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I quickly tuned my guitar and put it in its case. I then grabbed the music to the four songs I planned to play for my son Eddie’s daycare class, stuffed them into my guitar case as well and snapped it shut. I wanted to put the guitar in the car so that when my son was done with his breakfast, I’d only have him to put into the car and then we’d be off.

I offered to play my guitar for my three-year-old son’s class last year after hearing that a man dressed as Clifford the Big Red Dog had come to my son’s school and played a few songs. I didn’t plan on dressing up as a canine, but I thought it sounded fun to perform some music, even if the audience was only three. But with work, an inability to practice, and a fear that I would pick a song too risque – my son’s daycare is in a church — I never wound up doing it. This year, I vowed to play and once I mentioned it to my son’s teacher, she put me on the calendar, leaving me no choice.

As I picked up my guitar, Eddie came running out of the kitchen. “I want to take my guitar, too!”

I bought my son a children’s guitar when he was two. It was one of several things I did to try to build his self esteem, along with ice skating lessons, swimming classes and a weekly music class.

“Where is it?” Eddie asked, scanning the room.

“Behind the couch,” I said.

He didn’t know where it was because he rarely plays it – except for a minute or two when I’m playing mine in front of other people. Then he’ll pull it out and begin strumming it in his own unique way: horizontally. He lays the guitar flat on his lap like a dulcimer and strums it almost like a harp. He doesn’t necessarily enjoy playing. He enjoys the attention it draws. I know the feeling. That’s why I was doing a show for three-year olds.

“Give me your guitar, and I’ll put it in the car,” I said, adding, “I want you to play with me, but maybe you go first, and then I go.”

I imagined every song I played being scuttled by the discordant thuds of someone who knows nothing of the instrument they’re playing.

“No, you go first, and then I go,” he said.

“Okay, that works,” I said.

When we walked into his classroom with our guitars, two boys came running over and began pawing at my son’s guitar. Eddie was beaming.

“Be careful,” he said as he gently pulled it out of its case.blog guitars

I walked over to the corner of the room and pulled mine out its case as well and began tuning it again.

“Okay, it’s circle time,” said the teacher. “Everyone on the rug.”

As the children took their places on the floor, I took my son’s guitar out of his hands and leaned it against a bookshelf in the front of the room. I then sat down in the back of the room with my guitar.

The teacher sat down in a chair in the front of the classroom and began reading a story to the class. My son was sitting on the floor in the front of the room and as the teacher read, he moved closer and closer to her until he was standing between her legs, partially blocking some of the children from seeing the book. It was an audacious move, made by someone who has connections in high places. Today, I was that connection. The teacher put her arm around him but after a few minutes, she whispered to him to go take his seat. He did, but within a few minutes he was back up front standing between her legs. This time, she let him stay.

When the teacher finished the book, she announced that there was a special guest in class today. As she introduced me, I took a seat on the floor in the front of the room with my guitar. My son grabbed his guitar and sat down next to me, so close that our guitars banged into each other. I moved a couple of inches away from him to give myself some room, but he inched toward me and our guitars knocked again.

“Hey, buddy, can you move that way just a bit, so our guitars don’t hit?”

He moved over.

“This first song is about Winnie the Pooh. You guys know who Winnie the Pooh is, right?” I asked.

“Yes!” a few of them shouted.

As I started the song, Eddie began to play his own guitar. I tried to ignore it, but as I began to sing, I found I couldn’t concentrate. I stopped playing.

“Hey, pal. You sound really good, but we’re playing two different songs. How about if you do your song and then I do mine?” I said.

He strummed his guitar a bit and then said, “I don’t know what to play.”

He plucked the guitar strings a couple of times, like a harp, and then stopped.

“That was great,” his teacher said and everyone clapped.

“Nice job,” I said.

I then picked up my guitar again and played “House at Pooh Corner,” and then another song. As I played, I could see out of the corner of my eye that my son was pouting. I kept looking at him and telling him to join in, but every time I looked over, I lost my place in my music. By the fourth song, “American Pie,” my son had moved to a chair on the far side of the room near the cubbies.

“Come on over, Eddie. I need you to help me sing,” I said.

He came back to the front of the room, though as everyone began clapping their hands to “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,” my son just stood there. When I was finished, I told him to do a song.

“Yeah, Eddie, you do a song,” his teacher bellowed from the back of the room.

“Okay,” he said, picking up his guitar. “I don’t know what song to do.”

“What song do you want to do?” I asked.

In my head, I quickly flipped through the catalogue of songs we sing at home, but all I could think of was, “Come on and do it, do it, do it till your satisfied, whatever it is, bah dah dah,” and how my son inexplicably rubs his hands on his tush, like a Chippendale’s dancer, when I sing it. It didn’t seem appropriate for his Christian daycare. They’d already made me change the chorus of “American Pie” from “..drinking whiskey and rye” to “making a big apple pie.”

“How about ‘Let it Go?’ ” I asked.

“Okay,” he said and started strumming and singing, “Let it go. Let it go. Let it go-ho-ho.” I started singing it, too, and his teacher and several children in his class joined in. My son’s face lit up like the sun.

When he was done, the teacher said, “Okay, circle time is over.” I kissed Eddie goodbye and said, “I’ll be back later.”

When my husband came home from work that night, he asked my son if anything special happened at school that day. Eddie said he played his guitar.

“Layla picked ‘Let it Go.’ She said, ‘Eddie, could you please play ‘Let it Go?’ And then I sang ‘Let it Go,’” my son said.

“But was there a special guest?” my husband asked.

“Mommy played some songs,” my son said, almost as an afterthought. He seemed so aggrieved that morning, I wondered if he’d even heard me play.

We went out to dinner that night and as we sat at the table waiting for our food, my son drove a metal stagecoach in circles around the table. And as he drove, I could hear him humming, “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie.”

I picked up my three-and-a-half-year old son, Eddie, from daycare and as we left the building, he and a classmate began running around and around a circular cement path in front of the school. The other boy was in the lead and as my son caught up to him, he grabbed the boy by the shirt and pushed him to the ground, prompting the boy to cry.

I ran over to them and while rubbing the boy’s arm with one hand, I held Eddie’s hand with the other and said, “Look at your friend. He’s hurt. I don’t think you want to hurt your friend. But when you push people they can get hurt. And now he’s crying. I don’t think you meant to make him cry, right?” I was trying to walk a fine line, showing Eddie the consequences of his actions while trying not to rub his face in it and make him feel like he’s evil.

“Sorry,” my son said, barely audible and with not a shred of remorse.

eddie parker dinosaur park 1It wasn’t the first time he’d flung another child to the ground. About a year ago, he started becoming more physical with other boys. They’ll be playing tag – my son loves the chase – and everyone will be laughing until Eddie latches on to another child’s shirt or jacket and tries to pull him down. It’s like a wrestling move. When he’s playing with older kids, they brush it off like a horse swatting a fly, but children his own age don’t like it, particularly if they’re thrown to the ground. And I’m yet to see a kid who is my son’s match. It’s not that he’s excessively strong. It’s that he’s determined, and he uses his body weight to bring the other child down.

It’s gotten so that when he plays with other children, I’m like an overzealous hall monitor, standing on the sidelines yelling, “Eddie, gentle!” “Eddie, no,” “Edwin, stop,” at even the most minor infractions. He’ll look at me and stop whatever he was doing, but a minute later, his arms are extended out in front of him again, like Lurch, trying to grab another boy by his clothing.

At his birthday party, he pulled on one kid, who is actually a friend, so many times, I thought the boy’s mother wasn’t going to let Eddie play with her child anymore. In fact that’s the worst part about it: I fear my son is going to be disenfranchised, cast out, sidelined as a bully.

A few days later, we had a double play date with Eddie’s classmate and a boy named Jack, one of the classmate’s friends. Jack, like Eddie, was a grabby kid, too, though Jack is big for his age so when he pushes or shoves another child, he can do some damage. And like me, Jack’s mother was constantly monitoring him for fear he would hurt another child.

Worried about Eddie’s behavior, I began reading books on the topic, consulting friends, even posting messages on Facebook seeking advice. Most people said the same thing: the grabby behavior must end. “Children should keep their hands to themselves,” one woman said. “Tell him he needs to use his words, not his hands,” said another. eddie parker dinosaur park 2

But I stumbled upon one doctor who wrote a book that said while aggression must be kept in check, it’s equally important for young boys to develop bonds, and calling a child out publicly again and again will make him feel like a pariah and make it harder for him to forge those self-esteem-building relationships. Better to find him like-minded companions who will allow him to play the way he wants to play without constantly feeling shamed.

A few weeks later, we attended Eddie’s classmate’s birthday party, at House of Bounce. Eddie, his classmate, and Jack were running around inside one of the inflatable houses, throwing balls and chasing each other as I stood outside it yelling at Eddie through the netting every time he grabbed someone. “Edwin. Stop it!” “Eddie, if you do that again, you’re getting a time out.” The last thing I wanted was for the birthday boy to be crying at his own party.

Jack’s mother was actually inside the cage, bouncing up and down as the boys ran around her. Every now and again, she would pry her son off another child, usually mine, because no matter how many balls were available, Eddie and Jack always seemed to want the same one.

Another parent walked over and stood next to me.

“I like that kid,” he said, pointing to Eddie. “He’s feisty.”

“That’s my son,” I said.

“He reminds me of my son,” the man said, pointing to Jack.eddie figurines dinosaur park

I felt a moment of relief. I was used to feeling like a pariah at every outing because of my son’s aggressive behavior, and here was someone commending it. It was as if my pink-toed son and I had been living on one side of an island where everyone had blue toes, and while out walking one day, I found another side of the island where all the pink-toed people lived.

In the months that followed, every time we went out with Eddie’s classmate, I would stand over my son to make sure he didn’t hurt the boy, but when the classmate’s friend, Jack, would join us, I could let down my guard – not because Jack would buffer Eddie’s advances but because he was even more aggressive. He made Eddie look almost normal.

This week, Jack’s mother and I arranged to have a play date on our own. We went to a playground, and for much of the afternoon, the two boys got along well. They played with action figures, ate lunch, and ran around the playground, though Jack kept wanting Eddie to chase him, and Eddie kept wanting to go back to the picnic table to play with Jack’s figurines. When Jack became more insistent about playing a game of chase, his mother tried to divert his attention by taking him for a walk in the empty tennis courts next to the playground. Eddie wanted to go, too, so he and I joined them.

The boys started to chase each other around the net on one of the courts, though Jack was bigger and faster and caught Eddie easily every time. And every time he did, the two boys would begin to skirmish, circling each other without making contact but you could feel that at any moment, they would.

“Okay, Eddie, go run and let Jack chase you,” I’d say each time, trying to break it up.

After intervening a number of times, Jack’s mother and I decided to just let the boys go for a moment, to do as they wished, like a person who keeps a dog that’s always pulling them on a tight leash, for fear they will bolt, but one day let’s the dog go to see what will happen. Our sons weren’t in danger. We were right there should anything happen. And so it was that Jack’s mother and I found ourselves standing in the middle of a tennis court, watching our boys spar, bobbing and weaving like two boxers in a ring. Now and again, Eddie would run toward Jack with his elbow out like a weapon, yelling, “Huya!” and Jack would do this karate move, twisting his body around while kicking his leg out behind him, like Bruce Lee.

To stand there watching the two of them felt odd, like we were watching gladiators or a cock fight. It felt wrong. But every time I wanted to stop them, I would look at my son’s face, and he seemed all right. He wasn’t scared or mad or hurt — though a couple of times, when the two actually made contact, Jack pushed Eddie to the ground, and I interceded.

“You okay, pal?” I would ask, helping him up.

“Yeah,” he’d say, and get up and run at Jack again.

After a minute or two, Jack’s mother and I decided it was time to go. It had been a long afternoon and best to end it before someone ended up in tears.

As we drove home, I asked my son, “Did you have fun with Jack?”

“No,” he said.

I looked at him in the rear view mirror. He was sitting quietly in his car seat, deep in thought. Of course he was, I thought. He had just faced an opponent larger and stronger than he is, and his own mother let it happen. I stood there watching it like it was a spectator sport. He now knows that if he ever needs me, I will not be there for him. And he’ll be right. I felt regret.

As he looked at me in the rear view mirror, I braced myself. “Do I have to take a nap when we get home?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, and exhaled, having dodged yet another imaginary bullet.

I went to the drug store with my three-and-a-half-year-old son, Eddie, and when I threw some nail polish into my cart, my son said, “I want one.”

“Really? Um, okay,” I said. I knelt down on the floor and plucked several colors out of the display that I thought might appeal to him: pale yellow, light blue, and pastel green. “How about one of these?”

“This one, “ he said, sailing right over my color choices and lifting a bottle of pink out of the display.

“Oh, okay,” I said, a little surprised but thought, “Why not? Let’s be festive.” “Do you want a sparkly one, too? Maybe one of these?” I asked. I pointed to a bottle with red and green sparkles that reminded me of Christmas and another one with silver sparkles that seemed a good choice for New Year’s Eve.

“No. This one,” he said, again sidestepping my choices and picking the sparkly pink. I threw it in my cart.

When we got home, he asked me if I could paint his nails, and so I did, dismissing any thoughts I had about what this meant or what other people might say. I will never inhibit his fashion choices. Ever. For much of my life, people have commented, even mocked my sense of dress. “You’re not really going out like that, are you?” “Why is everything you wear so baggy?” “You look like a hobo.” I once wore a blonde wig similar to the pixie hairstyle Meg Ryan wore for years, and a woman on the subway turned to me, looked at my head and began laughing. I have a hard enough time trying to be me, issuing small displays of individuality, like a firefly, because to do anything larger makes me uncomfortable, so I’ve always applauded those who brave the chuckles and the sneers in order to be who they are – the fat woman on the beach who wears a bikini, the tone deaf man who does karaoke. I’ve silently vowed to encourage my son to be who he wants to be, regardless of the consequences.

When my husband got home from work, he gave Eddie a big hug and said, “Hey buddy.” He then looked down at my son’s fingers and said, “Pink nail polish?”

“Yep. That’s what he wanted,” I said, with a finality that said, “We’re not going to discuss this any further.”

That night, my husband’s friend, Frank, came over. “What the hell is on your nails?” he said when he saw my son.

“Mind your own,” I said.

The following day when I picked Eddie up from school, he said, “They asked me why I had nail polish.”

“Who asked you?”

“Layla and Kenzie and Lexie,” he said.

“And what did you say?” I asked.

“I said I liked it,” he said.

“Good for you,” I said.

When I told a friend about the way everyone was responding to my son’s pink nail polish, she told me about a video in which a man at an outdoor music event stands up and begins to dance. For a few minutes, he is the only one dancing, and he looks like a freak. People stare, but he is undeterred, which makes him look even stranger. A minute later, someone else stands up and joins him. Now there are two standing up dancing, and they look mildly odd but less so than when there was just one. Soon, a third man joins the two and begins dancing. Now, his dancing doesn’t look odd but rather like an option: some are sitting while others are dancing. A fourth person joins the crowd and then a fifth, sixth and seventh. Now, it’s a movement. More join, and it starts to become the norm. And the narrator says, “It took just one brave follower to turn a lone nut into a leader.”

The next day when I brought Eddie to school, I walked him into the class, and just before I turned to go, gave him a hug. As I stood there in the middle of his classroom, I paused for a moment and wanted to yell, “Now listen here. Eddie’s wearing nail polish and yes, it’s pink, and if any of you have a problem with that, you can take it up with ME.” But I didn’t say that, because I’m not allowed to, because a kid, particularly one with peculiar taste, is going to have to learn how to deal with his classmates’ comments on his own.

When I picked him up from school, we walked outside of the building, and he saw a friend from class.

“Eddie’s wearing pink nail polish,” the boy said to his mother. “That’s for girls!”

“Well, you like the color purple,” the boy’s mother said. She then turned to me and said, “It’s actually hard to find purple clothes for boys.”

Eddie and his classmate ran around outside for a while, and then the boy and his mother got into their car to go home. A couple of minutes later, I got a text from the boy’s mother.

“My son just told me he wants purple nail polish.”

And one brave follower raised his hand.

Sept. 30, 2014, Insects

I went to our local library this afternoon because I received a letter that said the “book on tape” I had borrowed was overdue and that I now owed the library $1.60. When we arrived, I was told my outstanding bill was not $1.60 but actually $18.00. That’s because on top of my overdue book fine, they said I owed them $16.40 for a book called “Insects,” which they claimed that I had returned damaged. They said a friend had returned the book and one of the pages was ripped. I was now required to purchase the book.

“That can’t be right,” I said.

“Go upstairs to the Children’s library and talk to Cheryl,” the woman at the front desk told me.

I was with my three-year-old son, and when the two of us arrived upstairs, I was happy to see that the person manning the desk was a soft-spoken Vietnamese woman who used to work at a shop in my town. She was gentle and kind and would surely understand my predicament.

“You need to speak to Cheryl,” she said when I told her why I was there. She pointed to an office across the way.

Cheryl, an overweight woman with frizzy hair, was inside the office talking on the phone. I sent my son over to the play area, which had Lego’s and an activity table, and I stood outside Cheryl’s door, not too close as to hover but close enough to see when she was off the phone. As I waited, I rehearsed what I was going to say. While I’m the kind of person who feels guilty about things I haven’t even done, I found it implausible that my son would have ripped the book. Babies do things like that. My son is nearly four years old. Besides, there was no way I was going to pay $18 for a book about bugs.bugs

“Cheryl?” I said meekly, when she put down the phone. She swung her chair around to face me. “ “My name is Caren, and I was told I owe $18 for a book that was torn. I can’t believe that—“

“Let me take a look,” she said, rising from her chair and walking over to the computer at the front desk where the kind, gentle Vietnamese woman had brought up the details of my crime on the computer screen and was now pointing at it, accusingly, with a bony little finger. Some ally she turned out to be.

“Yes, it says you had a friend return the book with a rip in it,” Cheryl said, and deftly swerved her chair around to grab the book off a shelf behind her and opened it to the vandalized page.

I ran my finger across the page. It was a photo of a patch of moss-covered ground that was covered with dozens of lady bugs. The caption read, “Lots of ladybugs are good for the garden. They eat other insects that damage the plants.”

“I just can’t believe we ripped that book,” I said. “I have no recollection of that having happened.”

“Well, I’m not sure what to say. When your friend returned the book, it had a rip in it.” It was the second time someone alluded to the fact that a friend had returned the book, insinuating that I had ripped the book and then tried to hide my crime by having someone else return the damaged product.

“I really have no recollection of anyone ripping that page. I mean, I’m the one who would have read the book to my son, and he would have torn the page in front of me, and I don’t remember that ever happening,” I said. “Maybe it was like that when I took it out.”

I took the torn out piece of a page and lay it down next to the piece that was still in the book, trying to put it back together.

“There’s no way we would have let you take out a book like that, with a page torn out. There’s even a piece missing,” she said, pointing to the gap at the top of the page, proof that even a good cellophane taping job couldn’t have brought the book back to its original condition.ladybugs

“I don’t know what else to say. I simply don’t remember my son tearing that page,” I said.

“You had to have seen the page was like this when you were reading the book. You couldn’t even have read this page without noticing,” she said, lifting the page out.

“I don’t even know that we read the book,” I said. “I took out four insect books that day.”

I was sure I sounded like the man in court who says, “My dog can’t have bitten that woman. He doesn’t bite. And that’s not my dog. And anyway, I don’t even have a dog.”

“I’m sorry. It’s our policy that if a book is returned damaged, you have to buy it,” she said.

I did some quick mental calculus and saw that I was simply not going to win. It was her word against mine, and if I refused to pay, I wouldn’t be allowed to use the library anymore. I felt aggrieved because here, as in all relationships, the scale was tipped in her favor for one reason only: I needed the library more than they needed me.

“16.40?” I said, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a crumpled $20 bill. “That’s a lot of money for a thin book about bugs.”

“Non-fiction books are always more expensive,” she said.

That’s stupid, I thought. It takes less thought for someone to write a book that’s true than one in which they have to make stuff up. Besides, it was as thin as a wafer.

I took my change and walked over to my son in the play area. Leaning down, I whispered, “Hey, buddy. Do you remember ripping this book?” I showed him the book.

“Yeah,” he said matter of factly. “Why, what were you trying to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“What did that lady say to you?”

“She said you ripped the book,” I said.

Just then, my son starts banging together two Lego pieces that were shaped like animals. He knocked them against each other so hard, I thought for sure the leg was going to come off the giraffe.

“Hey, hey, stop,” I said, peaking over at the front desk to see if Cheryl was looking. I remembered all the times we’d come here in the past and had been yelled at by various people sitting at that desk, for making too much noise, or because my son was jumping off the wood cube into the mesh playpen that’s filled with stuffed animals. She was never going to believe our innocence, no matter how compelling an argument I could have made.

As we walked out into the parking lot, I asked my son, “Do you really remember ripping that page?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Really?” I said, still not believing it.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Oh yeah? Which page?” I asked.

“The bug page,” he said. “I thought I could make a paper airplane.”

September 11, 2014, Footprints

I repost this essay I wrote every September 11. I don’t see why this year should be any different…

I

Change rarely visits Bialystoker Street. Every morning, men in black hats make their way to the Bialystoker synagogue for morning prayer. About an hour later, women wearing wigs and black stockings emerge from their apartments, pushing baby carriages with two or three other children in tow. The little boys wear yarmulkes. The girls have patent leather shoes.

So it surprised me to see that the bench outside my old apartment building was no longer there. It was a standard-issue bench with solid-concrete sides and wood slats painted parks-department green. The whole row of them was gone. Poof. Vanished. The only thing that remained was a couple of indentations on the sidewalk.

II

My father complained over dinner about how my mother had this terrible habit of using the word “she” twice in one sentence, when she was referring to two different people.

“I’m constantly having to ask her, ‘She, who?’ my father said, and then turning to my mother, he said, ‘You can’t say “she” twice in one sentence and think I’ll know who you mean.’”

“Eddie, will you stop criticizing me? Enough,” my mother said, throwing her fork down on the table.

It might have been any old day. But it wasn’t. My father was dying of esophageal cancer. As a last ditch effort, he’d signed up for a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering that had a 66-percent success rate. But we were told that morning that he was among the unlucky 34 percent. His cancer was spreading, and he was out of the program. My father was going back to his home in Florida to die.

“Let’s get some munchies,” he said as we walked back to my parents’ hotel. Despite carrying around coffee cakes, pretzels and little cans of apple sauce to nibble on in between meals, my father’s 185-pound frame was down to 128 pounds.

“Everything’s closed,” I said.

We were sitting in a restaurant on 36th Street and Sixth Avenue, so close to the Empire State Building that if it fell, it would hit us. Things like that mattered that day. It was September 11, 2001. There was an eerie quiet in Midtown. Sixth Avenue was nearly empty but for a lone man in a sweatshirt walking down the street with a video camera. At the corner of 35th Street, a homeless man and a man in a suit stood next to each other, watching the news on a television set that was resting on top of a garbage pail. Police tape blocked pedestrians from walking on 34th Street as armed men in uniform walked bomb-sniffing dogs back and forth in front of the Empire State Building.

I dropped my parents off at their hotel and walked to Pennsylvania Station, hoping a store along the arcade would be open. It was 8 p.m. and hundreds of commuters were standing near the board that listed train departures. They were stranded when the entrances and exits to Manhattan were sealed.

My parents were among the stranded. They had come into Manhattan from Long Island for chemotherapy and were on a subway heading to the hospital when the second plane hit. Subway service was suspended, and my parents were forced out of the train at Times Square. They walked all the way to the hospital on the East Side only to find chemotherapy was canceled, but my father was given his CAT scan results. The tumors had not shrunk. They had grown. Dejected, my parents tried to hail a taxi back to Penn Station but every cab was occupied. They eventually bribed a taxi driver, who already had a passenger inside, while he was sitting at a traffic light. They made their way back to Penn Station only to find that the train service to Long Island was suspended, so they orbited the station, trying hotel after hotel until they finally found a vacancy.

I found a store that was open and bought a bag of sugar-coated nuts, M&Ms, potato chips and two toothbrushes. When I returned to their hotel room, my parents were sitting up in bed, watching CNN. They invited me to spend the night. The three of us squeezed into one bed with me sandwiched between them.

“What are you scratching?” my mother asked.

“I think my cat gave me fleas,” I said.

“Go take a shower,” my father said abruptly.

I stood in the shower and thought about a banker I once interviewed for a story in World Trade Center 7 and how that building was no longer there. I thought about my siblings and wondered if any of them ever had fleas. I wondered if I would ever feel my father’s approval or if that void was so deep that even a thousand loving gestures wouldn’t plug the hole.

When I got out of the shower, I climbed back into bed with my parents. I tossed and turned for about an hour on account of my father’s snoring.

“He’s been doing that since he got sick,” my mother whispered. It was something else about him I didn’t know.

The following day, my parents were able to get back to Long Island, and for the next several days, they sat on a couch in my aunt’s house watching CNN. In the footage, the towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The news showed young people lighting candles in Union Square. Mothers and fathers and husbands and wives were wandering the streets, holding up photos of their loved ones in front of the television cameras or taping their pictures to utility poles. At the time, it seemed appropriate. A week later, it was clear an entire city had been in denial.

My parents returned to Florida at the end of September. I followed them down there about a week later. For two months, I researched cures for cancer. I joined a message board for people with esophageal cancer. I investigated the various treatments, proven and unproven. I bought a used book called Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment & Prevention. I ignored thoughts about why the person who bought the book no longer needed it. I couldn’t convince my father to get acupuncture. He didn’t like needles. But I talked him into seeing a Chinese medicine doctor in a nearby strip mall. The doctor’s face was black and white.

“What was wrong with his skin?” my father asked as we left the doctor’s office.

“I don’t know. Something with his pigmentation.”

“If he can’t fix his own skin …”

“Dad. I know,” I said.

I went to Whole Foods Market almost every day to buy whole wheat pasta, organic vegetables and wheat grass. Blueberries were filled with antioxidants. A cup of raspberries a day contained enough elegiac acid to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. I made my father a concoction of cottage cheese, banana and flax seed oil every morning because a doctor in Germany had fed it to people who were near-death, and it had brought them back to life. I put a prohibition on sugar because I’d read that cancer loves sugar. I went through my parents’ cupboards and pulled out every box of soup, every bag of candy, every can of sauce that contained sugar and put them in boxes that I stacked in the corner of the dining room. One night, I heard my father rummaging through the boxes.

“What are you doing back there?” I said.

A small body emerged from the darkness holding a little can of fruit cocktail.

“I just wanted to take it upstairs with me,” he said.

He looked at me like he was in trouble.

“Oh, just take it,” I said.

For much of the fall, my parents would go to chemotherapy during the day while I’d stay at home, cooking meals from a Whole Foods cookbook. The woman who wrote the book had cured her own leukemia with a macrobiotic diet and now had a cooking show on PBS. One afternoon, I decorated the dining room with pumpkins and squash, and twig wreaths covered with leaves from outside. I strung orange lights across the doorway and lit about a dozen candles. I wanted to watch my father’s eyes light up as he walked in. I wanted to save his life so he would love me.

My father had a piece of paper taped to the side of his desk listing the things he would do after his recovery. Go to Bristol, Tennessee, for a NASCAR race. Join the Boca Pointe board of trustees. Check out the new BMW M3. Visit the kids up North, starting with Caren and Ellen on Long Island, then Richie in Massachusetts and finally Steven in Rochester. He called it his victory tour. Nothing was ever crossed off the list. In July, the doctors had given him six months to live. He died in five.

III

I stood on Bialystoker Street and watched two boys play basketball through the chain-link fence. The block was so far east in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that the roadway leading to the Williamsburg Bridge at that point was already aloft. I stood under the road, looking up at the cars going across the bridge. A subway train went by. A jogger bobbed up and down in the caged-in pedestrian pathway that ran along the outside of the span. As my eyes watched him move across the bridge, everything else seemed to fall away, the screeching of the subway, the honking of the car horns. Time seemed to go in slow motion, like when your eyes follow a single snowflake or raindrop as it falls to the ground.

I walked across the street and sat down on the curb opposite where the bench used to be. I thought of a night back in March of 2001, a month after my father’s cancer was first diagnosed. I had called him on my cell phone from 14th Street, and the two of us talked as I walked the 17 blocks to my apartment on the Lower East Side. As we chatted away, it began to snow. It was a crisp winter night, and by the time I reached my apartment, the ground was white. I sat down on the bench.footprintssnow1

“Now that you have cancer, do you find it harder or easier to live in the moment?” I asked.

I wondered if having a finite amount of time would make him want to live each day more fully, or if he was so obsessed with the prospect of dying that it was impossible to think of anything else.

He paused, and said, “It’s harder.”

But then he told me a story about how he had been dancing at a wedding with my mother the weekend before, and for a single moment as they stood on the dance floor, he felt truly content. He was in the moment at that moment, and it felt close to bliss, he said.

As I sat on the curb and looked at the spot where the bench had been, the image of that night in March came back to me. It was the night my father walked me home, and we danced as the snow fell around us.

We’re toilet training my three-year-old son, Eddie, and this morning, I took a new potty out for a test drive. Our third, to be exact. We figure if the child is not taking to the toilet, there must be something wrong with the potty.

“This one was Grayson’s potty! And Vincent made pee pee in it when he was here,” I said, as if knowing all of his friends had urinated in it would make it more enticing.

This potty seat is too hard.

This potty seat is too hard.

My son sat on the new potty, and as I read him a book about Big Bird and the Snuffleupagus going camping, he kept lifting his butt off the seat to readjust. I noticed he had a red circle on his buttocks.

“You sure you don’t want to use your old potty?” I asked.

“No. This is good,” he says, as he lifts himself up briefly and sits down again.

After we read for a few minutes, I put him in the bath and asked him if he wanted his usual banana and chocolate shake, or if he wanted pancakes.

“Pancakes. With blueberries and chocolate chips,” he said.

“Okay. Then I’m going to run downstairs just to get them started,” I said.

I knew that by offering pancakes, we might be late for school. When we’re late, it means the side door, which is closer to his classroom, has already been shut and you have to use the front door, which is on the other side of the building. I also had a yoga class starting at 9:15 a.m., and I didn’t want to miss too much of it. I ran downstairs to throw the pancake ingredients together and noticed my husband had put all of the ingredients for a shake into the blender: the frozen banana, strawberries, chocolate syrup, Nutella, peanut butter, and the Flintstone’s vitamin we sneak into the mix. All I had to do was press the button. I paused, knowing my son would be disappointed but also knowing it would save me a lot of time. I then pressed the button, and the shake was made. As I walked back upstairs, I thought about how I was going to break the news to Eddie about the shake. As I walked back into the bathroom, I decided to tell him the truth.

Daddy did it.

Daddy did it.

“I was fully prepared to make you the pancakes you wanted, but daddy had already made your shake,” I said. And in case he didn’t hear it, I said it again. “Daddy did it.”

“Nooooooo! I don’t want a shake!” he screeched. “I don’t like shake!”

The truth is, the child has every right to hate shakes. He’s had one almost every morning for the last year. It’s no wonder he doesn’t like them anymore. I was actually surprised he’d lasted this long. But I didn’t want to throw the shake out. It seemed a waste. And I didn’t want to drink it. I had yoga. And of course I knew that giving him a shake, rather than pancakes, made it more likely we’d be on time to school.

But I looked at my son, who was now weeping. A lot of parents at that point might think their child was being manipulative. Me, I saw my child in pain, and I just wanted to make it stop. I tried to assuage him, saying something I’d read in a parenting book: “I know you must feel disappointed.” My empathy did nothing. Nor did telling him it would be the last shake he’d ever have to drink. I knew lecturing him on the ills of waste and the virtues of recycling and conscious consumption wouldn’t have any affect. It barely has an effect on adults. Instead, I said, “Fine. I’ll make you pancakes.”

I got Eddie dressed, though I left off his diaper and pants as part of our new potty training regimen. Breakfast is prime pooping time, and in the potty training book I’m reading, they recommend going diaper free as often as you can. The theory, I guess, is that the child is not likely to poop or pee on the floor – much – so they’ll begin to notice that sensation of having to go to the bathroom – and may even ask you to take them there. We need him to notice that sensation because our current stage of potty training isn’t fruitful: we put Eddie on the potty, to practice, when he doesn’t have to go, and when he does have to go, he’s nowhere near the potty. And he does nothing to get himself closer to one. And why should he? With a diaper on, he can poop anywhere.

I escorted Eddie downstairs in just his shirt, while I carried his diaper, a pair of pants, and his shoes and socks. As we headed to the kitchen to have breakfast, he ran ahead while I stopped in the living room to put something into my knapsack. Eddie suddenly came out of the kitchen and said, “Mommy, I have a birthday present for you.” For a split second, I thought, “There’s no way he just peed on the floor and is calling it a birthday present. No way.” I walked into the kitchen, and there on the floor was a huge puddle of pee.

“Really?” I said. “Really?”

I'll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I'll bring it back here.

I’ll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I’ll bring it back here.

My first thought was, “I don’t have time for this! We’re already late.” Because you don’t just clean up pee with a paper towel, not pee and not in a kitchen. You use a scrubbing brush and soap because you at least want to give yourself the illusion that you could eat off your kitchen floor. This is going to be time-consuming, not what I needed when I’m already running late and volunteered to make pancakes. I must have had that look that the Grinch had when little Cindy Lou Who came out of her room and said, “But why, Santee Claus, why are you taking our Christmas tree?” and the Grinch rubbed his stubbly little chin and said, “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.” I looked up at my son, and before I could stop myself, I said, “Well, that’s it. No time to make pancakes now.”

I knew what I was doing: I was using my son’s minor indiscretion to get out of doing something I didn’t want to do anyway. Now that’s manipulation. And I told my son that next time he has to pee, blah blah potty, blah blah lesson, blah blah consequences to his actions, blah blah his fault. I felt like a heel but continued to seize the opportunity. He wailed. “I want pancakes! I don’t want shake!” As I’m cleaning up his urine, he’s just standing there, his face red, tears streaming down his cheeks, and all I keep thinking is I just wish the morning was longer and yoga was later, so I could just give this kid what he wants, and he’ll be happy, and I won’t have to see him cry. But there was a part of me that thought, he needs to take a lesson here, and I can’t give in to him every time he cries, because then he’ll know all he has to do is cry, and I’ll give him what he wants – which is basically pretty accurate.

And then he said one of the worst things he could have said: “I want my daddy.” I don’t know how I looked at him, but it must have been with deep seated sadness because he added, “…and my mommy.” I hugged him and kept telling him it will be the last shake he ever has to drink, and that he just shouldn’t pee on the floor, and that I’ll make him pancakes when he comes home from school.

Huh-yah!

Huh-yah!

He wound up drinking part of the shake, and I took him to school, but when we got to his classroom, I could see his eyes still looked puffy and red from crying. When Eddie ran off to get the Ironman costume out of the costume box, I whispered to his teacher, “Eddie may be a little sensitive this morning. We had an incident with the potty training, and he’s still a little raw.”

And with that, I burst into tears. I told her everything that happened, and what I did, and how I felt bad, and she told me to buy him plastic underwear and pick my battles.

“A lot of the boys in here aren’t toilet trained yet,” she said.

I stood there in his classroom for a while, helping my son get into his Ironman costume and then standing next to him as one of his classmates, dressed at Thor, came over and leapt into the air, and thrusting a fist out in front of him, shouted, “Huh-yah! Huh-yah!” I hoped that by standing there, my son might forgive me for all the indiscretions I’d already made and was likely to make in the future.

“I don’t want to skate,” my three-year old son said, kicking the tip of his skate blade against the rubber flooring.

“Why? I thought you liked skating?” I said.

“It’s boring,” my son said, boldly.

Skating is boring

Skating is boring

I had an English teacher in high school, a short little man with an effeminate lisp, who, when students would proclaim something was boring, would say, “Bored people are boring.’ At the time, I thought he was being wise, even helpful, saying that if you were bored, it had something to do with what was inside you and that you could change it. In retrospect, I think he was just annoyed with the arrogance of youth, and he was just calling us “boring” out of spite.

I wasn’t going to call my son boring, but I was getting annoyed. I’d enrolled him in ice skating lessons two months ago after we’d gone skating with friends, and he’d enjoyed it. I wanted him to be involved in some activity, any activity, not so he could go to the Olympics or an intramural hockey team but so he could have a feeling of achievement. He has knock knees and doesn’t run very fast, and I see it frustrates him. I wanted to show him that sometimes people aren’t good at one thing but they’re good at another. I was giving him something to be good at.

It took some cajoling and repetition, but I convinced Eddie to rejoin his class on the ice. He made his way over to them holding on to the wall. He hadn’t needed to hold the wall since early on in his lessons, and it surprised me. I wondered if he was saying he was bored because he was afraid. Maybe that is how we learn a skill — not linearly but in a series of loops, where just when someone is about to move forward two steps, they go back one-and-a-half steps out of fear.

The skating teacher tried to pry Eddie off the wall, but he held his grip. She then backed away and held her hands out, asking him to skate toward her. He was reluctant at first but slowly let go of the wall and began marching in her direction, slowly, arms out like an airplane, knees bent, just as he’d been taught. She backed up a bit, and he moved toward her again, but he then fell on his butt. Bam! He looked over toward me.

"I'm just watching!"

“I’m just watching!”

“Everybody falls,” I said.

The teacher helped him up, but I knew he wasn’t happy about it. He began skating toward me. He was done.

The class only had two children in it, and Eddie was one of them. The other was a two-and-a-half year old named Zachery. As Eddie skated away from the class, Zachery stood on the ice in a big black helmet, his skates bowing out to the sides, yelling, “Eh-dee! Eh-dee! Eh-dee!” I thought, if anything is going to get my son to rejoin his class, it’s this kid. He really, really wanted Eddie to come back. But no chance. Eddie turned around and walked away on his skates, leaving Zachery screaming his name across the ice for a solid five minutes while my son stood at the edge of the rink, kicking his skate blade against the wall, and I stood in the opening where he would get out.

“Stay on the ice until the lesson is over. I don’t want you to come off yet,” I said.

“But I don’t like ice skating. I want to go home,” he said.

“You’re not coming off the ice until your lesson is over,” I said. “When your cousin, Cade, wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to skate. When Uncle Steven wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to. Is that what you want?”

I must sound like such an asshole, I thought. One of the other mothers who had been standing next to me, watching her own child skate in another class, turned and walked away. There’s a fine line between scoffing and giving someone privacy.

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

As Eddie continued to stand at the entrance to the ice, I turned around and walked away, thinking maybe if he couldn’t see me, he might go over and rejoin his class.

The instructor was not his regular teacher. She did not seem to have anything invested in the lesson – nor did she know my son and how in every other class he skated fine. I wished she would skate over and get my son, or at least look in our direction, but I think she was happy to just be teaching one little kid rather than two, who were at different levels anyway.

I inched a little farther away from the rink, near the benches where we put on my son’s skates and out of his field of vision. I was still hoping he would go back to his class, but he just stood there. He knew I was still in the vicinity, even if he couldn’t see me. I decided to take it a step further. I walked right in front of him and said, “Go back to your class. It’s over in five minutes. Go on. Go,” and I walked out the door that leads into the hallway.

I stood outside the doorway to the rink for several minutes. Through a window in the door, I could see through to the ice. I could see my son’s helmet and his two hands on the glass barrier that surrounded the rink as he just stood there. It was one of those parenting moments where I had no idea, whatsoever, what I was doing and whether it was the right – or a very wrong – approach. It was potentially a pivotal moment in my son’s life that will either have helped him through some block or created one for which he’ll seek therapy. Regardless, I’d already started something, and if I was going to move forward in the direction I’d chosen, it didn’t help to just stand there staring at him through the glass. Either I was committed to this silly exercise or I wasn’t. I turned my back to the ice and started to watch two rink employees trying to lift sheets of linoleum tile with a pry bar so that they could replace them with the more traditional rubber tiles that fit together like puzzle pieces. The two men had gotten halfway across the floor but were stuck on one particular tile. They hit the pry bar several times with a hammer, to wedge it further under the tile, but every time they would then try to peel the tile upward and off the floor, it wouldn’t budge.

“This one is never, ever going to come up,” said the younger of the two men, clearly frustrated.

I turned around and walked back into the rink. My son was still standing at the entrance to the ice.

“Go out there,” I said, pointing to his class. “Go on.”

“I’m just watching,” he said and turned around and started to walk on his skates slowly toward the group. As he got closer to them, I could see the teacher turn around and talk to him. I then heard my son’s voice across the ice. “I’m just watching.” As the instructor tried to engage him in the lesson, he yelled, “I’m just watching!”

He stood in the middle of the ice for a few minutes and then headed back toward me. Small as it was, he’d made an effort. If I pushed him anymore, I thought I might wind up doing some long term damage. It would certainly make it harder to bring him back for his lesson next week.

As we left the rink, I saw that the two workmen were finally able to pry off the stubborn piece of linoleum and were now halfway done getting off the old floor. I wondered if maybe the learning process isn’t like loops but rather like clearing a clog in a plumbing pipe. Some will see a block and quit while others will keep slamming into it, like a battering ram, until they break through. I hope my son turns out to be the latter. Because like Oedipus, you can’t change fate. I’d sent my son to skating lessons to give him a feeling of achievement, and inadvertently, I’d fostered his sense of failure.

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