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This visit to the time machine was hard.

A number of years ago, just after our son was born, my parents came to visit and see the new member of the family.  My dad wanted to see what we’d made.  My wife handed our son to me, and as I put my dad’s grandson into his arms, I could feel how he’d held me when I was that age.  I could sense the love, the care, the overwhelming urge to  protect this little bundle of life with every fiber of his being – and see he knew that he would not be able to do that, all while he struggled, in that moment, to understand the balance of holding on and letting go.

And then – as if to put that to rest, just as that thought crossed dad’s mind, my son reached up and held onto dad’s finger, the one that still had the scar from the table saw incident a few years earlier.

Michael holding Dad's hand

Michael holding Dad’s hand

And dad loved it, and let his grandson hold his finger at the beginning of his life, long before he taught him what pulling it did (and the giggles that followed)

And my memories flashed on another image tacked up on the scuffed walls of the time machine.

It was a similar situation, 9 years later – as I stood at my dad’s hospital bed, and saw my son again holding my father’s hand…

Dad holding Michael's hand

Dad holding Michael’s hand

Well, actually – they were holding each others hands.  In this case, my dad held onto his grandson’s hand one last time.

And I’m glad he had those 9 years – though that last year was so hard.

Tomorrow it’ll have been 16 years that he’s been gone, living on in our memories, in our laughter, in our tears.

And… and I still miss him…

Take care, folks – oh – just a reminder – love the folks you’ve got while you’ve got them.


Tom, Dad & Michael

Two fathers and two sons… A photo from Father’s Day, 1997

I’ve been pondering here for a little bit, and so I’ll just start this story out with the results of the pondering…

See, it (the pondering) got me thinking…

Father’s day’s tomorrow.

I find myself thinking back on and missing my own dad – how for many years he thought he was a failure – and yet, good came out of those things he thought he’d failed at.

See, some years back, I learned how hard it is to be a parent… How much dedication, love, understanding, and determination it takes to love your kids when you’re trying to understand them, and support them when your memories of the world you grew up in “When you were their age” simply do not mesh with the world they’re growing up in.

In being a parent, I’ve been told you can do it like your parents did, do it the opposite of the way they did, or do something new.

I’ve found that there are things we all want to change from our childhoods, but there are also things we want to keep, traditions we want to pass on, and so on, and I’m still learning which ones are which.

I found myself often wanting to give advice to my kids, but then, since this is Father’s day realized how much I’d wanted my dad to listen to me – just to listen, and realized that that was so much more important…

And so, I try to spend my time listening to my kids when they want to talk.

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but all the time, it’s important.

So without writing much more (hah, it’s me… 😉  I’m gonna take you through a little guided tour of fatherhood, and my experiences with it… I just went through this blog – and found myself smiling, laughing, and tearing up just a bit at the stories I’d written over the last few years.  See, my Dad left us about 16 years ago.  He no longer lives with us on this earth, but lives with us in our memories… That transition, for those of you who’ve not gone through it, is astonishingly hard.  Cindy’s dad did the same thing a couple of years ago, and the transition for her, her family, and us, is ongoing.  I think that’s the little bit where you find yourself laughing at things they might have said, memories you might have shared, and then crying at the same time because you miss them and can’t share the story the memory brings forth with them.

So the stories are in the links below – each one with a little intro to what it’s about… They’re not in any particular order other than the order I pulled them out of the blog – so they’re kind of in reverse chronological order as they were published, but not much else, so you can skip around and read whichever story without missing anything.

That said, the stories, about being, or having, or losing, a dad:

…I realized early on that keeping a straight face when you’re being a dad is something that comes with time…  In this case, I had an adventure in plumbing, and can still hear the laughter of both kids as the problem I was dealing with became painfully obvious (like, it hit me in the face obvious).  It still makes me smile, and they got to laugh at their dad (with his permission).

I remember how much I wanted my own dad to listen to me when I was a kid and a young adult.  Those moments were few and far between, and as a result, so absolutely precious in my mind.  I had a chance to listen to my son once where I so very consciously put my mind on “record” because I knew the story he was about to tell was going to be fun.  It actually is the very first story on the blog.

I’ve been asked, more than once, which story is my favorite – and it’s like asking parents which kid is their favorite… They’re all my favorites – for different reasons, but this one, “Hunting for Buried Treasure” keeps bubbling up to the top – because – well, you’ll have to read it… it’s not long, and any more would require a spoiler alert.

I remember how sometimes the dad I saw, (in his role as my dad) and the dad that was (an adult step-son), were two totally different people – I love this story for the sole reason that it showed a side of dad I didn’t know existed at the time, and it was a lot of fun to write.

This next one – just fair warning – it’s got a hankie warning on it for a reason… I think it was the story that started them.  It’s called ‘Letting go of the Saddle’ – and if you can imagine teaching your kid (or being taught by your dad) to ride a bike – there’s a moment, a very special moment, that happens.  It’s repeated throughout your life in different ways – and you’ll play different characters inside this story throughout your life, sometimes simultaneously.  A huge part of this story really felt like it wrote itself and I was just hanging on for the ride.  I remember the story changing about 2/3 of the way through, where my role in it changed – and I realized I was letting go of another saddle, but not one I was ready to let go of. It was a very hard story to write… I’ll leave it at that.

There’s the story, I’m sure you’ve heard, of The Prodigal Son.  I realized that for there to be a Prodigal Son, there had to be a Prodigal Father, this is the story of the Prodigal Father and me sharing the experience of waiting for our sons to come home.

Many years before I became a dad, I was a newspaper photographer, and had the privilege of watching someone else being a dad, and was able to capture the moment, and the very strong lesson, in a 500th of a second from across a parking lot.

I’ve realized that some stories take seconds to happen, but require months or years of pondering before they’re ready to be written.  This one was a little different.  It took years to happen, and a couple of hours to write.  It involved an F-4 Phantom, a cop, and – well, it made me smile then, and still makes me smile now.

One moment that I shared with my father in law was a simple one… a common occurrence in households around the world, but this one had something special in it.  And I miss the gentle soul who was my wife’s dad.

There was a moment, not quite 16 years ago as I write this, that a number of things collided into a storm I was not ready for.  A storm of fatherhood, childhood, memories, time machines, time moving forward, time standing still.  I remember feeling very much like a little boy in an adult body, and I wasn’t ready to be that much of an adult right then.  I remember this story for the cold, both physical and emotional, for the blowing oak leaves, the sound of Taps and a view I’d seen years before and never wanted to see again… If it’s not obvious yet, it has a hankie warning, just so you know.

And for a change of pace, you know the old saying, “Insanity is hereditary, you get it from your kids”? – Yeah, that’s true… There are other things you get from your kids.  In this case, we’ve actually got three generations involved in this story… My mom’s reaction to something I did, and my reaction as a dad to something my daughter did – and it was the same reaction…

And then – you realize your kids get older – and you realize that some of the lessons change, and some stay the same, and you realize that God gives you chances to both listen to your kids and to help them out.  In this case, again, a situation with my daughter – a couple decades after the above story, a gentle lesson from God, for me, as a dad, on how to be a dad… Occasionally God will present lessons with all the grace of a celestial sledge hammer… This time He used the celestial feather duster (which I appreciated very much)

Some years earlier – the family would go to Michigan for the summer to visit my wife’s side of the family, and in this case, I got to stay home and rat-sit. It was an adventure.

Then there’s the story of bathtime… and a little boy… and his dad.  Oh, and giggles… Can’t forget the giggles…

Some years after the above story, Michael and I had a mad, crushing need to leave town and go on a father-son adventure.  So we did.  We had a fun road trip that involved Mermaids, toast scramblers (the pre-war kind) and the Gates of Mordor…

I learned how important having a hand to hold is – and more importantly, being able to reach up to hold the hand of someone bigger than you..

And how sometimes, not only can you learn a lot from a two year old, but the wisdom that can come from a two year old can be – on multiple levels, completely unadulterated and pure. Oh, and it’s also fun.

And in this story from my dad – I learned a little about man’s inhumanity to man, and how dad learned about it – but also what he did, in his power, to try to combat it, with the realization that some things matter, but an awful lot of things that we think are important actually aren’t.

Another story from dad – this is a long one, but one of my favorites.  Started out as a single dusty sentence I remembered from dad, and after two years of research, I got a story out of it.  Still makes me smile.

Then comes Opa’s story – from WWI.  He’s mom’s dad – and if it weren’t for a piece of Russian shrapnel and some soldiers scavenging for potatoes, you might not be reading this story… Really.

Being a dad means doing a lot of things, and sometimes it means telling a sick munchkin a story.  In this case, I made up a story quite literally on the fly.  Here’s the story – and the ‘behind the scenes’ of telling it.

It’s about a boy…

And a dragon…

Named Fred.

On evenings when Cindy was off with our daughter, I’d often take Michael for drives, bicycle rides, walks, or combinations of all of them.  On one of these we saw something most peculiar in the sky, and I turned my brain on to ‘Record’, and didn’t blink.

Oh… My favorite… Springtime.  ‘Nuff Said… Go read it and smile.

And, a story about a boy and… and a borrowed dog named Pongo.  Pongo was a good dog, and even though he wasn’t ours, Michael got to ‘borrow’ him on his walk home from school.  We haven’t walked down that street in a very long time, in large part because as long as we don’t, in our minds Pongo will still be there.

A lesson I learned from my son, that he didn’t realize he was teaching me… out at Shi Shi beach.

I learned a number of lessons – about shoes, from my daughter – even though she didn’t realize she was teaching me.  We were walking to the bus stop, as fast as we could, because as always, we were running late.  Michael was tucked into my coat (really) and Lys was walking behind me, looking at my red shoes, and proudly watching her two feet, also clad in much smaller Red Converse High Tops, enter and leave her view with every step.  “Look, Papa, I’m two feet behind you!  Get it? Two.. Feet.. Behind you?”  I smiled, and sure enough, she was… Oh, and we caught the bus that day, and the next, and she – well, there’s more to the story – you can read the rest of it here.

Every now and then – you have a story that’s a lot like “Letting go of the Saddle” – only it’s even clearer… In this case, it was my Opa – and this story has a hankie warning.

And last, but not least, I’ve learned, just like being a mom, once a dad, always a dad… the seasons of life come and go, but you’re always dad, or pop, or papa, or daddy.  You hover around being a confidant and an authority figure, between teaching and learning yourself, between laughing with them and crying with them.

Sometimes you spend time on a swingset with your kids, sometimes you spend time in the car with them… Sometimes you agree with them, sometimes not…

But that’s part of life, right?

Oh, and one thing that’s constant…

You always love them.

Always.

 

 

 


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.

 

 


It’s been a year now since this story happened, and it’s simmered enough to finally write.

We had an interesting summer last year.

We did a road trip. But, as with anything with us, it wasn’t ordinary.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of ordinary stuff in there – but – well, here, I’ll explain a bit as we go, k? You hop in the back seat, right next to the ice chest, kick the sandy shoes and the McDonald’s bag out of the way so you have some leg room, say hi to Michael, he’s back there, too, and come along for the ride – oh, sorry – no cup holders in the back seat.

There are so many stories to tell here – some of them are behind us – in fact, here – fold the map up and crack the window a bit while I get you caught up. We’re heading west, with no turns for 2000 miles… We won’t need the map for a few days.

So we were headed back to my wife’s home state of Michigan to celebrate – lots of things…

An anniversary…

A wedding…

A graduation…

…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?

Life had been a bit challenging leading up to the trip – lots of things…

A ton of overtime at work…

Lots of organizing things for the trip…

Lots of – well…

…it’s also the stuff life is made out of, right?

And so while we were looking forward to some fun times, life, as you well know, occasionally has other ideas. And in this case, there was a trip to an emergency room, a hospital stay, a resulting unexpected trip to a laundromat, where some prayers were answered, where we bought the cop car we’re driving west in, and – yeah, a lot of things… things that you just don’t expect when you’re going to visit family for an anniversary, a wedding, and a graduation.

But they were there…

It’s…

…it’s the stuff life is made out of, right?

But things were a bit stressful, wondering if it was okay to leave, but we were told things would be okay, and so the time came to leave, we said our goodbyes, and tried not to cry – because as you know, there’s always a chance that the last time you see someone will indeed be the last time you see someone, and the last words you say to someone will indeed be the last words…

And you realize, as you leave, that you want to hold on to them for just a little longer…

You want to soak up their presence, their essence, and you want to just be with them for a little bit longer.

You don’t *know* that something bad is going to happen, but the visits are rare, and you have to save up for them, so that thought isn’t just in the back of your mind, it’s actually in front of that.

And so you hug them, put on a brave face, and try to remember everything you learned from them.

So you not only hug them, but you hold on to them as long as you can, and –

– hang on a bit – it looks like a rainstorm ahead…

And yes indeed – it is a rainstorm.

In fact – it’s raining so hard I can barely see – wow this came on suddenly – unexpectedly… Should I have seen this coming? This is not a road I’m familiar traveling, but stopping isn’t an option.

I look in the rear view mirror and see a Semi truck barreling down on me. I’ve slowed down to 35 mph and still it doesn’t seem slow enough… the wipers are flipping rain as hard as they can.  The car suddenly shudders violently in the turbulence as the truck blasts by. The wipers won’t go any faster, and the only car I can see, and that just barely, is the one in front of me…

I can’t follow too closely, because there won’t be time to react if that driver has to stop suddenly. There was a gentle curve to the left starting just as we hit the rainstorm, so I need to stay with that driver – to be close enough to see his taillights to help guide me, but far enough away to be safe. I know I’ll have to let go, so to speak, of that driver, sooner or later, but for now, I have to hang on.

About this time, trying to imagine explaining this later, I ask Michael to take a picture, and he does.


The wipers are on full, and if you look closely, you can barely see the one taillight of that car just about dead center in the picture. The one I have to stay close enough to to see, but not so close that I crash into them.

I can’t believe how hard it’s raining, or that it’s even possible for it to rain harder.

But it does. It rains harder, I can barely see past the hood, much less the sides of the road.

We have to slow down even more.

I want to say “I can’t believe it” – but believing it – or not, is irrelevant… it’s staring me in the face. The deluge on the other side of the windshield just is, and has to be dealt with.

Now.

Whether I believe it or not.

Whether I’m capable of believing it or not.

Other drivers have seen a cable guardrail on the side of the road and have decided that slowing down isn’t enough. They had actually stopped on the shoulder, knowing they couldn’t drive any farther, simply because they couldn’t see.

I think about it – but a quick look in the rear view mirror shows the dark silhouette of another truck coming up behind me in the fast lane. He’s doing maybe twice my speed and I realize that I’d never be able to get out of the way fast enough if he were in my lane, much less drifting off to the shoulder full of parked cars.

I glance up and see that his cab is just above the spray from all the cars. That’s why he can drive faster – he can see, but all of us down here are in the middle of the spray, and we can’t see very well, so we drive slowly… and safely. We crawl past the line of cars and see an exit, which we take.

The exit as seen from Google Earth, taken on a much dryer day

The exit to Jamestown, ND, as seen from Google Earth, taken on a much dryer day

It loops around 180 degrees to the right, we make a left turn off it, and find a truck stop that says, in large letters, “CAFÉ”. There’s a parking space right in front of the door, so I pull in and just sit there for a bit.

My foot’s still on the brake, and I’m surprised to find I have to slowly peel my fingers off the steering wheel. One at a time. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding on so tight – but I had been. I had to so I could stay in control, in case – I can’t allow myself to think of the alternative.

Our ears re-adjust to the sounds in the car now that it’s stopped. The engine’s off, there’s no sound of tires on wet pavement or frantic wipers on wet glass. The only sound now is the rain, roaring down on the roof so loud we have to talk loud to be heard over it.

We wait in the car for a bit, wipers finally off, wondering if the rain will let up…

And it’s not letting up, so if we’re going to get inside, we’re going get wet, plain and simple, so taking a deep breath, we jump out, lock the car and run for the door.

We stomp our shoes dry in the foyer and find others have had the same idea, that stopping and waiting for the weather to clear is just smart. There’s a crowd of people congregated around the bathrooms to the right and I hear two women talking, one surprised to see the other’s there. “Oh, I wasn’t expecting to be here, but there’s an accident blocking the westbound lanes at the next exit a mile or so further up, so I came this way.”

Those westbound lanes were the lanes we’d been traveling on.

With the storm, I wouldn’t have been able to see an accident if we’d come up on it.

Waiting my turn, and still trying to come to grips with what had happened, I pull out my phone and look up the local weather radar – I’d never seen anything like this, and from that radar image, it’s clear why it felt so sudden, because quite frankly, it was. It had been cloudy, but no rain, or even a sign of rain, until we came up over a rise just outside of Jamestown. We could see rain up ahead, but there wasn’t any hint of what was to come. Since we could barely see past the hood of the car, trying to figure out how big this storm is would take something else, so I check the scale on the radar map and find the towns of Steele (on the left) and Casselton (on the right) are about 130 miles apart. That means the storm we’re in is about that big north to south, and the part we were driving through east to west was maybe 15 miles of total blindness. It would have been driving by braille, feeling our way along.

Yeah, it was worth stopping.


We go back to the café part of the place and sit down in a booth where the vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee sounds about as good as anything could sound on a day where the water in the air is so thick you can’t see through it.

…and it got me thinking…

The whole trip had been full of so many things.

Some were wonderful. (Put going to Mackinac Island on your bucket list, really)

Some were calmly pleasant. (Sitting on the front porch, quietly chatting with my father in law, the one who taught me how to pour coffee).

And some – like all goodbyes, were hard.

I remembered holding on through our goodbyes as we left, and how much that was like holding on to that car up ahead in the rainstorm, the one I’d seen so clearly until the rains fell. I tried to hold onto it – to stay close to it, so that I wouldn’t lose it.

But I couldn’t get too close.

Right?

Too close and I’d run the risk of running into him. Too far, too early, and I could lose my way entirely and crash myself.

I had to stay with them as long as I could, until I could see well enough to get along on my own, and only then let him go.

And I thought more about that, sitting there in that café, with my family, as we ate our soup and sandwiches…

We have to let go of the generation in front of us, right?

At some point in everyone’s life, there will come a storm.

It will be hard to see.

It may come on suddenly, like a tornado.

It may come slowly, like a hurricane.

You will find yourself trying desperately to hold on to the generation that’s always been in front of you.

Leading the way.

Lighting the way.

And you’ll realize that there will be people around you – for whom this storm matters not.

Like the first truck that drenched us with spray.

There will be things that shake you.

Like that second truck that so shook the car.

And you will find that there will be situations where people simply can’t see as well as you can.

And for a moment, they’ll stop.

They know their limits, and they’ve pulled over.

They’ll move again when the road is clearer, when the storm has passed enough for them to see clearly enough to move on.

At some point, that storm will pass enough for you try to make it on home, too.

You’ll have taken a break to think of these things and to strengthen yourself with family, and maybe with the emotional equivalent of vegetable beef soup, a grilled cheese sandwich, and diner coffee, but when you get back on the road to move on, the car in front of you, the one you depended on and simultaneously took for granted, will not be there.

 


All that you have of that car, the guidance, the wisdom, the acceptance is what you learned from it before and during the storm…

While the person who was ahead of you in the car, and in life, will be gone, those memories you were able to bring from their life into yours will live on.

All of what you were able to bring into your life, you’ll be able to keep with you.

That which you didn’t is gone forever.

Be safe out there, folks.

Hug the friends and family you have while you have them. You never know when the storm will come.

And you don’t know when it will be your turn to be the driver up front.


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.


We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons over the last couple of years. Life has been busy, and I needed a place to be alone with my thoughts. A lot of people, family and friends, had left our lives in that time, to live on in our memories, and fall brings memories, and “firsts” that are bittersweet and often painful.

The weather was nice the other day, so I went out to Golden Gardens where I often go to watch the sunset.

Sunset, Golden Gardens

I walked toward the water, past the sand and onto the rocky part, just watching and listening. A train had gone by a little earlier, and its fading rumble mixed with a ship’s horn…

RocksOnTheBeach

…and the swish of waves rolling over the rocks on the beach.

Rock

I wandered for awhile, and one of the rocks caught my eye, and I picked it up…

Ipickeditup

…and saw the impression it had left behind in the sand in the beach, shaped just like itself.

And I realized that each person in my life, in your life, occupies a space only they can fill. Some people exist in your life in a very specific time and place, with very clear borders, a lot like a rock on the beach.

They leave your life in whatever way they leave…

HoleIsFilledUp

…but the hole they leave is quietly filled up over time, like the sand on the beach.

waves

I pondered this as I watched the waves a little more.

And realized that only after some people leave your life – that you realize they weren’t a rock on the beach.

They were the rock that held the beach up.

 

And nothing is ever the same.


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.


Have you ever done something a little on the audacious side?

Taken risks?

In fact, have you ever done something that ran an astonishingly high risk of failure, but you decided you’d try it anyway?

Now, on top of that, have you ever met someone that just seemed to have it all?

And have you ever wanted to pull a prank on them, just – well… Because?

Have you ever had a convergence of all of those things look like they might come together in ways that you could imagine in your dreams, but couldn’t possibly imagine in reality?

Well, it might be hard to imagine for those of you who read these stories, but yes indeedy, I had all of those things happen, many years ago.  See, when I was a teenager, I knew someone like that, his name was Marc.  Marc was handsome, smart, had a sense of humor and a smile that would win over just about anybody.

At that time, Marc was always, and I mean always in the company of some attractive young lady.  We went to different schools, but went to the same church, and were in the same youth group, and most importantly, went to the same church camp in southern Washington, where once a year, we met other kids from other churches in the district (which encompassed Washington and Oregon).  One of those kids was a young lady by the name of Jeanne, a bright, fun, attractive girl from Oregon who was friends with just about everyone.

It was clear that a number of the boys at camp were completely smitten by her, but given that she lived a few hours from where we lived, and given that this was, shockingly, before the days of the internet as we know it, any communication had to be done by letters that were written, with a pen, on paper, or telephone calls which usually cost more for the first minute of calling than the stamp to send the letter cost.  (I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit for some of you, and for those of you a little older to nod and remember that time, too)

So we all looked forward to church camp, where we were able to spend time with each other and not only learn lessons from the Bible, but get together and have fun, singing songs, playing games like Capture the Flag, and What Can We do With The Counselor’s Car?” (my sister’s car was somehow put in the Gym, mine one year ended up down a path down by the river), or, in quieter moments, just hanging out by the campfire.  Bottom line: those of us in the youth group just loved camp, because it just made the youth group that much bigger.

One year, completely outside of camp, the youth group decided to go camping for a weekend out around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula.

Marc was still smitten by Jeanne, but because of simple geography, was also good friends with a young lady named Sandy.  Fact is, we were teenagers, and being smitten was part of the territory, so that was really a standard condition for all of us.

As a result, the situation was just totally asking for more than a little practical joking, and to be honest, I was one of those guys who was just a little smitten, but Jeanne and I were also, as we used to say, “just friends” (emphasis on the quotes there) so when I found out about the youth group camping trip to Kalaloch, and that Marc was going, it just seemed ripe for a little fun.

So I called Jeanne up and asked her if she wanted to go camping.

At the Beach.

In Washington.

Now understand, this was quite a bit easier said than done.  I was south of Tacoma, Washington, she lived somewhere near Portland, Oregon, and we were headed to Kalaloch, in Washington.  Yeah, I looked it up on the map.  The trip looked like this.  Just that piece of it was over 300 miles.  She checked with her parents, got the okay, and the resulting plan was that I’d come down Friday afternoon, spend the night there, then somehow, without a whole lot of planning, synchronization, or anything, meet up with the youth group on their way to the beach, and pull off a ‘mess with Marc’s mind’ prank the likes of which he would never expect.

Also understand, the whole youth group, Marc included, coming from one direction, us coming from another direction, and actually meeting at an undisclosed, not to mention unknown, location in the middle required the kind of precision timing you might find in carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operations.

However, this was not a carefully choreographed and rehearsed military operation.

This was just me, pre-cell phone/gps days, driving down to Portland and hoping to bring a girl up to go camping with the youth group, and just happening to run into said youth group on the way to the beach – but not telling anyone in the youth group that I was doing it.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’d already told everyone that I wouldn’t be able to make it to the camping trip, that I was going to Portland for the weekend, and that I hoped they had a good time.

So I piled all my stuff together into my 1967 Saab 96 with the three cylinder, two stroke, 850 cc engine and headed off to Portland.

Everything was going great, I got there safely, we had dinner, and I met her mom. I don’t remember her dad being in the picture that evening, and her sister was out of town, so I ended up sleeping in her sister’s bed, in the frilliest, girliest bedroom I’ve ever slept in.

Given how well the trip down had gone, I thought the trip up would be a breeze.

I was wrong.

It rained overnight, the first time in a long time, and the next morning, we were all ready to go, we got the car packed, and I fired up the Saab, it was idling quietly, warming up a bit, with the ‘ringgggdadingdingding….’ sound that it made when it was idling, the two stroke smoke from the cold engine wafting like fog all over the neighborhood.  I was about to put it into gear to back out of their driveway when the clutch pedal went to the floor, and neither reverse – nor for that matter, any gear, was available without some seriously nasty grinding of Swedish steel gears.

Hmm…

I popped the hood, screwed the lid off the clutch master cylinder, and found it not only low, but bone dry.

Not good.

There was obviously a leak in the rather simple hydraulics of the clutch system, as all the brake fluid in it had leaked out. I was many, many miles from home, so in spite of the ‘freewheeling clutch‘ designed into the car, I really wasn’t going for a several hundred mile trip without it working.  So bright and early that Saturday, we had to find a car parts store to see if we could get the right brake fluid for the car’s hydraulic clutch system (the wrong kind would eat through the seals, and who knows, maybe that’s what had already happened, I don’t know for sure, so we borrowed her parent’s land yacht of a ‘70’s sedan. All I remember was that it had a cold-blooded 430 cubic inch V-8 engine , a light rear end, and a sticky throttle.

Note: that 430 cubic inch engine had more power in just one of its eight cylinders than I had in my entire car.  There WAS a difference.

In fact, there was far more cast iron in that engine than in my entire car, and it  ran a little rough until all that iron warmed up. This was something we discovered as the car coughed just as we were making a left turn out onto a very large, empty five lane street as we were going out in search of the necessary brake fluid.  Jeanne pumped the gas a few times to try to get it to run again, and just as she had her foot on the floor, the engine woke up as if it had been hit with a quadruple shot of espresso, and it roared, spinning the back wheels on the wet, slick pavement.  We fishtailed all over the road for a few hundred feet until Jeanne got the throttle un-stuck and the car under control.  Neither one of us needed anything resembling coffee after that, the adrenaline was enough to keep us both very, very alert for the rest of the morning.

We found a gas station, got the only kind of brake fluid they had (the wrong kind, as it turned out – but I knew I’d have to replace the seals when I got home anyway), got the land yacht safely docked back in her parent’s driveway, where I did a quick refilling and Jeanne helped me bleed the air out of the clutch hydraulics and tested it all out.  That done, we piled into the now non-clutchless Saab, and headed north.

We’d already lost quite a bit of time with the whole clutch thing, which frustrated me, as I knew about the time the youth group was planning to leave, and knew where I wanted to intercept them, but I was now late, and the whole plan was looking like it was going to fall apart.  I mean seriously, I didn’t even know which campground near Kalaloch they’d be staying at… I had to find them or the whole weekend would be a wash.

Then near Vancouver, Washington, the little light on the gas gauge started to flicker on every now and then, so I pulled into a Shell station there.  Oh, remember, I was driving a two stroke car, which meant I had to mix the oil with the gas in a precise ratio: One quart of 30 wt oil, 8 gallons of premium…

In that order.

Into the gas tank.

And that station was the only one around that insisted on selling gas by the liter.

Right.

They sold oil by the quart, gas by the liter, and my math was in gallons.

I had to do some quick math…

Let’s see… 3.78 gallons of gas per liter –

No, wait, 3.78 liters per gallon…

Ugh…

I calculated it out with the stub of a pencil on the roof of the car, scribbling on the back of a receipt I’d found in the door pocket, to be about 30 liters of gas after I got the one quart of oil in there.  It had to be right.  If it was too rich (too much oil) I’d foul the plugs and it wouldn’t run well.  If it was too lean, (not enough oil) I’d burn the piston rings and toast the engine.  (We’ll get into this in another story that has yet to be written, interestingly about this very thing, on this very car.)  So, that being said, the relatively simple but time consuming part of getting the oil to gas ratio wasn’t optional, it had to be done right, or the trip might not happen at all.  So, it was just one more thing on this trip that absolutely had to be right.   I figured it all out, got the gas, paid, hopped back into the car, and blasted out of there heading north.

Once we got moving, it felt like we were actually making pretty good time, and it looked like we might make it… I just had to drive well past the speed limit, not get caught, and – oh gosh, I think Jeanne was 16 or 17 at the time… I was maybe 20, 21.  Getting stopped with a young lady who was underage across state lines wouldn’t be good, so yes I was driving as fast as the little Saab and traffic would allow, but gosh I had my eyes peeled for anything resembling a car with red and blue lights on it.  The thing is, I didn’t really feel I had much of a choice but to drive like I was driving, because we were so late already.  I’m sure at some point in there I had thoughts of “What am I doing???” – but right then the whole idea of, “Gosh, Tom, why don’t you drive something like 750 miles in a weekend just to pull a prank on a friend?” just seemed like the right thing to do…

About an hour or so later, we were coming to a possible crossroads where, depending on where the rest of the youth group was, I would either have to turn left and get off the freeway, or go straight and try to intercept them up ahead.  A look at the clock in the car made me realize I’d better see if I could call the church to see who all ended up going, I mean, if Marc hadn’t gone, the whole thing would be off, so it was crucial for him to be there.  I pulled off the freeway and into a gas station with a phone booth (yes, this was BC – Before Cellphones). I ran over to the phone booth, crumpled map rustling in my wake, and called the church, where I very quickly learned several things: 1. Marc was coming.  2. He was driving his parent’s silver Chevy Citation, our friend Bert would be driving his parent’s red Buick, and Marc’s parents would follow up in this monster station wagon they had, with all the bigger stuff, like the tent, the food, and the stove. I also learned that they’d left later than I expected them to, which meant that if I read the map right, we – oh, crap – I said a hurried goodbye, slammed down the receiver and tore out of there as fast as the three cylinders of the Saab would take me, leaving a cartoonish cloud of white two stroke exhaust in my wake…

It looked like we might actually be able make this…

I’d have to turn off my planned path of heading north and west via I-5 and highway 101 (which turned into highway 8) which I was familiar with and I knew they’d have to travel, vs. highway 12, which I’d never been on, but from the looks of the map, was a lot shorter, and from what I could tell, intersected highway 8 over near the town of Montesano, so I decided to risk it and turned off I-5 and onto Highway 12, where I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I couldn’t drive nearly as fast.  I got through the town of Grand Mound, and then it was pretty much a two lane road, top speed, 55 mph, with occasional little towns where the speed limit was lower.

Hmm…

So we tootled along for a bit – talking about all sorts of stuff, but never doing anything more than speed limit, until the stereotypical little old lady – I kid you not, squinting at the road between the top of the steering wheel and the dashboard, pulled out in front of us in a blue smoke belching Buick type of a thing that I could barely see around.

At 35 mph…

That was a bit too high for 2nd gear in the Saab, just a hair low for 3rd. Definitely too low for 4th .  so I was stuck, right at a speed the car rarely saw unless it was accelerating through it…I remember having to constantly shift back and forth, hunting for a gear I could use.  I was incensed.  The road was just curvy enough, with just enough traffic, to where there was no possible way I could pass her with the acceleration the car had, Mile after mile after mile, stuck behind this old greenish Buick.  I was just thinking that it couldn’t get worse, when a very heavily loaded logging truck pulled out from some foresty road right in front of the little old lady…

And she had to hit her brakes.

To slow down.

From 35 mph…

I don’t remember where exactly this happened, but it was clear that the truck driver either wasn’t planning on or wasn’t capable of driving any faster than 35 for the bit he was on, and any acceleration he got on the level he lost on the little hills, so 35 it was.

I could see my dreams of messing with Marc’s mind disappearing in a cloud of diesel exhaust glowing from the little old lady’s brake lights.

I was beside myself.

There was no possible way I could pass, no possible way I could overcome this obstacle, and so as frustrated as I was, I had to just let it go…

After all that, it looked like I’d failed. I was just imagining how hard it would be trying to catch up with the rest of the youth group after being stuck behind the truck and the little old lady when the truck turned right, and I saw something I couldn’t see around him: A bridge. That couldn’t be the bridge I was looking for. It was about 10 miles early… But… it had to be highway 8. I didn’t understand, and asked Jeanne for the map, where I saw that highway 12 didn’t come out at Montesano, it came out at Elma, and those last 10 miles to Montesano were actually on highway 8, which, from what I could tell, doubled as highway 12, at least for that little bit.

And that meant we were about 10 miles ahead of where we thought we were – which meant… Oh my gosh – that meant that we might actually have caught up with them.  There wasn’t a second to lose, but now I didn’t know if we were ahead of them or behind them.

Just in case it all worked, I’d gotten some Groucho Marx glasses for us both – with the nose, the mustache, and the eyebrows, and so I asked Jeanne if she could get them out while I accelerated up the onramp.  She was rummaging around the back seat for the masks when I hit third gear, and I remember telling her what I’d heard on the phone a bit earlier.  “Look for a silver Citation, a red Buick, and a wood sided station wagon.”

“Yup, I see them,” she said as if she’d been expecting this all along.  “They’re right there.”

They’re…

…Right…

“WHAT?”

“No, really, they’re right there!”

I leaned forward as far as the seat belt would let me, looked in my left rear view mirror as I was merging and realized she was right.  With all the things that appeared to have gone wrong, they had all conspired to get us to exactly the right spot at the absolute most perfect time we could have gotten there…

Pulling up IN FRONT of them.

Right where I needed to be, on the freeway.

Seriously, Special Forces missions are timed with this level of precision.

I hit the gas, and the white smoke from the two stroke engine trailed behind me and into the Citation, the Buick, and the Station Wagon, making it very clear to all that we’d arrived.

I heard later that there was a conversation in the car Marc was driving (the Silver Citation), his little brother Craig and little sister Marce was there, saw me pull up in front of them, and yelled, “That’s Tom!”

“That can’t be Tom. Tom’s in Portland visiting Jeanne.”

“But no one else has a red Saab like that!”

“Someone must.  Tom’s in Portland.”

Meanwhile, in the Saab, I still couldn’t believe my luck, and tried to figure out what to do, given that while I had hoped for something like this, and given all the obstacles that morning, only in my wildest dreams did I actually expect it to happen, and it seemed like it was coming true.  Jeanne and I tried on the fake Groucho Marx glasses with the nose, mustache, and eyebrows, you know, high-brow (but low budget) stuff, so that when they finally saw us, they wouldn’t quite recognize us right at the first second.

And then I tried to get them to pass us, so I slowed down to about 50…

Marc, Bert, and Marc’s parents slowed down, too…

No one passed.

I sped up, and in a few minutes, tried it again.  I had to get them to pass me because I had no idea where they were going – so after several times where I slowed down, and irritated Marc with that, then floored it to get back up to speed (irritating him with the smoke from the car) – he finally pulled out and passed, and Jeanne and I straightened out the glasses.

And to this day, I can still remember the look on his face as he realized what was going on as he passed us.  Sandy was sitting next to him, Jeanne and I both looked over in our Groucho Marx glasses, and he just stared… (and I, of course, smiled just a touch).  He couldn’t believe it.  (and, to be honest, I couldn’t either, but for a much different reason.)

I stayed in the slow lane until the whole caravan passed us, getting smiles from people as they looked over and realized what was going on, and then I fell in behind the last car.  We all got to the beach safely, which was wonderful, and I think there were close to 15 people there when everyone was added up.  By the time I’d pulled into a parking space, Marc had already jumped out of the car and was waiting on Jeanne’s side of the car.  He opened the door hugged the stuffings out of her, and I think there might have been a punch in the shoulder for me, followed by a hug when I got out.  I remember the shocked look was gone from his face, and that smile of his that I always remember him having was back.  Having Jeanne there was definitely a surprise, totally unexpected, but she was such a part of the ‘extended’ youth group we were in, that she fit in perfectly, and then, over the next little bit the tent and stove were set up, the sleeping bags were piled into the tent, and in typical Washington summer fashion, the wind that was blowing was cold.

We all ran down to the beach, where my friend Bert (driving the red Buick) and Marc had convinced another member of the youth group, Rachel, that this kelp they’d found was a huge sea snake.  They chased her down the beach with it.  How it later ended up, cold, wet, and slightly slimy, in Bert’s sleeping bag we, um, don’t know, but it was all part of the fun of camping at the beach (well, fun for everyone but Bert).  We went wave hopping (wading out into the Pacific until you’re about thigh deep, and then trying to time your jumps to keep your, um, “bits” dry as the waves come in.  And let me tell you, off the Washington Coast, the Pacific Ocean is COLD.  Eventually the “bits” you’re trying to keep dry and warm get wet, and cold, and who knows, depending on how long you’re in there, they might even turn blue.  When things like that happened, it was obviously time to get out, so we did.  Of course, that’s right about the time the sun came out, go figure.

We went back up to the camp, where Marc’s parents had started a fire, and his mom had made hot chocolate, which we held in our hands in those speckled blue and white metal camping cups until it was lukewarm, trying to get every possible degree of heat out of before drinking it to get the rest.

We soaked up the warmth of the campfire, we sang songs, we played games, we did skits, we made s’mores, and made more hot chocolate.

When it was bedtime, almost all of us managed to fit in the tent.  It was so weird, we were all full of the energy, spunk, and yes, hormones of youth, and getting to sleep was a challenge, we were all giggling and laughing and telling stories.  People had trouble believing not only that I’d told everyone I wasn’t coming on the trip, (we were a tightly knit bunch, and for me to not go on the campout bordered on treason) but that I’d actually pulled it off.  And on top of it all, for me to go to visit the girl Marc liked didn’t make sense, but in the end, that night we were all together like a group of friends should be, piled together in the tent with all the formality of a litter of puppies.

Once we did fall asleep, we slept like the logs on the beach.

I remember getting up the next morning, bleary eyed. Everything in the tent damp with the puppy breath of about 15 puppies (us), and while it was warmer in the tent, I was glad to get out into “not-pre-breathed-through-several-sets-of-lungs, seaside fresh, but oooh-so-cold air.

Marc’s parents were already up, his dad had made coffee and a fire was going.  I remember several more people stumbling out of the tent and being inexorably drawn to the fire like marbles to a bowling ball in the middle of a trampoline.

After breakfast and cleanup, there was a little more playing on the beach until it got too cold, then we thawed out a bit after we came back out of the wind through the trees and into the campground, where there was more hot chocolate to get feeling back into our hands with those warm camping cups.  Eventually it was time to pack all our sandy stuff into the cars and start the long drive back home…

Only I couldn’t go straight home.

Since I’d brought Jeanne up from Oregon to go camping, I had to take Jeanne back home to Oregon to go home, and I still had several hundred miles of the clutch issue to deal with, so we all headed out, and eventually, with much waving of hands and honking of horns, we went our separate ways, Jeanne and I heading south so I could take her to Portland, and the rest of the group heading straight home to where they had come from.

I honestly don’t remember much of the trip back, either to Jeanne’s or home from there. I just know it was a lot slower and gentler than the trip up.  I don’t remember any of the fallout or aftermath of the story.  I just know that I wanted to do something crazy and did it.

And as I was writing this – I went through the trip in my mind, and it got me thinking. (and if you’ve read some of my stories, you knew this was coming)

Each one of the things that happened in the story happened for a reason…

And most of the things that happened in the story drove me nuts when they happened.  I mean really,

  • Did the clutch cylinder HAVE to blow the night before the trip?
  • Did Jeanne’s parents car HAVE to spin out and freak us out?
  • What about trying to drive all over before gas stations and stores opened up to find brake fluid?
  • Or having to stand there converting liters to gallons, or the other way around?
  • What about the stop to make the phone call?
  • What about the blue haired (and smoked) little old lady driving the mondo Buick that I couldn’t pass?
  • Why on EARTH would she be put in front of me?
  • What about the logging truck dragging half a forest’s worth of old growth behind him? Why did he have to pull out in front of me?

I mean seriously, all of that stuff made me SO much later than I wanted to be… By the time I got to the bridge in what I thought was Montesano I was about ready to explode.  I was trying to be optimistic, because it all might still have worked, but until that truck got out of the way and I realized where we were (at the bridge that I thought was in Montesano, but actually 10 miles earlier than I was expecting it), I had no idea that all this planning and stuff might actually work out.

I mean, think about it… the timing was such that if everything that needed to go “right” in my mind had actually gone right, then the whole trip would have been blown, I would have ended up waaaay ahead of the rest of the youth group, and there would have been no chance of me figuring out where they were going (All I knew was “Kalaloch”)

And it makes me think about life…

How sometimes it really, truly feels like life is not only handing us lemons, but rotten ones at that… How life repeatedly keeps flipping us a level of crap delivered by the truckload… that just seems to be overpoweringly wrong.

And yet, somehow, things work out for the good.

Each bad thing we live through, if we stop there and never get out of it, is a bad thing.  But it’s one frame in a movie, and the next frame will be different.

Think about that, then keep reading.

I know people who are going through incredibly hard times right now.  I know people who have gone through hard times and will go through harder times still…  And I’ve come to conclude that life is a learning process… We all will make mistakes through our decisions or indecisions.  We all have bad stuff happen to us through no fault of our own, and then we’re faced with a fairly simple decision:

Do I give up? Or do I carry on?

And I’ve talked to people who feel very strongly that giving up simply isn’t an option.  They may not look like very strong people on the outside, but I’ve seen them, they are Olympians of endurance on the inside.

I’ve also known people for whom the struggle was so great that carrying on wasn’t an option, and to be honest, we didn’t know how bad the situation was until after the fact, and by that time it was too late.  And even though the struggle may not seem big to those of us on the outside, it has taken me years to learn that we have no idea what kinds of struggles other people are going through, even if we think they’re telling us everything.  Some time ago, over the course of a single week, I learned that two people I knew, who I thought had it all together, far better than I did, were losing it.  You just don’t know.

And I’ve learned that we’re not here to judge each other based on what we can see of each other when there’s so much going on under the surface we know nothing about, (I don’t remember being appointed judge of anyone) – but to support each other through the trials that this life is.

So maybe, just maybe, that’s what you’re being called to do in the journey that is your life right now.  Support someone.

Help them get to their Montesano…

Surprise them on the way to their Kalaloch.

And if you can, do it anonymously.

I don’t know who this person is in your life, and it will change over time, but somehow, some way, someone will be brought into your life, and you’ll have that opportunity.

Run with it.

And if you’re someone who’s going through a rough journey, and you keep finding yourself facing messed up clutches, weird gas stations, and all sorts of things in your way…

Keep going.  Really.

If not for the destination, for the journey, and to see the smiles and love of those around you.

I just told you a story about a drive, a journey I took with a friend to meet other friends… We spent time together, we ate together, we played and talked and froze our butts off together, and then we all piled into that tent like those fuzzy puppies I mentioned earlier.

Isn’t that the way it should be?

That’s life, right?

A journey…

I mean think about it…

Good stuff happens (you meet your friends).

Unexpected stuff happens (gas stations sell gas in liters instead of the expected gallons).  People pull out in front of you, or cut you off (everyone from little old ladies to truck drivers) – and it all seems to be conspiring against you…

But… (and this is a big but, believe me, I get this…)

I learned that the end can come sooner than we think, just like that bridge I thought was in Montesano and ended up showing up 10 miles sooner…  And at that point, the frustration, or at least that part of the frustration will be over.  You’ll have lessons to ponder and learn, you’ll have stories to tell, but you’ll have a chance to be with your friends or family, and eventually, you’ll be through that challenge and on to the next one, and you’ll be doing your quiet version of driving home from Portland.

So… Hug your loved ones.

Remind them you love them.

Support those around you who are struggling.

Bring smiles into their lives as you can.

And then… go out and do something Audaciously Awesome.

PS to Marc’s family, Jeanne, Rachel, and Bert who helped me remember some of the little details of this story – Thanks for letting me be a part of it.

Much love,

Tom


I stepped into the time machine again the other day.

It’s taken many shapes over the years… Sometimes a cardboard box of photos, sometimes a garage full of old stuff that’s in that strange stage between being treasure and being junk, sometimes an old car full of memories.

In this case, it was a train… and a plane… and a mountain…

…all in the shape of an old swing set.

It was old when we got it almost 20 years ago from a family that was moving out of state and couldn’t take it with them.  I remember seeing it and thinking it was just the kind of swing set I’d drooled over years ago in the old Sears catalog  when I was a kid.  My dad was in the Air Force at the time, and we moved around too much to be able to have our own swing set, and this time, even though it was used, the little boy inside me was just thrilled for my own kids, that they’d be able to have the kind I’d always wanted – down to the paint and everything.

And you know what? The kids loved it.

 KidsonSwings

I learned to pull the kids by their feet on the swing from the front, not push them from the back – that way I could see their faces, tickle their feet, and laugh with them as they swung toward me.  I never understood the idea of pushing them from the back, pulling them from the front was just so much more fun.

We moved, and took the swing set with us to what we called “the brick house” – where the back yard was barely big enough to take it, and you ended up with your butt in the hedge when swinging all the way back, the only thing visible being your arms and maybe your feet.

And we moved again, this time to a house with a back yard big enough to hold the entire swing set and have plenty of room to swing, and slide, and play.

I spent some time on that ‘glider’ swing with my son – where one adult and one kid (or four kids) could sit and pretend they’re on a train, in a hot air balloon, or on an adventure of some kind.  For us it was mostly the train, and we swung back and forth as we traveled through magical kingdoms and faraway lands, with bridges crossing beautiful valleys, and tunnels darkly going through tall mountains.

There were times that the train also ended up traveling through tall jungles…

(that had to do with where I was working, and the length of the commute),

…because I had to hack and slash a path back to the swing set in late spring when I had the time to spend an entire weekend taming the jungle that had been a lawn at one time.

  The Jungle

We’d tied a rope from the swing set to the tree house we’d made in the apple tree, and put a pulley with a handle onto it.  That pulley became the quickest way to escape from the apple tree (just in case there were monsters attacking that needed escaping from).

And as time went on, the swing set was played on by many children, mowed around every couple of weeks in the summer, and it was a place where the imagination, and children, could soar.

One morning awhile back, I went out there again, and things looked different.  The grass was still worn underneath, but it was something else that caught my eye.

It was obvious that the swing set had current visitors, but the laughter of small children on it was still.  The chains had rusted, and instead of children going on magical journeys, there were spiders.

And there was a web.

And it got me thinking…

We have our children for a very short time.

I’ve learned the hours and minutes can feel like they’re dragging on (remember the last time you were in an emergency room with your kid?) – but the months and years fly by like the smoke from a blown out birthday candle.

I remembered when I was a kid, desperately wanting to grow up because adults always had all the answers, and adults knew everything, especially mom and dad.  As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t have all the answers and in all honesty, neither did they.

In fact, I found myself repeating that one especially as I learned (from my own kids) that there were questions I’d never thought of, and it’s impossible to have all the answers for your kids, especially when you’re still looking for them for yourself.

I stood there, in the morning sunshine, watching the spider weaving her web, and came to the realization that I was in the middle of a transition.  My mind stumbled across it all. Among the myriad of things that had happened this year, our daughter had gotten married, and both she and her new husband were doing amazing work at their respective companies.  Our son, heading off to college this fall, had started a small shop selling chainmail jewelry, which he would often make while singing along with John Rawnsley’s wonderful version of The Barber of Seville (he’d graduated from the Bugs Bunny version that I found myself humming…)

And then, while the last of the strains of Figaro (the barber) were still echoing in my mind, I thought of the lessons I’d taught them, both consciously and unconsciously.  For good or for bad, I’ve learned some of the most powerful lessons that stick are the ones we don’t realize we’re teaching them, and we often only realize years later.  I thought of the conversations I’d had with both of them over their lives, and I pondered a moment at how much both the kids and the conversations had changed.  Both of them were in various stages of putting away their childish things (we know, because most of them are still in the basement 🙂 ) and are well on their way to thinking and acting like the adults they are becoming instead of the children they had been.

They’re growing up…

I gave the swing just enough of a push to make the spider a little woozy and watched as it swung back and forth a few times.

It brought a smile, a tear, more than just a little gratitude at the blessings I had experienced with them, because of them.

I stood there a little longer…

Thinking…

Pondering…

Remembering…

A lifetime of memories floated by as the swing swung a little slower each time, creaking a little less with every one…

The years, unlike the swing, seem to go by more quickly each time, creaking a little more with every one.

I pondered a little more… reflecting, and then suddenly became conscious not only of the years, but of the minutes, and realized that time never stood still.  It was still passing. I stole a look at my watch and realized it was time to leave for work, so I turned, took a deep breath, wiped my eyes, and like the kids, left the swing set and the memories behind to start a new day.

Sunrise... Swingset...


Thirty years ago yesterday I got a little glimpse of eternity.  It was both horrifying and reassuring beyond measure.

Let me explain.

A few years before that, my Oma – my mom’s mom, passed away in Germany, and since mom was there – she asked her dad, my Opa, if he would want to come live with us, and so he did.  I still remember seeing him at the international arrivals terminal at Sea-Tac, wearing his wool coat, his old leather shoes, and his felt hat.  He looked like a time traveler amidst all the hustle and bustle of the other travelers, and in some way, he was.

The goal was to have him stay for the winter, and then see how he was handling the change and go from there.  When my mom’s brother (my uncle) came to visit, Opa was thrilled to see him, but, facing an empty house back in Germany, and having spent some time with us, surrounded by two generations of family all in the same house, he wondered aloud to mom, “Do I have to go back?”

Mom was overjoyed and told him he didn’t have to, so he stayed where he knew he was loved, where he knew he had a little garden he could work in, and we absolutely loved him, and he us.

I’ve written at least one story about him, and I’ll write more stories about him but yesterday was a day for thinking, and reflecting.  I sent flowers to mom, and wrote my uncle a letter in German because he wasn’t here, and his English is what he learned in school and a British POW camp in WWII.

“I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and today I couldn’t put it off any longer.  30 years ago this morning, Opa went to Heaven, and I was there when it happened…”

…mom’s cousins had flown in the night before, and Opa had stayed up late to say hi to them when we got home from the airport.  They talked for about half an hour, and then all went to bed.

Saturday was a gorgeous day, and we got up a little later than usual.  I’d been downstairs, and people were awake, so I went to my room to write a letter to a friend on my old Remington Noiseless typewriter.  It wasn’t really noiseless, it just made thunking sounds instead of the whapping sounds a normal typewriter made.  So I was just hammering that letter on it, the sun was shining, and I heard the floor in the hallway creak as Opa walked by.  He pushed open the door just a bit and waved at me, peeking in like a little elf.  I stopped typing and waved back. He headed further down the hall to go downstairs, and as I went back to my typing, I heard this unending, unimaginable crash like I’d never heard before.  Even all these years later, I’m at a loss to find words to describe it, and in the moment after the crashing sound stopped and before I got up, I heard my dad’s voice yelling, “Tom! You know First Aid! Come down here!” – I ran down the stairs I’d helped him up so many times, and saw Opa lying in the middle of a bunch of broken pottery, a huge gash on the top of his head.

I yelled for a flashlight, and for the first time in my life, shined a light in someone’s eyes, like I’d been taught in my First Aid class, only to have no one looking back at me.  I yelled for dad to call the hospital for a helicopter (I’d had a bit of experience with them) and went back to Opa.  He had a pulse, but it was irregular, so I didn’t start CPR, but kept checking his eyes.  One responded, the other didn’t, and was pretty much dilated.  I knew then, if I hadn’t known earlier, that things were very, very bad.  Mom’s cousins were standing behind me as I was working on him. Dad had the phone cord stretched as far as it would go to tell me that the hospital couldn’t just send a chopper – that a medic needed to call it.

He handed me the phone, and the person on the other end of the line indeed said I couldn’t order one… Only a medic could do that.  I asked him, politely, but in no uncertain terms, to call the medics then.  He said he would.

About that time Opa had a pretty big convulsion, and one of mom’s cousins blurted out, “Der Stirbt!” (He’s dying!) – I wasn’t ready to accept that – and told her, also in no uncertain terms to shut up.  I was 21 and wasn’t quite of the age where I could tell her that (she was mom’s age), but I did.

In less than a minute the siren went off for the Volunteer Fire Department in our town.  The fellow on the other end of the line had made the call. Help was on the way.

The sirens and the throbbing sound of the old aid car stopped in front of the house.  Someone opened the door and the paramedics crowded into the hallway, checking Opa and getting a pair of inflatable pants on him to keep his blood up where it needed to be.

I stood up and made room for Roy, the police officer and paramedic who’d been involved the time I’d needed a helicopter to get to a hospital, and he started doing CPR.  By this time there were so many people in the hallway it was hard to move.  Mom and I stood in the door to the living room just off the hallway, and we both (we talked about this later, not right then) were keenly aware of a presence above and between us.  It was clear to both of us that it was Opa’s spirit, leaving at that time, and we both remembered “hearing” – honestly, “sensing” is more accurate – the words, “Lass mi doch ganga” – translated from our dialect,

“Just let me go…”

But things were moving, and once paramedics arrive, they start working and won’t stop until things are dealt with, one way or the other.

It was quickly decided that he’d go to the hospital in the ambulance, and mom and I followed in my old Saab, and we drove as fast as we could to catch up, watching Roy doing CPR on Opa the whole way.  He must have been absolutely drained by the time we got to the hospital.  I remember trying to pass the ambulance so we could get there and be parked by the time it got there, but the car, it turned out, had a clogged fuel filter and wouldn’t let me pass, so I tucked in behind it again, watching Roy trying to pump life into Opa’s chest through the ambulance’s back window.

We got there, and they rushed him in straight through the E.R, Roy still doing the CPR as he ran alongside the gurney.  Mom and I were told to wait in a stuffy waiting room, but there were so many people there, we told them we’d be outside as we tried to comprehend all that had happened.  They promised they’d send someone for us if there was anything we could do.

At 12:00 straight up, the sliding doors opened and someone came out and told us he was gone.  They led us into the room he was in, partitioned off by curtains, and there was our Opa, lying on a bed, covered with sheets, looking as peaceful as anything.  Mom took some scissors and cut a little of his beard off to remember him by, we signed some papers, and then headed home, both, admittedly in a bit of shock.

Our day had changed pretty drastically.

By the time we got home, there was no evidence of any pottery on the floor.  The cousins were doing their best to be or look busy, and their thoughts of having a fun visit turned into thoughts of helping mom plan a funeral.

We stood there, mom and I, where we’d stood earlier, and realized we’d both heard Opa tell us, reassuringly, “Just let me go.” –

And we had to.

He was 10 days short of his 89th birthday.

This was August 6th, 1983, and I remember it as if it were yesterday, and every year I make sure my mom has flowers on that day, to remind her that someone remembers her Papa, my Opa.

===

Epilogue:

It was only yesterday, as I was talking to Mom on the phone, that I finally realized, that Opa’s time on this earth was over that day, stairs or not.  We found out much later that the doctors said he’d had a heart attack, which was likely when he’d lost his balance and tried to catch himself on that vase, but it went down the stairs and so did he.

And even though I’m now considered grown up and a man, there’s still a much younger ‘me’ inside who misses his Opa…

Take care folks… love the ones you have – you never know how much time you’ll have with them.

Tom Roush

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