Saturday, July 30, 2016

Busy Summer Days with My Girls




The "excitement" all begins early, around 7:45am, when I hear hushed whispering emanating from their room next door.

"Should we wake up dad?"

"It's not 8 yet and he told us not before 8."

"But I'm awake and I'm bored and I'm hungry."

"Do you want to play with our stuffed animals?"

"Has mom left for work yet?"

And it continues, as I lay there in my half asleep/half awake semi-consciousness praying for just a few more moments of peace and quiet before the day begins. And it's almost as if they read my thoughts as they must have found some sort of activity to occupy themselves for the next few minutes as I'm able to doze off again.

I often wonder what they are doing, mostly silently, using hushed murmurs, but I figure that as long as I don't hear crying or screaming or loud noises that will disturb the neighbours on the other side of our thin townhouse walls, it is all okay.

And then, I wake, all of a sudden, as I'm gently shaken and stirred. In my darkened room, I can barely make out two large shadowy figures that loom above me to my left. I blink a few times, rub my eyes and grab my glasses.

"Dad, it's 8 o'clock," they say "it's time to get up."

I try to tell them that I'm beyond tired and that we should all sleep in as it is the summer and that I didn't have a great sleep, but I'm told, unsympathetically, that if I am tired I should just go to sleep earlier. Hard to argue with that, so I don't try. Instead I roll away from them, hoping that they will get the message not to bother me yet, but, their well-planned attack is ready for this maneuver as one of them circles the bed and they climb in and trap me.

In one of my favourite moments of our full day, we lay there, silently cuddling together, papa bear and his two cubs, I can hear them breathe just as I did when they were babies. It is a perfect moment of peace and calm. And then, then the tickling begins.

When they were little I could use my strength to "overpower" them as I'd hold them down and make them giggle until they cried for me to "STOP!" But something has shifted. They are big, they work as a team and they know all of my moves and my weak spots. In seconds, I am trapped as one sits on my chest and works my neck, while the other blows on my belly and attacks my sides. I squirm, attempting to free my arms, my hands, trying to go on the offensive, swearing to "get them back if they don't stop".

And then, as quickly as it began, it ends, as we lay there panting from our wrestling. It's time for the day to begin. We descend down the stairs.

It's time for the short-order cook to punch in for work. The orders come in quickly from the couch like rapid fire as they settle in to watch their morning TV show.

"I'll have my usual."

"I just want blueberries right now."

The daily, almost rehearsed argument over which show to watch ensues. It would be hilarious and enjoyable to listen to, if I hadn't heard this discussion dozens, if not hundreds of times already, and even then, only slightly.

"You chose last time!"

"You promised if I let you choose the movie, I could choose the shows for a week!"

"I have the remote and you aren't getting it."

"Dad, she's not listening to me!"

"If I get to choose, you can sleep with all of stuffed animals for a month!"

"You don't really mean that."

"Get off me! Dad, she's touching me with her feet!"

Exhausted, I am forced to intervene after pleading with them to "just figure it out or else there will be no TV" a threat I have used many times before and which we all know I won't follow through on as I need their TV time to completely wake up. Somehow a compromise is reached and the cook can get back to work.

"English muffins, lightly toasted with cream cheese. Make that peanut butter. With honey. Actually, one of each or just surprise me, but don't give me anything I don't like."

"I want a piece of toast, buttered, cut into four squares, crusts cut off, with melted cheddar topped with a runny-yolk egg with salt. Remember I don't eat pepper."

"Hurry, I'm starving."

"Me too, I can't wait one more second to eat."

With the sounds of the TV in the background and two half-asleep kids on the couch, I launch into action filling my arms with a variety of items from the fridge, freezer, pantry, and cupboard. After placing them on the counter, I instantly begin reliving my summers as the breakfast cook in a busy restaurant. As if on auto-pilot, I'm microwaving, frying, toasting, cutting and spreading with an accuracy and precision that goes completely unnoticed. It's as if I am dancing.

The food is served, the dishes washed, a second show starts and I feel my tummy rumble. Time to think of myself for a moment. The second I sit down to enjoy my food, the requests continue, incredibly perfectly timed for the moment I resume sitting.

"My food got cold, could you heat it up?"

"Can I have some juice? With ice. Not too much, I'm not that thirsty."

"I will have some corn flakes, no milk, with a spoon."

"I also want juice. Actually milk. Or chocolate milk."

After eating my breakfast, I boil some water for our thermoses and start to get lunch ready and packed for whatever adventure lies before us today. The beach, the park, the pool, the court, the bikes - the possibilities are endless. Not that we don't take it easy and relax at home and enjoy our literal mountain of Lego, our stacks of puzzles or collection of games, but I was brought up to get outside in the summers.

Often from just after breakfast until just before dinner, covered by multiple layers of sunscreen and sweat, I remember returning home as a kid, exhausted by hours in the sun and collapsing on the couch with my sisters at the end of each glorious day to watch a movie as my dad went to downstairs to create art and my mom went to the kitchen to create dinner.

The debate begins over our plans for the day as I make lunch. Summers have always been this way, dad and the girls, as my wife and their mom has always worked. While jealous of our time enjoying our freedom, the best moment of her day is the excited and high-pitched squeal of joy from the girls when she returns home, exhausted from another day of work.

I attempt to find consensus.

"How about the pool?"

"We just went a few days ago."

"Tennis?"

"Maybe tomorrow."

"Bike ride?"

"Nah."

"Playground?"

"Boring."

We usually settle on the beach, an activity they thankfully both love. They could, and do, spend hours and days on end swimming, playing in the sand, collecting shells, and looking under rocks for small crabs. Regardless of how often we have been recently, there is rarely a dull moment on the beach as they meet up with friends from previous summers, invent games or lay back and read.

While they are still young, there is an almost unnoticeable shift from year to year in our summers as they grow up and their interests change. Before, we had to plan our days in and around nap times or meals. We had to be close to home in case of exploding diapers or meltdowns. And then, they aged, growing out of strollers and car seats and high chairs. Summer days have become, over time, endless sprawls of unscheduled, non stressful, not-in-any-rush-to-leave time and I love this aspect the most.

During the school year, every moment of every day is accounted for. Homework and workouts and dance classes and dinner times are all set as the family races from event to event to event. Each day feels packed as we long for free time. And then summer arrives and aside from a few things here and there, time magically appears saying "use me as you will".

Dinner a little late tonight? Who cares?

Enjoying the beach for another hour? Why not?

Already past bedtime? Doesn't matter.

What time is it? No idea.

It is wonderful.

We spend a lot of time in the car together, the girls and I, driving from place to place. These days the soundtrack of our rides is dominated by pop music as the girls all-of-a-sudden know every word to every song and either sing along at the top of their lungs or complain about the frequency of each song being played. Music in the car ends up making me feel a bit crazy, regardless of whether it is the current pop music or the Raffi, Charlotte Diamond, Sesame Street or Disney songs we used to listen to.

Piano is practiced, teeth are brushed, pajamas changed out of, hair is combed and we are off.

They are each other's best friend, spending hours each day side-by-side, being silly. The care and love they have for each other is clear and they really enjoy being together. And I love spending my days with my kids who quite obviously love it as well. I hope this never changes, but I know that the teen years will bring changes and there will be a point, soon, where they won't want to spend all day with their dad and sister. I'm enjoying it as much as I can, trying not to be complacent, while it lasts.

Not that they don't bug and annoy each other, and me, on end as well. No day or hour would be complete without something happening, usually in the downtime between destinations and almost always in the car while I'm driving and unable to really do much about it except plead, plead some more and threaten to stop the car or the removal of a treat later that day. No matter how much I ask each to stop whatever they are doing that they were completely aware would annoy the other, they don't. I ask, nicely at first, for quiet or patience or understanding.

It's always when they are tired and hot and as impatient with each other as possible for two girls who love each other.

"Stop making that noise with your lips!"

"Just blow your nose already!"

"Quit smiling at me!"

"Dad, she stole my book!"

"You sound like a baby right now!"

"Ow, she scratched/pinched/bit/punched me!"

And I sit there, focussing on the road the best I can, calculating the minutes until my wife gets home and waiting for the storm to blow over, which it always does.

And then we arrive at the beach. The girls get suited up, I lather them with copious amounts of sunscreen due to their fair complexions and they race off to play.

I'm still young, or youngish. I still have the energy and desire to race around with them and kayak across the bay or attempt to find balance and calm on a paddleboard or play in the tide pools. But it is just so tempting to sit and breathe and fight the desire to close my eyes and listen to the sounds around me as time slows down. I just don't want to be one of those parents. You know the ones. The ones on their phones or buried in a book or gabbing away with no idea where the kids are.

So I jump up, fighting off the fatigue I felt since I woke up, and run after them the best I can with my fill-in-the-blank current injury as my years of being injury-free finally have caught up with me. We swim and jump off the dock, we skip rocks and shiver in the cold, Vancouver ocean and I feel good that I didn't just sit there, enjoying some free time but feeling guilty, regardless of the sharp rocks and pointy barnacles.

We sit down for lunch and invariably I gave one kid or the other something they have told me "a million times" that they don't like. Somehow, even though I've been to this rodeo a few hundred times, I packed one kid or the other a snack they "just don't eat anymore" even though I just purchased a huge amount of it because they pleaded for it. And then the bargaining begins.

"If we eat all of the fruit and veggies could we have ice cream?" (nope)

"You promised us a treat today!" (I didn't)

"How about a lemonade then, and a treat tomorrow?" (nice try)

"We have been really good since we got here!" (debatable)

"Don't you want to be the best dad ever?" (tempting)

And sometimes, because I am some combination of nice, tired and weak, I say yes and I do enjoy watching them enjoy their winnings. There is just nothing like watching a young kid eat ice cream outside in the summer. It is about as pure a feeling of joy as one can find and I can feel good that I, this amazing dad with money to burn, helped provide this joy.

The beach beckons.

It's funny, because I was never a beach kid growing up. I mean I went there, from time to time, but I never spent days or even hours laying around in the sand. The memories of my childhood are dominated by parks and playgrounds and tennis courts. I have easily spent ten times as much time at the beach with my own kids then I did as a kid. I like the sand and the water, but I don't love it. It doesn't call to me the same way it does for others, like my girls.

They could almost live there, on the beach, bouncing in the waves, digging holes, eating barbecued meals and it doesn't matter how recently we have been there, they are eager to go back. To be a kid again. And I love providing them with a childhood to remember, regardless of how bored I am by the repetition of the beach and how much I ache for more variety and how burned the back of my neck feels. Not that I am complaining too much, it is pretty awesome to have this luxury.

"It is time to go," I yell at them from across the beach.

They don't want to leave.

"But, dad has had enough! We've been here for hours!" I reason.

Sorry, they are having too much fun!

"Well, in that case, why don't we stay forever?" I joke.

Sure, they say without a moment's pause.

"I was kidding!" I exclaim to no one as they have already jumped, tumbled and flown away to play.

Finally, after much effort, we escape, partially showered, mostly changed, hair and crevices somehow still full of sand and we head for home. The girls, sit in the back, flaked out in their seats as I attempt to creatively figure out a meal to make for dinner that all will enjoy that doesn't involve too many steps that I don't need to stop and shop for. We all want to get home and picking up groceries just isn't in the cards at the end of the day.

The car ride is long and full of predictably tired bickering. I beg them to stay on their sides, to not touch each other AT ALL, and try to get a fun game going. They insist on spending their time telling on each other and attempting to use the very same words we parents use on them to get them to stop an annoying behaviour on each other with amazing results.

I try not to take sides and, with a deep breath, I make some suggestion to each about what they could do to make the circumstances better for them.

"You know if you stopped bugging her, she'd stop bugging you."

"If you ignore her and don't let it bother you, she will stop."

"How about trying to fill each other's buckets?"

When that doesn't work, and it often doesn't, my patience goes out the window.

"Come on, just get along!"

"Why are you doing that, it only makes her angry!?!"

"No talking at all till we get home!"

And on those drives when it continues, they talk back, refusing to take any blame for anything and saying things that are just untrue.

"You always take her side."

"I'm just going to ignore both of you."

"Fine, I'll never talk to my dad again."

"You only love her."

We are all thankful when we get home and the girls race inside to watch a movie as I get dinner ready.

Now don't get me wrong, I love to cook and during the school year, I will research recipes and ingredients and attempt new and creative meals all the time. But in the summer, regardless of the long expanses of time, I just want to sit when I get home, enjoy a cold drink and watch something. But, someone has to cook and my wife will be home soon from another long day of teaching and the kids are getting cranky for some food, so I jump up, feigning energy and begin to put something, anything together.

Wife comes home. Long day. Tons of marking. Tired.

The movie ends, the dinner table is cleared and the partially-cleaned living room is reduced to shambles in mere minutes as seemingly every toy, colouring book, Barbie and small piece of plastic is scattered all over the space. Somehow they are actually neater now than they used to be and the adults don't have to do all of the cleaning. Most, just not all. How they still have so much energy after a busy and active day is impressive. I almost feel proud.

And almost on cue, the picking starts. They are in each other's space, they are drawing on each other's prized pieces of art, they are burping in each other's ears. On my last fumes, I suggest playing a game partially to help settle them down before bed and partially for reasons I'm not totally aware of. Duty? Expected future guilt? Love of board games?

"I won't play that game."

"She chose last time!"

"You always whine so much!"

"Well, I hate you."

"I'll only play if I can go first and be the banker."

"She always gets her way."

Finally a game is settled on and we begin. I've tried to impress upon the girls that it really doesn't matter who wins as it is only a game, but those words fall on deaf ears. Regardless of the game, within minutes of starting there are invariably accusations of cheating, moaning about things being unfair, threats of quitting if things don't go their way soon and the exhausted tears of some tired, tired girls. Once again, they are better at playing and competing in games that they used to when it seemed very much life and death to them. Gone are the days of full on tantrums, mostly.

Sleep is suggested.

Reading lots of books is offered as my means of cajoling them to go upstairs at a reasonable time. Reminders of how tired they were this morning and how they were the ones to say that an earlier bedtime was a good idea are given. Could they move any slower if they tried? Maybe if I start a bath that will magically get them off their butts and somehow compel them to clean up in a jiffy and race upstairs? Neither asking nicely nor raised adult voices have any effect. Finally, even they can't deny how ready they are as the chorus of yawns begins.

Teeth are brushed and flossed. A team effort is needed to attempt to remove the tangles from their hair. And after a full day, we collapse on the lower bunk bed to read a chapter of our book while I fight to keep my eyes open. We sit there, leaning on each other for support, attempt to remain conscious. Often I doze off mid-sentence and they have to nudge me awake. How anyone is actually following the plot of this book that we read 7 pages at a time is beyond me. I know I'm not. Plans for tomorrow are suggested as I fill their water bottles.

I hug and kiss each girl. I have a different, unique silly routine at bedtime for each. My youngest one and I battle as I try to tickle her neck with my beard, while she attempts to lick my nose. Don't ask. My oldest one always wants one more hug. Finally, with each and every of their hundreds of stuffed animals returned to its precise spot - and nothing can progress until that happens - play is pressed on their music, the lights are dimmed and I stand at their door saying goodnight, I love you and don't wake up early.

Please.