Broken Pieces

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Have you ever had one of those horrific dreams in which you forgot something crucial and it affected your entire life? One of my recurring nightmares is that I somehow fail to remember to take a final exam in one of my college courses, thus losing credit for the class. Time passes and life is good until this error is discovered and I end up having my degree rescinded and I lose my job. The emotions that I experience in my sleep are so visceral that I wake up feeling anxious and even a bit stupid as though I really did do something as farfetched as forgetting to take care of a major responsibility.

In the real world of wakefulness I generally take care of business without any close calls. I’ve missed a deadline here and there, but those moments were never fatal nor as costly as my dreaded dream. Most of my big mistakes have taken the form of accidentally breaking something or causing mishap because I have been day dreaming or thinking about some issue.

I once backed out of my garage with the gate on my SUV still in the open position. I was on my way to a funeral and not really feeling like myself when my thoughts were interrupted by a big bang and a neck wrenching jolt. I stopped immediately and as I exited my car to see what had happened I saw one of my neighbors doing his best to stifle his laughter as he considered the ridiculousness of what I had done. I felt so sheepish that I quickly closed the mangled part as best I could and continued on my way. Luckily my husband was infinitely understanding when I later explained to him what had happened. In fact, he suggested that it had no doubt occurred because I was in a delicate state of mind. He’s always known how to make me feel better.

Because my spouse is a very good man I wanted to do something special for him as we near the one year mark of his stroke and the many trials and tribulations that he has experienced in the months since that terrible day. I found a special way to celebrate when I saw that Joe Bonamassa was scheduled to perform at a nearby venue. I excitedly purchased tickets and announced that it was an early Father’s Day present for him.

Joe Bonamassa is a gifted guitarist and my Mike has listened to his music and watched videos of his playing for years. Once when we attended a graduation at Syracuse we saw that Bonamassa was performing in town that weekend, but all of the tickets had already been sold. I knew that Mike would be thrilled to be able to finally see and hear the artist that he so admired, and it was a grand way to put aside the health challenges he had faced.

At the time that I bought the tickets our house was literally turn apart and encased in plastic and grime from the repairs that resulted from a leaking hot water heater.  From start to finish it took around eight weeks to return to normal. During that time I carefully guarded the tickets lest they become lost in the mess that surrounded us. I watched over them as though they were the most valuable item in our home. When all of the dust finally settled and we had returned to a state of normalcy I still knew exactly where the tickets were, and I gleefully imagined how much fun we were going to have as I watched the days move ever closer to the date I had saved on our family calendar.

It seemed fitting that we would be going to do something fun on May 28, Memorial Day, because I have had a difficult time with that holiday ever since my father’s death on that day of remembrance over sixty years ago. I become anxious and admittedly a bit morose year after year. I find myself reliving that moment when I found out that he had died, but this year was going to be different. I was determined to put away my childhood fears and do something fun with the man I love. I anticipated our  glorious evening all day long on May 28, and when the time came I had a lilt in my step as I readied myself for our outing.

In his usual manner Mike decided that we would have dinner near the venue and so he went online to determine how long it would take to drive from the restaurant to the concert. His search lead him to the home page of the arena where he noticed that there was no mention whatsoever of a concert featuring Joe Bonamassa. He rushed from his office to our bedroom where I was relaxing a bit before our departure and asked to see the tickets. When I handed them to him he instantly noticed that they clearly listed the date of the performance as May 21. We had missed it entirely!

I went into a state of shock and disbelief. I could feel a storm of tears gathering in my heart but I showed only a stunned reaction. I kept looking at the tickets as though somehow I might magically change the printed date to the one that I had erroneously recorded on our calendar. The difference between a 1 and an 8 is rather clear, not like a 1 and a 7. I wondered how it was possible that I had been so discombobulated as to make such a mistake. I felt as foolish as I ever have. Not only had I ruined the wonderful evening that I had planned for Mike, but I had also just flushed a great deal of money down the drain.

As usual Mike came to the rescue. He insisted that we still go out to eat and he jokingly played some of Joe Bonamassa’s music as we drove to our destination. After dinner we walked around different shops for a time and then splurged by sharing a piece of cheesecake. He made no mention of his disappointment but instead kept us laughing and having a good time. Eventually we moved our party back home where we sat on our patio under a full moon enjoying glasses of wine and ending our evening with more of Bonamasssa’s music. The best part came when Mike sweetly announced that a good night was just being with me. That comment put everything into perspective and I didn’t feel as foolish anymore.

We’re all human and we do silly things, but when all is said and done they rarely become the nightmares that we so dread. Things break, fall apart, get lost and always they remain just things. People are all that really matter, and so we pick up broken pieces, throw them away, and move on.

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A Memorial Day

american-flags.jpgThere was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.

My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.

My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.

When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.

I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.

There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.

Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.

Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.

I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.

I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.

Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.

Go Forth in Remembrance

k10304515Memorial Day on the last day in May has come to represent the beginning of summer even though the laws of astronomy give that designation to a different date. It is a three day weekend holiday designated by Congress. There are few better times to buy mattresses or large home appliances. People flock to the beach on this day and gather around swimming pools and barbecue pits. American flags fly from the porches of homes all across the land. For many the true intent of Memorial Day has become lost in a haze of celebration having little to do with what this national holiday was originally intended to be.

The Civil War left our nation broken and bereft. Over 600,000 Americans had lost their lives in the conflict. People in both the north and the south attempted to heal their wounds and sorrows with annual tributes to those who had fallen in battle. The homage sometimes included parades but the main focus was to be found at the grave sites of the soldiers who had been killed in those terrible battles. Family, friends, and sometimes even sympathetic strangers would bring flowers to the cemeteries. Some even carried food for picnics and held solemn vigils. These were days of remembrance and honor that went by different names and occurred in different times and places.

Three years after the conclusion of the Civil War an organization of Union soldiers, the Grand Army of the Republic, established Decoration Day to be held on May 30 to honor those who had died in the Civil War. It is believed that this date was chosen because it coincided with a season when there is always an abundance of flowers. After World War I President Woodrow Wilson declared that the day be forevermore known as Memorial Day and that it be a time of remembrance for all soldiers who have died in the service of our country. It was not until the nineteen sixties that Memorial Day was set to occur on the last Monday of May to create a three day weekend associated with the national holiday.

Over a million members of the military have died while engaged in active duty. It is a staggering number and yet the vast majority of Americans today have little or no experience with losing a loved one or a friend in a war. Talk with individuals in their sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, however, and there will be more and more eyewitness stories of young soldiers lost in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the War in Vietnam. While those conflicts seem to be almost ancient history now, for those who saw the blood being spilled, the memories are as vivid as the actual events.

I have watched my father-in-law cry when reluctantly relating stories of fallen comrades in the Korean War. I have friends who speak of relatives who came back home dramatically changed from the War in Vietnam. They tell of husbands and fathers who still have nightmares because of what they saw. My mother’s eyes used to fill with tears as she told of school chums who never returned from battlefields across Europe and the Pacific. I have run my fingers across the names of school buddies whose bravery is forever proclaimed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. My great grandfather did not die in the Civil War but he was charged with burying the dead after the Battle of Shiloh and official documents tell of the horrific nature of his duties.

Today our armies are staffed with volunteers many of whom continue to die in faraway places for a cause that we all too often don’t really understand. These young men and women are our first line of defense in an uncertain and often frightening world. Somehow they find the courage to carry out missions that most of us would be too frightened to do. When they die their families and friends suffer great loss. Many times those of us busy with our own lives are all too unaware of the great sacrifices that they have made.

War is hell and always has been. It would be so wonderful if we humans somehow managed to resolve our differences in peaceful diplomatic ways. For whatever reason, even our best efforts to avoid conflict are challenged again and again. We may want to isolate ourselves from the necessity to spill blood but history has shown us that we are sometimes given no other choice than to defend ourselves and lose our human treasure in the process.

I used to naively believe that one day mankind would evolve to a point at which the killing would forever stop. A lifetime of observing human nature has convinced me that there will always be some form of evil in the world and that sometimes we have to cut off the head of the serpent to save the innocent. Thank God for those with the courage and the willingness to do what must be done, even understanding that their efforts may result in death.

We must never forget the brave souls who gave their lives so that we might retain our freedoms. We may not know their names or be related to them in any significant way but we have benefited from their acts of courage nonetheless. There is no greater love than a man or woman laying down his/her life for another. It is incumbent on us to spend some time today reflecting on such sacrifices.

If you have children don’t fail to talk with them about why we have this holiday. Far too many of our youth are sadly ignorant of the real reason for our celebrations. It is up to us to teach them to remember and honor those who gave so much in the long arc of history. Simple gestures can be powerful reminders. Our children understand symbols and they like to hear stories.

My son-in-law and my grandchildren awoke early this morning to place American flags throughout their neighborhood. It is a ritual that they have repeated for many years now. I am proud of them for doing this in memory of our fallen heroes. It displays a special reverence that we as a nation are sometimes in jeopardy of losing. We must not equate respect for the dead with unbridled nationalism. It is the duty of present and future generations to never forget the true cost of war. Every life that is lost represents dreams that will never come true. If we honor those who gave everything, they will not have died in vain.

I have read that in our nation’s capitol the flag is raised on this day in the early morning and then lowered to half staff to remember all of the soldiers who have died for this country. At noon the flag is raised again to represent the glory of our nation that has resulted from their courageous deeds. I encourage you to both remember and celebrate. Go forth and enjoy the fruits of the sacrifices made for all of us.

Life is Shiny and Awesome

13165981_10206207146842968_828197429741817811_nI’ll be the first to admit that the end of May through the beginning of June is not my favorite time of year. In fact, I tend to dread this period, for it cycles through the dates when each of my parents died. I’d love to be able to tell everyone that there comes a moment when I actually forget the trauma of Memorial Day, 1957, when my father was killed in a car accident, but that would be a lie. For fifty-nine years I have felt the same pangs of loss that I experienced way back when I was only eight years old. The fact that my mother died quite suddenly and unexpectedly on the very day before I was to celebrate my retirement five years ago, only compounds my solemn mood as I watch the calendar head to those two terrible anniversaries.

Of course I have learned how to cope and move on. It’s what we all must do, but somehow the sorrow that I felt upon the deaths of the two people who gave me life lingers in a back corner of my mind. The scars of those events have healed but the calendar annually reminds me of the magnitude of my loss and I experience a tiny itch of sadness. The faded memories return and always among them is remembrance of how wonderfully understanding my Uncle William was when my father died. It was he who took the time to check on me and my brothers amidst the confusion and chaos of that day. It was he who showed us what real love was when we needed it most. Ironically decades later it would be his son, Paul, and his granddaughter, Jan, who would lift up our hearts with stirring tributes to our mother at her wake.

The lovely spirit of Uncle William lives on so beautifully within the hearts of Paul and Jan. They are both special souls who bring a pure and innocent kind of sincerity to every situation. Like Uncle William they are both wise and far stronger than people might suspect. They provide me with important links to my past, stalwarts for the present and promise for the future.

Jan has seen her own share of tragedy of late. Perhaps the most shocking event was the death of her cousin last summer. In what seemed a horrible replay of my father’s death, Jan’s cousin was killed while on vacation in a freak motorcycle accident. He was young, full of life and Jan’s special confidante. He had a family that loved him and so much more that he needed to do. This wasn’t supposed to happen and yet it did, leaving Jan bereft beyond measure.

Jan and her family have struggled for months to deal with the emotions that have stalked them. In an almost unbelievable turn of events her mother’s father died within weeks of her cousin’s passing. Because she is such a loving person, Jan’s grief has been almost unbearable to watch. Somehow she has managed to keep herself together because she had a very specific goal. She was in the midst of earning a Masters Degree in Communications at the University of Houston. The demands of her coursework was unforgiving. She had to keep studying, researching, writing papers and defending theses. Somehow it was in the work that her healing process began.

I suspect that Jan still wishes that she might have one more conversation with her departed loved ones but she also knows that they would have insisted that she continue to move forward, and so she did. She graduated in early May with her degree and a host of honors. Somehow I saw in her the image and spirit of my Uncle William. He ever so quietly and humbly lived a most remarkable life. He was not as learned as Jan but he brought so much to every single interaction, even with strangers. He delivered mail in the same neighborhood for years and made a point to know the people on his route and to treat them with dignity and respect. He did odd jobs here and there so that he might provide his family with special treats. He always carried fifty cent pieces to give to us children and he often insisted that we have ice cream to celebrate even an ordinary day.

Jan is so much like him. She lights up a room with her generous spirit. My mother adored her and would have been touched beyond imagination to hear Jan’s praises. Jan is bound for a wonderful life just as my mom always said she would be.

On the occasion of her graduation Jan shared what she thought to be “wise nuggets” that demonstrate the depth of her character. “It’s what I’ve lost that makes me so incredibly thankful for what I have. It’s what I haven’t achieved that pushes me to achieve more. And it’s what I wait for that makes me excited for the future. I may be a dreamer, but I can guarantee that I will do anything in my power to achieve it, whatever it may be. Life is confusing and messy. You hit a few bumps and that frustrates you. Then, you see this light, and it’s awesome and shiny (because you life shiny stuff). What appears from the light? See, that’s the beauty part of life, you take the good with the bad until you reach that shiny light to find out what is there. Take the good with the bad and hold on to those you love.”

I imagine my mother, my Uncle William and all of the other folks who have always loved Jan are feeling rather proud of her right now. I know I am. I can’t wait to see which one of those six pending job offers she ultimately lands and where her journey will take her. One thing that I know for sure is that she will be not just fine, but remarkable.

Congratulations, Jan! We love you with all of our hearts. You bring us joy with your presence. You have a huge fan club and we plan to hold on to you with all of our might. You are truly shiny and awesome.

Thank You

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For most of us the lists of those who have died in the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply names. It’s far too easy to hear the litany, feel a moment of sadness, and then continue with our lives. They are not usually people that we know which makes them more symbolic to us than concrete. For their families and friends memories of them will live forever. These were real people just like you and me. They might have been one of our brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, sons or daughters. Throughout the history of our country courageous individuals have joined the military, sometimes because they were drafted and often because they volunteered. All of them understood the dangers but always believed that they would one day come home. Far too many did so in flag draped coffins, casualties of the conflicts in which they fought.  Continue reading “Thank You”