The email was time-stamped 8:52 p.m. Sunday, right around the time I was realizing that I’d missed the premiere of Season 2 of True Detective, and just as the U.S. Open was reaching its crescendo.
At the time, I was sitting in front of a blank Microsoft Word file, with so much I’ve been feeling and yet debating what I wanted to say – if anything at all.
I had spent my free moments on Father’s Day – which weren’t many, given the six lengthy walks per day Stella the Wondermutt has decided she requires, the setup of the girls’ backyard pool, an exciting father-daughter-daughter trip to the grocery store, opening arguments in the latest Wilde vs. Wilde case (in this one, I had to decide which sister had told the other sister that she smelled like “poop” first), and a late-evening run to Kohl’s before our 30 percent off coupon expired – thinking about what I was going to write about these past several weeks.
Except, I hadn’t come up with anything – probably because I didn’t really want to actually share how I’d been feeling.
I didn’t really want to share just how not-myself I’ve been. How my ratio of happy-to-sad/mad felt like it’d gone from 90-10 to 10-90. How my temper, which has been largely non-existent for most of my life, had become hare-trigger. (Sorry again, Rob Reischel.) How random occurrences brought me to tears. And how much I miss our daughter Avery, whom I’d never actually met beyond her ultrasound photo – and yet losing her 21 weeks into Paula’s pregnancy hurt me more than any pain I’d ever felt (in a life that has been very good but certainly not heartache-free).
Until now, I had looked at each and every bad thing that had happened in my life as a teachable moment I could later use as a dad. When I inexplicably spiraled into depression over a pre-Paula breakup, I decided when I finally snapped out of it that the experience would give me valuable insight into the emotions my kids would undoubtedly feel someday when they thought they were in “love.”
When my relationship with my own family deteriorated, I took it as motivation to never let the same thing happen with my own children.
And when my friend and mentor Tom Mulhern was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in August and died in October, the best I could come up with was that it was a harsh, unnecessary reminder that I needed to fully embrace the clichéd live-for-today mantra I’d long espoused.
With this, though, I wasn’t finding any valuable life lessons. I was merely one sad, pissed-off guy who was also trying to keep his wife and two daughters afloat while he felt like he was drowning.
And then, an email with the subject line, “My Father, but it will take a moment to get there,” crash-landed in my inbox.
I won’t share the entire email, although given how much it meant to me, perhaps I should. Instead, I’ll simply reprint the passage that left me with tears streaming down my face as I read it to Paula.
I have never met Tim, who’d sent the email. As far as I can tell, I’ve never interacted with him on Twitter or had him call into one of our shows. But for the first time in nearly a month, I feel a little bit better, thanks to him. It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’re not the only person struggling. It’s another to have someone put himself out there like that to prove it to you.
In the past several weeks, I’d received many, many emails, Facebook messages and Tweets from kind, thoughtful people – friends and strangers alike. Some were helpful, including from parents who’d once experienced the same loss we had. Most, though, while well-meaning, didn’t help much. I’m not really interested in such platitudes as “God only gives you as much as you can handle” and “God has a plan” right now.
Frankly, I think His plan sucks. Almost every day, I get a text from John Cary, the executive director of the MACC Fund and a man who’s been like a second father to me, saying he’s praying for me. Which is good, I guess, since God and I aren’t really on speaking terms these days.
But it was Tim, a stranger, who’d not only been feeling exactly how I’d been feeling, but was somehow drawing a modicum of strength from my feeble attempts to move on with my life.
For me, the struggle has been this: I have enough self-awareness to understand that Paula and I aren’t the only people to have experienced this kind of loss. Earlier in my career, I wrote stories about Donald and Betina Driver, and Scott and Julie Wells enduring similar heartbreak, and some of the notes I’ve received in recent weeks have been from dads who know my pain firsthand, because they’ve lived it. And yet, despite a near-constant fear of something going wrong, I had somehow allowed myself to get my hopes up about Avery, just in time to be devastated.
I know how dark this sounds. But given how much of my life I’ve shared publicly over the years – too much, I know some of you would argue – it seemed only fair to share this dark time given all the happy times I’ve shared in the past.
And, truth be told, with each passing day, there has been a bit more light.
I assume that’s because I haven’t forgotten all the good things in my life. I try to focus on cherishing those things, even as I catch myself lamenting what might have been. (Like how excited Madison and Sydney were for Avery’s arrival – especially Syd, who couldn’t wait to be a big sister herself, or how much I was looking forward to being further outnumbered.) I try not to wonder if we’ll have any more chances to, as I’ve been known to call it, expand the roster. I hope so, but the odds seem to be against us.
Rather, I try to focus on Paula and the girls and work and puppy training and the reality that life does indeed go on – and that you have no choice but to keep going, too. And I look forward to the pain, which I know won’t ever completely disappear, receding a little bit each day.
I am thankful for people like Tim, whose timing was impeccable; to friends, who’ve shared their own struggles privately and publicly; and to you, who read this – because you did it for me, not for yourself.
I know Tim and I are going to keep fighting back the darkness with those growing rays of light. I know we’re going to be OK, eventually.
When I first conjured up the idea of a parenting blog at ESPNWisconsin.com, it was – obviously – without any actual parenting experience whatsoever.
That explains the name, The Rookie. It also explains why at some point I stopped writing in it, as I found out that the time-consuming, all-encompassing job of being a parent – along with my other gig – leaves very little time to write about parenting.
So while I envisioned a frequently updated running version of Home Game by Michael Lewis – albeit not as funny or well-written – what I ended up with instead was one of the millions of blogs that begin with good intentions and wind up as the cyberspace version of the abandoned Pontiac Silverdome.
Then came last week, when my wife Paula saw fit to break news that I’d been unwilling – or unable, for reasons I shall explain – to share with even my closest friends: That we are expecting our third child in October, a roster expansion that has would-be big sisters Madison (5) and Sydney (4) already rehearsing their roles on a near-constant basis with the dolls and stuffed animals that reside in our playroom. Puddles the Oregon Ducks mascot and Syd’s ever-present Baby Pig have been rocked and cradled and diapered and shushed with the type of intensity and focus normally reserved for a Green Bay Packers postseason practice inside the Don Hutson Center.
And yet, here I sit, more anxious than eager, more apprehensive than excited.
Paula’s pregnancies with Madison and Sydney went off without a hitch. (Easy for me to say, since I didn’t have to do any of the work.) Having both come from small nuclear families, both of us wanted four kids, which most of the veteran parents we knew discouraged but we sincerely believed would be right for us. And given the way everything seemed to come so easily (again, that statement is not made chauvinistically or lightly) with the first two, it seemed very realistic.
We’d also done a decent job of making sure our family planning coincided with the rhythms of the NFL calendar. We cut it a bit close with Madison, who arrived in January 2010 just 36 hours after I’d gotten home from the Packers’ season-ending loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Wild Card playoffs. Sydney came along 14 months later, in March 2011, and while leaving your eight-months-pregnant wife at home along with a 1-year-old for nine days to cover Super Bowl XLV doesn’t help your Husband of the Year candidacy, we managed.
When we began efforting on No. 3, we learned patience. It didn’t happen on our timeline – although she made the mistake of marrying an old man, Paula was just as motivated as I was to have our kids in close succession – and when I received a photo of the girls spelling out B-A-B-Y in blocks as I stood in the AT&T Stadium press box in Dallas in December 2013, I got the same excited feeling I’d experienced with the girls.
A few weeks later, everything changed. Paula hadn’t been feeling well – definitely not like she had during her first two pregnancies – and we wound up in the emergency room. It was there that I learned a phrase I’d never heard before: Ectopic pregnancy. As I learned, it occurs when the fertilized egg implants itself inside a Fallopian tube rather than reaching the uterus. It happens in roughly 1 in 40 pregnancies in the U.S., and if not diagnosed quickly, it can put the mother’s life in peril. In Paula’s case, it had taken long enough to recognize that the surgery was difficult and the tube had to be removed. In addition, a heartbeat could be heard on the ultrasound.
Now, my wife is the polar opposite of her touchy-feely, sensitive husband, so she rarely shows emotion. This, though, was different. The woman whose Facebook page rarely contains anything beyond Instagram photos wrote about her feelings. I’d never seen her like that.
The next time she became pregnant, she was hyper-vigilant about the possibility it would happen again, even though it was unlikely. But she felt “off” again, and she was right: It had happened again, in the other Fallopian tube. This time, her doctor was able to preserve the tube because of the early diagnosis, but after seeing it happen to her twice, I was ready to be thankful for our two healthy, happy girls and accept that we were done. We talked about in-vitro fertilization, but for us, it was cost prohibitive.
We have had several close friends experience difficult reproductive circumstances – miscarriages, and most painfully, stillbirths – so I was acquainted with the dangers. And for Father’s Day 2007, I’d written a story about ex-Packers center Scott Wells and his wife, Julie, who’d lost twin sons two years earlier. But I'd never thought about the risks until we experienced the loss ourselves.
“Everyone expects you're going to have a baby and everything's going to be fine," Julie Wells said in that story. "You don't ever think about what could happen. And I did take that for granted the first time."
I did, too – with both Madison and Sydney. I was also reluctant when Paula said she wanted to try again, despite what she’s gone through.
So when a January test came back positive, I didn’t get my hopes up. Even as Paula’s blood tests showed the proper results for a normal pregnancy, I was still afraid to get excited. And when the ultrasound showed the baby was right where she/he belonged, my primary emotion was relief.
In the last few days, I’ve tried to be more excited – Paula came up with a couple of fun ideas to announce the impending arrival through photos that the girls had a blast taking – but I find myself struggling to do so. I am reminded of something else Scott Wells said during our interview years ago, after the couple’s second child, Lola, was born. He admitted he’d been nervous throughout the pregnancy, and after hoping for all boys, his perspective was vastly different.
“The whole time was very stressful, because in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Please don't let anything bad happen,’” Scott said then. “I didn't care if it was a boy or a girl. The first one, I really wanted a boy. And then the twins, I really wanted boys. But with her, I didn't care. I said, ‘As long as she screams when she's out, that's all that matters.’”
I’ve had a few friends – some of whom know about the ectopic pregnancies, others who don’t – ask if we were trying for a boy. (Even Paula’s doctor asked me that.) With two girls already, I’m perfectly happy having another healthy baby girl and being even more outnumbered. I’m also not fretting about the scheduled October arrival, which means I’ll almost certainly miss a Packers road game or two and am in for a long, sleep-deprived NFL season. And, as someone who can't guard a folding chair in pickup hoops, I'm ready to switch from man-to-man parenting defense to a zone.
The other night, I changed my Twitter avatar to one of the photos of the girls we’d had taken. I didn’t make any public announcement – a rarity for me, since I can be downright obnoxious with my oversharing of my personal life – and cut off my radio partner Bill Johnson when he was about to mention it on Green & Gold Today the other day. (Paula had posted the news on Facebook.) So I’m trying to transition from worrying about the road ahead to enjoying the ride again.
One thing is certain. When I sat in Scott and Julie Wells’ living room long ago, I obviously had sympathy for them, but it was difficult to grasp the depth of their grief and how difficult the wait for Lola’s arrival must have been. Maybe that’s why they gave her the middle name Faith.
And so, I am trying to keep the faith myself. To those who noticed the avatar change and sent their congratulations, thank you. To those who’ve experienced loss like the Wells family and others, I am sorry. And to Madison and Sydney’s future younger brother or sister, I look forward to your arrival more than you can possibly know.
This is so phenomenal, I had to post it. And yes, I teared up. Bet you do, too.
It was interesting for me to see Brad Stevens take the Boston Celtics’ head-coaching job last week. College basketball is one of the few sports I will watch on television in my free time, and I have been a fan of Stevens for a number of years. I had been impressed by what I’d seen from him, read about him and heard about him from people who’d covered him. He seems like not only a very good coach but a very good guy – the kind of guy you root for.
One of the reasons I developed such an affinity for him was that I found myself fascinated by his sideline demeanor during the games I watched him coach. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge talked in Stevens’ introductory press conference talked about how “poised” Stevens was on the sideline, and as I watched him during Butler’s 2010 NCAA tournament run, I loved the way he carried himself. I never saw him arguing with an official, never saw him loudly and demonstratively chewing out one of his players.
I watched that tournament, of course, with a three-month-old Madison on my lap for most of the games I actually got to watch. And I remember not only being so impressed by his demeanor, but also thinking about how much coaching and parenting are similar. You have to be fun and upbeat and energetic, which I think we saw Stevens be during the Bulldogs’ tournament run (I remember him chest-bumping his guys in the locker room after one victory), but you also have to be calm and under control in stressful, crunch-time situations. In my ideal parenting world, that was the approach I wanted to take with my kids.
For the most part, I felt like I succeeded at that in the first few years of this parenting gig. That’s why I’ve been so troubled by the way I’ve been parenting of late. Because I’ve been too much Bobby Knight and not enough Brad Stevens.
Paula and I knew we were going to be challenged when we had Madison and Sydney just 14 months apart. And I had also had more veteran parents warn me that whoever is responsible for coining the term “Terrible Twos” should’ve waited around for the Threes, which are much worse. With a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old in our house now, there are times that are downright overwhelming, which is probably why talks about expanding our family roster have been tabled for the time being. Timeouts are being handed out almost constantly, and if I weren’t philosophically opposed to spanking, there’d be some very red buttcheeks around these parts, too.
Instead, I’ve found myself yelling way too much, which has left me feeling like a coach who’s lost his way – and is in danger of losing his team.
Because I feel like coaching and parenting are so much alike, I’ve tried to hold myself to the same standard as a parent as I’d hold a coach to in my role as a writer. Is he a good leader? Planner? Communicator? Does he have his finger on the pulse of his team? Does he treat his players equally and fairly but also know that different players need to be coached differently? Is he smart? Confident? Knowledgeable? Does he put his players in the best position to succeed?
I’m not sure if I do all of those things as consistently as I want to, but I try hard to. But amid weeks of fierce independence and out-and-out insubordination from my two-player roster, I found myself losing my way a bit with my sideline demeanor. I’m rededicating myself to being a little more like Coach Stevens. It appears the rebuilding Celtics are going to give him a roster of young players to mold and develop along with that six-year contract he received. But if they don’t trade point guard Rajon Rondo, Stevens -- who's also a father of two with his wife Tracy -- will have to figure out how to connect with a headstrong, know-it-all veteran who might not like to hear what he has to say and might not respect his opinion as much as he should.
Which is exactly how I feel lately.
Zach Sobiech was already gone by the time I found out he existed, which means I’ll never get to thank him for the reminder he gave me – and so many others – about attitude and life.
It was late Tuesday night when I came across his story. Two Green Bay Packers players – offensive lineman Greg Van Roten and rookie cornerback Micah Hyde – had Tweeted links to a 22-minute Soul Pancake mini-documentary about Sobiech, whom I'd later learn had died Monday. Even though it was approaching midnight and I still had more to write about the Packers’ first open full-squad practice of the offseason, I clicked. (The video is posted below. You will cry.)
Now, one of the occupational hazards of keeping Twitter open as I write is that it is a distraction waiting to happen. Earlier tonight, for example, I found myself watching a clip of comedian Frank Caliendo impersonating ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., which led to me watching a clip of Caliendo’s send-up of Jon Gruden’s quarterback school, which led me to Caliendo as Jim Rome and Mike Ditka. Which meant I’d just wasted almost 15 minutes I should’ve been spending on my story about the Packers’ safety position.
The time I spent watching Sobiech’s story was anything but a waste.
The day before, I had been interviewing Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for a story for the annual Packers Yearbook on his relationship with Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer, and after we were finished, I’d mentioned that someone had emailed me recently saying that his It’s Aaron videos, in which Rodgers spends a day with three different MACC Fund kids, were self-serving.
It led to a conversation about attitudes. The quarterback is a smart, deep guy, and he talked about scientific studies of emotions and brainwaves and insisted that the one thing we all can choose to do each morning is decide what kind of attitude we’re going to have that day. Many of us choose to be positive and optimistic. Some of us go the other way.
And then, there was Zach Sobiech. Inspiring seems like too small and inconsequential a word to capture his spirit, considering the impact he’s had on total strangers like me and clearly on those closest to him.
Diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a rare cancerous bone tumor that develops in children, most frequently teenagers and adolescents – in 2009, he underwent multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy before being told in May 2012 that the cancer had spread and was terminal. Sobiech, who turned 18 on May 3, turned to music and wrote the song “Clouds,” which became a YouTube sensation. His story went far beyond the Twin Cities, with CNN, Billboard Magazine and other news outlets featuring him.
Based on the YouTube video and a lengthy takeout on him in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune by Jeff Strickler, Sobiech was “upbeat, optimistic and fun” before his diagnosis. On his CaringBridge site, he was described as being “the same joyful soul he has always been.” Even “Clouds,” which contains some dark lyrics, is sung as an upbeat, bubblegum pop ditty that doesn’t feel like a sad farewell.
So it was on Wednesday morning that “Clouds” was playing on my laptop in our kitchen. I do a fair amount of writing at the counter, which keeps me in the mix for when our daughters Madison and Sydney do something fun. (Or, as has been the case of late, naughty.) The girls heard the song, and Maddie quickly asked, “Dad, what are you listening to?” She and Sydney didn’t wait for an answer, heading straight for their dress-up bin. Unhappy with their options there, they emerged a few minutes later with their nice dresses, which they’re set to wear to a wedding on Saturday.
An impromptu dance recital ensued, which of course required a restart of the song. But it didn’t end there. The show turned into a lesson, with Madison telling me to follow her instructions and learn several of the moves she’s picked up in her 3-year-old YMCA dance class. So here I was, in the middle of our kitchen, doing plies and Bourrée turns in boxers and a t-shirt. I was wiping tears off my cheeks, thinking about Zach's parents Rob and Laura, as the girls requested the song be played again. And again. And again.
It was one of those incredible dad moments I cherish, especially with the knowledge of how quickly such moments can be taken from us.
Our involvement with the MACC Fund and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin has led us to meet some incredible kids – most of them success stories. And after having our own scare with Sydney – the uncertain time we spent waiting to get test results on whether she had Leukemia or something far less daunting was the worst time of my life – helped give us even greater perspective than we already had.
But that perspective always needs reinforcement, and Zach Sobiech delivered more than anyone could ask for in that department. At the beginning of the Soul Pancake video, he says, “You don’t have to find out you’re dying to start living.” He’s right. At the end, he says, “It’s really simple, actually. It’s just, try and make people happy.” And he’s right about that, too.
I hope we all can live the way he did. I feel like I owe it to him. It's the least I can do.
The one television show from my formative years that had the greatest impact on me was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. As much as I loved Ernie and Bert and Big Bird and the Sesame Street gang, it was the soft-spoken, thoughtful Fred Rogers who reinforced on a daily basis the importance of being considerate and kind, about believing the best in people. The show helped me develop my imagination – with daily trips to the Land of Make Believe, where Daniel Striped Tiger, X the Owl, King Friday XIII, Henrietta Pussycat and Lady Elaine Fairchilde lived – and amplified the lessons my parents taught me.
In short, the show helped make me want to be the best me I could be. I’d like to believe that those who know me best would say that I live my life in a way today that exhibits the lessons I learned then.
Since Madison and Sydney arrived in our house, PBS Kids has been a TV staple. While we try to limit their TV time, we also believe that certain shows’ educational value makes them well worth the time to watch. And the show we absolutely love in our house these days is Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
Raving has never been my forte. For instance, on those rare occasions these days when we find a babysitter and go out to dinner, Paula has stopped asking me how my entrée was, since she knows the refrain. (“It was OK.”) The way I figure it, it makes those times when I am enthusiastic about something actually mean something. And I couldn’t be more effusive in my praise for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. (After all, it even got me to write something for my long-neglected parenting blog.)
What I find remarkable about the show is how applicable it is to our daily life with a pair of toddlers. Because Madison and Sydney are only 14 months apart – and Sydney is hell-bent on catching up to her big sister in every way, oblivious to the age difference – they can be an overwhelming duo. But they are also at those fun ages where every day is an adventure in learning and growing, and as a parent, I find that exhilarating. (And, admittedly, sometimes exasperating.) My good intentions to spend more time writing about parenting have been overwhelmed by the time-consuming challenges of parenting. (That, and folks are more interested in the Packers than my parenting travails.) But many of those challenging parenting moments are addressed on the show.
For instance, Sydney has faced her share of health challenges over the past year (as I have written about previously), and Daniel’s trip to the doctor proved helpful as we tried to reduce the fear factor. (Disney Junior’s Doc McStuffins has also helped.) But it’s in the everyday lessons that the show teaches where Fred Rogers’ ethos shines through, with his teachings as an ever-present driving force behind the show.
The other aspect of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood I enjoy is the brief musical ditty that accompanies every life lesson. (Those who hear me warbling bad karaoke on the radio on a semi-regular basis understand why that would be important to me.)
As Sydney follows in Maddie’s potty-training footsteps, the familiar refrain of When you have to go potty, stop – and go right away is heard a lot around our house. When there are daily sisterly disagreements over sharing and taking turns, either Find a way to play … together or You can take a turn, and then I’ll get it back is sung. When someone is upset by something, they are reminded that, When something seems bad, turn it around – and find something good. And in the constant process of reminding the girls to use their manners, Thank you for everything you do is the song of choice. And yes, the songs are catchy enough that I can be heard singing them even when the girls aren’t with me.
Having grown up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, watching Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood with the girls brings back a rush of memories for me. The characters I remember have been replaced by their descendants, Prince Wednesday, Katerina Kittycat, O the Owl and Miss Elaina. (Although Mr. McFeely does make a surprise cameo.) I love that Daniel talks to the girls the same way Mister Rogers talked to me, breaking through the fourth wall. And there’s even an episode in which Daniel takes a trip to the crayon factory, which I still remember Mr. Rogers doing when I was 9. (Having a brother five years younger kept me watching the show even after I’d seemingly outgrown it.) I find myself looking forward to new episodes the way my grown-up friends get excited about the next Game of Thrones episode on HBO.
While my degree from UW-Madison is in journalism, I took as many child development electives as I could, not only because I spent many of my high-school and college years working with kids (coaching t-ball at the YMCA, working as a playground supervisor for the city of Greenfield) but because being a dad was something I wanted to be for the longest time. (It only took me until I was 37 for it to happen.) I am learning more about kids every day – and am frequently reminded of how little I know about them or about parenting – but if there’s a more effective way to teach kids these lessons than Daniel Tiger’s approach, I have yet to see it.
More veteran parents have told me repeatedly that this job will only get harder. Bigger kids, bigger problems, they say. And I believe them. (Watching the neighbors’ 15-year-old freshman son and two of his buddies chop down a towering tree this afternoon reminded me of how dumb we all are during our teenage years.) I can only hope Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood tackles learning to drive, overcoming peer pressure and prom night when I need them to.
Until then, we will continue to learn that Grownups come back, that Friends help each other, yes they doand that When you feel so mad that you want to ROAR, Take a deep breath and count to four. 1…2…3…4…