Finding Christmas

When I was seven years old, I saw Jesus sitting on a rock across the street from the Arby’s on Lebanon Road.  I wasn’t in crisis; I wasn’t sad or in trouble. I simply saw the Son of God hanging out in Hermitage while I was eating a roast beef sandwich with my mother and sister. It’s like He knew that there would be times in my life when I’d doubt His presence or even existence so He was giving me the “proof” many years before I’d really need it–and boy have I needed it.

There aren’t many weeks I don’t think of Him sitting on that now-grass covered rock. In the last couple of years, the memory has brought much needed peace. I am so happy He let me see Him on that day so long ago.  I’ve felt frustrated at times hoping He’d let me catch another glimpse—often finding myself angry at the fleeting but genuine belief that He’d taken too much from me too soon. My parents. My grandparents. My friends. The other family members I hold dear and didn’t have long enough and health scares of my own. Often, I’ve wondered if He’s revealed Himself to me all my life but in ways I was too stubborn to recognize.

Do you see people? I don’t mean do you notice people are here or there. I mean do you see them, really stop and look at them? Do you remember them?  I’ve worked in some pretty rough urban areas in this city and elsewhere. I’d like to say I always lock eyes with the obviously-hurting. The truth is that I often avoid it.

Sometimes, it seems better not to see people in pain for the fear that we won’t know what to do. It is hard to think of people trapped inside real prisons or the prisons of their minds, of their addictions, of their mistakes or just their circumstances.  It is less soul-crushing to judge those whom I am supposed to be serving if I can separate myself from them. If I can differentiate myself from their decisions and lots in life, I might rationalize that on some level, I am better—or at least immune.  The truth is that I’ve battled my own demons, my own addictions and challenges. And each time I fall, I have a loving family to pick me up, dust me off and push me forward. There but for the Grace of God goes the saying.  Truly it must be the Grace of God that has shielded me from the most serious of consequences of some of my worst decisions and failures in life.  The reality is that we’re really all the same. Some of us are just luckier than others. We live and we die. And some of us, for whatever reason, have an easier time with the period in between.

Others struggle in ways most of us can’t imagine. The mother who struggles to feed her children. The man who suffered years of childhood neglect and abuse only to grow up to abuse himself. The imprisoned. The forgotten. The hopeless. The people who die alone on the streets and park benches of our Bible Belt “It” city. For many, these people’s plights invite judgment. “They should (get a job, stop drinking, fill in the blank with any solution we think would work.” What we don’t see is how participating in or ignoring another person’s suffering only hurts us and our own humanity.

I respect all faiths, but I’m mostly proud of my own. We are lucky because we seek to follow a Man who gave his life for people who didn’t deserve it and who loves us anyway.  We get to know the heart of a Man who gave up a throne to see people. The sick. The voiceless. The hurting. The uncertain. The scared. The lost. The rich. The poor. The sick. The lonely. The prisoner. The free. The gay. The straight.  The sinner and the saint. The unlovable. The unworthy.

Whom does God believe is holy enough to do His work? He leaves us no better examples than the poor, homeless couple He chose to bear His Son in a stable. Did they understand the price? Did anyone know how afraid they must’ve been or how unprepared they must’ve felt for such a holy task? Faith. Hope. Love.  Through the doubt. Through the pain that is part of the human condition. What incredible examples they left us of how to live faithfully into experiences we didn’t ask for and couldn’t understand.

As the rest of this Christmas season unfolds, let us remember that we’re all in this together and in the year to come, seek to see our brothers and sisters in the joys and sorrows of their lives, to be vulnerable to our own.  This doesn’t mean we only see those like us; it means we see EVERY ONE of God’s children. Let’s find Christmas in those things that endure.

May we all experience the days ahead as a peaceful pursuit of the Breath of Heaven, the one who is always seeking us—whether He’s sitting in a magnificent cathedral, a downtown sidewalk, a dirty alley or across the street from a suburban Arby’s—the Prince of Peace, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

Food, family and what remains…

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted an early celebration dinner with friends and family we might not see on Thanksgiving Day. I do this a few times a year—a holiday tradition I’ve cherished more and more since my dad’s death last year. I’m  reminded during these times, when the sheer volume of noise in my relatively small kitchen  becomes almost too much to bear, that family is much more than those people with whom you share DNA.

Family is blood and choice. I reflect on this truth when I ask myself, mid-prep, “my parents are gone and I don’t have to have a holiday at all; why do I DO this to myself? I could be watching a Law and Order marathon and here I am keeping vigil on a turkey that doesn’t seem to be cooking  while fretting over the deviled eggs that haven’t even been boiled, the cake that hasn’t been iced and the pumpkin pie that hasn’t been made at all.” Of course, my dinner guests arrive completely unmoved by the fact that I haven’t been off my feet since I rolled out of bed at 5 AM. They were in the mood for conversation—serious and mundane—while I obsessed over the bird I was certain was going to disintegrate into a puff of dust if it went a minute longer in the oven.

Those who know me well know I take great pride in preparing wonderful food; and usually, I’m successful. Not so this year. This bird I worried would taste like chalk was undercooked and mostly inedible. The gravy resembled goop, that cake never got iced and there was no pumpkin pie. I think Dawn broke out a pint of Ben and Jerry’s at one point and distributed spoons. I was devastated and believed the entire evening was ruined over the failed fowl and the other bungled culinary pursuits.  But as my kitchen clocked ticked closer and closer to 10PM (way past my bedtime), it occurred to me that the night wasn’t about the food I’d worried over; it was about the people around my table and the kids bouncing off the couches and the walls which were shaking with laughter. The food didn’t matter at all.

Well, it matters some. I remembered how much work my mom put into our holiday meals and how I never remember her eating—which is how I host as well. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand the satisfaction out of carefully preparing the same dishes year after year, giving my sister and me little tastes to tide us over until the big feast to come. In hosting my own feasts, I’ve come to understand for perhaps the first time in my life that they did all this work for our family because they were thankful for it. The food was always great, but I don’t think it would’ve made a difference if it hadn’t been. We were together.

Tomorrow is the 12th Thanksgiving without my mom and our second without Dad. It still doesn’t seem real. For so many years, I’ve made it a point to include Mom’s famous broccoli casserole on my menus and the menus of every holiday stop I made between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s always been my way of including her in our celebrations. This year, I forgot. And the generations collide as my sister and I are left to carry on some of our family traditions alone, in our own ways, and to create new memories and traditions apart from our parents. We will spend Thanksgiving apart tomorrow, each of us at our respective in-laws. Instead of turkey dinner on Thursday, we’ll have roasted beef on Friday. Years ago, this would’ve seemed unconscionable. Now, though, I’m just thankful for another occasion to celebrate family, old and new, blood and chosen.  Honoring the past, living for the future.

Another holiday without our parents, I’m thankful for the ways we’ve been able to carry on.  I’m thankful for the still-empty chairs this year as they represent people who were loved very much and whose memories are still very much alive in us. We’re also thankful for the ones who remain, for the people around our tables we still have a chance to enjoy, or even get to know better than we have in the past.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and many blessings for the season ahead.

 

The Proof in Dad’s Pudding

I hate our refrigerator. It’s one of those high end stainless steel, French door monstrosities in which you can find nothing. So, last night, we bought an “overflow” fridge for the garage. First world problems, I know.

Among the “things” I hadn’t noticed in the last several months was a Hunts Snack Pack Butterscotch pudding cup. It had been in the lunch box my dad packed the last day he went to work…the lunchbox he’d obsessed about when he was in the hospital because he didn’t want the food to go bad. After he died, I unpacked his lunchbox and put that butterscotch pudding (my favorite) in the bottom drawer of my fridge. The expiration date was more than a year away (nod to preservatives) and I figured I’d eat it eventually. I just let it sit there, though, as a reminder of him for more than a year. This morning, I looked at it again: “Best by 14 JUL 07.” July 7, 2014. His 69th birthday.

I stood there holding it as the fridge  wafted cold air in my face, beeping periodically as if to say, “close me.” This appliance I hated had held a memory in the form of a pudding cup for almost 15 months and forced me to slow down and remember a man whose lunch was never complete without dessert.

There’s a certain shift when we lose a parent; it becomes life-altering when you lose the second. But mourning them and letting them go are two very different things.

There’s a certain “growing up” that happens when you begin to let your parents go. So many months since the death of my father, I’m still not sure I’m ready to “let go.”

Rationally, I know that it doesn’t mean so much. It doesn’t make them anymore—or less—gone.

The death of the last parent tortures one with the mystery of living. What did it all mean? Was there any meaning at all? Yeah, I’ve asked those questions more times than I care to admit.

As years pass, the memories and losses weave their way into the fabric of our lives. We adjust, gracefully or not, to the “elder” role, on this side of heaven.  Each of us does it in our own way, but unless we die before our parents, none of us escapes it.

Almost 12 years after my mother’s death and 15 months after my dad’s, the hardest part is still ahead of me— to finally accept those empty chairs that will never be filled, to figure out how to create new traditions to match the old.  

Oh, the empty chairs, the ones in which I am startled again and again by their absence. These are rivaled by the moments with their families…occasions which offer me a glimpse into how they might’ve aged if they’d been granted length of years. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to have a moment where I felt like they were here again, offering advice when I needed it the most. People in their 30s take for granted their parents; I’m sure of it. Experiencing some kind of life-security, it’s easy not to need an older generation guiding and prodding you along—unless they’re not here.

At the time of my mother’s death, I still had not reached the age she was when she had given birth to me. Those years–between 24 and 33–were a kind of limbo for me. The life I had constructed so carefully (or carelessly) seemed relatively intact around me. I had had many great life experiences, even met the person I’d marry. Despite all this, I felt dreadfully adrift.

When Dad died unexpectedly in April, my life was tossed into a new kind of limbo. It felt as if I had woken up one morning and didn’t know whose life I was in. The things I valued most seemed dangerously close to disintegrating even as they remain constant by outward observations. Things look OK. Everything must be OK. Except, they’re not always okay. Sometimes I struggle to remember where I’ve been, wonder why our family couldn’t have been intact a little longer, always there is the struggle to understand where I’m going, when, why and how I’m going to get there. Most of my peers have lived a very logical chronology up to now. They went to college, they got married, they had kids, and they’ve begun to think about their soon-to-be aging parents and perhaps a fleeting thought about their own distant mortality. For my sister and me, it sometimes seems that we put our 20s on hold to process our mother’s passing; now, it seems that we are stuck in our mid-30s processing our father’s.

Life is so short. It’s unfair. It’s unpredictable. It’s hard to understand the point of it all. For all our lives we struggle to find our place only to ultimately learn that the place we’re searching for isn’t here at all. While I can normally rattle off the various talking points related to the meaning of life, other days, I just don’t know if they’re all true. When I feel this way, I am further exasperated by the fact that there is SO much meaning in life. There is so much joy. There is so much love amidst those things that test our hearts’ strength and tenacity.

And sometimes, as crazy as it sounds, those are the very things that make life seem so trying—that there is so much beauty in the world that it’s often overwhelming—the magnificence of a sunset that seems to have spilled fire all over the horizon; the majesty and grandness of the ocean and the smallness we feel at its shores; the innocence of a child or a beloved fur kid; the touch of a loving wife; the longing to leave a legacy that will transcend our brief time here.

Often we think, “I’ll do this or that later, when the debt is paid off, when a great job offer comes along, after the holidays, sometime next year.” One is left to wonder, do things happen the way they’re supposed to happen or because we were just too lazy to turn the tide, to make our own destiny? Is everything chance? Or do we have the power to change the things in our lives that need changing before it’s too late? How many people leave this earth without ever fulfilling their purpose? I ask these things like there are answers to be had or given. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ever searched for them.

I suppose it will all make sense someday, but it doesn’t today.

Let us all hope that, in the words of Jefferson,  there are indeed angels in the whirlwind, guiding this storm.

My Dad…Who Art in Heaven

Tiff

I write about my life for two reasons: to remember my story and to help myself understand it. Today, I am remembering a difficult part of my story: my father who died 14 months ago.

One of our biggest blessings during this last year–and one that is especially poignant on Father’s Day–is the memory of the night before he died. Our pastor stopped by to visit late in the evening. Visiting hours were almost over and I could tell he was ready to sleep. We all chatted for a bit, his signature flair for gab still intact. She offered to pray and as we gathered ‘round his bed, I watched him—eyes closed, I believed he’d drifted off to sleep. Then, as she began to say the Lord’s Prayer, he followed. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it prayed with more confidence than he did on that night. An outpouring of faith through labored breaths, it seemed as if he were actually talking to God rather than simply reciting a prayer he’d known since youth. I wondered later if he knew he was in the last hours of his life and if that prayer had taken on a meaning like it never had before. In his life, he taught us how to live in color; in death, he taught us how to die. For all its suddenness, we’re so blessed that he didn’t leave us wondering where he was going.

Even for someone who loves words, I come up short for ones to describe the hole left by his sudden death. The last year or so has been very much a time of remembering his life—the father and the man he was before he had that title—and his legacy. It’s been a journey I believed I wanted to take in order to know him better; I’ve ended up doing just that—and knowing myself better. When a parent dies, a link to the past disappears. No longer are the people who could tell you the stories of their lives; you lose a sense of where you fit into the picture. So, I set out to find it. Not only did I find myself in him, I found fingerprints from the past and people long gone all over my life.

Most people who knew my mom thought that was my closest relationship. And while that was true in my teen years, when I was little, I was nothing but a daddy’s girl. I recall rubbing the sleep from my eyes very early on many Sunday mornings when I’d hear him getting ready to leave for the golf course. “Can I go with you, Daddy?” He’d help me get dressed and we’d always hit Waffle House on our way to Shelby Golf Course, the place he’d played since he was a young child. There, he would tuck a paper-thin napkin into my t-shirt and let me order my orange juice in a coffee cup to be like him. I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember being as happy as I ever was just spending that time with him. When we’d arrive at the course, he’d always let me drive the golf cart and write down his score. Even while I didn’t understand that he and his friends had placed handsome wagers on these games, I sensed that this score-keeping was important—and it made me feel important. The best part of these days, though, was hanging out in the clubhouse with him and his buddies. I loved hearing the stories and watching him be the center of their attention. He commanded the room even when he wasn’t the one talking. This “larger than life” quality is what I remember–and miss–most about him today.

The eldest son, Dad was born in Nashville just after World War II ended, July 1945. He was followed by a brother and two sisters, whom he adored. His father had served as an infantryman in Germany and France during the war; by most accounts, he brought the horrors of war home with him and struggled to handle life. He died when my dad was 16, at age 36. With the help of grandparents and extended family in Nashville and Toledo, Dad essentially declared himself “raised” about this time. Though his younger siblings made a permanent life in Ohio, for a young Donnie, Nashville was home and it’s where he married his teenage sweetheart in 1964. When he received his “Greetings from the President” letter four years later, he raised his right hand, said goodbye to his young wife and “hello” to Vietnam. I relished hearing his humorous stories of his days in Vietnam; he told the same funny ones over and over, in part, I think, so he didn’t have to relive the others. His advice was always short and to the point. When I went off to basic training myself, he had these words: “Keep your mouth shut and you’ll be okay.” That had been hard-learned for him–it wasn’t much easier for me.

He had other advice, too. He thought family was the most important thing and advised us to “never be satisfied.” He displayed a quote on his desk that read: “The greatest risk in life is not taking one.” I now carry this in my wallet. While he was scouted by the Cleveland Indians as a teen, his first love was gold. I think most of what he believed about the world was learned on the links while smacking around that little white ball. He said golf was a lot like life—and I know there were many, many times when he didn’t’ stop at 18 holes, he’d play 36, weather and wife permitting. During our last dinner together a few days before he died, he offered sage golf betting advice, which I think is good life advice—he said, “when you know you’re better than them, you still have to let them win a few times or at least catch up with you at the 11th hole, otherwise, they’ll stop playing with you.”

Makes sense. I’ve applied a tweaked version of this lesson to many situations–and come out ahead as a result.

He always said, “it’s not what time you show up, it’s what you do when you get there.” On this 2nd Father’s Day without you, Dad, we’re remembering the impact you made with what you did when you were here—and you always did it your way.

We love you and miss you very much.

Help us to be willing to stand by and not to play through—for those in genuine need. May we always play with honor. And finally, when we’ve putted out on the 18th green, we pray we will have demonstrated the integrity of our character, so that you will judge us worthy to join your threesome and play eternally on your heavenly course.”

My House

House

They say “you can’t go home again.”

Ridiculous.

You can ALWAYS go home again. But it might not always be your home. There are painful but hopeful lessons to be learned in this realization.

I grew up in an idyllic neighborhood just minutes from Nashville. It seems closer to the city center now than it did when I lived there. When I lived on Lakeridge Drive, it was quiet. Serene. Firmly middle to upper middle class, but we felt rich. The yards were large, the streets, wide. The lights came on at dark and lit the way for the kids to find their ways home. Everyone was a neighbor, even three streets over.

This house was the one to which I was first introduced when I was 17 months old. I was wearing a pink jump suit and immediately found my way to, and climbed into, the fireplace. Photographs capture an ecstatic toddler covered in soot; no doubt my mother was less thrilled. There, 6 months later, I first held a little creature who would eventually call me “Ticky.” I thought she was just for me, but soon I learned that the word “Sissy” meant I’d never have anything totally to myself again. We grew up together under this roof. We shared birthdays and holidays there; joys and sorrows. We created clubhouses out of bedroom closets and a slip and slide of the main stairwell. We witnessed the miracle of feline birth more times than I can count, learned how to care for life beyond our own and also about death when we buried those beloved pets in that yard.

There were ditches that created what seemed like enormous hills and we’d roll down them in the summertime. The rich-green grass felt so cool beneath the sweltering Tennessee sun. There were tree lines that made for the best “clubhouses” in the summers and turned into “haunted trails” in the fall.

If my backyard could talk, it would tell of swimming in a plastic pool with my first little boyfriend. It would tell of catching lightning bugs and pick-up games of catch and batting practice with my dad. When I picture it now, I can still see my dad hitting balls there and my mom yelling for him to come in for dinner. There, my sister and I would travel back in time to reenact historic battles; on the same ground, my best friend, Jennifer, would join me in imagining other worlds in the skits that we created for our own entertainment. (Remember, there wasn’t that much on TV; we had to use our imaginations….and we did it well.) Birthday parties and softball team celebrations and hoops in the driveway. When I got the itch to climb a tree, we dubbed it the Mother Nature Tree and I relished climbing it as high as its limbs would hold me. The first time I kissed my only serious boyfriend, we were sitting on the picnic table beneath two maple trees and a late-August moon.

It was in the front yard we’d scrape up snow for “snow cream” in the winters and took Easter pictures in the Spring. We took prom pictures there, too, and when I’d come home from college, I could see the Yucca plants lining the street as I rounded the curve; they’d fill me with a sense of immediate peace and well-being—the feeling of being “home.” It was also on its porch that I first learned my mom had cancer and the place I gave her an oldest child’s permission to quit receiving life-draining treatments.

The neighborhood kids became my first friends. There were the Partlows: their daughter Amy, was one we’d play in her backyard treehouse. It was petrified of this contraption, of course, because it seemed to be infested with wasps. I preferred it when she came to play with us at my house; her mom’s giant bell would beckon her home at dusk. There were, the Taylors, with oldest child Bart, my first little boyfriend, now a decorated combat veteran and Army Major, and youngest, Katherine, a great pal of my sister’s. There were the Harvey’s right next door who loved their animals and whose house smelled of sweet cigars and honey. We prayed for their son when he went off to serve in Desert Storm, and again when Mr. Harvey lost his battle to lung cancer. I learned about dog rescue from the neighbors on the other side who saved a gorgeous Dalmation whose name was Tasha. There were others: The Burgesses. The Moores. The Barnes. The Hoods. The Cunninghams. The Ledbetters. The Bernhardys. The Pattersons. The Canfields and the Nippers. The Ghees, Bairds, Kinzers and Mascaris. And, of course, the Gardners. These people became family to us—and they still are. So many of them, we rolled their houses at Halloween and they bandaged our bruises and kicked our butts the rest of the year.

This neighborhood was where I learned to ride a bike and to drive a car. Those were the streets we pounded searching for the trampolines and pools our parents wouldn’t install in our own yards. It was around its block that I walked a million miles after my mother died, trying to make sense of being a 24 year old motherless daughter. Inside the house is where we watched her slowly fade away. She died in the living room in 2002. Soon after that, my dad let the memories and the house go in favor of condo life. I couldn’t be there at the last goodbye. It was the only house I’d ever known, and after saying farewell to my mother, I couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the brick and mortar that had been one of the last strongholds of my young life.

I have deliberately avoided driving by my old house for a decade. I just couldn’t bear the idea of someone else living in my house.

This week, I went home again.

As we pulled into the driveway, my first thought was figuring out how to ask for a tour without seeming like a lunatic. Everything seemed smaller than I remembered: except for the trees. The trees….I remember my dad planting most of them. In my childhood pictures, they’re more like little twigs; now they seem like redwoods. When did THAT happen? The exterior of the house looks roughly the same: a three-bedroom split-level built in 1969. The interior, though, has changed.

I confirmed for the lady who answered the door that they didn’t know me.

They didn’t know that those boulders they appeared to be trying to dig up where the ones we sat on as kids and watched Dad mow the yard. It’s where we had our “sprinkler showers” when the 8 hours of pool water we’d had hadn’t been quite enough. They didn’t know that the kitchen-living room space was where I learned to play piano and to appreciate great music. They didn’t know that the room they had made work-out space had been my childhood bedroom, the place I spent hours singing gospel tunes with my grandmother and where I started my first book at age 8. They didn’t know that the back bedroom was where my mom and I had our best talks in the still of the night when everyone else was asleep. They didn’t know that that pesky treeline had been mine and my sister’s childhood dream—and that it was the final resting place of our most treasured. They didn’t know that this was the last place I ever spoke to my mother, that this doorway they were standing in, telling me about layout of the property I’d known my whole life, was the last place I ever saw her alive.

This was a house to them…they didn’t know that this was the place my heart had been most of my life—even when I hadn’t lived there.

They didn’t want us to walk through the house itself, as it was “messy,” but agreed to let us wander the yard. As I walked from one memory to the next, I thought of how different things are now. And the tears came.

I realized for the first time in 10 years that it’s not the house I miss; it’s the people that lived it in and the memories we made there. We went across the street to visit the Gardners. I love these people. We watched old home movies and remembered people who are not here anymore and those who are fading to the grips of memory-robbing disease. I left knowing that, perhaps, you cannot go home again in the way you want to….but you can go home to the love and affection of the people who built you as long as they are here.

And that’s home.

I don’t live there anymore—but my handprints will always be there and a part of my heart will always consider it home.

 

Dear Tiffany….

A letter to myself at 17…

 
Dearest Tiffany,
 
Today, you are 17-years-old. I’m 36. In a few years, you’ll understand how much growth it took me to state my age. All you can think about is being older; that’s going to fade. There will come a time when you will wish you were a teenager again. YES…you will. You will not love adding candles to your birthday cakes. The obsession with staying young, however, also will begin to fade and you’ll be grateful for the privilege of the length of years. YES…you will.
 
You’re about to graduate from high school in a few weeks. I know it’s bittersweet. You didnt make the top ten percent and you weren’t named a superlative. Life doesn’t get more fair, honey. For what its worth, you are still graduating with honors and going to college where you will have a TV show that will make you famous (kind of…) in the end, high school just isnt the end all…you’ll see. Neither is college for that matter. Life isnt about swathes of time like it seems now.

You’re going to be sad to say goodbye to the friends you’ve made. Your flair for the dramatic has you worried that you’ll never see them again. This fades, trust me. And in a few years, there will be this thing called “Facebook” that will allow you to know just about everything about these folks—up to and including what they had for breakfast. So, no worries there. Plus, the people you meet later on are going to show you a life you’ve never even dreamed about. It’s important to know that you don’t have to forget the past to understand you don’t have to live there anymore.
 
Which brings me to something very important: You only have SIX YEARS left with Mom.
 
For God’s sake, make them count. There will be the temptation to exercise the rebellion you neglected to pursue when most people did. You’re going to want to avoid her so you don’t have to address the sexuality question. Please don’t do this. It’s going to cause you to spend your 20s and 30s beating yourself up needlessly. She’s your very best friend. She always will be, but it’s going to be a really rough time for you as you recalibrate your relationship after she’s gone. Here’s a tip learned after years of poor self-care: death is geography; it doesn’t end the relationship. Learn this early.
 
Speaking of taking care…. You are skinny now. YES you are. We gain weight. (Sorry) It happens. You will find your first gray hair in your 20s. Get over it. It’s just hair—L’Oreal will take care of it. Stay out of the tanning bed and for the love, don’t use baby oil in the sun. Just don’t. Skin cancer sucks. In a few years, they’ll make a decent sunless tanner. Wait for it. Of course I write this with plans to go to the tanning bed. Just make a point of taking care of yourself. Age sneaks up on you, sugar. You’ll have a doctor later on explain this to you in technical terms and charge you an office visit to tell you you’re getting older. Save the co-pay.
 
One day in the not too distant future, you’re going to drink your first beer. Mom is going to go through the roof and you’re going to think she’s an idiotic prude.  She’s going to be right this time. You’ll know what I mean someday, I promise. We do some really stupid things with it—I’m sorry for the ways I let it hold us back. I won’t tell you not to drink—you won’t listen anyway. But try to slow down a bit. Trust me on this.
 
Turns out, Mom’s going to be right about other things, too. The last words she’ll say to you will be, “Be Careful.” You have no idea now how those words will resonate with you—how they’ll be the ones you refer back to over and over and over in the years that follow.  I’ll save you the explanation—it’ll be more meaningful for you to figure that out for yourself.
 
Ellen’s going to come out really soon—and it’s going to change your life…This is going to floor you, too—about that same time, we’re going to live in Washington, DC. YES, we are. You believe that? (You’re welcome.) You’re going to work for a Republican (I’m sorry) and grow in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. You’re going to learn who you really are during this time. We have a blast—and get this…all that worry you have over your love life now? I fix it…sort of. Actually, I guess I make it more complicated when I start dating—wait for it—a young woman. You date a girl. YES, you do.  She’ll break down barriers and help you see a brand new world. (You’re welcome.) And then she’ll be gone. Don’t worry; she resurfaces a bit later. Remember Facebook? You won’t love this one…but she is a life changer.

Hint: sometimes you are the changer, other times, you’re the changed. It’s fun to be both. You dont have to control everything.

You’ll sort of date another guy or so before realizing it’s not who you are. They’ll end up being some of your best friends as soon as you stop trying to fall in love with them. Be kind, but don’t worry too much about it—I work this one out for us. Stop wondering if you’ll ever throw caution to the androgynous wind and wear the ties, cargo shorts and t-shirts you envy in others. (We will….)
 
You’ll bawl your eyes out when you leave DC, but don’t worry. You’re going to be back a few years later—and it will lead to more wonderful experiences and to the person you will think is the love of your life. She won’t be The One, but she’ll have a pivotal impact on your life. When she breaks your heart–and she is going to– you’ll wonder if you’ll be able to love again. But know that the pieces you put back together are being arranged for the person to whom you’ll give your last name. Yes…you get married. (and you have two ceremonies in two different cities! AND…you wear a tie at both.) She won’t be like anyone you know now—or anyone you can imagine now. I picked us a keeper, though. She’s going to be good to you; be nice to her.
 
Don’t define your success by the amount of money you make. Your dreams now are centered around becoming a millionaire. It’s not going to mean anything.  One day, you’re going to write for a living. Don’t quit that job to chase the dollar. You’re going to do it anyway, but learn from where you are sitting—and then get back into the game with a sense of urgency. But slow down. That seems contradictory—it’s not. You’ll see what I’m saying. Sometimes you have to be still. Learn how. (I’m still learning…it’s a process. It’s ok.) Life’s race is with yourself—you don’t have to compete because you’re enough.
 
You’re going to start drifting away from Dad pretty soon. It’s okay to spread your wings. Do that! But don’t let him become a stranger to you. You have just a few years left with him, too.  You’re going to have some noteworthy ups and downs—but he turns out to be a pretty good best friend, too. By the way, you take up golf. Yes, you do. One day you’re really going to understand him in a new way, and in the process, you’ll understand yourself better. Remember this moment. You’ll take his death really hard, but you’ll be amazed at how you allowed yourself to be present rather than running away. You’re going to feel guilty about the cracks that form in your foundation and even your faith after this event. Don’t.  You’re going to learn that of all the people who come in and out of your life, of all the things you’ll think you understand, only to find out you didn’t, your faith is carrying you—even when you don’t trust it. Try to feel it when you don’t trust it; it’ll make life a little easier.
 
Right now, you’re anxious about the future. Don’t be. Life is just beginning for us. It’s going to be full of adventures—good and bad. Learn as soon as you can that life’s about showing up. Don’t spend your life in regrets (it’ll be tempting, I’ll tell ya.)  You’re going to experience some really sad things…but you’re also going to have so very many blessings in the form of people and experiences. If you’ll let them be, you’ll also find that endings can be wonderful beginnings. Even those who leave will leave a magnificent imprint on your life…let them, and then let them go. Give the heartbreaks their due. And then live in the gratitude of the rest.

Tiff, life’s going to surprise you sometimes (you become a dog person. You have SIX! Yes, you do. You don’t know it all and I still don’t;  on top of that, not everyone’s going to like you. Crazy, huh?) And it’s not always going to be smooth. But it’s a beautiful ride, kiddo. Hang onto that when it’s dark.  Your whole life will be spent listening to others tell you who you’re supposed to be. Be you and don’t be afraid of it. You’re strong and brave, so go create it.
 
Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Be your best friend.
 
And wear the cargo shorts ASAP. They’re fabulous. (Trust me.)
 
With high hopes and much admiration,
 
Your older self, your biggest fan and most diligent critic

Dear Mom,

1980.

Dear Mom,

You know I don’t like to be told I can’t do something, so, this year, I’ve decided that I, too, can observe Mother’s Day, even though you have been gone almost 12 years. Since I can’t share the day with you physically, I decided I’d drop you a line and let you know how your first-born has been doing since I last saw you. I’m sure Mother’s day isn’t celebrated in Heaven—seems a little silly to think that it would, right? But it matters to me.

It seems like yesterday that I was that petulant 24-year-old, caught somewhere between the excitement, hope and possibility of young adulthood and the trauma of facing the future as a motherless child. It also feels like a million years ago at the same time; this year marks a third of my life lived without you. I’m often jolted by the realization that most of the meat of my life has happened since you left. I’ll get to that in a bit….

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately. The other morning, the topic of grandmothers came up during morning coffee with Dawn. Oh, Mom—I do wish you could’ve met her. I know you had dreams of me marrying a nice young man and while I’ve often wondered how you’d have managed letting that go, I know you’d have quickly adored her. Her gentle spirit reminded dad a little of you. She reminds me of you, too, in the ways she tries to bring peace and comfort to my life, the ways she makes my happiness a priority over her own. I digress. She posed a rhetorical question, “you know how you could just sense the love in grandmother’s food?” I paused for a moment, searching my memory for something to add to the conversation. I was uncharacteristically brief in my response: “No.” Having lost Granny at age 10, the only food I really remember her making was Rice Crispies cereal. Mom, do you know that, to this day, when I hear the snap, crackle and pop of a bowl of this cereal I think of Granny? Isn’t that amazing?

I digress again (12 years is a long time). Thinking of you as the generation in between her and me, I realize how much you must have missed her when she died. I always assumed a parent’s death was easier when you were older and “didn’t need” to be parented. Oh wow, how wrong I was about that. Sometimes I think it would be easier to navigate childhood without a parent than to try to do this adult thing as an orphan. I’m kidding. Mostly.

To be honest, I spent most of my latter 20s trying to convince myself that your death had brought liberation. I know you’d have worried too much about me when I joined the Air Force; you’d have worried yourself again when I moved to Washington. But mom, I got to do some cool things during those years. I think you’d be proud of the things I was able to accomplish. I know you’d have bragged to anyone who would listen about the first time you saw me in our country’s uniform. I know you’d have beamed if you’d watched me accept a Master’s degree as the sun bounced off the U.S. Capitol building a couple of years later—you might’ve even thought I didn’t need you anymore. You wouldn’t have known how much sweeter my successes were and how much more manageable my failures always seemed when you were “there” because at that time I was too self-absorbed to tell you how much you mattered.

In the years since your death, I’ve sometimes struggled to remember the little details that were once taken for granted. But, what remains firmly etched in my memory is the way your very presence seemed to make everything seem like it was going to be “okay.” I caught myself trying to explain this to someone the other day—the lump that formed in my throat surprised me a bit. It hit me how much I’ve needed that reassurance over the last year. I’m sure you already know how hard I’ve taken Dad’s death. I’m sure you could see how difficult this last year has been on me. I guess you know it better than anyone. With as much as I’ve missed him, I’m coming to understand that what’s been “missing” is you—you telling me that everything would be alright.

Is there memory in Heaven? If so, do you remember when I was a little girl and would talk your ear off with all my ideas and dreams for the future? Did I wear you out with my overly active imagination?! I’m sure you would’ve enjoyed taking a bath without me pulling up my little stool to discuss with you my Michael Jackson-inspired obsession with ending poverty in Africa with a massive PB&J sandwich campaign when I was 7 or the theory I had for curing cancer with cough syrup when I was 10. My ideas and theories are slightly more sophisticated these days. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if I could pull up a bigger stool and hash out with you the many things in my head.

While human kids were not part of my life’s dreams, you can see how much I love my fur babies. Do you laugh when I want to hide in a closet sometimes just to get “alone time” away from being needed? Ha. When you died, I didn’t fully appreciate all you did for us when we were kids. How tireless and selfless your approach to raising us really was. I’m sure you could’ve used a break, but you never asked for one. (Did you?!) You often went overboard with gifts and other “things,” but you know what, Mom? My best memories are the simplest. The time you took to be with us.

Watching old movies and eating stove-popped popcorn and The.Best.Nachos.I’ve.Ever.Had. Listening to music from the 50s and 60s and pretending I didn’t like Elvis. How you sang Bobby Vinton’s You Are My Special Angel to me when I’d crawl into your lap and how you’d insert “precious” for special when singing the same tune to Tammy.

Your humor. Do you remember how tickled we’d both get over things no one else thought was funny? Do you remember how we’d laugh until we couldn’t breathe, our faces beet red? Do you remember how I’d come into your room when I’d have a bad dream, even as a teenager, and sit on the edge of the bed? Did you know that I didn’t always wake you up? Sometimes I’d just sit there and listen to you breathing until I was calm enough to go back to bed.

Do you remember how you and Tammy always tried to get me to stay up late and play Scrabble and the time I agreed, only to spell out the word “IQuit” for my first move? I know you thought that was as hysterical as I did even though you told me to “just hush and go to bed?” Do you remember how we’d make fun of the ways Dad refused to relax on vacation and would run us to exhaustion on every trip? Um, I grew up to be that way. You believe that? I try to pack as much into a day as he did….drives Dawn as crazy as it made you.

Do you remember how I was so convinced I was adopted that it nearly ruined my 18th birthday? Your joking assurance that you “wouldn’t have picked me” was appreciated (you were joking, right?) I remember the letters you wrote to me when I was away at college and how they dripped with wisdom, unsolicited advice and thinly-veiled mothering (Don’t you be spending the night with any boys. You better not be skipping class so you can go to frat parties. Why are you using your emergency credit card at The Gap? Daddy is going to strangle you. When are you bringing Peyton Manning home for the weekend?) You won’t be surprised to learn that I still have them all. You might not know that I kept them bundled together inside a journal and could only bring myself to re-read them after Dad died.

I remember how you were the first person I called when I won a scholarship to complete an internship in DC. I am not sure which one of us was more excited about the adventure that lay ahead. I think you believed that was the beginning of my breaking away from you, of asserting true independence. It most certainly was. But it’s also true that you went with me and some of the best memories I have of being away involve our catching up during long phone calls and emails. You had no idea I was homesick, did you, that I still very much needed you even as I was learning to navigate the world on my own? For the most part, the good memories for me end there. At 22—soon after I graduated from college, cancer came to our world and life was never the same again.

I’ve wondered sometimes how things would’ve been different if you’d lived. Would we have become best friends again? (I hope so.) Would I have joined the military? (I doubt it.) Would I have left Nashville? (I hope so). Would I have pursued a different career path? (I think I’d be writing and you’d be so happy about that.) How would you have reacted to my being gay? (Would I have ever told you?) I’ve heard people say that their parents’ deaths allowed them to more fully be who they were—they no longer had to “please” anyone. I think I’d take my chances. I also wonder if your guidance would have prevented me from making some of the mistakes I’ve made in the last 12 years. You know I’ve made some doozies.

I now know what you meant when you would say how much you wished you could pick up the phone and hear Granny’s voice on the other end. What I wouldn’t give to talk to you about my life now—to hear the ways you are proud, to get your advice on those things I’m unsure of… to hear your reassurances that things are going to be alright. I know you understand how hard life is sometimes without your #1 cheerleader, the one who gave up her own hopes and dreams, even her own body to give you life—you were once a motherless child yourself.

I know you were proud of me. What you probably don’t know is that I was and am proud of you.

What you might enjoy knowing more than that: “You were right.”

With that, I’ll close this long letter (I get my challenge with brevity from you, you know) by saying Happy Mother’s Day. I’ve loved you every minute since you left.

Always,

Your Special Angel

Bobby Vinton’s Special Angel

Feed Jake

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Tonight, we took my dad’s dogs for a walk. This is a feat since Jake, aged 15, is hard to get out of the house these days. While he had to be coaxed into the outing,  he seemed to enjoy it for the most part. Slow at first, he gained momentum with each mailbox and shrub he encountered.

A couple of months ago, we thought he was a goner….but the diagnostics said he was ok, save a touch of senility that went beyond normal senior moments. He’d head downhill,  but there was no way to determine the rate.

Jake is a shitzu poodle combo who sports a white beard and tuxedo vest on his jet black coat. He came to us after my dad died last April.  To be honest, he’s never been my favorite.  A perpetual curmudgeon,  I’ve mostly thought he was difficult to love.

He was accompanied by his cuter, younger, more lovable sister, Taylor, a 6 pound Yorkshire hybrid. With her cute blonde curls, she’s easy to adore.

Neither of these pooches were with my dad from birth…he took both of them when their original owners, both of whom loved their respective pups, could no longer care for them. You’d never know he hadn’t had them his whole life by the way he concerned himself with and doted on them. After he died, their future was the family’s first order of business.  In the end, we became their guardians…and were content in our capability to fulfill our new role.

Enter canine dementia.

Jake celebrated a birthday in January that I was sure would never come. He began the year with the stamina of a puppy. But he is slipping. He can no longer find his way around the house and has become very forgetful.  Tonight, he ran face first into a mailbox pole before we could stop him.

When my dad was dying, his constant concern was Jake and Taylor.  Tonight,  I’m convinced that Jake is in the twilight of his life and that our time with him is nearing the end.

We didn’t get the chance to care for either of our parents into old age. When I see Jake age, I sense the challenge we didnt experience first hand with them.

We are determined to give him the life my dad would’ve wanted for him for as long as he’s with us…

…however long that may be.

I Never Expected to be on Death Row

I never expected to find myself on Death Row.

I was supposed to go to a friend’s Christmas party last Saturday, but I kept feeling a tug telling me that I needed to go to Riverbend Maximum Security Institution and spend an evening with the “worst of the worst.” So, I joined several other members of APMUMC, including Pastor Melisa, to deliver Christmas gifts and spend time with the inmates who are housed there.  I had no idea what to expect and to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was remotely prepared to provide any kind of “ministering” to anyone, much less men who live daily with the weight of knowing they will die young and in prison. Curiously, I’d spent the morning with homeless men and women who were full of hope and would end it with people who have shelter and no hope….or so I thought.

We gathered in the prison’s Chapel where we were offered bologna sandwiches on white bread and tangerines as we waited for other groups to arrive. Some began to sing Christmas Carols and all I could think was how surreal this was. The prison Chaplain announced which group were going where when she called out “Pod 2, Andrew Price.” Pod 2—the innocuous designation given to the section that houses Death Row, as if that name somehow could mask the reality of the place.

There were rules. No contact. No personal information exchange. Hand the gifts to the inmate unwrapped, one by one.  With that, we moved through the prison grounds under the shadows of guard towers and razor wire that formed the perimeter, finally stopping at Pod 2. It looked like all the others, but of course, it wasn’t. If those walls could talk, they’d speak of men’s last words, last walks, and last moments on earth. I’m not sure what I expected when we walked into the actual room where we would meet these inmates. Sure, I’ve watched prison reality shows, but you can’t smell what’s on TV. Pastor Melisa observed that it “didn’t smell bad” like county jails do. With all due respect to her, that was possibly the most disturbing part of the whole experience for me. There was no smell, as if there was no life.  A lot like a hospital—that “too clean” scent that covers up sickness and hurt.

As I waited for them to unlock the “pie flap” of the cell door I chose, I watched as a living, breathing man came over to the door. We exchanged small talk as I passed small gifts one by one through the flap as instructed. A bar of soap. A cupcake. A pair of socks. A stick of beef jerky. Four stamps.

Jesse’s a Cowboys fan, so I teased him about that until he said, “hey, what about those Titans?!” I quickly changed the subject as I handed him a small Bible. “I won’t really use the stamps because there’s no one to write, or at least no one to write back. But this I’ll use,” he whispered. I found out that we’re the same age, but he seemed so much older somehow. We talked about the spiritual programming he watches on his small television and also about the books he’s read. He was especially excited about The Purpose Driven Life, and I told him that I had that one but hadn’t read it through.  He said, “You have to READ it!” I resisted the urge to ignore that he wasn’t on Death Row and blurted out “what does that book mean to you, considering where you are?” His words hit me like a brick, “There’s hope and purpose in God. I wish I had had it before I got here, but I have it now.”  I began to forget about the walls that divided us and realized that this chat was so much more a blessing to me than it was to him.

When the officer came to me and said it was time to go, I turned and looked at Jesse whose eyes had lost the brightness they’d had just a minute earlier, “I don’t get anyone to come see me, but I’m really glad you did,” he admitted.

The massive gates clicked loudly as they locked behind us and we all went our separate ways. I thought about Jesse and those other men on the drive to that Christmas party, and I’ve thought about him since. I know I’ll never see him again, and I know that the State of Tennessee will probably take his life someday.

Saying goodbye, I tried to imagine what it must be like at that “final goodbye.” It’s true that most of these men have committed heinous crimes. It’s true that most of them should be in prison and many of them should never return to society. It’s also true that they all live in the worst kind of Hell and many of them have not a single person who truly cares about them. Perhaps the absence of love in the first place has a lot to do with their current living arrangement. I hope that I’ll never be so jaded that my heart doesn’t break for what breaks God’s.

Though we were instructed (or advised) not to, I looked up his case, so I know what he did to end up on Death Row. It was reprehensible. It took my breath away. Would I have looked at him differently had I known what he did prior to our conversation? Perhaps, but I hope I still would’ve shown him an open heart.

I will pray for Jesse, not because he is an angel or even a nice man, but because he needs it as much as I do.

We are all “the least of these.”
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The Last Supper

This morning, I browned some ground turkey before getting ready for work, intent on getting a jumpstart on tonight’s dinner. I’m making a particular (very healthy) dish because I need to use a few ingredients before they ruin. While simple, I don’t make it often because it makes a lot. As I stood over the stove pushing the meat back and forth in the skillet, I remembered that the last time I made it, it was for Dad. Though I’d shared many meals with him over my lifetime, this one on April 15, 2013 was significant as it was the last.

Ironically, or perhaps poignantly, the first anniversary of his “lasts” comes during this year’s Holy Week, a time when people who share the Christian faith reflect on dying and, as importantly, what it means to live. With its deep and dramatic symbolism, Holy Thursday is perhaps my “favorite” religious observance of the year. The ways we consider forever during this time of year are unmatched by any other. Last Suppers and Last Words; watching a life, significant and well-lived, come full circle and evaluating what it means for our lives; grief and rejoicing; weighing regret against hope everlasting. For as much as I’m thinking of the Resurrection this week, I can’t help but also remember my dad’s journey towards the always when I contemplate these things.

This “last supper” he had at our house was also something of a “first” for a man and his oldest child, a pair that had never enjoyed an outwardly emotional relationship with each other. Quick with his temper and slow with his patience, he could be hard to know—it is something we had in common. But on April 15, 2013, he sat down at our table for dinner. He was especially talkative this night as we were discussing our desire for him to retire for good and focus his energies on his health and his golf game. His main concerns centered on his desire to leave us with “something” so he’d know we were “okay” when he was no longer around. In a very uncharacteristic moment for me, I said, “Dad, you provided a wonderful childhood. Your job meant time away from your family—but you did it so that we could have the world.  You did enough. We don’t care about money; we just want you.” He told me he was proud of me and agreed to reduce his life insurance. Now, this doesn’t seem overly tender to outside observers, but a peacefulness spilled over his face and I realize now that the words had deeper meaning than either of us realized then. “I love you, toos” had always been the hallmark of our affection towards each other. We knew there was a deep love and concern present…but we didn’t have to say it. A few days later, he’d be admitted to the hospital for the final time, but on this night, we were laughing, happy and hopeful. I think, in some ways, those words were my “goodbye” to him.

For me, there are few images that better represent the fragility of life than the memory of him sitting in our kitchen that night, caught somewhere between the realization that things were different this time and the resistance to that life-altering permanence. This image of a dying man—while we didn’t know it—reminds me how quickly life can change and how every single moment must be lived and felt. This was the last time a shred of innocence seemed within reach for my sister and me—the last time the term “parent” was a thing of the present.

While my mother’s death certainly impacted me in every way imaginable, it was not until I saw my dad begin his final journey that I could understand the brevity that defines all of our journeys—long or short. We put off this or that until the timing is right. We hesitate to take chances. We refuse to apologize; we refuse to forgive. We ignore our families and ourselves. What if today is the beginning of our journey into eternity? What if this moment is the last time your life will be as it is right now? In a way, we’ve all already begun that journey—and we’ll never get this moment back.

I think about it.

Every day.

I am 36 years old and I think about my death every day. That’s probably morbid. Okay, it’s definitely morbid.

It’s also inspiring.

Because I ask myself every day if it’s my last chance to become who I want to be, to leave the legacy I want to leave. Most of the time, I’m disappointed. So far, no day has been my last…but…

Someday, it will be.

Dad didn’t feel like dying that night or in the several days that followed. He said emphatically, “I want to get better.” He knew that life happened outside those hospital walls, and that’s where he wanted to be. I’ve spent the last year wishing he’d had the chance to be out there and live it. As we approach the first anniversary of his death, though, I understand that all our lives here started ending the moment they began.  Be as tender as your heart will allow you to be with others—and then push it further. Be present with the people you love and let them be present with you. Be present with yourself rather than constantly looking for ways to avoid all of those things that make life worth living.

I know that someday will be the last day of my life; I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it for all the days he wanted and didn’t get.

dad

November, 2012. Shelby Golf Course.