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.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reveling in the rhythm

The day before Charlie and I were scheduled to run the Turkey Trot, he volunteered to be a guinea pig -- excuse me, research subject -- at IEEM, the exercise-research facility where he worked this past summer. This particular study involved locating a nerve in Charlie's calf (which apparently was as eek-inducing as it sounds) that connects to the part of his brain which regulates blood pressure during exercise. After it was found, tests were done to determine the brain/nerve connection. Or so I think; I'm too embarrassed to ask Charlie to explain it to me again.

Five hours after the test began, I went to pick Charlie up so we could pick up our race packets at Luke's Locker. As the researchers were removing the various leads, Charlie asked about exercising. 

"Oh, after 24 hours, you should be fine," he was told. 

Charlie and I looked at each other. Then Charlie asked about running eight miles -- a distance he neglected to mention he had never run before -- 17 hours later. It was the researchers' turn to look at each other. After a brief silence, he was given a reluctant OK, with the stipulation that if, at the 3.1-mile/8-mile split, we'd head for the shorter finish line if he wasn't feeling well.

Thanksgiving morning dawned glorious and cold. We ate oatmeal and a banana, layered up and headed out. We took our places in the corral for timed runners, and when the gun went off, so did we. We'd decided to stay together till the split, then go at our own pace. Those first couple of miles, we did well keeping tabs on each other, somehow sensing each other's proximity despite the thousands of runners sharing the streets with us. 

To ensure we wouldn't lose each other, we'd stopped by Sports Authority the day before and bought walkie-talkies, the whole idea of which amused us mightily. Aside from the entertainment factor, we figured they'd come in handy if we did get separated (as we did at last year's Trot and this year's Race for the Cure), and thus curtail post-race wanderings looking for each other.

When we saw the arrow pointing one way for the 5K and another for the 8 miles, I could sense Charlie right behind me, and also that he was up for eight. So we kept on, maintaining a steady pace as we got into the rhythm of the run and of each other. 

In previous Turkey Trot races, port-a-potties were -- if not everywhere, at least every so often, and more than one at each location. This year, though, though, there were hardly any. So when I spotted one around Mile 4 or so, I told Charlie to go on; that I needed to stop. He started to continue, then asked if I wanted him to wait for me. Sure, I told him, if you don't mind.

My hands were obviously more frozen than I realized, because by the time we started running again, we'd lost a few minutes. I could tell that was fine with Charlie, because he seemed to be lagging just a bit.

"Are you OK?" I asked.

"Hanging in there," he said. "I'm fine."

We passed Mile 5, Mile 6, Mile 7, running up some hills and down others (while I tried to remember who had told me this year's course was flat). When we could see the skyline, I picked up the pace. As we got closer, I yelled, "Just two minutes!" When the finish line was just a few breaths away, Charlie dashed ahead and crossed just before I did. 

I couldn't stop smiling; neither of us could. We accepted our plastic-wrapped medals -- the first I've ever received in a Turkey Trot! -- and put them around our necks. We hugged each other and headed for the banana and power-bar tables. We saw our dear friend Yolanda, plus recognized a couple more runners. We had our picture taken, then headed home and to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister Jeanne's.

We had a wonderful time that morning, as we have in each of the races we've participated in. Some we've only started together; this was one of the precious duo we finished together, too. 

Charlie turned 21 the end of October. In two months, he leaves for a semester in Austria. He won't be home till July, and we've made a bit of a pact to limit communication to the occasional email, plus (isn't it funny how old-fashioned this sounds?) letters or post cards.

All of which makes this race -- these miles together; the meals, the hugs, the talks and the silliness we share -- all the more precious.

When I think back on this Thanksgiving, on his first 8-miler that I'm tickled beyond words to have experienced with him, I will, of course, remember exalting in the finish. Even more though, I will feel incredibly lucky, undeniably blessed, to sense each other's presence -- whether looking over a shoulder or scanning the crowd ahead -- every step of the way.

Oh, and the walkie-talkies? We didn't need them. Which, truth to tell, doesn't surprise me. Not even a little bit.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Embracing time

My mother likes to be awakened by the sun streaming through her window. Not me; I prefer my morning runs to be finished long before I even think about squinting. But this morning, that changed -- for me at least -- with the backward turn of our clocks.

From this Sunday through spring, unless I start running at  5 a.m. (which is doubtful, though I like the idea of it) I'm going to need to carry sunglasses along with water, raisins and an old driver's license for ID.

It's an annual event, this borrowing an hour of sunlight from dusk and presenting to dawn -- with a bit of a flourish -- these precious 3,600 seconds. The deeper we go into the cave of year's approaching end, though, the less light the days offer anyway. But for now, the morning gift is fresh and new; the evening dearth of light, a bit perplexing. We have to remind ourselves why the sky is dark when we leave work, and to psyche ourselves up to face it head on.

We can think of this tossed-around hour as an extra one, which NPR's Scott Simon (who keeps me company on my Saturday morning runs) said in this essay. An hour in which, he told us, we can at least dream of reading "a book we made the time to buy, but have never been able to find the time to read..."

Or this which made me take a quick and deep breath: "to have another hour to talk with our parents again, or pat a family pet we loved."

Time, and this isn't exactly profound, is weird. It's iffy and fickle and makes no guarantees. It seems at times limitless; at others, way too finite. Yet those are among the reasons we cling to it, and bargain with it; battle it and coddle it. Say what we will about it, we want to very much for it to be our friend. Because of everything that time is, above all it is precious.

So on this, the first official day without Daylight Saving Time, what can we do but honor, not just the hour that most of us probably slept through, but minutes and moments that make up our lives. Of course we'll fall short. Huge chunks will pass in a heartbeat; minutes will drag by.

And then forgiving resilient souls that we are (or try desperately to be), we'll stand up straight  and dust ourselves off. We'll put on our sunglasses and, vowing to be ever aware and ever appreciative, we'll open the curtains to let the morning light stream in.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Folding in kindness

When it comes to laundry, I don't mind Step No. 1: Throw it all into the washer. After that, what little element of fun that might be construed from the process (and believe me, "fun" is a stretch of an adjective) disappears pretty quickly.

My mother, however, doesn't mind any part of doing laundry. In fact, she rather likes it. Yes, even the folding and putting away portion -- which I enjoy about as much as I relish unloading the dishwasher. In other words, not at all. If Mom used her dishwasher (Oh, honey, I just prefer washing by hand, and I really don't use enough dishes to fill it up) I feel certain she wouldn't mind unloading that either.

A few days ago, Mom carried her laundry basket with from-the-hamper clothes to the lone washer-dryer in her small apartment complex. When she got there, both machines were stuffed with anonymous shirts, towels, undies and jeans belonging to one of her neighbors. Without a second thought, Mom removed the clothes from the dryer, folding them on top of the washer. Then she transferred the clothes in the washer to the dryer, and started her own load.

She walked back to her apartment and, because it was dark by then, didn't return to the laundry room till the next morning. When she did, she saw this blue Post-It.

If you can't read the handwriting in my professional-quality photo, this is what it says:

Whoever folded my laundry, God bless you! I'm having such a hard time with a lot of things and you made me feel 1,000 percent better. Thank you!

There are, of course, lessons to be gleaned from this --- lessons about kindness, about caring; lessons about looking out for a stranger, about expressing gratitude. Beautiful lessons that remind us being nice is really so easy, doesn't take much time at all, and can change a moment or a day or an outlook.

But basically, I think, what sums it up is this: a reminder that, no matter how dark the forest or endless the tunnel or deep the ocean of sorrow, someone really does care. 

Maybe it's someone you know. Or maybe it's the soon-to-be-84-year-old in Apartment A, the one who didn't even consider piling your clothes on top of the dryer; instead, automatically and painstakingly folding them, one by one by one because -- well, they were there. And because someone -- in this case, you -- could probably use a little help.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Finding Dad in the sky, and the world stops spinning

Our dad's here. We just need to know where to look                                     

Not all that long ago, my sister Susan told me she sees our dad in the sky. I knew exactly what she meant. The moment he died, that's where I looked to know he was gone. And during these 750 days or since,  I seek him out above this earth, too -- nestled inside and between the stripes and plaids and polka dots of clouds; in the brightest star and in the one I have to look slightly away from to see. I track him down in the variegated gray of an almost-solid sky, in the blue of a clear one, in the orange of a sunrise and its blood-red twin at the end of the day.

My dad loved the sky -- its moon, its constellations; how lightning shattered its stillness. He was enamored of fluffy white clouds; mesmerized by the more portentous ones that signaled the approach of storms and (if his wish was granted) tornado warnings.

"The weather," he'd tell us when he knew we were scared, "is always changing."

It was, I think, his way of telling us that the world keeps moving, too, Last July 23, the realization he had been gone for a year jostled us into the acute reality that time really does pass. Now, 365 days later, the calendar pages have turned again, fluttering past round two of birthdays and holidays; past countless clouds and a dozen full moons.

One spring morning, while running under a clear sky the color of my dad's eyes, a pale white streak I hadn't seen five minutes earlier appeared over my head.  Maybe it was a cloud, or maybe the visible swoosh from a plane I hadn't seen flying overhead. It didn’t mar the clearness of the sky; not at all. Instead, I looked at it as a divider sorts, mysterious and mesmerizing, separating the earth under my feet and the ethereal mystery too high above me to grasp. Well into another season, I still take comfort in that, though really can't quite say why.

Even so, when I think about my dad dying (the reality of which, quite honestly, can still astound me and break my heart all over again), I often feel as if I'm on a swivel chair. Spun one way, Daddy's here. Whirled the other; he's gone. 

Sometimes I give it a spin, and when it stops, I feel slightly dizzy and have to put my feet on the ground to steady myself. And while I may not be sure where I am, I know enough to look to the sky. Because there -- between the clouds, behind a star, directly into the sun -- is where I can always find my dad.

And now we are six...but truly, we'll always be seven.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Teaming up

If you're going to go to a track meet, let me suggest you pick a sunny day in April. When you get there, the air will still have enough of an edge so you can carry and sip from a cardboard cup of coffee, knowing that within a half-hour you'll pour it onto the grass, craving something colder.

You probably don't need to know anyone competing because the spirit of the day will engulf you as soon as you walk toward the stadium. You'll hear blurred excited voices, and flurries of footsteps. The P.A. system blares YMCA, with periodic interruptions from a voice announcing the first call for the girls 800; the last call for the high jump; the start of the hurdles, the triple jump, the pole vault.

You'll be alternately amused and awed by the bodily twists and turns, the exaggerated jumping jacks, the high steps and kicks that make up various athletes' warm-up routines. 

If you hardly even know their names, that doesn't matter all that much. But if you are lucky enough to know (or quite probably love) a competitor, and perhaps even have surprised him by showing up, that makes the colors of the uniforms that much brighter, the vividness of the sun even more blindingly beautiful, the entire experience even more memory-making profound.

He seems to sense this too -- this added bonus of faces from home cheering him on -- because he seems to scan the crowd when he jumps extra far, or when he fouls, or when his hand releases the baton into the outstretched hand of his teammate. You're pretty sure he doesn't notice you're wearing the blue and silver earrings he gave you, the pair you lost and almost cried upon finding a month or so later. You don't care. You're wearing them for luck, for support, for that connection that really can't be measured in mementos or things.

The coach walks by, glances his way.

"Go Charlie!" he calls, clapping his hands twice above his head. "Another big day!"

The event begins. You hold tightly onto the chain-link fence separating the observers from the athletes. You're mesmerized as you watch your competitor swing his arms before his favorite event, the triple jump, feel the breath in his lungs as he pauses, as  he inhales composure and channels confidence.

You find yourself taking a synchronous deep breath as he sprints toward the jumping line. When he lands in the sand pit and starts clapping because he knows he's done well, you realize you've yet to exhale.

With each movement, each event, you catch yourself marveling at his prowess, staring at his muscles in action. You make yourself look away; he'd be mortified if he knew. You walk to the car, pull out an umbrella because the sun is unrelenting and the stadium seats shadeless. When the announcer calls for the girls in the 4X100 relay to come onto the field, you put down the umbrella and walk down the metal steps.

You love relays. You could watch a dozen in a row for two weeks straight and never lose that sense of jaw-dropping awe at the timing, as one hand reaches forward and the other back. More quickly than a finger-snap, than the blink of an eye, that exchange has to be perfect.

As the girls round the corner near where you stand, you get an unexpected catch in your throat. You don't even know these runners, but the precision takes your breath away. The boy -- the young man, your son -- you have come to watch has told you where to stand so you can watch him hand off to the anchor the baton he's received 100 meters earlier.

You see him coming. Good heavens, did you realize he was so fast? You're screaming out his name now, jumping up and down as the nanoseconds unfold and he gets closer to his teammate whose arm is outstretched and waiting.

You feel the earth move but stand still at the same time.

You see the cluster of runners, strain to watch the exchange. The anchor reaches back, trusting trusting trusting as he starts moving forward, hardly looking behind.

The dark-haired runner you can't take your eyes off stretches his right arm out.

The baton connects his hand with that of his teammate, who then grasps it tight and runs toward the finish line.

You stand on tiptoes, stretching to see what's happening down there. The colors and uniforms are a blur, but then you see someone familiar jump high into the air, hear that yell that could come only from him.

Third place -- just two-tenths of a second slower than the second place winners; three-fourths of a second slower than the winner. That means the team earned a place on the podium. Later, you learn they broke a school record, and are the first 4X100 relay quartet to stand there.

You're more tired than you thought you'd be -- as if you were the one warming up, the one jumping, the one focusing first on the baton and then on the finish line. It's field day at summer camp all over again, and you feel sunburned, satisfied, and starving.

You'd love to rehash the day, the events, the meters and the seconds with the kid you came to see. But you also know that right now, nothing is more important to him than being with those with whom he spent not only today, but the countless hours of practice and camaraderie that brought them here.

So when he says, "Do you mind if I have dinner with the team?" you answer him no, of course you don't.

And truth to tell, you don't merely mean it. You mean it with all your heart.