Nick.

My sweet boy wants a dog. Always has. And when we see dogs, we stop, ask their grownups if it’s okay to pet them, then offer a calm, open palm for the dog to sniff.

And that’s usually the end of it. Sweet cream Butter, who is now about as Three as a child can get, watches me pet the dog. And I do love petting dogs. They’re so deliciously grateful for affection. I tell them sweet stories and scratch them right above the tail and accept their gross kisses. Because they don’t throw things at me or scream at me or expect me to wipe their bottoms. I dig that about dogs.

But Butter will pet one dog every time we see him. He lives right near Butter’s home-based toddler preschool, and we visit him three days a week.

I walk the two miles uphill to Butter’s school right after lunch, then bring him down the hill to visit Nick.

Nick lies in wait every day in the open garage that is obviously his alone. It’s mostly empty, save dozens of soccer balls, a few empty and soiled boxes labeled “Dole bananas,” and a well used old dog bed.

I would say hi to Nick as I walked up the hill three days in a row, telling him as he wagged his tail that I’d be right back with his friend Butter.

The first time I walked by Nick, I assessed the situation. I have a decently-sized fear of dogs, and I don’t enjoy encountering dogs left alone to protect a garage. Two clues put me rather quickly at ease. 1) Yellow labrador. 2) Wagging tail and mellow posture. I chilled out and walked past.

I thought nothing more of him until I was almost at the open mouth of the garage with a toddler strapped on my back. Crap, I thought. If that dog hates strollers or kids or ergo carriers, this might be a stupid way to walk home.

Butter wanted to stop. I explained that without the dog’s parent, we didn’t know if it was friendly. We didn’t want to make a dog nervous. That a dog alone at his own house can be dangerous because they want to protect their home. But my two-and-a-half-year-old son, the one who most recently reminds me how I dislike hitting and screaming and throwing toddlers, was insistent enough that I let him out of the ergo. I made him sit on the sidewalk quietly and calmly. I called to the dog and held out my hand. Butter did the same. The dog wagged his tail, but wouldn’t come.

I told Butterbean that a dog who doesn’t come to you doesn’t want to be pet. And as he was processing his disappointment, the dog rose, stretched, and walked to his water bowl. After a good, long drink, he walked out of the garage, past us, to pee. Then he wandered back and plopped right at my toddler’s feet.

They were in love.

Every day we stopped to say hello. We talked to the neighbors walking their dogs about the yellow lab, who was apparently named Nick and who allegedly hated other dogs. All the locals walked their dogs on the opposite side of the street to avoid major confrontations. But I got to walk my toddler on the Nick side of the street because my son, for all his amazing virtues and glaring flaws, is not a dog.

We visited Nick all Fall and through the winter. We even once met the dog’s father. He was in the garage petting Nick as we walked by. I paused to tell him how we appreciated his lovely pet.

“Well, my neighbor doesn’t,” he told me. He went on to explain that his neighbor was furious that Nick relieved himself on her property. As he told me the story, Nick’s dad didn’t notice that the cold was making his nose run. As he talked to me and struggled to get up from Nick’s side, I realized he must be at least 90 years old. Mid-nineties is my best guess. He told me how he cleaned up after Nick four times a day but that the neighbor was still grouchy about it. I marveled silently that he could walk from the front door to the garage four times a day. He seemed that weak. I offered that four times a day seemed like a lot and that I would give a neighbor a lot of credit for being that conscientious.

He told me he wished I were his neighbor, instead.  I told him I’d be honored.

Call me biased or prejudiced, but I try to go out of my way to be kind to people who seem to need a little more. I’m a softie, I’m a bleeding heart, but more importantly, I have a grandma in her late nineties. I know most of society ignores and avoids the elderly. I didn’t really have time to listen to a long story, but when people really need to talk, it’s always long. I think that people willing to tell their stories are an opportunity to learn and to connect, and I  wanted to be kind to this elderly gentleman. I had no idea if he had family, a regular source of food, or a support network to help him as he aged. I figured Nick was important to him, and I wanted the man to know that we were quite fond of his sweet friend. So I stayed and listened.

And after that I noticed how dirty Nick was. That he was shedding fistsfull of hair. I can’t imagine that bending down to care for a dog is easy when your body is giving you a hard time. So I bought a dog brush and put it in the stroller so I could brush Nick. I made a note about calling a mobile grooming service and asking Nick’s dad if we could give him the gift of a traveling shampoo and nail clip.

Every day, the house’s door was slightly open, in case Nick wanted to come in. As the winter grew colder, we sometimes saw the front door closed and the garage empty. I was happy that the dog and his man had each other on cold days and nights.

As the sun grew warmer in Spring, Nick was often out of his garage on the sidewalk, in a patch of sunshine. He found a nice nest of leaves near his dad’s stairway and eagerly accepted our pats and scratches.

And one day he was dead.

I was pretty sure as I drove by that morning that he wasn’t breathing. And by the time, three hours later, I walked up the hill to greet my tiny little man at school, Nick was gone. Above the place I saw him last laying was a soccer ball suspended from a tree, with the words “R.I.P. Nick” written in black Sharpie.

In the five minutes we had between school and Nick’s garage, I had to tell Butter that Nick died, and I had to explain about death. The latter part wasn’t hard. I knew what to say, how to make sure to reassure that most of us can get better when we’re sick, and that most people live a very long time. And how to say that all life ends and there is a beginning and a middle and an end; and that Nick was at his end. I knew to again reassure him about the people we know who are not dying.

It has been weeks, and Butterbug still talks a lot about wanting Nick back. We talk about how you come back from vacation and come back from work and come back from school but you don’t come back from dead. That some people believe you come back different. But that nobody comes back the way you knew them. That memories are important, that knowing someone like Nick is a gift and we can always be happy we knew him.

And oh I cried for that dog.

After Nick’s death, the house door was never open. The garage never closed or changed. I began to worry about Nick’s dad.

Really worry.

I meant to write a condolence card. But I never did.

I meant to offer meals or a home for the soccer balls. But I never did.

And last week as we walked by I heard the front door open. I looked over to see Nick’s dad emerging from the house. I waited for a moment, wanting to tell him how much we miss Nick. Then I started to walk away, worried that I’d sound creepy. Then I backed up, cursing the coward in me and cheering on the person who believes that of all the people in the world, the 90+ set need someone nice to stop their hurry and to talk. Then I started off again, thinking that the last thing I had time for was a long talk with a man recently bereft of his best friend. Then I backed up, mad at myself for being so selfish. Then I started to walk again (no joke, the dude is really slow and I had time to start and retreat at least four times) but turned around to see he had almost crested the last of his eight steps and would see me in a second.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he answered cheerfully, still watching the steps. He looked up at me once he was safely on the sidewalk. He smiled.

“I’m so sorry to hear about Nick. We really enjoyed visiting him on our walks.”

He beamed. “Yeah, he was a good old friend. I can’t get used to him not being here.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Not well,” he said.

“Do you need anything?”

“No. No. Thank you. The community has been really kind, and they’ve come together since Nick died.”

I smiled. He turned toward the garage and turned back.

“He was a really good ambassador,” he said.

“He really was,” I said. And smiled. And walked away.

As we started, Butter said, “I want Nick back.”

“I know Bean. Did you hear Nick’s dad say he wants him back, too. We were happy when we could pet Nick. And we want him back. But Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back. We’re going on vacation, and we’ll come back. Mom goes to work and Mom comes back. Peanut goes to school and Peanut comes back. But Nick isn’t on vacation, Nick isn’t at work. Nick isn’t at school. Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back.”

And that still makes me cry.

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Not clear on the concept

Peanut, inching ever closer to Seven, is growing more and more adult each day and I’m having a devil of a time trying to walk the line between teaching critical thinking and teaching blind adherence to rules. I would prefer the latter for my rules and the former for the rest of the planet, but I’m glimpsing that perhaps that’s not how the world works. Nuances aren’t my strong suit, and now I have to teach a remarkably analytical child about shades of grey.

Not that kind.

Butter is trying out being a grownup, too. When you ask him to give you something, he puts both chubby, babyish hands behind his back and says, “pick one.” But if you hesitate for more than a few seconds, trying to choose the best hand, he takes his empty hand and points to the other shoulder. Useful, as clues go, but rather ineffective for a guessing game.

Peanut has taught his younger brother to be silent when playing hide-and-seek, and how to tell the good guys from the bad guys in most of our books. Unfortunately, that means the toddler also identifies people, loudly, by pointing them out to me as we pass them. “Good guy, good guy, bad guy,” he says in the supermarket. And on walks. And at the doctor’s office.

And aside from being intrigued by who he chooses in real life to label a good guy and why, and embarrassed that he’s calling anyone with a scowl a bad guy, I’m rather gripped these days by my fundamental inability as humans to judge. When should I follow a rule and when should I fight to change it? Which of many behaviors do I use to finally decree someone is a bad guy or a good guy, given that nobody is all good or all bad?

And how in the name of all that is decent and good do we then teach those subtleties to small people, who are wired to think in black and white, to repeat patterns, and to trust us no matter what we say?

Does anybody else worry that getting children to fit within society’s rules makes them want too much to fit in? That getting children to follow makes them too willing to follow? That getting children to prioritize some qualities and actions over others makes them blind to other possibilities? That pretty much all our work is brainwashing?

That hiding our humanity behind our backs while we try to parent handicaps our children’s ability to choose?

If I just learn from my two-year-old and telegraph the answer, my sons will never get to really choose while it’s still safe for them to make big mistakes. But if they’re left with too many choices…

If Peanut refuses to brush his hair after I ask kindly and logically, explaining that a quick brush now means fewer knots the next time, do I just shrug and let him spend the day with knots in his hair? If I get frustrated and put the brush away and he begs me to please comb his hair, did I just withhold love to get what I wanted? Will he similarly change his mind to restore himself to favor if bullies ask him to torment a younger kid, then turn to walk away when he says no, successfully converting him to cruelty by using the same tactics that his bedraggled-hair-avoiding mother used? Should I offer information and assistance but not be attached to the results? Is that true of jackets when it’s cold? Of protein when he’s hungry? Of manners? Of cleaning up after himself? Of thank you notes? Of not walking on neighbors’ lawns or hitting their flowers? Of kindness to his brother?

Of course not. But “of course not” to which ones?

Someone talk me off the ledge here. Show me the line, please, between over-parenting and under-parenting, worrying too much and too little, revealing too much or too little of the Oz behind the curtain. Point me to the answer, please, between good guy and bad guy. Then tell me how they got that way.

Because I’ll tolerate messy hair if they will just grow up to judge well who the good guys are and how to be one, too.

Molehill, meet the mountain makers

Ah, yes, well. J. Crew toenail story. Blah blah blah…marketing photo with Mom and young boy, whose toenails are pink. Both seem to be having fun. Blah blah blah…media makes it out to be erosion of society as we know it, popularization of gender dysphoria, and license to marginalization of pretty much every human on Earth.

What the hell, America? Seriously? This is the cataclysm about which you’re gonna get your panties in a twist?

[Just reading the implication that you wear panties made you question your masculinity? Time for purchase of a life, my ignorant and intolerant non-friend.]

Regular readers know my 5 year old paints his nails with his Dad every weekend. They vary color, they vary number of nails painted. But generally, Peanut paints all twenty digits and Spouse paints twelve (all toes plus thumbs). You also know I think this is a delightful bit of bonding that teaches both of them to do what they enjoy rather than what they’re supposed to do. Because there are enough supposed tos in life, it’s never too young to learn to ignore the lame rules.

And most rules are lame.

Or at least as arbitrary as gender clothing rules.

So now an allegedly large number of Americans are allegedly all frothy and twitching because painting nails gives one a severe case of gender dysphoria? Nails are somehow directly linked to your soul, and said soul can flipflop identity based on social expectation? What if that little boy’s soul happens to know that 60 years ago, boys were dressed in pink and girls were in blue because pink was deemed too strong a color for the allegedly weaker gender?

I don’t know. Seems as though The Daily Show has it covered. If not, I’m guessing Panderbear does.

But I still wonder: couldn’t we pay this much attention to banks and oil companies and food growers and food manufacturers and air traffic controllers instead? (Okay, maybe not the air traffic people. I’m a sleepy human and refuse to judge those who are forced to fight biorhythms for their jobs. Cuz I feel their pain, yo.)

Texting while parenting

Article from the New York Times about how hurtful it can be to kids when we pay attention to screens instead of our offspring.

I used to have a “no computer or phone while he’s awake” rule with Peanut, but had been easing that lately so I can check email while he’s in the yard or the small one is happily talking to his mobile. Guess I’ll go back to the daytime blackout, which is great news for my need for adult interaction and freelance work.

Sigh.

Moment of clarity

I’m having a tough time accepting a lot about my life—that the novel is still not published, that my PhD is still a distant dream, that two totally awesome and timely journal articles are languishing at 95% complete and not yet submitted, that Spouse and I are destined to be poor…

And that my eldest is testing out being the school’s resident a–hole.

This troubled me for several weeks, hearing about the times he had to be separated from his partner in crime, stifling my horror as he tells me of his antics, wondering if I wasted my time being so carefully respectful and gentle and loving and patient. If he’s going to throw sand in the face of the sweet and shy one at school, why did I try so hard to do everything thoughtfully, mindfully, and (what I now consider) self-effacingly? Why not actually lock the door when I pee, or shower regularly, or say no to playing with him, or negotiate a little less if he’s going to be antisocial and embarrassing?

And I asked another parent at school, tearfully, “is my kid an a–hole?”

He said something I really appreciated: “No, he’s usually sweet and he’s doing some awful stuff. But that’s his job. Now, my kid’s an a–hole.”

Not true. But I realized we all see things in our children we don’t like, that the socialized side of us wants to just beat right out of them, and the kid side of us wants to run from. The preschool dad who talked to me has a child with some unsavory characteristics sometimes, who is not an a–hole. My kid is trying out some awful behaviors to get attention and see the responses, but he’s not an a–hole. What he is, is different than me and separate from me. We’re now walking that thin line where it’s my job to teach him what’s okay, and it’s his job to choose the okay over the not-okay.

I thought about it, and Super Cool, Sweet, Awesome Lady X at school has a child who is genuinely an a–hole. Sometimes. And another child who is delightful. Mostly. And neither is her fault. And the total a–hole parent at school has a kid who is generally okay. And that’s clearly not due to parenting.

You do what you can and try your best, but some of your child’s behavior has nothing to do with you. (Yes I knew that, but now I have to repeat it more often than “please don’t pick up trash from the street.”) As I try to let Peanut separate and become his own person, I need to stop being embarrassed and realize that he is, in fact, his own person. And he’s four. And if he’s hated that’s his problem and if he’s loved it’s his problem. And all I can do is give him what I can to help get him through. He has to do the rest.

And damned if that isn’t the hardest part so far. Because from this side of the preschool fence, that adorable and feisty and opinionated and persistent and intense child is sometimes miraculously delicious, and sometimes a giant a–hole.