The Gifts We’re Given

IMG_2965In an admirable display of self-restraint, my daughter and I managed to make it two hours into our road trip before opening the giant bag of gummy bears.

It had been a good drive, so far. She left the radio tuned to the Prom Channel, featuring party hits and slow songs from the 80’s and 90’s (XM channel 4, check it out). She endured my stories. At least I think she did, but maybe since my eyes were on the road I just couldn’t see hers rolling.

The songs provided good fodder for conversation. We agreed that my essay for English class declaring “Every Breath You Take” as the best love song ever written was perhaps a bit misguided. I took great pleasure in blowing her mind when I revealed the doofus named Marky Mark rapping awkwardly about good vibrations was none other than mildly cool (but “super old”) actor Mark Wahlberg.

The air was thick with nostalgia as I listened to songs from high school, thinking about how many years have passed in such a short amount of time. Thankfully, the steady stream of candy handed to me by my co-pilot helped blunt the wave of melancholy.

Just as I was about to pop the millionth gummy bear into my mouth, I noticed that it was two-toned.

“Did you just bite two gummy bears in half and reattach them?” I asked my daughter.

She laughed.

“No, I tore them apart and then pushed them together. Ew, did you think you were eating a gummy bear that had been in my mouth? So gross.”

“Oh honey, you wouldn’t believe the things I used to let you feed me.”

I attempted to describe what it’s like to have a cherubic 9-month-old try to feed you a drool-saturated Cheerio from the tray of her high chair. The only thing you can do is smile, open your mouth and say, “mmmmmm, THANK YOU.”

“Why would you ever eat that?”

I explained that I was trying to teach her how to share and be kind, so when she attempted to feed me a Drool-io, I knew it was her way of showing love. It was the best gift she could offer me at the time.

Images of gifts from years past started to flash through my mind like an old slide show. I saw chubby, dimpled hands outstretched with a fistful of just-picked flowers, or more likely, weeds. Strings of beads with MOM in block letters. Handmade cards with scribbled drawings and phonetic spelling. Rocks that were almost heart-shaped if I squinted hard enough. Bird feathers of suspect origin.

Time and again, I accepted with wonder and gratitude whatever small gestures of love were offered to me. Not surprisingly, I’m still doing it fifteen years later, since teenagers have remarkably subtle ways of showing they care.

These days I relish a text with a heart emoji the same way I enthusiastically accepted a soggy Cheerio all those years ago. And since bear hugs are now in short supply, I quietly cheer when an arm gets casually draped over my shoulders for a few brief seconds.

My daughter used to tell me I’m as beautiful as a princess, but now compliments are doled out in the form of her declaring, “If you loaned me that sweater, I’d wear it.” My son no longer asks for a bedtime story, but when he nonchalantly announces he’s going to sleep and could talk for a bit if I wanted to, I race up the stairs and then casually walk into his room like it’s no big deal, all the while knowing that it is definitely a big deal.

It seems the rules of parenting don’t change as the kids get older: pay attention; stay open; be grateful. Just like when they were babies in high chairs, my teens are figuring out how to express affection. The love is still there, it just looks a little different these days.

Happy Mother’s Day, may your weekend be filled with love, in all its forms.

The Universe is Not Subtle

Image-1I realize there are times the universe needs to teach me a lesson, but is it too much to ask that my knock upside the head come from a flyswatter instead of a sledgehammer?

It all started about five years ago when a pair of doves built a nest on a brick ledge by our garage door. The female bird settled into the nest and sat patiently as we marveled at her steely determination to stay put, even as the noisy garage door creaked up and down all day long.

After a few weeks, we noticed two tiny fluffy heads peeking out over the edge of the nest. “The babies are here,” we shouted like a new father to a hospital waiting room. We obsessively watched the two baby birds grow, eventually getting too big for the nest and flying away.

Lucky for us, Mother Nature’s show wasn’t finished and we still had a front row seat for the encore. The mama bird returned to hatch and raise two more pairs of babies that summer. We excitedly pointed out the nest to anyone within shouting distance, even the hyper-efficient UPS guy paused for a moment to take in the scene.

Once the weather started to cool, the third set of babies flew away and the nest sat vacant as the pace of our family life sped up with the return to school, a full schedule of fall sports, the holidays and finally a brand new year.

Just as the kids were getting antsy with spring fever, we were surprised to discover that the bird had returned to spend another summer hatching eggs, feeding her babies and teaching them to fly. At first, we were amazed, but eventually, the sight of a bustling bird’s nest became commonplace.

The third spring, we greeted the mama bird’s return with nothing more than a, “Hey, she’s back.” When friends pulled into our driveway and noticed the birds, our response was a nonchalant, “Oh yeah, they come every year.”

I should have known better than to take for granted the little bits of magic in my life.

It’s as if the shrug of my shoulders set off a chain reaction to teach me a lesson. Something went wrong with the birds. It could have been a neighborhood cat or an errant football, but one day, they were gone.

For a while, I held out hope that the bird would return to try again or that maybe a new bird would take over the nest, but it’s been a few years and it doesn’t seem like we’re getting a do-over. Apparently, this is the lesson I needed to learn, delivered with a much too on-the-nose metaphor: an empty nest.

By the time kids are teenagers, we’ve been around them so much that the magic of family life can feel commonplace. I take for granted the snippets of conversation I overhear while driving carpools. I’m used to having all four of us at the dinner table. I assume my calendar – with every weekend earmarked for a basketball or volleyball tournament — will never change.

But soon a driver’s license will replace the carpools and a dorm room will replace the childhood bedroom. Eventually, my weekends will be wide open and sports-free.

Family life changes, often too quickly, especially if I don’t pause to appreciate it. And just in case I forget, I now have literally an empty nest sitting at the front of my house to remind me day after day to always marvel at the magic.