Rocking the boat

Yesterday I got a call from Sally. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered my phone anyway. Sally was rather distressed. She is the mother of my son’s good friend Grant.

The first thought that came to my mind was…Oh crap, now what did my son do???!?

Sally told me that everyone thinks she is a horrible mother. Her son got four D’s on his report card. He told her that grades really don’t matter. She said that it didn’t make any sense because her daughter was upset that she didn’t get a 4.0. Thank goodness for our overachieving daughters or we would feel like awful parents.

My son has been struggling with his grades since 8th grade. He simply doesn’t care. We tried everything that we could think of doing. We grounded him from his computer, Xbox and friends. That just made his attitude worse and then he totally gave up. It didn’t work at all. He barely slid by without having to retake some classes in the summer. This semester he only got one D, so things are looking up.

I told Sally that I totally understand and that she isn’t a bad mother.

Look at my son! He has a brilliant mind if he applies himself. My husband Paul is a great chess player. I’ve never seen anyone beat him in person. Paul told the kids when they were little that he would buy them a car if they beat him at chess. Alex studied chess, played countless matches online, did tutorials, and joined the chess club at school. He worked hard and finally beat his dad.

Alex is also great at music. Last year he played an incredibly challenging piece for solo and ensemble. He received a perfect score at state. This year he decided to play a piece that is so challenging that he is having a hard time finding an accompanist to play this piece. One pianist said that the piece he chose would be something a doctorate candidate would play. It is very fast and extremely challenging. This is what he wants to do. But what great music college is going to accept a talented musician that has a GPA of 2.0?

Why doesn’t he take his A game to school with him? He has to decide that he wants good grades or it won’t happen.

When he was little, Alex sucked his fingers. We wanted to break him of the habit once he started school. I tried everything and nothing worked. I tried the spicy finger varnish that went on like nail polish. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and told me that he likes spicy. A couple months later he decided that he wanted to stop sucking his fingers and did.

I would call my son lazy, but I think he is just not motivated.

Both Alex and Grant worked really hard this last summer and made somewhere between $5,000 to $6,000. Sally and I both found out recently that the boys pretty much pissed away all of their money on fast food. There is no doubt that both boys probably paid for their friends to eat as well. Was there a lesson learned somewhere? What a waste!

 

Sally said that she didn’t know what to do. Ever since her son got his license he doesn’t want to hang around home anymore. Grant is her oldest child. What is she doing wrong? How could he do this when she has given him everything to help him succeed? The only advice her parents gave her in high school was not to get pregnant. She didn’t go on to school. She wants so much better for her son.

All of this is scary business for the first time mother of teenagers. I told Sally that everything would be okay. I told her that she is not a bad mother because her son was acting like an idiot.

The problem with being a parent of teenagers is that sometimes you have to watch them fail. Sometimes they make the wrong decisions and end up hurting themselves. It is heartbreaking as a parent to see this. I’m hoping someday that we can all laugh about this…like when they are parents of teenagers..

To think, I didn’t even tell Sally about the party at the cabin last summer.

It’s strange but I was able to use my own struggles to comfort another parent. We are in the same boat, I’ve just been in the boat a little longer to know how to respond to the waves that rock the boat.

 

Paul’s journey, part 10

I’m going to conclude Paul’s journey today.

Wow, that came across as a little harsh. Almost like I will be waiting at the door for him with an arsenic cocktail.

What I meant to say is that I will finish telling the story today. The story isn’t over, in fact some might say it is just beginning..

I just wanted to get the point across that Paul grew up poor starting his life in the inner city of Chicago without a father born to a teenage mother that dropped out of high school.

He had a dream of starting a business. After working very hard for almost 2 decades he saw his hard work come to fruition.

The American dream is alive and well. If Paul can do it, anyone can. The odds were against him. He is a self-made man.

It has been a huge adjustment. I don’t think the fear of not being able to make ends meet will ever go away for Paul. Being poor is so ingrained into who he is. It is a bit of an identity crisis.

I wrote a couple of series on this blog before. This was by far the hardest. If I wanted to do an adequate job of it, it would probably take me at least 6 months of writing his story everyday. I’m not going to do that here. I get bored of hearing broken records (if that is a thing anymore). I like changing things up.

So I will share with you my life. The joys, the heartaches, the journey. All of it..

I want to write a book someday about Paul’s life. It is very inspirational and remarkable story. I may just write it to leave behind for future generations. I would have to get a lot more detailed information. I told Paul that I would be writing a series about him. One day I grilled him for information while we went cross country skiing. He asked me if I would stop asking him questions about the dark days that past and we could focus on the beauty of nature on the trail instead.

Paul doesn’t spend as much time in the past like I do. He focuses more on the future.

I also found it challenging because the story isn’t over yet. I wrote a series previously about eccentric family members that passed away. I found it easier because that story is over now. There are certain things that I can grab onto and remember, but there will never be any more stories.

I have been with Paul over 20 years now. A lot has happened since we met. There was a lot that happened before we met that I couldn’t share from personal experience. I worried that my information might not be accurate enough for my liking. Also, how do you narrow down 23 years together into 10 series? To do an adequate job I would have to do a lot of thinking, note writing, and question asking. I would need an outline of sorts. Sounds like a lot of work for a hobby and I’m a marathon runner.

Plus another thing I wasn’t expecting was how my feelings got in the way. For example, if I was planning on writing a post that was positive and encouraging about Paul but we just got into a fight…how do I brush that aside?? It seems fake. He is the best thing that ever happened to me…but I want to conclude his story right now with arsenic just doesn’t give the right feel. Seriously, all is well.

All I can say was that it’s been a wild ride. I wasn’t really expecting that.

Paul’s journey, part 9

The earliest years of building the business were rough.

Whatever little money he made, he invested back into the business.

He felt like he couldn’t get away. But the business was new and exciting in those days. It was later that we started to feel burnt out. There is so much stress and pressure from the responsibility of owning a business. I don’t even know where to begin. But all of the hard work paid off over the long haul.

Paul went into work on the day our last baby was born. He dragged himself into work with strep. He drove in during major snowstorms. He even went to work after major surgery.

He had a cancer scare. He was having a lot of back pain. He went to the doctor for an x-ray. We didn’t have great insurance, so he didn’t want to spend the extra money on expensive tests. The x-ray showed a mass. They were simply going to drain and remove the mass, but the ultrasound was showing something scary. They thought it could be cancerous. They didn’t want to puncture this mass and have it spread to all of the nearby organs.

Instead they scheduled a major surgery that included the removal of several ribs. Paul spent a week in the hospital. I remember the evening of the surgery well. I sat alone in the waiting area watching the snow fall. I felt empty. This is going to sound funny, but I didn’t feel worried. You all know I am a big time worrier. Maybe I was in denial, I don’t know. He was so young then, too young to have cancer I told myself.

To tell you the truth, I am terrified that he is going to get cancer now. Last year his mother passed away from cancer. She had 3 different types of cancer and battled it twice. The year before last, his uncle died from cancer. His grandma had cancer. Currently, he has an uncle in the last stages of cancer. If I wasn’t worried before, I certainly am now.

They removed a benign cyst that was the size of a football from Paul’s adrenal gland. After surgery, he lost a lot of weight. He was pale and gaunt. I’ve never seen him so thin before or since. He was supposed to take a couple of weeks off of work. This was before the time that working out of the house was remotely possible. He was also taking a 4 credit accounting class for his MBA.

I drove Paul into the office after surgery. I helped him walk down the steps to his office wincing in pain. I left him there and picked him up at the end of the day.

Things got easier as the business grew and with technology. I joined him after a couple years. We have been able to get away. We have staff that can help keep an eye on things now. But there is always a strong sense of responsibility that comes with having your name on the door. There are times that we have to drop everything to respond to work issues. Going on vacation always meant checking emails and working.

I am excited that for the first time now, we will be able to take a vacation without working. I wonder how we will respond without the constant pressure.

 

Paul’s journey, part 8

When you decide to take the first step, you never know where it will lead you.

Paul had a dream. He was at a dead end job. He used up his vacation time to cut back his hours at his job so he could start a business on the side. He worked after work. He rented a small office nearby so he could work over his lunch hour.

Eventually Paul ran out of vacation days. They gave him an ultimatum. Either you come back full time or you leave. Sink or swim Paul.

For awhile, he stood at the edge of the precipice. What am I going to do? Should I start climbing even though I can’t see anything at the top? What if I fall? What if I fall further than I am right now? What if I fail? How will I provide for my family?

“Should I climb?”, he asked. Climb, I said.

Taking that first step on his own was the scariest. It was risky. There was a mortgage to pay and little mouths to feed. We were already living on one income.

Paul immersed himself into building a start up business. He was working towards a Master’s degree in his field of study. He took a couple of sales training classes. He knocked on many doors.

Over the years, he attained every accreditation, certification, license, and joined every industry association that he could. He started working on his MBA one class at a time while running his business. He oftentimes would start his day at 5AM doing homework before work. Then he worked until the work was done. He earned his MBA. He still grabbed at every opportunity to learn more. He worked hard and became an expert in our state.

It wasn’t something that happened overnight. It took decades and years of climbing not knowing what was at the top. When the recession hit, he thought he was going to lose his footing. He managed to hang on.

Over time, Paul got used to and became very good at climbing. He is always looking ahead, always striving for that next goal. Sometimes I wish he would take a glimpse back to see how far he climbed.

All it took was being brave enough to take that first step.

Paul’s journey, part 7

It bothers me now that I didn’t keep a journal over the early years of our life together. The entries from page to page are a couple of years apart. There are so many things that happened in the gap, so many things that I wanted to say…to remember.

I’m glad I am doing it now.

It has been almost a year since Paul’s mother died from cancer. I want to say that our time with her on earth was always good, but it was at times rather rocky.

It was a long grieving process. Paul lost his only parent, a parent whose mutual path with him was oftentimes a twisted road mixed with conflict, happiness, disappointment, and love.

Martha was a difficult person to get along with. It was all or nothing with her. We were either an angel or a devil to her, nothing in between.

I was the best daughter-in-law the world has ever seen. I could do nothing wrong. The next minute I was the devil and would come careening off my pedestal. It seemed as though she had relationships like that with everyone that was close to her.

Happy elated hellos turned into screaming hollering good-byes.

Martha was an unrealistically extreme optimist. She told the kids she would buy them a pool when she retired. She would get everyone’s expectations up only to dash them into the ground. Over time I learned to translate the meaning behind her words. When she said she was going to do something, it didn’t mean that she was actually going to do it. It meant that she wanted to do it.

Martha was a bit of a free spirit. She oftentimes said she would be somewhere only to show up hours late, not show up at all, or cancel out last minute.

She always had an excuse for everything. It was always the fault of someone else, not her own. She didn’t graduate from high school because the school burned down. She didn’t have enough money for gas. It might rain for an outdoor party. It might snow for her granddaughter’s high school choir solo debut. It was too hot for the kids outdoor birthday party. She ran out of hot water. The car broke down. She had to work. She was sick.

She often made up stories that couldn’t possibly be true, but she believed them. She argued with people who tried to convince her otherwise. She, at times, thought that other people were out to get her.

Martha just wasn’t like me……she didn’t suffer from feelings of depression or anxiety. She didn’t worry about anything. She was outgoing, carefree, and spontaneous. She saw the world through rose colored glasses. She didn’t care if she was late. The clock’s ticking did not grind at her. She was happy with what she had. There wasn’t a harsh taskmaster in her head striving for more. She was easily excited by ordinary things. She was an interesting person, simple yet complex. You never knew what you were going to get.

It was hard sometimes not to feel irritated. Then there were feeling of guilt because we knew that Martha meant well. She just wasn’t playing cards with a full deck.

Life, sometimes it is a battle of heart versus mind. The logical part tells you that you shouldn’t feel a certain way, but you can’t stop from feeling the way that you do.

Regardless, we made our peace with Martha. We thanked her for her sacrifice of raising a child that she wasn’t ready to raise on her own. In the end, we knew she loved us and did the best she could. She knew that we loved her too.

Paul’s journey, part 6

I am going to skip ahead a little today…to when I met Paul.

Paul had settled down considerably since his college years when I met him.

We lived in the same apartment building. My bedroom was right above his. We met in the laundry room. I remember the day well. My cat puked up a hairball on my blanket. I was irritated that I had to make a special unplanned trip to the laundry room. But if it wasn’t for my cat, we wouldn’t have struck up a conversation.

Later that night, Paul invited me out to drinks with some friends. That really didn’t go well either. His friends were fine, except for one girl who dominated the conversation with Paul. She spoke and sputtered loudly looking only at Paul and frequently put her hand on his knee. I didn’t like her.

He kissed me that night out in the parking lot.

From that night on, I was hooked. He told me his story about growing up with a single parent in the inner city of Chicago…that was all it took. Paul played hard to get and I chased him relentlessly. There was a point when I thought that perhaps he wasn’t interested and decided to walk away. That was all I needed to hook him.

It was time for Paul to meet my parents. I instructed him on what to say and what not to say. My mother asked point blank if he believed in God. Paul said that he did not believe in God. In fact, he said that he believed in evolution. He went on and on about Darwin and natural selection as I kicked him under the table.

The following week, my mother set me up with my ex-boyfriend Brad. She came to my apartment under the guise of going out to eat. When we got to the restaurant, Brad was sitting there waiting for us. Brad cried the whole time telling me how much he missed me. I took him back to my apartment after lunch and gave him back everything that I still had of his. It took a long time for Paul to forgive my mother for this.

I believe that my mother started praying harder after the dinner date with Brad. At the time, Paul was in graduate school and was approached by the campus ministry with a Bible. Also, a friend of his who became a missionary came back into his life. Eventually, God wore Paul down. God knew I wouldn’t be interested in chasing a nice church going guy. I wanted a bad boy.

After I was already hooked, God changed the direction of Paul’s life.

Paul’s journey, part 5

Despite not having the best (or even good) grades, Paul went off to college after high school. He went because a friend was going and it seemed like a cool thing to do.

Once he got to college, something strange happened to Paul. He became popular. People liked him. He had a lot of friends. He somehow managed to escape the stigma of childhood and started a new life for himself far away from home. He joined a fraternity, participated in hazing, and became part of the wildlife on campus.

Here are few rescue squad stories…

1) There was a wild party at the frat house one night. The house was jam packed with people everywhere. Paul decided to sneak out the back door to run to the bathroom. When he came back, the room was empty and the phone was ringing. He felt like he was in the twilight zone. He answered the phone to find out it was 911 calling about a shooting. What shooting? Apparently there was a man in the front yard with a hole in his cheek from a botched suicide attempt. After the rescue squad arrived, Paul headed down to his room. He found hundreds of under age party goers squeezed into every nook and cranny who thought the party was getting busted.

2) One night a group of college students thought it would be a great idea to take an old canoe sledding down a hill in the icy snow. It was fun at first. Kids piled in and went at break neck speed down the hill. The last group (for obvious reasons) hit a tree on the way down. They flew out of the canoe. One girl had a broken pelvis, another needed plastic surgery on her face. The night ended with another call to the rescue squad.

 

Hanging out with friends and partying meant the world to Paul during his college years.

There was a dark side to this lifestyle…(besides the previously mentioned harebrained ideas).

His first long term girlfriend broke up with him.

His best friend at home became a quadriplegic.¬†Paul wasn’t there that night the rescue squad was called. His friend Dwayne was camping and partying with friends. Now Dwayne would do anything for a dare, especially if he was drinking. Someone dared him to dive off a dock into shallow water. He broke his neck and almost died that night. There was a long grueling recovery. He never walked again and died young.

He flunked out of college. Paul was forced to take a semester off. People thought he was stupid again. He went back home and worked at the cheese factory on the production line with his mother. It was an awful experience, but it proved to be the spark that he needed to get his life back in order and buckle down.

 

 

 

Paul’s journey, part 4

One day Martha loaded up her Pinto and headed out of Chicago. Her youngest brother found a new home in Wisconsin and urged his sister to leave the city behind. Paul and his grandmother, who had recently retired from the candy factory, joined her on the journey.

For a short period of time, they lived with Martha’s brother. Now at the time Martha’s brother had a family of 5. Things got a little cramped at his house. They wanted a house of their own. Martha got a production job at a cheese factory. She found a house and tried to get a mortgage. But the application was denied. A woman simply did not get a mortgage alone in the 1970’s. I heard that Martha cried, cajoled, and begged until finally the mortgage officer had a change of heart.

I can’t even imagine the culture shock they went through moving from one of the poorest neighborhoods of one of our country’s biggest cities to a small unincorporated northern WI town. Paul felt like an outsider. Let’s face it, he was.

The kids picked on him. He was poor and wore ill fitting clothes. His mother had a different last name than he did, but she had no husband and he had no father. His grandma shared his last name. Kids laughed and said mean things about his family situation. One teacher even spanked him in front of class and ridiculed him for not having a dad. As if it was his fault he didn’t have something he wanted that everyone around him seemed to have. His mother was working all the time so he had to attend most school family events alone. His grandmother didn’t drive.

The kids and teachers told him that he was stupid and never would amount to anything. Paul thought that the words they said were true. He didn’t bother trying and got bad grades furthering everyone’s belief in his stupidity. His mother was slow, so why wouldn’t he be?

It was during those years, however, that Paul realized he was smarter than his mother. His mother tried to get her GED but couldn’t pass in math. Paul earned a MBA and takes a special interest in finance. But I am getting ahead of the story. Paul’s mother thought if he graduated from high school that would be an enormous accomplishment.

Although everyone told Paul that he wouldn’t amount to anything, his mother always told him that he could do anything he put his mind to. For not being very bright, her encouragement and belief in him was a very smart move as a parent that didn’t have much else to offer.

Paul’s journey, part 3

A few of the brothers were able to escape the inner city and convinced Martha to move out of the projects into the suburbs.

Paul spent his grade school years in the suburbs of Chicago in low income housing. Martha was on welfare, but from what I heard she was always employed. Martha’s mother was employed on the production line of a candy factory. From what I heard, Martha got an office job at the candy factory. I’m not sure what type of office skills she had… Maybe she was eye candy? Wow, what an awful candy factory pun! My bad…

All of this information is iffy at best. But the point that I am trying to get across is that Martha was always willing to work and held steady employment.

While Martha worked, Paul went to a babysitter in a neighboring apartment. There were multiple kids. Once Paul came home with a full set of bite marks on his back. From what I heard, the low income housing was a hopelessly filthy miserable place to live.

Although she told Paul to be passive, Martha was a roaring lioness if anyone messed with her son. She was a good, nurturing, and attentive mother.

Paul said that he doesn’t remember a lot about the early years. He just remembers feeling afraid a lot. There were gangs. He got jumped on his way home from school by a bigger kid around his age. There was an incident in a park where he was bullied by some older kids. All around, it just wasn’t a safe place to live.

But soon all of that would change.

Paul’s journey, part 2

He spent his earliest formative years in the projects in the inner city of Chicago.

You might think that the story would’ve ended differently if Martha’s dad survived to see his grandchild arrive. Maybe he would have been a great father figure for this infant fatherless child.

Where we left off yesterday, Martha gave birth alone to a baby boy. I can imagine how frightened she must have been. Childbirth is a terrifying thought during pregnancy…rich or poor…young or old…married or alone. But possibly more so if you are poor, young, and alone.

During childbirth, Martha was in a delirious state and saw her father there watching over her. Martha cherished her father. But from what I heard, he wasn’t a very good man. He was said to be an abusive drunk.

I once heard a story of how Martha’s older brothers teamed up as teenagers and fought their father. I couldn’t tell you why. But I could tell you that it was probably justified.

I heard that he was a crooked cop. Maybe involved somehow with the mob. I also heard that he had a girlfriend and maybe even another family on the side.

I really didn’t hear anything about his character that would make me think that he would be a suitable father or father figure for anyone. If he hadn’t dropped dead of a heart attack when Martha was 12, I might not be telling the same story or this story at all.

For a short period of time, Paul had a ‘dad’.

Martha got married just long enough to change her name when Paul was 3. Martha said she left her new husband after a year because he was abusive to her son. The only thing that Paul remembers about his step-dad was that he had 2 large black dogs.

It has always been a debate in our house which is worse…not having a dad or having a terrible father. If his step-dad was truly a mean man, then perhaps he was better off without a dad. Thankfully his grandpa never was a part of his life either. He didn’t have a dad or grandpa, but some of his uncles were nice.