The Grief of Babes

It was a beautiful, sunny day in July of 1999 when Maureen passed away. It had been only five days since her 31st birthday and like an abrupt ending of a movie, that was it. From the window, I saw birds hopping and sorting through life-sustaining valuables to bring back to their nest. They are full of life, I thought, but Maureen is dead.

Truth is felt – not understood.

I wondered what would become of her two children. They were still so small; Michelle was eight, Trevor was five. She doted on them with so much love, laughter and food – it seemed impossible to even offer them that now, without causing pain.

That evening, Michelle and Trevor’s dad sat them down on either side of him. He told them their mom would not be returning from the hospital – she was gone. Michelle buried her head in her father’s chest and Trevor ran off into another room. He returned with some paper and crayons and said, “Michelle! Here, draw your feelings – don’t cry, just draw! Here,” as he thrust the paper towards her.

In the days that followed, he hardly ever cried. He would often stand still in certain places of their house and look around, as if he could sense her haunting. His sister, on the other hand, would burst into sporadic tears over nothing. She became moody, irritable – even mean.

That was my first experience with children dealing with grief. At the time, I was a little surprised at their lack of sadness. I know now it was ignorant of me to expect them to mourn like adults and to think that grief was a one-size-fits-all emotion. I couldn’t discern the plethora of other emotions that children experience in trying to process the idea of death. What I saw then and only understood now were emotions like loneliness of the void their mother left, anger in the vulnerability they suddenly felt – anxiety and helplessness in the breakdown of routine, guilt because they were still egocentric, and the most heart breaking of all – yearning, as they scrutinized shadows for their mother – just to name a few.

It’s not that suddenly, I became this expert but recently, our family lost a really good friend. We had gone on Scouting events, celebrated Oktoberfest, and birthdays, and leftover Thanksgiving pies with Bourbon – it wasn’t supposed to end just yet. It forced me to recall the experience and do the research for the sake of my own children and their friend who is now facing a life without a loving dad. This may be their first rodeo but it certainly isn’t mine.

I’m not giving anybody ten steps to cope with grief, especially not children. You can keep your counseling to yourself and stick your meds up your ass – this was all part of the package from the very beginning. There is no right answer, just like there’s no wrong decision. The only true therapy is time and the hope that we have it.

There’s no right or wrong way of coping with loss. The best anyone can do is go on. Yes, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to not cry. Go ahead and laugh, go ahead and drink, eat an entire chocolate fudge cake if that’s what the moment calls for. Be a rock or be a hot mess – just be. Life goes on, however bleak it may seem.

As for Michelle and Trevor, they’re adults now. I wish I could say they turned out just fine, but I have no idea. They’ve cut ties and lost touch with everyone that had anything to do with their mother. Two years after she passed, their father remarried and that was the last we really saw of them. It seems their life was destined to be one abrupt ending after another.

For me, that’s the real loss and I’ll bet, that it’s just me. For them, it may have been the only way they could cope: to erase instead of cherish, replace instead of remember. Only sentimental fools get the luxury of being sentimental – she was not my mother after all. What do I know about the grief of babes.

If there’s anything to be said about human conditioning, it’s that strength and resilience can be cruel punchlines. We can’t say we want you to laugh but not laugh too loud. We try not to make life a joke but to get it. No adult quite believes that jokes are for kids, silly rabbit – but they can get it, too.

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Today’s Tom Sawyer: The Summer of Teen Jobbers

Nurse Jill told me that California patients get their infusion port in their arm instead of their chest, you know, because they have to look good in a bikini. I don’t know what level of narcissism (or is it unwavering optimism) one needs to be at to worry about looking good in a bikini after half a year of chemo, but for me, the line would be way the Hell over there. I’m not wearing any swimsuit, not even Hijab swimwear, which to me is a total kill-joy anyway, until I get this thing out of me.

That said, I had to look forward to one whole summer with two boys and probably some tag-alongs, and no plans to frolic in water. How does a mom stave off heat violence without an aquatic oasis? Well, the answer is – give ’em somethin’ to do.

Had we a picket fence, they could spend the hot summer days white-washing the damn thing, but alas, we’re city dwellers – we have a rusting iron gate, badly in need of a new paint job. And so they came to be, my son and his friend, today’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – sans the river and Injun Joe.

Things were working out beautifully. It was a sweltering 90-something degrees, the work was tedious and grueling – any hotter and the situation may have constituted as slavery. Before they thought to call the labor department, I served them ice cold Arnold Palmers after an hour’s work because no slave driver would ever do that. Although the strip job was spotty and probably caused more damage than good, I commended their efforts and told them to get back to work.

That’s when my son’s friend asked, “If this is work, aren’t we supposed to get paid?”

To which my son replied, “We get paid in food – we eat lunch!”

As a matter of fact, I make lunch everyday – so that statement is out of context. You see, at the beginning of this summer, my son and I volunteered at the Cub Scout Queens day camp at St. John’s University. We enjoyed a tasty buffet lunch everyday, which I told him qualified as payment – who knew he took it so seriously?

Now in comparison, the cuisine’s pay level between the camp and this iron-fence-paint-stripping job is like the difference between working for Google and Nubble Bubble Tea and Internet cafe. Luckily for me, his friend had no idea what the spread was at camp, and instant macaroni and cheese just happened to be one of his favorites, so there were no pay-rate disputes. Then again, they didn’t quite finish stripping the fence, much less get to paint it -which only proves, you get what you pay for.

All in all, it was about five hours of work, which is well within the confines of child labor laws. Might I add, the task was more grueling for me because I had to listen to their constant complaining and their shitty music the entire time. If they kept it up, I’d have been forced to bring out my laptop and show them pictures of real child-labor abuse.

Actually, I bring it up every time they moan about going to school. I’d say, “A hundred years ago, you’d be working in some depressing factory, or shining shoes, or risking your life in a coal mine for maybe forty-eight cents a day instead of going to school to spin a mini-fan blade between your fingers for “stress-relief” and dodging the lunch lady shoving free mystery-food. Would you rather work? Huh?!”

If it were a Wednesday morning, they’d give up the complaint – but Fridays – they might be inclined to say, yeah – I’d rather work. I think they’re curious about Happy Hour, which they’ve noticed starts hopping at 3 pm – at least in Sunnyside.

Now, they can only dream that they’d ever be served at Happy Hour – but even sadder, it’s just as much a dream that they’d ever find summer work. If you thought jobs were limited when we were teens, you have to think, what idiot would hire these greenies?

When I was fifteen my summer job was delivering airline tickets, my best friend was working at a candy store and my neighbor’s son delivered papers. According to the labor review, newspaper routes have been on the decline since the 1990’s. You’d think it’s because more people are receiving the news digitally but no – we print the same amount of newspapers today.

So what’s left – babysitting? Millennials working for Millennials, is that even possible? It would take them all night just to work out the pay rate.

My ten-year-old (which is not considered a Millennial) already got a taste for making real money performing with the American Ballet Theater. After he got paid, he wanted to “invest” that money into creating a Youtube channel. He’s convinced tens of thousands, maybe even a million subscribers will watch him open boxes of Pop figures and Rick and Morty paraphernalia he orders on Amazon.

Now you know why we call him Consumer Boy.

I honestly believe consumerism ruins work ethic. Consumers don’t care about what they do, they care about what they get for it. But I do admire their focus. Yes, maybe they’re entrepreneurs; maybe they’re innovators – they’re what my mom calls “hungry.”

But will they work for Mac n’ Cheese?

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