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.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Hiking heaven

We took the hike because that's what you do when you're in Colorado. It's what we do, anyway, because the mountains call out to us. And if we don't answer, if we get too caught up in just ogling their snow-capped loveliness, our allotted time here passes and we're left grasping for them with a sense of desperation, the what-ifs settling over our psyches like impending afternoon storms.

In their bountiful altruism, the mountains extend a magic looking glass in front of our faces, giving us a chance to flash forward a week, a month, six months. 

Will just being caught up in their beauty have been enough? Will we be kicking ourselves for not venturing out on these trails, interwoven like a basket, each its own entity, yet together leading us back to the trail head, to our car, to this cabin we call home for never long enough?

I'm never quite as brave up here as I'd like to be, or as I am when contemplating what I will do when I get here, or when I look back thinking about what I probably could have accomplished. This truism manifests itself on this hike with my son Charlie when, on a perfect Tuesday in July, we come to a part of the trail that has been washed away by floods two years ago. 

On the other side of nature's ravine, the trail picks up, but reaching the other side would require more agility and less anxiety than I have at this moment. So  despite him telling me, "You can do this, Mom!" I not surprisingly take a deep breath and tell him I think I'd better go back.

A half, a quarter-mile after our u-turn, I call out an apology. We're walking single file; the trail is narrow, and if someone approaches, either they or we step to the side to let the other pass.

For what? Charlie asks. For not believing in myself like you believed in me, I think. But instead I say, “For being such a wimp back there.”

He seems to not even remember. We trudge on, backtracking down paths so rocky we can't look at the scenery lest we stumble; through the aspen groves; across a meadow; up a pine-strewn trail. He's a forgiving sort and, like his mother, more willing to forgive others than himself; more likely to feel disappointment in himself than in someone else.

With equal degrees of comfort, we're silent and we talk -- about school, about religion, about nothing at all. We contemplate lunch, re-savor last night's dinner, remember random answers from the silly question game our whole family has played (and guffawed over) for two nights now. 

He and I have always felt an ease with each other. Here in the mountains, our comfort level is especially high -- him in front of me, moving more slowly than he'd like (and I'm not a pokey hiker, really!). When I call out to him or when he senses the footsteps between us lengthening, he pauses to let me catch up and to catch my breath. When stepping seems especially precarious, he turns around and extends his hand, which I reach for like a quicksand victim.

By the time we reach the car, which is parked by a picnic table next to a stream, we've gone 5.8 miles. "Come on," he says, taking the words from me. We walk two-tenths of a mile more. "An even six," he says. And even more triumphantly, "This wasn't a destination hike, but it sure was a good one."

We sit at the table and eat our sandwiches which, like all hiking sandwiches, started out thick and savory and are now panini-smashed. They're also sigh-worthy delicious. We take a few pictures, then head back to the cabin. 

In a few days, Charlie and his friend will drop me off at the airport, then drive the rest of the way home. I'll wake up the next morning in my own bed and resume the running for which I've swapped out for mountain exercise the last five days.

It will be hot, so I'll wear shorts and a tank top and I'll carry water. I'll sweat and feel my heart beating, and if I gasp for air, it will because the atmosphere is sultry and not because it's too thin. 

I'll run five miles or six or seven; maybe 9 or 10 on Sunday. When I'm home, it's what I do. 

But if I happen to glance into a mirror; if I catch my reflection in a car's windshield or in a storefront window -- for a few days at least; a week if I'm lucky -- I'll see behind me a range of mountains, a rocky path, and a kid who's not a kid any more reaching for my hand when I stumble. And I'll find myself thinking about next summer, breathing in courage for all I'm really and truly going to do when we're once more in the mountains.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tennessee Waltzing

Mom and my brother Allan

When I was growing up, we were lucky enough to have a cafeteria -- Radford's Cafeteria, to be precise -- around the corner. All these years later, I can still close my eyes and conjure up how it smelled. The aromas were mostly tangible: Fried chicken (which my dad wouldn't eat so we rarely had at home); plump macaroni swimming in cheese sauce the way nature intended (unlike our family fare of skinny noodles bathed in Kraft neon orange); liver and onions (which only our dear mother dared imbibe); desserts of every texture and weight.

The permeating smell was more than food; it also brought in plastic flowers and -- pancake makeup maybe? That's neither good nor bad; just a statement of fact.

But what I'm remembering now is the organ, and its steady stream of music serenading diners. At the helm was one Miss Inez, who, admittedly, we kids used to try to stump by asking her to play such decidedly un-cafeteria selections as Theme From Shaft.

One song she played without fail was Tennessee Waltz. The moment my father stepped through those doors, it was as if she'd been looking for him all evening. He'd hear the first notes, look surprised, throw her a smile, lift his palms upward, give her one of those facial expressions of his, and lock eyes with her in gratitude. Daddy loved that song; more often than not, he'd sing it, if not then and there to himself, on the walk home to us, then three-finger its melody on our piano at home.

Flash forward -- oh, decades. Last Saturday, to be precise, the day my brother Allan turned 60. The original plan was for us all to go to El Fenix, Allan's (and Dad's) favorite place on the planet. But my niece Claire had the flu, so my sister Jeanne couldn't go. My sister Susan and her crew were going out to dinner with their daughter Julie and her new husband. I wasn't feeling all that great, but Charlie and I were going to go with Allan and Mom.

Then Mom called to say that Allan had had Mexican food for lunch, as he always does on Saturdays after he gets off work. So she said she and he were going to go to Highland Park Cafeteria. I talked to Allan, and he said we can all go to El Fenix in a week or so.

The next day, Mom called to tell me about their evening. She asked me to guess what she had to eat; I guessed (correctly) liver and onions. She raved about the vegetables and the portraits of the U.S. Presidents lining the wall.

Then she told me about the music.

"Oh, honey!" she said, her enthusiasm even greater than it was about the food and portraits. "There was a lady playing the piano; you should have heard her."

She paused.  

"Oh," she said, "you'll never guess what the first song she played was?!"

We haven't talked about Radford's Cafeteria or Miss Inez in years and years and years. But maybe because it's the holiday season and I miss my dad as much as I feel his presence, I didn't need a hint or a nanosecond or even three guesses to know exactly what the organist played.

"Tennessee Waltz," I said.

Which, no surprise to me -- nor to Mom either, when she thought about it for a second -- was exactly right.