Do you have a kid that’s driving you crazy?
My mother-in-law, Peggy, tells me that when my husband was little she used to cry herself to sleep at night. What was she to do? Her son Bruce was stubborn, feisty, prone to start fights, and known by the neighborhood mothers as a trouble maker. But seriously, he was just a little boy. How much trouble could he be? The answer is: more than you will ever know. Certainly enough to make a young mother, an elementary school teacher known for her way with kids, cry herself to sleep many times.
Looking at him, you would never suspect him as the culprit behind so much neighborhood mayhem. Bruce was all skinny legs and knobby knees–half the size of other kids his age. One leg was almost entirely covered with a purplish birthmark. Bruce calls this his “gammy” leg. His feet were awkwardly shaped. Both turned inward and under, so that the doctors determined they would have to twist his feet into the correct shape and set them in a cast. Bruce was only a few months old when they did this and it was a barbaric procedure. Bruce wailed and Peggy moved to comfort him. That is when the doctor ordered her out of the room. “Out, Mother, out! I don’t need you in here. I have enough to handle with this crying baby.”
At 3 years old, his hair was kept buzzed short by his father, who was a full-time seminary teacher and a part time barber. Of course, Bruce attended church. He went without complaint and attended primary and sunday school with the other kids his age, but you could be certain trouble was always brewing. You’d see him perched on one end of the church bench, his skinny legs dangling and a contented smirk on his face. The rest of the kids who shared his over-crowded bench always sat bunched tightly up on the other end. They all knew better than to sit near Bruce. Why? Because Bruce could not resist to urge to poke, push or pinch them! Poor Peggy. Other mothers complained, teachers telephoned her, and Peggy cried at night.
There was a playground at the center of the neighborhood “quad.” Four identical Wymount Terrace apartment buildings formed the square that surrounded it. Once Peggy went out to fetch her son, only to find him running in circles around the playground, a large fat kid in hot pursuit. “Not again,” she lamented to herself. Bruce had picked another fight. He did this on purpose. He always chose a bigger meaner looking kid as his target, walked up to him and punched him. Then he’d take off running, knobby knees churning circles, skinny arms pumping. Only trouble was, he lost his sense of direction. Running from the bigger kid, Bruce could not recall which of the four apartment buildings was his. He ran several laps around the playground, while the bigger older kid was gaining on him. That is when he spied his mother. He slipped past her and slid into home base. Safe! She found him in his room lying on the floor, panting for air. Tomorrow, she knew, he would do this again.
At age 4 Bruce’s family moved to New Zealand. That is where Bruce began collecting his arsenal of “weapons.” These were kept on the porch just outside by the back door; rocks, a hoe, a rake, some favorite sticks. You can be certain, he did not leave the house without at least one of these items, but mostly he carried a stick in his back pocket. Peggy recalls one night listening to his bedtime prayers. There is one thing he said that she remembers quite distinctly. In all the sincerity of his heart he said: “And thank you for sticks to hit my friends with.” Peggy held it together until she left the room and shut the door. Then she was rolling on the floor laughing. Today, Peggy stills laughs when she tells me this and points out the irony, “What friends? He didn’t have any friends.”
You could punish Bruce for his behavior, but it didn’t seem to do any good. He never let you win. His older brother cried immediately when scolded or spanked. Mark was the sensitive one. Not Bruce. You could spank him hard but he NEVER cried. He just stood there, his hands clenched, his lips pressed hard, eyes on fire. “You cannot make me cry! You cannot make me cry! YOU CANNOT MAKE ME CRY!” He stomped his feet. His black knee-high boots pounded the floor boards with all the willful determination of a spirited 5-year-old. Then he busted out every bad word he could think of. He delivered his worst, “JOBBY WEE WEE STINKY POO POO!” With effort to maintain a stern face, Bruce’s father Ivan hauled him off to the bathroom and washed his mouth out with soap.
But Bruce never backed down. He did not feel contrite. Instead, he ran away. His parents did not worry because Peggy had seen him slip into the small space under the house. It was dark, dank, dirty and full of spiders. Surely he would come out soon. Not Bruce. He had the willfulness and patience to match any punishment. Two hours past, then three. Shouldn’t he be hungry by now? His parents decided not to try and coax him out. “Let him stew a little,” they said. Five, six, seven hours past. He was still there when the sun was sinking and the New Zealand sky was turning shades of orange. Only when it was completely dark did he come out.
Once, Bruce spent the day observing his Maori neighbor at work in her garden. She was eight months pregnant. Her project was an effort as large as her belly, each movement awkward and cumbersome. She spent all day laboring over her garden: kneeling, standing, bending over, digging another hole and planting careful rows and clusters of flowers. Bruce watched all day long. There was something about that woman he did not like. A vague plan was forming in his five-year-old brain and he had the patience to wait for his chance.
When the woman finally stood and stretched her aching back, when she put away her gardening tools and surveyed her garden with satisfaction, when she finally disappeared into her house, Bruce made his move. Small and quick as he was, he made light work of his plan. He sneaked into her garden and then then taking hold of each flower he pulled it from the ground and tossed it aside. Within minutes he had pulled up every single flower.
Just imagine Peggy’s mortification when the neighbor lady showed up at her front door! She was a sweet lady, more perplexed than she was angry. “Why?” she asked, “why would your son do this?” That was the million dollar question. It was the question Peggy asked herself on those nights when she cried herself to sleep. Peggy assured her neighbor they would make things right and went to find Bruce. “Why did you do this, Bruce?” If she was expecting a rational explanation, she was disappointed in his terse response: “I don’t like her,” he said, “because she is fat.” The next Saturday Bruce spent the day working alongside his father planting new flowers.
Something happened when Bruce started school, his attention shifted in a way that changed everything. I can’t really say that he quit being mischievous. He certainly did not lose that fire in his eyes. But all this willful energy and determination found new targets. As the smallest kid in the class he set out to prove himself, first in reading, then in other things. Scouting captured his imagination like nothing else. With the same willful determination that kept him under the house all day long, with the same patience and planning he developed while watching a pregnant lady plant flowers, and with the same endurance of the boy running endless laps around the playground, Bruce went to work.
He slept with his scout book under his pillow. He wore it inside his shirt. He studied it for hours at night with a flashlight. He wore out three scouting books. When he earned his Eagle, he had 74 merit badges, three times the number required. This determination, the will to prove himself against all challenges, also set him to running again, in spite of his unfortunate feet and gammy leg. At age 15, he was running track for his school and completed his first marathon (Pacific Sun, ‘78) at an eight-minute mile pace. He was no Ed Eyestone, but held his own for his Bella Vista high school team.
In every way, he was making his mother and father proud, but Bruce’s mischievous streak never died out. He liked to sneak up behind his mother when she was peeling potatoes and grab one hand. He would hold it behind her back saying, “pretend you just have one hand! Come on it will be fun. Just try!” If he walked past his sister’s bedroom, he pounded on her door as hard as he could and then kept walking. She would start screeching for him to stop and leave her alone. Apparently, this sound was just music to his ears. All things considered, he was not such a bad kid. Bruce hung out with the smart kids at school. There was no drinking, no drugs, no fooling around with girls except for holding hands with Cori Sedgwick.
Of course, Bruce’s parents did not know everything. I am sworn to secrecy about his junior high and high school exploits in California and Utah. I will not discuss pranks involving rocks, rotten peaches, or the eggs that kept disappearing from the chicken coop. I will not tell you about the experiments with chemicals of an explosive nature. I will not mention the mailboxes. And I will definitely not tell you about that incident with a dead frog in the microwave at a Fair Oaks convenience store. If Peggy only knew! There was of course that article in the local newspaper and she might have seen it, but no, she did not connect the dots. I found that yellowed article in Bruce’s file drawer years later. And if I can just figure out where he hid it, I will photograph it and post it here.
Overall, things were going great and Bruce was turning into a fine young man. Teachers loved him and neighbors knew they could count on him to lend a hand. He had big plans, set high goals, and was patiently and methodically reaching them. After high school, he decided to prove himself against nature itself, and enrolled in the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. He spent 30 days hiking in the desert, building his own shelter and eating little more than roasted snakes and grasshoppers. That was so satisfying, he decided to do it again. Two years later he spent another 30 days in the deserts of Boulder and Escalante Utah.
Bruce’s patience and determination eventually paid off in the realm of romance too. Honestly, this guy would not quit. We met on a study abroad program in Israel in the Fall of 1985. I was nineteen and he was twenty-two. At the time, I had a boyfriend, but Bruce was not deterred by this. I guess he thought that just because there is a goalie, that doesn’t mean you can’t score. He wrote in his journal that for the first time in his life he had met a girl he wanted to marry. And that was it. He started waiting and biding his time. He could be patient. He knew what he wanted and he could wait as long as necessary to get it.
He was my best friend and confidant in 1987, that college year when I changed boyfriends like others change their socks and complained there was no one better to date. Once, when I was between boyfriends, he told me how he felt about me. I felt it was my duty to speak plainly and not lead him on. “Bruce, you are like a brother to me and I don’t see that ever changing.” It was a big blow. It’s lonely and dark when you’re under the house with the dirt and the spiders waiting for your chance to prove yourself. But still he waited.
I met his mother, Peggy, that year. I never did meet Bruce’s father who died of leukemia a year earlier. Peggy was not impressed with a girl who could turn down her son and still complain to him that there was no one else she was interested in. After all, he was a great son. He had straight A’s in college and was the one who always planned time to come home for a visit and plant flowers for her in the spring. Once when I visited Bruce’s home, Peggy was determined to show her disapproval of me by giving me the cold shoulder. She tried hard to let her annoyance show, but I never noticed a thing. Instead, I fell asleep on the couch.
Bruce finally won me over two years later. We were married in May of 1989 and I remember a very strange date during our first month as man and wife. Bruce planned the evening. We got in our 1979 Datsun 210, a rusty old car on its last legs. We had just gotten underway when Bruce handed me a paper grocery bag. I looked inside, curious. It was full of walnut sized crab apples. “What is this for?” I asked. “I thought we could eat them if we got hungry,” he explained, as if this were the most natural idea in the world. “These apples haven’t gotten anything to eat on them!” I said. He just grinned at me and laughed. “Actually, I was kidding. I have something else in mind. I collected these the other day because we can have a lot to fun with them.” I sat there with a bewildered look on my face. He cracked an even bigger smile and explained that we could drive around and throw these at other cars. It took me a very VERY long time to realize he was completely serious. And this was the moment when marriage put the first pair of shackles on my husband. I was adamant, “I will NOT do that. And neither will YOU!”
Well Bruce’s days of mischief were over, but this did not stop him from taking a certain pleasure in pranks of that nature. Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude. It refers to the pleasure one takes in another person’s distress. Maybe this tendency comes from watching too many episodes of the Three Stooges as a kid (This was his dad’s favorite show). Even if Bruce no longer instigates such mischief, he still takes vicarious pleasure in it. He likes reading in the newspaper about the college kids who get caught doing some sort of mischief or other. He laughs and calls them amateurs because they got caught. If he sees a house covered with toilet paper, he has to stop and examine their handiwork. When he saw that our mailbox had been bashed in with a baseball bat along with several others on our street, he was annoyed. I could not stop laughing, cause he kind of deserved it. Then he went out and bought a new mailbox and a second one for Turley family around the corner, whose mailbox was also smashed. He installed it for them too and felt proud of his own handiwork. He drove me over to see it, so he could show it off.
In 2005, nature itself presented him with perfect opportunity to enjoy a little Schadenfreude. We were in Austria directing a university study abroad program, when Bruce came across a fresh and steaming pile of horse manure in the middle of a Salzburg city sidewalk. It was high tourist season and Bruce was now certain there would be something new worth seeing. He had our boys with him and lined them up along the building near the horse poop. “Just watch,” he said with glee. “Stay very quiet and watch that pile.” The sidewalk was crowded enough to provide my boys with several entertaining near-misses. But it was a stylishly dressed woman who put her high-heel sandal directly into the middle of the pile. Bruce busted up. And the boys laughed too. I still feel sorry for the poor woman, but I am also laughing out loud while I write this. I can just imagine Bruce’s face, the way his head falls back when he laughs really hard and tears squeeze out of the corners of his eyes. You, Bruce, are a very attractive man when you are laughing like that. It is my favorite thing about you, the way you laugh.
I miss him a lot right now. As a military chaplain he is gone from us on his 11th unaccompanied assignment. In 27 years of marriage we have spent over five years apart. I hate it when he’s gone. Thank goodness it is not a war zone this time. When he was in Afghanistan (2010) his combined Joint Special Operations group lost 12 service members. Hard days. An Osprey crashed on one of their missions and 4 died. The men were nervous to fly after that, so Bruce broke protocol and went with them on their next mission. Maybe it was just psychological, but the men felt better having the chaplain come along.
I also remember 2005, when he was in Landstuhl Germany, where it was his job to greet the wounded as they arrived from the war zone. He sat at the bedside of a soldier with burns over 90% of his body. Over Memorial day weekend on the same assignment, he spent days at the side of young soldier struggling with the decision to turn off life support for his nineteen-year-old wife. Tim had been praying so hard. Shouldn’t God heal her? Bruce talked to him about the death of his own father. “Sometimes,” he explained, “faith is the courage to accept what is.” Another time, instead of holding my hand, Bruce was holding the hand of Sgt. Green, a former Notre Dame basketball star who had lost her shooting hand to an RPG round in Iraq. I can tell you that in spite of what he claimed as a kid, Bruce cries.
I miss Bruce, but I don’t resent him for being gone. How can I demand that he stay home with me, when there are others who need him so much more than I do. Besides, he loves what he does. He is the ultimate Boy Scout now. Helpful, loyal, kind, brave and all that jazz. There is nothing more rewarding to him than this. There is nothing more meaningful.
But his service as a chaplain does not come without a price. The kids and I struggle when he is gone and, sometimes, he struggles when he gets home. There are times when he wakes up in the night sweating and thrashing. He is remembering the predawn Taliban suicide bomb attack on his base in Afghanistan. A few months ago, the airbag in my van malfunctioned and deployed just as Bruce turned the key. For a moment, he was back in Afghanistan and it took 10 minutes for him to calm down. People ask me when is he finally going to get out? After 24 years of service, how many more years does he have to do this? They don’t get it. He can walk away anytime, if he wanted to. But I don’t ask him to do this. That is not something you ask of a man you love. That would be like asking my husband to quit being Bruce.
People tell me all the time what a good man I married and I know it is true, even if he has his quirky mischievous side. He says things he knows will get me riled up, because he loves to get a rise out me. Even after 27 years of marriage, I am not always sure when he is serious or joking. Recently he texted me about the new car I need because the deployed airbag costs more to replace than my car is worth. He wrote this: “Maybe we could just get by with taxis and public transportation and save money.” I was horrified trying to imagine my life without a car and 7 kids still at home. I had plenty of expressions of annoyance that I texted right back at him, concluding with: “I fail to see how this saves us any money!” It turns out he was joking. What a twit! I truly sympathize with his little sister who had to live with him during those obnoxious teenage years. Poor tormented thing. It’s a wonder she is not in therapy over this.
I have been talking to my husband on the phone every day while he is gone. Last Saturday I had the hardest time getting a hold of him. Turns out he was busy doing a little secret gardening. His landlady is over 60, alone, and recovering from complications due to gastric-bypass surgery. Her only daughter died in a car crash 10 years ago and her relationships have all gone south. Her life can feel pretty meaningless and empty at times. Bruce had gone to the nursery and came back with trays of flowers to plant. He worked all morning digging in her flower beds and planting a colorful array of flowers to brighten her day. She was so touched. No one had ever done that for her. That is just like my husband. I don’t really know what makes him the way he is. Maybe deep down Bruce is still doing penance for the flowers he pulled up as a kid.
So why am I telling you this story? Maybe it’s because I imagine there are more mothers out there fretting over their particularly difficult children. Maybe I want you to remind myself that my kid’s most obnoxious traits might be their best talents waiting to grow up… Or… maybe… I just really miss Bruce right now.
My very close friend, Carlene, who has known Bruce and I for 20 years read this post and asked me if it was true. “Yes, of course it’s true.” I guess, she had a hard time imagining Bruce as a troublemaker and told me it was important to tell my readers that I did not make this up. Funny what you don’t know about a person. There are surprising secrets in all of us.
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