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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Lunch Note

Yesterday, the boys decided they were going to pack their own school lunches instead of leaving it to the fates to see what decides to show up in their lunch (read: me, their dad)

"They can't complain about it, if they pack it themselves," Elise correctly pointed out. 

When Peter got off the bus this afternoon, he opened his lunch box to show Elise the note below...

He's a sweet boy. Not sure where he gets it. 

Trip to Rwanda

Clementine's class recently took a virtual field trip all the way to Rwanda! Clementine wore her giraffe dress for the occasion and made an impressive sounding African drum out of two red solo cups glued together and a balloon.

Clementine got to be the customs officer. As you can see from the picture below she was very discerning about who she was going to let into the country!