Alex · Cats · Julia

A Cat and His Boy, Guitars and Crayons, Pennies and Quarters

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I love this picture. 

Alex is always on alert for cute cat photo opportunities.  While I was making dinner he yelled "MOM!  YOU'VE GOTTA SEE THIS!"

I yelled down something dull and stodgy like "I've got my hand in a chicken cavity – I can't go anywhere right now!"

And then Bill somehow quietly yelled to me "He's on the couch with the cat" so I washed off my hands and raced halfway down the stairs to peek.  Sure enough, Alex was on the couch with Scratchy.  So I ran back up to the kitchen, grabbed my camera, and took too pictures before Scratchy, fed up with the flash, departed.

~~~~~

On Sunday my husband and a flute player performed an hour-long concert at a local library.  They've been performing in this winter concert series a couple of years now.  It's a kind of cozy, informal affair – usually 25-30 people in attendance, with juice and store-boughten cookies after.

This year, Bill included a surprise performance by an up-and-coming young guitarist.  They performed two pieces for two guitars, and the response was quite favorable.  Of course I'm talking about Alex, who has performed for groupings of family members, and for a couple of other random people that Bill has brought in (a colleague, one of his former students, the mailman, some stressed-out woman jogging by our house…you know, pretty much ANYONE he can think of), but this was the first time in a big room with lots of strangers.

Well, Alex sat next to me through the first part of the concert and Julia sat on my lap.  Alex was pretty quiet and still, which is appropriate concert-going behavior.  Julia…well…I kept her on my lap, my arms lashed tightly around her middle.  Before we'd arrived, I'd warned her that if she couldn't behave herself then she couldn't go out to eat with everyone after the concert.  Now, I was still recovering from my bout with the green death, and going out to eat wasn't high on my list of priorities.  But getting out of the house was nice, and it's sort of become a tradition anyway, and I could always just sip club soda while everyone else eats.  We were going to Legal Seafood, so it would be heartbreaking NOT to eat, but them's the breaks.

Anyway, we're at the concert, second row over on the end in case I needed to make a quick getaway with Miss Unpredictable.  She did pretty well, actually.  But I told Bill afterward that I really didn't enjoy myself – I was a tense knot of a thing, just praying that Julia wouldn't do anything horrible.  And I guess she didn't.  Not as far as Bill was concerned, anyway. 

Far more distracting was the little boy in the front row, right on the center aisle, who started out sitting still (in fact, watching him and the little boy next to him, and tensing up every time Julia moved a fraction of an inch or leaned back to kiss me and whisper "I love you, Mama" – to which I'd hiss "Be quiet!" in that motherly way I have, I wondered despairingly if my kids were the ONLY ones in the world who couldn't sit still during their own father's hour-long concert) but eventually grew restless and bored and started rocking his body back and forth on the edge of his chair. 

At one point he got up and pantomimed something to his mother (I assume that's who she was, seated a couple seats over from him…safe…removed…) and she gave him a sweatshirt and what looked to me like fake teeth.  Maybe a set of those rubbery vampire teeth you can insert over the top row of your own front teeth?  Not sure – I was too busy crushing the breath out of my daughter to get a good look.  Anyway, the kid popped the teeth in his mouth, put on the sweatshirt, and sat.

  (I'm now thinking of that scene in "A Christmas Story" where all the kids are giggling as they assemble in class and when the teacher says "Good Morning, Class" they all shout "Good Morning, Miss Shields" or whatever her name is – with those goofy-looking fake buck teeth.  Hahaha…I've been sitting here just imagining the what if's…Bill happens to look up at the end of a piece and there's fidget-boy grinning at him with Howdy-Doody incisors on display…)  

After a while, sitting wasn't doing it for Front Row Fake Teeth Boy, so first he rocked in his chair some more, and then he started pulling his arms out of his sweatshirt sleeves and wiggling them into the body part of the sweatshirt.  I don't remember it being cold in there, but hey, everyone has a different hot/cold tolerance.  And he was a slender child – maybe his bony little hands were chilly.  Anyway, he sat there like that, armless but relatively still, until boredom crept in again and suddenly the missing hands were peeking out of the collar of his shirt, under his chin.  They'd appear there for a moment or two, then duck back out of sight…out again…in again…very entertaining, I'm sure.  And then, for variety, his hands would appear down below the hem of the sweatshirt, fingers curling around the fabric, and slowly, slowly, the sweatshirt was drawn up, up, up the back and thennnnnnnnnnnnnn…over the head.  Suddenly Scary Fake Teeth Boy's head was gone and then, like magic, it was back…the sweatshirt rolled back down his skinny little body, and the little prairie dog hands appeared again just below his chin. 

And then he did it again.  Very distracting, according to Bill.  I'm just glad I wasn't responsible for that kid's behavior. 

Well, after the Mozart was finished, suddenly Bill was talking and saying something about his son.  Oh!  I didn't realize Alex was going to play in between pieces.  Okay.  I looked at Alex, and he resembled an armadillo, all curled up in a ball on his chair.  He looked terrified.  He whispered that he didn't want to do it, but I spoke encouragingly, and Bill called him up, big smile, full of confidence. 

Alex trudged over to Bill like he was going to the gallows.  His face was frozen in a mask of resignation.  I was so proud of him for just putting one foot in front of the other, despite his stage fright.  Go, Alex!  Bill set up Alex's chair…footstool…the music…gave Alex his guitar…took up his own…and they played.  First song – "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."  He nailed it.  Second – a piece called "Gypsy." from one of his guitar books.  Again – nailed it.  I couldn't see his face – the music stand was in the way and all I could see was the top of his head.  So I don't know if his face relaxed at all once he was playing.  Not that it matters.  He played well. 

Bill had him stand up and bow, and then Alex, his face still a mask, though not such a pained mask, speed-walked back to his seat and resumed his armadillo position.  I hugged him and kissed his head and told him how well he'd done.  How cool, huh?  My little boy playing in front of about 30 strangers?  So proud of him….

Later, when dinner was winding down, Julia, kneeling on her chair, took the two halves of a broken green crayon, stuck them in her ears and looked around, smiling.  By that point I was too worn out to do much other than laugh wearily and gesticulate at Bill, who was seated opposite me, and next to Julia.  He was facing the rest of our party – five other adults – and it took a minute for him to turn and see what everyone else had already witnessed. 

There she was, in her pretty blouse and tidy braid.  Big grin.  Twinkling eyes.  Green crayons in her ears.  "Hi!  she said.  You could hear the laugh in her voice.

Shortly after that, I brought the kids home.  I sent them downstairs to watch tv, and I curled up on the loveseat in the livingroom and closed my eyes.

~~~~~

Yesterday I spent the day cleaning and doing laundry.  Julia is home on Mondays and Fridays, and it's usually hard to get anything else done on those days.  If I'm on the laptop, she wants to sit in front of me and IM gibberish to  my sister.  If I'm sewing or playing with beads and wire, she wants to do it, too.  And if I'm cooking or baking, she wants to help. 

I don't mind the assistance in the kitchen.  She's actually a good little helper when she wants to be.  But I don't want her touching the keys on my laptop all that much.  She has permission to play certain games on our desktop computer, but she doesn't always WANT to.  She also has a little pink toy laptop that has its own set of games, but still, it's not as much fun as MY laptop.  Grrr.  And if I'm using sharp things like needles and pins or wire and pliers, I really don't want her touching that stuff because she will inevitably draw blood from one of the two of us.  I bought her big beads of her own and cord to string them on…I bought her a big plastic kid needle and plastic mesh and yarn so she can stitch away to her heart's content.  But it's not enough.

So yesterday I did housework.

At one point, though, I was on the desktop computer in the music room, checking email and IMing (who else) my sister.  Julia, who had been eating every five minutes because we'd gone grocery shopping earlier and the house was filled to the ceiling with swirly yogurt and pretzels and other exciting snacks, emerged from the basement to ask for a cheese sandwich.  I doubted she was actually HUNGRY.  It was just that there was still cheese and bread that she hadn't sampled and she was trying to fill her quota.  So I told her she could have a cheese sandwich AFTER she'd picked up all the stuffed animals downstairs and put them in the brown laundrey basket.

Well. 

She felt that was an unreasonable request.

At first she just waited downstairs, perhaps imagining that I'd forget about it in no time.  She waited oh, ten minutes or so.  Then she came up the stairs and stuck her head out into the hall, where she could see me, and called "Um, Mom?  My cheese sandwich?"  (She's really NOT a teenager yet.  Honest.)  I kept typing and reminded her of the stuffed animal requirement.

Apparently I stutter.  She came into the music room and stood beside me, being her version of adorable.  This involves lifting my right hand off the mouse and then dropping it back down while I'm ACTUALLY TRYING TO DO SOMETHING.  Then she wanted to type something to Auntie.  Then she wanted a cheese sandwich.  And I had the audacity to say no again.

I don't exactly know how to describe this next part.  She kind of…stood there…reverberating in rage…saying "I waaaaaaaaaaaaant it!" which, because of the shaking thing she was doing, came out more like "I waAaAaAaAaAaAaAant it!"   Very entertaining.  I did my best not to laugh while I typed the play-by-play for my sister.  Since that wasn't working, she switched tactics.  She started talking to some invisible other person in the room.  Not talking, but more like muttering.  Angrily.  "She isn't going to give me a cheese sandwich but I don't WANT to pick up the stuffed animals all by mySELF because I WANT a snack."  There was something in there about me being the meanest mommy in the world, if I remember right, although that's been happening with increasing frequency lately, so I could be wrong.  And then – this was my favorite part – she's still talking to her silent friend – and she was also holding a plastic pair of forceps or some other sort of grippy surgical device from Alex's Diego the Animal Rescue-er medical kit (I think) and at this point in my story, she held them up, kind of looking through them at me, and told her invisible cohort "I'm gonna put a hurtin' on her." 

I am a terrible parent.  I burst out laughing.  And I told her she still needed to pick up her stuffed animals if she wanted a cheese sandwich. 

Alas, the fun was over.  She immediately dropped her cloak of anger and the orange plastic forceps and burst into tears.  Real tears.  Real despair. 

"I CAN'T DO IT ALL BY MYSELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLF!  I ONLY WANT TO DO IT WITH TEAMWORRRRRRRRRRRRRRRK!"

Sigh.  So I gave in.  We "did teamwork," as she and Alex call it, with her tossing stuffed animals to me and me dropping them into the basket.  Job done.  Peace restored.  I made her the cheese sandwich.

She removed the cheese.  Removed the crust.  Just ate the squishy part of the bread.

~~~~~

Alex lost another tooth yesterday morning.  It's been VERY wiggly lately and he told me it would probably come out Saturday, Sunday or Monday.  Monday morning as he came down the stairs he just reached in and plucked it out.  "My tooth came out!" 

Last night, under the pillow went the tooth, in a little plastic sandwich bag.  Miraculously the tooth fairy remembered her responsiblities before she fell asleep and traded a little plastic sandwich bag with four quarters for the bag with the tiny tooth.

This morning Alex came downstairs, still sleepy.  I asked him if the tooth fairy came last night, and his eyes widened and he raced back upstairs.  After a little while, when he didn't come back down, I went up to the kids' bedroom.  He was back in bed.

"Alex, what are you doing?"

"I'm just going back to bed," he said in a small voice.

"But…what did the tooth fairy bring?"  I asked.

He rolled over and lifted up his pillow and pointed.  There was nothing there.

Ohhh – he was going back to bed so the tooth fairy would come.  Little guy….

I looked all around the bed and finally spotted the little plastic bag on the floor between the wall and the head of his bed. 

"Alex, look!"  I handed him the bag.

"Four quarters?" he said.  He was quiet for a moment.  "That's a dollar." he said.  And then he snuggled back into bed.  "I'm still a little sleepy," he told me.

Fair enough.

A bit later he reappeared, carrying his plastic bag of quarters.

"Mom," he said, about halfway down the stairs.  "I want to bring my quarters in for Pasta for Pennies."

His school is raising money for a three week period this month which will, in turn, be donated to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  The class that raises the most money gets a pasta lunch catered by the local Olive Garden.  

The day Alex brought home the information form about the fundraiser, he was kind of excited about it.  But later that night he started behaving a little differently.  He was being overly critical of himself (about nothing, really) and saying he hated himself – very different from his normal sunny disposition.  I kept asking him what was up, why was he saying that, and to stop it.  I admit it - I was in a panic.  This wasn't supposed to be coming out of my little boy's mouth.  Mine, maybe – I've battled depression for years and hating myself is nothing new.  But I've been on antidepressants for most of his life and I'm sure he's never heard me say anything like that about myself. 

So…where was this coming from?  He was crying, I was shouting in a panic for him to stop crawling around trying to avoid me and stop SAYING that and come HERE —

And finally I took a breath and gathered him in my arms and sat down on the big chair with him and just held him while he cried, and I cried while he told me he just didn't like himself (is this on some genetic strand????), and eventually he quieted down and I asked him if something had happened in school.

And then he told me.  "Mom, do you know about a kind of sickness that little kids get?  It starts with an L….?"

"Leukemia?"

"Yeah.  Well…" he swallowed… "I'm afraid I'm going to get it and my hair will fall out and I'll die." 

Oh, sweetie.

"Does it hurt when hair falls out?"

"No honey, I don't think that hurts.  It's not the sickness that makes hair fall out.  It's some of the medicines to make the sickness go away - sometimes they're so strong they make hair fall out."

I don't seem to remember a chapter on this in the one or two parenting books I read years ago.

What do I say?  What do I say?

I don't really remember what I said.  Not exactly. 

It was one of those times when I was so VERY much in the moment, the little scribe in my head dropped her pen and forgot to take notes.

But I said things like these:

"Yes, Alex, sometimes little kids do get this sickness.  And sometimes, despite everything everyone does, they die.  But a lot of times, they live. 

"I don't think you're going to get this sickness.  But there's no way of knowing what will happen to us, so I can't promise that you won't.  But know this:  that if you ever got sick, I would do EVERYTHING I POSSIBLY COULD to try to get you better.  And I would be right with you ALL the time.  Because you are one of THE most important people in my life.  You mean more to me than I can EVER explain.

"You are a very strong, healthy little boy.  So the best thing to do is to LIVE, to ENJOY your life, and DO things and run and play and learn and have fun and not WORRY about what might happen, because worrying never does any good.  Trust me on that."

And those things seemed to be the right things to say to him. 

He stopped crying.  He relaxed.  And we talked about it, and about donating money. 

And later on when I put him to bed I hugged him longer than usual.

I wondered if he'd have bad dreams, but he didn't.  And the next morning he was fine.

That was a couple of weeks ago.  He hasn't brought it up again.

He's a very sweet, sensitive boy.  Sometimes I worry (there's that useless "W" word again!) about it - about his feelings, about him thinking too much about things other kids say to him, about him taking things too much to heart.  I was like that – easily wounded, feelings easily hurt, worrying too much about all the what-ifs…. 

I want to wrap him in a thicker skin.

But he will have to grow his own.

And while I want him to have that thicker skin, that extra bit of armor of the mind and heart, I don't want him to lose that caring, thoughtful part — that part of him that chose to donate all his tooth fairy money to help the kids with that sickness.

~~~~~

My children.

They amaze me.  They torture me.  They delight me.  They humble me.

I am blessed.

6 thoughts on “A Cat and His Boy, Guitars and Crayons, Pennies and Quarters

  1. How touching. My younger brother, who is 29, was diagnosed with leukemia exactly 1 month ago today. At first they believed it to be acute leukemia which is the worst one but, miraculously, it turned out to be chronic leukemia. My brother is at home now, taking ust 1 pill a day to treat his condition and nothing much has changed except our mom spoiling him rotten. I want to thank you and your son for bring awareness to this awful disease and while my brother has the kind where he could go home, many don’t, so thank you. Thank your son, Alex for me too. BTW, my brother’s name is Alex too.

  2. Your story has brought tears to my eyes. I lost my 3 year old little girl to brain cancer 11 years ago. I love Alex’s compassion and heart. Give him a hug for me…tell him it is from a special angel.

    You are raising great kids. Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Margie, I’m so glad your brother’s condition is treatable, and that he can live a “normal” (whatever that means) life.  How funny that his name is also Alex.  Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. Oh, Tracie!  I cannot imagine what you have gone through.  I’m so, so sorry for your loss!  I’ll give Alex your hug.  And here’s one from me to you – (( )).  Thank you so very much for writing.  You’ve brought tears to my eyes now.

  5. You are such a wonderful mom… your kids are going to grow up to be very special adults and it’s due to the way you are raising them. Good job. You are doing everything perfectly. I too raised a very entertaining and compassionate kids, and didn’t even have a clue that they would turn out so great.

  6. I just noticed all the spelling mistakes I made in my original comment. I apologize for that.

    I don’t know what normal means either. All I know is that it involves being with my brother on the outside rather than in the confines of a hospital and makes me incredibly happy.

    Thank you once again.

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