy between us as we began to slow dance, and eventually we wound up going back to my house. Even though we hadn't seen in other in ten years, there was a familiarity there as we started to kiss, and then later headed up to the bedroom. I have no idea what song was playing in the background as we moved towards the bed, but this time the two of us soon found a rythym of our own.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Like a virgin (Part 1)

Recently I was reminiscing with a friend about that seminal moment in my younger days when I finally took that first step towards becoming a man. No, I am not referring to the day when I passed my driver's test and became a fully licensed driver, no longer dependent on my parents to drive me around on Saturday nights. I am speaking, of course, of the first time that I had sex. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, my experience is no more noteworthy than anyone else's, but it remains pretty high up there in the top 10 highlights of my life so far. Oh, and it just so happens to involve Pat Benetar and Madonna.

I had just turned 20, and while the topic of sex had occupied most of my thoughts since junior high school, I had never really had the opportunity up to that point to act upon them. I had been more of the funny guy in my teen years, and most of the girls were only interested in dating the stars of the football and basketball teams. Going out with a junior varsity member of the golf team didn't quite have the same cache for the cheerleader crowd. And my freshman and sophmore years at college were spent pining after girls who were focused on the popular fraternity guys. I did wind up making out and doing some heavy petting with girls along the way, but I had a knack for finding the ones who were saving themselves for marriage, so while I was eager to make that final move towards home plate, I seemed to be always held up at third base.

Things finally changed the summer after my sophomore year in college. I was on vacation with my family in Brigantine, a small island along the coast of New Jersey directly north of Atlantic City. For over thirty years, my father's side of the family would travel from all over the country to vacation there at the beginning of each August. I became very close with my cousins, all of whom were older than me and who always included me in their plans, even helping me sneak past the bouncers to get into the local bars while I was still under 21. I was related to my cousins from Chicago through their dad, who was my father's older brother. That summer, they were also visited by relatives on their mom's side. (It is important to note at this point for legal purposes that I was in no way related by blood to the person to whom I eventually lost my virginity. We were in New Jersey, not West Virginia for pete's sake...)

Their mom's sister flew up from Florida to stay with them that week, and she brought along her 21 year-old daughter. Jackie was absolutely beautiful--long blond hair, striking blue eyes, and let's just say that she had a figure that would have allowed her to land a job at Hooters on the spot, without the formality of the mandatory aptitude test and necessary references. She also had a very sweet personality, and was completely down to earth. I spent the entire week developing a bigger and bigger crush on Jackie, but never even dreaming of acting upon it because

a.) she was completely out of my league, and
b.) she was my cousins' cousin and I couldn't imagine even trying to put any moves on her in front of them.

So I just spent the week talking with her about everything and nothing, and making her laugh with whatever dumb joke that I would come up with on the spot.

On the last night of our vacation that week, my cousins decided to go out dancing at one of the nicer bars on the island. Since I was still underage and trying to look the part of a suave, man-about-town, I got dressed in my finest polyester shirt and thin leather tie from the Chess King. (Keep in mind that this was the late eighties...). Jackie, who all week long had been pushing the fashion envelope with what only could have been described as punk/chic, was the last to emerge from the summer apartment as we all waited by our cars. She walked out in an outfit that would have made Madonna blush. She was wearing a white pleather jacket with fringe hanging from the sleeves, over several layered lace belly shirts, with a short white denim miniskirt and white knee-high boots, also with fringe around the tops. Her hair was piled high and tied with lace ribbons, and she had what I would estimate as about 27 rubber bracelets adorning each wrist.

Don't get me wrong--to my 20 year-old eyes she was still smoking hot, but to my oldest cousin Donald, who was just shy of his 30th birthday, it was open season for mockery. Don is a great guy and when it comes to family he be can fiercely loyal and protective. But he is also extremely blunt, and won't pull any punches with his other brothers or sisters, or in this case even his cousin. He began to tease Jackie and was soon joined in by my other cousin Michael, who was just several months older than me. Jackie soon ran back into the apartment in tears, and it took my cousin Marguerite a good 30 minutes to console her and reitereate what a complete asshole her brother had been before she re-emerged.

We all went the bar in separate cars, and Jackie was clearly still feeling uncomfortable about what had happened. I spent most of the night talking with her near the edge of the dance floor, repeating what a jerk Donald had been and sincerely telling her that I thought she looked very pretty that night. And I was saying that simply to console her, because as mentioned above, I felt that she was totally out of my league and out-of-bounds as far as I was concerned, and I wouldn't have tried to put any moves on her--not that I had even developed any moves at that point in my twenty years of unintended bachelorhood anyways. So I was pleasantly surprised when she smiled and kissed my cheek, telling me how sweet I was for trying to make her feel better. And I was completely caught off-guard when she grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. To say that I was an awkward dancer at that point is being kind, but she was a trooper and acted like I was the only guy out on the dance floor.

Mercifully, a slow song finally came on and I began to make a break for the bar, but she took my hands again and put them on her hips. She wrapped her arms around my neck and put her head on my shoulders. It was all I could do at that point to not trip over my own feet, and after awhile I began to imagine that this is what it must have felt like to be the high school sports star dancing with the prettiest cheerleader. The slow songs finally came to an end and we all went out to our cars after last call. I had followed my cousins there in my own car, and was surprised when Jackie asked if she could get a ride with me, hopping into my car before I could answer. Again, she was my cousins' cousin, so in spite of the instant erection that I had developed as soon as her body had pressed against mine during the slow dancing, I was still not imagining that things could possibly go any further. I drove her back to my uncle's apartment, and after my cousins all filed inside, she turned to me and said "Let's go somewhere private."

(to be continued tomorrow with Part 2)

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Isn't it ironic...

I think it was Alanis Morrisette, or perhaps Lil' Bow Wow, who sang about life being ironic--you know, something about it raining on your wedding day while a fly landed in your chardonnay while your new girlfriend goes down on you in a theater. No, wait--I think I'm mixing up the songs. After awhile, the indignant anger and manic rage in all of her lyrics start to run together...

Anyways, considering the underlying themes of my last two posts, irony came up and gave me a swift kick in the ass recently. It seems after blogging about 'things happening for a reason' and posting a picture of me complaining about having to wear a tie for work, I was called into my boss' office on the Monday after Thanksgiving and was let go. There had been an uneasy feeling hanging over the whole office for several months, following a series of layoffs that began with the secretaries, then moved onto the paralegals, and now, apparently, to the attorneys.

I just went back and deleted a paragraph laying out the background of what led up to this, so let me just say that the focus of the office changed with the arrival of my current boss about a year ago. Timely memos and emails apparently took a higher priority than actually going into court and winning trials for the company. And you have to love the timing of her doing this right before Christmas, especially when her main complaints focused around a timeframe back in May.

This caught me completely off guard, and it took a little time before I could get my feet back under me and begin to focus on getting a new job ASAP. Another small irony is that while I had been able to sit for hours and compose detailed entries for my blog while at work, I immediately developed a serious case of writer's block once my free time became (unintentionally) unlimited.

But...now things are looking up again. I've shaken off the cobwebs, hit the ground running, put my ear to the grindstone, and performed some other tortured metaphors that I can't think of at the moment to indicate that I am once more moving forward with a positive outlook. I view this as an opportunity--an unexpected push towards a more fulfilling career that would have never happened unless these events had unfolded just as they did.

And I have begun to lapse into a recurring fantasy where I have taken a job as a plaintiff's attorney and face off one day against my old company in court. The jury will be enraptured as I serenade them during my closing argument, and the various photos from HNT that I "accidently" introduce as a trial exhibit will have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the seven-figure award that the jury gives to my client. As my old boss stares out from behind the defense table in abject bewilderment after the verdict is announced, I'll lean over to her and quietly assure her that my mandatory trial memo will be on her desk first thing the next morning. The underlying sarcastic tone in my voice will suggest precisely just where I think that memo should be filed...

And guess which tune I'll be whistling while I walk on past her out of the courtroom, as I begin to compose the next verse in my life...