Friday, December 31, 2010


This year has certainly been the worst of my life, but I do feel grateful for so many things despite the trauma and tragedy we've endured.

I am grateful for my friend Bob Welch, a columnist for the Eugene, OR, newspaper and award winning author ( for inspiring me to also focus on giving.

Bob writes a column each year around the Christmas holidays about an anonymous donor who gives him $1000 to disburse to needy people in his community. Bob and the donor's example helped me this year after Kaiser Permanente adopted us and showered the kids with at least fifteen gifts each and a trove of gift cards.

So I bought twelve $10 gift cards at Starbucks, and Maya, Miguel, and I handed them out on Christmas Day and on the 26th.

My only instructions were to give a card to someone who seemed to be in need. To Miguel I said, "Maybe someone homeless."

"How can you tell?" he asked.

Maya gave one to a man seated a few tables away from us at Starbuck's. He came over a few moments later, smiling, and thanking us as he tried to surreptiously slide the card into my hand.

"I don't need this," he said. "Please save it for someone else."

"But my daughter gave it as a gift to you," I said.

"Well, thank you, sweetheart," he said to her.

Miguel gave one to a young man drawing caricatures on the sidewalk. I handed three to a trio of firefighters outside the station, and three more to some guys eating pizza at a local sports bar.

Pay it forward, I hope.

I am grateful to my father-in-law, Martin, for being one of the most generous people I know. He babysits for Maya most Tuesday afternoons, and he is always beneficent with his time and money.

I am grateful for my mother, Beverly, and her husband, Fred, for sending us bi-monthly checks and babysitting for Miguel and Maya in 2008 when Verna and I took our first (and last) vacation without children in 11 years. We had a glorious time in Cabo San Lucas.

I am grateful to my father, Marvin, and his wife, Joyce, for trekking out to California when Verna and I renewed our vows in late July, and seven weeks later for her funeral.

I am grateful to my brother, Scott, and his wife, Amy, for coming out to California many times just to help out.

I am grateful to my brother-in-law, Jim, and his wife, Liz, for being there with me when Verna took her last breaths.

I am grateful to my brother-in-law, Marty, and his wife, Donna, for taking our dog, Gigi, who was diagnosed with epilepsy in early August. After Verna's death, I really could not handle the extra responsibility of caring for her, so they opened up their loving home. Now the kids and I can still see her.

I am grateful to my friends Amanda and Mercedes for staying with me for several hours on the morning of Verna's death. Both came over almost immediately and sat with me on my kitchen floor, consoling me, listening to my stories, and helping to ease my pain with their presence.

I am grateful to our neighbors and friends who organized meals and cared for all of us, especially Miguel and Maya, which meant I earned some time to myself.

I am grateful to my co-workers at Drake Terrace Retirement Community for shouldering extra responsiblities all year, and for comforting me during my darkest days.

I am grateful to Hospice by the Bay of Marin, Jewish Family and Children's Services of Marin, and the Living and Dying Project for their compassionate and professional support and guidance for Verna, our family, and me during the last several weeks of her life.

I am grateful to so many member of BHS' Class of 1977 for their cards and FB wishes and contributions to Verna's Caregiver Fund. It's amazing to reconnect with people at such a difficult time and be supported so graciously and lovingly.

I am grateful to Miguel and Maya for entertaining me and frustrating me and challenging me to be the best father possible and for blessing me each and every day with their love and unique approaches to the world.

I am grateful to Verna, the best friend I've ever had, for giving me Miguel and Maya, and for setting the parental bar fairly high, but not too out of reach. Her examples will guide me as I strive continually to be the type of person and parent she asserted to Hospice that I was when she said goodbye to us a week before she died.

To 2011, upward and onward.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Liar! Liar! Pants On Fire

I've been lying to Maya a lot lately. Death, Santa Claus, nothing sacred is immune to the prevarications I'll serve to my soon-to-be five year old daughter.

The falsehoods began flowing several weeks ago when we were talking about dying. She obviously knows that Verna died and isn't coming back.

"But Daddy's not going to die," she said.

"Well, someday, we all will die," I said. "When we're much, much older."

She started crying. "I don't want to die. I don't want you to die."

Uh oh. So I quickly reversed myself and said, "No, we're not going to die. Daddy's not going to die."

She stopped sobbing and calmed herself down.

I never thought I'd lie to my children about death, though I never imagined they'd experience it so up close and personal at tender ages.

When I was about ten years old, I had several bouts of anxiety about death for no apparent reason. Existential angst, perhaps, or the fact that we lived about two miles from a sprawling cemetery. I would plop myself down on the lavender carpet in my parents bedroom, gripped with fear about dying, about not being alive anymore.

My mother soothed as she said, "Well, when you're older they will have a pill to take so you can live forever."

Yes, she lied. But it helped me fall back asleep and settle my anxiety. Would Dr. Spock or any other child expert approve? Probably not. I was grateful, though, for the lie and the sense of peace it brought me so long ago.

So I am not worried that I completely trashed the truth and told Maya that she and I and everyone else she loves is on the highway to eternity. She's lost her mother and there is no sane reason to heighten her fears now by being truthful about the nature of life (and death).

And this is the season of lying. By late October, early November at the latest, as holiday decorations and pre-Christmas sales emerge in public, I began spinning tales of the jolly old fat guy in the red suit who will be sliding down chimneys or walking magically through front doors to bring presents to all the good children of the earth.

Miguel believed in Santa until he was ten. Then he caught me in my web of deceipt. He wondered why there was lipstick on the glass of milk we'd left for Santa.

"That's because Mommy and I put out the milk and cookies," I admitted sadly, fully aware that the Polar Express moment had arrived.

"Aha," he said. "I knew it. But there wasn't any lipstick on the glass. I just tricked you."

But, under threat of never receiving a holiday or birthday gift ever again, Miguel complies with my order to maintain the magic for Maya. We believe in Santa again in our house, and Miguel actually seems to enjoy making the myth appear real for his sister.

So there we were on Saturday, Christmas Day 2010, as Maya gazed at her new, unwrapped bike, straight from the North Pole. The exact model she'd eyed at the local bikestore about 6 weeks ago. And there was Miguel, feverishly excited about his new Play Station 3, the very system he and I bought with Maya, who was completely oblivious, at Target two weeks ago.

"Daddy," she exclaimed, "look what Santa brought."

Miguel and I smiled.

Because of rain on Christmas, Maya didn't get to ride her new 20" bicycle until yesterday. Miguel waited patiently all day Saturday until Maya was asleep to destroy me in NBA 2011.

Christmas did not have the same oomph this year, but the kids, family, and close friends did make it special and bearable.

This morning Maya said to me, "Mommy came in the room last night and gave me a hug and told me she loved me. I love Mommy and Daddy. Did you see Mommy?"

"Yes," I said.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

So This Is Christmas

Warning: this blog contains stories about me celebrating Christmas. If you find it offensive for a Jewish person to do so, please discontinue reading. Some people were extremely bothered when I wrote about kneeling in Church with Verna on Easter in 2006, three months after she was first diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.

Maya and I kicked off the Christmas holiday season this past Saturday afternoon. While Miguel was long-boarding with his buddy Chris, Maya and I were spooning homemade ice cream into our mouths at Silberman's in San Rafael. She ordered creamy peppermint, I went for egg nog.

"I love it, daddy," she said. "This is our playdate." Flecks of bright pink peppermint ringed her lips.

To be perfectly honest, I really, really wanted to skip the holidays and be magically transported to January, lying on a secluded beach and buried in an engrossing book. Thanksgiving was essentially hell. I missed Verna so much and I was so overwhelmingly sad that I moped around the house her family had rented in Lake Tahoe. I actually felt as if I was in the throes of the Jewish mourning rituals, where one removes him or herself from joyous living and concentrates on grief and coping.

I did not party in Tahoe. I did not go out gambling (which I hate) or drink to excess (I had one beer in five days and no hard liquor). I avoided singing Karaoke, a Wefald Family tradition that, even though we sound more like the Manson family than the Andrews Sisters, is always filled with fun and laughter. One of my sisters-in-law called me a party pooper.

But I did force myself then to live in the moment. I went running every day, even in an all-day snowstorm with limited visibility and icy roads. I took Miguel and Maya sledding twice, made snow angels, raced Miguel in two-foot deep snow, and threw several snowballs at my children and family. All that helped me to cope.

However, I was fearful that Christmas and all the build up to the world's major holiday would overload my emotional circuitry. Christmas had always been huge for Verna. She loved the lights, the smells, the trees, the giving. Christmas music blared in our home pretty regularly from the end of November until December 26.

How would I deal with my pain and longing and prepare for the holiday and give the kids at least a chunk of something to celebrate?

Hospice by the Bay came to the rescue. They offered me free tickets to the Marin Ballet's late afternoon performance of the Nutcracker last Saturday.

"Miguel, do you want to see the Nutcracker with Maya and me?" I asked son #1 early last week.

"No way," he said. "Count me out."

"But you saw the Nutcracker in San Francisco three times."

"Yeah, dad, that was when I was a little kid. A long time ago," he said.


So Maya and I had ice cream and bought a birthday gift for a neighborhood friend and ate an early dinner at home so we could get to the Nutcracker by 5 PM. One friend insisted I dress both Maya and myself up. I just wanted to warble, though, "But I gotta be me."

Maya wore a floral print dress over a long sleeve shirt and pants. Her usual array of necklaces and bracelets dangled, making her appear, to me at least, very stylish and festive. I had on blue jeans, a t-shirt and zippered sweatshirt, and a Giants World Series cap.

Maya had never been to any kind of show in an indoor venue before. She hasn't even yet seen a movie in the theater. So I was slightly concerned how she might fare during the performance. Would she talk and talk and talk, as she often does, when the lights dimmed, forcing me to rush her into the lobby?

As it turned out, she knew a fair amount about the Nutcracker because her ballet teacher was working behind the stage and had shared with her students just that morning details of Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and E.T.A Hoffman's creation. Her ballet school had sponsored and put on the performance. Maya told me about Clara and other characters. She seemed mesmerized. At one point she asked me if the characters lived onstage. It was very real for her.

On the way back to the car, Maya twirled and pranced with a mile-wide grin on her face as if she were a ballerina. I couldn't help but smile even though I wished Verna had been there to share the precious moments with us.

Hospice by the Bay came through in a way the following day as well. Hospice counselors and literature advised that creating new holiday rituals is one way to cope with the onslaught of grief and emotions during the festive times of the year. A few weeks ago, one of my friends and co-workers suggested we chop down our own Christmas trees this year, breaking with the tradition of purchasing one from a tree lot.

"I'll find the place for us," he said.

So we drove 20 miles north to Petaluma this past Sunday to a family Christmas tree farm, where you pay one price no matter how high the tree, $49.99. Miguel and Maya scouted out the Douglas firs as our friends Erik and Megan and their two-year old son, Brady, shopped for their ideal tree.

Miguel held the red saw as Maya and I pulled the specially designed tree cart. He set his sights on one tree, slightly lopsided and rising at least 15 feet in the air.

"No, Miguel, that's too big." I said.

"Yeah, Miguel, look how it's tilting," Erik said.

Miguel exclaimed that he wanted at least a 10-12 footer. I said six to seven feet max. Erik then chimed in yet again.

"Miguel," he said, looking at me, "Two words: honor roll," which Miguel had made a few days earlier.

"Erik," I said, "Two words: F.U."

Miguel and Erik chuckled. With my prodding, er, encouragement, Miguel and Maya finally settled on a tree that, with its star branch pointing upward, was about seven feet tall. Miguel knelt down and made an initial cut before he started sawing. It was slow going because there were several underbranches blocking him from leveraging his body against the saw and tree.

"Miguel, do you want some help? We could be here until tomorrow," I said.

"No," he said. He was a young man on a mission.

While Miguel and I postioned ourselves next to the tree and Erik and Megan contemplated which tree to slice into, as if they were deciding when to launch the Allied invasion of Europe, Maya and Brady strolled through the rows of trees.

"Let's hold hands, Maya," Brady said. "Let's hold hands."

Miguel only let me cut for thirty seconds or so. He insisted on doing the bulk of the work. Determination etched on his face, the tree succumbed and we loaded it onto the carriage. For an extra $3 you can have it shaken and bound in a manner not too dissimilar to what many are advocating for Julian Assange.

I loaded the tree into the back of our 2001 Chrysler Town and Country and we then hugged Erik, Megan, and Brady goodbye. Erik and Megan were also on a mission: get Brady down for a nap so Megan, who is 7 months pregnant, and Erik could relax.

We hauled the ornaments and lights up from the garage after we positioned the tree against the wall near our dining room table. I was completely unsure of how the decorating might go. So many of our ornaments were really mini-memory factories containing stories of shared moments with Verna.

There was the Baby's First Christmas one Verna and I bought before Miguel was born on a weekend outing to Monterey and Pacific Grove. Or the thin gold leafy one we bought at Multnomah Falls, where Miguel, Verna, her mom, and I hiked for 2 1/2 hours in 2002. Or the only remaining ornament from Verna's childhood, a vital generational link now for Maya and Miguel, a tiny bird with a feathered white head and a blue breast.

Miguel and Maya asked if they could go outside and play in the park. I later saw them zooming down toward the house, seated on Miguel's longboard, Maya's hair flowing in the wind, laughing, as her big brother grasped her tightly.

So I decorated the tree alone, and, strangely, I felt at peace. I felt as if I was carrying out Verna's wishes and acting as her earthly Christmas agent. When I finished putting up the bulk of the ornaments (I left some for the kids), I gazed at the tree and felt satisfied. Then I heard the tiny Nativity carousel Verna had inherited from her mother, that no one had touched for several days, twinkle three notes. I sensed Verna's presence, so I said, "Verna, I miss you so much. Thanks, I think I did a good job. For you and us."

Ho, ho, ho.

Monday, December 13, 2010

London Calling

Miguel entered the qualifier for the school's geography bee as a joke. His friend, Sam, said, "I'll do it if you will."

Miguel said, "OK." They both raised their hands and were entered. He never even told me.

Then he shared last week that he had qualified for the school-wide geography bee held earlier today.

"Miguel, that's great," I said. "How did you do?"


"How many questions were there?"

"Forty," he said. "I got 23 right."

"Wait," I said, driving dangerously close to the side of the road. "You missed 17 out of 40? Just better than 50%?"

While I was proud of his accomplishment, I wondered how someone, even my son, could qualify for a school-wide test of knowledge after only answering slightly better than half the questions.

"The questions were hard," Miguel explained with a hint of defensiveness in his voice.

He then explained that the top 30 kids automatically qualified for today's competition. So, conceivably, one could have missed even more than half the questions and still made it to today's final showdown. Sam was bounced from the preliminary round for talking too much.

"Miguel, you need to study. Did they tell you about some websites with sample questions?" I asked.

"I can Google them," he said.

Turns out that National Geographic, the main sponsor of the geography bees, has sample questions and test-taking advice on its website. There are three or four other free sites as well. We immediately went to them on Friday and Saturday.

"Miguel, the biggest advice is that the question often contains a clue for the answer," I said. As an example I read one question to him: which European country possesses oil reserves and is known for its famous fjords?

He was stumped. I said that the clue is famous fjords. He'd never heard of a fjord. So he didn't know the answer was the country from where his grandfather's ancestors called home, Norway.

I read him another question: which state's climate is suitable for growing citrus fruits, California or Maine?

"Maine," he answered.

"Maine?" I bellowed. "Maine?"

"California," he said meekly.

I then explained how the clue was in the question. Citrus fruits grow best in warm and sunny climates, which would lead one to answer California, a much more temperate state than Maine. I started thinking, "He's going to get creamed. I am proud of him for making the school tournament, but he doesn't know that much."

He did several practices tests and quizzes over the weekend. He said they were hard. They were. Questions such as Dresden, a city that has been rebuilt since WWII, is situated on what river? The three choices are the Darling, the Elbe, or the Thames River. The correct answer is the Elbe. Or name two large islands separated by the Strait of Bonifacio. The choices are Corsica and Sardinia, Corfu and Cephalonia, or North Island and South Island. The correct answer is Corsica and Sardinia.

Miguel went to school late today because he got just two braces and his headgear this morning. Within nine months his whole mouth will be glittering silver.

"I don't want to stay for the tournament," he said. It was held after school. "I barely studied."

"Miguel, you are staying for the geography bee," I said. "You brought your permission slip?"


I told him I'd pick him up outside school at five. He called me at 4:30 and said, "Dad, can you pick me up now? The geography bee is over."

But I couldn't leave work because I was covering the break for one of my staff. One of the teachers helping to proctor the competition volunteered to drop Miguel off.

Miguel advanced to the final round to determine the Miller Creek Middle School 2010 Geography Bee champion. The final question was in which European city would you find the Piccadilly Circus? Miguel thought it was an actual circus and he did not know the answer.

"I guessed the first city that came to me, London," he said. "The other kid, a 6th grader, said Rome."

Miguel was right and was crowned school champion. Next he competes in a regional tournament to decide who goes to the state bee in April in Sacramento. Each state winner will be flown to Washington, DC, all expenses paid, for the chance to win the National Bee and a $25,000 scholarship. Miguel said he plans to study, study, study.

He showed up at work wearing his winner's medal and proudly flashing his winner's certificate. He also got a gift card to Jamba Juice, a specially engraved pen, and a earth globe keychain, which he gave to Maya.

I beamed with pride as he walked into the retirement facility where I work and shouted to two of my colleagues, who were probably discussing work, "Miguel just won his school's geography bee." My voice had jumped at least three or four octaves.

"Miguel, I am so, so proud of you," I said, stunned and amazed and ecstatic.

"I was so nervous in the final round," he said, "I was shaking."

When we left the house a little while later, after retrieving Maya and one of Verna's closest friends, Joan, on our way to a celebratory meal at BJ's, a lone star twinkled just below the moon. We all looked up and greeted Verna.

"Miguel, Mommy would be so proud of you, too," I said, a rush of sadness mixing with the sweetness of his accomplishment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Posters on the Wall

Farrah Fawcett's lustrous locks greeted me each morning when I was a teenager. As did Raquel Welch, clad in a torn and clingy-wet blouse, her bright eyes shining right at me.

Both Sex Goddesses and best-selling pin-up babes adorned my ceiling on two posters I bought at Treasure City, a local department store in Bloomfied, CT. Fawcett and Welch were the Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth of my pulsating teen years. My parents still joke that I've always had a fondness for the opposite sex. So slapping up the posters made logical and biological sense.

Miguel, on the other hand, has not shown much interest in girls at all. I've teased him a few times about potential love interests, even going so far as to choose my future daughters-in-law, but Miguel has basically and not so politely asked me to "Shut up."

I realized, of course, that if I continue to press or tease I risk alienating him and giving him ample reason to shut me out when he may need his father to lean on.

For the most part, though, girls have not been part of Miguel's social orbit. He never even approached anyone at the 6th grade school dance last year. In fact, he went out of his way to blend into his surroundings. He even ordered me not to acknowledge him in any way: no nods, no smiles, no waves, and definitely, most definitely, he said, no dancing. He also said I couldn't even tap my feet or sway to the music.

So, for Miguel, school and his social life have been about boys, sports, sports, boys, and video games, which is an extension of boys and sports.

Until now.

A few weeks back, Miguel mentioned Megan Fox, a name I'd heard but an exact person I could not picture. He reminded me she starred with Shia LeBouf in the Transformer movies.

"Dad, she's hot. Really sexy."

Huh? My son, the uber sports fan and player, expressing a serious, and most likely hormonally driven, desire for a female and turning into another kind of player? I felt the Earth tilt slightly off its axis. (And, yes, I smiled inward with pride as well. Not that I need a chip off the old block, but I will admit I appreciated his--for now--heterosexual longings.)

Then he asked me to buy two, not one, but two posters of her for his bedroom.

"Miguel, your walls are already filled up. Which ones can I take down?" I asked.

"Obama and the Red Sox World Series one (from 2007)," he replied.

Obama? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Red Sox? Hey, his heart has never been fully part of the Red Sox Nation, so good riddance to my Yankee-loving teen-to-be.

So the posters arrived today, and I invoked parental my authority and decided not to remove Obama or the Red Sox.

"How about if put the Megan Fox posters on the ceiling?" I asked.

"That's fine."

I am not ready to visit the wider implications of the Megan Fox posters, one of which displays an ample view of her breasts. About objectifying women. About objectifying women's bodies, especially breasts. Verna would never have allowed these posters into the house, not even the garage.

At some point in the next year or so, Miguel and I will have many conversations about young women, sex, how to treat women, how society portrays women and all that.

But, for now, I am going to let him revel in having Megan Fox on his ceiling as a adolescent symbol of lust and confusion and powerful feelings and emotions.

Farrah Fawcett and Raquel Welch's images above me didn't hinder my social development too much. And I turned out pretty well, well enough to treat Miguel's mother for more than two decades with all the respect she deserved as a woman and a person. And he witnessed that for 12-plus years. Those lessons will be the ones he absorbs most.