Ode to Toro

It’s with heaviness in my heart that I tell you about the passing of my dear friend, Toro. My long-snouted companion of 19+ years passed relatively quickly, though not without pain. The grim reaper’s presence was signaled by an unusual grinding and metallic coughing, followed by hiccups and stammering, topped off by a little puff of air and finished with the big kaput.

Goodbye my favorite leaf blower.

His last, pitiful little puff was nothing like the strong wind he was known for in his heyday. He had gone from gale force to barely a breeze in a matter of seconds.

I left the beaten-up old guy splayed out on the deck, right where he was, in hopes that my mechanically-gifted husband might conjure a way to resuscitate him.

When Frank arrived home, I ushered him to where Toro lay helpless, his nose cone still proudly hanging on by the duct tape I had put in place years before. Without any to-do, Frank calmly, and with a surprising lack of emotion, pronounced my Toro dead. Then he threw him in the trash.

“That’s it?” I asked, following him into the house. “You’re not even going to fiddle with it?” He was the king of fiddling.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he said all matter of fact, like a detached surgeon relaying the facts to the shocked family. And with that, my favorite outdoor assistant was gone.

One of the most beautiful features of our old Atlanta neighborhood is the statuesque, mature trees. Our home is surrounded by a canopy of leafy oaks and poplars. The big guys drop enough leaves, acorns and assorted stuff to keep the yard covered, and the Toro busy, seemingly year round.

I bonded with Toro during the nesting phase of my first pregnancy. It was a rock-solid bond that only grew deeper with my second pregnancy and even deeper with my third. Growing a baby is no swift process, so the immediate satisfaction of clearing a leaf-strewn porch, driveway or deck brought me immense, clean, happy, happy, joy.

Shockingly, I have a couple friends who claim there should be a noise ordinance against the peaceful hum of a leaf blower. I still love them, despite their blasphemy. To me, it’s a lovely sound of progress and productivity.

Over the years, Toro saved me from more than messes. He saved the kids from untold accidents, what with the acorns dropping like marbles on the driveway that’s basically an all-sport court for running, scootering, rip-sticking, basketball and anything else you really shouldn’t do on marbles.

Then there was the incident with the snake.

I was working on the back porch, about to pick Emma up from preschool, when I spied the creepiest of all creepies, right there in front of her playhouse. Now don’t go all reptile rights on me, I know they do some good things, like eat yucky vermin in their quest to overcome the whole Biblical, Satan snafu. But still, they were cursed to be our enemy, so my enemy it was.

When I spotted the cold-blooded killer coiled like a cobra right there on the threshold of Emma’s plastic palace, I thought quickly and did what any brave soul would do — I grabbed my Toro. With my heart pounding I plugged in my loyal friend and together we blew that snake to kingdom come, which, in this case, was located at the end of our driveway (determined by the length of my extension cord). The knotted-up, dizzy snake lay in shock, the victim of Toro’s full-throttle power unleashed. It was a beautiful moment.

So goodbye to my trusted compadre. So long you forceful breath of fresh air. Thank you for always giving it your all, until your all was all gone.

The Sunday Miracles

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A few weeks ago, in the middle of a sunny, almost-warm early March day, Alex walked into the kitchen and uttered these shocking words. “Hey, do you want to go on a walk with me?”

This wouldn’t be remarkable for any reason, except for the fact that he’s 17. And given that he’s now a driving, almost adult, I see the mailman (excuse me, the mail carrier) more predictably than I see my son.

I looked around the kitchen to be sure one of his friends hadn’t snuck in behind me, but it indeed appeared that he was speaking to me. It wasn’t necessarily the most convenient time to go for a walk. I was attempting a baking feat, which was ambitious from the start, but when your 17 year old asks you to go on a walk, you drop everything and go.

I wondered if he had anything earth shattering to tell me, but he didn’t. I wondered if I should use the moment to impart lifelong lessons, but I didn’t. Instead, we just walked up to the shops that are a few blocks from the house. He had a gift certificate he was ready to cash in, so there was a destination to the excursion. He spent his gift card and we leisurely strolled through some of the newer shops I haven’t had a chance to visit. We talked about nothing in particular — just little things of no individual significance. But collectively, they added up to mean the world to me. When we got home, he even thanked me for going. Since he wasn’t feverish, I claimed it as the only thing it could be: A Sunday miracle.

Okay, so it wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea. But if you don’t have a 17 year old, here are a couple of simple truths I didn’t see coming:

1. They are their own independent people, with busy schedules — whether it’s social, sports or school, they have their own, real life — with places to be and people to see. And over time Mom’s role gets downsized. One day you’re the star in his show, then suddenly you’re lucky if you get a bit part. If there was playbill for Alex’s past year, my role would be listed at the bottom as, “line cook.”

2. Once they can drive, just wave goodbye. When they are dependent upon you for taxiing, those quick trips from point A to B to C and back again, are actually critical connection points. These are the little windows that give you an inside look at what’s going on. Now that Alex is his own shuttle service, well, those connection points are gone. Gone, as in, “here are your car keys, now drive away with my heart.”

I wasn’t prepared for this. I was actually thrilled that he worked so hard and saved his money for to pay for half a car. (We sprung for the other half, because driving around in half a car would be so awkward.) He has worked for the past three summers and by the time he was 16, had saved way more cash than I had accumulated into my mid 20s.

But regardless of how they arrive at their first set of wheels, it will become a vehicle that clearly furthers the process of letting them go — both literally and figuratively.

So here we are, halfway through Alex’s final semester in high school. In a few short months, my kid will be off to the University of Georgia. Of course, this is wrought with its own excitement, joy, pride, anxiety, sleepless nights, ifs, ands and buts. His role in our family is huge – he’s our firstborn, with two siblings that look up to him, even though they don’t act like it. And he’s the first to leave the nest.

Suffice it to say, I’m feeling sentimentally fragile these days. It’s unknown, even to me, when the emotional pangs will hit — the spontaneously welling of tears that I try quickly to shut down. Along with wearing sunglasses a lot, I’m trying to avoid known triggers, like thinking this is his last (insert event here) at home, looking at our digital photo frame, chock full of little Alex shots, and, of course, Alan Jackson songs.

So I held on to the sunny, warm memory of our Sunday walk throughout the next week. As the following Sunday rolled around, I loitered around the house and found many excuses to hover near his doorway, you know, just waiting to see if a second miracle might occur. As the afternoon ticked along, I took the ball into my own hands, peeked into his room and asked him oh-so casually, “Hey, you want to go play some tennis?” I turned to leave sure his head wouldn’t even lift from his snap chatting endeavors, as he muttered, “Nah.” Instead, he replied with a simple, “Sure.”

Ah, a second Sunday miracle.

I’m pretty certain one can get too pushy with the miraculous. So I was all set to revel in the joy of the past two weeks, when out of the blue the very next Sunday, Alex asked me — just me, no begging sister, no brother or dad allowed — to go to lunch after church. And here’s the kicker: He paid.

This marked the third miraculous Sunday moment in a row. And this past Sunday was Easter, so make that four.

I hesitate to even put it in writing, but could it be that my son is feeling a slight bit sentimental about his impending departure? Could it be that he is feeling the heavy tug as well? I will never ask, but I will take it. And I will hold on to it, ever grateful for his letting me in as I struggle to let him go.

And, of course, I’ll keep my Sunday’s open.

The ink link.

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“Mom, do they have bathrooms in Heaven?” Ben asked when he was 6, with a look of thoughtful concern. I stood stumped, with raised eyebrows, wearing my hmm-I’m-completely-at-a-loss face.

Fortunately, rescue came quick as Ben’s wise older brother Alex weighed in with a beautiful blend of theology and logic. “Ben…” he said emphatically, “your body doesn’t go to heaven. Your soul goes to heaven and your soul doesn’t have privates.”

Uh huh. What he said.

It’s been a number of years since that exchange occurred. But I remember it perfectly. Mainly because I write everything down. I’m not sure why, other than I read somewhere that it was a good idea. And guess what? It is a good idea. Especially since I can’t seem to remember where I left my keys a minute ago, jotting down the interesting things my kids say helps me remember these moments like they just happened.

I’ve got a basket full of memories scratched on napkins, ripped corners of scrap paper, receipts, you name it. From Alex asking “Who made God?” to Emma, when she was a preschooler, asking how the person working at the drive-thru fits into the speaker box, I drop the new quote into my designated basket then eventually get around to adding each one to my on-going Word document. There’s really no big point in doing this, other than the smile it brings me when I scroll down the page every now and then. That, and of course it’ll be great fun to share with their fiancées one of these days.

What I conclude as I scan over my master list of quotes is that childhood is an adorable time, when everything is black and white, but full of color.

One of my favorite entrees happened one October when Ben was in first grade. He was still absorbed in a long-running cowboy phase, wearing his Tony Llamas with everything, including shorts throughout the summer. He’d even been known to sport his leather vest and chaps out in the backyard taming the Wild West in the middle of our urban-lot-sized ponderosa. And Church? Every Sunday he attended in his standard garb: boots, Western shirt, khakis, and rodeo belt — complete with the apropos oversized silver buckle.

On this particular morning, the Sunday school teacher was going around the circle of kids, asking what they were going to be for Halloween. It was my week to be a helper, so as I sat on the carpet behind the children, I overheard Ben’s friend Katie quietly say to him, “I know what you’re going to be for Halloween.”

“What?” Ben asked, skeptically.

“A cowboy,” she replied knowingly.

“Huh?” Ben said, glancing down at his big ‘ole buckle and boots then back at her like she was obviously, apparently, 100%, completely blind. “I am a cowboy,” he replied. “I’m going to be a Power Ranger.”

Silly girl.

Yes, one can glean a lot about children by listening to their quips. Here are a few things I picked up on recently after scanning my sheet of memories.

  1. Children are observant. Living in a metro area, we have our share of panhandlers. One afternoon, when Alex was in third grade, there was a man standing on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign that read “Homeless Vet.” “Look Mom,” Alex said, “there’s a homeless veterinarian.”
  2. Little guys know when to throw in the towel. When Alex was 7, he was upset because his allotted TV time had come to an end. Ben, who was 4 at the time, took it upon himself to rid his brother of his deep sadness. Ben’s happy-making repertoire included classic face-making tricks, like sticking both thumbs in his ears and wiggling his fingers while waggling his tongue at the same time. But after an exhausting number of tries, he walked over to me and threw his hands in the air like a miniature prosecuting attorney. “Mom, I put all my funny faces on him and he’s STEEL sad.”
  3. Childhood is tough. Ben had just turned 6 and was enjoying the loot that came with his birthday. He was focused on the finer points of Lego architecture when he hit a snag. “Emma,” he sighed dramatically to his 2-year-old sister. “When you’re my age, you’re going to have a very difficult life…” I stopped in my tracks to overhear what could be so stressful, “…putting together Legos and stuff.”
  4. Quiet walks are great for imaginations. Alex and I were on a post-dinner walk around the block when he was 7. As we rounded the corner to home, he said, “Mom, what if the roots of all the above-ground trees were really the tops of underground trees?”
  5. Little ones are little philosophers. At the dinner table one night when my Emma was 3, she announced with a Plato-like sense of musing. “Hmm…I don’t like apples. Dramatic pause. And I don’t like sauce. Another pause. But I sure like applesauce!”
  6. Once a daredevil, always a daredevil. One morning when I was taking a shower, I had Ben (then 3) safely set up in my bedroom watching a cartoon. While I was in lathering up, I heard a shocking thud and yelled, “Ben…are you okay?” The bathroom door swung open with bravado and there he stood sporting his favorite blanket as a cape, his little fists resting on his hips. “I’m okay. I was just flying.”
  7. Kids come with a fresh perspective. As a family we were glued to the 2008 Summer Olympics. During the diving competition Ben innocently asked, “Do they get to pick what event they do, like gymnastics or swimming?” He thought the athletes might get to pick their daily activity out of hat, like an elementary school field day. Then during Sean Johnson’s gold medal performance on the beam, he looked up at me — completely blown away by her routine — and asked, “Wow! Does she just make this up as she goes along?”
  8. Little girls are mostly sugar. When Emma was 5, she woke me up one morning by climbing into my bed, using my sheet as a belay rope. She plunked her head on the pillow next to mine and asked me softly, “Mom, when we die, do we get to fly there?” “There” meaning heaven. “Fly” meaning like Tinker Bell. And her innocent question meaning I had another quote to put in ink.