The Obvious Question When Your Kids are 35 Years Apart

“No, they’re both my sons,” I answered as his eyes widened. It happens every time people begin to understand that I have kids whose ages are 35 years apart.

“I hate you!” our six-year-old Richard yelled because I wouldn’t let him throw a toy across the room.

“I love you, son,” I replied.

It’s not the dialog we had in mind when we decided to have a child later in life. I’m certain we each pictured some variation of our family walking down the street laughing and holding hands, not being shouted at by an angry child, disciplining him, or arguing with each other about should he or shouldn’t he bring a toy to the dinner table.

I’m a Baby Boomer, retired and collecting Social Security. I have two adult children from my first marriage and I write, work in my woodshop, enjoy our home, raise bees, and help raise our son, Richard. I don’t miss leaving for the office in the morning and I celebrate that by drinking three cups of coffee before breakfast and one cup after just to relax. What possessed me to want another child?

Simple. I love my wife and I want to make her happy, and I love kids and always wanted a big family. My wife, Mindy, was never married and never had children. We’re happy, we could afford it, and I knew she wanted to be a mom and I always enjoyed being a dad. I view our decision to have a child as a selfless act, although not everyone shares that point of view. I avoid those people because I want to stay positive. Our son has fulfilled both of us and made us happier, notwithstanding his childish bouts of “I hate you.”

I’ve heard from friends, “Shouldn’t you be able to relax and not argue with or about children?”

Other friends tell me, “You’re nuts and you always have been.”

I tell them all, “I am relaxed, and I have to argue about something, so why not kids?”

They are all satisfied with their first set of kids. I’m satisfied with all my kids. One of my best childhood friends was a guy named Lew who had four brothers in a huge house. There was a second house on their property and his grandparents lived there. It was an early example of a multi-generational living situation and I was secretly envious.

I also sought divorce from my ex-wife when our daughter was fifteen and our son thirteen. I missed some of their growth because of divorce dynamics.

I do have to admit that late parenthood also has issues.

When my older son, Greg, now 39, was up for a weekend, I took my two sons out for ice cream. As we approached the counter, the guy waiting to serve us looked at me, pointed at Richard and asked with feigned warmth, “Is that your grandson?”

“No, they’re both my sons,” I answered as his eyes widened. It happens every time people begin to understand that I have children whose ages are 35 years apart.

There are also potential health issues. Time published an article by Jeffrey Kluger in the April 11, 2013 edition, entitled, “Too Old to be a Dad.” He cites data that concludes kids of older dads have higher incidences of psychological and physical problems, specifically memory function. Then he goes on to name well-known older fathers from the entertainment world. That seems to contradict his point or else those older entertainers were his database and they had memory loss. He didn’t say.

So, I have to admit, there is risk in fathering a child in my sixties, but the biggest risk is that I’ll leave Mindy a widowed single parent. Am I playing family roulette, betting that I’ll live to a ripe old age? What happens if my roulette number doesn’t pay off? Perhaps my age won’t ripen after all.

To what age will I live if my number pays off?

My paternal great-grandfather lived to 100, and that was all before the invention of antibiotics, suggesting he had a very strong constitution. My maternal great-grandfather lived to 98. Did I inherit those genes? Doubtful. My Dad and his father both lived to 88. Sadly, Dad lost his mind a few years before he died. My wife tells me, “I think you’re losing yours.” I don’t answer because wives can also drive men out of their minds with needless worry, in addition to losing memory to the aging process. Maybe I have a little of both working. Uh-oh.

So, family longevity is in my favor and I guess secretly I’m betting that I’ll be around for a while. Maybe not a hundred years like my great-grandfather, but I certainly look forward to watching our son graduate college. I’ll be in my eighties, that is, as they say down south, “God willin’ and the creek don’t rise!”

What’s changed from raising my first two in my 30s? First of all, it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison because I’m not only married to a different woman, I also have the benefit of more than 30 years’ experience. Back then I worked 50 or 60 hours a week building a career and now I am home all day except for excursions to doctors, the gym, and a weekly writing workshop.

I took my older two to school in their early grades and now, our son takes the bus. My older two spent their childhoods in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, and two houses in New Jersey. My younger son has lived in New York since he was born, although we moved from a smaller home in the boonies to a larger more suburban home. There’s some stability there. My older kids went to public schools, and we started Richard in private school and he’s now in third grade, still in private school.

There are similarities too. They’re all my children and, while that’s obvious, it’s also rhetorical. I’m proud of them, I love them and I see myself in their faces. They are part of my desire to leave a legacy. There are other similarities too. For example, kids are not naturally neat and I’m not sure that neatness can be taught. It’s inherent and none of my kids had it in their youth. Similarly, kid’s toys tend to be specific to the era. Our younger son loves Legos and his creations cover every horizontal surface. That toy didn’t click together into shapes when my older kids were his age. They had Cabbage Patch Dolls, Teddy Ruxpin, Transformers, and watched Sesame Street. Richard watches Netflix and plays Minecraft on his iPad.

They all seem to depend on me to one extent or another. Richard completely because of his age, but older son Greg too because he’s had trouble launching a career. I hired my executive trainer for him and paid for it. My oldest child is a physician who considers herself entirely independent right down to her BMW, but even she used to invite me to her home and add, “Please bring lunch and your tools.” Something always needed repair.

What do I conclude? Kids are great if you can afford them, play with them, be there for them, and instill good values. If one or more of those is impossible, then enjoy your grandchildren if you have any. There’s an advantage to them once you reach a certain age. That advantage is grandchildren go home eventually and their parents are responsible for them. Richard is home all the time, although fortunately we can still manage well.

The other night he hurt himself in the bathtub. He was crying and I was out for the evening at my writing workshop. My wife said it wasn’t a fun evening. She missed that TV show she likes and I missed the whole thing.

Determination and the Will to Live

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
In the mirror I could see the impossibly tiny blue foot sticking out of my abdomen, no bigger than an almond. I only glimpsed it for a moment as the doctor hurried to slide his large hand around the leg and reach for the body. But the tininess, and the blueness of course, alarmed me. Within moments the doctor was holding the smallest infant I had ever seen in front of me, briefly, before he was whisked from the room to be resuscitated. In my head a voice screamed, “Put him back! He’s too small! He’ll never make it!”
When I awoke I was taken to see my son whom we’d decided to name James. He had been put on a ventilator and it was tougher than anticipated to see him on it. Every breath looked intensely painful. When he breathed in it looked as if his ribs were touching his spine. His whole chest would compress incredibly hard. It appeared that every muscle in that tiny two-pound body would tense and it gave the impression that James was experiencing acute pain.
But James was born with two things that mattered: flaming red hair and the determination to match it. He was here to survive. He had Hyaline Membrane Disease which affects the lungs and makes it very difficult to breathe. Yet he fought every day determined to breathe on his own one day. He also required a blood transfusion but at two pounds they couldn’t find any veins large enough to use. Eventually they had to go through a vein right in the top of his head near the forehead. He didn’t like it but he tolerated it with his determination and will to live.
Each week he experienced two steps forward and one step back. That sweet little baby struggled for over 60 days in the hospital before they finally released him to come home. Yet even with all the pain he experienced in the first days and weeks of his life James was the most sweet spirited child that anyone who knew him had ever encountered. He was a joy to his family. He was especially adored by his Daddy. He and his Daddy developed a close bond. They loved to read together, take walks, have “guy talks” and wrestle. For nearly five years they shared a great father/son relationship.
That is why James almost fell apart when his Daddy died suddenly two days before James turned five years old. He had experienced a sudden stroke. No apparent reason. He was totally healthy and there was no family history of it. After the stroke they had done surgery to open the closed artery. We had thought all was well. He had hemorrhaged and within hours was declared brain dead. Then I had to tell James. I have never seen a child that upset. I’ve seen children cry. I’ve even seen children throw fits. I have never seen a child experience that true depth of sorrow. He cried so hard for so long we had to take his clothes off because he was overheating.
Still, we wondered if he was fully comprehending the permanent nature of death. It wasn’t until after the viewing that I would understand what he was thinking. At the viewing I took James and his sister in with me to see their Daddy’s body before the guests arrived. After a moment James asked to be alone with his Daddy. I was hesitant at first and then agreed. After leaving him alone for about five minutes, he came walking out of the room with a tear stained face and looking exhausted. He let me pick him up and hold him and he rested his head on my shoulder.
The next day when I asked him about it he told me, “I didn’t know if Daddy was really dead so I wanted to be alone with him. When you left I said to him, ‘Daddy, wake up!’ But he didn’t wake up. So them I took his hand to shake it. But his hand was very cold. So then I knew he was really dead. And then I cried and cried.” He waited until he was done crying to come out of the room to me.
It seems to me that when James learned his Daddy had died for real that was a moment of determination for him. He had to once again choose to go on and live, to dry his tears, and put on a brave face for mom. That brave, sweet little boy by five years old had already twice in his life, both when he was a tiny two-pound preemie and as a five year old facing the death of his Daddy, shown amazing determination and a will to live!

7 Picture Books That Help Kids Cope With Tragedy

These books deal with topics like fear, loss, and separation anxiety in subtle ways, but can serve as great conversation starters.

On Monday morning, I woke up to an alert on my phone that there was a shooting in Las Vegas. Horrifyingly unfazed by news that has become too commonplace, I went about my morning. I made breakfast. I packed lunches. I kissed the tops of wild-haired heads and sent them off on their school buses.

It was only when I sat down at my computer and checked the news that I completely unraveled. Watching the sickening story unfold, I was completely frozen in what can only be described as a zombified state. I stared at the TV, much like I did after the Sandy Hook shooting, completely unable to wrap my mind around the news.

The emotions were plentiful: fear, overwhelming sadness, confusion. How can this continually happen? How can we fix it? How do we even begin to discuss this with our kids?

Feeling completely at a loss, I started poking around to see what experts had to say about helping children cope with tragedies. Should we try to shield them from it? Should we bring it up? How do we discuss such heavy issues in a way that’s appropriate and won’t fill them with even more fear?

Every source I looked into said that it’s important to talk to our kids. According to the American Psychological Association, “Talking to your children about their worries and concerns is the first step to help them feel safe and begin to cope with the events occurring around them. What you talk about and how you say it does depend on their age, but all children need to be able to know you are there listening to them.”

In an article for Psychology Today, Amy Morin, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, said that “The conversations you have with your kids – as well as the conversations you avoid – will impact their core beliefs about themselves, other people, and the world in general.” She went on to add that “[e]ven your silence on the subject could lay the foundation for unhealthy core beliefs. When parents don’t acknowledge a tragic incident, a child might think, ‘My parents don’t talk about what happened because you shouldn’t talk about sad things.’ Ultimately that child may think sharing sad feelings is unhealthy.”

So how do we, as parents, breach a subject that even we find scary?

Mental Health America encourages parents of school-age children to allow them to express themselves through play or drawing. “As with younger children, school-age children sometimes find comfort in expressing themselves through playing games or drawing scenes of the tragedy. Allowing them to do so, and then talking about it, gives you the chance to ‘re-tell’ the ending of the game or the story they have expressed in pictures with an emphasis on personal safety.”

This idea of “re-telling” immediately made me think of children’s literature and how it can be a powerful coping mechanism, allowing children to see how characters respond to situations that they find frightening and then relating it to situations happening in the real world that children might be frightened by.

I put together a list of seven children’s books that are great ways to talk to kids about tragic topics, whether it’s something that’s horrific on a national level or something that hits a little closer to home. These books deal with topics like fear, loss, and separation anxiety in subtle ways, but can serve as great conversation starters.

 
 
ScaredySquirrel

Scaredy Squirrel

by Melanie Watt

Scaredy Squirrel does not leave his tree. There are way too many scary things in the great big world, like tarantulas, green Martians, sharks, and killer bees. Instead, Scaredy Squirrel sticks to a strict daily schedule and always has his trusty emergency kit (filled with things like antibacterial soap, Band-Aids, and a parachute) on hand. But when he suddenly finds himself in the big, scary unknown, Scaredy Squirrel discovers something amazing.


 

Swimmy

by Leo Lionni

Swimmy’s entire school of fish was swallowed by a tuna. Scared and alone, Swimmy wandered the ocean slowly noticing the beauty around him. That made Swimmy happy. Eventually, he found a school of fish that was just like his own. He wanted to play and explore with them, but they were afraid of being eaten by bigger fish. In the end, Swimmy figures out a way they can work together and stay safe.


ToughBoris

Tough Boris

by Mem Fox

Boris is tough and mean and fearless, like all pirates. But when his parrot dies, Tough Boris cries. With simple language and watercolor pictures that add a lot of rich detail (and a whole other storyline), this book is a great way to talk about feelings with children.


 InMyHEart

In My Heart

by Jo Witek

This is another great way to start talking to your kids about feelings. While Tough Boris is about how even tough guys can cry, this story is about how our hearts can feel so many different things. It can feel “strong and brave” one minute and “fragile and delicate” the next, and that’s okay!


TheInvisibleString

The Invisible String

by Patrice Karst

When a brother and sister are scared and want to be closer to their mom, she explains to them that they are connected by an invisible string of love that connects from heart to heart. She explains that no matter how far loved ones are away from each other, they’re always connected by this very special string. Whether kids are having separation anxiety or dealing with divorce or even death, this sweet story is very reassuring.


 Rabbityness

Rabbityness

by Jo Empson

Rabbit enjoys doing rabbity things, but he also enjoys doing un-rabbity things like painting and playing music. It’s the un-rabbity things that make him Rabbit, and make all the other rabbits in the forest happy. When Rabbit disappears one day, the other rabbits are so, so sad. Then they find some special gifts he left behind, which make them think of Rabbit while discovering their own un-rabbity talents. This is a great story to use when discussing loss with children.


 

The Heart and the Bottle

by Oliver Jeffers

Another story on dealing with loss, this one tells the tale of a very curious little girl. Her grandfather is pictured on every page with her as she curiously explores her surroundings. Then one day the chair he sits in is empty and he is gone. She puts her heart in a bottle to try and protect it, but suddenly everything seems so empty to her, until she meets a younger curious little girl who helps bring her heart back and make it lighter again. Incredibly poignant, the story ends on an uplifting, hopeful note.

Now, when those wild-haired girls step off of their school buses, I’ll have some help. We can curl up on the couch – a place that is safe and reassuring – and read a story to help us all start the process of understanding our feelings. We might not be able to understand everything, but at least it’s a start.

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Emotions for Lunch

My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life.

Lox, bagels, cream cheese, and sliced cucumbers. I remember thinking how Noah would’ve loved all this food, and being confused at the platters being there and him not. We had just come from the cemetery. My two-year-old son, Noah, had died in a swimming pool accident three days before.

It felt like I didn’t eat for months after he died. I couldn’t stand thinking about him never eating that béchamel and mushroom pizza we used to get at Trader Joe’s. Or him never ever again eating an apple in the shopping cart at Shoprite, then throwing that apple on the floor in the third aisle (which was the candy aisle). We would share a bag of chocolate licorice as we shopped and I would pay for the empty bag.

The stage of depriving myself food, especially anything that Noah loved, lasted a long time. I lost a lot of weight. By the time we began fertility treatments about nine months after the accident, I was eating so little. The pleasure of food was lost. At some point, I went from the need to deprive myself to not being able to stop eating. I don’t remember exactly when or how that shift occurred.

The stress of fertility treatments, money troubles, and the overwhelming brokenness of our lives made me look for something that gave some pleasure. Writing was too difficult at the time. The introspection that it required was impossible. Food binges became the easy way to squash my thoughts for a little while. I found myself constantly in the kitchen, eating anything. No food was safe. I didn’t even know what being hungry felt like anymore.

I never weighed myself but I knew I’d ballooned to the highest weight I’d ever been. I was out of breath and out of my mind. I never looked at my body anymore.

We switched fertility doctors after not having any success or options. At our new clinic, there were kinder doctors and nurses, and a medical study was being conducted! If we qualified, it would save us many thousands of dollars in our next fertility cycle attempt. We told the doctor we would do anything to get another chance. He smiled, “The nurse will call.”

I got that phone call in an Ulta Beauty store. Shopping for lipstick probably.

I answered my cell and went off to a quiet corner of the vanity-lit store. I was told in the most sensitive way possible that, based on my current weight, I needed to lose 55 pounds to qualify. And I needed to do it in about two months to stay within the deadline of the study. The nurse then said that she didn’t want me to hurt myself and that it would be practically impossible and she was so sorry. I remember crying amongst the lighted mirrors displayed on the shelf. I saw myself over and over, magnified in the shiny silver circles and ovals. I told her I would do it. I would be safe about it and I would do it. “Put us on the list,” I begged.

I had to willingly go back to the days of no appetite. No desire to taste or enjoy. I had to burn off this fat to have a baby again. To be a family again.

I started the very next day. I told my boss at my wine sales job that morning what I needed to do. We had a wine luncheon to go to that day (we had them often). Great restaurants and great wine, but I needed to start immediately. I remember telling him what I was going to order: a salad and beef carpaccio, and I would spit all the wine instead of drinking a glass or two of the one I liked best. He gently but firmly encouraged me to keep my eye on the prize. This was the last chance. We had to qualify.

I started walking every night after work. With a borrowed flashlight from my neighbor Kim, at first walking up any slight hill was impossible. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. I was so far from my goal. I talked to God while I walked, and Noah, and myself. The inner dialogue never stopped.

I walked and starved and walked and cried and starved and then started to walk a little faster. I was so hungry. So that’s what hunger feels like! It had been so long. I had nights when I reached my breaking point. I cried for so many reasons. I was hungry. I was tired. I wanted my son back. I was angry at my body for not getting pregnant. I was angry I’d let my gluttony get so out of hand that I may cause us to lose this chance at having a baby again.

Within the first few days of my new regimen, I went to see my regular medical doctor. This was the doctor who had to go out into the hallway when we told her about the accident a week after it happened. She didn’t want to cry in front of us. I remember she was out there for a while.

This visit, I sat down in her office and told her what I needed to do. I asked her if there was anything she could do to help me. I started a medication that would boost my metabolism and eliminate my appetite.

I tried a colonic. It was awful. The water flows in so strongly that it creates spasms in your stomach. It ironically felt like being in labor. I had hoped it would be an easy bonus to the exercise, starvation, meal replacement shakes, and pills, but it wasn’t. It was not only a pain in the ass but also an unbearable pain in the gut.

Then I started to lose weight. Numbers on the scale started dropping. I was now addicted to the empty feeling in my stomach. In a way, I was back to punishing myself for losing Noah. I was punished through gluttony and through hunger. That’s how much losing a child changes you. Basic functions to survive became skewed challenges. You’re not even sure you want to survive.

I’ve never been a woman who talks about dieting. I’m more likely to talk about the latest commercial for whatever bastardized version of Mexican food Taco Bell is featuring. It always looks so good on TV, with a catchy name like BurritoChiladaGordoDelicioso.

But now my body was about pure function, not form. Scientifically, there was a better chance of pregnancy occurring at a healthy BMI versus the form of a chips, bagels, cookies, and canisters of Pringles body I’d been inhabiting.

I did it. I made it to the weight I needed to be! The nurses and doctors were shocked and thrilled. I just kept smiling. My body was going to do it. I was giving it my all. Onto the blood tests, injections, and medications again, but this time it had to work.

We scrounged for the money we needed. Nothing was impossible. We would figure out a way.

December 26th, 2012, Miriam Phoenix was born.

When my husband or our daughter misplaces something in our apartment, and I know the item hasn’t left the confines of our home, I always say “It has to be here somewhere!” Miriam has started saying that too now. My willpower and strength wavered since Noah died, but it was still there somewhere. Sometimes it just gets misplaced amongst all the stresses of life. You shake out that blanket or move the decorative pillows around and you will always find it somewhere.

Teaching Children to Carry On, Through Grief

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing.

Last fall, as our beloved family dog faded quickly into his final weeks, I tried to prepare my children gently for his passing. It seemed unfair that they would have to endure this flagrant loss in the very same year during which their parents had separated and were heading for divorce.
With one hit still fresh and our recovery scarcely in progress, we were faced with a stark and painful illustration of how significantly our family was changing.
At first, I wanted desperately to protect my children – if one narrow column of time could bulge with such excess grief, then what would my children begin to believe about the rest of their lives, sprawled out before them like an open, lawless range?
The end was inevitable, of course. Our dog was 13 years old, ailing, and miserable – visibly ashamed by all the accidents he was having in the house, by all the falling down, by the not getting up again. He was still my dog, my loyal pard, but he was not my dog anymore.
I found a veterinarian who would perform euthanasia at home; I tried to use the time leading up to our appointment wisely.
I talked to my children in the morning, snuggling under blankets on the couch while I sipped my coffee and reflected, out loud, that death was the sad underside of the things we loved. I didn’t mention the appointment for euthanasia – that concept, I thought, was more than they could bear. I only told them that our dog was sick, and that his death was imminent. I brought it up at dinner, in the car on the way to piano lessons, while reading books before bed.
“It’s coming and it’s awful, but it’s going to be okay,” I said. It was a common refrain that particular year.
For my four year-old son, it helped when we spotted death as a natural part of life wherever we could. One afternoon in late September, we sat together outside on the patio.
“You see that tree out there, buddy? The dead one?” I asked, pointing to a slender elm at the back of the yard, silenced by disease.
“Yeah, I do,” he said, “The one that’s naked, you mean?”
I nodded.
“So leaves are clothes for trees?” he imagined.
“Yes,” I said, “and that one doesn’t need them anymore.”
I explained that the tree’s body was no longer working and it might fall on its own, but its roots would always remain in our soil.
In contrast, my older two children entered the maze of grief in their own ways. My 11-year old daughter simply wanted to turn back time and allow our dog to be a puppy again. My eight-year old son wanted me to please stop talking about it and let it be over with – he had only the exit sign in mind.
What were any of us supposed to be feeling and doing during that time? Anything, really.
Standing in the middle of grief is agony, but if we step back and look over it – a corn maze in autumn, if you will – it is only the process of transition between the living and the dying of something we love. It has both an entry and an exit point, with a myriad of routes from one to the other. Around each corner lies yet another component: anger, sadness, despair, and even love at its most overwhelming, for when we lose a thing, or decide we must let it go, we begin to see its value more clearly. Grief evolves, therefore, over time. As a mother, I am grateful for this simple fact.
Together, my children and I recorded our pup’s paw print, first with poster paint, and then with a plaster mold. Neither project emerged perfectly: capturing an outline of a dog’s paw in any medium is like trying to catch everyone smiling using a camera obscura. It didn’t matter – the project itself was part of our process of letting go.
Finally, when the dog’s last full day was upon us and my children were all tucked away at school, I began to focus on my own process. How much time could I actually spend that day, lying next to my old friend, cradling his head, draping my leg over his side, sobbing?
I had ordered a set of palm-sized memory stones, each of them etched with a paw print on one side and our dog’s name on the other. I laid all five stones on the kitchen floor in front of him. Curious, he sniffed them, wetting each one with his velvety nose. An hour later, the veterinarian arrived, and a quarter of an hour after that, it was over.
When our children came home that day and their father and I told them our dog was gone, they began to buckle and wail. We held them – on the floor, on the couch, wherever they landed – all five of us awash.
Then, we remembered: once, I had to break him out of the dog pound with a carpool of preschoolers in tow. Twice, he got his head stuck in a garbage can.
We laughed, and I offered everyone a memory stone. Our youngest child took his and closed his fingers around it. Each of our three children could drop their stone into a pocket, bring it in the car, tuck it under a pillow. They were tactile, intimate charms that my children would carry with them everywhere, as the grieving do. They would each do so, that is, until such time as they didn’t need to anymore.

If You're Lucky Enough to Have a Grandparent, Call Them

Many elderly people in the American community feel neglected as a result of their age. Making a change starts with the way we treat our grandparents.

On my grandma’s birthday this year, I called her at 6 p.m. When she didn’t pick up, I left a voice message wishing her a feliz cumpleaños and saying that I would try calling her later in the evening.
A couple hours later, my dad was on the phone with her and passed me the phone so I could wish her a happy birthday:
“Hi Abis, Happy birthday!”
“Why haven’t you called me? You said you were going to call me?”
“Well I did call you, but you didn’t pick up.”
“No, I don’t mean today, I mean before. The last time you called, you said you would call me more often.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was right, I had promised to call more often, and I hadn’t talked to her in a few months. That made me feel awful. Though she said it in more or less of a joking manner, I knew it was more than a lighthearted guilt-trip.
My grandmother on my dad’s side lives with one of her sons in Nogales, Arizona, a small town bordering Mexico. You can see the fence that divides the two countries from their backyard. My parents moved my sister and me to Boise, ID, when we were infants. Over 1,000 miles away, I only get to see my extended family once or twice a year, so phone calls are an important means of communication.
This is especially true for my paternal grandmother, who has severe arthritis and shoulder problems. She’s seen many specialists, but most days she’s in too much pain to leave her room. She has a lot of support around her, but I know how happy it makes her when she hears from her long-distance family.
Most of my family lives in Arizona and Mexico, including my other grandparents. I love them and I think of them often, but I get so caught up in my own routine that I don’t make the time to call them — though I easily could. The fact that I can make a difference in my grandma’s life and I don’t, for whatever reason, is unacceptable.
Worse, this issue goes far beyond myself and my family. Many elderly people in the American community feel neglected as a result of their age. The population of adults over 65 is currently 47.8 million and is expected to double by 2050, and the overall attitude in the USA towards senior citizens paints a negative image of them. This seeps into their work prospects and mental health. The bridge to making a positive change starts with the way we treat our parents and grandparents.

Ageism in the USA

Ageism as a societal problem in the USA affects millions of people in both obvious ways, like unnatural beauty standards, and unexpected ones, such as lower employability for those over 40. American culture is known for treating its older citizens unfairly, which has permeated its way into almost every facet of life.
Many Americans do not seem to understand that aging is a normal biological transition. This leads to unhealthy and unattainable expectations for women to achieve, like having an unwrinkled, fat-free, and flawless body; and for men to have a magical six packs and biceps that can lift two cars and a small house.
Data released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons in 2015 illustrate the dramatic trends to make artificial improvements through plastic surgery: 1.7 million cosmetic surgical procedures were performed on females in 2015 including over 200,000 breast augmentations, liposuction, and nose reshaping procedures. In 2016, males underwent over 200,000 cosmetic surgeries, including facelifts, breast reductions, and liposuction.
The substantial number of cosmetic surgeries labeled as anti-aging procedures emphasizes the need many people feel to slow the aging process. Not surprisingly, this manifests itself in a negative portrayal of those who have entered the stage of “growing old.” Anyone 40 years old or older (and sometimes younger), can face age discrimination.
One of the most visible effects of age discrimination is negative bias when applying to jobs. Currently, baby boomers face unrelenting ageism when looking for a job. Though it is illegal for employers to favor candidates based on age under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), many job seekers over the age of 40 find it difficult to find a job.

Treatment of Seniors

Of course, age discrimination only worsens the older a person gets. Seniors in society are affected by the way others treat them on a daily basis. Offhand comments like calling a senior “adorable” or speaking to an adult like you would a child harbors fundamental prejudices against older people.
This type of treatment is not only unfair, but it leads to depression. Depression in seniors is often unique as it’s commonly comprised of anhedonia, the lack of enjoyment in life, rather than sadness. Older people can feel like their life is not worth living due to poor health and can think of themselves as mere burdens to their family
While nursing homes can sometimes provide a feeling of community and belonging, they can also work to further isolate seniors in society. Studies found 40 percent of patients in nursing homes have depression, but not many will admit to it.

Our responsibility

The widespread issues with the treatment of elderly people in our culture are not acceptable. Even in our local communities, making a conscious effort to treat older people with respect is one helpful step to ending negative attitudes towards those growing old. Not only is this beneficial to those around us, but we should consider how we want to be treated when we grow old.
Though certain careers such as Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioners (AGPCNP) are designed to eliminate age discrimination, it is important to realize the unlimited potential everyone has to ameliorate the treatment of the elderly in their own communities. This can be as simple as making eye contact with a senior, acknowledging what they say, and making an effort not to talk down to them – basically treat them like a regular person, which they are.
Making the effort to figure out even small ways to do so can seem daunting; Americans are largely defined by individualism. We grow up in a hurry to move out of the house and become independent. We want our own car, apartment, and job – and we don’t like to rely on others. We focus on our own lives and get caught up in the madness: get up, go to work, run some errands, relax however possible, go to bed, and start over. We all feel it.
However, it’s important to sometimes pause the Netflix, get off Facebook, and make an effort to reach our grandparents. When I think of mine, I think of how my maternal grandfather keeps photos of us in his wallet and says a prayer for his grandchildren every single night before he goes to sleep. I think of how my maternal grandmother sends us weekly pictures of her garden.
Most recently, I think of how my paternal grandmother always asks me to call her more often. Though it takes time to make widespread changes in society, making a difference to your loved ones can be as simple as not taking your grandparents for granted. From now on, I will make it a point to reach out to my long-distance family, especially my grandparents.
 

How My Relationship With My Father Influenced My Tenacity

Maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
It’s almost eight months since the day my father passed away. By that point, we weren’t really speaking to one another. We were more like neighbors under the same roof. Two weeks before he died, my growing tumor turned out to be curable. It was also his birthday.
Who knew two Tuesday’s later he wouldn’t come home?
That’s the thing. No one knows why people die. Death just happens. What you take from it is what matters, because the grief will always be there.
The day he passed, I struggled to eat. I wasn’t hungry. I didn’t cry. I was just numb. I still feel numb.
How do you differentiate between the determination to do nothing but prove someone wrong and the determination to carry out someone’s legacy after he passes away? I didn’t have anyone to speak to about this. I found myself in a unique situation. I was angry at my father but wanted no one to forget his name.
He had a machista type of attitude. He was a guy’s guy who, while not the best husband, was a good father. Watching the dynamic between him and my mother throughout my childhood and after moving back home affected my view of him. He never showed emotion other than pure joy, so I sympathized more with my mom. Also, as a workaholic, he often wasn’t home.
I never cared to consider that maybe he was never home because his work was the main thing putting a roof over our heads. He didn’t speak English, nor did he have a college degree. He had diabetes and his leg had been amputated. But he was a man’s man, and he took on everyone’s burdens anyway, including my mother’s fifth and most recent battle with cancer and my two-year journey to find a cure for my health troubles.
I saw how hard he worked. I saw how much pride he took in every little thing my siblings and I achieved in our academic and professional careers. Even though I have a completely different personality than his, it is all based on things I learned from him.
I always called my father out on everything. I never took no for an answer. I always spoke my truth, which was different from his. That, in itself, is where my tenacity comes from.
Left with so many unanswered questions after his death, I sometimes get angry for not being angry with him anymore. There are so many things he could’ve done better. As much as I prayed for our relationship to get better, I think there was always some ray of sunlight that shined through its cracks.
I am not a parent yet, but I know the invisible shield of confidence that comes from a parent reminding you of your worth. There is no such thing as saying “You can do it” or “I love you” too many times. As tough as things may get, your kids remember everything.
Because of my father, I work hard. He not only shaped my career ambitions, but my personal ambitions as well. I’ve made myself a promise to not get married or bring a child into this world  until I can do everything my father did for me as a child.
My goals are big. I can thank my father for that.

Peace and Love During Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies.” Still, I do not forget where I came from.

“Mommy, I wish it was just the three of us,” my five-year-old son Owen said suddenly.
I sighed and mentally prepared myself for what was coming. My little boy adored his father, so I assumed that he meant Daddy, himself, and his big sister, Julia. Instead, he uttered these names: Julia, Owen, and Liam.
My heart sank.
Although still young, my youngest child was beginning to understand. Physically, it was just Owen and Julia. But they also had a big brother whom they never met. Liam was our firstborn son and died at only nine days old.
My husband Brian and I found out we were expecting our first child on January 1, 2008. Everything was going along perfectly – until that day. I was just over 20 weeks and due to have my anatomy scan.
“I found a problem with the baby’s heart,” the doctor said.
Our joy turned to devastation with those words.
It’s 2017 and I have learned to smile again. I have two amazing “rainbow babies. Still, I do not forget where I came from.
On October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan declared the entire month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Prior to our tragedy, we had never heard of it. We had never imagined this would be our fate.
Liam had been gone for a few weeks when Brian and I headed down those steps to the church basement in October of 2009. It was dark, quiet, and somber. Everyone was getting ready to light their candles in honor of all our babies.
Until then, Brian and I lived in complete isolation. The bereavement support group and cemetery became the only places where we felt solace. I remember being a “newbie” amongst all those who had experienced loss.
“The pain does soften,” they would say.
At the time, I absolutely refused to believe them. I do now. I have been writing about neonatal loss for several years. It still feels raw and painful, but it’s different somehow. Many of us liken it to a scar – something that will never go away.
Nine years ago, I was a very angry and bitter person. I lashed out at friends and family. I refused to attend events. My own despair was so great, I could barely think at all. I couldn’t see anything beyond my pain. I didn’t want to. I had no idea on how to move forward. The decision to try for a second child was made mostly by my husband.
After Julia’s birth, I felt guilt. I felt as if moving on was a betrayal to Liam. I also felt comfort and joy, which was both scary and beautiful at the same time. I had similar feelings after the birth of Owen.
Slowly, I realized that I was allowed to have both emotions. My sadness for my first baby would always be there. So would the happiness for my living children. They could co-exist.
Today, I still light my candle. I do so, not only for my Liam, but for other angels that we have lost along the way. On October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness day, I joined countless others who have experienced this unbearable pain. The candle lighting forms a “wave of light” across the world. In this way, all of our babies will be remembered.
I often wonder what I would say to someone suffering a recent loss. I am not sure any words would suffice. I feel their anguish. Our baby’s lives, no matter how brief, leave footprints on our hearts forever.
They are loved.
They will never ever be forgotten.

One Moment at a Time

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
Giving up isn’t an option today. One mistake, one wrong decision, one moment of indulgence in self-pity will rip away everything and everyone who brings meaning and love to my life. To an outsider, my life may seem bleak: I live paycheck to (one week before) paycheck in a condo that is too small for my three children and me. It is not out of the norm for me to not know how I will put gas in my car or food on the table. My credit score is a whopping 450. I am divorced. I borrow money from my 70-year-old mother, who also helps me with laundry and other household chores. At 39, I am only at the beginning stages of my first career. I have no husband and I don’t go on vacation. I am scraping by one day at a time, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
No one wants to visit the depths of emotional and physical pain that I have. My story is as sad as they get. Every alcoholic mother cliché is true. I am a low-bottom drunk. My final years of drinking were spent chugging vodka straight out of the bottle just to calm the shakes and nausea. My final drink ended with me driving in a blackout at 10 a.m. after disappearing from my place of employment unannounced. My visits with my children were supervised by court order. They still loved me and I can’t comprehend how or why. They still had hope for me. They saw through the sour breath and the phony smile, and they knew the person I am today was hiding in there. They waited for me.
I was full of broken promises and empty apologies. I missed birthday parties, and I passed out in front of my children. Hangover after hangover, alcoholism told me I could drink today and not get drunk. Just a few to keep the shakes at bay, then I will stop. This is a disease that lies. This is a disease that takes over mind, body and spirit and grabs hold of families and innocent children. This disease held me so tightly, and I danced with it for so long, believing the lies and forgiving its betrayal.
I was unemployable, undependable, and (I thought) unlovable. Alcohol was my everything. My best friend and lover. My courage and fear. My entertainment and bedtime story. My motivation to live and desire to die. Alcohol came before my kids, relationships, health, and sanity. I wanted so badly to want to stop drinking, but I still longed for alcohol to run steadily through my veins every waking moment.
During my final months of drinking, I began to sense the end was near. I didn’t make sense of it at the time, but I grew so scared of myself. I would enter a package store, and as I left I would think, something terrible is going to happen tonight, and then wake the next day thanking God nothing terrible happened. This became the beginning of the end. The disease was dying. I no longer felt invincible. I no longer believed the lies of alcoholism.
I bought a gallon of vodka knowing I would drink the whole thing that night. It scared me. I was preparing for my final surrender. Surrender came on February 3, 2014. I did not want to die. I knew I would lose my oldest daughter forever. I saw it in her eyes, in the way she was beginning to pull away from me. She would not be fooled by this disease much longer. I prayed for help in my own desperate way, and God answered my prayers.
Detox. A six-month inpatient rehab an hour and half away from my kids. AA meetings. I learned to like some things about myself. I learned to do things sober. I relearned how to do everything sober. I danced sober, I laughed sober, I cried sober, and I felt things I had been numbing my entire adult life. I embraced a new way of life, and I made a commitment to God and to myself to stay sober at all costs, just for today.
I have caused pain to those I love that I cannot take away. I don’t do that today. My children waited for me, and I am going to make sure their wait was worth it. Today I don’t care how much money is in my bank account or what my credit score is. Today I am sober and God is my provider. I now live in acceptance, self-awareness, and gratitude, including gratitude for my darkest days because they made me who I am today.
Through dedication to God, to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to self-love, I have accumulated 1,347 days sober, one moment at a time.

Forgiving My Father While He Was in Prison

When I was 18 years old, I began studying the impact of fatherlessness on children.

I would sit for hours, reading about theories and conclusions based on quantitative and qualitative research. I analyzed the behavior of fatherless children, who were studied for the purpose of academia. As a student, I was fascinated, but as a child who grew up without the tender love of her father, I was crushed. I’d be making invisible check marks with the pad of my finger, noting the phrases and statistics that perfectly described me. A part of me felt euphoric when I could bypass a particular trend in fatherless children, proud that I had beat the odds.

My parents separated when my mother was seven months pregnant with me, and their divorce was finalized before my first birthday. My father had been married before, for much longer than he was to my mother. He’d raised two sons already, and had fallen into a pattern of addiction and abandonment of those he loved.

Although it was no surprise that my alcohol- and drug-addicted father left my mother and her unborn child, it left a permanent scar in the heart of my mother. She never remarried. Her trust in men and her faith in marriage were permanently shaken.

I grew up knowing my dad from a distance. Recently memories from my dad’s home have resurfaced in my mind. They are cartoonish caricatures of alcoholism. His beer belly was often poking out from beneath his stained white t-shirt. He’d bend down to look for his glasses under the couch, his butt crack poking out from the top of his pants, and I’d avert my eyes in embarrassment. Budweiser cans were piled like a mountain in the trash bin. The walls were stained with cigarette smoke, and murder mysteries would play on the small TV set while vagabonds came in and out through the side door.

I remember longing for my dad from a distance. During one visit, while my stepmom was out, I sat on the couch for hours while my dad snored beside me. I was afraid to wake him, but my throat was parched and I needed a drink. I sat for hours, reading my Beverly Cleary book, while waiting for his eternal nap to end. When he finally woke up, I shyly asked, “May I please have a drink, Dad?”

He brought me a Coke and made me the most delicious pasta I’d ever tasted. I was so proud of him, marveling at his wonderful culinary skills. I told my mom on the drive home that my father had made me pasta, forgetting to mention the hours spent reading while my stomach churned in hunger.

By the time I was in my teens my father was separated from his third wife and his drinking was spiraling out of control. I became the child who heard from her dad on Christmas and birthdays, and looked forward to awkward annual visits. During our rare visits our conversation was strained and stalled. I never knew what to say, afraid of letting slip my hurt and the desire that he’d really be there for me.

I spent time getting to know my half-brothers, who were now grown and dealing with their own hurts. Despite not having much of a history with them, they understood the longing I had for our father. We were the only three people in the world that understood how difficult it was to love our dad in one breath, and hate him in another. The three of us were walking, bleeding, heart-pumping statistics of fatherlessness.

By the time I was 22, I’d found love and started my own family. As complete as I was, I still missed my dad and wished he’d overcome his addictions. I’d finally come to understand that his world was too small to contain his three kids. I realized how little control he had over himself and his life. I felt pity and sorrow for a man chained to destructive addictions, and hoped that one day he’d be free.

By the time my father turned 60, he was homeless, mentally ill, and in and out of prison for reasons unknown to me. By now his hair was nearly all grey, his skin was leathery and gaunt, and his eyes sunken.

Then my dad fell out of a third story window. He survived, and we all marveled at a man who seemed indestructible.

“Seriously, how is Dad still alive?” I quietly laughed on the phone while talking to my oldest brother, Jason.

Two months later, Jason died suddenly of a heart attack after returning from a morning run. The world is cruel. The morning I found out my brother was dead I knew nothing would ever make sense.

It took us nearly two days to locate my father and inform him that his oldest son had died of a heart attack. My father was in jail on the day of Jason’s funeral.

For months after my brother’s death, I was overcome with despair. My dad was unavailable and too ill to support me through my grief. He was in prison so often that I had the phone number for “Jail” programmed into my phone.

One night, I lay awake thinking about my father as soft snowflakes fell outside my window. It was almost Christmas, and I knew he was in prison again. He would be spending the holiday behind bars. The next morning I called my sister-in-law, a former jail guard.

“Sherry? Do you think they have turkey in prison?”

She gently reassured me, “Yes, Salvation Army will provide a few simple gifts, and they’ll have a turkey dinner for their meal.”

I imagined my dad unwrapping a gift provided by the Salvation Army and eating dry turkey in drab prison clothes. I asked my brother Aaron how I might get in touch with our dad.

“Write him a letter,” he suggested.

A few days later I was in Amish country, browsing in a quaint shop full of handmade gifts. I picked up a card with two happy children playing together. It made me smile and I thought of my father, who was raised in an Amish sect.

I brought the card home and began to write a letter to my father. I talked about the blooming personalities of my two daughters, two more children he would never know. I wrote about my career, feeling a twinge of anger that my dad didn’t even know I was pursuing a career in journalism.

I told my dad the things I always wished I could tell him. I told him that I loved him. I wrote down the hardest words, letting him know he was important to me, and nothing that he’d done had ever changed that.

I remembered sitting on his couch when I was eight, listening to him talk, hearing the vibrations of his voice. I was my father’s only daughter and I’d always loved him. I’d always been hoping for him, wishing I could curl up on his lap, not caring about the booze or the cigarettes, just wanting his love.

By the time I’d finished my letter, my writing was uneven and sloppy. I wondered how my nearly blind father would read my words, and imagined him asking another inmate to read my intimate thoughts. I pictured my dad pitching the letter in the garbage, never knowing the words that held 26 years of my longing for him.

Then I pictured him clutching the letter to his heart, feeling my love and smiling behind the cold thick bars that held him captive. I imagined my words giving him freedom, and I saw him tenderly placing my letter under his thin mattress.

I wanted to call my sister-in-law again, and ask her to describe to me how letters were delivered to inmates. I wished I could watch the entire scene, my subconscious mixing in details from “The Shawshank Redemption,” one of the only impressions I have of prison.

“At what time of day do they receive the letters?” I wanted to ask Sherry.

I licked the envelope, sealing it closed, and walked with my oldest daughter to the mailbox. I placed my trust in her three-year-old hands as she carried my heart carefully down the road. I lifted her in my arms and helped her to place the letter in the mail chute, bidding it a safe journey.

“Mommy, I love sending letters with you,” Penny said. “Carry me home, please? I’m too tired to walk.” She wrapped her legs around my waist and I trudged with her in the deep snow.

“Let’s have some hot chocolate by the toasty fire,” I said between breaths.

“Of course, Mommy. That’s what we always do.” A smile was forming on her lips, which were dry and chapped from the cold.

When we got home I snuggled Penny by the fire, telling her stories of cold winters and Christmases from my childhood.

“Mommy, who was that letter for that we mailed today?”

“It was for your grandpa. Not your daddy’s Dad. Your mommy’s Dad. You don’t know him. I don’t really know him either. But I love him very much, and I just needed him to know that.”

My daughter nuzzled her face into my neck. My child, who has everything she deserves, except of course, a relationship with her maternal grandfather.

“We should always tell people when we love them,” said Penny.

“Always.” I replied.