My Girls

They bring out the best in me. They sharpen my focus. They motivate me to pass the point where I stopped before. I want them to be proud of me and the work I do, but they are the reason for all of it. And if I were to fail as a parent, nothing else I ever accomplish would matter much.

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Just Live (poem)

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I wrote this about twenty-five years ago. It’s about four stages in a man’s life. When I wrote it, I was in the second stage. I’ve completed the third now and hope to complete the fourth gracefully. 

Just Live

There once was a bright, young boy
who thought and thought all day
and rarely joined his little friends
when they went out to play.

Even when he would come out,
his mind would keep on turning
and while all the others laughed and played,
his questions kept on burning.

Like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”
Very big questions for such a small boy.
Unanswered, his childhood flew by.

***

A young man sat on a sunswept beach,
away and apart from the crowd.
You see, he was thinking quite serious thoughts
and their laughter was far too loud.

His nose in a book, he just couldn’t hear
the young girls when they’d call out his name
and though the sun shone so very brightly above,
had no time for their foolish games.

No, there were too many doors to unlock
and so many knots to untie
like “Where did I come from?  Why am I here?”
and “Where will I go when I die?”

***

A middle aged man sat on the same beach,
a place he had come to know
as somewhere to ponder his life’s many why’s
though the answers he still didn’t know,

when a feeling of emptiness, never so deep,
filled his heart and made him afraid.
He thought of the voices of friends, long ago,
but could only hear silence today.

Then he thought, “Oh, my God.  Half my life has slipped by
and still, no solution is near.
I think I’ll stop trying to figure it out
and for once, just be glad that I’m here.”

That day, his eyes opened and though nothing had changed,
the world became bright, rich and new.
And as he lay back to blend with life’s colors and sounds,
the great sky never seemed quite so blue.

***

An old man lies on a bed, close to death,
but not worried, not sad or afraid.
He smiles at sweet faces, gathered around
saying, “Please Grandpa, don’t go away.”

He says, “Don’t be sad.  I had a life full and rich –
something not many can say.”
But their young eyes were still pleading, scared and confused
so he searched for the right words to say . . .

“When I was young, I had so many worries and fears
and questions I couldn’t get by.
Then one day I stopped fighting and searching in vain
and decided to live till I die.

I traveled the world, drank in its wonders,
found true love in a good woman’s eyes,
had beautiful children, life’s sweetest reward.
Each one, an incredible prize.

Now, one journey ends and another begins
and I was right to be patient and wait
for the mysteries that plagued my troubled, young mind
can’t be solved on this side of the gate.

So do one thing more for me.  Know your own beauty.
Always stand strong, proud and tall.
And think of my passing not as the end
but as the summer becoming the fall.”

~ Mark Rickerby

And I Love You So

 

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(My daughter and I six years ago.)
And I love you so,
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

And yes I know how lonely life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening get me down
Now that you’re around me

And you love me too
Your thoughts are just for me
You set my spirit free
I’m happy that you do

The book of life is brief
And once a page is read
All but love is dead
That is my belief

And yes I know how loveless life can be
The shadows follow me
And the night won’t set me free
But I don’t let the evening bring me down
Now that you’re around me

And I love you so
The people ask me how,
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them “I don’t know”

(Don McLean)

What Did the Baby Just Say?

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Can some explain this mystery? When I accidentally say a sentence containing a word I don’t want my 18 month-old daughter to know or use, why does she always notice that word the most? For instance . . .

Example 1:
Mommy: “Hi, honey. How was your day?”
Daddy: “Great until some dummy almost killed me on the freeway.”
Daughter: “Dummy. Ha ha.”

Example 2:
Mommy: “The contractor won’t finish the work until he gets another thousand dollars.”
Daddy: “What? That turkey said his price was final.”
Daughter: “Turkey. Ha ha.”

Then, of course, I get “the look” from my wife. (Also known as the Stink Eye.)

I already gave up the most satisfying bad words when my first daughter was born 4 1/2 years ago. I’m not sure if I can live without less satisfying ones like dummy and turkey.

I think I’ll just stop talking. My wife won’t mind.

On Becoming a Father and Husband, and Redefining “Adventure.”

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I was talking with a friend recently about how much I miss traveling. I did a lot of it in my twenties when I was single. Nothing excited me more than waking up with a Euro-Rail ticket burning a hole in my pocket, pulling out a map, picking which ancient city I would see next, watching the European countryside whip by from the train window, arriving in the bustling train station, the launching pad for another day of adventure, and just walking, open to anything that might come along. Pure serendipity.

In response to my reveries about my free-wheeling, globe-hopping days, my friend, probably concerned that I was unhappy in my new roles of husband and father, said, “Mark, you’ve done the world traveler thing already. It’s time to do the daddy thing.” 

I married much later in life than most, and recently became the father of two girls. One of the reasons I waited so long was that I had the misfortune of witnessing a lot of loveless marriages and poor examples of parenting when I was growing up. So few were the positive examples of both, they had become the equivalent of prison in my mind. But walking around in foreign cities became less romantic and more lonely as the years passed. It became increasingly clear to me that God did not intend for us to spend our lives in solitary confinement, or as foundation-less gypsies. As Pearl S. Buck wrote, “The person who tries to live alone will not succeed as a human being. His heart withers if it does not answer another heart. His mind shrinks away if he hears only the echoes of his own thoughts and finds no other inspiration.”

So I got married and became a dad, and I’m loving every minute of it, but that old version of me still makes an appearance now and then, like that gag they did in the TV show Get Smart where the face of Maxwell’s fellow agent kept popping up in unexpected and impossible places – glove compartments, mailboxes, etc. Likewise, my old self shows up now and then as if to say, “I’m still heeeere! Thought you got rid of me, didn’t ya?” And when he does, the wind that used to turn me into a gypsy for months at a time blows through me again. To scratch the itch, I sometimes watch travel videos on the Internet, which make me even more frustrated.

While watching a movie set in the Greek islands one night, my eldest daughter, then two and a half years-old, climbed onto my lap, touched my face with her tiny hands, looked me in the eyes and said, “I ruv you, daddy.” Then she wrapped her arms around my neck and rested her head on my shoulder. I held her close and inhaled her honey-scented hair, and suddenly all those “far-away places with strange-sounding names” stopped calling so loudly. Even the old version of me, the one who keeps wanting to run from responsibility and be a carefree wanderer (also known as a “bum”) took a few steps back and bowed his head in reverent silence. Little girls can do that. The greatest strength is no match for their softness. Taoism in action.

And in that moment, I realized that my memory of all those travels was making diamonds of coals a bit. I remembered the emptiness and lack of real direction that drove me to those far-flung corners of the earth. Even when I lived on a Greek island, I knew I was on an island in more ways than one. I was hiding from the emptiness I felt at home. I needed God, true purpose, and family. Faith, not just the scattered remnants of religion murdered by logic. A real direction fueled by vision. Blood, not just friendship. My own people, who would stick with me, and I with them, through thick and thin.

The road will always call, and I’ll eventually answer again, but this time I won’t be alone. Marriage and fatherhood is not the end of adventure, it’s the beginning of the greatest one. I’m going to do this right. And how much grander traveling will be when I can show my daughters, with their unbridled sense of wonder and amazement, all the things I saw in my own turbulent youth. How much more amazing they will be to me to see them all again through their eyes, without all that emptiness traveling with me. How terribly heavy it was to carry. Now I will carry them instead, my beautiful bundles of love and light, as a transformed man with a new reason for living – perhaps the highest – to make my heart as pure, happy and loving as theirs are.

A response to this post from a friend who did it all differently. (Had three sons right out of high school.) 

“The truest and greatest adventure of my life was, and still is, being the father to three amazing men. Fatherhood is the fruition of all that I am. Seeing you with your daughters warms my ever-present memory and ever-present reality of what it means to be a father. I smile inside for you my friend, because I know what’s before you and the true wealth of life that is yours as you hold on to it with both hands and all your heart. Your feet are walking the road of adventures that in your mind you never knew were there. Truly the most rewarding, meaningful, and personal fulfillment of one’s life is being a parent and father! As I travel the world, breathing in the diversity of life’s experiences, I go as a fulfilled man, not lost or wondering, but knowing exactly who I am. In the light of that fulfilled maturity will be the soul of three young men, traveling with me, who have given to me the honor of being their father. I feel blessed the opportunity is before me; blessed that its richness and diversity come to me as a complete, mature man; blessed to see it in my completeness. Yes, “I did my time” as they say, but it is time I would gladly do over and over again.

We only get one pass at the seasons of life. Making each season count is the challenge before us. We embraced life differently, at different times, yet with the same zest my friend… Not better or worse, just differently. No journey is wrong or bad. Every quest brings to the traveler what they need to be full and complete. You are, as am I, on the quest that was made specifically for ourselves. Life holds no guarantee of safe travels or of fulfilled relationships that end in perfect bliss. Risk is always a part of every quest. To not venture out with both feet and all heart on any quest regardless is to cheat oneself of all there is to be realized.

I have a favorite quote that comes from the movie 180′ South – ‘The word adventure has gotten overused. To me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts.’ If it’s being trapped in a third world airport and realizing the eventual escape, or being the man your daughter needs, holding her broken heart at the loss of her first love. Things go wrong, my friend, and when they do, you find the truth of who you are. That is when the quest has done its work in you. I believe that you will find you are a greater man that you ever knew yourself to be. “Honey-scented hair” is but the tip of the greatest iceberg.

And yet one more before I head out for a hike (lol) from 180′ South – ‘When I put myself out there, I always return with something new. A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.’ You’re out there, my friend. Embrace!”

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.

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.