I want a benefit for people who come here. My stories might do it for some, but I also want to incorporate this important list of things that most people have no idea is part of the parenting package.
1. Keeping your mouth shut on the sidelines of youth sporting events.
2. Not showing your surprise when they figure something out on their own.
3. Sharing your phone.
4. Not vomiting when they vomit.
5. Giving up and tying their shoes for them for the rest of their lives.
6. TIMING WHEN TO HELP A CHILD WHO'S READING AND STUCK ON A WORD.
How do you write about sadness that's so beyond words the only thing you can do is fall into someone's arms? Can you write a hug? Can you paint with enough adjectives the picture that's scorched itself onto the back of your brain? A flickering slideshow on your mind. Inscrutable evidence of disappointment playing itself over and over again. Yet somehow you end up laughing.
I'll try to explain what that means.
Sadness is avoidable. Maybe much of it can be staved from its gusher; diverted to some happier place. Sometimes the sadness is even predictable, which would make you think it's preventable, but you'd be wrong. And you'd most likely be a parent who somehow hasn't learned that you are powerless in the tidal wave of vengeful tiny people.
It begins with a swing. Maybe a pendulum for the literary, grandfather clock crowd. One day I'll have a grandfather clock. I'll be surrounded by books and in a comfy chair. The ticking will be the only sound as the timepiece pushes me into the grave, but I'll have a stiff drink and be incredibly comfortable with my withering presence. Each swing of the spoon a veritable slice of my life. Until then, however, I must survive the minimal invasion of a toddler punching through my chest and ripping out my heart.
Let us commence. Let us swing one way before the other.
We were driving to Fawn Valley just north of Estes Park. And let me just say, don't go to Estes Park on a Saturday in the summer. It makes Vail look like a ghost town. It's the absolute saddest thing you'll ever see. A beautiful mountain town turned into a carnival. It's the boardwalk without the ocean. Business owners and restauranteurs with representatives in the street calling out their wares. People piled onto the sidewalks for taffy and toys with cars idling, exhausting, going nowhere in traffic they thought they left behind. Estes is the death of the wild. A singular moment in civilization has an obese man with a bag of caramel corn and a cup of Starbucks swigging the last of our resources. If it turns out that we can make it as a species until August, this hypocrite will be hosting a family reunion at Fawn Valley, a resort just outside the tourist town apocalypse.
My family runs deep in the Allenspark/Estes/Lyons area. It's where my mom and dad met. It's where my young parents began a family and where they grew up in the wild early days of Hippy Colorado. Those seeking mountain town solitude and those disillusioned by the overhyped progressive enclaves like Boulder, drifted into the valley below Longs Peak. Quirky people thrived in Allenspark and Estes Park. Our family friend became a national sensation when she was caught with a chainsaw cutting down billboards that promoted the new developments coming to the area. Margaret's new nickname became Chainsaw Maggie. Her husband, Otto, was the postmaster of Allenspark and eventually my middle son would become his namesake. My grandmother would deliver mail up the twisted canyon of the South St. Vrain, and my grandfather would burn all too quickly as one of the boys who liked to have a little too much fun. I never met the guy but I have a feeling I know him.
With all of this provenance like poltergeists in the hills, I was emboldened to survive weekend traffic and get a preview of our family reunion hotel. And I was very clear with the children that this was only a preview. We weren't going to stay. We will eventually, but not tonight, I stressed. Directing most of my rear-view mirror emphasis at Eliot. I knew she could hear me, but I wasn't sure if she could hear me. This is where I predicted sadness. Preventing it might be impossible.
Remember the pendulum, people. It never doesn't swing.
What I had not foreseen was just how high the high would be before the low. We pulled into the inn, a roadside resort that looks like something out of Dirty Dancing, and Eliot squealed. An actual squeal that's spelled squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee with the e's going on for an eternity and compromising the sanity of otherwise peaceful space aliens. Sarah's eyes went wide with that surprised sarcasm face you make when one person says a thing and you must quickly express your disbelief to another. I got to be that other person. We both knew that this was going to turn ugly.
I spoke another message to my daughter about how we were only stopping by, not staying. Before my sound could hit her she was running towards the beleaguered building of a high elevation retreat. There was a pool. I think she could smell it. She bolted across the parking lot with her mom and I doing futile grabs at parking lot safety. This was big. We were at a hotel. It's really my fault that my daughter was losing her mind. Hotels are our vacations. We're a staycation family. Which is something I'd advise any young family: don't get cable because then your kids will think Embassy Suites is an entertainment heaven.
You do a thing at less than your potential when you know that thing is being done in vain. At work, for example, I can't focus when I know a project is doomed. Why? Why are we doing this? But in parenthood, often a doomed project from conception, you must push forth. You know, for example, that your child is only going to destroy new shoes, but you must buy them anyway. You know, for another example, that they're not going to eat what you order them, but you order it anyway. And so we moved in the sluggish fashion of those with reality firmly strapped to their hopes. We knew that our visit to the hotel was toast. Our plan had been simple: We were going to stop by the hotel, ensure that they grounds were to our satisfaction (aka be able to host a small beer party), and then get back home.
We'd had a good day. We'd seen my childhood home and the nearby house that my grandfather built. We stopped in Allenspark and drank from Crystal Springs. We overcame the insidious traffic of Estes Park and maintain family sanity for a late lunch and some browsing. We'd done all of the things. But here, at Fawn Valley, we could feel the puncture wound before we were even poked: Eliot was going to lose her ever-loving shit when she realized we weren't going to stay.
Oh, god, she was adorable running around the lobby. She high-fived her brothers and sang songs, pulling in nearby nouns to be a part of the tune. "I love the hotel and that...chair. Hotel chair, hotel chair, hotel chair." The bass to her choir was me, raining on her song about how we were not staying, simply visiting. A mostly superfluous visit for sure, but since we were braving Estes Park, the mountain town for fat people, then we might as well get all the logistics for the family reunion. WE ARE NOT STAYING I sang in a paternal clang, doing my best to break through her rainbow harmony.
But I would not. I would confirm the rooms and amenities for the incoming family. We would survey the potential for a pool party (good). But I would not be prepared for the face-melting sadness that lingered in the dancing fairy of my third child.
Outside of the lobby, on the sidewalk next to the white siding and brown trim of the weathered walls of a faux Swiss chalet, I would get destroyed by a rocket round of disappointment. I thought I could get away with a gentle gesture to the car. "C'mon, Eliot, it's time to go." I had to gamble. I had to try. Yes, it was one in a million...trillion, that she'd actually listened to my repeated disclaimers about our presence but, as discussed before, parenthood is an exercise in working through futility. You do it because, as a species, we do not yet know anything else.
I'd made a little poke with my right hand to the direction of the car. As far as magnetism goes, it's a zero on the scale of attraction. My little prod was the earth and my daughter's enthusiasm for the hotel was the sun. An orange and a pinhead. I'm assuming you know which one I am. So the sun stood still for a moment. For a moment it paid heed to the tiny man orbiting with instructions to go to the car. For a moment it paused and illuminated the adult trying to communicate the truth of the situation: we were not staying at the hotel. Hotel chair, hotel chair, hotel chair. Only moments ago inanimate objects were brought to life with song. Now, however, mere feelings would shoot fire on the screaming wheels of misfortune.
I'll always remember the casual cowboy dude. He'd been in front of me at the front desk. He was checking in; a videographer and documentarian of the rodeos throughout the west. He'd found his niche. He'd made himself a thing. Or so I imagined as I nodded to him--the western wave--while I made haste to corral the supernova that was my little girl on the sidewalk. I remember him nodding back with that recognition of someone who's happy they're not you. He headed for his Jeep with the Wyoming plates 2 Chill. Oh to be him. to be him.
By the time we exchanged the nod, Eliot was already imploding. Like any transfiguration, the one from small girl to angry beast exerts an incredible amount of energy. You might be used to blasts measured by tons of TNT. Well, this is the sun we're talking about so it's implosion is calculated best by darkness. Even TNT emits light. Eliot's radius would reach across the highway and into the souls of mammals everywhere. People in nearby states probably thought a ghost had passed through their body. First, there's that initial silence before the destruction. Eliot realized that my dumb little gesture to the car was a break in her expectations, so she sent a warning shot to reel me in. It worked. I got onto my knees and grabbed her. In the umbra of her shattered light, I saw a face morph from all the joy in the world into the inverse. Which, by the way, is a ghoulish twist, a stretching of the emoting muscles before the blast. Her smile flattened. Her chin a carjack trembling upward as her eyes widened for a sign that this was all a mistake. The adults had simply misread her joy and would soon realize that staying at the hotel was the only way to maintain it. A second to amend my actions, my gesture, my statement. She searched me for a rejoinder but nothing. Nothing would not do.
And 2 Chill drove slowly by as I got scorched by a star.
One time Quin lost his shit. I mean boom motherfucker lost his mind and ran towards the street. In front of children and school teachers I had to take out my three-year-old son down. He sprinted from me the way a frightened deer flees and leaps a fence. I had no choice but tackle him. Some of those kids on hand that day are about ten now and probably still have anxiety issues around heavy-breathing bald men. Well, who wouldn't. But that day scarred me deeply, too. I wrestled my son away from traffic and carried him back to school. Still screaming with is pants partially down from the physical acquisition, I laid him at the feet of his teacher. She told me it was OK. We all had bad days. I had no idea if she was talking about Quin or me.
That day has always been a benchmark for bad. Eliot's meltdown wasn't that bad. At least on an even scale inclusive of all children regardless of gender. Maybe because she's a girl, or maybe it's because she's an emotionally manipulative genius, or maybe it's because I'm as weak as wet bread for bridge beams. But she hits hard. And her facial opera--her reaction to the letdown--had me feeling the blood-red betrayals all the way back to my earliest ancestors.
I'm not keen to state that girls this or boys that. But I do know that I have two boys and one girl. Well, three boys and two girls if you include the dogs. We probably should. I'm pretty sure they know everything I do and I'm trying to get one to stop peeing in the basement. WELCOME TO THE FAMILY CHO CHO. Of the humans, however, there is an incredible tactical difference between who can inflict the most damage with sadness. The boys have have had a good run in throwing tantrums, welling up with tears, curling up in balls, fake vomiting, going boneless, burying their head, highlighting betrayal, and a variety of tactics to try and crush my will to parent. Much of what they do isn't that dissimilar from their sister. Aside from the lip--I mean Eliot has a natural lower lip thing that sprouted around her first birthday--she uses much of the same maneuvers of manipulation.
What they don't do is prep. Eliot preps. She's been prepping since that first little squeak she released into her new world. I once had a boss who espoused the Ps of success. Something about Poor Planning and Piss Poor Performance. I was 18. I had no idea what he was talking about. I'm proud to report, however, that Eliot gets it. Despite being my daughter, the child of a man who got his masters degree by writing papers during work meetings, she's been preparing me this whole time.
Eliot's guide to destroying her father!
Step 1: Be born. This is really all it takes for any kid, but don't stop there. Your baby cutes can only get you so far. Many boys must suffer a childhood of being told to toughen up. Skip that rough treatment by taking the next steps.
Step 2: Tell your father you love him. Out of the blue just hit him with it. He'll not know what to do and bank that lopsided engagement as credit in your favor. If you still can't talk yet, go for hugs. Hug all the time for no good reason. Bite your tongue? Go for a hug. Get a barely noticeable scratch on your knee? You need a hug. You need to let the parental figure know that you're incredibly dependent on their strength. This makes them less likely to punish you lest you become a woman who lives with 300 cats.
Step 3: Swing happy. That's right. Raise the stakes at every turn. The happier you are about a thing or a place, the harder it makes for them to make you unhappy. Want a toy? Jack up that happy. Squeal if you want. It's OK, you're a kid. Adults say things like "oh to be a kid again" because you get to react like an overjoyed cartoon animal at the slightest change in environment. That also means you get to melt into an unreasonable, emotional tyrant. Keep them living in fear.
Bonus: Keep it cute. Hold on to that cute as long as possible. Some tips on maintaining cute include: 1. The most random announcements about things you love. "I love the moon" in the middle of the day is solid gold. 2. Request that your boo-boos be kissed. Apparently adults believe they have healing power. 3. Wake them up early with funny announcements. 4. Make your father a lot of fake food. Run up to him with a dirt clod and say it's a cookie. Apparently they think its food.
Eliot's gone ballistic. She's firing all she's got. I go to pick her up and she flops over my arm like a maitre 'd towel. There, with her head hanging upside, she wails. She opens up and fires a swath of brutal sadness. Her range is impressive, filling the space with noise from the wooded hillside along Highway 34 to somewhere near the Rocky Mountain National park ranger station, and back across the valley into town. Sarah stood in the open space between the car and car door--her attempt to get settled thwarted by our spectacle--and smiled.
Sometimes as a parent one of your benefits is that you get to laugh at children. And maybe it's a defense mechanism against your own sadness. And maybe it's all you can do under fire from a much more powerful being. But when kids really lose their shit in bazooka fashion, it's hard to keep it in. So I'm holding Eliot like a firehose and barely strong enough to get her to the quiet insulation of the car because I'm throttled with laughter. And now that I think about it, it's pretty much all you've got in a helpless situation. There's nothing you can do. The one thing you can't do is cater to the child--this cherub so fresh from the heavens. You can't can't can't cave. The best word in parenting is no. You say that a few times and you start to make an impression. But one buckling of your immunity to these sad puppies puts you on a path to parental destruction.
In the futility of it all. Of being a dandelion seed in her firestorm, I tried to point out some positives. "We'll be back," I began through distant tin. "We're coming back but today we get to go home and play." I really hadn't wanted to but I guess for just my own comfort I started listing all the things we could have fun doing at home. I even started listing names of her favorite stuffed animals. Her friends that might give her comfort more than her father and his sadistic laughter. But it didn't work. She was gone, and it would be on her own accord when she'd slide back in on a rainbow. First, there's gotta be a storm.
Safely buckled. Everyone in the car. All of us smirking around the wide-open battle cry of our smallest and most pink. (I hate to point that out, but being crazy mad is often diluted by her pastel palette.) We took back to the road and left a trail wailing deep into the forest.