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  • No Answers

    Sometimes you ask “Why” and there are no answers. Sometimes you say it with a question mark, or an exclamation point, or both, and still the answers don’t come.

    Sometimes there is just no answer.

    Four days ago, a 29-year-old woman who apparently had everything committed suicide. I didn’t know her well, hadn’t seen her since she graduated from high school, only mentioned her occasionally in conversation. Her parents, for different reasons, had a great impact on our lives and, ultimately, on the places where we are today.

    Why does this affect me so? Why has it had such an impact on Jill?

    Because this was not supposed to happen. It was the last thing anyone would have — could have — anticipated. No one would have thought, or could have imagined, why someone with so much would end everything.

    No one ever can.

    ••••••

    I grew up in a small town, or at least I thought it was small. Compared to Houston, 35 miles to the north, Texas City was — and is — a small town.

    And with around 40,000 residents, it is 2½ times larger than Reidsville, N.C.

    From 1993 to 2001, I lived in Reidsville, moving there as the managing editor of a small newspaper and leaving there to be the managing editor of a national education magazine. I’ve said often that leaving the Houston area to move to a small community where tobacco and textiles were the prime industry felt like going from fifth to first without hitting the clutch.

    And yet, during those eight-plus years, my life changed in ways I can’t imagine. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe I didn’t leave with a permanent case of whiplash.

    To sum up, while living in Reidsville, I:

    • Turned 30.

    • Got a divorce, rediscovered my love for theater, remarried, changed careers, bought a house, and had Kate, all within an 18-month period.

    • Discovered shortly after Kate was born that we were having twins.

    • Found a series of surrogate families — and my children at least one additional grandma — that we’ve stayed in touch with over the years.

    When we left to move to Northern Virginia, it was time. The many things that Reidsville offered, the hooks and lures that held us there, had their allure. We could have stayed.

    Something told us — both of us — that we needed to move on. And I’m glad we did, for our sakes, and for the sake of our children.

    But there is something about living in a small town, or growing up in a small town, that never leaves you. It’s an extended family you can’t leave behind.

    ••••••

    I just don’t get it.

    I don’t think anyone else does either.

    Separating the intellectual from the emotional is difficult most, if not all the time.

    Retrospect helps you point to signs, like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. But, ultimately, it doesn’t answer the central question: Why?

    Jill and I had not seen Lindsay in years. We heard about the different things in her life from friends and acquaintances with whom we still maintain contact, but like all too many people we encounter, she was another person from a place we lived in a decade ago that we assumed was going to be OK.

    Her parents are extraordinarily kind people, who’ve done nothing but help us — and others — over the years. Our lives intersected with theirs at various moments; the memories we share of each other are good ones, lasting ones, or at least I’d like to think so.

    But as happens all too often in this life, people you care about drift away. You don’t mean for that to happen, but life intervenes and it does.

    And then something like this happens, and abruptly, without warning, you are slung back into memories of a time you had left behind.

    •••••••

    First and foremost, I’m a chronicler. I would like to be someone who can develop scenarios and turn them into classic fiction, but my writing at heart comes from everyday life. Why create something out of nothing when there is so much around you to chronicle?

    That said, although I love biographies, I’m not a person who typically follows others’ blogs, just as I don’t expect you and others to follow mine. I hope what I have to say is something that is of interest to others — at the very least my children — but if not I can say without question that writing has provided me with an outlet that otherwise I would not have.

    Earlier this week, I happened to find Lindsay’s blog (http://applebloggingjeans.tumblr.com) and could not stop reading it. It’s a fascinating chronicle of a young, caring, witty, and extremely intelligent woman facing life in her 20s. Naturally, I found myself looking for clues, hoping something would answer my central question, knowing that nothing would.

    Somewhere in my reading, I happened on this paragraph that I can’t seem to shake:

    “I am, at my core, a person who fights everyday with who I am at my core— both an open book, ready and willing to share all that I am with the world, and a person who deals with many of my own demons, triumphs, blessings INTERNALLY and without desire to share those things even with those closest to me.  I have been, for as long as I can remember, a walking contradiction.”

    ••••••

    We encourage our children to be open about their struggles. We try to be open about ours. 

    Of course, bookstores are chock full of memoirs from people whose families did an incessant data dump on the author, who suffered so much in the process that they managed to get an autobiography and an Oprah/VH1 episode out of it.

    That’s not what we’re trying to do, in our dealings with our kids or even in this chronicle I’m putting out there for them — and you. What we want them to know is that they can come to us — no matter what.

    I think they do know that. And I pray, every moment of every day, that they feel like they have someone to share their thoughts with.

    No matter what.

  • The Morning Duty Spouse

    Note: This is another from my parenting archives, written in 2003. At the time, the kids did not go to school until later in the morning. Now, Emma and Kate get up before dawn. Jill, who still leaves early for work, now picks up the majority of the “morning duty” part (bless her) while I do a lot of the late night pick up. 

The moral of this update: Busy children = L-o-n-g days. But as you will see, this has always been the case.

    When you are blessed with three smart, inquisitive and articulate pre-school and kindergarten children, mornings are like a presidential press conference:

    “Yes, Pop Tarts are OK.”

    “Middle Eastern policy? Can’t talk about that right now.”

    “Milk? That’s too heavy to pour, I’ll do it.”

    “New Hampshire primary? Can’t go there yet.”

    “Socks. Your mother put them out last night.”

    Like many couples with young kids, my wife and I both work. An early riser, she leaves around 7:15 for the office and picks up the kids in the afternoon. I’m the morning duty spouse, more often than not the greatest challenge I face all day.

    What this means is I have the onerous task of getting Katharine, Emma, and Benjamin — ages 6, 5, and 5, respectively — out of the house and onto school so I can get to the train station in time to catch the 8:30 Virginia Rail Express. For me, “No Child Left Behind” means a daily head count in the van.

    7 a.m.: The Wake-Up Call

    Come 6:15 on a weekend morning, they’re internally caffeinated, dressed, brushed and ready to start banging on doors at the surrounding houses, just because it’s light outside. That’s made us real popular in the neighborhood.

    But Monday through Friday, no matter how much sleep they’ve had, I get the same refrain:

    “I’m tired…” Stretch. Yawn.

    “Just a few more minutes…” Yawn. Stretch.

    “Daddeeee…” On a good day, it’s four syllables.

    And then, as if the opening bell has sounded, they’re up and running. Doors open and close. They kiss Mommy goodbye. Faucets turn on, then partially off, always leaving a drip. I listen for weather and traffic on the 8s, fearful of facing Beltway traffic if I miss the VRE.

    7:22 a.m.: The Breakfast

    The cereal is out. Cheerios surround the bowl, some soggy, some still dry. Milk dribbles onto the floor. It’s no wonder that walking through our kitchen is akin to tiptoeing barefoot to the middle row seat in a movie theater.

    Television is verboten during the week, in large part because my wife and I feel guilty about being able to quote entire episodes of “The Brady Bunch,” “Partridge Family,” and “Gilligan’s Island” from memory. But without the tube for company, we have to talk, and so the conversations and questions begin.

    Topics for discussion include:

    • What does a specific bodily sound really mean?

    • Why does the cereal box always have only one toy and not three?

    • The inevitable weather question: Why is it raining again today?

    We rarely discuss painting, unless it’s the picture on our refrigerator. We don’t talk politics, unless you include the intricacies of sibling rivalry. Our conversations about literature and art consist of Barbie books, the latest plastic “Bot,” and “Finding Nemo.”

    It’s a decidedly upper middle class existence, and my wife and I constantly convey to our kids how lucky they — and we — are. We try to teach them manners, to subtly convey that it’s not OK to jam your mouth full of Pop Tart and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

    Sometimes it works. Sometimes I survive. Sometimes I think longingly of the 10-hour day ahead at work, knowing it will be my only chance to rest.

    7:51: The checklist

    Often, our most difficult transition is going from the eating breakfast-brushing teeth-combing hair stage to the getting buckled up in the van stage. Our well intentioned and informative breakfast conversations end with the intrusion of the day-to-day reality of life, the checklist we face every morning.

    “Book bag? Check…”

    “Hair combed? Check…”

    “Coffee spilled on tie? Check…”

    “Teeth brushed? Check…”

    “Three kids still? Check.”

    My 5-year-old son hides contraband toys in his pockets to show to school friends. That is, unless he’s trying to ride his two-wheel bicycle — a source of pride — down the street and around the block “just one time.”

    Ben’s twin, Emma, tries to decide which pair of the aforementioned socks to wear. My oldest daughter, Katharine, dashes across the street to see about a neighbor’s aging — and infinitely patient — dog.

    So many distractions, so little time. And it’s ticking away.

    8:16: A fond farewell

    Time has become a recurring theme for my wife and me, especially as we delve deeply into this most challenging period as adults, spouses, and parents. It’s difficult to remember a day when we weren’t held captive by time.

    Pre-school and elementary school children are not similarly encumbered. They wake up when the sun wakes up, and they go to sleep when the sun goes to sleep. Time management is not a factor. The passing of time is not either.

    That will come soon enough, I think as I kiss them goodbye, the van idling. And it’s a thought I have daily as I rush to catch the train.