At the Beach

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There are two types of people in the world: those who think that beaches are only for ocean dwellers and those of us who know better.

Really, you can’t fault people who by chance are lucky enough to see an endless expanse of sea courtesy of living on the continental edge that shores upon it. But for my money (or lack thereof, as I’ve never been to the ocean) if it has sand and it happens to be by a body of water, salt or otherwise, it’s a beach. And when it’s ninety-plus degrees outside and the sun is beating down on you with an unrequited fury – you go to the beach.

Our favorite beach here in the literal Midwest of this fine country is a scrappy little lake off Highway 385 called Roubaix. I can remember going camping with my grandparents and cousins there and using it as an excuse to exercise the use of my freshly-minted drivers license as a teenager and go swimming with my brothers on more than one occasion. Even though it’s fairly easy to get to from any of three directions, it always feels like this little secret spot that only a select few know about.

At least, until we actually showed up and it was jam-packed with fly fishers, inner-tubers and sand castle builders.

Not to be deterred by the glut of other agua seekers, we set up camp along a wall made of old railroad ties and made the best of it. After lightly bathing in sunscreen, as a family we timidly tip-toed into the cool, cool water.

It must be known that, even though we’ve all jumped into lakes on a regular basis throughout childhood, getting used to the water always seems like a chore. First there’s the chill up the spine. Then, the goose bumps. The toughest part may be the nether region which, for gentlemen at least, puts us back at step one. Finally there’s that moment where you say screw it and just dive in. You mileage with each step may vary, but no matter what your approach you’re guaranteed to yelp as you resurface if not with a chill than at least with the exhilaration that it’s over and you can just enjoy the damn water.

Everybody kind of took off to do their own thing, as my family is wont to do. Tucker decided he was going to tap into his inner Frank Lloyd Wright and build the most epic of sandcastles. Owen wanted to toss a water Frisbee in the hopes of catching it in mid-air not unlike an eager dog. And Breckin did what Breckin does — find catharsis in the simplest things; in this case splashing me when I wasn’t looking. As long as he’s using his fists for something joyously engaging rather than to pommel his brothers, I wasn’t going to stop him.

After a while my father-in-law Joel showed up, which meant one thing – it was time to kayak.

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He’s been doing it for years, and while everyone else has given it a go or two, I had yet to paddle out. All week Breckin had been bugging me to go out with him, which is a good thing because the last time anyone tried to get him on a boat he wailed like a banshee in fear. Before that I had to figure it out for myself, lest we both dump ourselves in and I’m forced to learn how to swim myself and a small child out of the middle of a lake.

Looking for a little direction, Joel pushed me in to the body of water and gave me a few pointers before taking off like someone who has done it a time or twenty. While it took me a little bit to consistently stay steady, I’m happy to announce it felt very intuitive. Soon enough I was figuring out at which angle I needed to dip the paddle in to either turn or get some good speed and instead focused on enjoying the ride. I’d often stop for a moment to enjoy the view of the hills, watch the people have fun on the coast and take in the din of birds and the splashing of fish.

Taking my kids out was an even grander experience. Like my hike with Owen, it was fun to peek into their minds when they aren’t verbally sparring for Carrie or my attention. Tucker, ever so inquisitive, asked a ton of questions. He was content sitting serenely until he saw Joel and Breckin approaching, at which we had to splash them. In all honesty, we ended up being the losers in almost every joust, but getting wet was the whole point to going to the lake.

Breckin on the other hand was his usual wild self. He was constantly splashing his hands into the water, keeping a lookout for fish or, at least for me, scarily rocking the boat back and forth in the hopes of tipping us over. Breckin also tends to be a question monger, only his often dipped into the absurd. Time is a concept he doesn’t understand, but he did figure out that I can’t be a grandparent until he becomes a parent, and that won’t happen for a really long time. At least, I hope he figured it out…

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After staying way longer than intended, eventually our arms were tired, our eyes filled with sweat and dripping sunscreen and our bellies empty. It was time to go. Without so much as a whisper, we piled into the van and followed Grandpa to the Sugar Shack for a celebratory burger before heading home and hitting the hay.

Sure, you can’t look for seashells by the sea shore or see whales in the distance, but I like to think our kind of beach has a certain allure to it too. If you don’t believe me, then I guess I’ll have to re-write this article next weekend when we’ll likely go back again.

 

In Search of Secret Tunnels

Owen @ Sheridan Lake

I’ve been trying to make it a point to do a lot more hiking this year. Sure, taking a walk around the block is a nice bit of exercise, but trekking through hill and dale cleanses the soul and stretches the imagination as much as it does your muscles.

Growing up in a ghost town like Rochford, surrounded by lush pine and spruce, one couldn’t help but climb the hills you were surrounded by. The view from the top was always worth the work it took to reach it. You could always take solace in the natural ambiance; the rustling leaves, the sound of rocks tumbling underneath your step, the occasional woodland creature skittering away at the realization they’d been found out.

I could have been in better shape back then to be sure, but I was far svelter than I am now. Living in the Black Hills, there isn’t a single sound excuse I could really give as to why I don’t hike often. Being busy isn’t good enough; I could find the time if I was willing to.

The day I found enough time happened to be today.

Granted my wife and two youngest sons are away on a trip east river, but under any other circumstance I probably would have buried my nose in a book or plunked my butt in the easy chair and whittled away a few hours playing video games. Instead I packed up my hesitant oldest son Owen and a few water bottles and drove up to Sheridan Lake.

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A few weeks ago we’d hiked the same trail with my parents and their dog as a way of celebrating Father’s Day. Between the lake trail head and where it meets the Spring Creek path is a pretty leisurely stroll as far as hikes go. It skirts the perimeter of the lake until it comes to a stop at the dam. Most people go across the dam to a destroyed outpost and bridge then summarily turn around. The family and I once tried to find a couple of tunnels my wife Carrie faintly remembered from her youth, but a steep flume (hence the name Flume Trail) kind of waylaid us and forced us to turn around.

Without young and inexperienced feet to scare us away, Owen and I decided to press on.

Flume Trail 10The Flume Trail stays fairly narrow and steep for a good chunk. The only exceptions were when we came across the man-made junctures from the early twentieth century. The footing was a bit rough in spots, but nothing a little patience couldn’t overcome. There were a couple of hairy moments when an older fellow with a dog decided to run past us. I’m not sure what kind of a circuit he was taking, but we ended up seeing him two more times after that. It was windy but undoubtedly cool.

It was one of those rare chances to talk with one of my kids’ mano-a-mano, something I also don’t do very often. It’s always an interesting exercise in that you discover a lot about your child when their and your mind space isn’t taken up by whatever it is we happen to be doing. Owen asked a lot of questions (as do my other two boys, as a general rule) and let loose that he was a little worried about high school and the timing of which he’ll get his driver’s license. He may have whined a little bit, but he pushed on like a trooper.

Flume Trail 15When we reached the fabled tunnel, we quickly found it was totally worth the work it was to get to it. I’d guess it stretches for about a hundred feet or so, just enough to look imposing because you could barely see through to the other side. We started with the flashlight on, but quickly turned it off because that’s way more fun. It was slightly flooded from all the rain and hail we’ve gotten lately, but the board pathway kept us from getting too wet. Once through to the other side we quickly decided that finding the other tunnel was a no-brainer.

Owen quickly learned a lesson about distance and the difference between the relativity of taking a straight path as opposed to a long and curvy one. As we exited the tunnel and looked down, you could see a stretch of Sheridan Lake Road that is notorious for having a really sharp corner to it. There’s even a mannequin named Biker Bob resting on a rusting motorbike forewarning you of impending doom if you take it too quickly. From that point all the way to the trail head is a good distance by car. Walking on the hill just above it took far less.

Flume Trail 28The second tunnel, by all counts, wasn’t as spectacular as the first. It only stretched maybe twelve feet, and felt more like a structure of efficiency than a cavern full of mystery. Even though in all honesty said cave of mystery was built for the same reason. It was a nice enough spot to rest though, as we sat down and nibbled on a granola bar and drank our water, surprisingly still filled with enough ice to keep it refreshing.

The walk back was just as beautiful a jaunt as the way in. Conversation now turned to how to survive a zombie apocalypse, which I’ve quickly learned is perhaps the biggest concern this side of finding a girlfriend for a 13-year-old boy. When he isn’t disregarding what I tell him, torturing his brothers or ignoring his chores, Owen can be a very insightful and intelligent kid. Once the kinks that come with puberty subside, I think he’s gonna do OK out in the real world.

As a reward for hiking a little under five miles, feeling better about ourselves and seeing something few will get to up close, we made a pit stop at the Miner Brewing Company and had a celebratory root beer (and picked up a growlette filled with yummy oatmeal stout for later.) The drive home was quiet; we were both thoroughly worn out, the drive felt a little longer than the way in and the shuffle on my iPod was kicking out some great tunes.

I could get used to this. I should get used to this. I need a little more adventure in my life; the type of thing that not just makes me feel good physically, but maybe a little bit emotionally and psychologically as well. We have a year pass to a lot of spots; I’m jonesing to go check them all out now. And I definitely want to come back and bring Carrie with just to check out that view again.

Hiking, I’m missed you so. Let’s not stay apart for so long next time.

 

 

One Year Later

Few people will ever know the profundity of holding their stillborn child.

It was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but the moment I saw him something inside told me I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I can still remember the little things; the way he smelled, how soft the little cap holding his little head in was and the tautness of his legs as I gently stretched them. Waiting for him to arrive was terrifying, not because I was scared to see my son’s corpse, rather because it forced me to face reality.

I always wondered what shock felt like.

Now I know.

All those cliched feelings were there: the heartache, the anguish, the pain, the sadness, the grief. The hardest one to parse, though? Failure. As a parent, you feel duty-bound to do everything in your power to make sure your child is protected and safe at all costs, no matter what. How do you do that when their life was forfeit before they even left the womb? There’s this nagging feeling in the back of your mind, asking if there was something more you could have done to change the outcome. It never goes away, even when you know the answer. I have to constantly tell myself that it is what it is, like some kind of mantra that, if I keep repeating it, it will somehow be true.

It doesn’t work that way, I found out.

Even though Harry was gone before he even came, not a single day goes by where he doesn’t enter my mind.

It’s hard not to, really — I see him every morning. He lies in an urn on my nightstand, waiting for me to make up my mind on whether I should bury him or not.

—–

There was this pamphlet I got from the hospital the day Harry died, filled with inspirational quotes, soft imagery and coping mechanisms for depression and grief. Other than a line from Dr. Seuss, I had a hard time taking any of it to heart. There was a part about not forgetting fathers in these moments of pain, as they often task themselves with protecting their loved ones rather than dealing with the hurt themselves. I thought it was kind of rubbish.

I don’t want to be fawned over; I’m actually pretty good with sorting out my emotions on my own, thank you very much. The occasional hug was appreciated, but otherwise I’ll be OK with internalizing.

There were, and still are, triggers that make me teary eyed in remembrance of my lost son. I’m not afraid to admit that I used to openly weep at these moments, but over the months I’ve built up my fortitude to let the sadness come but not let it rule me.

We had taken pictures of Harry when he was born (courtesy of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep) that took me almost a month to look at. Hell, just thinking about looking at them got me choked up. To be honest, it still kind of does. But much like the urn, the opposing wall in my bedroom has a collage my wife Carrie made of the photos that I get to look at every morning. We also have a big picture hanging in the living room with my other sons. It kind of sucks knowing that while their pictures continue to evolve as they grow, his will always remain the same. He’ll never be Harry the astronaut, Harry the baseball player or Harry the doctor; always and forever Baby Harry.

By far, songs are the worst triggers of them all.

For some reason I’m very easily persuaded into attaching nostalgia to things. You know, like eating a pastie reminding me of my grandma or certain classic videogames reminding me of Christmas. But songs…man, do songs hold a lot of weight.

Fastball’s “Out of My Head” was what I heard on the way to the VA Hospital to visit my grandad, which also happened to be the last time I saw him alive. Likewise, as we were leaving my grandma’s apartment on her last Christmas Eve, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (which, if you knew my grandmother, is ironic) played on my iPod as we drove away in the snow. For Harry, the song of choice is the Avett Brother’s “Live or Die.” Also ironic, and strangely filled with parallels and meaning beyond what the musicians probably intended.

All it’ll take is just one moment and

You can say goodbye to how we had it planned

Fear like a habit, run like a rabbit

Out and away

Through the screen door to the unknown

No matter how you perceive the song, the one common theme is that family is family, no matter what. But when they reverberate with the chorus, singing that “live and die, we’re the same” hits me on a different level than most.  The song was released as a single literally the day after he passed away, which to me felt like cosmic timing. It’s one of those few times where I felt like it wasn’t just coincidence, rather some kind of divine intervention. It’s one of those moments where you realize your faith.

If you can’t hold on to the hope that a soul is so complex it must go to a higher state of being, then what can you hold on to? I’ll see my son some day, just not any day soon.

—–

One of the nurse’s told me once that because of our ordeal we’d gain an extra sense of empathy for those around us. Which I wish were true, because the more I think on it the more I realize I’ve actually gone in the other direction.

That’s not to say I’m hard-nosed and nasty to people, but I definitely think I subconsciously hold the worries of others to a different level than I used to.

Bear in mind, I work in pharmacy, which means I see a different side of people as is, which doesn’t help my lack of sympathy. While Harry's Treemedicine is something that was created to help people, most people don’t typically come to you with a positive attitude. The basis of my career is to help those that are sick, which is never fun in any circumstance, whatsoever. And I understand that.

But there’s also no doubt in my mind that we as a people are overly-medicated.

The amount of anti-anxiety and sleeping medications I see walk out the door would blow your mind. I see their value; there’s a lot of people whom they help. But there’s also a lot of people who just can’t find a way to build a coping strategy for life and instead rely on meds. And I hear the stories they tell, of how rough they have it. But they don’t, really. Everybody has difficulty in life, it’s what makes you appreciate the good times all the more. These people need to learn to own up to that, to dig deep within and face it — to not dull the issues with inhibitors. When people call me in a tizzy about not being able to fill their anti-anxiety medication when they want to, I see that as a problem.

But I can’t pinpoint why that aggravates me so much. I don’t tell people off or anything, and by no means am I impolite. But I always wonder how I can survive such a big life event and not be on anything, but smaller matters stress others so much they turn to a controlled substance to ease themselves. I don’t even feel that way because I hate people; in fact it may be because I worry about them so much.

Which, in the end, I know to be an ironic statement, as I previously said I’ve lost some empathy. It’s because maybe I care for other people’s well-being so much that I am harder on them. You shouldn’t lose who you are trying to control that which you cannot. If you want to see how it’s done, I should introduce you to my wife.

—–

Carrie is the softest person I know. A sappy movie, a cute baby, seeing a friend after a long while — all make her cry. Those that know her pick on her for it, but it takes someone truly special to be that tender-hearted.

She’s willing to bend an ear to those who don’t always bend one back, she always chooses to care for others before caring for herself and she has this uncanny ability to love a person even if she doesn’t love their actions.

To say I was worried about her well-being when Harry died would be an understatement.

She had a connection with him that none of us other did — she felt him move, kick and undulate. She knew what he was like when he was alive.

Knowing that is why I feared for a colossal breakdown. It was profound for me to hold him in my arms lifelessly; I can’t even imagine what it was like having known otherwise.

But she made it through. And is stronger for it.

How, you ask? She lets it out.

She cried. A lot.

My job was to hold her. Not say a thing.

Because really, you can’t say anything. I’ve heard enough people apologize for the situation. And while I can feel the sentiment behind it, the words themselves are hollow. My general manager at the time said she didn’t know what to say when she called; I told her that that was enough for me.

You can’t really say anything, but the act of being there, of giving a hug, is enough to let someone know you’re there for them.

But that doesn’t stop the tears. Then again, it doesn’t have to.

My wife was graciously given maternity leave, a time when I worried the most about her. Sitting at home, by herself, I thought for sure she would wilt under the grief. I’d spend every day coming home helping to pick up the pieces.

I should have known better.

She got stronger. I have no doubt there were times when she just laid there and wept. But I can about imagine that at some point she stopped having a pity party and began to do something constructive. She let herself be sad, but didn’t let it get her down. You can’t always change things in your life, so you have to accept them for what they are and build on that.

There are many women who suffer postpartum depression when their kids live, but not once did my wife fall into that hole. Her resilience is extraordinary.

Another hospital staffer said that people shouldn’t forget fathers in their sadness as well, but I never once felt that I needed to be doted on. In truth, sitting there thinking I needed to care for my wife, her strength helped carry me.

—–

For whatever reason, after Harry died I made the magnanimous statement that I would “live life for two” because he was gone. While it sounded good at the time, in hindsight that seemed a bit…overzealous. What does that even mean? Nothing really. It was an attempt to uplift myself out of survivor’s guilt.

As I said before, I was told once not to forget to grieve myself; fathers often neglect their own emotions in a vain attempt at alleviating everyone else’s pain. But I think that’s just how we do it — we find comfort in comforting others. It’s taken me a year to finally fess up to how everything has made me feel, and even then it’s impersonally written down rather than talked about.

I was half tempted to say that’s how I “deal” with it…but it’s more like “that’s how I came to terms with it.”

A while back, my wife decided that after the birthday party we’re having for my lost son, she would finally put away a fold-out that we’ve had displayed in the boys’ play room that we’ve had since his funeral. I want to say it gives her closure, but I don’t think that’s the right word for it.

It’s funny though; I’ve had similar feelings about that cute little blue urn that sits on my nightstand. The finality of what has happened has finally caught up to us, and we’re ready to move on. Not from honoring and loving our son, but from the grieving process.

I was worried there would be days where I would forget to remember him, but one year later and that’s anything but the case.

Do I miss him dearly? Absolutely. Every holiday, every birthday, every morning that I get up I wish he could be here. Even though I only saw him for  one day, I can somehow see facets of him through his brothers on all the others.

I’m ready to lay him to rest, in front of his beautiful headstone, tucked in between his great-grandparents. Because that’s where his urn belongs.

I’m not scared to put it there anymore, because he’s right there where he needs to be — in my heart.

And that’s the best place for him.