Being a Dad…the best role I've ever had.

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The Extended Family

Last night, Preston was having a bit of a difficult time. He had a concussion in November and is still suffering from the ill effects of the injury. He was a little upset that the weekend was over and he wanted to spend more time with his father. I may be step Dad, and treat him like my own, but I’m not DAD. I explained to him that I knew exactly how he felt. He gave me a funny look as if to say ‘yeah, how would you?’ I told him how lucky he was, he had two Mom’s and two Dad’s who love him very much. When I was growing up, I didn’t know my ‘birth’ mother or my Dad. I had spent some time with them, but didn’t really know either. The lady I called MOM, adopted me when I was his age. I told him that I didn’t really get spend any time with my Dad until eight or nine but got to really know him when I was a teen. I told him it was OK to feel the way he did and never be afraid to talk to me about it. He gave me the biggest hug, like a burden had been lifted. He asked me a few more questions about my childhood, which I answered. I reassured him that his Dad was welcome to drop by anytime he could to spend time with Preston. It also made me think about ‘FAMILY’.
They say blood is thicker than water, which may be true, but FAMILY trumps it all. And, in my book, there doesn’t have to be any blood relation to make a FAMILY. Yesterday was my SISTER’s birthday. We are not related by blood and, it seems, we don’t even share the same mother…but, that is OK. I grew up knowing who my family was, just as I want Preston to know his. Mike has been part of my family for six years now and it does not matter, to me, how that came to be. He, too, is part of my family.
Ann, the sister who had the birthday yesterday, and her late husband, treated me like a king when I was little. I remained very close to them until they moved to New York. I always had a problem with that, but, I really do not know why. They moved to be closer to their son and grandchildren. As that happened after the deaths of my Mom, my Dad and my first wife, it kind of felt like I was being left alone. That scared me. I don’t know why, as I still had a big family right here at home. My son, my then girlfriend (whom I married a short time later) and the rest of my family-which, just seemed invisible.  Ann and I grew apart, but not very much. The death of her husband had a big impact on me, he was, after all, like a Dad to me for most of my life. And, even though I don’t talk to her as much, I still love her and nothing will ever change that. I have three other sisters too…Mary, which Mom also adopted; Katy, who is my blood sister (meaning we are actually, biologically, related-have the same parents) and Rose. I could write a book about this.
Each one of those three ladies are awesome in their own ways and, as a result, I feel like I am a better man because of things I learned from them.
Mary was always unapologetic and adventurous. She showed me that following the rules was not always the best thing to do…I know how that sounds, but, she was right.  She’s had some rough times, but got through them and is now a fine lady, content with the way things turned out. Even now, when things don’t always go the way they should, she maintains that same attitude. It is a quality I wish I had.
Katy is my more liberal minded sister.  Polar opposite of me, more like the way my Dad thought.  She is very much like him, her sense of humor, the way she looks at things and the way she just accepts people. Well, OK, my Dad was not quite as accepting of a lot of people.  I didn’t grow up with her, we saw very little of each other as the ‘social workers’ in Chesterfield did their best to keep us apart.  We keep in touch now and I’m very glad we do.
Rose was a foster child Mom had for several years.  When she was released from the foster care system, she chose to stay with us. Rose has a physical disability–cerebral palsy–that left her not quite as mobile as most are.  She complemented the rest of my expanding family, only moving out on her own when she was in her late twenties.  Over the years, we’ve drifted apart and I do regret that.  It is one thing I need to work on. It isn’t because of an argument or anything like that. For the longest time, I convinced myself it was the distance-she lives in another state with what is left of her family. Distance, though, is a cop out. I just need to do it.
Suffice it to say, that there is actually very little ‘blood’ in my family and that’s OK.
That brings me back to Preston.  The difficulties of just trying to cope with the big world and Autism is hard enough.  Having your life change so much and in such a short time is overwhelming.  When he started to melt down last night, I though ‘oh my lord, what did I say this time’, but, this time, I think he was just looking for some comfort, even though it took a bit of effort to get him to open up.  And, he isn’t one to just blurt out what his problem or problem really is.  You have to piece it together.  That’s tough to do.
Little dude is having a difficult time dealing with his now bigger family. The two small one’s, Sam and Xander, bug him. He has to share a room with Sam when he goes to his Dad’s house and, soon, will be sharing a room here, with Xander. Sam is step brother (and cute as a button) and Xander is half-brother. Both are just annoyances to him. I suspect, in a few years, that will change. He still sees Xander as a bother, but warms up to him when he thinks it is necessary and plays with him, from time to time, without being prompted to do so. He still thinks that both are out to kill him, even though they are just playing.  In Preston’s view, there’s little difference between play and non-play action. It is something he is trying to learn.  He’ll figure it out. He’s one smart kid.
He also thinks he doesn’t get much time with Dad.  He’s right, he doesn’t.  That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just the way things are…it’s not always fair. However, having said that, it isn’t quite the lack of time that Preston perceives it to be.  Dad picks him up Friday afternoon and brings him back, early evening, on Sunday’s.  Once in a while, that doesn’t happen for various reasons…vacation, work, illness, etc.  It isn’t because Dad doesn’t want him or we don’t want Dad to get him. Those are infrequent.  Not to Preston, though. One of the Autism traits he exhibits is perception distortion. That is, two days to him is more like two hours.  This past weekend, Dad picked him up for physical therapy and then took him home. He came back a bit early for a birthday party that he had been invited. Now, we are only talking a couple of hours difference from the norm, but, for Preston, it was like a day. Add in the time that Dad spends with Dad’s new family and Preston feels like he doesn’t get enough Dad time.  And, try as I may, I’m not Dad. Nor am I going to pretend to be. I will treat him like mine, but never try to replace Dad.  And, that’s the way it needs to be.  I think Preston has accepted me as ‘dad 2’ and, in this case, I’m happy to be number 2.
We are all working with Preston to not look at his brothers as anything but brothers.  Preston has fully accepted Chase as big brother and Chase loves him the same way. They get along great. He also seems to have accepted his new sister–also older than him. It is just the young ones he has a problem with…they are, after all, trying to ‘kill’ him, you know, when they are not playing with him. He has yet to realize the support system he has or how big his family has become.
In time, though, I hope he will come to appreciate his expanded family as I have mine.

Nana. A tribute to my Mother In Law

When I married my first wife, Jo Ellen, I married her family. Indeed, they took me in right away. Wayne and Elsie were parents to me as well as Hunter and Jo Ellen. They were good people. I use the past tense because, except for Hunter, they are no longer with us. It is with great sadness that I have to say that Elsie passed away on June 8.

She had been hospitalized for several days due to a head injury, something she has experienced in the past. This time, however, the injury was too severe and, in addition to the brain swelling, there was bleeding as well. Family and friends were gathered at the hospital when Elsie took her last breath. Some were in the room with her and some were waiting in a waiting area. My son and wife were in a waiting room, the sight of Chase’s grandmother was a bit much for him. She wasn’t looking good and, frankly, reminded both of us of how his mother looked some five years ago when she passed away. In fact, the day Elsie died was just one day after the fifth anniversary of my late wife’s death.

Elsie1Elsie was a unique lady. She was frank at times, but was Grandma all the way. She loved all of her grandchildren (who could never do anything wrong) and adored her son and daughter. She treated her extended family as if they were part of hers. Still, if she didn’t think you were doing something right, she would definitely let you know. She could also heap praise if she thought it was due. No matter, if you needed help, she and Wayne were right there. Afterwards, of course, she would have to tell you what you did wrong. And remind you, years later. It’s one of the things that made her who she was and I think that was part of her charm.

She was also naive about many things and was, shall we say, easily embarrassed. That was fun. Say something remotely naughty and she got that five year old ‘I’m caught’ look. Lips puckered and three fingers trying to hide her surprise. Bodily sounds would always draw that same look, no matter who was at ‘fault’. That was one household where that was a genuine laugh. Part of the naivety, however, was that she also gullible–which was also fun. When Jo Ellen found out she was pregnant, we went to tell her parents. She is sitting there, telling Elsie how excited she was and Elsie says ‘well, how far along are you?’ We didn’t know for sure, but when she started talking about dates, I looked up and said ‘WAIT! I was out of town that weekend!’ Elsie, not missing a beat, says ‘JO ELLEN! You should be ashamed…’ then she realized I was messing with her and, well, I didn’t know Elsie had quite the punch.

And, so, this day, we buried Nana, Mom,  Elsie and any number of nicknames she had.  As we sat there, listening to the minister, I had to wonder, ‘what would Elsie think?’  I think she’d be happy to see her family and closest of friends, I also think she’d like Hunter’s choice of ministers. She’d be happy to know how we felt about her.  She’d be happy about many things. But, in typical Nana fashion, she’d turn to Hunter and say ‘why did you do this on such a hot day? I mean, really!’ Yep. That was our Nana.

Life goes on

1988.  I was working two jobs, one at a company that made the front end gear for pocket paging systems and a part time job at a local video store (remember them?) I was content, for a change.  I was making a little money, had an automobile and … not much else.  Later in the summer, I was laid off from my full time job (who buys paging equipment anyway?) and went full time at the video store. In management.  Which, for me, was kind of funny.

My first assignment was at a store in Colonial Heights. It was a very busy store and a challenging position. Second Assistant Manager.  Oh boy. I was a MANAGER! I was there for a few months and was transferred to a store in Richmond’s west end. This store, as I was told, was a mess.  I was to help straighten it out.  I was promoted to ASSISTANT MANAGER too.  A plus, since it meant a raise.

Well, my first day at the store was uneventful except for my introduction to one of the staff.  A perky and young person, she was very friendly and seemed to get along with everyone.  I was smitten.  Toward the end of her shift, she asks if she can leave a little early. Jokingly, I look at my watch and said ‘yeah, I suppose so!’.  She gave me an odd look, thanked me and left.

After a few months, I was completely taken with this person and gathered up enough courage to ask her out. She turned me down. Not once, but several times.  One day, though, she said sure.  Now, today, I probably would have gotten into trouble for asking a subordinate out, but it was a different time then. 

That first date? Well, it was terrible. We saw the movie ‘Ghost’ and both had had bad days.  We did agree, however, to try it again.  That second date was way better, though I could not tell you what we did or where we went.  I’m sure it was dinner and something, but I forget.  That first date, though? I still remember it.  Unfortunately, nothing remains today of that date.  The restaurant is history. The movie theater is now a Kroger. The cars we had? Both are gone. 

We went on to more dates and I eventually married her.  We bought a house, which is now someone else’s home.  We had a child, who is now graduating high school and is no longer my ‘little’ buddy. 

June 7, 2015 marks the fifth anniversary of Jo Ellen’s passing.  And, while I do miss her, I know that she is no longer in the bad spot that trapped her  for the last two years of her life.  That life is gone, but the happier memories remain.  As I go through boxes that have lay dormant for four years now, I find pictures, yearbooks and other mementos from that part of my life. I am happy to find them and I realize that life, my life, has gone on.

And, so too is my desire to write about it. This will, likely, be the last time I write about that part of my life. I have another wonderful wife, two more wonderful kids and look forward to making more memories with them. 

Jo Ellen’s death was devastating for me, my family and our friends.  It was unexpected and seemingly out of nowhere.  One day she is in the hospital for muscular problems and, then…the ICU and she’s gone.  I will never forget the lifeless stare or having to tell my then 12 years old son he has lost his mother.  It is seared in my memory forever.  The decisions I had to make that day will haunt me as well.  But, there is a bright side.  She is no longer in pain. She is no longer suffering the deep depression she had fallen into and she is at peace. 

After five years, my life is completely different. While I do miss her, I have gone forward with life.  I have married another wonderful woman who has accepted my son as hers and given me another biological son and a really cool step-son.  Jo Ellen would approve, she always told me I needed to remarry if something ever happened to her because Chase needed a Mom and I needed someone who could tell me where my socks were and what day it was.  She was right.

Oh, and the comment I made to her that first day and the odd look? Well, I found out, years later, that she thought I was an ogre! She did not realize I was just having some fun. I’m glad she, eventually, realized that.

The most difficult thing I had to tell my son

Being a Dad is something I cherish. It encompasses many, many terrific moments and some not so terrific moments.  We don’t like having to discipline our children or watch them fail, but that is part of being a parent and part of the growing process. Perhaps, however, there is one thing that a parent does not ever want to do…that a child should never have to go through, yet many will.

And so, three years ago, I had to do just that.

My wife had been in the hospital for nearly a month for some kind of muscular problem that was causing her to lose mobility.  For a short time, things looked better. She was undergoing therapy and was receiving treatment.  Everyday, I would take Chase to school and go to the hospital to stay with my wife.  Some days, I would go into the office before heading to the hospital. Eventually, I took a leave from work and just went to the hospital.  Chase would come to see his mother, most days, after school.  However, as the time wore on, he stopped wanting to spend time at the hospital and I don’t blame him. By that point, she was heavily medicated and not always lucid. Even so, we all remained optimistic, including the one doctor who was really digging in and searching for her problem.

One day, I went into the office for a few hours. While there, I got one of those feelings that told me I had to leave. I told my supervisor that I needed to leave and then I went to the hospital. Upon arriving there, I went to her room and she was gone—no sign that she was in the room, ever.  Panicked, I went to find a nurse, who, very tersely, informed me that she was in ICU. She had aspirated in her sleep and developed pneumonia.  Her immune system was already ripped to shreds, so this did not help.

A couple of days later, I took Chase to see his mom.  It was a good visit, but a short one. He could not handle seeing her with tubes in her and nearly unintelligible. So, I took him home and went back for a few hours. 

That Monday, I was feeling pretty good about her prognosis and was thinking the worst was behind us. I took Chase to school and proceeded to the hospital. On the way, however, the doctor called me and said that she had taken a turn for the worse and that I should go to the waiting area first. He would meet me there.  Well, he didn’t but another doctor did. He was not sure about what was going on, and walked with me to her ICU room. She had experienced something like a stroke and it blew out her pupils. I knew at that point, this was very serious. While waiting for the other doctor, a friend dropped by.  It was that point the doctor came in and told us that my wife would not likely make it into the evening.

Needless to say, this was quite a shock. The first think I though of was Chase. How in the world am I going to tell my twelve year old son that he is about to lose his mother?  The drive from the hospital to the school was one of the longest drives in my entire life and one I never want to make under those circumstances ever again.

Arriving at the school, I goto the attendance office and tell the lady what was going on. She sent someone to get him.  As soon as he saw me, I could tell his heart just sank.  I walked him, quietly, out of the building. Once outside, I knelt down and just told him. Told him that his mother would not likely make it through the day.

The drive to the hospital was quiet, with an occasional ‘are you ok?’ coming from one of us.  Friends and family had gathered at the hospital by the time we got there.

Chase did not want to go into her room, which I quite understood.  I stayed with him for a bit and then went back to her room.

At some point, I had to make the decision to not continue any attempt to prolong her life. Doing so would, likely, cause more harm than good and that she would have no quality of life. I could not bear that. She lasted several hours after they stopped the drugs. 

“What am I going to do with Chase? How am I going to handle him?” were the first things that came to me when the doctor pronounced her dead.  I, yet again, had to go tell my son that something bad has happened to his mother.

He knew, as soon as walked into the waiting room. He was so brave, more so than I was.  We hugged for what probably seemed like an eternity to him. I took him back to say his goodbye to her once they had cleaned her up and removed the tubes.  We all cleared the room for him.  He spent a few minutes with her and then wanted to leave.

His school had advised me that his grades were high enough that he would not have to come back (there was only a couple of weeks left) but he may want to come the last day to say bye to his school mates and partake in the picnic.  He actually wanted to go back after only a few days.

We palled around those first few days after her death. I realized just how much about my son I did not know. That really bothered me and still does.  He was way more stronger than I was…he was my rock.

Perhaps the worst part of her death was the timing…Chase’s birthday was two weeks after she died.  What in the world would I do to at least make his birthday somewhat normal? Well, I followed through with plans that we were making prior to her hospitalization. I took him and his cousin to a Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg. It would be the first of many things I wanted to do to keep him busy.  

Right or wrong, I did everything I could to keep both us from thinking too much about the that May and June.  We took a few short trips to amusement parks in Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina. Those weekend trips were a lot of fun and the time we would spend together in the evenings, when I would get home from work were awesome. 

I worried that he had not grieved very much but was assured that he would, in time. He has, but I still question whether I did the right things or not. There is rule book for something like and people handle death in many different ways. Chase has so many people who care and love him and the outpouring of support that we both got was overwhelming. Most of that support was for him, as it should be. I cannot thank enough, all of the people who stepped up to keep him busy while I worked during that summer.

It has been three years now since I had to tell my son that he lost his mother.  In that time, we grew close and then seem to drift apart a bit. I think that is normal in father-son relationships, once the son is a teenager.

Chase may or may not realize it, but I love him very much and having to deliver two pieces of news like that were the most difficult things I ever had to do. Something I hope I never have to repeat.

Ever.

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