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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ballast and the Balloon

Having eight children wasn't a well-thought-out plan that my wife and I devised. On the other hand, before we met each other, we had both been charmed by the book Cheaper by the Dozen. Neither one of us had to talk the other into the idea of having more than two children. Just about two years after we were married we had our first child—a boy we named after me, Tory. Two years later we had our second child—another boy. We named him Cory. Just like clockwork we had our third boy, Rory, two years after that. Having three, healthy boys in six years was a wondrous thing to me. Life became fuller and richer with each child. Having them spaced two years apart gave Barb and I time to adjust to each child and yet kept them close enough in age to each other that they could entertain each other naturally.

We stopped having babies after our third son. There was no plan involved. We didn't take measures to ensure we would have no more children. It is just that Barbara no longer got pregnant. Although we both had notions about having lots of children Barb and I shrugged it off and found a lot of joy and happiness in raising Tory, Cory and Rory. Imagine my surprise when, six years later, Barbara floored me with the words, “Tory, we are going to have another baby.” I was stunned, not because having another baby overwhelmed me, but because after six years my life was in a nice little routine that I was comfortable with. It had been three years since Barb and I had changed our last diaper and we found a diaperless world a very fine world indeed. With my youngest boy now six-years-old we definitely had a “team” thing going on. What would we do with a “baby” coming onto the scene? We didn't know then how bad it would be. This new baby wouldn't be just any baby; this new baby would be a girl baby.

Clorinda, code named Clory, changed our world. Suddenly there was femininity on the team. Yes, my wife is very feminine, but she is “Mom,” and one of the managers and that makes it different. With Clory came pretty little dresses, ribbons and hair pretties, and a sense of delicacy. Had we known what else would come with Clory we would have grounded her for life the day she was born—four more children followed her. At least they came nice and orderly again with two years between each. The final count was five boys and three girls.

It would take years before I would understand what I had on my hands. I don't have just one family of eight children. I have two families—my older family of three and my younger family of five. My “three” boys are all grown and out of the home now. When they come home we have adult discussions on language, world philosophy, and music. What makes these “intelligent, adult” conversations more complex is the four-year-old grabbing my thumbs and walking up me until he can flip over backwards, or the six-year-old crawling into my lap and wiggling in her non-stop way. My oldest sons will say goodnight and go back to their now independent worlds while I shut the door and give attention to my nine-year-old who is just beginning a night of vomiting and tears.

It has occurred to me that Barb and I would be “free” now had we not allowed our second family to join us. We could be enjoying only the adult relationships we are developing with our older sons instead of everything from four-year-old tantrums to thirteen-year-old, teenage angst—again. But when I imagine the house as it would be without my younger family—the colorlessness, the listlessness, the silence—it makes me shiver. I know that the day will come when the silence will be more welcome; when Barbara and I can sit together in peaceable silence while anticipating the visit of grandchildren. But I am just too young for that yet. I still need a child to hold my hand, to crawl up on my lap, to call my name when I come in the door at night. I still need the thrill of a thoughtful thirteen-year-old giving me a kiss on the cheek or the excitement of an eleven-year-old telling me about her upcoming sleepover. Oh, I feel a little tired sometimes and the weight of responsibility for a young family can weigh heavy, but these things are only the ballast while my second family is still the hot air in my life's balloon. I'm not ready to land yet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Worlds of Honesty

As a father of eight I have to constantly watch and listen to try to gather insights into the worlds that each of my children live in. There are a couple of reasons why I want to do this. First is that exploring their worlds is like exploring a magnificent cave with tunnels and grand chambers and stalactites and crystals and deep pools and . . . well it goes on and on. The treasures and secrets I might find are infinite. The other reason goes along with the responsibility part of being “Dad.” I need to keep an eye out for any trouble signs in their world where I might be needed to step in and help. With eight kids this watching and listening is constant, and still I know I miss much.

The other day I picked up on something with my eight-year-old son. Jory is imaginative, carefree, and playful. Although he can be the greatest helpmate and persist until the job is done he also sometimes plays a game to see what he can get away with. When his mother catches him leaving an unfinished job he will grin, groan, and say, “How do you always catch me.” One day his mother reported that he had told her that he had done a particular job when he hadn't done it. She told me this soon after I had arrived home from work and there were many other things calling my attention so I just filed it. A couple of weeks later some of my kids were with me at their grandparent's house. Grandpa came in and asked Jory what he had done with the cardboard from a game they had opened outside.

“Oh,” he said, “I threw it away.”

“You did not,” Grandpa said. “It's still on the lawn.”

“Oh, yeah.” Jory said, with a “you got me” grin.

This incident, combined with the previous one his mother had told me about got my attention. Was Jory becoming a liar? Jory is a good kid with a good heart. But I personally know other kids who have spent time in jail who were the best kids when they were young. I wanted to nip this in the bud. What I didn't want to do was embarrass Jory in front of his family and put the first brick in a wall between us so I decided to wait for a better time to talk with him.

It was several days later, when Jory had come to the computer shop with me, that I had an opportunity to approach the subject. We were the only ones in the shop. He had just finished his school where I had been helping him and was sitting near me.

“Jory,” I said. “Have you been lying lately?” I said this calmly, but surprised myself with my directness. I was even more surprised by his response. His whole demeanor dropped which told me he took my question very seriously. Then he slowly nodded his head. If my son was becoming a liar he was being honest about it.

I brought up the instances of dishonesty I knew about and then started talking to him about honesty in terms I thought he could understand. As I talked big tears pooled in his eyes. Eventually they spilled over his eyelashes and dropped onto his red sweatshirt where they soaked in forming dark wet spots. My voice wavered for a moment as I witnessed his remorse and shame. I felt bad but I wasn't speaking to him harshly or chiding him. His reaction was purely his own sense of right and wrong working on him now that it had been called out. At the end of our talk Jory, who had been sitting with his knees up to his chest under his sweatshirt, had almost pulled his entire face into his sweatshirt. I reached over and pulled him to me in a hug. He didn't hug me back, That may have been because his arms were inside his sweatshirt too, but he laid his head against my chest as he cried quietly.

I have had moments like this with each of my eight children—each one under the differing skies of each of their worlds. It takes a lot of watching and listening to keep up with eight children, but the riches I discover in each of their worlds makes it all worthwhile. Has Jory learned his lesson? I can only hope so. In the meantime I will continue to watch and listen.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Holding Hands

I have eight children. You would thing that with so many that things would start to become routine. Every parent or parent-to-be hears about the phases children go through. Two of the most talked about phases are the “terrible twos” and then those “teenage” years. I had enough children spread far enough apart to experience the terrible twos and the teenage years at the same time. Actually, I think I've done this three times. I'd love to be able to tell some great party stories about what that was like, but nothing really stands out in my memory. Oh, there was the time my two-year-old nearly burned down the house by turning on the gas stove on the same day my fifteen-year-old totaled the car he couldn't drive legally yet. Or there was they way my thirteen-year-old could throw a tantrum very similar to my two-year-old. The truth is, none of this ever happened. What can I say—my children are boring. Now there is a blessing! Actually, I find nothing boring about any of my children, but none of the typical “stage” stereotypes fit very well.

On the other hand my children have gone through the “angel infant” stage, to the crawling stage, to the walking stage and so forth. One of my favorite stages was “holding hands” stage. One of the most pleasing feelings in the world to me is the feel of one of my children taking my hand. That act communicates such love and trust that it gives me shivers just thinking about it. My six-year-old likes to go for walks with me. She has a lot of energy and will not stay by my side the entire walk. She will skip ahead, dance a little, check out a rock by the side of the road, but then she will come back and take my hand for half a block. I love that part of the walk. This process will repeat itself four or five times during the course of the walk.

One of the saddest occurrences in parenting is that transition period when they are growing too old to hold my hand any more. It is such an awkward time. We may be on a walk around the block or just walking together into the store. Both of these scenarios are where one of my sons or daughters would naturally take my hand. During this transition period I'll be aware of the potential for them to take my hand and they may or may not do it. If they don't take my hand I can almost hear the door closing on another room in our relationship—a room that was most pleasant. If they do take my hand I will enjoy the moment, but I am all to aware of the tentativeness of the act. I can almost hear their awareness that they are getting too old for this. This transition has never become routine for me. With each child the sadness I feel is the same because it signifies that our relationship has changed forever. Of course there are great joys to come in the new relationship I am developing with them, but I'm grateful I still have three hand-holding children left.

My first son, now twenty-four, grew up so fast. This son must have been like my current four-year-old at one time, but for the life of me I can't remember without looking at pictures and reading journal entries. I do remember an incident when he was fourteen. He was a teenager—no longer my little boy. He had long ago passed from the hand holding stage. We still got along fine, but there was definitely more distance between us. He had his own interests and often treated my requests to do household chores or to attend a family function as if I were interrupting his life. One Saturday found most of our family and a couple of friends at Lagoon, a local theme park. Tory, his brothers and his friend took off on their own and left me to escort his younger siblings around the park. After traversing the park three times in search of adventure and junk food I sat down with the little ones on a park bench. Although my two younger children had plenty of energy left I was ready to leave. Suddenly I felt someone lean on me from behind—a forearm on each of my shoulders.

“You having fun?” a voice asked near my ear.

It was my oldest son. He and the others had seen me sitting there and came over to say hello. I heard happiness and contentment in his voice. I felt a sudden surge of joy at his happiness—not actually at his happiness, but in his willingness to stop what he was doing to come over to share his happiness with me. There he was, my teenage son, leaning comfortably on my shoulders to chat with me for a moment. I was afraid to move; almost afraid to breathe for fear of scaring him away. I didn't want to feel his weight leave my shoulders. Since he had grown too old to hold my hand intimate moments like this had grown rarer. Eventually he did leave my shoulders and run off with his pack, but I found that moment was enough. My feet didn't hurt as much and I was able to attack the park with renewed energy. With a child on either side of me, each holding my hands, we headed for the Tilt-a-Whirl.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Countdown to Prayer

You would think that in a small house such as ours it wouldn't be difficult to round up eight children and get them to the table for dinner. It should be something akin to a couple of cowboys herding cattle in a small pen toward an open gate. In reality it is more like squeezing a balloon—the air leaves where you compress, but it just pops up in two more places. Barb and I do have one thing on our side—hunger. With the help of our squeezing, or in spite of it, all of the air eventually goes to where the smell of the food is.

Interestingly enough now that all the children are at the table the next step is even more difficult. We can't get everyone to shut up for the blessing on the food. Oh, we can get one or two to stop talking, but never everyone at the same time. Autumn will be telling someone about the book she was reading just before coming to the table. Jory will be tormenting Glory about imaginary floaties in her drinking cup. Clory is telling Barbara about her choice of beads for a necklace masterpiece she is making. Little Story will have a hand on either side of my face making me look into his eyes while he painfully explains something that I can't understand.

“Rory, would you say the prayer?” I say loudly enough for everyone to hear. Rory, playing finger drums on the table, glances my way and acknowledges my request with his eyes. His finger drumming continues, however, not in defiance of my request, but because the chatter around the table continues—four or five conversations at once that create such a cacophony that my sanity seems challenged.

“Autumn! We are saying the prayer.” Autumn glares at me for stopping her mid-sentence.

“Jory! Glory! It's prayer time!” They ignore me. “JORY!” I raise my voice. He stops talking but looks at me with impatience. But by now Autumn has decided that she can finish telling Cory her story about her book before I can get the rest of the kids quiet. I have taken two steps forward and slid back one.

I am really hungry. The potatoes are getting cold. The chatter of a bunch of happy, or relatively happy kids, just won't stop. It seems I have only two choices:

1. I can start to eat without a prayer. But I really want to thank the Lord for his blessings before I do.

2. I am a big guy with a powerful voice. I could scream “SHUT UP!” and get everyone to stop talking at once. I think I have tried this before and found that the ugly feeling such a voice brings makes the following prayer hypocritical. Another problem with this method is that I would have to keep doing it at each meal because it is a very ineffective training method.

Then I was struck with pure inspiration.

“Ten, nine, eight . . .” I said loudly. Autumn stops talking and looks quizzically at me.

“Seven, six, five . . .” Clorinda closes her mouth and looks at me wonderingly.

“Four, three, two . . .” Jory and Glory happily join in with the countdown. Story grins broadly.

“ONE.” Rory, who has caught on quickly, is ready and begins the blessing on the food before control is lost again. Immediately after the prayer the chatter erupts like water from a freshly unkinked hose, but it is okay now because the food serving process can begin.

The “prayer countdown” has continued at each meal to this day. Some of the children will assist in the countdown. Others will continue their lively conversations until “one” is said, then there is a sweet moment of silence as the blessing begins.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Momentary Connections

A movie is playing on the DVD. In our cramped living room our children have plopped wherever they can find room: on the couch, in the worn-out banana chair, on the floor, in the old wooden rocker, and one on top of the unfolded laundry. I take my gaze away from the TV to look at each of my children. I was there at each of their births, but at this moment I suddenly feel how independent of me they are or will be. I study the face of each child wondering at what I have had a part in creating. How can this be? How can someone ignorant of life's secrets be allowed the privilege to help create a human soul—a soul with the potential of becoming like God? None of my children notice my wondering scrutiny and instead stare at the scenes on the TV. That is until I come to twelve-year-old Cory. As I am studying his face he must sense my gaze. Without warning his head turns and his eyes meet mine. He doesn't know why I am looking at him, but it doesn't seem to bother him. I don't know what he is seeing from his view point as he looks into my eyes, but he has the grace to smile at me before he turns his head back to the TV. His smile is simple, sincere, and beautiful. His smile says to me, “I am comfortable with you, Dad, and I love you.” That instant of eye contact, that selfless smile, they were a gift of God from a soul we had created together, but they looked to me to be from the part that God created.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Suddenly Glory

The workings of a household with many children can be mysterious. As a father I am aware that there is a world of which I am not a full member—a world where I am an outlawed creature, but tolerated on the edges. As a caring father, one who really enjoys spending time with children doing the things they like to do, this baffles me a little. My children love me. They seek out my company often each day. And yet there is a place “Dad” cannot come. The world is for children and I am an adult. My children did not make up the rules for this world; they and I are just living under a law of reality.

I had been working in my office all day, neglecting even to come in for lunch. Around three o’clock, when I realized I was a little hungry, I left my project on my desk and came into the house for some food and a break. In my home, when everyone is home, there are ten people—Mom and Dad and eight children. My home is small and the presence of others is easily detected. On this day as I entered the back door I detected nothing but silence, something that is very unusual. One son is on a mission in Canada. Two other sons, although living at home, were at work. That accounted for three children. As I walked through the kitchen into the sitting room I found my three-year-old, Story, sprawled out in nothing but his diaper asleep on the couch. So there was the fourth. I recalled my wife telling me she was going to step out on an errand. She sometimes takes Clory, my twelve-year-old, with her. That accounted for my wife and a fifth child. So where were the other three?

Then I heard little voices. I followed their soft melody to the back bedroom. There I found the other three all sitting on the top bunk. Lory, ten, was lying at one end looking up at the ceiling as she talked. Jory, seven, was at the other end sitting up and pressing the bottom of his bare feet against Lory’s feet and giggling about something. Glory was sitting in the middle, to the side of the other’s legs, against the railing.

I strode into the room and rested my head on my hands on the edge of the top bunk. The children were aware of me, but they were in that world I could not enter and said nothing to me. After a minute of listening to their comments and laughter that mean nothing now I ventured some words to see if they would recognize and communicate with me.

“Did you guys have lunch yet?”

Lory glanced at me and nodded. “Peanut butter jelly sandwiches,” she said. She immediately looked back at the ceiling, kicked Jory’s feet and laughed at some continuing joke I was not privy to.

I felt a little lonely standing there in the presence of three of my children. But then I noticed Glory, 5. She was looking at me from across the bed with those big, brown eyes. I felt like I, an outsider, was in a jungle and some creature of the jungle had taken notice of me. Glory presently is the most mysterious of all my children--at least to me. She needs me as her father, but only at her convenience. Her world is quite independent. I see her and hear her during the day, but she calls on me only when it is in her interest to do so. For instance, I will be watching a movie in the evening. I will make myself comfortable on the love seat with various family members in various seats and positions throughout the room. I will suddenly become aware that my once empty lap is now occupied by Glory. She will have made herself quite comfortable as if I am a lounger. I didn’t notice when she arrived in my lap. Suddenly Glory was just there because it suited her. After giving the movie my attention for awhile I will look down to find my lap empty again and Glory nowhere to be seen. I didn’t notice her leave. Suddenly Glory is just gone.

On this day Glory’s eyes lock on me. She says nothing and I raise my eyebrows in wonder. Then Glory, who is sitting Indian style, leans slowly across the bed and presses her lips against my cheek. Next she presses her cheek against my lips. Then she withdraws back across the bed and back into her world. I try to follow her, but run up against the barrier no adult can cross. I realize Glory has given me a gift from her world. Knowing I have been favored, but can expect no more, I withdraw in search of a peanut butter jelly sandwich.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Climbing to 12,000 Feet With My Girls

On the last Saturday before the snows arrived at the higher altitudes I took two of my daughters, Clory and Lory, and a friend and climbed to the North Peak of Mt. Nebo. The hike consists of a ten mile round trip and an altitude gain of 3000 feet. Let me tell you of my adventures with my daughters.

I am still overweight, but have worked out hard these past four weeks. I had hopes that with my workouts and two knee braces the journey would come off all right. We got up at 5:00 am. We at half a bagel and a pop tart and began the drive up that windy road. The sky was clear and it looked to be a beautiful day. Supposedly snow is coming in a few days up on the mountain. We started up the trail at 7:00 am. My workouts proved effective and I didn't have any undue trouble getting to the summit. I was so proud of myself! But then my gas ran out. Coming down about killed me. We ran out of water and I was so dehydrated it took some focus and faith to make it to the car. Dang. There were all these other hikers who pretty much skipped to the top and skipped back down again. For them it is a pleasant day trip and for me it is a life or death adventure. But I did it—again.

The hike was quite an adventure for 11-year-old Autumn also. I can tell you right from the beginning she was a trooper. Autumn is skinny, somewhat girlish, and emotional, but she does have determination. She hiked without complaint. My only complaint was that she wanted to stop and view the scenery in her enthusiastic way.I teased her and every time she looked up I would say, “You are looking at the scenery again!” She would reply, “Daaaad!” She had such enthusiasm and joy. While in the pines she exclaimed again and again how beautiful it was and that she expected to see fairys and elves. You remember the two very steep, sudden climbs, one about 800 feet and one about 1200 feet. She scooted right up these.

After the second steep ascent we arrive at 11,500 feet in altitude. The peak is just about one mile away across a narrow ledge of nothing but sharp, broken shale and scree. The slopes fall sharply away to cliffs at strange angles and make a person dizzy. As you might imagine the ridge was a little more difficult for Autumn. She used the word “treacherous” several times, but she wasn't complaining, just observing. Up and down, over and around we went picking our way and pricking our hands on sharp rocks. At one point we had to work our way back up to the top of the ridge using our hands along with our feet. I felt the fear well up inside her before she said anything. “She said simply, “I'm scared, Dad.” I thought that maybe we had reached the end of the hike. I didn't want to push her up something she couldn't come back down or force her into tears. I encouraged her without trying to push her so that she could make up her own mind. She made up her mind to go on and up to the top she went. She showed great courage. She didn't let her fear make her decisions for her. I was proud of her.

Coming down proved difficult for Autumn. She didn't trust her feet and slid down a lot on her bottom or else moved very, very slowly on her feet. So did I. We both had holes in the bottoms of our pants when we got down. After that 1200 foot decent to the saddle we stopped for a rest, a drink, and a bite to eat. Autumn and I felt quite sick when we got up to go. I was barely holding back vomiting and so was she. But she trudged along silently behind not complaining at all. About a half mile from the car we stopped for a moment to rest. She walked over to me, leaned against me and cried just a little, very softly. She was so thirsty and tired. Her face was flushed and I was worried she might collapse from heat exhaustion. I was feeling it too. I mentioned this quietly to Clorinda and Clorinda took my keys and broke into a run to go get some water that was left in the car. What a girl. She met Autumn on the way back to give her a drink, then Misha brought it on back to me. While Clorinda and Misha were gone Autumn and I had a little prayer and we walked hand in hand for a bit.

Clorinda, 13-years-old, was a trooper also, not because she went on when she wasn't expected to, but because the whole thing was easy for her. She was in the lead the entire trip. She wasn't showing off, but she was just faster than me and Autumn. Clorinda never left me behind, though, like my boys had on previous trips. She would always stop and wait for me, on the way up and on the way down. And always she had a smile for me and words of encouragement. “You're doing great, Dad!” For me she was the most beautiful thing on that mountain.

When we got to the ridge she led the way. This wasn't her “taking charge” in some grand way. She was just in front and faster and had no fear of what had to be done. She showed no sign of fatigue; she just worked her way across the ridge methodically. At one point she made, in what was my judgment, a mistake. She crossed a itty bitty ledge hanging on above them with their hands with a toe hold on the rock below. It was a 12 foot drop to the first sharp rocks below. I voiced my concern over that route choice. Autumn and I went over the top and on the other side where it was much safer. On the other hand I looked ahead to see Clory climbing something very steep with her hands again. I yelled that that couldn't be the way (I couldn't remember having to use my hands except near the summit) and that they should go to the next colur. She looked at me questioningly, but did go to the next and work her way up. When I got to the route I had told her to go up I looked and gulped. Autumn and I weren't going up that. We went back to the route I had warned her against and climbed that way. Clory had had no trouble with the harder route and just shrugged when I apologized for my misguidance. Clorinda was magnificent!

The climb made me physically ill. I don't think it was the physical exertion as much as it was the altitude. I reach 10,000 and I start to have headaches and then nausea comes on. Every time I make this hike (this was my fourth time) I swear I will never do it again. This time was no different. I remember telling my wife after I got home, "Never again!" I repeated myself three times. but now, looking at these pictures and thinking of the wonderful time I had with my daughters and their friend, I'm not so sure I won't go again when my 9-year-old son is old enough. And then there is 6-year-old Glory after him. And then 4-year-old Story after her. Clory and I figured out I would be 56 in seven years when Story is able to go. With full confidence Clory said, "You'll be able to do it, Dad." I hope so. I hope so.

More Pictures

The ridge at 11,500 feet.

Looking back down at the saddle. Steep climb.

Up on the ridge with Autumn