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I rolled over in bed and my hand landed on a cold pillow.

That’s not right at any time and it woke me up.  I looked around to find that the living room light was on.

At 4:00 a.m.

That was definitely not right, and I stumbled out of the bedroom without my glasses to see what was going on.  My wife was sitting there in the chair by the window, curtains halfway open. Eyes red. Phone hanging listlessly in her hand.

“Are you okay?”

“My dad went to heaven a little while ago.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry…”

It was a Monday, and the beginning of what one might call a rough week.

I made some coffee, took the day off work, and shortly thereafter, we were using every phone in the house. My wife checked in with family back east, getting details and helping organize things while I made airline reservations and other travel arrangements to get us all there in the next few days.  We’d learn much more later, but it turned out he’d passed away in his sleep. It was how he’d said he wanted to go, so amidst the shock, we were glad he’d gotten what he wanted.

We flew back east to help with some of the arrangements, and had a gathering of family and friends who came to celebrate the life of a man loved and cherished by so many.  We learned a lot about family, and about how there are times when you pitch in and help even when you don’t know what do do, or how to do it.  Friends and long lost family came out of the woodwork, and amidst all the grief and sadness, there was a feeling of simply being blessed by the presence of the people who were there both in body and in spirit.

There were those who listened, those who made sure there was food for all the people who showed up, and those who shared stories that made us both laugh and cry.  I don’t remember all their names, but I will remember how they made us feel, and surrounded by family in the middle of chaos, we felt loved.

Soon it was time to pack up and leave where we had all gathered. We turned to put things away only to realize, to our surprise, that much of the work had already been done. Done by willing hands who offered their help when it was needed, expecting nothing in return. We found that things and people had been taken back to the house. Unbidden, they just did it, and the stories, the laughter, and the tears, continued.

My wife would end up staying for several weeks to help out with the myriad of things that needed to be done, but a day or so later,  it was time for me to head west again.  To do that, we first had to head east about three hours through a massive rainstorm (<–news video of the storm and flooding) to get to the airport in Detroit.

Once again, the wipers were barely enough to keep the windshield clear, and the storm seemed to match physically what we were all going through emotionally.  I had to block the emotion out, I’d have time on the plane to think about things.  Right then, I just had to deal with driving and paying attention to what I could see of the road.

We got to the airport, I got out, managed to hug my sister-in-law, kiss Cindy goodbye and get under cover without getting too wet where I got through the beloved security lines and then to the gate, where it looked like this:

The storm looked and felt like something we’d been through not much more than a month before, so I looked it up on the radar and found this:

The storm in Detroit

See the deep red dot at the left edge of that orange blob in the middle?

That’s where the worst of the storm was.

It’s also where the airport is.

And where I was.

It seemed fitting.

What’s strange is that right about then I realized something profound in its simplicity:

The reality of the storm we were in couldn’t be changed.

We could only change our reaction to it.

I mean, we could run to stay out of the rain, but we’d still get wet while we were in it.

That realization helped me see the bigger picture of the storm I’d seen through the windshield, out the window at the airport, and on the weather radar coalesce with the storm we were all going through emotionally.

That, also, seemed fitting.

Because of the storm,  my wife’s 3 1/2 hour trip back with her sister turned into something closer to 5 1/2 hours.  It was raining so hard they had to wait by the side of the road in places because they couldn’t see, much like the people waiting in the last story.  I waited with all the others in the airplane at the airport until the worst was over, and finally, we were able to take our place in line and head out.

Getting our place in line to take off

It took some time, but we finally took off, climbed out of the storm and saw the blue sky again.

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we'd been through

Looking back, I got a different perspective on the storm we’d been through, how we’d gone deep into it, been bounced around a good bit, and then, finally, a sense of, if not clarity, then acceptance…

After a long stop in Chicago, we chased the longest sunset I’d ever seen, all the way to Seattle.

I watched it for hours, most of the flight, actually.

…and it got me thinking…

A lot.

See, what I was leaving behind, was rain, a good bit of chaos, and tears…

But I also left behind memories of a quiet, gentle man who taught not only his kids to play baseball, and who made an ice rink in the side yard for hockey because winters were cold enough to freeze it. Come to think of it, that wasn’t just for his kids, but all the kids in the neighborhood.

I left behind memories, stories of when he’d hunted rabbit to keep food on the table, and the stories of the look of satisfaction he had when he’d gotten a deer in the fall.  He knew that meant the family would eat well that winter.

I had my own memories – of when I sat chatting with him on the front porch, looking out over his lawn, the bird feeder, and the maple tree he’d planted as a stick, years ago, the same porch we’d sat on side by side when I asked him if I could marry his daughter.

That had been over 25 years ago.

I looked out the window, lost in those thoughts, and then smiled at one more, remembering when he taught me how to pour coffee, and how important it was to pour it *just right*.

Back in the plane, I looked back a bit, and could see the darkness gaining on us.

Eventually we had a glorious sunset in front of us, darkness behind us, but the darkness was faster…

And so it goes with all of us, right?  Each one of us has a flight to take, one on which there will be rough weather. And beautiful weather.

And at some point – there will be a sunset that we all must face.

I pondered a bit more as the plane was slowly enveloped in the darkness, and that glorious sunset slipped away, replaced with a gray, unearthly twilight.

Looking back again, I could see the moon casting shadows on the clouds. The darkness had its own beauty. It was easy to look down, but I felt a strong urge to look up, to see what the sky looked like at night from this high up, so I slouched down in my seat as much as I could,  turned my own light off above my seat, and as hard as it was in that position, I looked up.

And as our plane descended through the turbulence back to earth, the sunset faded, and I looked up into the dark, dark sky. I realized that the beauty of the fading sunset…

IMG_4514-001

…had been replaced by stars.

 

 

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 years, but it has.

I’ve learned that for those of you reading the stories I write here, a number of things happen.

Sometimes you come here on purpose.

Sometimes you come here by habit.

Sometimes you come here by accident (you wouldn’t believe some of the searches that get people to this blog).

But what you always get when you come here is a story.

Sometimes you get a lesson mixed in with that story.

Sometimes the story makes you laugh as you see me learn that lesson from my own mistakes.

Sometimes the lesson makes you wince as you see the pain in the story.

And sometimes, in some of the hardest stories, I’ve heard from some of you, that you see yourself in either the story or the lesson.

I’ve learned, to my surprise (and I’m being quite honest here) that people thought I was good enough at writing stories that several have honored me in ways I cannot comprehend, by asking me to tell a very specific story.

Their story.

Out loud.

To everyone they cherish and hold dear; their family, their loved ones, their friends.

It is a story that they have lived, that they have asked me to tell,  but they won’t ever hear.

And this brings us back to me being amazed that those eight years have gone by already.

Back then, my friend Glenda asked me to tell her story.

And it came easily in some ways.

It was very hard in others.

I stood in front of a crowd of her family and friends 8 years ago, and told this story of my friend Glenda.

June 1, 2007

Glenda first caught my eye when she sat down beside me in Dr. Bob Chamberlain’s “History of Western Rhetoric” class over in Peterson Hall at Seattle Pacific University. She was different because unlike all the other college aged young women in the class, Glenda had her daughter, Daisy, sleeping on the floor beside her. Class time and nap time happened to coincide, so Glenda did what worked, and Daisy got a head start on a lot of freshmen by sleeping through a very early college education.

I learned a lot about Daisy, and her brothers and sister in the next few years. I also learned a lot about Glenda.

This was a mom who clearly loved her four kids, and these were four kids who clearly loved their mom. One time, a few months after we graduated, Glenda asked if I would watch them while she went into the hospital for a few days.

This meant a couple of things.

  1. Glenda, though in the hospital, didn’t have to deal with or get four kids up and ready for school or daycare every day
  2. Tom, not in the hospital, got to learn what it was like for Glenda to get four kids up, fed, dressed…

No, wait, almost dressed – first have to find their socks…

“Where did you say you put your shoes?”

“What do you mean you can’t find your homework?”

“There isn’t a dog to have eaten it!”

“I’m supposed to sign what?”

…pray that at least the socks matched, and get them out to the bus stop in time for school.

That haggard looks of the other moms waiting with their kids at the bus stops made so much more sense after that.

I understood so much more what it was to be a mom in those few days.

And I learned a lot about Glenda.

When it was time to visit her in the hospital, it was – well, I am still amazed at how she was able to get four kids packed up and ready to go – anywhere – on time. It was just amazing. She loved to tell this story – and always with that wonderful laugh of hers.

When Tom the Mobile set of Monkey Bars got to the hospital room, four kids either on me or around me, I saw in Glenda’s face the exhaustion that comes from being in the hospital, from all the poking, the prodding, the middle of the night waking you up to give you your sleeping medicine, and so on. But in her eyes, I saw something different. I saw a sparkle, a relaxation, a rest, that is only seen in a woman’s eyes – no, a mom’s eyes when, for whatever reason,  she’s had a chance to recover a little from being a mom by being away from the kids, and then when she gets to be with them again.

She tells the same story from another viewpoint, seeing her kids scamper into the room, at least one of them (Daisy) still hanging from a very bedraggled me, when our eyes met, she remembers me saying, “Two! Only Two!” – I couldn’t imagine how she could be a mom of four, but she was, and she made it look easy.

She did that a lot in life…

We lost touch for a number of years, then ran into each other at a cancer survivor’s support group. We hugged, as old friends do.

…and then the reason for our meeting there, in that place, sunk in to both of us.

And you know what?

She made cancer look easy.

She made raising four kids look easy.

She planned enough to where there weren’t many surprises for her – except this one, and even then, then she handled it the same way she always did.

Glenda made dying look easy.

She loved those kids, she loved her husband Mike.

A few weeks ago we talked, and it was clear to her that time was short. We chatted about all sorts of things for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said, “Tom, can you do me a favor?”

Understand this is the lady who trusted me with her most prized possessions, her kids. And she did it regularly. There was a trust built up there over the years, and I figured that this “favor” wasn’t going to be, “Can I borrow a cup of sugar?” or “Can you feed the cat while I’m gone?”

But I didn’t know what to expect.

“Sure Glenda, anything.”

“Can you speak at my funeral?”

What do you say?

You don’t.

You just do it.

Because that’s what friends do.

She told me it was going to be a “fun” eral – and to remember something “fun” about her.

She wanted me to tell the story of the kids when we visited her in the hospital, because it made her laugh that wonderful laugh of hers so often, so I did…

And I can tell you that I did indeed, only have two.


It’s Memorial day as I write this, and I’m in a pensive mood…

I was at Chris’s memorial service yesterday, and I’ve been to a few of these lately – and among the food on a table was what appeared to be a rather out-of-place crumpled up McDonald’s bag.

I didn’t think much of it until I heard the story behind it. See Pat, the fellow who brought it, had been best friends with Chris, and they’d spend hours driving around, sometimes in Chris’s tow truck, sometimes not, and as often as not, they would end up stopping at a very particular McDonalds, where the two of them would order 11 cheeseburgers.

The question was asked, “Why 11? And who got to eat six of them?” and Pat said he wasn’t sure exactly where it came from, likely Chris going through the drive through with his truck to get some dinner, a hankering for cheeseburgers, and the clerk asking the simple question of “How many?”

Chris and Pat shared the unspoken question with a look, shrugged their shoulders, and next thing they knew, they had 11 cheeseburgers to share and accompany the conversations ranging from the nature of gravity to the physics of electricity and radio waves as they waited on the next call.

And over time, it became a tradition.

Every time they went to McDonald’s, they ordered 11 cheeseburgers.

In a bag.

Every.

Single.

Time.

It became almost sacred, the way Pat told it.

And it got me thinking…

I’m in that stage of life when it’s becoming obvious that there’s a changing of the guard going on, where you realize, sometimes slowly, sometimes with a stunning realization, that you’re now the very close to being the oldest generation living in your family, where you used to be able to have conversations with grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, who simply aren’t there anymore for you to have conversations with.

And with Chris, I realized that it’s not limited to people older than you.

It made me wonder, what kinds of little things will be precious to you when someone close to you leaves this life to live on in your memories?

I really started wondering…

There are friends who know, for example, that I will only call them a butthead if they’ve earned that privilege. (Of course, I have to explain to them that it is a privilege, a badge of honor, to be called that, only then do they get it)

I think of my dad, who I used to simultaneously love and get frustrated with, who loved me as best as he knew how, and I realize I miss hearing his greeting, “Hello sonshine.” Or yelling at us to shut the living room door as we ran out it.

I think of Glenda’s peaceful presence, and her laugh, as she took life, and death, in stride and made it work.

Betty – how we were able to take off the day to day masks we wear to protect ourselves, and just talk about the stuff that really mattered.

I think of people who are still part of my life, and realize there are things that are inexplicably special, things that have become the “11 cheeseburgers” of our lives…

The Grand Coulee Dam.

“How are things in Gloccamurra?”

“Delays, Delays…”

Butthead…”

Yasuko’s…

A shoe shine kit.

A jar of homemade Quince jelly.

An Egg carton.

A yellow superball.

A root beer can.

Sitting quietly with a friend at an airfield, then seeing it from above.

A phone call from a long-lost friend.

A tennis ball cannon made of a bunch of pop cans and masking tape..

An old Saab.

Two rocks, now shiny, that I’ve carried around in my pocket – one since 1997 (my son’s first day of kindergarten) one since 2010 (his first day of college)

“Hey Du…”

A pair of red Converse High Tops.

And so many others.

It’s not what they are, it’s what they symbolize.

Things that in and of themselves, mean nothing to someone who doesn’t share a history with you, I mean, it’s a bag of cheeseburgers… it’s a greeting… it’s an old car.

But for Chris and Pat, it was more than a bag of cheeseburgers – it was friendship, (and it was theoretical physics) and it signified that all was right with the world.

And maybe – just maybe, you’ve got your own version of a bag of 11 cheeseburgers and a bunch of memories.

What are they?

Write as much or as little as you’d like, but I know we all have them, I’d just never seen it done the way Pat did it yesterday.

And as little as I knew Chris directly, the hole he leaves in people’s lives is very real.


My friend Bill called me out of the blue today, and after the usual greetings of “Hey Billy!” and “Hey Tommy!” there was a pause and we both said, at almost the same time, “It’s good to hear your voice.”

We talked a bit – about life, our kids, and so on, but I pondered those words we’d said, and it got me thinking…

Those words have become part of my vocabulary of late – in part because – well, because I’ve learned a little bit about life, and I did that because I’ve had a little experience at the edges of it.

So – if you talk to me sometime, and I say that – it’s because I realize that life is short – often much shorter than we think, whether that’s for us, or for someone we love.

We can read letters from people who have made the transition out of our lives to live on in our memories.

We can look at pictures of them and recall the times we had making them.

We can listen to recordings of them talk, or tell stories of their youth.

But we can’t converse with them anymore.

And so, if you ever hear me say that, “It’s good to hear your voice.” – it’s because it is good.

It means you haven’t made that transition from this life to the next.

It means we can still talk.

And listen.

And share.

And laugh…

…or maybe cry.

We can have a chat over cup of bad coffee (usually if I’m the one making it, although much to my surprise I accidentally figured out how to make good coffee a couple of months ago)

Heck, we could do something strange, and have a chat over good coffee…

And catch up on old times.

Relive old memories.

Make new ones.

But we can only do that if we can hear each others voices.

And we could.

And did.


It’s September, and all across the country, another school year has started with all the busyness that it brings, and it brought back a smile, and a memory of a fellow I knew in high school many years ago.

Bob Sherp, an exchange student from England, almost graduated from Bethel High School in Spanaway, Washington, back in 1980. He was a good student, taking a well-rounded set of classes. I know, because he and I had several classes together, one of them being Radio Production (with Mrs. Williams) and one being First Aid, with “Brownie”.

Bob and I were pretty evenly matched, academically, in those two classes, and I would have to say that his attendance was extraordinary. In fact, every time I was in class, so was Bob – and – well, I think it’s time to start at the beginning…

See, this was High School.

This is the time in a young person’s life when not all the parts of the brain develop at the same rate… The frontal lobe of the brain, the one dealing with responsibility and mature thinking, acknowledging the consequences of one’s actions and the like, especially for boys, that’s just not all there yet. Why do you think car insurance for boys is so much higher? For that matter, why do you think most of the infantry in the Army is young?

“Go out there into that gaping maw of death and take that minefield!”

“Sir, yes SIR!”

…it’s because of that whole frontal lobe thing. They don’t have any thought to their own safety, or potential consequences. In fact, there’s even proof. Seriously.

So while we didn’t have any military types to deal with in this story, we did manage to get Jason, Tamara, Wayne and about 4 more of us frontally-lobe-challenged teenagers together to mess with the system a bit, as it were, with no idea of the consequences that were to follow… You see, every quarter, we had to register for our classes, and at that time, we’d all troop into the gym, where things were semi computerized. That is to say the forms we were to put our class requests onto had been computer printed with our names and other information on them.

On paper.

…and later this paper would be scanned back into a computer, but all of the registration and filling out of the forms in between was totally manual.

On paper.

When we entered the gym, there were tables all around the edges, with boxes on them full of these forms, and letters indicating that forms on this table were for students with last names beginning from A-C, and the next table was D-F, and so on. Behind each table sat someone’s mom, or former student’s mom, who had volunteered to help get the 1800 students registered over the course of the day.

There was a lot to do.

There were things to correct.

…and there were lots of spare forms.

Heh…

Remember that bit about messing with the system? Here was an opportunity that was, in the words of Tom and Ray Magliocci (of Car Talk fame) “Unimpeded by the thought process.” Well that’s just a perfect definition for a teenager, especially some ‘frontally lobe challenged’ teenagers who were up for a laugh.

And the thing was, while we were up for a laugh, we didn’t want to get anyone into trouble, least of all Bob. He had to be visible enough to be known, but completely invisible from faculty and staff.

Well, staff.

The six of us got together with our favorite teachers and asked them if they’d be okay with having an extra student in their class, and would he pass if he were there…

To a teacher, the answer was, “if he does the work, he’ll get the grade…”

Cool!

Now because I was the most honest looking of the bunch, or because I was the most frontally lobe challenged, I’m not sure which, I was picked to go to the table marked S – T, get one of the spare forms with some level of excuse that I’d lost mine, and have them fill it in as needed, and surprise of all surprises, Bob Sherp was born.

Right there, in the middle of the gym, at Bethel high school in Spanaway, Washington. He was a big baby… 180 pounds. About six feet.

Oh, and about 18 years old.

Bob got to be with me in the first aid class, in large part because I got along well with Brownie, and her take of, “If he does the work, he’ll get the grade…” It did kind of bug me though, every now and then – because I was literally doing twice the work of a normal student, and strangely enough, whoever’s homework I did first (Bob’s or mine) generally got the better grade.

When I got a worse grade than Bob, I knew something was a little off – but what was really cool in all of this is that I really learned my first aid.

Another class I “had” with Bob was the Radio Production class.

Selected people from the Radio Production class did the announcements for the entire school every morning.

And Bob did the announcements, every Monday morning.

We’d decided Bob would be a foreign exchange student from England, in large part because I could do a pretty good English accent.

So I was the voice of Bob Sherp.

Every Monday, I’d leave class, get the stack of announcements at the front office, sort them by subject, and stack them on the PA system in the corner. Now because of the way it was set up, I’d have to stand, facing the corner, holding the mike key down with my left hand while holding the announcement I was reading in my right, and every Monday morning started exactly the same way, with a stunningly enthusiastic deep British voice, “Good Morning! Bob Sherp here once again, with your Monday morning announcements!” – and then I’d go off on a riff and ad lib my way through the announcements, making “British” comments and just being way, WAY too cheerful for a pre-coffee high school Monday morning… but it’s what I got to … sorry, it’s what “Bob” got to do, and “Bob” loved it.

What “Bob” didn’t realize is that while standing there, alone in that corner, back to the office, when everyone was supposed to be in their homerooms, he had a captive audience of about 1800 people, all students sitting there in their classes with nothing else to do but listen to some English guy tell bad jokes and talk about which clubs were meeting that day, when “spirit week” was, and how important it was to register for your SAT’s.

The funny thing was, NO one outside the Radio Production class ever knew who Bob was… No one had ever seen him. In fact, the folks in the radio Production class might not have been sure, just like Superman and Clark Kent, Tom Roush and Bob Sherp were never seen together… or, for that matter… heard together, I guess. It got close once… The student body president happened to see me leave the office one Monday right after I’d – er – “Bob” had done the announcements and asked if I’d done them.

“Nope,” I said, barely edging out of the English accent in time, “That was Bob Sherp!”

“Oh, – he sure sounded like you…”

I made sure no one ever heard “Tom” speaking in an English accent after that.

What’s funny about the whole thing – at least for me, is I honestly had no idea what kind of storm I was creating with Bob. Like I said, NO one ever saw him, and I found out much later, an awful lot of people were trying to figure out who this guy was.

A young sophomore named Bitsy had heard “Bob’s” voice every Monday morning, and just had to meet him, so for an entire quarter, she and a number of friends she had enlisted to help staked out the hallways between classes, ears tuned for any trace of the owner of a British accent she’d heard, and memorized, and wanted to meet. But her attempts were in vain, and she never heard “Bob’s” voice.

However, as with all good things, it came to an end. It seems that somehow, somewhere, they started poking around, and apparently Bob was called to, of all things, the office – the same one he (and I) did the Monday morning announcements in. Unfortunately, I had a P.E. class outside at the time of those calls, and I never heard the announcements. The others in the group of us who’d ‘created’ him thought I’d heard them, but didn’t tell me – so after a while, Bob, bless his heart, was expelled from school for being absent – even on days he’d been there first thing, giving those Monday morning announcements.

So Bob was kicked out and didn’t graduate, I did and went off to college, and a couple of years later, I was home for a weekend, when two friends, Wayne and Bitsy, yes, that Wayne, and yes, that Bitsy, who’d become a bit of an item, came over to visit, and as we were chatting about old times, the subject of Bob came up.

Wayne and I looked at each other, grinned a little, and felt the situation was about as ripe as it was going to get so he (who as you know had been in on the gag from the beginning) said to Bitsy (who clearly hadn’t, but SOOOO wanted to meet Bob), “Hey you wanna meet Bob Sherp?”

Bitsy’s eyes got huge.

She looked up at Wayne, almost in awe.

Really?”

Wayne knew about Bob? This was too good to be true. And then, Wayne’s and my eyes met, and unspoken, I took my cue…

“Good Morning! Bob Sherp here, once again, with your Monday morning announcements!”

Bitsy’s face went into instant, total shock followed immediately by

  • Absolute delight at finally meeting “Bob” to
  • Excitement at having the answers to her questions
  • Total shock at realizing someone she’d known (Wayne) had had the answers to all her questions all the time even if he didn’t realize the questions were there
  • and then finally realizing Bob was someone she’d known all along.

In the end, she wasn’t sure whether to hug us or clobber us, but we all had a good laugh afterwards.

Apparently this had really been a secret that those of us in on it kept very well, and people, especially Bitsy, just wanted answers, Wayne had them, and true to his word, he never, ever let on that he knew that the mysterious foreigner Bitsy had been so eager to meet was a guy who’d sat next to her in class a few years before.

Wayne and Bitsy became even more of an Item a number of years later, and when I talked to her about it while writing this story, her memory of it was just as sharp as the day she’d discovered who Bob was – er – is…

And of course, it got me thinking…

Remember that thing I mentioned about the frontal lobe and not knowing what the consequences of our actions would be?  On this one, I still don’t.  It’s been years since this happened – and only with the publishing of this story will I find out what kinds of memories will be brought up in all of it.  I just know that for me, (and Bob) it was a tremendous amount of fun to step completely outside of being the normal person that showed up for school every day and become someone else, to be able to make people laugh, smile, and wonder.

So for those of you in my class (Wayne, Tamara, Jason, and a few others) who made it all possible – thank you so much for your help!

Heh, I just realized this, we made the first Avatar… Before there were avatars online, there was Bob Sherp.

In real life.

So for those of you who’ve been wondering all these years – you now have your answer.

For Brownie and Mrs. Williams and all the other teachers – you’re gems.  Thank you for playing along with us in all of it.

Oh, and Bitsy – Bob says hi.  😉

(and this is published on Monday morning just for you)


There was a time when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write this story.

I mean that in the most final way that could be possible.

The original was written almost exactly 9 years ago, about something that happened a year before that, and it’s been a learning experience all the way around, so with that, step with me into the time machine, back to a day where I sat in our basement, with my keyboard in my lap, both feet on the desk, and I wrote a little note about those things we’d learned on that first anniversary.

“We’ve learned a lot through this last year dealing with cancer, treatment for it, recovery from it, and the like – and it’s phenomenal the kinds of things you do learn when you find you’ve been to the edge and back.

One of the things I learned, honestly, that life is truly not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

The destination for all our bodies, is likely a pine box or an urn on a mantel somewhere. That doesn’t have to mean that has to be our soul’s destination. Sometimes, when we just spend our time existing, drifting, our soul just shrivels up, and dries up and is blown away like dust. Believe me, I understand that, I’ve been there. But that’s not what life is about. Life is about living – and the life that comes from LIVING (all capitals on purpose) as opposed to just existing – is the difference between black and white.

We’ve found that life now (after cancer) tends to be higher contrast (speaking of black and white) – the highs higher, the lows, lower – and while those lows are definitely lower – the highs more than make up for it, and the stuff in the middle isn’t gray… it’s a… a fine mixture of that black and white. (those are all links to stories I wrote up there)

I found that life, as most people my age tend to think, is not infinite, that “someday” is not a day of the week, and that weekends, while occasionally made for Michelob, might be better spent if you realized there weren’t an infinite supply of them… So walks in the park (or wherever) have replaced being half comatose in front of the boob tube. Trips to visit friends have replaced sitting idly at home whiling away another weekend – and – that brings up something that happened just a few weekends ago.

We went down to Portland (Oregon) to do a couple of things:

1) Celebrate the end of treatment/major phase of recovery and the beginning of going back to work,

2) Visit our daughter, and

3) Visit with some of our bestest friends.

While Cindy drove the car down so we’d have a way to get back on time, our son Michael and I took the train, and I’d learned that if you pay a little extra, you sit in what they call “business class” – so instead of 4 seats across, there were only three, and the seats were wider, two seats, then an aisle, then one seat, and you got discount coupons on the food in the dining car. So we went for the business class. I was expecting we’d get the seats on the right side of the train – where you can see Puget Sound as you go by – and the rows are only one seat wide, and the seats there face each other, which made conversation and stretching your legs out easy. However, when I asked, those seats were full and we got put into “Row 6”.

On the other side of the train.

So we sat there for a bit – and with all the benefits advertised of being on a train, it wasn’t much different than sitting in an airplane – Michael reading his book, me sitting there, kind of cramped – and right about then, there was an announcement that the “Bistro car” (apparently what’s replaced the “Dining Car”) was open. I figured that since it was dinner time, and we had those coupons for the food, we should get up there before the line got too long, and so we did, standing there, swaying back and forth as the train trundled down the tracks.

After a bit of that, we got our food… Michael a hot dog, me a chili (which I spilled later, but that’s another story), and sat down at this little table, and talked, and ate, and read, and laughed, and watched the scenery, and played a game, and in general were having a good time all by ourselves.

…which was when the girls showed up.

A 12 year old and a 14 year old – they’d just met on the train themselves, were bored, and ended up sitting across the aisle from us, and started to try to make up a game. Michael and I were playing our own game by that point, and after I stomped Michael once, and he stomped me once, even worse, he felt he’d had enough, so I said, “Hey, why don’t you go over there and teach them how to play”

“Oh, I can’t do that…”

“Sure you can, what have you got to lose?”

“If you don’t go over there, it’s as good as them having said no, and you’ll have learned nothing.”

“If you do go over there and embarrass yourself, chances are you’ll never see them again, so you’re not risking much.”

“However, if you do go over there, and it works, then you’ll have the next hour and a half to spend time laughing, having fun, and making memories.”

“So really, what do you have to lose?”

After a few minutes of pondering, he went over there. Big, hulking Michael, went over and in his suave, sophisticated way asked, “Hey, wanna learn how to play a game?”

The girls loved it.

Oh, gosh, did they love it.

And, come to think of it, I think Michael did, too.

One of them got a deck of cards, and while the 14 year old was playing, learning and laughing with Michael, the 12 year old taught me a card game called “Spit” – involving faster reflexes than adults can possibly have (and that children playing games against said adults should be allowed to have). She blew me away. Then she decided to go easy on me and asked if I knew how to play “War” (each of you gets half the deck, and you each put a card down, whoever’s card is highest wins both cards. The winner is the one with all the cards). I thought I’d shuffled the deck well. Turns out I couldn’t have shuffled it much better (for her), because by the end of the first hand, she had all but two of my cards. The sound of her laughter was like the joyful ringing of a bell, and told me that even though I was losing the card game (Losing doesn’t come close – annihilated is more in the neighborhood), I was winning something much larger. I realized that if I had to ‘lose’ a game in order to bring that much laughter and joy into a child’s life, then I’d happily lose the game.

Every time.

It was at that moment that I realized that the high pitched laugh of hers had a bass line – and I looked across the aisle to find that Michael had his opponent on the ropes, so to speak, and was laughing uproariously at his position in the game.

I thought about this at the time – about how before all these realizations, before cancer, I might have just stayed there in my assigned seat because it had cost me $12.00 extra a seat to get those extra wide/comfortable ones – and by God, I was going to sit there and get my $12.00 worth of enjoyment out of them if it killed me.

But…

I didn’t.

I realized that for us to enjoy the journey the way we had, we had to get up out of our comfortable seats where they were showing a now long forgotten movie, and go up to that Bistro car, where there were no reservations for us, and no assigned seats. It was a risk, a small one, but the rewards were so well worth it. Getting up, and daring to get out of our comfort zones and living life, instead of life living us, was obviously the thing to do, for Michael, and for me.

Suddenly, before we were really ready, the call came out “Next stop, Vancouver”. One of the girls got off, and then 10 minutes later, we got to Portland – and the other little girl just disappeared into the river of people pouring out of the train. We joined the same river and spilled out onto the platform.

We stopped, the crowd thinned, we looked around, and at each other, and realized we were at our destination.

Having truly enjoyed the journey.

===

As I said, it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and 10 years since the phone call that started it all.

We had no idea what the future would bring then. We had no idea how hard some of it would be, or how unbelievably cool other parts of it would be. Most surprising was how we would feel a peace about things through all the terror that made no sense, given what we were going through, but we also felt that that peace we were feeling was directly related to the shield of prayers our family, friends, and even some strangers (who became our friends) kept over us.

But back on that day, I remember that the doctor had said he would do his best. He’d remove what he could remove, and try to save what he could. And that little bit got me thinking the ‘what if’ thoughts that you try in vain to push out of your mind, but that wasn’t an option, so I went out that morning, while the sun was still low, and while the grass and dandelions were still wet, and I walked barefoot in the grass – trying to imprint that feeling, that memory into my mind, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to repeat that when I came back.

To say I was a little nervous about the whole thing might be understating it a touch.

I came back in, changed, and we left the house. I drove, and after getting all prepped, we were able to convince them to let me take a CD player and some headphones in so I could have something to listen to after the surgery. My favorite composer is Johann Strauss, and so that’s what I wanted to hear, that would be my subconscious signal to myself that I’d made it through that part of it.

I remember being wheeled into the operating room. They stopped, I saw all the equipment they had, as I groggily looked over at the table I’d be laying on…

…and heard…

Strauss? YES! It was Strauss!

I’d made it.

I wiggled my toes, on both feet, and as I drifted back to sleep, I knew that as hard as the road ahead may be, it was going to be okay.

===

There are many, many people to thank here. If I thanked you all, it’d sound like an Oscar speech. But this is not the kind of thing you go through alone. It changes you. It changes those around you. So for those of you prayer warriors who helped hold up that shield up over my family and me, and to God who provided it, I thank you. We thank you. For those of you who brought meals when we needed them, or fixed plumbing, or mowed the lawn, or sat on the front porch in the shade, in the breeze, with a cold bottle of Sprite and just chatted and listened and distracted me for a moment… Thank you. For the medical staff (doctors, nurses, and vampires and staff – you know who you are) who’ve been with me through thick and thin, we thank you profusely.

The reminder that life is short, and the journey has no guarantees, is ever present.  Hug your loved ones when you can.

And speaking of loved ones, there’s my family, who’s been along for the ride, hard as it’s been at times…

There are no words strong enough. Thank you barely scratches the surface. <Hugs>

PS…

I went out in the front yard this morning as the sun came up…

Toes_In_Wet_Grass

…and felt the dewy grass on my feet…

And smiled.


Hey all,

It’s been a bit since I wrote, a lot of life has happened, a lot of changes, a lot of storms, if you will, and it reminded me of a story that happened a number of years ago that involved a USAF C-130 and yours truly.

If you’ve ever seen a military airplane, chances are you’ve seen a C-130 Hercules. It is the short/medium haul workhorse of militaries all over the world that’s been in service for over 50 years. The Navy’s Blue Angels have one from the Marines they call “Fat Albert” that carries the maintenance and support crew to keep all the F-18’s flying.

A C-130 landing just a little better than I did.

A C-130 landing just a little better than I did.

I’ve been in a couple of them, flown over some amazing countryside (Mount Rainier – I’d have pictures of that but I dropped the camera while I was in the cockpit a few thousand feet over Elbe and broke it – the camera I mean) and been in one that was dogfighting with another one (story to come later), but the one that I remember most is the one that never left the ground.

See, back when I was in Civil Air Patrol, one of the senior members of the squadron, Steve, was also in the Air Force, and he worked just across the parking lot from where we met every week.

What was cool about that place across the parking lot was that it housed two multimillion dollar full motion simulators, one of which was the one for the venerable C-130.

What was cool about Steve is that he did the same thing in the Air Force that my dad did years earlier – he worked flight simulator maintenance. Understand, folks who work in maintenance aren’t the people who get the glory. They’re not the ones with high ranks or fancy titles. The people who work maintenance, however, are like the janitor of the school you went to. They have to be able to fix anything.

And to do that, they need to be able to get anywhere.

And to do that, they have to have keys to EVERYTHING.

And Steve, so to speak, had the keys to the C-130 simulator.

Now since he worked maintenance, he had to be there all the time, just in case.

There were quiet times during his day when the simulator wasn’t scheduled – and of course, over time, I learned what those times were, and just ‘happened’ to show up pretty consistently about then.

Over the course of one summer, Steve let me fly the thing – I did the math some time back, and I think I had something like 40 hours in it over those three months.

I learned how to start the engines, how to taxi out to an imaginary runway (Steve would play the part of the air traffic controller and give me directions over the headsets from outside), and then Steve taught me how to take off. Now understand – all this is in a full size, full motion simulator that’s an exact replica of the cockpit. You hear the engines. You feel the vibration of the engines. You literally feel the bumps in the pavement you’re taxiing across. It would even have the nose dip as you hit the brakes to stop at the end of the runway before starting your takeoff roll, where you’d feel the bumps in the pavement going by faster and faster, until when you pulled the nose up, you could actually *feel* the nose gear lift off – it smoothed out because it wasn’t rolling over pavement anymore. Then there were the checklists to make sure everything was done right. Landing gear had to come up as soon as the plane was actually climbing. Flaps came up in stages as the plane accelerated, and so on.

The one thing it didn’t have was any type of visual display, so because of that, when I learned how to fly, I learned how to fly on instruments only.

I learned that the controls felt mushy at low speeds, and very stiff at high speeds, and at those high speeds, you wanted to keep the little g-meter in the bottom left of the instrument panel very happy. Overstressing that little thing could cause problems

I learned all that before I ever looked out of the cockpit of a real airplane, and the funny thing is – I learned how to fly the plane not because I had to, but because it was fun.

After some time, Steve let me just play a little bit, and I actually got pretty good at running through the checklists to start the engines, the pre-taxi checklist, the pre-takeoff checklist, after takeoff checklist – really, there were a lot of them.

One day Steve had most of an afternoon with no one scheduled in the simulator, and I happened to be there, so he decided to have some fun. He taught me GCA’s – or Ground Controlled Approaches – which you do when you can’t see the runway, and the airport has equipment you don’t have. Basically you’ve got two radio beams that intersect like a cross, coming from a couple of transmitters at the end of the runway. One shows you on the right glide slope (both approaching and descending at just the right speed), while the other shows you on the right glide path (coming down on the centerline of the runway). Your job is to keep the plane at the center of those two radio beams– you’ve got someone on the ground tracking you, and their instructions to keep you in the center are short and to the point: “Flight 279, GCA, 3 miles out, on glide slope, on glide path” (what you want to hear) versus something like “Flight 279, GCA, 2 miles out, 500 feet left of glide path, 200 feet below glide slope”. You’ve got a lot of correcting to do in the two miles you’ve got left, flying at about 130 mph, you’ll cover that in less than 30 seconds, while trying to find the end of the runway, which is at the other end of those radar beams. Remember, if you’re doing a GCA, you’re only doing it because you can’t see the runway. This is rather important because usually the runway is the only flat space big enough to land on.

It was clear that Steve had a little bit of fun being the GCA Controller, so one day he decided to take it up a notch… He stepped into the back of the simulator where the instructors usually sat – where they had all sorts of evil controls to mess with the crew being trained, and played GCA from right there instead of from his usual console outside the simulator.

I had the headphones on as usual, and he decided he’d give me what started out to be a normal approach. I’d had the flaps down to 50% as I needed to have them for that speed, and then he started dialing in some turbulence to make it a little more challenging.

Ever flown through turbulence in an airliner?

This was just like that – all the sounds, the full motion in the simulator, it was just like you’d expect to feel it in a real plane, just as bumpy, just as uncomfortable, and it suddenly dawned on me that the barf bags in the cockpit weren’t there for decoration.

He gave me gentle instructions: first just fly the plane with the turbulence randomly and dramatically trying to flip it  right, left, up, or down. My goal was to keep the wings level, and keep it aimed to 340 degrees North-northwest, the same heading as the runway.

Then, when he felt I had that mastered, he decided to transition in a GCA controlled approach, meaning I had to not only keep the wings level and keep flying the plane in the storm, but manage all the procedures that were part of landing the plane.

He added wind gusts that varied from headwinds (which suddenly gave me much greater lift) to tailwinds (which suddenly meant the plane wasn’t flying through the air fast enough to generate enough lift to keep it from falling out of the sky).

Somewhere in there I realized that not only did I have that voice in my headphones to guide me, I noticed that there was an instrument on the panel in front of me that, every time I heard the message, “On glide slope, on glide path” – made a little plus sign, a little cross. It turns out it was what’s known as an ILS, or Instrument Landing System – which is a miniaturized version of the GCA. Instead of a radio and someone in the tower, it’s an instrument in the airplane.

See, the GCA is something external to the plane. . It’s sending a – kind of a cross of radio beams out, and they can tell where you are in relation to that. They will tell you what you need to do to be able to land safely.

You don’t have to have anything but a radio, tuned to the tower frequency and you just have to do what the voice in the headsets tells you to do.

The ILS is a miniaturized version of the GCA. It depends on that same kind of radio beam, but is internal to the plane. Just like a compass always points North, which is a good reference point, this always keeps you pointed toward your goal, which is finishing your flight safely, on the runway. All you have to do is pay attention to it, and keep the little cross centered in front of you, and you’ll reach that goal.

But – meanwhile, back in the cockpit, knowing what the right thing to do and actually doing it were two different things. Steve was having fun and incrementally dialing up everything, making the plane climb, bank, and turn, and fall out of the sky all at the same time. It got to the point where just trying to keep wings level, much less doing something complicated like “keep the wings level and the pointy end facing front” was an astonishing challenge. The descent rate wasn’t even averaging the 500 feet per minute descent I was supposed to be trying to do on at that part of the approach.

I thought things had gotten as bad as they were going to get, and was really working up a sweat in there… It was no longer a simulation, for me it was real.

And that’s when Steve dialed up the turbulence to the point where I was in a full-fledged storm.

I wasn’t panicking, but I was working pretty hard to keep things under control, and was concentrating so hard on keeping wings level, keeping the descent rate right, keeping it on glide slope and glide path, that I was caught off guard when Steve suggested I might look at the oil pressure of the number 3 engine.

It was falling.

Imagine your check engine light coming on in your car. You just pull over and – well, check your engine.

Interestingly, that’s exactly what I was trying to do, but had to wait till I had a successful landing behind me.

So I had to slow that engine down, but I couldn’t just pull back number 3. By now the flaps were down, if I recall, at 50%, and the air each of the four propellers pushes over the top of wing, especially with the flaps down, creates a tremendous amount of lift. So if you’ve got two huge propellers blasting air over the left wing, and only one on the right, that left wing will produce way more lift – which complicates things and needs to be considered in everything you do from there on out. So I throttled back not just number 3 (inboard engine on the right wing) but also number 2 (inboard engine on the left wing) to keep the power and lift balanced, with the hope it would last long enough to get us to the ground safely.  Complicating that was the fact that the inboard engines blew air over more wing and flaps, and helped create more lift than the outboard ones.  There was a good bit to think about in all of that.

Steve was impressed, so he held on to the handles mounted for the instructors in the back of the simulator, and dialed the turbulence and the mechanical problems up even more. He added what I now realize were wind shear and microbursts, meaning my airspeed would vary, causing my descent rate to range from “climbing like a homesick angel” to “falling out of the sky like an anvil with wings”.

I brought the flaps all the way to 100%, which increased lift, but also increased drag, slowing the plane down, requiring extra power (which I didn’t have much of) to stay in the air. While I was working on the approach checklist, and right as I’d gotten getting the gear down, increasing the drag yet again, and requiring more power to overcome, Steve was slowly dialing the oil pressure down in number 3, and eventually I had the engine in flight idle (lowest speed I could set it to).

At this point, my options were getting even more limited, because not only did the oil pressure keep going down, but the temperature started going up.

That’s when Steve added the smoke – real smoke in the cockpit. I have to tell you, if nothing else had my attention, the smell of hot oil on top of everything else did.

Number 3 didn’t show that it was on fire, but it was showing it was overheating, and it was clear that running out of oil to keep it lubricated and cool was going to guarantee a fire, the only question was if it’d happen before I got to the ground or after. I realized there was only one thing I could do to keep that from happening, so I reached up above the windshield, between the empty copilot’s seat and mine, and flipped the switch to arm the fire extinguishing system. I feathered the prop and pulled the fire extinguisher handle, shutting that engine down, and if nothing else, preventing a fire.

That solved one problem, but created several more.

I was still trying to land in a storm, but now I was down 25% of my power, and I was right close to stall speed.

That was when Steve decided to up the wind shear a bit, and I felt the plane lurch, then saw the instruments show I’d gone from a headwind to a downdraft and I was sinking fast.

Sinking fast when you’re flying is not a good thing.

Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying is a very bad thing.

Sinking fast when you’re almost not flying, close to the ground, is a sentence that often has a fireball for a period.

I simultaneously slammed the remaining three throttles to the firewall, and turned the yoke all the way to the left and stomped on the left rudder pedal to try to balance out the asymmetrical lift and thrust I knew I’d be getting because of number 3 being out, and stopped sinking.

In spite of that, it moved me to the right of the glide path, so I banked left (which is actually hard to do since I had more power and lift from the left wing) and had to get back on the glide path, just as I heard Steve’s calm voice inform me that I was below I was 200 feet right of glide path, and definitely below glide slope.

All the while, Steve watched from the back, saw that I was close to making it, but I still wasn’t out of the weather, and just as I was about to touch down, I got another hard gust from the left. I firewalled the throttles again to try to keep from hitting too hard, but we were too close to the ground for it to help enough in time. I did hit hard, felt and heard one of the tires in the right main landing gear go, pulled all three engines to ground idle, then the standard thing to do would be to lift all the throttles straight up, allowing me to pull them back further, changing the angle of the propeller blades so they’re blowing air forward to slow the plane down once it’s on the ground, not backward to keep it flying.

Had I done that with all three remaining engines, I would have put two engines on the left wing and one on the right into full thrust reverse, adding “pirouetting down the runway” to my list of accomplishments on that flight. I decided, instinctively to let my middle finger loose and leave the number 2 engine in ground idle and reverse numbers 1 and 4, which slowed the plane down without the pirouette until I was able to use the brakes and get off the runway.

Once everything was shut down, Steve looked at me with a huge grin and said, “Well done! I’ve had trained pilots in here that didn’t handle that as well as you did!”

It made me smile, sitting there, back all sweaty against the pilot’s seat – slowly starting to shiver from the abundance of adrenaline and the air conditioning I was just now starting to feel.

He’d said, “Well done!”

It’s said that any landing you can walk away from is a good landing – and this one was one of them.

We talked for a long time after that flight, and as I’ve been writing this, years later – I’ve found that as with many of these stories, it got me thinking…

The whole thing about this adventure we call life is like that adventure in flight in that simulator.

There are times when our lives are CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited). Times when you are as free as a bird, where not only the valleys we struggle through, but the mountains and clouds that seemed so high, are now beneath us.

Those are times to cherish, because in those times, you gain perspective, understanding, and wisdom.  You’re able to see the other side of the clouds, the side where the sun always shines.

Other times, life throws us into storms, and the things we hold dear, the things we depend on for support, for power, for strength are shaken to the core.  I got to thinking about those engines, and the one that was causing trouble and catching fire trying to land in that storm – and I had to just let it go and shut it off, then figure out how to go on without it.

Those aren’t times where you gain perspective.

Those are times where you gain experience.

And we need both.

It’s the transitions that are often challenging.

We have to compensate for things that have been damaged, and flying through the storm becomes quite a bit harder when we lose things we depend on.

I realized that while I’d learned how to instinctively fix something while still compensating for my weakness in the simulator, (slamming those three throttles forward when I really needed four, and stomping on that left rudder while turning hard left to keep the strength I did have from pulling me off course), that that’s a constant lesson in real life.

I got to thinking some more about it all, and how hard flying through that storm was… You couldn’t see anything out the windows of the simulator – it was nothing but instruments – but if you were flying in a storm, you wouldn’t see anything anyway.

…and that, sometimes, is what life is like…

It feels like we’re flying blind, but only if we’re straining to find something in the murk outside…

If we look inside, at our instruments, if you will – there’s more clarity, and while doing that GCA, I had that voice in my headsets guiding me along that cross in the radio beams, and that dotted cross on the instrument panel, and the third one over the top of that, guiding me on the inside. When I was where I was supposed to be, the three crosses became one. I learned that if I focused on that cross, and listened to that voice, it would guide me through any storm.

It was a lesson in trust.

I couldn’t trust in my own instincts. Even when the storm headwinds caused me to go higher than I wanted to go, or the tailwinds caused me to sink lower than I wanted to be, even with that engine threatening to burn a wing off.   Being so close to the ground and so slow that any mistake could be the last one, hard as it was, I had to trust.

Getting too far to one side or the other for too long, and pretty soon it’d be impossible to correct for in time even if I made a massive correction to try to get to the runway, so I needed to trust.

As easy as it is to let the storms of life blow me off course, and as hard I know it can be to struggle during those times when I don’t have perspective but I’m gaining that experience, I know that if I keep that cross centered in front of me, and keep listening to the voice in my headphones guides me when I can’t see it, I’ll be okay…

And just like I didn’t finish my time in the simulator unscathed, I haven’t made it through this journey we call Life without a few scars, none of us have. I remember Steve’s words after I landed, after I finished, “Well done!” and the smile and peace it gave me. I pray that at the end of this longer journey, I’ll be able to hear those same words again, from another Voice, “Well done…

Take care folks – and for those of you who celebrate it, have a wonderful, blessed Easter.

 


I can’t believe it’s been five years already, but it has.

A few years ago I had occasion to meet someone on a regular basis, daily, for several weeks.

We were both going through some hard times, each fighting off some pretty harsh demons, as it were, and as we sat there, over time, each going through our own battles, we became friends.  Her name was Cecily, and as the days turned into weeks, our conversations deepened, and we talked about our families, and challenges, and the struggles we were facing and overcoming.

It turns out that our opportunities to meet each other daily ended about the same time, and we kept in touch for a long time afterwards.  On rare occasions, we’d meet at a Jamba Juice on checkup days for all their healthy things and just catch up on life.  It was neat doing that, meeting near a place that had both caused and absorbed so much of our pain, and not having to actually go there.  We talked, and we laughed.  I remember for awhile she talked about her sisters and how they were helping her get a bunch of firewood for the winter.

It was a good time, just chatting.

Sometimes, when we couldn’t actually get together, we’d call or email, and just chat and check up on each other, again, asking about the families and getting back to work, and just life…

And that was fun, too.

But one day I realized an email I’d sent hadn’t been answered in awhile…

And phone calls were going to voice mail.

I left message after message, and got no answer on her office phone.

And then that stopped, too.

Over the course of several months, I tried and tried, and finally decided to simply call her main office number and get the main switchboard there, to see if I could find out why she wasn’t answering her phone.  I talked to a very nice receptionist who clearly had very little history with the company, and I asked for Cecily.

She checked, and I heard my heart beating louder in my ears as she said, “I’m sorry, there’s no one here by that name…”

But I wasn’t going to give up, so I tried her cell phone…

And kept trying.

And trying…

And trying…

Then they stopped going to voice mail even on the cell phone, and went to the dreaded recording of “The number you have called has been disconnected or is no longer in service…”

I did the thing I didn’t want to do, facing what was becoming a reality, and found out why she wasn’t answering her phone or email anymore in the last section of the paper I wanted to find her in.

Cecily, my friend, my pal, my radiation buddy, as she called me, was gone.

I found her mom’s number – it took a bit – and I talked to her for a long time.  We talked about her daughter, and we talked about my friend, and it turns out that Cecily’s mom knew all about me.  Cecily had talked to her mom about her friends, and I was, and am, very honored to have been one of them.

So Cecily – It’s been five years, but I still think of you, that smile, that laugh, that indomitable spirit.  I’m glad to have gotten a chance to know you, and I raised a glass at Jamba Juice in your memory.

My friend Cecily and me

My friend Cecily and me, with one of my trademarked blinks…

God bless…


I went for a walk with a friend the other day, and on a whim, wandered down toward Pongo’s house.

And, to explain the significance of that – I have to go back a few years for most of you…

If any of you remember high school, you know how it could be a tangled up knot of stress, from the academics, which were hard enough, to the social aspect, where everyone was trying to figure out where they fit in the overall pecking order, to the after school stuff, where you often found out where you stood by being on the receiving end of some of that pecking.

I remember when I was in high school, the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to pet my dog, and play with him, and scritch him behind his ears, and I could just feel that knotted ball of stress from school slowly unwind.  It was amazing how beneficial having a dog could be right after school like that, and although we didn’t have a dog when our son was growing up years later, he found one anyway, right when and where he needed one.

And the dog he found had started out life as the runt of the litter in a cardboard box of puppies, being given away in front of a Safeway store in Bremerton, Washington.  Pongo was suspected of being a mix of something Australian, a bit of shepherd, a bit of Husky, and the rest was of indeterminate origins.  However, to really narrow it down, anything short of DNA testing implied something much simpler.  In spite of being the runt, in his youth, Pongo was half husky, half stegosaurus.  He was, as all good dogs are, the best friend of his boy, a young lad who had grown up, just like Pongo did, and unlike Pongo, eventually moved away from home.

Pongo ended up living with the boy’s dad, Jack, and  the two of them grew old together over the years.  It was in Jack’s front yard that you could find Pongo every day, holding down his patch of sod. And it was there that the most reliable form of therapy for any human was lovingly waiting, every day, when our son walked by coming home from school. And every day, Pongo did something no human could possibly do, which by now, thanks to Bill Watterson, had a name:

Pongo offered up Fuzz Therapy.

Once Pongo was let off his leash, he laid down in full expectation of some good-ole behind the ears scritching

Once Pongo was let off his leash, he laid down in full expectation of some good-ole behind the ears scritching

And he did it with love.

He didn’t chase sticks anymore, nor did he chase Frisbees ®  but he could definitely give some Fuzz Therapy.

A number of years after he graduated from High School, our son and I went back to the street where Pongo lived, and sure enough, he was still there, still holding down that one patch of sod he’d been holding down for so many years, and when he saw our son, Pongo’s tired eyes lit up at the sight of a long lost friend, and he struggled to his feet, a little bit at a time, and slowly ambled over to where he knew he’d get some petting and loving.  And from what I saw in the next few minutes, it was obvious that Fuzz Therapy was a two way street.

Pongo both getting - and giving - Fuzz Therapy

Pongo both getting – and giving – Fuzz Therapy

Jack said that Pongo’d been getting on in years, which was obvious, as well as being sick, which was not, so we were glad that we stopped by when we did. And our son, going through the stresses of being a young adult, trying to balance the risks and benefits of running his own business, figuring out backup plans for both the job market and the financial risks and benefits of college, was able to get some Fuzz Therapy one more time.

Jack taking Pongo for a short walk

Jack taking Pongo for a short walk

Some months have gone by, and we’ve gone past Jack’s place several times since the visit in these pictures, but it has become clear that the last time we saw Pongo was the last time we would ever see Pongo…

So Pongo, my dear friend, the one who brought our son such happiness, such love, and such peace, wherever you are, I wish you an eternity blessed with a whole, healthy body, the ability to run and chase to your heart’s content, and may you get as much from the Fuzz Therapy as you gave.

===

(Pongo – as seen by the Google Street View camera in September of 2010)


At first Heidi didn’t know what she was part of that evening.

She refilled our glasses, she kept the food and drink coming, and then she did what all good waitresses do.

She left us alone.

We were sitting in a nondescript restaurant, the three of us, sharing stories, memories, and laughing ourselves silly.

The last time the three of us had been together was about 32 years earlier, and I got to pondering about the journeys we’d all not only taken, but survived to get to this table in this restaurant.  What had brought us together was a funeral, the death of J.C. Masura…

J.C. as we knew him, looking out the back of a C-130 high over somewhere.

J.C. as we knew him, looking out the back of a C-130 high over somewhere.   Photo copyright by and used with permission of the Masura Family.

…who’d been our commander many years earlier when we were all in the same Civil Air Patrol Squadron on what was then McChord Air Force Base.  J.C. had been a loadmaster on C-130’s and C-141’s, back in the day, and up until recently had run an aviation maintenance facility at an airfield near his home.

Of the three of us there in that restaurant after the funeral and reception, there was Aaron.

He told a story of being up on Mount Rainier during his Civil Air Patrol days, trying to put his tent together and it being a tangle of poles and cloth.  He told of J.C. coming over, and being relieved that he’d have help to solve this problem.  J.C. did help.  He said, “Son, if you don’t get this tent up, you’re gonna die. So you’d better figure it out.”

And Aaron did.

The most vivid memory I have of Aaron was when we were trying to ram him through the bushes (<–story) on one of our searches.  This evening, however, he was sitting across the table from me, in a uniform that spoke of honor, valor and courage.  A uniform that spoke of someone who no longer needed to be pushed through bushes, but led people through walls.

As we sat there, reminiscing, and as Heidi kept our water glasses and plates full, Aaron told stories that had us laughing, and shaking our heads in amazement.

He told of coming back from one of many missions to a country in the Middle East, ‘the sandbox’, exhausted to the core, and climbing onto a ubiquitous, anonymous Air Force cargo plane that was to take him home, only to find himself being welcomed onto the plane by a loadmaster with the familiar name of Masura stitched to his uniform.  It seems J.C’s oldest son (we knew him as Jimmy) had followed in his father’s footsteps, and was now a loadmaster himself, with enough stripes on his arm to put the fear of God into even the highest ranking officer.

Aaron, the highly decorated soldier, slept most of the flight home, watched over not by a stranger, but by a friend.

Heidi came by about then to refill our glasses, and it was obvious to her that she was seeing, and was part of, something very special.  It was obvious we hadn’t seen each other in a long time.  Typical of such reunions, she said, was folks from college getting back together.  She was amazed to hear that we hadn’t seen each other since high school, and even more amazed that we’d gotten together at all.

Then there was Bill, who I’d been able to keep in touch with a little more.  I have many memories of Bill, some of which have actually been written down.  One of those involved our Civil Air Patrol Squadron, a regional Drill competition (<–story) in Oregon, and the memories of the looks on people’s faces when they saw us beating them at their own game.

Bill was dressed in a suit jacket and tie for the funeral, had become a world traveler, working as a biologist and traveling to every continent on the planet, and some places that don’t come remotely close to being continents.  Bill told a story about going back to Antarctica, where before they could study the penguins, and the wildlife, one of the first orders of business was getting things habitable, and during that time it was discovered that the ‘facilities’ had been buried in 7 feet of snow since they were last there. By the time they got everything dug out and opened up for use, they discovered several inches of frost on the toilet seat.

No. Really.

All you have to do if your kids complain about a cold toilet seat is show them this one.  "When I was your age..."

It was chilly. (photo copyright and courtesy of William Meyer)

We laughed about the “when I was your age” stories that would grow into: “When I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy things called toilets, we had to dig through 7 feet of snow just to get to a seat with a hole in it.  And it had FROST on it.  And we had to melt that off ourselves…”

“With our Butts.”

Yeah, I can see that…

We’d get post cards from Bill every now and then, telling of his adventures in warmer climates, too.  He told one story – and it wasn’t even a story, but just a vignette, of writing one of his post cards, in this case to his sister, sitting under a tree somewhere in Africa, and writing it by candle light, because it was all he had.  When a scorpion crawled across the postcard as he was writing it, looking for bugs that might have been attracted by the candle, he decided it was time to call it a night.

Heidi came back and checked on us, and the stories continued.

I’d had some of my own adventures – some of which I’ve written about, some not, and we marveled, literally, not just about the various journeys we’d gone on to get to this table, in this restaurant, but the fact that we’d survived them all.  Even though we were there for hours, each one of us had stories that there wasn’t time to share that evening, and each one of us had stories of adventure and danger, as well as growth and promise that we realized would have to wait for another day.

We pondered that, and found ourselves all taking a collective breath. As we did, we realized the restaurant had grown quiet. There was no conversation, no bustling of waiters.  In fact, the only sounds we heard were those of clinking dishes as the staff cleaned up the restaurant, which had closed around us.

We were the last customers in the place, and the doors were locked.

Heidi, bless her, came by one last time, and let us out…

…and stood in the parking lot for another half hour, talking and shivering in the dark, but vowing that we would get together again without someone having to die in order for it to happen.

There were friends who were not able to make it this time, and friends who would not make it, ever.

And it got me thinking…

Why do we wait so long?

One person asked me, “Why is it we wait till we have nothing but weddings and funerals to get together?”

Why do we often just get stuck in our little ruts and miss out on some of the cool stuff of life, like sharing stories and laughing, and – why does it take something *more* special than just getting together to get us to get together? (yeah, I read that a couple of times myself too before I let it go, but it works…)

I mean – the three of us hadn’t been together in over 3 decades.

Me surrounded by two world travelers, Bill on the left, and Aaron on the right.

Not a week later I had occasion to go to a friend’s birthday party.  I was fighting off a bug and wasn’t feeling too well yet, but for heaven’s sake, it had been years since I’d seen him, so I went.  He’d hit the big 5 decade mark, and wondered the same thing… why do we get stuck in our little ruts?

I know the answer to this – and there’s a story in it, which I’ll tell later, but in a nutshell, it’s because it takes more energy to get out of a rut than it does to fall into one.

Sometimes that energy comes because you see patterns and realize if you don’t change something, the pattern is pretty predictable.  Sometimes the energy comes in the adrenaline fueled by the sudden, tragic realization that nothing lasts forever, and everything, everything comes to an end, whether we want to believe it or not.

So – and I’m realizing I’ve been ending a lot of stories with this theme: Make sure you let the ones you love know that while you can.

Hug your husband/wife.

Hug your kids.

Hug your parents.  Even if it’s a verbal hug, with a phone call, card, or email.

Just do it.

A friend wrote recently that he’d found out another friend had passed away, and somehow 10 years had slipped by since they’d talked.  You never know when your last words with someone will indeed be your last words with someone.

Sometimes a telephone call will reopen doors to old friendships.  Sometimes you’ll find those doors have closed and it’s time to move on.  That might hurt, but regardless the door’s position, at least you’ll know, and you’ll be able to open or close it yourself.  And you’ll actually have a chance to know what those last words with someone will be. Make sure they’re good ones.

In the end, what changed is that I did just that.

I picked up the phone and checked up on some old friends and kept in touch with them more.  I found some doors opened wide again, and found some doors closed – I write all this from experience, both joyful and painful.

And I tried, as best I could, when I saw that one of those doors had closed, to make my last words good ones.

So take care of yourselves.  This is the one time we have through this life.

Take care of each other, too.  You never know when you’ll need each other.

Oh, and if you happen to meet a waitress named Heidi, working at the Outback Steakhouse in Puyallup, Washington, who keeps your glasses full and allows you to enjoy your reunion time with your friends, give her a good tip.

She deserves it.

===

Footnotes:

It’s been a year since the events in this story unfolded, and it took this long to think them through, get some perspective, apply some of the lessons I learned,  and be ready to share them with you.  That might make a little more sense now that you’ve read it.

Aaron is still in the Army – he invited us to help celebrate his promotion recently, and we shared more stories, more laughs.  We kept the promise to get together more often, and made more promises to do it again.

Bill and I got together the day after my birthday last year along with another friend, Mark, and have kept in touch more.  He’s doing a little less exploring, but still doesn’t have a “desk” job.  He couldn’t make it to the promotion party because he was strapped into a small airplane, flying around the hinterlands of the country in an airplane, counting Elk.

Jimmy’s still in the Air Force, I saw him at Aaron’s celebration, and they got along like the old friends they are, not with the stuffy formality you might expect of an officer and an enlisted man.  It was fun to see that.

J.C.’s wife – well – widow – hard to write that, but it’s true –  is doing all the things you do when you’ve lost a loved one.  That first year, I can tell you from experience, is a hard one.  I’ve kept in touch with them as I could over the last 12 months, not as much as I’d like, but far more than the previous 30 years or so.

And as time, and the years, go on, I’m realizing more and more that the things that are valuable to me are less and less the things that gather dust, or rust, or whatever.  They’re the relationships I treasure with friends old and new.

Now go out there, and find some treasure. (and then come back and share what you found, you might help other people get out of their ruts with your stories.)

Take care,

Tom

Tom Roush

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