Monday, July 24, 2017

Amman Week One

I've never been to the Middle East. I had never been to Brazil or India either, but really had no preconceived idea of what those places were like. Some notion of the Middle East had long existed in my mind in some form or another. Not only because my grandparents were from Lebanon, but mostly because of what you see and hear on the news. A story on the Middle East--most bad--makes its way to the nightly news every day. What was this place really like? I couldn't imagine all of it was in constant conflict all the time.

Nothing is like the first moment you step through the automatic doors from the airport terminal. Brazil was like an alien landscape. The earth was red like the surface of Mars, and the plants and birds were otherworldly, like things out of science fiction. We landed in India in the middle of the night. The air was hot and humid, though it was November, and there were throngs of people crowding the exit. We were really in India.

Sometimes, I think, you can be in another country, but it doesn't feel all that different from being in the States, but when we stepped from the airport in Amman, it really felt like we were in the Middle East. As we drove the airport road to town, the desert to the east to our right, low khaki buildings and sparse pine trees to our left, it was quickly apparent we had landed in a place unlike any we had experienced before.

We landed at 4:00, but it wasn't until after 6:00 that we finally left the airport. Short half a car seat. The duration of the jet lag wasn't as bad as it was when we traveled to India. Somehow, Pete and I remain largely unaffected. For me, I think it has a lot to do with having to come to work and to somewhat function through the daylight hours. Everyone was rising early. Even Clementine who Friday morning woke at 1:00 in the morning and never went back to sleep. This wouldn't have been that big of a deal if she didn't tell me every two minutes until the sun came up that she couldn't go to sleep.

After being--for the most part--extremely well-behaved through pack-out and our cross-country travels, the kids let their hair down upon our arrival in Amman. In their defense, they really have nothing to do. The only entertainment they have is whatever they were able to fit into their tiny backpacks, a couple of small airplane games. We have no internet or cable, so they can't even watch TV. They watch and re-watch the same two or three movies we downloaded to the iPad. Yesterday, the lifeguard at the pool gave them each an inflatable ball. This morning, they set up patio chairs as soccer goals on our back patio, so at least they're getting creative.

They've all been adjusting amazingly well. Pete took the move from India hard, and Elise and I were worried he would take this move equally hard. It could be harder. Peter doesn't like change. He cried when I shaved my beard. But he does like adventure. Specifically, Pete likes air travel. You could get him to do about anything or go about anywhere as long as you told him there was a flight involved. But--so far--Pete has been an angel. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. But I think if it was going to drop it would have by now. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stopping at the Happy Room or Drinking the Sky Juice

On Friday (weekends in Jordan are Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday), Elise, the kids, and I joined a field trip to Ajloun Castle in the north of Jordan. The castle was built by Saladin the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, in the 12th century to protect the realm from Crusader incursions.

In the distance, you can see the castle at the top of the hill.

After arriving at the castle, our tour guide gave us the option of stopping at the "happy room" before beginning the tour. 

From the top of the castle parapets, you can see 360 in all directions down into the surrounding valley. According to our guide, on a clear day you can see Jerusalem and--with binoculars--the Mediterranean sea. 

After the guided tour, we had an opportunity to explore the castle on our own, including the museum. 

We saw 1,000 year old mosaic tiles pieces and ceramic pottery "grenades" in the museum. Sam asked why they didn't just use explosives. Of course, I explained to him explosives hadn't been invented yet. The guide also explained to us they used terra cotta pipes to carry water from cisterns to filters. Rain water, or "sky juice", didn't require filtration and could be drank directly from the reservoirs. 

I'm not exactly sure what "ablution" is. And I definitely don't know what it means to take a "wudoo". But we had some fun trying to take a guess. 

The artist at work. 

After the castle tour, we stopped at Lebanese House restaurant in Jerash for a full mezze spread of hummus, pita, babaganoush, and a mixed grill. It was amazing! 

Clementine had been up since 1:00 in the morning due to jet lag and both she and Sam crashed in the bus on the way back to Amman, exhausted. The trip was exactly what everyone needed to get their clocks back on schedule though. They all slept through the night on Friday, ready to hit the ground running the following morning. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New Chapter

It has been almost a month since the last time I have written here and too much has happened since then to possibly provide an accurate account. In that month, I finished work in Washington, D.C., the boys finished school, we packed out of our house in Falls Church, drove to South Carolina then on to Florida in a luxury minivan to visit family, Sam snorkeled for the first time, we flew from Florida to Seattle, roasted s'mores, shot off fireworks, and celebrated the 4th of July in the Pacific Northwest, drove across the state to Elise's parents in Spokane, drank lots of beer, ran a lot, cycled a lot, flew back to Washington, D.C. for 48 hours, before climbing on a Royal Jordanian 787 en route to Jordan.

We've arrived.

The past two weeks is an incomprehensible blur. It all happened too quickly. I am a little shocked by the speed at which it all happened. Though I immersed myself in every moment, reading Jurassic Park to the kids, playing dolls with Clementine, throwing the baseball to Sam, it all sped by so fast. By blogging, putting it all down into words, I think I slow down time somewhat. But I didn't do that. I didn't have time. And I am saddened that it all went by so quickly. I remember coming back from training in West Virginia, facing all we had in front of us, the plan we had laid out, and feeling daunted. But we took it one step at a time, one challenge at a time, constantly reminding ourselves we were just doing the best we can and the only thing that mattered is that we were all together.

Now, we're here. At the beginning of a new chapter. And more stories, new stories, will come. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Monsters and Men

I knew something wasn't quite right the moment we got off the plane from Charlotte. We had landed at PBI after connecting in Charlotte. We were flying back to the United States after spending two years living and working in Chennai, India. We had stopped in London for a few days which was alternatively a disorienting return to Western civilization and a complete disaster.

The next few weeks would prove no less discombobulating. At some point we decided it sounded like fun to stay in my dad's vacant ocean front condo. In retrospect, the sparseness of the accommodations -- though oceanfront -- only served to exacerbate our sense of dislocation. The reverse culture shock was nearly debilitating. I am not exaggerating. We missed India. All of us. It had been our home for two years. For the kids, it was all they had ever known. We had been surrounded by kind and warm strangers, and though we were now surrounded by family, the strangers were no longer as kind and warm. There was an appalling lack of kindness toward fellow man.

How did I know something wasn't right?

My mom didn't meet us at the airport.

I actually did not look forward to her meeting us at the airport as she had done upon every other arrival. She would meet us in the terminal, accompany us as we picked up our checked luggage and picked up the rental car. She would even ride with us in the rental car shuttle to the remote lot and if not try to help us install car seats in the rental car, then help in corralling the kids so they didn't get run over while we wrestled the car seats into the rental car. She only wanted to help. That's all she wanted to do. But I dreaded her being there, because I thought her presence would be more of a burden as Elise and I tried to manage three thoroughly exhausted, jet-lagged kids through the terminal, baggage claim, and the car rental pick-up.

But when she wasn't there, I was disappointed.

Then, I was pissed.

Where was she? We just flew all the way back from India to see her and she didn't even come to the airport?! What the f*$&!

I remember calling her after we had landed. She would be waiting for us at the house. I told her that was fine, of course, and when we did arrive, the customary meal of Publix fried chicken and cold beer was waiting for us. You really couldn't ask for a better first meal upon returning to the United States after a few years. Mac 'n' cheese for the kids. Ruffles potato chips.

Part of that visit was a trip to Disney. Nanny paid for everyone's ticket. Aunt Jackie and Uncle Bill offered up there two bedroom timeshare for all of us. They even babysat one night, so Elise and I could enjoy a much needed and long overdue night out together.

We rode the monorail from the parking lot to the front gate. (Is there really any other way to arrive at the Magic Kingdom? Take the ferryboat? No way!) I remember disembarking from the monorail. I ran down the ramp to keep up with Peter and Sam, both excited and running. At some point, we all sprinted ahead before realizing my mother, aunt, and uncle were lagging.

Because know one had still really told me what was going on, I didn't understand why she was moving so slowly. Her lower abdomen was filling with fluid and was distended, but in her effort to keep us from worrying, she never told us what the matter was or what was going on. This would continue over the course of the next 18 months, a separation of reality and what my mom chose to share with us. She always chose her words carefully when she talked to us. For example, using the word "treatment" instead of "chemo". She didn't want us to worry. She didn't want to inconvenience us or be a burden to anyone.

The biggest challenge for me personally in dealing with her illness was navigating between these two dimensions: reality and my mother's perception of it. Their divergence was greater at times, but they never came together until the day before she died, when she finally admitted to Carlton and I she was dying, something we knew 18 months ago, but she refused to believe.

Even when she asked me to drive her to a doctor's appointment to have a port installed, I don't think at the time I really knew what was going on. I didn't know what a port was or what it was for. I must have known she was sick, but I didn't grasp at the time how serious it was. A procedure she assured me would take about an hour ended up taking all day. We drove back that evening after the sun had set, me starving because I hadn't eaten anything since early in the morning, if even then.

On the drive down, she talked about a  friend from Chalmette who was killed in Vietnam. He must have been a boyfriend the way she talked about him or an unrequited love. She had been talking about him more recently, it seemed. I didn't think much of it at the time, but soon came to understand as I came to understand the seriousness of her illness why she was thinking about him so much.

On the drive home, seemingly blinded by the sea of red blinking stream of tail lights on I-95, I remember her talking about her brother, Andy, and Cousin Joe. Again, only in hindsight, did I recall the in her words the way she were coming to terms with those relationships.

I can't write about either of these interactions with the clarity I want. I can capture neither the same way I captured her last moments, though I wanted to. I couldn't write about them here. Not when she read the blog. One of the most pervasive themes of our last year and half -- Elise and I dealing with my mom's illness -- I couldn't share here at all, because she would read it. I regret not writing it down then and sharing at a late date, but that didn't occur to me until much later. By then, it was too late. I didn't begin writing about the cancer until my mom was too sick to read about it, the tale of her and her monster.

I remember constantly being frustrated by my mom's denial. The denial was so acute, I felt like shaking her to tell her, "You're dying!" It wasn't until Elise told me you can't take the denial away, because it will only be replaced with depression and hopelessness, that I finally gave up trying to figure out the "truth", what was really going on, gave up trying to decipher and decode the real meaning behind her words.

We would soon leave Florida for Washington state and to see Elise's parents in Spokane. After we left, the distension grew worse and my mom had to have surgery. Over the last year and a half I've had trouble keeping track of all the surgeries, medications, and treatments. I tried, but there were so many of them it was hard. But I do remember this was the first one. This was the moment the suspicions I'd been harboring since we first got off the plane at PBI were confirmed.

Josh called and told me he met with the surgeon after the procedure. The oncologist would never give a prognosis. He said it wasn't his practice to do so, but the surgeon obviously not constrained by the same scruples told Josh he gave her 18 months. As Josh told it, he said it as a matter of course, as though he were stating the obvious. The oncologist would never confirm nor deny this. That was when I first heard the terms "Stage IV" and "terminal". After I hung up the phone with Josh, I stood in the middle of Elise's parents kitchen and cried the hardest I would until the day I told the kids Nanny was dying. That night, I woke up in the middle of the night, next to Elise, screaming, waking myself up from a nightmare. It was the first time I had ever done that and I haven't done it again since. 

Medal Ceremony

We are reaching the end of the the soccer season. I have mixed emotions. On one hand, I'm going to miss watching the kids play, the wind running through their hair. On the other, I am looking forward to greeting a Saturday morning without having to wrestle Clementine into her shin guards and knee high-socks, "When I push, you have to push back!" It's like putting a sock on a wet spaghetti noodle!

Sam's season ended on a last-second, game-winning goal (very literally last-second...the goal rolled into the net and the whistle blew almost simultaneously!). Peter and Clementine both have one more game this weekend. Though Peter has one more game, he received his medal for the season at a brief ceremony following last Saturday's game.

The kids watched "Mighty Ducks" Sunday night after our hike. Now, Peter is asking me if they have ice hockey in Jordan. I told him we'll just have to wait and see.....

Monday, June 12, 2017

Escaping the Heat

It was forecast to be 95 today in the nation's capital, so we headed for the mountains. One of our favorite things to do as a family is hike. And one of our favorite place's to go since we moved to Washington, D.C. is go to Shenandoah. We really wanted to make sure we got to go one more time before we packed out.

We scouted out a new trail, the Rose River Loop. It was a 4 mile hike along the Rose River with waterfalls along the way. 

When we started the hike, it was a lovely 70 degrees. But by the time we finished around 3:00, the mercury had definitely soared. 

From a bridge over the river. Photo taken by Sam. 

We came upon a few watering holes among the falls perfect for cooling off. Fortunately, we packed the kids' swimsuits and towels for lounging on the rocks and exploring the falls. 

We suffered only one minor casualty....Sam got a little too close to the edge of one of the falls and slipped on the slick algae. He fell into one of the tide pools (he has a history of falling in water...since he was a toddler and fell into fountains), but he did so deftly and without hurting himself. He almost made it look like he did it on purpose!

On the way out of the park, we stopped for ice cream and milkshakes. The kids had a blast. All in all, we made a pretty good case for pulling the kids out of school, buying a camper van, and living off the land!

Sick Day

I took a much needed week off when I got back from Florida. While I was in Florida, Pete came down with strep throat. He bounced back quickly, but not before he took a day off for himself, too.

Unlike most kids who are sick, however, he did not lie around the house, watching TV. He was much more industrious, building the chalet below out of legos.

Front door. 

Back door. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Whiskey and Fireflies

It seems as though I may have been somewhat premature in announcing the departure of the fireflies.

Two nights ago, as I was sitting in the dining room, looking out over the backyard at dusk (which comes late this time of year...almost 9:00), I glimpsed the familiar spark lighting through the grass. The past week has been remarkably, wondrously cool, and it seems as though everything is running a little late these days. The summer is late in relieving spring, and the hosta-- a tall orange flower that blooms in our backyard-- are late to open. As I sit here, I invariably find a relationship between the hosts and the fireflies; they are intrinsically linked in my memories of last spring and early summers grilling on the back deck; I can still remember the amber glow of the sun filtered through my Bell's Oberon wheat. Elise seems to find me obsessed lately with both the fireflies and the hosta. But I tell her I am just being a dutiful researcher, the James Comey of fireflies, observing their behaviors and meticulously recording my notes, collecting data.

Last night, Elise accused me of arranging the dining room chairs in such a way as to resemble stadium seating. We bought a new bottle of whiskey, and I opened it and poured us both a whiskey and we sat and watched the fireflies which I thought were gone but, thankfully, were not. They were just late like everything else this spring. Maybe they were waiting for the hostas, too. At least, that's what my notes tell me.

While I was in Florida, Clementine and the boys had taken the rest of the bird seed and dumped out over the top of the grill. They also made a bird bath out of a plastic blueberries container. When I got home, our back deck was like "Snow White" with rabbits and chipmunks and squirrels and robins and blue jays fluttering all around. All that was missing was a fawn eating out of my palm. The cardinals are my favorite; I get excited every time I see one. I'm from Florida by way of Colorado, Brazil, and India. I'm not used to seeing cardinals. And am taken with them every time I see a flash of red swoop across my field of vision. I imagine people not from Florida would react similarly to pelicans.

I'm still getting used to the fact that my mom died. I hadn't felt much since her passing. The process had been so long and so grueling--a year and a half--I didn't think I had many emotions left related to the cancer. I was anxious to come home, to see Elise and the kids, to get back to some sense of normalcy (though we would be quickly thrown into the throes of moving...which is far from normal). The emotion I was feeling the most was relief. Without feeling guilty about it. I was relieved my mom was no longer in pain. But perhaps with a pang of guilt, I was also relieved I didn't have to worry about flying down to Florida, leaving Elise and the kids and taking time off work, arranging last minute travel reservations. When I came home and told the kids Nanny had died, they didn't cry. Much like myself perhaps, they had already grieved, and the actual passing was anticlimactic.

This morning, Elise, Clementine, and I took a load of stuff from the basement to the consignment store. We're selling our bikes and the bicycle trailer we pulled the kids in and would take those over to Lauren's house in Takoma later in the day, stopping for a lunch of raw oysters, noon-day pints, and burgers at Republic before picking up the boys from school. Mom would want to know how preparations for the move were coming. She would want to know about the kids' soccer games this weekend. The last time I talked to her on the phone, she was tired and couldn't talk much, rather just wanted to listen, to hear me talk about what was going on with the kids and what was new in our lives when all I wanted to do was hear her talk. Even when she could no longer talk, the nurse encouraged us to talk to her. It's not easy to talk to someone who isn't awake; you don't know if they can hear you and show no response to your words. It's hard to keep talking under those conditions and it is easy to lapse into silence or just walk away, justifying your absence by saying you need to stretch your legs or get a drink of water.

I stood at the sink thinking of how I would fill her in on our move and felt the inability to call her for the first time. I cried. Elise was in the other room and didn't know. Clementine saw me. She grew uncharacteristically quiet and just looked at. I beckoned her toward me with open arms, and she drifted closer to me reluctantly.

I realize the importance of staying in touch with my brothers. My mom had been the primary mediator between us. With her gone, I don't know exactly how I will keep in touch with them. This may seem like a ridiculously minor fix, but I've never called, emailed, or texted them before. I'm hung up on the mechanics of it. Carlton emailed Josh and I my mother's wishes, or what he was able to pull from her in her last two weeks. I still haven't read it. She hadn't put them on paper or otherwise communicated them to us. Her denial was so acute, I am convinced she was never able to articulate a need for them. In her mind--up until the very end--she was going to get better.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Color of Passing

I spent the following day by her bed. Carlton returned from an early morning trip to the gym, showered, and joined me. Josh came, too. Then, Aunt Jackie around noon and a Uncle Charlie an hour or two later. We took turns holding her hand, reassuring her she wasn't alone, though she didn't respond. She said nothing else, having said all she needed or wanted to say the day before.

I sat looking at her, waiting, not believing it was possible to be there the moment she passed. Watching as her breathing quickened and the moans came and went with every exhalation. Wondering, for hours, if this would be her last breath. Then, she would take another, then wondering all over again if that was the last breath, only to have another come, over and over again for hours, the countless wondering.

Around 3:00, the nurse arrived. She lifted the sheet and looked at her toes. She took her hand, a skeleton, a prop, and squinted at the tips of her fingers. "Have they always been this color?" She asked me.

"What color?"

"This blueish."

I shrugged my shoulders. I hadn't been paying attention to the color of her fingertips.

The nurse put her stethoscope to her ears and the end on my mom's chest. She grasped her wrist with one hand and looked at her wristwatch on the other, then reached across her body to feel her other wrist. She told me she couldn't feel her pulse. "It's very weak." she said.

I found that hard to believe. Just the day before, when I hugged my mom, I could feel her heart pounding in her chest and recall thinking she was never going to die with a heart this strong. I didn't know if her heart were really as strong as I thought it was or if there just wasn't anything between me and her heart to muffle the beating.

The nurse left the room, and Carlton and Josh came in. I moved over on the edge of the bed upon which I was perched to make room for him. Josh took watch on the other side, standing.

Her breathing slowed. Slower. To not more than a whisper. I kept looking at her eyes. Her eyebrows would occasionally twitch imperceptibly as though she were perceiving, thinking, or even seeing something, and I wanted to see if in the moment before she passed she saw something....I don't know what...a light....something. But her eyes never changed, and if she saw something, her eyes didn't show it.

Her face twisted up. Three times.

And she was gone.

I sat a long time, holding her hand. In the background, I heard one of the nurses say, "3:20." June 4.

I turned to Carlton. I looked at him and gave him a hug. He hugged me back. Hard. And in that moment maybe...just her passing my mother achieved something she had never been able to do living...make us reconcile, make us see each other for the men we were now and not as the children we were a long time ago.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Beauty in Twilight, Part Three

It was oozing a hot tropical rain when I landed in West Palm. My brother picked me up at the airport in my mom's white Mini Cooper and took me straight to my mom's house.

I walked in, set my bag down, and went directly to her bedside. Since I'd been here two weeks ago, she had been moved from her bed to a hospital bed. Her face was even more sunken; I hadn't thought that possible.

I took her hand. "Say something," my aunt encouraged. "Let her know you're here."

"Hi," I said. "It's me, Paul."

My aunt leaned over and said louder, "Celeste. Paul's here. They're all three here."

Her eyes drifted open. She looked up at me and smiled. "Everybody's here." It was somewhere between a question and  statement. "Everyone's here," my aunt assured her.

She looked at my brother, Carlton, and she looked at me. "I'm dying," she told us.

It was 7:00, and before the day nurse left, my mom asked her for a hug. I hugged her, too. We all did. We sat and held her hands. I told her that Elise wished she could be here and that she loves her. I told her Sam and Peter and Clementine all send their love.

A little while later, the nurse gave her morphine. I moved to the couch in the living room to let her rest.

"Gofrane!" She shouted from her bed. We all stood to see what she needed. Was she saying 'girlfriend', asking for my aunt.

"Gofrane!" She repeated.

"Zofraine?" Jackie offered, the name of the anti-nausea medication.

"I WANT TO GO," she said.

My aunt, Jackie, leaned in, "Celeste, let go. You can let go."


I moved to the far side of the bed and took her hand. I bent down to her ear and told her, "We're all here and we're happy and healthy and safe. And we all have someone who loves us and will take care of us just like you did all these years. You don't have to fight anymore. We're going to be okay."


She gradually drifted to sleep, her wish made clear and her arms crossed on her chest. There was nothing else she could do....nothing else any of us could do but wait.

Flight of the Fireflies, Part Four

For the past couple of nights, I would turn the lights off in the kitchen and dining room and go to the window overlooking the backyard. I would cup my hands around my eyes and look out into the twilight. But I hadn't seen the fireflies since the night when we first saw the telltale streaks of ephemeral lighting shimmer over the grass and through the bushes. There was nothing there now. Except darkness.

Earlier in the day, my brother called to tell me they were taking my mom off fluids. I would have to fly back down to Florida. I didn't want to go, but knew I had to, yet postponed actually purchasing the ticket until the last possible moment.

The kids has finished their bowls of ice cream, brushed teeth, and were now in their beds. I read somewhere the best time to break bad news to kids was late in the day. Initially, I thought this sounded like a terrible idea, but the more I thought about it, it started to make sense. Worst case they could just cry themselves to sleep. Better than ruining their whole day. And let their subconscious work it out in the dreamworld.

I sat on the floor in their room and told them I had to go back down to Florida. We had recently told them Nanny was in the hospital but it's hard to tell how much they know or understand. Undoubtedly, more than we give them credit for.

"Remember how I told you Nanny was sick in the hospital?"

Elise heard me from our room and came in then, climbing the bunk bed and curling up next to Sam.

They nodded their heads slowly.

"Well...she's not getting better."

Peter asked, "Is she going to die?"


"Tell her 'hi' from me," Clementine chirped.

"Tell her 'bye' from me," Peter said before his face melted in sorrow, heavy with tears.

I leapt into bed next to him and wrapped him up, him in his all-black pajamas that makes him look like Steve Jobs or a ninja. I held him next to me and we sobbed. I hadn't cried this hard since January the year before in the kitchen at Elise's parents house when I first understood how serious it was. When words like "terminal" and "stage IV" are thrown about. Words you know but have never really had to use, so you look them up in the dictionary because their meanings are important now and you hope to find some nuance or prescience in their definitions, as though by defining these words you can parse the future from them.

Elise held Sam, and he and Clementine quickly fell asleep.

I walked back into the dining room and sat down. Elise came a few moments later and hugged my shoulders. I looked out the window.

It was still dark. No fireflies.

In the end, they only came by one night. It's better than not having seen them at all, but it's hard not to think maybe this spring was too much for them or to find some other meaning in their absence. Hopefully, they'll come back next year and stick around longer for the new tenants. Us? We'll be long gone. Headed, I hope, for greener pastures. With or without fireflies. Though something tells me I'll see them again.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Tricycle Rodeo

Flight of the Fireflies, Part Three

There seemed to be one missing puzzle piece in the great circle of life, in the cycle I had been so looking forward to seeing completed by the vanquishing of winter and the return of spring. I had remarked earlier on the resilience of nature and on my need to see it restored following the long winter. It had. Mostly. There was still one player missing. One scene of the play missing its actor.

There were no fireflies.

April ended. May opened, came, and went, but still no fireflies. I had many theories. It was perhaps a colder than normal May, I told myself. Maybe they would appear when it got a little warmer. It rained a lot, but it had rained a lot last spring, too. The cicadas emerged four years early, exhuming themselves from their subterranean slumber. Their empty golden carapaces littered the sidewalks. You couldn't pass without stepping on them, crackling like dry leaves underfoot, though you didn't want to. You couldn't avoid them. Maybe their early emergence had something to do with the fireflies absence. Maybe they had somehow chased them off or ate them. I'm not much of an entomologist.

Our Memorial day weekend was pretty low-key. We did little, really, to trumpet in summer. It didn't really feel like summer yet. The kids are still in school until the end of June and the weather is cool and rainy. I took the boys rock-climbing on Sunday, and as Elise was zipping out the door for her Monday morning Zengo class, I was fiddling with an allen wrench and the rear brakes on Sam's bike.

I had never lived in a small town before, the kind with a town square, a local high school with a local football team, a real sense of community, its own fireworks show on the 4th of July, a farmers' market. Falls Church is kind of like that, and though we missed the morning fun run, we rode our bike's down to Cherry Hill park, next to town hall and the library to take in some of the Memorial Day festivities.

The real draw were the bounce houses (and not the deep-friend Oreos as you may have suspected). After riding our bikes a mile (Clementine on training wheels), we parked our bikes and scooters under the shade of a tree and made our way toward the distinctive squealing of small children in the distance. We first came upon a wooden barn. Inside, they were grinding corn cobs. A little further on, were the bounce houses and pony rides, but much to our disappointment you needed to buy tickets to bounce and the pony rides. The ticket booth didn't take a credit card, and I didn't have any cash. We tried the ATM machine inside the community center, but that didn't work either. The kids weathered the disappointment fairly well, though they wanted me to text their mother and ask her to meet us at the fair and bring money.

We watched our neighbor, nicknamed by the kids John-Focus-One (you'll have to ask them), play "Taps" as they raised the flag. We weaved our way through some of the display booths before deciding to head home for lunch. The parade would be starting soon, and we didn't want to get caught on the wrong side of the parade route.

After lunch, we ventured back out to see the parade, only to learn we had just missed it. So, we got Slurpees at 7-11 and went to the park instead. After the park, Clementine and I went to the store to pick up a few staples to start our week, items we'd be behind the eight ball without: apple sauce, peanut butter, beer.

As we made our way through the frozen section in search of rocky road ice cream for mom, a man in a one of the store's motorized wheelchairs caught my eye. He had stopped in front of one of the freezers with a confused look on his face. Clementine was in the cart. I told her I would be right back and approached the man, "Need any help?" I offered.

I perhaps regretted asking when he replied, because I couldn't understand what he said. His speech was slurred and he only spoke out of one side of his mouth, as though he had a stroke. He smelled strongly of urine. But helping someone is rarely easy. Ignoring them is. I asked him again what he needed, but still didn't understand. Then, asked a third time.

"Without sugar," he finally managed.

I didn't know there was such a thing as ice cream without sugar or why he wanted sugar-free ice cream when he had a giant slice of supermarket bakery birthday cake already in his cart which was most assuredly not sugar-free. But I looked anyway, and sure enough found the sugar-free ice cream.

"They have vanilla, butter pecan, and one with chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry," I told him.

He looked back at me perplexedly.

"Vanilla?" I prompted and went to put it in his cart.

"I wish they had strawberry," he said.

"They have this one," I made to reach for the Neapolitan, "With vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry."

"No!" he barked at me as I started to pull the vanilla out of his cart, "I want this one."

I put it back and started back to Lulu. "Thank you!" he called after me.

After Giant, Clementine and I ran to Moby Dick for take-out kabobs.

Many families have set routines, traditions, they adhere to on holidays. Rituals that are followed year after year. For example, every Christmas we pick names out of a hat and bake a ham or every Earth Day we line up under the Earth Day tree and sing Earth Day carols, but the only constant we have in the Hanna household is no two holidays will ever be the same. How can they be? When we don't know where we will be celebrating them or with whom. So, we didn't grill out or have a big Memorial Day barbecue with all the cousins dripping watermelon juice from their mouths, but we did have shish-kabob. We'd never done that on Memorial Day before.

After dinner, I put the kids to bed, and stood at the window in the kitchen that looks out over our backyard in the dark, drinking a beer. The kids had fallen right asleep after what has become a disturbing custom of them yelling at each other for ten to fifteen minute to stop talking . This, too, shall pass, we tell ourselves, our penance for squeezing three kids into a bedroom the size of a cell at San Quentin. No one can accuse them of not growing up close.

The sun sets late this time of year in Northern Virginia, but it was getting late now, and darker, too. Distant thunder rumbled from afar. The window in the kitchen was open; it still wasn't hot enough to run the air conditioner.

And I thought to myself, May was almost over. It was almost June, and spring would be gone, and still no fireflies.

It made me sad to think. People stay in one place for a reason. They move, too, for different reasons, to see and experience new things. But people stay in one place, because it is home, and it is home because it offers a sense of constancy, of comfort in knowing things will stay the same, that every spring the leaves will come back to the trees and the flowers will bloom, and the fireflies will fly again.

But this spring they didn't. So what was the point of staying? What good would it do to put roots down anywhere if these constants in life disappeared?

I looked out into the dark.

The yard and the trees were now a deep, deep indigo in the very last of the days' rays. The inside of the shed in the backyard was a gaping maw of darkness, a black hole swallowing up any light remaining.

And it was so, so dark.

Then, I saw it.

The flicker of a firefly. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beauty in Twilight, Part Two

The following day, mom had a renewed sense of purpose. She wanted to take on -- not one -- but two outings.

In the morning, we met Josh and Abram for coffee. We were originally going to go to Cafe des Artistes, but it was closed. Strangely enough, it was closed the last time I was down and we tried to go there, too, so I'm starting to wonder if the place is ever really open.

We ended up at a local roaster in the Abacoa Town Center, Crux Coffee. They have nitro-infused cold coffee on draft which is pretty much the closest you can get to drinking a beer for breakfast (except for actually drinking beer at breakfast which I have yet to try). It has the texture of Guinness, but is really coffee.

We found a table inside. My mom had a hot black tea, English Breakfast. We chatted for awhile, the conversation between my brother and I naturally devolving into exchanging opinions on the latest superhero movies, before my mother asked us, "Is there anything you have been wanting to ask? Anything you have been wondering?"

Josh just looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. "Like what?" I asked.

My mom told us about her father, our Gan, who served in Korea for 18 months when she was young. He had a mistress there. Her mother, my Nanny, found out, and my mom said Nanny's reaction to learning shaped her own actions later in life.

"I'll turn this back on you," I said. "Is there anything we should know?"

My mom said she couldn't think of anything.

Later, in the car, I would ask her, "Is there anything you were wondering about me? Anything you wanted to know about?"

"No. I think I have you pretty well figured out, Paul Hanna," she replied. "Like how you didn't spend all the tuition money on school."

"Huh? When?"

"In Colorado."

I didn't quite know what she was talking about. I'm no feigning ignorance; I still don't.

Back at coffee, I told my mom and Josh how Elise made Puttanesca clams the other night, a twist on one of her best dishes Puttanesca fish, and how Peter ate nearly two dozen clams, ringing the rim of his bowl with their empty shells the way a cannibal might make a necklace from the teeth or finger bones of his dinners.

"Remember the time Paul threw up all the clams?" Josh blurted out, suppressing a grin.

Neither my mom or I remembered. Moreover, I didn't know why this memory -- above all others -- would stand out. Why would my brother derive so much apparent glee from seeing my sick or in pain?

My mom can't stay out long and she had designs on an afternoon outing, as well. After about half an hour, we made our way back home, me driving her Mini Cooper.

On the drive home, my mom told me she hoped my brothers and I would stay close.

I backed into the garage and turned the car off. "I don't think they like me very much," I told her, wiping tears from my eyes. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beauty in Twilight

I woke at 4:00, snuck downstairs, and showered. I finished packing a few belongings, a pair of shorts, underwear, a few t-shirts, the sci-fi paperback I'm reading, my iPhone charger in a Puma gym bag, and left, walking to the Metro station to catch the train and a 7:00 a.m. flight to Florida. I bought the ticket just a few hours earlier, the night before.

The line to get through security was long. I was glad I got an early start. The flight was without incident, and I soon found myself gliding over immaculately-preened golf courses and lawns and housing developments perfect in their geometry. When I got off the plane at Palm Beach International Airport, I thought I was already at the hospital. Row after row of silver-haired octo- and septuagenarians waited in their wheelchairs to board the next flight. The carpet is a faded teal and the walls were a watered-down magenta, colors that reminded me of illness.

Aunt Jackie picked me up at the airport and immediately took me to the hospital. My mom was going to be discharged today, good news. But all this wouldn't happen until after 7:00, because there wasn't a day nurse available to hook my mom back up to the tube and machine she needs at home, so we would have to wait for a night nurse to meet us at the house.

We visited for a few minutes. Jackie ran downstairs for something to eat and came back with half a ham and cheese sub from the cafeteria downstairs which hit and sat in my stomach like a rock. After awhile, it was agreed we'd let my mom rest in anticipation of what might be a long first night home. Jackie went back to work. I had a paperback and my sunglasses so wandered off into the hot, South Florida morning. I aimed for the water and crossed the nearly-deserted Flagler Drive.

In Florida in May it is already stiflingly hot and humid. The sky is not blue, but white, the heat strangling the blue from the sky, squeezing the life out of it. There can be a warmth on your skin that feels good, that warms bones or wraps you up in something healing, restorative, but the heat in Florida pinches and stings, it conspires against you. I have long hated the heat for it, perhaps with malice unfair to a concept or something elemental.

I met a man with a fishing line in the Intracoastal, his bucket of bait and tackle, a box of lures and filament, in a metal shopping cart. I asked him if he'd caught anything. "Nothing yet." He didn't seem optimistic. I've long thought of fishing as just an excuse to look out on the water.

People are drawn to water, and everyone is searching for something different in it. I didn't know what he was looking for. Or what I hoped to see, for that matter.

I sat on the sea wall and read my book. I lied down, putting my head on my paperback and my eyes in the only shade I could find under one of the random pergolas on the side of the road. I tried to sleep, but couldn't. I listed to the water lap against the concrete sea wall. A fire ant bit my toe. Twice. And I gave up.

I decided to walk to Starbucks on Clematis, almost a mile in Tevas. I arrived twenty minutes later to find it closed, the victim of a global cyber-attack. You can't even get a cup of coffee these days without a computer network.

I called Elise on the walk back and listened as she told me about her cycling instructor. When I got back to the room, my mom was watching the Food Network, no slight irony left on anyone. She searches for small pleasures now, even a sip of grape juice or lemonade is better than just ice chips. No one would argue with that.

I walked to refill her ice from the family kitchen, grabbing a few Saltine crackers and finally getting a much-needed cup of coffee. I passed the door to the adjacent room. It was wide open. Inside, the lights were off, and an old woman was sleeping or dead, her head tilted back, a few fine wisps of ash-colored hair splayed on the tissue-paper pillowcase, her mouth frozen in a soundless 'O' pointed to the ceiling.

When I returned to the room, we passed the last few hours, talking, dozing, watching cooking shows and the news. I talked to the kids. Pete had a field trip to the Natural History Museum and learned about gemstones.

Across the hall, a woman started to wail. There was pain and fear in her cries. It lasted for several minutes, then stopped, though I heard no one come or go or otherwise respond to her cries.

As 7:00 approached, we started to gather our things in anticipation of leaving the hospital and going home. Around 7:30 two burly EMTs appeared at the doorway with a gurney and asked if we were ready. Mom said she was. They grabbed the four corners of the sheet she was on, pulled them tight, making a sort of hammock out of it and lifted her out of bed and to the gurney and with little fanfare, rolled her out.

I had to nearly run-walk to keep up with the gurney. The lead EMT didn't seem to be walking fast; it was almost as if the gurney gave him extra speed, as though it were pulling him along and left me struggling to stay in its wake. We navigated shiny, newly-waxed halls, down an elevator, through mechanical doors, from the chill of constant air conditioning to the warm South Florida dusk, the heat and humidity, again, like walking into a wall.

I won't soon forget the color of the blue of that dusk, the streets, the cars, the trees, even the Burger King across the street all a fishbowl blue, and my mother's face, looking at the clouds and the sky, seeing it all for the first time in more than a week. You could already see she was more tranquil, a relief. And her face didn't look like it was now, but as it had once been, beautiful in repose.

Then, she was wheels up in the gurney and into the back of an ambulance. I sat next to her and she reached and held my hand. I saw my reflection in the back window of the ambulance as 95 northbound sped by. We raced from Palm Beach Lakes to Jupiter at 90 miles per hour; I had never made it that quickly from downtown.

I never will again. 

Wild West Family Night

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


I left work a few minutes early to be home in time to either take Clementine to her soccer practice or stay home with the boys and start dinner. Unlike the boys, Clementine has practice from 6:00 to 7:00 (the boys are 5:00 to 6:00), so there is little time to dawdle after practice if we want the kids in bed on time. It's practice - dinner - baths - and bed. bang - bang - bang.

When I walked in the door at 5:40, Clementine was still downstairs watching TV. Elise was in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher. "Is Clementine ready to go?" I called as I walked in the door, Leave-It-to-Beaver style.

Elise uttered an expletive from around the corner and said she lost track of time. She chalked it up to a "parenting fail".

"No fail," I told her. Seriously. I'm just happy we are all still breathing and are civil to one another most days with all the craziness going on in her lives. Believe me, there were zero expectations that Clementine would have her shin guards and socks on and waiting for me by the door, bouncing a soccer ball off her knees. Though that would have been nice.

Instead, I attempted to hurriedly wrestle shin guards around her ankles when she finally made it upstairs. I have never played soccer, so had no idea what I was doing. I'm also awful at doing Clementine's hair. I know I should learn at some point, but I never had a sister (that's my excuse, anyway), so never learned to braid hair or make a pony-tail. When Elise goes out of town or isn't around to help get Clem ready, you can tell, because her hair is never done and she walks around looking like Janis Joplin, bedraggled and disheveled.

Clem did make it to soccer, but Elise ended up taking her. I ran to the store to buy penne for dinner, leaving Sam and Peter home alone for five minutes. We recently bought a new iPad after our old iPad jumped off my bedside table on to the hard wood floor, dislodging some visual processor and turning everything pink. You can text from the new iPad, so Sam sent text messages to me while I was at the store.

He asked me to bring in the old iPad from the car, but I explained to him I didn't have the car; Mom did.

"Dang it," he texted.

It's a little jarring the first time you text back and forth with your son as though he suddenly reaches a new level of maturity in recognizing that the person on the other side of this exchange of digital waves has cognitive powers and volition you always knew were there, but somehow became more real, made tangible because he was able to shape his cognition and will into independent electronic messages.

And in that written "Dang it" I could hear Sam in my head, just like you can't read any Morgan Freeman quote without imaging his voice in your head reading it to you.

Elise had made kale pesto. I boiled penne and cut up some cherry tomatoes to put on top, and we sat down and ate. Most families have -- I think -- more or less assigned seats at the dinner table. But evolving feuds have us playing musical chairs most nights. Last night, Peter did not want to sit next to Clementine, but did want to sit next to me, but Sam was not willing to move his chair....really. There are only so many different ways you can sit five people around a four-sided table. We've exhausted pretty much all of them, Last night, I found myself with the rare privilege of sitting at the head of the table, a distinction usually reserved for Elise.

We don't have a lot of real hard and fast rules in our house. That being said, I really wish the kids would ask to be excused before bolting from the table. They never do, and are often on the other side of the room before I notice their flight and ask them, rhetorically, "Have you asked to be excused?" Which is kind of ridiculous to ask, because -- duh -- I know they haven't and more often or not they reply, "No," then just continue doing whatever it was that was so important they had to get up in the middle of dinner to do.

Peter ate three pieces of French bread, then ran for the couch before I could wrangle him back to the table. "I have something important to tell you," I told them.

"What?" Peter asked disgruntled.

"Nanny is sick."

Their three blank faces looked back at me. Elise began to tear up at the other end of the table.

I think it is hard to describe to children an idea that is on a spectrum. There are varying degrees of illness, and the children have been sick before. It almost seems as though it would be easier to tell them something binary. Though I've read differing accounts from parenting websites on that score.

"She's in the hospital."

They were silent. A few moments later, Peter -- seemingly unphased -- moved back to the couch, curled his knees up to his chest and stuck his butt up in the air, and went back to reading.

"Do you have any questions?" Elise prompted.

"What is she sick with?" Sam, sitting next to me, asked.


"Is she going to be okay?"

"I don't know." 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Peter's Mother's Day Book

Peter wrote a book for his mother for Mother's Day.

Busted. Can you tell Elise is the one sitting down? 

Yes, that is Pete barfing all over the floor. 

We joked that the book is also a work of fiction. 

Because Google Maps, of course!

I do, too. 

I think so, too.

Might not be the best mom in the whole Milky Way, but definitely in our solar system. I still think that pretty much takes care of all other moms, though. 

Mother's Day Tea

Photos from the Mother's Day Yea hosted by Clementine's class:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wax Museum

For a school project, Sam had to give a presentation on a famous historical figure. He chose Abraham Lincoln. Good choice. Apparently, one of the figures you could choose was Emma Watson, and I was surprised to hear the twenty year-old actress most famous for playing Hermione Granger on the sliver screen was a famous historical persona. Sam was quick to inform me she was an activist, so in that respect, I thought it was kind of cool they had identified a peer as someone worthy of historical mention. I think it is important to remember history is constantly being made and Sam and his classmates are no less likely to be famous historical figures some day than Abraham Lincoln or Harriet Tubman. Maybe Sam will aspire to be an activist, too.

His neighbor and good friend was chose to portray Abraham Lincoln. Elise got a kick out of watching the two Abes goof around together.