The Dinner Bell

It was our first date.  Actually he says it was a date, I say I was going to a Pistons game with a friend.  We had court side seats through a work connection, but our conversation and his jokes were the thing keeping my attention.  On the way home, we got lost in a town we were both new to and drove an hour out of our way before finally ending up at an Irish pub.

For the last decade and a half I’ve stood firm that this evening was not a date.  However, when we found ourselves back in the Detroit area for the first time in several years last winter, I insisted that we take our kids to that Irish pub so they could see it.  He grumbled about the time, I persisted and as we pulled up, the familiar banter started,

“That was totally a date by the way”

“No, it was not – we were just friends”

Then he calmly smirked and offered a statement that forever claims his victory in this debate, “well considering that we’re dragging our three kids into this pub, I’d say it was a date.”  He threw the mini-van gear shift into park, did a little finger tap on the stirring wheel and then went in for my surrender, “don’t you think?”

During that first date (or not-a-date), at the Irish pub we talked about many things including what we called life moments.  Sitting on a wooden bench with a band playing U2 cover songs, a fire going and a cider beer in front of me I pontificated about the significance of life moments.  He nodded in agreement and described a time when he camped out in Arches National Park with his college roommates.  I told him about how I had a conversation with my father in Ohio from a pay phone on a ferryboat while I was making an overnight crossing of the English Channel, and how the idea of that still blew me away if I really thought about it.

Our conversation quickened as we excitedly shared grand, adventurous moments.  Times Square on New Years Eve!  Touching a bullet hole in the side of a building in the old East Berlin!  Taking a mystery flight with college friends and ending up in San Francisco!  Getting a massage in Budapest!  We went on and on, subconsciously one-upping each other by following the previous story with a bigger, better, more elaborate one.

There we were.  Two twenty-two year old kids nodding and laughing and enthusiastically agreeing that we knew all about life moments.  We thought we knew it all.  But what we didn’t know was that right then and there, sitting in an Irish pub after getting lost on roads that are sometimes called 15-mile and sometimes called Maple, we were in the middle of a very big life moment.  In fact, that moment would become the first of our shared life moments.

There have been many more big moments in our life together since.  There are the grand ones that involve international destinations, or major cultural events.  We spent Independence Days on the National Mall and the Millennium too.  We’ve traveled a fair amount and have seen rainbows over the Cliffs of Moher, bald eagles from a kayak in the Puget Sound and sunsets in Mallory Square.  We’ve attended presidential inaugurations and witnessed American history in both its most proud and most disgraced moments.  We happened to be sitting in the House chamber viewing area during the impeachment vote of President Clinton.  And we cheered with thousands of other Chicagoans in Grant Park when history was made and then saw the newly elected Barack Obama give his acceptance speech.

And then there are the major and magical more personal life moments like our wedding, the birth of our children, a champagne toast over pizza on the floor of our first house, renovating another house and the achievement of other professional, athletic or personal goals.

But there have also been many heartbreaking life moments.  The death of aging loved ones.  Trying to find each other when we lived in Arlington, Virginia on 9/11.  Challenges within our families, relocations to new towns and new parts of the country and medical emergencies.  And then there is the biggest one of them all, the death of our second child who was unexpectedly born still.

Gosh, there are so many big ups, and so many big downs, in a lifetime.  They say its a roller coaster and isn’t that the truth?  I suppose the key to surviving it all is to hold on tight during the dips, and to throw your hands into the air, surrendering yourself to the sheer delight of the peaks.  And we have to know that these two extremes are not mutually exclusive.  While there is value in both and lessons in each, one would not exist without the other.

But really, its more than just the old adage, enjoying the ride, isn’t it?  Its about where you focus and how you define those dips and those peaks.  What are your life moments?

Perhaps traveling to a secluded beach in an exotic location, or maybe the achievement of climbing to the top of a mountain.  But it might also be something entirely different and entirely more subtle.

Tonight during a typical Wednesday night meal of meatloaf in the suburbs of Chicago, I looked around my dinner table.  In a dark bay window a small stained-glass angel served as a quiet reminder of who was missing, while the colorful art projects and paintings hanging from the chandelier above proclaimed the presence of who was there.

Around the table I saw two little girls with hair still wet from swim lessons, one complaining about eating her asparagus and the other being sent to a Time Out for pushing her plate away.  I observed a nine-year-old boy hanging out somewhere between his childhood and his tween years chatting about the school play he was in earlier that day and the costume he would wear for Halloween the following day.  A middle-aged man smiled at the conversation, but his heavy eyes revealed the burden of a difficult day and difficult decisions at work.  I myself felt tired and worn down as I reminded the kids that they still needed to practice piano, finish homework and clean their plates if they wanted to ring the dinner bell.

The dinner bell is just a silly little decoration that I picked up on sale at a big box store.  In theory I would have found the bell at an antique market, or had it handed down to us through the generations.  But in reality for just $7.99, we have a dinner bell.

The kids were so excited about it but arguing over who got to ring it.  I told them that whoever makes the dinner gets to ring the bell.  But I also established that each one of them is entitled to a small ring, when they finish their dinner.

Tonight as they each finished their meal and eagerly reached to ring the bell, I thought about how we’ve created a family tradition without even realizing it.  Someday the kids will think about the the dinner bell, and the rules for ringing it, as a part of their childhood memories.

I sat back and smiled and indulged in a deep breath.  And right there, right as it was happening, I recognized it.

Its not always an exotic adventure in a far off land, or a majestic landscape.  Piano lessons, swim team, school plays.  Costumes.  The dinner bell.  All of this.  This is the high.  This is my peak.  This is my family.  This is the wonderful.  This is one of the life moments….our shared life moments.  So I’m throwing my hands in the air and enjoying the sheer delight of the ride.

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