Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Happens to Bad Boys

I was at the base hospital a few weeks ago in the waiting room of the women's wellness clinic. I was sitting in the far corner of the room waiting to be called for my appointment, reading a textbook I'd brought with me so I could plan for the upcoming quarter, but a little family caught my attention and I didn't end up getting anything done. The little family consisted of Mom, who was holding a newborn daughter; Dad, a tech sergeant with some kind of brace on his lower leg; and their son, a cute little guy who was about three years old.

Little Guy was playing over in the other corner at the plastic table and chairs put there for just that reason. He'd taken the fat, yellow chairs and tipped them on their sides around the table. He wasn't making any noise. The only other people waiting were two separate women on the other side of the room who were engrossed in their magazines. I noticed Little Guy when he called to his dad and asked him to come over and sit down at the table with him. He was a cutie with dark hair and eyes, very earnest about his game. Dad tried to ignore him, but he persisted. Finally Mom said something sharp to Dad and he went over there.

"Set the chairs up like they're supposed to be," he said.
"Daddy, come and sit here with me." Little Guy smiled up at him, happy with his game. He obviously wasn't reading Daddy's tone of voice.
"Put the chairs up like I told you to." Daddy's voice told me he wasn't kidding.
"Daddy, just sit here with me, OK?" Still not getting it. And not getting that Daddy's brace would have prevented his sitting on those small chairs anyway. He was just happy he'd gotten Daddy to come over and see what he'd built.
"I said set the chairs up like they're supposed to be. Do it now!" Daddy grabbed a chair and slammed it upright by the table. And the other chair. Then he grabbed Little Guy's hand and marched him over by Mom. "Stand there." He sat back down in his chair and gave Mom a "There. It's done" look.

Little Guy stood there for a few minutes while his parents talked over his head. I wondered, as I often do in situations like that, if they hadn't brought a book to read to him or some paper and crayons. I guess not everybody thinks about things like that. But it does make life with small children easier if you just entertain them with something so they don't get bored.

Finally a tech called Mom's name. She handed the baby to Daddy and followed the tech back to the exam rooms. Daddy ordered Little Guy up on her chair, so he climbed up and sat on his knees facing the back. He looked over at me and gave a little wave. I smiled and waved back, then looked back down at my textbook...

 ...until I heard a soft "Hey." I looked up. Little Guy had found a piece of plastic or something tucked down in the chair. He held it up and showed it to me. I glanced over at Dad. He was watching CNN. I smiled at Little Guy and said softly, "Whatcha got?"

He gave me a coy look and hid the plastic behind his back. I looked surprised and asked, "Where did it go?"

He shrugged and laughed. I pointed to a plant against the wall. "Is it in that pot?" I said it very softly. I had a feeling we didn't want to get Daddy's attention.

Little Guy laughed and shook his head. We played the game for a while. You know the game. Same one every three-year-old likes to play: pretend to hide something while somebody else pretends to look for it.

For some reason Daddy suddenly became aware of his son. Without even looking at me he snapped, "Turn around and sit down right in that chair." Little Guy did look at me and I nodded and gave him the "better do it" look.

As Little Guy was turning around and sitting down "right" in the chair, he dropped his piece of plastic down in the side of the chair, between the cushion and the arm. And when he tried to reach down and get it, he slipped and fell, hitting his face hard against the solid wooden arm of the chair. He started crying, and I'm afraid I probably started out of my chair before I realized it wasn't my place to comfort him. Can't be a mommy to the world, right? That was Daddy's job.

"That's what happens to bad boys," Daddy snarled. "They get hurt because they're bad boys." I was surprised at the venom in his voice.

Little Guy looked over at me, still crying, a red mark blooming on his cheek. I was frozen. I probably looked like I wanted to cry too. I could feel the shame those words were meant to evoke deep in my own heart.

"Daddy, it hurts. I fell and hurt my face." Little Guy rubbed the side of his head and cried harder.

"You got hurt because you're a bad boy. Just sit there." Little Guy had already started climbing down from the chair. Once he was in motion he couldn't stop.

"Da-a-a-d-d-d-d-y-y-y-y...." He made it over to Daddy's chair and leaned against his leg sobbing. His face was bright red where he'd bumped it.

Daddy didn't touch him. He just sat there with the baby in the crook of his arm and glared at Little Guy. "Get back up on that chair and sit down and shut up." Daddy's voice was louder now, so he could be heard over Little Guy's crying, I suppose. "If you weren't a bad boy, that wouldn't have happened."

Little Guy tried for a few more minutes to get an appropriate response from the guy who was supposed to love and care for him, but only succeeded in making Daddy madder. Finally he climbed back up on the chair and sat facing front, with his little legs straight out in front of him, sobbing quietly. Daddy stared at the TV.

Now I was getting pissed. I wanted to march over there, gather Little Guy up in my arms, comfort him until he felt better and then ask, "So, sergeant, did you hurt your leg because you were a bad boy too?" Because it makes sense, doesn't it? If Little Guy got hurt because he was a bad boy, then Daddy must be a bad boy too. Right?

These days there's no telling how Dad might have gotten hurt. He might have taken his knee out playing racquetball or he might have taken a piece of shrapnel over in Iraq. One thing is for sure, he had either been to Iraq (or Afghanistan) or he would be going in the next year or both. That's just the way it is for airmen like him these days. They go over there, and usually they go more than once. It's pretty safe to guess that he didn't think he'd hurt himself because he was a bad boy. Daddy's logic was flawed. His argument failed from the very beginning, but Little Guy couldn't know that.

But that wasn't what bothered me the most. What bothered me most was that Daddy lied. People--little boys included--don't get hurt because they're bad. There are many reasons why people get hurt: carelessness, recklessness, bad luck, bad judgment...shit happens. In fact, sometimes they get hurt because they're good people and they get mixed up with bad people. But not because they're bad--especially when they're three.

Dad wasn't really concerned with why Little Guy got hurt though. He was taking an opportunity to let Little Guy know he didn't really like him, to shame him into disappearing. He was letting him know he didn't want to have to deal with him; he was a bother. So he told Little Guy, "You're bad, you deserve to be hurt, and now you're bad because you're bothering me." Or at least that was the message I got. I'm pretty sure Little Guy got it too; if not, he will.

Maybe someday when he gets older, Daddy will like his son more. Maybe once his son can play football with him--or more likely video games--he'll find some worth in Little Guy. But here's the sad thing: he might not be around by the time Little Guy gets old enough to be cool. He might go off to war and never come back. Of course he doesn't think he's going to die. Mom is the one who worries about him dying. I know because I did it for 20 years. I watched my kids' daddy fly off for weeks or months--once for a year and a half--at a time, knowing it might be the last time we saw him, praying that dark blue car didn't pull into my driveway with bad news. It's harder to be the one waiting at home. And sometimes the wait never ends.

Even if he doesn't die though, his words will live in his child's ears long after he's forgotten the incident. Little Guy adores his daddy. He trusts him--for now. He's too young to discern logical fallacies--bullshit, for the common reader--like Daddy just tossed him: you're bad, therefore bad things will happen to you. He believes everything Daddy says to him.

I realize Daddy might have reasons for being such an ass to his small son. He could be depressed, stressed, or poorly socialized himself. Maybe he wants his son to grow up tough and tearless. You know what? I don't give a shit. I really don't. I know it's hard being the parent of two small children. I know they're needy and it's constant and they don't obey immediately and they're messy and get hurt and you can't reason with them, but they're not bad. Little Guy isn't bad. Little Guy is a miracle, that's what he is.

Imagine being only three years old. Imagine only having three years of experience on this planet. And then imagine what this child has learned and accomplished in just three short years. He's learned to eat, walk, talk, eat with a spoon, put on his socks, tell the difference between red, yellow, and blue, and name things like stars and lamps and pigs. I couldn't list all that he's learned in just three years. His capacity--his potential--is so great it might as well be limitless. He is truly a miracle and one of a kind at that. How in the hell can he be bad?

And Daddy's job--no, his privilege--is to be this child's guide for a relatively short period of time. Daddy's job is to nurture Little Guy's curiosity, his creativity, his compassion, his integrity, and his ability to navigate the world. But he's not. No, I don't think this is an isolated incident for Daddy. He's like a lot of parents. He doesn't want to be bothered. He doesn't want to be bothered to engage with his son in the world so he does everything he can to make him go away. He ignores him until Little Guy needs his attention and then he tells Little Guy he's a bad boy for bumping his face on a chair arm. It would be ridiculous if it weren't so sad.

Oh, I'm sure he loves Little Guy. If you asked him, he'd say he does, right? He just doesn't want to be bothered by him. Or he only wants to be bothered by him on his own schedule. If he's like a lot of kids, Little Guy will be raised by electronic babysitters so his parents don't have to do the hard--and incredibly rewarding--work of helping him learn as much about his world as he can.

I know this little rant sounds judgmental, but I do have compassion for other parents. Really I do. I know how difficult raising children can be. I wasn't, and I'm still not, a perfect parent. I have what I call "Bad Mommy" stories, and I don't tell them with pride. Yeah, there's that word again. Bad. I guess maybe I got the same message as Little guy, huh? Even as an adult, I'm not allowed to make mistakes or I'm a bad person. Those messages get so deeply ingrained it's hard for some of us to ever find our own worth in the world.

By the time I was called back to the exam room by the tech, Little Guy was sitting quietly in his chair, doing absolutely nothing. As I walked behind his chair, I leaned down just barely and said, "I'm sorry you got hurt." I smiled at him as I walked past, but he just glanced up with sad eyes and then looked back down. He didn't smile back this time. It wasn't really my sympathy he wanted. Daddy just stared at CNN while the baby slept in the crook of his arm.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Weight of the Right Thing

My 12-year-old standard poodle, Pippi, was diagnosed with a bladder tumor several months ago, sometime last spring, although she’s been having problems for about a year and a half.  The vet kept treating her for an infection that never went away, but eventually he had the talk with me—the one where he tried to prepare me for a “quality of life decision” I would need to make soon. He was ready for me to make the decision that day last spring, but I talked him into a standing prescription for pyroxicam, a drug that’s supposed to keep bladder tumors from growing, and amoxicillin to stave off infections.
   She’s also been in diapers since shortly after that day. It’s nasty. It really is. She still goes out and pees blood in the yard. In fact, she pees and pees and pees; she’s never done. She can squat for hours. If she were human, her thighs would be huge and solid, like a Russian dancer. When she’s in the house, she has to wear the diaper. We have three: one made of denim and two that are white polka dots on black. I call those her pin-up girl diapers. I’m not going to try to pretend there’s anything pleasant about changing a dog’s diapers. But the alternative is that quality of life decision the vet talked about. And yes, he was talking about my quality of life, not Pippi’s.
   People who’ve been through bladder cancer with a dog tell me I’ll know when it’s time, but it doesn’t seem that easy to me. The vet would already have done it. So would a guy I met a few weeks ago at the Sidebar, one of those bars where the $10 drinks are worth it. He’s got cats and a dog, and he was telling me hilarious stories about one of his cats. A cat he’s really sick of and would like to get rid of. He asked if I had any pets and I told him briefly about Pippi. He didn’t react quite the way I expected. He said, “Oh my god, you’ve got to put her to sleep. She’s ready to die. Just do it.”
   I was stunned. Did he think it was like pouring out spoiled milk? “Why?” I said. “She still eats well. She still goes for walks with me.”
   “Of course she does. She does that to please you,” he said. “She’s not going to tell you she’s ready to leave you, but she is. She’s ready to die. Let her go.”
   “I don’t think she’s ready.”
   “Of course she’s ready. She’s in diapers! She’s embarrassed all the time by those diapers. She lives in constant shame.” He sounded so sure of himself.
   “How would she even know?” I asked. “She’s a dog. Dog’s don’t care about fashion.”
   “Is she housebroken?”
   “Of course. She’s quite well trained.”
   “Then she’s embarrassed that she can’t control her bladder anymore.” He didn’t allow me to wedge in a response. “What does she do all day while you’re teaching? What’s she doing right now while you’re sitting here at this bar drinking raspberries and vodka?”
   “She’s lying on her bed, probably in my bedroom. That’s what she does most of the time now,” I said.
   “So she’s just laying around waiting for you to come home. That’s a great life, isn’t it? Would you like to live like that?”
   I started feeling defensive. “She’s always glad to see me,” I said. And she is. Always. “Besides, she mostly lies around even when I’m home. She doesn’t have as much energy as she used to….but that doesn’t mean she wants to die! We still go for walks. We walk down to the river several times a week, and we explore the neighborhood….”
   “Oh, come on. This is about you. It’s all about you. You don’t want to lose her. You don’t want to have to make the decision. You’re not really thinking about her. You can’t stand the thought of letting her go. She in diapers, and she’s probably in pain most of the time. She’s ready to die. You need to do the right thing….” (Note: Really nice guy. You can't tell from this small part of our conversation.)
   Do the right thing. Implicit in those words is the idea that there is a “right thing.” And if you do the right thing, everything will turn out all right. Isn’t that what we tell our kids: do the right thing and everything will be OK? We tell them that because we want them to be decisive, ethical humans. If somebody is bullying you, do the right thing. Tell him to stop. And if he won’t, tell your parents and your teacher. If somebody is cheating, do the right thing. If your boyfriend is pressuring you to have sex, do the right thing. If you do the right thing, we tell them, everything will be OK. The right thing will make everything right. Right?
   No, that’s bullshit. What we don’t tell them is that doing the right thing can seem more painful than doing nothing at all. I say seem because we can’t know what would have happened if we did nothing, but we can sure second-guess ourselves. We can imagine that things would have at least turned out better. The school bully might have moved away. Or a teacher might have finally noticed and put an end to the bullying. Or maybe some other kid would step in front of that bullet and have to suffer the consequences instead. Or maybe if you just had given in a little bit, your boyfriend wouldn’t have left you.
   The fact is doing the right thing can cost a lot. You often lose something valuable, something you were trying to protect in the first place. People get even. Or they leave you. Or your faithful companion of a dozen years no longer walks by your side or greets you at the door when you come home. Doing the right thing can be really lonely.
   Yes, doing the right thing—even if you can figure out what the right thing is—doesn’t guarantee your happiness. More often than not, it just means you will suffer consequences that you might not even be able to accurately predict. Doing the right thing can be fraught with regret and second-guessing, and you will have to live with the consequences forever. The right thing might look brilliantly simple to someone who doesn’t have to actually DO anything. For the person who has to live with her actions, it can be just one more step along a path that was already bad enough—only now the consequences are locked in and there’s no going back.
   The day the vet had “the talk” with me was a rough day. I felt a sense of crisis—I was going to have to make a decision, and I needed to do it soon. I needed to do the right thing.  Well, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t sure. In fact, I was pretty sure it wasn’t time yet, but I didn’t trust myself to do what was best for Pippi and not just what I wanted.
   That night someone who used to be close to me, and who used to spend a lot of time at my house, came over. As we sat on the deck, with Pippi lying beside us--when she wasn’t taking one of her frequent pee breaks--I told him what the vet had said. I was crying, of course, as I wrestled with this awful decision I didn’t want to make.
   “I don’t want to have to decide when she dies,” I sobbed. “I don’t know how to make this decision.”
   “Let’s look at both sides of it then and see if something becomes obvious,” he said. And then he blocked out the reasons why I didn’t need to make the decision now and the reasons why I should. He didn’t put any judgment on either side, just compared the situation through the lenses of two different outcomes: do it now or wait. Unfortunately, both sides came out pretty equal; the decision wasn’t obvious. In fact, it seemed just as obscure as it had before.
   “This isn’t helping,” I said. “I still don’t know what to do.” I started crying again. “I don’t want to have to make this decision. There doesn’t seem to be a right answer.”
   Even so, we both knew which way I wanted to go. Obviously, I wasn’t ready to let the vet stick a needle in Pippi and “put her to sleep.” I just couldn’t do it. And one thing seemed certain: I didn’t need to make the decision that night, but I still needed know how I would make it. Since logic didn’t work, instead he came up with a kind of rubric for me, and it was really pretty simple. He asked me three questions.
   “Is she eating well?”
   “Yes,” I said. “You know she eats every morning when I eat breakfast. And she usually gets some chicken or whatever I’ve grilled at night.”
   “OK, is she happy to see you when you come home? Is she glad to be around you?”
   “Of course,” I said. “She goes nuts when I get home. And look how she acts as soon as you walk in the door too. And she follows us everywhere, right? This is mostly a rhetorical question, isn’t it?”
   “Here’s the last question,” he said, not answering any questions for me. “Is she in pain?”
   “I don’t know.” I wanted to answer yes to the other two questions and no to this one. “She pees and pees and pees and either nothing comes out or it’s all bloody…I think she might be in pain, but don’t know. She doesn’t whine or cry or anything. The vet gave her a pretty strong anti-inflammatory though that’s supposed to help if she is…..but I don’t know.” This question had the potential to become the deal-breaker. We both stared at Pippi as if pain would glow in the dark.
   “Pippi!” he said. “Pippi, are you in pain?”
   She thumped her tail—cropped to five vertebrae like most standard poodles—against the deck, and then got up to get some pets from each of us. He even let her lick his ears, which she did with obvious joy. It was only out of pity that I allowed such a disgusting behavior to continue.
   I felt better to have these three simple questions to ask. It seemed like what they call in the 12-step programs an unmanageable situation. I’ve asked myself those questions a hundred times since that night and it’s still question number three that I can’t answer.  I think maybe she is in pain, but she doesn’t cry and she doesn’t act tender. So far number three doesn’t override numbers one and two, but I do worry about doing the right thing if  the situation becomes unmanageable. If her pain becomes unmanageable. If living with a dog who can’t control her bladder and needs to wear diapers becomes unmanageable. Or even if the cost of the drugs—which doubled within a month—becomes unmanageable. Although there’s a difference between unmanageable and inconvenient, the lines become awfully blurry when you’re the one who has to do the right thing.
   He had one more thing to say though. He said, “It seems pretty obvious that you don’t have to make this decision right now. But you will have to do it in the future and you’ll have to be strong then. She loves you, but she also knows how much you love her. You’ve taken care of her most of her life, and she trusts you to do the right thing for her when the time comes. You owe her that for her loyalty and companionship. You owe her that because you love her and she loves you.”
   Well, shit. I cried some more. And I didn’t make the decision that night. Nor did I make it after my conversation at the Sidebar a couple of weeks ago. I just waited. Yes, the diapers are disgusting—really awful sometimes. And it’s heartbreaking to watch Pippi squat and pee a few drops of blood and then do it again and pee nothing because she never feels relief from the pressure. Anybody who’s had a bladder infection knows that feeling. Sometimes when we’re walking she has to stop and wait for some feeling to pass before she goes on, and I wonder how uncomfortable she is the rest of the time.
   I still ask myself those three questions though, and the answers to numbers one and two still trump the answer to number three—even though I’m more sure now that often she’s in pain.  I don’t really know if I’m making the right choice. It’s like a lot of back-against-the-wall decisions. If you wait, you have to watch the decline, the pain, the slow death and know you could do something about it—you could help, damn it--but you don’t have the surety, or maybe you don’t have the courage. Other people can see what you should do, but you just can’t do it.
   Or you can “do the right thing,” but you’ll still live with the consequences of not only losing someone you love, but also of always knowing that you were the one who did that thing. You did it.  You. And you can’t really ever know if it was the right thing…or if it was just wrong and nothing will ever be the same because you fucked up. And even if it was the only right thing, that doesn't mean you will easily live with the outcome.
   My experience with doing the right thing hasn’t always been so happy. What I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how kind, how funny, how compassionate, how loving, or even how certain you’re right. It’s not who you are or what you’ve given of yourself in the past that matters. It’s that one final act of “doing the right thing” that trumps everything else. It’s all that matters. And it won’t matter how many people tell you it was “the right thing, and you had to do it. Somebody had to do it!” It doesn’t matter because they won’t have to live with the same consequences you will. They won’t have to live with the sleepless nights when you lie awake and wonder what you could have done better. They won’t have to imagine someone looking at them and saying, “How could you do that to me? I thought you loved me. I trusted you.”
   It’s small comfort to reply, “I thought I was doing the right thing. The other options seemed even worse. I was trying to….I was just trying to do the right thing.”
   Once the deed is done, there’s all the rest of time to second guess whether the right thing was really the right thing or not. So I wait. People tell me I’ll know when it’s time. I hope they’re right.