Friday, July 11, 2014

The 90's

Spencer Dryden


If you came to this blog today for reminiscence on music, art, culture and politics of the 90's including the definition of what "is" is, you've come to the wrong place. I missed all that. The 90's was a decade of painful personal transformation for me, that continued into the 21st century and truthfully continues to this day.

In 1988 I stood at the altar and repeated the words, 'for richer or poorer, in sickness and health' know the rest. For those who have married, you know you don't really know what your are pledging. I didn't, and it's better  I didn't know. I'm pretty sure I'd have chickened out and missed the most important things of life.

It was a second marriage for me. The first was a disaster from beginning to end—another three or four blog posts that won't leave you or me any better understanding of how badly things can go when you lack boundaries and are driven by imperatives that deny your humanity. To summarize, it left me with a desire never to recite those words again.

During the early 80's I was single again, having the time of my life. Maybe we'll do a segment on the 80' sometime. I'll have to use a different pen name though.  I was alive and on fire then, grasping for every carnal pleasure that was denied in the 70's.

The heart heals. I met a wonderful woman who made me forget all the pain. I proposed on Valentines day of 1987 so I would never forget the day. I didn't want children, but I knew our marriage wouldn't work without children. As long as she took care of them I thought I could endure. She was willing and anxious to be a wife and at-home mom.

At the start, we were both well paid white collar professionals. After many slips and falls my commercial insurance career was finally gaining traction. Better still, I was closing in on a life long dream in television, producing and hosting a community television program about medical technology. I was merely a nod away from the local public television station from stepping to a much higher platform. I had become an avid DIYer and was near completion of the renovation of our turn of the century Victorian home.

We announced our first pregnancy to tears and hugs from my in-laws. It was all golden glow. The plan was that my wife would stay home, my commercial insurance and television careers providing us all we needed to live above the fray.

It was a difficult pregnancy but my wife bore it with grace. We went to Lamaze classes and practiced breathing to Yanni music. Deliver day arrived at last. Instead of Yanni and a few pushes, the delivery room had nearly thirty people in attendance working feverishly to deliver our baby, who was stuck in the birth canal too far to be delivered by C section—putting both lives in jeopardy

In the frantic final minutes the OBGYN did an episiotomy on my wife with a hedge clippers and  no anesthetic while a nurse was pressing her full weight on my wife's abdomen. I was quite certain her screaming marked the end of our sex life. Out he came at last.

I did the most rational thing I could think of when I saw my son. I burst into tears. But the moment joy of August 18th 1991 lasted about a minute. Something was wrong with our baby. He was breathing but still blue. They whisked him away before my wife could even hold him.

Two agonizing hours later, a cardiologist came to our room to explain that our son had a congenital heart defect. The fear, agony and terror of that moment are still bewildering. It  sucks the air from my lungs and puts a lump in my throat.

Back in my childhood in the 1950's I remember hearing women say, someone had a 'blue baby and it died'. We had a blue baby. They rarely lived more than a week. But by 1991 there was immediate surgery and more later that might offer him a chance at life. No promises.

My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a child at birth. The meeting with the cardiologist was the beginning of my decade of transformation. I had planned to go back to work the next day.  My career aspirations were gone in a moment. All I wanted was  to do whatever we could to give our son a chance for life. It's a time when you have to be as brave as you can be and not give into to the paralysis of the unknown. We had to make hard decisions every day. In those first days, every time we held our baby, we did it with the awareness it may be the last time. But we turned him over to the doctors time and time again—living in limbo between grief and gratefulness.

We lived on pins and needles, always at the edge of tears. He had major surgery when he was 18 hours old. Then they sent him home after nine days in the ICU, hopefully to grow big enough to have major heart reconstructive surgery. And if he survived, an unknown future. My wife wouldn't leave his side and when she had to come home without her baby she wouldn't go into the nursery I had worked so hard to prepare.

The thing you don't know, that I didn't know, was how much courage you have when you have to have it. So I offer that as a message of hope. You have it. It's there in a very special reservoir in the heart, you won't fail. It's hard to relive this time again enough to tell it well. I still collapse into tears wondering how I managed to work, to get through, to process and decide and most of all not give into the the fear.

Our lives turned inward,  we lived one day at a time, one follow -up appointment at a time. He survived the neonatal surgery and six months later after three false starts he had major reconstructive surgery. He survived that too. One day at a time it became apparent he would live.

Our tension subsided as he began to do normal things, but fears about his prognosis were no more than a careless thought away.

My wife had been deprived of the peaceful joy of a newborn. She desperately wanted another child. I acquiesced, of course. 

By April of 1994, my career was slipping away with my changing priorities-which didn't sit well with my boss (oddly enough a single mom). I was dumped unceremoniously about three weeks before our second child was born.(Mommy tracked as they say.) His birth brought me no joy, only the terror of wondering how we would make it work. My father-in-law, my best scotch drinking buddy, died very suddenly in May.

There was no way to afford two children in daycare. I had been unable to find work so when the measly termination payout ran out we slipped into financial distress. (Okay armature psychologists let's stop for a stress test : a special needs baby, a newborn, loss of a job, loss of a loved one-each one in the top ten of life stressors. Add looming bankruptcy.) Apparently I lost my mind because I suggested to my wife that I stay home with the kids. She agreed. How hard could that be? Six weeks later I was down at the Women's Center trying to surrender. I get it now, why modern women are so stressed. I was a wreck.

The transformation continued. The goal oriented, task oriented mentality which served me so well with work was detrimental, if not downright harmful when trying to raise children. We sold our big house and moved to a small house in the suburbs. There were no other at-home kids in our neighborhood. I have since said in all seriousness to anyone who thinks life is passing by too fast: get yourself a rambunctious toddler and a fussy baby that are on completely different biological clocks, no money and no where to go- a day lasts forever. All three of us sat by the window and wept when my wife left for work each day. We learned how to live large on less.

What few guys realize is that caring for young children happens mostly in state of profound sleep deprivation. In fact, if you look at strategies for interrogation of prisoners of war it is a combination of isolation, harassment, and sleep deprivation that turns prisoner's minds to mud. I give you the life of an at-home parent of young children.

I had done some business writing so my redeeming hope was to become a male Erma Bombeck. That dream died under a pile of dirty laundry. Turns out, Erma's kids all slept at the same time and she had the constitution to arise very early in the morning to do her writing. Never happened with me.

I disappeared into the identity of my kids. I became Max's and J.R.'s dad, having lost my own identity. I see a lot of moms shaking their heads. it was a regular topic at the parenting programs I participated in. (As the only guy with at-home kids)

For me the the 90's was about Thomas the Tank Engine, Radio Ahs, The Power Rangers, Disney and Pixar movies and endless housework. Fine dining was ordering large fries with my happy meal. It's all a blur now. I'm looking forward to the other posts so I can see what I missed.

We entered a new century and a new set of challenges-school, but that was after the 90's. Another decade went by.

My boys have turned into fine young men. There wasn't a hint of it even a few years ago. According to all the modern parenting paradigms I did everything wrong. Our number one son had learning problems in addition to his heart problems. We never did get those addressed very well. He barely passed the minimum standards for high school graduation. Today he is an assistant manager at a Jimmy Johns Franchise and makes more money than most college grads-without the attendant debt. Thing 2 continues to be the child from another planet. He's trying college again having flunked out in his first semester two years ago.

Rewards? Not the money and fame I craved as a young man. My wife and I have been married for twenty-five years now. There is a richness in our relationship that only comes from linking arms and walking though the storm together. The unexpected reward was that all the caregiving gave me the skills and heart to care for my mother in her final days. We had a great time together. In the aftermath of her passing I got another silly idea-writing erotic fiction.

To the universe and beyond.


  1. Wow, Spencer, that was really touching. You have been through it! One of my children has a serious, chronic health condition, so I really relate to your story. I feel like if you wrote a fictionalized novel based on your life, a lot of people would want to read it.

  2. Thank you Sybil:
    "If Men Had Babies, We'd Be Extinct By Now" is the non-fiction account of my life as an at-home dad that has had many false starts. I hadn't thought of doing a fictionalized version. I'm sure critics would scoff at the fact that it couldn't be real.

  3. Jeez, Spencer-

    Upon occasion, I've related (and will doubtless relate again) the health trials Momma and I had in our early years, but her illness made it impossible to have children, so we missed that part of it. Can't say I'm sorry.

    I'm sure you can look back on the richness of what you've accomplished. You came out the other end as a quite sensitive and eloquent human being.

    You said-
    The thing you don't know, that I didn't know, was how much courage you have when you have to have it.

    From afar, it takes what we think of as a superhuman resource, but as you say, Spencer, the strength does come through, if difficult to live. Sometimes we don't get to make the choices; they're made for us, and all we can do is follow one foot in front of the other, or like on a conveyor belt, circumstances out of our control.

    And we can thank the powers that be for the level of our medical professionals.

    1. Daddy:
      Yes much good fortune that our son was born at the right time and in the right place. We live in the heart of Medical Alley where we only had to go across town and not across country to get the help we needed. We are also blessed with excellent medical coverage or I really would be writing from the refrigerator box dwelling I refer to humorously. For both I am grateful beyond words.

    2. Both Momma and I owe our lives to UCSF and the Kaiser medical system.

  4. Thank you for this. It's beautifully written, and I'm glad you and your family made it through all this.

    1. Thank you Annabeth:
      Actually you are never out of the woods with this kind of condition. Two years ago he was headed in the direction of a heart transplant but they installed a pacemaker and he is fine for now. On top of that he was nearly killed in a freak accident with a four wheeler just before his 18th birthday. So we've also had that call "Your son's been in an accident and is being airlifted to the hospital." Then the line goes dead because the caller is at the edge of cell phone range. Sometimes miracles are measured by what doesn't happen.

    2. My daughter and her husband had just such a call - your son has been injured and is being life-flighted to the hospital. They were in Manhattan and it took them an hour to get to his side. Followed by 10 hours of the worst hours of their lives before Philip was removed from the respirator and died. The miracle didn't happen that night.

  5. Wonderful post Spencer. One of my uncles was a 'blue baby'. He was a quiet man with a sly sense of humor despite his ongoing health problems. He made wonderful toffee! He died at age 34 when I was a kid but I still remember him.

    1. Thanks JP
      My son is unexplored territory. He's 23 now. He is among the first generation of kids who had the surgical procedures performed on him. He was very fortunate in that he did not have other organ damage as many neonatal heart babies do. He is on borrowed time, as we all are in a sense.

    2. But we can keep him our prayers and hope the miracle goes on.

  6. Oh, Spencer, you moved me to tears! Well done, you. You showed how grit and grace is the only way to survive parenthood.

  7. Thanks for sharing your memories. Having been the at-home parent, I can really relate! I promised my husband that when the kids got into school I'd go back to work and he could be the at-home parent. The youngest turns 21 in a few weeks and he's still waiting. I always worked at least 1 part-time job, most times 2 or 3. But those don't count, apparently, when applying for full-time work at anything paying better than minimum wage.

    Sometimes my husband comes home and sighs, saying how much he'd like to retire after 30+ years in his industry. But we still have another semester of college for the 3rd child, and 1 1/2 years for the last one. So he's stuck for at least another 2 years. Then we'll still be paying off the second mortgage we took out to fund everyone's college, in addition to the original mortgage that's been re-done to incorporate cars we no longer even own, so is almost as high as when we "bought" this house over 20 years ago. Sigh.

    But with your special needs child you've been really tested. One of our sons has type 1 diabetes, but that's an incurable illness that allows you to die from old age, if you're lucky...and extremely disciplined and vigilant, which he's learned how to be.

    The 90s were a blur of child-raising for me also. But as you say, caring for babies allows you to tap inner reserves of compassion you never knew you had, which stood me in good stead years later when I had to care for both parents through to their ends. Having held my newborns, I knew how life began. Having held my Dad's hand as he took his last breath, and kissed Mom while she was still warm, I now know how life ends. It's all of the stuff in-between that matters.

    1. Fiona:
      This is so powerful:
      The 90s were a blur of child-raising for me also. But as you say, caring for babies allows you to tap inner reserves of compassion you never knew you had, which stood me in good stead years later when I had to care for both parents through to their ends. Having held my newborns, I knew how life began. Having held my Dad's hand as he took his last breath, and kissed Mom while she was still warm, I now know how life ends. It's all of the stuff in-between that matters.

      Like the song says, "I wasn't there that morning, when my father passed away.." But I did get to day good bye to my mom. It really changes your perspective on life and death doesn't it?

  8. Bravo for the courage you've had! I've had some hard family times, but nowhere near what you've had. Right now I'm on the elderly parent care end, with one health problem coming right on the heels of another, so I'm staying with my 94-year-old father and grabbing wifi in the local library parking lot. But children's serious health problems are the worst, I know.

    1. Sadly, eldercare seems to fall into the lap of the daughters (I don't know if you have male siblings) It can be a hard job. I'm always wishing all the people on Fox News had to take a long shift at the bedside of someone who is dying or became an at-home parent of a child with autism. I think it would help change a lot of minds about our need for a safety net.

  9. My one sibling is a brother who was no help with our parents. Now he and his wife insist that it was MY fault...that I never asked them for help. After adding myself to all of the bank accounts, searching their house for $ they'd hidden all over it, getting them both into an assisted living place, selling their house, etc. etc.--all I asked him to do was to drive the 45 minutes it takes to get from where he lives to the suburb I live in. I moved them out here because the only place I experienced with my Dad in the city was a scary place indeed. Just as expensive as the ones out here, but no peace of mind--he used to beg me to bring him a gun so he could "end things himself". And out here I could visit them 3-4 times a week, riding my bike instead of wasting gas.

    But my brother rarely came out to visit. And when Mom died, I called him and offered to not call the Cremation Society until after he'd had a chance to come out to pay last respects, or to hug/kiss her to say goodbye, since he hadn't been out to visit for months. He told me to go ahead and call, since he wasn't coming out. Both he and his wife don't understand how that "broke" something in me when he said that.

    He's still my brother, and I still love him for all of our shared memories. But things will never be the same between us again. I try not to hold a grudge, since that only hurts the holder. But I can't understand how he could be so callous. Husband and kids have tried to explain to me that I can't know how much he was grieving, but that's the point. He wasn't there to hug me and share it with me. Isn't that what family is all about?

    1. Fiona:
      That's just too sad for words. Endings should be better. I'm sorry yours wasn't.

  10. What a wonderful post, Spencer. You are gracious as always, in your strength, compassion and the wisdom so hard earned. I'm glad I've had a chance to know you.

  11. Dear Spencer - Thank you for opening your life to us, relative strangers. I had no idea that Ben's trials in "Bliss" were based on your own experience.

    We've all heard the saying, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." I think you're a prime example. And I'm starting to understand the depths of heart I feel in your stories.

    1. Thank you Lisabet:
      I want to be Ben when I grow up. I still haven't picked an actress for Christina but Ben is Ben Affleck. He's played a number of roles like Ben McArdle, tough, strong, confident, quiet. Open to suggestions on Christina though. All of Hollywood is waiting.

      I'd like to get a message to that guy who is trying to make me stronger

  12. Wow Spencer, you always amazed me as a writer, but after this post I respect you even more as a person. I can't imagine what you went through as a parent. I wouldn't wish that sort of thing on anyone!

    Thanks for sharing - you really are an amazing dude. While I haven't drank in over four years, if our paths ever do cross, I'll be more than happy to slam down a shot of Jack with you.


    1. Thanks Daily:
      You're making my head swell.
      I'm still looking for that picture.

  13. Hi Spence!


    Especially thank you for this:

    " . . The thing you don't know, that I didn't know, was how much courage you have when you have to have it. So I offer that as a message of hope. . . "

    Oddly, that really does give me hope. Thank you.



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