What Would Jimmy Buffett Do (or If I Live to be Ninety)

Part Two

I was introduced to Jimmy Buffett’s music on prom night of my senior year, twenty-seven years ago. The song was: Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw, and while the song may have been appropriate for the season (or not), it left an impression on me beyond the obvious lascivious attraction. I think it was Buffett’s happy-go-lucky outlook on life (or the fact that my date left me for another party) that made me an instant fan and wanna-be fraternizer. Whatever the reason, I’ve been listening and singing along to his songs for almost as long as he’s been playing in parks, bars and ballparks all around this naughty nutty world.

So it should come as no surprise that I look at life as any hopeless romantic would: with one eye desperately seeking to fill in whatever it was I’d left out. To be sure, over the span of any number of years there come noteworthy moments of missed opportunity to pursue what we want out of life with the same interest and fun Buffett’s songs and performance inspire. Setbacks. Detours. Undependable roadside assistance. They all contribute to the most common catch-all of all time: Shit happens. And it did. Marriage. War. Divorce. How many life stories do those three sturdy words sum up? Then comes broke, a couple of dead-end jobs, the perfect marriage to my best friend and a custody war waged in hell. With all that going on, often at the same time, it’s easy to see how the runaway train of reality could leave fun and interesting behind, like a pair of mistaken identities straddling the tracks of time.

The problem, I think, is not keeping the fun meter focused on what we want out of life, but knowing what we want out of life in the first place (clue: it’s not a big house, loving spouse, or great job). Which brings me to my second shameful admission (for the first, click here).

Franca and I have been married for over half of those years I’ve been listening to Buffett. Twice, in fact, to each other. Once in the beginning and again ten years later in a special ceremony overseas with her lovely Italian family. I was married once before her, as a young Lieutenant starting out in the Army. For varied and valid excuses, in none of those weddings did my wife and I go on a honeymoon. In only the first and the last with Franca’s family was there even any kind of after-wedding soiree to gather with friends, kick off your shoes and act silly, and getting married, I think, is all that. But the extended post-party frolic that every husband and wife should take by themselves never happened. Our fête, to put it mildly, was nothing to write a song about. Even Buffett himself would have trouble.

That hasn’t stopped us over the years though from gleefully experiencing a fair share of honeymoon-inspired activity — downhill skiing in southern Bavaria, a memorable gondola tour of Venice (remind me to tell you that story one day), a multi-day mid-summer hike on the Appalachian Trail, stolen moments of just the two of us locked away in our own house. But straight-lace-in-your face, honey bar-the-door, newlywed vacationing we have not. For that I blame myself. I used to think of our honeymoon as one of those things, like my reading of East of Eden, just a thing I always thought we would get to when we had more time, more money, more everything. There were back then, as I said, good reasons for us to postpone it, but eventually, like many events put on hold, the prospect of it too became just a joke, an obscure and unfunny footnote on our little golden nugget of history.

When a few years ago, just after I turned forty and the swift notion of Franca and I running a marathon together had come about, I was feeling what many other forty year olds feel, like I was sitting on a plateau of sorts with my job, my writing, and the humdrum routines that were involved in shaping my every day. It all just seemed so lacking a bit of the Buffett-trifecta of freedom, fun, and adventure. Where were the “good times, the riches, and son of a bitches” I’d one day sit down to recall? Was this my idea of growing older but not up?

I didn’t think so and thankfully neither did Franca. She agreed to the marathon and in January in the freezing cold rain we started the first of a rigorous four month training schedule. The experience when it had ended was truly brutal and beautiful, as anything worthwhile can be; and I guess that’s the point of all this, why our lost honeymoon has been on my mind now, at the halfway point in my life if I live to be ninety, nine short months after Lia’s diagnosis: At any moment things can change. It’s important every once in a while to take a break from the normal, remind yourself of the voyage you’re on and of the treasures that are important. Go on a long distance roadtrip. Discover some new port of call, dance a little, partake in the all night party, and if you find yourself on this journey in a race you never expected, know that it helps when you’re crossing the finish line if you’re holding on to someone else’s hand.

As for our honeymoon… well, as any of you other parents of young children with diabetes would likely agree: that will still have to wait.

But at least we can still train for it.

What Would Jimmy Buffett Do (or If I Live to be Ninety)

This journal has been my place over these past eight months to reflect, vent, discover and in some cases even procrastinate, all in the worthwhile interest of coming to terms with Lia’s juvenile diabetes. I like to think we are all better because of it, and we are, all of us, better for just keeping our health and the wellbeing of others at the forefront of our attentions. Today though, what I’d like to use this space for is simply a place to pose the title’s stirring question…. with maybe just a tad bit of brooding thrown in for what I hope will be good measure.

We’ll get the brood out of the way to begin with.

There is plenty in my adult life I’m ashamed to admit: little talent for fixing broken things, not flossing daily, deer hunting from my back porch. Two in particular however have been on my mind lately. The first concerns John Steinbeck’s epic novel, East of Eden, and it’s sweeping portrayal of the human struggle between good and evil. The second is of a much more dutiful, personal nature.

One day many years ago, my wife and I were talking and agreed to read each others favorite novels. Hers was East of Eden, and mine, All the Pretty Horses. She, of course, followed through and we shared many wonderful evenings talking about the book and reading passages together of McCarthy’s rich and beautifully rendered prose. His is a stripped-down, vigorous version of storytelling that I greatly respect and strive for in my own fiction writing. My wife knows this. She encourages it, she wants me to be successful.

As for my reading of East of Eden, all I could say was I tried, and I did. But each time I started I failed to get past the novel’s memorable opening descriptions of the Salinas Valley long enough to become involved in the Cane/Abel story, which clearly was penned by an enormously gifted writer, someone with whom my own work could never compete. At that time, reading Steinbeck’s work (or McCarthy’s), reading almost anyone’s work, in fact, while laboring over my own was a recipe for self-rejection. Every word I wrote smelled of garbage or worse, it smelled of someone else’s garbage.

Then I got older and managed a few lucky breaks that enabled me to work harder at my writing until one day I started to think that this whole East of Eden thing might make for an interesting novel. So I tossed it around in my head, made a few notes, some character sketches, and cooked up the plot of this self-absorbed man whose chronically-distraught, novelist wife commits suicide without him having ever read any of her books. I then filed my notes away. When, several months later Lia was diagnosed with diabetes, I came across Franca’s book sitting on my bookshelf and I thought to myself: how pathetic. How goddamn sorry of me.

It is both strange and good how you start thinking about time and how you spend it when faced with life-threatening challenges. Some time ago, after surviving a seaplane crash in the waters off Nantucket, MA, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett wrote in his autobiographical, A Pirate Looks at Fifty, that within days of the crash he sat down with his pain and mortality and composed a list of wishful thinking, which began and/or possibly ended with the wish that the crash had never happened. But it had, and when he stoically accepted the fact that reality “had reared its ugly head, and shit had happened that was not just going to go away,” he was able then to “deal with it” and not stay pinned down with fear, frustration and guilt. For him, that meant hydrotherapy,  getting back on the water and, in this case, coastal bay fly-fishing.

I am an unlearned, land-locked sailor myself, and fly-fisherman un-extraordinaire, so I understand the attraction. I understand too that when your loving wife, who is also your number one fan and proven remedy for whatever ails you, tells you what her favorite book is you had better buck up and read it, not use it as a prop in a novel. What a shame though, it took me so long to get there. By the time early this past spring, when I finally took it down from the shelf once more, the book, or rather my reading of it, had become the butt of a sad little joke shared between the two of us.

We had known of Lia’s diabetes just a couple of short months and were still getting used to the daily multiple injections, counting carbs, combating highs and lows, and the loss of sleep that comes with the constant, ever-present worry of what if something went wrong. I was in much need of therapy and had found some even on water of my own. But a visit to Mother Nature can carry you only so far and reality set in again and I was back defending my daughter’s young life against an invisible enemy.

How would reading a book that did not deal directly with how to fight back help with that? Did I not have enough guilt already? Was this just my shame playing mental squash with me, or was losing myself in someone else’s fantasy just the universe’s way of offering me a sliver of peace in what had otherwise become our new and extreme reality? I tend to think in more down-to-earth terms and if treating diabetes was akin to a war then Franca and I were the generals and though it felt like we were winning, the shock and intensity of those early days was tiring and unshakable — we were tugged in so many directions (and still are on occasion). I was feeling a detachment from Franca and the lives we knew before. What I needed was a fresh healthy dose of something special, of what Buffett might say comes from the bottom of the heart.

So I started East of Eden for the umpteenth time and as I read I felt myself becoming part of a thing that Franca loved and had loved for many, many years before we’d met. The shared experience, not the story, was renewing my strength and reminding me of the joy to our simple togetherness. When this past week I finished the book I knew then why she loved it. It was beautiful, brutal and rousing, all of the things she had promised.

But more important than the work and the harmony it inspired in me is what I hope my reading it says back to her. You’re important to me. You matter.

To be continued….

on being lia

Loves to sing * Tells long stories * Was born in an ambulance * Likes to make people laugh * Plays dress up * Has a beautiful voice * swims like the Man from Atlantis * Favorite color is blue * Favorite poem: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening * Loves to camp and hike * Being outdoors * Knows every word of The Phantom of the Opera * Keeps a messy room * Sweet * Once cried over Abraham Lincoln’s passing * Wants to grow up to be a scientist * Likes to listen to Johnny Cash * Wishes she lived on a farm * Likes playing soccer * Obsessed with Harry Potter * Straight A student * Is a great artist * Loves acting in plays * Laughs at her Dad’s silliness * Plays the piano * Loves to wrestle * Afraid of thunderstorms * Rarely a picky eater * Used to chew on a diaper rag to go to sleep * Wants to learn how to sew * Likes riding shotgun in the big white pick-up * Eating carrots * Making soup * Going out for ice cream * Combs her mother’s hair * Loves animals * Has lived in only one house * Had three different bedrooms * Been to Rome, Paris and all over Belgium and some of France * Wants to go to Disney World * Likes to exercise * Friendly and outgoing * Knows everyone at her school * Enjoys learning French * Digs holes in the dirt * Makes funny faces * Doesn’t put things away * Works in the garden * Loves her stuffed animals * Never enough shoes * Summers at Nana camp * Is a good hand in the kitchen * Would eat cold pizza for breakfast  * Nighttime Pajama Walks * Dry Erase Boards * Prefers vanilla over chocolate * Likes to listen to country music * Very Kind and Considerate * Loves board games * Being with others * Wants to look up to her big sister * Misses playing with her brother * Favorite pet would be a dinosaur * beautiful handwriting * Wishes she were taller * A good friend * Beloved daughter * Brave * Courageous * Full of life

A Birthday Wish

Steve suggested that I write Lia’s birthday entry for Without Envy.  I am nervous, as I don’t usually share my writings with anyone.  But, as Steve has told me, sharing your writing is what helps you heal. So here is my earnest attempt.

The other day, Lia was running high so I walked from the High School where I teach and went to the building where the 4th grade is housed to make sure she didn’t need to change her infusion set.  I had the bottle of Humalog in my pocket to try to bring it to room temperature. Her blood sugar was within normal range, so I returned to my school. In the office, a friend of mine asked me if her glucose levels would stable out after being on insulin for a while.  I told her that it would not, that this would be a lifetime struggle for her and that the insulin I was carrying was to keep her alive.  As I said these words, I quickly had to leave the room to compose myself. Although I know very well what the insulin does, it was sobering to say those words aloud to someone else.

Since Lia’s diagnosis, I have not spent a lot of time thinking about how I feel about diabetes. With all the carb counting, figuring of boluses, night time blood tests, and everything else that comes in the day of a parent of a child with diabetes, I don’t allow myself the time to think about it.  I’ve done a lot of reading, mostly about how to manage diabetes, but also some about the long term effects of the disease.  I prefer not to think about the latter because if I do, I can’t function. I don’t want to read about what can happen if her kidneys fail, or her eyesight worsens, or anything else that might result in complications from diabetes.  What I focus on, is how we get her through another day as safely as we can.

I am not angry about the diabetes.  We will probably never know what caused it, though I am confused, since of the three kids, Lia is the one who was breastfed the longest, had the most natural foods given to her from the first days, and was home—unexposed to whatever her two siblings were exposed to in the daycares of their early days. I try to approach the whys in the way that I approach everything else:  it doesn’t really matter why—it just is—so learn to deal with it the best you can. When I get angry, it is at myself for making an error with a bolus or some other asinine thing, and it’s difficult for me to let it go.  But mostly, I feel tired: from all the things mentioned already, but really just tired of not knowing if I am managing things correctly—ever. Despite all our efforts, we never really know whether we’re doing things right, and more often than not, it is Lia who gives us the correct advice.  As a parent, that is frustrating to me.

Lia’s upcoming birthday is bittersweet for me.  I should not be feeling sad for the marking of another year in my little girl’s life, but this will be her first birthday with diabetes.  There is a part of me that wants to give her everything she wants—no matter what it is.  Mostly, I wish so much that she didn’t have diabetes, and of course I can’t deliver.

As I prepared to write this entry, I reread a journal that I kept when Lia was a baby. It is a sporadic account of her early days until February 2004 when she was 2 years and 5 months old.  I wish now that I had kept better records, but time is a precious commodity and I am sure I squandered it doing things like mopping my floors or doing the laundry.  Krista and I got a good laugh reading about when Lia dumped a roll of toilet paper into the commode and then proceeded to give herself a “spa” treatment. Or how when she first began drawing, she would make little swirls with her crayon and then look at it and exclaim, “Whoa!” The recurring theme in those entries is that even as a baby she was strong and independent and that she was, and still is, our comic relief at the house.

Last year, Steve planned her a dinosaur dig party.  He built a pit that looked like a real archeological dig site —complete with “fossilized” bones.  I enlisted one of my students (who is now at Johnson Wales Culinary Arts Institute) to make her a dinosaur cake.  She loved it all and was so very happy that day.

This year, she wanted a sleep over with her friends, so she wrote out the invitations on ruled notebook paper (I had given her some very nice card stock, which she politely refused) and gave them to the little girls at school.  On the morning of her party, I took her to get her ears pierced—something she has wanted to do but has been afraid to go through with. Our dear friend, Jessie, artist extraordinaire, made Lia the greatest looking Harry Potter cake we’ve ever seen.  Her excitement was a beautiful thing and, lucky for me, Steve captured it in a video so that I can relive that moment over and over.

What I want to do is to make this birthday as memorable as possible.  She’s been counting the days to her birthday for the last six weeks, and while I am not certain that what we’ve gotten for her is exactly what she wants, I know that our little girl will react in the way one might react to winning the lottery—as if she couldn’t imagine anything better.  That’s just Lia.

Happy Birthday, Lia.

Love, Mommy.