Everything. That’s what I remember most about you, Dad. Every. Little. Thing.
The sound your cowboy boots made as you walked across the floor. Strong, steady, purposeful footsteps. You were not a man who treaded lightly.
The smell of your leather jacket, and the Vitalis you used to slick back your hair. You always kept a comb in your pocket, and a clean hankerchief just in case I needed to blow my nose.
The endless cups of coffee. “Just black,” you’d tell the waitress. Real men didn’t need cream and sugar.
The smell of fresh sawn wood, and the piles of wood shavings on the floor of your shop. The square carpenter’s pencil tucked behind your ear. Cans of Watco oil and turpentine on the shelf, and squares of sandpaper.
Countless fishing trips on Siltcoos., and the methodical, careful technique you used to clean a fish. The way you put a worm on my line and told me to “keep an eye” on my red and white bobber.
The unique slant of your handwriting, and the notes you wrote me.
Singing “Bill Grogan’s Goat” while you played the guitar. Sometimes Mom would join in on the accordion and we’d have a family sing-a-long. I always loved to hear you sing.
The way you always grabbed a toothpick and cleaned your teeth after a meal.
Saturday morning wrestling and tickling matches, you on one team and Wes and me on the other. You always won, and we were glad.
French toast breakfasts. Split pea soup with ham hocks. Penuche in a pan lined with wax paper and scored with a knife. Bacon gravy. You were a marvelous cook, but you sure made a mess in the kitchen.
Having lunch together every Thursday throughout my high school years. Every single Thursday, because I was that important to you. You picked me up in front of my school in your big boat of a car and off we’d go to the Black Angus. Or Brails. Or the Treehouse. You’d ask me about my life, and you’d listen. Oh, what a marvelous listener you were, always. “Hmmm,” you’d say, with rapt attention. “That’s fascinating. Tell me more.” And I would.
The way you introduced Wes and me to your associates and clients, and anyone else we’d meet. You were proud to be our dad. Not just anybody’s dad, but OUR dad.
The stories you’d tell. Stories full of humor, family history, and moral lessons. Stories about Paul the Apostle and the wisdom of Solomen. Stories about your mom and dad and your dog, collecting cascara bark for extra money as a boy and the only time you ever cheated, how you met my mother … I never tired of hearing you talk.
The way you loved Mom, and the oneness of the two of you.
You were stern sometimes, and serious. I always knew when you meant business. So did everyone else. I feared your anger, and your disappointment. And I craved your approval.
You knew your shortcomings and faults, and you never made excuses. You had regrets. You made amends.
You were The Great Encourager, the man who saw possibility and potential in everything and everyone. You believed in people, and you told them so. You knew your own strengths and were confident in your capabilities, and you instilled confidence in others. You led with humility. You were true.
You made people feel safe.
On this seventeenth anniversary of your death, I find that some memories remain fresh and others have faded. I can still hear your voice and your chuckle. I can close my eyes and still feel the strength and comfort of your presence. There was a time when I could not imagine a world without you in it or how I would navigate without you as my compass. The grief of those early years has mercifully receded and the abyss created by your passing does not seem so great as it once did. Except for those moments when it does.
“Grieve for me however you must,” you told me. “But then move on.” You didn’t want a marker. And so each year, on this day, in the quiet of my heart, I breathe these words in memory of you:
There once was a man who walked humbly with God. He was my dad, and I am grateful.
Over 20 years ago, a friend and co-worker at Serenity Lane, Carleen Reilly, introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton. I’d never heard of him, but in the years since as I’ve incorporated contemplative prayer and the pursuit of social justice into my faith journey, he has become a favorite of mine. The arrogance of my youth has been replaced (I hope) with wisdom, maturity, and gratitude in large part because I have taken to heart the writings and reflections of others who have sought to walk humbly with their God.
The following is an excerpt of Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude” and a prayer I often turn to in the early morning hours before I “get busy”. These words quietly bring my heart and my head together so they’re on the same team, lest I jump headfirst into old habits that frequently pit me against myself. They allow me to recognize and accept my smallness, my frailties, my shortcomings and my humanity with gratitude and peace.
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Life is a road best travelled together.
So before I walk the dog, before I check my cell phone for texts and emails, before I put the key in the ignition, before I interact with the public, and before I map out my “plan of attack” for the day ahead, I breathe in the words of a Trappist monk who also sought Grace for the journey.
And then I begin …
Yesterday, the voters of my state made the decision to legalize a previously illegal mind-altering drug, rubberstamping its use for “recreational” purposes. Before all of my friends in the “Good grief, It’s Just Marijuana” camp rise up to chime in, please know that I spent too many years working in drug and alcohol treatment and witnessing the carnage it leaves in its wake. I have experienced it personally in my own life and family. And I have painfully worked through my own struggles with prescription narcotics and methadone … you and I are never going to come to an agreement on this issue. I’m sorry.
Having said that, with sincere and heartfelt humility, here are a few thoughts …
Like millions of others, I have relied on “substances” to elevate my energy level and keep me propelled forward. In years past, I used extreme exercise and weightlifting and the resulting release of mega endorphins to fuel my body and mind. Oh, how I loved that rush! And it was healthy … I mean, really, it was just exercise! But like all things taken to excess, there was a problem and eventually my body got my attention and was heard.
“Leg presses?” said my neurosurgeon who has cut and spliced, wired, stapled, and fused me back together on four occasions. “Really? What the @#$% were you thinking?”
Now, I’m a smart woman. I have long recognized that my habit of filling every moment of every waking hour with purposeful activity has been my replacement pain management program. If you know me, you know I’m intense, driven, and focused about EVERYTHING I do – business, relationships, projects, worthy causes, shoes . It makes me good at what I do, but it’s also a blessed distraction from the dull, ever present chronic pain that is my constant companion. I freely admit that my Do-aholism is my coping mechanism. Reason says that if I focus on one thing really, really hard, then I can’t simultaneously pay attention to another. Seems harmless enough.
But my all-time favorite, nay, my beloved Drug of Choice, has consistently been caffeine – efficiently administered by way of chocolate, sodas, energy drinks, and coffee. My big, beautiful, gleaming chrome Italian espresso machine that I paid an arm and a leg for delivers two shots of rich, dark espresso with perfectly foamed crema faithfully to me every morning when I arrive at my shop, and continues to do so throughout the day whenever I need to rev my engine (which is often). No harm, no foul. And it’s legal.
But again, like all things taken to excess … there is a downside. And so, a few months ago I began to tackle some of my habits – the good ones and the bad. (I’d like to say it was my idea, but it wasn’t. Two visits to the ER in less than 72 hours with stroke symptoms and a $7500 insurance deductible out of pocket did the trick.) So I’ve stepped away from some commitments, cut back on my work hours, delegated some responsibilities that I really didn’t want to give up, and … drum roll please … I stopped drinking coffee and caffeinated beverages. Cold turkey.
Again, with complete transparency, this has not been easy for me. I have been through withdrawals of another kind, and while this does not compare, it has not been a walk in the park. It has also not been easy for my husband, or my employees. Because not only has caffeine been my go-to drug to keep me energized and alert through early morning meetings and long days, it has apparently impacted my moods and emotions and my ability to deal with stress and be patient with others in ways that I could not see.
I learned many years ago when I first began working in the Recovery field that our addictions and obsessions are, in fact, our coping mechanisms – smoking, drugs, alcohol, sex, overeating, binging & purging, coffee, shopping, exercise, and yes, even marijuana are all “substances” that we can use to excess to quell our anxiety, clock out, repress memories, dull our emotional and physical pain, and propel us through life.
This morning, I unwittingly “fell off the wagon” and, out of habit, made myself a latte with REAL espresso instead of the namby-pamby organic decaf stuff I’ve been substituting for the last month. Kapow!!! In a nano-second I became the Energizer Bunny and Little Miss Motormouth AND Melvin the Chipmunk … all at once!!! Yeah, baby, I am on a roll!!!
The downside is that I now have a headache, vertigo, and elevated blood pressure. I need to go home and lay down. All because of a “harmless” cup of joe.
My journey is just that … mine. I’ve chosen to be transparent about a lot of things in my life with the hope that some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way might be of help and encouragement to someone else. I don’t believe that any of us can reach a “point of arrival” where we know it all and have it all together. In a perfect world, if we are using our time together on this earth well, then we should all be in the process of “becoming” … becoming wiser, kinder, patient, compassionate, forgiving, healthy, and holy. I want to become more of all of that, and less of who I was when I started.
But here’s what I know …
…even though we know our limits, that doesn’t mean we always stay within them.
… even though we freely acknowledge our weaknesses, that doesn’t keep us from us from giving in to them.
… and even though we know the rules, that doesn’t mean we play by them.
Some people can walk the high-wire and never fall. But some folks need the net.
When I was a little girl, I was fascinated with the neighbor lady, Mrs. Frien. During the summer months, she did yard work in a two piece bathing suit and full-face make-up, complete with Candy Red lipstick and coordinating nail polish. My mother was markedly more modest. The only cosmetics she wore were a light dusting of face powder and just a trace of Merle Norman Barely Blush lipstick … on special occasions. (Clear nail polish was reserved for stopping runs in one’s stockings.)
At the age of 8, I thought my mother was a stunning woman (I still do) but she really needed to jazz things up a bit, and Mrs. Frien was my gold standard for fashion trends. One evening, as I watched Mother ever-so-carefully brush just a smidge of lipstick on her lips in preparation for a dress-up event, I informed her she was doing it all wrong and proceeded to demonstrate for her how Mrs. Frien generously applied lipstick to her full and luscious lips.
“Well,” smiled Mother, “when you get a little older, you’ll find out that sometimes less is more.”
The older I get, the more I want of less.
I first noticed an inkling of this change in my thinking a few years ago when I returned home from my first trip to Panama. I had witnessed such a contrast between wealth and poverty that when I arrived home I found myself struggling to enjoy my good fortune. Over time, I have stopped shopping for sport and recreation, I dine out less frequently, I’ve cancelled our cable network and all my magazine subscriptions, and I am increasingly aware of how much time I waste doing things that rob me of joy.
It’s not that I want to deny myself a few luxuries in life. Trust me, I still love my creature comforts. It’s just that I’m pretty much convinced that “more” is highly overrated and perhaps a significant hindrance in my ongoing pursuit of a grateful life.
Lately I have been working on a picture. It’s really a drawing of what I would like my life to look like over the next 15 years, because right now I’m living the life I created for myself and I’d like to make some changes. Up to this point, I’ve always thought in terms of “more” — more color, more vibrancy, more ideas, more people, more opportunity, more flavor –but the idea of less distraction and less demands on my time and energy is rather attractive.
In fact, I’ve started a list of things I can happily do without. Here’s what I’m making a concious effort to let go of.
… less conflict
… less drama
… less exposure to people who are drawn to drama and conflict
… less violence
… less television
… less exposure to media that focuses on violence and man’s inhumanity to mankind
… less arrogance and a propensity to make assumptions, my own included
… less time in front of a computer
… less tunnel vision
… less committees and meetings
… less technology
… less trying to be all things to all people
… less noise
… less criticism
… less wishful thinking
As I slowly and thoughtfully work on the drawing of my life, I find that I’m using a lot of erasers. The picture that is emerging looks foreign to me and, frankly, slightly less comfortable than the life I’ve crafted. I’ve had to ask myself more than once, “Can a life with less be enough for me?” I think it can. Perhaps not as flashy and fashion-forward as the Candy Red nail polish I love to wear on my toes, but still very appealing and rewarding.
Mother was right. Sometimes less is more.
Eighteen years ago I took a leap up faith and married a gentle, soft spoken, and bashful fella I like to call The Nice Catholic Boy. It was the second trip down the aisle for both us. He had previously been married for 27 years, had raised 3 children, and at the age of 51 had 3 grandkids. I’d been married for 7 years, divorced for 5, and was raising 2 little girls – one of them mine and the other my brother’s. I was 34.
People often ask me how we met. The truth is we were set up. Gene’s brother is married to my best friend and she decided we needed each other.
She was right.
I hadn’t planned on getting re-married. I dated. A lot. But I didn’t have much faith in my ability to pick a good man, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk again.
When I met Gene, I thought to myself “What a nice man … too bad I’m not in the market for one.” Newly divorced, he was still recovering from a broken heart and a battered and bruised self esteem. “Poor fella,” I thought. “I’ll go out with him a few times and boost his ego.” (I was young. And kinda hot. And he drove a Corvette …)
Over time, Gene and I became the very best of friends. Still, I didn’t see a future for us. He lived in another town and had no intention of moving. He was 17 years older than me and had kids my age. He was Catholic and I was not. Oh, I could list the reasons …
Plus, I was a lousy Man Picker. Just look at my track record.
A year went by and I began to recognize that the man I was dating was the Real Deal. He was gentle and kind. Humble and unpretentious. Patient. Consistent and steady. Faithful and true. A man to be counted. And a man I could count on.
Whew … this was a switch for me.
Another year went by and Gene and I began to test the waters. Would he be willing to move to my town? No, he would not. Would I consider becoming Catholic? Not a chance. Could a sophisticated city-loving gal like me be happy in a little town like Florence? Probably not. Was he open to having more kids? Nope, but he was more than willing to raise the two I had.
That last one was a stumbling block for me. The only reason I could see to re-marry was so that I could have more children. I loved being a mother and wanted to do it again, this time with someone who loved me. Gene understood – he was a loving and devoted father – but it wasn’t open for discussion. If another child was a deal breaker, he’d let me go.
So I had a talk with my dad. I explained to him my misgivings and my self doubts. I shared with him my fears, and there were many.
“Piggo,” he said. “That man is the Real Thing, and he loves you. He’s a Real Father, and he loves Tori. You’re a smart woman. Don’t let fear rob you of the opportunity to know Real Love. Kids? Kids are a crap shoot. Right now you’re battin’ a thousand. Why don’t you just do one kid really, really well?”
Another year went by. I knew I was pretty high maintenance and it seemed only fair that he understand just what that could mean. I decided to make a “full disclosure” and showed him my monthly dry cleaning bill … and I reminded him that my idea of roughing it was the Holiday Inn.
There were just some things I wasn’t going to compromise on.
There were doubters and nay-sayers about. Words like “Sugar Daddy” and “Trophy Wife” were thrown around. His kids weren’t all that happy. Neither were some of my friends and family. To others, our differences were monumental. But to us, not so much.
Somewhere between year two and three of our courtship, Gene told me this … “True love takes time, trust, and the sharing of many trials and triumphs.” Real, tried and true and tested, grown-up, in-sickness-and-in health ’til death-due-us-part LOVE. The kind of love the stands and stays through the challenges of blending a family, caring for aging parents, building a business, a recession, wrinkles, graying hair, and sagging boobs.
I married The Nice Catholic Boy because I wanted Real Love. He married me for the same reason. (And ’cause I was young and kinda hot.)
He may think he got himself a Trophy wife (okay, I’ll give him that). But me? I won the lottery.
When I “graduated” from junior high, my parents gave me a new set of luggage. Three pieces of powder blue naugahyde Samsonsite, very stylish. You’ll need this when you venture out into the world, they said. Later, when I was a young career woman, I upgraded to a beautiful 7-piece ensemble in rich jewel toned tapestry, complete with garment and cosmetic bags and lots of little hidden compartments. I’d pick up my bags off the conveyor belt and wisk through the airport like I was a jetsetter – oh my, I was stylin’!
These days, I pack light. Give me a clean pair of undies, a toothbrush, and some hair gel and I’m good to go. Today, I own just two small travel bags – “rollies” – and they both fit under an airplane seat. You could say I’ve come a long way, baby. (Yes, I have. In more ways than one.)
My shop sees a lot of travelers these days. It’s the beginning of the tourist season and the roads are filling up with motor coaches. I love it when people tell me they’re “getting away from it all” and seeing the country … and bringing a whole house with them! At a quarter of a million dollars a pop and counting, with tip-outs and pull-outs and slide-outs, some of these RVs look like penthouse apartments on wheels. Contrast that with the Johnny Appleseeds who stop in my shop for an espresso – the cyclists and hikers who travel with just a backpack … and a laptop.
The early settlers who headed Out West loaded down wagons with all their prized possessions, never dreaming they’d be forced to lighten their load and abandon family treasures along the trail. For years, travelers following in their footsteps would find the remnants of their broken dreams … Grandma’s treadle sewing machine, Mother’s prized dishes, a cradle, pots and pans, cherished heirlooms left behind. When they finally arrived at their destination, very little remained … perhaps a cast iron skillet, some quilts, a few necessary utensils.
Stay with me as I work this through ….
My grandmother is nearing the end of her journey. At 96 years old, she has seen all there is to see, said everything that needs to be said, and done everything she cares to do. She’s let go of all the “baggage” she packed around for years. Old hurts, broken dreams, disappointments, harsh words spoken and never taken back, regrets … they’ve all been tossed out the wagon. She’s forgiven everyone she needs to forgive and asked the same of those she’s hurt. At this very moment, nothing is weighing her down.
When she was still in the hospital, I asked Granny if there was anything I could bring her. Yes, she said. I need my bible, my antiperspirant, and my White Shoulders perfume. I cannot go Home to Glory smelling stinky!
“Home to Glory” … that’s what she calls it. Sometimes it’s Beulah Land or Beyond the Sunset … the Sweet Bye ‘n Bye. But most often, she talks of Home.
“I don’t know what’s taking Him so long,” she has often said. And more recently, “I don’t know what The Master has in mind for me, but I’m willing to wait on Him.”
See, she’s wanted to take this trip for a loooooooooong time.
The hospice volunteers have been wonderful. They bathed her and washed her hair and instructed her caregivers on how to keep her comfortable. I’ve powdered her face and put on a bit of blush. And yes, she smells wonderful! She drifts in and out, sometimes awake and lucid, but mostly in a dreamlike sleep. “It’s lovely,” she says of the place she goes in her mind. The peacefulness that surrounds her is almost palpaple.
I read her the cards and emails that arrive and show her pictures on my phone that people send. A hospice volunteer calls and asks me if Granny would like a group of ladies to come and make her a scrapbook of all her cherished photographs. It’s a thoughtful gesture, but I say no.
I’ve watered her plants, just like she asked. Her little kitchen is neat and tidy and my daughter has done her laundry. I guess, in a way, you could say her bags are packed.
To be honest, I’ve struggled with my emotions when visitors come and want to engage her in conversation. It’s such an effort for her to refocus. She asked me to make sure she is painfree, and clean, and left to go in peace. And yet, she knew in advance that there were family members who would need to come, to say goodbye and have closure. It’s a little ironic but Granny has had more visitors in the last week than she has in the last four years. Just make sure I look presentable, she said. (Don’t worry, Granny, I’m on it.) And while I don’t know if she always recognizes who is here, I’m certain she knows she is loved.
People ask Can I bring something for her when I come? A box of chocolates? A good book? A pretty new robe? Is there ANYTHING she needs? No, I say, just bring you.
This leg of the journey is almost over, and a new adventure awaits. Granny’s going Home, and she’s packing light.
This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore
(Reeves & Brumley)