She sits rather alone and neglected in the corner of the room. It is a place of honor, but the look of her sitting there sedately gives me a pang of guilt. There she is, untouched and lonely… patiently waiting. She has a warmth in her appearance. Golden, like aged honey. Her curves are broad and rounded. Her neck stretches from her body, wider than most. Her voice has gone silent, but when she sang, her tone was soft and mellow, matching her appearance…
Esmerelda is a guitar. She’s a very special guitar. She belonged to my father, a Christmas present almost 50 years ago. At the time she was purchased at the post exchange, she might have cost $15, but even that required my mother to save for months out of household expenses to obtain her. At that time, she was nameless. Her body and strings were new, her personality was yet to be formed, and her name was awaiting a girl to hear it and know it was meant for her…
Over the years, Esmerelda was forgotten in a storage closet as work and family presented demands on time that never allowed my dad to really give attention to her. The Spanish classical, dreadnought body was too large for my small stature back then (I could barely hold her and reach the strings properly), but I always tried and begged to hold her. Once we moved overseas, she was put into long term storage where she remained until my parents retired back to the United States. The intervening years and situations faded her memory, and she was gone. When storage containers were opened, Esmerelda was but one of the myriad of items and memories that emerged. She had suffered from the long years of neglect. Her bridge had disconnected. Strings were hanging loose. The veneer of her fret board appeared loose in places, and the statement was made, “It probably isn’t worth putting in the money to repair it…” but the sight of her had reminded me, and I persisted. I took her gently and begged to be able to nurse her back to health. Perhaps it was then that she whispered to me her name.
One of the local music shops surprised me by being delighted to work with her and get her back in shape. (Turns out it was a good deal less to repair than to try to replace her with a comparable contemporary model, “They do not make them like this anymore…”). Returned to me with new bridge and strings, I set myself the task of trying to recall fingering and strumming and learning to make her sing again… Her voice sounded smoothly through the house, balm to emotions, though fingers were blistered and peeling, not used to the abuse.
Regularly, we would give her opportunity to shine alone or with mandolin and banjo. My father would sit and listen, eyes closed and foot tapping to Salty Dog or Black Velvet Band…
Many hands have held Esmerelda, but since the death of my father, I’ve found it difficult to apply my hands to the strings. I miss her voice… as I miss my dad’s. Much as my father before, I find myself struggling as work and time have been useful excuses to avoid facing Esmerelda’s recrimination for leaving her alone… even in her place of honor. Perhaps… it is her voice whispering to me… “Please come to me. Let me sing again…” Or perhaps it is my dad reminding me today not to miss opportunities merely due to convenient excuses…
May the 4th be with you… Happy Birthday Dad. I miss you.
With the notable exception of theoretical physics experts and those who have been experimenting with quantum entanglements and the study of anomalous events in the universe, such as black holes, most people believe that time is a constant. It is a fixed measurement that progresses as predictable rate and to which we must all heed and adhere.
The perception of time is a completely different matter. Despite the very impersonal sense of time as a variable, we think of it differently than perhaps mass or volume. We talk about time like a living, breathing thing that can ravage or crawl. It can change course and speed. Perhaps it is due to this almost sentient and entity-like aspect, time becomes more malleable and something of science fiction. Because with human perception you add the of the human experience with hopes, expectations, and apprehensions, time can speed or slow sometimes even within the span of one day. Most of us can remember adults and elders in our youth talking about how time seems to fly by while we weary travelers as children had to clock the seconds and hours slowly awaiting holiday, recess, or any other anxiously awaited event. It is that variability and fluidity that might even lead one to suspect that time might be manipulated.
Even as adults, most of us still experience that lack of consistency when the clock seems to race out of control when a project deadline approaches or might slow to a crawl when we’re stuck in a meeting. For each of us who have scheduled time off or vacation, we’ve felt how the hours might drag until that 5 o’clock whistle after a very long and exhausting week, but the hours of the weekend or planned time away race by, and we find ourselves all too quickly back at the beginning of that first day of the work week with a long stretch of days and hours before us. For parents, you have probably experienced both the over zealous passage of time when you blink and the children you love appear before you as adults, but perhaps you also remember when you wondered if the time would ever come that you weren’t cleaning up apocalyptic messes and strange scientific experiments found under beds or were able to downsize to a shoulder bag that wasn’t roughly the equivalent of a suitcase because it was impossible to go out unprepared for every eventuality of parenting woe.
One of the most difficult time anomalies is grief. For those who have suffered loss, the time seems to stand still. It can feel as if the world stopped turning just for you and will never regain a normal rate, but the passage of time for everyone else continued a pace without notice. However, you find eventually that years have passed. You wonder how you missed the time going by and moving forward. You ask, how did that happen? Or can it really have been a decade? And, yet, sometimes the grief stabs with surprising intensity at unexpected moments, still fresh and clear and painful, almost as if no time has passed at all. While time does pass, and the pain eventually dulls, it can sometimes bridge the gaps to present images and emotions as clear as the day they originally formed with no fading. That is, again, the difference between the constant and the human perception. We call it memory, and even when painful, it can often be precious.
One of my favorite depictions of that strange difference between the constant of time and the human perception was penned by Shakespeare. And so… I will let the Bard take the stage to describe:
ROSALIND: By no means, sir. Time travels in diverse paces with diverse persons. I’ll tell you who time ambles withal, who time trots withal, who time gallops withal, and who he stands still withal.
ORLANDO: I prithee, who doth he trot withal?
ROSALIND: Marry, he trots hard with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemnized. If the interim be but a se’nnight, time’s pace is so hard that it seems the length of seven year.
ORLANDO: Who ambles time withal?
ROSALIND: With a priest that lacks Latin and a rich man that hath not the gout, for the one sleeps easily because he cannot study and the other lives merrily because he feels no pain—the one lacking the burden of lean and wasteful learning, the other knowing no burden of heavy tedious penury. These time ambles withal.
ORLANDO: Who doth he gallop withal?
ROSALIND: With a thief to the gallows, for though he go as softly as foot can fall, he thinks himself too soon there.
ORLANDO: Who stays it still withal?
ROSALIND: For lawyers on vacation, because they sleep their holidays away, with no sense of how time moves.
Warning: This post gets serious. Just letting you know. It isn’t my usual level of humor or even snark. I am letting you know up front, but I’m keeping it real with you all and hopefully it will help someone.
I file this post under the physical fit I pitched a while back, but to be completely honest, it actually applies to everything I do. I have described myself on occasion as the all-time-champion-queen-of-the-list-makers. This pertains primarily to my habit of breaking down my days, weeks, tasks, and projects into lists of smaller pieces that I quite literally cross out or check off as I go. Why? Well, for one, my memory isn’t quite what it used to be (it happens to most of us eventually). While I can remember in the most minute detail conversations and embarrassments and general unpleasant occurrences from days gone by, if I don’t write it down, I will sometimes forgets pants… ok, slight exaggeration, but I do find that writing things down keeps me from forgetting various important tasks that I need to get done. Secondly, sometimes the impact of the things we face each day can be so overwhelming, it just seems easier to turn away and give up. If that overwhelming mountain is broken up into steps… well, more on that later.
So, why under physical fit again? Well, because a very recent conversation with a person very dear to me made me remember that we all need to feel a sense of accomplishment, and sometimes those accomplishments can be relatively modest. Additionally, we all need support, and it helps to know we aren’t alone.
Last month I hit a wall. It was a big one. Construction on said wall started early in 2017 and continued throughout the year in fits and starts. A series of unfortunate events comprised of personal injuries, financial traumas, betrayals by family and friends, injustices, general cruelty and meanness by various in society, and grief seemed to participate in a competition for what could leave the biggest dent. Mostly we just keep rolling with punches and remember that there are so many people in the world fighting bigger battles and facing worse hardships. But starting in about August the construction plan on that wall of mine must have gone into overdrive. In a horrific cascade, I found myself facing the loss of seven close friends or relatives from August through the end of the year. Some were after long struggles with illness, but others were completely unexpected and devastating in their impact.
Around about mid-December, I gave up. Seriously, that is about the only way I can describe it. I woke up and just didn’t have it in me to try any more. I picked up the bloody white towel (totally metaphorical) and hurled it into the center of the ring. I was done. I didn’t care about progress or gains or losses or getting better or worse or living or dying anymore. I quit working out. I quit minding my diet (not just the caloric intake but actual allergens… more on that later). I just couldn’t see the point.
Just to be clear, if I had not had patients, clients, etc. to see, I would not have left my house and probably would not have bathed or changed clothing… Sound familiar? If you or anyone you know has depression, it should. In speaking with the person I mentioned earlier in this post (and I hope he’s ok with me sharing even if I don’t include his name), I found just as I had heard from patients and colleagues and other friends around that same time that so many of us were hit particularly hard in 2017 and particularly in the latter half of the of the year (and continued during the first of 2018). He mentioned suicidal thoughts at certain points and feeling so low that death seemed a better option. Several other people have shared the same… including me. What we were all experiencing was pain, individualized and excruciating. Depression can be debilitating, and it can be worsened by seasonal impact of light (or lack thereof). The stigma attached often prevents those suffering from trying to get help or even support.
For the most part, all of those who shared with me their dark times and dark thoughts have made it through to this point. While not all are out of the woods, they are still fighting back, and now knowing they aren’t necessarily alone.
I still didn’t get to that physical fit part, did I? So, one of the things that exacerbated my own plummet into the pit was that I gave up one of the things that actually helped… my workouts and exercise in general. Not to mention, those allergens… told you I would come back to it. In that headlong rush into self-destruction I ate all the things. Mostly all the things that my body has already indicated it doesn’t really get along with so much. I ended up with a mouth full of sores and blisters and… you all don’t want to know the rest. So, on top of the existential pain, I had the rather debilitating physical pain that at one point did not allow me to consume much more than water. Some choices carry their own punishments, and my body decidedly wanted me to remember why I don’t eat all the things.
After a month away, I dragged myself back to the gym. It wasn’t easy. It certainly wasn’t pleasant, and I definitely had to make myself step through the door. It was almost like starting over that very first day I had the fit. It felt as if I had lost every inch of ground I had covered in that time. I felt like a failure… and I nearly ran back to my car and retreated back to my dark pit.
But I didn’t. It was embarrassing to have to start over, but I recognized that I probably needed to take it slow. So, I did. I broke it into pieces. It wasn’t about an hour or even 40 minutes. I broke it down to quite literally 5 minute increments. I can put up with anything for 5 minutes, right? And that is how I got through it. That is how I got through that first day back at the gym, and the second. We can all face the difficult for 5 minutes, can’t we? For any insurmountable, horrible obstacle that life throws… break it down. And talk to someone. Reach out to the people around you. They may be struggling, too. We can get through this, even if it is a piece at a time.
Well… I’m back. Not so much from outer space, but more like from a chasm of complete disarray that has held me prisoner for most of this year. While I think a good many of us started out 2017 with some trepidation, I actually felt on pretty good footing in a personal sense. I saw some light in the financial tunnel that did not appear to be an oncoming train for once. My professional life was doing not badly. I had physical fitness and health well in hand… and… I should have known better.
Along about mid-year, the universe decided to test the aggregate limits of my mental fortitude by throwing every aspect of my life into a wood chipper. I can’t decide if it was strength test or more of an agility thing as I kept bobbing and weaving to dodge those “slings and arrows” that I’ve talked about before (my apologies to the Bard).
Every time I thought that I could quit paddling so hard and relax for a minute, something else would hit and off we’d go spinning towards the rocks. Grief is a helluva thing, y’all. So, I paddled faster and harder just to keep myself and those I love above water as best I could.
The upshot? Well, every time I thought I was inspired to come back to my faithful and loyal audience, all I could think is “What a load of depressing crap this is…?” and I didn’t feel like putting that off on any of you. But now that the year is starting to spin down, I’ve seen several of my friends and colleagues participating in NaNoWriMo. No, I’m not going to be enthralling any of you with fictional prose, because the truth is that I have no gift for that. There are way too many others of my acquaintance who are better suited. So, I will let them entertain all of us with their offerings… they are quite good, I’m telling you.
I will celebrate the month by trying to open up a bit more to you, my few readers. See if I can dust the rust off and come up with something that doesn’t read like a typed version of Droopy Dog or Eeyore on a Quaalude. Who knows? This might be just the treatment the doctor (and by doctor, I do mean me. Ha!) ordered. I didn’t lay down and die (no matter how much I might have felt like it at times). So… for now, I will survive.
What can I say? As most of the denizens of the interwebs would indicate, the last year has been a bit troublesome, dare I say positively devastating in so many ways to so many, many people.
The thing is, it hasn’t been as directly disastrous to myself as it has been to others and a significant blow to famous personae and individuals who have some importance to us for the images and contributions they have made to us as a society. The number of celebrities and creative personalities who have departed this mortal coil has been astounding. I have tried to look at it objectively. I really have. I suspected it was a perception thing. An article in Snopes.com actually questioned whether it really as the deadliest year for celebrities stating that the overall “notable death” count wasn’t so high (of course that article was written with a good 3 days still available to the reapers to do their worst). The Guardian indicated that it was social media that made 2016 seem so very harsh to our beloved celebrities. Time magazine indicated that it wasn’t so much the number but the caliber of individuals… That sounds like a feasible theory. It must be that it was just a matter of my generation, right? In any given year there are probably as many deaths of well-known or dearly loved public figures as have hit us in 2016, right?
But it isn’t just that. The notoriety is a factor, but there really has been a significant number of people lost this year, and not merely those with enough celebrity to garner the mourning of the whole world. Many were taken before their time. Another article I read recently wants to lay the blame entirely at the feet of drugs and alcohol use/abuse. Interesting theory, and yes, I’m sure those elements played their part for some of the dearly departed. However that doesn’t come close to explaining all. Age, accidents, assaults, and disease also made contributions. None of which diminishes the loss of some brilliant people. In an era when more and more people are pushing the century mark due to the advances of science and health, we saw people dying in what might now be considered middle years. These stars of the Hollywood firmament (had to throw in the Singing in the Rain quote for Debbie), the musical performers, the notable spokes people, scientists, journalists, and others were often a huge part of my more formative and somewhat memorable years. We all hate losing our icons, even those with nice long lives, but the ones we lost in this past year were a bit too close to my age… some significantly younger, and that’s hitting a bit too close. Speaking of close… On top of all these losses in the public sphere, the world around me has been on fire… quite literally because for those in the southern states know that we were on fire for quite some time with loss of life and of much property, nothing unfamiliar to those who have suffered in the wildfires of our western states. And I suppose that is my point in a way… We lose a devastating number of people every year. We lose people dear to us, dear to those around us, people who serve and protect, those who have dedicated their lives in one way or another to serve others. That is really the point, isn’t it? Or is it?
For whatever reason, this year has appeared to hit us all, collectively, with the representatives of things we cherished. We’ve lost idols, icons, crushes, and heroes. That doesn’t diminish the losses that we suffer every day and every year of those in our personal spheres and the unsung and so often faceless heroes that contribute our society and the world by their service, freely given with knowledge of the risk. I think it brings it into more focus. The public figures and celebrities that we lost this year were beacons and provided joy, beauty, and even a sense of hope to each of us (including those who give their lives and service without fanfare). I think that is what is possibly the devastating impact of the public losses we’ve suffered in 2016. They are merely a fraction of the whole, but they’ve taken people we held onto as superlatives and ideals (though some portrayed masterful villains as well), people who used their gifts to transport us to other lands and times, people who used their influence to keep us informed or to push for change… 2016 took our examples and left us struggling to wonder if we mere mortals can make a difference?
But that brings me to something else about this year that those of us still breathing are watching through the end…
There were some decent things that happened in 2016. Focusing on just the losses and negatives is like “watering the weeds…[instead of] watering the flowers and paying attention” according to the founder of Ziva Meditation, Emily Fletcher. I know, you don’t believe me, but it did. I remember times where I laughed, I had times of elation, I heard my loved ones laugh and cheer and be glad. I performed a wedding to join two of my dearest friends. I saw growth and pleasure and happiness. I watched people stand up for each other. I saw people who not a week before had been at each others’ throats with political differences set all that aside to make sure that victims of the fires had food, shelter, and clothing. I spent time with friends. I saw friends accomplish goals and dearest wishes. I even accomplished some of my own goals, believe it or not.
I don’t want my memories of this year to be overwhelmed by the horrible that has happened this year. With all the positive and beautiful, I’ve also seen some incredibly ugly things that have occurred (not the least of which was the way that I saw people treat each other this year… face to face AND virtually).
If I have a hope for the new year, it is that perhaps we can focus more on ourselves…no, wait, it isn’t that sort of focus. I think it is time that we stop blaming an external locus of control for all our ills. It is time to stop blaming each other for something lacking in our own lives. We need to stop the cycle and believe in change for ourselves. I am sincerely hoping that we all examine our own actions and the repercussions. It’s important to realize that all our actions have consequences, and that we all have a choice in how we respond. I know that there are things that happen in this world over which we have zero control, but we always have a choice in how we respond (physically, mentally, emotionally). I want this coming year to be one in which we choose our responses wisely. I would like to see all of us respond rather than react and take a moment to consider the longer term impact of action.
This year, it has been difficult for me to see over the top of this incredibly large amount of @#$% that has accumulated. That being said, I’m still here… I’m still breathing… I’m still employed and serving in to the best of my abilities (minimal as they may be). These are all things for which I am grateful.
We face a new year. A clean slate to make a new difference. I ask that all of us let go of the negative. I hope that we all can focus forward and stop trying to drive without facing forward but merely staying focused on the rear view. In fact, there is a pretty decent article that can give you some good ideas for how to do just that, focus on positives, on Greatist.com. I hope for the New Year that we can grieve our losses, let go our disappointments, and that we move into 2017 with a focus on building our progress towards a better year. Happy New Year! Goodbye 2016.
For quite a number of days now, I have been getting little reminders. “You haven’t posted anything in X days…” or “Hey, we haven’t heard anything from you in a bit. Are you ok?” This is probably a testament to the fact that I had managed to post more or less weekly since the first of the year; and that there must be at least two people on the planet that read the mad ramblings of my brain. That all came to a rather screeching halt a little over two weeks ago. It was a cluster of events and emotions that ended up creating what might be called THE MOTHER OF ALL WRITERS’ BLOCKS. I literally have a half finished post that I started a couple of weeks ago, and I just felt it going nowhere and my heart just wasn’t in it.
That’s the problem with writer’s block, though. The words don’t come. Even when the words come, they don’t look right. Everything that appeared on the screen just sounded, in my head, like so much meaningless drivel. I know. You all are now saying, “So, how is this different that any of the general crappola that you type out?” Well… it just was. Nothing seemed worth the time and energy.
The problem was that I lost someone dear to me. She was too young and too vibrant for me to understand why someone like her is gone. In truth, all of this year… 2016… has seemed to be a great gaping hole of grieving and rage about loss. It seems astounding to me that the world continued to turn and people went on about their business when all I really wanted to do was stop. While people are watching the spectacle that is our political machine (honestly, it’s a circus I tell you… I may have to join my friend Tess for a big thing of popcorn), are fighting about bathrooms, and watching with feelings of impotence while more and more of civil liberty is trampled by laws that have blurred beyond recognition the original separation of church and state… I’ve been grieving and aching for a time when people seemed to be kinder and happier and able to take a joke. I have been thinking about the loss of talent and gifts of joy that we are now missing because of the people who have left this world just in a few short months. I have been avoiding writing because I was afraid the the voice screaming in my head in anger would flow out my fingertips and keyboard onto the screen in hurtful ways that would only add to the very phenomenon that was agonizing to me.
On top of it all I had surgery. Oh, nothing major, you understand, but as they say “surgery is surgery and there are always risks.” (Don’t you love it when they say things like that? They like to speak in ‘odds,’ too. Do they not know that I make it a personal goal to break curves?!? Seriously, don’t challenge me…) So, along with the demonstration of life being fleeting, I was also required to do the stuff they suggest when you have to have general anesthesia… I had to face my own mortality. That means thinking about what you want done when you are gone: Advance Directives, make sure finances are taken care of (sorta), put things where people can find them. It means talking to people you love and trust to carry out those wishes and then try to convince them that you aren’t “just being morbid” and are instead being responsible… and that you will be OK… that they shouldn’t worry. It’s just a worst case scenario. Except that for most of the people I love and trust… it wasn’t. We had just experienced that direct knowledge that tomorrow is not a guarantee. We suffered a loss that was too soon and shouldn’t have been. Suddenly, I was also a little afraid; afraid that I would somehow cause that pain to someone I loved.
As it turns out, all the responsibility stuff was, in fact, just a precaution. It was good to have it. I’ll hang on to the paperwork and file it, and update it just like I should. And I’m still here… Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing (not being morbid… believe it or not there are probably more than a few people that might wish me out of this world), I am here.
My words, it seems, are still a tad stuck. This is my attempt to get them back out. I’m one of those people who have to push through things. Not everyone is the same. Some people need time to recover. Just give them space and time, and eventually they come back out into the light. I can’t do that. I get stuck. I get stuck so hard that I have trouble finding my way back out. So, I have to push through. I have to force myself to exist in the light and ignore the shadows while they wait to reclaim me later when I least expect it. This is me pushing through. This is me sharing my process. It doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else’s process. If you actually do share this tendency, then, I’m here. I know the feeling, and eventually you push out to the other side. For now, I’m relying on positive posts from people I know and love. I drink in their non-judgmental, optimism like a man dying of thirst stumbling on an oasis. If you are one of those people with hope and optimism that you share, know that I appreciate you (and probably others do as well).
Because for now, I’m still a little blocked in, perhaps a little less than when I started, but still blocked… trying not to get stuck.
I have about three other articles I really need to be writing at the moment. However, I couldn’t get my heart into it for some reason. Looking at the calendar, it finally dawned on me what has been floating around the edges of my consciousness since my eyes flew open pre-alarm…
I have never forgotten the extraordinary luck I had in having so many in my life that were supportive. I’m not sure exactly how many of them believed that I could accomplish my goals or dreams, but at least no one ever discouraged me from pursuing any particular path that suited my fancy. However, there was one who always seemed as invested in my future and my aspirations as much as I was myself.
My paternal grandfather and I had a very close relationship. It wasn’t that any of my other known forebears were less loving or that I loved them less; it was that for a good portion of my childhood, he and I spent most of the time together. Before and after school, summers, and when I was sick with chicken pox or other childhood ailments, my pappy was my companion. I have very strong memories of hearing my pappy sing to me. I think he actually knew more than one song, but the one he always sang to me was “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” His voice was one of comfort. It was a baritone that sounds in my memory to this day much like Bing Crosby. Perhaps this is why I love those old songs so much. Pappy was a trickster. He liked playing jokes. He loved to laugh, even if he had no part in the cause. And he loved me… The only time I ever saw this man who retired after 30 years in the Navy cry was the day my parents took us across the seas to live for what came to be about 20 years. My pappy cried that day. I saw it when I turned for one last look before walking out on the tarmac. I remember being puzzled and frightened because I had never seen him shed a tear.
We made visits back to the U.S., at least once per year. Eventually, I moved back to the states permanently after the first Gulf War, before my folks retired, to complete school and start my own path. I lived in Atlanta for a while and would drive up to Tennessee for visits to all of my grandparents. Living in North Carolina, the trip to Northeast Tennessee to see my paternal grandparents was significantly shorter than the long drive to Southeast Tennessee to see my mother’s parents. I tried to make it back as often as possible to spend time with all of them. Pappy had some significant health issues, not the least of which was bone cancer. I never consciously thought about it, but perhaps living away from family so long made me realize that time is precious.
I moved back to Tennessee eventually to become a student once again and get a Master’s degree. I did well enough in school, but working multiple jobs and going to school full time wasn’t always without its bumps in the road. Nevertheless, my pappy was the person who was always my cheerleader on the sidelines. I never really knew why that degree seemed to mean so much to him. No one else in the family seemed to pay much attention to what was going on with my classes or progress, but my pappy would ask every so often, “How much more do you have?”
It became our own little game. Eventually, I was able to tell him that all my classes were over, and all I had to complete was the thesis. If going to classes and trying to work full time (plus some at times) was difficult, trying to conduct a research study and write it up in any resemblance to scholarly work was a bit of a nightmare. I admit, I became a crispy critter. I was burnt. I procrastinated. At one point, I considered just leaving it where it was. I had a full-time job by then working as system administration and technical management for an internet company. It wasn’t precisely what I had dreamed of doing, but it would pay the bills and put food in my mouth. I was tired of school, and I just didn’t care anymore. One voice kept me going. One simple question that I heard every day, “Did you finish it?”
Every day, I would go to see my pappy. We had a hospital bed in the den for him by then. The cancer than he fought off and on for years had gotten into his bones. We had home health nurses who came to take care of him. I always kept my appointments, though. I would go by after work or take a little detour if I had a meeting that took me closer to their house. Every day, he started the conversation with “Did you finish it?” And every day I would tell him, “Not yet, pap. Not quite yet.”
Eventually, something changed. Slow though it was, I started to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Some part of me saw it and started, like a long distance runner, to push a little harder in the last leg of the race. My committee chair saw it as well and scheduled my defense. I took the whole week off that week to finish up the final chapters and edits and prepare for the “grilling.” I saw my pappy the day before my defense, and he said, “Did you finish it?” To which I replied, “We’ll see…”
The following day, I’m still not sure how I got through. I think I threw up three times before going into the room before the committee to defend my work. As you have probably gathered, it was all right. They passed me. I was congratulated and moved into the less “nail-biting” but more frustrating portion of trying to get through the graduate school’s editing requirements. Regardless, I was DONE!
I drove, miraculously without breaking the sound barrier, to my grandparents’ house. I walked in, and heard the familiar question, “Did you finish it?” But that day, I said, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I did.” It took a moment to sink in, but then he laughed. It was the same laugh I had heard my whole life. It was a contagious, deep laugh. Then, I sat down and we watched some pre-season baseball and discussed what we thought would happen with the Braves pitching staff.
The next few days involved multiple trips to the graduate school offices and the stationery store to make sure I had the correct weight white paper. On the following Monday, I was back at work. I had a week of catching up to do. On Tuesday, close to quittin’ time, I got a call. They needed me at my grandparents’ house. They said my pappy would not make it through the night.
I don’t remember the drive over there. I remember a house full of people. I remember when we could no longer feel a pulse and my father and I performed CPR, though there was an order for “no heroic measures.” I remember my father and me, standing silently together and hearing the life leave my grandfather’s body. The rest of the evening was a blur. I was elected to break the news to my grandmother and Pappy’s sisters (who were at the house). My cousin and I managed to put dinner together… I think we made taco casserole. The rest was the usual ritual and responsibility of providing that last goodbye for one who has departed.
That was 16 years ago today. I don’t miss him any less. I think it was his voice in my head during the last difficult months of my doctoral dissertation. “Beth, did you finish it?” I think it was realizing that I had neither him nor my father with me this time when I finished my defense successfully that prompted the unexpected tears. I can imagine that he laughed and laughed, just as he did that day more than 16 years ago when I gave him the news. Other challenges have faced me: Personally, professionally… Each one that I faced and continue to face, I feel that part of me fights to overcome the obstacles because I still want to be able to say, “Yes, Pappy Dale. I finished it.”
It was a tradition, always, that my father wrapped the presents. I’d even seen it go so far as for him to wrap his own, cleverly camouflaged in nondescript boxes provided by department stores the year before. I often questioned how the tradition came about, and considered whether his yearly holiday task had started in his tender years. I found myself imagining him as a small boy, rummaging around in the bin of colorful paper and juggling scissors and cellophane tape.
There was no question as to why the tradition continued. No one compared. His skill in fitting the paper. Always efficiently using only what was necessary to conceal the package within. The corners never gaped, and no matter the shape, he managed to create neat edges on all those brightly covered items arranged decorously around the tree.
At some point my independent spirit rebelled and I demanded my share in the holy wrapping ritual. I was graciously allowed to try my small hand at the task. I cannot precisely recall whether my efforts resulted in triumph, but I must not have done too badly as it soon became our shared chore. Not so much dreaded as relished. The time spent together estimating paper and ribbon, drinking hot chocolate or coffee, and listening to Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, or Tennessee Ernie Ford.
The lights that made patterns on the ceiling changed through the years from multicolored flashes the small, white twinkling points. The tradition remained.
And as the time passed, new parts of my life invaded my sacred rite. Frequently working holidays in the emergency rooms, I would cross my fingers and race to the house, not even daring to pray that the pager would remain silent for fear of rousing the crisis gods and keep me from my wrapping with dad. It didn’t always work, but he tried to save me at least one, to keep our pact as the family wrappers.
It almost seems a metaphor now, as I think back. My father wrapped those gifts just as he wrapped our family, smoothing edges, tying loose ends, managing the dodgy elements that would mar someone’s experience. Yep, my dad did that. I never realized it for so long.
Then, he was gone. I remember that first year. I think I put everything in gift bags. It was a cheat. I just couldn’t bring myself to attempt the task alone. And I couldn’t ask anyone to help. Everyone else was suffering the same, well… almost the same grief. We all dealt with it our own way.
Little by little, I found myself stepping back into the position. Never fully. I could never fill those shoes.
So, as I sat in the middle of the living room floor, wrapping presents, the memories flooding back. It wasn’t the same, sitting here alone and thinking as I fold each corner. Then, I caught myself. That frown. The way my hand folded the corner and I was carful to fold the cut edge to make a smooth edge on the end of a difficult package.
I stopped, stunned for a moment. I looked down at my hands at the nails that were more rounded than my mother’s. I saw my hands, built on a larger scale than most women, but the lines more delicate than would be considered masculine. I saw through the lens of memory my father’s hands guiding mine to fold the edges and place the tape. My eyes clouded. Had I hardened myself so much to fear of pain that I had also blocked the other part of my sacred charge, joy? That was what my dad always tried to protect, even when we moved and we didn’t have a tree or our old vinyl albums or any of the other anchor to the holiday traditions of home half way around the world.
I stared a while longer before returning to my task. I wrapped every gift. I regretted the reduction in number. Sadly, the reduction of individuals in our holiday gathering has changed the way we approach gifting. In years past, the sheer number of people created a mountain of gift offerings under the bedecked tree.
Through the years, those of us left have attempted to replicate the appearance through expenditure (that most of us could ill afford). This was a mistake.
The number of packages or zeros is inconsequential to the love and good will of spending time will of family and friends. Yeah, that’s all kinds of cheesy. I know it. It makes my back right molar ache a little typing it. Regardless, it is the realization that dawned upon me as I tried valiantly to coral the few boxes that were before me to bedeck with festive paper.
I finished my self imposed “chore”. I looked at the packages, arranged beneath the tree to best advantage despite the diminutive number. I realized that I had chosen paper as dad would have. No tags necessary because of the number, but also because of the way the paper and package spoke of the recipient.
I was correct in my anger towards the television commercials that stressed the importance of spending more money. Spending time is what matters.
So, this blog has turned into one of those sappy, emotion-ridden, epistles chastising you, like Ebeneezer to repent your monetary ways and seek the true meaning of Christmas (Ham? No, not ham you fat @#$%). However, that was not the intent of this particular (wordy) first entry into the world of blog. It was to say that this Grinch’s frozen heart was thawed slightly today. In memory of one who quietly loved the season, loved his family, and held it together without ceremony or letting anyone else know it.
May I carry that spirit beyond holidays to safeguard those who are dear to me, and may any reading this have a blessed holiday (with no reservation to any particular faith) and may your new year blessed in every way.
A blog about a few thing I picked up along the way… Hey driver, where are we going?!?