She sat perched on the kitchen stool, green eyes narrowed into angry slits, arms crossed in defiance, readying herself for battle. I felt my insides begin to boil as the words of frustration bubbled at the base of my throat. “Deep breaths,” I willed myself.
“Try it again,” I said, my voice shaky as I mustered every ounce of calm I could. “What would the simplified version of 7k+10b-6-5k-b be? Be sure to show your work.”
She uncrossed her arms, grabbed the pencil which had lay abandoned on her math paper seconds before and scribbled the answer. “There,” she said in that sarcastic tone perfected by every preteen and teenaged girl throughout the United States.
Still restraining the antagonistic voice screaming inside me, I said a little-less calmly than before, “You need to show your work.”
And that’s when the first shot was heard around the room as she unleashed a snarky “I did it already,” those eyes daring me to challenge her. The gauntlet had been thrown, and I leapt.
I braced myself and felt the full force of my words erupt into the room like a long-dormant volcano … and then I shot to kill. In other words, I verbally lambasted my daughter for “not working with me when all I was trying to do was make sure she understood her math assignment, and by the grade on her test surely she was having difficulty in this area, and she needed to find a way to restrain her sarcastic attitude because if she couldn’t I could find ways to help her which included taking away the upcoming dance, finding a plethora of extra chores for her since she had so much time on her hands due to her stellar knowledge of the subject matter at hand, and … ” Well, you get the point once again.
Don’t you love when you so genuinely put on this most-unflattering display of the” finer side of parenthood” for all to see. Yet another stunning example of one of my not-so-best parenting moments.
The confrontation between my daughter and I stayed with me through the evening and into the next morning. Had I scarred her from ever feeling confident about math again. Would she ask me for help next time she needed or merely go into the classroom unprepared with her next assignment because she was too afraid to ask her mom for help? Or even worse, what other more important issues would she avoid discussing with me for fear of how I would react? It made me reflect on how just one moment in time, one action, one word, just one look can impact a child’s life — positively or negatively — for years to come. No better was this illustrated than just a few days later when my daughter came to me with another request. …
This story begins long before my children were even conceived. My husband and I were just newly engaged, and I was working as a school adjustment counselor during the school year, and occupying my summers running the swimming lesson program at a local lake. I’ll never forget the bright, energetic mom, who looked no older than a teenager, who greeted me with, what I later learned, was her perpetual smile, and her two young daughters, then 3 and 4, for swim lessons. There was something about this tanned, athletic, women that instantly drew me in. She radiated an energy like no one I had ever known and I wanted to learn more about her, her kids and her family. Just being around her put me in a good mood and I could feel her positive outlook on life seeping into my very being. I often stayed long after my shift was done playing with her kids in the water and visiting with my new acquaintance on her beach blanket, willing her children to behave so they wouldn’t have to go home for a nap.
I don’t remember when our relationship transitioned from simply acquaintance to true friendship, but being that this woman made everyone she met feel instantly like a friend, it happened pretty quickly. When I was finally introduced to her laid-back, ponytailed, 60s throwback of a husband, John, the instant connection I felt with him were much the same as his the one I had experienced with his wife. It seemed as though this couple was from a different era, where peace and love were the way of life. I can rarely recall a time when either of them weren’t smiling and simply just being around them made me feel more relaxed and calm, as if the largest worries of my life were minute compared to those of the greater world (which they were but in you 20s and 30s they never seem to be). In meeting the pair, my husband shared my feelings and a lasting friendship was formed.
The couple was present at our wedding reception (we were married on a beach in the Bahamas and returned to celebrate with family and friends a few days later) and I have photos of my friend’s first visit with her girls when my twins were born. But as life would have it when one has children of different ages, my friends were caught up with school, sporting events, dance classes and the like, while I was left trying to find my way with twins and, two and a half years later, a younger sibling, at home. We touched base on the rare occasion we ran into each other, occasionally passing each other on our way in or out of local sports practices or games. We watched each other’s children dance in the local recital (my daughter in preschool, hers in elementary and middle school). And each year we would gather for the annual Pumpkin Walk, a long-held tradition of John’s which he and his wife had brought to the next town over to share with the community.
As much of a tradition as the Pumpkin Walk became, so too did our annual Halloween party and the talk of the party was usually our amazing pumpkin displays compliments of our friends. Every year they would decline our invitation to the party, too burnt from the week of carving in preparation of the walk, but most years they would stop by with a carload of their favorite pumpkins, share a beer and be on their way. In later years we would bring the kids to the walk if our schedules allowed, visit with our friends and catch up around the enormous bonfire manned by John and his shovel. My husband and kids would return to the park the next morning to retrieve their favorite pumpkins for our party.
A couple of years ago, as our kids got older, our mutual friends converged, and we began to see more of our long-lost friends. We spent time at regularly scheduled bonfires with our friends and we reconnected as if 10 years hadn’t just passed us by with only a conversation or two each year. Not long after we reconnected, John, the large 6 foot 1- or 2-inch bigger than life man still sporting his signature ponytail, was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease. If you know anything of the disease, then you know the prognosis is not good, and those with the great misfortune who receive this terminal diagnosis overtime will slowly disintegrate right before your eyes. John (and his wife) tackled this diagnosis with their usual dose of optimism, and as John slowly began to fade away over the next 18 months, I never saw either of them when they weren’t smiling, and positive, even when it would take great effort to help John out of the van for the bonfire in his scooter, or when he came to a bonfire bruised and battered from a fall, or when he could only communicate via computer that he controlled with the movement of his eyes. They faced all these obstacles with love, sometimes morbid humor, lots of laughter and with the strength of their immediate family — John, his wife, and their two daughters. Not always an easy task.
I took great strength from observing my friends during this time and developed a clearer perspective on my life . I shared some intimate conversations with both of them and was privileged enough to spend time talking about their struggles with the disease and the motivation behind their beloved Pumpkin Walk when I wrote two articles for the paper I worked for about both, that John often shared with others when I was around. But one of the things I will remember most about this time was the impact John had on my daughter at a time in his life when he had much more to deal with than the musings of a young girl.
You see, knowing how excited John was about pumpkin carving, my daughter couldn’t wait to show him her inventive carving of a puking pumpkin the Halloween prior to his diagnosis. She had taken a picture of it and showed him around the bonfire at the walk. He laughed out loud and told her she’d definitely have to do that for the following year’s walk. She didn’t forget the praise or his promise and not surprisingly, even with all he was dealing with, either did John. That year the whole family spent a joyous evening eating, drinking (the grownups that is) and carving intimate portraits on the faces of pumpkins at our friends’ house, AKA “Pumpkin Central,” with Mr. Pumpkin Walk himself riding around on his scooter directing us and giving us tips to help the process, as he could no longer get his hands to work the way he needed them too. That night, after an evening many of us will never forget, John sent my daughter home with a pumpkin to carve at home, designated for the puking pumpkin.
I can not tell you exactly what went on within my daughter as a result of John’s praise and encouragement of her pumpkin carving skills, but I can tell you it formed a bond between them that I know my daughter will hold with her forever. Even in the most difficult times of the disease when John was extremely thin and had to be fed, when he couldn’t communicate and when it was sometimes difficult as an adult to be around him because it was to watch what this disease was doing to John and his family, my daughter was right by his side, talking to him, asking him about his computer and maintaining that connection they had made an October earlier around a bonfire. …
That morning, a few days after the Great Battle of Mathematics, my daughter approached me with that one simple request: “Can I go to John’s funeral with you today?” I took a long look at her and knew what my answer would be even though it was the first funeral this 12-year-old had ever attended. As negatively as my math interaction had been and may affect her for years to come, that simple act of kindness motivated by a picture of a puking pumpkin by an adult friend will stay with her just as long.
As a tribute to his passing (ironically) just days before this year’s Pumpkin Walk, my daughter carved yet another puking pumpkin and placed it in the same prominent spot near the pavilion as John had done only a year before, and that is where it will sit vigil each year in his memory. As funny as it may sound, that puking pumpkin will pay tribute to a man, that even through the pain and devastation of a disease that eventually would take his life, had the time (whether it was a few seconds of interaction or a 15-minute conversation) to boost the confidence of a little girl forever.