Tag Archives: family

Words Matter

IMG_1638Today marks the 16th anniversary of my brother’s suicide. Seems like yesterday….

I didn’t even know the woman, but I bristled when she spoke. Of course, her words weren’t even intended for me and I’m sure she had no idea how capably they would seize my joy and take me back in time to a day I’d rather not remember.

I was standing in the card aisle of a local department store of all places, wrestling with indecision famously. As I read and reread each of the selections I was considering (encouragement for a woman battling cancer and a birthday wish for a dear friend who had moved a world away), I weighed the words contained within each heartfelt message carefully, recognizing their power to connect souls in good times and in bad.

“CARDS DON’T MATTER,” I heard her grouse through clenched teeth, chiding her children who were likely picking out a birthday greeting for a friend or a favorite cousin. “We’ve already gotten a gift, now choose a ninety-nine-cent card and let’s get out of here,” she spat, indignation spilling from her lips. “He’ll just throw it out anyway,” she reasoned.

Though a towering wall of greeting cards separated us and I could see exactly none of what had transpired in the adjacent aisle, the exasperation that wafted over the transom was palpable and left little room for misinterpretation. Without question, it had been a long day and patience was nowhere to be found. Clearly the novelty of traipsing around a store with kids in tow had long since worn off.

Granted, I had been there and done that as a parent, patently consumed by a simple yet impossible wish to be somewhere else in this life besides searching for the perfect gift for yet another kid-themed birthday party. That said, I have frequented the brink of insanity while shopping with my brood more often than I’d care to admit, shamelessly enraged by something as ridiculous as a rogue wheel on a cart from hell coupled with my children’s irksome demands: “But we have to smell the smelly markers before we buy them, Mom. We have to make sure they smell juuuust right. And then we have to look for a birthday card with a little dog on it. Wearing a pink tutu. Maddy likes little dogs. And tutus.”

Frustration, I understood.

What rankled me to the core was the premise of this woman’s argument. That “cards don’t matter.” Because sometimes they do.

Like most people who learn of things that are unspeakably difficult to handle, I unearthed this little pearl of wisdom mired in grief and plagued by guilt. As if it were yesterday, I remember rummaging around my brother’s house in the days that followed his suicide, searching for answers or perhaps a tiny glimpse into his troubled world. Granted, I didn’t know him nearly as well as I could have…and probably should have. As I sifted through his CDs and thumbed through his books, eager to gain even a modicum of insight, I stumbled upon a drawer with a handful of cards neatly stacked within. Cards he had saved. Cards that likely meant something to him. Cards filled with words that apparently mattered.

It was at this point, I’m quite certain, that I felt a deep sense of regret and shame, for none of my cards were among those he had harvested. Surely, I had sent him a birthday greeting (or twenty), a congratulatory note regarding his beautiful home or his wonderful job, an irreverent get-well card to brighten an otherwise unenjoyable hospital stay, a wish-you-were-here postcard from Myrtle Beach or the Hoover Dam. Hadn’t I?

Incomprehensibly, I couldn’t remember. All I could wrap my mind around were the missed opportunities and the paltry thank-you note I had written that lay on his kitchen counter. Unopened. The one my four-year-old daughters had drawn pictures on as a way of offering thanks for his incredible generosity at Christmastime. The one that mocked my ineptitude and chided me for failing to mail it sooner…so that he might have read it…and felt in some small way more valued than perhaps he had before. The one that reminded me that words left unspoken are indeed the worst sort of words.

I’d like to think he occasionally sat on his couch and sifted through that cache of cards on a lazy afternoon, warmed by the messages scrawled within—a collection of remembrances worthy of holding close. Likewise, I hope he knows of the countless times since his death that I’ve been overcome with emotion in the card aisle of many a store, pausing in the section marked “brother” to read and reflect on what might have been—an odd yet cathartic sort of behavior.

So as one might expect, the horribleness of that day flooded my mind the very instant I heard CARDS DON’T MATTER. But instead of letting it swallow me whole, I turned my thoughts to why I had come—to find the most ideally suited messages for two special people, knowing they would feel special in turn.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2012 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

Merry and Bright

IMG_0148I love indoor Christmas lights. Tiny white ones, more specifically—the sort that cast a soft glow at dusk, filling a darkened room with ambient warmth, reminding me that it was totally worth risking life and limb to hang them atop windows and French doors as I foolishly balanced on a step stool, the meaty arm of a sofa and once, even upon a tall stack of pillows that were strategically placed upon said sofa. Yep. Totally worth it.

My husband, by contrast, adores such festive trappings, but is less than enamored with the idea of wrestling with them for more than twenty-seven minutes—the average time it takes to retrieve the tangled masses from the attic, arrange them in clumps on the floor and then wrap them around a Christmas tree in a manner that is both geometrically and aesthetically pleasing. What’s more, he can’t stand it when he makes the inevitable discovery in the thick of decorating madness (i.e. lights that won’t light, bulbs that are broken or flicker with the slightest bit of movement and entire strands of lights that are sporadically lit at best, a far cry from merry and bright).

Of course, these are the very same lights that functioned perfectly last year—the ones we tested before boxing them up and shoving them into the deep recesses of the attic. I’m convinced that something criminal happens in there between New Year’s and Thanksgiving. Something that can probably be traced to Elf on a Shelf, or an equally reprehensible little creature inclined to tamper with our trimmings. However, we don’t own any of the aforementioned elves, nor would I feel compelled to put them on a shelf or anywhere else because they creep the cranberries out of me. Nevertheless, it’s clear that something goes on in that attic that would explain our less-than-functional lights.

Yes, it’s possible they’re just chintzy, and that we’re too cheap to care.

At any rate, we are then faced with a dilemma—the one my husband and I experience each and every year. Do we ditch the strands of lights that refuse to cooperate completely, effectively ridding ourselves of the headache that is defined by tightening and checking ALL of the bulbs individually? Or do we stuff the dysfunctional segments of strands into the tree, where we hope no one will notice and subsequently judge our character?

And let us not forget the problem of what to do with the strands that won’t light at all. If you’re anything like my husband, you’ll keep plugging them into the wall socket and jiggling the wires, repeating the idiocy that is wrapped in denial. Admittedly, I am slightly amused by his antics, so I encourage him to continue trying. Again. And again. Eventually, though, he decides to part with the wretched strands, leaving them for dead. Meanwhile, I cram yard upon yard of half-functioning light strings into the tree, doing my level best to disguise the ones we’ve determined to be misfits this Christmas—because a) I’m too lazy to go to the store to buy more and b) I’m too stubborn to unravel what I worked so hard to position on the boughs in the first place.

“It’s fine,” I rationalize. “We’ll manage with the ones that DO work and no one will be the wiser.”

I have to wonder, as I cruise around town at dusk, peering into yellow squares of windows at fir trees and mantles aglow with twinkly, white lights—do rogue trimmings plague their households with the same ferocity as ours? Maybe we’re an anomaly. Or maybe the universe hates us. Or maybe, just maybe, our Christmas spirit is being tested. I suppose it stands to reason that we continue to pass since we rise to the occasion each year, making our home merry and bright in spite of the intolerable struggle that has become familiar if nothing else.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably messing with Christmas lights.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under In the Trenches of Parentville

Big Brother

Unknown

I have a confession to make. I stalk my children. I stalk my husband, too. I don’t know why I do it, actually. It’s a sickness, I guess—an unhealthy obsession with knowing exactly where my loved ones are at practically every moment of every day. Thanks to the fine people at Apple and my friend, Drew, some time ago I downloaded the Find My Friends app on my iPhone and immediately began tracking the whereabouts of the aforementioned people.

The trouble is, they’re not particularly fond of it. Translation: They despise it.

“Mom, quit stalking us. It’s creepy.”

Creepy or not, however, apparently I get some peace of mind out of knowing what my kids are up to 24/7. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. The same goes for my husband, except that it’s more about convenience to know where he is at a given time. That way, for instance, I can “see” tmarthat he’s in the grocery store and know that it makes perfect sense to call him and tell him that we’re out of Cheetos. I don’t like to be out of Cheetos, ergo I feel compelled to inform him of such a dire situation.

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “What aisle are you in? We need Cheetos.”

My husband: “What? How’d you know I’m in a store? Oh, that’s right; you have that blasted thing on your phone and you’re watching me like Big Brother. Remind me to SHUT IT OFF so you can’t monitor my every move.”

Me: “Wait. What? No. I like being able to see where you are, then I can call and give you helpful information that you might need—like the fact that WE’RE OUT OF CHEETOS. How would you know otherwise? You’re welcome.”

The conversations we have while he’s in the liquor store are strikingly similar except that they usually involve a dwindling supply of wine.

At any rate, I find the app to be remarkable in that I can even tell in which part of a particular building my kids happen to be situated at any given moment. Rest assured, if they’re supposed to be in chemistry class and they’re in chemistry class, my heart is happy.

Me: “So I noticed you went to Denny’s during the break between finals today. Was it fun? What did you order?”

Child: “Mom, that absolutely weirds me out. Why do you do that? It’s just not normal.”

Me: “I don’t know. I guess I like to see what you’re doing throughout your day and it gives me more stuff to talk about with you.”

Child: “Why not just ask me where I went and I’ll tell you?”

Me: “Yeah, but isn’t it more impressive that I already know where you went and we can skip ahead to other parts of the discussion?”

Child: “No. Not really. It’s just creepy and you should stop doing it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t stop doing it. At this late stage in the game, I have become hopelessly addicted to tracking my people and there is no turning back. There is something strangely comforting about looking at that tiny screen and seeing those familiar icons pop up, reassuring me that the people I care about are where they’re supposed to be—even if they’re worlds away for weeks at a time.

In an instant, I can gather a wealth of information—like which door to pick up someone at school and whether or not my progenies are still on the marching band bus, coming home from a late night competition or football game. Almost instantaneously, I can verify that all is right in my little corner of the world.

Strangely enough, looking at the map and those smiling faces within the teensy, tiny circles on my phone warms my heart—no matter how far apart they happen to be. It’s like holding my family in real time in the palm of my hand.

Of course, they would likely beg to differ, suggesting that they’re all under my thumb. Literally.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably poring over my Find My Friends app.

Copyright 2018 Melinda L. Wentzel

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The Dog That Came to Stay

It was his eyes that got me. Deep pools of espresso dappled with specks that reminded me of caramel. I hadn’t even reached through the cage to caress his indescribably soft ears yet, a practice I would come to revere more than practically anything since it brought as much calm to me as it did to him. Never mind his sleek, black coat and grizzled eyebrows—the ones he could move independently, effectively conveying his mood, which was almost always agreeable.

The plan was to adopt a rescue dog for my dad, one that would serve as a loving companion for him as he grappled with Alzheimer’s disease. Something that would ground him as his world fell apart. The trouble was that I needed grounding, too.

Needless to say, I didn’t intend to fall in love with such a dog. Nor did I think I would be incapable of delivering on a promise I had made to my dad.

“I’ll find you the perfect dog. Just give me a little more time. I think you’ll love the one we end up with, but we have to be sure it meets all the criteria first.”

Unfortunately, none of the candidates we considered passed muster for a variety of reasons: Too lively, not lively enough, too disinterested in people, too apt to jump on people, too aggressive and so on. It seemed as though we were doomed to fail.

Then Jasper appeared as my husband and I meandered through the SPCA for the umteenth time, peering into cages in search of an answer to our prayers. Our eyes locked with the aforementioned black lab mix and the rest was history. Originally, he was supposed to stay with our family only until we felt he was ready to transition to my dad’s home. “We’ll keep him for a week or so—long enough to adjust to life outside a kennel,” I told my kids. “He’s old and needs some TLC,” I reasoned to myself.

Weeks stretched into a solid month and by then I was hopelessly smitten. Jasper had quietly wheedled his way into our family and had become a part of our lives we didn’t even know was missing. Indeed, there was no mistaking the bond that had formed between us and there simply was no turning back. That said, he stepped with ease into our crazed schedule and house filled with teenage drama, noise and angst, despite his dog years and inability to recognize his own name—the one the Rescue had fittingly assigned him.

Against all odds, he learned to love our yappy, 14-pound Bichon and in the process made the latter less prone to anxiety attacks and barking seizures involving delivery trucks and unsuspecting joggers. At every turn, he modeled good behavior for our not-so-compliant, curly-haired pooch—the one we thought was beyond hope for ever acting like a normal dog. Almost daily they now play together, tossing their sock monkey into the air and racing around the house like a couple of deranged squirrels—something that makes my heart smile. Every. Single. Time.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before I discovered how comforting it was to have a big-ish dog place his head or warm muzzle in my hand as I awaken each morning. Or the soothing effect he has on all of us as he wedges his box-like body next to ours on the couch at the close of a long day, somehow sensing our need to decompress. By contrast, he embraces our clamor and chaos—celebrating both the disorder and the abundance of joy that resides within our home.

Needless to say, there’s something extraordinary about having this dog, in particular, around—and by “around” I mean that he has become my shadow, following me everywhere but into the shower. What’s more, he reluctantly bids me farewell when I have to leave and greets me in the doorway when I return, tail wagging wildly, reminding me that all dogs are inclined to smile. You just have to look for it.

As a result, I never feel unappreciated or truly alone no matter how empty my house happens to be—the kids running in 17 different directions and their dad expertly manning the taxi or holed up at his office. Looking back, I think it’s during those quiet times when I value his presence the most. He’s there for me day in and day out, keeping me from dwelling on the sadness that lies beneath the surface of every joy—the ever-present sorrow related to having lost my dad not in the physical sense, but by every other definition.

Somehow, I know my dog understands. It’s in his eyes.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2015 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Doggie Diamonds, Family Affair, Gratitude, Sandwich Generation

Eggs, Toast and a Side of Cynicism

For whatever reason, the gods of morning madness have been smiling upon me these past few weeks. And like any good cynic, I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out. With every ounce of my being, I fully expect my petulant children to return, brimming with an abundance of snarky commentary regarding breakfast cereal choices (or the lack thereof), eager to display the alarm clock-inspired rage to which I’ve grown so accustomed and to bring to the fore their lovely penchant for bickering with one another at dark-thirty. Joy. Likewise, I presume the frenzied packing-of-lunches-and-backpacks thing coupled with shrieks involving the very real possibility of missing the bus will resume shortly as well.

If nothing else, it would feel familiar. Quite frankly, I am suspect of the degree of calm that has befallen my home of late. Mornings are no longer intolerably hectic, which I find fairly disturbing since it’s all I’ve known since the days of kindergarten. There are no shouting matches to speak of, no monumental crises related to bedhead or perceived fashion offenses and, incredibly, no one has become enraged over wrinkles in socks or the gunkiness of toothpaste for days on end. Gasp!

It’s all so alarmingly alien—this death of disorder and dissent. So naturally, I greet it with cool skepticism, assuming that a conspirator has somehow snatched my ill-tempered brood and left me with a delightful pair of third graders who get up on time, dress for school without complaint and exhibit an obscene amount of good cheer all morning long. Imposters, I am sure, are among us.

Or perhaps my fortuitous situation has arisen as a direct result of the plan my husband so shrewdly devised and skillfully implemented. Translation: The man is a genius. That said, he pulled our charges aside one day and explained how our shameless bribe new morning routine would work. The seed was planted thusly.

“If you get up and get dressed as soon as your alarm goes off,” he purred with Grinch-like finesse, “and haul your sorry selves to the kitchen by 6:30, I’ll make you WHATEVER HOT BREAKFAST YOUR LITTLE HEARTS DESIRE. And,” he sweetened the pot, “I’ll even let you crack eggs and stir stuff.” To date, the immaculately prepared entrées have included pancakes (with faces!), French toast and waffles (to die for!), eggs (infinitely varied!), bacon (impossibly crisp!) and a vat of drool-worthy, bathed-in-olive-oil fried potatoes I felt compelled to appraise. Again. And again.

In sum, he made a deal with the unwitting pair. A wickedly clever, painfully simple, non-negotiable agreement—one that is likely responsible for the glowing success we’ve experienced thus far on our journey to the Land of Hassle-free School Mornings. Note to self: Cold cereal nourishes the body, but hot cakes (and other breakfasty-type foods with irresistibly enticing aromas) inspire action of the bounding-out-of-bed variety.

But perhaps the motivation runs deeper than that. Part of me suspects that under the surface lies a host of benefits aside from the obvious. Like the delicious sliver of time in which we snuggle together before anyone heads to the kitchen. All four of us, looking as much like sardines as anything, burrow beneath a sea of blankets in our big, oak bed—the place where toes are warmed and whispers are shared in the waning moments of still and darkness.

“Here I am, your little alarm clock,” they each announce as they crawl in with us, a different stuffed animal tucked under their arms each morning. To my utter amazement, both kids have already dressed, fulfilling their end of the bargain. I shake my head in disbelief.

The plan is working.

A few minutes later, they clamber downstairs to the kitchen and confirm with the cook their menu choices for the day. Chairs are then shoved against counters, eggs are cracked and batter is stirred—fulfilling the other end of the bargain.

As the sun crests over the hillside and begins pouring into the house, a steaming, hot breakfast is served—as promised. Syrup and cinnamon, juice and jam look on as chatter fills the room. There is talk of disjointed dreams, of library books and of plans for playing with a favorite friend at the bus stop. Everything that follows is sunny-side up.

Once again, I shake my head in disbelief. The plan is still working—despite my side of cynicism.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (wondering when the novelty will wear off and hoping like crazy that’s never). A variation of this article appeared previously in the Khaleej Times, UAE, Dubai.

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Filed under Daily Chaos, Gratitude, Meat & Potatoes, School Schmool