Monday, September 1, 2014

Fireman Powell

My wife and were married for twelve years- we hadn’t even entertained the notion of kids; those were the limiting things that kept you from possibly, considering the accomplishment of your dreams- in fellow dink company-‘ pariahs”.  As we aged and about the twelve year mark we observed the erratically eccentric behavior of  a childless Uncle and Aunt; moving about the globe, amassing and dumping collections (once the requisite amassment level was reached) and moving on to the procuring of next said collection—the filling of some void so apparent to my wife and I and so unaware to them. Comparing and contrasting that Uncle and Aunt to every other relation on either side of the families resulted in our decision to get pregnant.  We deduced that evidently children must keep you grounded and somewhat relative (not in the familial sense but in the familiar sense).
A year or so later our daughter was born and about four years after we added  her brother Powell to her world.
I tucked Powell into bed tonight, reading him a chapter (and he was so bummed it was only one chapter) from ‘Captain Underpants’
I kissed him goodnight and walked out of his room to turn off the tv in the family room and we all overheard a story about an Idaho man and his co-worker drowning or suffocating in the sewers of NY or DC (I missed the exact details). I mentioned “That’s why you guys need to go to college- so you get a good job and don’t drown as a sewer worker or fireman (alluding to my drowning in 2008.)
Powell though quipped up and said, “You went to college and you’re a fireman.”
My slow-witted brain mustered its best response, “If you want to be a fireman there are a lot better places buddy.” I thought of my potential retirement plans, moving to the Washington coast, either Puget Sound or the San Juan Islands. “What if we move? What if Mommy and Daddy and Gabriel move to Washington and live on a boat. You could be a Firefighter out there, maybe even on a fireboat; wouldn’t that be cool?’
He shook his head and said “ I want to do it here.”
“Why here?” I asked.
“This is where I’m from.” He said. There is no clearer ethos than that of a seven year old—they don’t have the biases and the rest, the rest of us have.
“There are places that do it better.  How about I help you find the best fire department in the country and you work for them and I move there with Mommy and Gabriel and we can see you all the time?”
"I’m from here Dad.”
“I love you son, but I think you’re going to break my heart every day of my life.” He has that perfect heart—that one that feels—that feels the rest of the hearts around him and hurts when those hearts hurt, that perfect heart—that poet’s heart that has to be protected-that can’t come into contact with all the hurt a firefighter feels—that level of hurt that would break a perfect heart.
I told him about better departments- departments with better staffing—with more firefighters per engine and departments with less politics—with better chief officers, but he wasn’t discouraged and I’ve never been prouder and I’ve never cried for a child as hard.  I’m proud of my profession and my ascension to Captain and I’m privileged to work with my two best friends and I love that we help people, and I love that kids wave at us and women wink past their boyfriends and husbands as we drive by; but I want my son to do something else.  In the span of a career a firefighter sees a lot; a dozen plus dead people a year equate to hundreds of dead people in a career. The intriguingly ugly side of life: gunshots, suicides, child abuse, rape, loss of home and all sentimental artifacts, drowning, countless other injuries, burn victims, etc… I live with imagery I wish I could lose; I drowned on a training dive—was resuscitated and dealt with PTSD for two years after. Prior to the fire service I hardened my heart in the crucible of the Marine Corps and annealed it in the forge of Force Recon. I’ve spent my lifetime since trying to recover that pure, beautiful boyish heart that was—that heart my son possesses. Many nights I can’t sleep and walk in front of my station, above Boise- I can look out and see most of my district and realize that while I’m on duty I’m responsible for the people of my district—thousands of people—for them and their property. If they fall down the stairs, suffer a heart attack, if their house catches fire or their child chokes or seizes—I am responsible. I want my son to be a dirt-bag, a tramp, to just enjoy life—but I want him to be his own—I hurt for him everyday—he is who I once was and will never be again—and I miss that innocent little boy. I miss the boy with the big dreams and the lack of reality, the one we all need to protect and keep beautiful.
I’ve spoken to him many times about that heart and what a beautiful gift it is and it shouldn’t be squandered. It is the heart most of our little boys are born with and I talked to him about it. I laid my hand on his perfect, athletic, pure seven year old chest and I told him what a beautiful gift resided under my hand. Did I mention the kid can’t wear a shirt outside of school so I had direct contact.
“This heart of yours is so pure and so beautiful buddy- you can feel what other people feel and if you start clogging that up maybe you won’t feel.” But as I talked I realized I was arguing against myself- this is who a firefighter should be—he should be someone who can feel- who experiences the hurt and can therefore render the best aid but he has to disassociate the hurt and compartmentalize it and save it for later and this isn’t addressed- this results in the PTSD, in drinking, in high risk behavior, in too much hockey, in divorce. I want my son to be beautiful and nothing is more beautiful than helping other human beings when they’re suffering and have no options—nothing is more beautiful but I don’t want him to suffer the consequences of sacrificing that beauty for the dark cost that rends the soul. His heart is too perfect, but it is so perfect that regardless of everything he’s seen- Dad drinking too much, railing against one-bullshit policy or another or a fight between Mom and Dad. Whenever he sees a Boise Fire Engine roll by with lights and sirens he sees good and he sees right and he wants to take care of his people, his neighbors—nothing could make a firefighter prouder and nothing could make a father more desolate.
I love you Powell.

Friday, January 24, 2014


Well almost, next Thursday on January 30th our little miracle boy will be one year old.
This last year and a half has felt like a decade but we are slogging through. The last blog entry was in July just before school started; kindergarten for Powell, Isabella in fourth grade and Earle's second semester of graduate school, the whirlwind increased in tempo.

 July 27 we celebrated Powell's 6th birthday. Beth made him a mombo cool Batman cookie, he played at Planet Kid with his buddies and received his first big boy bike!

In early August, Isabella journeyed to Yellowstone with Grandma and Grandpa Swope and cousin Jacqui so we took the boys to McCall.

 Gabriel enjoyed some sailing and sun bathing.

Beth took some cool photos of Powell.

I manipulated the contrast of one photo and transferred the image to a piece of pine.

I then created a woodblock and printed a woodcut in the style of Edvard Munch.

 And since life always segues so thematically perfect Beth took the kids on a Boise River float (Dad and G ran shuttle).

They stopped and checked out the cool 'stone boys' garden near BSU.

Isabella is obviously ready to get started on her first dig.

Over the summer I read 'Metamorphosis" by Franz Kafka so of course I found his likeliness spray painted on a garage in Boise.
I love Boise, as soon as you label and categorize it, it surprises the hell out of you. So here's the gauntlet; comment on this blog with your City's Kafka renditions and references. GO BOISE!!!

 Beth continued her aquatic theme taking the kids to the aquarium.
At Costco Powell discovered his most personally appropriate size of Nutella!

Oh yes, my big brother was right, they can bottle happiness and joy!

Isabella took photos of Gabriel's first lawn feel.

Back to school!

The Boise ballon festival is always fun, especially when a ballon lands across the street from your house.

And then gives every neighborhood kid a ride

The kids had a blast going for rides.
The entire neighborhood helped the balloon crew pack up and load the balloon. They just laid the balloon down in the intersection and shut down the street for about fifteen minutes and most all people stopped and watched. Have I mentioned what a cool City this place is?

I had worked in my studio a bit during our break between the two surgeries and came up with this piece working my way through everything I felt regarding Gabriel.

I created a 2d consisting of lots of visual language describing his condition and the emotional impact of the surgeries. Overlaid on top of this work is a chalked rendition of a derivative heart shaped death/life mask. The entire piece was slathered with acrylic caulking.

After the caulking had dried clear I spent countless hours wetting and hand rubbing the paper away. The result is the paint embedded in the caulking.
5 Months of Baby Bottles
He is now on only three medications; enalapril, furosemide (lasix) and baby aspirin.

Gabriel definitely influenced my work this year, in printmaking I created a tribute piece to our esteemed cardiologist Dooley Womack.

The press and the linoleum block inked and ready to print the first color.

The rest of my semester's work and other art is viewable at Earle's art blog. It was nice being back in school but the semester was pretty rough with all of the stressors and a rather adversarial committee, 'adversarial' might be not be the best term to use, maybe 'strained communication'? 
 I do need to credit them for irritating me enough to pushback against them which caused me to write the first half of novel. Hopefully I'll finish it up in the next few months.

Most of the fall was spent wrangling and reacting, three kids is..... whew! My Grandmother who raised nine children told us that everything after three was pretty much just more of the same (workload that is). I don't think we're going to try and personally vet her statement.

Powell's 1st day of school we rode bikes, he on his new black bike. At times I feel a little Mayberryish in Boise but then remember Opie did not have flames on his helmet!

Summer flew by; swinging, remodeling and at art in the park, Beth and Isabella flew to Florida to welcome Amelia Dixon into this world and we visited Dooley.

Fall we searched for Pumpkins with the Stansell's
and they're off... for the Washington Elementary annual jog-a-thon, they lap the school (4 blocks) as many times as they can on 20 minutes. Powell started off fast and made 5 or 6 laps, so at least a mile.

The kids carved their own pumpkins this year. Gabriel found it smashingly marvelous.

Go Broncos! (he can cheer for the family alma mater while at Stanford).

Dia de los muertos (the day of the dead) the Mexican holiday remembering those who are gone. Kind of a quirkily morbid memorial day, but fun. Center is Prodigal Cousin Amaya recently returned to Idaho!

The kids are thrilled to have Amaya back. Isabella really is I think she's just practicing her teenage face (or maybe really in character).

The nice thing about dia de los muertos for Beth and I was that we could actually get dressed up, paint our faces and show everyone what we've felt like for the last year. It was a fun evening parading through Boise with huge prints made from huge woodblocks and printed the previous week with a steamroller (sans steam).

We had a houseful of family when my Alaska cousin Erin Knoch and her husband Ed came to visit their daughter at NNU. My folks, sister, Grandma and Uncle Lindsay and Aunt Gini as well as Amaya and her parents Norma and John all stopped by.

Christmas season was kicked off by the holiday parade; shriners, fire trucks, Basque sheepherding wagons, Kelli Brown's dance class from Idaho Arts Charter school, rodeo queens, and a bemused baby boy.

Christmas season was our sicky season, three Sundays in a row saw a different child in the Dr's office. Powell started first with strep throat, we were terrified that Gabriel would come down with it and
voiced our concerns. Our normal pediatrician wasn't around so we saw the on call Doctor for the weekend who told us children under two couldn't get strep. That sounded weird but was reassuring so we took it and went home placated. The next Sunday Isabella came down with strep, a different on call Dr was in the office and told us to be careful with Gabriel so he didn't come down with it. I mentioned the under 2 bit and she said "Oh that's an urban legend. That just doesn't make sense." I agreed with her especially the bit about it not making sense but did mention she might want to get the group's Doctors together and go over which urban legends were acceptable to promote, just for consistency's sake. The third Sunday Gabriel came down with what must have been the flu stacked on top of an ear infection and possibly a sinus infection. It was miserable, he was inconsolable, his body wracked with pain and suffering a soaring fever. One night was so bad we deliberated taking him to the ER as his fever spiked occasionally up to a 103 degrees F. It would spike and ebb and we would decide not to go and it would spike and we would pack-up to take him to the ER and it would ebb. It was a long night.

Festival of trees.

Beth cooked her own gingerbread to build a gingerbread house. Two out of three of the kids were excited to decorate the tree.

Gabriel just wanted a cookie and left alone Pardner!
 Followed by the clean-up bath.

The kids Christmas concert was terrific. Powell was dressed quite handsomely, picking out every part of his ensemble himself. Isabella literally wore out one Santa hat, I delivered a new one  just prior to showtime. Powell was the only 'Rudolph' in character.

Isabella's Girl Scout Troop caroled at the Idaho Botanical Gardens, Powell threw snowballs with another little brother and we raced home to meet Grandparents and friends and drive to the Basque Center.
Gabriel was the primary beneficiary and honored guest of the Basque Charity Foundation nominated by some good soul who shall go nameless but that might have given birth to a Cousin of mine that previously worked at Stanford University. The Basque newsletter carried her full recommendation. The evening was incredible. A sheep is brought into the hall and auctioned off many, many times. People bid several hundred dollars, win the sheep, donate the sheep back and someone else bids and the cycle repeats over and over. In the end they raised almost twenty thousand dollars. My buddy, Rich watching the process commented, "This is awesome.  I don't want to be Italian anymore I want to be Basque. These people are wonderful." The foundation pays bills directly, luckily due to my insurance covering most of our bills we can't use all of the funds raised so they will be able to help some other folks out. We've submitted our last outstanding bills to the foundation and are so grateful for yet another layer of support; the entire Basque Community.
Eskerrik asko.

Christmas Eve was spent at our house with family. Dad read the Christmas story and Gabriel loved the obstacle course. It's hard to imagine how fast this kid would be with a full heart, well maybe not- he'd be Powell.

Christmas Day the families joined 
myself and compadres Rich and Dana for dinner at the Firehouse. Since this is a somewhat family oriented blog I can't show the back side of Rich's outfit.

January 1 we spent the day with my Aunt Janie at her farm, checking out hours old lambs, eating good food and chatting with interesting people. No TV so I had to rely on periodic text updates from Amaya regarding the Rosebowl. Stanford didn't quite pull it off this year but hey two Rosebowls in two years is hard to complain about. And if they did have to lose, well Michigan State isn't too bad to lose to, a lot better than Michigan. I've come to love the State of Michigan after visiting it several years ago, but I have a good buddy from Ohio. A requisite component of Ohio State person friendship is hatred of or at least no support of anything related to the University of Michigan. Another kudos to the Stanford athletic system is the lack of any of their players pissing anywhere in public. Good show!

Gabriel's pulling himself to standing, crawling, climbing stairs and gnawing everything he can get in between his four teeth.

A year out and things are so much better, we realize how fortunate we are but still have tough days. We are so blessed to have this little guy in our life and are thankful daily. A wonderful side bar to all of this is realizing how large our support network is and how many wonderful friends we have. Beth and I have spoken several times about how impossible this would have been without all of you there to buoy us up along the way; the cards, phone calls, gifts, texts, messages, prayers and thoughts have been vital to our survival. I think both of us would have cracked without it and we came close multiple times with it. Beth has found additional support from two Mother's of cardiac kids internet support groups; sisters-by-heart and another private heart group of Mom's-a-venting, suffering and rejoicing group that you can only access if you have one of these beautiful little people. Both are wonderful groups that share information and give hope but temper that hope with the reality of what can occur. Just the other day a Mom posted her two year old had suffered heart failure and was now awaiting a heart transplant, his story was so similar to Gabriel's we couldn't believe he was doing poorly. The sites also validate how Mom feels. Stanford told Beth that mothers are actually post-partum for a year after delivery. We have heard that can be extended with difficulties like Gabriel, obstacles that do not allow Mom to confront what is occurring, basically PTSD. Transferred emotional trauma that cannot be processed the way it is supposed to be processed. She reads from multiple other Mothers that regardless of the age of their cardiac baby they grieve every day,  e-v-e-r-y-s-i-n-g-l-e-d-a-y. Every day they suffer, they blame themselves, they assign guilt, they cry, they chastise their womb, they hate themselves for feeling guilty about their child, their gift and realize they are horrible Mothers for feeling the way they do. I'm a male. The older I get the more I think we probably possess about 10% of the emotions and love that females do. Men can hit harder and smash more ferociously and at times not be assholes but our levels of parental compassion are often deficit. We do not create life, we do not carry life, we do not birth life. We do not have the bonds, which is why we so often walk away. We have no responsibility, we are devoid of real ethics but we are the ones who espouse ethics and morality the loudest, but I digress.

I cannot imagine how difficult it is to be the mother of a baby with half a heart.

I am so sorry for all the times I am not understanding, for the times I'm short, rude or a complete asshole.

Those times are often. 

Little boy and a big dog, our lab/chesapeake Choco.

Some days we look at him and think of him as a normal little boy, we don't dwell on his condition nor think of his impending third surgery. 
We just thnk of \hi as te normal little tyrant--= pre]s\sing additioonal\ keys on your comp\ut\r,crying when you stop him and just eng a generally obnoxious litle \ critter. 
So you stop and hold him and finish typing one handed.
Other days you change his diaper or bathe him or change his shirt or change his PJ's and you see the scars. The vertical 'zipper' on his sternum and all the little 'disks,' the puncture wounds caused by the drainage tubes and RA lines.  Those days you realize what a beautiful little gift he is, a gorgeous gift you don't deserve. Putting things in a comparative global and historical context you realize he doesn't deserve to be alive, the odds of him living are on par with winning the lottery. So we don't know what tomorrow or next week or a couple of years will bring; so we spoil the boy.