Category Archives: family

Smelling The Roses

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Don’t wait…

My friend Isaac took me to supper this past Saturday night, to celebrate my Sunday birthday.  (#souldate). Visiting with him is always a good time to catch up on each other’s lives, enjoy a meal together and discuss some of the deeper issues of heart, mind and soul. He provides a valued sounding board for my random musings, creative endeavors and family “stuff”.

Over the table, we hash out the dreams and doldrums of life, including the relentless passage of time that a birthday always brings to mind.  I mentioned to him a country song from the 90’s that tells the story of a family at 3 different life stages, and how poignantly it speaks to the changes we all endure and witness.  If you are interested, look up artist Tracy Lawrence’s “Time Marches On”.  It is an intelligently written yet simple narrative of one family’s life story.

Our niece is getting married a month from today, a lovely and accomplished young woman whose birth I remember vividly.  We will be traveling to Houston to gather with the Cutshaw side of the family and celebrate her wedding, as well as my and Sweet Pea’s 32nd wedding anniversary, and Cutshaw Grand Poobah Howard’s birthday.  As I look forward to this wonderful occasion, my happiness is tempered a bit by sadness at the unexpected death of a friend.

Ellen had moved to California at the end of 2012 and I had not managed to keep in touch the way I would have liked.  Still, as I explained to a mutual colleague, just knowing she was “out there” comforted me.  Now, knowing that she is not, is a kind of sad that is quite undefinable.

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Once more I am reminded of an old adage, that I need to stop and smell the roses.  The daily-ness of life lulls me into complacency…until there is a wedding, a birthday…a death.  Every day is an occasion to be savored and shared with the people around me.  God, give me eyes to see and a heart to appreciate both the monumental and the mundane occasions You set before me daily.  Amen and Amen.

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Lines

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Keeping them open…

I am not a seasoned traveler by any means.  But the week after Christmas I traveled, on a plane, by myself, to visit with my friend, chosen family and #firsteverworkhusband Martin.  My local airport is not enormous and checking my big bag and passing through security went smoothly enough, as the lines were fairly short and moved quickly.  Then I went on to my gate and eventually to board the plane, where I waited in another line.  I have a sweet and understanding husband who graciously allowed me to take this trip, and escorted me as far as he could before kissing me goodbye and probably experiencing some stress about me proceeding on my own.

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Airports are poignant places as I look around at the other travelers.  I wonder what their stories are, who or what they are traveling to see, if their trips are carefree vacations, happy reunions or sad goodbyes.  It’s the storyteller in me, I suppose, that craves to know these details, the storylines of the people around me.

After a quick and smooth flight I landed at my destination, a much larger airport than the one I had left behind less than two hours before.  Text messages from Martin told me that he was waiting to meet me at baggage claim.  After almost 5 months since seeing each other in person, his warm smile greeting me made all the angst and craziness melt away, as it always does when we see each other.  Hugs exchanged and my suitcase retrieved, we got into his car and merged into the lines of traffic headed back to his apartment.

We laughed and talked nonstop the entire time I was there, never once encountering an awkward pause or running out of things to say.  Friendships like this are priceless indeed, the connection of soulful, goofball kindred spirits who understand each other well.  Conversations started forever ago and new ones begun, like lines in an ongoing play or novel.

Part of our time was spent at the clinic where Martin undergoes hemodialysis three days per week.  As an ESRD (end stage renal disease) patient, he must dialyze regularly in order to survive until he can receive a kidney transplant.  As much illness as I have seen among my family and friends, I have had little experience with kidney failure or dialysis until now, and Martin kindly arranged with his clinic for me to be able to sit with him during his treatments.  Usually visitors are discouraged but since our visit allowed us limited time together, I was permitted to be there.

Because of possible blood contamination, biohazard and liability concerns, I was not present when he was connected to, or disconnected from, the dialysis machine, and I  was required to gown up while I sat with him.  I joked about how flattering my “prom dress” was, which got laughs.  I was able to observe him and the other patients, his clinic family, as they sat through treatment.  On Friday, the man in the chair next to us had an episode of chest pain resulting in a bit of quick, efficient scrambling by the team in order to stabilize him and get him feeling better.  Sunday’s treatment brought Martin the news that one of his fellow travelers on the dialysis path had passed away, the first time he has lost a member of his clinic family, a woman only a few years his senior.  The ride from the clinic was a little quieter, and a little bit somber as we both tried to wrap our heads around the news.  Had he learned of her death in time he would have attended her memorial service, but it had already taken place.

For several hours after treatment, the possibility of bleeding is a concern so he has to stay bandaged up.

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Among the other painful aspects of treatment, pulling the tape off a hairy arm sometimes smarts!  After he removed the tape and gauze, he let me photograph his arm…it bears the marks of several years’ worth of puncture wounds and the scar from where his fistula was created.  His access is apparently a bit tricky; the arterial line is near the surface and not usually a problem for the technician to find, but the venous line goes deeper and has a turn, so it sometimes makes for a difficult “stick”.

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Once connected, he rests (or attempts to rest)  in a reclining chair for approximately 4 hours, during which every drop of blood is removed, scrubbed free of toxins and then the clean blood fed back into the body.  It’s really remarkable technology…but it is a punishing process.  Martin’s minimum removed fluid since we have reconnected has been 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) and he has had as much as 5 kilos taken off, which is 11 pounds and change.  In four hours.

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I sat silent for a few moments and frown lines must have shadowed my face, because Martin said, “Don’t look at my access with sadness; it is my lifeline until I can get a kidney transplant.”  Still, I remember him telling me about times when his access has been blown out when one of the needles infiltrated, leaving its assigned spot and forcing treatment to be halted…bruising, swelling and pain in the arm, and the itching that sometimes aggravates him after treatment.

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Storylines…waiting in lines…lifelines…my holiday got me thinking about the lines of our lives in a whole new way.  Five days of nonstop talking with Martin reminded me that the most important lines are those of communication between us and our loved ones.  Life is short.  Talk to the people you care about.  Keep the lines open and clear.

 

Days And Decades

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How 15 hours became 20 years…

Today is the 20th anniversary of Mama’s death…but just barely.  December 8 was just a couple of hours old when she drew that last breath and moved from here to Heaven.  So while this is technically the anniversary, I always spend December 7 remembering…reliving…her last day of life, and spending it with her.

I arrived at Baptist Hospital around 11:30 that cold, grey Sunday morning, to relieve Dad, who had spent the night before with her.  He told me that, after being unresponsive for over 12 hours, she had awakened in the middle of the night, and they had a conversation.  She said she knew she would die soon, and that she was not afraid.  His recollection of that exchange shook me, hard and deep.  As we chatted briefly, he made a note to send to their financial advisor on Mama’s hospital menu for that day.  I remarked that I probably had a blank sheet of paper he could use, and he said no, the menu would be fine, especially since it documented the date and his note was an instruction for an account change that needed to be done before the end of the calendar year.  He was, and still is, careful and astute in financial matters.  We hugged goodbye and I told him to go home and get some sleep, that I’d see him later.

Just minutes after he left, Mama’s face changed, as did her breathing, echoing through the room with “the death rattle” I had often heard mentioned in older people’s conversations, but had only heard with my own ears a few times.  It didn’t register with me right away that she had begun actively dying, but over the course of the day it sank in.  In about a half hour a nurse came in to check Mama’s vital signs, and she asked how long her breathing had been like that.  When I answered, this sweet nurse just came and put her arm around my shoulder, telling me that she didn’t think Mama was in any pain or distress, that I could talk or sing to her, pet her and love her, because nothing was bothering her now.  I think now that this nurse may have been an angel; I don’t remember having seen her at any other time during our hospital stay; I can’t recall her name or face or hair color; I only remember her words and the feel of her arm around me.

For her last 15 hours, Mama and I shared that little space together, mostly alone except for nurses and CNAs coming in to check her vital signs and to ask if I was all right, if I needed anything.  We only had a few visitors, including a hospital social worker and her husband, who circled around and prayed with us, and my cousins Judy and Ann, who came that night just hours before Mama died.  There were some phone calls through the day, but mostly many hours of stillness.  Mama never awoke that last day, but I spoke to her, and I know she was aware of my presence…my love.

Flash forward to last week when I was messaging with a friend and telling him about Mama’s anniversary coming up.  He expressed understanding of my residual grief.  We talked on about the state of current affairs, the world, and concerns over what we, as individuals and as a culture, may leave behind.  I tried to reassure him that he is sending light into a world that sometimes seems very dark.

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And I realized something.  Those last priceless hours I shared with Mama shaped the way I view my years, and how I want to spend whatever time I have left.  When it is time for me to leave this world, I hope I am remembered for the moments I shared with others…one on one and bunches of us together, moments of music and silence, times we laughed until we cried, ate until we belched and then laughed some more, hugs and smiles and being genuine with one another (I don’t really know how to be any other way).  If my moments are meaningful, then my years will be worthwhile.

In her last 15 hours of life, Mama taught me just as much as she did in the 58 years that preceded them.  What a gift!  If my days and decades are a tiny fraction as full as hers were, I will leave something good behind me here when I leave.

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Duets

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Longtime friendship, faith and music…

As an incoming college freshman in the fall of 1982, I was meeting tons of new people and enjoying the process of finding my place in what was essentially a new world.  I realized quickly that some of these new people would be acquaintances with whom I’d share the occasional class, some would become close friends throughout the 4 years of school…and some would remain in my life for the rest of my life.  Then there were the few who came into my life, vanished from it and reappeared years later.

Marc was one of that last category of people.  We met as freshmen at Carson-Newman College (now University) and, as we were both music majors, we had a number of classes together.  I liked this fellow right away. His boyish good looks, beautiful tenor voice, easy smile and sweet spirit drew me to him immediately and we became fast friends.  Spring semester found us both singing in A Cappella Choir and sharing long hours on the bus together as we toured during spring break.

He decided the following year to change schools, and we lost touch after that.  I often joke that he “abandoned” me, (which always gets an eye-roll and a quick retort!) but I realized he was following God’s path for him, just as I followed mine by remaining where I was.  I thought of him so often in the years that followed…but I never followed through on trying to find him.

Flash forward to 2011, the beginning of the season for Knoxville Choral Society.  I was talking with my friend Tina and heard the name “Marc” and asked what Marc and where?  She pointed in his direction, I turned, and he and I both looked in shock at one another, recognizing long-lost faces and voices and yelling, “YOU!”  And pointing at each other like we were school children.  Hugs and laughs and stories followed…and the reconnection was forged.

He started singing at Messiah Lutheran the year before I did, and after I joined him there, we were blessed to sing in the choirs together, and to join our voices on many duets.  Our voices blend in a way that I can only describe as magical…and together, we have been able to create and enjoy some truly memorable moments.  When we sing and things are working right, the joy I feel is almost overwhelming.  He left Messiah and went to Ebenezer United Methodist, where I ended up accepting a call a couple of years later (I fear he will tire of me “following” him from church to church!)  And there, too, we have shared duets and delights, and I hope those continue for a long time to come.

Musicians are people first, and as such, we bring our issues with us every time we sing.  Sometimes those things keep us from achieving our musical and spiritual best. And sometimes, for lack of a  better description, we are blessed to be able to “sing them out”, experiencing catharsis, cleansing and healing.  Those moments, I believe, are little glimpses of Heaven on Earth…and I am so grateful to be able to share them with Marc in a way that only the two of us can fully comprehend.

Today, on Marc’s birthday, I share this thumbnail sketch of him, our friendship,  and our partnership in music and in faith.  And I share some pictures from the last few years, a little sad that there are none of us together from our college days. But I am so grateful for the renewed connection with him, my partner in crime…and in duets.

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Dog Days

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Love beyond understanding…

There is a commercial for Subaru that makes me weepy almost every time I see it.  Willie Nelson sings “You’re my buddy, my pal, my friend…”, as a man prepares for a road trip with his dog, with a close-up shot of a bone-shaped birthday cake decorated with the number 14.  The spot goes on to show the man and his dog marking activities off what looks to be the dog’s bucket list.  The tag line is, “Love—it’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru”.

Now, I realize that that ultimate goal of the commercial is to sell cars.  However, there is a category of advertising known as “image-building”, into which this particular spot falls.  Instead of listing specifications about safety ratings, gas mileage and dealer incentives, spots like this instead help the viewer (or listener in the case of radio advertising) build an emotional connection with the product.  I can imagine the pitch meeting for this particular commercial, with creative service professionals discussing how they could target pet owners as potential buyers for this car.  That’s their job, and in this case, they performed it extremely well.

When I see this commercial, I can’t help remembering our first dog, Ernie The Wonder Beagle.  He was actually a Beagle-Basset mix, adopted from the local shelter and estimated to be 1.5 to 2 years of age when we took him home.  We enjoyed nearly 11 years of unconditional love with him, even as we became acquainted with his emotional issues.

It was pretty clear that at some point he had suffered abuse, and possibly starvation.  He was skittish around people he didn’t know, especially men, for a long time.  But with time and love, he learned that he could trust us, and could trust the people we trusted.  He especially seemed to enjoy it when he had a chance to see The Aunts at Dad’s for Christmas Eve and he was quite affectionate with them.

He was both extremely sensitive and ridiculously funny.  Countless times he emerged from our bedroom with a cotton swab he’d swiped from a wastebasket hanging out of his mouth like a cigar.  He “stalked” his stuffed toys by circling around them on the floor before grabbing and shaking them with all his might, eventually throwing the offending toy down and descending on it in a growling, playful frenzy.  He listened to 11 years of tears, joys, secrets and meltdowns from me, served as a heating pad when I was cold or had backaches or cramps, showered me with kisses and snuggles every day when I came home from work.  He loved me when it felt like no one else in the world did, or could.

For about the last 11 months of his life, Ernie lived with cancer, and we lived with it as well.  We and our veterinarians exercised our best judgement regarding how to give Ernie his best chances for both survival and a decent quality of life.  There were several surgeries to remove tumors, multiple rounds of steroids and other medications trying to keep his cancer at bay.  He was a brave little fighter, much more so than I was during his illness.

In the end, though, the cancer took him from us.  Ten years have passed since he died.  A couple of months after he died, we adopted Our Boy Roy, who came home with us on the same day that Ernie had, September 4…Ernie in 1996 and Roy in 2007. Roy’s adoption is a story for another blog post, one I will get around to writing, eventually.

As wonderful as Roy is and as much as I love him, I still miss Ernie every single day.  Our pets provide us with a kind of love that is beyond understanding or explanation.  We humans would do well to emulate the kind of simple love our pets give us and share that love with other humans.

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Above, me with Ernie shortly after adopting him, September 1996, and on his last night at home, July 4, 2007, before he went to the hospital for the last time.  He died one week later.

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One of the best friends of my life, Ernie The Wonder Beagle.  God rest his little Beagle-y soul.

Travel

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The paths we tread…

I spent a night over my weekend in Asheville, visiting with a friend going through a difficult period in his life.  We shared some food and caught up with each other’s lives since the last time we had a chance to be in the same space together.  Even though we are in touch daily through the magic of technology, it’s still a joy to share real face to face conversation in the same room!  Simple pleasures.

The drive from Asheville to Knoxville coming home took much longer than normal due to rush hour traffic and, more notably, to road construction and lane closures.  Departing from my usual habit of listening to music while on the road, I chose to forgo any radio or CD, listening instead to the road and to my own thoughts.  It gave me a chance to absorb my surroundings and to imagine the lives of the people in the vehicles sharing the road with me.

What are their stories, I wondered?  I had just said goodbye to a friend I love like family, not knowing how his current situation and challenges are going to work themselves out, but grateful for the chance to visit and share meals, laughs and tears with him, however briefly.  As the road whizzed (and sometimes crept!) under my wheels, I began to ponder the people in the cars and trucks nearby.  To where, or from where, are they traveling?  The woman in my rear view mirror was on her phone, smiling and chatting with some unseen party.  To my right, a man in a pickup was obviously listening to music, and greatly enjoying what he heard.  Several people on motorcycles buzzed past me going WAY too fast…I had to wonder, “What is the hurry?  Is the enjoyment of the speed worth the danger you place yourself in, as well as those around you sharing this stretch of road?”

Here’s the thing.  Every human being I encounter is traveling a path, just as I am.  We each have a journey along which we learn lessons, finding joy and love, heartache and misery.  Each person’s path intersects my own, where it does and when it does, for a reason.  Our paths may cross but briefly, for a mere moment.  We may travel parallel to one another for a while and then take separate forks in the road.  Now and then, though, I have the joy of meeting a kindred soul whose path merges with my own, and we walk hand in hand, sharing the road with all its varying landscapes and its smooth and rocky patches.  Whether this path is with a mate, a friend or a family member, the road is richer and more beautiful when traveled together.

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Respite

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How decades can vanish in an instant…

Last April, Jeff and I went to Destin, Florida for a vacation.  We used to live and work in the area and every time we go back for a vacation, we drive through that same little town on our way to the beach.  And every time we do, I always remember the people we worked with and wonder whatever happened to them.  Last year I finally did some research and found out about my favorite one.

Martin was my first ever “work husband”, at my first radio job, so early in my career that I didn’t even have terminology for what that relationship was!  He worked the same midday air shift time as I did, in the FM studio while I was on the air in the AM side next door.  I couldn’t begin to count the times he put his side on “auto-pilot” for 10 or 15 minutes and came to stand in my doorway to talk and laugh with me.  He left the station, and radio, in 1989, about a year before the company was sold and everyone else was laid off, resulting in Jeff’s and my return to Knoxville.  We lost touch with many of our connections from there, including Martin.  But I often thought of him and wondered how his life had worked out.

Flash forward to last year’s vacation when I searched his name on Facebook and found several entries, including a face with a smile that was warm and familiar.  I sent a message and introduced (or re-introduced!) myself, apologizing if he was not the Martin I remembered and saying to have a nice day, and if he WAS the Martin I remembered, I hoped he would get in touch.  It was, and he did, and we became Facebook friends and began a correspondence.

Over the ensuing months Jeff and Martin also connected on Facebook…but the more substantial communications were between Martin and me. (I was always a letter-writer…now I am also a message-sender!)  We all decided that a trip to Asheville to visit Martin was in order, and I couldn’t help thinking it was a little ironic that we had all met 500 miles away in Florida only to end up living a couple of short hours apart.  Other things developed over the ensuing months as well, resulting in much more frequent messages between me and Martin…changes in his health and home life, a hospital stay, drama, frustration and sadness as he is in a transitional life stage now.  I’ve been humbled and amazed at his transparency and his remarkable sense of humor in the midst of all he is enduring of late…the same humor which endeared him to me almost 30 years ago when I first met him.  He often makes me “snaughle”—my term for the snort-laugh.  We have become family…which I warned him might happen, saying, “We’re bonding and God help you, because my friendship is relentless.”  He has assured me that he is OK with it.

For a brief moment I was nervous about us seeing him again in person, thinking we might end up with nothing to say to each other and the whole situation could become weird and awkward, especially since we had planned for him to spend the night with us.  The exact opposite scenario played out, as we stayed up very late with rarely even a moment of silence amidst all the catching up, storytelling and abundant laughter.  Jeff finally put himself to bed and Martin and I stayed up for maybe another hour winding down and feeling grateful…and decades vanished in an instant.

The next day came, and with it, Martin’s time to leave.  Jeff and I both hugged him goodbye, thanking him for coming to visit with us and for all the laughs we shared.

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Walking out onto the gravel driveway in my stocking feet and watching him pull his car away, I felt happy and sad and a little weepy all at once.  The end of a sweet visit often evokes such emotions in me, and this one, which had been so many years in the making, seemed especially poignant.  The rest of our afternoon was spent poking around in a bucket-list bookstore I had wanted to visit, getting supper and stopping by a fancy chocolate shop for treats, enjoying Jeff and his company.  The whole trip was a much-needed respite from the stressful realities all of us deal with on a daily basis.

The following day it was time for us to head back home, and back to reality.  Messaging with Martin, I admitted that I cried when he left.  He was understanding and sympathetic, as he always is.  And as always, a joke happened.

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