THIS IS THE DAY OF THE EXPANDING MAN

I woke up on September 3rd to the news of Walter Becker’s death. Steely Dan had been a huge part of my childhood, and of my father’s identity. As a kid, riding in the car with my dad, I was ordered to listen to the lyrics to Steely Dan songs as though they were important lectures or sermons.I can identify the single note in “Do It Again” during which Donald Fagen became visible, entering the stage, the first time we saw Steely Dan live, and can remember my dad whooping with admiration.

It had been a strange coincidence when Leon Russell died so shortly after my dad did, but that death was also instrumental in processing my father’s death. Leon’s death had guided me through the actual sadness and loss of grieving that my father’s death had not provided. I didn’t need Walter Becker’s death for anything; it was an unacceptable loss.

It took me a few hours to realize we had, intentionally, decided NOT to go to the last concert Steely Dan had had here (which was with Elvis Costello. I really can’t believe we missed this.) That was it; I had blown it; I had made a Steely Dan fan out of Tucker and we were never going to see them live. Tucker said that having missed that concert was pretty much the first thing he had thought of when he heard about Becker’s death. I felt awful.

The death of Grant Hart was a sucker punch and the loss of the voice that I had clung to almost exclusively in 1990, the year that my parents had separated. I was able to spend that day with musichead friends, to whom I did not have to explain my disbelief and sense of loss, but September 2017 was turning into a really long month. And we were well into it before I remembered that the actual first anniversary of my dad’s death was also on the calendar.

Last year, we had had our pet rat, Pocket, put to sleep on September 13th, because we were sure he was going to die soon and we were afraid he would do it on Béla’s birthday. But I had not equated the anniversary of my dad’s death with being “a week after Béla’s birthday”, because on Béla’s birthday last year, we still had no idea my father was so close to death. Once I recognized that the date was coming, I started to feel it. In the economical euphemism used by Tuck’s twin years ago, I picked up a “speed wobble”, my coping mechanisms steadily breaking away.

And somehow, Béla’s birthday on Friday was probably one of the most enjoyable kid birthdays I have experienced between the two of my children. The pressure I’d felt to be “okay” for his birthday was completely removed the night before by a friend who reassured me that no matter what I did or didn’t feel up to, the kid would get over it and I still needed to take care of myself. This was enormously helpful. We got up late (we often get up pretty late on homeschool days), and decided that even though Tuck and Ben were out to work and school, Béla would open his “big” gift right then: it was a red Yamaha keytar, and he loved it. We played with a new-to-us modelling compound called Sugru. We listened to a lot of amateur keytar-playing. Ben picked up Claudia so she could follow through on a midday shopping trip for her brother, coming home with something with which he was delighted, and none of us would have known to get him. Ben took the kids plus one good friend to Dave and Buster’s for about three hours in the early evening — something that would have been misery for Tucker and for me, and we weren’t missed. We had ice cream cake at home that night, no candles, no singing — Béla-style. (And exactly like my dad.) It was a good day.

We have, very slowly, since the beginning of the summer, been making changes to the house. Two bedrooms are switching owners, two multipurpose rooms are switching purposes. New beds, hopefully good enough to make it to the teen years, have been ordered, and in Claudia’s case, assembled. I have been able to fund much of this with the money from the sale of my father’s home in Bucks County. Doing brain transplants in the rooms of your own house can be harder than moving into a new house altogether. There are no empty rooms. It’s like a sliding-tile puzzle. And it has been this way for months, with various kids sleeping on various floors waiting for the paint fumes to subside, insisting on having the soundtrack to Hamilton playing all night long. Everyone and everything has felt a little displaced.

But in the last month, I’ve been socializing more than I have in a year — since my dad died, since we began homeschooling — and for that I am really grateful. I am still far from up to speed on self-care but I’m working on it, and not punishing myself too much for not doing the best job. The kids are doing great educationally and having a lot of fun, and have made really nice new friends. Grad school for Tucker has been a huge transition and I miss him being at main campus, and miss his faculty and advisors. He says that the med school has a “Drexel vibe” and is happy.

On September 3rd, the day that Walter Becker died, Ben and I had driven the kids to Germantown for what is, this fall, a Sunday full of homeschool activities. Because I felt such a seismic shift due to Becker’s death,  I took two direct actions towards life changes for myself that day. One is likely to be the most significant long-term change for our family since Tucker became a part of our household. It continues to unfold with the same sense of slightly-out-of-control Fate that Tuck’s arrival did, and I’m just riding it. The other one, I have to get to work on myself. It is the first anniversary of my father’s death, and that means it is basically Halloween season, which means it’s also pre-Every Favorite Holiday season, and Parade season, and that gives me a lot to look forward to.

THIS IS THE DAY OF THE EXPANDING MAN

LET’S SCIENCE

Students in the College of Medicine had to, during orientation, have their portraits taken in lab coats. While most used a lab coat from the school as a loaner for the picture, Tucker brought a lab coat with him; my father’s.

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I did not expect to love the picture so much. And I really do. It does exactly what pictures are supposed to do — it documents the growth and progress that have actually etched themselves into his face.

As far as I know, it’s literally just an ID photo. They had changed the date of his session on him at the last minute, and he had to rush home and shave; circumstances for a good photo were not prime.

But he just looks so ready.

I texted the image to Claudia today after Tuck had sent it to me; her commentary is as good as the picture itself.

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I’m sure my dad would just be happy his lab coat was getting use by someone who wanted to be in it.

 

LET’S SCIENCE

Bare Necessities

Today marks the day the 4th anniversary of when I ‘came out of the box’ – the day on which I began to have a drastic shift in emotional awareness, clarity, and a lasting change in my affect. I could not have identified that the box was there beforehand, but even relative strangers to me at that time had recognized that something big had shifted in me, and I was no longer as ‘cold’ & ‘aloof’. As time has unfolded since, I have gained perspective about the box, what it was & why it got there.

 

For no reason in particular a song from my childhood popped into my head recently. It was a triplet from the Bare Necessities in the animated version of The Jungle Book.

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife

The song essentially is Baloo’s way of guiding Mowgli toward accepting poor circumstances and to be more open about going with the flow. It is a familiar sort of notion to me, one that I had undoubtedly carried a long time.

This notion – of passive acceptance of shitty situations – is a significant part of the coping mechanisms that created the box.

I had ‘accepted’ my mother’s dying and death in real time, at the expense of really dealing with anything for years. But no bereavement counseling was provided anyway, and I continued on from that experience in an environment where addressing the way I felt would have led to nothing. Denial and revisionism kept the truth at bay, though the closest it probably had come was when one brother had remarked that “She was a very complex person” in response to my sister’s feelings.

In the face of the immediate, physical bigger struggles – food insecurity, late rent, utilities being shut off – there wasn’t a space for dealing with death. Moving houses. New school. So on. Suppressing those other feelings, and entering a sort of emotional maroonment, was how the box manifested. To cope with deficiency in my daily life, I might convince myself that I needed less. My box filtered out all but the bare necessities, and sometimes even more.

But today is the anniversary of when I shed the box. That day when, having become vested in a new, nurturing & secure home environment, and faced with a challenging situation that called on me to be emotionally supportive in a way I had not ever been called to, the box lifted. The compacted layers of suppressed feelings slowly came loose over the last few years, but within the first couple days at least I had felt really happy. I was connected and in touch, and people in the house thought maybe something was wrong with me. I hadn’t gotten out of the box on my own, but precisely because my best friend needed me.

These days I am a lot more interested in bear necessities. And sloths 🙂

Bare Necessities

GRADUATE/STUDENT

I expected myself to have come up with something to say by now about the fact that Tucker graduated from college in June, but so much happened almost immediately following it (a bad concussion for Béla, a week in Woodstock, NY for everybody), that I never got to it.

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Tucker graduated with Honors with Distinction, and was the only member of his elite graduating class to graduate Summa Cum Laude.

We are particularly grateful to Tuck’s undergraduate advisor in the Custom-Designed Major Program of the Pennoni Honors College, Kevin Egan. That FERPA waiver wasn’t for nothing, and between the applications to graduate programs and the last term at Drexel, not to mention his Senior Capstone Project some of those classic ASD executive function shortcomings were kicking in for Tuck, and Ben was checking in with his faculty mentors, with some very specific checklists, pretty regularly. As you can see Kevin’s big smile in the photo above, so can you recognize it in silhouetted profile at Tuck’s Capstone presentation. His support is one of the many things we will miss about Drexel’s undergraduate program. We could not be happier that Tucker is staying within the Drexel system; this is a place where he is understood and valued.

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Tuck’s graduation events were spread out over two days and he kept things — from his guests, to what graduation-related decor I was allowed to put in our front window, to what he wanted to do after the ceremony (which was: get a shrimp cocktail tray, like one would get for a party, but not go to or have a party, and just eat the shrimp at home) — the way he wanted them.

 

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More valuable than the medals or accolades is the fact that in the month since he graduated, Tuck’s had no dark circles under his eyes, and has had literally glowing skin — he is less stressed, and has had more free time, than in the last four years. In Woodstock he was able to spend hours upon hours doing jigsaw and logic puzzles.

He begins in the neurorobotics lab that he will be starting his first rotation in for grad school this week. I will miss having him at home so much. We all will.

We tried to take his ID photos for grad school today.

We will try that again tomorrow.

GRADUATE/STUDENT

WE INTERRUPT THE METICULOUS POSTMORTEMS OF OUR CHALLENGING PASTS WITH NEWS OF INCREDIBLY BRIGHT FUTURES

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Tucker has been accepted to the MS Neuroscience program at Drexel Med (DUCOM). He will working in a neuro-robotics lab.

His course work counts directly towards his PhD.

He’s relieved and happy. We’re relieved and happy. This is special and it fits him perfectly.

We have been waiting for this day since September. tuck took his GRE on the day before my dad died. We are literally breathing for the first time since September 21. This was the final hurdle we were waiting out. I don’t care if the afterglow only lasts tonight. It’s definitely on.

We will be marching in the March for Science this Saturday with a lot of pride.


There’s a lot to write about how executive functioning deficits — and our own preoccupation with my dad’s death, his estate, and the death last week of my friend Matthew, all contributed to us not watching as carefully as we could as Tuck made decisions about where he would apply, and that could have gone pretty badly for everybody. We caught it, and it didn’t. More on that at another time.

We already had milkshakes waiting for the kids when they came in from the playground, but of course Claudia was ready to one-up Tucker… she’d found a FIFTY dollar bill.

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Congrats…. to TUCKER.

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WE INTERRUPT THE METICULOUS POSTMORTEMS OF OUR CHALLENGING PASTS WITH NEWS OF INCREDIBLY BRIGHT FUTURES