Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Week Without Our Kids

Our kids were gone for the week.

Wait a second, I didn't accurately express that.


Cue the confetti drop.

It was the last week of summer. A week we'd all been collectively anticipating for months. The dates on the calendar on the fridge had been circled in three different shades of red for months. In a few short days, the school year full of hectic busy-ness would return.

But not yet.

"Where had our kids gone?" you may be wondering with concern. Had we shipped them off to a week-long prison, I mean camp? Had we arranged for one long sleepover with friends who had neglected to read the fine print on our contract? Had we told them to go play outside and lost track of time?


One set of grandparents had actually requested to have the kids for the week which we gladly agreed to after first making sure that they were feeling okay. When we hung up the phone we laughed like two criminals who had pulled off the heist of the century. We cackled like two witches who'd mixed the most excellent devious potion. We giggled until our kids looked at us suspiciously wondering what, indeed, was that funny.

One moment they were here kissing us goodbye as we packed bags full of clothes, books, snacks and stuffed animals. We kissed and hugged and wished them well. We shed tears.

And they were gone.

Let the party begin!

Somehow the kids had made their way to their grandparents and we were free. To make it easy for you, I'll now eliminate all unnecessary words and punctuation from the previous sentence - kids left, we free.

Yes, we were free - not that I want to equate raising our kids to being incarcerated, but...not sure how to finish that sentence, so let's move on.

We stood there, the two of us, in our now empty and eerily quiet living room, stunned and utterly unprepared for the moment. I made a mental note to jump for joy later on that day in front of the mirror when in full control of my limbs and facial muscles so as to truly capture the moment.

Once the dust had settled, we looked at each other, sat, and wondered what we should do first as we prepared to shake off the shackles of bedtime stories and dinners prepared just so and insisting on rooms being cleaned up. For one whole week there would be no fights for the remote or crying after family games or petty arguments to break up, or at least none involving children for a change.

Seeing as both of us were still on holidays, the choices were seemingly unlimited. For once, we could almost do whatever we wanted for 7 whole days including, but not limited to, building a killer fort with couch cushions. I was about to smack myself in the face repeatedly, but my wife beat me too it. Ouch.

I don't want to give the wrong impression, at least not right now, but it was initially a tad overwhelming. To state the obvious for the record, we love our kids. As busy and crazy as our weeks are together, I wouldn't trade it for anything, aside from slightly less whining. And it's not that I can't pick and chose how I spend my free time, but, as a parent you are used to having so many restrictions.

Afterschool programs and lessons and meal times and homework and shopping and sports and bedtimes and don't forget about quality family time. When you add that all up, carry the one and then subtract from the total it doesn't leave a whole lot of time to do too much for yourself especially if your math skills are rusty. For the two parents to actually spend time together outside of 9:45-10:45 at night after the kids are finally asleep, the dishes are done, the living room tidied enough to live in again and the parents with only enough energy to lay on the couch would be amazing.

We sat there, huddled together for warmth before remembering that it was summer, and alternatively stared at each other and the blank TV screen. What to do and where to go first? How to best utilize the week without blowing the bank, or blowing the bank without being caught? How crazy and outlandish should our plans be?

The questions assaulted my brain as did the pillow my wife was playfully hitting me with while we sat there with this wide expanse of unscheduled time and no one to look after. It had only been a few minutes and yet it already felt so strange. And somehow being this strange person in a strange land, felt like deja vu for me. Like I'd been here before, years ago when I was a younger, less-wrinkled version of myself.


Then it dawned on me, it was just like the time right before we first became pregnant. 33 and 31, relatively young, and free. Technically my wife was the only one pregnant (she called dibs), but I like to refer to us as "we" for tax and insurance purposes.

Back in those days, life was full of impromptu trips to random destinations. We'd spend whole afternoons strolling around looking in shops and having coffee and selecting ingredients for a meal we'd cook together while enjoying jazz music and white wine. We'd spend afternoons throwing frisbees in the park without any idea what time it was as there was nowhere to go and nowhere to be.

At the drop of a hat, we'd race off to listen to live music or hit a tennis ball or watch a movie or all the above at the same time. Though busy in life, it felt like there was time. Time to sleep in, to "waste" an afternoon laying on the couch or in a lawn chair somewhere. We were always able to operate at our own speed, mess with the schedule, do what we wanted when we felt like it, before kids.

Then the kids arrived and everything changed. Mostly for the best (remember we love our kids), but as busy parents we often longed for some of the life we'd left behind.

And now, 10 years later, we had a week to recapture all of that.

Before you think that we didn't, we did.

We went for lazy lunches and lounged at cafes for hours on end, I wrote and she read and we actually took yoga classes together. Matinees were watched, puzzles were collaborated on and games were played.

We were out for dinner one night and ran into a couple we know who were struggling with their two little kids. It was a scene we had acted before many many times. The parents were being pulled in a millions directions at once by their two little ones. They looked at us and we at them.

"Where are your kids?" they asked with curiosity and exhaustion. The answer was given and the looks we received were ones of incredulity and jealousy as having any amount of free time seemed like a concept so foreign to them that it was as if we were speaking a different language or that we were aliens offering them a free ride on our spaceship.

We'd been there. We knew how they felt. We had longed for free time and now we had it. And, though we had a wonderful week, it did feel foreign and strange and weird. As much fun as we had together in our freedom, the whole time it felt like something huge was missing.

My afro from my 20s. I mean, the kids - definitely the kids.

It's true, we missed our kids. It was like two pieces of a very simple jigsaw puzzle were missing and the puzzle was just incomplete. For the better part of 10 years, we'd always been together; playing, reading, eating and everything in between. We are a family that spends a lot of time together and now we weren't. It just felt odd.

Not that this odd feeling prevented us from living it up as much as two forty-something homebodies could live it up, but throughout each day the following thoughts and queries were spoken:

"I wonder what the kids are up to?"
"Wouldn't the kids like that?"
"I miss them."

The house was too quiet. Evenings without bathtime and bedtime and reading time felt unusually long. No good night hugs and kisses and "I love you mom and dad" as one last treat before the day ended was strange. Mornings without a little one walking quietly up to me as I slept saying "can you wake up with me now?" just felt odd.

And then it hit me. I was seeing into the future. A future without a full house.

This week was sort of like what it will be like when our kids have grown up and moved out. When we aren't a young family any longer. When there are no mouths to feed and cuts to bandage and homework to help with. When our kids have grown up become adults and have moved out. When this week without kids at home becomes the long-term reality of our lives.When we are old.


This week alone both reminded me of when we were younger while also giving a glimpse into what it will be like at the other end of the rainbow one day. I saw that that life, as great as it is right now and as much as we wish for time to slow down, will continue to march towards the end of this stage. That all of the wonderful and amazing things we all do together do have expiration dates. Time marches on and kids do grow up.

We'd had a wonderful day together; lots of laughs and chances to fully relax, yet at the end of this nice day, we sat there in our slightly-depressingly empty nest, and I felt sad that this thoroughly enjoyable phase we are so fortunate to be in, will inevitably come to an end.

But not yet.

Clearly, this week would end and our buoyant and joyous kids would bounce and scream back into our world. This week would end and our lives would once again be filled with laughter and crying and frustratingly-annoying sibling squabbles and fights before we knew it. This week would end and it would quickly seem like nothing but a figment of our imagination. This week would end and we'd long for some free time without kids.

And as we spent the last evening, eating our final dinner and watching a movie completely of our choice at the ungodly hour of 8:00pm, we wished we'd done more with our time. Buyer's remorse?Had we done all we could have done? Did we fully utilize our time in such a way that we'd have no regrets? What did it say about us that we weren't completely able to let loose and enjoy ourselves without our kids? Had we become lame? Had I lost my separate identity over time and fully become Tommy, the father who couldn't exist and function on his own?

And then they came back.

Full of stories and items grandma bought for them and questions and energy! Wanting to go out and stay in and be driven places and to see friends and have meals cooked and on and on and on. And though I would have loved for a few hours on a Sunday just to do whatever I wanted on my own without a soundtrack of complaining or whining or pleading, I was so happy to see them and never wanted them to leave again.


The Calm Before the Storm: A Short Story

It is morning.

I sit at my desk, though I'm constantly being reminded that the desk is not technically mine by my boss who seems to be a little too happy that it's his. I breath in as deeply as I can without disturbing my next-door neighbour who is very sensitive about excessive breathing. I always bug him that in a previous life he must have been a bat which, for some reason, always makes him look so disarmingly sad.

Another busy day with near-rabid clients all wanting more and more and more almost literally ripping me to shreds is about to begin and I just can't wait! I know what I signed up for - salsa lessons on Thursdays - and I also love my work. It just feels important despite my office being between the bathroom and the storage closet. Ever the optimist, I boast to my colleagues, that in the likely event of a flood, only I'll have the best access to a mop and bucket. Maybe it was the significantly large amount of time I was forced into playing make believe Noah's ark games as a child and into my adulthood, but I am constantly on red alert for the next flood.

But now, at this moment, I am enjoying the last few minutes of calm before the storm, which is always a challenge, as approaching storms remind me of the anxiety-producing bedtime stories my older sister insisted on reading to me by candlelight no matter how much the dripping wax burned my upper lip and how well the slightly-too-bright fluorescent lights worked in my room. My sister went on to enjoy an illustrative career as a candlemaker bringing my parents, and our small town, much pride while still giving me the shivers everytime I smell wax or have dripping wax land on my upper lip which is depressingly often.

It is a regular, everyday, not-worth-writing-home-about-but-not-that-I-let-that-stop-me-haha-mom-and-dad-I-hope-you-love-all-of-the-letters-I-send-you-on-a-daily-basis-about-nondescript-periods-of-time morning. Some years back my parents attempted to place a restraining order on my ability to send letters and were laughed out of court. The cash I spent hiring a group of aggressive, over-the-top professional laughers for the occasion was money well spent as was that corned beef on rye that I taunted my roommate with as way of celebration.

As crazy as it sounds, with the exact amount of crazy depending on the company I'm keeping at the time who typically fall between kneeling down to smell flowers when there are no flowers around to assigning unique names to each of  50 different peanuts before consuming them all while bawling, I love mornings. I love them the same way other people love their cats that continually scratch their couches as if on a mission to remove all upholstering. I love mornings, but they've made it pretty clear the feeling is not mutual and that I need to stop already and move on or else they'll have to alert the authorities.

No matter how it looks, I didn't always love mornings, and I'm quite aware of how it looks as I spend significant time looking at it each evening while meticulously combing my hair while listening to Wagner. That's right, as I'm always telling anyone within earshot which I make easier by carrying around my own amplifier on weekends, when I was a younger, more marketable and less brittle version of myself, I couldn't stand waking up. Actually, the waking up part was okay, but I refused to stand unless ordered to by a lady with perfect posture and a haircut to match who spoke with a proper British accent accompanied by a spot of tea. Not a cup, but an actual spot as I am trying to cut way back on my tea consumption before I become known as "that guy".

For those who aren't around while I am sleeping, which is hopefully everyone but the man in the poncho whom I occasionally pay to watch me sleep, I have always been quite adept at laying down while awake, despite the fact that those world records keepers always refuse to answer my calls. But as both I and my prized cheddar aged, more and more meetings and appointments and work happened before lunch that I needed to feign consciousness for or, if I was in the mood, actually be conscious for. I did try, for a short time, being unconscious at work which, while providing hours of hilarity for the boys in the mail room, was frowned upon by my superiors who were the women in the room directly above the mail room.

One day it hit me. Unless I wanted to drift through life as an unemployed drifter who enjoyed some drift-net fishing on the side just as my highschool yearbook had predicted I, out of our grad class of 250, was the most likely candidate to do, I needed to change. Yes, I realized that I needed to change everything starting with my pillow case. My mom argued, quite over-the-top vehemently which, if you know my mom, is standard operating procedure, that my pillowcase was the least of my worries. My mom, cutely, is always either vastly underestimating or greatly overestimating the psychological and emotional impact that linens have on me.

But I figured things out and quickly transformed from a sleep-all-morning-on-the-kitchen-floor-caked-in-tortilla-chip-crumbs slacker to a rise-at-the-crack-of-dawn-and-chomp-at-the-bit-night-mouthguard-wearing go-getter despite what all of those naysayers were saying about me. Those particular naysayers are horses. True, those months mostly spent in my unfinished basement that I had re-purposed into the padded cell of my childhood dreams were as transformative as they were damaging, but just like my daycare provider used to tell us during afternoon snack, drastic times call for drastic measures.

In the blink of an eye - multiple blinks if I'm being honest - it was like I was a different person, with different sweater tops and my friends seemed different too, taller, more mysterious and into Greek food. In some ways it was like someone had forcibly put wool in front of my eyes right after making me sit through hours of excruciatingly boring shearing only to remove the wool and run away giggling like a wild pack of schoolgirls, while in another more accurate way, it was nothing like that at all. No wonder my roommate is always complaining of headaches even after I begrudgingly removed all of the wonderful asbestos that I claimed gave our place a certain je ne sais quoi feeling from days gone by.

For a few years I went to school, before deciding to actually enrol in courses as it was getting very boring just hanging out. I graduated near the top of my class thanks to my new hat at the time and my good fortune to always show up late when they decided to make human pyramids. And here I am. A veritable success in the most limited definition of the term without sounding sarcastic. Gone are the days of wondering where I was going in life which seemed to be dominated by walking cautiously on a series of poorly lit paths at dusk. These days I never leave the house without my trusty lantern as well as a trunk full of backup lanterns just in case an impromptu lantern party breaks out.

I look at my daybook and scan down the huge and daunting list of appointments while silently applauding the use of page numbers. I had written in a thick red marker for some strange reason giving a fairly regular list of names a huge and daunting feeling to it for dramatic effect and so that the markers I had spent my weekly advance on wouldn't just sit there gathering dust. I mean I wanted them to gather dust so I could avoid feeling like I wasted money on the new duster I bought, I just didn't want the markers to solely gather dust as that was what the scissors were for. It would be a cold day in hell, I was always muttering to myself, before I'd use those scissors. My daybook, interestingly, had been an odd, yet practical gift, from my estranged uncle who is an odd, yet practical gift of a man whom my aunt always lovingly and cryptically referred to as the human embodiment of a daybook.

As I gathered my thoughts and remembered how I got here - it was two rights, followed by a left, followed by three lefts and finished off with a huge roar and fist pump that freaked out a group of new mothers pushing strollers enjoying a seasonally warm morning, I reminded myself of the plan for the day. My bosses were always reminding me in eerie, yet standing-ovation-worthy unison to toe the company line which I begrudgingly did. I thought it was just an old expression until that one day, when I arrived at work, and saw this ridiculously audacious line that the bosses had painted as if to prove a point or just because they love painted lines. But, there was no way I was going to simply do what "they" wanted and I went as far as refusing to unless someone left me a briefcase with unmarked bills under my pile of decoy briefcases I keep out back just in case. The bills, plain sheets of white paper, were as unmarked as they could have been and I was impressed that they took the time and effort to placate me.

After a slow start that I attributed to leg cramps though industrial strength glue might be more accurate, I started climbing the company's ladder rung by rung while also receiving promotions and raises that were completely unrelated to my love of climbing the rope ladder they had installed in the company gym. In little time I went from the assistant to the mail clerk to his co-assistant to someone worthy of sitting down during the day at an actual desk. And to think my first girlfriend believed that no one would ever pay me to sit at a desk. The random and diverse things she thought would never happen to me would have been enough to fill exactly two pages of her diary, which they did. I remember the day she ran out of ideas and how she wept as the other 98 pages of her diary would have to be filled with pictures of farm animals that she clipped out of magazines. I missed her sometimes before I recall how painful our separation was. I still can't believe she actually bit my leg.

The crew had all arrived by now and each of us were primed and ready. Some of us had chosen to wear deodorant for the occasion, while others had chosen to surround themselves with things that smell awful, thus appearing better smelling relative to those objects. I sit at my desk looking at the wall openly admiring its verticality. I hoped my envy isn't too pronounced or if it is, that the new girl isn't standing outside my office gaping at me with her a-little-too-cute mouth right now and permanently etching me off her list of eligible bachelors if she even had a list in the first place that I was fortunate to make. Why she'd have an etching tool on her person is another great question that really has no good answer, unless she comes from a long line of etchers, and even then. This new girl is the latest model off of the assembly line of cute girls hired at the office who somehow appear less cute after lunch.

As I enjoy the last few moments of calm, I smugly lean back on my swivel chair and allow myself a small, yet infinitely satisfying, chuckle at my ancestors who never got to experience a chair that swivelled. And then, mid-chuckle, I am slapped hard upside my cheek by reality who always slaps a touch too hard. Today is going to be rough, like a storm at sea, or a storm on land. There would be a line of angry, demanding customers who were only slightly better than a hoard of angry, demanding customers mostly due to their ability to organize into a line, thus making themselves seem more approachable. These customers would want refunds and apologies and free pens or, failing that, a sincerity that I usually only reserved for my grade 8 math teacher because she unapologetically gave me free pens from time to time.

"Everybody ready?" the boss called out as she did on a daily basis without ever opening the question to the floor for debate and discussion. For months I had been a little worried about the guy next to me who closely resembled a rabid dog only with drastically less ear hair, until one day it hit me that I should remove the plastic before microwaving and consuming my breakfast burrito. One last glance at the blank space on the wall right above my computer and then back at my computer and then up at the blank space again as if searching for inspiration or a computer, and I was truly ready for whatever this day would bring as long as it wasn't horrible indigestion.