This Single Act

17626593_10210767291449981_309960978600125310_n  Our oldest niece, Alex Hernandez and her fiance, Steven Sutis recently had their first baby — a beautiful girl named Evelyn. I wrote this poem several years ago and share it here with every good wish for happiness for Alex, Steven and Evelyn.

THIS SINGLE ACT

God touches us in many ways.

But perhaps He is most with us in our child’s first breath.

For, in this single act, which, for too many, has lost much of its

awesome mystery to the cynicism of time and science, the Lord of All confirms His presence in us, continues His

love for us and confers His powers on us.

In this single Act, God brings together all the majesty of nature,

the love of humanity, the

joy and hope that He controls.

In this single act, there is magic enough to bring reverence for

the power of Heaven.

In this single act, the hand of the Spirit – that part of Himself that

God grants every person – opens the door of our heart to show us the way to

Truth.

For in this single act, God gives us another chance to redeem

ourselves by teaching this new

creation to find happiness, foster peace and rejoice in His glory.

Humanity cannot ask for nor expect a greater gift, for

In this single act, God proves His existence and grace, His

image mirrored in the eyes of

our own.

In this single act, we find our way back to God, whose love

brings us to the world and

shields us from its pain

In this single act we can truly justify God’s unending faith in the

ultimate goodness of the

human spirit.

                                                                                  (published in “Abundance — A Collection)

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Empty Nests and Full Bookshelves

booksThe scene played suddenly on my mental movie screen: — me, in front of some kind of 12-step support group, anxiously staring at my shoes. Then, in a quavering voice:

“Hello, my name is Tom, and I am a book-a-holic.”

A muffled response arose. It sounded something like, “Hello, Tom,” but their chins were all buried in their chests as their heads drooped toward the books, Nooks, Kindles, tablets and phones in their laps, so it was kind of hard to make out exactly what they said.

This vision came to mind as I carted yet another laundry basket of the 700-plus books that comprise my personal library down from the attic above the garage, then up the stairs in my house to my new office.

My first thought: “Jeez, I have a lot of books!”

My second thought: “Wow, my back is killing me!”

Neither thought was exactly accurate.

First, these were just the books that would fit into my new space. They don’t include the dozens more still up in the attic or that my daughters have borrowed.

Not to mention the 103 on my own Nook – which are a whole lot lighter and easier to tote than their more traditionally-bound brethren.

My wife Kellie and I are both voracious readers. However, I tend to read both compulsively and obsessively – I stumble onto an author and buy everything by that person. And I refuse to part with most of my books, whereas she easily gives most of hers away (a serious character flaw, if you ask me…)

And second, back spasms weren’t the only pain involved in this process.

My “new office” is actually our youngest daughter’s “old bedroom.”

See, we’re now, officially Empty Nesters.

I admit that many people do not see this status as reason for emotional anxiety (much less physical strain). But, truth be told, I’ve struggled with this transition.

To be sure, it has its good points.

First and foremost is the welcome feeling that we have adequate space again. For the last few years, two full-grown adults, two adolescents and first one, then another small Shi Tzu struggled to carve and claim some room in our comfy-but-space-challenged house.

Twenty-one years ago, our first – and so far, only – home perfectly suited our young family. No basement? No problem! Not much room beyond the three small bedrooms, 1.5 baths, living room, family room and kitchen? No worries! We were merely two adults, a three-year-old and an infant. (Shi Tzu’s don’t take up much space.)

But then our kids did that irritating thing that kids tend to do: grow.

They became tweens and then teens, commandeering more space. Things got tighter with each passing birthday, but we fully expected to move in a few years in any case, so no big whoop.

Then we, like many others, ran Titanic-like into the frozen iceberg of the Great Recession. Moving was simply not in the cards.

Instead we made do. Two adults and now two young adults (and the ever-present, ever-sleeping Shi Tzu) shoehorned into a house that even Mother Hubbard might have found a bit snug.

To accommodate, both Kellie and I sacrificed any personal space beyond our bedroom. Both professionals, with hobbies and side interests, yet neither of us with an office or workroom or hobby nook. “That’s ok, when the girls move out…” we placated each other, while mentally measuring the floor space in their bedrooms.

Soon – too soon for me, I admit – the time came.

Emma, our oldest moved in with her fiancé a year before their wedding. Kellie flipped Emma’s bedroom into a sewing and cross stitching haven faster than a reality television show. Great. Good for her. Well-earned and much deserved.

For me? Not so easily done.

Olivia, our youngest moved out a couple months ago. Knowing that I was still having a tough “Dad Transition”, Kellie sincerely encouraged me to make over Olivia’s bedroom into the office and writing space that I had craved for two decades.

She knew that if she didn’t gently nudge me in the right direction, I might wander around the muddy field of my malaise forever, like a dumb farm animal untethered, but unable to see the open gate at the end of the barbed wire fence.

She was right.

It took a while to screw up the courage to move the desk and chair up the stairs and load that first basket of books from the attic. But now, after a few weeks of organizing and re-organizing, I like it. A lot.

Not just the new office. The new nest, too.

See, the real challenge wasn’t the lack of space in our house. Rather, it was how much space my kids take in my heart, brain and spirit.

I love our daughters. But, parents must love their kids. It says so in the contract.

My problem, is that I LIKE our children. I truly enjoy spending time with my kids because I admire the young adults they’ve become.

During one of many self-pitying (me, not her) conversations about our daughters’ new lives, Kellie bluntly stated what should have been obvious all along. We raised two smart, talented, hard-working, caring, loving, thoughtful, successful and happy young adults who will contribute much to the world thanks, in part, to us.

We have done our jobs, she said. Now it is time for us to do something else, and for them to find and make their own places in the world.

(This was about the zillionth time in our 32 years together that Kellie had patiently helped me see a forest of truth ridiculously obscured by the gnarled trees of my own emotions. Maybe one of these days I’ll figure out how to thank her…)

Certainly, I miss our girls.

Obviously, it was easier to share their company when we shared the same living space, if for sheer logistics if nothing else. But to wish them home again just to appease my own parental pining is arrogant, silly and selfish.

And you know what? It’s fine.

We still talk daily as they run between work and their new homes. We have lunch occasionally (I insist on buying – I am still Dad.) And they stop by to raid our freezer and wash their clothes (surprise, surprise…) Plus, that’s why God invented big kitchen tables, Monopoly, weekends and holidays.

And as an extra bonus, I finally have my own little room where I can stretch my legs, listen to my music, type a few thoughts and chat with 800 friends.

 

 

Christopher

Christopher Nothing is worse for a parent than the death of your child.

Very sadly, that happened to two of our dearest friends, Mary Ellen and Paul Spencer, when their  23-year-old son, Christopher died unexpectedly on March 2, 2017.  Christopher and our daughters were very close growing up. He was like one of our own children. So we understand our friends’ heartbreak.

Our friends asked me to say a few words about Christopher at his memorial service. I share those words here with their permission, to honor him and them. 

CHRISTOPHER

We knew Chris since he was three years old.

I’ve thought a lot about Chris since I got Mary Ellen’s message saying that he’d passed away.

I remembered first meeting him and his parents at Abundant Life Lutheran Church. We had gone to the third-ever service at this new mission church meeting in a middle school. A few weekends later, the Spencers came to their first service.

We were all so new then – they were new to the community and we were new to the Lutheran church. We became fast and lifelong friends, almost on the spot.

And, like many young parents, our adult relationship grew around and through our kids. We watched our children become friends, go to school, play together, go to birthday parties, become young adults — all the things kids do. Chris very much became a part of our life. One of our kids by extension. So, I am humbled and honored to say a few words about him.

The word that I think most captures Christopher, is “Precocious.”

According to Webster’s, “precocious” means “bright, gifted, talented, articulate, inquisitive, curious, clever.” Chris was all of those.

And beautiful! He was one beautiful child – and later, a very handsome young man!

But most of all, Chris was smart! Now listen – I know a lot of intelligent people, both kids and adults. But Chris was smart. Not just book smart — he certainly was that — but sharp, and witty and intuitive and charming and sly and  funny.

The best thing – although it sometimes made me nuts – was that he knew he was smart, and not-so-secretly got a kick out of knowing that YOU knew that he was smart!

During elementary and middle school, our kids had the same music teacher for a few years, and Paul and I would switch up taking them to lessons every Saturday. Chris played both piano and trombone, and later in high school played tuba in the marching band, too.

I remember talking to Christopher and being astounded – not mildly amused, not impressed, but amazed – at his vocabulary and thoughts coming out of his mouth. It was almost a little off-putting at times because his cognitive age seemed so far out of alignment with his chronological age.

Now I know this is supposed to be about Chris, but to be clear: I do not believe for a hot second that this kind of brilliance just happens. God may have created the spark, but it took someone – or in this case, two someones – to care for and fan those flames.

Paul and Mary Ellen Spencer chose this child, raised him, supported him and nurtured him. They gave him the gifts of intellect and learning and culture.

They loved him.

With everything they had, under every imaginable circumstance.

And that tremendous love informed and guided and shaped Chris, proving yet again that you don’t have to be in a child’s blood to be in his DNA. In their minds and hearts and spirits you will find the seeds of every good thing in Christopher.

In many ways, Christopher Todd Miller Spencer was a shining star.

Sadly, one of the universe’s most vexing and heartbreaking ironies is that that the brightest stars often cast the biggest shadows.

The star known as Christopher Todd Miller Spencer burned brightly. But a darkness that is hard for us who knew Chris to understand, sometimes dimmed his light.

To ignore or gloss over this part of Chris’s life would be disingenuous, if only because his parents, family and friends struggled so hard — for him, with him, and sometimes even against him — to help relieve that burden.

And so here we are in this beautiful church, on this beautiful March morning, confused and angry that a child – our child – has gone on before his parents. Our brains and our hearts tell us that should never happen. It is nonsensical. An injustice against nature. And we are tempted in our frail, cynical, arrogant humanity, to ask God, “Why?”

There are ten thousand answers.

And no answer.

God does not promise us an easy life here on earth. He just gives us the tools to deal with whatever life brings.

Those tools include the faith to believe that there is Good in all things, and the strength to bear our pain while we seek that Goodness.

We cannot ignore the hurt and loss that we are feeling today, nor should we.

But we can put it aside for a little while today, surrounded and sustained by the friends and family who loved Chris, and instead remember and raise up and celebrate the joy of our beautiful, bright star.

March 11, 2017