There must be 50 ways to celebrate your lover

Ah, my wife.

I present to you a woman who never gives herself enough credit. She never thinks she’s smart enough, funny enough, pretty enough, good enough.

Well, today, now, here, on the 50th anniversary of her birth, I’m here to celebrate the woman that never celebrates herself. The one that always…always…puts others before herself.

So, let’s look at these one by one, shall we?

She never thinks she’s smart enough. Yet, I can’t tell you how often she’s taken charge of a situation and, going on nothing but gut instinct, made the decisions I was too stupid or too locked up with emotion to make. And each time, I didn’t just question the decision, I openly opposed it. It was wrong. Every time, I knew it was wrong.

Yeah, the only damn thing that was wrong was my opinion. Karen was right. Karen is always right.

It’s tough for me to write that, but in my heart, I know it’s true. It’s hard to admit that I’m not as smart as I think I am, and that my wife often outsmarts me. Doesn’t matter if it’s a big life decision, or something as simple as watching an episode of Criminal Minds and she always guesses the plot before I do. She does it every damn time. And I’m the writer, dammit!

She never thinks she’s funny enough. Okay, well, to be fair, I’m a sarcastic joker and I’m always on. I’m sure that gets tiring. But then, add into the mix our daughter, who inherited the sarcasm gene from both parents. And there’s Hunter, our son. He’s hilarious. In fact, our daughter actually created a Twitter feed for him, Willy’s Wise Words. And then there’s our friends Ryan and Lisa. Ryan’s gotta be one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and his wife is hilarious too (especially when she cracks a joke, laughs at it, and says, “I’m funny!”). So, in a group like this, it’s hard to consider yourself funny.

And yet, Karen is often hilarious. She won’t let me post the video, but there’s a lovely few minutes of footage of Karen when she had dental surgery, and being stoned afterward on the drugs that’s simply gutbusting. There’s also this one, where Ryan plays on Karen’s fear of defying superstitions (specifically, opening an umbrella indoors).

How about that scream, huh? Jamie Lee Curtis had nothing on her.

But even this past week in Vegas, Karen had us in stitches by simply doing the John Belushi SNL sketch about cheeseburgers. You know the one.

“Chee’burgarchee’burgarchee’burgarcheepcheepcokenocokePEPSI!”

Yet, when Karen does it, she does this weird thing where her face freezes up and her lips don’t move. It’s unexplainable, and a riot to watch.

So is watching her try to curl her tongue. Or when someone’s getting to her and her chin sharpens. I can’t explain it any better than that. Her chin gets…pointier.

And then there’s what happened this last night. We went out to dinner and, as I sat across from her, I reminded her this was her last meal as someone in their forties. Then I said, “Jeez, tomorrow, I’m gonna be married to an old lady.” And her immediate response was perfect.

“You won’t be if you keep that shit up.”

She never thinks she’s pretty enough. I remember, long ago, I worked in a camera store, on the camera sales side. On the opposite side of the store was photofinishing. I stood with one of my coworkers and we watched this hot woman come in and drop some film off. The coworker nudged me, and said something like, “Damn, she’s got a great ass.” Then she turned around and he said something about her being hot. I ignored him, because she walked straight across the store to me, leaned over the counter and kissed me. My coworker’s jaw damn near bounced off the counter. Yeah, that hot girl was my girlfriend. And now, just a hair under 25 years later, she’s my wife.

20151228_113759

The amazing thing is, over those intervening years, she’s only gotten more beautiful. Maturity suits her.

Vegas

She never thinks she’s good enough. This, above all the others, shocks me. Over the years, I could not have asked for a more wonderful wife. She always supported me in whatever I tried to do, believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She always put my needs and others that actually didn’t deserve her attention ahead of her own. She would bend over backward to help anyone in need, even those that had been horrible to her. If it weren’t for my wife, I would never be the guy I am today.

And she’s the ultimate mother. Seriously, if it had been up to me to raise the kids, they would only have memories of sitting in front of a television with some sugary cereal to eat, and maybe a lot of Beatles and Pink Floyd playing in the background. Karen planned all their events, their lessons, their sports, trips, vacations…everything. I’m useless when it comes to this stuff. Seriously, I’m lucky to get myself dressed in the morning.

And overall, beyond all that, she’s been my partner through life. We’ve navigated many rough waters together, sometimes paddling in sync with each other, sometimes trying to paddle in two different directions, but always in the same boat. And our destination is clear. We’ll be there for each other, no matter what. But for me, Karen’s the one I turn to, the one I talk to, the one that is my rock.

My point here is, though she’ll never admit to it, she is smart enough, funny enough, pretty enough, good enough. She’s more than I deserve, and all that I desire.

I can’t imagine my life without this woman and, today, as she celebrates five decades of life, I’m glad that she chose to spend more than half of it with me. I hope she’ll be with me when we’re staring down 100 years.

I love you, babe. Happy birthday.

 

A quiet nobility

Last night, we got the call we knew was coming, but didn’t ever want to get: Marilyn was gone.

Marilyn was my mother-in-law, mother to Kim, Chris and my wife, Karen, and married to Bill Richardson for over five decades. It’s easy to sum her up by the numbers. Mother of three, grandmother of six, wife of 54 years… but that’s not a fair or accurate assessment.

I met Marilyn back when I was about seventeen. I’d gone to school with her oldest daughter, Kim and had stopped by their house with a friend. I know I met her then, but I have no memory of it.

But if we skip ahead ten more years, that’s when I had started dating Karen, the middle child and Kim’s only sister. I was a cocky ass back in those days–something that hasn’t changed much in the intervening twenty-five years–and I met Marilyn again, for the first time.

I remember a few things about that meeting. Her friendliness, her openness, her immediate acceptance of this gangly, long-haired smartass…even when I found out she didn’t like the word “snot” and I then used it about twenty times. That was the first time I saw the look.

She got this look when someone would rib her about something. She’d set her mouth in a way that was somehow grim and yet smiling all at the same time. Her eyes would dance with a playful light, and the entire thing came together in an enjoy this now, because I’m so gonna get you later look.

She rarely did, but still, the look was delightful and terrifying. Because there was always that question of, what if she actually does get me later?

There was one time however, when she was quite proud of herself. Karen and I were over at her parents’ place and, as usual, I was being a smartass with Marilyn. To be honest, it was something the two of us shared, easily and comfortably. She was always content to be my straight man, and I loved her for it. Anyway, this particular time, I said something to get her goat, and she responded, uncharacteristically, with something like, “You better watch out, mister. I’ll get you for that.” This, of course, accentuated with her sharply pointing finger.

Of course I laughed it off.

We got home, and I got a case of the annoying ahems. This turned into a bit of a cough, and by morning, I had, for the one and only time in my life, a case of laryngitis. I couldn’t speak.

And when Karen called her mother to let her know, Marilyn was delighted, insisting it was her that put the whammy on me. You’ve got to admit, when I’m sassing her, the best revenge would be to steal my voice. She never forgot that, even though it was almost twenty-five years in the past, and she still threatened me with it every so often. And somehow, for all my bluster, it would tend to shut me up.

What I remember most about Marilyn was her mannerisms. I’ve already mentioned the look. I was the recipient of that many, many times. But there was also her true don’t mess with me look, that would come out when she related a story about a teacher being unfair to one of her kids, or any other injustice that she had to deal with. Marilyn never looked like a badass, but she definitely could be. It was obvious that there was a badassery about her. That was one look I never wanted directed my way and, thankfully, it never was.

There was that aforementioned wagging finger. She often told a story, and when she was ready to make her point, or give us the punchline of the story, she’d take a breath, pop the finger and start it with something like, “and you know…”

She also had this expression that she’d pop out as much as she did the finger. It became one of my catchphrases to throw back at her on occasion. She’d say, “Now, I’m not trying to be smart, but…” I loved that expression, and I hope she hears it when I use it going forward.

And then there were the birthdays. Whether it was one of her kids, the spouses of her kids, or her grand kids, she never forgot a birthday, and you could count on a call on your special day with her grinning rendition of the Happy Birthday song, all the way through, and sung loud and proud.

With her in the hospital this year, this was the first birthday since I was 26 that I didn’t hear that song. As delightfully torturous as it was to receive, I missed it horribly, and I’ll miss it until the end of my days.

Again, these are just small glimpses into the who Marilyn was. While she wasn’t always happy, having moods and bad days like the rest of us, she always seemed like a happy person. She enjoyed her kids, she enjoyed her grand kids even more. There were times when I know she didn’t have a bloody clue what they were talking about, but she was always interested, always delighted to spend time with them, and she would talk about it for hours and days later. She was proud of their accomplishments and she never missed a significant event in any of my kids’ lives. She seemed to soak up their youthful energy and radiate it back.

She was godawful horrible on a computer. I can’t tell you how many times I walked her through bringing back an icon that she’d inadvertently deleted, or navigating to a website, or showing her how to delete email. But for all of that, she never gave up, she never stopped trying, because her computer provided a window into the lives of those she loved. And though it could be frustrating for me to go through this, her gratitude afterward always made me feel guilty for ever being frustrated. And again, I’d give anything today to get one of those calls from her.

Even though I came into the picture after all this had passed, I know she was active in the schools her kids went to, and she made her home open to all the friends of her kids. I’m still friends with some of them today and they all have fond, warm memories of her.

And I can’t write about Marilyn without talking about her fifty-four year marriage to her husband, Bill. They’ve had a good marriage. They raised three great kids and watched them all become successful and happy. They’ve seen their grand kids grow up and become good people as well. They’ve traveled, in the last couple of decades heading down to Florida. They usually left in late September, and heading home before Christmas, with the long-running joke that they had to leave the country before my birthday in early October. So, yes, Marilyn could be a smartass when she wanted to be too.

But I’ve watched Bill and Marilyn closely over the past quarter-century. Yes, they’ve had their fights as all married couples do, but when it came right down to it, for all their differences, these two people became one. They had many of the same interests, enjoyed the same things, while still being very much their own people. Marilyn had her Young and the Restless, Bill had his fishing. Marilyn would play Wheel of Fortune on the computer, Bill would putter in his garage. They knew how to be together, and they knew when the other needed their space. But when they were together, they doted on each other, worried about each other, even told stories together, sometimes switching off between one another, sometimes talking over each other in their excitement to get the story out. That always left me wondering exactly who to look at. As far as I’m concerned, they had a wonderful, loving, caring marriage. I can only hope my own is as successful and long-running as theirs.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how Marilyn was doing. And the friend remarked that in all the time we’d known them, about eighteen years, they had never, not once, heard us say anything cross about Marilyn. She’d never said anything catty about anyone, she’d never gotten involved in drama or family politics, she’d never stuck her nose in where it wasn’t welcomed and didn’t belong. She never fought with anyone.

She was nothing less than kind, supportive, warm and loving. She was a woman of quiet nobility and understated support. She was always there if you needed her, but she’d never overstep her bounds.

She was a loving mother and grandmother, a good friend and a devoted wife and she was, in her own way, quietly extraordinary.

She was, on paper, my mother-in-law, but she was so much more to me. She was a friend, a sparring partner, my straight man, my biggest fan and a staunch supporter for anything I attempted. I know there was a couple of times when I inadvertently made her cry and I regret those with all my heart and soul. But there was other times when I made her laugh, sometimes wildly and unabashedly, and for those, I’m truly grateful. I’m glad that somehow, in my own clumsy way, I was able to bring some joy to her life.

She was my mother too, and I loved her. And I always will.

Nobody could ask for more than what you achieved in life, Marilyn: You were well loved. And you will be missed by anyone that knew you.

Goodbye Marilyn.

Bill & Marilyn

The boy inside the man

I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart took eighteen years to get this far

I’m in the middle without any plans
I’m a boy and I’m a man

I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want

I’m Eighteen – Alice Cooper

Eighteen years ago, on a Friday the 13th, my wife and I were in the hospital for the birth of our second child.

This whole pregnancy had felt different from the first one almost from the get-go. I remember my wife telling me that, with the first pregnancy, she’d never felt healthier. This time around, she’d been sicker. She’d also had placenta previa, a condition where the placenta actually covers the cervix where the child needs to go through to be born.

It was a condition that left my wife on her back or sitting for a good portion of the pregnancy. And every day that condition went on, the chances became smaller and smaller that she would give birth naturally.

And then, there we were, on Friday the 13th.

When our son was born–after about 13 hours of labour, weighing 8 pounds, 13 ounces…seeing a trend yet? –he decided to come out the natural way. He’d defied the odds. He hadn’t done it the easy way, but he’d made it.

The Boy is vexed

The Boy is vexed

Over the first few years of his life, he gained a couple of nicknames. The first, of course, was “Demon Boy” because of his birthdate, but also because, unlike our relatively placid daughter, this kid was hell on rollerskates. Louder, more rambunctious, lighter sleeper…

Then, as the years passed, he got the name “Bam Bam” after The Flintstones’ neighbour’s kid. Because Hunter was strong. I think a couple of examples are in order here.

The first comes when he was likely no more than a year old. I was letting him and his sister play in the living room while I got their lunch together. My daughter came in and told me Hunter was trying to hit her with a stick. I told her she shouldn’t be lying–because I knew for a fact there was absolutely nothing stick-like in our living room–and sent her back out to play. Not five minutes later, she came back in, this time crying and, even more disconcerting, with a distinct mark–a sticklike mark–reddening her cheek. When I entered the living room to investigate, there was our son with a stick in his hand. It was actually a piece of trim from our wall unit. He’d pried it off with his bare, one-year-old fingers.

The second example was from around the same time frame. Hunter was still in the crib, but quickly outgrowing it. This was evidenced by the fact that he managed to squeeze his little diapered ass out between the crib slats…because he’d torn a couple of them right out of their moorings.

Hunter’s a natural kinesthetic. He’s always enjoyed tearing things apart, just to see how they work. And whenever there was something that needed to be assembled, he was your guy. He rarely needs directions, he just sees it and goes for it.

Hi-YOOOO!

He’s also a smart bugger. Yes, yes, I know…every parent thinks they’ve birthed a genius. But in this case, I do think that tag might actually be warranted. Perhaps another story is in order.

There was a point where Hunter seemed to be struggling with school. We wanted to ensure that we knew exactly what was going on with this, so we consented to having his various skills and abilities tested.

The interesting part came when we went in to hear the results. The person that administered the tests actually sat wide-eyed and occasionally speechless as she described her own experience with Hunter. During the math portion, she provided him with pencil and paper. She would then read him a multi-part math problem. He was to use the paper to do his figuring, then provide her with the answer verbally. As she described this, this was where her eyes went wide. She said she would deliver the question, Hunter would pause, then ultimately provide the answer. She marveled at the fact that he actually got answer correct that she’d never seen answered correctly before. But the part that blew her mind was when, at the end of the math portion, Hunter slid back the paper. It was still blank. He’d run them all in his head.

“So why isn’t he doing well in math?” we asked.

She described it this way: Imagine you’ve gone to a car dealership and bought a Ferrari off the lot. Now, you’re excited to get it out on the open road and see what it’ll do. Instead, you’re faced with nothing but speed bumps that slow you to a crawl.

“That’s the frustration Hunter feels when he’s asked to do a complex math problem and show all his work.” Essentially, his mind was the Ferrari and the school system was the speed bumps.

So, he’s got the brains.

But what about the other aspects of my now-adult son? Well, he’s an absolute slob when it comes to picking up after himself. And he also has some weird idiosyncrasies. If you walked into his bedroom at five in the morning, you’d likely find him asleep. Under the covers, fully clothed, lights still on. Strange and uncomfortable, but that’s my kid.

And he rarely learns something the easy way. Hunter’s method is to put every rule to the test, to push it and prod it and stretch it to its limits and only then, if it survives his tests, will he accept it. This means he’s never really taken the easy road.

He’s fiercely loyal to his friends, putting himself in the path of an adult’s anger to defend a friend or to point out something that’s not right.

He’s very confident of himself, often overconfident, which has led to him doing some things that someone else would look at and think stupid. He’d rather risk the fall if there’s a chance he’ll fly.

He’s a typical boy and, at times, a highly atypical one. He’s had his share of fractures and sprains and cuts. But there’s also likely not too many kids that can say they were sprayed directly in the face with bear mace. He can.

I’ve also documented on many occasions how funny he is. Everyone else in the family is convinced he should try out comedy or acting. He’s a natural. I’ve seen him, with just a few words, shut down a room full of people. Just a few words, and they’re laughing so hard they’re crying and snorting and gasping for breath. He’s funny enough that his sister’s created a Twitter account, Willie’s Wise Words to document some of these occasions, but really none of them truly do him justice.

Me, Madison, Hunter

Me, Madison, Hunter

And for all of this, for all his tongue-in-cheek bragging about how he’s a “silverback” and how awesome he is, in reality, he’s quite humble. He’d be the first one to tell you he’s not that special.

He’s the one that can light me up more than almost anyone else on this planet. He can push every button I have, he can frustrate the shit out of me, he can enrage me, but he can also break my heart with his concern for others, and his dedication to those he loves. He can do this to me simply because he’s my son and love him dearly.

We mean this in the nicest possible way…

Through the past eighteen years, I’ve seen this boy, this teen, this man, take the hardest routes, make the biggest mistakes, be the most stubborn, and be his own worst enemy. But I’ve also seen him rise above, to shock me with his wit, his dedication, his candor and his love.

He’s always defied the odds. He’s never really done anything the easy way, right from the moment he came out, and his path, I don’t think, will ever be the truly easy one, but I do know that, whichever path he does choose, he’ll make it. He’ll forge his own path, and it’ll be the right one for him.

For my son.

I love you, dude. More than you’ll ever know.

Happy birthday.

A beautiful boy, a horrible life

Everything about this house was born to grow and die…
And love lies bleeding in my hands.

Love Lies Bleeding – Elton John

Yesterday, my nephew Ryan, a man I didn’t really know anymore, died. He was 28 years old.

And I don’t know how to feel.

Let me go back 25 years.

Back in 1989, I was not yet married, but the woman that would be my wife and I had been dating for about a year. My mother was living a couple of hours north of us.

My brother had a son, Ryan who was roughly three years old at the time. My brother was no longer with Ryan’s mother, Val.

Anyway, Karen had a week of vacation that I didn’t have, as I’d just started a new job. My mother hadn’t seen Ryan in a while, so Karen agree to pick him up and, along with her girlfriend, spend the week up at mom’s.

For a week, the three of them were enchanted by the exceptionally polite and bright little boy that was my nephew. He was a charmer and the sweetest little kid you’d ever want to meet.

However, it was also during that week that all the shit came out. In his own way, Ryan was able to get it across that his mother was locking him in his bedroom and going away all night. He had a couple of small round burns on his leg where she stubbed her cigarette out on his leg for punishment. He told a story about his mother stabbing her boyfriend at his birthday party. My brother backed that one up because he’s the one that drove the boyfriend to the hospital.

Needless to say, my mother and Karen were horrified. Ryan, for his part, seemed to take it in stride. It was his life. He didn’t know anything different. This was his normal.

Trying to play it cool, I called Val and asked if it was okay for mom to keep Ryan for another week. Val didn’t care. And in that week, I almost lost my job because I was on the phone at work with police, with various people at the Children’s Aid Society. I can’t even tell you who all I talked to, but I know I eventually reached the director of the CAS. But all along the way, the story remained the same: Unless Val tries to hurt him, there’s nothing anyone could do. Even though we could point to scars. Even though he could tell them everything. Even though there was a hook on the outside of his bedroom door to lock him in.

Even though he said the most unwittingly chilling things. During those weeks at my mother’s, he once said that, if he could somehow escape his bedroom when he was locked in there, he would go out to the balcony and “fly away.”

Still, for that entire week, I tried. I tried everything I could to help him, but the system was all against me. There wasn’t anything we could do. Our last call had been to the Durham Regional Police, who told us if we didn’t get him back to her, she could have us charged with kidnapping.

I can still clearly remember sitting him down in my living room on a summer Sunday evening, Karen having brought him back that morning. He hadn’t seen his mother in two or three weeks by this point. Karen and I, fighting tears, told him we were going to take him back home. I remember Ryan looking up at me and, while he pushed his finger into my knee, said, “No, I want to stay here. With you.”

I had to get up and leave the room to cry. We knew the hell he was stepping back into, and no one would help Karen and I prevent it.

We drove him back to Val’s and, with him sobbing and hugging us because he would rather stay with us than his own mother, Karen and I dropped him back off with his mother.

A week later, she tried to kill herself.

Luckily, Ryan was with Val’s mother at the time (because apparently Val didn’t ever want to look after him herself). She told the ambulance attendants they might as well let her die, because if they saved her, she’ll only try again, and this time, she’ll take Ryan with her.

Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to her and saved her ass.

Finally, Ryan was taken from her. The CAS contacted me and I was told I would have unlimited access to see him and could speak in court when the hearing regarding her ability to parent him came up.

It was during this time that the CAS representative revealed to me that they had previously checked Val’s apartment and, when they saw the hook on Ryan’s bedroom door that locked him in every Friday and Saturday night, Val explained it away as him having gotten up early one morning, tried to make toast and almost set a fire. They bought it and didn’t demand that it be removed.

The CAS considered allowing me, as next of kin, to take him (my brother was, for all intents and purposes, out of the picture), but decided, for whatever reason, that a foster family would be better. Three days after he was moved to the foster home, I was told I could no longer see him because the foster family had “proof” that Karen and I had had sex in front of him.

Their “proof”? A three-year-old boy that grabbed his crotch every once in a while. Because no other three-year-old boy has ever done that without some sort of sexual prompting.

And, of course, the CAS backed them.

So, I was cut out.

When it came time for the hearing, I remember sitting in the courtroom. The file on Val, with no exaggeration, was a solid two or three inches thick.

The person that could have best championed Ryan, my brother, should have talked, He couldn’t, because he was so stoned. Instead, he slept most of the time in the courtroom.

Long story short, the judge never actually got to hear any of the story because the lawyers bargained it all out. They went from trying to have Ryan permanently removed from Val, down to a year of AA and parenting courses before she could get him back. Finally, they bargained it down to a single session of AA.

She didn’t even do that.

So, the woman that tried to commit suicide mere weeks earlier, the woman that threatened her own son’s life, the woman who never seemed to care if her son was even around, got her kid back.

As soon as she did, she fucked off to BC and I didn’t hear anything from him again until he was 17 and Val called me out of the blue to demand that I take him. He’d been in and out of jail by then and had developed a fairly serious drug and alcohol habit. And I had two very young kids of my own. So, as much as it killed me, I had to say no.

She called me every name in the book and accused me of “not caring” about Ryan. The mother that was calling me to take her son off her hands. The bitch that was willing to throw her own son away like so much garbage. Accusing me of not caring.

Though I never really saw Ryan after that, there were the inevitable stories of him spending the latter part of his teen years and early twenties in and out of jail for various indiscretions. There were the stories of drugs and alcohol.

He seemed to be getting his shit together in the past few years. He had a girlfriend, though it was on and off. He had somehow managed to find a way to deal with his psycho mother. He got in contact with my mother and called her fairly regularly.

He moved out to Edmonton a year ago or so. And in mid-January, his son was born. Apparently he swore he would raise the boy right, not like he had been raised.

Then, last Saturday, his girlfriend found him in bed, not breathing. I don’t know all the details, but apparently his heart had stopped. By the time they had him on life-support, his brain had been too long without oxygen.

Supposedly, my brother, a truck driver now, is going to try and get a load that needs to be hauled out to Edmonton so he can make it out there eventually. Because, hell, Ryan can wait, right?

And yesterday, with some of his family around him (but not his father), they pulled the plug and he died.

So now Val gets to play the grieving mother. His girlfriend has decided that she and Ryan’s son will now move in with her.

It chills me to the bone to think of what that bitch will do to this new life. Somewhere, I pray there’s a special place in hell for all parents like this. And I pray that both Ryan’s parents will end up there.

For me, all I really have is the memory of a beautiful little three-year-old boy pushing his finger into my knee and saying, “I want to stay here. With you.” And somehow I have to reconcile that with an adult that didn’t ever really get a fair shot at a normal life because he had a mother bound and determined to put her own needs first, and a father who was more of a non-entity than anything. He didn’t have a chance, because that was Ryan’s version of normal.

And now he’s dead.

And I don’t know what to feel.