Damn it, Kenneth!

The woman who fixed me up with the Big Guy introduced him as Ken. I learned later that he was Kenny to his co-workers and childhood friends, but that nickname never felt right to me. He was always just Ken, in the same way that my sisters will always be Sue and Barbie to me despite the fact that they are Susan and Barbara to the rest of the world.

I’m not going to talk about my sisters’ name for me. Nope. Suffice it to say that calling them Sue and Barbie definitely makes me the nice sister when it comes to nicknames.

I admit, however, that I sometimes called my husband Kenneth, although that was only under very specific circumstances and usually as part of the phrase Damn it, Kenneth.

For the most part, Damn it, Kenneth was reserved for those moments when he was gleefully jumping on my last nerve or when he had just committed some random act of life-endangering idiocy that was guaranteed to take ten years off my life. To be fair, Damn it, Kenneth was usually preceded by a frustrated growl on my part, but usually ended with a chuckle because the man could so damn funny and aggravating and ridiculous all at the same time.

I came home one day and found him standing on the top rung of a ladder, using a plunger to change the bulb in the yard light. While I had to give him a few bonus points for creative use of a toilet plunger, I pretty much came unglued about his use of the ladder.

Well, not the ladder itself. I took issue with the way he chose to position the ladder.

It was balanced on top of a wet picnic table.

The picnic table was suspended a few feet in the air, one end perched on a rotted tree stump and the other resting on the open tailgate of his truck.

Which was parked on a hill.

An icy hill.

“Easy, Wheezie,” he said soothingly while I screeched at him. “I’ve survived this far, haven’t I?”

“Damn it, Kenneth! Get down!”

“In a minute.” He took his time finishing up and clambered down safely, grinning the whole time. “Jeez, anyone would think I’d never done that before. You worry too much.”

“….damn it, Kenneth.”

He learned to tell me about some of his riskier ideas after the fact, probably to keep me from killing him.  When he and his brother had to transport their bull, T-Bone, to a new home, they discovered that the latch on the door of their livestock trailer was broken.

“So you rode on the outside of the trailer?” I demanded.

“Well, somebody had to hold the door shut.”

“So you rode on the outside of the trailer.”

“Yep.”

“While it was moving.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You could have been killed!”

“But I wasn’t.” And there it was, the cheeky grin and shrug that said Hey, it was no big deal.

“…. damn it, Kenneth.”

At times, it seemed as thought the man had zero sense of self-preservation. He drove demolition derby and raced a souped-up 1973 Chevy Impala at the local racetrack for fun. Sure, he made sure his cars and gear met all safety requirements, but that didn’t make it easier for me to accept his risk-taking. I’d sit in the stands and cheer for him, but I nearly hyperventilated every time the announcer shouted something about the number twelve land yacht spinning out or breaking down or pulling out to pass another car.

His brother was his entire pit crew. Before every race, Little Brother would give him three pieces of advice.

“Keep it clean,” he’d say.

“Of course.”

“Stay outta the wall.”

“Will do.”

“Don’t do anything that might scare Amy into labor.”

“No promises.”

“Damn it, Kenneth!” I’d shout.

He always called me “Wheezie” when I yelled at him for doing stupid things. “Quit your wheezing,” he’d chuckle. “I’ve survived everything I’ve tried so far. Stop worrying.”

Knowing his penchant for taking stupid risks, my panic levels went through the roof when I learned his fire department was planning a day of ice rescue training. I knew that the training would involve putting one of their firefighters in a special protective suit and dropping him into the freezing water to be rescued by his co-workers. I also knew that my Big Guy was going to step up and volunteer to put on the suit.

I had two problems with this idea. First, he was a really big guy. He was over six feet tall and broad shouldered, bulky without quite being fat, and I knew he was perhaps the largest man on the department. I didn’t have a lot of faith that the others would be strong enough to drag him out of the water.

The second problem was, to put it simply, that the Big Guy couldn’t swim. He thought he could, but he couldn’t. He could stay afloat, but that’s not the same thing as swimming, really. He and his father had once survived capsizing their canoe in a frigid Canadian lake, and he was thoroughly convinced that his ability to avoid drowning meant his swimming skills rivaled those of Michael Phelps.

I believed him when he promised he wouldn’t put on the suit. I trusted him to stay out of the water. Even when he came home that night shivering and blue-lipped, I believed he was just cold from standing on the dock for hours, rescuing other firefighters.  I even felt sorry for him and poured a liberal shot of whiskey into his hot cocoa.

Then I saw the pictures posted on the department’s Facebook page. There he was, bobbing around in the water, being dragged out on his belly, being helped out of the dripping wet rescue suit.

“DAMN IT, KENNETH!”

“Heh,” he chuckled. “Saw the pictures, huh?”

Even after we separated, there were many Damn it, Kenneth moments, like when a tornado touched down a mile from the house and he sent me text messages assuring me that he was safely in the basement. He was not, in fact, anywhere near the basement. He was happily watching the funnel cloud from the living room window. I saw that as progress since he wasn’t actually outside watching it touch down.

I think we all began to see him as being somewhat invincible. Or at least very, very lucky. It seemed as though he could survive anything.

Until he didn’t.

Can you take me to Urgent Care? He texted me one afternoon.

The Big Guy didn’t do doctors. He just didn’t. He never really saw medical care as a necessity except in the most dire of circumstances. So if he was asking for help going to see a doctor, I knew something was seriously wrong.

He was embarrassed when the doctor said it was just a cold and prescribed an inhaler. “Go to a different doctor,” I said. “Get a second opinion.”

“Nah, I’m feeling better already,” the Big Guy said, giving me a ghost of his usual grin.

A few days later, he texted again to let me know that he was being admitted to the hospital. Influenza A, he told me. No biggie. Stupid doctors.

The official cause of death was “Complications of Influenza A.” He hung on for almost a week after his heart stopped the first time, and our hearts shattered when he didn’t wake up, leaving his loved ones to make the hardest decision anyone should have to face.

We never thought we’d lose him so young; we certainly never thought we’d lose him to something as ridiculous as the flu. He should have gone out doing something utterly idiotic and dangerous, grinning while I stood there shouting Damn it, Kenneth!

Yeah…

… damn it, Kenneth.

 

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I Don’t Know How To Do This

Four years ago, I wrote a post that began with the words “I don’t know how to do this.” My husband and I had just split up, and I was agonizing over my new reality of being a single mom. I was mourning the loss of a marriage that we had both hoped would last forever, and I was terrified.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. My ex, whom I’ve often referred to here as The Big Guy, never truly allowed me to struggle as a single mom.  He was always a great dad; I don’t think I ever realized that until weren’t together any more. As strange as it may seem, we became better co-parents when we stopped being spouses.

We also became better friends. Over the past four years, we’ve had more conversations and shared more “inside jokes” than we ever did during our eighteen years under the same roof.

Today, I have to repeat myself, because Heaven has gained an angel in Carhartts and faded flannel.

I don’t know how  to do this.

Last week, we lost The Big Guy to complications of the flu. The Flu! How can anything so ridiculous possibly be real? He used to drive a race car, for God’s sake. He was a volunteer firefighter for more than a decade. This was a man who used to take chances and risks that would make my blood run cold, but would just laugh at me when I told him to be careful.

I don’t know how to do this.

My children have had to grow up over the past two weeks in a way that no parent wants to witness. Because The Big Guy and I were no longer together, responsibilities and decisions fell upon the shoulders of his oldest child, our twenty year-old daughter. I’ve said for years that she is more of an adult than I am, and she has stepped up and proved me right by displaying a level of maturity that makes me ache for her.

The nineteen year-old has also grown in so many ways. He is mourning,  of course,  but he is doing so with his father’s trademark sense of humor. My quiet, sarcastic little boy has become a warm and nurturing man who looks out for all of us and always finds a way to make us smile with some funny memory of his dad.

And our baby. Rooster turned ten just a few days after losing his father. He has cried so much that I’ve worried he might get sick. But each time, he finishes crying and then moves on to laughter or a quick  game of basketball while sharing stories about his daddy. He’s hurting, but  he’s adapting.

They are grieving, but they are grieving as a unit. The three of them are so close that I know, deep down, that I have nothing to fear for them. They’re going to be okay because they have each other. Well, each other and their father’s strength,  humor, and courage.

But I don’t know how to do this

I’m not talking about being a single mom. I can figure that part out, especially since the older two are here to help me. If I’m going to be completely honest, I know my daughter will probably continue to run the show with more maturity than I will ever have. Things are going to be rocky for a while, and there will be a tremendous learning curve, but we’ll get through.

No, I don’t know how I’m going to move on without The Big Guy. He was my ex; we hadn’t been a couple for more than four years. But he was my friend. We still talked almost every day. We had inside jokes and a shared history that spanned more than twenty years. We created three people together– three amazing, beautiful, incredible people who made us both so much better than either one of  us ever were on our own.

He had a girlfriend who never left his side during those final days in the hospital. His family referred to her as “the love of his life,” and I believe they were right. He was so very happy with her, happy in a way he never was with me, that I couldn’t hold that against her. During the time they were together, she was good to our kids and always treated me with respect, so I truly, genuinely like her.

Crazy, huh?

My heart is breaking for her. So few people in life actually find real love, but I believe she and The Big Guy truly did. As much as I am hurting right now,  I know her pain is even deeper.

And I am hurting. I’ve lost my friend. I’ve lost the father of my children. I’ve lost a person who was a significant part of my life for more than half my time here on Earth.

I’ve lost my Big Guy.  My crooked-toothed, flannel-wearing, warm-hearted Big Guy. And somehow, incredibly, life is going to have to go on as though the world hasn’t just lost a truly good  human being.

I just don’t know how to do this.

Weekend Coffee Share: Perfect Circle

If we were having coffee this morning, it would have to be an iced coffee, with lots of milk and a splash of hazelnut. It’s a hot day already, with humidity at almost 100%, and I think we’d all be happier with something cold to drink.

I’ve been thinking about circles this week. Not just any circles, though. Those circles in some long-ago math class that I coasted through with a barely-passing grade, where the rings overlap and mark off a small segment of shared ground. I don’t remember what that little bit of shared ground is called, but I wonder if my old math teacher would be proud of the fact that I’m applying math to real life.

There’s been a lot of overlap in my life recently. Circles have been crisscrossing where I least expect it. Meandering lines have suddenly doubled back to form circles in surprising places.

Circle 1. At my first professional job as an adult back in the 1980’s, there was a very sweet lady named Donna who always looked out for me and helped me settle into the department. It turned out that she knew my father. Small world, right? That world got smaller yesterday, when I met her son, who turned out to be the pastor at my brother-in-law’s church.

Circle 2. At about the same time I was working with Donna, I started going to a big church in another town, where I became really active in a singles Bible study group. It ended badly for me in a way that really soured the taste of organized religion for me.

Oddly enough, one of the people from that group has ended up being a part of my life now, decades later and lots of miles away. She has quietly taught me more about forgiveness and compassion than I ever learned sitting on a pew anywhere.

Last week, another person from that church contacted me, more than twenty years since our last meeting. She said she had sampled one of my books and didn’t see God in it, and wanted to know what caused this. Her words were kind on the surface, but the unspoken judgement and implied recrimination hit me like a physical blow.

Circle 3. My ex-husband and I have been apart for more than two years, but we both laughed together on Wednesday when we realized that it was our twentieth wedding anniversary. Since our divorce isn’t actually final yet, we found a bit of humor in the fact that we can technically say we made it twenty years. He and I always shared the same peculiar sense of humor; even when things fell apart for us, that is the one thing we still have in common.

Circle 4. Most of my family is gone now, and I sometimes feel terribly alone. There just aren’t a lot of cousins or relatives in the area. I feel disconnected from the world somehow, like a hot-air balloon tethered to the earth by only a few strings, and those strings are being cut one by one. When I was married, the greatest gift my husband ever gave me was his family — brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles . . . all strings that helped tie me back to the earth. Connections.

Losing my marriage was like cutting all of those strings.

Those random circles all came together yesterday at a small memorial service on the shore of a little inland lake. A gentle breeze worked its way through the branches of the maple trees and tiny waves tickled the sandy shore as we gathered around the table that held flowers and a few small items. There were pictures of a tiny baby boy, born too early into a world that wasn’t ready for him.

I rode to the memorial with my ex-husband and stood with his family; they are my family, too, regardless of our divorce. His niece — our niece — was supported by a circle of those who love her, while Donna’s son, the pastor, officiated at the memorial for our first “great.”

God was there, too. In the words of the sermon, of course, and in the passages that were read from the Bible. But more than that, He was the one bit of shared ground, the one intersection of all those circles.

I can’t worship a God who thunders from a pulpit.

I believe that God is in the kindness and love shown in each of those circles. In Donna looking out for her younger co-worker while raising her son to be a spiritual leader. In my old church friend who teaches by example and not by judgement. In my ex and his family, who still accept me as one of them and hold onto those strings that connect me to this earth.

And yes, He was in little Logan during his few minutes of life in his mother’s arms, as hard as that is to believe through her grief.

So now it’s Sunday morning. Some folks are getting ready for church, and some of them may think less of me because I am sitting here chatting with friends over an iced coffee rather than heading out to a house of worship.

But for me, God isn’t just in a house of worship. He’s not in judgement and recrimination. He’s all around me in everything that we do, but most of all, he is in that little bit of shared ground, that place where all the circles of life intersect and bring us all together just when we need each other the most.

Image result for bible verse about kindness and compassion

 

The Best Medicine

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” – Kurt Vonnegut

The world needs more laughter. Even on the worst of days, even when the future is bleak and the present is worse, even when all hope seems lost . . . we have to look for reasons to laugh.  I know that laughter has never, ever solved a single major problem, but neither have tears. Especially not in my family.

We were devastated when Aunt Ida died. She was the first one of The Amoeba Squad to go, the first of the four sisters to go somewhere without her siblings. She’d been sick for ages; Aunt Marian often said that that Ida had “one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.” But still, her death rocked us.

Aunt Vernabelle took it especially hard, although I never really knew if that was because Verna was the most sensitive of the four or because she just really never liked Ida very much and felt guilty about that.  Either way, Verna’s grief was overwhelming. She cried non-stop for days; she cried herself sick and then cried some more after being sick. She couldn’t function.

It was during the visitation that Aunt Marian, the Head Aunt, decided that enough was enough. She turned on her sister and issued an ultimatum: Verna had twenty-four hours to get herself under control, or else. Now, no one was ever really clear on what “or else” meant, but the threat was sufficient to get through to Verna. She sniffled and sobbed and wept for the next twenty-four hours, but she also kept a running countdown: “I’ve got eighteen hours left to cry!” she’d wail. “Marian says I can cry for sixteen more hours!”

“The next time someone dies,” Marian grumbled after a while, “she only gets twelve hours.”

And we laughed. God help us, we all laughed, even Verna. That’s just how my family has always dealt with things beyond our control. We try to find the humor in humorless situations.

I’ve heard it said that humor is a defense mechanism, that a human smile is similar to the way a wild animal bares its teeth as a warning. Well, of course it is! I make the worst jokes and laugh the loudest when life is at its worst.

The night of my car accident, I had a wonderful nurse named Nadine. As I lay there in the Emergency Room, strapped to a backboard and immobilized by a C-collar, Nadine came in with a Shop-Vac to vacuum the glass shards off before cutting off my clothes. As I remember, she was quite enthusiastic about the job, very thorough about getting that glass out of every possible nook and cranny. And I do mean every possible nook and cranny. When she aimed the nozzle between my legs, seemingly in search of glass in the lining of my uterus, I let out a whoop and told her I didn’t usually allow such liberties without dinner and a movie first.

Poor Nadine didn’t know what to do. She burst out laughing, apologized, and kept vacuuming, although I’m pretty sure I heard her mutter something about not ordering the lobster.

Later that night, when they had realized the extent of my injuries and started preparing me for the ride to a bigger hospital, Nadine came back to put in a catheter. Let’s just be honest here: having a catheter inserted is not exactly a relaxing experience. It’s a major invasion of one’s private areas, and Nadine was definitely going for frequent flyer miles in my pelvic region that night. She had to keep telling me to relax, but by that point I was well on my way to a complete meltdown. I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t cooperating.

“Honey,” Nadine teased, “would you spread your legs for me if I got the Shop-Vac again?”

For the record, no Shop-Vacs were harmed in the course of my recovery. But laughing at that moment gave me the strength I needed to get through the next few hours. It also made the ER doctor pause and peek into the room to make sure I hadn’t completely lost my mind. “I don’t think I want to know what’s going on in here,” he told us.

Here’s a simple truth about life: Sometimes, it really sucks, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can ever do to change that.  People die, people get hurt, and the world just keeps on turning. Our hearts may get broken, but they keep on beating. Sun comes up, sun goes down, life goes on.

We can laugh or we can cry. Or we can build a blanket fort under the kitchen table and curl up in a fetal position and do both, but eventually we’re going to have to come back out into the real world.

Might as well find something to laugh about while we’re at it.

And when I die, you all only get two hours to cry.

This is a Finish The Sentence Friday post: “The world could use more . . . ” hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee,  Shelley Ozand Anna Fitfunner.  Please take a few minutes to check out what some of the other bloggers did with this sentence!

Heaven

For your sake

I hope it’s always six a.m. in heaven

So you can walk the marina at dawn

When the only sound is the clink-clank of ropes against the masts

As boats shudder with each teasing touch of an easy current.

Or maybe it’s sunset

So you can sit on the porch with your iced tea

And drink in the crimson sparkle of a million diamonds

Glistening, disappearing with the sun

Drowning for you night after night

So darkness can urge the old foghorn to moan its ecstasy

Across the waves.

No, I hope it’s sunny and autumn in your heaven

When crisp leaves crunch underfoot

And you hug yourself against nature’s exhalations

While whistling through acorn caps

Just the way you taught us.

I hope angels have a sense of humor

Laughing in snorts and gasps

Wheezing and swiping at tears

Clutching their bellies and gasping, no more!

If I can believe you are laughing with them

Full of joy even now

Perhaps I won’t miss you as much.

***

This is a re-do of an older poem of mine.  It’s something I’ve been tinkering with, trying to say the same thing in a more mature and stronger way.  I think I like it better this way but I’ll welcome any input.  All comments are always welcome on my blog.