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Friday, June 22, 2012

No Words, Just Wisdom

Mom is in her pink dress again. For at least a decade the pink dress symbolized every major event in the family. Weddings, reunions, anniversaries all brought out that pink dress. This time there is nothing festive about the dress.

Mom is gone.

It is the day of the visitation and the funeral. As I stand first in the line but the last of her six sons I get to find things out first. The two biggies are, first, every person seemed to have served on a committee of some sort with my mother and, second, everyone did have a story of some bit of wisdom that my mother passed along to her that really hit home. She seemed to have the words that helped people in the two churches she attended through the toughest of times.

Oddly, I do not have that story of Mom.

Don't get me wrong. We did actually talk about pretty much everything and she would offer perspective through her faith and it almost always came down to me believing, too. Still, she was not the one to come up with the perfect pearl that I could quote or hold on to and I think I usually sold her short because that whole "Faith Thing" was just too easy an answer.

Or so I thought.

It now occurs to me that this is not a bad thing. My Mom's faith in God got her through unimaginable challenges because she knew he would always be there. For me, I found through my much less insurmountable challenges that I would persevere because SHE never doubted that I would.

My Dad died when I was four years old, leaving Mom with six sons and no job. Dad had taken care of a lot of the financial part but I have to believe that at age 42 that it occurred to her that she had not signed up for this.

What she did do was keep living her life. She had already sat through hundreds of Little League Baseball games and worn out multiple stadium seats. (The bleachers were a bit hard so Mom was always prepared for this with a peculiar looking fold-out pad with a back that always looked more uncomfortable than any bleacher. People for miles around knew that when they saw it that Marie must be around and a Pearson must be playing ball.)

Fate gave her no breaks. She had spaced out her kids in a way that meant she sat through twenty-five consecutive years of Youth Baseball without any any time off. Oddly, I am pretty convinced that in that time she learned almost nothing about the game. The one factoid that she had mastered was that whenever I was pitching and the team ran off the field that I must have done something right. After every inning I pitched I would hear "That's the way!" and that meant Mom was paying attention or, at the very least, was still there.

Again, she never gave me any wisdom about baseball but just like with everything later in life I just knew she was there. Everything in Geneseo, Illinois is within five minutes of each other so it may seem like a little thing that she could get there but that little thing and that "That's the way!" from the stands made me know someone was always behind me.

Mom was raised in the depression as part of a big family, too, so she was like a lot of people who grew up then. She could get by on very little. That meant a roast and potatoes on Sunday for a family gathering meant the same roast and potatoes for those still living in the house on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and probably Thursday. That may have been why we all became very adept at the use of ketchup as a food moisturizer.

That is great but what she actually mastered was salesmanship. She could convince us that what other families would consider as lame were special events that we were lucky just to experience.

It blew my mind that we were blessed because we got to go to Hardees (fine dining in town at the time) each Sunday and, if we went the extra eighth of a mile to Kentucky Fried Chicken, somebody must have done something huge!

She also had us convinced that what is known as the Quad Cities were actually real cities and that driving twenty minutes to get there and buying something other than Farm & Fleet Brand Jeans was akin to something Lewis & Clark would admire. So, when she put my brother Dan and I into our 1975 Buick Apollo (it's the only car I remember) and drove us to Denny's in Moline, I figured that this exotic meal of "Dinner Italiano" (probably Ragu on some sort of patty) meant that we must be among the elite. It was either that or at least she had set aside her change for months to make this bounty happen.

Imagine my surprise when I grew up and and people filled me in that Denny's was where they went late at night when they were drunk and looking for something cheap. I am convinced to this day that with that salesmanship Mom could have made millions in Used Cars.

Mom the Salesperson also came through in another way. I have no exact moment when she told me that I was a good-looking kid but she somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, had me believing that there probably was something wrong with the girls who did not really notice me. This notion was some "Mom Magic" because when I look at pictures of me from Seventh Grade through my Junior Year I have to say that I kind of look like the spitting image of every serial killer in his teen years.
The chubby kid with braces and plastic glasses so thick that I accidentally burned some ants when the sun hit them the wrong way was going to be fine because Mom believed it.

In my life, I have quoted Mark Twain or Martin Luther King and every song written between 1982-1992. I have never quoted Mom. Pretty much every bit of advice I ever heard her give was from a Bible verse so I know I underestimated her wisdom. No, she did not come up with "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it, " but she lived it. That is probably more important.

The other one is "Bloom where you're planted." It is the centerpiece of the incredibly inaccurate impression that I sometimes did of Mom. Obviously, she did not come up with this one either but as I have moved from place to place with varying levels of success I did often take my voice to a high-pitched realm and assumed that there is no way that Mom's simple quote could possibly apply but then I have somehow gone out and proved her right.

Her message was to just shine in whatever situation you are in. She convinced my brothers and me that the fact that most of our toys did not quite go together because they were hand-me-overs from cousins and other people simply meant we would be more creative than everyone else. I did not actually know these things should not go together but I was able to come up with games involving a hand-me-down Lone Ranger with a broken arm and no lasso, twelve army men of varying sizes, a monkey with mustard and jelly stains and a vibrating Electric Football set.

She developed that creativity in me despite the fact that I could pretty much tell she had no idea what I was talking about. Throughout my life I would make pop culture references that I know she did not get but she figured they must be funny because I said them. People around me may not be thrilled by this because now I probably expect laughter at every inane thing that pops out of my mouth because Mom was there and Mom laughed.

Whenever I was dumped in my life (and believe me, I was dumped a lot!) just hearing that she knew I would move on made me realize that I would be fine because Mom knew I would be.

The salesmanship came in because we would talk and she would marvel at how well I was handling being dropped on my head by a woman or two or, in my case, ninety-three. I know now that she was telling me about how incredible it was that my sense of humor was getting me through these tough times because I needed to actually use my sense of humor to persevere. Mom said I was handling it well so I just handled it.

I am not sure if Mom was Tony Robbins or Vince Lombardi, or both.

When a boss did not quite understand what I was bringing to the table she just knew that I would convince him otherwise. I did because, well, you know.

When another boss succeeded in getting me out the door over the beliefs of everyone else working with me, Mom did not tell me how to fix the problem but was so absolutely sure that I would deal with it and be able to support my family that, well, you know.

I am sure she worried. I am sure she wondered how she would get through hard times. I am sure she thought that having a youngest son who called himself, "The Forgotten Trip to the Drug Store" probably had her thinking there might be trouble with this one.

She just sounded so sure that there wouldn't be trouble. Having convinced myself I am a writer I have worked to come up with my own way of putting things like "Bloom Where You're Planted." She acted like it was brilliant when I said, "If it doesn't kill you or make you pregnant, it's not a big deal."

I am kind of proud of it but I would not have gotten here without the thought that if Mom believes you will be fine then you will be fine.

So, as my wife, three-year old daughter and eight-month old son move forward without her, I do know that I do not always have to have brilliant words or even that sage advice that will last them a lifetime.

They will just know that I know they will shine. And so they will.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

8 Minutes to Hell

I have run as many as eight miles at a time.

I have voluntarily taken part in training regimens which involved thick-necked trainers (still not sure if they were male or female) thrusting me into machines whose use should probably be cause for Congressional hearings on torture.

None of that compares to the ache and shame that comes from finding an eighteen-year old DVD that sounds innocuous enough.  It was called 8 Minute Abs. Thanks to about a decade of considering a walk to the Dairy Queen for the large Blizzard as exercise I found out it could be considered as 8 Minutes to Hell.

"Why don't you try this?" my wife said. She found it in a bargain bin at Wal-mart a few years back and had it sitting under the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello classic "Back to the Beach" in our entertainment center.

I had convinced myself I was on a program. I would run something along the lines of a mile and then walk for probably a couple miles and every once in a while I would do some ab exercise I saw LL Cool J do on Conan. I did not think it through that that was not the only exercise the Cool James that Ladies Love did.

I thought to myself, "I'm a man." What could this silver disc intended for housewives do for someone as masculine as I? How challenging could this be?

Of course these questions came from a person who was never aware he was putting on weight until seeing family pictures where his neck had become his most prominent feature. I did not look like the "Before" picture on Weight Watchers but I could have been used as the second or third picture on the five step program.

Now the DVD is in the player. Sporting the "Mid-life Crisis Workout Uniform" of shorts that are supposed to be baggy but aren't and a faded St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt, I am now ready to hit "Play" on the remote.

The music begins and it sounds like a MUZAK version of the Pointer Sisters classic "Automatic" (look it up). The video fades up to three people in tank tops sitting in what appears to be a vacant lot.  Speaking of vacant that describes the woman in the video who, of course, is blonde and has pasted the kind of smile on her face that would give a forty year old man the impression that she would be his if he bought her a Zima and tried his one dance move to impress her. (Obviously, it has been a while since I was in the single world.)

The two men have the same smiles and are wearing pants tight enough that you can actually see freckles through the material. They certainly are pleased to be laying on mats in a field!

"Hey, Gang!" Our leader seems welcoming enough and I envision 90's housewives taking time out from watching "Young & the Restless" and eating Ho Hos to do a few sit-ups. I think that a man such as myself should cruise through this.

Mr. Tanktop on the DVD has a bubblyness that seems limitless. The only other man I ever described as 'bubbly' was wearing an ascot so this is new ground.

The clock on the screen begins and Tanktop tells me that the movements are "safe and effective and fun" so again I know this will be a snap.

He starts with The Basic Crunch. I lay back and do this nice easy starter and in my mind I mock the women who paid for this supposed workout. I can almost see them in their elastic-banded sweatpants struggling to lean up for forty-five seconds. "Piece of cake," I think. Too many pieces of cake are part of why I am trying this.

Next comes the Right Oblique Crunch. Tanktop says, "This works the 'Love Handles', remember those?" I do not recall anyone really wanting to use anything of that nature for any positive purpose so I am not sure why the term is used. He talks about feeling it tighten up but I am feeling more of a folding sensation. Still, I feel confident that I will make it to the next step.

That of course is the Left Oblique Crunch. In trying to raise up, I realized that while I am left-handed in some things and right-handed in others I am definitely not 'left-obliqued'!  This should not hurt.  I am moving like three inches and feeling like a small ferret is biting me under the rib cage.

Still, it's only eight minutes.  I am home free. Of course then I notice that I am not even to the halfway point as the stellar mid-nineties t.v. graphics show.

Continuing to lay on my back the next step is Toe Touches. Tanktop tells me to raise my legs up and touch the bottom of my feet.  After stretching and straining and beginning to wish him dead,  I hear Tanktop admit that touching the bottom of my feet is physically impossible which makes me hate him... yes I hate him just a little bit more. He keeps telling me I am doing great and I think I may be lightheaded enough to forget that this was recorded during the first term of the Clinton administration so odds are he does not really mean it.

At this moment I am aware that the blood that normally goes to my brain is now locked in my pelvic tilt.

Next he says, "Hands placed under the buttocks" which is not that much fun when and it is time for the Reverse Crunch. It is a maneuver that brings back memories of every enchilada I have ever eaten. It is an exercise that is not as painful as the others but it is also a maneuver that makes me glad that I am alone.  There is no way to avoid the type of sound-smell combo that would drive you out of any exercise class.

Thankfully, I am allowed to remove my hands from under my buttocks for the Right Side Crunch. This looks simple and easy (as Tanktop keeps mentioning) and I notice that my belly button is maneuvering first six inches to the right and then four inches to the left. My body is officially a Jell-o Jigglers commercial. I can start to feel pain in areas I am not actually supposed to be exercising.

Following the Right Side Crunch they bring us the Left Side Crunch. I wonder how it is possible that even though I never exercise the muscles on the Right or the Left, I am this much weaker on the left.  Three times I lift my elbow across my body and I notice that even though Tanktop never stops talking he is still doing three crunches for every one I do. The only thing drowning out my groaning in pain is the sound of the shame in the back of my head.

Up next is the Push Through. This implies that all I am doing is a simple move of leaning upward with my hands extending downward for a simple crunch. I am not proud that I had the thought that since it had been more than a decade since the DVD was made that I kind of hoped that one or more of the people on the video could possibly be dead.

It's time to put my hands under my buttocks again and I do not have the courage to look at the clock. I assume that this is all some cruel joke that the Eight Minutes is really using some offshoot of the Metric System and that it really translates to three hours and forty-five minutes in American time. I am supposed to extend my legs straight upward to work my lower abdomen. I start to think that after this maneuver that any discussion my wife and I have of more children will be moot.

I do look and see that I have one minute and fifteen seconds to go. It is an incredibly simply Alternating Curl. I just need to raise my right elbow to my left knee and left elbow to my right knee again and again. I think back to the person of my youth who could play three sets of tennis, mow the lawn and then play a baseball game that night.

The me of today hates that guy! Again, why does this hurt my right side a little while my left side is ready to secede from the union?

Finally, in what appears to be a move used to fill the final 30 seconds comes the Curl. It is basically something where you lay your head on the ground then lift it and look at your feet (if you can see them.) Again, there is no way this should be considered exercise. There also is no way that this should hurt. It does though. I start panicking that this somehow is just the warmup to the real workout and that this will be the end for me.

I envision the paramedics arriving to try and save me and seeing the condition I am in and the freeze frame on the t.v. that says "8 Minute Abs" and they just put a blanket over me because there is no hope for this guy. Actually, as we approach the final five seconds Tanktop throws a curveball and says, "Now hold it," expecting me to keep my head up until the end. I fear that I will not be able to speak because I have not done a neck exercise, since....EVER!

Make this stop!  Tanktop says, "Release," and tells his little helpers Good Job and tells me he will see me in 24 hours.

I think to my self that this is what the Geneva convention was set up to avoid. Dick Cheney would think this was over the top. I try and come up with reasons that this DVD was part of an elaborate plot to make us all feel insecure because no human could possibly handle this supposedly "low impact" workout.

Actually, what it did was make me think that I just needed to make one less trip to Arby's every month.  Thank you Tanktop and the Tanktop-ettes!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Good Night Nurse

As a new but somewhat worried dad I put a hopefully sterile gown on over my clothes, waved at the lady at the desk, squeezed out the mystery disinfectant you must put on your hands and strutted into what is known as the NICU.

A woman I have never seen before is standing next to my little guy and gives me the most pleasant of smiles. "Are you Miles' dad?"

I say, "Yes, I'm John."

"Hi John.  I'm Pam." The smile fades, but not completely.  "I do need to talk to you about your son."

As she tells me that Miles is no longer on the fast track to getting out of the hospital because the doctors are concerned he just can not keep his body temperature regulated, an odd thought hits me.

"What a bizarre career."  This is the first and possibly the last time this woman will spend time with me and she gets to deliver the news that our five-day old boy is not ready for the world.  She knows that everything was going as well as can be expected for a guy who decided to break on through to the other side about six weeks early.

She also knows that, since there was never a problem with the cavalcade of nurses who had taken care of Miles  that at some point it will pop into my head that this must be HER FAULT.  She knows it's not and I know it's not but that need to blame someone has to be a part of it when you now envision more tubes and round-the-clock care for your five pound boy.

Until now, my wife and I had been the lucky ones in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.  Miles was five pounds seven ounces and had passed pretty much every test.

We had listened to these nurses explain to a teenage couple why their four pound boy needs them to be on time for feedings. We did this while she and I rotated in and out for feedings and brought proud grandparents up to help tend to the baby.  The nurse asked if either adolescent had a parent who could help take the load off of them.  The answer was no.

We had watched a nurse desperately try to explain to a couple that they absolutely had to get a prescription filled today but ran into a slight snag.  Neither parent spoke English and the father was trying so hard to understand what his daughter who barely seemed to have enough skin to cover her frail body needed.   This happened as I gazed in wide wonder at my little boy as he opened his eyes and looked at me like he actually knew who I was.

As we were heading back down to my wife's room my father-in-law and I walked past three nurses working on a child that seemed to fit into one of the women's hands hoping that their efforts would not end with having to deliver the worst news anyone could deliver.  From there we were able to go and look at the pictures we took of Grandpa and Grandson on the digital camera.

Seeing these people who had this calling to work in this environment go from nurturing care-givers to teachers of clueless parents to life-and-death situations and then back made me wonder just what made them think this pendulum of emotion and effort would be the way they wanted to spend their lives.

Yes, we did freak out on the drive to the hospital that this was all happening too soon and there would be problems.  However, until night number five of the Miles Pearson Era, our biggest issue was family and friends riding us because we had not posted enough pictures to Facebook.

My wife had gotten to go home on Wednesday and we had established a nice rotation of driving back and forth to the hospital.  I was even able to watch most of the Cardinals Playoff games.  (I still can't believe their run to the World Championship but even that kind of pales in comparison.   I say that despite the fact that had Miles been born on time I probably would have pitched that we name him after World Series MVP David Freese.)  But I digress.

So, on Thursday night I headed back to the hospital with freshly pumped breast milk for a feeding.  I was a little sleepy but I had gotten used to this process enough that I thought this would be kind of a short visit and I would actually get a good night's sleep and come back first thing and we would start thinking that Miles would come home.

That was until Pam had to tell me the news.

She explained that when Miles was outside the electric blanket they use to keep him warm that he simply could not hold his Body Temperature.  This is not anywhere near the most serious thing the other babies and their parents endured but this was MY little guy so nothing existed outside this little six foot space.

Pam told me that if this did not improve that Miles would have to go back in the isolette.  The isolette is a giant plastic case that kind of looks like a sneeze guard at an all-you-can-eat buffet.  It is where he started and of course it was maybe the biggest step toward knowing he was healthy when he got out of it.

Therefore, the news that he might have to go back in there smacked me around like a flurry from Muhammad Ali.  (Sorry for all the Sports references but until I entered family life I was pretty one-dimensional.)

Pam was the perfect mixture of letting me know this was important and assuring me that this was something they had handled and that Miles would handle.  Now she had to handle the fragile psyche of a father who had no clue how this should all go.

She gave me the basics of what to say my wife so I could keep her from freaking out when I called her.  She then could tell that I needed a task so she put me to work.

Until now, my role had been to feed Miles and change him and then get the heck out of the way so the nurse in charge could go about her business.  My only area of expertise was feeding him and making odd faces at him.

"Go with that," she said.  Again, she knew that our situation was still nowhere near the most dangerous or scary or even sad.  In fact, the baby next to Miles had parents who lived three hours away and did not have the money to come more than every couple of weeks.  They also had no help outside this group of nurses who brought the extra care.

However, Pam knew that the only thing that I saw was our guy in his little striped stocking cap and IV running into his toes.  She knew that I would be pretty much a zombie going home so she gave me tasks to do.

She explained that hearing my voice and feeling me touch him would be a big help.  She offered no guarantees but, even though she probably knew that her job would be easier without me in her way she made sure I felt valuable to the process.

I do not know if she heard me singing, "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2 to Miles or heard the endless stream of "Seinfeld", "Caddyshack" and "Saturday Night Live" references I threw at Miles.  I know that she told me that watching the little monitors would only drive me nuts.

I also know that she did have at least one or two other babies she had to keep an eye on but it never felt like she left.  For about two hours I memorized every inch of my son and took in every breath and heard every beep on the monitors that were there to tell us he was okay.

Pam finally kicked me out when she saw me actually using my fingers to pry my eyes open.  "You need to get out of here and be ready for a big day tomorrow.   Your wife will need you to help her through things if he is back in the isolette."  Again, she knew I needed a task.

The next day Miles was was back in his case.   Another amazing nurse was there to give us hope and explain everything to us.  We looked around and saw scared parents and tiny babies.  Those people were also getting support from women in brightly colored scrubs.  Again, I thought, "Where do people like this come from?"   How is it possible that there is more than one person like Pam.

I only saw Pam one more time.  Luckily, I got to drive Miles home (about ten miles an hour below the speed limit) five days later.  I know that Miles might be another baby in a blur of tiny toes and fingers and tubes and charts that help decide what different babies have in their futures.

All I know is that when, for one night, life punched me in the gut and knocked me down Pam picked me up and made sure I knew that all those tiny parts were going to work together and turn Miles into more than just my little guy.