Monday, May 30, 2011

I Can See Clearly Now

I was reading Thomas Merton's spiritual autobiography and listening to London Calling and Police on My Back by The Clash as Miguel, Maya, and I were flying back from Seattle this evening. Welcome to the living Yin and Yang of my life or, as the late anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss said, the binary opposites that blend together to form the whole me.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the seemingly disparate strands that make up who I am (and just about everyone else on the planet). For example, I have a deep passion for jazz and classical music, but still thump my body to rock and roll daily and will never forget how I scored a second row seat (yes, I went alone) to see Journey in concert in Hartford, CT, in 1986.

I am pretty solid emotionally, but cry when I hear certain songs or watch certain commercials on TV. I have a post-graduate degree, but love Jerry Lewis movies, the Farrelly Brothers, and some of the work of Adam Sandler.

I know, I know, one's level of education does not necessarily correspond to one's cultural tastes. But, believe me, my friends and co-workers, when I toiled for a Connecticut political organization, teased me about Journey and the other popular rock and roll I favored over the Grateful Dead and other 'deeper' music. So I have always been sensitive about my apparent contradictory pleasures and paths.

Until now.

Merton and the Clash can co-exist, in my universe for sure.

I guess the biggest expression of this binary opposition has been my officiating of weddings. On one hand, I am a widower who feels a strong measure of sadness around love, happiness, and commitment. Not that I want anyone to be unhappy, but I do feel wistful when I gaze at couples taking the marital plunge or holding hands in the park or nuzzling at a restaurant. On the other hand, weddings can be a heck of a lot of fun, and I do feel a tremendous honor in helping two people begin their married lives together.

And there is another yin and yang moment. Many people rightfully see me as a wise guy who rarely takes much (including myself) seriously. But I also feel that I am participating in something deeply sacred when I officiate at a wedding. I felt the same when I was a funeral director, which is the reason I took the job, and again when I watched my mother-in-law die in 2008 and when I whispered to Verna minutes before she took her last breaths in 2010.

Sacred is as sacred does.

Which brings me back to weddings. I did one two weeks ago in Napa, and when the couple hired me in February, they said, "We are not just looking for an officiant, we want someone to form a relationship with."

"Does that mean I can go on your honeymoon?" I asked. They just left for a month in Italy.

So while I wistfully watched as Jen and Bryan began their happily ever after, and mingled with Jen's parents, Bryan's sister and her fiance, and sampled awesome radishes, I felt blessed to be present for them. During the ceremony, which I always personalize, I mentioned how Jen was, um, really focused on all the details. She sent me an email that said, "The wedding coordinator expects your ass on the shuttle by 2:45." So I repeated that line in the ceremony.

Later Jen literally yanked me onto the dance floor and said, "I can't believe you said 'ass' during the ceremony."

"Was that OK?" I asked somewhat sheepishly.

"Only you could pull it off," she said, before leading me through a dance where she twirled me around and then thanked me.

I slipped away while the party was still raging, in a vineyard with an Italian-like villa and under partly cloudy skies that held back the rain, content and sorrowful, with images of my own wedding day and night swirling through my mind.

The wedding I did this past Saturday was held in a large loft studio in downtown Seattle. The bride is the niece of Verna's and my sister-in-law, who is married to Verna's brother. The days leading up to the ceremony, I've been told, were incredibly stressful where vendors flaked out, plans were dashed and redrawn, and the bride was so overwhelmed that she got hives.

The ceremony, if I have to be honest, was great. I recited a few poems, weaved in wisdom for the couple, shared how Kelly and Courtney met, how Kelly was unsure at first of his feelings for Courtney, and how he sought counsel from his grandmother, and then listened with moist eyes as Kelly and Courtney were unable to read their vows to each other without gushing in tears. Then I closed with a Lao Tzu poem about the sacred space a couple must carve out for their love before I whispered--at their request--just to them that it was my "supreme pleasure and honor to pronounce you married; Kelly, you may kiss the bride."

I spent most of the evening with family, then dragged Miguel onto the dance floor (Maya was with friends because young kids were not invited to the evening wedding), and then boogied to several songs, some with Miguel literally on my back as I twirled him around, before I almost quietly stepped away with my son and drove back to our friends' house by Green Lake.

See, I just had to push the envelope slightly. Since I am single I pulled Miguel with me and lined up with a half dozen other bachelors for the tossing of the garter. The cluster of guys near us said, "No contest here, we're all jaded," which was an interesting comment for they were there with their girlfriends. Miguel was just confused, but stood next to me anyway.

After two misfires, Kelly's third toss of the garter soared sort of in the air and landed near my left shoe. I slowly reached down and picked it up as everyone cheered. My only thought was, "Oh s**t."

Was I supposed to put it on the woman who'd caught the bouquet and was certainly young enough to be my daughter, as I am 52? Was I supposed to keep it or return it to the bride and groom? Or just fling it out the window and then follow?

Someone said, "Just put it on and dance."

So I did. And by the next day I had four marriage proposals. Just kidding. I saw Kelly and Courtney last night for dinner, a send-off sponsored by Courtney's great aunt, before the newlyweds left today on their honeymoon, to which I wasn't invited, and they also said, "Keep it."

I stuffed the garter, which represents, I guess, hope and love and all that (blah, blah, blah), in my closet next to my haircut kit and sachet of lavender. Just call it another strange pairing that somehow makes perfect sense--at least to me--as I navigate the turbulent and placid waters of life as I know it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Not Makin' Whoopee

I promise this entry will not contain graphic or lurid details of sex education.

Honest. I promise.

It’s more about values, and how we pass on moral messages to our children and fortify ourselves as role models. You know, do as I say and do.

On the way home from school yesterday, Miguel shared with me the day’s sex education lesson.
Kids can ask any question they want. The question was: Which is better, oral or anal sex?

“It wasn’t my question,” he said.

“What did the teacher say?” I asked. For some reason, the question was posed to the language arts instructor, not the science one, who teaches the unit.

“She said, ‘That’s a personal question,’ Miguel said. “So which is better?”

I will not divulge my answer, nor reveal my response to his next question: “Have you ever had oral sex?”

My answers are unimportant. I will admit that I was speechless as he fired his questions much more rapidly than I felt equipped to answer.

I always knew I’d be Miguel’s go-to guy for all matters of sex, relationships, love, etc. Verna ceded that responsibility to me when Miguel was a toddler by virtue of our shared gender. Even though I am fully committed to offer age-and-developmentally appropriate honesty to my children about sex, my conversations with Miguel have always been slightly awkward.

He first asked me about babies and sex when he was eight. After I gave him a very brief introduction into sexual reproduction, he looked at me as if he’d just swallowed castor oil and raw eggs. From time to time, as he’s approached puberty and adolescence and his body has begun to change, there have been additional talks. I have tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible. Call me Jack Webb, Mr. Dragnet: just the facts.

Oh, I editorialize. I’ve thrown in a few things about protection, emotional readiness, not wanting to be a grandfather for at least 15 years. I am not even sure I needed to go in a few directions, but Miguel’s teachers have informed us parents that teenage sex (oral and otherwise) happens earlier and earlier.

Yes, I shudder. At 13 I was content to stand in the lunch line close enough to girls to inhale the fragrance of their shampoo. The world may have changed slightly when it comes to the sexes and sex in the 21st century.

So when I got back to work yesterday, a little addled after Miguel put me on the spot, I sought out the comfort of two male co-workers. They laughed with me as I retold the car conversation, and then one said, “It’s great that he could talk to you.”

And that’s when it hit me: yes, it is great he can talk to me. And he wanted to converse with me. I have not initiated a conversation yet about sex education. He was the one who came to me with the permission slip, and Miguel has usually shared with me the various sex education lessons. I have confined myself to asking the very general, “How was school today?”

To which he invariably replies, “Fine.”

Or I might say, “What’d you do in school today?” and he will offer, “Not much.”

But with sex education, I haven’t paid closer attention to the unit than any others. Partly because I am swamped with life, work, and just getting the kids fed, to school, and to their activities.

I do know, however, the awesome responsibility I have. And it’s not really about sex. Miguel barely has girls on his radar. He texts a few, but they are in the larger context of reaching out to friends. It is really about learning how to navigate the emotionally confusing and often physically awkward world of relationships, friendships, and the delicate social dance of teenagers.

Several weeks ago, after I mentioned a new female friend, he said, “Is she hot?”

“Miguel, that doesn’t matter,” I said, feeling as if I were banging my head against a wall and wondering if he was actually listening to me. “It’s what’s on the inside.”

But I bought him two posters of Megan Fox, which now adorn his bedroom wall, so what message is really bounding through him?

Welcome to my contradiction.

I still hope (and pray) Miguel learns about girls, young women, women, relationships, and, yes, sex, by the examples I’ve tried to set for the past 25 years. Time will, um, tell. I am not sure I want to know all the questions, but I am ready with answers.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mother and Child Reunion

I wanted to do something special and memorable for our first Mother's Day without Verna. So I announced to the kids, “Let's bring some photos to the cemetery and share a story or memory of Mommy.

Miguel lowered his shoulders and shrugged in full teenager mode, “Do I have to?”

“No,” I said, “but Maya and are going to and you have to come with us.”

He brought a tennis ball and asked if we could play catch. “No, Miguel, it's a cemetery. We are going to be reverent,” I said, using a word I purposely knew was unfamiliar to him. “This is a sacred space.”

Then he asked if he could bound downhill over and across other grave markers. “No,” I said again, “do you need to ask?”

We knelt by Verna and her mother's grave marker. I wiped away some dried leaves, dirt, and grass, and emptied the water from a few flower pots. Someone had left fresh flowers that the deer had already snacked on.

Maya chose a photograph taken last August, less than two weeks before Verna died. Verna rests her head against the olive green cushion on our living room couch, a thin smile stretched across her lips, her face steroids puffy, clasping a completely naked Maya in her arms. Happiness is etched on Maya's face, the fingers on her left hand gently touching the cross around Verna's neck, her ears sparkling from what were then days old earrings.

I brought a photograph from 1997, just a week or so after we'd found out Verna was pregnant with Miguel. We are at the home of her best friend from kindergarten, Rose, and her husband, David, wearing Raybans and opening a bottle of champagne. I am wearing a homemade tie-dyed t-shirt and my formerly ubiquitous fanny pack. Verna has a black v-necked shirt and jeans shorts.

We were still stunned and elated that we were going to be parents. Verna was not quite 33. I'd just turned 38. I told Miguel and Maya how excited we'd been when Kaiser confirmed that Verna was indeed pregnant.

Miguel tossed the tennis ball. “Miguel, “ I said sternly. Maya flitted near me. My sister-in-law, Donna, showed up with her eldest daughter, Jillian, who turns 21 this year on what would have been Verna's and my 20th wedding anniversary.

Maya walked around the grass and gravestones with Jillian, then Miguel on the periphery started chasing the girls. Donna and I reminisced yet again about the surreal and awful times of last year, the pain crises that sent Verna to the hospital several times, the decision to defer her care to hospice, the tears, the anguish, and finally the reality that Verna's death was imminent slamming against us all like a vicious wave.

Later in the day, I said to Donna, “I felt so alone,” referring to me being Verna's primary caregiver the last two weeks of her life, totally responsible for administering and increasing the narcotic cocktails, and wavering about what was best for her, the kids, me, the rest of the family.

She responded, “It's time for me to give you a hug,” as she pulled me to her chest like a mother comforting a child.

Maya brought home a photograph of herself from school, a multicolored construction paper background, wearing a sweet smile as she gazes at the photographer, probably a preschool teacher. The picture is soft-framed with a blue matte and a white border, three flowers and a bumblebee on the corners.

Underneath the picture it says, You're the best! “It's a Mother's Day present for Mommy,” Maya said. “I wish I could give it to her.”

“Me, too,” I said.

Just three weeks ago, Maya stamped her foot outside our garage and said, “Daddy, I am angry. I want Mommy to come down and be with us, and hug us.”

“I know,” I said.

“And that's why I have been so grumpy,” she said apologetically. “Because I miss Mommy.”

I hugged and kissed her and wished I could bring Maya her Mommy down from Heaven, to sit on her bed so they could affix stickers in Maya's Disney princess sticker books.

But, alas, it is not to be. I know that, as do Miguel and Maya, but that still does not erase the longing, the confusion, the pain.

As Miguel and I walked upstairs on Mother's Day for his nightly routine (teeth brushing, one toss of his Oregon Ducks football, and then I read to him), he said, “I want to find a picture of Mommy and me and make it bigger and then put it in a really nice frame in my bedroom.”

I was temporarily speechless. Finally I said, “Sounds like a great idea.”

And completely reverent.