Saturday, July 20, 2019

When your first friend from first grade gets married, how you could be anywhere but there?

The kid on the right got married last week. The one in the middle was his best man. 

Lee Hanig (whom I have long thought of as my son) and Charlie (who really is) have been friends since first grade at St. Mark's School of Texas. Charlie's last name starts with a G and Lee's with an H, so there ya' go. 

The boys remained close through lower school and middle school, playing on the same or opposing sports teams; going on birthday campouts at my parents' farm (where the picture above was taken with my other all-but-son, Luke Smith); laughing and whispering and being total goofballs.

Then after Lee performed at the ninth-grade orchestra recital, he told Charlie he was leaving St. Mark's to attend Booker T. Washington School for the Performing Arts. Charlie, who did not inherit even a sliver of his mother's crying gene, cried and cried. 

"It shattered my world," he says.

The next few years, the two played a little club volleyball together and both worked at The Purple Cow restaurant. Keeping up a friendship while in different high schools and having different interests, though, is challenging. Their college choices were thousands of miles apart; their experiences about as spread out, too.

Still, friends are friends; brothers (which is what Charlie considers Lee to be) brothers. And months without communication, they discovered, can be finger-snapped away by sharing a cabin in Colorado.

The first time Lee went with us to the YMCA of the Rockies, he and Charlie were a month away from third grade. The most recent was two summers ago.

As a hiking kid, Lee amused us with his lollygagging, all the while licking on giant lollipop for sustenance. As a hiking adult, he sped up a little, switching to one giant baguette to sustain him for miles- and hours-long hikes. Charlie's backpack, on the other hand, was crammed with thick meat-and-cheese sandwiches, fruit, protein bars.

My family has always adored Lee. He is so...Lee. 

I can't remember him calling me, my sisters, brothers-in-law or my mom by anything other than our first names. While in Colorado with us, he immerses himself in the general hilarity of game nights; does jigsaw puzzles by the hour to the delight of my mother. He plays his guitar and sings with no prodding, also to the delight of my mother.

Lee played the guitar at my niece Julie's wedding, which was held at the Y of the Rockies. Lee is the one who told my mother that yes, we could stop at a dispensary ("I'm curious," Mom said) to just look around. But he put his foot down at her buying a lollipop and most certainly at trying to take a plant on the plane home ("I just want to see if I could grow it.")

Charlie last saw Lee almost two years ago. Charlie had stopped in Boston, where Lee and his then-girlfriend Fran lived, on the way to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Maine. 

When Lee and Fran got engaged earlier this year, he asked Charlie to be one of his groomsmen.

Charlie initially said a resounding yes. But this year has been kind of tough for us financially. Charlie's part-time job doesn't leave much for extras, and a month ago, he had to pay $700 for his car's air conditioning to be fixed. I was laid off in January and couldn't be much help. 

So Charlie called Lee to tell him he wouldn't be able to swing a trip to Boston. I knew Charlie was disappointed, but he assured me it was OK. He'd record a toast; Lee's mom Deb said she'd make sure it was shown at the rehearsal dinner.

Then around noon on Saturday, 18 hours before the wedding, I read the toast Charlie had sent me. It made me cry. I called my sister Susan and read it to her. And maybe one of us said it first; maybe we said it in unison. But the crux was this: "Charlie has to go to Lee's wedding."

So he did. We found a fare that wasn't outlandish and Deb said Charlie could share a hotel room with her brother. Charlie and I dashed out and found a suit on sale; alterations were completed by 7 p.m. Charlie boarded his flight 12 hours later and arrived in Boston four hours before the wedding to be Lee's best man.

Deb and Fran knew Charlie was coming, but Lee didn't. In true Lee fashion, he didn't seem all that surprised. But during the ceremony, Charlie told me, Lee turned to him and quietly said, "I'm so glad you're here."

And in a Facebook note the next day, Fran wrote: "Lee was so happy Charlie was there."

So there you have it. No moral here, unless it's that elbow to your ribs reminder: No one knows you as well as your childhood friends. I started to say "other than family," but maybe they know you even better...and maybe that's because they are family.

What else can you do but make sure those mountains and miles and laughter and tears and teams and games and sandwiches and baguettes -- that they all count for something. Something strong, something beautiful, something everlasting. 

And you go ahead and spend money you don't have; you say thank you to a couple of loved ones for being so generous. Because this is one of those times when you just have to be there. For friendship. For brotherhood. For love. 

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Seizure-ing the day

For a few weeks, perhaps a month or so, after my son Charlie had a seizure and spent three days in the ICU, I kept a keen, not always subtle, eye on him. That wasn't hard, because he wasn't allowed drive for three months and thus, was in my passenger seat a lot.

His neurologist -- whom we adored anyway, but even more so because he gave us good news -- was all but certain Charlie wouldn't have another seizure. But in the hospital last year, those days and nights, heart-lifting though they turned out to be, also had plenty of scary moments. Plus, being a worrier in general, I sometimes had to bite my tongue to keep from asking, "Are you OK?" too many times within a day.

There was no telling what had caused everything to go a little haywire in Charlie's brain. Maybe it was stress. Maybe exhaustion. Or, as Dr. Ronald Bell, his neurologist, said, "sometimes it feels like an act of God."

We non-medical types stopped trying to figure it out, stopped starting our sentences with, "I wonder if it could've been..." We just stepped back and let time pass. Charlie was given the OK to drive. He moved back to Colorado, where he immersed himself in working and in hiking as he had for the two previous summers.   

I loosened my grip on those remembrances and worries I had grasped so tightly, gently wrapping each in a box labeled "yesterday." I knew where they were, but unless something jolted my memory -- brushing up against the shirt I was wearing the morning Charlie had his seizure, perhaps -- they simply stayed in their little cocoon.

They began rustling just a little when Charlie moved home from Colorado in January. He was taking classes at TWU, studying to become a personal trainer, working about 30 hours a week at a German delicatessen. He was going to the gym after work, getting home around 10, eating late, and getting less sleep than I wanted to know about.

The week of July 4, Charlie was scheduled to work seven days in a row, and I could all but hear the jostles of that wrapped-up box of remembrances and worries. Charlie was exhausted; too tired even to exercise, which was so unlike him. July 3, he started work at 6 a.m., had barely 20 minutes to eat his lunch, and got home around 4:30. 

A couple of hours later, while I was having dinner with Mom and my sisters, he called.

"Did I work today?" he asked. And then, "Do I work tomorrow?" And then, "I don't remember driving home."

I left the table and rushed home. At first Charlie said he felt better, then complained of a headache and threw up. I called his internist, who said, "Something's not right." 
A wiped-out Charlie awaits test results while camped out in the rather chilly ER.
Charlie, his dad and I spent five hours in the emergency room, where Charlie had a CT scan and a huge IV dripped its contents into his body. We came home well after midnight and, I confess, Charlie slept in my bed and I slept on the floor next to it.

Five days later, we went for a follow-up appointment with his neurologist. Dr. Bell told us stories of his trip to Ukraine, and gave us a primer on European and Russian economics. We were held rapt, as we had been every time he came to Charlie's hospital room -- never in a hurry to leave; always a wealth of brain talk and fascinating stories. 

All this to finally say that Charlie is fine. Dr. Bell attributed Charlie's symptoms to heat stroke and to dehydration. Take breaks at work, he told Charlie. Sleep more. Make sure you drink plenty of water.
Charlie and Dr. Ronald Bell, his neurologist, sharing good news.
On the way home, Charlie -- who has been a bit in flux about what he wants his future to hold -- told me he has decided to return to Colorado. I am, quite honestly, thrilled. 

His decision, I believe, is a thank you of sorts -- to God, or perhaps to fate. To the stars. To the universe and, of course, to our beloved voice of calm and bearer of good news, Dr. Bell. 

What each or all of them bestowed upon Charlie is way more than an all-clear. Instead, it is a nudge, a wink, an admonition: To go where your heart is. To pursue what moves your soul. To revel in what quenches your spirit. 

So what better way to express utmost gratitude than to do just that?
Charlie, delighted to be 13,560 feet above sea level.
My carefully wrapped and stowed-away collection of worries has been silent since Charlie's follow-up appointment. And as tempted as I am to lug to the dumpster this box that only I can see, I'm instead going to let it stay where it is. 

Those three days in ICU were wrenching. Without a doubt, I have never, ever, ever been as scared in my entire life as when I found Charlie unresponsive after he had his seizure. I pray we never have to go through that again.

But you know what? It happened. And we came through. So I'm keeping that box, which holds more love and grace, more caring and smarts that I will never quite grasp. For that, I am beyond grateful. 

Which is why you couldn't begin to pry that crazy box from my soul, and certainly not from my heart.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Essays about and for my dad on this, our seventh Father's Day without him

Above all else, my father loved his family. 

Almost as much as us, he loved Father's Day. He loved his birthday. He loved Christmas. He loved being with those of us who adored him, who hung on his words, who got the hugest charge out of him.

He loved, quite frankly, being the center of attention...or being so very happy for one of us that his cup, as he'd say, runneth over. Such was the case in this, my favorite picture of him, taken at my brother Ben's wedding.

Dad's last Father's Day was in 2012, which my sister Susan and I are celebrating with him here. Our sweet Daddy died 46 days later.  

Not a day (or even half-day) goes by that I don't miss him; don't hear him jingling coins in his pocket, don't hear him saying "I love you" (which he did all the time) or quoting poetry (which he also did all the time). 

He's still the first person I want to tell so much to, or to ask about something. Nobody told a story like Dad, and though I probably heard most of them about a million times, I'd give anything to hear even one of them one more time.

Through the years, I've written a lot about him. He was just so...quotable. Endearing. Engaging. Loving. 

So perhaps as a gift to him, here are a few of my favorite essays I've written about him on this, my seventh Father's Day without my dad (a.k.a. the All American Boy, Mr. Wonderful, Dadaw, the Grand Poopaw).

Happy Father's Day, Daddy. 

On his ah...determination (OK, stubbornness):

On living life joyfully

On oatmeal and hospital visits:

On his optimistic attitude, even while in pain

Six days after he died:

Our first Thanksgiving without him:

After he'd been gone a year:

On his connection to Miss Inez the organ player and Tennessee Waltz:

On why I missed him especially at the 50-year anniversary of the JFK assassination:

After he'd been gone five years

If your dad still shares this sweet earth with you, give him an extra hug today. If he's gone, may you revel in the relationship you had, and hear his laughter all over again.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

My son had a serious seizure a year ago. I'm finally ready to wear the shirt I was wearing when it happened

One of my favorite running shirts has hung in my closet, unworn, for close to a year now. The last time I plucked it off a hanger and put it on, preparing for a few Saturday miles, was March 17, 2018.

It’s what I was wearing moments later when I heard a strange, loud, guttural sound coming from my son Charlie’s bedroom and rushed in to find him under the covers, stiff and unresponsive.

It’s what I was wearing when I screamed to the 911 operator that I thought Charlie was dying; what I was wearing when paramedics and police officers filled our house; what I’m wearing in this photo his dad took of Charlie's uncles and me standing (and more than a little shell-shocked) next to Charlie’s bed in the ER at Methodist Richardson Medical Center.

It’s what I was wearing during tests to confirm Charlie had indeed had a seizure; what I used to absorb wayward tears when the tissue box was out of reach. It's what I took off that evening and hung in my closet, really not thinking about when I'd next put it on. An hour seemed a lifetime away; I couldn't even think about a year passing.

And 365 days later, it's still hanging there. I may brush against it as I pull out a different long-sleeved shirt to wear; may swipe it to the side as I opt for another.
The shirt (and, admittedly, a quarter-size spot of dried blood on the wall by the front door which Charlie insists on not painting over) are the only tangible memories of those four scary and ultimately life-affirming days.

There are, of course, plenty of mindful memories, which have been flooding my heart this past week. They tend to be of utmost gratitude -- first and foremost, that Charlie is healthy and has had no repercussions nor needed any medications. They're also for my family; for friends and strangers who prayed for him; for the staff at Methodist Richardson who made us feel like he was the only patient they were taking care of.

Still, as this auspicious and joyful anniversary approaches, I confess to mornings when I surreptitiously peek at Charlie while he's sleeping to make sure he's...well, you know. Breathing.

I also confess to following -- in my heart at least -- my sweet son's shadow, so close to him that I almost step on the back of his workout shoes; so close I'd collide with him were he to stop short, turn around and see me there.

My family and I (Charlie was out of it much of the time) will never forget those moments, those hours, those days of uncertainty and ultimately of exhilaration. We have learned that life really can change in -- feel free to mouth the cliches with me -- the blink of an eye, the snap of two fingers, the switch of a light. And for us, in an electrical current gone crazy in a healthy young brain.

Six weeks after his three nights in the ICU, Charlie went back to Colorado. He worked there for eight months, hiking hundreds of miles, lifting weights, spending time with friends. And, I'll venture to guess, not thinking for a moment about the seizure.

I don't harp on it at all, really. Still, I do think the whole experience has given me the gift of perspective; it's helped me keep to a minimum any angst about money or losing my job or wondering what the future holds.

For that odd little gift and for oh so much more, I am grateful.

The Mother's Day after Charlie had his seizure, I wrote an essay about our experience for The Dallas Morning News. In it, I recounted a conversation I'd had with his neurologist, Ronald J. Bell, MD, who is on the medical staff at Methodist Richardson. Charlie had a follow-up appointment, and as we left Dr. Bell's office, almost as an afterthought, I asked this question:

Charlie with Dr. Ronald Bell, his much beloved neurologist
"Did you pretty much know when you first saw Charlie in the ER that he'd be OK?"

His answer surprised me. "Not at all," he said. "I don't know the punch line. All I know is to take the next step."

Which is why, next time I run, I'll reach into my closet and, without even thinking about it, take my brown shirt from the hanger. I'll put it on for the first time since March 17 a year ago and then head out.

Oh who am I kidding? Of course I'll think about it. And with each step, my heart will beat out a thank you. Over and over and over again.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Reveling in the cool factor that IS Table 7

At the rehearsal dinner of our nephew Sam, my sister Susan and I were assigned to Table 7. There was quite a crew in the restaurant -- family of the couple, including Sam's two grandmothers; wedding party members and their significant others; a handful of clergy members (including some who had traveled from Wisconsin, where Sam attends seminary), plus Sam's and Katy's siblings.

Sam has two sisters and a brother. Katy has a sister, plus several step-relatives, eight of whom also had Table 7 seat assignments. 

Susan and I meandered through the crowd to our large round table in the corner, and we all introduced ourselves. It took a little repetition and a few pssst! Remind me who that is? -- but we finally figured out who went with whom and a little about each other.

Conversation was polite and nice and friendly, of course. And then -- what was it? What was that turning point that changed everything? It could have been when we sat down and Susan almost immediately proclaimed us to be "the renegade table." That did make us all smile and put us at ease and maybe even set the tone. But I'm not certain that was the moment I'm seeking.

Maybe it was glancing at the other tables, wanting the familiarity in Tables 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to be in Table 7 as well. Or, most likely, it was a combination -- a sprinkling of serendipity, mingling with the fairy dust that seems to hover over happiness venues.

Whatever it was compelled Susan to make a proclamation: "We need to be known as the fun table," she said. "On the count of three, everyone start laughing really, really hard."
So we did, which of course made us laugh even harder. Other tables looked over at us, amused. That opened us up and we kept talking and talking, feeling this mirth that just seemed to grow. At one point, one of the bridesmaids moseyed over from another table and said, "You all are having so much fun, I just had to come over and be close to all this."

I said we needed to set up a Table 7 Facebook page. Susan decided that at the wedding reception the following evening, someone should request "Uptown Funk" and when we heard it, we'd all run to the dance floor.

The toasts to the happy couple ended; the stories and memories and hoo-haws and tears stopped, and we all went home. 

The following afternoon, the wedding was beautiful and joyous. At the reception, we acknowledged the presence of fellow Table 7-ers with a wave, a smile, or with seven fingers extended. The first time "Uptown Funk" played was early on, and everyone was too busy talking or mingling or eating to dance. 

An hour or so later, the bridesmaid who had come by Table 7 the night before found Susan and me eating dinner. 

"Table 7, right?" she asked. We nodded.

"I asked the DJ to play 'Uptown Funk' again," she said. "He said he doesn't usually repeat songs, but he will if you promise to dance." Then she said, "When I get married, I want Table 7 there."

We were, quite honestly, kind of weary. But after hearing that, how could we possibly say no? We looked at each other, nodded a little, and told her that sure, we'd get out there.

When the music started, suddenly our whole Table 7-ers were next to us. We sashayed onto the dance floor, and one of us (I like to think it was me) suggested a conga line. I reached for Susan's shoulders, and she weaved us around the other dancers -- even under a bridge of raised arms, where we were going the opposite way of everyone else.

But did the Table 7-ers care? Darn right we didn't. I laughed the hardest I had all evening; at one point, I turned around, and seeing our tablemates doing our crazy snake dance behind me made me laugh even harder.

When the evening ended, when guests were handed wands of streamers and bells and lining up to cheer on the newlyweds, Susan and I saw two fellow Table 7-ers. We joked about one day running into each other in a restaurant or anywhere else, and how we'd all just say "Table 7!" and start dancing.

Susan said, "Or if you're ever feeling down, just say out loud, 'Table 7.' You never know who might be around."

"Table 7," said Landon, one of Katy's stepbrothers, "is a state of mind."

What more can I add to that? Except that when you sit at a table of renegades, you just gotta be open to laughter and to mirth. Because only then can you feel it -- that subtle sprinkling of magic; that fairy dust which brings us together, and which keeps us whole.