It's more than a feeling...

Photo by Nathan Walker on Unsplash

It's the knowing.

Simple, right? It’s why this thing works. This union. This cohabitation. This joining together.

This marriage.

Words might be cross and brows might furrow and voices might rise, but they are rarely met in kind because there is always a reason. Most of the time, the words aren’t as cross as you thought they were, because sometimes you color them with your own brush and your palette is not the same as hers.

We went through a lot of canvasses before we got the mix right, but eventually our sunsets looked like sunsets and our trees looked like trees and the color of our words, in all their various shades and hues, were true.

It’s the knowing.

It’s not a feeling, because feelings are fleeting. Things happen, you feel this, you feel that.  The sun hits your face, you feel good. The neighborhood cats crap in your landscaping, you feel angry. You sit on the back porch and watch the sun come up with a cup of coffee, you feel content.  There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it has nothing to do with love. 

The sun will come up. Babies will cry. Wolves will howl. You know these things. You don’t second guess them. You don’t try to understand them or over think them. Why bother? They just are.

And that’s love. It just is. It’s not supposed to hurt. You’re not supposed to yearn. It’s like a heartbeat. You just have it.

So, when my lovely Tonya and I are watching TV, or fixing dinner, or talking about what we are going to do for the weekend, it may seem boring to somebody on the outside looking in. There’s no laugh track or canned applause or drama. There’s no soundtrack. Our words are true and our feelings are honest, and there is no other place we would rather be than where we are at that moment.

That is truth.

That is knowing.

That is love.

Simple, right?

It’s the knowing.

I am Grandpa now

Grandpa Perry was about my age in this photo.

Grandpa Perry was about my age in this photo.

I was doing yard work yesterday. Nothing special about that, except the night before, I was sitting at the hospital awaiting the arrival of a special little girl. You see, this child is my granddaughter. I am a grandpa now. 

Melani Murillo, 5/26/17.

Melani Murillo, 5/26/17.

Everywhere I looked, scenes played out, like holograms superimposed over the here and now. Over there, by the fence, there was an old man in coveralls and a plaid shirt, leading a small child by the hand as they walked around the farm. He spoke quietly to the little one about everyday things, like feeding the cows and watering the pasture. The child asked him things. Why is the sky blue? Where does sunlight come from? Did you take daddy for walks when he was little like me?

Over here, that same old man sat in a rocking chair, that small child sitting on his knee. Forever imprinted in that little boy's memory were the sights and the sounds and smells of the old farm house where they sat: the hard wood floors that chilled little feet in the winter time; the cows lowing in the early evening as they waited impatiently for their meal; the smells of wood smoke and old wood and air dried sheets. 

That old man in my visions isn't so old. He's probably no older than I am now. That child, he's young, barely walking, his fine hair still smelling of baby shampoo, his pudgy legs getting longer and firmer and more sure every day.  The man answers his grandson's questions patiently, and when he holds him, the little one feels safe and protected. In grandpa's arms, yesterday and tomorrow don't matter. Civilizations may rise and fall, stars ignite and disappear, the tides crash and recede, music plays and fades away, people live and die. The universe chugs along, doing what it does, but here in this refuge, this cocoon that is grandpa's hug, there is warmth and peace and unconditional love.

Now, I am the grandpa. I am the refuge. I am the one who answers the questions. I am the port in the storm, the giver of hugs, the purveyor of love and warmth and acceptance. These are monumental responsibilities. Am I up to the task? Grandpa was 46 when I was born, younger than I am now. Was he ready? 

I finished the yard and sat on a lawn chair drinking iced tea and smelling the fresh cut grass. Those scenes I saw were grandpa and me, ghosts of the past, but they were visions of the future, too. They were of me and little Melani, closing a circle and beginning a new one.  

I am grandpa now. 

Am I ready?

 

 

The Hero Gotham Deserves

His name is Kevin, and his life is much different than yours or mine. He is in his chair, and he can’t do all of the things you and I do. He might not be able to trick or treat with his friends on Halloween, or ride a skateboard in the park. He might not be able to drive a car someday, or go to the waterpark, or skip rope or ride a bike.

But since this should never be a world of can’t, let’s talk about all of things he can do.

Kevin can laugh. He can cry. He can love, and be loved. He can miss you when you are gone. He can be a force in your life, not because of the things he can or can’t do, but because he is here and he matters.

See, he has a lot more in common with you or me than not. Like us, he  probably won’t be an astronaut or a CEO of some big corporation, or the president of the United States. He probably won’t hit the lottery or find out he’s the heir of some old rich guy who just croaked.

Like us, he lives every day trying to make sense of a world that he sometimes doesn’t understand.

He is you, he is me, he is all of us. We are not defined by the bodies that carry us, but by the souls inside of us, and the humanity we share.

But you know what? Today, Kevin did something you and I may never do. He got to meet the Batman. He got a hug from a superhero, and the guy in that suit, he hugged Kevin for all of us.

And that great, big, beaming grin shined with the life-giving force of a thousand suns, and in that beautiful moment, the promise of what it means to be human is fulfilled.

In this frightening world, Kevin's grin is a wonderful reminder that in spite of the trials and fears that face each and every one of us everyday, life is still worth living. So, be good to each other.

Kevin’s joyful smile demands it.

Grandpa's Hat

Grandpa's hat.jpg

Grandpa's old cowboy hat hangs in the closet. I visit it sometimes. It is white and stiff and way to small for my head. It speaks to me in tones of Old Spice aftershave and sweat. It tells stories of hard times, of plaid shirts and muddy boots, and bone cold mornings and wood stoves and coffee. It reminds me of when I was afraid, and was comforted by strong arms and a quiet voice with reassurances of better times ahead. I smell the hatband, and Grandpa's soul is with me, around me, and inside me. I close my eyes and go back to when I was small, standing in my bare feet on the cold  hardwood floor of the old farmhouse, and there is Grandpa, grizzled and tall and grinning, saying "Why don't you get some shoes on and help me build this fire, son?"

Ah, that famous grin, delivered with a twinkle in his eye, always warmed you up like an old quilt on a cold night and let you know that you were loved no matter what.

It remembers, this old hat. It waxes poetic about sadness and joy, of comings and goings and all the times in between. There is pain there in it's musings. This pain, it says,  is the mortar of life,  because without it the bricks that make us would tumble at the first errant wind.

It tells me, also, that although Grandpa cannot hug me anymore, he is with me nonetheless. Whenever I think, what would Grandpa do?, he is beside me. When my patience is tested, but I smile anyway, Grandpa is with me. When a person is angry and lashing out, and I try to look beyond the crusty, moss hung walls of bitterness and pain to try to understand what is really hurting them, Grandpa is there.

And when I strive to be better, yes, Grandpa is with me.

I used to smell that old hat and think about what I've lost.

Now, I can only think of all that I've been taught, and all I've yet to teach.

I hang Grandpa's hat back on the hook, where it will stay until it teaches me again.

 

 

You say goodbye, I say hello....

I went to my Uncle Johnny's funeral the other day. We told stories and laughed. Uncle Johnny was not a religious man, but he had a strong connection to his Native American heritage. So, per his wishes, there was no preacher. There were no sad hymns. There were no come to Jesus fire and brimstone soliloquies to save souls. There was a Native Holy Man who sang songs of celebration, and of passing. His last song sent Uncle Johnny on his way into the spirit world of Native lore, where he would meet with his relatives who had gone before him. Johnny's mom and dad would be there to greet him. There in the afterlife, Uncle Johnny would finally be free of the pain and disease that had shackled him in his last years on this earth.

As I sat and listened to the songs, and to sons and nieces and life long friends tell their stories, I was strangely comforted. In my younger years, death was something I feared. It was an alien thing, a ravenous monster who burst from the darkness with slavering jaws and burning red eyes to take me away.

Well, I'm older now. Death is not the monster he used to be. Death has become my beloved grandmother, reaching from her deathbed to hug me one last time, her eyes bright, saying “There's my grandson.”

Death has become my dear mother, her body ravaged by cancer, pulling my future wife close and whispering to her, “Thank you for being there for my son.”

Death has become my grandfather, forgoing treatments that would only serve to keep him alive in extended care for a year or two at best, meeting his end on his own terms and his own time, hugging me with the little strength he had left and telling me he loved me in his paper thin voice.

And now here I am yet again in a small room, sitting on burnished pews and smelling old wood and plaster and the musty air of the thousands of memorials that came before this one. Death is here, but he has lost his sting. We laugh at the stories of the life that was. The Holy Man is singing his songs There is a casket and flowers and cards and photos, but Uncle Johnny, he's not here. He is laughing and dancing. He is hugging his mom and dad. He is feeling the sweet fall air on his face.

Uncle Johnny, enjoying life and stealing points....

Uncle Johnny, enjoying life and stealing points....

Just like my grandparents and my mom, Uncle Johnny is free. We mourn his passing but not his ending. Just like those that have gone before him, his life endures in the hearts and memories of those who love him. That is the true circle of life, this love that never ends.

So death will come, and he will get his due, but he is no longer the red eyed monster of my youth. He is now my grandfather, and my grandmother, and my mother. He is all my dear friends who have gone before me. He is Uncle Johnny.

One day, I will embrace death as the old and dear friend that he is and he will lead me where I need to go, and the circle will remain unbroken.

 

 

 

 

We Mourn

This is happening way too often. Children are leaving their parents.

Has it always been like this? Or am I just now noticing? Or maybe when I was younger with so much less to lose, it was easier to push things to the back of my mind. But lately, the “it can't happen to me” file is bulging at the seams. All this heartache and anguish, this cloying funeral home stench of dying flowers and old wood, is getting harder to ignore. It's less abstract all the time.

A friend's sweet child dies of cancer. Another friend's grandchild is killed in a pile up on I5. It seems like tragedy is stalking us, like a hungry panther in a dark forest. It is stronger than us. It is relentless. It is picking us off, one by one.

How do we cope? You have pictures and memories. You look longingly at your beautiful children and remember the hugs and the laughter and think, what the hell? Just what in the fricking hell? You want to hold her again, you want to smell her hair. You want to tell your boy, “I love you, son.” You wonder, as you flip pages in your photo album, did he know that? Worse, why them, and not me? Why couldn't I save my child? Where is the Hallmark card for that?

I can't pretend to feel what my friends feel. I would be lying, though, if I said I can't imagine it. Because I can. It's what keeps me up nights. That hole in your chest. The empty arms that reach and find nothing.

The platitudes mean nothing. It will get better, they say. You'll always feel the loss, but in time, the pain won't hurt as much. The light comes back.

Maybe it does. But it will never be as bright.

For now, maybe joy is gone. Maybe it's so dark and cold that it feels like the sun will never return.

Until the light returns, we will mourn with you.

We will mourn, because you are our friends. Because, you are our family. Because, you are part of our lives, and because of that, we love you as our own.

Because of all that, your children are our children.

So, we mourn.

Until the sun warms your face and dries your tears, we will mourn.

Until peace returns and your hearts are calm, we will mourn.

Until. Until.

We mourn.

 

Hey! Take that stick out of your eye!

When you sit in judgment of others, you are convicting yourself. That's not an original thought, it's been said by others in different ways, but it's one that's been on my mind lately. Don't let your judgments separate you from your family and friends. We are all a work in progress, we are all damaged goods, and all of us are dragging around useless baggage. Unconditional acceptance is the greatest gift we can give to one another. It does not condone or condemn. It doesn't have to agree. It does not pretend to solve all problems or save the world.

It's just two souls sharing a little warmth for awhile.

If we were lucky, we came into this world with nothing but love. As we got older, that got tangled up with other priorities: school, careers, 401K's, mowing the lawn, feeding the dog, laundry, taking out the garbage, binge watching Netflix—or as I like to call it, life. When all that is all said and done, when the kids grow up and the career is over, when the cars are paid off and the mortgage burnt, you might find yourself sitting in a chair on a porch on a warm summer evening with somebody else as wrinkled as you. You might hear a lawnmower down the street. Closer by, a cricket chirps. You might smell the freshly chopped grass as you sip your iced tea. Old eyes meet. The past swirls around the two of you like a warm breeze. It means nothing, it means everything, all at the same time, and because of that, it just is.

It's what life is all about, really. It's why we toil all those years. So we can finally get to that place where we are who we are, and we are happy about it. There is no way you will get there if you keep letting your judgments and petty bigotries define your trail. It's a path strewn with brambles and potholes that will end in bitterness and a solitary death.

So stop beating yourself up and hating everybody else because of it. Accept yourself. Accept others.

It's where true happiness lives.

 

 

 

 

To Mom, on Mother's Day

Was it really like this?

Was it really like this?

Your life wasn't easy, Mom. Like most people at 24, you just weren't equipped to take on 3 babies by yourself. And instead of inspiring confidence and self worth, your own mother let you know every day that you weren't worthy, that you were somehow lacking, and that you needed a man in your life in order to survive. The qualifications for these men to be your husband and our step fathers were minimal. They just had to be breathing—never mind that faint smell of booze on their breath, or their anger issues, or their mommy issues. None of that mattered, because as long they showed up and were willing, they were vetted by grandma. More often than not, our little nuclear families often blew up in a mushroom cloud of anger and sadness, and when the dust settled, grandma would still be at her house crocheting or baking cookies or whatever, while you, Mom, were left to pick up the pieces of another shattered relationship. Of course, grandma would let you know that it was all your fault, but never fear! There was always another man just around the corner to make you whole.

And I know, Mom, that your childhood was pretty dark. Things happened to you that, in those days, just weren't talked about. I know that you were a scared little girl, and those people that were supposed to protect you and build you up instead tore you down and damaged you. I also know that the one ray of light in your life, the one person who would protect you and love you at all costs, my father, was cruelly taken from you before any of those childhood traumas could be banished to a place where they didn't hurt you anymore.

If I could talk to you one more time, Mom, I would tell you that I love you. Completely, and unconditionally. Were you always there to protect us? No. Did you wear a little apron and put PB&J's in our Snoopy lunch pails and have snacks ready after school and dinner on the table promptly at 6? Of course not. June Cleaver you were not. Then again, we weren't the Brady kids, either. Real life is messy, even more so when you don't have all the tools to deal with it. Then again, who does? What dark secrets seethed behind June Cleaver's perfect mask of domestic bliss?

I'm an adult now, I have been for quite awhile, so I know how hard all this adult stuff can be. I have made some dumb decisions in my life. I have hurt people, and I have been hurt. I have been angry, and sad, and frightened. I have been in dark places where it seemed no light would ever reach me again. So I see you, Mom, from a perspective I never had as a child. I see your strength. I see your perseverance, against all odds. I see your undying love for me, and for my brothers and sisters.

I see you, Mom.

I love you, Mom.

Always.

Happy Mother's Day.

My heart goes with you

A while back, my wife Tonya bought me a bottle of cologne.

“Here, honey,” she said. “I want you to wear this.”

“Why?” I said.

“I want to smell it on my pillow after you go to work,” she said.

“Why?” 

"Because,” she said, and she sprayed a little on my arm.

“Hey!"

"Did that hurt?" asked Tonya. "Maybe if I spray it from a little farther away..."

"No, that's okay."

"Smell it, then," said Tonya.

I was never a cologne kind of guy. Three times a week, I'd smell like aftershave, but most of the time it was Irish Spring and whatever stick of deodorant I happen to put my hand on first at the drugstore. I whiffed my arm.

“It's not bad,” I said.

“Good,” Tonya said, which, loosely translated, means “I'm glad we agree, throw it in the cart.” It's a wife thing.

And so it was that I had a high dollar bottle of cologne sitting in a drawer with my razors and my aftershave. I looked at it everyday as I got ready for work. Like I said, I'm not a cologne guy. I had visions of those young bucks with the high and tight haircuts and Member's Only jackets strutting around in a cloud of Polo. Not me, baby.

Then one day I was in the closet looking for something that I hadn't needed for a year (and probably still didn't), and spied Grandpa's old cowboy hat. He's been gone for over four years now. On a whim, I took the hat off the hook and smelled the hatband. There was Grandpa, in that relentlessly fading aroma of sweat and Old Spice, bringing with him fragile memories of hugs and fishing trips and plaid shirts and muddy boots. More than the fading images of long ago times, the scent also recalled childhood feelings of acceptance and peace and unconditional love. Pictures fade, but as I paraphrase Maya Angelou, you never forget how a person made you feel.

The next day, as I got ready for work, I spied that cologne bottle in the drawer. Tonya was in bed, sleeping off another swing shift. Thinking about Grandpa's hatband, I took out the cologne and gave myself a little spritz. Not much, mind you—only one person in the world had to know I even had it on.

I turned on the closet light so I could finish dressing, like always. The last thing I did before I left for work, the last thing I always did, was give my wife a kiss. My day would not start properly without it.

“Goodbye, honey, I love you,” I whispered. I held her hand. Her eyes didn't open, but as always, she gave me that sweet mostly asleep smile and murmured the same words back to me.

“I love you, too, honey,” she said. And then, her voice fading as she drifted back to sleep, she said "You smell good."

As usual, I tucked her in a bit before  I turned off the light and shut the bedroom door as quietly as I could.

Maybe she really didn't know I was there. Maybe she wouldn't remember that I kissed her tenderly, or that I held her hand. But later, as light begins to dance ever so gently around the edges of the curtains and her dreams begin to bubble to the surface and fade away, she might smell that scent again and know that I was there—that I will always be there.

Later, at work, I got a whiff of that cologne and immediately thought of my beautiful wife, and how much I love her, and...

Ah, I thought with a smile.

Well played, honey, well played.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Read any good books lately?

I used to read a lot more. Oh, I read now, but it's mostly Facebook posts about cats and nostalgia and politics. I look at pictures of food. I keep up with the daily adventures of people I never see. Sometimes it seems that my life is ordered around the blinking blue or green light on my phone. It flashes, OMG, I must check it. Who is responding to my own posts, and what did they say? Did they like it? I hate reality TV, but it seems like my own life has devolved into one big reality show where human interaction has been replaced by sound bite emotion and two dimensional outrage where a picture is worth a thousand words, but utterly devoid of context.

There was a time, maybe not so long ago, when I read actual books. I would stay up until the wee hours, basking in the green glow of an old digital alarm clock with impossibly large numbers, delving into places fraught with danger and wonder where the hero always won and the bad guys always got what they deserved. It was so much easier, back then, to lose myself in these imaginary realms. The first line of a wrinkled paperback was enough to transport me instantly into the jungles of a dark continent, or into the depths of outer space, or into a world of smart robots and flying cars. Anything was possible.

Who cares if mom was gashed by a coffee mug? What was it to me if the SWAT team had been outside my front door putting the cross hairs on my crazy step dad? None of that mattered because at midnight it was quiet. Mom was back from the doctor with a bandage on her head and the step dad was sitting in jail again and the silence was wonderful. It was dark and the house slept and there were worlds to explore.

These days I can't stay up and read like I used to. I have to wear glasses now to do that, plus I have to work in the morning, and also I have a bad habit of falling asleep after a paragraph or two. Those are lame excuses, I know. What's to stop me from sitting in my easy chair? Instead of watching Science Channel or Pawn Stars, why can't I open my kindle and read all the books I've downloaded but never finished? I guess it's just harder to escape from a reality I actually like.

More and more, as I turn off the TV and ignore the blinking lights on my phone, I find myself reading again. Admittedly, it's harder to suspend my disbelief. Losing myself in the story isn't as easy as reading the first line. Sometimes it takes a chapter or two. It takes a little work. But you know what? The magic is coming back. And now that I'm older, I realize the magic of the story has nothing to do with dragons or heroes or far flung kingdoms. A well structured story and fleshed out characters simply highlight the enchantment of what it means to be human, of what it means to laugh and love and maybe be afraid once in awhile. More importantly, if you stick it out until the end, good things usually happen.

I have become the hero of my childhood stories, because I have persevered, and I am happy. It doesn't make me better than anyone else, because my story isn't markedly different from those of millions of others. I guess that's the point. A good story makes you realize that you are not alone after all.

And that, my friends, is magic.

Light wins...right?

There’s a crack in everything. That’s how light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen, Anthem


I raise my eyes heavenward and pray so hard that my heart must surely burst from my chest. Cancer, again, and yet again, tramples uninvited through meadows otherwise serene, rending and tearing families apart in great red chunks, leaving the grass so recently glistening with sunshine and promise flattened and bloody and utterly bereft of hope. Silence greets my cries. Tomorrow comes and with it, the same darkness.

They say that life isn't fair. Ah, this nebulous they, who speak with such authority on all things life. Well, and this time, they are right. Nothing is promised. There are no guarantees. But still. Why the children? Must they suffer, with their bald little heads covered in scarves, shaking and crying “Mommy, it hurts!” loudly at first, then quietly, and then, not at all? Must parents, with their eyes shut tight, their teeth clenched, their hearts broken and hollow, scream at an uncaring and relentless universe until their throats bleed? They rage and they cry and hold their babies tight and in the end it matters not at all, because the universe doesn't care, and what it has taken, it will keep.

I have friends who are afflicted. I have friends whose children are afflicted. It's horrendous. It's mind numbing. How much can a body take? There seems no rhyme or reason. Hey, it's the third go around! Didn't we have this beat last time? But just when junior starts to get some color back in his cheeks, he starts puking again. So back to the hospital you go.

Mothers, fathers, grandparents, hell, even the family dog, cancer doesn't give a rats ass. We're all grist for the mill, baby, and it doesn't matter who you are or who loves you or who will miss you when you go. I wish I could offer some hope, but the Hallmark platitudes escape me. There is no clever rhyme or sacred text that will kiss this boo boo and make it all better.

I have to ask, does it get any better? That's the ultimate horror of it all. Life endures, and the survivors go on, but only because they have no choice. The rage and pain, the ache of loss, it never goes away. It recedes. It gets manageable. It's always there, though, just under the surface, ever ready to pounce without notice and shred any peace you might have salvaged from the horror of your loss.

Then again, are we completely without hope? I have lost, as you have, and everyone else. Haven't we all watched loved ones ravaged by cancer? Haven't we all lived through those long dark nights where the only sound was the ticking of the clock and the ragged breathing of a loved one sleeping in a place that is neither life or death? We have, and here we are.

Ultimately, the sun will light the darkness. We will find that in spite of death, happiness eventually prevails, if we let it. Our pain might consume us for a time, but in the end, all of those who go before us, tragically or otherwise, would not want us to be sad. If they were able, they would gently touch our tear stained faces and say, “Live for me, and be happy.”

And so we do. We live. And eventually, the sun will warm us again.










Kodak moments

Old party.jpg

Take pictures, my mother always said. When I was overseas, she got me a photo album for Christmas. I didn't know what to do with it. Was I supposed to take pictures and put then in it? Well, yes, duh, that's exactly what she wanted me to do. See, she knew that moments are fleeting. The love of her life was under a plaque in a grave yard in southern California. The grief stricken are experts in lost moments. When there are no more hugs or tender good mornings, when smiles become nothing more than tortured dreams in suddenly empty beds, when your arms stop reaching for someone who is no longer there, when the scent of his aftershave or the sweet scent of her perfume fades from an old sweater or shirt, then pictures are all you have, and they have to be enough.

The every day is so mundane. You get up, you go to work. Saturday comes, you mow the lawn. You toss your kids in the air. You kiss your wife. You laugh with your brother, maybe the dog knocks you down while you are giving him a bath. You rake the leaves, put up the Christmas lights. Who wants to see pictures of that stuff?

I've seen old photos of my grandpa sitting on a couch with a paper plate on his knee, wearing those tan slacks with the perfect crease, in shirt sleeves, his tie loose. Other people are around him, aunts and uncles, all beehive hair and bowling shirts. It must have been Thanksgiving or maybe just a birthday party, I don't know. Those folks are all gone now, but there they were, some 50 years ago, doing their thing, with grandma or Aunt Myrtle or somebody popping flash bulbs with their crappy little Instamatics. I'm sure somebody was thinking, what the hell, I'm just eating a dinner roll here. Who cares? I'm sure grandma might have thought the same thing. Maybe that film cartridge sat in a junk drawer for a few months before she got around to dropping it off at the drug store. Then she picked the photos up, and we all looked at them and said "Oh, there is uncle so and so with cake on his lips, and didn't aunt so and so's hair turn out nice?" And back to the drawer they went.

Now grandpa is gone.  My kids are grown up. All those wonderful great uncles and aunts milling around on those shag carpets in those old photos have died. But here they are on genuine Kodak paper,  caught forever in these little windows to a quickly fading past. My kids are little again. My grandpa is 50 and spiffy in his Sunday suit. These old pictures, they are yellowing and curling up at the corners, but if I squint real hard I can see an uncle raise an eyebrow at a dumb joke, or if I am real still and listen real close, I can hear my little girls giggling as they play dress up, or hear my mother's laugh one more time.

Yeah, I get it now, mom. A picture might not be enough to bring somebody back, but it might let them drop by and stay for awhile. And that has to be enough, because someday, it's all we'll have.

 

 

Who will tuck them in?

I got up this morning, and thought of all the things I needed to do. Shower, shave, get dressed, go to work--normal stuff. Just anther day, right? There were other things I wanted to do, too, like get some milk, gas up the car, kiss my wife, hug my kids, and maybe mow the lawn if I wasn't too lazy after work. I was going to do all of that, and maybe more.

But I got shot today.

I was going to punch out and get in my car and go home. I was going to pick up the little ones  and twirl them around and pet the dog and say "Honey, something sure smells good in the oven!" We were going to sit around the kitchen table, my family and me,  and talk about the holidays and who was going to get what, and giggle and make faces at each other.

But I got shot today.

I was going to sleep in this Saturday, have some coffee , and then hit up some yard sales. My wife, she loves the deals! Later I would roll on the carpet with my little ones. We might build a fort in the living room. Then I would read them a bed time story and kiss their smooth foreheads and smell the baby shampoo as their little eyes closed, secure in their beds with daddy tucking them in.

But I got shot today.

Even as I am carted off to wherever it is that statistics go, the hateful and the righteous begin pointing crooked fingers at one another, using my warm blood to color their arguments for or against. But my kids, my dear sweet kids, they don't care about who is right or who is wrong. They can only lie in their beds, their hair still damp from their nighttime bath,  and listen to their mommy crying as softly as she can, sitting at the suddenly barren kitchen table.  In their shock and confusion, their little hearts filled with an unbearable sadness that will influence everything they do from now until they die, they can only wonder, why isn't daddy coming home?

And who will tuck us in?

Where true magic lives

I remember when Santa was real.

He was everything that was right about childhood. He was peace, he was hope, he was light. He was about the promise of good things to come. He was about twinkling trees and hot cocoa and good will. He made people say hello and wish happiness for you and mean it. He made folks hug more and love more. He made perfect strangers smile at each other. He embodied the promise of all the good things humanity aspires to-- goodwill, tolerance, respect and dignity--and for a month or two each year, helped us all live up to them.

What happened?  Where did the innocence go? What the hell happened to my jammies with the feet and the candy canes and the carolers? Where has the magic gone?

Maybe it left me that one hot summer when I saw my mother, strung out on the booze and pills my asshole step father fed her, slumped over her steering wheel with her car nose first in a ditch. Maybe it had left me even earlier than that, wrenched from me when, spending the night at the babysitter's house, I watched her father, who's son had been murdered, crying quietly at their kitchen table early in the morning, repeating over and over "Why did they kill my son?" I was only 8 years old. I had no comprehension of the depth of his pain. I just knew that it was real, and that the world was a lot darker than Rudolph and Frosty had led me to believe.

But a funny thing happened on the way to middle age. 

The magic came back. My kids were born, I became happily married, I have a great home and a great career. I came to realize that in spite of 9/11 and rampant crime and murders and wars, people still serve turkey to the homeless on Thanksgiving day. Grandparents still bounce grand-kids on their knees. Yes, people can still be vain and heartless and mean. But they can also give you a random hug or a warm smile or a hearty "Merry Christmas," or even a "Happy Holidays" and mean it.

Also, and most importantly, as my wonderful grandpa Perry taught me, though there is darkness everywhere, we can flip on the light switch any time we want.

All of these years, I've been looking for Santa Claus and finally found him staring back at me from my bathroom mirror.

Now that's what I call magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make 'em last

Thanksgiving was a magical time at the Nethington farm house in the early 70's. Christmas was great, too, what with the reds and greens and the smell of wood smoke from the stove and the pine from the tree and the presents and all that, all soft hues and Jingle Bells. There was magic there, for sure. But Thanksgiving was special.

Family came from afar to fill the grandparent's house with warmth and laughter. The sofa bed was pulled out. Sleeping bags adorned the floor. It was noisy and crowded and crazy and smelled like apple pies and coffee and roasting turkey, and for a day or two, nobody gave a crap about anything but being next to each other. Cousins rough housed in the living room while a football game blared on the TV. The adults sat around the kitchen table and laughed about old times.

There was Uncle Don, one of grandpa's brothers, beer perpetually in hand, telling stories liberally laced with "Sumbitch!" and "Jesus Christ!", with grandma Leva, upstanding church going lady that she was, laughing right along with the rest of us. She had a soft spot in her heart for the diminutive Uncle Don. Maybe she sensed where all of his bluster came from. That wasn't hard to glean, everybody is damaged goods in one way or another. In any case, she loved him in spite of it, or maybe because of it, and well, the way he talked was just the way he talked.

Then there was Aunt Myrtle, grandma's sister. I used to have a favorite shirt with a cartoon picture of a chick standing beside a broken egg. The caption read "I just got laid." To this day, I can't figure out why grandma let me wear it around. Anyway, I remember Aunt Myrtle squinting at me through her perpetual halo of cigarette smoke and saying in her gravelly voice,  "Sweety, do you know what that means?" She got an elbow from grandma for that one, but it did nothing to wipe off her sly grin.

And then there was Uncle Wally. He would pull quarters out of our ears and tell stories about silly rabbits and a slow worm (who could not squirm) named Ooey Gooey who liked to race trains. Inevitably, Ooey Gooey eventually lost, and Uncle Wally always related the climax of the story with big eyes and a disgusted cry of "ooey gooey!" We listened raptly with every retelling, giggling in anticipation of the end, where we would all scream "ooey gooey!" right along with him.

The old Nethington farm house has long since been sold. Most of the characters in this story have passed. Eventually, time turns us all into memories. But memories have a funny way of transcending time and space and bringing good people back to life.

I guess that's why we make them in the first place.

 

Unspeakable

My friend lost his son today.

Across the sea last week, a lot of parents lost their sons, too. Their souls are torn.

But here, today, my friend lost his son. The world just became a smaller place.

Pain that we acknowledge happens to other parents when they lose their kids is now his to bear. How do we manage that darkness? How will he? I don't know.

 I think of my own kids, and of how I worry every single day.

"Please don't let this happen to my children," I say to myself. To who, I don't know. Just please, I think, don't let it happen.

But it does happen. It happens everyday. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, they leave us. Sometimes we know it's coming, this darkness, and other times it envelopes us suddenly, in a rending of metal or a hail of bombs and bullets. We are not ready, ever. There is no ready.

There is no preparation for a hole in your heart the size of your child.

My friend today has memories of diapers and baby food and Christmas mornings and fishing trips, and bedtime stories and popcorn on Friday nights, of school projects and football games. They are all just snapshots now, frozen in time, and they will torture him before they sustain him,  because you can't hug a snapshot. You can't say goodbye to a memory.

Soon the memories will bring smiles instead of tears, but they are no comfort now.  Now it is enough just to rise to greet the day, the new reality, and put your feet on the ground and one foot in front of the other.

My friend will survive. What choice does he have? What choice do any of us have? 

My heart aches for you, my friend, and your family. Peace and happiness will come, but for now, I wish for you the strength to carry you all through this horrific time until the sun's warmth finds you again.

 

My father's smile

Me and my Dad

Me and my Dad

I saw it once, way back when.  It was a smile, my father's smile, and  I saw it so long ago that sometimes the memory of it feels like nothing more than the wisp of a barely remembered dream.  I must have been one and a half, maybe two, but that would have been pushing it, because my father died on Halloween night of my second year, 10 days after my birthday in 1965.  What kind of memories can babies have that aren't merely gauze covered snippets of faces and moments and comforting babble?

But his smile that day has stayed  with me these last 50 years or so.  He must have known then what was coming.  The cancer that would take him had already staked it's claim.  I'm sure my Dad had a lot of fight left in  him.  His wife, his three kids, his mom and dad and his brother---he had a lot to live for. He was only 22.  Who the hell dies at 22?  Lots of folks. I'm sure my Dad knew that, too, but you wouldn't know it by the way he grinned that day. 

He was a young man, my Dad, much too young by far to face such an early death.  But cancer doesn't give a crap about that, or the family that needs you, or for the life just beginning. But my Dad was my Grandfather's son.  I'm sure he was sad and afraid, and maybe a little angry.  But like my Grandfather, he knew that when the dice came out, you got what you got.  

So here he was, grinning like all of his tomorrows were still out there waiting for him.  He would never see me take my first wobbly steps or usher me into my first day of kindergarten or teach me how to drive.  He wouldn't see me graduate high school or go into the Air Force or bounce his grand-kids on his knees.  But the grin on his face was full of the promise and the pride of all those things and more. All of time and space, everything that ever mattered, past, present and future, was right there with my old man that day at that moment,  because in the end the moments are all you really have, and he was damned if he was going to ruin this one with glum thoughts of what tomorrow might bring.

There were a lot of things my Dad couldn't give me.  But there was a time, some 50 years ago, that he gave me a few of the most precious gifts a father could give a child. He gave me a smile.  He gave me himself. 

He gave me a moment.

So Dads, on this Father's Day, remember this:  no matter how big your kids are, every hug, every kind word, and yes, every smile, matters--because some day, that might be all there is.  

 

Clicking my heels

"For the record, I knew you had it in you all along." -Glinda the Good

I got 'em off a dead witch....

I got 'em off a dead witch....

So, yeah, I'm sitting here wondering just what the hell is going on.  Seriously.  Middle age snuck up on me and now it's here and I'm suddenly freaking out over my 401(k) and what my social security check will look like in a few short years.  I remember when the extent of my worries consisted of what kind of beer I was going to get for the weekend and when the next Rambo movie was coming out.  Now there's a lot of late night anxiety coupled with healthy doses of self loathing and a rehashing of a life time of useless regret. I'm laying there wide awake at 12:30 AM hoping the Forensic Files will lull me to sleep or at least help me forget some of those asshole things I did at 24,  or some of the stupid things I said to one of my ex wives in my 30's, or the fact that my youngest isn't daddy's little girl anymore.

Don't get me wrong.  I am more content and happy now than I've ever been. I am almost 28 years into a great job that in this day and age people would literally kill to have.  I have three beautiful daughters and a wonderful wife and a great home.  I know it's illogical, but even with all of that, that little evil bastard lurking in the dark recesses of my animal brain still has to break out now and then in the wee hours and water board my ass for no other reason than to remind me that I still suck. 

On top of that,  I can't claim victim hood anymore, at least not in good conscience.   I mean, in my 30's stuff would happen, like divorces and bankruptcy and bad milk and I was like, why is all this bullshit happening to me?  When can I catch a break?  It's only been in the last 10 year so that I've come to realize that I am, in fact, the leading man in my own drama.  So it's not bad enough that I have to rehash all this crap once in awhile, I now have to cop to the fact that most of the bad stuff that has happened to me has been at least partially my own damn fault. 

It's funny, but it's at that moment of self realization, when I admit to at least some culpability in my own misfortunes, that the regret monster starts to slither back into it's cave.  It's like Glinda the Good Witch pops out of a bubble and tells me in that irritating voice that I've had the power all along and that I didn't have to step in all those potholes on the yellow brick road, that I could have simply gone around them.  What?  She couldn't tell me this 30 years ago?  In all fairness, I wouldn't have believed her anyway, which isn't so bad.  It's that wonderful capacity for stupidity in our youth that usually leads to wisdom in our later years (for most of us--but that's fodder for another essay). 

Once again, the monster is gone and light prevails. Maybe someday I'll stop feeding it and kick it's ass for good.

Tastes like chicken

I'm not old yet.  I've said that before around here, more times than I can remember.  I'm getting there.  So are you.  I remember when I was a young man.  I washed dishes in a rest home in Canon City, Colorado back in the late 70's.  I was 16 years old.  Anyway, there were lots of old people there.  I used to watch them sometimes, sitting there on a sofa or a dining chair, staring into space.  Some of them seemed afraid.  Some of them seemed unsure of what was going on around them.  Some of them looked as if they didn't care at all.

I remember asking one old guy how the food was one night.  He said  with a chuckle "It all tastes the same after awhile."

Back then, I didn't know what to make of that.  I couldn't even think, is that what I have to look forward to?   I couldn't comprehend being so old that everything tastes the same.  Does the spice seep out of your life the older you get?  Do colors fade?  Do the birds stop chirping and babies stop crying?  Is that what they mean when they say life passes you by?  Truthfully, I never thought those things after he said that.  Those are the questions of a middle aged man, not a 16 year old kid who thinks he knows everything.  Back then, it was just something a tired old man said,  sitting there in clothes too big for him, with a dab of pureed peas drying in the corner of his mouth.

That was 35 years ago.  Yeah, I know, I can hardly believe it either.  A dumb kid with absolutely no idea of what was coming.  Graduation, military service, kids, marriages, divorces, deaths--holy crap, a class 5 hurricane was about to wash my dumb ass out to sea and I thought my dinghy was going to be enough.

I keep telling you, I 'm not old yet.  But I'm beginning to understand what it must feel like when you are.  The world changes so rapidly.  I can see how a body can be afraid.  I mean, what the hell is going on?  Reality TV, cell phones, electronics everywhere, folks getting their heads chopped off, never ending wars, murder, mayhem, jaywalking, where does it end?  I can see how an old guy would want to stay on his couch.  It's a refuge, man, from all that crazy.  He's got his coffee, his knick knacks, his big ass Curtis Mathis and the lamp his wife, God Rest Her Soul, picked up at that flea market back in the day.  He looks out the window and it doesn't matter if the sun is up or not, all he sees is dark.  It's a scary place out there.  It's not his world anymore.

I'm not afraid of the world, and I still like a good steak, but sometimes when I sit at the table with my coffee cooling in front of me, I just wish it would all slow down.  I want to get off these rapids and sit under the sun by a lazy stream and listen to the insects buzz and just take a nap. I get it.  When you've been around for awhile, there's a lot of years resting on those narrow shoulders.  You've seen it all, you've heard it all, and everything tastes like chicken.  Kids are gone, people are dying, and sometimes it just seems like nothing really matters anymore.  

But maybe, just maybe, a bright smile and hug might brighten things up a little.  Maybe that's all it will take to bring you back, to let you know that you are  not just a faded black and white Kodak moment sitting on the mantle next to a ceramic elephant.

So, go hug an old person today.  Let them know they matter.  Let them talk about the old days.  Watch Mayberry RFD with them on DVD  and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup on TV trays in the living room, like old times.  And when Gramps waxes nostalgic, let him ramble.

You might learn something.

Every Body Matters

I heard the news today.  A body was found under a bridge.  The poor guy had been dead for awhile.  We hear about these kinds of things all the time.  People die everyday.  How must it be to die alone and sick and forgotten under a bridge? 

That body--it has a name.  No surprise, every body has a name.  We just have to care enough to find out what it is.  Thomas.  That was his name.  I used to see him quite frequently at the Post Office.  That's where I work, and that's where Thomas came almost every day looking for some mail.   He was unkempt and ragged and smelling of booze, but he smiled every time he asked and thanked us even if there was nothing.

I keep thinking, Thomas was a baby once.  He had a childhood.  He had a life.  He must have, right?  As human beings we all have to start somewhere.  At some point, somebody had to care for him.  There had to be somebody out there who worried about Thomas.  Somebody who changed his diapers when he was little, somebody who dressed him up in a costume and took him trick or treating, somebody who made him PB&J sandwiches and wrapped up a toy for him on Christmas day.  Right?

Now, Thomas is dead.  Is there a mother somewhere who mourns for him?  Is there a brother, a sister, a cousin even, who is thinking about Thomas and wondering if he suffered there under that bridge?  Do they even know that he is dead?  Maybe there were dark times, maybe they fought with him about the booze.  Maybe the addictions and the demons were too much for Thomas' family and they wrote him off.  Most assuredly, Thomas made his choices, and maybe his family finally gave up and left him to his consequences.

It's true, we do make our choices.  Thomas didn't die alone because the world conspired to break him down.  He ended up where he did because of the choices he made.  People cannot be saved who don't want to be saved.  We are all adults here, we get  that.

But you know what?  Every life is precious, even wasted ones.  And Thomas deserves to be mourned.  He mattered and his death diminishes all of us.  I will remember him as the customer who came in everyday and smiled and thanked us for our trouble. 

So, so long, Thomas.  I will take a moment and mourn for you today.  I will mourn the troubled man who smiled anyway.  I will mourn your unfulfilled dreams.   But most of all,  I will mourn the man that could have been, but wasn't.  

Rest in peace.