Category Archives: inspiration, humor, family

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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Funny Face

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Mama always said it might freeze like that…

Digital photography is a marvelous thing.  It allows us to see immediately a captured image, edit/correct it on the fly, and even delete it if editing cannot save it and make it presentable.  What we used to have to wait for, sometimes for weeks, we can now see and share with lightning speed.

It has started me thinking about my face, and the faces of other people in my life. I’ve seen some pictures of myself in the last few years that range from OK to hilarious to horrifying.  When I was little and I made silly facial expressions, I remember Mama telling me,  “You better be careful or your face might freeze like that!”  The advent of digital photography has allowed the face-freezing-like-that phenomenon to happen, and it allows us to see the aftermath instantaneously!  Below are some examples:

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will state that I posed for two of these, while the other two were captured without my knowledge.  I kept them all because they made me laugh even though they aren’t necessarily flattering.  Funny isn’t always “pretty”, and in my own case and face, I value the funny at least as much.

My friend (and first ever work husband) Martin once said that laughter is the most intimate of emotions.  I agreed with him.  Genuine, unself-conscious laughter, the kind where I throw my head back and clap my hands, or I laugh so hard I lose my breath, or laugh till I cry or pee my pants, or both…moments with laughter like that are about as intimate as it gets.  Unguarded, open and real.  And if I can evoke that kind of laughter in another human being, it feels like the most lovely of accomplishments.

So if my face freezes in a less-than-flattering moment, it’s just for a moment…and if that moment makes me or someone in my presence laugh, then it’s worth it.  Because if I am being honest, laughter IS beautiful.  Intimate, genuine and beautiful.

 

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.

Shared

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“It’s not nice to be selfish…”

It has been more than 2 months since I wrote a blog post.  These months have been fraught with extremes in my emotions, as I have tried to process some of the relationships in my life and determine which ones matter.  I suppose we all have these moments, times when circumstances force us to realize who needs to stay in our lives and who we need to sever. I’m in the process now, of both bonding and severing.

I remember when I was a little girl, my sweet Mama teaching me how important it was that I learn to share.  “Share your toys, Leslie…”  “It’s not nice to be selfish…”  Being selfish might feel good for a minute, but sharing feels good forever.

A stark, beautiful and painful thing has come to light for me in this process…some people just won’t share.  Anything.  Not time, feelings, words, truth.  As painful as it has been to try to salvage a “friendship” that turned out never to have been genuine in the first place, it has been liberating and beautiful to compare and contrast it to the ones I cherish that are, indeed, the “real deal”.  So more than being sad over what is not, I am happy for what is.

I am happy for the friend who, among other caring gestures, always wants to know I got home safely after we’ve shared supper and said good night.

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I am happy for the lifelong confidante who shares what my company does for her.

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I am happy for the new-ish friend whose genius I admire, whose goofball humor I enjoy since it is much like my own, and whose insight I take to heart.

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I am happy for the friend who sings, laughs and cries with me, who stops when he finds a feather and picks it up to bring to me when we see each other just because he knows that feathers bring me joy.

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And I am happy for the friend whose love for me is abiding, selfless and genuine.

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So, when I have friends in my life, LOVE in my life, like this…why in the name of all that is sacred would I ever settle for anything less?  Answer:  I won’t.  Never again.  Love like this gives me the strength I need to sever from my life the people who don’t care for me.  Because this…this is connection as it should be.  This is love…Shared.

Respite

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How decades can vanish in an instant…

Last May, 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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How To Make Hot Tamales

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It’s not about the recipe…

 

Making hot tamales is a process

First, you gather in a loved one’s kitchen

and find the well-worn recipe

Stir up the cornmeal, shortening and hot water

while you laugh about how

the generation before you used to

perform this same ritual

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Next it’s time

to roll the meat for the filling

and laugh some more

because somebody thought

the meat logs were funny

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Then comes the assembly line

of putting the cornmeal mixture

onto the tamale wrapper

sticking the meat log inside

and wrapping it all up

repeating until we’re done

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We congratulate each other

saying “these look like

they turnt out right” and

laughing about how

someone ended up with

cornmeal in her hair

Then it’s time to

boil them all up and

smother them in the chili

that’s been patiently waiting

And savor this

Belly-and-Soul-warming meal

seasoned with

Laughter

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Wings

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The blessing to soar and to sing…

This past Sunday the lovely people of Messiah Lutheran Church where I have sung and served since 2013 said “Farewell and Godspeed” to me as I have begun a new chapter at a different church, Ebenezer United Methodist.  Both churches have referred to my “ministry”, which I have never considered my singing to be.  For me, it’s just doing the thing God gave me to do, offering back to Him the gift that He has lent me to use while I am here.  Semantics, I suppose.

People who know me, or who read this blog, know that I collect feathers.  On my way into the church, I spied a tiny little white feather on the ground, no bigger than my thumbnail.  “Thanks, Lord, ” I thought, tucking it into my bag.  It was a beautiful little piece of comfort on a bittersweet day.

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Joan, Messiah’s director of music, had mentioned in an email that I collect feathers and that if anyone at church found one, they could bring for my last Sunday as a member of their staff.  What a sweet gesture, I thought, and such a nice way to say not “Goodbye”, but “Until we meet again,”.  Because Christians, and musicians, never really say goodbye.  We remain part of the same family.

I had the chance to sing some of my favorite things, with some of my favorite people, in a place that I’ve grown to love.  At the end of the first service my friend Anne came up and handed me a Baggie with a collection of large feathers inside, explaining that she had her son Cameron had collected them on walks over the years.  I said, “I hope this isn’t the whole collection!”, to which she replied, “It is, and Cameron wanted you to have them.”  When I went into the choir room to drop off my folder before Sunday school I found a feather lying on the floor, and picked it up thinking someone had just dropped it.  They had…and that one was just the start.  All over the fellowship hall floor, feathers…on top of every table, feathers…little children tugging on my skirt to bring me feathers!  It felt like I’d won the lottery!

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During Sunday school, Joan presented me with a parting gift, a gorgeous piece of art depicting a treble clef and feathers combined, inside of which she had tucked a small white feather that one of her dogs had tracked into the house after a walk.   And then she had me explain the significance of feathers in my life, how God sends them when I need comfort, a reminder that He is watching over me.  When I see a feather I pick it up, because, while my brain knows that feathers come from birds, my heart likes to imagine that the feathers drop from the wings of guardian angels God has placed in my path to look after me.

As the choir gathered for the second service, Mary Soprano (because we also have a Mary Alto!) presented me with her own take on a feather gift, a hilarious pink and purple boa, which everyone agreed suits my Diva personality perfectly!  I squealed like a child when I opened it, and posed for a photo showing my bounty of gifts and blessings from the day.  Pastor Eric prayed for me during both services, and Pastor Pauline blessed me, anointing me with oil after I had received communion.  Tears of gratitude welled up as I received love, hugs, affirmation and the blessing to continue singing in another family even as I remain loved by this one.

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Over my shoulder the banner reads “Cantate Domino”, Latin for “Sing to the Lord”.  I LOVE that Joan framed the shot this way.  It’s a reminder for me why I do what I do.

And I love that my feather gifts remind me of both the birds and the Angels, creatures that soar and sing to the Lord.