The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

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Our Loss Is Heaven’s Gain

Lance

There are special angels who live among us. If we are very lucky we have the pleasure of meeting them. I have been blessed to know more than my share of such people, and sadly I have seen far too many of them grace this earth only to be called to a heavenly reward far sooner than we would wish.

I first met Lance Bertrand when he was a young South Houston High School student. He was a year or so older than my eldest daughter and a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church where I was a parishioner. Lance was someone who was hard to miss because he was stunningly handsome and always seemed to bear an almost perfect smile. He was also exceptionally bright, one of the academic stars of his class.

Back then our family hung out all of the time with my good friend, Pat and her husband Bill. We spent so many Fridays and Saturdays sharing movies and lots of good food and laughs. My daughters became like sisters to Pat’s daughter Lisa so it was quite special that all of them ended up attending the same high school, South Houston and the same church as well. We were very much like family. Eventually the girls became more and more independent as they grew older and often spent their weekends with members of their high school classes. Everybody knew everybody else, so Pat and I always felt so comfortable and assured that they were going to be safe.

Lisa was belonged to a very special group of young people that included Lance, so we got to know him quite well. We saw that he was always polite and respectful and honest and kind. He was very much the type of teenager that all parents wish their children would befriend, and to our delight he and Lisa became truly kindred spirits. A wonderful relationship grew between them that would continue from year to year, place to place.

Lance went to Texas A&M University and earned a degree in engineering. He quickly landed a job with Texas Instruments and before long he had even purchased a home. He and Lisa continued their friendship even as Lisa married and began to have her own children. Meanwhile Lance never forgot any of us and quite thoughtfully sent our family a Christmas card each year. We looked forward to hearing from him and were quite happy to know that he was doing well because he was indeed such a fine person. We thought that he deserved all the best that life has to offer.

Many years ago we were saddened to learn that Lance had brain cancer. He fought the disease like a gladiator and maintained his optimism and kindness through the ups and downs of his many treatments. He was determined to lead a glorious life in spite of the challenges that hunted him down over and over again. Along the way he fell in love with a beautiful woman who embraced his goodness and stood by him even as his cancer progressed. They had two beautiful children and for a time it felt as though Lance was going to beat the odds and defy the disease that refused to go away.

Sadly it eventually returned with a vengeance leaving him bound to a wheelchair and growing weaker with the passage of time. Somehow that beautiful smile of his that made everyone that he encountered feel so good never seemed to leave his face. He continued to be a good friend, a loving father and a devoted husband, rarely complaining. It was as though he wanted to take care of everyone else.

Last week Lance Bertrand died. His high school friends Lisa and Sam were there with his wife and members of his family. He received the last rites and went peacefully. Those who were there feel assured that he is a true angel in heaven and they were honored that they were able to be with him at the end because he had always been there for them.

I know that everyone who was lucky enough to be in Lance Bertrand’s sphere will miss him deeply. He was an exceptional person who did so much in his very short life. He was loved because he so freely gave love. He was an original, one of a kind whose absence will create a void in many hearts. At the same time he taught all of us the meaning of faith, courage, determination and generosity for his thoughts were rarely with himself and always about others.

Rest in peace, Lance  Bertrand. Your pain is gone. Your battles have ended. Now it is time to rejoice in the rewards that you have surely earned with a life well lived.

All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

Throw Out the Lettuce

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During the great romaine lettuce scare there were a number of hilarious memes hitting social media circles. I loved the one that boasted that finally lettuce was dangerous to eat, but pie was a healthy option. Another spoke of how everyone immediately fell in line with the CDC warnings by tossing their romaine, but many of the same folks thought that vaccines were the work of the Illuminati. I actually posted that one because it struck me as being funny. I was somewhat surprised when I got comments that vaccines are indeed evil.

I am a baby boomer and as such my generation was the trial run for all sorts of vaccines. I remember standing in long lines at school to get the first polio vaccines. I was quite young and not exactly enamored with the idea of enduring the pain of a shot in my arm, but I knew of at least three people who had been afflicted with polio and I really did not want to end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like they were. I girded my courage and gritted my teeth in a bid to never contract that then dreaded disease.

I wasn’t as lucky with things like chickenpox and measles and mumps. There were not vaccines back then and I became ill with all three. The chickenpox were irritating beyond description and I appeared to receive a super duper dose of the sores that come from that disease. My mom gave me a bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls to ease the itching sensation but such measures actually did little to help. She eventually made me wear socks on my hands lest I scratch permanent scars into my face.

I’m a bit fuzzy about the mumps, but I do recall feeling as though I was swallowing razor blades each time that I attempted to eat or drink. I mostly slept a great deal rather than trying to deal with the pain and feverish symptoms that I had. I remember that many of the children, especially the boys, in my neighborhood came to our house so that they would purposely catch the mumps as children rather than risking to become ill with that disease when they were adults.

The worst of all of them was the measles. I came down with those when I was in the fourth grade during a very cold winter. I can’t recall a single time in all of my life when I felt as sick as I did then. I mostly slept day and night in a kind of feverish stupor. My mom kept the room dark because she had read that bright lights might cause me to go blind. When it snowed during my illness she wouldn’t even allow me to peek through the blinds to see a wonder that only comes to Houston once in a blue moon. I heard the neighborhood kids shouting and laughing with glee while I lay on my sick bed certain that I was going to die. While my mother and brothers were outside frolicking in the snow I cheated and glanced outside. Then I spent the rest of my two week sickness fearing that I was going to lose my sight because of my transgression.

My grandfather often told of his family’s experience with smallpox. He described the event in such vivid detail that I was ecstatically happy that I lived in a time when that horrific disease had been generally eradicated by immunizations. The injection for smallpox was the creepiest of all that I ever received. My left arm soon scabbed over with an oozing sore that I protected with a plastic guard. When it finally healed I had a scar that eventually faded away, but in the beginning it made me fully understand what my grandfather meant when he noted that the people who survived smallpox often had marks all over their faces that told of their battle with the disease. He said that his own father had appeared to be in danger of losing his nose in the height of his sickness, and was even told that death was near for him. Somehow he miraculously survived, but the terror of the illness stuck with my grandfather for all of his life.

There is a growing trend among people to decline vaccinations in fear of secondary complications. While I suppose that such things are possible, I also worry that if enough people follow this way of thinking we may begin to witness outbreaks of some of the diseases from the past more often. In most cases the immunizations’ problems far outweigh the results.

My own daughters have been fortunate to never have to deal with the pain of mumps or measles. Now even chickenpox is covered. It is rare to see anyone with polio, but in my day we saw many children and adults whose lives were changed by that disease. I would never want to go back to a time when we just took our chances with the possibility of contracting terrible illnesses that sometimes indeed lead to a lifetime of suffering or even death.

I know that there are numerous arguments against having so many different immunizations, and I suspect that nature may even find a way to overcome the preventive measures that we have set in motion. Still, it is imperative that we be wary of risking a return to days when children in particular were less likely to survive childhood intact because of diseases that were almost certain to affect them. I’m just old enough to understand that our ability to control the spread of so many illnesses is a rather recent phenomenon.

We are living in a time during which predictions indicate that more and more of us may live past one hundred years. Medicine has done wondrous things to make our existences less uncertain. I’m already well past the median life expectancy of the year in which I was born. Miracles are indeed happening that were unheard of back then. So throw out the romaine lettuce and keep getting the immunizations that doctors recommend. It’s an easy decision.