The Day I Lost My Son

When I say “lost,” it’s actually more like “mislaid.” And it was only for 20 minutes or so. But, as any parent who’s lost visual contact with their child in a crowded place knows, even a minute feels like a lifetime.

I surprised myself by being completely calm and rational. But, before we get into the psychoanalysis, let me describe what happened.

We were on vacation in Australia. In a small town on the bay of Melbourne called Anglesea. It was a Sunday morning and we were strolling through the market alongside the water’s edge, two adults and five kids aged 9 through to 4. There were all kinds of colorful booths selling books, crafts, food, souvenirs and other random local stuff. It was hot and sunny, and milling with families vacationing in the seaside town. We had given the kids each a few dollars to spend and, kids being kids, they had each spent it all on the very first items that took their fancy. And then kept asking and asking and asking for more money to spend on this item and that item. We shut them down, of course, intending to impart a lesson.

Onwards we browsed, lingering a while here and there at different booths and trying hard to keep the kids all herded together, despite distractions in every direction. At this point, my son was perusing a book stall (even though he had already spent his money at an earlier book stall.) Now, I’m not going to squash his interest in combing over books but, after a while, we needed to keep moving on: in fact, we’d spied some delightful, fluorescent frozen slushies at a booth that the kids just “had to have” to quench their thirst. I told my son we were leaving. He pleaded for a minute more. I acquiesced. But a minute passed and he was obstinately ignoring me. Another reminder, followed by a warning, was issued. And then I “fake left,” i.e. I told him I was leaving, hoping this would be enough of a kick up the derriere to get him to put down the books and rejoin the group. We were quite literally two metres away. Thirty seconds passed and I asked one of the other kids to go find him, tell him we had bought him a neon-red raspberry slushie. She returned, saying he wasn’t there. I went back over. No sign of him. I did a 360, searching the immediate crowd for his bright yellow t-shirt.

He was gone. I asked the vendor if she’d seen which way he had gone and she pointed in one direction.

I wasn’t worried, at this point. More annoyed, truth be told. I found the rest of our party, told them what was happening and we set off, retracing our path through the crowds in the direction we’d been told he’d gone. Scanning through the thick of bodies for a 9 year-old boy dressed in a yellow t-shirt and blue shorts (I was relieved he’d chosen such a bright top to wear that day.) After about 25 metres and no sign, I thought it best to leave the group and go solo. It’d be faster, I could be more nimble in the crowds.

At this point, maybe 15 minutes had passed. I figured I’d go all the way down one end of the market, then make my way back through to the other end. I was wondering at what stage I should start panicking and who I would call. Being that I was a tourist. All this time I was also worrying about my son’s state of mind. Would he be nonchalant? Or terrified? Would he have the presence of mind to ask for help?

It never crossed my mind that he might have been abducted. Had this happened in America, like in a busy mall, I’d have been immediately anxious and suspicious. But, everyone here in Australia seemed genuinely nice and, well, normal.

Another five minutes of searching and, suddenly, I spied him seated at a bench surrounded by some concerned adults. I called his name, probably sounding higher-pitched and less chill than I thought I was, and he ran to me and clung to me, sobbing. The kind adults saw that he was OK and moved away as I expressed my thanks and relief to them.

I sat down with my son, held his trembling, teary body as he gulped and sobbed. My heart and womb clenched with complete relief. I wanted to shake him and yell at him, but I could see just how traumatized he was. I knelt down and looked him in the eye, telling him: “I will always find you, no matter what.” A promise to him. A promise to me.

Holding hands, we turned back and re-found the rest of our group and everyone was happily reunited. We texted folks to let them know we’d found him. We talked with the kids, reminding them of the different things they should do if they were ever lost or separated from us, which included:

  1. If you have a pre-agreed meeting place, head there.
  2. Or stay put, don’t wander. Let us come to you.
  3. Find a helper, like a Mom.
  4. Know your parent’s phone numbers.

My son did #3 & #4 and I was very proud of him for that. Sure, the number he gave them was my U.S. cell phone and he had no clue about international dialing codes but I’d like to think that, had the local police got involved, they would have figured that all out.

That evening at bedtime, he wouldn’t go to sleep without me. He fairly clung to me. And there were bad dreams too that night. See, there was no need to yell and be mad at him. Those 20 minutes amounted to some of the best education he’s ever had. Frightening, yes. But he’ll never wander off again, that’s for sure.

As for me, yes I was rather calm and collected during those 20 minutes. I did not fear for his safety. But, my heart is forever scarred by the look on his face when I found him.

20mins

Guest Post: Searching

by Ben Jackson

As most of us who blog discover from our analytics, people put some strange search phrases together to find things on the internet. Aside from the stomach-churning searches for nocturnal activities (of which there are many), I also often find queries for advice on dadding (“single dad blog. too busy to eat breakfast”), searches for quotes and things to say on fatherhood (“dad eulogy” often appears), and queries for which I simply can’t understand how my blog could possibly be relevant (“waiter with dreadlocks” and “she said prison barber hair shorn”).

And then there are the searches for “teratoma,” and variants thereof.  It’s these people, anonymous through the internet, I want to find, and hug and do whatever else I can to offer some small measure of comfort.

My daughter Emma was born in 2001 with a cervical teratoma – a tumor on her neck which was larger than her head.  It protruded from her mouth, it extended down into her chest and attached from her heart, and it sat like a grapefruit underneath her chin.  It nearly killed her, and she spent almost her entire first year hospitalized as a result.

These search queries in my stats page are small digital prayers.  They represent some terrified stranger, who has just received news that is far beyond their comprehension, and they are pleading into the information ether for salvation or information. They are suffering in a way I can understand more deeply than almost anyone else on the planet, and most of the time I feel powerless to do anything to help.  I hope my writing provides some factual information and a lot of hope, but because of the anonymity of the internet, these deeply personal cries for help are beyond my reach to personally answer.

Last week, I received an email from a mother of a girl who also has a tumor similar to the one Emma had. She talked about being isolated, and was largely reaching out for a connection from a very lonely and scary place—and it knocked me for a loop for a bit.  It reminded me that what we write is read by actual people; that those search phrases bandied about have an individual behind a screen, looking for something to connect with.  That, beyond the creeps searching for their jollies, there are stories, and there is pain, and hope, and love and loneliness yearning for something that maybe we can touch.

It reminded me that we who write have a responsibility to those people behind the queries, that our words matter to someone, and that we had damn well better get what we’re trying to say right—and it reminded me that from my readers I can gain the connection that I seek as a writer, and as a dad.

Here’s hoping that your queries find you the connections you seek in 2014!

Ben Jackson is a father, blogger, publishing professional, creative writing student, and majestically bearded. From time to time, he has conned otherwise sensible editors into publishing his short fiction and essays. As an avid martial artist, one can often find Ben writing through bruises, slings and casts. You can read more of his writing at www.benfjackson.com or www.dadofthedecade.com

ben xmas sweater

In Loving Memory: Angel McGarry

October 24, 2002 – December 1, 2013

Buried in the mud somewhere in either our front or back yard is an expensive universal TV remote. It’s not the first remote that was buried. The first one we found and was able to resuscitate, in addition to the two more recent attempts made at burying the Roku remote. But no such luck for the universal remote.

It’s surely not alone. The reality is that our 1.2 acre plot is fairly littered with items stolen and buried by Angel the Kleptomanic golden retriever. It if was left within reach, it was fair game. Hundreds of socks and dish towels have met with a muddy grave. Lego mini-figures. Too many stuffed animals to disclose. Sippy cups. Toys. Pens. Gloves. Hats. Blankies. Underwear (I’m still missing a sports bra from 7 years ago.) Even diapers (used.) Shoes, naturally, but just one at a time.

But we knew she had upped her game to consumer electronics when she, at first, buried a white cordless phone in the snow – and then the remotes started going missing. It’s a minor miracle she never took my iPhone. In her defense, she frequently dug things up and brought them back into the house, returning the muddy, sometime mouldy or frozen item to us with a hint of pride and anticipation of the reward of a treat.

We got Angel just before New Year’s Eve on 2002 – she was just 10 weeks old and as cute as a button. She was our first child. She provided us with two years of practice – remembering to feed and care for her, house train her, walk her, teach her basic commands – all great preparation for the future trials and joys of parenthood. In return, she adored us, nibbled us, was mischievous and adorable.

She didn’t start her thievery until child number one came along. Was she jealous or seeking attention? Probably. But this was the only form of punishment she exacted upon us: in all other respects she was entirely gentle and loving with our babies, demonstrated by what we fondly called the “fly by” – when, as mooching past a baby/toddler on the floor, in a chair or crawling, she’d suddenly whip out her long drooly tongue and take a long hearty lick of whichever part of the kid’s anatomy was within reach. And, as any dog-owning parent knows, during the high chair years, dogs prove their worth over and over again, happily licking up spills and catching projectile food items.

Angel was not your typical retriever. Yes, she would retrieve, but only sticks and only in water. Go figure. She loved sticks. She also loved to chew on rocks and pebbles. Maybe it was her way of flossing her teeth. Also, she had an uncanny ability to roll in something that had either died or defecated seconds before guests arrived. She was a very vocal dog: she’d express her indignation if a plate of leftovers was nearby and not offered to her. The only time I ever saw her bare her teeth would be when some randy dog tried to mount her. After all, no means no.

But mostly, I’ll remember her for being sweet and kind and gentle. As we all said our goodbyes to her that unexpected and fateful recent Sunday afternoon, her milky eyes took in our love for her and returned it. Eleven years of unconditional love is quite a thing to behold. And there’s so much we humans can learn from dogs, especially golden retrievers – enthusiasm, forgiveness, the art of laziness and more (all of which I blogged about last year, you can read it here.)

My grief aside, it’s been fascinating and heartbreaking observing my family deal with this. My husband mourns quite privately: he feels Angel’s absence most because, in reality, he actually spent more time with her over the last 11 years than with me, his wife. As for our kids, well this is their first tangible experience with death.

My 6 year-old daughter seemed to deal with it at first by just facing the facts. “Now we only have a cat,” and “We’ll never go to the doggy park again,” she exclaimed that evening. Two days later, upon observing Angel’s grave, she asked: “I wonder what she’s doing down there?” The next day she inquired as to when Angel was “coming out of her hole?” We did our best to explain again that death meant Angel’s body had stopped working and that when animals and people die, we usually bury their bodies in the ground. She thought about this, then countered with some muddled explanation about the messiah and Jesus’ birthday and everything and everyone rising up again. (Oy, can you tell she’s a tad confused on the religious front having a Jewish Mom and a Catholic Dad?!) I’m seriously concerned that she actually expects Angel to suddenly re-appear on Christmas Day.

For my 9 year-old son, it has been much more visceral and heart-wrenching. The evening that followed Angel’s death, he didn’t cry. He was very quiet, processing. That night was filled with bad dreams. He did not want to go to school the next day. Each day has been better though. He draws her a lot but doesn’t like to talk about her. One moment, he’s his happy, carefree self and then all of a sudden he remembers and is somber. He explained to me the other day, after a particularly tough evening when he and his sister were in bickering/whiny overdrive, that he was grumpy on the outside because he was sad on the inside, which made my heart hurt. But I do see progress in his journey of grief. This morning, he woke up with a big smile announcing he’d had the best dream ever. “Angel was young and fluffy and happy,” he explained!

Already people have asked us if we’ll get another dog. I guess that’s a natural question. Personally, I’m not ready to even go there yet. It’s not even been two weeks. Every day, when I come downstairs in the morning, I’m jolted by the realization she’s not here. Coming home is hard too, when she’s not there and so incredibly pleased to see us. I’m haunted by the absence of her: last night I was sure I heard the jingle of her collar. I feel the fictitious brush of her fur against my leg. I sense the gentle breeze and the glimpse of a shadow of a wagging tail. I’ve heard similar stories from other families who have lost their pets.

I’m not quite sure how to bring this post to its conclusion. The cat rejoices in her new domination of the homestead. There are more crumbs on the kitchen floor than before. There’s no barking when Fedex delivers. Angel’s life force is missing from this house and the absence is deep. But she had a great life. She had regular meals, treats, walks, belly rubs, ear scratches. And, most of all, she was loved.

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20 Signs That You Have an Elementary School Kid

(This post originally ran on Huffington Post Parents)

The days of bottles, potty training, snotty noses and sippy cups are far behind me. I now have two kids in elementary school and, like so many parents of similar-aged kids, find myself pondering about how much my life has altered as I cruise around the grocery store at 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening. One on the one hand, my kids are more independent: they can read, they can write, they can tie their shoelaces (well, almost) and I’ve even been paying them to sort, fold and put away their laundry! But on the other hand, the sheer volume of school/PTO requests, homework and social activities threaten to overwhelm and quite frankly, erode any chance of quality me-time (other than grocery shopping late at night). Does any of this sound familiar?

Here are many ways to know when you, too, are the parent of elementary school kids:

  1. You find out about a school project/permission slip/photo day at 8 a.m. the day they are due.
  2. Play dates and parties are drop off… and you are thrilled.
  3. You proudly wear rainbow loom bracelets (while muttering under your breath about the chaos of rubber bands littering your house).
  4. Math homework makes you quake with fear.
  5. You manage to squeeze your lower half into those tiny seats during parent-teacher conferences.
  6. The days of the week take on new meaning: Monday is “you have PE, don’t forget your sneakers day!”, Thursday is “return library book day”, Friday is “pizza day!”
  7. Minecraft.
  8. You are scared to put your hand inside their backpacks.
  9. Your second job is peddling wrapping paper, raffle tickets and other fundraisers (and your friends and family deftly avoid you).
  10. Ninety percent of the morning mayhem in your house is created in the last 10 minutes before school drop off.
  11. Your iPad/laptop is no longer your own.
  12. You have to explain why Miley Cyrus is really not that cool.
  13. You are adept at stealthily throwing away the latest ‘art project’ in the trash can outside, making sure to hide it underneath other stuff.
  14. You find yourself singing along to Kidz Bop (even when there are no kids around…).
  15. Gloves and hats and socks get lost with uncanny frequency.
  16. Pokemon.
  17. Your toddler knows to yell “BUS” as it approaches the end of your driveway.
  18. Your weekends are a complex logistical challenge — full of parties, play dates, sports and errands.
  19. You are not beneath drying papier maché volcanoes in the microwave.
  20. You know that the day when you’ll have to explain the birds and the bees is inching closer and it terrifies you.

Kids, Sensory Issues & Battles Over Pants

This morning I spent a good 20 minutes trying to convince my six-year-old to put on some pants.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to wear pants. (Though I know several grown-ups who would prefer this option.) It’s just that she didn’t want to wear ANY of the six pairs of PERFECTLY GOOD pants in her closet. All her favorite pants were in the laundry. “Go clean them, please” she sweetly but infuriatingly demanded.

I cajoled, I explained, I empathized. I insisted, I bribed, I threatened. I gave in and let her wear shorts. (The seven stages of dealing with obstinate kids?)

What is it with kids and pants? I went through the same dramas last winter with my son who was extraordinarily picky about pants that had to feel just right.

An informal survey of a few of my Mom friends made me realize two things:

  • This is quite common. Kids aged between 5-8 ish have these sensory issues with their pants, especially pants that – horror or horrors – have a button and a zipper.
  • This explains why so many pants that I’ve been fortunate enough to receive as hand-me-downs are in such excellent condition. Clearly, every kid that has ever owned them has steadfastly refused to wear them. And so they get handed-down, practically good as new. Again and again.

So my question for you parents out there …. Is this normal, have your kids thrown a wobbly when faced with the abomination of unsuitable pants? How have you handled? And have you contributed to the never-ending chain of perfectly good pants being handed-down?

Cos any day now, these six pairs of PERFECTLY GOOD PANTS are being shipped out. Some things just aren’t worth fighting over.

Source: Unearthed Comics

Holy Crap!

Since when did the word ‘crap’ become an acceptable and commonplace part of the English language? I hear people saying ‘crap’ left right and center and fully expect that any day now, I’ll hear this ugly – but apparently tolerated – word coming out of my kids’ mouths.

Don’t get me wrong: I am no prude. I have a filthy mouth. I’m just trying to delay the inevitable moment when my kids repeat explicit words and I have to react with the requisite  levels of discipline and feigned horror (while hiding my giggles.)

Flashback to the 70s … upstairs in my big brother’s bedroom. He was complaining about how crap his math teacher was in hushed tones so the parentals wouldn’t hear. I, at the tender age of about six or seven, had no clue what this word meant. (Shit, now you can work out how old I am … ) Anyway, later that evening over dinner, Dad was asking us about our school day. I excitedly offered up this new tidbit of information I had recently acquired: “Dad, did you know that Jonathan’s math teacher Mr. Agnew is crap?” (Side note: apologies to Mr. Agnew, I’m sure you were a fine teacher and my brother was just an extraordinarily large pain in the arse.)

Silence at the table. Uhoh.

Without going into the details, what followed involved soap, some chasing around the living room, my mouth and lots of crying.

(For which, I have never forgiven my brother.)

Hence, my friends, you can understand my sensitivity about the word ‘crap’. This punishment also applies to calling someone an ‘old bag’, I also discovered.

Kids, you’ve been warned.

Kids and Shoes and the Empty Wallet

As previously noted, I’m not a big fan of feet. The only exception being babies and little kids’ whose feet  have yet to become marred by age, ill-fitting shoes, ingrown toenails, hairy toes, and general ugliness and stinkiness.

But the real screw-over when it comes to kids and their feet are … shoes. The reality of this great rip off is you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Your options:

  1. Spend an extraordinary amount of money on well-made, nicely-fitted shoes like Stride Rites. Only to have your child grew out of them in roughly 8-10 weeks.
  2. Spend as little as possible at Payless or Target on questionably-made but OK-fitting shoes. Only to have them fall apart due to wear and tear in roughly 8-10 weeks.

Given that I naturally err on the side of being cheap, I usually go for option 2 but always regret it as the day inevitably and all-too-quickly arrives when there’s a huge rip in the toe or the insides fall out or the fasteners no longer fasten.

I was mighty impressed when the new – cheap – sneakers I bought my kids back in June survived the 8-9 weeks of summer camp. Yes, they were filthy and worn but they still worked. But a week at Disney pushed them over the edge. Perhaps it was the 4-5 miles walked each day in 95 degree heat and humidity that finished them off. Or maybe it was the soaking they received on our final day, followed by an hour spent in the drier so they’d be dry enough to wear on the journey home.

Either way, one pair came home with rips and holes. The other pair more or less survived – except for the fact that I managed to leave them behind in our hotel.

So today both my kids are proudly sporting nice new sneakers. Bought on the cheap. Should last us till – oh, Halloween if we’re lucky.

Exhibit A

Exhibit A

Summer Swan Song & Back to School Angst

Well, that went fast! Here we are, just three days of summer camp left and back to school in a week’s time. It’s a time to pause and marvel at summer’s imprint on my kids – before I, true to form, start stressing about the imminent change to our schedules, logistics and my inevitable working Mom guilt.

Summer has a habit of showering my kids with one heck of a growth spurt: both mentally and physically. Mentally, they become more self-assured, strutting off to camp every day, confident in their character, willing to learn, practice and hone new skills, navigate complex social situations, make new friends – both peers and counselors.

Summer mostly leaves her mark on their bodies. Long days of constant motion and outdoor action convert their little bodies into long, lean, muscular, bronzed creatures. They grew at least two feet taller each summer – I’m not kidding. The sun bleaches the soft down on their foreheads and rains golden streaks into their hair. Their bums are shocking white in contrast with the rest of the lanky, ripped bodies! Summer renders them ever more beautiful.

Best of all, they return home from camp each night filthy, hungry and tired. They eat their body weight in dinner, chug several pints of milk, shower off the day’s dust, grime, sun screen and bug spray, and fall, clean and exhausted, into their beds and into deep, sweet dreams.

This evening, we talked about what they’d miss most about camp. Their friends and swimming every day were their answers. Then we talked about what they were looking forward about going back to school. Their friends and learning new things, they responded.

It amazes me how seamlessly and confidently they slide from one season to the next, without angst, without regret, with anticipation.

And so we go back to school. However, for me as a working Mom, the transition isn’t quite as carefree as the kids.

Back to school, for me, brings a change of schedule with school starting an hour later, meaning I get to the office later, compressing my already busy work day. It brings regret that I don’t have the time in my schedule to walk my kids to school. It foists guilt that I can’t be as present in the classroom as maybe I could or should be. lt slams me with frustration that I’m not able to pick them up before 6pm every day, meaning our evenings together are all-too-short.

Surely, they deserve more of me?

This is a state-of-mind and heart that I face at this time of year every year. I struggle with it. And then accept it, for my choice to work is my choice. And, luckily for me, my kids weather this time of year  better than I do – so I guess I must be doing something right.

Learning from the Mean Kids

My outie is better than your innie.

You’re not my friend any more.

Little makes me sadder – and madder – than when one of my kids tells me someone was to mean to him or her  and it hurt their feelings. My first instinct is to locate the brat and his parents and give them a good punch talking to. My second instinct is to envelop my kids’ heart in bubble wrap so that no wretched child can ever make them feel that way again.

We usually have these discussions around bathtime and bedtime. With their eyes wide open and teary, or sometimes with their shoulders caved in and chins dropped, we discuss who said what to whom and how it made them feel. And I have come to realize, through these end-of-day discussions, that my kids are counting on us grown-ups to help set things right again in their little but ever-so-large universes so that, tomorrow, when they get back on the school bus, it all will be OK.

But I’ve also realized that, Mama Bear rage and retribution urges aside, my job is to actually help them (figuratively) fight their own battles. These are life skills that will help them from the playground to the sports field to college and into the workplace – or wherever their journeys take them. Because there will always be meanies.

And, because, I like to group things into neat buckets, lists and bullets, I figure there are four key ways to tackle the meanies:

  1. Respect: It’s tough then the mean kid is actually a friend, and all the more so, if he or she is  from a family you know. In our family, we talk a lot about how important it is to treat other people the same way you want to be treated (and my kids’ karate lessons do a great job reinforcing this.) So maybe this meanie needs a gentle reminder that respect is the foundation of friendship. I urge my kids to say: “That’s not a nice thing to say to a friend,” and to go find someone else to play with until that kid is ready to resume being a real friend.
  2. Empathy: The meanie might be unhappy or lonely or shy. This kid might be from a household that is dealing with stuff, or maybe he’s a little insecure. I encourage my kids to think about what might be going on behind the mean words. Perhaps they should consider this an opportunity to be empathetic and extend the hand of friendship?
  3. Forgiveness: People say hurtful things when they’ve been hurt themselves. I’ve seen this first hand when my son had a fight with a close friend. It doesn’t matter who said what first. If you really value your friendship, put injustices aside and say you are sorry. In our case, we talked it over, the boys shook hands and, within seconds, were BFFs all over again and in full Pokemon mode.
  4. Laugh it off: Comparing belly buttons, seriously?! Giggling together about whatever ridiculous nonsense is being thrown out can change the dynamic of the whole encounter. Maybe all the meanie was looking for was a way to make a connection? Turn the whole thing into a hoot and maybe you’ll find a new friend? (This often goes hand in hand with #2.)

These are not lessons that can be learned and applied overnight. Heck, I know many an adult who could learn them too and I’m including myself in that mix. But, you know me, I like to look on the bright side and I’m hoping that, with a little dose of respect, empathy, self-awareness –and let’s not forget, silliness – we can all get along a little better.

Goofy Girl

To know my daughter is to love her, goofiness and all ….

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