“I told you I was trouble, You know I’m no good”

-Amy Winehouse, You Know I’m No Good

Who, me???
Who, me???

So, the task at hand is to write about a time I got in trouble.  My first thought was that I wouldn’t have anything to write about.  I am a total rule follower.  This one’s going to take some digging in the deepest recesses of my mind….  I mulled it over a while and started remember little things here and there.  I soon realized all these little things were adding up….  Could I have been living a lie all these years???  My persona of being a good girl just blew up in my face in slow motion…

It all started with my first lie.  My lie was in the form of an imaginary friend.  At the  tender age of 3 years, I did not know what an imaginary friend was but I was about to invent one.  It was a small offense, I spilled something or broke something, I can’t quite remember.  When I was busted, I blamed it on Billy Monkey.  Not sure where this came from, but my mom’s reaction ensured that he was sticking around for a while.  She thought it was adorable.  She told her friends that I had an imaginary friend and that she was sure it was a sign of intelligence and creativity.   Hmmm, this was convenient.  My mischievous monkey was quite amusing to the one person in charge of disciplining me.  I took full advantage of this.  I used the Billy Monkey excuse all the time.  “Billy Monkey did it” was always followed by uproarious laughter.  It became almost as rote as the Laugh In “Sock it to me” punch line, it was like having a laugh track playing in our little apartment.  My mom would even prompt me to say it for her friends.  They would all laugh hysterically.  The only person who didn’t seem amused by it was my sister.  She would scowl and roll her eyes every time.  I think she was on to my little game.

I played the Billy Monkey schtick out as long as I could.  Eventually my mom tired of it and these words didn’t magically exempt me from punishment.  Well, it was good while it lasted.

So, I lied and it was celebrated.  I think my little 3 year old mind started to understand about the “gray area” when it comes to breaking rules.  Some rules you just can’t break.  You can’t hurt someone else.  You can’t cheat.  But a little tiny broken rule here or there?  As long as no one else gets hurt, it’s not too bad.  The one exception to this was when I learned from a crafty preschool friend the art of biting your arm just enough to produce teeth marks.  She demonstrated to me how to get someone in trouble.  I watched in awe as she walked up to the teacher and tearfully showed her the bite marks while pointing to an unsuspecting child across the room.  Of course the child got punished.  I had no desire to use this on any of my preschool friends, but I couldn’t wait to use this to get my sister in trouble.  She was three years older and was my protector and my tormentor all at the same time.  She would (very convincingly) tell me that I was actually adopted and my mom wasn’t my real mom.  She would give me a piece of candy and after I swallowed it she would cackle and tell me there was an ant on it and now it was going to live in my stomach and have baby ants.  So, you see, this was a case of me giving her a little of her own medicine, protecting myself from my sister’s cruelty.  See, gray area

My mom fell for it, a few times.  My sister got in pretty big trouble.  I was heady with the power, this was a major coup against my sister who was bigger and craftier and always out-smarted me.  I got too cocky, I used this trick too many times, too close together.  Game over-  my mom was on to my deviant ways.

For the most part I was a good kid.  I never got in trouble at school.  I always made good grades.  I was polite, I never talked back.  But I did, on occasion, push the envelope, dance on the edge of real trouble, always pulling back before things got out of control.  It was always in the name of having a good time.  I would never be able to do something that was mean or hurtful to someone else, but breaking the rules to have a little fun?  That’s not so bad, is it?

Mom, you may want to stop reading now…

(Deep inhale)  I skipped school in high school a few times.  Sometimes a group of us would leave just to get something to eat.  Once or twice it developed in to a full fledged party that would last until the end of the school day at someone’s house.  There was the Senior Ski Trip that I miraculously convinced my parents was chaperoned.  Technically, it was.  One of my friends’ brother was of legal age and he and some buddies “chaperoned” about 20 of us – gray area.

There was the time my Sophomore year that my best friend and I told our parents we were going to spend the day at the local amusement park.  We instead drove 3 hours to the beach to spend a few hours hanging out with our boyfriends who were there for their senior trip.  We were back before dark.  We did drive to the amusement park, circle in front of it and go home.  So, technically we did go to the amusement park – gray area?

Then there was the time that I spent the night at my best friend’s house and we snuck out in the middle of the night to hang out with friends at the neighborhood pool.  We snuck back in a few hours later, through a window we left open in her living room.  We didn’t count on the dog barking furiously.  We heard her mom rushing down the stairs to see why the dog was barking at 3am.  We quickly threw ourselves on the living room couches and turned on the t.v. and pretended to be asleep.  Her mom “woke” us up, asked us why the dog was barking…  we yawned and feigned groggy confusion.  She saw the open window with the drapes blowing in the breeze and ordered us upstairs to go to sleep.  We woke the next day to see policemen dusting the window sill for finger prints.  My friend’s mom was a wreck, thinking that someone tried to break in to her house while my friend and I slept only feet away.  I quickly gathered my things and left.  I felt awful.  My friend called me later to say they were having a community watch meeting about the attempted break in.  -I know, no gray area.  This was pretty bad.

I’m not going to get in to the college years.  I think those years are exempt from any kind of judgement or condemnation, right?  I mean, college is a time to explore, spread your wings, push boundaries….  I loved college.

So, I think the moral of this story, for those of us who have children or may one day have them: don’t ever laugh at and/or encourage your child’s imaginary friend.  They know it’s bullshit, they are just playing along and trying to be cute to get out of trouble.  They will act like they think he’s real.  They will insist that he needs a place to sit at the dinner table.  They will work this angle and come up with stories about their “friend”.   They will mess with your head and make you think that they think he/she/it is real.  They will do this because they will be amazed that you are falling for it.  But really they’re just being a lying little twerp. And your gullible response may just lead them down the path of fun-filled-yet-possibly-dangerous shenanigans that if my kids ever engage in any such activities I will yank them out of the world they know and ship them off to a nunnery or military school until they learn that Mom knows all the tricks and there is no gray in the world they live in, it’s all black and white and primary colors.

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“Hello Operator, can you give me number nine? Can I see you later?

Will you give me back my dime?  Turn the oscillator, twist it with a dollar bill,

Mailman bring the paper, leave it on my window sill.”

-The White Stripes, Hello Operator

My husband likes Barry Manilow.  I know.  I married him anyways.  Last Christmas my sister and her husband gave him a Barry Manilow album.  No, they don’t have bad taste in music too, they were building on our annual Christmas gag gift tradition.  This is a relatively new tradition, it started a few years ago when Joe (said husband) stuck a 2 pound weight in a gift bag and presented it to my Brother in Law.  Joe had been teasing him relentlessly after my brother in law injured his shoulder doing a kettle bell workout with relatively light weights, guffawing “I didn’t know they even made kettle balls that small!”  My niece shot back, “I didn’t know they still made sweaters with zippers”.  She was referring to this awful burgundy sweater with a zipper from the chest to the top of the folded over collar.  A sweater that Joe and been wearing every Christmas Day for years.  We all howled with laughter and Joe nodded and admitted that she had out-done him in the smart ass banter that accompanies every family get together.  The next Christmas there was a gift wrapped beautifully for Joe from my niece. Joe opened it to find a hideous Christmas sweater that had obviously been well worn.  In another decade.  It reeked of mothballs.  He was caught by surprise but looked at my niece with a touch of admiration.  He loved her and was proud, and to be a good sport he put it on right away.  He retired the ugly zippered sweater after that year.

So, my sister was eager to have him open his album.  She was watching with anticipation, waiting to pounce with glee when he would surely blush with embarrassment.  Unfortunately my sister was to be sorely disappointed.  He loved the album.  He was touched that they thought of him.  He slowly and gingerly turned the album over, looking from the front to the back cover.  There was a look of nostalgia and wonderment on his face.  My sister’s triumphant smile slowly melted into disappointment.  This wasn’t the reaction she’d been expecting of course.  As Joe looked over the album he exclaimed over different songs, singing some of the verses.  I groaned.  You can take the Utica out of the boy…  well you know.

My stepdad, Tommy, excused himself quietly and left the room.  I’m thinking that he’s sick that his daughter has married someone with such musical taste.  I picture him in the next room shaking his head silently.  I didn’t raise her like this….  My stepdad shaped my musical taste.  I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, Clapton, Hendrix…  he is a walking rock and roll encyclopedia.  He spends hours reading dense volumes of albums and their stats.  You could name some obscure sixties album or B-side and he’d be able to tell you all about the artist, the record and what the monetary value would be if you ran across it at a flea market.  I guess you could say he was like a walking Wikipedia page on the subject, but we are talking about vinyl here, so I’ll stick with the encyclopedia metaphor.

Tommy returns a few minutes later carrying a plastic box.  He ignores our stares and questioning looks as he sets it down carefully on the kitchen table.  We all sit patiently and wait to see what he has unearthed from the room we all refer to as “TommyLand”.  We know better than to ask what it is, he will show us in his slow, methodical way with very little explanation.  His lack of grandstanding actually comes off as quite dramatic somehow.  He unlatches the metal clips on either side of the box and meticulously lifts the lid.  It’s an old turn table.  Joe immediately pulls the Barry Manilow album from it’s protective sleeve and hands it to Tommy.  He is so excited to hear it and he feels validated that my stepdad is offering to play it.  Tommy’s accommodation had nothing to do with Barry Manilow, it’s an opportunity to play with one of his “toys’ and to share it with all of us.

The record starts spinning and we hear a few crackles before the first strains of music emanate from the record player.  After I tear my eyes away from the spectacle of my husband grooving to Barry Manilow, I turn my attention to my son and daughter and nephew (ages 12, 11 and 9).  They are completely engrossed, mouths open, eyes wide in amazement.  They are stupefied and can’t even form sentences to ask the questions…  “What is…  How does it…”

We all try to explain through our laughter how it works, that the needle follows the grooves on the vinyl and …  some how plays the music?  I don’t know, it’s not something we really questioned growing up.  You just tried really hard to not scratch the album and to not jump or dance too close to the turntable and make it skip.  I can’t believe my kids have never seen a record player before.   Something that was so integral to my childhood and in the blink of a few decades it’s gone.  I don’t know why I’m surprised.  When my son was born I had just retired all my cassettes (bye bye awesome mixed tapes I labored over for endless hours..  sniff sniff) and transitioned to cd’s.  Now cd’s are on their way to joining their brethren in the vast wasteland of bygone electronics.  They will be in good company with the 8 track tapes, the VHS tapes, the rotary phone, the black and white t.v. with dials and rabbit ears, the transistor radios, the word processors…. I could go on but this list is starting to make me feel really old.

While I’m getting a kick out of watching their confusion and bewilderment, I’m kind of pissed.  These spoiled little twerps growing up in the digital era have no idea how good they have it.  They want a new song?  Download it instantly.  Listen to it on Spotify.  Want a book?  Order one for your Kindle and you have it within seconds.  Want to watch a music video?  Gone are the days of hoping to catch a glimpse of it on Mtv, you can go on YouTube and see it whenever you want.  They don’t even have to deal with dial up internet access anymore.  Mom forgets to pick you up from practice?  Well just get your smart phone out you little monster and call her and see where she’s at!  Forget the entitlement generation, now we are raising the instant gratification generation…

I tried to explain some of this to my son recently when I had him as a captive audience in the car.  I explained that if I wanted a copy of my favorite song, I would have to try to record it off the radio station onto a cassette tape and hope the radio DJ wasn’t in a chatty mood while my song was playing.  I tried to illicit some sympathy from him when I pointed out that I would sit in my room for an ENTIRE day, listening to my radio, just waiting for that one song to play.   And inevitably it would come on the second you leave the room for an urgent bathroom break.  This is my version of the “When I was your age I had to walk 2 miles in the snow to school” story.  I got no sympathy from my boy.  He looked at me like I was crazy, as in Why would you waste a whole day to do that?

He had no concept of having to wait.  And let me just say, my kids are not spoiled.  Well, no more spoiled than other kids of their generation.  They don’t get everything they want, they aren’t the first to get the new hot thing.  They have to wait/earn/save for some things they’ve really wanted.  But what all this made me realize is that there are so many things that used to be really big deals, things you had to wait for, go to the store for, stand in line for.  Now most of these things can be bought on line faster than you can say “Complete My Purchase”.

This almost makes me feel sorry for these kids.  There’s something to be said for anticipation.  The waiting, the build up makes things so much sweeter.  I remember counting down the days until a record was released.  Or waiting in line at record stores for concert tickets.  Or spending hours in a book store looking through dozens of books trying to decide which one to get, because this purchase was precious.  You didn’t get to go buy books every day so you wanted to make sure you go the right one.  Don’t get me wrong, I love that we have such easy access to music and books and I love to get on YouTube and watch live performances of my favorite bands.  I sometimes feel like I got the Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory, so I’m not saying I don’t love the digital age and all it’s perks.   I just wonder what it is our kids will have to hunger for, what will have them antsy with impatience, what will make them mark a date on the calendar with a red Sharpie and wish the days away?

There was another conversation I had with my son soon after.  He asked me what I did for a living before he was born.  I started to tell him that I sold pagers…  and almost instantly wished that I had just made something up.  Now I had to explain the concept of pagers and why someone would need such a device.  You see, if someone wanted to get in touch with you, they called your pager and punched in their phone number, you would see the number on your pager and you would go find a phone or a phone booth and call them back. Again, I get the “You’re crazy” look.  As I’m trying to explain this to him, I realize that it sounds so cumbersome and ridiculous.  I try to make it sound a little better by pointing out that I sold them to corporate accounts, Fortune 500 companies.  He didn’t care.  I’d lost him already.  He was too busy posing his next question to listen as I trailed off about the limited options we had before cell phones were widely available.  He interrupted my reverie, “But Mom, what’s a phone booth?”    Done. Can’t answer another question.  I’m exhausted by all the explaining.  I sighed with resignation, admitting defeat.  I turned to him, “Google it.”      

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grieving-angel-statue

“And I know it aches and your heart it breaks and you can only take so much….  Walk on.” -U2, Walk On

It was my wedding day.

We had spent the past year and a half planning every little detail, the string quartet, the candles, the sunset. Yes, even the sunset.

One year before our wedding date I stood outside and watched the sky. I studied the sun as it gracefully slid into a warm golden light. Letting it soak in, I marveled at this moment. The warmth and beauty of the world awash in a sublime glow, this gift for us to witness most evenings. I’ve always felt moved, spiritually connected to the sunset. It’s a daily reminder that anything is possible.  As the sun’s dance came to an end, it washed the sky in pink and purple, one last flourish to remind us of the promise of the sun rising for a new day. This was the moment I wanted our wedding to take place, the beginning of our new life together.

A year later, on the actual day, it was beautiful, the sun was putting on it’s luminous show right on schedule. I stood outside of the chapel and watched as my sisters and best friends filed inside. The strings started playing Canon in D and it was time for me to take my last walk as an unmarried woman. My heart started racing and I could feel the pressure building inside of me, the surge of tears threatening to spill out of my eyes. I looked up at the sun, willing it to work it’s magic on me. Let me feel the hope and promise, the assurance that  it would greet me the next morning and everything would be all right.

Nothing.

I felt completely alone, the sunset wasn’t giving me strength, my family and friends had all gone inside. The only person there was the sweet old lady who worked for the chapel and was there to make sure all went as planned. She looked at me nervously, her eyes darting from me to the door of the church.

And all I could think was, “I can’t do this.”

Before I had the chance to say anything, the doors were flung open. I was caught off guard as 80 expectant faces turned to watch me. I scanned the crowd….  I saw my family and friends…. I saw my Dad and Stepfather waiting in front of the alter to give me away, but I was going to have to walk down the aisle alone.

And that’s not how it was supposed to be.

I don’t know how long I paused there. It really was surreal. Like time stopped.

Then my eyes found Joe. And right next to him a single candle burning on a tall candelabra. Gulp. I looked back at Joe and knew that if I could make it to him that I would be o.k.

I felt myself move forward, effortlessly gliding….  Something was propelling me forward.  I felt a sense of calm, warmth and serenity that I hadn’t felt in 18 months.

Eighteen months earlier, my 16 year old brother was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer.

Given a grim diagnosis, he remained steadfast. He was going to be fine, he was going to live his life. He was still planning a future. He packed a lot of living in a short time.

Ten days before my wedding he lost his fight.

This was the day the world forever changed for the six of us that were there with him. Nothing would ever be the same, there was something deep inside  each of us that had been irreparably changed. I felt gutted, depleted and seething with heartache.

September 15, 1999 was the worst day of my life.

Fourteen years later I still look back and I don’t know how any of us made it through a funeral and a wedding. But we did. We somehow walked through it together, feeling our way through a fog of pain and grief. There would be no postponing of the wedding, as I’d suggested. I couldn’t imagine waking up in a world without my brother, let alone throwing a wedding. Every single member of my family told me in no uncertain terms that my brother would never want me to put it off. He always said he “didn’t have time for cancer”, he didn’t let it stop him from doing the things he wanted to do. And he would be highly pissed if I let cancer stop my wedding.

So, we pulled it together, summoned our strength and even though we were surely still in a state of shock, we had a wedding. There were tributes to my brother throughout the wedding. The single candle stood where he was supposed to stand as a groomsman. There was a beautiful poem in his memory read during the ceremony, and his favorite song was played at the reception. And we danced and we drank and we had fun.

Inexplicably, we actually had fun.

Fourteen years have passed since that day.

Fourteen years later and I’m still trying to figure out how to move through life without him.

Fourteen years later and I’m still learning how all this works, the after part.

And even though I’m sometimes exhausted by all this learning, I know it’s important to pull my head out of the sand every once in a while and pay attention.  I would gladly trade the things I’ve learned to have my brother back…

but I learned a long time ago that bargaining doesn’t work.

Perhaps one of the most important things I learned came from a friend I worked with. I confessed to her that I didn’t think that I would ever feel joy again. I knew I would feel some level of happiness, but true, full, unadulterated joy? I couldn’t see that ever happening. I really thought the part of me capable of feeling with abandon had died. She adamantly refused to agree. She said that I would feel joy again. She was so sure. It actually kind of annoyed me at the time. But her insistence also gave me hope.

And she was right. When I had my son 15 months later, I felt joy, a pure unfiltered happiness. And I’ve felt it many times since then. With my daughters, with my husband, with my friends and family. My son’s birth filled a hollowness that had been residing inside my soul. I have thought of her many times since then even though we aren’t close any more. She gave me something no one else had been able to give me at one of my darkest moments. As an outsider she was able to guarantee me that I would feel again. See, she had a daughter already and knew that when I had a child I would have no choice but to feel joy, that my love for my baby would override the pain. The birth of my son didn’t take away the pain of losing my brother, but it allowed me to open my heart up again to hope.

It gave me permission to feel happy.

I learned to cut people some slack.

You really don’t know what people are going through, what they have endured or are battling. I had many nights and early mornings of driving home from the hospital after staying with my brother where I truly don’t know how I made it home. There were times where I caught myself driving about 15 mph on a busy road. Before my brother’s illness I would have been irate over a slow driver holding me up. I still sometimes get a little annoyed but I always remind myself.

We all have bad days and some of us have really bad days and are just trying to make it to tomorrow, so I try to keep my irritation in check. I’m sure many people granted me that grace, and I’m grateful. I was so fragile and raw that to be confronted by an angry driver or shopper at the grocery store would have been too much.

Compassion and grace isn’t giving people a pass when you know they’re suffering.

Real compassion is giving people the benefit of the doubt, granting them access, assisting them when you don’t know them, when you don’t know what they are going through.  If you have to know the behind the scenes, well then you’re kind of sitting in judgement, right?  I wasn’t an asshole before, but I don’t think I really recognized the depths that people can be trapped in and look completely normal to the rest of the world.

I learned that comfort  sometimes comes from unexpected places.

There are some people who had such an impact on me, who helped me through difficult times and they probably will never know the significance of their actions. There was a coworker who, as I was leaving the office to go to the hospital, stopped me to give me a big bear hug. He knew I was worried about the news we were getting from my brother’s test results, and while I had talked about it with my shy, reserved friend I was completely taken aback with his show of affection. It was a small gesture that I knew wasn’t easy for him to offer. His effort to offer me solace moved me and reminded me that even though many of them didn’t know my brother, there was a whole team of people rooting for him.

Then there’s my husband’s brother and his wife who drove 12 hours to be here for my brother’s memorial service.

My sister in law, who I barely knew was the person I leaned on during that service. I found myself opening up to her and this was only the second time she and I had met. She helped me get through an emotional night and she seemed genuinely touched by the stories she hear from my brother’s friends. She said that he sounded like an amazing person and she felt like she kind of knew him after hearing about his antics.

I almost collapsed with gratitude when she said those words to me.  It let me know that my brother wouldn’t be forgotten, that his spirit and his humor could be translated to people who’d never met him.

I’ve learned that you can, even 14 years later, be blindsided by the cruel reality of it all.

You can be sitting at your kid’s swim practice just trying to write in your notebook when a memory you’re writing about simply knocks the wind out of you and next thing you know you’re wiping away tears hoping no one notices.

You can be eating dinner at a restaurant and the waiter looks just like him and you almost want to stalk him, just so you can pretend for a minute that he’s still here.

You can watch your kids doing something especially mischievious and your thoughts unwillingly flicker to images of your brother egging them on, encouraging their exasperating behaviour.

And you can almost hear him laughing, enjoying every second of finding a way to torture you as an adult as he did as a little kid.

And your heart hurts because you know he would have had so much fun with your kids and they would have loved their uncle so much.

You could bottle yourself up and try to insulate yourself from it, but it’s not going away so you might as well let it happen.

You’ll feel it, you’ll hurt, but you’ll be ok.

And I’ve learned that I still feel my brother’s presence.

I see him in each of my children, in their personalities…  in their sense of humor, which is what my brother was known for.

I feel him when my family is together and my sister and my parents are laughing and we’re giving each other a hard time.

I feel him kicking me in the ass when I’m about to chicken out on doing something that scares me.  I can almost hear what he would say in those situations.

I’ve learned to recognize these moments, when I feel him with me.

They are bittersweet.

They are welcome.

And they tug at my heart because they will never be enough.

My brother was supposed to walk me down the aisle.

When we knew, in those last weeks, that it would not be possible for him to do that, we contemplated our other options.  We considered having both my dad and stepfather walk me down the aisle, having my sister’s husband walk me down the aisle.

But in the end, I decided that my brother was who I had chosen to walk me down the aisle.

There was no understudy, there would be no last minute stand in.  I couldn’t imagine replacing him in that role.

I didn’t know how I was going to manage making that walk without him, I didn’t have much time to dwell on it.  And what I’ve learned is that there didn’t need to be a replacement.

My brother showed up.

He kicked me in the ass a little and told me not to be scared and that I didn’t have time to let my pain stand in the way of my wedding, my happiness.

My brother showed up…

he  was there with me on one of the best days of my life.

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