R.I.P., Frankie the Fish

You may remember hearing about Frankie the fish in my very first post on this site.  Frankly (no pun intended), I’m surprised our little Beta lived as long as he did.  After two years of living with us, Frankie finally passed on to the big ocean in the sky last night.  I happened to see him in his final moments.  I was sitting on a kitchen barstool, typing on my laptop resting on the counter, which happened to be right next to the fish bowl.  Everyone else in the house was asleep, so it was just me, tapping away on the keyboard, and Frankie, maniacally swimming around his home.

I suppose that’s what caught my eye.  You see, Frankie was a pretty sedentary fish.  He liked to spend a lot of time hanging out inside the mouth of the ceramic whale at the bottom of his watery surroundings.  When I’d remember to feed him, um, every few days, he’d come out of the whale’s mouth and waste no time sucking in those little food flakes. With his energy restored, he’d happily swim around for a bit, before retreating into the whale’s mouth again.  Perhaps Frankie’s odd lifestyle was a direct result of his sub-optimal living conditions. In addition to his irregular feedings, I guess it’s fair to say he also had less than clean water.  Oh, I changed it every few weeks, which isn’t cruel, but not necessarily “correct” either.  I started to realize that I wasn’t changing his water the proper way when it became more cloudy and dirty, even after putting in fresh water.

You see, I have a problem with slimy creatures.  I absolutely love all animals, but for some reason, anything with scales completely freaks me out.  So, I never wanted to handle Frankie in any way.  Instead of removing him with a net and plopping him a separate little bowl while I cleaned his home, I’d simply spill out the water until there was just enough for him to swim around in and then I’d add new water.  I’d squeeze in a few drops of water neutralizer and voila, fresh bowl again…well, sort of.  The floating leftover food (at least that’s what I thought it was) would swirl around his bowl for a few minutes and then settle back to the bottom.  Sometimes I’d try wiping the sides of his bowl with a paper towel.  At first, I was alarmed at the funky, green residue left on the paper towel, but after awhile it didn’t bother me anymore.  And Frankie didn’t seem to mind it either.

Every time we’d come back from a week long vacation, I’d cautiously make my way over to check Frankie’s bowl and peer over the top.  Inevitably, he’d swim out of the whale’s mouth to greet me, although sometimes I’d have to tap the side of the bowl to jolt him out of his whale-cave.  I’d immediately toss in an extra large pinch of food and he’d chow down.

“He’s still alive!” I’d proclaim to the boys, with both relief and amazement.

I had no idea what kind of life expectancy these types of fish had, but Frankie seemed to be defying all odds, despite his borderline neglect.  Although I felt like I did my personal best to care for him, I can’t help but also be tinged with guilt, especially after witnessing his last swim.  Our normally mellow fish began darting around the bowl like a crazed torpedo, whizzing through the water at top speed, only to suddenly give up, and float backwards down to the bottom.  Then, seconds later, he’d try again, resuming the same warped routine.  At once, I knew what was happening.  I stopped typing and watched.  He actually appeared to be suffering, as he lay on his side at the bottom.  I couldn’t just sit there anymore.  I rushed to the cabinet and pulled out his food, sprinkling some into his bowl, hoping to revive him.  But, nothing.  I can’t just give up, I thought to myself.  Next, I changed the water, squirting in an extra few drops of neutralizer.  But, still nothing.  Frankie had taken his final lap.  My guilt was starting to build, and I promised myself I would change the water properly for the next fish.  And, um, feed him everyday.

I quickly googled “betas” and “siamese fighting fish” to determine their average life expectancy: 2-5 years.  Phew, Frankie made the minimum.  Now I could have a relatively peaceful night’s sleep.  I shut down the computer, turned out the lights, and let Frankie have one more night in his murky bowl.  R.I.P. Frankie, beloved pet and a fighter till the end.

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Aaah, now summer can start…

No, summer doesn’t start on Memorial Day or on June 21st.  For me, it’s all about that school calendar.  And, if you’re a parent with kids in a New York State school system, then chances are summer started today for you, just as it did for me.  Of course, our school district tortures both the students and parents with a final week of half days and then today is the most torturous of all:  a half hour of school.  No, that is not a typo.  I said 30 minutes, or 1,800 seconds of school. In other words, I barely have time to grab a cup of coffee after I drop my kids off and then I have to go pick them up from their 30 minute day of school.  Utterly ridiculous.  I have no idea why the district has this final half hour/day, but all I know is that they have done it this way forever.  And, no one seems to question it.  Some parents just ignore it and don’t even send their kid to school.  Other families say “screw it” and start their summer vacation early.  And then there are the parents like me, who send their kid for that final day because we worry that he won’t have closure if he doesn’t say good-bye to all his teachers and friends.

This morning was particularly rough, for me, that is.  Maybe because it was a rainy, dreary morning rather than a typical, bright June day, my energy was zapped.  I just wanted to stay in bed and snooze for another hour or so.  But, we all got up and went through the usual routine and I cursed under my breath about this hideous half hour day.  I promised myself I would write a letter to our new Superintendent of schools, asking him to look into this inane policy. Although I grew up in a different NY school district, I don’t recall anything close to a half hour day when I was a kid.  And if there was one, I know that my Mom, a working parent, would not have tolerated such idiocy.

As my two boys were inside the school building saying their good-byes, I drove over to Dunkin Donuts to get an iced tea and a bag of celebratory munchkins for them.  Ok fine, I admit it, the munchkins were for me too.  When my kids emerged from the building, they had big grins.  My first grade graduate was clutching a bag containing a memory book, beach ball, pencils, and other assorted items that his teacher thoughtfully compiled.  My fifth grade graduate was ready — ready to leave the playground, and move on up to middle school.  And me, well, at least I was awake now.  The iced tea rejuvenated me and the munchkins were their usual perfect sugary jolt.  My boys and I then spent the rest of the day readying for summer:  we bought  new sneakers, got them summer haircuts, rode bikes, and went out for a pizza lunch.  By the end of our day, that morning half hour of  nonsense was long forgotten.  You know what, maybe closure was just what we all needed after all.  I guess my letter to the Superintendent can wait — until next year.  Happy Summer!!

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Dream, Please come back

You know that dream, the one where you keep forgetting to go to class and then you show up at the final exam, completely unprepared?  I never had that dream while in college or in graduate school but then used to have it all the time once I was working and dealing with real-life stresses.  I never realized that other people have that exact same dream.  Recently, while riding in an elevator with my son, I was telling him about that particular dream.  A woman overheard me and said, “oh, I hate that dream.”

I will admit, my life is relatively stress-free right now.  I am a stay-at-home parent with three kids.  Sure, there are the usual challenges of raising a family — shuttling them to their activities, making sure homework is done, and keeping them healthy and happy.  It can be chaotic and hair-raising at times, but still manageable.

Lately though, something else has been gnawing away at the relative calm in my days.  See, I am writing a book.  Actually, I have finished the book.  Hooray, you think.  But, now I am trying to secure an agent so I can actually get it published.  And, then there’s the worry that I think the book needs to be better — a lot better.  It’s time for serious edit-mode but I am just unsure how to move it forward.  I registered for an online writing class, with deadlines and homework, so I am hoping it pushes me to keep going and revise, revise, revise.  But, how will I know when I’ve done all I can do?  How will I know when the book is at that point when someone else just might think it’s fabulous too?

I am exhilarated about this book but I am also anxious about the uncertainty — the quality of the writing coupled with the unknown of ever securing of an agent makes me a tad bonkers.  It’s tough out there in publishing and it may not happen for me, at least not now. I can accept that.  But, I will need to know that I pushed hard enough, that I did everything that I could possibly do before moving on.

I am almost waiting for that dream to appear.  Because if it does show up, it will be a signal:  I am stressed out.  And then I will know that my subconscious is channeling that stress to let me know that yes, I am working hard enough and care about this project a lot.  So, even though I hate that dream too, I hope it comes back soon.

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Thank You to the Mean Girls

Every time I hear the Billy Joel song, “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me”, I cringe at the line when he sings, “if you try to be a straight A student, and you are, then you think too much!”  That straight A student was me in 7th grade, when I was on my way to earning one of the top ten GPAs in my high school graduating class.  I never thought much of it until I went on a sleepover at “cool girl” Kate’s house along with my best friend Toni plus a few other of the more “popular” girls in our grade.  I’m not sure when things went awry but we were up late, blasting music (where were her parents?  I’m not sure they were even home – oy) and seemed to be having a good time.  Next thing I knew they cranked up the volume on that Billy Joel song and started screaming the “straight A student” line at me.  It was the only time in my life I felt embarrassed to be smart.  But, worse than that, I had never had a friend turn on me like that, so suddenly and so unreasonably.  Really?  You don’t like me because I get good grades?  I’m not sure how I held it together. Thankfully, I had Toni there with me.  We both wanted to go home — immediately.  We stuck it out until 5am and at the first sign of daylight, we grabbed our sleeping bags and walked all the way home.  It was a long trek back since Kate lived on the other side of town from us.  But, we didn’t care.  We wanted to get far away from those mean girls and when we made it halfway home, we started to giggle at ourselves.  There we were, still in our pajamas, carrying all of our stuff, looking like we were running away from home, rather than our former bffs.

And now, thirty-two years later, I have a 7th grader, the same age I was when those mean girls teased me.  Except my 7th grader is a boy.  I’m sure there are mean boys out there too, but I hope and pray they aren’t nearly as malicious as those mean girls from my childhood.  So far, all three of my boys seem to be under the radar from any serious bullying from their peers.  On the rare occasions when one of my sons mentions an incident that so and so said he sucks at baseball or that he got picked last for the football game at recess, I go into protective mama bear mode.  One time I walked up to a boy on the playground and practically threatened him if he didn’t leave my son alone with his taunting comments.  The result?  Well, let’s just say it didn’t work and the kid said “your Mom’s a freak!”

Since then, I have realized that my kids have to learn how to handle most friendship situations on their own.  I can’t shield them from all the mean kids, just like my parents had no involvement with my sleepover trauma.  I got through it and even laughed about it a short time later.  Sure, the incident stayed with me like any other negative childhood memory, but I am now a 40-something woman with many healthy, female friendships.  And maybe that’s what it takes — a few mean girls to teach you what a true friend is all about.

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Mom, Where Are You?

Baby Bear, now 6 1/2 seems to have developed a phobia of not being able to find me.  He needs to know where I am at all times.  I know exactly how this anxiety came about.  We were vacationing in Costa Rica about 3 months ago and after an exhilarating day of zip-lining, we went into a town called Montezuma for lunch.  There were fourteen of us on that outing, with five others back at the house where we were staying.  Yes, a big group — four families with a combined headcount of 11 kids and 8 adults — but the communal parenting worked well so far, whether we were watching the kids in the ocean or pool, or keeping track of them in the airport.

Montezuma, a remote fishing village that has evolved into more of a hippie-like town on the coast of Costa Rica, captivated me.  The center of town is filled with souvenir shops, small hotels, and restaurants and many colorful locals.  I felt like I was on the set of a movie and I wanted to soak it all in.  Lots to look at, lots of distractions — you get the picture.  We checked out some shops, ate at a seaside restaurant and watched the kids splash around in the water.  So, as our group slowly migrated through the streets, back to where our van was parked, some of us wandered here, some of us wandered there.  By this time, I was just plain hot, and still recovering from being strapped to a tiny wire high above the tree tops, so I simply wanted back on that air-conditioned van.  Baby Bear was right behind me, I know he was, and then suddenly he wasn’t.  There was a small group of us up ahead on the street so I figured he darted ahead to be with some of his vacation buddies.  I called up to them, “Hey guys, is Baby Bear up there with you?”  Once they said “no”, panic-mode began.  Actually, panic does not even come close.  Suffocating terror.  Hands-down the worst possible feeling, except for life-threatening injury or illness, a parent can ever have.  We all hurried in different directions calling his name.  I ran into stores, asking the shop owners if they saw a little boy.  And then the terror became compounded by my reckless imagination.  Baby Bear was not a boy who usually strayed.  He was a stay close to Mom and Dad cuddler.  No, no, no, it couldn’t be.  How could someone snatch him in broad daylight?  Those minutes, probably only about 4, were slow-motion torture.  Finally, my friend called out to me that my husband had found him.  Baby Bear was crying and by this time, so was I.  Such a brave, little boy lost in a foreign country, he had walked up to non-English speaking natives telling them he couldn’t find us.  Apparently, the second person he approached actually understood him and was about to help him look for us when my husband spotted him and swooped him up in his arms.  We did not want to frighten him more so we told him we were so proud of him to ask for help and that we were so, so sorry that we did not see him walking in the wrong direction.  Baby Bear appeared to be over the episode by the time we got back to the house.  But clearly, a version of post-traumatic stress disorder seems to have engulfed him lately.

No matter where I seem to be in our house, be it the bathroom or the laundry room, within minutes I invariably hear, “Mom, where are you!?”  Sometimes when I am in mid-pee, I curse under my breath and think, “gee, what’s his deal?” When we are somewhere outside of the house, such as a park where he might play, it’s the same scenario:  Baby Bear will say to me, sometimes several times in a row:  “Now don’t leave this spot.  Stay right here, okay?”

Baby Bear and I even discussed his fear of losing sight of me and he claims it wasn’t the Costa Rica mishap that scarred him, but that there was yet another time when I was in the backyard and he thought I drove away and left him inside the house alone.  Hmm…not being able to find me in our backyard versus being lost in a foreign land….clearly the latter was the emotional traumatizer but he seems to want to block that one out.  Can’t say I blame him.  No amount of reassuring seems to help right now.  Of course, I do want to help him overcome this but I do also think it’s a healthy reaction to what was a very long and scary 240 seconds — for both of us.  And, okay, I will admit, I don’t always mind his neediness.  Middle Bear and Tallest Bear at 10 and 13 respectively, are ready to break free, or so they think.  “Drop us at the pizza place and come back for us later” or “No, I don’t want to come with you to the store, leave me here alone” are frequent requests from them.  But, Baby Bear still wants me close, for emotional security, for food preparation, for helping him wipe his butt, and for lots of hugs.  If the Costa Rica incident has given me some extra mileage for having Baby Bear essentially velcroed to me , I’m all for it. Besides, peeing in private is overrated.

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Baby Bear Helps Out

A few days ago, I had one of those parenting moments when I was witness to a memorable, touching exchange between two of my three sons that made me think, “oh yeah, that’s why I had more than one child.”  It was a scene that I will always remember but I am fairly sure it has already been forgotten by both of my kids.  But, that is okay.  My hope is that their poignant connection will serve as a model for future brotherly love.

“Middle Bear” was scheduled to have his annual check-up at the pediatrician.  “Baby Bear” had already staged a protest with his firm, “I’m not going. I’m staying home.”

You see, Baby Bear had spent the past six years being toted, strolled, hauled, dragged and basically forced to accompany his two older brothers to every soccer and baseball game, all doctor, dentist and orthodontist appointments as well as the countless school pick-ups and drop-offs.  At the ripe old age of six, Baby Bear finally became enlightened and realized that it was just plain boring to be the sideshow to the other two main events.  He’d rather stay home and play or watch tv — anything other than having to get in that car again.   Lately, I had resorted to creative motivators (ie, bribes) to encourage him to join me and his brothers.  “I’ll get you a big cup of vanilla with rainbow sprinkles!” I’d promise with the most enthusiastic sing-song voice.  That worked great for my ice cream-aholic son the first few times.  But, the Ben and Jerry’s reward was starting to lose its power and frankly, it wasn’t doing me any good either when I would also comfort myself  with a cone of chocolate chip.  Miraculously, this time I came up with the most ingenuous reason as to why he should come to Middle Bear’s checkup.

“I need you to come with us to the doctor because you have to tell Middle Bear that his shot won’t hurt.  You have to show him what a brave boy you were when you got your shots.”

Baby Bear suddenly broke into a wide grin and said, “okay, I’ll go!” as if I offered him a trip to the candy store.

Middle Bear had a growing fear of vaccinations and the dreaded needles whereas Baby Bear seemed to think it was no big deal to get a poke or two in the arm.  I had no idea how Middle Bear would react to Baby Bear’s encouragement but I figured I had nothing to lose, considering at last year’s checkup, the doctor had to threaten him with the possibility of being held down by one of the “mean” nurses.

When it was time to bring out the needle, Middle Bear grew pale.  Baby Bear seemed to instinctively know that this was his time to take the floor.

“It doesn’t hurt, you’ll see.” he reassured.

“You can hold Baby Bear’s hand if you want,” I offered to Middle Bear, not thinking he would go for such an affectionate gesture.

Hearing my cue, Baby Bear reached out for Middle Bear’s hand and instead of swatting it away, Middle Bear  swiftly received it and held on tight.  Baby Bear’s pride was instantaneous and evident by his big smile and confident stance, as he watched his older brother in a vulnerable moment, shutting his eyes and chanting “Is it over? Is it over?”  Baby Bear seemed to know this was a rare opportunity for him to have the upper hand, to be the supporter, to be the Bigger Bear for a change.  It was a role reversal that was good for both of them, to see that they could each lean on one another for different things, that they each had their own strengths and weaknesses and that it was okay to ask for help, even from the littler bear.  Although I knew that within hours, they would be wrestling, pushing, yelling, and arguing about whose turn it was to be the “pitcher versus catcher” or who had the remote control first, I was so proud of both of them for holding on (literally) and supporting each other at the appropriate time and place.

Those few minutes in the doctor’s office were a better reward for me than any ice cream cone could be.  I think my Bears would agree.

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A Hug From A Stranger

Most of the time, I like taking my dog to the vet.  She doesn’t much mind going there either, since she’ll do anything to ride in a car, regardless of the destination. I think I enjoy going to the vet because, way back when, I thought I might become one.   It seemed like a logical goal for an extreme animal lover.  It was logical, until I took Chemistry in college.  My dreams of becoming a veterinarian were quickly extinguished by a C+, but I have never stopped trying to learn more about animals, whether it was working at the ASPCA for a short time or trying to glean something new from the local vet.  I do know another reason why I never became a vet:  I am way too emotional.  When I see a sick or hurt dog, I can’t bear it.  It’s not just the blood or gore that literally makes me dizzy, but seeing an animal in pain is something I truly can’t handle.  When I volunteered at an animal hospital “way back when”, a woman came into the office with her large Samoyed, who was clearly in distress, with what appeared to be heat stroke.  We put bags of ice all over the dog as he relentlessly panted.  As I glanced up at the woman, I could see the tears falling behind her large, round sunglasses.  Immediately, I started tearing up too, wishing I could sprint out of the room and really let it all out.

Unfortunately, I do know firsthand how awful it is to have a beloved pet die.  Although I was at college in 1985 when my parents sent Barley, our adoring Bichon Frise, to dog heaven, I took it hard, real hard.  I remember not wanting to leave my apartment for several days and weeping into the phone to all my childhood friends who knew Barley. A few years ago, when we put our 13 year-old Portuguese Water Dog, Bosley, (yes I know the name is similar to Barley!) to sleep, I was tormented by whether it was the right time for him to leave us.  Maybe he would make another miraculous recovery like he had done six months earlier. But, as I sat next to him on our kitchen floor, his empty brown eyes told me that he had no fight left.  He helplessly laid there, unable to get up, and I made the dreaded call to the vet.

The morning we brought him in was the start to a beautiful Spring day — balmy, breezy and cloudless.  My husband Jon carried Bosley into the car and then when we arrived at the vet, placed him on the grass outside.  Our former, robust 78 pound boy was now a more scrawny 55 — still a heavy load but not nearly the muscular ox he once was.  While Jon waited inside the office, I sat with Bosley under a tree and wept.  Through the window, the vet saw this scene and came outside to sit with us, reassuring me that it was the right thing to do, at the right time.  The vet carried him inside through a side door.  I was grateful to not have him paraded through the waiting room.

The same waiting room, where I sat a few weeks ago, on yet another beautiful Spring day, with Matilda, our 2-year old mushy, goofy, Labradoodle.  I loved being there that day, watching Matilda greet each new person with their fluffy companion in tow.  I loved watching her, a little anxious, but mostly just curious, to see what would happen next.  I loved the questions people would ask me:  “What color is she?  Taupe? It’s so unique!”.  “What kind of dog is she?  She’s so beautiful.” “Is she a doodle? She’s so friendly and loving.”  I sat there, like a proud parent, as if I had something to do with her winning personality and head-turning looks.  Basically, I enjoyed showing her off.

I loved being there, until I recognized a woman who walked through the door and up to the desk.  She was serious and all business as she said, “Charley is here.”  The receptionist seemed to know immediately why Charley was here.  No questions necessary.  I recognized this woman because she was essentially me, 3 years earlier, with Bosley, unknowingly awaiting his fate outside.  Even before the vet technicians helped carry in her yellow Lab, I too knew why Charley was here.  I suddenly felt embarrassed to be sitting there with my healthy, young dog.  Just moments earlier, I wanted everyone to gush over her and now I wanted to hide her, most especially from this woman.

After the ailing Lab was brought into an exam room, the woman and her daughter followed.  An older gentleman, perhaps the woman’s father, stayed outside the room but told someone else he would go in when “it was time.”  He walked over to where I was sitting and came right over to Matilda, talking to her, not me, the entire time.  He scratched her behind her ears and talked to her in doggy-speak.  Naturally, that just made her want more lovin’, so the man kept talking and scratching as he waited to be called in.

A few minutes later, the woman and her daughter emerged from the room, waiting for the vet to sedate the dog and then bring them back in for their final good-byes. The woman was about my age and her daughter was about 10, the age of one of my sons.  It was at this point that the woman started to break down, holding onto her daughter, who appeared more composed than her mother. This was not surprising to me at all.  As it was with my kids, they handled losing Bosley much better than me because their attachment to him was different, not nearly as pronounced.  Bosley was never a cuddly, affectionate dog — probably not the best pet for a house with young kids, but we were not thinking that far ahead as a newly engaged couple who thought it would be “fun” to have a dog.

I desperately wanted to comfort this distraught woman, to tell her I had been there, right there, 3 years earlier, that she was making the humane choice, that everything would be okay.  But, I didn’t.  I knew exactly how she was feeling though. Not just the raw grief of losing a pet but the other thoughts that start to rush at you.  Like, how that dog was your first baby.  How that dog was the reason you bought your first apartment so close to Central Park.  How that dog destroyed your home, chewing everything from walls, to bedroom furniture.  How that dog was there to welcome all three kids when you brought each of them home from the hospital.  How that dog essentially represented the past decade of your life.

No, I did not comfort this woman the way I so wanted to.  But then, someone else did.  A total stranger, at the check-out desk, turned around and started hugging this woman.  Not just a quick hug, but a full-on embrace.  I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer because I was so sad for this woman and now also so touched by this stranger reaching out to her.  I was so fortunate to have witnessed this kindness.  It was one of those moments when you gain so much faith in the goodness of people.  Sometimes a hug from a complete stranger is just what we need to heal.

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