Monday, December 31, 2012


In my mind, I'm superimposing a 30-year-old snapshot over the scene actually taking place. My father is prone on the carpet with my sister, two daughters and I sitting in a semi circle around him. A deck of playing cards has been shuffled and divided among us. My father is holding center court, explaining the game of Dirty Hearts like he was a reading an excerpt of the Illiad.

I remember this.

My father is hardly a florid or theatrical man, but has a way of making explanations seem monumental and deconstructing abstractions, like love or racism, into black and white grids of logic. After his military career, I hoped Daddy might become an educator. I could imagine him as the unyielding middle school teacher pushing unsuspecting underachievers to unexpected personal heights.  Or the college professor with "sold out" course sections every semester. Sadly, he wasn't the least bit interested in classrooms or lecture halls (he also has an exhausted tolerance for insolence and bureaucracy). Luckily for my sister, my daughters and me, classes at the Card Academy are in full swing.

The girls are 11 and 12 years old, sixth and seventh grade, respectively. My sister and I were around the same ages when we learned how to play Dirty Hearts, Gin Rummy and Spades. My sister and I spent a lot of time playing board games and cards then, since that was also the age we spent a lot of time being alternately grounded. On those week long stints of no TV, radio, outside or friends, the "free" sister would honor an unspoken truce of sibling solidarity and keep the other company for a spell.  Even on good days, we played games and cards. When I was heading off to college, my father declared it was time to learn the game Bid Whist, warning that I would not be permitted to accept my diploma if I hadn't mastered the game by graduation.
Daddy's animated and thorough tutorial with the girls has transitioned from Setup to Operations to Rules to Strategy, quizzing them along the way. My sister and I trade knowing grins as the girls listen to my father in earnest.  Again, he made us all feel like we were about to start an archaeological dig, disassemble a hydrogen bomb or draft the verbiage for a new nation's constitution.  Much to consider, but definitely manageable, as long as you remember how to pass along the Queen of Spades ...

Our practice rounds go horribly at first, but the girls start to get the hang of the game. Even if they don't become lifelong players, I am so grateful that they've had this early moment with my father. They can never know their "Poppy" the same way we know him as "Daddy," but when he speaks, he imparts so much of himself: intelligence, humor, wisdom, patience and discipline.  My father is merely giving them to instructions for a card game but it sounds like a love song to me.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Standing and Waiting

I always felt for the kids who were picked last for everything. Even now, my chest will ache at some silver screen footage of kids hoping for a pudgy finger to point in their direction, of them standing and waiting for someone to call their name and rescue them from another gym class Debacle.

In school, I was seldom among the first kids to get picked for kickball teams and group projects.  I was rarely the last kid standing, either. Falling in the middle, and playground politics being as volatile as they were, I could never be sure if "today might be the Last Kid day." It wasn't until I was finally making my way to one team or the other that the adrenaline and waves of anxiety would subside and I could, once again, acknowledge the existence and plight of other human beings. Relief was quickly replaced by pangs of guilt as the remaining cluster of classmates awkwardly stood and waited for someone to call their name, for someone to rescue them from Last.

I thought of this schoolyard scene, not ironically, as I imagined the last parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, waiting for someone to point at them, to hear their names being called.  Two hours after the unthinkable massacre, there were still parents waiting --hoping-- to be reunited with their children. With mounting waves of panic, they were standing and waiting to be rescued from Heartbreak.

Even the passing thought of losing a child is dizzying for a parent. The reality of losing a child drains a parent of thought, emotion, spirit and will. Watching the paramedics kneel over my son so many years ago and, subsequently, trailing their racing ambulance to Children's Hospital, I remember how eerie the waiting felt. The muted moments were void of any rambling thoughts, any trouble-shooting plans, not even any fully formed prayers. My entire being was committed to two things: watching and waiting. The only two words that echoed in my head were "God, please." Any energy that wasn't spent on hope, I used to try and quell the terror wrenching through my gut.  From the first phone call to the last rites, we waited two hours before  hearing the news that our son was gone.

Like so many people gripped by the perverse tragedy, I am heartbroken for every Newton family.  Hearing the description of parents left standing and waiting for news, however, is what moved me from a heavy heart to tears. I know that each second of waiting crashed violently into the next. That they felt the weight of every minute in their knees and on the slope of their shoulders. How the hours leaned into their chests until their breath came thin and weak.  For the days, weeks and lifetime stretching ahead, I pray for them all to once again discover peace. It will come. They will have to wait, but peace will find them again.