Saturday, June 18, 2016
Mike McLaughlin spends nearly every hour, every day with his sons, 17-month-old twins.
He’s there for every struggle into two car seats, for every plastic juice glass tossed on the floor. For every giggle, every new word, every meltdown, every hug.
And nearly every minute, the 68-year-old dad is doing it all alone.
In a fair world, his wife, Lisa, would be along for the ride. She tried for 30 years to have those babies, and she should be here for all the fun and frustration of raising them. Instead, Lisa died of a bowel obstruction a little more than a week after dark-haired Dylan and fair-haired Jordan were born in December 2014.
Over the next year and a half, McLaughlin moved the babies from Maryland to his native Nebraska — where he met Lisa — and into a house he bought sight unseen. He worked on fixing up the dining room and kitchen, and he made his own baby food. He saw his kids take their first steps and heard their first words, though they still talk mostly in a gibberish that only the two of them understand.
He pondered whether he could parent toddlers and collect Social Security at the same time. Friends, he says, thought he was too set in his ways.
But he forged on through his grief and his doubts. Two little lives depended on it.
McLaughlin sweeps food off the floor as the twins’ lunch nears an end at their home.
Jordan, left, and Dylan, right, drink milk before going to sleep.
“When you have babies, it steers you in a different direction,” he says. You have to make sure they’re fed and clothed and cared for — if you fail, he quips, you go to jail.
He ultimately decided the challenge wasn’t that daunting. Over six-plus decades, he’d done a lot of things: owned restaurants, worked as a legislative aide, served on the Nebraska Parole Board, been finance administrator for Douglas County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh. And he could still do a lot of things.
“That’s why I think I can raise these kids,” he says. “You just do it. Life is hard sometimes.”
On typical days, McLaughlin and the boys wake up about 7 a.m., get dressed (and diapered, in the boys’ case), then eat breakfast, either at home or at Dugger’s Cafe in central Omaha, a favorite hangout. Many mornings, they follow their meal with trips to Hy-Vee or Baker’s and the playground at Schroeder-Vogel Park.
Mike bounces the boys and tickles them. He proudly lists their attributes: They’re bright and funny. They’ve overcome being preemies, walking and talking on schedule. He relishes their distinct personalities: Jordan loves gadgets, Dylan is the mischief mastermind.
He lets them live at their own pace, shrugging off things that make younger, more frenzied parents crazy. If it takes 20 minutes to walk across a parking lot, that’s fine. If the boys clamor to be pushed in the swing four dozen times, he complies with a smile.
He’s never too busy for his kids.
“Wherever they go, I go, and wherever I go, they go,” he says.
Lisa Swinton McLaughlin
McLaughlin was divorced when he met Lisa Swinton, who was 10 years younger. Both worked in government social services. She had a law degree from Creighton University, eventually obtained a medical degree from the University of Kansas and became a pathologist. McLaughlin jokes that he wasn’t sure what Lisa saw in him.
“They were sort of off and on for many years,” says Kathleen Hall, the chief deputy Douglas County clerk, who worked with McLaughlin in the clerk’s office. “When they got married, I always thought that they were the love of each other’s lives. They were so cute together.
“It’s hard to describe how heartbreaking it was when she died.”
Swinton had dreamed of having children her entire adult life, and she spent considerable time, money and effort to make it happen. She took hormones, had in-vitro procedures and suffered through several miscarriages. She became pregnant with the twins at age 56, when she was the medical director of the American Red Cross in Baltimore. By that time, her husband was retired.
The twins were delivered by cesarean section about 10 weeks early following an uneventful pregnancy, McLaughlin says.
Lisa came home after a few days but still was in considerable pain. Mike consulted her doctors, who said she needed to move around and drink lots of fluids.
“She asked me to help her to the bathroom. She stopped at the sink and rinsed out her mouth and asked me to help her back to bed, and she just fell through my arms,” he says. “When the doctor called back, she had already died.”
Above left, Dylan and Jordan look out the front door of their home in Omaha. Above right, McLaughlin buckles Jordan in his car seat as Dylan looks on after leaving Schroeder-Vogel Park
Devastated and bewildered, McLaughlin knew he needed a support system, especially as a retiree. He had not only lost his wife and parenting partner. He also lost his family’s prime source of income.
He thought about home, about his 88-year-old mother who lives in a Bellevue apartment, about one of his two 40-something sons from his previous marriage, who lives here with his wife and two kids, about the friends he made at South High School and through his various jobs.
He remembered growing up in a large Irish family that socialized with the power-brokers behind the South Omaha political machine, folks with names like Cunningham, Cavanaugh and Munnelly.
He recalled that he couldn’t get away with anything as a child because everybody knew his parents. He tells a funny story about packing 10 kids in his four-passenger car as a teen and getting a ticket. He decided to take care of it himself, going to court without telling his parents. The judge dismissed it.
“As we were leaving out the side door, he said, ‘Tell your dad I said hi,’” McLaughlin says. “I never did.”
Two weeks later, dad and the judge had lunch. Mike was busted.
That proved to McLaughlin that it does take a village to raise a child. And for his sons, that village was Omaha.
Mike McLaughlin, 68, with three of his sons — Tom, 44, and Jordan and Dylan, 17 months — have breakfast at Dugger’s Cafe in Omaha.
He reconnected with old friends soon after getting back. Tom Cavanaugh, who died in October 2015, found him a house in the Morton Meadows subdivision, right down the block from the Cavanaugh home. Cavanaugh’s grade-school daughter, Grace, now helps out by coming over and playing with the boys. They scream when she has to leave.
Other friends threw a first birthday party for the twins.
And McLaughlin’s son Tom, a 3-D sculpture artist, often joins the trio for breakfast at Dugger’s. Those meals usually turn out to be protracted, free-wheeling affairs. Dylan and Jordan are fairly well-behaved, eating their waffles and sausage, but they have limits. On a recent morning, Tom chased them down when they toddled over to socialize with other diners and held them in his lap when they couldn’t stay in high chairs for another minute.
He and his wife also take them overnight once in a while.
“Not as often as my dad probably wants,” he says. “They’re ridiculously well-behaved. He doesn’t know how lucky he is.”
Hall, who’s also an occasional guest at breakfast, attributes that to McLaughlin’s attitude. She said he seems comfortable with fatherhood, even at an age at which the only babies most men see are grandchildren.
“He’s just so responsive to their needs, very patient,” she says. “I feel like the older I get the less patience I have, but he seems to have infinite patience.”
McLaughlin plays with Dylan as Jordan attempts to get out of a chair.
Tom McLaughlin, 44, high fives his 17-month-old brother, Dylan, while having breakfast at Duggers Cafe.
McLaughlin is working to make sure his sons have the life Lisa wanted for them: love, safety, security and all the necessities. He would have been an engaged dad regardless, but if she had lived, Lisa would have hired a nanny. He’s parenting differently than the first time around, when his wife did much of the work.
Lisa also would have spoiled the twins, he says — she would have been more lavish than her frugal parents. She wanted her children to have everything they desired. That’s not possible anymore; Mike now is on a fixed income.
That’s OK, he says. Character is more important than things, and the “village” will do its best to instill that in the twins.
“I told these kids when I took them home from the hospital that I was old-school,” he says.
He doesn’t dwell on his age, although he’s concerned that when the boys become teenagers, he won’t be able to do some of the things other parents do.
He says his sons will raise the boys if necessary, but he prefers to see it this way: “I hope to make it until I’m 88. Then they’ll be 21. I don’t plan to be in a nursing home because they don’t take kids.”
Longevity is a trait in his family, he says, at least on his mom’s side.
As busy as Mike is with his sons, friend Hall worries that he hasn’t given himself a chance to grieve. But he says he’s more focused on forgiving hospitals and doctors for a death he thinks was avoidable. He believes they could have been more attentive to his wife, though he has no plans for litigation. He hopes time will help him move on — after all, it’s only been a little more than a year.
Above left, the McLaughlins — two-thirds of them napping — go grocery shopping at the Baker’s on South Saddle Creek Road. Above right, McLaughlin dresses Jordan.
And as he settles in for the long haul, he gets increasingly comfortable with the single-parent gig, despite his age. Hall, for one, says she’s not surprised: “Nothing stops him when he makes up his mind.” He’s confident enough that he’s taking the twins on a cross-country trip this summer, driving his big Cadillac to New Jersey, Atlanta, coastal Louisiana and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just dad and the boys.
They’re visiting friends, several of whom were physicians who knew Lisa. She’s never far from his mind. He’ll do all he can to keep her memory alive in Dylan and Jordan — they already have a cherished keepsake: a photo of them as newborns with their joyful mother.
Lisa and her sons would have had a mutual admiration society, he says.
“If they knew their mother, they would have been impressed. And she would have loved these kids.”
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McLaughlin pushes the boys in the swings at Schroeder-Vogel Park, above. “I told these kids when I took them home from the hospital that I was old-school,” he says.