State of the Rob (Delayed)

The fact that I’m writing this almost a full three weeks after my birthday passed (February 17th – mark your calendars for next year) should give you a basic idea of what the state of the Rob is this year. I like to write these entries on or as close to my birthday as possible as a chance to reflect on the past year, see where I’ve been and look forward to where I’m going in large part so that I’ll have a record of such things building over the years. That I do it publicly on a blog these days is less a reflection of my desire to lay all bare on the table than it is a reflection on my laziness in establishing a more private, though slightly less convenient, forum for such things. So, with that in mind, please bear with me.

This has been a rough year. My mother passed in November of 2005, and just three months later I turned 31. So it’s really in this 31st year that I’ve had to deal with the grief over this loss, which is by far the greatest I have experienced. It is, in fact, one of the three greatest losses I could have had in my life to this point, the other two being my wife and my father, and one might argue that, of the three, the loss of my mother would be the most profound. I’m not eager to prove that theory, though, so my wife and my father are required to stay alive for at least another decade.

In my grief, I frankly simply do not remember a large chunk of this year. My memories of this year are largely sad and filled with a deep depression I was none to eager to burden my loved ones with. So I spent a large portion of the year faking a smile and trying to keep my mind in a state of semi-denial. That has absorbed a large amount of brain power and, whether it is because I was unable to form memories or simply chose not to call them up, too much of 2006 has been a fuzzy blank.

My wife and I met another tragedy which, in light of my mother’s passing seemed fairly minor to me, but added significantly to the ripple of emotions I have endured this year. In about May, we learned that my wife Danielle was pregnant. This had the effect of lifting me out of my depression for a while, giving me something to look forward to and, more importantly, a significant reason to buck up. It also sent sharper waves of grief through me knowing that our child would never know its paternal grandmother, which is wrenching as there’d be no doubt that she’d be the one to dote on and spoil our children the most. My wife, who previous to this pregnancy had pronounced on many occasions that she wasn’t sure she wanted children in large part because she was told, due to several health-related issues, that conception would be unlikely, was suddenly filled with all of the standard joy and fear a young parent to be is expected to experience. She swung strongly between loving the idea of being a mother and talking extensively to the child now forming inside her to crying over fears of our ability to afford a child and be good parents. I spent much time assuring her, as I always do and always firmly believe, that, so long as we stay strong, it would all work out.

A couple of weeks after the initial news, during what was supposed to be a routine checkup, we learned the fetus was no longer viable. A DNC (what the doctors kept insisting on calling an “abortion”, though we constantly corrected them and reminded them that this was not an unwanted child) was scheduled and my poor wife, whose emotions had been rocky to begin with since the initial news, swung even more wildly in her moods. But she is far stronger emotionally than she gives herself credit and, though she still occasionally deals with bouts of grief over this loss, has completely taken on the challenge of trying again for a child. The woman who once questioned whether she even wanted a child in her life is now completely determined to make it happen. We are hoping upon hope that this is the year we become parents, and as fearful as it seems, both of us are committed.

We shared all of these experiences with my father. In the past, he would probably have been updated occasionally on these things in my life, but it would be my mother who would receive all of the details and be most involved. When my parents divorced when I was seven, my mother took full custody of me with my father gaining visitation rights every other weekend and on Tuesday evenings for dinner, plus the occasional special event. While that’s the way the law was written, in truth my mother never did anything to keep me from seeing my father or vice versa. If my dad and I wanted to get together on an “off” weekend or what have you, mom never questioned or challenged it. It was important to her, she said, that my father and I have a relationship.

But Dad and I never really were able to form a deep bonding relationship like the one I shared with my mother. One could argue that the distance caused by the divorce was partly to blame, but in truth a large part of it had more to do with the fact that my father and I are very, very different people. The best way to think of it is using the old high school metaphor – I’m a nerd and Dad’s a jock. That’s always been the case. We have tried in the past to cross into each other’s worlds – I played football in high school for a year and Dad tried to understand my fascination with science and computers – but most such efforts ended in failure, in large part due to our individual self-centeredness. I wasn’t all too willing to give up on my academics and other hobbies to excel in sports and Dad became too easily frustrated with my technobabble. All in all, we’ve maintained a mutual understanding relationship. I can only think of a handful of what I’d consider arguments that we have had and, aside from his constant insistence that I lose weight otherwise no woman would find me attractive (I know now that he always intended this to be encouraging and supportive and that it came from a loving place, but instead it came across to me as cruel and demeaning, significantly eroding my sense of self worth over the years), we’ve always maintained a decent, albeit not stellar, relationship. I can say with great confidence, though, that I have never lied or stretched the truth when I have said that I love my father. At the end of the day, he is my father and, while there are times when I wish things were different between us, I could do far, far, far worse than him.

When I lost Mom, I’m ashamed to say that one of the thoughts that floated through my mind was, “Crap, she stuck me with him!” At the time I had no idea how to really express any of my feelings with my father, especially such pain as I was feeling to my very core, We shared so little in that sense over the years that I feared it would be awkward and divisive. But that man amazed me, and continues to do so to this day. He jumped in and acted truly and genuinely as a parent. When I really, really needed my Dad, he was right there. He was strong, supportive, helpful and willing in a way I had never seen nor experienced, and our relationship took a deep substantive and permanent change that I am now extremely grateful for. It sucks that it took a tragedy such as the loss of my mother to make it happen, but this transformation is genuinely enough to make me forget about any of my past grievances toward him. When I needed him most, he jumped in without hesitation or faltering. That’s the real definition of a father, and I’m proud to call him mine.

He did the same when we learned that we had lost the baby. Supportive and comforting, he shared with me the trials and tribulations involved in their attempts to have me. Later when I told him that Danielle and I were trying in earnest to make it work for us again, I made some mention about how she had the same difficulties conceiving that Mom did due to them having similar health issues. Dad balked at this, “What do you mean, Mom had difficulty conceiving? She didn’t have any health issues like that.” I explained that yes, she did, and she told me that’s why it was so hard to have me and why they’ve always considered me something of a miracle baby. We ended the conversation awkwardly.

I learned a couple of months later why that conversation went the way it did. I hesitate to talk about this because it is clearly something my mom didn’t want to talk about, but since it involves me and I think it may be helpful for other folks dealing with these issues, I’m going to bring it up here. Dani and I went down to Orange County to put the final touches on my mother’s condo to get it ready for sale sometime around August. This was an emotional trip for me as I had been dragging my feet on the condo (and am now totally paying the price for it – it’s still on the market) not wanting to deal with it all. Dad came out all the way from Perris to help us out. While we worked, we chatted about things and Dani and I somehow reiterated our desire to have a family. Dani left the room to take a shower so we could go out and have lunch. When she did so, Dad told me to sit down, he had something to tell me.

Good Christ, that’s never a good sign. I thought for sure he was going to tell me something like he’s dying to Grandma’s dying or – good Lord – Grandma died and he didn’t tell me because I was already grieving for one family member. In a million years, I never would have guessed what he did finally spring on me.

He brought up the conversation we had about mom having a hard time conceiving and explained that, while she did have some health issues, her health had nothing to do with the trouble they had. He then went into a discussion about how, as a child, he had a fever (Pink Floyd still plays in my mind when I think of this moment – I laughed about it to myself at the time, which was inappropriate considering how serious Dad was being). This fever, which may have been rubella or scarlet fever or some other such thing, though he didn’t know what, was pretty serious, but after it went away he didn’t think anything of it. When he and my mother started trying to have kids, nothing seemed to work. They ran all kinds of tests on my mom but couldn’t figure out what was happening. They finally ran tests on my Dad and learned that the fever had left him incapable of fathering children. This came as a crushing shock to him, especially when he shared the diagnosis with his mother, who replied, “Oh, we knew that.”

Both parents still wanted a child, especially a child conceived between them. They explored adoption as an alterative, but they weren’t convinced that was the right avenue for them. Another option presented itself – artificial insemination. UCLA had a program at the time that did controlled insemination for parents having difficulty conceiving on their own. In the case where the father could not provide sperm, an appropriate donor was found within their bank of donors. Most of these donors came from students in the medical program itself. The parents had the opportunity to select a donor based not only on basic looks and ethnicity, to best match the parents, but also on certain other traits. For example, they identified donors with talents in music, mathematics, athletics, etc.

UC Irvine had a similar program which was closer to where my parents lived at the time, so the folks at UCLA directed them there. It was an extremely expensive and highly regarded program – so highly regarded that people came literally from all over the world to partake in it. Dad says that when they were in the waiting room, few of the people there were native English speakers. He listened as they spoke either in barely recognizable languages or strongly European accented English.

My parents selected a donor based mainly on his physical attributes. They weren’t given any pictures or anything like that, just a written description of his basic features – hair color, eye color, skin tone and ethnicity, as close to my father as they could muster. The first attempt failed, but the second one took and, lo and behold, I was born.

In telling me this story, Dad took great pains to explain that, while we don’t technically share any genetic material, he was still my father. From the moment he said he had a fever as a child, I understood what he was telling me, but I let him keep going. In the entire telling, the question of whether or not he was still my father never really crossed my mind – of course he’s my Dad! But I immediately felt as though the rug had been pulled out from under me yet again. I quickly pulled myself together, assured him that I was OK and, when Dani got out of the shower, we retold the story in a bit of an abbreviated form, then went to lunch.

Dad was noticeably unburdened by having finally told me about all this. He said that he had wanted to tell me many times before – back when I was 18 and leaving for college, again just before I got married – but each time he gave my mother a heads up and she strictly forbade him from doing so for fear of how I might react. I get the sense that she almost had some sense of shame over it, understandable only given the mores and attitudes her and her parents’ generations had toward such things. I wish she were alive so that I could tell her plainly that there’s nothing to be ashamed of and show her that I’m handling the news more or less well.

More or less.

After lunch ended, Dani and I went back to the condo and Dad went home, pleased that he had not only finally gotten this off his chest – which, by the way, has been reflected in an even further strengthening of our bond and relationship – but that I hadn’t fallen apart over the news. Back at the condo with just Danielle, I fell apart over the news.

You go 31 years in your life thinking things are a certain way without question and without reason to question. As I grew older, I had been looking in the mirror for some signs of my parents and had clearly seen my mother looking back at me, but struggled to find my father. My deep-set eyes and brow ridge I attributed to him, as I did my stocky build. I had long used myself as proof that environment has as much if not more to do than genetics with how one turns out. My aptitude for science and knowledge, I always argued, came from my mother introducing me to all kinds of science books and such as part of her attempts to educate me at home before I was ready even for pre-school. In one fell swoop all of that – everything I had ever assumed and thought of myself in relationship to my father – was ripped away, replaced with a gigantic void. Even plans for my own death – for every Zazueta male that anyone can remember has died of some form of cancer, never the same cancer twice – was affected by this news. You have no idea reassuring it is to have an inkling of how you’re going to die. That reassurance is gone.

Dad said he felt the time was finally right to tell me about all this because, in trying to have our own children, Dani and I would be asked in depth about our medical histories. He wanted me to be able to honestly tell the doctors that I did not know anything about my father’s side of the family in order to not lead them down the wrong path. This is a good reason and I’m genuinely glad that I now know, but I wish someone had told me much, much earlier in my life. And, as much I love my father, for reasons already explained I wish that person had been my mother.

For a while, my pain finally hit the anger stage psychologists always assure we go through in our stages of grief. I was angry at my mother for not telling me, especially when she had heard me voice my concerns over not seeing my father looking back at me in the mirror or my assurance of death by cancer (I picked skin – given all the sunburns I’ve had it made the most sense). More importantly, I was angry at her for not trusting me with the information, for assuming I’d fall apart or what have you upon finding out. Our entire relationship was predicated on a strong trust and assurance in each other, that we had no secrets and knew each other better than just about anyone else. That she held this from me, the biggest secret of them all, hurt a great deal.

Had she been alive when Dad told me, my flash of anger would have come out as frustration – “Geez, Mom, why didn’t you tell me?” But it would have lasted all of five minutes as we delved more into the details, discussed how I really felt about it and she assured me that, ultimately, nothing changed. But she’s wasn’t there to comfort me to discuss it with me – the one and, really, only person in the world I wanted to call to discuss it with – so it wasn’t alright. And, either way, it’s inescapable that, while technically nothing has changed, inside everything has had to change.

Since hearing this news, I have gained a great deal of clarity over incidents in my life. One night, shortly before I was to graduate from high school, my father made a rare call to my mother. Their relationship following the divorce had always been what I’d call civil, but you could always sense the tension and knew that, were it not for me, they’d be at it tooth and nail, assuming they had any communication with each other. When I passed the phone to my mom, the tension in her voice rapidly changed to anger.

“No, you will NOT discuss that with him,” I knew they were talking about me, but I had no idea why or what about. “No, it is not your place to do that. If it’s something I want him to know, I will tell him myself, and God help you if you do it.” Then she hung up on him.

She rolled back into the livingroom like thunder at the end of a storm. I asked what the conversation was about and she said, in a tone that clearly told me to drop the subject, “It’s a personal matter between your father and me. He’s just drunk and I don’t want to discuss it. Perhaps it’s something I’ll tell you about when you’re older.”

I dutifully dropped the subject and tried to bring it up years later when I was in college. She was visiting me in Berkeley, something she frequently did, and crashing on my futon. LAte into the night we had one of our long, deep discussions that ran all over the map. During the particular discussion I laughed that my constant state of singleness, due in large part to my low self esteem bred by my father’s insistence that I was too fat, probably had him thinking I was gay. Mom, very seriously, said she and her girlfriends at work had discussed that very topic – my sexual orientation – and had come to the conclusion that, while I was probably straight, she’d be supportive if it turned out I wasn’t. Shocked by this admission, I figured that, since we were discussing topics of such weight, I could broach the topic of what happened that night my Dad called. So, after professing profusely my love for the ladies (I’m straight, but not narrow) I tried to bring that discussion up. She barely remembered it – or pretended to, I don’t know – then said that, yes, there were some things that have happened in her life that she would want to discuss with me, but she still wasn’t ready to talk about them. Perhaps some day.

Well, some day never came. You can plan for so much, but you can’t plan when you’ll have a sudden heart attack that will take your life, even after you’ve spent so much time getting your health in order. I’m still frustrated that she never had the conversation with me, that I had to wait until she was gone and hear it from my father, with whom it’s still a bit awkward for me to have deep emotional conversations. But I’m no longer angry. Still, not a week goes by when I don’t have some memory or some ancient mystery in my life suddenly brought into a fresh light, explained by the new information I now have. A lot more makes sense to me, but a lot still needs to be worked out.

Lest you think my entire year was marred by tragedy and sadness, I should point out the things that happened this year that have worked out. In addition to my already exhaustively covered grief, my mother’s death left me with a stronger sense of my mortality, in that you genuinely never know when today may be your last. Up to her death, I had felt as though I were coasting through life, just keeping my head above water but not really taking the reins. When she passed, I felt a strong sense that I not only needed to live for today, but I had to do something to make her proud of me. She was always, always proud of everything I had ever done, and thanks to her I have accomplished a great deal in my life. But I know there’s more to do, and I decided to stop waiting around for the perfect moment and, instead, brought the perfect moment to me.

In December I told my boss Rob that I would soon leave him to work for myself. I didn’t have a plan in place yet, but I wanted him to know it was on my mind and coming. Rob Stankus has always been an incredibly warm and supportive person, and, being the founder of him own company, for which I worked at the time, he understood what called me to set out on my own. In May, when I found out Danielle was pregnant, I decided that if I was going to set out my own, that would be the time. I had already begun looking for clients and work and telling people my plans, but the news that I would soon be a father was enough to make me finally make the final push. I told Rob that, in three months, I would set out on my own. I wanted to give him ample time to phase me out and make his plans as necessary. In September, I bid farewell to the work-a-day world as an employee and started out as a freelancer, slowly forming what would become TechKnowMe. Rob decided that, rather than find a coder to fill my vacant position – one in which every single web project became mostly my responsibility – he would contract that work out to me, a huge boon that has greatly eased the transition from employee to self-employed.

I said at the time that this would either be the greatest move I ever made or the dumbest. The answer to that has not yet borne out, but so far things are moving along well. I have the typical cash flow problems any new business experiences, but I have been using my inheritance to help float us while I get things up to speed. It’s still a one-man operation, but I’m currently in the process of finding people who can help contribute in order that I may move from being self-employed to being a business owner.

Danielle and I, as mentioned, are now making a concerted effort to conceive and have our first child. So far, we haven’t had much luck, but we’ve sure had fun trying. It’s amazing to see how sharply she turned the corner on children. I have always told her straight up from the moment we met that I wanted to become a father some day. She has always vacillated between wanting children and sparing herself the pain of trying. She named our daughter to be almost from the time we met – Aria Marie (though, in light of recent events, I’m pushing for Aria Michele) – and has prodded me for a good boy’s name for years (she refuses to keep up the tradition on both sides of my family of naming the first born son Robert). In the past we’ve talked extensively about how we’d raise our children, the fun things we could do with them, etc. So her protestations that she didn’t want to have children have always rung hollow. For every unconvincing reason she has given for not wanting children, she has always had ten extremely convincing reasons to have them. When she learned that conception was, indeed, possible, she jumped full force on the motherhood train. Certainly, she has her doubts, questions and concerns, but in the end she wants nothing more than to hold and guide a little bundle of our own. I look forward to that day with great anticipation and hope it comes soon.

When Mom died (go ahead and count how many sentences I’ve started with a similar phrase in this post – it will show you how significant this event has been to me) it was the first time I had been in a church for a real service in quite a while. Yes, Dani and I got married in a church, but that seemed more a concession to tradition than anything else. When Mom died, we felt it necessary to have a memorial for her friends and family for closure, even though it was something she was fervently against (on one occasion when she so stridently said to not have a funeral for her when she goes, my wife stood up and argued with her, saying “The funeral isn’t for you, it’s for the survivors. I don’t care what you want, we’re having a funeral.” Mom backed down at this realization and said, “Fine, have a memorial service for me, but I don’t want to be displayed in a casket or have my ashes on the altar or whatever. That’s too gruesome.”). We held the memorial at the same church Mom took me too when I was very young in an attempt to instill Christian morality. I stood before the gathered throng of 200 or so and delivered my tearful eulogy. This, oddly enough, gave me a bit of comfort and closure at the time.

When we first found out Dani was pregnant, there was some question then whether the fetus was viable. They used an ultrasound machine but could detect no heartbeat. Just to be sure, they took us to a better ultrasound machine that had better resolution. As they prepared the instrument, I found myself praying like I never had before. I’m not a religious man by any stretch, but I consider myself very spiritual. I believe in something like God, but I’m not sure if it’s the same God everyone else believes in. I have some very funny ideas about religion, faith, God and such that I may, perhaps, share with you in detail some day. But at that moment, when the small flicker of light that floated me above my darkness looked like it was about to flick out completely, I reverted to my old Christian ways and made a promise to God that, if He made this work out, I’ll start going back to church. Within moments I heard the most beautiful sound I have ever heard – that of the heartbeat of my unborn child. In light of what happened later, that moments is cast with a bit of heartbreak but, thinking back to it now, I can only think of how much I’m looking forward to hearing that sound again.

That Sunday I practically dragged Danielle, who had always agreed with my Mom’s belief that the basic morality taught by the Christian church – or really any religion, for that matter – is a good thing for a child to have and had been pleading with me to start going to church, to St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopalian in Concord, down the road from where we live. Being raised Catholic, she didn’t mind that we attended an Episcopalian church, but she did mind, and still does, that it takes up such a chunk of her Sunday. We started attending at first solely as parishioners but, as their contemporary choir leaders prepared to leave for other things and needed new voices, soon joined the choir. Always one who enjoyed singing in public, I joined first and, as the please for more voices grew more desperate, Dani followed. We now sing every Sunday morning at the 9am mass, arriving an hour early for practice. The people there have been warm, welcoming and wonderful and it has provided some comfort to me through all the rough patches we had this year. And, while my beliefs have not changed, I don’t feel too hypocritical  as it seems this ministry is at least open to the idea that the Lord’s work is still largely a mystery and no one really has the right answers. As I write this, the Episcopalian faith is embroiled in an argument over whether to allow openly gay members into the church, allow them to join the clergy and whether it’s right for them to marry. I’m proud to say that my congregation seems tolerant enough to be largely in favor of all three. If another great schism comes, I believe my congregation will fall on the right side.

I had been dreading the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. When Nov. 15, 2006 rolled around, I tried to ignore it. I was busy, as I always am these days, with loads of client work and I allowed myself to be buried in it as a coping mechanism. But I also felt it was wrong not to do at least acknowledge the loss and perhaps spend some time meditating on it. Then something weird happened. It was as if I heard a voice welling up from inside me saying, “I know you can’t really let go, but you need to move on. You’re done mourning as of now.” I felt that depressive cloak lift from my shoulders and, over the next few days, I began realizing how little I really remembered about the past year and was determined to shake the funk completely and get on with the work of celebrating her life by living my own. I can’t express how freeing that has been for me. I feel strong and confident again, though I still have bouts of grief and  sadness here and there. But rather than letting them suck me in, I instead take them as a challenge to do her proud, to enhance my life and look forward to the day when I’ll, hopefully, get to be with her again. Though not too soon, I still have a lot to do around here.

So, going into year 32 I’m back to my old belief that, so long as you keep working, fighting and moving forward, everything will work out just fine. In fact, that belief is stronger than other. People ask me what it’s like to be in business for myself, planning a family and dealing with all of the things currently on my plate and the answer is always the same – “Terrifying.” But it’s not that sort of terror that paralyzes you. It’s more the terror you feel on a big roller coaster with one too many loops – an exhilarating terror that seems overwhelming in the moment but that you know will work out in the end so that, when I look back on it with some time and experience under me, I’ll remember just how much fun I had and want to jump right back in line. Still, it does make me want to retch occasionally.

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