The Name Game: My Son Luke — and What it Has to Do With My Classroom

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*Disclaimer. Several common names are explicated and tortured on this page. 

I admit that at the start of each semester, I pore over the names on my class rosters. Within seconds, and without seeing faces or meeting them, I can draw conclusions on which students stand to be pills. And I do this with about 71.4 percent accuracy.

Which is why when it came time in that BackYard Burger restaurant late in the summer of 2013 with Laura across the table, every name we said out loud nearly made my butt clench and my face flushed. You see, I estimate I’ve taught somewhere between 1,400 and 1,700 students in the last 10 years. Laura is not too far behind me. Between the both of us, we’ve taught students with just about every name, and just about every variation of spelling on those names. Nicole. Nikole. Nichole.

And with those names comes a buffet of delicious and nauseating memories, which makes baby naming quite difficult.

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Dustin? Probably going to be a pretty good guy, you’d think. I remember my first newspaper editor at THS. Good kid. Ah, but that yet-to-be-serial-killer in my night class also shared that name.

Andy? Short for Andrew? This broke one of my rules (i.e. the name could not be shortened). It also rings out “family dog name” instead of a future CEO or president. Can you really take a name like Andy seriously? Not to mention everything it rhymes with, which never helps on the playground. Candy. Randy. Gandy.

Jordan? Loved this name initially, but it broke another of my rules (i.e. the name could not be unisex). Despite my historically good luck with students by the name of Jordan (including one sweet girl at SJA), the toolbag in my 5th hour class in 2005 shattered my faith in the name.

Dylan? To be honest, this name was in my top 3 for years. What an honor it would have been to pay homage to one of my favorite students from ONW. Then, another Dylan showed up in 2012. His contribution to my class included sexually harassing the disabled girl in the corner and filing a grievance against me because I wouldn’t let him turn work in late. I assume he’s either dead or in jail.

Zachary? This name met an important requirement: I wanted it to sound Biblical. But it also broke rule #1 (can’t be shortened) as well as another rule: It should only be spelled one way. Zac. Zach. Zack. Next.

Then, of course, I turned to the names in our families. Donald? That’s old. Have you met a Donald younger than 60? Howard? Sorry, but that makes me think of that weird 80s movie Howard the Duck. 

Howard-the-Duck

And have you met a Howard younger than 40? Thomas? Cool name, but can be shortened. Tony? I have a cousin Antoinette. A step-grandma Antoinette. Both go by Toni. My dad is Tony. My brother is Tony. My nephew is Tony. Clearly we have a creativity problem in my family. Or a fierce loyalty to preserving a name — a strong, Italian name at that. Either way, that was off limits.

And don’t even get me started on the girl names. During this marathon name-generating massacre, we had yet to find out the sex of the baby. Laura’s requirements included those listed above with one additional: It couldn’t sound too girly. That eliminated nearly every heterosexual-sounding female name. And we had permanently blacklisted the names Brittany (a beastly creature from my journalism teaching days), Courtney (someone on Laura’s $hitlist), and Danielle (just a terrible all around human being), among dozens of others. We also were adamantly opposed to the so-called most popular girl names like Emma, Isabella/Bella (Twilight is SO last decade), and Abigail/Abby (Have you READ The Crucible?).

My personal favorite for a girl was (and is) Adriana. Not pronounced AdriANNA, but AdriAHNA. Laura hated it because of this dumb B on the Sopranos who liked to shoot up heroin.

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Laura loved the name Charlotte for about two weeks. Pretty, but …

wilbur and char

We eventually settled on a girl’s name, which I cannot reveal in case we, for some reason, decide to torture Luke with a sibling.

For the boy, I pulled out my ace card — the name that, throughout the years, never let me down. “How about Luke,” I mouthed in between bites of burger and fries. “I like Luke.”

It started with, of course, Luke’s gospel — still my favorite book of the Bible, filled with truisms that I still can’t seem to follow. It also is a variation of the name Luca, which is the boy version of my Nonna Lucia. And then there came the carousel of Lukes in my classrooms throughout the last 10 years. Never a jerk. Always an achiever. Predictably goofy. Slightly awkward. Fiercely loyal. Eyes always on the prize. And it offered me years of tirelessly uttering this phrase:

Luke-I-Am-Your-Father

Perfect. Can’t be shortened. Everyone can spell it. Biblical. No A-hole students that bring about PTSD symptoms when I utter the name.

So there you have it: How We Named Luke. It works well on this little guy, don’t you think?

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A Dad of 15 Days

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One unexpected advantage to our baby’s arrival is the ceasing of wish-I-thought-of-it-first phrases like “Your life is about to change forever” and “Get all the sleep you can now because you never will again!” I could take a sabbatical from work and pen a white paper on the absurdity and lack of originality of both of those comments.

Two weeks after our son Luke’s birth, life has indeed changed (sound the trumpets!) and sleep is a bit more disjointed (be still my soul!). But there’s more to it than that. Here’s what people didn’t tell me to expect:

1. Everyone Has the Right Answer

I admit, when it comes to parenting, I’m pretty green. But in terms of dealing with human beings, I think I do have some experience there. I also concede that the dozens of parents who have offered their perspectives on how to correctly burp a child, soothe a child, and feed a child — they probably know a thing or two.

I didn’t, though, realize that every parent thinks they have parenting by the balls. Or that any phrase starting with “Well, when ‘x’ was born, we …” would be so annoying. Add to that the phrases, “Well, OUR daughter slept through the night starting at week two,” or “Well, OUR son couldn’t adjust to his crib after [insert method of soothing a child here].” Or any phrase that implies how much better their child was than ours. These pieces of advice equate to instances when you try to tell an amazing story to your friends, and then “that one guy” always has to insert his two cents about how his story is better, thus stealing the story from you.

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You know what? If I want my child to sleep in his swing for two hours while I scour Facebook, so be it. He’s asleep dammit. Praise the Lord. And if I tend to his needs every time he cries, just smile and admire how loving I am. If I neglect to tarp his penis while changing him and he baptizes me with his urine (like every boy does to his father), we don’t need your ten minute story of how it happened to you too. Let my experience be unique to me.

Now, I know that all of our friends are well-intentioned and only want to bond with us and Luke during these early days. What better way than to share stories? There exists a sharp division, though, between an amusing anecdote and an unsolicited piece of advice.

2. I Know More About Circumcision Than I Ever Wanted to Know

Because a little genital mutilation never hurt anybody, we did have Luke circumcised. Thanks to Shawnee Mission Medical Center’s policy of never separating parent and baby, I tagged along, Panera coffee in hand, to Luke’s first (and probably not last) humiliating experience being naked in front of another woman.

I didn’t think I could cross my legs any tighter than I did. Needles and scissors and foreskin. Enough to make a grown man both curious and terrified.

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3. My Wife Has Unflinching Stamina

The Laura before delivery and the Laura after delivery are two different creatures. It used to be that the only sound that could awaken her from a deep sleep was the sound of urine trickling out of Grendel and onto our bedroom carpet. Everything else: thunder, fierce sunlight, nuclear blast — zzzz’s. Now, with a slightest chirp from Luke’s throat, she perks up with the posture of a meerkat. She has, bless her heart, taken on the burden of sleepless nights. If she’s tired, annoyed, or distraught, you wouldn’t know it. It’s to the point that the other day, when I let it spill how tired I was that I only soaked in 7 hours of sleep, the guilt from that comment kept me awake the next night.

I realize, now, why Mother’s Day exists.

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…which leads me to…

4. I Suck at Getting Up In the Middle of the Night

While I do wake up nearly every morning around 2 or 3 to let the dogs out to pee, I have learned to accomplish that task without opening both eyes and without really having to acknowledge that I am, indeed, awake. I am blessed with the sick talent of sleeping while standing at the backdoor. And, to which many guys can probably relate and much to the dismay of our house cleaner, I can keep those eyes closed even while making a pitstop in the bathroom on the way back to bed.

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A child, however, requires a much more alert presence from his parents. I’m not sure why Laura has only asked me once to change a diaper in the middle of the night. I can only imagine that my changing skills and level of coherence at such an hour was alarming enough to her to just do it herself next time. I’m a work in progress.

5. It’s More Awkward Than I Thought Reading To a Newborn

What one pictures those first nights to be and what they really are: a grand canyon of differences. I had this image of sitting in the rocking chair, next to the crib, lamplight on, whispering “Goodnight Moon” from the pages until Luke dozed off. Then Laura and I would both walk him to his crib, place him in gently, watch his smiling face sleep soundly before exchanging a small kiss of our own and heading to bed.

Hell naw.

Instead, Luke sleeps soundly from about 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., with a few feeding breaks and diaper changes to inconvenience him. The rest of the night is a series of g-rated expressions that could otherwise be translated to “Go the f-$% to sleep.” I sing to him. I play a silly game called “jump on the lily pad!” which is basically me interrupting his crying by lifting him from pillow to pillow on the couch to confuse the hell out of him long enough to stifle his sounds. Laura feeds him. Rocks him. The dogs lift their heads from their own naps wondering why the hell he just won’t go to sleep. And we pick up the book only to have to read it loud enough so that it can be heard over whining. Even when he does quiet down, he seems more interested in the corner of the bed post than on any clever text from “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?”

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We teach English. We should be used to children not paying attention when we open up a book. But there’s something almost embarrassing about knowing with 100% certainty that your audience (i.e. your son) has no flipping clue what you’re saying, if you’re saying anything, and wonders if that book has a nipple that excretes milk.

6. I Clean a Lot of Dishes

In our nearly six years of marriage, it wasn’t peculiar for us to say something like “Wow, we’ve eaten at home three nights in a row!” Chinese food, bar food, Mexican, and pizza are rotating staples in this house. So when my mother in law stayed with us for the first week, it was the first time we had eaten at home for five consecutive days. Some realizations from that experience: There exists a bewildering ratio of spoons to forks (where are the forks?) in our kitchen. I need more whisks. Our dishwasher is the boss. I use nearly every pot, pan, cutting board, and knife each time I cook. I think Food Network should end each show not with the chef tasting the meal but with that asshole cleaning up the kitchen. Folks wouldn’t cook half the dishes on that network if they knew the countertops would look like the beaches of Normandy when all was said and done.

Needles to say, my crockpot starred in two meals in the last week. And, in a nod to my mom’s tricks when she didn’t want to dirty anymore dishes, I’ve busted out the paper plates. (Sorry, Earth.)

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7. Changing Diapers is a Lot Like Changing Tires at a Nascar Race

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It must be swift or else it will end in disaster. Take too long, you’re pissed on. Take longer, he cries. Admittedly, I had sweat beads on my forehead during my first diaper change at the hospital. After a few dozen diaper changes, it’s clear my son hates being naked (something not inherited from his father), he hates being cold, and he’d rather just wipe his own ass. In time, son. In time.

8. Eating Is a Sport

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Because Luke’s internal clock tells him to wake up annoyingly close to our dinner time, we usually waste no time once food hits table. No more pleasantries like, “Wow, you really can taste the cinnamon, can’t you?” Or, “the subtle notes of apricot in the chicken glaze really bring out the fullness of flavor.” Instead, it’s “Hurry! Don’t go to the bathroom now! We need to eat! Bring in two glasses of water for each of us so that we don’t waste time running back to the kitchen! Sit down! Bigger bites!”

Remember the scene in Jurassic Park, when the insufferable characters knew of an approaching T-Rex based on the ripples in the water? And all was still? “Don’t move. Their vision is based on movement,” Dr. Grant would say.

Yeah, that’s us with Luke at 6:30 each night.

9. It Really is a Miracle

Despite the annoyances above, at the end of the day, it’s a miracle. The greatest blessing in my life has been this little guy:

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Yes, life is a bit more scrambled these days. But it’s also clearer. My job isn’t to teach students each day how to read and write. My job is to guide this boy to manhood. To love him with the love I have for my God and my wife. I know love. But I didn’t know the level of love that exists like that for your child. My love for Luke makes me appreciate my own parents. That love moves me to suffer with those parents who’ve lost a son or daughter. And that love helps me to realize that it’s not always about me.

Because, really, what could be better than this?

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“Kinda” Excited to Have a Baby

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The nostalgia of summer permeates nearly every thought in my mind this time of year. Years of summers had. Years of summers to come. But then I think of the summer that actually awaits me. And it causes much cognitive dissonance. Last night at BuyBuyBaby (a store run completely by untrained monkeys — a smear blog for another time), I asked Laura “Aren’t you so excited to meet him” (of course referring to our unborn child who will most likely cook for another 34 days). She gawked at a $20 price tag on a onesie and said “Kinda.”

To the casual observer, that might come across as her sounding like the Distant Mother or someone who Doesn’t Understand the Miracle of Childbirth. Whatever. When the word “kinda” oozed out of her mouth, my over-jubilant expression morphed into the same expression I make when someone walks in on me while I’m on the toilet — confused, vulnerable, bewildered, befuddled, amused. If you haven’t figured out Laura, it’s that she has an innate knowledge of Things that remain a mystery to the rest of us. She’s the Dumbledore of Decision Making. The Mufasa of Marriage. The Atticus Finch of Family. The Tinkerbell of Teaching. The Obi-Wan of <can’t come up with an alliteration>. If she said “kinda,” then she knows something I don’t. And because I was too confused by her response, I didn’t Jack-Bauer her into a tortured confession as to what she meant.

But here I am at 7:30 in the morning, awoken (awaked? awoked?) by the one word that slithered off her tongue so nonchalantly yesterday. Kinda.

Kinda.

Kinda.

I’m about to go upstairs where she is most likely sleeping with a relaxed smile on her face, shake her awake, and yell in to her face, “Tell me everything you know! Devil! Release her!”

Perhaps her “kinda” refers to the same cognitive dissonance that I’ve been trying to understand about my own feelings of the approaching summer. On one hand, to see my flesh and blood, hold him in my arms, play with his baby feet (a weird obsession) — I’ll finally experience fatherhood. On the other hand, I won’t be able to do what I did yesterday: Read upside down on the couch for hours without a care as to what anyone else in the world is doing. Sit on the porch by myself in the sun — staring at neighbors and making up stories about their lives. Work in the yard with headphones on before coming inside to … read. Get in my car driving wherever it takes me to eat something for lunch, listening to an audiobook. Then there’s the traveling. The “hey, want to go see a movie?” two hours before it starts and, yes, being able to drop everything to go do it. The Absolute Freedom to Be Absolutely Free.

That will be gone. That’s kinda exciting. That’s kinda unfortunate.

Laura and I have long been caught up in making each other happy. So when she says “kinda,” it’s perhaps an acknowledgement that we’re about to experience a new kind of joy that will bind us together like nothing has before. Instead of our focus aimed at each other, it’s aimed at our child. It’s also, perhaps, an acknowledgement that the change that’s about to occur is unknown — a beautiful change, yes. But unknown.  I catch her sometimes sitting in the rocking chair in his nursery holding his stuffed elephant. Her expression is usually serene. She rocks slowly, as if peacefully anticipating what it will be like to hold him here in just a little over a month. I like to read her “kinda” as an optimistic and anxious nod to our future.

Or maybe she’s just freaking out that a onesie costs $20.

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An Exhaustive Salute to 2013

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It’s no secret that the holiday season (of which I consider to start on my birthday, November 20, and end on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6) is my favorite time of the year. Each day, I do that half-walk half-run thing to the mailbox to see who has sent the latest Christmas card. Not because of the card itself, but because of those fascinating holiday letters that some friends and family write. You know, the letters that have the photo on one side and a recap of the entire year on the other. I used to find these self-absorbing on the part of the sender, but in the last few years, mainly because of my flirtation with the grim reaper on the eve of 2011, I have taken an eager interest in what happens in people’s lives over the course of 365 days. And my 2013 was certainly one for the books as well.

It was one of those years during which I imagine God sat back with a bucket of popcorn watching the Restivos on one of his millions of spy cams, pointing every few days at the screen and shaking his head, laughing, crying, or shouting “What on earth are you doing?!”

The year started off with death. Our 9-year-old rat terrier, Finny, became sick and died in a short two-week period in January. And two weeks after that, Laura’s granny died. On more than one occasion, Laura and I muttered “This year sucks” to each other during those first several weeks of 2013. It was a somewhat maudlin month, simultaneously mourning the loss of a dog and a matriarch.

Finny

Finny

Granny

Granny

As is typical with many deaths, nostalgia settles in about the lost loved one. In our case (or I should say in Laura’s case) it was how perfect Finny was. And so throughout the month of February, Laura excavated the internet for the perfect rat terrier. And while I was away in Arizona in March, she drove an absurd distance, to some wonder of America called Texarkana, to pick up this little turd.

Basil, 2 months old

Basil, 2 months old

Basil has since marked our lives. And several of our underwear, patches of carpet, stuffed animals, blankets, and toilet paper rolls.

And the spring proved just as wacky when we sold our townhome earlier than expected (March), forcing our realtor Mike to lead these grand odysseys around the city, showing us this house and that. The pool of houses is kind of limited when you tell a realtor that you want to live in Johnson County, that you’re not rich, that you need four bedrooms, that you dislike split levels, that you hate open concept, and that under no circumstances should there be a homeowners association, which I firmly believe to be organized hate groups. Eventually, the seemingly endless checklist of wants resulted in the perfect home for us.

Unfortunately, the owners were not ready to move out, which forced us into temporary housing for the better part of five weeks. We moved everything into a storage unit, save a few bedsheets, a barely house-trained puppy, a reclusive cocker spaniel, and a couple of weeks worth of clothes, and played the part of drifters quite well. Our friends, Barb and Mike, gave up a bedroom in their home for us. No big deal, right? Except for the fact that they had just moved into this beautiful home and were still unpacking. And except for the fact that they have a one-year-old. And except for the fact that Barb was six months pregnant. Amazingly, we’re still friends. I’m still flummoxed at their generosity.

That was all in the first half of the year.

The second half saw me returning to my fraternity as an alumni board member for the second time, volunteering to teach weekly Confirmation classes to middle schoolers at the Catholic Church down the street, and embracing my family (and heavily Italian) roots as the New Jersey clan joined us for a weekend in early fall.

Costanzas

the cousins

the cousins

But nothing at all could compare to what dominated the final four months of the year. I still vividly remember walking in the front door one hot late summer day only to hear Laura say “Peej, come upstairs now.” I peeked up to the landing above the foyer to see her holding the pregnancy stick. And as they say, life changed course right then and there.

A year that began focused so much on death ended focused so much on new life. If I thought 2013 was a cornucopia of cheers and jeers, something tells me it has nothing on 2014.

And the Gender Is …

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No daughter wants this conversation to occur:

“So, dad. What was your reaction when you first saw me on the sonogram?”

“Well, dear. I was kind of hoping you were a boy. But I got you instead.”

No son, of course, wants that conversation to occur either. So I began mentally preparing myself for today’s sonogram. For years, even before I was married, I wanted a boy. Don’t most men want to have at least one boy? Someone to carry on the patriarchal seed? Or just someone with whom they can be equal around the house?

Yet soothsayers abound in my family and circle of friends. My dad never said “I hope you have a girl.” Instead, it was “You’re having a girl.” As if his words would end up in the driver’s seat of the sperm’s journey to the egg. And remember the moment when the pregnant Virgin Mary meets Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s womb jumps? Elizabeth immediately knew that Mary was full of grace and was carrying someone special. We had a similar encounter with my friend Mike. As soon as we walked in the door to his home, he gave Laura the once-over: “You’re totally having a girl.” And on it went. Relatives wishing for the girl. Friends insisting that Laura’s cravings and weight gain suggested two X chromosomes.

Naturally my grin was wider than normal today when the sonogram technician exclaimed the gender. I ultimately had the last laugh. Yes, I smiled because I was looking at my child’s face for the first time. But the smile was also one of triumph over the fortune tellers of the womb.

And they’ll be just as happy on May 10 when they meet my son.

May 2014: The Month We Enter Parenthood

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Yes, she’s having a baby. But I should explain.

Laura and I are five and half years into this marriage. One of the things that attracted me to her was not her potential for fertility, but rather her intense desire to succeed at whatever it was that she was doing at the time. And parenthood was not on either of our radars. In 2008, it wasn’t that we, as 27-year-olds, didn’t want to be parents. I mean, come on, I’m an Italian Catholic. I should have churned out a half dozen by now. That just wasn’t on our five-year-plan. Now, when I have a five-year-plan, something usually screws it up. If Laura has a five-year-plan, then damn-it, nothing will get in the way of it. So the years came and went. We secured jobs. Income went up. Doctoral degrees were secured. Two introverts as happy as can be, holed up in Kansas, peeking out at the world when we wanted.

Throughout the last five and a half years, though, we would say things to each other like “Well, OUR kids aren’t going to do THAT.” Or our endless conversations about our students would ultimately turn in to a discussion about how we would raise OUR children differently. When I reached 30 years old in 2011, those conversations became awkward. I started to make comments like, “You mean the children we talk about but are never going to have?” Or when we jumped on to one of those discussions about OUR children SOME DAY, we would both awkwardly end the conversation because we knew the years were ticking away and that we eventually wouldn’t be able to talk about the children that never were.

The minute our realtor, Mike, walked us into our new home, those four bedrooms cooed out us like spirits. “I’m ripe for a baby,” the room at the top of the stairs murmured. So naturally I put the dog cage in there. Our story, though, was ending a significant chapter. We knew our parenthood chapter was looming. But we never, not once, had a conversation like this: “So you ready to have a baby?” “Uh, yeah, ready, set, go.” Small smirks, creases of a smile, sauntering through the baby sections at stores — this is how we communicated that we were ready.

And so when I walked through the door that summer Sunday and heard, “Uh, Peej, you need to come upstairs,” I looked up at the landing to see her holding the “stick.” I wondered, in nightdreams, in daydreams, how I might respond to the news. I hoped dearly that it wouldn’t be something like, “WTF! How?!” So when I started laughing and smiling for the next two hours, I knew that kid would be welcomed in our home.

So here we are: She’s 17 weeks pregnant. I’m buying groceries and cooking like a mad man. I’m suddenly a stickler for watching our sugar intake (minus the occasional trip to Smallcakes.) I scold the dogs for putting their paws too close to the fetus bump. And I’m suddenly trying to figure out what kind of adult I want to be, what kind of parent, what kind of disciplinarian. It’s driving me a little bit crazy. But I kind of adore it.

Death is Life’s Auditor

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There’s a scene in a Tim O’Brien’s book Going After Cacciato in which the characters — a group of soldiers — are successfully making their way through the forest when they literally fall into a hole in the ground. And in the blink of an eye, they were lost. 

That scene came to mind this week when our next door neighbors lost their son in a tragic car accident. This is a family that functions on 100-miles-an-hour. Soccer practices. Two kids in college. Full-time jobs. Career mom and dad. And all of a sudden, their normal became anything but. 

To be honest: I never met their son. I’d only seen him outside, working on his car, or in the backyard, playing with our dog Basil. And I only had a handful of casual how-do-you-do conversations with the parents. Still, this tragedy shook me in a strange way. It shook me in that way that makes me look to my left, then to my right, and to make sure I’m living the way I should. For years, I was handcuffed by a family tragedy that occurred when I was 15. The handcuffs then turned into a sort of grace that calmed me when confronted with life’s boogeymen. And in the last year or so, I’ve sped my life up to my own 100 miles an hour — just like my neighbors and so many others. 

I detest when people try to explain life’s tragedies as “part of life’s plan.” I’ve never thought that God uses people as pawns in order to force those of us still here to put ourselves on some sort of course correction. Foolish. But these tragedies certainly cause me to audit what I’m doing. 

Just like O’Brien’s soldiers, I want to find a path out of those holes in the ground. In his story, it required that they “fall back up.” 

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