Pocket Knives and Rites of Passage

Tuck spent Saturday night at a sleepover birthday party with a couple of the guys on his football team.  It was pretty much the best night of his life, I think.


At football practice on Friday, the boys were talking about the party, making their plans.  In the girl world I grew up in, slumber party plans meant you carefully chose and invited who would sleep next to you.  That’s the one you would whisper into the morning hours with.


These boys were all talking big about the pocket knives they would bring along for the night.


Before you think I’m crazy to send my son to a knife party, here’s what I’m learning: boys have to do what boys have to do.  There are words they have to say.  There are bodily functions they must display and rate.  And there are rites of passage into manhood, and I don’t know them.  So I follow the lead of the men in their lives, men whom I trust and whom I know love my sons, and I learn the things boys have to do on their path of knowing their masculinity.


Pocket knives are one of these rites of passage.


I listened to the boys talking at football practice, comparing how long and sharp their blades are.  And I knew in my heart, it’s time for Tucker to have Robb’s pocket knife. Left to my own devices, I probably would have given it to him after he’s married.  But the kid has got to be a boy.  And I can’t turn him into a girly one.


Here’s the thing, though… the blade of Robb’s pocket knife has been open since he died.  I’m sure at some point I found it, opened it, had no idea how to close it, and wisely left the open blade in the pencil drawer of my desk.  Because I’m a girl who tends to be curious in the world of boy things, but I don’t know what I’m doing until someone is gracious to teach me what it’s all about.


(This has complicated various realms of my life, most harmlessly when I really, really wanted to play with the Transformers on the playground in second grade.)


I took the pocket knife with me as I took Tuck to the party, and I quietly slipped it to Coach.  Of course, he knew exactly how to close it, and he immediately engaged Tucker in the first rules of pocket knife safety.  Equally important, Tyler got to hold it, too.


The birthday party proceeded with fishing, swimming, a treasure hunt with clues in the woods, paintballs in slingshots toward a target, and – when that got boring – paintballs in slingshots to kill crickets in what they termed The Death Drop. Tucker came home with a backpacker’s survival kit, a sparkly new water bottle, a bag of loot from the treasure chest, and a whoopie cushion.  I am told it was a night of perpetual burping and farting, which equals tremendous success.


He brought the pocket knife home, and he now knows how to use and care for it responsibly.  And my favorite part is how proud he is of a treasured possession.


“This pocket knife belonged to my dad.”


“Dude! What happened to your fingers? They’re all, like, puffy and stuff.”

I watch Tuck look at his fingers, quickly evaluating himself, his hands and how they compare, and how to answer the question.

I remember when I was six, after I got my first haircut, when a punk on the playground asked me if I was a boy or a girl. And in that single moment, the question entered my mind that my gender might not be obvious, that I might not be feminine enough to signify my identity, and that I could never, ever again get a short haircut in my life. Hair must be the deal breaker; it must define the girl, I learned.

In the moment with Tucker, I see him fold his fingers into fists, putting them away if they’re going to be a topic of discussion. And I realize this is the moment when the question will enter his mind, whether his hands are abnormal, his fingers are too big, if perhaps he is an odd misfit who must keep his fingers hidden and secret.

Not on my watch, kiddo.

“He has his dad’s hands. Those fingers are big and strong, like his dad,” I say. And I watch Tucker unfold his fingers and look at them again.

“Yeah. I have my dad’s hands. He died. I have his hands.”

Anytime I needed help fastening a clasp on my necklace, he would say, “I’m not sure I can help you very much – remember I have fat fingers.”

When he needed to open something that required precision, he would say, “Bring me those fingernails. I have fat fingers.”

He would input a cell phone number, one digit off. And he would say, “Ah. I fat fingered it.”

His hands were thick and strong. Firm and gentle.

Be proud, Tuck. His hands are yours.

The Very Happiest Thing

The worst part of the big dates on the calendar – anniversaries, birthdays, days we shared, days everyone still shares in capital letters on the calendar – is the anticipation.

It’s the pattern. And I know it’s the pattern. But when I’m in it, it hardly matters that it’s a predictable pattern. All that seems true is that I’m swimming in dread and remembering, and anxiety squeezes my entire body like a blood pressure cuff until I really can’t stand it one more minute and I’ll do anything – anything – to make this stop.

There was a point last week when the messages of “I’ll do anything to make this end” were louder and more powerful than the messages of “This is part of the pattern and tomorrow will be better and easier. You are okay.”

If there had been alcohol in the house, I would have drunk it all. If there were mind altering drugs, I would have taken them by the handful. Consequences be damned. Just let me end this. Let me stop feeling. I was terrified of myself.

My crisis team surrounded me, in body and on the phone. If I said the magic words, we were off to the hospital. If my therapist knew we were past the point of management, we were off to the hospital. I didn’t have the courage to say it myself, but I would have let them take me anywhere.

In my bed, weeping, I listened to Jana’s voice on the phone.

“Tricia, you are okay.”

“I am not okay.”

“Listen to me. You are okay. Your mind is wound around all the things that this week represents, with your birthday and your anniversary, and a dozen other smaller things. Your mind is begging you to stop thinking. Your number one job right now is to go to sleep. I want you to take your sleeping pill, lay very still, and whenever anything comes into your mind, you can tell it, ‘Not now. I’m not thinking about this right now. I’m going to sleep.'”

I’m going to sleep.
I’m going to sleep.
I practiced the mantra.

“That’s right. Just like that. Right to sleep. Call me in the morning, or you know I’m going to harrass you with phone calls and texts until I know where you are and how you are.”

She’s not kidding. I love this about her. There could be no better therapist anywhere, no one more suited to me.

I’m going to sleep.
I’m going to sleep.
I practiced the mantra.

“Mommy? Are you crying?” Tyler stood in my doorway.

“Yes, baby. I’m crying.” I’m crying a lot. A lot.

Tyler is a fixer. He is impelled to bring me things that might help the problem at hand. He brought me tissues. He brought me the Cinderella doll. “Here, Mommy. Here.”

“Here, Mommy. Look at this.” I opened my eyes to see the picture he had drawn and framed himself (he took a different picture out of the frame by my bedside, replacing it with this one). It’s a picture of our family of four, and we are all a bunch of floating heads. The boys and I are clustered together, and a couple of inches away toward the upper right, is Robb. He’s portrayed with a good measure of black. “Here, Mommy. I made this. Look.”

“I can’t look at that right now, lovey.”

“I’ll be right back.”

He came back with his bound book of pictures, Tyler and Daddy. “Here, Mommy. Look at this. When you miss Daddy, you should look at this.”

“No. No. No, Tyler. I cannot. I can’t.” I felt the panic rising again, and I was afraid I might lose myself and yell at him. I was supposed to be falling asleep. That was the plan.

He climbs into my bed and sprawls himselff across me, his head resting on my heartbeat. “Hey, Mommy?”

“Yes, buddy?”

“Do you remember the night when daddy died?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you remember when you needed to give him medicine, and you asked me to go away?”

I do not clearly remember this, but I can picture it. I probably needed to give Robb some dosage of something, and at the same time, three-year-old Tyler was trying to climb into the recliner and into the middle of everything. I’m sure I said something like, “Tyler, not now. Please be somewhere else.” And this is what he remembers. On the day that daddy died, I asked him to go away.

“Mommy, I watched and I watched. I stared and stared. And do you know why? It’s because I wanted to see what someone looks like when they die.”

It doesn’t matter that in this story, the part he remembers, we had no idea that death was imminent. His memory is his reality.

“And now I know what happens. They just – poof!” His hands model a small explosion of pixie dust.

“No, baby. That’s not what happens.”

“Oh, I mean the person becomes invisible.”

“No, that’s not what happens either.”

“Well, what happens?”

I am supposed to be sleeping. That’s what Jana said. But there is a six-year-old in my arms, listening to my voice through the muffled, echoed caverns of my chest.

“His spirit left his body. But his body stayed.”

“Then where is his body?”

“The doctors took it.”

“Well, I want it.”

“No, you don’t, sugar. You think you do, and I know how that feels. But you don’t want his body. It’s not how you remember him. His body is empty now. His spirit is what we loved most, and his spirit is in heaven with Jesus.”

“Oh. Well, I want his body. I want him.”

“Me too.”

And suddenly, I realized that this is another moment he will take with him. He remembers that fleeting moment when I asked him to walk away, and he was only three. Now he is six, and memories have more cognitive space to take root. He will remember this night, his mommy and her puffy eyes, her frantic voice that became softer and softer as the sleeping pill took effect. He will remember how he tried to help. He will remember that I had no answers that were good enough. He will remember this.

I breathed deeply. I stroked his hair. “Tyler, do you know you’re the happiest thing in my life?”

He lifted his head to look at me, “What? No, I didn’t know what.”

“Oh, sweet boy. You are. You are the happiest thing in my life. You’re the reason I am alive, buddy.”

His smile consumes us both. “The very happiest thing?”

“The very happiest thing.”

Dear God, let this be what he remembers of this horrible night on the edge of my existence.