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Family Tales

I honestly don’t know how we survive.

Our bodies are such fragile complicated things, I honestly don’t know how we survive for more than a couple of months.

A couple of little things go wrong with your chemistry and whoopsy-daisy, you’re dead. Not drinking enough? Your kidneys fail and you’re dead.

It truly is a miracle that we’re alive. We should live relishing that fact. Live like this moment is the luckiest moment we have.

Watch the Snow

When it starts snowing, stop and watch it. It works like Paxil. At least for me.

There is something so shockingly calming about snow. Nice phrase, right? “Shockingly calming.” I don’t how else to describe it. When I first notice snow falling there is always a little shock. I guess it’s the sudden realization that my environment is changing. I don’t know.

But here come these gorgeous, perfectly intricate and individual little fragile flakes from no where, some lazily falling, some dancing, some plummeting through their often brief moment of existence. Sometimes I can even see two or more that seem to be moving together.

They are the perfect example for me of life’s impermanence. They just do what they do for however long they may be here. They don’t want anything from anyone. They just are. Then they’re gone.

The perfect Zen.

I can actually feel my breathing slow. My head feels lighter and my shoulders relax, if just for a little while. It truly is a momentary release.

I want my boys to be snow watchers.

So, the writing has come in quite short spurts of late. Between cleaning drain-tubes and cooking and running errands and ileostomy spills and homecare appointments and house-cleaning and staring at walls, there really isn’t much time write. But sometimes I get the moment to jot things down.

What I have been jotting lately are lessons I damn-well hope I’ve learned from this experience. So, that’s what I’ll be posting for a bit. I probably won’t try to be witty with these—it’s too tiring these days. They’re just going to be short, honest reactions to recent thoughts and realizations. Here goes:


When you turn 50, begin streamlining your possessions.

Because, you know what? You’re going to die. Or you’ll be otherwise incapacitated. And the last thing your kids will want to do is have to grieve (or nurse you) while sifting through your incomprehensible piles of shit.

Now, I’m not talking about your memory-stuff. That’s the shit that your kids will actually want to go through. That’s the stuff that heals, the memories, the nostalgia, the stuff that they may want to keep because it means something to them. But, for the love of all that is holy, no one I know needs fifty-three placemats. If you could cut it down to eight, that’s great. I’ll even take twelve, if four are named placemats with psychedelic turtles purchased from a Tulsa Stuckey’s in 1977. I’m okay with that.

For example, after spending some time working through the kitchen drawer that contained eighteen woven trivets, twenty-some-odd shaped birthday candles (including one that was a very dusty “30” [I am 43, my oldest nephew is 25, if that tells you something]), a quarter of the previously decried placemats, innumerable tourist matchbooks, an odd assortment of straws, instructions for an electric fondue pot, and some collectible spoons, I was sitting with my father in his office. He picked up this little stack of red plastic flat rectangular sticks. There were about twenty in the stack, bound with a rubber band. I had left them on his desk because I didn’t know what they were. I thought they were some kind of thing he might use to check his blood sugar.

“You know what these are?” he asked.


“You know those little snack packs of crackers with the little square of soft cheese?”

“I guess.”

“These are those little plastic knives that come in those packets. You use these to scoop out the cheese and spread them on the cracker.”


“I saw these and thought, ‘I can do something with these.’”


“Oh, hell yeah. I got about five or six stacks like this around the house somewhere.”


Don’t make your kids try to figure out how important six stacks of plastic cheese knives are. They will be too busy with other more important things.

And stop hording food. Especially in boxes. It just means bugs. Lots and lots and lots of bugs. But that might be another post.

So although Tuesday was pretty stressful in its emotional draining and hopeful expectation, it ended up being a great day: my mother’s mastectomy went well and early labs look good.

The previous day —well, night really— was a little son-tough on me.

I am going to try and coin the phrase “son-tough.” These are the things that usually hit when the son/parent role begins to reverse. I’m calling it son-tough because it’s my POV. I’m sure there are similar “toughs” on daughters. But I’m also sure there are different “toughs” with each role.

Last night’s instance was staying in my mom’s bedroom for a while because she was too scared to sleep. I did this last week with my two year-old, as well. His monster was dinosaurs popping up in his room when he’s sleeping. My mother’s monster was surgery in the morning to remove her breast and some lymph nodes.

This morning, while my mother was in her prep-room some nursing students wheeled my father in to surprise her. That was another son-tough moment. He talked to her quietly for a while then grabbed the remote for the TV. My dad’s a bit of a TV-aholic, and this moment nearly made my head explode until I realized he was working to find the channel on the TV that shows a waterfall and soft music. He thought it would help to calm her. I had to leave the room.

But the day ended just as I like them to. Mom’s surgeon, who has been following our family’s recent plight, made certain that my mom was put on my father’s floor: two doors down from him, actually. By the time my brother and I got up to her Dad was already in there holding her hand.

We sat in silence for a bit, then my dad poked at Mom’s JP drain, which is collecting the fluids from inside her wound. “Well, at least when we get home we’ve got a new little sexy game to play,” he said. “You change my bag and I’ll change yours.”

I love days that end in laughter. It makes me son-happy.

Things are pretty much in stasis on the homecare front. Dad is now fourteen days in hospital. Mom is going into surgery Tuesday.

Gross Indecency, the play I directed for TCR, is now in mid-run. Monopoly, the SPT’s Writers’ Room show —that I wrote for and was slated to perform in— went off without me and without a hitch last weekend.

It was good that I could stay in Des Moines for nearly a full week without feeling like I needed to be home —other than the sometimes-crippling desire to see my wife and kids.

During that near-week I saw my father get better, get worse, get better, then fall back again. I saw my mother get stronger, in minute increments, but it was positive movement. But the climax of the homecare segment of my week was the discussion with a home nurse about the probable need of assisted living for both parents, “at least in the medium-term.”

So, I was in a bit of a dark place.

My wife couldn’t find coverage for the kids on Friday, so I left my mother to my brother and went back home for a spell.

This was now the second time that I “Went back home for a spell.” And it was the second time that, when I hit a specific street —one that was two turns from my driveway— that the control of emotion became a real struggle. Both times, now, seeing my wife and kids really revealed the stress that forced emotional detachment can cause.

What I mean is this: When I walk into my father’s hospital room and he looks up at me like a scared four year-old and says, “Why am I still here?” I have to explain why without my eyes welling up and spilling over. When my mother looks up at me with pride because she was finally able to finish a 4 ounce cup of yogurt for lunch, I can’t beg her to eat more because she’s wasting away. I have to happily show joy at this accomplishment.

I had absolutely no idea how tiring, how draining that can be.

Well, I had a bright, floating moment of forgetfulness on Saturday. As I was home, I was able to attend the children’s auditions for my first full-length stageplay. By “my first full-length stageplay,” I mean that I wrote it. And that I got paid for it.

I just realized that this February is the most concentrated month of work I have had in years. Irony, right? Writers love irony.

Anyway, I actually heard kids saying my words, in hopes that they could memorize and say my words on stage in front of people. And some of those kids really got the lines. And those watching the auditions laughed at the right lines. It was a surprising, though brief, validation of the months I spent writing that thing.

For a moment I felt like I was floating above worry, fluffy, weightless, free of serious responsibility.

And just tonight the director told me she has cast the show. And, more importantly for me, rehearsals won’t begin until the second week of March.

That means I can focus on the important uneven ground in front of me for the next few weeks. Focus on the parents; tend their gardens, as it were.

And I guess that’s as it should be.

If you came back to the blog to read this, I surely do thank you for sticking with me. I have been quite the poor writer of late. As the old adage goes, “A writer writes.” And I have not been.

I’m guessing that most of you don’t know the craziness of last week.

My show, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde opened on Friday. That means that last week was the most intensive of the six-week rehearsal process. It was the week that supported the last tweaking, the minutia of acting and tech to try and create the most powerful production from the resources we have.

Sunday is spent for five or six hours working the lights and sound into the show. Monday and Tuesday usually involve tweaking the lights, sound, and costumes, as well as the really nit-picky actor stuff. Wednesday is hopefully a full and furious run with everything finally together. Thursday is preview for friends and sponsors. Friday is opening. It’s a pretty stressful week.

Tuesday afternoon I got a call that my father was in the hospital due to massive blood loss. The doctor said nearly half his volume, which I didn’t think was possible.

Well, my mother had just finished a massive series of pre-op chemo for breast cancer. I knew that it put the zap on her, but I really didn’t know how much until I got home. I thought I came home for Dad. But it turns out it was for my mother.

I hadn’t seen her since Christmas. In that time she has lost probably sixty pounds. She has to use a walker. She’s lost almost all her hair. She has been sleeping nearly sixteen hours a day. And, most disturbingly, she’s eating —maybe— a quarter cup of food three times a day.

It absolutely crushed me.

Early Wednesday morning we got the news that Dad had colon cancer. They had set the operation for Thursday.

At this point it became my personal aim to hold myself together. I had to be back in Cedar Rapids for Thursday night preview and opening. I had to be home, if for nothing else, to get my mother to eat.

It’s been a long time since I have been this much of a wreck.

But my brother stepped and took care of Mom Thursday and Friday nights. I came back Saturday morning and will stay until Tuesday.

I have a school matinee of the Gross Indecency on Wednesday that I have to run, so I need to be back in Cedar Rapids for that.

At this point, it looks like I’ll need to be back here Wednesday night at least. That’s the earliest that Dad can get out of hospital and back home.

I’m hoping to tackle the emotions of this event for Wednesday’s blog. It’s been something else. Certainly a mix that I did not imagine. And it’s that surprising mix that brought the floor up so swiftly to my chin.

But I’m feeling a bit more in control. And that’s saying something from where I was on Thursday. Now I’m at least up on all fours and breathing.

So, I eat a lot of meat. If you count morning bacon and lunchmeat, there are days I eat meat for three meals. That is simply too much.

So for the last few months I’ve been trying to remove meat from most of our meals — you know, trying to do only one or two dinners with meat. And that has actually been a bit refreshing.

So I’m working the lentils and garbanzos and beans, but also the soy and even the tempeh. The tempeh was not so yummy.

But last night I tried some seitan, which is essentially flour made into a meat-like substance. That’s never a phrase that makes me comfortable: meat-like substance. But, I have to tell you, this stuff was good.

I was pretty sure that I would file it away with tempeh in the tried-it-once file. But I could instantly see the possibilities of this stuff. It really has the mouth feel of meat. It’s totally shapeable. As you make the actual seitan you can add all kinds of flavor like liquid smoke, to give a meaty taste. You can marinade it. It was really, really good.

And I think it caused my kid a serious allergic reaction.

I haven’t seen anything like it for some time. He began scratching his arm, then began complaining about itching. Within a minute his face was flushed, his arm was red and welts started popping up.

My wife rushed to get some Benadryl and I got some topical stuff. He ended up being okay, but the only thing we could point to was the seitan.

This really surprised me because the kid eats bread with great abandon. Seitan is just essentially boiled bread on steroids.

We might try it again later. It’s so easy to make at home and cheap, cheap, cheap. I guess that makes it good to give it another shot. But it sure did scare us.

Well, I don‘t have much to say today. Mostly because the tired just keeps getting tiredy-er.

I just wanted to mention a couple of things about my oldest kid. I don’t know much about what two-and-a-half year-olds are supposed to be like. But I’m pretty certain my kid doesn’t either.

Today at breakfast he began telling our six month-old, “Don’t look at me. Stop looking at me!”

Honestly, I don’t know where he gets it.

The other night it snowed. It’s the latest in the season that I’ve ever seen it. Remember that he’s two-and a half. He looked out of the window that next morning, put his hands on the window and said, “It looks like Christmas.”

Again, no idea where he gets it.

Tonight even, as my wife was putting him down for his night-night, she finished reading to him and turned the lights off. She sat down next to his bed to stroke his hair and looked up at her said, “Tonight you be quiet. You don’t cough. You don’t snore. I need quiet.”

On several occasions, as we are on the freeway, he’ll point to semi and say, “I drive that truck. That’s my truck.” Which I kind of get because “everything” is his right now.

But here’s a strange thing: sometimes, usually when things are pretty quiet, he’ll look at me and say sadly, “I’m sorry about the train. I’m sorry about the train, Daddy.”

I have no idea.

Took my kid to his first “tumbling” class on Saturday. It was an absolute free-for-all.

I’m guessing there were about eight kids and twelve parents. All with our shoes off, walking on spongy mats, dodging happily rabid, joy-blind toddlers.

It was perhaps the most prolonged spate of fun I have ever had with my kid.

He jumped and ran and rolled and cartwheeled. I jumped and ran and rolled and…rolled.

And then they pulled out the gigantic inflatable caterpillar. It was awesome. It was twenty feet long. Big enough for two dads to stand up in. It was awesome. And it terrified my kid. He would not go into the horrific maw of the caterpillar. But he was concerned enough when I crawled through to move around it to meet me when I came out of the tail.

Then we ran again. It was hard not to push him to go in, but I didn’t and that felt good.

I went tumbling with great trepidation. “Hey, look at how quickly the fat guy broke the children’s trampoline.”

But, I am happy to say, I did not break the trampoline. And we both had the time of his life.

Tumble on!

Now, this little post may come off as snarky, but please know that it is not.

I love my family, and the topic of this post is one of the great reasons for that love.

My family, myself included, is perhaps the worst gift giving family in the world. And we don’t do it on purpose, which is what makes it so endearing to me.

I know that on several occasions I have sweated the choice of gift for my lovely bride and it has ended up something she has hated. Let me also say that we have a relationship where we can say, “Honey, I really kind of hate that gift that you sweated and cogitated over. I love you very much, but I hate that gift.” And, generally, we are okay with that.

So this year was another stellar what-were-you-thinking Christmas. Naturally, we don’t ask my family what they were thinking, we just sort of discuss it spousally.

I received from my father a “leather concealment vest.” First off, it’s a leather vest.  Second … it’s me. I put it on and my wife asked me if she could accompany me to the gay bar. Nice one. The word “concealment” in the name of the vest means that it can easily carry my 9mm Glock with up to three full magazines. Again…it’s me. I do not own a 9mm Glock, nor do I have up to three magazines, full or empty.

I’m pretty sure he purchased it off some infomercial on Fox News. He bought three: one for me, one for my legally blind brother, and one for legally blind and autistic nephew. Go Neocons! Fuck yeah!

My grandmother —Banana Grandma if you’re paying attention— gave me roll-on antiperspirant. I shit you not. It’s Avon, so I guess that’s … something. And it’s a roll-on. I didn’t even think they made that anymore. So there’s that, too.

But the best gift was for my patient and forgiving wife. My father gave her a Keurig Rotating 30 cup Storage Carousel for one of those awesome Keurig Single shot coffee makers. She looked up at me with a gleam in her eye and said, “Omen of things to come?” I looked at the boxes under the tree, turned back to her and said, “I don’t think so.”

The beauty of this is that we don’t have a Keurig single shot coffee maker. And we did not receive one for Christmas. My father thought it was a spice rack, which is also funny because my wife does not like spices, nor does she cook.

Even funnier is that he got it off her Amazon wish list…except it’s not on her Amazon wish list. Some other woman out there with the same name as my wife was oh so very close to receiving the Keurig Rotating 30 cup Storage Carousel that dancing through her Christmas Eve dreams.

Just one of the many reasons that I love my family.

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