Two Worlds (on growing up)

Disneyland Dubai by Meraas

When I was a child, I thought there was a wall between childhood and adulthood, a wall I would climb over one day and never look back. But there is no wall. The child I used to be keeps showing up all the time and whispering “come and play” while I’m trying to do adult things. Truth be told, I invite him in because he’s the only thing that keeps me from losing my mind entirely. I even memorized an Aldous Huxley quote so I could say it to anyone who accuses me of being immature.

“The childlike man is not a man whose development has been arrested. On the contrary, he is a man who has allowed himself to continue to develop while most adults have muffled themselves in the cocoon of middle-aged habit and convention.”

Upon hearing this, they will usually say something like, “Oh! Well, if Aldous Huxley said it, go ahead and keep being a jackass.”

I finally decided to write children’s books so I can stay a child forever, and make a few bucks like adults are supposed to do.

This fear of being an adult is probably a composite of all the unfortunate adults I met throughout my life who grew up too much, who lost the child completely, and became pale, gray, dusty, lifeless shells. Some eyes have twinkles and some don’t. Many things can put it out, mainly grief, or loss of any kind. I want to keep mine. I’ll die before I let it burn out. We’ve got to fight for our twinkles.

Playing with my daughters helps, too. Their world is so much bigger than mine. As hard as I protect my twinkle, and though I have never stopped playing with the child I was, I’ve been a grown-up for so long now, I have forgotten much. It’s inevitable. Thankfully, my children let me into their world and are always happy to show me around.

Two Worlds

Two worlds have I known along the path of this life –
one of serenity, the other of strife.

The first world I knew was a magical place
of warm smiles and laughter and kind-hearted grace.
Of meadows and tulips, wood shoes and white blouses.
Of bread trails and bonnets and gingerbread houses.
Of blind mice and windmills and Little Jack Horner.
Of Winnie and Tigger and the tree at Pooh Corner.
Of fun-loving pirates and billowing sails.
Of serpents and mermaids and friendly, blue whales.

My young eyes saw the world as a sweet, gentle place
without hatred or killing over nation or race.
There was no better or worse, only different from me
and it made life enticing, a grand mystery!

I remember gazing in wonder, unexamined and pure,
at the indigo sky. Oh, the thoughts it allured!
So many places someday I would see!
So many people to share it with me!

But the wind-spinning freedom which was my young world
grew shrouded in darkness as adult years unfurled.
And the strangest thing is I never noticed peace die.
I just knew it was gone and I didn’t know why.

Thus began the long years of searching for answers,
questioning poets, musicians and dancers,
politicians and teachers, gurus and sages,
spending my youth between dusty pages
to recapture a feeling, stolen or lost,
and hold it again, no matter the cost.

Many years have passed now. I’ve grown old and gray
and I watch the games that my grandchildren play.
I can hardly recall how my youthful heart yearned
and I won’t bore you with stories of the lessons I’ve learned.
But I will tell you this – joy isn’t somewhere “out there.”
It cannot be studied or found anywhere.
It’s something you’ll either let in or you won’t,
something you give to yourself or you don’t.

Do you hear what I’m saying? All the searching’s for naught!
All that you need, you’ve already got.
There will surely be pain. That’s life’s one guarantee.
But how much we suffer – that’s up to you, and to me.

– Mark Rickerby (c) 2004

Father Forgets (on Patience)

I first read the story below when I was in my early twenties, in the Dale Carnegie book How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s written in the first person from a father to his son after the loss of the boy’s mother. Though I wasn’t a father yet when I first read it, I was so moved by it I performed it on stage in college. Someone approached me afterward and asked, “When is that going to be on the Hallmark channel?”

It was written in the 1930’s so the language is a little outdated, but I think you’ll agree that it’s a beautiful piece of writing containing timeless wisdom for parents.

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Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned

Listen, son; I am saying this as you lie asleep, one little paw crumpled under your cheek and the blond curls stickily wet on your damp forehead. I have stolen to your room alone. Just a few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper in the library, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. Guiltily I came to your bedside.

There are things I was thinking, son: I had been cross to you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you gave your face a mere dab with a towel. I took you to task for not cleaning your shoes. I called you out angrily when you threw some of your things on the floor.

At breakfast I found fault, too. You spilled things. You gulped down your food. You put your elbows on the table. You spread butter too thick on your bread. And as you started off to play and I made for my train, you turned and waved a hand and called, “Goodbye, Daddy!” and I frowned, and said in reply, “Hold your shoulders back!”

Then it began all over again in the late afternoon. As I came up the road I spied you, down on your knees, playing marbles. There were holes in your stockings. I humiliated you before your friends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Stockings were expensive-and if you had to buy them you would be more careful! Imagine that, son, from a father!

Do you remember, later, when I was reading in the library, how you came in timidly, with a sort of hurt look in your eyes? When I glanced up over my paper, impatient at your interruption, you hesitated at the door. “What is it you want?” I snapped. You said nothing, but ran across the room in one tempestuous plunge, and threw your arms around my neck and kissed me, and your small arms tightened with an affection that God had set blooming in your heart and which even neglect could not wither. And then you were gone, pattering up the stairs.

Well, son, it was shortly afterwards that my paper slipped form my hands and a terrible sickening fear came over me. What has habit been doing to me? The habit of finding fault, of reprimanding – this was my reward to you for being a boy. It was not that I did not love you; it was that I expected too much of youth. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.

And there was so much that was good and fine and true in your character. The little heart of you was as big as the dawn itself over the wide hills. This was shown by your spontaneous impulse to rush in and kiss me good night. Nothing else matters tonight, son. I have come to your bedside in the darkness, and I have knelt there, ashamed.

It is a feeble atonement; I know you would not understand these things if I told them to you during your waking hours. But tomorrow I will be a real daddy! I will chum with you, and suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I will bite my tongue when impatient words come. I will keep saying as if it were a ritual: “He is nothing but a boy – a little boy!”

I am afraid I have visualized you as a man. Yet as I see you now, son, crumpled and weary in your cot, I see that you are still a baby. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms, your head on her shoulder. I have asked too much, too much.

Toward Healthier Children – Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psycho-Social Development

Erik Erikson was a psychologist who profoundly influenced my thinking since I first heard of his “stages of psycho-social development” in college.

People who are considered geniuses often do nothing more than chart the obvious. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “In every work of genius, we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” 

Because of this, most of us intuitively know what these stages are. After all, we lived them, or some of them. The sad part is, kids who don’t successfully navigate the early stages have a progressively harder time meeting the subsequent ones successfully. I know I did. This is why it’s important to go back and repair any damage. i.e., “do the work.” Even just identifying where we stumbled is useful. We can’t relive those days, of course, but we can have compassion for our former selves, understand why we felt the way we did, maybe even give ourselves what was denied us then, and in so doing, finally move on.

Having a charted course also helps us help our children navigate these stages. This philosophy has been put many ways by many people.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” (Benjamin Franklin)

“It’s better to prevent falling than to help up.” (Anonymous)

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults.” (Frederick Douglass) 

For most of us, falls are inevitable. No parent is perfect, and even if they were, there are 101 influences out in the world, not to mention random chaos (usually in the form of physical or psychological bullies) that also shape who we are. The crapshoot of getting good teachers or bad also molds children. 

If you’re over forty and your parents were members of the “greatest generation” who lived through World War II, they probably never read a book on parenting or child psychology in their lives and you were under-analyzed as a result, often when a bit of scrutiny might have been helpful.

If you’re under twenty, your parents probably read so many books on parenting and child psychology that you were over-analyzed as they (with the best intentions, God bless them) played armchair psychologist. So, when you got hurt as a child, instead of “walk it off” or “stop crying or I’ll really give you something to cry about”, you might have heard, “Okay, let’s think about what just happened. How did it make you feel when Timmy tripped you and made you split your lip on the sidewalk?” (When all you really wanted to do was walk it off and not make the event even bigger and more noticeable to everyone around you.) 

As a child, I once incubated a fertilized hen’s egg. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be. I thought all I would have to do was put the egg in the homemade incubator and then wait for it to hatch. But I had to come home from school every day for 23 days (the gestation period of a chicken) and flip the egg over, then again at midnight, to keep the bird embryo from adhering to the bottom side of the egg. The mother hen does this instinctively. Then I was awoken one night by a high-pitched chirp. I jumped up excitedly and turned on the light to see a tiny, yellow beak breaking through the shell. I was so excited. Again, I underestimated the length of time it would take for the baby chick to come out. I had only seen it happen in movies, and of course, they can’t show a two hour process in a movie that’s only two hours long, so movie chicks just pop right out. Not so in real life. It was a marathon. I wanted to crack the shell open and help the bird but I had read somewhere that if I did, the chicken would probably not survive. Not just be weak, mind you – it would not survive. That first challenge actually determines its ability to survive, it’s strength and courage, for the rest of its life.

For humans, the eggshell is the entire span of childhood. We parents even use shell analogies when talking about shy children:

“Wow! She has really come out of her shell since last time I saw her!”

“He’s very shy, but we’re hoping he’ll break out of his shell soon.” 

We can’t force that shell open, as surely as we can’t force open the petals of a flower. Anyone who thinks parenting is not an art, has never been a parent. As with all things, there’s a happy medium.

A time to ask our children to express anger and frustration and a time to distract them from it, thereby lessening its impact and making the event that inspired the anger more forgettable. 

A time to help and a time to stand back and watch. 

A time to prevent a fall and a time to let them take a risk and experience their own consequences without throwing pillows in front of them and making them afraid to take chances later. Knowing the difference is where the art comes in.

There is also value in looking at these stages and identifying the ones we didn’t make it through as well as we might have.

Did you feel trustful as an infant? Did you get fed when you were hungry and held when you cried? Or were you neglected and develop a feeling that you couldn’t trust this world?

Did you feel autonomous as a toddler, or did someone in your life make you feel shame and doubt? There are adults who will do that, even to a kid. Maybe especially to a kid, because they’re helpless and can’t knock their blocks off.

Did you feel resourceful from age 3 to 5? Did you build elaborate palaces with your blocks and Lego’s, or was there someone there who made you feel guilty for being alive? Again, there are adults who hate everything they either never had, or lost. Their seething bitterness compels them to stomp all the good right out of a child’s heart.

Did you feel industrious from age 5 to 13, or were you already developing an inferiority complex from all the garbage that unhealthy adults already piled on you?

Did you have a firm sense of who you were from 13 to 21? Failing early stages causes failure in subsequent stages. It’s the worst kind of domino principle.

Did you have a healthy love relationship(s) from 21 to 39 or did you spend too much time alone? 

Did you (or will you) have purpose and love your work from 40 to 65?

If you’re over 65, do you feel peaceful in the knowledge that you were a good person and you did your best (integrity), or are you kicking yourself for mistakes (despair)? It’s pretty easy to spot the elderly people who are in despair. They’re the ones who yell “Get off my lawn!” when a kid dares to set foot on it. Or just the ones who are sad, living in houses where sunlight struggles to enter through cracks in closed curtains.

I don’t mean to be bleak, but every stage has an opposite, and to begin to do the work, we need to identify the problem and admit there was one. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. We got what we needed but have a little work to do because of what we didn’t. Others struggled through childhood and have a lot of work to do. Others were abandoned almost completely, in every way, and grew to become very frustrated adults.

Identifying where we stumbled (or were tripped) is the beginning of knowing where to begin repairs. We can’t fix it until we know what’s broken. So in the interests of doing the best job possible with our little balls of clay (preventing damage) and the ball of clay of our own life, here are a few maps –

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As a parent, I have remembered what was missing from my childhood by watching them reach out to me for the same things. And giving them the love, praise or just time that I didn’t always receive, I not only prevent the need for future healing in them, I heal myself. It’s good to break chains. The next challenge is not condemning our own parents for what they did wrong. They could only work with the tools they had, tools that were given to them by their parents. The healthier activity is to increase the number of tools in our own toolboxes. 

Wishing you and your children trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generatively and integrity! 

More details on this theory – 

 Stage 1:

Trust vs. Mistrust
Birth – 1 Year of Age
– most fundamental stage of psychosocial development
– based on quality of caregivers
– success is based upon a feeling of safety and security
– failure is based upon inconsistent care and emotionally unavailable caregivers
– failure will result in fear/belief that the world is unpredictable and inconsistent

Stage 2:
Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt
Early Childhood
– develop a greater sense of personal control
– control gained through making preferences in food, clothing, and toys
– success results in confidence and being secure with oneself
– failure results in inadequacy and self-doubt

Stage 3:
Initiative vs. Guilt
Pre-School Years
– asserting power through directing play and other social interactions
– success results in a sense of capability and an ability to lead others
– failure results in a sense of guilt, self-doubt, and lack of initiative

Stage 4:
Industry vs. Inferiority
Ages 5-11
– children develop a sense of pride in accomplishments and abilities through social interactions
– encouragement from parents and teachers is necessary for success
– failure results in doubting one’s own abilities to be successful

Stage 5:
Identity vs. Confusion
Adolecense
– focus on exploring independence
– develop a sense of self
– personal exploration must be encouraged
– success will result in a strong sense of self and feeling of independence and control
– failure with result in unsure beliefs and desire and insecure/confused feelings in the future

Stage 6:
Intimacy vs. Isolation
Early adulthood
– develop close, committed relationships in order to develop secure and committed relationship in the future
– strong sense of personal identity is needed
– less committed relationships will result in emotional isolation, depression, and loneliness

Stage 7:
Generativity vs. Stagnation
Adulthood
– focuses on career and family
– asks questions about whether or not one will have a family and career
– success will result in a sense that you’ve contributed to the world
– failure will result in a feeling of being unproductive and uninvolved in the world

Stage 8:
Integrity vs. Despair
Old Age
– reflecting back on life
– success will result in a general sense of satisfaction and wisdom
– failure will result in regrets, bitterness, despair, and a feeling that your life has been wasted

Online Child Predator Experiment – Show This to Your Kids

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This is one of the most riveting and disturbing videos I’ve ever seen. A man poses as a teenager on Facebook and sets up meetings with three girls under 16. They meet with him without telling their parents, knowing they wouldn’t approve. One of them even gets into a classic “rapist” panel van. All of the parents thought they had discussed online dangers thoroughly with their kids.

This social experiment is an important reminder to never forget how naive kids can be, even our own. No matter how hard we try to warn them, they’re still kids, driven and compelled by curiosity and the need for social connection,  friendship, and romance. They don’t know how much they don’t know. Sexual predators are very aware of this and use it against them.

Here’s the video link – http://www.goviralpost.com/the-dangers-of-social-media-child-predator-social-experiment/

Marriage – The Road Less Traveled

I read recently that more and more people are choosing not to get married. I also read that in 2013, for the first time in American history, there were more divorces than marriages. So marriage really is becoming the road less traveled, but I’m not sure that’s a good development for individuals, particularly men, or for society.

The actual title of that Robert Frost poem is The Road Not Taken, and that’s almost what it was for me, until I spent nine years courting a very committed woman. We’ve been married now for almost ten years. She deserves a medal for everything she put up with. To say I had “issues” is like saying the devil is not a nice guy.

Albert Einstein said, “Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.”

Seems old Al was wise in more ways than one. 

It’s no secret that marriage is sometimes difficult. Of course, it is. But much, much harder is loneliness. I know. I stayed alone – well, unmarried, anyway – long past the average marriage age for men. In fact, for six months of my 27th year, I was backpacking through Europe, determined to be the Old Spice man with a girl in every port. I didn’t even think about getting married for another ten years. I think it’s safe to say I was a tad commitment-phobic. 

Right up until I walked down the aisle, I was terrified, mainly because I’d had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of passionless marriages, and listening to the men in those marriages say things to me like “hold on to your freedom” and “sow your oats, kid” and “ah, to be your age again.” They reeked of despair, so the message was absorbed deeply into my adolescent psyche – marriage is death.

When I was sixteen and becoming obsessed with girls, my father took me aside for “the talk.” I thought he might say, “Listen, son. Women are people, too, and you should respect them. Don’t lie to them. Don’t cheat on them. Someday you’ll regret every hurtful thing you say or do.” That’s what I needed to hear; what every boy needs to hear. But what I heard instead was, “They give you their vagina and they want your soul.” For good measure, he then added, “Keep ’em guessing” and “If I was your age, I’d be screwing myself stupid.”

My dad was always joking around so I never really knew if he was serious or not, but it had the same effect. So for that reason and the 1001 other factors that determine our character, I made a career out of chasing women around, often at the expense of more noble and worthwhile pursuits, and hurt a lot of decent women in the process. Partly because of all the men who were either obviously miserable, or revealed discontent through admiration of me and my youthful freedom, I equated marriage and fatherhood with pain. Positive role models apply to marriage, too.

I think I also resisted marriage because I was afraid of the choices I would lose by choosing. Who doesn’t want to hold on to the delicious irresponsibility of adolescence? That island between childhood and adulthood when nothing is really expected of you? When you have all the time in the world? I had the same problem with career that I did with women. Making a choice would mean forfeiting something else, mainly freedom. Doing one thing would remove the freedom, though merely theoretical, to do anything. 

When I finally did choose a field of endeavor, writing (the last vestige of scoundrels), not trying hard enough when I was single was easier, too, because nobody was watching me. Now, everything has changed. Nothing has ever challenged me to rise to my potential as a writer (and every other conceivable way) more than the sweet, trusting eyes of my two daughters looking up at me. Though they are probably only thinking about what we’re going to do or eat or which toy they’re going to play with next, I see a lot of questions in those eyes. Questions like, “What college are you going to be able to afford to send me to, daddy?” and “Are you going to give me anything to brag about at Show and Tell, daddy?” and “Are you going to do a better job than your dad did, and his dad, and his dad?”

Yeah, it’s pressure, but it’s the kind of pressure that crystallizes thought, steels resolve, and laser focuses purpose. 

Then there’s the love. Dear God. The love.

Before I had a wife and children, I never knew how much I could feel. And I recalled (when I was willing to recall it) that among those husbands and fathers I met as a boy and young man, a few of them didn’t envy me at all. A few saw me as the little nitwit that I was. A few were . . . happy. One of these blessed few said to me, “Wait until you have kids of your own. You have no idea what happiness is yet.” I didn’t remember him until I actually did have kids of my own. The other, negative voices drowned him out. The last I heard, he was still happy. He and his wife were vacationing in Spain. Still dancing on verandas. It happens, even in this jaded world.

And I saw a movie once – I wish I could remember the title – where an old man was talking to a slightly younger man. The younger man was a movie star but the old man didn’t know it. The old man said, “You are successful where you come from?” The younger man answered yes. The old man asked, “You are rich? Famous?” Again, the younger man, obviously proud, answered, “Yes, I am.” The old man asked, “You have a wife? Children?” as if it was a given that he did. The younger man answered no. Surprised, the old man said, “Well, then you have nothing.” 

James Brown said it, too – “It’s a man’s world, but it would be nothing, nothing, without a woman or a girl.” 

A good woman makes a man better than he would otherwise be if left to his own devices. (I’m sorry, guys, but most of us are idiots. Probably not you, because you’ve read this far, but most of us.) 

My feet weren’t just cold as my wedding day approached, I had ice blocks on my feet. I was calling all my married friends and asking for advice. It was pretty pathetic. One of them said, “Listen, you’ve done the world traveling, skirt-chasing thing long enough. It’s time to do the husband and daddy thing.” 

Another said something similar – “It’s time to start a new chapter. What do you want to do – hit on girls at the gym for the rest of your life?” That sounded pretty bleak. I didn’t want to become the old guy at the nightclub who never grew up, the guy my 20-something buddies and I made fun of. 

Have the last nine years of marriage been easy? Hell, no. Have I became a much, much better human being than I was before, when I had nobody to answer to, or to prove myself to? Hell, yes.

I’ve learned how to laugh harder and cry deeper. And I’ve discovered perhaps the greatest lesson this life has to give – how much love my heart can hold. We had our first child for three years before introducing her to her sister, and we loved her so much, we wondered how we would have any love left to give a second child. But we learned that that’s not how the heart works. Love has no limit. It just keeps on expanding, like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes. 

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(What a grouch. Definitely childless.)

If a couple has one child and gives him or her 100% of their love, having a second child doesn’t mean each child will get only 50%. Another 100% is created. (Who says we need to stop at 100%? We created that number and we can break it. As the great, three first-named poet Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy (and Willy Wonka) put it, “We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”) So if I have ten more kids, my heart will grow ten times bigger to make room for them. If life has a point, I think that may be it – to keep our hearts growing. 

I’ll end tonight with a song I wrote/sang about the delivery of our first child. It was nine months of misery for my poor, wee wife and I (especially her) but we received the Grand Prize at the end of it, and her love made her forget the pain so thoroughly, she went and had another one. That’s life in a nutshell – pain and joy all mixed up together, all the time.

But pain isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. Nothing is. 

The song’s lyrics are below. If you’d like to sing along, you can hear the song at https://soundcloud.com/markrickerby/hallelujah 

Hallelujah

Well, I don’t mean to complain
but Lord what your mama went through.
I’ve never seen such pain
as I did when she was carrying you.
All I could do was look,
hold her sweet, little hand and pray.
I held tight to the holy book
begging the Lord not to take you away.

And now that it’s all been done
and you’re safe here with us today,
now that the battle’s been won,
there’s only one thing I can say –

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

When we’re opening a jelly jar,
I’m stronger than my wife
but it takes more strength by far
to carry and deliver a life.
I was filled with doubt and fear
but she had the faith of ten
and the first time she held you near,
she said she’d do it all over again.

And now that it’s all been done
and we’re watching you laugh and play,
now that the battle’s been won,
there’s something I just gotta say –

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

And how many worried tears fell
doesn’t matter anymore.
Yeah, we went through hell
but you were worth fighting for.

So hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

The Healing Power of Children

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In his song The Things We’ve Handed Down, Marc Cohn sang to his unborn child, “Will you be a sad reminder of what’s been lost along the way? Maybe you can help me find her in the things you do and say.” The “her” he refers to in that line is his mother, whom he lost suddenly at an early age. He sang about her again in the song Saints Preserve Us, an intensely pain-filled song.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvd6kXIfAl0)

Grief is perhaps the oddest and most complex emotion. At the moment of death, when the world is crumbling around us and we can’t imagine life without that person, we are certain we’ll never be happy again. That feeling persists for a time, often a very long time, but then, as if by magic, it gets a little easier. We catch ourselves laughing, or having several sadness-free minutes. That realization is often followed by guilt, as if we are somehow betraying our lost loved one by allowing ourselves to be, not even happy, but just “okay” again. It’s a relief, like not being physically sick anymore. We take normal health for granted until we lose it and start praying to just stop throwing up or feeling pain. The same is true of the heart, except that after losing someone, there’s a new normal. The old world dies along with that person, and we slowly build a new one. 

I was in Vancouver one year, helping a friend make an independent movie. We were driving through a canyon between Vancouver and a town called Cache Creek. At points, this canyon had very high, vertical, rock walls on either side. It was beautiful to drive through in daylight, but ominous and claustrophobia-inducing at night. I was given the task of picking up an actor (Paul Jarrett) in Vancouver and left a little late, so I had to drive through the worst part of the canyon in the pitch black of night. The darkness started to play with my mind. I had both of my parents then but started having very dark thoughts about how I would handle losing them. Like anyone we love, they defined me so much, I didn’t know who I would be without them. Paul, who was a little older than me, asked if I had children. At the time, I didn’t. He said, “Start your own family. It won’t make it easier to lose your parents, but they are the best possible kind of distraction from the pain.” He was a wise man.

I now have two children, one and four years-old, and Paul’s words returned to me just this morning. I lost my brother and only sibling when I was 34 and he was 37, and my father last December. Suffice to say I have more than my share of sadness at the moment.

Since my father died, I have been feeling my brother’s death more intensely than I allowed myself to before because they were so intertwined in my mind and memory. So much falls away as time passes, and all we’re left with is memories. 

I was playing hide-and-seek with my eldest daughter this morning. She was looking for me and I saw her come around a corner very furtively. It reminded me of a photograph from 1965 or so of my brother coming around a corner in exactly the same way. I had always been amused by that photo because he looks so timid, as if worried someone was going to jump out and scare him at any moment. He may have been playing hide-and-seek with our father or mother when that photo was taken. It was then that the sadness hit me, right in the middle of a game. The sadness of how far my brother fell from that state of perfect innocence.

None of us can avoid that fall. It’s inevitable in this world. We all must grow up and “put away childish things” as the old poem says. But my brother fell a lot further. He started using marijuana at the age of thirteen and went right up (or down) the ladder to harder drugs, until he died of an overdose. He had spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, had very few teeth left, and was covered with menacing tattoos. Only I remembered the fair-haired boy who built sand castles with me in the sun at Venice Beach. 

My daughter found me in the closet where I was hiding. She laughed as she always does. I smiled but couldn’t seem to muster a laugh. She noticed and her smile dimmed. I always hate that. I don’t want her to know about death yet. I even told her my father moved back to Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, he’s still alive and skipping through the shamrocks over there. She’ll learn about death and the other harsh realities of life soon enough. I picked her up, walked into the other room, and sat with her on the floor, her arms around my neck. I smelled her honey hair, savoring that hug, but unable to stop thinking about my brother, wishing his life would have been different, wondering how and why he could have gone from a curious, happy, fun-loving child to a drug addict, convict and overdose statistic.

I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions. I didn’t cry so I don’t know how she knew something wasn’t quite right, but my 18 month-old toddler also came over and put her little arms around me, too. I was now swallowed by hugs from my two girls, just when I needed to be. She’s a loving child so this isn’t unusual, but it was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I could feel the scale inside me, one side holding sadness and the other love. They teetered back and forth for a moment, but the love side eventually won, and I was able to get back to the business of living, and loving my children without sadness tainting happy moments. Emotional instability is a terrible burden to hang on children. I will not let that happen. As Lee Greenwood sang, hearts aren’t made to break, they’re made to love.

Happiness and inner peace don’t win on their own. We need to allow them to win. If we don’t choose them for ourselves, who will? They’re the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, and our children.