Having a Merry Lizard Christmas

Just before Christmas, Penelope sprawled herself across the family room floor and wrote out her wish list to Santa Claus. The list was seven pages long which was quite an accomplishment since she only asked for six things. I think that’s about right for someone who’s four years old. My favorite line in her “Dear Santa” letter was : “I’ve been very good this year unless I was bad.” When she finished, we stuffed the letter in a snow-white over sized envelope and shipped it off to the North Pole.

Perhaps the most curious item on her list was a stuffed monitor lizard. She’s grown rather fond these past few months of a book about reptiles, and one page features an illustration of a monitor lizard preparing to feast upon a nest of crocodile eggs. So come Christmas morning, Penelope clambered down the stairs to discover a foot-long stuffed monitor lizard perched precariously atop the manger. (I bet you didn’t know a monitor lizard was present at the birth of the baby Jesus!)

The monitor lizard has quickly become the king of the animal farm that is Penelope’s bed. Last night, when I tip-toed into her bedroom to make sure she was still breathing — sorry, that’s a joke for a few folks — I saw Penelope softly snoring with a bare leg sticking out from under a blanket and a stuffed monitor lizard hugged tightly against her chest. I’m anticipating the soon-to-come day when I open the refrigerator to find the lizard sitting atop the egg bin staring back at me as if I’ve just interrupted a private moment.

I doubt there are many four-year-old girls who sleep with a monitor lizard. Hopefully, she’ll get that out of her system while she’s still a kid.

I think her fascination with animals of all stripes and textures comes from three sources. First are the numerous animal books she has on everything from dogs to dinosaurs. I think our two beagles — Sammi and Rudy — are also partly responsible for her becoming an animal lover. And the feeling is mutual, although I suspect the dogs love Penelope because she has a habit of leaving half-eaten cheese sticks on the coffee table. Lastly, Penelope is addicted to “Wild Kratts” on PBS Kids. The show starts with two brothers (Martin and Chris) who talk about some critter — be it an aardvark or a gecko. Then they morph into cartoon characters to rescue an animal in trouble. She’s probably watched all 20-some-odd episodes multiple times. Yesterday at the park she insisted on calling some little boy she met Chris. (His name was Kenny.)

As I watch all this I wonder if it means anything for her future. Will she become a veterinarian or a zoologist and help animals? Will she want to work at an animal shelter? Or is she just on her way to becoming a crazy cat lady?

Well, I doubt that last one. But I can’t help wondering if the clues about her future are already in place. But, then again, why rush things? In my heart I know it’s best just to enjoy a quiet moment watching a snoring child cradling her stuffed monitor lizard. These moments don’t last forever.

Advertisements

Dog Heaven Can Wait

I should never have refused to read “Dog Heaven” to Penelope. This book is supposed to help children — and adults, I suppose — cope with the death of a pet. It features big cartoon drawings of dogs sleeping on fluffy clouds and chasing geese in a park in heaven.  The book is one of Penelope’s favorites.

Bernadette’s childhood friend Stephanie gave her the book to console her after our Golden Retriever, Bailey, and elder Beagle, Hannah, passed away only four days apart almost three years ago. Bern deeply appreciates the book’s comforting message. I think the book is beautiful, but it makes me sad. So, one day when Penelope was choosing her bedtime reading and grabbed three books including “Dog Heaven” I told her no.

“This book makes Papa sad,” I explained. “You don’t want to make Papa sad, do you?”

She thought about this. I could tell because she tapped her index finger on her forehead and said, “Think, think, think.” (She gets that from “Winnie the Pooh” on TV.) She returned the book to the shelf and selected another.

However, the next evening, when I asked her to pick a book, an impish grin spread across her face. She ran to the bookshelf, grabbed “Dog Heaven” and waved it in front of me: “How about this one?” I again tell her how the book makes Papa sad, and back on the shelf it goes. This becomes a ritual with a different twist each night. One evening, Penelope hides “Dog Heaven” between other books. Next time its behind her back or under the covers. One night she slipped the cover of another book around “Dog Heaven.”

Finally one night I figure, “What the heck?” It’s just a story. Maybe if I read it, it’ll actually help me better handle the loss of a pet, something I’m lousy at. Back in the late 1960s, shortly after my grandfather died, my parents inherited his cocker spaniel. The dog’s name was Teddy (for Theodore Roosevelt).  When a four-year-old boy gets a dog, he thinks it’s perfect. He throws a squeaky toy around for the dog, pets it, chases it around the backyard. At least, that’s my image of Teddy.

For my parents, the dog was something entirely different. You see the dog was raised and trained by my grandfather: A cranky old man with a splinter’s talent for getting under someone’s skin. At least that’s how my father described him. Teddy mirrored my grandfather’s personality. If the dog only smoked cigars, the resemblance would have been eerie.

The dog ran away every chance it got. Take him outside and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom; bring him inside and he would immediately poop on the nearest bed. My parents eventually lost their patience and returned the dog to my grandmother, but told me it ran away. I spent much of that day looking for that dog. About two years later, my quixotic seven-year-old brain saw a dog with a slight resemblance to Teddy (the dog was actually a labrador retriever), and I — missing him still — chased him for a half mile.

I guess I haven’t changed much over the years: It’s three years later and not a day goes by that I don’t remember – sometimes fondly, sometimes sadly, often both – Bailey and Hannah.

So, I took a deep breath, tightened my jaw, screwed up my nerve, told myself I was being a total idiot . . . and promptly went to pieces. Damn book! At about this point I could feel my voice quivering: “When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.” I paused, took another breath, and plowed through the last few pages.

“Sorry Pop Tart, but I am never reading that book to you again. Sorry.”

Then something happened I will always remember. Penelope took the book from my hands, looked at it, then looked at me.

“Papa, you sad. Let’s read another book. You’ll be happy. Let’s read the Grinch. I’ll get it.” Penelope clambered off the bed, and grabbed “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” from a pile on her dresser. She handed me the Grinch book, and looked at “Dog Heaven” in her other hand.

“I’ll hide this. You won’t be sad then,” she said. She took the book and slid it behind her toy barn. “See. Gone.” She spread her arms wide. She climbed back in bed, settling under the covers. The she hugged me.

She curled up next to me as I began reading the Grinch. Just as a smiling Grinch raised his carving knife to the roast beast, I could hear Penelope’s breathing deepen.

And the next morning, I was just waking up when I heard Penelope reading “Dog Heaven” to Sammi and Rudy, current Beagles in Residence, as they lay snuggling in their bed. Which, by the way, is in our room.

Perhaps she thought the story might comfort them.

Holidaze

January 1, 2010

Pity our poor dog Sammi. She’s a beagle, a breed with a proud lineage that stretches back to Great Britain at a time prior to the Roman conquest. Its first mention in English literature was in 1475, and King Edward III bred beagles specifically to hunt rabbits. Nowadays, beagles sniff out drugs or bombs at airports and help detect traces of flame accelerants at suspected arson sites.

Sammi, sadly, isn’t helping make the world safe from terrorists or solving crimes. She’s busy hiding from a two year old who’s trying to force her to wear a diaper.

Santa brought Penelope several toy diapers, hoping she’d stop taking the real, and oftentimes wet, ones off herself and putting them on her teddy bear. The toy diapers seemed like a good idea, but now Penelope has advanced from stuffed animals to living ones. On her first attempt, she almost managed to swing the diaper around Sammi’s back legs. If it’s possible for a beagle’s face to express surprise, then that’s how I’d describe Sammi’s look. She jumped a few feet forward, but a persistent Penelope pounced on her tail, and implored the puzzled pooch to “nay down.” All those centuries of highly attuned hunting instincts kicked in, and Sammi scampered to the safety of another room.

Sammi wasn’t the only victim of one of Penelope’s Christmas toys this year. Earlier this week after fixing the CD player, Penelope and I were bouncing around to Rilo Kiley. Penelope grabbed a pair of toy maracas. I cradled her in one arm while I shook a tambourine with the other like I was auditioning for Josie and the Pussycats. Unfortunately, I was looking away from the Peanut when she accidentally clocked me upside the head with her maraca. Hello, head-circling stars and tweety birds!

Bernadette arrived home a few minutes later, saw the lump by my eye and asked if she needed to take me to the emergency room. After a few moments of muddled pondering, I decided I’d rather risk the cranial bleed and pull a Bill Holden than suffer the embarrassment of explaining what happened to the ER nurse.

Despite the wounds to my head and Sammi’s dignity, our first Christmas together turned out quite wonderfully. We traveled back to Buffalo to visit Bern’s family. While there I learned a few things, namely: no matter how cold you think Buffalo is in December, it’s even colder; if you give already energetic kids enough Christmas presents and sugar cookies, they can actually be in three rooms at the same time; and a coffee maker works better when you remember to place the coffee pot under it.

Perhaps Penelope’s favorite Christmas presents are the kitchen set, and the assorted “Melissa and Doug” wooden food items (a pizza, stir fry, cookies and vegetables) and utensils. Her manner of playing has progressed in the past few weeks, and I’m fascinated watching her development. She has shifted gears from playing predominantly for physical development of motor skills and dexterity, to emotional development with pretend play.

Up until recently, Penelope’s idea of playing was to fill a container with blocks or puzzle pieces and dump them on the floor. Now, she’s standing in front of her stove, wearing an apron and slicing wooden vegetables and cooking eggs or pizza for me.

I pause and wonder if I’ve got a future Iron Chef living under our roof. Then the daydream ends: I hear a toy mixer running in the bathroom, and I know the mixing bowl is filled with water. Time to scurry off before I’m mopping the bathroom walls.

Tryptophan Triptych (Part 3)

November 26, 2009

Few holiday moments compare with the brief anticipatory Thanksgiving Day pause when your dinner plate is arranged exactly the way you want. You’ve sprinkled the salt and pepper over the turkey; buttered the corn and dinner roll; arranged your foods so the cranberry sauce isn’t touching the stuffing; and poured the gravy into the mashed-potato swimming pool. That was how I arranged my meal, my fork hovered six inches above my plate. . . .

Then three little words from Penelope brought my culinary swoon to a screeching halt. “YIN YAN YAO!” I don’t know if any of you remember a TV program from the 1970s called “Emergency!” but it popped into my mind at that moment because every time paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto sat down to eat dinner, the loudspeaker would blast: “Rampart 51! Rampart 51” and off they’d run to rescue some dopey teenager trapped in a sewer pipe with his pet alligator.

I’ll skip over the actual visit to the bathroom, but let me just note that by the time I stumbled my way back to the table with the toxic toddler, I wondered if my appetite would recover. Of course, it did. My sister Sue is a terrific cook, and my Mom makes the best pumpkin pie this side of the Great Pumpkin’s pumpkin patch.

I learned something new this Thanksgiving that I’m going to pass along to you. If you like wine, do yourself a favor and get an aerator. An aerator will expose more of the volume of the wine to the air, allowing the wine to breathe properly. You can pick one up for about $25, and trust me, you will be amazed at the improvement of the bouquet, taste and finish of your wine. We were using the aerator on everything from a decent Merlot to a bottle of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio and comparing it to non-aerated wine. The difference was astounding. Oh, did I mention my sister and brother-in-law watch an awful lot of QVC?

Anyway, I discovered this Thanksgiving that my family isn’t very skilled when it comes to passing food around the table. Now, I know what you might be thinking: With all that aerated wine, everybody was too shellacked to pass food around. But that’s not true because only a few of us were drinking, and my daughter sobered me up plenty during her bathroom break. This poor familial food distribution skill means you better like what’s sitting in front of you. Naturally, I wound up seated beside the big heaping bowl of rutabaga, and all the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were partying together at the opposite end of the table. But, I considered my wanderings around the table as an opportunity to work off a tiny bit of the meal. Now if only the table were a mile long, that might have actually worked.

But the best thing about Thanksgiving was finally getting my side of the family together under one roof for the first time in 13 years, and for Penelope to spend time with all her cousins. And while I thought for a moment that I heard my little Pop Tart pick up her toy cell phone and ask the Chinese embassy to take her back to the mother country and away from the insanity, I realized the tryptophan had indeed kicked in. Actually, this year we skipped the annual Thanksgiving tradition that puts everyone to sleep: watching the Detroit Lions.

Two days later, I squeezed myself behind the car steering wheel for the long slog back to New Jersey. We handled the 13-hour journey in one day, and Penelope was an angel through most of the car ride. (She did get a little cranky in West Virginia.) If she wasn’t sleeping or snacking, she kept picking up her toy cell phone to call Shu Shu (Uncle) Joe to babble her unique mix of Chinese and English. New bonds with family members formed or strengthened. Is there a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Family Matters

Sunday August 30:

I’m fascinated at how Penelope can talk a mile a minute, yelling gleefully about something in her half-English, half-Chinese babble until you stick a cell phone to her ear. Suddenly, she becomes quieter than Marcel Marceau at a funeral Mass. The other day we attempted to gently chide Penelope to say something — babababab, IIEEEYYY, dit down (anything but a rousing FUCK!) — when her Nana called, but all she did was look at the phone, look at us, look at the phone.

This means if any out-of-state family members actually want to hear our daughter talk, they must see her in person.

I’m generally uncomfortable having visitors stay for several days. I remember the first night after Bernadette and I got back from our honeymoon, I kept waiting for her to go home. And, while I’m grateful she didn’t, I have never quite cured myself of this guest-a-phobia. I have a friend who always admonishes that guests are like fish: After three days, both start to stink. Now I have nothing against family or anyone else staying for a few days. But guests always put me a little on edge because I always have to be thinking. I can’t just roll out of bed at 3 a.m. and wander sleepily downstairs in my boxers for a glass of milk, or to watch an old black-and-white movie or an infomercial on the colon-cleanser.

My mother-in-law, her husband Benny and my sister-in-law Chris arrived a week ago Sunday from Buffalo, which I fondly refer to as “The Miami of the North.” Apparently, they raided every Children’s Place on their seven-hour journey because I think Penelope now has more clothes than Mariah Carey. Their generosity astounds me. My mother-in-law also whipped up enough pierogies and nalesnikis to feed Krakow. I’m grateful that she shies away from cooking the pig’s feet in vinegar jelly that I’ve seen at family gatherings. (I’ll eat some crazy stuff but vinegar jelly? Sounds almost as bad as pork roll!)

Here’s the basic outline of their week-long visit: Breakfast, clothes shopping for Penelope, visiting family, wine, dinner, bed. Now the order of events may differ from day to day — except wine never comes before breakfast — but you get the general idea. I’m working most of this week so I get home at the end of the day for the fashion show. Penelope adorns a new outfit and twirls around like Yasmeen Ghauri on a diet of Red Bull and Pixie Stixs.

Penelope has struggled to sleep through the night while the family visits which leads to the theory that she’s worried she’ll be leaving with the in-laws. Now granted, living in Buffalo would worry me too! But it’s a warm feeling to know Penelope wants to stay with us and isn’t upstairs packing a suitcase full of diapers and shoes.

One night over a dinner of potato pancakes, I find myself contemplating the joys and ravages of time. I’m seated at the head of the table and look to my left where Penelope is gobbling down her third pancake. I’m excited about our future together. Although I’m not rushing things, I look forward to when she’s a little older and her personality sprouts. I suspect she will become a bright, funny and beautiful girl and I can’t wait to experience all that. I look to my right and watch Benny, who turned 86 in May. His withered hand shakes as he brings his fork to his mouth. He doesn’t talk much anymore. It feels like only last week that Benny would dig in the garden all day and then come inside and chat incessantly about his favorite subjects. And, although those subjects were the grasses of North America and 14th century Polish churches, the animation in his eyes and voice was enough to hold my interest.

Earlier today, my wife’s niece, husband and five children — yes, I wrote FIVE children — arrived to spend the afternoon as the denouement to their Cape May vacation. Five other family members — including our niece Kim from Massachusetts and my brother Russ from Doylestown — were visiting, so our home was buzzing with voices and bulging with bodies. Penelope plays football with her older cousins in the front yard, shares her toys with her younger cousins, visits each of the adults with a book or toy. She’s already a better mingler than I. But then again, if I started showing up at parties with a toy or book, I’d just get funny looks. (Yes, funnier than the ones I usually get!)

I marvel at how everyone has embraced Penelope so warmly. I think back on when we first decided to adopt a girl from China — before we had told a soul — and wondered a little whether she would be treated differently because she looks different and has someone else’s blood running through her veins. None of that ever mattered. When a family opens its hearts, anything and everything is possible.

A Fair To Remember

Friday, August 21:

This misty evening Bernadette and I are wandering the 4-H fairgrounds with Penelope strapped in a carrier on my back. Two people love this backpack: Penelope and my chiropractor. As we walk, Penelope slurps on an ice cream cone, struggling to eat it. I’m in my forties and still face the same dilemma. She nibbles off the bottom of the cone. Ice cream drips down the back of my neck; yellow and orange sprinkles form the constellation Tucana in my (mostly) black hair.

I’m not the neatest of eaters, but ice cream down my back is a new sensation. One of the advantages of now having a toddler is when I push away from the dinner table I’m not the only one with food in my hair. So, as you can imagine, teaching a child how to eat properly isn’t my strongest suit. I tend to believe that wearing jeans is like wearing a giant napkin. I don’t own a shirt without a tiny brown smudge from a morning incident involving coffee and my automobile. In one particularly egregious example, I was eating cottage cheese at work when I started coughing. For some unfathomable reason, as cottage cheese sputtered from my mouth, I spun my head around and did an impersonation of a lawn sprinkler.

We started this evening at the fair by heading immediately to the pens holding cattle, sheep and goats, which naturally makes our little carnivore hungry. Our next stop, therefore, is the food lane, where we load up on corn dogs, cheese fries, a gyro, a sausage and peppers sandwich the size of a wiffle ball bat, and lemonade. (Official disclaimer as demanded by the Mrs.: We don’t usually eat this way for dinner every night, but we were at the 4-H fair and thought it’d be appropriate.) We’re hoping this is enough food for us all, but Penelope is a bottomless pit. I was pleased to hear China declare a few days ago that its food shortage had ended.

So, we find a picnic bench near the bandstand where “Beatlemania Again” — the name just cracks me up every time I think about it — breaks into a rousing septuagenarian version of “She Loves You.” Here’s how the meal proceeds: Penelope takes a bite of a corn dog, gets 60 percent in her mouth, 10 percent on the picnic table and 30 percent hits the ground. I bite into the sandwich. Peppers and sauce squirt onto my jeans. Penelope tries to eat a piece of hot dog that’s fallen onto the table, and I knock over the lemonade trying to stop her. Penelope bites into a French fry and cheese winds up in her hair. It’s my turn; now there’s cheese on my chin.

Bern looks baffled. “Really? This is the example you’re setting for our daughter?”

I adopt a dopey sheepish look on my face — the same one I’ve been using regularly for the past 18 years. I do what any mature adult would, blame the kid: “She keeps bouncing around on my lap. It’s like eating during an earthquake.”

Bern spots a slathering of thick processed cheese sludge on my elbow and frowns. “You don’t need a bib. You need a tarp.” We finish “eating” and I carry Penelope over to an outdoor Porta-John sink so we can bathe. We splash around in the water to “Twist and Shout” before I slide Penelope into the carrier and hoist her onto my back. Ten minutes later, she’s hungry again, so we’re standing on line for ice cream.

As we wait, I watch a gaggle of teenage girls pass by in shorts and canvas Chucks. I know someday, when Penelope’s a teen, she’ll come here with her friends, and I’ll be sitting at home with Bern, who will no doubt have a mildly amused look on her face because there will be pizza sauce in my ear.

Penelope yanks her pink baseball cap off her head and drops it on mine, giggling all the while. My back is barking from carrying her around all evening. I don’t mind a bit.

After darkness slides across the skyline the fireworks show begins. Bern, Penelope and I head to the car, open the hatch and climb into the back to watch. The fireworks boom beyond the treeline. Penelope nestles between us, and I notice she’s touching us both.

Black dog days

Tuesday, August 18:

(Note: This entry is a bit of a downer, so feel free to skip it. I promised to share the good, the bad and the ugly in this blog and life isn’t always sunshine and lollipops. The next few blogs are goofy — promise!)

The last few days have been difficult and have culminated with perhaps one of the worst days in my life since my uncle was murdered seven years ago. I guess in some ways I’m fortunate that bad news and bad tidings have often bypassed me like a stranger. Recently, fears of the responsibilities I have signed up for continually crash down upon me.

One lesson I quickly learned these past few days: Although you’re focused on raising your child, problems and tragedies from other directions in your life won’t cease. An elderly parent in bad health, the personal problems of your loved ones, a sick pet and so forth, still happen. Sometimes bad times come in heaps, and there’s nothing you can do about them except deal with it. And, unfortunately, I’m not dealing with it very well.

But every problem faded into the background this afternoon. Bernadette called an ambulance today after doubling over from severe stomach pains. Our neighbor was kind enough to rush to our home to watch our daughter. I dropped everything at work, stopped home to check on Penelope and hurried to the hospital.

As an aside, I always wonder about this: Is it OK to have the CD player blasting when you are rushing to the hospital? And, if so, is some music more appropriate than others? Just wondering…

Waiting in the emergency room, all the feelings of anxiety and worry that I’ve been experiencing for the past few days are welling up inside. As I contemplate everything, I feel like I’m losing my balance. It’s much like the disoriented feeling you get when, after enjoying a matinee in a dark theater, you swing open the door and are blinded by a bright summer sun. I’ve been feeling like that all the time lately. I feel unprepared to handle the problems that confront me; my judgment is off and yet I fumble onwards.

About an hour later, Bern is led into a back room where a nurse starts examining her. The cause of her illness is a mystery, but she is in intense pain and is given a morphine drip in her IV.

Bern looks at the morphine drip, then looks at me, worried. What if this is something serious? she asks. What if this is stomach cancer? I don’t know what to say. All the fears I’ve had of being a parent rush forward, all the times lately that I’ve taken Bern for granted, and all the mistakes that I’ve been making lately roar back. I realize what I lose if I lose her. Stupid and horrible and rotten of me to only realize it sitting in an emergency room of a hospital. And, if her fears are true, will I be able to raise this little girl on my own? Can I handle it? I’d never considered the possibility of that happening.

I step outside surrounded by smokers — smoking outside an emergency room is something I’ll never understand — plop down on the curb for a few moments to collect myself then head back inside. Bern’s feeling a little better — God bless morphine! — and we start to chat, aimlessly at first but suddenly we start discussing our lives together and what we want to do with them. With potential tragedy lurking in the corridors of our lives, we start making plans. We’re tired of New Jersey; we’ve lived here most our lives. We love our neighbors and friends but most of our family is gone from the area. We want Penelope to have as full a life as possible, and we want to move on.

“We talked about moving to Chicago someday. Maybe we should reconsider that.” Bern and I both love Chicago — the winters (yes, the winters), the culture, the music, the parks, the Blackhawks. (OK, maybe the last one is more for me.) We talk about the type of townhouse we want, the neighborhoods we’re interested in and so forth. We allow ourselves to dream of a different life. Perhaps a better life for us.

The doctor enters. He says Bern has either a really bad case of gastro-esophageal reflux disease, or gall stones. Twin sighs of relief. Silently — and clumsily thanks to her morphine buzz — Bern dresses, and I collect her belongings.

Sometimes it’s downright scary how we can lose sight of our true selves. We struggle to accept change and to understand what’s right and wrong in our lives. We make mistakes. We pray for forgiveness and try to make amends. We hope our loved ones and friends will find the compassion in their hearts to recognize our shortcomings and see the goodness that sometimes gets buried within when we temporarily lose our way. We also learn about who really cares and who really counts: When the chips are down, they stick with you no matter what.

The next day I’m driving from work, but rather than head immediately home, I detour down a side street and park in front of a church. I enter, kneel and pray. I don’t typically go to church so I’m expecting a minister to chase me out at any moment. The following day, I pull up in front of a bar, Hillbilly Hall, and step inside for a beer. Again, I find myself praying. I guess I’m covering all my bases. But, somehow, somewhere, I know everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.