Go Dad Go!

A self-important blog about riding bikes, raising kids and the all-too-rare nexus of these two pursuits.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Shifting Gears: Perspective

So far this blog's title has belied its content: there's little about raising kids here -- or about kicking ass, for that matter, except when relating to...riding bikes. With the cycling season wound down, though, perspective has been creeping back into my thoughts. Indeed, it was forced back in last weekend.

A tragedy hit close to home recently: early in September, a woman from our neighborhood, Nina Reiser, went missing, and it appears now that her husband killed her -- though he has not been convicted. Her seven year-old son and five year-old daughter attend my son's elementary school, and the boys play on the same soccer team. Nina's best friend Ellen, to whose house she was headed when she disappeared, is the mother of our kids' good friends -- and is now the caregiver for Nina's kids as well as her own two children. We're thus loosely connected to this awful affair, and with the hope of lending a hand to Ellen and her husband Mark, who overnight became parents of four, instead of two, we watched all four of the children last Friday evening, as well as our own.

Here's what you would have noticed had you watched the kids that night: very little. None of them stood out. At least not for their behavior; ours are blond, while the others are darker-skinned and -haired. But Nina's kids gave no signals to their terrible situation: no easy tears, no lashing out. All six did the things kids do on an evening playdate: ate pizza, with the boys comparing how many pieces they'd had; watched a Disney movie; played dress-up or with a racetrack...in all, it was a perfectly normal, if somewhat hectic evening.

Admittedly, I found myself treating Nina's kids differently. Ever since this terrible situation came to light, we've asked many times: How can we help? But this is unlike other neighborhood causes, as when you rally to bring dinners to the family whose mom broke her leg, or you visit the sick kid in the hospital; we've learned that there's really very little we can do to help the kids (though again, Mark and Ellen deserve support as well). I think that the urge to do something emerged Friday night when I found myself reprimanding my own kids, or even Mark and Ellen's -- whom I long ago got comfortable disciplining -- but not Nina's.

But again, it wasn't for their behaving better, or even differently. In fact, they acted so quintessentially, typically kid-like that after a couple of hours I found myself nearly forgetting the context. Here I'm hosting two kids who have suddenly, tragically lost their mother -- two kids who will never see either of their parents again, in all imaginable likelihood -- and I'm finding myself largely unmoved, as the typicalities of watching over a multi-kid playdate settle in. I'll admit that I found myself glad not to be considering the awful backdrop to this playdate, and instead to be occupied with playing follow-and-clean, or to play my silly-dad-who-doesn't-know-anything act. It's a hell of a lot easier than imagining kids losing their parents -- and by quick, inevitable association, imagining tragedy in my own family.

The evening's last sight, though, jolted me back to that very association. I'm not sure why it hit me so; something about Nina's little girl being a perfect brunette complement to my Catie, perhaps. Like Catie might, she decided she didn't want to put on her shoes as she left, and wanted to be carried to the car. I offered to help, but Mark declined, so I followed them out, carrying one of the kids' bags. Nina's daughter draped her arms around Mark and nestled her head into his neck, like I'm sure she did many times with her mom and dad. All six of them walked out to the minivan and piled in, the four kids buckling into four booster seats. Mark held Nina's girl for a moment while the others found their seats, and I caught a smile on her face. She looked positively content.

I added the bag to the pile at the girls' feet -- they sat in the second row of the van -- and asked once more, futilely, if I could help. Mark and Ellen said they were fine, and they waved and headed toward home. I turned and walked toward my home, and about halfway up the short walk, I began crying -- bawling, really, enough that by the time I reached the front door I was wiping my nose and drying my cheeks with my sleeve.

The resiliency of children is a wonder, as is the joy that they derive from simple play. Yet I can't wonder if Nina's children just don't yet understand what's happened to them, that for all of the frank talk I'm sure they've heard about their mother -- and their father -- not coming back, that emotionally, they simply don't -- can't -- fathom the full effect of what that means. Witnessing that innocence vividly and first-hand, and thus considering my kids' innocence as well, is probably what elicited my tears. I just can't help but believe that it won't last.


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