mothers

No end in sight to my fatherly watch

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 17, 2018. Photo: Juliana Walsh

My wife’s request this Mother’s Day caught me by surprise.

“Let’s pull up the carpet in the hallway,” Deb said as I set a cup of coffee on her night table.

Our plan had been to drive to the beach to take a walk and grab some lunch. But with the air outside thick and damp with fog, Deb now thought a day of grunt work would be the perfect gift.

I understood why.

Ours is an old house, with projects beckoning around every corner, and removing the carpet in our entrance hallway had been at the top of Deb’s list. Despite our best efforts with a worn-out Dyson vacuum and a spot cleaner called the Little Green Machine, the tan, medium-pile rug bore marks left by years of family life, which included three kids, two dogs, and all the spills and tracked-in dirt that came with them. It was time for the carpet to go.

With mini-crowbars and pliers in hand, we went to work shedding the hallway of its nubby skin. The oak flooring beneath the rug gleamed. Extracting a staple from the wood with the zeal of a first-year dental student, I recalled that we had refinished the floors and stairs before moving in.

“And then we covered them up,” Deb said, with a laugh.

It was true. The sight one day of our 2-year-old teetering in socks at the top of the winding staircase, with its polished steps, made us panic. A rug would provide traction underfoot and, if he did tumble down, cushion his fall. At least that was our logic.

A week later, the carpet installer arrived, and the new rug provided us with peace of mind, however illusory.

On Mother’s Day morning, I dragged the first rolled-up carpet scrap to the edge of the sidewalk in front of our house as a foghorn sounded in the distance. My neighbor, retrieving groceries from his car, asked me what our plans for the day were.

“You’re looking at it,” I said, pointing at the shaggy tube.

“The gift that keeps on giving,” he said.

Inside, as Deb and I continued to peel away carpet, I remembered that we had put up a cedar fence in our backyard around the same time as when the rug had gone in. With our house less than a block from busy Main Street in East Greenwich, we wanted to make sure our kids, all under age 5, didn’t wander off. The once-proud fence stood for almost a decade and a half before it began succumbing to wood rot and hurricane winds.

By that time, our children were in their teens, and I finally admitted to myself that there was only so much we could do to shield them from the bumps and bruises that life inevitably serves up – the high school romance that ends abruptly; the last-second shot that clangs off the rim; the passing of a beloved grandmother. I might be able to soften those hurts, but I couldn’t make them go away. They were part of growing up.

By late afternoon, with the carpet removal complete, it occurred to me that none of our children had ever fallen down the stairs. Was the rug our salvation? Or were we simply lucky?

It didn’t matter. The slippery stairs were just one of thousands of concerns that came with parenting. And there’s no end in sight. While our kids have navigated their way into adulthood, our worries, unlike the rug, remain.

That night, the foghorn continued its serenade. As a boy at my family’s beach cottage in Narragansett, the deep, steady tones of the Point Judith Lighthouse horn were as soothing as a lullaby. But now, as I approach 30 years of fatherhood, the tenor notes of Warwick Light’s smaller horn strike me with their vigilance – cautionary, protective, distant, and yet so invisibly present.

 

The lost and found wheelchair

IMG_0889As published in The Providence Journal, October 15, 2017.

We needed a wheelchair; otherwise, my mother would miss the show.

My daughter, Juliana, was performing in her last high school theater production, cast as Golde in “Fiddler On The Roof.” Mom, a longtime fan of Broadway musicals, knew the role better than anyone and said, with a grandmother’s certainty, that Julie was perfect for the part.

My mother had been less sure about whether she’d be able to attend. Two weeks earlier, a virus had slowed her down – an unwelcome add-on to the macular degeneration and breathing issues that she normally dealt with. But when I walked into her Warwick apartment on the Wednesday before Julie’s Saturday matinee, her voice was strong and her spirits high. She was coming to the show.

So we needed a wheelchair. There was no way Mom could make the trek from the parking lot to the auditorium at East Greenwich High School. And forget about any stairs.

My brother Rob mentioned there was a wheelchair in the coat alcove at St. Luke’s, our church, and when I called the office, the rector said we could borrow it. Julie was thrilled. Not only were her grandparents from Connecticut coming in for the show; now Nonnie would be there, too.

On Saturday, I went to St. Luke’s to get the chair. But when I looked in the coat alcove, it wasn’t there. I looked in another closet. Nothing. I looked in the office, the entrance foyer, the back of the church – no luck.

I looked at my phone. “Fiddler” was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

And then an angel appeared. My friend Ken was working with the youth group, making pizzas for a mission-trip fundraiser. It turns out he had a wheelchair at home, one his father-in-law had used for years. Ken said he’d be right back with it. Thank God! Thank Ken! He returned with the chair, and I slid it awkwardly into the trunk of my car.

The show was endearing in the way most high school productions are, with seasoned theater kids mixing with first-time performers. And thanks to the wheelchair, Mom was right in the front row to take it all in. When Julie sang Golde’s bittersweet duet with Tevye in the second act – “Do You Love Me?” – my mother fished a tissue out of her bag. I felt my eyes sting, too.

“You were marvelous,” Mom told her youngest grandchild after the show, giving Julie a kiss.

In deference to the cold, late-winter air, the two of them waited inside the glass-doored entrance of the high school as I retrieved my car. With the Elantra’s tailpipe puffing at the curb, I wheeled Mom out, helped her into the passenger seat, hustled around to the driver’s side, and jumped in to take her home.

That evening, when I returned to the high school to see the musical’s final performance, I noticed an unattended wheelchair on the sidewalk outside. Funny, I thought – it looks just like the one I borrowed from Ken, blue seat and all. What a coincidence.

It wasn’t until the following afternoon, as I loaded groceries into my empty trunk, that it hit me: There was nothing coincidental about the wheelchair the night before. In my haste to get Mom home, I had driven away without it. And now my mother’s voice came to me, straight from childhood: “You’d lose your head if it weren’t attached.”

I raced over to the high school and, to my relief, discovered the wheelchair orphaned in a wooded area by the parking lot. I wished the chair was equipped with a GPS tracker so I could review its adventures. I imagined hooting teenagers careening down darkened streets deep into the night.

As I hefted the wheelchair back into my trunk, I was thankful – for the generosity of friends, for the love and presence of grandparents, for the sweetness of young voices, and for the wheelchair itself, found and lost and found again.

It was a weekend I’ll always remember.

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