"She keeps me warm... she keeps me warm...," the notes grow higher and sweeter.
I grab the carton of eggs from the refrigerator and keep going. My ten-year old daughter joins me, “I can’t change… even if I tried, even if I wanted to. My love, my love, my love…”
It was one of the best songs we heard this summer. The only one they really listened to on the radio when it played a few times on our long drive home after visiting Washington, DC. They didn’t attempt to sing along and neither did I. We just listened -- a first from two children whose mother was once a singer.
My son walks into the kitchen and starts to hum the melody with us.
“Love is patient, love is kind,” I sing. “Love is patient, love is kind,” my daughter mimics. “I’m not crying on Sundays. I’m not crying on Sundays… I’m not crying on Sundays,” all three of us singing in unison while I scramble up eggs on Monday, the first day back to school.
My daughter is in fifth grade now. My son just turned seven, a “second grader” this year. He can read well at seven, and sometimes I’ll see him sounding out the words on the tabloid magazine covers in the checkout line at the grocery store, absorbing all the pictures and the headlines as he chooses a pack of sugar-free gum. Some of the most memorable this summer, “Paris Jackson tries to commit suicide, takes pills and cuts her wrists.” “Glee star, Cory Montieth, found dead in hotel room.”
So, when is the right time to talk to your children about subjects that they are inevitably going to read about or hear at school? And how do you approach a fifth grader about important issues when her little brother has the ears of a fox? Do you separate them? Then, during alone time with the older one, you breach the subject? Or is it better to discuss it as a family? But should you wait until they ask you about it? Is the “best” time to talk to your kids before or after the fact? After they’ve heard the word “faggot” from one of their friends who uses it against another boy who cries easily? Do you wait until after they’ve stood there in silence and uncertainty, not knowing what to do or say next, watching that boy run away and hide in the bathroom until he pretends to be sick so he can go home early and contemplate how he’s going to tie a noose around his neck? Should we sit back and let pop music and celebrity do the job for us? Those last two questions scare me enough to make a decision.
They sit down on their stools at the counter and I realize today is as good a day as any.
“So, do you guys know what the song ‘Same Love’ is about?”
“It’s about someone’s childhood?” my daughter says, the question mark in her voice still hanging in the air.
“Yes, that’s partly true,” I say. “It is about someone’s childhood, and it’s about equal rights. It’s also about discrimination against people for being who they are. It’s about the rights of gay people who want to be married, just like me and Papa.”
I see my son’s eyebrows go up and his eyes are listening now, too. It’s the first time I’ve said the word "gay" out loud to him. My daughter asked me what the word meant in the car the first time she heard “Same Love” on the radio. It was just the two of us that day. So, as I was changing lanes, I told her very matter of factly, “Gay means happy, and it also describes someone who falls in love with a person who is the same gender, like our friends Jon and Mark in New York.”
“Mom… What’s discrimination?” my son asks between bites, and I look him straight in his intelligent brown eyes and begin.
“It means treating someone unfairly, calling them bad names, or taking away their rights just because their skin is a different color or because they love someone who is the same gender, like Jon and Mark.”
My daughter speaks up, “Mom, one time on America’s Got Talent, a man was singing opera and he said say that his family didn’t want anything to do with him anymore because he was gay. The only person that was there to hear him sing at his audition was his boyfriend. He could sing opera really, really good.”
“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro!“ they sing in their best operatic voices, remembering a scene from Mrs. Doubtfire, a movie they just saw for the first time. Their mother had told them it was the other best ‘movie of the summer’ when Despicable Me II was sold out.
My son goes back to eating his breakfast quietly and doesn’t say another word, something that rarely happens unless it involves popcorn or ice cream. I realize that last week’s Time magazine is sitting there on the counter next to my son's plate. The cover has a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it and it reads, “Founding Father.” My son saw me read the issue cover to cover last week, and he heard me talk about it afterwards with his dad. He heard me say that it was the 50th anniversary of the "March on Washington." He heard me tell my husband, a Brazilian, that this was the very first peaceful march of its kind during the civil rights movement and that Martin Luther King’s speech changed people’s attitudes about equality for black people, not just in the United States but all over the world… and new laws were passed because of it.
I had shown my son last week the picture in Time of all the people standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, in the exact same spot where he and his sister stood this summer. I showed him that famous black and white picture and I asked him how many people he thought were there that day, August 28, 1963. He guessed 200,000. “Oh my goodness! You are so close,” I told him, “There were 200,500 people there that day. Just look at all those people. They all stood up and changed the world.”
I look over at the clock and realize it’s almost time to leave for school. On the first day back to school, let’s be early, I say, and they go gather up their backpacks.
“Mom, am I black?” he says.
“Black?” I answer, laughing. “What?”
“Look how dark my skin is now.”
“Honey, that’s because your tan… from being in the sun so much this summer.”
“But, look how dark I am.”
“I know, but that’s because you’re Italian and Brazilian.”
“No I’m not! I’m black, Mom.”
“Okay.” I decide to let him be who he wants to be today. This is a day for firsts, even for a 'second' grader.
“Hey, you know the rapper that wrote ‘Same Love,’ Macklemore?”
“Yeah,” he says, stopping to look back at me.
“Well, he’s not black and he’s not gay, but he is the first rap musician to stand up for gay people’s rights, and that’s why he wrote a song about it. So, guess what that makes him?”
“Brazilian?” he answers.
“Maybe… ” I say, smiling, trying very hard not to laugh. Then I start again, “It also makes him a hero and a fantastic human being.”
He turns around and puts his new backpack on and runs out to the car to join his big sister. I have no idea if he’s gotten anything I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes trying to explain. He seems completely oblivious. Or is he? Well, I tell myself, at least he heard about it from me… at least they both heard it from me, first.
My wish came true just after midnight in lucky Room 7 ten years ago today. That's when I saw you "put out your hand,'' exactly as the song you were named after predicted.
And here I sit, a decade later, wanting to tell you all over again about the night you were born.
I don't even think I pushed. It was more of a giggle. The doctor said, "Anyone know a good joke? Because if you laugh you'll get to meet your son -- he is that close!" And then your strong, enormous hand appeared.
Alonzo declared that he must reach to Heaven, for Heaven. The song's prophecy fulfilled, my dreams fulfilled. My son had arrived safely. I was almost forty-three.
When I was scanning through all the lists of popular boys' names while I was pregnant, I found nothing that spoke to me or sang to me the way "Alonzo" did. Your Papa, however, found many Italian names he loved. His favorite, as you know, was "Umberto." But, all I could see was a big, hairy baby wearing a gold medallion around his furry neck and chest. I was convinced you'd come out of the womb saying things like, "How you doin'?" or "Ya got any leftover veal parmigian, Ma?" My sweet, sea prince with feet of sand and clay couldn't possibly be a man named Umberto.
Papa and I put it up for a vote. To every unlucky person we happened upon in those last few months before you arrived, we asked, "Which name do you like better, 'Umberto' or 'Alonzo?'" But if anyone chose Umberto, I'd say, "Yes, but who would you want your son or daughter to fall in love with?" It was clear. Not one person wanted poor Umberto in their family, let alone watch him become their son-in-law.
I couldn't have been more than seventeen the first time I tried to sing your song. Al Jarreau was my vocal hero. I judged the quality of my voice by the songs he wrote and sang, the most incredibly difficult note locked inside the "zoh" of your name. I could never hit the note quite right when I sang along with Al, but I had such fun working on the note and the melody, imagining the story of mysterious "Alonzo" as he emerged from the water the way I saw him in the lyrics. I thought to myself, maybe when I'm a grown woman -- maybe then my voice will be ready, more mature, and I'll finally reach that note. Someday, I'll sing "Alonzo" as good as Al Jarreau and my dream will come true.
Guess what? I still can't, not by a mile -- but my dream did come true, and now, as a "grown" woman, a mother, I sing and speak your name with more pride and more joy than any other boy's name on the planet.
Welcome, Alonzo. So, good to see you. Welcome, Alonzo. My Señor. My Belinki. My courageous, kind-hearted, hilarious son -- who, at ten years of age, has more integrity in his little finger than I have in my whole hand. You are a precious gift to us and the world, born from the deep blue sea on the 7th day, just after midnight, who will also make, one fine day, one terrific son-in-law. (Eat your heart out, Umberto.)
“Mama, don’t put dessert in my lunch today,” my son barked from the breakfast table this morning. However, I didn’t hear the “don’t” part and instead asked him what kind of dessert he wanted in his lunch.
“Mama! I said DON’T put a dessert! Hello?? Earth to Mama...”
When your five-year old quotes you to yourself using the euphemism you came up with for “Duh” you know it’s time to step up your game.
“Well, EX-cu-ooh-oohzemeeee!” my hands waving back and forth, the way I remembered it.
However, because your son is five and has never heard of Steve Martin or his stand up routine from 1974, this may not be the right response to your child while he looks at you like you are the world's unfunniest mother.
“Listen, Steve Martin was and still is a very funny guy, a wild and KAH-razy guy, who even knows how to play the banjo and…. All right, forget it, but someday you will come to appreciate Mr. Steve Martin!”
“Uh, okay, Mama… so, anyway, NO dessert.”
“Señor Belinki, are you a wild and KAH-razy guy today? Why don’t you want dessert?”
“The teachers say I don’t have enough time!”
“Huh? Okay… but, how come you don't listen to me when I say there’s not enough time for dessert?”
“Because you’re NOT my teacher, you’re my Mama… Hello??”
I am now carefully plotting my next comeback line, busily thinking up new euphemisms for Smartass.
So far, all I’ve got is, “Hello?? Earth to Steve Martin...” Rodger THAT, my Señor.
Last week I read Peter Hartlaub's piece, Telling your kids that Osama bin Laden is dead, on SFGate.com. Peter is a well-known San Francisco journalist who also writes "The Poop" -- a parenting blog for SFGate, the online affiliate to The San Francisco Chronicle.
In his blog post, Peter asked some interesting questions about how to feed the news President Obama gave us about killing Osama bin Laden to your (young) children, “Do you get proactive and have an Osama bin Laden is dead discussion?” he asked. “Do you undergo a news blackout in your house? Or do you sit back and wait to see if they ask?”
One approach Peter didn’t mention was this, “Do you ask your child what they would do if they had to stop a bad guy or a bully who wants to hurt other people?” Most young children already know the “bad guy vs. good guy” plot very well from everything they’re fed in our culture of fairy tales, countless Disney movies, and massive amounts of consumer branding.
And even though I liked Peter’s approach about being honest and answering your children’s questions without telling them the gory details about Osama bin Laden and his death, I digress... I would much rather discuss the birth of the new robins in our backyard. Cowardice maybe, but my children are four and seven and in their world baby robins hatching out of tiny sky-blue eggs right above their heads (the robin’s nest is tucked under our roof atop a drainage pipe) is still a “headliner.” Literally.
Last week, however, I did raise some serious questions to my younger child, my son, who is always quick to tell me exactly what he would do in any situation. He also recently revealed in his preschool "All About Me" book his secret wish: a gun for his fifth birthday. Mmm hmmm.
I decided to use The Incredible Hulk movie with Edward Norton as a segway into the topic, probably not the best use of analogy, but something I knew was still fresh in his mind from an episode that played out in our house just a few hours before President Obama came on television to announce that bin Laden was dead.
We were about to sit down to a “family” movie when I went to get something from another room and left my husband in charge of putting on Fantasia. When I came back into the living room, I found them all watching The Incredible Hulk on cable.Uh… Okay. How it went from Walt Disney’s Special Edition of Fantasia to The Incredible Hulk is still not quite clear to me. The explanation my husband gave was, “It’s The Hulk,” which sounded a lot like, “Everybody loves The Hulk, Honey... Duh.”
“Come on, Mama, it’s The Hulk,” my son reiterated. Even my Disney on Ice daughter forgot all about Fantasia and the dance of the sugar plum mushrooms she loves so much, “I'm not scared, Mom. It’s just pretend.”
After a few very long stink-eye glares, my husband eventually switched back to the DVD player and Fantasia played for the next hour, much to my son’s chagrin. But, he also loves Mickey Mouse so he settled down pretty quick… funny how an animated mouse from the 1930’s and a giant green monster-man, dodging grenades, can balance each other out.
So, last week, after contemplating Telling your kids that Osama bin Laden is dead, this is the discussion I had with my four and a half year-old:
“So, did you like The Incredible Hulk movie Papa let you watch yesterday?”
“Yeah, I love The Hulk.”
“So, was The Hulk the good guy or the bad guy?”
“It's The Hulk, Mama… he’s a superhero!”
“Then why were the soldiers trying to hurt him?”
“They were bad soldiers and they were ruining the city.”
“Oh… So, what would you do if a bad soldier was trying to hurt someone or ruin your city?”
“I’d just punch him in the nose.”
“What if that didn’t work and he kept trying to hurt people, innocent people who weren’t doing anything wrong. Then what would you do?”
“I’d karate chop him.”
“But, what if that didn’t work and you really had to stop the bad guy, or even kill the bad guy, to stop him from hurting more people?”
I didn’t want to use the word, but out it came... Up until that moment, I had said to my son that “kill” was an awful word and that I never wanted to hear him say it again after overhearing him use it on the playground while playing Star Wars.
Up until that moment, I had thought that avoiding violent words was the best thing to do when teaching my son about compassion and responsibility – the best way to handle complex lessons about the stinging reality of his future world, a globe spinning with mixed messages and very real guns and ammunition. Then all of a sudden I found myself asking him about killing someone, “the bad guy,” realizing that with that suggestion I was potentially raising a boy who might become one himself… After all, the night before he was embracing graphic military warfare, cheering on The Hulk and bullets and firebombs for ten high-definition minutes. I squeezed my hands shut and braced for what would come out of his mouth next.
“Mama… then I’d just call the police, and they would take him down to jail.”
It’s a Disney ending, but I am mercifully relieved to hear my son choose it over the alternative.
“Mama, is today another school day?” My four year old asks me this morning, his chocolate puppy dog eyes a bit sad and worried… a look that could tug at any sympathetic girl’s heart to make her stop and take notice.
“Yes, my Señor… today is a school day,“ I say, commiserating.
Then I stop cold. I stop my hurry to find my flip-flops and brush my teeth. I stop my need to put on any makeup or find a blouse that isn’t stained, and I just stand there, holding the edges of his soft round cheeks… light velvety petals against my worn, callused hands. I let go and regret it, witnessing the clock on the stove turn to 7:19.
I want to lift him up and hold him close to me again, the way I did when he was my baby boy whose one and only word was Mama.
I intentionally turn my back to the clock and watch him pick up his Star Wars alphabet book.
“Mama, where’s my light saber?” he asks, running into the other room. “Never mind, I found it!”
And then I let my mind run off-leash to the fresh-cut grass outside our front window, watching him race across the lawn to fight a lineup of imaginary Darth Vaders.
I see myself standing on a familiar Dr. Sues street. I'm on the corner of “Here” and “There,” important people whizzing by me on their morning commute into a bustling city. I lift up my bullhorn and begin,
It’s only pre-school! Do you hear me? It can wait! while the crowd passes me by.
It’s not like he’s got an Algebra test today or that he’s studying for the GMATs! He’s only four for goodness sakes! Did you know that children in Finland don’t even start school until they are seven and they are out-scoring every nation in math and science?!
But now all the very important people who were in a hurry to get to There or Here stop and begin to look just like the Zeds waiting in line to cut the hair upon their heads. Yet, not one Zed seems to care that my baby with a few hairs upon his head is no longer that tiny boy anymore… They are all too busy laughing, watching a big boy with tons of hair make goofy faces at me from behind a windowpane at the front door.
“Mama, are you ready yet? Get your flip-flops on! I don’t want to be late for school today.”
I will freeze this moment and play it back to him some other day. When he’s fifteen and sitting in the principal’s office. Or maybe on a Tuesday night when he's got a load of homework due, but he'd rather stay up late to talk to a sympathetic girl who can’t get enough of him or his puppy-dog eyes.