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Looking Back at Christmas 2004

December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

This afternoon I went out on my lunch break to the Walmart to find some dry erase markers that are to be a part of a special Santa present to the boys. It was rainy and dreary and as I tried to navigate out of the difficult parking lot, a sudden strong memory came out of the blue and hit me in the face. It was the memory of being a stranger in a strange land trying to piece together a Christmas during what was already the most exciting time of my life.

IMG_0137Ten years ago, Andrea and I arrived in the Lehigh Valley with a moving truck and a group of friends and family ready to help us fill up our small rented home in Bethlehem. Even as boxes and pianos were moved and friends and family standing near, we carried a big big secret with us. More specifically, Andrea carried the big secret. It was only a week before Christmas and we knew that was the time to tell our families that a baby was on its way, not while we were covered in dust and sweat.

It was a hugely exciting time for us. The move to a house in Pennsylvania, where day care and everything else was less expensive than in New Jersey was a deliberate and calculated act when it came to the baby. We told everyone there were other reasons, but growing our little family was at the heart of the matter. We just didn’t expect Benjamin to become a welcome intrusion to our lives as quickly as he did. Knowing what we know now about Benjamin, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

I watched Andrea closely. I made sure she didn’t carry any big boxes. I handed her stuff to carry that wouldn’t even cause a sweat. And we moved and no one was the wiser. The next several days were a blur. As our friends and family went their ways our little house suddenly felt as big as a cathedral. It was just the four of us (our dog Edgar would very quickly learn he was no longer the baby) in that house and even though Andrea and I had known each other for ten years at that point, our life together felt like it was just beginning.

Our stay in the Lehigh Valley began the next day with Andrea very, very sick. Despite best efforts, the activity of the day before had taken it’s toll on her and it feels like she spent the entire week between then and Christmas in her pajamas. It wasn’t the truth; we both had to work a couple of days and in reality, I think she was just sick through an extended weekend. As she snuggled in, I did my best to unpack and get boxes away. Christmas was upon us and I wasn’t going to let it slip by, unobserved in our new house. Andrea moved from chair to chair as I rearranged stuff to make room for a tree and she looked on, going from amused to calculating how quickly she could get to the bathroom.

At some point, we wandered down Broad Street to a Christmas tree stand. We found the perfect tree for our little house, brought it home and decorated it, surrounded by boxes. It was moments like that which triggered the sense of the magnitude of the situation.

We were in a tiny house in a big giant new world for us. We were in a city where we didn’t know where to even get groceries. We didn’t know anyone else and we felt so alone with this big secret. But looking back, there was something so very sweet about it. We had each other and this giant secret between us and the intimacy of that situation contrasted with being in a strange new city made me feel closer to Andrea than I ever have, I think.

We eventually found our way around. I found that Walmart that triggered my memory today. I had gone there for some small things for the house and stocking stuffers for Andrea. I think it was the first store I was able to locate after the move and it’s somehow become burned in my memory, closely associated with that Christmas. Andrea and I would also venture out for a late dinner one night to satisfy a pregnancy craving, and that memory was also burned in my mind. I remember staring out the fake snow frosted window at the Giant across the way and being both scared and excite. However, I also remember thinking that Andrea and I had each other and everything would be fine.

That Christmas. That rushed, weird and even sad little Christmas is still, to this day, one of my favorites. Andrea and I found ourselves caught between our own childhood Christmases, our life together as just the two of us and the boys that would fill up that tiny house and the next one with such joy and love. It was the scariest and most exciting Christmas of my life. While each Christmas with my boys and the Christmases of my childhood are wonderful and sacred, that Christmas 10 years ago in Bethlehem is the one that is burned into my memory to the extent that I sometimes wonder if everything that did happen could have really happened.

Small Miracles on the Diamond

May 21, 2014 2 comments

10363612_10203714795331867_5509403908439764333_nDue to another event happening at the normal Little League field, Matthew’s game on Saturday was moved to a different time at a back up field. All three of my assistant coaches could not make the game because of prior commitments. One of the other fathers on the team happens to be a coach for a tee-ball team as well as the league’s safety officer. He also happens to be an EMT. I’ll call him JM. I asked JM if he could help me out for the game and he happily agreed.

As we begin our game, I notice Ben wandering around the field, talking to a couple of other kids and staying out of trouble. So I returned my attention to positioning my team on the field. A few minutes later, I heard a scream from Ben that still echos in my head and makes my stomach drop. He keeps yelling “DADDY!” at the top of his voice and I start running towards him, as he holds his arm high. I could see his arm even from 50 feet away and I didn’t see any blood, so I assumed he got stung by a bee.

A couple of days later one of the other fathers told me he could see in my face the moment I realized it wasn’t a bee sting. He said he could see in my face the sudden realization that this was much more serious than a bee sting. Ben’s arm was ripped open and I could see…well, I could see way too much that is not suppose to see the light of day. And it was reflected on my face.

JM got to us a moment later, took one look and very calmly asked his wife to get his paramedic bag out of his car and then proceeded to call 911. As my brain lit on fire, JM calmly began asking Ben questions, cleaning the wound and getting it dressed. In the same calmness that you or I might explain to a kid how to field a ground ball, he explained to Ben how the ambulance is going to arrive and each step that they would take after that. As I sat there helpless, knowing the best thing I could do was to stay out of their way, he and his wife calmly took care of Ben.

JM knew exactly what to do as I became confused as to what I should do. Do I leave Matthew with other parents and get in the ambulance with Ben? Do I just pack up the car and meet them at the hospital? In my confusion, I tried to stop the game and send everyone home. After a few moments, I was able to pull myself together a bit and figure out what to do, but it was only because of the calm example that JM was setting.

All the other parents were great, as well. One tended to Matthew as he started crying, afraid for his big brother being loaded into the ambulance and there were multiple offers to watch him for the rest of the day as I went to the hospital. The other dads, I would learn later, pitched in to help the rest of the team finish the game. Offers of help came from all around.

It didn’t end there.

The paramedics smiled as they did their jobs professionally and urgently, even sticking around at the hospital for a few minutes to help keep Matthew distracted. One even took Matthew over to get an ice-pop from the nurses’ station. The cop was extremely helpful and patient as he asked me questions and explained what the ambulance was going to do. The doctors were warm and friendly and I cannot say enough about the effort the nurse put in to get Ben to think of other things besides his arm. I am still overwhelmed at the help I received from so many on Saturday. While ultimately Ben’s injury was not that serious (17 stitches and no major damage to any internal tissue or bone), I feel truly blessed by the way so many came together to help me and my sons out that day.

However, I keep thinking about JM. Due to his job as an EMT, his responsibilities to the league and the fact that he coaches a team himself, he isn’t always at our games. He misses a few innings here and there. So, I can’t help but wonder how different things may have been that day had he not been there to help. In my confusion, would I have made the wrong decisions? What would I have done had he not been there?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made my faith more personal and internal. I don’t talk much about my belief in God and how I feel his presence in my life. There have been times when that faith has wavered; I’ve never lost it, but I’ve been mostly silent on it for years. The faith has always been there, though, because of moments like this. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things. However, in a somewhat weird culmination of events, JM was there, on that field that day, in a position to use his training and skills to help keep a bad situation from becoming worse. Some would call it a coincidence. As a man of faith, I would call it something very different.

Not to mention, everyone that saw his injury remarked that it was a minor miracle that it wasn’t worse. The boy climbed up a rusty chain link fence (in cleats!) and reached over the top to the other side to try to get a grip when his foot slipped. His arm caught the sharp top of the fence. Somehow, he didn’t catch a vein. Somehow, he landed on his feet. Somehow, the muscles in his arm were intact. Somehow, he didn’t break any bones. As a man of faith, I don’t need to ponder the somehow part, I only need to marvel at it.

It’s also a matter of faith in other people. From JM all the way to the hospital and all the way to the flood of emails from other parents after the game. So much kindness and help was shown to us that day that it is overwhelming. People are good and kind and I was reminded of that on Saturday.

And I’ll always remember and be thankful for JM that day.

Darkness and Light

December 19, 2012 1 comment

darknessandlightThe other night, I sat at church and watched the Christmas concert for my sons’ Catholic school.  I watched with an overflowing heart as my kindergartner and my big first grader sang, one with a giant smile on his face, the other studiously singing the words as he seemed to be scanning the audience.  They stood among their friends and classmates, all of them decked out in their Christmas best. They were the very faces and minds and pureness of the innocence that the Christmas season promises every year.  Their equally well dressed parents, friends and teachers watched and reflected the children’s excitement.  It was a building that, even before the concert started, was rumbling in the excited talk and laughter of the children and parents alike, to the point where a member of the faculty had to remind all of where we were. It was a building filled with such joy.

And it was a night that was dedicated the the victims and families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.  It seemed like such an appropriate tribute.

Like much of the country and all decent human beings, I have desperately struggled against the sadness of this senseless attack.  It’s a sadness, I think, that may lie in our souls for a long time. A sadness that will fall to the depths of the scars that we all still feel from September 11, 2001. A friend of mine  recently talked how she will be walking around happy, having a good time and then think about what happened and instantly be filled with panic and sadness. I think it is a range of emotions that many of us share. As a parent, the thought of what those parents of those innocents are going through is unbearable.  It is impossible to not project those losses into our own lives and families.

My sons are the joys of my life. I have no doubt in my mind that the reason I am on this earth is to be Benjamin and Matthew’s father and to do all I can to give them a happy life.  If I accomplish nothing else in life except to raise two happy, loving boys into two happy, loving men then my life will have been a success.  The thought that one person in a single instant could wipe that all out is terrifying.  That fact that one man did exactly that to so many families has me living in a perpetual heart break.

In the days since the attack, I have found myself relishing in my sons’ laughter, love and even pestering.  I find myself just starring at them in wonder.  However, there are times when I need to turn away from them to hide tears because, it is hard to watch them without feeling a sense of remorse and guilt for all those fathers in Newtown that have lost their joys. I guess it is a sort of survivors guilt, even though my sons were secure and safe, hundreds of miles away.  I take some comfort in my belief that those 26 souls have made their way to heaven, but I mourn the hell that has been left behind in Newtown.  The fact that it is Christmas, the season that is suppose to be all about the children, these feelings get amplified to the point where I just want to take down the Christmas decorations and move on.

Of course, that is not possible because it is the season of children and forgetting that and not celebrating our children would not be honoring the memories of those lost.  For now, I keep my grief hidden away from them and do my best to repair my heart with their laughter.

I am doing all I can to make this the best Christmas my sons have ever had as some small way to honor the families of the victims.  It is a dark Christmas for them which makes me feel like I need to do more to make our Christmas brighter.  I’ve become more patient with them, taking time to help them fix the LEGO village under the tree that they destroyed.  I have stopped doing far less important things to check out how the Christmas pig is riding the crane (don’t ask). Last night, I walked into the family room where the TV was still on and saw a message on the screen that it was about to power down because there was no activity for four hours because we were all upstairs playing and talking and laughing.  The pile of presents from Santa in the basement seems to have doubled since last Friday.  There is little I can do for those Newtown families, but there is so much I can do for my own.

During the concert, the principal, used the metaphor of the children being the brightest lights in this world, and that is so true.

So often, we face evil and sadness and pain in this world. So often, there are people that suffer and struggle in the darkness that sometimes seems to dominate this world.  When the darkness lashes out at the tiniest, most innocent, yet brightest lights in our world, the sadness becomes that much more profound.

We struggle for answers on how to battle the shadows that live in people’s souls. I am sure the answer lies only partly somewhere between the polarized sides of the gun debate and how we help the mentally ill in this country.  I know that the biggest part of the answer lies in that raucous building of children, educators and parents and in similar buildings around this nation and this world.  Whether it be a church, temple, mosque, a kitchen table, a mud hut or any place that people gather in love and joy, embracing hope and faith.  It doesn’t matter if that faith is in God (or gods), science or ourselves.  We fight the darkness by passing that faith, hope and love on to the children with the hope that the next generation will grow up in a better, brighter world.

During the concert, I also found myself staring at my sons’ teachers and the rest of the school’s faculty.  I really wanted to go up and hug each one of them, because I don’t doubt the love they have for our children and what they do.  Many are parents themselves and I can only imagine what a painful time it must be for them.  Yet, there they were, smiling and laughing and celebrating our children.  May God bless them and educators everywhere and may God watch over our children and the families of Sandy Hook.