Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Father's Day Timepiece

On Father’s Day, I hold the wristwatch—a stainless steel Bell & Ross—and notice the delayed clicks of the white second hand. My thumb moves in circular motions across the waterproof glass. I’m surprised by its weight.

Erik, my 29-year-old husband, pleaded with me for this expensive watch, but I said, “You know we can’t afford that right now.” We were saving money to buy our first house in over-priced Marin County, California.

“Hyla, he’s going to give it to me for one-third the cost.”

Oh, Erik. “Why do I have to be the one who has to say no?”

Erik put me in charge of our finances after he’d accepted that his impetuous spending habits weren’t helping us save. We were newly pregnant with our second daughter, and moving from one rental house to the next was getting old.

Erik bought the watch anyway. Then he had the nerve to justify his purchase by telling me he’d sold some computer equipment. Why did he need that watch? I wasn’t toting around designer purses. The fight blew over quickly, as most of our disagreements did, and the watch became a playful joke between us.

He liked to spend money. But nobody could deny that Erik was a phenomenal father. Every day, when he came home from work, he’d swing our daughter, Tatiana, into the air and say, “You are the reason for my existence.” During my pregnancies, not an evening passed when Erik didn’t rub almond butter all over my ripe belly. “Sexy curves,” he’d say.

He was an exceptional husband, always helping me with my writing, my photography business, and doing more housework and errands than I ever did. Anyway, isn’t marriage just an exercise in seeing the perfection in each other’s imperfections?

Erik wore that watch when he ran, when he showered, and when he lugged computers around at work.

And, when he was only 29, my beloved Erik was still wearing that watch when Tatiana and I heard him take his last breath.

Heart attack.


The funeral passed, then Keira’s birth, and through layers of grief, I sobbed from a place I didn’t know existed.

Eventually Evan came along. Evan—the handsome, Stanford MBA, Ironman athlete—didn’t run out the door when he met Keira and Tatiana for the first time. He didn’t flee. One month after we met, Evan rode his mountain bike up Mt. Tamalpais and asked Erik’s permission to care for me and the girls.

Evan has taken over for Erik, but Evan makes sure we talk about “Daddy Erik” every day. “If I died, I’d be incredibly bummed if you didn’t keep my memory alive,” Evan says.

Through Erik, we remember life in greater detail. We remember the butterflies that flew over our heads as Evan and I exchanged wedding vows, we remember the excitement in the courtroom when Evan legally adopted the girls, and we remember, each day, how blessed we are to now have four magnificent children.

On Father’s Day, I squish my lips against the black face of Erik’s watch, tuck it in to an ivory-lined box, and tape the folded turquoise wrapping paper along the sides.

Erik wants Evan to have his watch.


Closing my eyes, I imagine what Erik would say, and I begin writing a letter from Erik to Evan, which finally reads:

“There are things I would have changed about my 29 years, and I know that you and Hyla will have your own bumps along the road. I also know there will be times that you struggle to navigate the path of raising girls. There is no doubt in my mind that you will do a phenomenal job. That, you have already proven.

What I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for taking over—for wanting to take over. I chose you to take care of my girls, and my wife, because what I saw in you was the ability to be the most nurturing father and loving, supportive husband. You are one stellar man—anyone who knows you will vouch for that.

Evan, what I am about to give you, I am not sure you will even want to wear. It’s cool with me if you choose to leave it in a drawer, to pull out only on the occasion that you feel the desire to look at it, to be reminded that the time is now—the time is always now.

Happy Father’s Day, from one father to another. You deserve the greatest life. Don’t forget to take it. Take life. Breathe it all in.”

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Embracing Children's Psychotherapy

Keira, my five-year-old daughter, whined, “I don’t want to talk to anyone,” from under her purple, fuzzy blanket. She did not want start going to therapy.

She had recently returned from school one too many times, saying “nobody likes me,” or “I’m not smart,” or “nobody wants to be my friend.”

But that was as far as the conversation ever went. She really didn’t want to talk to anyone. Not even me.

I pulled the covers back, exposing her angry, brown eyes. “That’s just it, honey. It isn’t good if you don’t talk about your feelings.”

She wrapped her front teeth around the base of her thumb’s cuticle and chewed on the skin. “I don’t have any feelings.”

“Honey, you’ll be going to see Steve. Remember the man Tatiana went to talk to for a while?” My older daughter, Tatiana, had also seen Steve for about six months, when she was five.

Keira wiped her now-bleeding finger on her pink pillowcase. “With the dog?”

“Yes, the man with the dog. And the toys. A whole room full of toys.”

“I’ll play there one time, but I’m not going to talk.”

The great thing about play-based children’s psychotherapy is that the therapist is trained to figure out what is going on with kids all through interactive play.

The first time I took Keira to visit Steve, there was nothing wrong with the fact that she hardly looked at him. It was perfectly acceptable for Keira to squat down and line up a miniature family of horse figurines while Steve and I chatted.

“Keira,” Steve finally said, “whenever you’re fine with your mom leaving the room, just let me know. She’ll be right outside the door, waiting for you.”

Keira remained silent, but brought one of the green horses over to a table full of sand. She dug the horse’s hooves deep into a mound, then began sprinkling dirt particles over its head.

My late husband—Keira’s birth father—died when I was seven months pregnant with Keira. And now, here she was, five years later, acting out the burial of this horse.

I’d heard of grieving children using sand tables to bury inch-sized coffins and urns, but I’d never seen it before.

Steve sat on the floor, next to Keira, and handed her a shovel and a sifter. “Your mom is going to wait outside the door now. Is that alright with you?”

“Yeah,” she whispered, scooping more sand.

Unlike Tatiana, Keira did not watch Erik slide down the kitchen counter and stop breathing on our white-tiled floor. Keira did not call out in the middle of the night for “Da-Da” for several years after his death. But Keira did experience every ounce of pain that went through my womb those last two months of her gestation.

Keira took her first breaths as Erik’s miniature twin. Black hair. Upturned nose.

It was a bittersweet birth. Life and death, sleeping side by side.

An easy baby from the start, I wondered if Keira sensed her mommy’s distress. Was she taking care of me? Leaving extra room for me to console Tatiana’s nightmares?

Then, at two-years-old, right around the time when I started feeling some happiness again, Keira changed. She often woke from her afternoon naps, kicking and hitting me.

Some would have described her moods as “the terrible twos,” but I knew that Keira had not been born into ordinary circumstances, so I kept a careful watch over her.

Unfortunately, the amount of care I took in watching over both Tatiana and Keira depended on how stable I actually felt. I had also thrown myself into every type of therapy, but there were still days in which I walked close to the edge.

When Keira entered Kindergarten, my new husband, Evan, adopted both her and Tatiana. On our wedding day, as a part of his vows, Evan said, “We will never… ever… forget Erik …nor the irony of his tragic loss providing so much beauty and happiness in my life.”

Keira adored Evan, but every time one of us mentioned “Daddy Erik,” she said, “Don’t talk about him. It makes me too sad.”

Tatiana tried to make her little sister feel better. “Keira, we’re lucky we have two daddies.”

Keira cried, “You got to meet him, Tat. You don’t understand.”

Scattered throughout our house are many photographs of Tatiana and Erik, but Keira never got her photo opportunity. Keira was born fatherless. Worse yet, Keira was born to a mother who could hardly take care of herself, let alone two babies.

But now, after a year of meeting with Steve for therapy, Keira actually looks forward to her appointments. She is less reactive, more open, and usually willing to talk things through until we uncover the real problem.

Keira doesn’t come home from school with the complaint of having no friends anymore. In fact, these days when I volunteer in her class, the girls all swarm me with enthusiastic requests for play-dates with Keira.

This is what I want for each of my children. I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to feel confident expressing their emotions. I want them to know that they can talk to me about anything.

No matter what.