Fire Suppression.

“Don’t cry, you’re not a baby, are you?” These words, possibly not verbatim, were uttered to my child on his second day of preschool/day care here in Eindhoven. BY. A. TEACHER. He revealed this to me on our walk to the park after work today as he mentioned he was sad because mommy and daddy weren’t at preschool with him.

What was supposed to be a casual and exciting conversation about how his day went turned into a counterbalance lesson and comfort and support talk. About how everyone feels sad and sometimes people cry when they’re sad and that’s okay. About how mommy and daddy will always come back for him after preschool. About how sometimes thinking of happy thoughts (like being with mommy and daddy) helps us feel better. About how if a teacher tells him this again that he should say that “daddy said it’s okay to cry.”

It took me a few hours, a bike ride, and a generous slice of cake to get past the anguish and sadness I felt for him. As I mentioned in my last post, the kid is doing heroic things all while trying to evolve and mature. Feelings are powerful, overwhelming, and scary, and being in a completely foreign environment with your primary sources of comfort and security removed only amplifies those feelings. Not that I need to validate what he was feeling in any way, but holy shit of course there would be tears!!

As for the teacher, I’m still livid. If we were back at home I’d be camped out in front of the office overnight, primed for a Wolverine-style discussion with the staff as soon as the clock ticked 8:01. But I’m not at home. I’m in a foreign country where I don’t completely understand the culture, language, teaching methods, or societal norms. So unfortunately I have to settle for damage control which, ultimately, will probably happen more often than being able to change the system. And I know the teacher was trying to comfort a scared and upset child who doesn’t know him/her, doesn’t speak the language, and hasn’t adapted to this new environment. But still, I’m livid.

How many times is this exact same message carried to our children? Suck it up, buttercup. Boys don’t cry. It’s not that bad. It could be worse. Quit being a baby. You’re a big boy now. I’ll give you something to cry about. All of these, all of these are creating unhealthy expectations of emotional control and suppression. Everyone has a right to their own feelings sans judgement from others, especially when they are only three years old. And if there’s one thing I know for a fact, it’s that emotional suppression causes scars and dysfunction that are extremely difficult to overcome and heal.

We can do better. We will do better. And we’ll cry if we want to.

Goliath.

[Preface: My family and I are living in the Netherlands for the next 6 months due to my work assignment. I haven’t written anything about it here, but I hope to soon.]

Big day yesterday. Big, big day. The first day of preschool, sort of, anyway. While living here in Eindhoven it was critical that we found ways to expose our son to as much of the culture as possible. So as serendipity would have it there is a preschool/daycare less than a 5 minute walk from where we’re living. So for 3 days a week, 4 hours a day, Trenton goes to Kinderdagverblif’t Parelbosch to play with other children his age and absorb as much of the Dutch culture, language, and education as he can. By the end of this it’s very likely that he’ll speak Dutch better than we will after studying it daily for over a year.

My mind was racing with worry the night before and the morning of. Other than babysitters and family this is the first time he’s been left without us for so long. And having to do it in an unfamiliar space in a foreign country where he doesn’t speak the language? For 4 hours??? Did he eat enough for breakfast? Will the 1 snack they feed him be enough? What will the snack be? How well will he play with the other children? Have we as parents prepared him enough for this? Will he melt down from the tremendous pressure and separation anxiety?

I cooked him a special breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, and Mandarin oranges. He ate some of it, but I fretted internally about him not eating enough protein. We made the short walk from the house to Parelbosch mostly with Trenton being carried in mom’s arms. We walked up the stairs and through the door together holding hands. We walked into the room and he made a beeline right for the cars and trucks, us parents only a minor inconvenience sharing the same space while he went straight to the work of play. A quick kiss goodbye, some “I love yous”, and poof, we were gone. No tears, no hugging of legs, nothing. Anticlimactic to say the least. A walk home with no child in tow provided a very surreal feeling.

Kids have a way of surprising you in the most incredible of ways. Aside from some minor struggles from being hungry (not enough breakfast) and a little separation anxiety, he said he had fun! Played with cars and trucks, ate apples for a snack, and went outside with the group to play. We as parents didn’t do him any favors there by forgetting to leave his coat there so he had to borrow one from someone else (hey, we’re rookies at this too). All in all a great day and a huge sigh of relief from me.

I know my job is to prepare him as best I can for all the challenges he will face in the world so he can fearlessly knock them down head on. Even then, he’s doing the heavy lifting here and I am unfathomably proud of him for that. He’s been so brave and resilient for all the struggles of being here – from the 20-hour travel day here to the jet lag and 9-hour time difference to having to endure Daylight Savings Time twice in 3 weeks. This child has proven he is built to slay giants and the next one comes tomorrow.

Go get ’em, kid.

Good Hair

Dip the cup into the water and fill it up. Gently place my palm against his forehead to avoid spilling into his eyes. Slowly pour over his head. Repeat until completely saturated. Add conditioner. Rinse. Add leave-in conditioner. Then, with Dave Wyndorf of Monster Magnet, Joe Duplantier of Gojira, or Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad punctuating the background, the ritual starts.

Slowly, methodically, my fingers snake through his curls, catching on knots and tangles. There’s much work to be done tonight since bicycle helmets have their own unique way of adding to the nest of tangle-opolis. And sometimes he’s not as amenable to this 10-minute exercise in patience, so in some ways it feels like the clock is ticking here. Yet I find myself enjoying it. My hands move in seemingly random yet fully intentional patterns. Extract the curls with my fingers, find the knot, slowly yet precisely unwrap the strands. After doing this nearly every bath for at least the past 2 years I no longer need to focus; I can meld the movements and the music into one.

I love everything about his hair. The curious intersection of tight ringlets and loose waves. The thick, gentle knot he’s weaved just behind his left ear from constantly twirling his finger through. That it can turn into this beautiful, voluminous afro when it’s both wet and dry, curls falling gently over his ears and down his forehead. I can only hope he loves his hair as much as I do.

But then it hits me. As much as I want him to take pride in his hair, there are millions of people who haven’t or don’t. People have been scorned, shamed, bullied, beaten, and even killed because of this hair, the roots of its culture, and the illogical and unfounded threat it supposedly represents. Generations of children, women, and men have seen this hair as “unnatural”, as something broken to be “fixed” in order to look pretty, to look human in the eyes of others. Billions of dollars are spent every year on products designed to make this hair – a natural gift – look like “white hair” to avoid being seen as the other, a reject, an outcast.

This is something I’ve never had to live through and not something I want my son to experience. And yet I need to accept that he most probably will, especially if we stay in this little town where we live much longer. This is one of many lessons we will have to teach him about acceptance, being accepted, and loving who you are and from where you come. These lessons may be difficult as I acknowledge the world we live in but above all else he can look to me and his mother for wisdom, guidance, and support.

But even then isn’t it much easier for me to lead by example when I, as a cis white man, am the least likely to be oppressed? Even as his advocate, defender, and protector, will he not eventually turn to me and say, “Dad, you can never understand what it’s like to be me”? And for me to then have to painfully admit that I can’t??? Can I ever be more than a parent, an educator, a safe harbor, and a comforter?

Then a literal splash of water hits my face, preventing me from exploring these real-yet-philosophical depths further. This water is cold which signals the end of bath time. I open the drain, slowly lift my son out of the tub, and wrap a towel around him.

I watch the tiny droplets of water bead up and dangle at the end of his corkscrew curls, unaware neither of the safe space from whence they came nor the cold reality of the hard bathroom floor they will meet when they fall. I pull my son in close and hug him tightly; this is a metaphor for everything.

Three.

My Baby Boy,

You’re not much of a baby anymore. You’re not even really a toddler either. You’re blossoming into a pre-schooler, a boy all your own. Strong, fierce, independent, and fearless, you have boundless energy to explore the unknown with bright, wide eyes. It’s been utterly amazing to see you grow and develop into the person you are. Some of my favorite moments are our conversations, hugs, kisses, and cuddles. And every time you say “I love you Daddy” or “you’re my special friend”, my heart fills even larger with love. I really didn’t know my heart would keep growing this much this fast with love, but it is.

As much as you are changing and growing I feel myself growing right along with you. Pushing each other is how we learn. We try, we fall, and we get back up together. We may have our tough moments but know you are loved, you are safe, and I will always be there for you. I will lead the way if you need me to and follow when you ask. I will lift you up, break down walls for you, and be in your corner even when the entire world is against you.

This year will be full of fun and exciting things; I can feel it. A beacon of hope and light in the world – go forth and shine, bringing happiness and joy to all in your life.

Happy Birthday Baby Boy.

I love you.

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Go.

I’m out of breath, hunched over with hands on knees, sweat dripping down my face. My son is staring at me wide-eyed with a smile on his face, green bicycle helmet planted squarely on his head. “That was fun, Daddy!” he shouts with exuberance.

He’s just finished a harrowing cruise on his balance bike down the hill toward the main road in our neighborhood. He was flying so fast that I couldn’t keep up with him “running” full speed (I put running in quotes because what I do is more like a close approximation to actual running). All I could do is watch him pull away from me with a healthy acidic gut mixture of joy, pride, fear, and panic. Thankfully, the combination of his foot braking and a well-placed sidewalk curb kept him from careening into traffic, but still, the feeling of losing control was all too real.

And for me, that loss of control is one of the most bittersweet things. How on earth, at younger than 3 years old, is he ready for full-speed no-fear bike riding? He’s got the balance part down which is mind-blowingly amazing, but can he really process all the inputs about speed, control, balance, steering, terrain, traffic, and trajectory, all the while leaving me in the dust? Apparently the answer is a resounding yes.

So as fearful as I am of the unknown, about not keeping up with him, I am also incredibly proud. He’s doing this all on his own with no guidance from me other than how to stay safe. He’s falling, getting right back up, and hopping back on the bike while saying “try again”, all without any prompting from me! The kid is a fearless warrior, and I now see my job with much more clarity. I need to give him more opportunities to explore, to push himself, to venture into the unknown, all while ensuring he knows I will catch him when he falls, that I will comfort him, patch him back up, and walk right back out there with him.

To that end, I’ve dusted off my running shoes so I can keep up. Nothing like seeing your toddler put some asphalt between us on a bicycle to remind you of how out of shape you are. Also, he’s ready for a 2-wheeler without training wheels, so that will be coming in the near future. He’s definitely earned it. Considering I didn’t get rid of my training wheels until I was close to 9 or 10 years old, this kid is kicking my ass already. And that’s what I want, right? I want him to be better than I ever was, better than I ever will be.

The world is your playground, my son. Let’s hit it.

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Navigate.

Picture the scene. I arrive home from work, unlock the front door, and step inside. Immediately I hear the frustrated cry of my 2-1/2 year old son as I see him running toward me with sadness on his face and tears in his eyes. Mom isn’t home and Grandpa looks on, despairingly, from a distance. “He just woke up from a nap and started crying, not sure what’s wrong,” he says.

It’s clear that all the usual remedies have failed, and I know Grandpa has tried his hardest. My son isn’t crying hard, but certainly crying enough for us to not understand what he’s trying to say. I pick him up and offer the usuals: Snack? Water? Toys? How’s the diaper doing? It needs to be changed but I know he’ll have none of it right now. The last thing we both need is a dirty diaper battle on top of this.

We retreat upstairs to his room, one of his comfort spaces. I still can’t understand what he’s saying but I see that look of desperation and in his eyes. “Help me,” his eyes tell me, fighting back panic. “Please figure out what’s wrong and fix it.” I’ve seen this look before, and briefly my mind flashes back to the times when he was just an infant and all I could do was meet his eyes with panic of my own. I certainly had no idea what to do back then so we both learned together the hard way.

But this time is different. I’ve learned and grown as a parent. “Do you want a hug?” I ask softly. I hear a murmur through the sniffling that sounds like a yes. So standing there in the center of his room, with him still in my arms, I hold him close, his cheek to my chest. With one frail arm wrapped around my neck and one around my side, I start slowly rocking back and forth, just like bedtime when he was younger. No words, no songs, just the gentle rocking he’s known his entire life.

Slowly, I feel him relax, his breathing calmer, tears no more. He woke up with some pretty big and scary emotions for his little self. Being a toddler is hard enough when things are going well, let alone when these giant invisible forces take over your mind and body. Did he want his usual snack and water after waking up from a nap? Absolutely. But his mood jammed him up with a vengeance, and he didn’t know how to navigate those dark waters.

He knows now that I can be his boat, gently rocking in the waves, soft warm blanket around him, guiding him to shore with a calm yet bright light showing the way.

Grief and Love

We had to euthanize Sandy, our sweet, beautiful, 8-year-old family dog this week. She had cancer. It probably started in her abdomen or bladder and rapidly spread to her lungs. When she was diagnosed the vet said she had 6-8 weeks to live. She made it a little over 2 before we did the right thing and said our goodbyes. She was a wonderful companion and friend, not only to my wife and I but to our son as well. She loved him dearly and they grew on each other. Lately, “I love Sandy” would spring forth from my son’s mouth along with some gentle hugs. A Boy and His Dog indeed.

Trenton & Sandy

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As hard as it was for us to go through this, my wife and I made a conscious effort to guide my 2-1/2 year old son through it as well. This required much more strength than I ever thought I had, but I wanted my son to understand what was happening and know that we were here for him. Here’s what else I wanted him to know:

The truth. We tried very hard to explain to him exactly what was happening so he wouldn’t feel blindsided later. I also wanted him “Sandy is very sick and in pain. Mommy and Daddy are going to take her to the vet and say goodbye. She is going to be euthanized and die so she won’t hurt anymore. She won’t be coming back home.”

It’s OK to be sad and cry.Mommy and Daddy are sad,” was the observation repeated quite a bit over the past 2 weeks. “Yes, we are.”

Emotions are scary. It’s OK to work through them however you need to. We will be patient, loving, and understanding as you work through your feelings and realize what’s happening.

We help each other through the bad times. As a family we’re all in this together and we need each other to get through it.

Our pets are family. When they hurt, we hurt. We love them like we love each other.

We must do the right thing for our loved ones even if it hurts us. Euthanasia is a gift we can give the animals we love. We surely will experience pain, grief, and loss, but this is the right thing to do when our pets are faced with suffering.

We will cherish the memories. All the photos, videos, and experiences of the happy times. We will celebrate Sandy’s life in all the happiness and love that it was.

Goodbye my sweet Sandy. We love you.

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