The Baby Whisperer

Me finishing the 2010 National Marathon. © Brightroom Photography
Me finishing the 2010 National Marathon. © Brightroom Photography

As a runner it took many races and many training miles until I learned the subtleties of running a marathon.  I’ve run 12 and I’m still learning.  Patience, experience and good coaching are useful—a little luck doesn’t hurt either.

Shortly after Cristian was born I learned parenting coaches exist—Baby Whisperers.  I’ve mentioned them several times since I first wrote about them in March.  Like Coach Maria, my running coach, they offer wisdom and guidance to inexperienced parents.

Not sure if you know one—sure you do—they’ve been helping new parents since the dawn of time.  She’s the aunt or friend sitting on the couch at a family gathering with a baby in her lap.  Multitasking, a Zen-like calm, and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things baby are just a few traits they possess.  Hungry babies, cranky babies and blowouts are dispatched as easily as breathing.

Titi Luisa, the Gold Standard for Baby Whisperers brushing Cristian's hair.
Titi Luisa, the Gold Standard for Baby Whisperers brushing Cristian’s hair.

Esther’s aunt, Titi Luisa is the Baby Whisperer prototype.  Meeting us at the hospital when Cristian was born she instantly put a pair of anxious new parents at ease, dispensing wisdom as she cradled my son, she even brushed his hair into a Baby Mohawk.  (See my last post regarding Cristian’s hair).

She’s babysat for us—instinctually offering a breather when needed.  A crawling toddler getting into everything doesn’t faze her at all.  She’s mastered the ability to cook dinner as Cristian crawls around the kitchen.     Titi Luisa remains the gold standard but since writing my original post I found Baby Whisperers in unexpected places.

Throughout my life, I’ve been a few steps behind the pack—running my first marathon at 44, getting married at 46, and becoming a father at 50.  A lot of my friends were married and had kids in their 20s and 30s.

A few months back my boss called me into work for last-minute training, leaving me scrambling for a babysitter.  My friend Michele stepped up offering to watch baby for the day.  With one son in college, a second planning his freshman year, and a husband whose inner child runs the ranch, she was a perfect choice.

After dropping off Cristian and his supplies, usually resembling a military drop, she assembled his playpen, when I couldn’t before sending me off to work.  She quickly figured out his quirks and habits, texting pictures throughout the day.

Michele and Cristian spending the day together.
Michele and Cristian spending the day together.

Moving back home was an eye-opener.  We moved in so we could help Mom, but she’s helped me with the baby.  Feeding him breakfast and lunch she’s taught me subtleties, like sniffing out a diaper change—literally.  Laughing as he knocks over her walker to play with the wheels, she’s taught me—enjoy this time with him because it passes quickly.  I guess that makes Mom Baby Whisperer Emeritus.

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Cristian’s Latest First

IMG_4553Anticipating your baby’s firsts is a big part of a new parent’s life. First, tooth, first word, first step were equally important to both of us, First Halloween was more exciting for her than me, his first trip to Hooters was more exciting for me than her.  Sunday afternoon Cristian had his latest first—his first haircut.

Over the past months I learned men and women place different levels of importance on hair length and style.  I had no idea Cristian’s curly locks were so important to so many—how naive I was.

During Esther’s pregnancy, we spent months discussing our unborn child’s hair the same way the Democratic and Republican Campaigns plan Presidential Debates.  It was second only to agreeing on his name.

Cristian's Bird Nest
Cristian’s Bird Nest

I’ve had short hair most of my life, except for a brief mullet flirtation in the early 90s.  Not my best look but the 90s won’t be remembered as a great style decade. Esther didn’t want her son wearing a buzz cut.  I was ok with that but worried after seeing a younger cousin or two sporting Prince Valliant haircuts.  Worried about the taunts and wedgees my unborn son would endure, we negotiated.

Esther and I agreed on a length somewhere in the middle, proving communication works and saving me the stress of having a barber shave the baby’s head while she was at work.  I thought it was the end of it.  Silly me.

When I was a kid, Dad cut our hair on Sunday mornings while Mom made breakfast and Abbott and Costello movies played in the background.  The long process resulted in a buzz cut—a crooked one if we turned our head or sneezed.

Cristian’s long curly hair is the envy of balding men everywhere, we’re not talking Sasquatch but he wasn’t cheated on hair.  Mom naturally assumed we’d have buzzed him long ago.  Breaking it to her gently—again and again, I told her it just wasn’t happening.  His size and curly hair made him a natural Baby Superman—we waited until after Halloween before cutting his hair—we even picked the barber.

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Cristian showing off his new do.
Cristian showing off his new do.

Our next-door neighbor for the past forty years is a charming Italian gentleman named Franco. For years Dad helped him with household projects and he cut our hair, retiring Dad’s scissors once and for all.  The fee for these projects was a bottle of wine.

Sunday afternoon Franco brought his scissors for the long-awaited haircut.  Sure there was some crying and carrying on, but before long, Esther was ok.  She played with the baby distracting him while Franco worked his magic.

For me it was more déjà vu (see my last post) Cristian is the third generation whose hair Franco cut.  After he left, with the bottle of wine and picture of Cristian, I reflected on the day.  I guess this first meant more to me than I thought it would.

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Deja Vu All Over Again

FullSizeRender (76)Moving back into my childhood home has given me a sense of Deja Vu. In August 1965 Mom and Dad moved into a new home with two sons—the younger, a chubby one-year old.  Fifty years later, Esther and I moved into the same house with our own chubby-cheeked (almost) one-year old.

Many things changed in the years between the first and second set of Priegue parents moving into the same Cape Cod house in Queens.  In 1965 Lyndon Johnson was President, the Beatles played Shea Stadium and the Kansas City Royals didn’t exist.

Parenting norms and guidelines changed as well:


Guidance and Advice – Fifty years ago parenting books barely existed.  There were no internet, parenting websites, or Google searches. How did they survive? Parents relied on common sense (not a common commodity these days), family traditions, and baby whisperers.  Some methods were inconsistent but many generations of children were raised this way—I’m one of them.  I won’t say I turned out ok—the jury is still out on that one.

Child Proofing – In the 50s and 60s, it was more of a suggestion than a rule.  It wasn’t as bad as—he fell down a flight of stairs or pulled a heavy chair onto himself. He’ll learn, but it wasn’t too far off either.  Parents can now do a quick Internet search for guidelines, checklists and services to childproof their home taking some of the anxiety out of that loud crashing sound coming from the other room.

FullSizeRender (77)Car Seats– They didn’t exist in the ’60s, and seatbelts were ignored.  Back then mom cradled her newborn in the front seat and the older children rode in the back, unbuckled.  Jamming on the brakes potentially shot one of your children through the windshield like a projectile. This was before ambulance chasers and frivolous lawsuits.  Just roll around on the ground and act hurt.

Today’s parents have multiple car seats options —maybe too many. Infant seats, forward-facing, rear-facing, one-year old seats, two-year old car seats, click and go seats attaching to baby strollers etc.  The four-point restraint system in Cristian’s car seat resembles what NASCAR drivers use.  It keeps him safe, but we’ll have to find another way to pay for his college education.

Corporal Punishment-Fifty years ago slapping, smacking and hitting a child was an acceptable form of discipline.  Things change over time and most parents use other methods, maybe with the exception of Adrian Peterson. Have we evolved or has the invention of the cell phone camera changed our thought process?

Baby Thermometers-This may be the greatest advancement in the past fifty years.  Parents now have an efficient non-invasive tool for taking a child’s temperature.  A quick scan, or swab is all it takes, much better than the old way—the rectal thermometer.  Resembling, and feeling like, a small harpoon, it was the gold standard for many years.  Memories of it and the jar of vaseline it was paired with still give me the full-body shiver.   Technology is a good thing.

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RIP Chico

Posing Chico

I started blogging because the thought a 50-year old first-time dad’s journey into uncharted territory was too good to pass on.  I envisioned light-hearted posts written with a mix of sarcasm and sentiment, along with a few serious posts.

At the time I had no idea, I would be writing two eulogy posts in three months

I will always remember 2015 as a bittersweet year.  Watching Cristian’s progression from fragile newborn to curious toddler is the highlight.  Burying my father after a long illness was painful.  Thursday night, Esther and I shed more tears, when we made the painful decision to put Chico to sleep.

I tried writing this post when I got home Thursday night.   After placing Cristian in his crib I sat down at the keyboard but my mind was flooded with too many memories and emotions.  The post just didn’t want to be written.

Chico in Hoodie

As a teenager, my sister-in-law Rose Marie, or Nequi, her family nickname, wanted a dog.  One evening her father brought her a mysterious bag as a birthday gift.   Placing the moving bag on the living room floor out came two puppies, Chico and Chica.  Chico staggered out and headed directly to Esther.

At the time the Santiago family knew little about caring for a puppy—much less two—that changed quickly.  Esther learned fast asking friends, co-workers, and pet store owners for tips and advice.

Taken from their mother at about two weeks old the family took turns bottle feeding Chico and Chica baby formula.  Swaddling Chico in a blanket Esther carried him like a baby.   Neighbors rushing over to see a baby were greeted by a dog snout.

When caring for two puppies became overwhelming, Esther found a new home for Chica, keeping Chico—he was friendlier.  He spent the rest of his life rewarding that decision.

One of his favorite places, lying in a pile of laundry
One of his favorite places, lying in a pile of laundry

Esther and Chico were together for over 18 years—her longest male relationship.  He was her first child, running partner and weather dog.  When Esther worked for a special-needs preschool, Chico’s morning walks served a dual purpose.  If he hopped like a bunny through snowdrifts after a heavy snowstorm, she called her boss canceling the day’s classes.

He was with her through good like the birth of nephews and godchildren and the bad, helping her cope with the loss of her first husband Luis, when he was killed in a car accident.  My late mother-in-law Maria called him her first grandchild.


At Shea Stadium for Bark at the Park Night.
At Shea Stadium for Bark at the Park Night.

I met Chico shortly after Esther and I started dating.  Before my first visit to her apartment, she warned me, “He’s protective and barks a lot when he meets new people.”  She was stunned when we started playing shortly after my arrival.

We bonded immediately, Chico had a special vibe—he didn’t think he was a dog, he thought he was a person.  I remember waking up in bed with the flu and finding him stretched out next to me with a contented look that said, “Great nap Frank.”

When I became a runner, I used Chico’s morning walks to gauge the morning’s weather so I knew what gear to wear for that morning’s race.

Chico stayed with Grandma Maria, when we had a travel race.  Together they watched novellas and Sabado Gigante.  Whenever Esther and I went out of town he knew Ritz Crackers, Hagen Dazs and Don Francisco were on the menu.

Chico with Santa
Chico with Santa

As parents we spoiled him taking him on two-mile walks.  We admired the Tudor houses while he played with the neighbors dogs or searched for the perfect tree.  Trips to the drive-through window included chicken nuggets for Chico.

We took him on many vacations with us.  He played among the pine trees in Maine, cruised the boardwalk in Asbury Park, and walked among the brownstones on Embassy Row in Washington DC.  Chico sat on my lap with his head out the window during my first trip to Florida.

He was my practice child.  Yes I’m a aware caring for a baby is more involved than caring for a dog—I’ve written about it but the responsibility and discipline I learned caring for my canine companion helped when Cristian was born.

Chico was with us through two miscarriages and three failed IVF cycles.  Sensing something was wrong he curled up with Esther offering comfort and warmth as if to say, “I’m here for you Mommy.”

Cristian’s birth was a rough adjustment for him, he initially refused to acknowledge him—that baby was taking time and attention usually devoted to him.  He acted up demanding a walk when I was giving the baby a bottle and avoided Cristian, walking around him whenever we placed the baby in front of him.

After a few weeks Chico accepted the baby, or maybe he realized that baby wasn’t going anywhere.  Coming inside from walks he stopped and sniffed Cristian’s feet and played with him as the baby rolled around on comforters.  He was patient when Cristian grabbed his fur or an ear.

Before long the boys started working as a team.  When Esther and I assembled the Cristian Zone, the baby’s play area, Cristian watched closely as Chico squeezed between the ottoman and the toy box—this was valuable information to be used for future escapes.

Wathing Sesame Street together in the Cristian Zone
Wathing Sesame Street together in the Cristian Zone

Chico started showing his age over the past months.  The sweet disposition was still there but after 18 plus years, his body started betraying him.  He hips weakened and he needed a diaper because he couldn’t hold his urine.  The vet, we took him to was shocked—he’d never treated a dog that old.

Last Tuesday night, he deteriorated further—his back legs stopped supporting him.  Wrapped in a blanket, on Esther’s lap with the World Series as background noise was painful—more painful than Jeurys Familia’s blown save.

Chico fought back Wednesday morning, giving us hope as he struggled out his bed.  Determined to walk, he staggered around on shaky legs defiantly squeezing into the Cristian Zone.  As evening approached we realized it was a false hope.

Waking up Friday morning was rough, Chico’s bed was empty, there was no dog to walk.  I miss his morning walks, with a cup of coffee in one hand and his leash in the other.  The memory of him racing Esther to the subway as she hurried off to work makes me smile as I type it.

His full name was Chicolindo, in Spanish, that means Pretty Boy.  In Esther’s family there is a long line of Chicolindos—until now.  Sitting in the vet’s waiting room, I suggested it’s time we retire the name.

We stayed with him to the end—I’m comforted knowing he went peacefully. He was an amazing dog who was more than a pet—he was family.  We spoiled him giving him a great life and he rewarded us with better memories.

We will miss you my friend.

Chicos Paw Print


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