The Heaviest Burden

 
A few kind hearted and well-meaning people have asked me some variation of “What’s the worst part about having cancer?” since I was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in May.
I do not doubt the sincerity of their curiosity and hearts.
Was it the exhaustion? The hair loss? The occasional metallic taste? Not being able to drive or drink adult drinks? My skin itching from the radiation treatments? The feeling like a walking pharmacy from all the pills I now take?
Yet the question was still strange.
First, because the answer is clearly right there in the question:
“What’s the worst part about having cancer?”
Having cancer is the worst part of having cancer.
Also, how does one quantify, or qualify, or weigh or measure the impact of such a thing? Especially someone who was extremely healthy before cancer leaped shockingly and unexplainably, into my life.
For the sake of my own mental health, I have tried (but admittedly failed a few times) to follow the sage advice from everyone from my doctors to my wife, our children, dear friends, family near and far, coworkers and even general acquaintances:
Do not dwell on how or why I got cancer. There is no answer. Sometimes crap – including cancer – just happens.
For a guy like me, the worst part is the weight of this burden on those around me. But even that is a hard measure since everyone, out of kindness and love, keeps telling me that there is no burden. They want to be part of my healing journey.
Then, like the cancer itself, a fairly accurate gauge suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.
My 4-year-old granddaughter, Riley Jean Williams.
Please understand this is not common parental or grand-parental pride speaking when I say, Riley is particularly astute, aware, and intuitive. I make my living around children and adolescents. What’s more, I have two sharp, successful young adult daughters. So, I know from whence I speak.
From the start of this adventure, Riley has asked questions.
First, it was about the humongous black eye (actually it was a beautiful shade of purple!) I had after surgery to remove a lemon-sized tumor and growth from my head “Papa, how is you eye?”
Then it was about the Frankenstein’s Monster-like scar on the side of my head. “Papa, how’s you boo-boo?”
Then, about my general health. “Papa, you feel better today?”
Recently, our daughter, Emma, warned us that she and her husband, Jake (two fantastic young parents) had been talking to Riley about my condition.
They were purposely avoiding certain words like “cancer,” “radiation,” and “chemo” so as to not scare or confuse her. They wanted us to all be on the same page since Riley spends a lot of time with my wife and me. Very smart.
Then, most recently, Riley asked me if the medicine I was taking was making my hair fall out. Emma said Riley was very concerned because she was also taking medicine for the effects of a minor bout of Covid.
I have to say: that one conversation broke my heart.
I quickly explained that Papa is taking a different kind of medicine, and she didn’t have to worry about her beautiful hair.
Then I handed the phone to my wife as tears welled and my throat tightened.
I admit, having been raised Catholic, I have a terrible case of Catholic Guilt. I feel horrible that I have put yet another potato on anyone’s plate – emotional, physical, financial, psychological.
My rational mind knows I did nothing to “cause” or “deserve” brain cancer. Still, my whole personal and professional life has been about easing the burdens in other people’s lives, not adding to them.
It’s one thing to know that adults are upset about the many ways cancer has (and may yet) change my life, and theirs by association. And to know you have somehow caused (or at least contributed to) the emotional burden of people you love and respect and care for.
But it is quite another to hear such thoughts from innocent children.
Still, the adults at least typically have enough Life under their belts to reasonably expect them to know what this all means.
I know this is a forced equation. So, I respectfully ask any mathematicians who may be reading this to go easy on me. Here goes:
Riley weighs 41 delightful, joy-filled, smiling, laughing, bossy pounds (“Papa, you come play hide and seek with me!”)
So, I guess we can say that her confusion, concern, and potential for grief may be 41 times worse than most anyone else beside my wonderful wife and equally amazing daughters. At least for now.
But I hope and plan to emerge victorious from these dark woods.  
Then, Riley’s joy may be proportionately 41 (or more) times greater.
To everyone who has held my hand, prayed for me, sent wonderful messages of love, gifts, etc. – and to my beautiful granddaughter, the center of my world – I promise to do everything I can to win.
After all, there’s a lot more hide-and-seek to play.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Power of a Smile

I am a big one for smiles.

I love their surprising, disproportionate power to raise sunken spirits.

One Sunday morning years ago, I was picking up a few things at a local grocery store.

A former newspaper reporter and son of a police officer, I routinely and instinctively scan my surroundings and people watch. Coming toward me I saw an elderly African American woman moving very slowly behind a cart way too full for her tiny frame.

I smiled at her just before she turned down another aisle.

About 20 minutes later, I stood in the checkout line and felt a light tapping on my shoulder. It was the African American woman. I turned, ready to help lift something out of her cart.

“No, no, I can get it, honey,” she said softly. “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated your smile.” I nodded. “It made me feel better. It’s been a rough morning already!” We chuckled in friendly commiseration.

Then she said:

“Today, you were the Jesus in my life.”

Now, I’d heard the phrase before, but not in such an informal context. It floored me like a boxer who didn’t raise his hands fast enough to counter his opponent’s right hook.

It was the first time (but not the last) that I really thought about, understood, and appreciated the power of small acts of unexpected kindness; the miracle of grace (unrequested, unrequited and sometimes undeserved love); and what Jesus meant when He said that heaven is already here – in the space between us.

It was also one of the first times I truly appreciated the reciprocal nature of prayer.

When one prays for someone else, the person praying benefits from the act of conjuring positive energy and directing it outward, as much as the recipient benefits.

That sweet woman changed my life that morning.

I share this nugget to illustrate something that happened just recently.

Many know that I was diagnosed in early May with astrocytoma, an aggressive and incurable brain cancer.

To say the diagnosis was “shocking” to a 56-year-old otherwise-very healthy, active, physically fit man robs the word of its weight.

I admit I am angry, frustrated, confused, and yes, scared. I have learned that I cannot dwell on the Past because no one knows what caused this to happen.

And the only way to achieve the Future (which includes our youngest daughter’s wedding) is to focus on the present. Do everything I am told to do. Walk step by step, stone by stone. And so that’s what I am doing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I learned that a group of elementary school students planned to host a lemonade stand as a benefit to raise funds for me and my family. (In my “real life” I am the community relations director for Plainfield Community Consolidated School District #202, which has 26,000 students in grades PreK-12.)

As one might expect, I was flattered and humbled. But a smidge concerned about perception.

My job makes me the “liaison to the world” – good, bad, and ugly.

So I am often the first one angry parents, students and taxpayers call with any complaints or at the hint of any controversy.

In our highly divided and politicized world, I didn’t want it to look like I was getting special treatment. Nor, especially, did I want these wonderful children to come under fire for any reason. (Sad to say, but today, both outcomes were possible.)

I called the organizer’s mom, who I knew through other charitable functions work and shared my thoughts.

She understood.

Then she said something I will never forget:

“This is not being done by a bunch of parents, Tom,” she clarified. “This is being done by students that you have helped over the years. When you go into their classrooms and read to them, or talk about your life and your work, or give them advice or awards.”

Suddenly I couldn’t breath.

“Well, OK then,” I said once I gathered my wits. “As long as it’s about the kids, then it’s ok.”

The very best moment came when my four-year-old granddaughter, Riley, about whom I have written so much that people at the fundraiser knew who she was, announced to my wife that she wanted to help.

My wife directed her to the organizer’s mom, who promptly gave Riley a little apron and sat her down at the lemonade stand. Riley was a natural – probably from all those hours playing “grocery store” with me and my wife!

The students raised a significant amount. Another little girl held her own lemonade stand and gave her proceeds to the pot. A gaggle of high schoolers (not your typical lemonade stand customers) stopped by especially to say hello. Parents of children I’ve never met came out.

To be clear, this is not a moment of false humility.

I am aware and proud of my place in the community and how people perceive me and the work I do (both good and bad.)

Yet I have been overwhelmed by the tremendous outpouring of kindness, love, support, generosity and heavenly connection.

No matter how much you want people to like and love and appreciate you, it is sometimes like facing an incoming wave at the beach when you actually see it manifested in every Get Well card, plant, gift, kind thought, prayer, phone call and text message.

The best though, was the lemonade stand.

It was those students’ smile that beautiful, sunny, warm Saturday afternoon.

Winter Camping

 
Early February. Nine inches of snow on the ground. Freezing temps. Slate gray skies with little or no sunlight breaking through.

Yet, our four-year-old granddaughter wanted to go camping.

Being a good Papa, I agreed.

Having gone camping for real with her mom, great aunt, and great grandparents last summer, Riley Jean has been on a “camping kick” the last few months. Which means, on our weekend visits, she drags every pillow and blanket and her toy grocery cart full of food into our downstairs powder room.

Our dog, Daize, follows us in, we close the door, turn off the lights, and sleep (one or both of us snoring very dramatically) until “morning” comes a few minutes later. We turn on the lights, throw open the door, and have “breakfast,” or ask the “coffee lady” (Nana Kellie, who tends to keep a safe distance from our shenanigans) to serve us.

That is, unless Riley hears a “monster” outside the tent. Then we must chase the monster away, naturally, to protect all the other campers.

Keep in mind, the “tent” is about three feet by three feet. I am a short adult male – 5 feet 6 inches tall on my best days. But I am also very claustrophobic, so camping in such a tiny, cramped space isn’t the most comfortable thing either physically or psychologically.

Then, on this particular Saturday, Riley switched it up.

We camped in the upstairs bathroom. “Yay! More room,” thought I, until she ordered me into our tent – more commonly known as the bathtub.

Later, she picked a new “tent” – the floor of Nana’s closet. Under all her clothes, squeezed in between the small dresser, dozens of shoes, a spare fan, and other closet accoutrement. But at least there we also had a small toy lantern to keep the monsters away.

We were still on monster patrol – who knew there were so many monsters in the woods? Yet now we also had to invite her “best friends,” Claire and Hannah, to camp with us.

Claire and Hannah are real people in real life, but only pretend for our winter camping purposes. Thank goodness!

After more than an hour of this, I struggled to de-pretzelize myself, every bone and muscle and sinew feeling every millisecond of my 56 years on earth. I rose from the closet floor, accompanied by my own crickling, crackling concert, and exited back to Reality.

Not for the first time since Riley has learned to walk and talk (which is to say, boss me around) – I thought, “this kid is going to be the death of me!”

But later, my tight back and bum knee having recovered, aided by a glass or two of Chianti, another thought occurred:

“This kid is the Life of me!”

You want the truth? With apologies to Jack Nicholson, you can’t handle the truth! But it’s my truth, and I don’t mind sharing.

Truth is, my spirit and brain and body have all felt extremely heavy lately.

The unbelievable, incalculable weight of two years of politicizing a pandemic and the resulting anger and ignorance, fear and frustration, disrespect and discord, have laid thick on my heart.

This, on top of the fact that I loathe winter anyway.

I struggled to keep above the fray. I relied on the lift of grace and wings of love from family and friends to convey me over the moats filled with crocodiles of stress and anxiety.

I mostly succeeded until recently when it all got to be too much. Like the proverbial albatross around my neck or, more appropriately, stones around my ankles, pulling me down into the muck.

Then, Saturday rolls around.

And my very favorite wacky-doodle visits.

And her four-year-old brain fires like a jet engine, creating and leading us through adventures real and imaginary.

Her growing vocabulary tumbles out of her mouth so fast that I sometimes need an interpreter to capture all the words and ideas.

Her energy and enthusiasm ignite the room with more fireworks than a KISS concert (and faithful readers know I know of which I speak!)

And suddenly, the weight on my chest lightens to a level I can handle and sometimes even ignore. Because I know, having been reminded yet again by a child, that there’s more goodness than we think or understand. We just must choose to see it.

So, go ahead World, give me your worst. Unleash every monster you’ve got. I don’t sweat you. No matter what you do, I am shielded by a four-year-old’s magic.

And I can always go camping.

In the powder room, or bathtub, or Nana’s closet.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Love In a Dog Bag

What does true love look like?

Not the new, immature, infatuation/hormone-infused, fleeting kind. That variety, you can see on television or the Internet (for better or worse) any time.

Rather, the veteran, settled, mature, self-sustaining kind.

Well…

On a recent weeknight, just before she headed up to bed, my wife of nearly 33 years, Kellie, told me to expect an Amazon delivery around 9 p.m. It was, she said, an early gift for my upcoming 56th birthday.

Sure enough, just after 9 p.m. the Amazon truck pulled into our cul-de-sac and parked in front of our house.

Being in my PJ’s, I waited a few minutes, then retrieved the package from our porch. The standard brown cardboard box gave no clue as to the contents. I shook it. Nothing sloshed or rattled, near as my middle-age ears could hear (over the constant tinnitus, that is.)

I carefully opened the box, removed the plastic balloon stuffing, and pulled out a medium-sized canvas bag containing two collapsible rubberized bowls and a plastic-covered mat about the size of the bottom of the bag.  

My brain teetered on the fine line between intrigue and confusion. I had no idea what this was and how it served as an early birthday gift.

The next morning around 5:30 a.m., Kellie was getting ready for work as I was feeding our dog, Daize.

“Did that package come last night?” She slipped on her shoes and coat.

A lightbulb flashed in my tired brain. “Yes!” I confirmed. “I’m sorry, I forgot to tell you.”

“Do you like it?” she asked, offering no clarification or explanation of the mystery gift.

This was one of those delicate moments that come with long-term relationships. Answer rightly, affirm the very foundation of the life we’ve built together. Answer wrongly, completely screw up everything for who knows how long.

“Yes,” I said plainly, as honest as my continuing bafflement would allow.

As a veteran mother and now grandmother, Kellie is immensely skilled at ferreting out nuggets of candor from piles of crap. “Do you know what it is?” She probably knew I had no idea what it was.

“Well…” I said, noncommittal.

“It’s a bag to carry all of Daize’s stuff when we go on our trips,” she explained. In our new Empty Nester stage of life, we like to go on what we call “adventures,” or short trips and vacations.

“Since we want to travel more, and you’re the one who takes care of her, I saw it online and figured it would be a perfect gift.”

Unspoken was the fact that we cannot leave our dumb dog with anyone because she has psychologically and spiritually attached herself to me.

Faithful readers know, I did not want this dog. We adopted her as an act of kindness (Kellie’s, not mine) from a man who was dying and had no one else to take her. We had another dog who was old, sick, and dying and I didn’t want to rob him of any time he had left in our world.

But Kellie and our girls tag-teamed me. Now, Daize is my shadow’s shadow. She is constantly (and sometimes literally) under foot. She gets me up at 4 a.m. every day to go potty (both of us), and stares at me with longing in her big, brown eyes.

She is further proof of God’s wicked sense of humor, mocking our human arrogance.

Twice we took short adventures and left her with our youngest daughter. Twice we had to come home early because she had worked herself into  psychosomatic sickness that magically disappeared when I appeared.

Suddenly, I got it.

“Oh, wow! That is so thoughtful!” Once again, I found myself bathed equally in sincere awe of Kellie’s intuitive thoughtfulness and Catholic shame and guilt for my lack thereof.

She had gone well beyond the obvious and easy options for an avid reader (more books that likely will never be read); and music and movie enthusiast (why buy anything when everything is on one stream or another, most of which we already subscribe to.)

She had dived deep, layers and layers beneath the surface, to think of me as only someone can who truly knows me. Truly cares about me. Truly understands where I am on Life’s Road.

All joking aside, I don’t really hate Daize.

Yes, it is irritating sometimes not being able to take a step or a bite of food without a furry, four-footed pal at my side. But it is also a blessing to have something (or someone) love you so much. So, she is mine whether I like it or not.

Kellie knows that (and reminds me of it constantly.) She also knows how much I do really enjoy our little adventures, which now must, of necessity, include Daize. So, she got me a gift reflecting the intimacy of a relationship 37 years old and counting.

More importantly, the dog bag truly embodies her loving heart, her generous spirit, and her sense of humor. All which still amaze me after more than three decades.

Some of that amazement comes from the fact – no hyperbole, no joke – that my brain doesn’t work that way. (This was not the first time she has given me such an unexpected gift, which only multiplied my astonishment and embarrassment.)

Now, don’t think I am some kind of emotional miser.

I give. However, my offerings usually come in more traditional forms: volunteering time, donating money, sending flowers for no reason, buying Girl Scout cookies I don’t want or need.

Kellie herself credits me for doing all the things she doesn’t like to do: ironing, cleaning, emptying the dishwasher, filling her bird feeders.

I do indeed do all those things.

However, truth be told, I do them partly to take them off my wife’s already overfull plate, and partly because I am a bit anal about such things and want them done a certain way. The right way. My way. So, don’t nominate me for sainthood just yet…

I could iron a million shirts, or put away dishes for eternity, or feed the birds until they’re too fat to fly away. 

But to my eyes, true love looks like a dog bag filled with new adventures with my soulmate.

The Balcony

Michael Myers, the Living Dead, Evil Incarnate, “the Shape,” the soulless, faceless one (unless you knew that he was actually wearing a modified William Shatner mask), pawed at the slatted closet door.

Inside, his terrified, traumatized older sister Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) did her desperate best to disappear into the corner, having tied the sliding doors shut with a flimsy scarf or belt (yet Michael couldn’t just yank that door open…hmmm…maybe Evil Incarnate isn’t as smart or strong as we think.)

Finally, Michael gives up trying to open the door, smashes through the slats, turns on the lightbulb, reaches for Laurie. She somehow turns the light off while fashioning a poker out of a wire clothes hanger.

She stabs Michael in the eye. He drops his 12-inch butcher knife, in pain, maybe confused that someone, anyone, much less his sister, had somehow disabled him, even if for only a second. She picks it up and stabs Michael again in the chest or throat.

He backs away from the door.

Not hearing anything, Laurie exits the closet, sees her brother lying on the floor, and thinks he is dead. (Silly girl, have you never seen a horror movie?)

She turns away, the bedroom still dark. Michael stands. Laurie doesn’t hear him and starts to leave the bedroom, only for Michael to grab her from behind!

Suddenly, from the bottom of the stairs, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance) shoots Michael.

(Side Note: Dr. Loomis is perhaps the unluckiest psychiatrist ever, inheriting Michael as a patient just after the pre-teen had gone on a Satanic killing spree dressed as a clown on Halloween. Side-Side Note: really, have none of these people ever watched a flipping movie?!)

The undying hulk releases Laurie and stumbles back into the bedroom. Loomis chases Michael back into the room, firing five more shots into his one-time patient.

The doctor’s gun finally empty, Michael falls through a door onto the balcony, and tumbles over the balcony railing. He crashes to the ground, lying there in a twisted, lifeless, unmoving heap.

He is dead. He must be, right? I mean, how could anyone survive a stabbing, six gunshots, and a two-story fall to the hard ground below? Not to mention a nasty poke in the eyeball.

“Was it the Boogieman?” Laurie asks the doctor.

“As a matter of fact, it was,” he says, in a pathetic attempt to assure her that the living evil that was once her little brother, is now dead and cannot hurt her anymore (and a great bit of ironic foreshadowing of what would become a cinema franchise with a dozen entries as I write this.)

Then, he looks over the balcony railing at the ground below and sees…

Nothing.

Michael is gone.

I do not remember now, 43 years later, if my brother and/or I actually screamed, but it seems that we may have. And if we didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of cause.

We had just watched what would become one of the classic cornerstones of horror cinema, the original “Halloween.” I was 12, my brother 11.

Our dad had brought us with him to his part-time job as a projectionist at what was then the Mode Theater, hidden in the shadows of a dark, dilapidated corner of downtown Joliet. The downtown was a ghost town in the late 1970s, close to death itself thanks to the life-sucking draw of the vampiric new malls on the other side of town.

The theater had reached the point in its dwindling existence at which it usually showed R-rated, soft-core sex-type stuff. Stuff our mother wouldn’t let us see, like “Saturday Night Fever.” She was a bit of a prude. Ironically, now she just loves, loves, loves, John Travolta, for his dancing.

The Mode was dank, moldy, dirty, sticky, and empty most of the time. We could eat all the popcorn and soda we wanted, and we had free run of the theater so long as there weren’t too many people around.

Our dad wasn’t much of a movie buff. He liked Westerns – especially John Wayne to the point of adulation – and war movies. Loved silly comedies with the likes of Abbott and Costello and the Bowery Boys. And revered all the various James Bonds, especially Sean Connery.

But he really loved horror films of every kind.

We spent many a Saturday night curled up next to him in our parents’ bed watching the old “Creature Features” program.

In the dark, often peeking out from the sheets or hiding behind his arm, we learned to love all the Universal monsters. Vincent Price. The “modernized” Hammer Films versions of classics like Dracula. Even the weird, nuclear-era stuff from the 1950s and 1960s about giant lizards and killer bugs.

So, when this new movie called “Halloween” came out on Halloween weekend, there was no question, much less paternal debate, about him taking us to see it.

And see it, we did.

We sat in the balcony – the kind found in old movie houses and theaters like the Mode. It connected to the projection room where Dad waited for the fuzzy little dots to appear in the corner of the movie screen telling the projectionist when to manually change out the reels.

We watched this cheaply made film featuring unknown or barely known actors that would redefine and reinvigorate the horror genre.

It set a new cinematic standard by combining innovative, gory shock with the most essential, basic, time-worn element of all: suspense.

As with Hitchcock’s classics and modern masterpieces like “Jaws” and “Alien,” etc., “Halloween” reminded us that the scariest scares always come from the unknown. The biggest screams came not when Michael Myers killed someone in yet-another weird way. Frankly, that gets tiresome after the shock value wears off.

Rather, they came when the audience didn’t know where he was. Did someone just duck behind that hedge at the end of the sidewalk? Who is that stranger standing right behind Laurie?

So, we sat, cinematically stuck to our seats (and probably literally, too, considering all the pop and gum and candy and who knows what else had been spilled there.) Entranced. Enthralled. Too scared to look, too amazed to look away.

Then, Loomis emptied his pistol into Michael.

And we breathed again for the first time in what seemed a horror-filled eternity.

Then Loomis looked over the balcony railing, only to see Michael gone from the spot where he’d lain only minutes before.

We turned to each other. Eyes wide. Mouths gasping with the terror-infused, joyous squealing that surviving such an experience yields. In my blurred memory, one or both of us said, “Holy shit!” (whispering, of course, so Dad wouldn’t hear.)

Then, we inched up to the front of the theater balcony.

We carefully, cautiously peeked over the railing at the chairs and floor below, and saw…

Nothing.

The credits rolled.

The “Halloween” theme tinkle-tinkle-tinkled through the empty theater.

We waved to Dad in the booth, and smiled.

Let It Go!

You know the old saying:

“Don’t let the _____ get you down!” (insert your euphemism of choice based on your level of vexation.)

Whatever you call them, I’ve been surrounded lately by (euphemism of your choice.) And I’ve been letting them get me down.

 I’d love to say you can’t really blame me. After all, either by nature or nurture, design or default, these (euphemisms of your choice) say and do things purposely and strategically designed to flatten my psyche, injure my ego, and sap my spirit.

Some are misguided, some are confused. Many have been snowed under by an avalanche of anger triggered by a fat, orange Sasquatch. Still, whatever their motivation, they chew on my confidence like a rodent gnawing on a power line.

Yet, honestly, it’s not their fault.

How can that be, you ask with an abundance of (much appreciated) concern for my well-being (or well-earned uncertainty about the point of this entry into Tom’s Journal of Middle-Age Miasma.)

Well, upon some serious therapeutic self-examination, I realize that, as is usually the case, I am to blame.

The key word in the saying, “Don’t let the ____ get you down,” is, “Let.”

Are the (euphemisms of my choice) really doing all those things that lead to me feeling badly about myself? Absolutely! Although I am in my middle 50s, my approaching and imminent dementia isn’t so bad that I am imagining things yet – voices in my head be damned!

However, “letting” something happen is often our own choice.

I have long been a strong and vocal proponent of “personal accountability.”

For example, as a thinking – and, hopefully, thoughtful – human being, I am well aware of the evils we have, and continue to, commit against each other.

I am ashamed of and regret the resulting waves of repression, oppression, poverty, resentment, division, and societal decay that have rolled onto our historical beach. I try to understand and, whenever possible, speak out against the many things wrong with our world and help fix them in my own miniscule ways.

(Without getting too much into the weeds, these tiny actions of candor and conviction on my part are exactly what some of those (euphemisms of my choice) have criticized me for.)

Yet I also stand firmly on the conviction that, all things being equal, one must also be brave enough to take responsibility for the things one can control. Blaming others for problems of your own making only exacerbates the problem.

I cannot single-handedly control or change the world (although I will keep trying.)

But I can most certainly can control and change my world – which is to say, Me.

This nugget of wisdom came back to me recently from my two of my most trusted resources: my wife, and a children’s cartoon.

Sure, this behavior from others is often hurtful, and my frustration is real and significant. Yet, ironically, I give it weight, I assign its value, I make it real by how I respond.

Fight against it? Sure.

But let it darken my mental and emotional doorstep? No more.

Instead, I will re-commit myself (because I am often a slow learner with a spotty memory) to do what my wife and Elsa, from the Disney movie “Frozen,” recently reminded.

I will just “Let it go.”

Easier said than done? Yep.

Worth the effort? Most truly good things are.

All those (euphemisms of my choice) can keep right on stirring pots overflowing with a bitter soup of their own recipe. That is their right. But don’t expect me to taste it.

Not even a sip.

Sod in the Front, Seed in the Back

Four whitewashed walls. Attached garage. A modest 1,375 square feet of living space. Roof thrown in for free!

No basement, no attic, no central air. No fence. No lawn, only sod in the front, seed in the back.

It wasn’t much to look at. But for us – a pair of new parents, two small kids, and a 10-pound Shi Tzu – it was perfect.

It was our first house. We planned to move in three to five years when the kids got bigger. After all, 1,375 square feet doesn’t leave much room to grow, and 3-year-old and 1-year-old daughters are all about growth.

Twenty-six years later, we are more salt than pepper. More aches than energy. Lasting memories outweigh likely adventures. The babies are now thriving young adults with families of their own.

We have survived a recession, a pandemic, several job changes, major health issues, bereavements, estrangements, separations, and innumerable life upheavals. And worked our figurative fannies off to beautify, improve, maintain, protect and extend our little corner of the world. Tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours spent picking and pulling and painting and pounding vegetables and weeds and walls and nails.

We never did move. And now, our first house is our forever home.

Thoughts of “home” – literal and metaphoric – come to mind as we watch our youngest daughter and future son-in-law take on the many challenges of home ownership.

They bought their first little house about two years ago. Showing us pictures the first time, almost glowing with pride and excitement, they said it needed a bit of work. The previous owner had quickly fixed up and flipped the property.

I am now sure someone coined the term “fixer-upper” specifically for this house.

And that the previous owner was a liar, cheat, and thief. If there is any real justice in this greed-infested world, he’ll get his share someday in a moldy, leaky, dank corner of hell reserved specially for people who look to make a quick buck selling moldy, leaky, dank houses to young, eager, unaware couples.

Still, they persevered.

Using the unwelcome extra time (and some of the welcome extra money) the pandemic produced, they fixed what they could. Friends, family, and very kind contractors not hell bent on turning every dime into a dollar helped finish what they couldn’t do alone.

Now, as they plan their wedding in October 2022, their first house is also their first home. Not because of what they got when they signed on the bottom line, but because of what they have created together, since.

Then, there was the dead tree.

Two of our very closest friends who have become family, planted an autumn blaze maple sapling at their then-first home, also about 26 years ago.

The tree bloomed and grew. Its branches literally and symbolically intertwining with every aspect of their young marriage and family. They welcomed and provided perches for myriad birds and innumerable squirrels – including the several that their dog successfully chased down and sent on to whatever follows tree life for squirrels.

It offered shade and shelter, beauty and inspiration, its thickening trunk a tangible anchor for the spirits that drifted under and around and into its arms.

Then, a vicious storm broke off a limb. Time and Mother Nature said the tree was damaged beyond saving, forcing our friends to cut it down recently. The loss was palpable and heartbreaking, as much for the giant presence lost as for all that it represented. (Full disclosure: one of our friends wrote a candid, sad, and beautiful blog about this experience.)

Like those who’ve never owned pets and are confused by the love humans have for their animals, some will be surprised to know how very seriously our friends took this loss. Until you understand that the tree was not just a tree, but a living, breathing element of their life – their home.

In the same way, those who have never lifted a hammer or slung a paint brush or dirtied their knees, hoping against hope that the picture balances the room, or the color matches the vision in one’s mind or the flowers/grass/veggies eventually sprout and survive the ever-hungry critters in service to a mortgage payment, may have a hard time understanding the idea of a home as anything other than a dwelling.

The difference is as simple as the deceptively profound lesson learned as a very young journalist about word choice: a house is a collection of wood and glass and metal. A home is what you make of it. A building, versus what is built.

A house is filled with things. Transient. Impermanent. Replaceable. A home is filled with the stuff of Life seen by the soul. Joy and sorrow. Gain and loss. Laughs and tears. Most importantly, the love that exists between those who share its space for a purpose greater than themselves.

The saying “Home is where the heart is,” is a cliché for a good reason: because it is true.

Baby, I’m a Star!

I have always wanted to be a rock star. (Indeed, I have been for a long time, if only on my ego’s giant stage.)

Finally, I really am – and believe it or not, no thanks to my good friend, KISS lead singer Paul Stanley. (We met a few years ago at a book signing – his, not mine.)

Rather, my stardom came because of “Doc” McStuffins.

“Doc” is a seven-year-old African American girl who likes to fix toys, dolls, and stuffed animals. (Doc’s real name is Maisha, like that of Dr. Myiesha Taylor, an emergency medicine physician in Sunnyvale, Texas.)

Doc is the latest of the long line of Disney Junior’s megastars.

But much more important, she is our 3-year-old granddaughter Riley’s current favorite television character and role model.

For those unaware, Doc’s toys come to life through her imagination (and a “magic” stethoscope) and present all manner of toy traumas needing her medical expertise. Doc and her assistants – a hippo, dinosaur, stuffed lamb, and a paranoid snowman, among others – then treat them, dutifully recording their diagnoses in Doc’s “Big Book of Boo-Boos.”

Recently a coworker mentioned her 10-year-old daughter had outgrown her Doc McStuffins diagnosis table and cabinet and offered it to me.

As a proud, card-carrying Papa, I had only one choice.

I graciously accepted the gift and set it up in our family room. Kellie, my wife (and the best Nana, ever) and I couldn’t wait to see the look on Riley’s face on her next weekend visit when she walked into that room.

Needless to say, 3-year-old smiles don’t come much bigger or brighter.

What I didn’t know – and Riley soon discovered – is that the cabinet was filled with toy medical implements: a stethoscope, giant syringe, a blood pressure cuff with a needle that spins wildly every you pump the air pressure. Every kind of tool that a “doctor” would need.

Riley spent the rest of the day – and hours on subsequent visits – poking and prodding us. Pounding our knees and elbows. Peering into our eyes and ears. Listening to our hearts. Monitoring our blood pressure and pulse. I can’t swear, but I am almost sure that she checked my blood pressure more that first day than has been done in my entire 55 years on earth.

Heck, if my real doctors paid this much attention, I wouldn’t mind paying the deductible nearly as much.

After dropping Riley off that Saturday evening, Kellie and I were both elated and amazed at the incredible joy this used toy brought our sweet girl, from whom joy already overflows.

Then, Kellie said something that hit me like electroshock therapy (which Doc does not perform, thank goodness.)

“You were the rock star today.”

Her simple, easy smile bespoke her sincerity. Knowing the strength of her own special and strong bond with our granddaughter, I knew she wasn’t being in any way sarcastic or envious. There’s no competition between us (only one of my wife’s countless qualities.) Just stating the fact: on that day Papa had brought the roof down.

Like many things in my advancing middle age, those words meant more to me than maybe were intended or understood.

To paraphrase a cliché, if I’d have known that being a grandpa was so awesome, I might have tried it before being a dad.

Don’t get me wrong: I was a decent dad. Not perfect. Who is? Parenting – like most “adulting” – can be very hard work. Mentally, physically, spiritually, and financially draining. But even decent dads do some “un-decent” deeds, now and again.

I had (have) a short, impatient fuse and a long, flaring temper. I am reluctant (trust me, that’s the fairest, most accurate word I can use) about change. I do not tolerate fools or foolishness, and I am the sole judge of both in my world.

I am eternally embarrassed to admit our kids saw all of that, and more than once.

(For the record: I think I’ve improved a smidge since our girls reached young adulthood. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say I’m now a solid 7. I love this stage of our relationship, being able to talk about everything with two intelligent, thoughtful, caring young people. It expands and energizes my mind and soul.)

Yet, as a grandparent, I can be a better Me.

Absent the parental pressures of providing housing, financial support, clothing, etc. the focus shifts completely to the purest interests of the heart: blowing bubbles, swimming, exploring the garden, taking long walks down a new path, visiting museums and parks, napping, tickling, snuggling, singing songs we’ve sung a million times at the tops of our voices.

And of course, sharing a bowl of ice cream on a warm Saturday afternoon.

My good friend Paul Stanley may pack in 25,000 screaming KISS fans, their faces made up in white and black and red Kabuki makeup to look like his or the other band members.

He may have sold 100 million records and helped pioneer arena rock.

He may be a talented songwriter, singer, and performer worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

He can keep it all.

Because, in the eyes of my favorite 3-year-old, baby I’m a star!

Overcoming

Truth is, I was scared.

Not of anything external.

But rather, of myself.

Or, at least, my likely response to something external — that being the whole wide world around me, and the continuing political and social lunacy incited and inflamed by He Who Shall Not Be Named.

No need to rehash the last four months, much less the last four years. He will do that himself, either in person, online, or from prison, repeating the same lie ad nauseum, until it no longer fattens his wallet.

The point is, like a rotting, stinking, zombie, every time we reasonably think that thing is dead, it pops back up.

Here we are, more than four months after one of the most divisive national elections ever, followed by weeks of discord, 60-plus failed court cases, and finally a terrifying, treasonous attack on the Capitol by insurrectionist trolls, and it still won’t die.

Each passing day of non-passage brought more worms of frustration and fear and concern for the lasting evil this one man wrought.

They burrowed so deep into my tired writer’s brain that I haven’t been able to write much of anything. Every attempt, no matter how innocent or unrelated the topic, veered off onto some trash-covered back road of angry abstraction.

So, rather than expose the dark spots on my soul, I just stopped writing.

And for that, I say, shame on me.

Now I don’t want to suggest I came to this point of self-correction purely due to my own intellect or intuition. Far from it.

This time, as with so many others, I saw the truth only through a friend’s eyes.

Just recently, I was kvetching to a dear and respected friend and fellow writer about my self-imposed writer’s block (I won’t name him here, to protect the innocent.) Turns out, he’d been suffering the same blockage.

Interestingly, we share many connections, but our politics differ. Yet, he too hasn’t been able to sort or sift, much less dispose of, his own anxiety over the impact of the recent presidential election.

He admitted he too, had “opted out” of the writing game rather than lose the intended message or open himself to potentially cruel criticism.

I’ve said it a million times if I’ve said it once: there is more that binds us than divides us.

This revelation – that it wasn’t just me – was just what I needed to clear my mental clog.

Knowing that someone else shares your struggle is often ennobling and emboldening. It brings strength like braiding cords into a rope. It brings courage like linking arms against an opponent.

Yet, knowing someone agrees with you isn’t enough.

One must also choose to act – and more importantly, accept responsibility for choosing.

I believe to the core of my burdened bones in the grace of giving. “Charity” is a soul function that both defines and measures our humanity.

But Giving and Getting are equal parts of the equation. Frankly, too many people ignore the “getting” part because they fear, or are too lazy to deal with, the responsibility that comes with accepting someone else’s reflection, nudging, guidance, or even criticism.

And for that I say, shame on them.

Look, it’s simple: if a gift horse appears and nips you on the nose while you dither around checking its teeth, don’t blame the horse.

So, with gratitude for my friend’s camaraderie, I hereby reclaim my God-given voice and promise to use it to say whatever I feel like saying, however I want to say it.

If you agree with me, fine. If not, fine. But you-know-who created problems that, we now know, won’t go away anytime soon – maybe by accident, maybe on purpose.

Either way, there’s so much to do to fix what is so clearly and awfully wrong right now, and the first step is to speak the words.

About the state of the world, or the state of my spirit.

About things that lift up or things that pull down.

About the flowers of spring or the flowers of death.

About everything terribly important and nothing terribly consequential.

Whatever the subject, I have a voice and I will use it.

I must overcome any obstacles.

Even those self-imposed.

And I will.

Because I am a part of We.

And we must overcome.

And we will.

Finding Joy

Finding Joy

What brought you joy today?

A new friend regularly posts this question/challenge on her Facebook page. Already something of a community activist and good-hearted person, she’d been doing it for a while when, in July, she had to have emergency brain surgery.

As you’d expect, she was temporarily down but not for long. A few weeks later, she resumed her near-daily inquiry as she started her journey toward recovery.

What brought you joy today?

Amazing, if you ask me, that she continued asking, picking up the pieces of her life after such an ordeal.

That she even asks it at all is even more inspiring considering the nightmare that 2020, and, frankly, the last four years, has been for many.

Truthfully, the first couple of paragraphs of this blog sat on my computer desktop for several weeks.

I couldn’t bring myself to talk about “joy” as Donald Trump worked overtime in plain view to dismantle and destroy our entire American democratic system, while millions of fellow citizens encouraged his lunatic ravings.

I couldn’t see “joy” beyond the hundreds of thousands of deaths tied to a worldwide pandemic — not to mention the ancillary crush of collapsing economic, social, and governmental systems.

I couldn’t hear “joy” over the clanging of cynical, politically motivated indifference, and deliberate attempts to mislead, misinform, and ignore.

What brought you joy today?

A deceptively small and simple question with big and complex answers. Perhaps too big, I thought, as I kept trying without success to get past the start of this essay.

Then, this week, as I started to take a much-needed break, it dawned on me. Joy flickers softly at first, then soon burns so brightly that you cannot see past it. Still, like most important things, one must be open to it. Must want to see it. And in so wanting, must almost will it to life.

What better time then, to talk about joy, than Christmas week when a baby turned out to be the light of the world?

So, on Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve, here are some of the many small (yet big) things that bring me joy:

  • The shining eyes, silly laughs, and unfiltered love of a child – not that one, but our two-year-old granddaughter. Her natural exuberance and adventuresome spirit are a magical tonic to my tired soul.
  • The raft of memories of my dad, who passed away in January 1997 at the sad, young age of 51. They seem to pop up these days when I least expect — or perhaps, when I most need them – bringing a smile, a quiet laugh, or even a tear. He wasn’t a perfect human, but he was a great father. I miss him.
  • The courage of those fighting this pandemic. Yes, of course, I refer to all the essential medical workers, police, fire, etc. But I am thinking specifically of the four nurses in my family. They probably had some idea that something like this could happen. They likely had some training. But reality always overpowers anticipation and speculation.
  • The commitment of the teachers working through remote learning. In my other life, I have heard, seen, and shared dozens of stories of teachers leaving their contractually limited duties in the dirt and finding ways to connect with children who desperately need it, at a time of extreme disconnection.
  • Not to mention the thousands of families and students who likewise have made tremendous sacrifices to fit the very square peg of daily schooling into the very round hole of “regular” life in 2020.
  • The friends, spouses, significant others, etc. who stand by, ready to bolster our spirit, boost our energy, and sometimes even give us a much-needed kick in our spiritual backsides. “Support” and “encouragement” come in many shapes and sizes.
  • Adult children whose every success proves the value of love, discipline, respect, and faith, and erases my many parental failings.
  • The easy serenity, awareness, and acceptance that comes with long-term relationships.
  • The coworkers big-hearted enough to tolerate the occasional (but always unintended) outburst, as layers upon layers of calcified frazzlement explode.
  • The 81 million people who said, clearly, firmly, and beyond question, enough is enough.
  • Those willing to tolerate and forgive our external nonsense because they know our internal truth.
  • The peace brought by a quiet evening (or afternoon, or morning) spent reading.
  • The awe and humility that comes with admiring someone else’s talent and artistry.
  • The grace of holding another hand, hearing another voice, healing another heart.

And most especially, those who seek and find and celebrate joy itself, wherever, whenever, however they can.

They shine a light on, and into a world too easily and too often consumed by darkness. They remind me every day of my opportunity and obligation to do the same.

So, what brought you joy today?