Archive for June, 2014

“Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.”
  —  George Iles

When my sweetheart and I began, thirty years ago, to discover each other and when we began to dream together about the life we might share, two things stood out.  First, we wanted to build a family.  Second, we wanted to be of service to the people we met.  The two have been intertwined, and sometimes it has been that very family that has needed us to serve.  Sometimes, we have challenged every member of the family to get on board and join us as we serve the needs of others.  It has been an interesting journey, and my first impulse is to glorify our choices and paint some rosy picture of our super-human ability to rise above the mundane and deliver in a selfless and spiritually enlightened way.  The truth is that the choices we have made have challenged us through the years and continue to encourage us to stretch beyond what we think we can do.

Yesterday was day two of a planned work weekend at our house.  After two summers on the road, we’ve been enjoying the chance to catch up on all the small repairs that have take a backseat to the final demands of our years of parenting.  We were cruising right along, and only two items remained on our to-do list for the weekend when the phone rang.  Interruptions.  When you choose a life of service, you grow to expect interruptions; but they still can surprise you when you’ve made other plans.  A young friend needed our help.  She was about to embark on a new adventure – heading to college for the very first time – and suddenly, with a 90-minute ride and a two-hour deadline, she was without a way to get there.  The end of our list of goals was so near I could taste the satisfaction that I knew I would feel as I crossed off the last item.  Now I felt myself giving a thumbs-up to my sweetheart who is everyone’s driver, giving him my support to hit the road for three hours while I attended to other obligations at home.

I like to think that I live with my heart wide open at times like this; but the truth is that I was feeling interrupted, disappointed, and maybe even a tiny bit perturbed at losing my partner in crime just as we approached our shared goal of the day.  As I heaved a heavy sigh, I thought of all the times when I had been the person who needed a hand, or a leg-up, or a ride, or a last-minute favor.  I felt around in my virtual dresser for my big-girl panties, pulled them on and adjusted them, and reminded myself of our “Big G” goals as I kissed my sweetie goodbye and wished him smooth sailing.  I wanted to share this here, because I sometimes think that when our life of service is seen by other people, they assume that we have some sort of super-human ability to go with the flow and not worry about what gets set aside in favor of a good deed.  The truth is that we get cranky and tired and jealous and snarky, just like everybody else — the difference is that we have been lucky enough to have the hand of faith reach out in the dark and touch us with hope.  Once that has happened, it is next to impossible not to want to pass it along.  Hope.  That’s what makes it worth the effort.  That’s what makes us grow up when we feel childish and cranky about the interruptions.  That’s what makes looking back on yesterday such a sweet thing.  It took only 3 1/2 hours of our time to deliver hope to someone who is off to begin her life; and there is no gift we would rather have sent with her.

As I sat this morning and reflected on all of this, my eye caught a post by one of my Facebook friends, Obi Kaye.  It said,

“Kindness is such a thing of great importance that even the smallest one; a smile, a kind word can change lives.”

That’s what it’s about.  Changing lives.  And I know ours have been changed by the choices we have made.  Thanks for the reminder, my friend.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.”
  — Anne Morrow Lindbergh

There is a memory tucked deep inside my heart.  It has no words.  It is a smell that I placed there when I was just a little girl — the aroma of the salt in the air as we approached the beach in New Jersey for our family vacation.  I have taken in that scent many times since that first one; but there is something magical about a smell that is a memory.  It can surface even when we are miles from the source and remind us that there is a place we need to visit.  Today, as I stood in the early-morning sunlight in my backyard, I could swear that I smelled the ocean; and I made a mental note to include a trip to the beach in my not-too-distant plans.

The first time I visited the shore, I remember thinking that I had found the biggest sandbox in the world.  I dug and tunneled and molded and built, making castles and gullies and fashioning roofs out of clam shells, just in case a sand crab might want to move in and stay for a while.

As I grew older, it was the waves that attracted me.  I learned to jump at just the right moment so that I wouldn’t be sent flying along the sand toward the shore.  I learned how to navigate out beyond the spot where they crashed and enjoy the rocking motion of the sea before it hit the shore.  I learned that salt water made me buoyant and let me float, almost above the surface of the water, and I learned to close my eyes against the salt-water sting when I dove beneath the waves.  I loved the beach at high tide, when we would have to move our blankets farther and farther toward the land to avoid the encroaching water.  The bigger the waves, the better; and I learned to belly surf and let the power of the ocean carry me back to shore when I was ready for a rest.

It was not until I became an adult and had visited the ocean many times that I began to notice its heartbeat.  I heard it when I walked alone one September, pondering the death of my son and wondering how my sorrow fit into the big picture that is the universe.  I heard it as it matched my own heartbeat and reassured me that I was part of something much bigger than my own being.  I heard its heart race with delight as it tossed a whole bunch of tiny starfish onto the shore at my feet and reminded me that in the midst of our deepest human despair, there are miracles to be found if only we will open our eyes – and our hearts – to see them.

As I stood in my backyard this morning and caught the impossible scent of ocean on the inland breeze, I remembered my constant friend and was filled with a sense of timeless wonder – a choicelessness that spoke to my heart of the places I have been and the places I have yet to see.  And it mattered to be free from choice; because it is only in that choiceless place that we truly understand that our footprints will linger on the timeless shore, even when they seem to be erased by the incoming tide.  Just as I hold the memory of the salt breeze deep in my heart, the ocean holds the memories of every heart that has heard it, of every footstep that has fallen on its shore, and of every soul that has discovered its infinite nature by the sea.

“How do geese know when to fly to the sun? Who tells them the seasons? How do we, humans know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds, so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it, that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.”
   — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Today marks the first day of summer.  The season has changed once again, and we all know it.  The calendar has warned us, the sun has hung around in the evening sky until long past his usual bedtime, and the schools have closed their doors and returned the sounds of children at play to the world outside.  The Earth’s seasons are predictable – reliable.  I have learned these seasons well as I have watched them pass for more than six decades.  They are dependable.   No matter how much I might long for summer on a cold winter’s night, there is nothing I can do to alter the inevitable rhythm of the universe.  There is something comforting and familiar in the cycles and seasons – something that wraps its arms around us and reassures us that all is well.

The seasons of the heart are less predictable;  and my own climate change has had me silent lately, as I listen for the call toward the unknown that inevitably follows endings.  The silence between seasons is as unavoidable as the change itself; and it has taken some self-discipline, some self-restraint, and some self-exploration to allow the quiet to descend and stay long enough to feel familiar and friendly to my waiting heart.  As the silence begins to stir and the sounds of the world around me once again begin to reach my ears, they have reminded me that there is no escaping the transitions of our lives.  We must say goodbye before we can move on and say hello.  For some reason, this is the part that I always try to avoid; but in my seasoned heart, I know I will have to embrace the sad and wistful goodbyes before my heart can be ready to fully embrace what lies ahead.

Last night, my sweetheart and I made our weekly shopping trip to several stores for groceries and household supplies.  In the midst of our stops, we decided to pop in at our favorite buffet restaurant for a bite to eat.  It was a busy evening; and when we finally were seated, our table was next to one with an extended family of grandparents, parents the age of our own children, and little ones from about 2 to 7 years old – five of them.  As we sat there at our adults-only table, I felt a sudden sense of freedom.  There were no extra plates to fill at the buffet, no food to cut into bite-size morsels, no complaints that there was nothing good to eat – only a peaceful dinner with polite conversation and time to spare.

At the next table, there was air to be blown through straws from brother to sister, small bodies to be placed again and again in their seats, and reminders that some real food would have to be consumed before there would be any hope of ice cream.  Then it happened.  A small hand misplaced a water glass on the table, and the tide came in.  It washed over napkins and plates and bowls and forks.  It landed in a couple of laps and it sent the waitress scurrying for a stack of napkins.  My sweetheart and I made eye contact and smiled knowingly.  We always had said, with our own brood, that no dinner was complete until someone’s beverage tipped and soaked the whole table.  We returned to our orderly meal, knowing that the chances were slim that it would be washed away in a spill.

One of the young dads came walking by with his son.  “I’m taking him to the bathroom,” he called to his wife.  They were barely out of sight when the next little boy cried out, “I have to pee, too!!!” and I thought of the way that needing the bathroom is always contagious where small boys are concerned.  As his mother left her lukewarm food to take him, I heard her mutter, “Have kids, they said…it’ll be fun, they said…”  Suddenly, I could not swallow.  Tears welled up in my eyes, taking me completely by surprise.  ‘Have kids, they said…it’ll be fun, they said…’

I wanted to follow her and tell her they were right, whoever “they” might be, the ones who said it would be fun.  They were right.  I wanted to tell her not to miss a single moment of the fun that drives us crazy.  Not to miss a single chance to take that kid who really doesn’t have to go to the bathroom his brother is getting to explore.  I wanted to tell her not to miss how tenderly her 7-year-old daughter was talking to her littlest brother.  I wanted to tell her to carefully catalog the memories being made before her eyes and to commit them to her heart for later retrieval.

Instead, I looked up at the man who has shared our family-building adventure for all these years.  I raised my hand, looked into his eyes, and snapped my fingers.  “Yes,” he replied, “in an instant.”

As we finished our dinner — and the food was all hot, and there were no tidal waves, and nobody had to go to the bathroom right now — I was careful to hold onto my napkin, just in case anything spilled from the corner of my mouth or the corners of my eyes.  As I heard the cacophony of dinner out with the children fade into the recesses of the past, I heard my heart speak a tearful goodbye to the sometimes-frustrated young mother I used to be.  I realized that when the challenge is done, all that remains is the love.

“Love is a fruit in season at all times, and in reach of every hand.”
— Mother Teresa

Goodbye, mom.  Hello, grandma.  This is going to be fun.

But I still wonder what else a grandma might do.

Those of you who know how to read a calendar will notice that I’m a couple of days early for my Father’s Day message this year.  You see, only twenty-four days after last year’s Father’s Day, my dad released his grasp on mortality and found his way home.  I am sure he is comfortable there and waiting with some patience that was not his way in this life for us all to join him one day.

It is impossible to approach this first Father’s Day without him and not feel the sadness, the longing, and the absence that comes with such a loss.  This is the time when I should be sending his card.  This is the time when I should be gathering anecdotes to share with him in our Sunday phone call.  Instead, I am sitting here and trying to write his Father’s Day message before the Sunday celebration begins.  I don’t want my remembering to be lost in the happy chaos that Sunday will bring; so I’m purposefully making some time today to reflect, to remember, and to love what it was to have had Al Stead as my dad.

I remember when I was very small that my dad seemed like a giant – or maybe he was a bear, because I can remember lying awake one night and hearing his snoring from the bedroom on the other side of the wall and wondering if there was a bear in the house.  I remember that he would tap dance into the kitchen in the mornings, dressed in suit and tie, and take my mom for a twirl before she served up his scrambled eggs — the “snotty” kind that nobody wanted to mooch from him, because we liked ours well-done.  I remember his strong, smooth baritone voice singing out at our corny family sing-alongs around the piano after dinner.  “If I Ruled the World,” and “On A Clear Day,” were two of his standards, along with anything by late-Sinatra.  He did a mean version of “New York, New York,” and often would remind us that everything was up to date in Kansas City.  I remember how he came to my swimming practices and meets and took such pride in my accomplishments, even though I was not the best on the team.  I remember how proud he was of all his kids, and later his grandchildren, just knowing that his family was the best in the world.

I remember how he loved mom, with all his heart, and how he happily let her take care of him for more than sixty years; and I remember how abruptly and completely he reversed the roles and met her every need when dementia compromised her life.  I remember how he held on, hoping to outlive her, and ultimately went the way of many good caregivers.

For me, personally, my best memories are of the daily phone calls – always at dinnertime (thanks, Dad!), and usually repetitive, because his life didn’t change much from one day to the next.  We talked about being children, about growing up, about being parents and spouses, about being grandparents.  And we talked about what lay ahead – sometimes not clear as to who was reassuring whom.  All I know is that in those phone calls, during the last ten years of Dad’s life, we got to know each other better than we ever had before.  Exploring beneath the surface of my ’50s Dad gave me a whole new respect for the man he truly was; and although I will admit that there were days when I rolled my eyes at the sound of the phone ringing, I would not trade those calls for anything.

The phone has been silent for almost a year now.  I can almost – but not quite -imagine the sound of his voice asking me, “What’s up with you today?”  Sometimes, when I go outside to grill some burgers for dinner, I still find myself patting my pocket to be sure I have my phone, just in case it rings in the middle of dinner prep.  And sometimes, on a day like today, when the rains have passed and the sun comes bursting from behind the very last thunderhead, I can almost – but not quite – hear him singing, “on that clear day…you can see forever, and ever more.”  And I know he can.

So when Father’s Day rolls around this Sunday, I will celebrate my sweetheart and his sons – all fathers – and know that Dad is right there with us and feeling mighty proud.  I’ll miss you, Dad.  Happy Father’s Day.

“What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”
   — Benjamin Disraeli

I once heard a story about an elderly church lady who was making her final arrangements.  She prepaid her funeral and burial expenses to assure that her descendants would not be burdened with such things.  “Do you have any special requests?” asked the funeral director.  “Yes,” she replied, “only one.”

“I would like to be buried with a fork in my hand.”

“With a fork?” asked the funeral director.  “I don’t understand.”

The woman went on to explain that she had attended many church picnics throughout her lifetime.  “When they come to clear away the dishes,” she told him, “they always say, ‘save your fork!'”  Then, when the delicious main course is over, they bring out the most remarkable desserts!  Just when we think that the best thing ever has ended, something even better comes along.”

And she wanted everyone to know she was saving her fork.

Yesterday marked the end of an era for me.  It was nearly forty years ago that I dressed my eldest child in his favorite new outfit and his brand new shoes and watched him climb onto the school bus for his first day of school.  Yesterday I watched the last of my kids walk across the stage at her high school graduation.  As she shook hands with the superintendent and received her diploma, I wiped away a tear or three – just as I had when her uncle took his first steps toward kindergarten so many years ago.  There will be no more first days of school.  There will be no more open houses or basketball games or art shows or award celebrations.  There will be no more term papers or projects with their accompanying stress and frustration.  There will be no more educational beginnings or endings.  Those now belong to the next generation; and I will attend them as a benevolent and doting grandmother who enjoys all the successes and skips the struggles.

When that first kindergartener was born, forty-four years ago, I stepped into the world of motherhood.  It has been a banquet.  It has been my chosen career for more than two thirds of my life; and although we never stop being parents once we have made the decision to bring new life into the world, motherhood no longer will be my primary job.

As this day has approached, I have wondered who I might be when the last tassel on the last mortarboard was flipped.  I have wondered whether I will know what to do or who to be without a comfortable title to describe my purpose in life.  I have wondered whether I would recognize the person I would see in the mirror after that earth-shattering moment.

As we lay in bed last night, at the end of a very busy and emotional day, I turned to my sweetheart and said, “Well, I guess we get to be a couple now — for the first time.  I guess it’s finally our turn.”  As I reached over to run my fingers through the curls on top of his head, I thought of all the times I had done the same for one of my children.  “You know,” I said to him, “all these years of raising children and taking care that their needs were met have us pretty well-prepared to look out for each other.”  As we lay there in the darkness, feeling the wonder of how quickly time had flown and how the main course we  had chosen to serve up for ourselves finally had been cleared away, it all made sense.

We’re holding onto our forks.  The banquet is not over.  Dessert lies just around the corner, and we clutch our utensils in anticipation; because we know the best is yet to come.