Friday, March 30, 2018

A Year Without Ties

"No matter how far you travel, the memories will follow in the baggage car." 
- August Strindberg

When I was a kid in elementary school, my mom worked as a bookkeeper at a furniture store that was just a couple of blocks down the hill from my school, close enough that I walked there every day after school. I got to hang out in Mom's office and "help" her for an hour or so until my dad stopped and picked me up on his way home from work. I remember Mom letting me stamp the backs of checks ... don't laugh ... being a big enough kid to hold the big metal stamper thing and stamp those checks was a big deal to me. I made paper clip necklaces, played with the old metal arm-operated adding machine, separated rubber bands by size and drew pictures for Mom and all of her co-workers.

Having the run of all those office supplies was like a dream come true for me as a little kid, especially on the days when the manager of the store would send me home with a bag of office goodies, including my most favorite office goody in the entire universe ... a giant-sized pink eraser. And when I say giant-sized, I do mean giant-sized ... those suckers were about the size of a modern-day iPhone and as thick as my favorite Nancy Drew mystery. Yep, those erasers were definitely my favorite of all the office goodies for sure. Those giant-sized pink erasers could erase any mistake I made ... on paper anyway.

I'd wager that many of us, perhaps even most of us, have times we wish we could erase ... times when we would give all we have for a giant-sized pink eraser that could magically wipe away the things we don't want on the paper of our lives. Some lucky folks may only have moments they want to get rid of, but my guess is that many people have more than just moments ... many have hours, days, weeks, months or even years they wish they could erase from their lives and remove from their memory. Unfortunately, as much as I was there was, there's not a giant-sized pink eraser for real life. We make mistakes that can't be corrected. We inflict hurt that can't be healed. We say and do things to each other that leave marks and lines and scribbles all over our hearts ... marks and lines and scribbles that stay on our papers forever.

It took five decades for me to finally step out of the closet and tell the truth about who I am. Five decades of trying to be the person other people told me I was supposed to be. Five decades of living in fear of what would happen should I ever slip up and let the people I loved see the real me. Five decades of pretending to be someone I never was. Five decades of hiding. Five decades of worrying that someone would uncover my secret. Five decades of thinking there was something terribly wrong with me. Five decades before I understood that God loves me just the way I am. Five decades before I finally had the courage to be the real me. Five decades before I was able to do something I'd wanted to do for as long as I could remember ... wear ties and suspenders and not be ashamed.

The last time I wore a tie or suspenders was one year ago today ... a day I surely wish I could erase. What happened that day isn't important, nor does it matter to anyone but me. I can wish all I want that I could erase certain events of that day, but my wishing is nothing more than just that ... a wish. I wish I could turn back time or jump into another dimension in which erasing that day last year involved nothing more than snapping my fingers or waving my hand, but I can't. I miss my ties and suspenders a lot, but there's something I miss so very much more than the pieces of fabric or the metal snaps. I miss the real me ... the me who wasn't afraid ... the me who didn't hesitate to reach out ... the me who believed in myself ... the me who believed in others. Where the heck is that giant-sized pink real-life eraser when I need it, eh? Where is it indeed?

Oh, one more thing ... I did wear my Ellen/gangster/coolest shoes ever today. Hmmm ... maybe there's still a little of the real me left in there after all.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

If I Should Die Before I Wake

My guess is that most people don't climb into bed each night and think "I wonder if I'll die while I'm sleeping tonight." I'd guess, too, that most people don't wake up and have their first thought of the day be "I wonder if today will my last day to live?" I am convinced that the thing we humans most take for granted is life itself. Rather than appreciating the gift of every single breath we take, every precious moment we have with those we love, every additional night we do indeed not die before we wake, we believe we will always have more time. More breaths. More moments. More nights. More days. More time.

In case you're newer to reading my blog, The Tree House officially turned 10 on February 19, 2018. A special thank you to those of you who messaged to remind me of the significance of reaching that particular milestone, even though my writing has waned greatly over the last year. Those of you who've been following my journey for a while may remember the post "Easier to Die" from January 1, 2013, without question the most difficult post I've written throughout those 10 years. In that post, I came clean about a couple of sort of big things in my life ... at least they're big to me anyway ... one of them being that I had come within minutes of committing suicide back in 2012. I had no idea at the time just how much that one post would change not only my life, but the lives of so many others as well.

I've learned many things in the five plus years since I first openly talked about my battle with depression and my plan to take my own life, not the least of which is that talking about death makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. At first I thought the uneasy feeling I sensed from others when I talked about reaching the point where I no longer wanted to live was because of my inclusion of the "s" word ... suicide. It didn't take me long, however, to understand that the feeling wasn't as much about me talking about my desire to end my life as it was about me talking about death in general. I quickly learned that we humans don't want to talk about death, be it our own or someone else's ... we don't want to talk about it and we really don't want to listen to anyone who does. And yet, despite our avoidance and our belief that we will always have more time ... more breaths, more moments, more nights, more days, more time ... death is inevitable for each one of us. 

Today my children and I attended a celebration of life service for a man who was one of the first people we met when we moved to Kansas City. A man who, along with his wife and two daughters, became our first real friends in a city where we knew no one. A man who welcomed us into his home when our house caught fire only two weeks after we moved in. A man who taught us the word "gadzooks" and who had an infectious laugh and an ever-present smile. A man who stood solidly behind me and my children as my marriage disintegrated. A man who treated us as family. A man who included us. A man who had a kind and gentle and compassionate heart for the marginalized, the weak, the lonely and the discarded people of the world. A man whose life was honored today by the people he impacted so deeply during his short 63 years on earth. A man who left behind a legacy of love ... love for God, love for his family, love for his friends, love for the people he worked with and love for people around the world.

I hugged Brad and Meghann and Barrett a little more tightly when they left to head back to their homes today, and my time on Skype with Matt and his family was a little longer and even more precious to me than usual. And as I end this day and ready myself for bed, one thought pulses through my mind ... if I should die before I wake, I hope and pray the legacy I leave behind will be one of love. A legacy of a love that isn't just heard in the words I say, but one that is seen ... one that is felt ... one that is proven in the life I live.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Man I Met at Walmart

First things first ... to those of you who've written to inquire about how Max dog is recovering following his joyful romp through my fridge a couple of Saturdays ago and helping himself to a full container of delicious bacon-wrapped green bean bundles held together by wooden toothpicks, he's back to his normal no more pooping toothpicks self. I must agree with my son Bradley that Max's latest refrigerator raid does indeed prove that he has a stomach and intestines of steel. Seriously though, thank you for your concern about my big chocolate granddog and rest assured that the next time Maxie comes to stay with me, my fridge will be sporting a new child/Maxproof lock on the door.

I certainly don't consider myself to be rigid when it comes to planning out how I'm going to spend my time on the weekends, but there are certain things I pretty much have to make sure I allow time to do every Saturday or Sunday. You know ... semi-important things like making a trip to the store to buy food. Which, more often than not, ends up being trips plural because I go to different stores to buy different things, depending on which retailer has the best prices for the week. I'm guessing some of you are giving me a nod of affirmation right about now because you do the very same thing ... trot around to different stores to save a few bucks here and there, I mean.

On the Saturday that shall forevermore be known as "Max Dog Does Toothpicks Day," I hadn't exactly factored spending several hours of my day sitting at the emergency animal hospital into my schedule for the weekend. I should pause here and tell you that I do not like going to Walmart on Sundays, and I especially do not like going to Walmart late in the day on Sundays. Why, you ask? Going to Walmart on either day of the weekend is something no one in their right mind should ever even consider doing, you say? Hold the phone ... maybe I should retract that "someone in their right mind" part, especially as it applies to me. We all know I crossed that bridge a long, long time ago. But I digress way too far ... spending a chunk of my Saturday at the animal hospital meant that I put off going to Walmart until late in the day on Sunday, along with what seemed to be most of the population of Kansas City. 

By the time I was finally ready to check out, I was far, far away from happy camper land. I was tired, I was cranky and I just wanted to be done and go home. Of course there weren't enough checkout lanes open, so I chose what I hoped would be the quickest one, got in line and waited not so patiently behind the people ahead of me. It wasn't until I reached for the little divider stick thingy to put on the conveyor belt to separate my groceries from those of the person in front of me that I got a glimpse of the older gentleman in line behind me. I smiled a halfhearted smile and started unloading my groceries.

"I--I--I--I l--l--l--like y--y--y--your d--d--d--d--dog, m--m--maam," stuttered the man with the shaggy beard, worn clothing and faded felt hat. "H--h--h--he r--r--reminds m--m--m--m--me of--of--of o--o--o--our J--J--J--Jimmy. I--I--I b--b--b--b--bought h--h--him f--f--for m--m--m--my w--w--w--wife w--w--when sh--sh--she g--got s--s--s--s--sick."

"This little guy is a pretty good boy. He's my pal for sure," I said as I turned back to the task of getting my groceries out of my cart.

"J--J--J--Jimmy d--d--died on--on V--V--Val--Valentine's D--D--Day," the man said softly.

I turned and looked at the old man ... really looked at him ... and said, "I'm sorry for your loss. It's never easy to lose a furry friend."

A faraway look crossed his face as he said, "J--J--J--Jimmy j--ju--just cou--coul--couldn't g--g--go o--on w--w--w--wit--without h--her. H--h--he pa--pa--passed a--a w--w--week af--after my--my--my Cla--Clara."

I don't know if the gentleman could see them, but I sure felt the hot tears that began filling my eyes. As I blinked and blinked with the hope of stopping them, I noticed that the man only had one grocery item ... a frozen pie.

"Come go ahead in front of me," I said. "You only have that pie to pay for ... please go ahead of me."

"A--A--Are y--you s--s--s--sure?" he asked.

"Of course," I replied as I stepped aside so that he could get around my cart. "I'm sorry I didn't notice sooner ... come on up here and go ahead of me."

"Th--th--that's v--v--v--very ki--ki--kind of--of y--y--you, m--m--maam," he said with a gentle smile. "B--B--But I--I--I'll on--on--only g--g--go a--a--ah--ahead of--of y--y--y--you i--i--if y--y--you'll l--let m--m--me pe--pet yo--you--your d--d--dog," he said as his gentle smile broke into a full-on grin.

"Deal!" I said and lifted Ollie out of the shopping cart. Ollie being Ollie, he was more than willing to plant a big old kiss on the old man's chin when he leaned in to pet him. The man then went ahead of me in the line, paid for his frozen pie and stepped off to the side and waited for me to finish my own transaction. At first I thought the old guy was just waiting so that he could thank me again for letting him cut in front of me in line, but when I realized he intended to walk out of the store and toward my car with me ... well ... it creeped me out a little. Which is why I stopped as soon as we got outside and said, "Nice to meet you, sir ... have a good night," and then turned to walk away.

"Ma--ma--maam," the man stuttered. "Th--th--tha--thank y--you f--f--for tal--tal--tal--talking to--to--to m--m--me. I-I'm ta--ta--taking th--this p--p--pie to--to--to m--my f--f--fr--friend Bi--Bil--Bill. Doc--Doc--Doc--Doctors s--s--say h--he dos--dos--doesn't h--ha--have m--m--much t--t--time le--le--le--left a--an--and h--he l--l--l--l--loves p--p--pie. B--B--Bill sa--sa--sa--said h--he'd s-say he--he--he--hello t-to Cla--Cla--Cla--Clara a--a--and Ji--Ji--Jim--Jimmy f--for m--m--me wh--wh--when h--he g--g--g--gets t--to hea--hea--heaven if--if--if I--I--I'd co--co--come g--get h--h--h--him a--a--a p--p--pie."

"Stupid tears," I thought as I took off my glasses and brushed my sleeve across my eyes. It was a very short hop for me to go from being creeped out by the old man with the scraggly beard, worn clothes and faded felt hat to wrapping my arms around him and hugging him. Yep, right there just outside the door of Walmart in front of God and everybody else who saw me ... right there, I stopped and hugged that old man. I thanked him for talking to me. I thanked him for petting my dog. I thanked him for making me see.

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it." --- Confucius

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Dogs and Wood

Back when he was in college, my son Brad thought it would be hilarious to teach his then newly acquired 2-year-oldish chocolate Labrador retriever Max to open the fridge and bring him a beer. And I'll admit it was pretty darn funny to watch big old Max dog mosey into the kitchen, easily open the refrigerator, secure a cold brew in his mouth and trot it back to Bradley. What my normally quite intelligent son failed to consider when he taught his beloved canine pal this nifty trick, however, was that someday he'd finish college and might actually have more than just beer in his fridge. God only knows how many times Brad's plan to have the coolest beer-fetching dog in town has backfired on him. That crazy brown dog has consumed everything from six-packs of Mountain Dew to entire rotisserie chickens (bones included) to leftover Chipotle burritos (foil included) to birthday cakes (chocolate included) to cheesy potatoes to turkey pot pies to lunch meat to just about any food or drink item you can imagine. Yep, that's right ... over the years, Max dog has come to fully embrace the unmitigated joy that comes from raiding the fridge, and remarkably, the sweet old brown dog has lived to bark about it.

For all the times Max has stayed with Ollie and me, including the three or so months he lived with us when Brad first moved to Maine, he has never once gotten into my fridge ... not the one in my house or the one in my apartment. Until last Saturday, that is. Brad and Shelby had asked if I could watch Max and his totally insane puppy brother Chewbacca while they moved from their apartment into a house, and I readily agreed to a granddoggie sleepover for Friday night. I have never in my life seen a dog love a boy the way Max loves Brad, so I've grown accustomed to the routine of the big dog sitting by the door for an hour or so whining and whimpering after his boy leaves. Such was the case last Friday evening when Brad and Shelby departed, but as he always does, he finally came and laid his head on my knee and let me love on him. And at bedtime, he trotted right into my room with me and Ollie, and went right to sleep. The next morning, old Maxie was just fine ... ate his food, went outside and pooped and peed ... even played chase with Ollie and Chewbacca for a while. If that dog was upset or stressed about his humans being gone or all the packing activity he'd witnessed the day before, he sure as heck didn't act like it. It wasn't until I came home after going to breakfast with my daughter that I discovered just how out of sorts Max truly was. 

When Meghann and I walked into my apartment, my first thought was, "That's weird ... there are Rubbermaid food containers in the living room. I wonder where those came from." I walked into the kitchen to hang up my keys and immediately knew exactly where those containers had come from ... the refrigerator door was wide open and all of my neatly packaged containers of leftovers were missing. Along with Meghann's leftover jambalaya, a brand-new large-size container of cream cheese and a box of baking soda. I quickly shut the fridge door and walked back into the living room and shouted, "Max you big turd, why did you open my fridge and eat my food? You've never done that before, buddy. What the heck? Bad dog getting into my fridge!" Max's reaction, of course, was to hunker down in the corner and give me the saddest "but I'm scared that Brad and Shelby are never coming back" look ever. Which then, of course, made me feel like the worst granddog Ghee ever because I'd yelled at him. 

I was ready to chalk up Max's raiding of my fridge to just one more time that Max had helped himself to food that he shouldn't have ... until I realized that one of the empty containers on the living room floor had been filled to the brim with a dozen or so bundles of bacon-wrapped green beans. Bundles that were held together by wooden toothpicks ... sharp wooden toothpicks that could easily puncture a dog's stomach or intestines if they happened to turn a certain way or get stuck in a certain position. I'll spare you the details of the several hours that Brad, Shelby and I spent in the veterinary hospital that afternoon, but I will tell you that if I were Ollie the wiener dog, I would still be pissed off about the whole experience. Why? Because Ollie and Max were both out in the apartment together while Meghann and I were gone, which meant I had no way of knowing if Ollie had participated in the toothpick binge-fest or not so my poor little guy had to endure the same not-so-fun stomach pumping ordeal as Max. Not one of his best Saturdays for sure, bless his sweet little wiener dog heart, or stomach, as the case may be. 

One thing that the refrigerator/toothpick-consuming/dash to the vet hospital experience on Saturday served to prove to me, however, was that Ollie really is the best dog in the entire universe. After the canine stomach emptying process was complete, the vet informed us that there wasn't one trace of fridge food in Ollie's stomach. Yep, that means my dog sat and watched another dog chow down on a vast smorgasbord of delightful dishes right in front of him and didn't eat one bite. No chicken livers, no cream cheese, no shrimp- and sausage-laden jambalaya, and thankfully, no green beans, bacon or toothpicks. I was so proud of him for standing strong and not succumbing to temptation that I took him straight to Starbucks when we were done and got him the biggest puppuccino he's ever had. Unfortunately for old Max dog, the contents of his stomach served only to prove his guilt as being the sole perpetrator of the crime. Max is fine now, by the way, following a few days of Brad and Shelby having to search through his poop on the hunt for the missing toothpicks.

I'm sure many of you are wondering why in the world I would choose to break my writing moratorium with a story about a dog opening a fridge and eating a dozen or so toothpicks. Truth be told, I'm sort of wondering the same thing myself. One would think if I were going to cautiously dip my toe into the writing waters again, I'd write something much more profound than a tale about toothpicks, stomach pumping and poop analyzing. But I believe that there are lessons to be learned and truths to be gleaned from every single experience in life. It was far from lost on me last Saturday that the small examination room where Brad, Shelby and I waited to find out if Max and Ollie would be OK was the same small room where I sat and held my beloved J.R. as he breathed his last breath on the morning of November 14, 2010. The lesson of treasuring every moment with those I love, be they human or canine, hung heavily in the tiny room last weekend. The truths I so easily forget ... that life can change in the blink of an eye ... that those I care so deeply for can be gone in an instant ... that in the end, when it's all said and done, the only thing that really matters is the way we take care of and love one another.

It's so easy to get caught up in all the stuff of life and forget what's most important. Sometimes it takes a sweet old chocolate dog gulping down a bunch of wooden toothpicks to make us remember that the most important thing we have in this life ... the very most important thing we can ever hope to have is each other. Appreciate every single moment, friends ... every single moment indeed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Sew in Love

My brother Tommy, my sister Elsie and I did what many adult children do when their parents reach the milestone of 50 years of marriage ... we threw one heck of a party. The festivities were held in the fellowship hall of the Red Bank Baptist Church in, as fate would have it, the same room where my wedding reception took place several years prior. Daddy was already pretty sick with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases by the time his and Mom's anniversary rolled around, so he spent his time at the event sitting in his wheelchair smiling at people he couldn't remember and clapping his hands at a party for which he had no idea that he was one of the two guests of honor. Mom, however, was fully aware of everything that was taking place, and she was happier than a woodpecker in a ginormous forest.

Though I don't remember the circumstances that led us to choose the particular gift we gave Mom and Dad on the day of their 50th anniversary party, it turned out to be the perfect representation of their years together. A gift that 31 years later sits peacefully on a small shelf in my bedroom, quietly reminding me each time I see it that the only thing that really matters in life is how we love. Loving other people isn't always the easiest thing to do; in fact, sometimes loving others is the hardest thing in the world to do. Whether it's your spouse or partner or kids or parents or siblings or friends or co-workers or the mechanic who fixes your car, there are times when loving others feels more like swallowing a bucket of hot coals than slurping down a gallon of cool and refreshing iced tea. I think when it comes to loving other people, it's more than life that's like a box of chocolates. When you make the conscious decision to treat others from a heart of love, you never know what you're gonna get.

The truth is that sometimes love really is all roses and sunshine, and you feel as though your heart might explode from the joy and happiness of it all. But sometimes love is messy ... sometimes love isn't pretty ... sometimes love is caring for someone who's fighting a terrible disease ... sometimes love is cleaning up puke or wiping butts ... sometimes love is listening patiently to a story you've heard a million times before ... sometimes love is speaking louder so someone can hear ... sometimes love is lifting a spoon to the mouth of someone who can no longer feed themselves. Yes, there are times when loving other people is just plain old life-sucking hard, but in the end ... in the end, loving other people is always, always, always the right thing to do. I know that my mom had some regrets in her life, but loving my dad ... even in the darkest and most difficult of times ... was never one of them. 

There are some other things I'm reminded of every time I see the small porcelain figurine that my brother, sister and I gave Mom and Dad all those years ago. I'm reminded that we all need to be patched up now and then ... that none of us are without flaws ... that we all get torn or worn or weary. I'm reminded just how very much we need each other ... in the marvelously wonderful good times and the wretchedly painful bad times ... we desperately need each other. We need to stop tearing each other apart and focus on stitching each other back together. We need to sew in love, friends ... with every ounce of strength and heart we have within us, my friends ... we need to sew in love.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Good Questions

Wow. Just wow.

I've been working on this post for a week or longer trying to find adequately meaningful words to convey my feelings regarding the many messages and comments I've received concerning my previous post, "Uncrossing My Fingers." And all I can come up with is wow. Just wow. I'm overwhelmed by your responses, truly and deeply overwhelmed. Thank you so much for your continued support and your steadfast encouragement. So often I feel that the words I pen are disjointed and rambling, and I wonder why in the world anyone would ever read them. And yet so many of you remain not only loyal to reading, but also incredibly faithful to message and tell me to get back to it. Again, all I can say is wow. Just wow.

Ollie and I were joined a few weekends ago by the newest addition to my family of canine grandchildren, Chewbacca, a 9-week-old chocolate labrador puppy, and Brad's longtime dog pal, Max, his 10ish-year-old chocolate lab. Just as you forget how active toddlers are, you forget how busy puppies can be. Suffice it to say that if had only a tiny portion of the energy that Chewy the wild thing has, I could rule the world. Since I couldn't take my eyes off of my new granddog lest he get into mischief, I spent most of that weekend stretched out on my living room floor corralling the non-stop little pup while I read through hundreds of emails. I had a whole list of things I thought I needed to get done those couple of days, but as it turned out, not one of those things was more important than embracing the great big dose of puppy love Chewy so sweetly gave me and reading the inspiring and uplifting words in so many of your messages.

As I read email after email, I noticed that many of them contained questions ... questions that, even though they were worded differently, had an undeniably common theme. It's not unusual for the messages I receive to contain questions ... in fact, it's more unusual when they don't. But these questions ... the similarity of these questions was, well, it was kind of eerie and maybe even a little borderline creepy. Not in a "sleep with a baseball bat under my pillow because someone is going to try to kill me" kind of creepy but in a "whoa, there's obviously some life-changing lesson or soul-searing truth I'm supposed to get from this" kind of creepy. In saying that, I certainly don't mean to imply that the questions were offensive or wrong or bad in any way ... in fact, they were quite the opposite. Your questions forced me to take a very hard, and at times painful, look at my heart and dig way down deeply into the shadows of my soul. They made me admit that uncrossing my fingers when it comes to people is way more complicated than I had guessed it would be.

My intent when I began this post was to write a powerfully eloquent response to your questions, but I quickly realized as I attempted to do so that there are certain sentiments ... certain thoughts ... certain feelings and emotions that really can't be adequately served by mere words. There are times when answers aren't black or white ... times when they aren't concrete ... times when they ebb and flow with the passage of time and the changes that life brings. So my answer to your questions very well may be seen by some of you as me not giving an answer at all. But it's the only answer I have, at least for now anyway. More than an answer, I suppose it's rather a knowledge ... an understanding ... an acceptance of the part of me that many would label as weakness or lack of self-esteem or even a character flaw. It's the part of me that simply cannot turn my back on the people who've hurt me. If they wanted to be a part of my life again, I'd willingly let them. If they needed my help, I'd readily give it. Call me weak, naive, too trusting or even just plain old stupid, but that's who I am. At the very core of my being, that is truly who I am.

While many will say my previous statements indicate that I am wavering from my one and only resolution for this year, I assure you that's not the case at all. I haven't wavered nor have I given up on my quest to uncross my fingers and let go of the hope that certain people will eventually miss me or value me or respect me or care about me like I thought they did before. If anything, I believe, or at least I want to believe, that my resolve to succeed in keeping my resolution is even stronger than it was when the idea first formed in my mind. Since beginning the journey, however, I've learned that uncrossing my fingers doesn't mean I stop caring. That's not what it means now, and it will never mean that to me. I've been told a time or two over the years ... OK, maybe more than a time or two ... that I care too much about other people and not enough about myself. Maybe that's true, and it most likely is, but I'd sure rather care too much about others than to not care enough.

Since I sort of kind of but maybe not really answered your good questions, the dilemma I now have is how to close tonight's post. In my opinion, there's really only one way and that's with a picture of Chewbacca the puppy. OK, OK ... one of Chewy with Ollie, too. Be kind to each other, friends.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Uncrossing My Fingers

Those of you who have, for some incomprehensible reason, read along with me for a few years may remember that back in 2014, I had surgery on my left index finger. The surgery was to remove a bone spur on the top of my finger and a grouchy ganglion cyst on the underside of my top knuckle. Those two less than attractive finger pals became inseparable in a hurry ... within six months of their debut, the spur and the cyst had wound themselves together so tightly that they were well on their way to cutting off the blood flow to my finger. Since my finger was already numb on the underside where the cyst was, I decided it would be best to listen to the doctor and have the surgery. The surgery that in my mind would result with me having a couple of stitches and a small bandage for a couple of weeks turned into me having nine stitches on the outside of my finger and a dozen or so on the inside, being bandage up to my wrist, being in a sling for two weeks and various splints for almost three months, and physical therapy that hurt like the devil.

During my appointment preceding the surgery, the surgeon explained what he'd be doing in the procedure, making a special point to tell me about possible not-so-great outcomes. Things like I could lose flexibility of my finger or it might stay numb forever or that I may not ever be able to make a fist again or ... heaven forbid ... that there was a darn good chance I wouldn't be able to cross my fingers on my left hand. Though the good doctor would most likely say it was his surgical prowess that ensured my complete and full recovery, I like to think it was a combination of his skill and my dedication to proving him wrong that did the trick. It took several months of physical therapy ... which sucked to the end of the earth and back again, by the way ... but I eventually regained full use of my finger and hand, except for one thing. Crossing my fingers is easy, it's the uncrossing of them that continues to be an ongoing, rather frustrating issue for me. Sounds weird, I know, but nonetheless, it's true. Once I cross my index finger with my middle finger on my left hand, I have to uncross them with my right hand. No matter how hard I try, I just can't get those two left-hand fingers to uncross on their own.

The beginning of a new year often brings with it a renewed desire to set goals for things we would like to achieve over the next 12 months or to develop plans to rid ourselves of things that have weighed us down during the previous year. I'll admit I don't have a great track record when it comes to following through on either of those new year exercises. I start out all gung ho, but then once I fail to achieve a goal I've set for myself or I find myself continuing to struggle with something I promised myself I wouldn't, my new year's resolve tends to slowly fade away. Some of you may say I'm just lazy or that I quit when the going gets tough or that I'm not trying hard enough, but I would beg to differ. My problem isn't that I give up when it comes to reaching goals or developing plans to rid myself of certain feelings or emotions ... my problem is that I don't. Crossing my fingers is easy, friends ... it's the uncrossing part that's hard.

While it may make no sense whatsoever to anyone but me, I've decided that's my one and only resolution for the new year ... to uncross my fingers. You see, I'm a die-hard finger-crosser when it comes to the people in my life. And that's especially true when it comes to people whom I believe are my friends ... man, oh, man, do I ever have a hard time uncrossing my fingers when it comes to those folks. No matter how deeply they've hurt me or how badly they've betrayed my trust, my heart won't let me stop hoping that somewhere down deep they still care about me. No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to give up on the idea that someday they'll miss me the way I miss them. Last year was the toughest of my life in this area. It left me terrified to trust anyone and struggling to believe I'm worth much of anything. It's made me lose my will to write, and it's made me question the goodness of my heart. It's made me live in isolation and severely dampened my desire to help others. It's so easy to cross my fingers and keep hoping those people will change their minds, friends, but I think maybe it's time for me to do some uncrossing.

I've spent a lot of time believing I didn't deserve the friendship or respect or admiration or appreciation or concern or love of certain people, but perhaps this will be the year I come to understand that it's those folks who don't deserve me. Perhaps this will be the year I learn to believe that their decision to toss me away truly is their loss rather than mine. Perhaps this will be the year I strive to focus on the people in my life who love, care for and appreciate me instead of giving power to those who don't.

Perhaps this will be the year I'll be able to uncross my fingers once and for all ... perhaps this will be the year I'll be able to believe in myself again, friends ... perhaps this will be the year indeed.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Angel and the Whales

The extent of my holiday decorating for the last several years was to put new batteries in the little pack for the lights on my Charlie Brown Christmas tree, thinking maybe I would turn on the miniature colored lights more often than just when I Skyped with my little Canadians or when my kids stopped by. While the batteries were powerful enough to light up my scrawny little Charlie Brown tree, they weren't powerful enough to eliminate my lack of holiday spirit. Other than the times I mentioned, the tiny tree with the scraggly limbs remained dark for most of the season. My go-to answer when people asked me why I stopped decorating for the holidays made perfect sense to me ... no kids living at home anymore equaled no reason to deck the halls or jingle the bells. That standard answer I gave regarding the question about my lack of decorations was at least partially true ... it seemed like a waste of time to me to decorate when there was no one around except the dogs and me to see it. The more comprehensive truth, however, is that the old wolf of depression who lives outside my window really likes to ramp up his game around the holidays, scratching and clawing and snarling and growling and trying his best to shatter the thin pane of glass that separates us so that he can eat me alive. 

When I moved from my house into an apartment last year, I set a goal for myself that I would do an extensive cleaning of my new little place at least once per month. My loose definition of extensive cleaning is dusting every piece of furniture, Windexing the mirrors and windows, scrubbing the bathrooms, mopping the floors, buffing up all the kitchen appliances, cleaning the air ducts, double-vacuuming the carpet and wiping down the walls, which only takes me a couple of hours to accomplish in my small living area. I haven't been able to find the cord to my CD player since I moved from the house to the apartment, so I've been forced to learn how to use Spotify on my smart TV if I want to listen to music while I'm cleaning. I discovered a long time ago that I can't watch television and clean at the same time ... suffice it to say that when I try to do so, I end up doing far more watching than I do cleaning. I'm trying to establish the habit of not even looking at what's on the screen when I turn on the TV on cleaning days, but sometimes I slip up, steal a glance and hope that whatever's on doesn't reel me in and thwart my cleaning plans.

I've only seen the movie "Big Miracle" two times in my life ... the first time was at Cinemark Theater on Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 11:15 a.m., and the second was at my apartment on Sunday, November 25, 2017 at 9:45 a.m. Before you start thinking I have Sheldon Cooper blood flowing through my veins (though I will readily admit to sharing several similar personality traits with the greatly beloved genius), I assure you that this particular movie is the only one I've ever seen for which I remember those very specific details. I'm certain you're wondering why in the world a not so incredibly great movie about whales has earned such an illustrious place of honor within my mind. Explaining the deep significance of the movie "Big Miracle" is a no-brainer for me ... it's the movie a friend and her family took me to see after they unknowingly interrupted me just a few minutes before I intended to end my life. The film was based on a true story from 1998 ... a story of three gray whales that were trapped under the ice in Barrow, Alaska, and the people who worked together to save them.  

I cried my eyes out sitting in the theater on that Saturday morning five years ago as I watched "Big Miracle." I cried because I was in the same place the whales were ... alone in the dark and cold waters of depression ... trapped under the ice with no way out to the open water ... each breath getting harder and harder to take. I'll never forget what my friend said to me when she dropped me off at my house after the movie. She looked deeply into my eyes and said, "I know you feel like you're drowning and that you can't go on. You need to keep swimming, Terrie ... there are so many people cutting holes in the ice for you. You have to keep swimming, friend ... don't give up ... we'll keep cutting the holes and you have to keep swimming." I cried my eyes out sitting on my couch when I watched the film for the second time a couple of weeks ago, too ... maybe even harder than I cried the first time I saw it. I cried because I know how differently things could have turned out ... I know how easily things could have gone the other way ... I know how cold the waters can be ... I know how thick the ice can become ... I know how very, very, very hard it can be to breathe.

A couple of days ago I read an article about some of the key people who were involved in guiding the whales to safety, and I quickly noticed a common theme that ran through their stories. Each person who was interviewed said that his or her encounter with the trapped whales was a life-changing one for them. That the experience with the whales made them more aware of how fleeting life can be, for both animals and humans alike. That they now take a greater interest in the needs of others. That they are more grateful for those they are blessed to share their lives with. That they know what it is to be part of something bigger than themselves. That something seemingly as small as cutting holes in the ice can be the difference between life and death.

I'm sure by now you're wondering why I titled tonight's post "The Angel and the Whales" since I've yet to write a word about an angel. Or you're wondering why in the heck this post is so flipping long and why I don't just get done already. I'm hoping you'll forgive me for the lengthiness of my composition this evening if for no other reason than I don't write very often anymore. But back to the angel ... my oldest son Matt made a special angel as a school project when he was in kindergarten, which was, oh, 28 or so years ago. The angel is made of different types of uncooked pasta noodles covered with gold spray paint and has a string attached to the top so that it can be hung on a Christmas tree. It didn't take long for the little angel to be dubbed "the macaroni angel" by my children, and believe it or not, the three of them fought every Christmas for years over who got to hang the tiny pasta creation on the tree. It's amazing the little old noodle gal has managed to survive all these years, but she has.

I wish I could end my post tonight by telling you that I've never again felt the way I did on that Saturday five years ago, but I can't. I can tell you this, though ... just like the tiny macaroni angel, I've somehow managed to survive. The truth is that there's still something inside of me that keeps me from throwing in the towel and calling it done even on my darkest of days. Though I can't tell you it's true every day, it's true on this day and on others as well ... I'm glad I'm still here. Here to love my children and grandchildren. Here to offer encouragement and prayers during this tough time in the lives of several of my extended family members. Here to take care of my little wiener pal Ollie. Here to bake cookies and make fudge for my neighbors. Here to help load the elderly woman's groceries into her car at the store today. Here to appreciate people who care, people who keep their promises, people who stay no matter how cold the water or how thick the ice. Here to see my little apartment-sized Christmas tree ... the little macaroni angel sitting front and center, the wrapped packages resting beneath, the lights shining brightly on each branch.

Remember the macaroni angels in your life, and tell them how thankful you are that they've survived and how much they matter to you. See the whales around you who are trapped beneath the ice, and cut holes to help them keep swimming. I've been reminded too many times this year of how life as we know it can change in the blink of an eye and how truly short it can be. Don't take one moment for granted, not one single solitary moment. My prayer for you during this holiday season and beyond is that you be good to each other ... that you be kind ... that you be caring ... that you love without measure. Whether at the end of your day or the end of your journey, that's what makes life worth living, friends ... the love we have for each other ... that's what makes life truly worth living.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Once Upon a Hugger

For all the hugs I've given or received over the years ... and yes, each one special in its own way ... the best ever are the hugs that come from my two adorable little Canadians when I walk through the doors at the airport when I go for a visit. When they come running and shouting, "Ghee! Ghee! Ghee!" and wrap their little arms around me ... geez, Louise, there's just nothing better. I lift them into my arms and in a blink, their four little girl arms are squeezing around my neck as hard as they can possibly squeeze without choking me. They pull back and look into my eyes as if they're making sure I'm really there, and then they press their precious faces up against mine, giggling and squealing with pure, unadulterated delight to be with their Ghee.

Perhaps it's because my 58th birthday is coming up in just a few short weeks, but I've found myself wishing lately that I had kept a better accounting of certain things in my life. Things I wish I would have tallied up as I went and written them down so I could look back and, hopefully, be astounded by such a great number of good things and humbled by such an inconsequential amount of bad ones. Take hugs, for example ... how cool would it be if I had kept a record of every single hug I've given or received over the last almost 58 years? Just think ... had I written them all down, I could open my "Book of Hugs" anytime I needed to feel loved and remember the people and circumstances surrounding each one of those hugs.

A couple of weeks ago, an article popped up in my Facebook feed about how important hugging and/or being hugged are for both our mental and physical well-being. From triggering the release of dopamine and serotonin in the brain (chemicals that affect both mood and emotion) to lowering blood pressure and reducing the production of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine (often referred to as the stress hormones), hugs have been scientifically proven to positively enhance the health of our bodies, minds and souls. Click here to read the article for yourself, and also take a couple of minutes to watch the video that appears near the end about the social experiment regarding real vs. fake hugs. (Note: The article is kind of long, but I think you'll find it's well worth the read time, and the video is most certainly worth taking a few minutes to watch.) Oh, and for the record, I agree that hugs ... hugs that are given from hearts that are pure ... are one of the most powerful ways to show someone you care. 

I read an article yesterday discussing a piece that was published on the Girl Scouts of America website about the dangers of forcing girls (and I'll add in boys as well) to hug friends and family members at gatherings during the holidays. I'm sure a large part of the reasoning behind the decision to publish the information encouraging parents not to push their daughters (or sons) to hug friends and relatives was due to the unprecedented number of reports in the news as of late regarding the sexual misconduct of adults toward children and teens. Before you read one more word, please hear me on this ... I understand that reasoning completely, and I absolutely agree that as parents and grandparents, we must do everything in our power to protect our children and grandchildren from any and all forms of improper advances or sexual abuse. That's a no-brainer to me. I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who are coming forward to name their abusers. No matter their age or how long ago the abuse occurred, it takes a very special kind of courage to speak out. It does, however, make me incredibly sad to know that's the kind of world we now live in. The kind of world where something each one of us so desperately needs for our mental, emotional and physical well-being has been turned into something about which we must now question the motive or intent of the giver. The kind of world where a hug has become something sexual ... something we must be on guard about not only for our children and grandchildren, but for ourselves as well.

Every year on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the company I work for holds an event called "Stretch Your Stomach." SHS provides the turkey and the employees contribute all the sides, desserts and drinks, and everyone gathers in the kitchen over the lunch hour to partake in the pre-Thanksgiving feast. I spent yesterday evening making deviled eggs ... not because I'm crazy about making deviled eggs for hours on end, but because apparently, at least according to some of my co-workers, I make darned good deviled eggs and people always ask me to bring them. The "Stretch Your Stomach" pre-Thanksgiving feast is a tradition at SHS ... a tradition that people look forward to every year. Last night, as I was boiling, peeling, slicing, mixing and filling all those eggs, I couldn't help but think about an office tradition of my own that I once had. On the last day in the office before a holiday or before I left to go on vacation, I would go to each of my co-workers' desks, wish them a happy holiday and give them a hug.

My old hugging tradition probably never meant as much to the folks I work with as it did to me, because it meant a great big old heck of a lot to me. I often say that's the worst thing about being an empty-nester ... not having my kids around to hug whenever I want. Don't worry, they would all tell you that when we do get together now, I make sure I get in a super abundance of hugs when they arrive and when they leave. OK, OK ... I may even hug them a few extra times in between the hellos and goodbyes. You may have read the quote from Dr. Virginia Satir in which she famously said, "We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need 12 hugs a day for growth." Man, oh, man ... if the great and wise Dr. Satir is correct in her findings, it's a freaking miracle that I, along with all the other people out there who live alone, are still breathing.

A young man I worked with several years ago stopped by the office a few weeks ago to say hello. When he saw me, the first thing he did was reach out his arms to hug me and as he did, he said, "You're the best hugger ever, Terrie. I always looked forward to your hugs because they made me know, even on my darkest days, there was someone who truly cared about me." I managed to squeak out a response of, "You're too sweet," before he pulled back and stared deeply into my eyes, leaned in to hug me again and whispered something in my ear that went straight to my heart. The tall, super-intelligent, handsome young man said softly, "You're not hugging me back, T. What's up with that? I need a real Terrie hug. Why aren't you hugging me back?" I could offer no answers for the young man's questions ... no answers except to hug him back as tightly as I could and whisper in his ear, "Thank you ... thank you ... thank you."

It's probably not a coincidence that I've been watching "This Is Us" as I was typing this post ... lots of powerful and emotional hugs in this episode, and yep, I cried my eyes out as I do pretty much every time I watch that show. Hug someone tomorrow ... don't let the bad others do keep you from doing the good you can do. Be thankful and kind and compassionate to one another, friends ... and hug. Hug often ... hug with a pure heart ... hug and show someone you care.  

Thursday, November 16, 2017

And That's Why She's Famous

A few days ago, I read the following story and I'd like to ask you to read it, too.

A Walmart cashier's simple act of kindness has shown that slowing down and showing patience can sometimes make all the difference.

In a widely shared Facebook post, Spring Herbison Bowlin said her heart was warmed during a recent shopping trip to a Walmart in Mississippi.

Bowlin had stopped by the store on her lunch break and was waiting in the checkout line when she said she was moved by a cashier's kindness toward one customer.

Bowlin wrote that a man in front of her had just been given his total when he nervously looked back at her and started to apologize as he placed handfuls of change on the counter.

"He miscounts and starts to get flustered," Bowlin wrote.

"His hands and voice are shaking," she said. "This beautiful cashier takes his hands and dumps all the change on the counter and says, 'This is not a problem, honey. We will do this together.'"

After the transaction was handled, Bowlin said she thanked the cashier for being so patient with the customer.

"She shakes her head and replies, 'You shouldn't have to thank me, baby. What's wrong with our world is we've forgotten how to love one another.'"

Now that you've read it, I'd like to ask you to think about the three people in this story ... the nervous man trying to pay with all the change, the cashier who helped him and the woman in line who shared the story. Try for a minute to put yourself into their shoes.

How do you think you would have felt if you were the man trying desperately to count out the right amount of change? Embarrassed? Frustrated? Apologetic? Maybe even ashamed?

What if you were the cashier? Would you have been as kind to the man as she was? Would you have been so gracious in helping him to count out his money? Or would you have adamantly crossed your arms across your chest and glared at the poor guy to make sure he knew in no uncertain terms that he was causing problems not only for you but for the other customers who were waiting in line? 

And last, but certainly not least, the woman who was there on her lunch hour and just happened to be in line behind the man. Would you have noticed the actions of the cashier toward the man? Would you have taken the time to thank her for being so kind? Would you have been so touched by what you saw that you'd share the story with the world? Or would you have been tapping your foot, looking at your watch, sighing loudly or mumbling under your breath that you were going to be late getting back to work?

Think that employee's motive when she took that man's hands, dumped out the change and told him they'd do the counting together was to gain fame on the internet? Think the lady in line who thanked the cashier for her kindness toward the man and subsequently shared the story on her Facebook page was to get some sort of personal glory in doing so? You can think and say what you will, but I think that what happened at that checkout in Walmart that day was simply a pure and unblemished act of human compassion and kindness between strangers.

You know what else I think? I think we should all take to heart the words of the cashier and get busy finding a way to remember what loving one another really and truly means. You bet that's what I think ... you bet I do indeed.

"You shouldn't have to thank me, baby. What's wrong with our world is we've forgotten how to love one another."