Parenting is not an out-of-sight-out-of-mind commitment

Hugo surrounded by his proud family after his senior recital at Eastman School of Music in Nov. 2019

Months ago, everyone in our family cleared their calendars to travel to Rochester, New York, this weekend for my son Hugo’s graduation. Instead, last Friday we gathered around a computer here in Akron for a virtual graduation. It didn’t have the pomp and circumstance of a hall with caps and gowns, but we made it festive.

Hugo went to middle school at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. After picking him up one spring afternoon, I called his father to tell him about a college financial aid talk at Firestone High School, where our eldest son, Claude, was a junior.

“My child support payments are my contribution to the boys’ college funds,” he told me. And, in this, he has remained true to his word.

I helped Claude and Hugo apply to and visit colleges. With Claude, I took him only to schools where he’d been accepted. I don’t have the time nor money to travel the country looking at campuses my kids may never attend.

But as a vocal performance major, Hugo had to audition. And so, the winter of his senior year, we traveled many miles together. His first audition was in January at his “reach school,” Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Following semi-truck tire tracks in deep and swirling snow, I white-knuckle drove us there without stopping.

The next day, I listened to Hugo’s audition from a doorway just off stage. I thought he sang brilliantly, but what do I know? By day’s end, both of us felt Eastman was where Hugo belonged, but doubted he’d get in. He’s talented, but it’s Eastman.

Months later, on an April afternoon, Hugo walked into my office while talking on the phone. As soon as he hung up, he shouted, “I got into Eastman!” I ran to him and we spun each other in circles.

“What did they say about financial aid?” I asked when we stopped to catch our breath.

We learned the financial aid package from Eastman would leave him with $80k in debt upon graduation. However, if he obtained a dual degree from the affiliated University of Rochester, he’d end up with only $20k in loans and two bachelor’s degrees.

Even though it would take a fifth year of college, it was a no-brainer.

That August, Max and I helped Hugo move into his dorm and were with him when he met his vocal instructor for the first time. Walking through the facility that has hosted musicians from George Gershwin to Renee Fleming, I felt a wave of sadness. Hugo’s father wasn’t there.

My ex-husband last saw our three sons in the crowded halls of the old Firestone after Hugo’s high school graduation in 2015. I last saw him at a child support hearing the February of Hugo’s sophomore year of college. He asked me what Hugo was studying.

A woman I once worked with told me that when her father divorced her mother, it was as though he’d divorced the entire family. I often hear similar stories. But when we started our beautiful family, I would never have imagined my then-husband would one day abandon any pretense of a relationship with our children.

As bad as our marriage was (I have recurring nightmares that we are still together), it’s his post-divorce relationship with our boys that taught me he never was the man I had believed him to be, the man I wish he was and, quite possibly, the man he wishes he were.

Last November, Hugo gave his senior recital. Along with my partner, Max, and me, all four of Hugo’s siblings and his grandma attended. Several friends and family members across the country also watched Eastman’s live stream of Hugo’s resonant baritone singing opera in multiple languages. But not his father.

When I graduated from Ohio State University in December 1992, friends, including my ex-husband whom I’d just started dating, were in attendance, but none of my family. Some for good reasons, others because for them it was irrelevant.

Then-President Gordon Gee mentioned my thesis in his commencement address. Afterward, grads spilled into the crowded hallways outside the arena space. A tall black man in a camel-hair overcoat grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously.

“Did you graduate today?” he asked me. “Congratulations! So did my daughter!”

The generous beauty of that father with pride to spare touches me to this day.

A week after COVID-19 closed down Ohio, the boys’ father called me for the first time in ages. He asked if everyone was home, and I said they were. “By the way, where did Jules decide to go to college?” I told him and then he said, “Well, give our boys my love and tell them I’ll call them soon.” He didn’t.

Like so many things, the joy of parenting is the journey through tantrums and teen angst along with laughter around the table, piles of people cuddling in bed and, yes, the milestones of each achievement. For those who show up for it all, the reward is the richest.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 17, 2020.


Struggling to cope in the second month of quarantine

On an August day many years ago, I went to Cleveland-Hopkins Airport with my baby on my hip and my first two boys dressed as Batman and Spider-Man.

We walked to a gate inside the terminal where we watched a plane from Arizona land and taxi to the gate. Minutes later my grandmother walked through the door and we enthusiastically greeted her.

Four weeks later, we took Grandma to a different gate at Cleveland-Hopkins, said tearful goodbyes, then stayed at the gate to watch her plane take off.

I keenly remember that visit because it was the last time my grandma came to Ohio. I also remember it because just days later two planes flew into the World Trade Center towers, irrevocably changing many aspects of life as we knew it.

How quaint it now seems to watch planes take off and land from inside airport terminals when you have no ticket to fly.

During one of her recent press conferences with Gov. Mike DeWine, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton described how nobody comes to understand the impact and length of the current pandemic overnight. Like all new realities, it takes time to process.

That first week the kids were out of school, I understood why all institutions of learning were closed — too many people in close proximity. But it never occurred to me that all non-essential businesses, including hair salons, would also close and I postponed taking my 7-year-old daughter, Lyra, for a much-needed trim.

Lyra’s long, blonde hair is stunning when clean and brushed out, which is no easy feat as her scalp is very tender. And the longer her hair, the more easily it tangles.

Lately, no matter how gently I comb, nor how much detangler I use, Lyra screams, cries and quivers when I do her hair. Max and I joke that if the neighbors hear Lyra getting her hair brushed, they’ll call children’s services.

Traumatizing Lyra with brush and comb also traumatizes me. Exasperated, perhaps as much by six weeks of quarantine as Lyra’s struggle, last weekend I did what would be the unthinkable in normal times.

I went to remove Lyra’s ponytail holder so she could take a bath. I’d barely tugged when she began screaming and yelling: “I don’t want it, I won’t have it! No hair, no hair!” I went to the kitchen, grabbed a pair of utility scissors, returned to the bathroom and lopped off Lyra’s entire ponytail.

She went from looking like actress Veronica Lake to resembling a Dickensian street waif.

The next day, I trimmed Lyra’s hair here and there and she has something like the shag haircut I had at her age in the early 1970s. A comb easily glides through what’s left, a relief for us both, for who knows when she’ll be able to have it fixed by a professional?

We don’t take 10-year-old Leif or Lyra anywhere except Max’s (solo) office and the metro parks on uncrowded weekdays. I cringe when I see children in grocery stores, but I also know some people have no choice but to take their children with them.

We never watch TV news, but do listen to our local NPR station, WKSU, most days. I turn it off whenever stories air on COVID-19 rates of infection and death tolls. Yet Leif, who understands what is happening in ways that Lyra can’t, is exhibiting signs of strain.

A month into shelter-at-home, Leif got up from the desk where he was doing school work, came to me and wrapped his arms around my waist. With his face buried between my arm and my side, I suddenly realized he was sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want you to die of COVID. I love you, Mama.” I assured him I was not likely to die of COVID, even if I caught it, while silently wondering if what I said was true.

“Are you afraid of catching COVID-19?” I asked Max when we were grocery shopping a few days later. When he told me he was, I asked if his life insurance policy was paid up and we laughed.

Gallows-humor memes and cartoons are cropping up like ants in my kitchen on the first warm days of spring. A recent New York Times article explained why: humor helps us cope. People in Nazi concentration camps, soldiers in WWI and those who endured the bubonic plague all indulged in dark humor.

Later that day when Max asked me the same question, we discovered our greatest fear is one and the same: What if Lyra, who has Down syndrome and therefore may be less resilient, contracted COVID-19? Just typing those words makes my eyes well up.

What will our new reality look like when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available and this exhausting pandemic ends? Nobody knows.

I hold out hope that having gone through this together — not just as families, communities, states or countries, but as an entire planet of people — we may come out on the other side better able and willing to work together on other issues facing all of humanity.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on May 3, 2020.