The Glue

grad pic

You’ve always been just a smidge off to the side, pushed into the background by forces beyond your control.

A husband who wasn’t much for compromise or open discussion and kept his love at arm’s length. A son you had just weeks after turning 21, a kid who for decades took your love and support for granted, consumed by what he didn’t have: be it his father’s approval, some random job or his latest crush.

Whether I earned Dad’s respect, landed the job or wooed the girl, you were always going to be there because hey, you’re Mom. And being there is what moms are supposed to do, right?

You HAD to support me. You HAD to put up with me because well, that’s part of the job description, pushed in there somewhere between cleaning up puke stains off the carpet after your only son was too lazy/scared to make it to the bathroom and sending  $50 and a note after that same son loses his rent money on a riverboat casino during Spring Break in ’96.

Or so I heard.

And while all that may be true, there’s something I’ve forgotten or overlooked or just been too wrapped up in myself to recognize:

You did this all by choice.

The first person that ever Ioved me has never asked me for anything other than to be happy. There are no conditions. No stipulations. No “if/thens.” I can’t even remember the last time you were even mad at me outside of a “hey, you better get your (deleted) together because you’re better than this kind of way.” OK, well there was that party Marcene and I threw during summer vacation back in ’94, the one where I drank Zima, got hammered, watched my oldest friend break a handrail, yak all over the pool deck at buddy’s house up the street before passing out for the first (but hardly last) time in my life.

It didn’t matter that the house was actually cleaner after the party than before, not so much out of fear but because Marcie Lawrence is so damn reasonable, so spectacularly accommodating, so unwaveringly supportive of her children we figured if the house was fine, we were fine.

In this case ummm, no. Sure, I might have been a month away from turning 20, old enough to fight for my country but not too old to escape seven days of house arrest.

The irony is that two decades later, I still give you hell about it and not the other way around. Why? Because it was one of the few times _ ever _ that you played the role of bad cop.

For most of my childhood you were my protector, the one who repeatedly saved me from Dad’s considerable wrath, the one who kissed my cuts and scrapes, the one who found any reason _ even when I couldn’t _ to cling to your fervent belief that I wouldn’t Screw It Up.

I love to tell people the story of how I went walkabout during one of Marcene’s countless gymnastics practices as a kid, traipsing around the outside of the industrial park the gym was stashed as if it was NBD even though I couldn’t have been more than 7-8 at the time. When we got home, you grabbed me by my hair just above each of my ears and lifted me off the ground for a handful of seconds. There may have been a wooden spoon involved. You blush when we talk about it, embarrassed. That’s typical you: I do something wrong and you apologize.

Enough.

The truth is, Mom, I’m sorry.

Sorry that I spent most of the first 25 years (or maybe 35, but who’s counting) of my life taking your thoughts, your feelings, your needs into consideration only after I’d exhausted all other opportunities. (Prime example: when you landed two tickets to a Redskins/Eagles game back in ’98 and I immediately asked my Eagles-loving roommate to go and not you).

Sorry for the way I would get ticked when Bruce would call us “twins.” Looking back, I should have taken it as a compliment. To this day you’ve always looked younger than you are (you’re like 47 now, right?) and when I look in the mirror, I see a little more of you each day. And for that I’m grateful (though part of that may have to do with the fact I’m simply relieved I didn’t get stuck with Dad’s nose).

Sorry for making you the butt of so many jokes, the ones you laughed at even as you probably wondered when I would either shut the hell up or turn my sarcasm elsewhere. (Though in a weird way, I think you kind of enjoyed the attention, another trait which I get from you).

Sorry for setting you up with an ex-con that one time. I swear I just wanted to put a smile on your face (besides, the guy could tell a joke). Then again, if you don’t date him, maybe you don’t meet Big Boy, someone who _ for all his quirks _ loves and appreciates you for the gift that you are (in his own unique way of course).

Sorry for not appreciating the sacrifices you made for me and Marcene. I can’t imagine becoming a parent so young and being able (or willing, if I’m being honest) to raise two kids and to do it so well, so unfailingly, so steadily. I sometimes wonder what you wanted to be, the dreams you had before I came along and forced you to scuttle your plans and learn how to be a mom on the fly. Yet you’ve never made me feel, not for a second, as if I was a burden, as if I was something that tripped you up and prevented you from doing something else with your life. There’s no chance _ no chance _ I would have handled it the same way, with the same grace, honesty, sincerity or maturity.

I’m sure 18-year-old Marcie Samuel didn’t plan on having two kids before her 24th birthday then working at a desk in some random office for the next 35 years, making the same maddening commute through traffic into D.C. to sit at a desk to put a roof over her children’s heads and make damn sure they had enough money for college.

It would be easy to look back at my childhood and label you the pushover, the one we went to when Dad wouldn’t let us have our way. That’s not entirely true. You were also the toughest, the one most willing to hang in there. You spent nearly two decades in a marriage where the pieces didn’t fit quite right no matter how much you changed, how much you tried. And even as you mourned the relationship’s ending you vowed to become stronger and more confident.

On top of all of that, maybe the most important gift you gave me as an adult was freedom. Not once, not one time can I remember you telling me what to do or how to do it. I’ll admit, there were times I should have asked more specifically for your guidance, demanded you nudge me (or drag me) in the right direction. But that’s not your way.

The only thing you’ve ever wanted for either myself or Marcene is to be happy. That’s it. That’s not a long list. That’s the best list.

And for too long I’ve fixated on what I didn’t get from Dad (at least verbally or with any real consistency) rather than be appreciative of all the things I’ve received from you, the same things I am trying to do for Colin and Catherine, two kids who love their GMa something fierce and not just because your house has the best popsicles (though it helps).

For God’s sake, you spent years printing out EVERY SINGLE STORY I’ve written. Binders and binders of my life’s work, work that I do (and love) because of your encouragement, your enthusiasm and _ this is a big one too _ the fact I am one of the few graduates who didn’t have to pay a dime for college.

Oh, about that. Sorry I spent the first three years at WVU screwing around (and running up that $700 phone bill that one semester, the one you found about as we were packing up to head home for the summer. Are we even on that by the way?)

It’s funny though. When I sit down to write a story, to this day one of the first thoughts that goes through my head before I start is “will mom understand it?”

Why? Because I want you to be proud of me. Because I want you to know that _ after all the crap I put you through _ that in the end, at the very end, I did not Screw It Up, no matter how hard I tried.

Why? Because you didn’t Screw It Up. I am who I am today because of the example you set, the love you gave (and still give) the million other unnamed, unseen things you did, the things I may never truly appreciate until I do them as a parent myself.

With a little luck, maybe I’ll be half as good a dad one day as you are a mom. Maybe.

Happy Mother’s Day Suck-O. You are The Glue that holds this family together. Not pushed off to the side but in the center. See:

Mom

Never forget it. Ever.

Love,

Willie (and Marcene too)

P.S. I post videos at the ends of these things. I was gonna put up “Weekend In New England” by Barry Manilow since I used to sing this with you when I was 3, but listening to the lyrics now …. ummm, that’s creepy.

So instead, settle for this one instead.

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SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

Every pickup basketball game has “That Guy.” Never the best player (who can’t bothered to be bothered) nor the worst (who is too busy working his ass off to notice or at the very least admit it out loud), “that guy” is the guy who has decided long before he took the court that he’s going to keep score.

After every basket or possession, he’s calling it out. Quick to correct those who have it wrong. Repeating it ad nauseum _ particularly especially when his team is winning _ to serve as a reminder that there must be a sense of place in the universe and (with god’s grace and a couple of 3-pointers) his team’s place is on top, not yours.

I am that guy. I have always been that guy from the day my dad paved part of our backyard and turned it into a 20 x 20 court with one of those upper-end glass backboards in hopes that I would use it to become the kind of player that made him a pretty good junior college forward (before life got in the way) and my uncle an even better one at Penn State (before being 20 got in the way).

While I loved to play, genetics and a decided lack of ability relegated the idea of me making a last-second shot for the Washington Bullets to the goings-on inside my head. I topped out at 5-11, a good seven inches shorter than my dad (and if we’re being honest here, a deck of cards shorter than my little sister). I made up for my lack of height by having no talent whatsoever other than the confidence to jack up any shot from anywhere no matter the circumstances.

We’ll pause here to give anyone who has ever played with me a chance to avoid vertigo while they finish vigorously nodding their head.

But dammit, I could add and subtract. Maybe it was simply a byproduct of all those imaginary games I would hold when noone was around, the ones where Jeff Malone or John Stockton or whoever I wanted to be on a given day was always open from 15-feet as the buzzer sounded. And yep, you can bet I was “fouled” if for some ungodly reason that shot had the temerity to clang off the rim.

It was my court. I figured it was my job to keep order. I can’t tell you I did it on purpose, but hey, nobody stopped me. Looking back, it’s hard to not laugh. During those countless afternoons spent honing a shooting stroke that still stops by every now then at 40 (and hopefully sticks around until 80) I was a walking/talking/jump-shot heaving abacus.

Not much has changed. While I technically don’t get paid to keep score (though I do anyway most nights) I am paid to tell you who won, who lost _ and perhaps most importantly _ what it all means. Some days, I’m pretty good at it. Some days I stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike and _ when it doesn’t _ pluck my right eyebrow furiously and hope I can “fool’em again” as the great Jim Murray used to say.

If only the scoreboard fixating was limited to my work. And that’s the problem. I have too often turned every part of my life into some kind of endless track meet. I can tell you my weight without getting on a scale within a pound or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never low enough). I haven’t balanced a checkbook in years but I know what the balance in my account is within a buck or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never high enough). I can tell you who has done the last five loads of laundry, who called who last in (insert relationship here), and who sent me a note on Facebook on my last birthday and who skipped.

The funny thing about this is, I’m losing. I’ve been losing for as long as I can remember. The blessings bestowed upon me are so countless it would make most people puke. Every problem I have is a #firstworldproblem. And I’d include my cancer on that list. This week the FDA approved the use of a drug that could turn something I worried would eventually kill me a year ago into something that requires one silly pill a day. (Downside: this means playing the “but I have cancer” card to win any argument I’m losing may be coming to an end).

I have treated every single aspect of my life like a game. I read the wire to see which of my colleagues is writing what, who is traveling where and wondering why I’m not. I read both newspapers in my town and send texts/twitter shoutouts when I see something I like while at the same time wondering how I could (or have) done it better even if in many cases that’s probably not true.

It’s even worse in my house. For too long I viewed my marriage like a competition. I kept mental tabs on who was doing what/when. If I cleaned the litter box a half-dozen times before my wife got to it, I made damn sure to passive-aggressively let her know. (“Oh, you know where the litter box is? I thought you’d forgotten” stupid stuff like that).

I am the player who – with his team down 30 points in the last minute – drills a 3 and hoists his arms in the air. You know, kind of like this:

The irony _ even on the days I want to admit it or not _ is that I am down. Big time. And yet I create scenarios that allow me to find a category in which I somehow have an advantage. I have known my wife for nearly 14 years and she has devoted herself to me selflessly and relentlessly, sometimes against her better judgement. She does not need to keep score _ hell, it probably has never even occurred to her to try _ because this isn’t some contest. This is life. There is no scoreboard. There is only the day to day. How we live and who and what we devote our lives to is what matters.

It’s a lesson that I have spent the last four years trying to beat into my head, with mixed results. Parenting has taught me a lot (actually, it’s taught me just about everything) by forcing me (at long last) to grow the *%# up. I see my two kids every morning and wonder how some schlub like me has managed not to screw them up yet.

This is usually the point where I would throw in a “but there’s time” in order to get a laugh. But there are still moments when that obsessive competitiveness seeps out and finds its way into my son through some strange osmosis. He’s 5 1/2 and he absolutely hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or a race around the house or brushing his teeth, he absolutely cannot come in second (and heaven help you if he comes in third). I have used that drive as a motivator when he doesn’t want to do a chore or get dressed, often pitting himself against his sister in a sprint to see who can finish what task first.

This morning it led to tears, my 3 yo crying because her brother tugged on her arm in the scramble to reach the top of the steps so they can finish a mad dash to get dressed. The moment soon passed, but they are becoming a bit more frequent than I would like.

I have no idea how to change it and I’ll admit I’m probably not quite ready. I played pickup hoops on Wednesday night. The first game I happened to be guarding a friend of mine. He got the ball. A small skirmish that may have resembled defense ensued. He called a foul and I immediately became a fourth-grader, making a joke about his height and disrespecting the call. What an idiot. While the call was debatable, my immediate reaction was not. It was dumb. And I’m getting too old to do the same dumb stuff I’ve done for the last 40 years.

I imagine I could start by trying to set a better example, to take some TNT to the ever-counting scoreboard in my head _ the one that reads “Will 2, Life 1” with “Dude, when are you gonna stop doing that and realize you’re one lucky bastard and just get on with it” scrawled beneath it like some sort of advertising sign _ blow the thing up.

Pass me the detonator. it’s time, don’t ya think? At least, after this one last game …

Hey, Rome (and the eventual deconstruction of my ego) wasn’t built in a day.

A little new school for this space, but hey, times change: