A Really Bad Morning

The writers’ group to which I belong recently took another swing at what I call “flash fiction.” We get a surprise prompt and 15 minutes to create something in any format. This time, the prompt was “Today I woke up in hell.” Here’s mine, with a little extra polish:

hell

Today I woke up in hell

In a room of doubt

A house of pain

A world of tears

How did this happen, when

Only last night I fell asleep

In a room of love

A house of joy

A world of peace?

The answer, like so many is

Painfully

Palpably

Shamefully

Clear

Nothing changed overnight

Nothing ever does

Just as the day becomes night

One ray of light

One drop of rain

One crease of dusk

At a time,

No one charting

The moments for themselves,

Until they form the mass of another moon

The world changes

Second by second

minute by minute

Hour by hour

Quietly becoming something we

Did not seek

Did not want

Do not like

Until its changing cannot be ignored

Or excused for our lack of noticing

Or failure to act

If I Die Before I Wake

heaven

I opened my eyes.

Darkness. Had it happened?

No, the fire in my gut and pounding behind my eyes from another restless night confirmed I was still alive. Then, “Good morning, Dad. Time to wake up.” My daughter’s voice was always a welcome treat, and today, even more so.

She threw open the shades. Late-winter sunshine poured through the window, so sharp the dust magically materialized in the air like specks on an X-ray. I squeezed my eyelids tighter to block the light. No luck.

“How’d you sleep?” she chirped.

“Honey, I haven’t slept in days.” The lack of rest clouded my sight. I instinctively rubbed my eyes, hoping they’d clear.

“Oh, come on.” She cheerfully tugged at the blankets tucked around my chin. “I have your breakfast going downstairs. Eat a little something and you’ll feel better.”

“I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“Because today’s the day.”

“What’s so special about today?” Jenny flowed around the room like a spring breeze, my twenty-eight-year-old angel picking my clothes from the floor, straightening the blankets at my feet, fluffing the pillows behind my head. Maybe – probably? – for the last time.

“You know very well.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m going to die today.”

Jenny slammed to a halt. Her head snapped around. Her eyes, mirroring her smiling demeanor only a few seconds ago now lasered her anger. “Stop saying that, Dad, that’s not true and you know it.”

“But it is true. That’s what that idiot doctor told me. He said, ‘A year, maybe more.’”

“Right,” Jenny said. “A year, maybe more.”

“I’m sorry honey, I appreciate your optimism, but I’m pretty sure what he said was, ‘A year, maybe more.’ Today is one year since he pronounced my death sentence, so…”

Jenny sat at the end of the bed. “OK, fine, if you insist on being like this, then please let me know when you’re going to expire so I can plan the rest of my day. I have other things to do than to sit around here waiting to hear your death rattle.”

Her flat stare was deadpanned proof of her wit, dry as a dinosaur bone in the desert. Jenny’s sense of humor was a welcome gift from her mother, and a reminder of the only other woman I ever loved. Still, it stung sometimes. “Ouch! That hurts. Your mother, rest her soul, would have never talked to a dying man that way.”

Jenny’s head drooped under the weight of a smile. “Oh yes she would’ve. If she’d lived, she would have threatened to kill you herself for talking like this.”

She laughed, and I smiled too, then took her left hand. My thumb gently caressed her beautiful ring signifying her marriage to a wonderful young man who loved her very much. Not as much as me, but enough to understand when she started spending a night, then two, now three or four a week babysitting me as this goddamned disease stole my life one minute at a time. Which is to say, enough to earn a father’s respect and appreciation. It had been bad enough losing my darling wife to her own illness just as I was diagnosed.

“You sure are one special kid,” I said, choking on the whispered words, struggling against a wave of tears.

“I’m not a kid, Daddy. I’m a big girl.” She smiled easily. Our secret code for the inside joke she’d been making to me since she was six. Memories of her childhood brightly colored by her independent spirit and piss-and-vinegar attitude filled the corners of my mind. “I know honey. I know. I know.” Suddenly, I felt tired. “Do you mind if I rest a bit now?”

Jenny stood and headed toward the bedroom door. “Only if you promise not to die before I come back.”

“I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise anything.”

“Ugh! Daddy…”

I don’t know how long I dozed. It felt like a few hours, but it couldn’t have been more than the few minutes Jenny needed to whip up a light breakfast. She set the tray on the dresser and approached the head of the bed.

She gently lifted me under my arms to position me higher on the stack of pillows behind my head. “I brought some green tea, some scrambled eggs and a piece of plain toast. Nothing too heavy. Don’t want to go against your medicine and upset your stomach.”

She turned back to the dresser to get the tray. l waved her off. “Thank you honey, but really, I’m not hungry.”

“Why not? Are you sick?”

“Well, I’m going to be dead soon, if that’s what you mean.”

“Daddy, stop that, please,” Jenny said. “It really upsets me when you talk that way. And no, that’s not what I mean.”

“Alright, I’m sorry. My stomach is fine.” I tapped on my forehead. “I have a lot on my mind is all, with it being my last…” I caught myself and sheepishly avoided Jenny’s glare.

She circled the bed and laid next to me, propped on her elbow so I didn’t have to turn too much. Always thoughtful, this one, even down to the end.

“OK,” Jenny said, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that today is your very last day on this earth. What is so heavy on your mind that you won’t eat the gourmet breakfast I made?”

How does one answer such an immense, intimate question? Especially to a person – the only person — one holds above all others? Carefully, I decided. Delicately, but honestly.

“My sins. My many, many sins.”

Jenny rolled her eyes.

“All right, I’ll bite. What enormous sins have you committed?” she teased.

“Jennifer Ann, I’m serious.” I paused. “I have done some terrible things in my life. Things I am embarrassed about. Ashamed of. Things I feel terrible for doing to you, your mother, lots of people.”

“Wow. Except for when I got in trouble as a kid, the only time you’ve ever used my full name is when you told me Mom had died.” She sat up and turned again now to face me head-on, her arms wrapped around her raised knees. “Sins like what? You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Steal anything?”

“Nothing big.”

“Cheat on Mom?”

I took a breath, exhaled, then took another. “Let’s just say, once or twice some innocent flirting went a few steps past ‘innocent.’ But your mother knew about all of it — and held me accountable.”

Jenny gazed at me, then dropped her eyes. She traced one of the flowers on the bedspread with her finger for a few seconds. “Well, I guess there’s not much to say about that now that Mom is gone. In the big picture, I suppose that’s not such a terrible thing…”

I quickly cut her off. “But that’s not the worst of it. That’s not what’s bothering me.” Now it was my turn to look away from her. My beautiful, smart, intuitive girl. Her sharp, blue eyes could soothe one second and cut to the bone the next contracted with exasperation.

“Alright, I give up! What’s the big sin, Dad?”

“You know, I’m not the religious type…”

“I know, my wedding was one of the only times I’ve ever seen you in church.”

“…Right. So, I don’t say this lightly, but I think I’ve cut my ties with God…or Mother Nature…or the universe…or heaven…whatever you call it.”

“Darn it, Dad, spit it out!”

“I don’t know…” The ideas that had overtaken my mind the last few weeks now struggled to take shape. “This is just hard for me to put into words. I guess, for lack of  any better explanation, I’ve come to realize just how disconnected I am from other people.”

Jenny expelled a loud sigh of relief. “Is that all? I thought you had done something really bad.”

“But it is bad, honey. I’ve spent years pushing people away, creating some stupid myth of mystery. I wasted my entire life building walls when I could’ve – should’ve – been building bridges with all the people in my life. And for what? To protect my privacy.”

Jenny’s eyes crinkled and she laughed. “I’m confused. Your job put you in the public eye a lot. I remember people interrupting you all the time, wanting autographs or pictures, at dinner, the movies, ball games,” she said. “I’m just your daughter, so what do I know? But it seems to me like you had good reason to want a little space.”

I’m sure it was the medicine confusing my memory, but for a moment I swore her mother stared back at me. So trusting. So kind. So forgiving.

“Of course, I had a reason. But it’s the worst possible one: I just didn’t want to be bothered. True, I don’t like many people. Most everyone I ever met was thoughtless, self-centered, mean, stupid. But honestly, it was just my own arrogance. My ego was so big, there was no room for anyone else. I created a mountain of bullshit of the highest order. Turns out I was the stupid, petty, small one.”

My hands trembled weakly as I took hers again. “I never wanted anyone near me. I didn’t want to be responsible for another life. Now that I want someone, need someone, there’s no one. I feel so stupid, so…” I dropped my eyes, ashamed of my horrible truth, then raised them again. “I don’t mind being alone, Jenny. But being lonely is a terrible thing.”

A tear wet Jenny’s cheek. “Daddy, I’m so sorry! If I had known I would have come over more, done more!”

“No, no, my love bug! You haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t mean it that way. Goodness, you’re the only person I have left. I am so grateful you listen to me at all. No, it’s all my own fault.”

My voice caught in my throat as pain knifed through my gut and sucked the air from my lungs. My grip on Jenny’s hands tightened, then released as the ache in my belly ebbed.  I breathed a few times to regain my strength, but the new words seemed heavier than usual, draining what little energy I had only a second ago.

“I finally understand what everyone means when they talk about heaven being the shared space between people,” I croaked weakly. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, I realize now that I’ve thrown away the greatest gift God ever gave — the love and friendship of others. And now that it’s too late for me to do anything about it, I’m terrified God will punish me.”

“Punish you how?” Jenny’s soft voice matched her gentle, but firm grip.

“By forcing me to maintain the distance I created. By keeping me away from all the people who cared about me.” I paused, trying to stave off the army of tears I’d been fighting for days.

“By not letting me near the one person who I ever let get close to me. The one person who understood me. Accepted me. Forgave me.” I took a deep breath, held it, then exhaled.

“I am terrified God will never let me see your mother again.”

At long last the tears came. I couldn’t help it. These thoughts had consumed nearly every waking moment the last few days. To hear them out loud from my own mouth somehow made them even more horrible. I felt like Frankenstein that awful moment his monster rose from the table charged with the life he’d given it.

“Oh, Daddy, don’t be silly. God isn’t cruel.”

“Oh Jenny, now who’s being silly? Have you actually read the Bible? How about today’s newspaper? Look around us, Jenny. If God’s not cruel, He’s at least got a wicked sense of humor.”

She took a deep breath, eased her legs over the edge of the bed and slowly, wordlessly stood.  She lifted me, fluffed the pillows and lowered me back, then gently kissed my forehead. Like I’d done to her a million times when she was a child. I was grateful for her silence. My swollen throat wouldn’t have allowed a word to pass if she’d said anything.

A minute passed, maybe two. Then, “Dad, for your sake, for all our sakes, I hope and pray and trust and believe with every part of my being that you are wrong,” she said, offering the gentlest, subtlest reprimand I think I’ve ever gotten.

She tucked the blankets around me and opened the window. A soft afternoon  breeze, warm enough to suggest spring was just around the corner, danced lightly into the room.

“I believe God forgives our sins, even – especially – if we don’t forgive them ourselves. And that includes the sin of refusing His gifts.”

Jenny lifted the food tray from the dresser and turned to go, but then set it back down. She returned to the bedside, gently nudged me over, took my left hand, and sat.

“Most of all, I believe God even forgives us for forsaking Him. Or Mother Nature. Or the universe. Whatever you call it.”

She smiled and winked at me. One more joke for the road, I guess.

“Otherwise, how would we possibly survive the unthinkable evil that we create? The walls we build between and around each other? The hatred that ignores and belittles God’s love? All the god-forsaken things we do to God’s own creation in God’s name?” Jenny said. “For me, a loving, forgiving God is the only thing that makes any sense in a world that makes no sense at all.”

Suddenly, the air seemed to shimmer with the glittering grace of her conviction. My chest swelled with equal parts sorrow and pride.

“My beautiful child, how did you get to be so wise?” My voice stumbled, heavy with sincere awe for this soul, at once child-like and mature beyond measure, who was the last and final bridge to whatever this world is, and the next world might be.

“I listened to the people around me. Friends. Family. You. Mom,” she said. “Then I listened to my heart.”

Her words were so beautiful and encouraging. Yet, reality gave me little hope, and even less comfort. “That’s all wonderful, and I am glad for you, but I don’t have time now to fix all my mistakes.”

“Sure, you do. There’s always tomorrow.” Jenny bent and kissed my cheek

“But what if there’s no tomorr–”

“There’s always tomorrow, Daddy.” She frowned, giving no ground.

We volleyed for a while longer about the nature of Nature, spirituality, what might come next — whether “next” would be in this room, or somewhere else — and what that might look like wherever or whatever or whenever it came.

We discussed philosophy, religion, politics.  We eventually turned to less contentious subjects: memories of her childhood and comparisons of her own young marriage to her mother’s and my early years as a couple. I dozed between debate points, waking to my snores only to find her waiting patiently for me to answer. My admiration for my daughter–and regret for my imminent passing–grew with each bright, intuitive, thoughtful, sharp, funny idea and statement that she spoke.

Finally, the emotional burden of the day weighed heavy on my heart and tugged at my eyelids. The breakfast tray remained untouched on the dresser, as the afternoon sun faded.

“Honey, I’d talk to you forever, if I could. But I’m tired. I think I might really sleep more than a few minutes this time.” My thin laugh sounded more like a whisper than a chuckle. “Do you mind if I take a nap?”

“Of course not! Now close your eyes,” she ordered. “Don’t think too much. Just rest. You’ve had a hard day. I’ll wake you when it’s time for dinner.” She clicked the light switch and pulled the door behind her, leaving it open enough so I could see the light in the hallway.

I lay still, staring into the semi-darkness, afraid I’d once again find myself in the crossfire between the rest I so desperately sought, and the flashing explosions of anxiety that had kept sleep at bay for days.

Jenny’s words rolled through my brain. I thought about her faith in ultimate goodness. Her understanding of the mysteries of love. Her forgiveness of human failing.

My body pointlessly protested the pain building inside with every shallow breath, one relentless brick after another. Yet I felt a new calm. A strange, but welcome sense of peace. I turned toward the glow outside the bedroom door.

Then I closed my eyes.

 

Unwrapping Family

assorted gift boxes on red surface
Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

It’s about 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 2019.

I note the date because Christmas Eve has always been one of my favorite times of the entire year since childhood.

Especially early afternoon on Christmas Eve, when my brother Tim and I would see our Grandma and Grandpa Hawks – our biological father’s parents.

I never met nor even saw my biological father until an aunt shared a picture of him and my mom at their wedding at my maternal grandmother’s 80th birthday party.

The only father I ever knew and loved was Tony Hernandez. He gave Tim and me a new last name, family and future through adoption after marrying my mom following her divorce. What could I possibly want from my biological? Nothing.

Yet, every Christmas Eve, we saw his parents. Our grandparents, Al and Betty Hawks.

Their son (Tim’s and my biological father) wasn’t much to speak of, hence the divorce. (Trust me when I assure you that “not much to speak of” would win me the Understatement of the Year award.)

Yet they were as good and kind and decent and loving as any grandparents ever.

They’d stop by, spend a few hours with us, even bring gifts for our baby brother, Paul – my adoptive dad’s son with my mom. They loved my mom, still considered her their daughter-in-law, and adored my adoptive dad (no surprise, everybody did.)

Grandma Hawks died when I was in my early teens. I still saw my Grandpa Hawks a couple times when I was in high school and played in a jazz band at his church.

Those memories sparkle in my mind now, like a crystal ornament catching and bending and recasting the light from a nearby bulb.

Some might find this twisting of branches on the Christmas family tree odd. Strange. Maybe even wrong, somehow.

To which I’d say, “Then you don’t understand what ‘Family’ really is.”

My understanding of, and appreciation for “family” — immediate, extended, genetic, generic, by blood or just background — didn’t end with Grandma and Grandpa Hawks, either.

After they left each Christmas Eve, my brothers and I would take a nap in the early evening (of course, as kids knowing what was coming, we didn’t really sleep so much as just lay still for a few hours.)

Then, around 10 p.m. we’d head to Grandma and Grandpa Hernandez’s house, overflowing with wonderfully exotic smells and sounds and tastes!

And GIFTS!

In this new family that looked nothing like Tim and me, we now had more relatives than I could begin to count. Gifts for everyone there and even not there rose halfway up the Christmas tree that scraped the family room ceiling.

Of course, we couldn’t open anything until Santa came. And he wouldn’t come until after we got back from midnight mass. But that didn’t stop the kids from indiscreetly eyeballing every item, trying to find those with our names.

Around 1:30 a.m., after THE LONGEST CHURCH SERVICE EVER, salivating with  anticipation, one of our aunts would insist that we sing Christmas songs until Santa came. Oh. My. God…didn’t they know that we were on the verge of insanity with all those packages sitting there mocking us?

Finally, a knock at the door brought a roomful of childhood screeching to a whisper.

Santa entered and handed out the first few packages before retreating from what quickly became mass hysteria. Mysteries hidden in colorful boxes and bags were mysteries no more. Ribbons and paper and bows filled the air like so many Christmas kites. The older kids delivered (or just tossed) gifts to the adults lining the room.

We’d go home about 4 a.m. “Sleep” a few more hours. Wake to open gifts at our own house. Then head to my maternal grandparents’ farmhouse in Herscher, Illinois.

There, we’d spend the rest of Christmas Day re-enacting the Battle of the Christmas Eve Bulge with most of my mom’s seven brothers and sisters, their spouses and kids, friends and assorted older relatives we saw only on the holidays.

In college, when my then-girlfriend Kellie and I started dating and later after we married, I would attend celebrations at her house on Christmas Eve.

Their home was like an issue of Martha Stewart magazine magically come alive. The family room lit only by the Christmas tree, golden shimmers filled the air.  Sometimes, snow graced the scene outside the bay window in their family room as if on cue. It was, literally, breathtaking.

Eventually our two girls came along, and every detail of those parties became about them – especially the hours my father-in-law and I spent on the floor assembling a million toys.

We haven’t seen my in-laws on Christmas for a few years because of a mutual estrangement, but those memories are still precious.

Instead, the last few years we’ve enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner and drinks with several of our closest friends. Dear people who have lived our lives, suffering together and shepherding each other through some major challenges. Building the unbreakable bonds of what can only be called “family.”

Now, our girls are adults.

They have adult lives. Other family commitments and work obligations limit our time together. We don’t begrudge them. Rather we make the most of every opportunity.

They still spend part of Christmas Eve with their grandparents.

Then Christmas morning, we enjoy a blowout homemade breakfast with them and their significant others, Kellie’s wonderful aunt – and now our granddaughter, Riley.

This year, Riley is 21 months old. Just big enough to understand that, of the 90 or so brightly colored, ribbon-festooned, shining, sparkling packages under that Christmas tree, 80 of them are for her.

At two years old, that’s all she needs to know.

Later, she will hear these memories and hopefully learn what I learned long ago. What has sustained and strengthened me through the many Christmas Eves since childhood.

All gifts are wrapped in grace, no matter what the packaging looks like.

Some are bigger, or brighter, or more meaningful. Some will fit just right. Some will be too big or small.  Some will be thoughtfully planned and given. Some came from the corner drugstore at the last minute.

Some will make perfect sense. Some will have her wondering what in the world the giver could have been thinking. Some will bring joy and gratitude. Some might cause a twinge of unintended pain.

And the greatest gift of all is family.

 

 

Small Things

gray skies

It seems like little, I know

Nothing to make the earth shake

Only three more pounds, you say

Yet three might well be thirty or three hundred

For it’s not the number, but the weight of its counting

Every now and again

Thick clouds suffocate the sky

Gray is just another color and doesn’t last, you say

Still, it’s not the dark that bothers me so much

As the loss of the sun whose palette colors the light

Call me a fool, I suppose

For failing to hear magic

In the evening’s solitude

Peaceful silence may calm the troubled spirit

But its empty voice also sings of the coming death

These are small matters to most

Grains of sand on Life’s big beach

The heart knows that truth as well

Yet the head still trips over boulders pitting

reality’s road, whose craters cannot be ignored

The Garbage Man

litter

“So, you admit you’re guilty?”

Officer Paul George had only started his interview, yet his scowl made it clear his patience was already paper-thin. But Nelson Edwards had never been in a police department before. He took a minute to look around. Six officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, sat at or stood over desks, chatting about new and old arrests and active cases. Computer keyboards softly transferred information to the glowing desktop screens. One antique Selectric typewriter clacked away in a far corner of the room, operated by a cop who appeared to be as much an antique as the device. Radios blurted static-laced cop lingo. A wall clock reading 9 o-clock hung on a wall painted a flat, dull, bureaucratic gray green.

Finally, the officer broke the silence. “Well?”

He stared at George for a second. “This is different than what I expected.”

“What?”

“The station,” Nelson said. “I mean, I’ve never seen the inside of a police station. Ever. For anything. Heck, I’ve never even really talked to a cop until I met you tonight. No speeding tickets, no insurance reports. Nothing.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve been such an upstanding citizen up ‘til now,” George said. The corners of his tired eyes crinkled with not-so-subtle sarcasm.

“It’s not that, it’s just that my only image of the police has come from television – you know, blaring sirens, hookers lined up on a bench, drunks throwing up in a cell.”

“Well this may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Edwards, but television isn’t always accurate. Not even those so-called reality shows.”

“Oh, I know that.” Nelson laughed at what he took to be the cop’s attempt at humor.

George’s sharp stare and what sounded like a growl confirmed in no uncertain terms Nelson had misunderstood.

“Alright now Johnny Clean Cut, knock off the BS and answer my question,” George demanded. “Do you admit you’re guilty of shooting the victim?”

Nelson took a deep breath and considered his options. “Look, I am many things, but I am not one to lie. I believe the truth is always the best route…”

“Well I am so glad to hear that…”

“…and the truth is, I shot the guy…”

“Ok, now we’re getting somewhere…”

“…but that doesn’t mean I’m guilty.”

George looked at Nelson again like he’d just flicked him in the ear.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

Nelson paused a split second, trying to put his thoughts in an order that would hopefully make as much sense to the cop as to himself. “It means that I shot him. But ‘guilt’ is a philosophical expression of regret for one’s actions. And I don’t regret shooting him at all. Not one bit.”

George guffawed.

“Wow! I haven’t heard that much semantic mumbo-jumbo since my Ethics 101 class in college!”

“Forgive me, but you’re wrong,” Nelson said, modulating his tone of voice, not wanting to throw more gas on a potential fire. “This isn’t just semantics,” he continued. “I am very deliberate with my words.  I work hard to say exactly what I mean, and to mean exactly what I say. And what I mean is, I shot him, but I felt – feel – entirely justified.”

“Justified or not, it’s still illegal. You can’t just go around shooting people just because they do something you don’t like. We don’t want or need any of that movie vigilante nonsense.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Nelson rose quickly, forgetting his right hand was cuffed to the chair back. The chair tipped forward, banging against the desk. Every officer in the room instinctively spun toward the metallic clang. Several dropped to their knees and simultaneously drew their guns.

George quickly waved his hands toward the wall of blue that had formed. “Stand down, everyone, stand down,” he said. “It’s alright,” he reassured, order now restored. “Just a moment of insanity on Mr. Edwards’ part. It’s passed. We’re all good.”

Nelson stood still as a statue, not daring to breath or even blink until all the officers re-holstered their firearms. He trusted the police, generally speaking. As much as anyone else who never encountered them. Still, he’d seen all the news stories about rogue cops shooting young black men to maintain a healthy dose of life-preserving doubt. Not that he was young or black, but it never hurts to be careful, he reminded himself. They slowly turned back to their paperwork. One or two focused a cautious eye in his direction for several minutes.

“Well, I have to say, that looked a lot more like television.” Nelson smiled involuntarily, exhaled and sat down gingerly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I just want it clear that I had a very good reason for doing what I did.”

“Fine.” George took his pen back into his left hand and hovered it over the yellow legal pad slanted across his desk. “Understand I’m not making any legal judgments, but for the sake of moving this along, I’ll take you at your word. Now tell me exactly what happened.”

***

“Mom, where are you?”

“I’m up here, honey. Hold on, I’ll be right down.” Helen quickly folded the last few items in the laundry basket, laid them on the appropriate dressers for herself and Nelson and bounded down the stairs.

Melissa scolded her mother. “Hey, be careful! You’re not a spring chicken anymore.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Helen said. She wrapped her arms around her oldest daughter and held her tightly, her chin resting easily on the younger woman’s shoulder. “It’s amazing, but you still smell the same now at twenty-three as you did when you were a baby.”

Melissa gently broke the hug and laughed. “I certainly hope not, considering what I spent on this perfume, and knowing how bad babies can smell sometimes.”

“You know what I mean,” Helen said. She smiled gently at her daughter, now a grown woman. “You’ll understand someday when you’re a mother.”

“Well, I am not interested in having a baby any time soon so it may be a while.” Melissa returned her mother’s smile, love lighting her eyes. “Where’s Dad?”

“Your father? I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? You guys didn’t have a fight, did you?”

“No! Not at all.” Helen sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. Melissa wedged herself into the corner of the couch and turned to face her mom. “I mean, he went for a walk about an hour ago and I haven’t heard from him.”

Melissa’s eyes crossed the living room to the family dog who lay snoring on his oversize pillow bed near the television. “Doesn’t he usually take Duncan with him?”

“Usually,” Helen said, “but not always. Sometimes he just goes off by himself.”

Melissa looked over her mother’s shoulder at the graying sky in the picture window. “This late? It’s getting dark out there.”

“Sweetie, I understand, but after nearly forty years, I don’t ask anymore.” Helen chuckled. “That’s something else you’ll learn if you’re very, very lucky.” She rolled her eyes. Melissa laughed sympathetically. She understood her father’s idiosyncrasies well enough to know why her mother sometimes opted for blissful ignorance.

“Seriously, I’m not concerned. Your dad just needs some time and room to burn off whatever fog is in his head,” Helen said. “He’s a good man and he’s earned that much. The only thing that bothers me is, sometimes he seems more upset when he comes back. Well, that and his outfit.”

“His outfit?”

“Yes. Once in a while, especially when he goes out later in the day like this, he wears his black sweatshirt and sweatpants. I’m always worried that he’s going to get hit by a car crossing the street or walking down that path through the park. You know how dark it gets in there under those trees. I’ve told him and told him to wear something easier for people to see, but you know your father. You can’t tell him anything.”

***

Officer George raised his pen above his yellow legal pad, already graffiti-ed with indecipherable notes. “OK, start from the beginning.”

“Um…” Nelson’s eyes fell to the pad and rose again to George’s face.

“What is it, Mr. Edwards?”

“Well, are you going to write down my statement? As opposed to typing it, I mean?”

George’s forehead wrinkled with confusion. “What?”

“Not to cast aspersions,” Nelson said. “I mean, my handwriting is atrocious too. It’s so bad that sometimes I can’t read what I wrote later, and I just want to make sure you get this right.”

“Listen, Mr. Edwards,” George said, not a sliver of patience offered or even hinted.  “Not that it makes any difference to you, but I am not a great typist. I write now, type later. I’m kind of ‘old school’ that way. Plus, you will get a chance to review everything before I ever put fingers on the keyboard. I have been a police officer for twenty-four years now, and every single second of my twenty-four years of experience is strongly suggesting you focus a little more on what you’re going to say and a little less on how I am going to write it down.”

The cop made a show of gently laying the offending pen on the notepad. Then he turned slightly from Nelson, took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped a speck of spittle from the corner of his lips. He turned back and raised the pen again, his now-clean lips smiling. “Can we do this now?”

litter 1Nelson lowered his head and laughed a little to himself. “Yes, sir. Really, there’s not much to tell. A couple nights ago, I went to the park near my house to take a walk as I do every night. And there was garbage all over the path, in the bushes and flower beds, everywhere. Just like every night. Dirty paper plates. Styrofoam takeout boxes. Fast food bags and cups – and not always empty, either. Plastic water bottles. Beer cans and booze bottles in the grass. Broken glass on the sidewalks where kids walk to the elementary school – the elementary school, for goodness sakes!” Nelson shook his head.

George cut him off. “And what? This made you mad enough to go back tonight and shoot someone?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“Well, what, exactly?” George pressed.

“The garbage made me mad, sure. So did the fact that I called the city seven times and asked them to either come clean it up or have the police do a better job patrolling the park” – Nelson quickly caught himself – “present company excluded of course…”

“Of course.”

“No, what really made me mad, and not just this time, but every night for weeks, months, heck the last couple of years since I’ve started walking each night, is that there are garbage cans every two or three hundred yards along the path.” Nelson started to rise again but he quickly checked the impulse as the other officers pivoted toward his voice.

George took up Nelson’s story. “So, you put on dark clothes, hid in the underbrush along the path, waited there until someone came along and littered, and you shot him. Is that it?”

Nelson paused. The words sounded silly coming out of the cop’s mouth. Frivolous. But Nelson knew to the core of his being, that he was right, no matter how ridiculous things appeared. “Right,” he said simply.

“Fine,” George exhaled as if he’d won a battle.

Nelson looked back at the clock on the wall. He couldn’t believe he’d been there an hour already. “No!” Nelson said, not even bothering to try to contain his contempt now. “I shot him because he has no respect. Not for the law, or the environment or for society. Not for our community and the neighborhood we all share. Most of all, for anyone else. They’re selfish and lazy. Pigs, every one of them. They think the world is theirs and they’re the only ones in it.”

George stared at Edwards, waiting for him to say something he could legally explain, if not outright defend.

“I mean, there is so much ugliness in this world. People hurting their kids and their spouses. Bullying everywhere. Politicians dividinlitter 2g us so they can conquer each other. Religious hypocrites hating and rejecting anyone who dares to believe something different from them,” Nelson explained.

“I get all that, but…”

“No buts! No more buts!” Nelson slammed his free hand on George’s desk. He took a breath, struggling again to contain his temper, handcuffs and police officers and guns and jail cells be damned. “I mean, it’s not that hard! Put your goddamn trash in the cans! Is that so much to ask?”

“Look, most of the time I simply pick up what I can and throw it away,” Nelson said, somewhat sheepishly. “I tell myself that bending over fifty times a mile is good cardio. But I decided a couple days ago that I’ve had enough. Just like in the movie: ‘I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!’”

George stared at Nelson. “What are you talking about?”

Network,” Nelson said. “The classic film? You’ve never seen it?”

“Sorry,” George said. “No.”

Nelson shook his head and continued. “Look, I’m a simple guy. I don’t ask for much. I try to be a good neighbor. I help at church. I don’t live high off the hog. My wife and I, we’re not flashy. We have a nice, little house that we built into a home first for us, then for our kids, now for our grand kids.”

“Oh, you have grandchildren?”

“Not yet, but maybe some day. And when we do, guys like me, we just want to be able to enjoy whatever time we have left in a world that doesn’t laugh at us or spit in our faces.”

Officer George reflexively reached for his handkerchief again, but Nelson waved him off. “No, you’re fine. I wasn’t talking about you. I’m talking about the guy I shot, and everyone like him.”

“So, did you know this person?”

“No. But why does that even matter? He’s the same as all the rest of these jerks who can’t even take the time to give two craps about anyone else. I don’t know him, same as he doesn’t know me. But we shouldn’t have to know someone to care for them, to respect their place in the world. We all share a little bit of space in this world. Yet he has no problem violating that space which, for a guy like me, is sacred. I just want a place in my tiny little corner that’s safe and clean and quiet. Someplace I can go to get away from all the other crap in the world today without having to step over piles of garbage.”

Nelson slumped back into the chair. As usual, the relief of honesty made him feel palpably lighter. Officer George scribbled furiously, fighting to capture every word of Nelson’s statement. Finally, he stopped writing and stared at the page. After what seemed like minutes of silence, he looked up at the captive culprit.

“Mr. Edwards, no one will ever mistake me for one of those left-wing tree hugger types, but I do enjoy the outdoors every now and again, so I understand your frustration with litter — ”

“No sir, not with litter. With the litter bugs.” Nelson purposely lowered his voice.

“Right.” The cop wrote ‘B-U-G-S’ in the margin of his notepad, then pointed at the page. “Got it. Litter BUGS. Either way, like I said before, you can’t just go around shooting people who do things you don’t like.”

Nelson sensed the hammer was about to fall. He stared into his lap.

“I get where you’re coming from,” George continued, “but I have to charge you with something.”

“Like what?” Nelson asked, hoping he wouldn’t spend too much time behind bars.

“All things considered, and especially since the guy wasn’t really hurt, we’re probably looking at a misdemeanor of some kind.”

Nelson took a breath, one-part relief, one-part confusion, one-part suspicion. “Just a misdemeanor? What’s the penalty?”

“Depends. Judge’s discretion. Could be a $500 fine, could be community service.”

“Community service? Like what?”

“Usually, picking up trash,” George said. It was his turn to try to stifle a laugh. “You’re just lucky it was only a paintball gun.”

“No, he’s lucky it was just a paintball gun!” Nelson snapped, then quickly caught himself. “Well of course it was just a paintball gun. I may be mad, but I’m not crazy. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted to teach someone a lesson. He’s lucky I didn’t paint a big ‘LB’ on his chest.”

Once again, George offered only a blank stare.

“Like in The Scarlet Letter?” Nelson prodded. “Hester Prynne? Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale? C’mon, really? You must know the Scarlet Letter. Where did you go to school anyway?”

George cocked his right eyebrow. “Mr. Edwards, please don’t push your luck.”

“No sir. I mean, yes sir.”

Nelson looked back at the wall clock. Another thirty minutes had evaporated. He realized he hadn’t called his wife. Officer George had started filling a form on his computer. “Sir, I never did get my one phone call.”

Officer George nodded toward his desk phone, his eyes locked on the screen as two fingers hunted and pecked on the keyboard. “Feel free,” he said.

“Um, sir, I can’t reach…” Nelson rattled his cuffed right hand.

“You’re pushing again, Mr. Edwards.”

***

Helen picked up the chiming phone.

“Nelson? Honey, where are you? Melissa is here. She’s been waiting for you since just after you left. We thought maybe you got lost. You are getting older, you know.” She looked at her daughter and smiled at her gibe and started to roll her eyes again.

Her eyes suddenly stopped, mid-roll. “What? Where? The police station?” Helen said.

“What’s wrong Mom? Is Dad OK?”

Helen shook her head and held up a finger to Melissa. “What in the world…What did you do?”

Nelson gripped the receiver with his free left hand. He looked at Officer George still slowly completing on his report. He debated for a second how to answer. He wanted to be honest but not alarm her.

Just then, another officer escorted a tall, twenty-something man across the other end of the office toward the holding pen. The young man wore a rainbow of blue and green and pink and red and orange and yellow quarter and half-dollar sized splotches, some still dripping down his grimy shirt and torn jeans. Nelson caught the man’s eye, glowering at him until the cell door clicked shut.

“Let’s just say I was taking out the trash.”

 

The Great Pumpkin Adventure

riley's pumpkin

Dear Riley,

We are now several days past your second Halloween, and you turned 19 months old about three weeks ago. Strangely, these seemingly disconnected factoids mean it’s time to teach you an important truth:

Your Nana Kellie is nuts – but in a good way.

To explain:

Last year you were too little at six months old to really do much on Halloween other than crawl around and be cute – at which you excelled.

This year though, you’re walking, climbing on everything, babbling up a storm and adventurously trying every new thing that comes your way.

Nana – possessing all the powers bestowed on Nana’s – knew all this would happen. So, she planted two pumpkin vines last spring, special just for you.

Those two vines grew and grew and grew. They escaped their bed to entwine and twist and tangle themselves around nearby flowers. They snuck through the fence into the neighbor’s yard. They climbed the chicken wire keeping critters out of the adjoining vegetable bed.

Soon, they produced about a dozen big, beautiful yellow blossoms. Each promised a magnificent pumpkin. About four made that mysterious transformation.

Only one survived. (Pumpkins are very touchy…)

No matter.

Every Saturday when you’d visit, we’d visit the pumpkin (after ringing all the wind chimes and playing with the hose and running through the sprinkler and chasing your ball around the yard and blowing a soap factory’s-worth of bubbles.)

We watched it expand from a pale yellow gourd into a green ball.

Through June, July, August, September we’d check its progress and you would pat-pat-pat it as if to say, “You’re doing good, Mr. Pumpkin.”

Finally, in October, what started as a gentle flower had become a basketball-sized fiery orange pumpkin, perched precariously on the very edge of the vegetable bed’s box frame.

Then, the Saturday before Halloween, just before the rain started falling that would drown the rest of the weekend, I cut the pumpkin off its umbilical cord-like vine and brought it in the house.

That’s when Nana took over.

We agreed that you’re a tad young for us to carve the pumpkin (although, I can’t wait to see what you do with all the seeds and guts next year!)

Pumpkin 2 Instead she brought out her box of paints and several brushes, small, medium and large. She stripped you down to your birthday suit, covered you in a towel, and let you have at it.

Strangely, it took a while for you to understand what to do. So, Nana showed you how to turn that plain orange orb into something fantastic.

She put the brushes in your hands and laid them in the paint and demonstrated how to slather the paint on the pumpkin however your sweet, imaginative 19-month-old heart desired. Once you understood that you had free reign you were off to the races.

And when the brushes somehow limited your toddler genius, Nana showed you how to use your hands to complete your first Halloween masterpiece.

This was the “Nana is nuts” part.

When Nana asked me if I wanted to help you paint or to take pictures, I gladly and quickly grabbed the camera. Papa is adventurous in many ways. I’ll climb anything, run anywhere, do just about any silly thing you can imagine.

But I don’t like messes. They make me very anxious. Just ask your mother or Aunt Livie about them eating S’mores on our camping trips…

And you, my love, were a mess.  pumpkin 3

Your Nana Kellie, on the other hand – or two hands, which looked like five-fingered rainbows – has no problem getting dirty in the name of good, clean fun. You’ll learn this more when you’re old enough to join her in the kitchen. (I am already nervous about cleaning up after you make your first batch of cookies together…)

By the time you two were done that pumpkin would have made Jackson Pollock proud (if he’d taught 19-month-old babies how to paint.)

And none of it would have happened without your Nana.

See, here’s the thing:

Everybody is different. Everybody has special skills and interests, likes and dislikes. Things that make them happy (like messy finger painting) and things that make them not-so-happy (like messy finger painting.)

The greatest gift of Life is the blessing of being with other people. The chance to share your unique ideas and talents and experiences. Learn a little bit about something you never knew. Discuss and debate what’s important to someone else so you can decide what’s important to you.

That only happens when you accept and celebrate the notion that other people are different than you.

See, the world is not now, never has been and never will be simply black or white. It is a paint palette with many colors. You may not like all of them. You may never use some. But you’ll be a better artist for knowing that they exist.

Maybe, when you’re older and starting to make your own choices about relationships and values, you’ll look back at the pictures of this pumpkin.

Maybe you’ll remember you and Nana chattering away as paint splattered on the rug,  the table, your booster seat, you, her, even the poor dog. Oh, and some got on the pumpkin, too.

(Meanwhile, Papa stood as far away as the camera would allow, cracking up when you started chair dancing to Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”)

And you’ll know that this magical moment happened because two different people shared their spirits and love with you.

May it always be so.

The Best Advice I Ever Got

30 years

About this time 27 years ago, I was in a bad place.

On a late summer day in 1992, I came home from my job as a reporter for a suburban daily newspaper.

A job that filled my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. That met my insatiable curiosity and (somewhat cocky) need to be an information authority. That could lead to one day working for the Chicago Tribune and, maybe, writing books.

A job that put me above most of my college peers who’d started their careers at smaller dailies or weekly newspapers as is often the case for many new grads of nearly all smaller universities or those without “Columbia School of Journalism” in their titles.

A job I’d done so well that, in only my second year I was assigned to cover the second phase of a massive and infamous child murder trial. My work on that two-year-long story led my boss to call me his “Golden Boy” and to give me the city beat, the most prestigious in the newsroom. At 24 years old.

A job which defined what and who I was. Or, at very least, what and who my abundant ego imagined I was. As it does for many (most?) men, in a way that many (most?) women cannot understand.

And about an hour earlier, I’d been fired.

Not without cause, I admit. I screwed up. I made three errors in print, violating my boss’s “Three Mistake” rule.

That the errors involved several local major mucky mucks magnified their weight. Still, to be fair, I’d have been fired even if the offended parties had been much less important. My boss was at least consistent in that way.

In any case, I was spiritually decimated.

In a matter of a few ill-fated weeks, I’d apparently lost all the journalistic skills I’d honed. I’d forfeited any latitude all my achievements had bought.  A mistake was a mistake was a mistake. Errors were black eyes for the newspaper and could not be tolerated.

I’d lost my personal equilibrium. My confidence. My identity.

Worse, I was only three years married. Like many young couples we struggled and scraped, squeezing every penny, doing whatever magic we could to multiply them like Jesus’s fishes and loaves.

How could I face my wife? What would she think of me now that I had failed at the one thing at which I’d supposedly excelled? The foundation of my whole being?

Now, with the benefit of 27 years of hindsight, I know I didn’t need to worry.

My wife Kellie cushioned my crashing ego, consoling me as I sobbed angry, accusatory and fearful tears into her shoulder.

Then she (rhetorically) slapped me, hard.

She held both my hands and said, simply, “Take the weekend, feel sorry for yourself, then on Monday, go get a job.”

It was the best advice of my life.

It set me on a right path, forcing me to learn how to take the bad with the good, even (especially) when the Bad seems absolutely, unquestionably, impossibly insurmountable.

Life is filled with just such mountainous bumps. Yet each can be chopped down to size with candor, courage and a lot of hard work. Just put aside your ego and address the reality of the present rather than the myth of the past or the fantasy of the future.

In other words, get over yourself, get busy and get on with it.

It was a hard life lesson learned the hard way.

The kind of advice that exposed raw anxieties. Necessary, yes, and painful. But less stinging coming from someone who loved me enough to love me honestly.

Now, we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary on September 16th.

And I thank Kellie for this and countless other examples of her pragmatic wisdom and guidance. This, perhaps more than anything short of our children has been her greatest gift to me.

Her ability to understand and sympathize, then find a way forward has steadied our rudder amid more Life storms than I can even recount.

I have witnessed these razor-sharp, hammer-blunt skills used coldly and effectively with nearly everyone in her life – our kids, other adults, even her employees.

Ironically, many of her staff, most of whom are barely out of their teens see her as “Momma Kellie” when she listens kindly to their complaints about this problem or that. They sometimes forget that they’re in the adult world now. They never realize that “Momma Bear” isn’t far behind when their young adult angst crosses the line into inappropriate nonsense.

I often say, with tongue firmly in cheek that I am very nearly perfect. So, Kellie’s approach to life is often frustrating in the moment.

Yet, with the grace of time and love, that moment usually passes, and I come to understand and (usually) even admit the rightness of her position.

I am not perfect.

Kellie is not perfect.

Heck, we are not perfect.

But we are perfect for each other.

We balance each other after all these years.

Kellie is that person who waits patiently in line at the Wal-Mart behind the guy with three shopping carts full of stuff in the 20 items or less aisle. I am the one who screams obscenities at the local coffee shop because I had to wait 10 minutes for my drink.

Together, we have suffered professional upheavals, financial hardship, health issues, parenting challenges and personal hurdles that would have killed many a lesser partnership.

In those times we cried together. Held the other close. Offered each other the support that can come only from the other half of one’s true soul.

We struggled through. We survived. We succeeded.

And then, when the clouds broke, we celebrated. Often with family and dear friends. But always, first and foremost, with each other. The kind of celebration that can come only with the other half of one’s true soul.

For any partnership to work right and well, the tears must be taken together with the laughter. That is the secret – if there is such a thing — to staying together 30 days much less 30 years.

Now we look comfortably toward Tomorrow, whatever it may bring.

Retirement? Soon, we hope, but probably not soon enough.

Travel? That’s our dream. Wherever our hearts take us, in a small camper, for weeks at a time.

Grandkids? As many as our kids will give us, whether two-footed or four. Every one of them will get whatever they want from Nana and Papa.

The point is, whatever the future holds for us, we will be holding each other.

Picking each other up.

Sharing a quiet Sunday morning cup of coffee.

Screaming with laughter.

Inspired by — and grateful for — what we know, and what we cannot yet imagine.

Together.

*************************************************************************************

I wrote this poem for our wedding and share it now to mark our 30th anniversary. It is even more true today than it was all those years ago.

BETROTHAL

She is magnificent gift,

Serene, secure, intelligent, beautiful.  Like the beach, always there

to soothe the passion of the waves frenzied by storm after life’s storm.

Caress them, quietly absorb their unguided anger, unknowing fury.

And by taking, she gives.

Little by little, grain by grain.

Together

They pulse with life, discernible in their individuality.

Thankfully,

Always, always perfectly whole, becoming a part of each other, their

best elements combined, but never, never repressed.

Together

They prove the genius of compromise, the brilliance of compassion, the

rightness of forgiving.

Together

They leave no question, for those who still do, that God, and His love are real.