When I count the blessings in my life, I start with the two who live under my roof: my sons, Sam and Luke. Born 15 months and 1 day apart, they’ve always had someone to play with and someone to fight with. Not Irish twins by definition, but close enough. One from the Old testament and one from the New. Not that was the basis for their names. In fact, when we first met, I had told Laura about a horse I’d had named Sam. I thought it would be a good dog’s name down the road. Laura informed me that her first-born son was going to be named Sam. Flash forward a few years later, we had two dogs named Indy & Leo, and a new born son named Samuel Cahal. When Luke arrived on the scene, there was still much consideration about what his name would be. Unlike Sam, we had seen the results of the ultrasound with Luke and knew we having a boy. Like Sam, we had chosen a strong, traditional first name and a middle name that came from a great-grandfather, this time from Laura’s family. That March, as the days grew closer to his birth, Laura started to express reservations about the name we’d chosen. Part of it was due to the loss of her father, just five months before in October. There was a strong sense from both of us to remember Laura’s father, Marty, with our new son. And so, Luke became Lucas Martin. I don’t think either of us connected that “Luke and Laura” would be spending so much time together and evoking memories of some soap opera that I’ve come to learn about. Apparently, that soap opera had been a fixture in the Theta house at CU, and Laura and her sisters knew all about Luke & Laura. I’ve always thought him more of a Cool Hand Luke!
To say that we were challenged in those first few years with two toddlers, two in diapers would be a fair statement. But there was so much joy in our young family. We both worked, but our priorities were the boys, and we were happy with our schedules and our lives. We were very much in love with each other and with our sons.
Living in Reno gave us an opportunity to experience so many great activities with the boys. I started both of them skiing when they were three years old, and by the time they started elementary school, we were able to have family ski days. Laura’s mother was close enough for lots of weekend visits, and we’d make our annual trek in the summer to spend time in Colorado with my family. Those times in Crested Butte with the boys bring such strong memories of them and us enjoying their childhood: hiking with them in backpacks at early ages, pulling them in the red wagon or them riding tricycles on Elk Avenue, seeing them graduate to their first mountain bikes, rafting on the Gunnison and Taylor rivers, rock climbing in the park, pony rides on our friends’ farm, scouting the bears in town and so many laughs in our own yard.
The boys experienced their first real taste of change when they were in second and first grade, respectively. I had accepted a new position within the company, three time zones away, and we were starting to plan our move to Virginia. School had just started and it was Labor Day weekend. We spent the weekend with Laura’s mother and decided that Sunday morning was the time to tell the boys about our move. The night before we watched The Night at the Smithsonian Museum to try to create a buzz about D.C. The next morning, we had laptops ready with pages for the Redskins, Nationals, the White House and Smithsonian and every other site we could think of in DC. After breakfast, we broke the news to the boys, and it didn’t go well. Sam was strongly upset. At seven years old, this was a big, bad deal. “This is the worst idea ever!” he exclaimed, and then stormed off in tears. Luke, a year younger and not sure what to make of this news, took his queues from his brother, and similarly stormed off in joint protest. Solidarity. We gave them some time to decompress from this news – probably what seemed like a long time to them to deal with the gravity of this situation, and probably what equated to another cup of coffee for us. In time, they came back into the breakfast room, sobbing and tearfully starting to ask a few questions. I had one ace up my sleeve and decided to play it then. Earlier that summer at summer camp, the boys had been introduced to foosball and it was a big hit. When I showed them pictures of some of the homes in Virginia – with finished basements — I explained that we’d find a new home like one of these with room in the basement for a…… and before I could finish my sentence, Sam jumped in with, “….a foosball table?” And just like that, the whole family was on board for our move to Virginia.
A couple of months later, we had closed on our new house in Ashburn, and the same day I had picked up a foosball table. My flight back to Reno departed the next morning so that I could fly back and help with the last stages of packing and moving, and then we’d fly back to D.C. together the next weekend. That night, before leaving the East Coast, I put together that foosball table in the basement. It was the one thing in the house when we arrived that weekend and showed the boys our new home. We still have that foosball table, now in the basement of our second home in Virginia. It doesn’t get much use anymore. The boys pass by it regularly in the basement as they go to settle into their respective Xbox lairs. Occasionally, I’ll hear the yelling and slamming of players on the table when the boys have friends over and they’ll play a game, but mostly it gets used a bench top or storage for other items. But what a purpose it served in our move to Virginia.
In the weeks and months following Laura’s death, I thought a lot about relocating to Kansas City to be closer to my family. With no family in the D.C. area, I was very concerned about how we would function as a household with my career, the boys in two different high schools and our two dogs, the second of which we were still training as a puppy. There were so many overwhelming thoughts and concerns. I recall that when the boys went back to school later that month in October, I had to buy the right groceries to make sure they could pack their lunches for school – as teen boys, they typically take one lunch to school and buy another! Just a couple of weeks earlier, I remembered Luke telling Laura one night that he was happy because she’d bought the “good bread” for lunches. I didn’t even know what the “good bread” was or where to buy it. Some how, some way during those winter months, we started to chart a course for our new norm and work through it. I planned meals, and still do, on an Excel spreadsheet. Perhaps one of my bigger regrets is how many dinners I missed over the past several years because I was working late at the office, working on a deal and letting the evening rush hour eclipse. When I started back at work in January, the reality of needing not only to be home for dinner, but be there to make dinner every night was a challenge. But we adjusted. We tried new things. Some worked and some didn’t. We tried a house helper, sort of our version of Mrs. Doubtfire, but she was too much. Too much food, too much mothering, too much outside intrusion when we were still trying to figure out so much on our own. Friends and neighbors were incredibly supportive, and still are. Food came from so many people, and still does occasionally. We learned how to grocery shop together and spent Sundays practicing Sam’s driving and our weekly shopping.
After the Christmas and New Year’s holidays had passed, I put it on the table with the boys about moving to Kansas City. I explained all the reasons why I thought it would be a good idea for us to be there. To be close to family who could help us, and we could be there for them. It wasn’t my decision to make alone, though, and I asked that we give it some time to think about it. After a couple more trips to KC during the Spring, I put it back on the table. “Dad,” they said, “you can move wherever you want in three years. We want to stay in Virginia.” I think part of me really wanted to be back in KC to be comforted and surrounded not only by our family, but also by my friends, the people I’d been young with once. The people that I’d shared so many of life’s new experiences with. I wanted the boys to have that sense of family and community that I had growing up. But I realized that my sons weren’t the young boys they were when I was able to incent them with a foosball table. They were young men now, and they were telling me that they had what I wanted for them; it was different, but they had their sense of community with their friends from school and our friends in Virginia. And though it is different, and though our family is smaller, we had each other and we would get through this together.
Since October, my sons have had to endure so much. They’ve been forced to experience and grow so much at a young age. Coping with the loss of their mother, coping with their own grief, coping with my grief, coping with the whims, mistakes, expectations, trials, errors and some downright bad judgments from their single-parent father. Enduring the holidays, birthdays and Mother’s day. Next month, we’ll remember Laura on what would be her 50th birthday, and aside from the anniversary of October 10, we’ll put many of this year of firsts behind us. We’ll remember Laura on that day as we do every day, but we might just have an emptiness in our hearts that day that weighs heavier than other days.
Last week I had the opportunity to attend Sam’s high school lacrosse team banquet. As a sophomore, Sam earned a starting spot on the JV team and played a high percentage of important minutes every game of what was a very good season for the team. We also got to see the varsity team move on to the VA State semi-finals, a best achievement for Champe High School. Sam will tell you he’s not the fastest or strongest on the team, but his coach will tell you he has one of the best lax IQs on the field and demonstrations of great teamwork off the field. I was moved to see those coaches recognize Sam at the banquet last week with a team award of significance. A couple of years ago, a boy on the team, Ryan Kwak, was injured during the off season in a car accident and paralyzed. The team rallied behind him in his recovery, and he rallied behind the team to be on the sidelines in his wheelchair during Sam’s freshman year. At the end of that season, the coaches created an award to recognize Ryan’s spirit and presented it to one team member. At the conclusion of this season, Sam was recognized across all four grades and both JV and varsity teams as a recipient of the Ryan Strong award. It was a moving and emotional moment for Sam, me and his coaches. Sam was recognized for his demonstration of character, grit and dealing with adversity for what he’s overcome this year while still making important contributions to the team, both on and off the field. I am so grateful for the coaches at Champe lacrosse for this recognition of Sam, but also for the leadership and examples they’ve set for their team, the Champe lacrosse family. I’m a bit conflicted as Sam will transition to the new high school nearer to us next year, and will branch away from the Champe lacrosse family and these coaches, but at the same time, Sam will be able to demonstrate his attributes at a new school, with new coaches and a new team. I’m also excited that Sam and Luke will be at the same high school next year, and while they may not see it now, I’m grateful for the shared experiences this will offer them. I’m also proud of Luke for his accomplishments in school this year; his hard work and dedication to academics are evident in his grades, and the humor, understanding and empathy that he demonstrates every day are reflective of his strong character. There is a motto from Luke’s summer camp, “I am Third,” which represents putting others and God ahead of you, and I see Luke display this every day. I was out with Luke the other morning and he brought up his grades from school for the year…. missed straight A’s with an 89% in math. He then also casually mentioned he received his second RISE (Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence) award of the year, nominated again by one of his teachers. “Dude, you gotta tell me these things,” I told him. He shrugged that off. Typical for the boy who chooses to be Third. I am so proud of both of my boys and so proud to be able to be their father.
To think that we made it through the school year in tact does feel like a small accomplishment. We learned so much about ourselves and each other. We learned to do things, to try things, to fail at a few things and recover from those failures. I’m not quite sure how we did this; there were teachers who reached out who made a difference for sure. Friends and neighbors helped us immensely. One thing for sure, I’m in awe of all the single parents out there who have done this a lot longer, with younger kids and under a lot more trying circumstances. If you’re one of those people, hat’s off to you!
On this day, this Father’s day, I remember Laura and thank her for what she instilled in our sons. I thank her for putting these two beautiful souls on this planet, who are so capable of love and support and humor and friendship and kindness and empathy and courage. And I thank Sam and Luke for the opportunity to be their father and for our relationship. I thank them for this Father’s day and everyday with them, and I celebrate them. Being their father is the single greatest gift I’ve ever been given.