Why This Syrian Boy Resonated So Deeply for Me

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I woke up this morning with the image of little Omran Daqneesh in my head and it finally dawned on me why he looked so familiar to me.

THAT is my inner child.

Seriously, no joke–that is what he looks like right now. I’ve spent three years in a kind of slow free-fall of stress, private anguish, trauma, and loss that my skill could not diminish no matter what I tried. Sometimes all we can do is persevere.

If by “inner child” we mean a personification of that source within our core that is pure, joyful, innocent, trusting, playful, and loving, then we should be able to picture it, recognize it.

This morning I have, and THAT’S HIM.

As that image resonates with what I see in myself, it is heartening to know just how durable the little fellow is. As I begin to crawl out from under the rubble of things I needed like a hole in my head, the proof is there, of the ineffable, indelible innocence and goodness that is the origin and seat of who we are.

Persevere, my friends. Whether it be by fire, flood, war, or personal strife, sooner or later, someone will walk by that pile of rubble you are buried under, and pull you back into the daylight.

 

(5-year-old Omran Daqneesh suffered head wounds but no brain injury. Workers feared internal injuries, but an X-ray and ultrasound revealed his wounds were superficial. Omran’s three siblings, ages 1, 6, and 11, and his mother and father were also rescued from the building. None sustained major injuries. The Russian military said Thursday it was ready to back a U.N. call for weekly cease-fires for the city of Aleppo. …curious, what opened eyes can lead to.)

 

PART IV: Father/Daughter Stories–The Blue Frog

I’m okay with divorce, I really am. I’m a big boy now, and I like to think that I take responsibility for my choices, but I never planned on, nor was I prepared for, raising a child in what when I was growing up was called a broken home. Double household kids are as common today as spilled milk, and I’m not sure what they are calling it these days, but it is talked about with an air of acceptability that I find unsettling. What substitutes for a home with a mother and a father and a singular sense of belonging for something as fragile as a new life?

Starting out life in a toxic or loveless place can be far worse; I know that, we all do the best we know how. Psychologists now site new studies (and I’ve read them) that reveal that children of divorced parents learn better relationship skills and can become stronger and more productive people. I accept that, yet none of that matters one tiny little bit the to heart of a small child. These are the same psychologists who like to point out the rising dysfunction in young people today.

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A kid can get good parenting, and know that they are loved, and that matters immensely, but it is the fractured sense of belonging that is the hurt that cannot be undone. I have always referred to my place as “home” or “our house,” but Madi still talks of Mama’s house or Daddy’s house, as though she is somewhere in-between.

People would tell me, “Don’t let it bother you, children are amazingly resilient.” I never bought that crap, platitudes for the guilty mind. With all due respect, I’ll take my reality the way my child takes it thank you very much.

The first hurdle was figuring out how to tell a three and a half year old girl that her Mama was not going to be living here anymore. I did my research and spoke to friends, and professionals, and Mama, and found the latest thing. They say tell them only what they can understand at their age, then update as they get older and ask again. It was good advice, and it worked, but the plan only addresses HOW to tell them, WHAT to tell them is the hard part. We started with Mama staying at an apartment because it was easier for late nights at work, and went from there.

It took me some time, but I did figure out, with a little help, what my job was, and it had nothing to do with anger, blame, and resentment. My job as Madi’s Dad is to LIFT. I am relied upon to support and guide in whatever my little charge came here to do, no more. Each of us comes to this world, presumably by choice, with our own unique tasks and challenges, and with our own specific destiny. It is not for me to choose or manage her path, that’s her job. This realization made single parenting one whole hell of a lot easier for me, but there are days that are not so easy, days where you just have to put your head down and do the work.

One night, after about the third or fourth iteration of the on-going explanation, Madi woke up in the dead of night screaming. I thought she had been hurt, because she got right out of bed and walked across the scary dark hallway straight to my bed, which was unheard of. Any parent knows that there are many types of crying. There are cries that say, I want, I’m hurt, I’m hungry, I’m angry, I’m sad, and more. Kids cry. It’s one of the things they do. I am as good as any at flipping the parental switch and letting them cry without a lot of emotional attachment. There is nothing wrong with crying, kids need to cry sometimes, and often you need to let them do so before you step in to help. This night, the cry was none of that, it was something altogether different. It had a sound to it that I had only heard once before from her. This sound seizes the spine and gives you a rush of hot nausea. It is the sound of human suffering, of desperate sorrow, and it is awful. And, when it is coming from your baby, it is excruciating!

Physically she was fine. It took some time before I could get any words out of her other than something about a blue frog. She had had a dream. It wasn’t a bad dream, it was a beautiful dream. I pieced together a story about a blue frog who lived near a tree. Mr. Blue Frog was her friend, and he talked to her a really long time under his tree about many things, and these things made her so happy. She loved Mr. Blue Frog, and Mr. Blue Frog loved her. They were very happy that they were friends. Then Mr. Blue Frog told her that he had to go away. He was going to the North Pole to live with Santa, and he would never be coming back. He had to go, and he would never see her again. He told her that he loved her very much, but he had to say good-bye forever. Then Mr. Blue Frog left.

If I can get her to tell me her dreams, I can usually figure out what is going on with her. This dream was a dread realization that was all too clear to me. Her little subconscious had finally figured it out, and was letting her know that her life would never again be what it was. That the two people she loved and depended on the most, did not love and depend upon each other; that the home she knew, the original place of her belonging, the place she was safe and sure and happy in was torn in a way she did not understand. Personified in this little blue frog, the force of its finality was devastating to her.

The wailing was explosive, and intense, and continuous, and always there was that sound in it. I did everything I could to calm her down; I held her, rocked her, and talked to her. Nothing made even a tiny dent. She had absolute trust in Mr. Blue Frog, and HE said he was never coming back.

Between the wails there were pleas for me to help. “Please Daddy make him come back!” “I want him back again!” Madi was missing her friend Mr. Blue Frog, but I knew what Mr. Blue Frog meant. I remember these pleas like you remember the slow motion details of a traffic accident, and every one cut. “Help me Daddy, bring him back.” “I don’t want him to go! Why did he have to go?! Why did this happen??! Why?!! Tell me!!” “I don’t understand why he had to go!” “I need him Daddy please, help me! Do something! Bring him back! “ “Tell me what to do! I need him with me! I love him! I want my blue frog back!” “TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!”

For my part, I was being lashed, and I knew I probably deserved it. If you had given me the choice then of feeling this, or having the inside of my heart scooped hollow with a rusty spoon, I’d have chosen the spoon!

The wailing and pleading and my feeble attempts to ease them went on unabated for forty minutes. I tried everything I knew to help change the outcome, “maybe he’ll come visit you at Christmas with Santa. Maybe you can dream of going to see him. I’m sure if he loves you he’ll change his mind,” but the blue frog was telling the truth, he really was never coming back, she knew it, and I knew it. Finally I just ran out, I had noting left so I gave up. That’s when the first honest words came rolling out of my mouth as I tried to hide my own tears.

“I am SO sorry Madi, I don’t KNOW what to do, I JUST DON”T KNOW what to do!”

Silence.

We both just sat, numb.

Then, in a tiny, trembling voice she says, “We can write him a letter.”

[POING!!]

“Yes, yes we can. We can write him a letter! What would you want to say in the letter?” She explained what she wanted to say, and then asked, “Can we write a real letter?”

“Sure we can, we’ll turn on the lights, go downstairs, find some paper and a pen and we will write this letter!”

“Can we put it in an envelope?”

“We will put it in an envelope.”

“And put his address on it?”

“Of course we will! Do you know his address?”

“Um, Near a tree.”

“Good enough, that’ll do.”

“And can we put a stamp on it?”

“Yes. We have plenty of stamps.”

“And put it in the mail box for the mailman to take?”

“Absolutely!”

“Okay.”

“Okay!?”

“Let’s go.”

“Let’s go!!”

IMG_3525aThe sun was just coming up when we walked the envelope with the letter to Mr. Blue Frog to the mailbox. Every word carefully dictated, and a special card included for him to return to her when he came back, in the real world. She carefully tucked the envelope into the box and made sure the flag was up so that the mailman would take it. All things considered, we had a good day after that. She never mentioned the little blue frog again, but I have never forgotten him. Later, I pulled the letter out of the box and saved it. I have not opened it until today.

I have not forgotten these posts are about what is GREAT about having a kid, especially mine, so here goes.

Fast-forward four years to this Spring, fathers day I believe. We were visiting grandpa with most of the family there. My sister was going through a divorce of her own at the time, and when she, Madi and I went to take her dog for a walk around the block, she struck up more questions about separation agreements and house selling. Since I had been around that block several times, I was one source of opinion and advice. My sister didn’t know that I had not told Madi of her aunt and uncle’s impending separation. I was unsure how Madi would take it, so I put off telling her about it. By the time the conversation started, it was already too late so I let it run. Madi was happily at the other end of a corgi’s leash and I half hoped she wasn’t paying attention. We finished our walk and went back inside.

Later, my sister recounted to me that once inside, Madi came to her and asked her if she and uncle Steve were getting a divorce. My sister, herself worried about Madi’s reaction, told the truth none-the-less and said that yes, they were. Madi raised her arm to my sister’s shoulder, patted her, and said, “It will be alright aunt Jeanne. I know, it’s hard for a while, but it gets better.”

…And somewhere a little blue frog smiled.

“Reedeep!”

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Letting Go

September 13th: Dead Sibling Day. Before I jet off to Sedona today to sweat in the canyons and consult with Hopi spirits, I thought I would get this done. Not one of my usual posts, but I am deciding to do it because I may have something to say that is cogent for some out there, about letting go; and because one should at least occasionally walk the talk.

My younger sister, Jacqueline Ann Izzo, died about eleven years ago, and today is her birthday. More so than her death date, this is the day I remember her. I had five siblings, and there are now three left thanks to our ‘family friend’ cancer. My brother Kenny died this year in March. Grieving is simple; it’s automatic; in 6-9 months the brain chemicals leech out through your eyes and you’re done. After that comes the really hard part, letting go.

Letting go is hard because it means accepting a new life without that which they gave you and you depended upon. It takes guts, and it feels like betrayal until you understand what letting go really means.

My sister and I shared the middle spot in a family of six kids, so we were close, and she was very, very important to me. Growing up, Jackie was my best friend, my biggest fan, and the reason I am funny. She was the best audience a big brother could have. I could make milk spray out her nose on cue, even when she knew it was coming. On any given day you could walk into a room and find Jackie lying on the floor in tears over something that gave her a laughing jag days ago that just popped back into her head. She laughed at human folly, especially her own, and she never once laughed at anyone’s pain. Mostly though, she was important to me because she believed in me, without ever needing a reason.

Jackie was the first person who taught me that true courage had nothing to do with how afraid and timid you were about life, a lesson I have always cherished. My chronically reticent sister went into the medical profession, and countless people benefited from a strength she reserved only for others. During the years she battled for life, she showed an easy bravery, and when she had fought enough, she had the courage to let go. She died gracefully and well.

I didn’t have that courage, not with her. It wasn’t that long ago that I finally stopped reaching for my phone every time I thought, “I’ve GOT to tell Jack about this!” My daughter’s first name is Jacqueline, because Jackie asked me before she died; we call her Madi, because I knew it would be a long time before I could say the name. It was hardest watching Madi grow up never knowing what an amazing aunt she had missed, though fortunately she has another.

I sucked at letting go.

This year I did let go of Jackie. I cut the cords and finally stopped being the brother missing a sister, a friend, a fan, and a believer. I was very surprised to find out how much better it was. In a way, I got her back. Not really back, because she’s still dead, but there is a clear new voice in my ear, and she sounds very excited for me.

There are two places that I remember Jackie best on Dead Sibling Day, the two of us sitting under the kitchen table, me drilling her on her multiplication tables so she wouldn’t fail a grade, and summers in Nantucket. I’ve been going again since Madi was born, and Jackie is the reason I go. It has been a mixture of memory, tribute, promise, and chore, which has darkened and become heavy over the years. This year, thanks to some cord cutting, all the colors have come back to that place, and they are different.

And this is what letting go does. It makes a space for those things you lost to come from others willing to grant them to you. It is what I would have wanted for her if I had gone first.

I had said that letting go of someone feels like betrayal. It can seem as though you are being asked to disown everything they meant to you, but in truth it is not letting go of them at all; it’s letting go of the “you” you were when you had them, and making new room for others, …and it’s a bitch.

So the moral of the story is: attachments are bad, my friends. And not having them does not mean you are disconnected. Quite the opposite. Remember that, because it is very easy to forget.

I would like to state categorically, that talking about my sister does not make me sad, oh no, not one bit, not anymore. She is remembered not nearly loudly enough. So if you should hear me talking about her and notice me well up a bit, know that it is not sadness, … it’s Presence.

Happy Birthday Jack! I hope you are still saving me a good spot, and don’t mind too much that I’m taking my sweet time. I love you, always have, always will.