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.

 

A Little Light Reading?

I love writers who can make me laugh. And not just the ones who make me do the whole snort-and-guffaw-until-I-pee kind of laughter, although those are certainly near the top of my list. If an author can make me laugh and cry with the same book, well, that just turns me into a happy little fangirl, gobbling up all of that author’s work as fast as I can.

Authors like David Sedaris. Jenny Lawson. Jean Shepherd. Celia Rivenbark. Erma Bombeck (obviously).

So, I want to talk about an author I discovered a few months ago. I don’t usually do book reviews in my blog, but I sort of feel obligated to do one this time around because the last book I read really hit me pretty hard.

A few months ago, a friend recommended Only In America by Dominic Holland. He is a British author and stand-up comedian, and my friend knows how much I adore British comedy. And my friend was absolutely right: this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I laughed out loud in the very first chapter and kept chuckling right up to the very end. For the record, Jonson Clarke is now one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, EVER. Right up there with Mary Lennox and Ford Prefect.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be able to look at a baptistry without snickering, thank you very much, Mr. Holland.

I read The Ripple Effect next, and it didn’t disappoint. Eclipsed was wonderful too, although it left me feeling rather embarrassed for not realizing that Holland’s son is the actor who plays Spider-Man. I mean, c’mon. Seriously, I’m a recovering comic book addict; I got my start writing for “Amazing Heroes” magazine, after all.  (I’ve also never lost a round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, so I should have made the connection.)

Open Links was next. It’s charming, and has all the elements that make Dominic Holland’s work so enjoyable: quirky characters, fast pacing, funny dialogue, and a happy ending with all loose ends tied up in a tidy epilogue. But this one also made me cry. I’m talking about a majorly ugly cry here, folks.  The moment I realized the truth about the character Marshall, I fell apart.

It didn’t end the way I expected it to, but it ended the way it should have ended, if that makes sense. Maybe a bit too neatly, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Besides, all proceeds from sales of Open Links go to a very worthy cause.

I, Gabriel is Holland’s most recent release.  It’s not really a comedy, although it contains some funny bits. I loved the evolution of Gabriel over the course of the story, even if I really struggled through the first part of the book. It’s written in  first person, and Holland does such an excellent job of writing from the character’s point of view that I had to stop and remind myself that these were Gabriel Weber’s thoughts and attitudes, not Dominic Holland’s. I actually found myself getting angry a few times and very nearly marked it as a DNF.

I am so glad I finished it, though. The ending surprised me, and that doesn’t happen often. Again, it ends with all loose ends neatly tied up, even a few loose ends that I had forgotten about.

All of this is my way of leading up to the fact that I downloaded A Man’s Life just before I left for my trip to Texas. A little light reading, I thought. Something amusing and maybe a bit emotional. A nice little beach read, I told myself, without bothering to read the book’s description on Amazon.

As it turns out, that was a mistake on my part.

This book should have a giant warning label on the cover.

A warning label in bright red letters.

A warning label in bright red letters that specifically state: Amy, do not read this book at this point in your life. You’re not ready. Put it back. 

Good lord, I need a hug after reading this book. Either that or a very stiff drink. Or maybe some chocolate. Possibly anti-depressants.

Where do I begin with this one?

A Man’s Life is the story of Tom Harper, a man whose seemingly perfect life comes unraveled in the wake of a devastating loss. His grief is so visceral, so believable, so real that it almost hurts to read. I recognized so many emotions and actions from my own family’s recent grief that it pulled me out of the story a few times; I actually had to put the book down and stop reading once in a while because it just hit too close to home.

I had to go back to it, though, because the character does more than just wallow in his grief, and Holland allows him to grow and heal in a unique way. Bit by bit, those wonderfully quirky characters come together for that trademark Holland happy ending — or at least, an ending that isn’t blatantly unhappy.

I’m glad the book didn’t have that Amy-specific warning label, because I would hate to have missed out on reading what has easily become one of my all-time favorite books.  It’s an incredible journey through grief — from horror to numbness to denial to acceptance and finally, to facing the future once more and even finding reasons to laugh again.

A Man’s Life is not an easy book to read, but it’s worth it. It’s definitely one that I’ll re-read a few times. It’s painful, but also inspiring. I finished it with a sense of well-being, a feeling that hey, it is possible to move on after losing a loved one!

If you’re looking for a new favorite author, I highly recommend picking up any of Dominic Holland’s books.  It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for a good laugh or a good cry or just a fantastic story from a master storyteller, you’ll find it in his work.

Of Serenity, Laughter, and Merry Widows

I know I haven’t been sharing much here on my blog over the past year and a half, and I want to apologize for that while I pass along a few quick updates.

First off, Love, Charlotte has been been delayed again, obviously. I know writers are supposed to draw from personal experience for our creations; I’ve always written as a way to work through traumas in my personal life. This time, however, there were a few passages in my book that hit a little too close to home while the pain was still too fresh. In short, I have to re-work some of it because real life bled into the pages and I’m not at a point yet where I can step back and look at it objectively.

It is coming. I promise, although I can’t say when.

Next, I have anther project in the works that I can’t really discuss just yet. I don’t want to jinx it. Hey, sue me for being superstitious! Trust me when I say this could be HUGE if it goes well. Cross your fingers for me, if you don’t mind.

I have also been working away on a little something I like to call The Wheels Fell off My Wagon. It’s part of my Goode For a Laugh collection, recounting some of the wild and crazy things that have taken place in my world since moving back out into the country and adjusting to life out here in the boonies.

In a way, it’s sort of a tribute to the Big Guy. It’s all about honoring his memory with laughter as big part of dealing with our grief.

Talk about bleeding on the pages, right? Maybe. Crying a bit, too, but not all tears are sad. He left us with so many good memories that it only seems right to remember him with laughter.

And speaking of Goode For a Laugh, I want to let everyone know that I’ve made the very difficult decision to pull the collection out of Kindle Unlimited so I can make the books available through more markets. I am truly sorry to do this for those of you who subscribe to KU, but there are a lot of behind-the-scenes problems with the program that have a huge impact on the amount being paid to authors. Until Amazon gets it straightened out, I need to explore all of my options.

For the time being, I will be leaving my Romances in KU. I promise to keep everyone updated if that changes in the future.

Last but not least, I want to share that my friend and I are about to embark on something she has dubbed The Merry Widows Tour. “Morrigan” and I are heading to Texas for nine days with no adult supervision because we are the adults. Frightening thought, that. The third adult, our friend who has always been there to keep us out of trouble, is not going with us.

I haven’t been on an airplane since the 1980s, and I’ve barely left my little town in several years. I’ve definitely never been away from my kids this long. It’s going to be hot and humid and far from home (and there will be wine tours–multiple wine tours), and I am going to be so far outside of my comfort zone that I’m not sure I’ll ever slide back into it.

That’s a good thing. My comfort zone has become way too small and restrictive lately.

Watch out, world.

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Just Keep Floating

buoy

Every summer of my childhood, there was one day when Aunt Marian allowed — no, encouraged — my sisters and me to break the rules of the public swimming area by swimming out to touch one of the buoys that marked our boundaries.

Never going out into water over our heads was her rule. Never touching the buoys was an official rule, enforced by eagle-eyed, whistle-blowing lifeguards. In our teen years, we sort of liked it when we managed to draw the lifeguards’ attention because, you know, lifeguards.

Marian wanted to teach us to respect the water without fearing it. Her own older brothers drowned in a freak boating accident when she was only 19 years old, so she would have been totally justified in banning us from all water activities, despite the fact that we lived right on the shore of Lake Michigan. Instead, she spent endless hours preparing us for our annual buoy-slapping challenge.

“If you get tired, just float,” she told us. “Don’t panic or struggle. Just float, rest until you get your second wind.”

At first, I tried floating face-down, which sort of defeated the purpose of the lesson. By the time I figured it out, I had perfected the art of the Dead Man’s Float. I could hold my breath for ridiculous amounts of time, happily coasting along on the water’s surface long enough to totally freak my aunts out.

Eventually, though, I caught on. When the water got too deep or too scary, I learned to stretch out, face-up, and allow the water to support me until I was ready to try again. It was all about trust. Trust in the water, trust in my surroundings, but most of all trust in myself.

I had to learn to believe, without a doubt, that I would never sink.

I think about Marian a lot these days, and about swimming out to slap that buoy. I’d get tired and accidently swallow some water and start to panic or turn back toward shore, but I’d hear her voice above my frantic splashing: “Don’t give up, Amy! Float, rest until you’re ready to try again.”

Seems like I’ve been trying to slap a lot of buoys lately, with varied levels of success.  I’ve been pushing so many boundaries in so many areas that I have days when I hardly know which way is up.

I’m floundering in deep water. Trying to renovate this house that I simultaneously love and hate, trying to be a single parent to three grieving kids, trying to face my breathtaking fear of winter driving. At this moment, I am snowed in with my youngest son, facing our third snow day this week, and I have been scaring myself silly with all of the what-ifs.

What if the furnace goes out? What if the pipes freeze? What if we run out of food? What if he gets hurt and I can’t drive him to the hospital? What if–God forbid–what if we run out of toilet paper?

What if I can’t do this?

I suppose it doesn’t help that I was awake most of the night, worrying and stressing about everything. But a while ago, as I poured my fourth cup of coffee with shaking hands, I swear I heard Marian’s voice.

Float, rest until you’re ready to try again.

It’s entirely possible that I’m losing my mind and am now dealing with auditory hallucinations, or perhaps it’s time to switch to decaf. It’s also possible that Aunt Marian’s ghost is flitting about the old house just to screw with me, because that is totally the sort of messed-up thing she would do.

Or maybe, just maybe, I need to remember the lesson I learned so long ago whenever I was in over my head and scared to death.

Relax.

Trust.

Believe.

Breathe.

Float, rest until you’re ready to try again.

For all of us who are floundering and splashing through our lives, it’s time to stop and rest. Give ourselves permission to take a break. Regroup. Get that second wind. Every day doesn’t have to be a fight, folks.

Just float, rest until you’re ready to try again.

And when you’re ready, slap the hell out of that buoy.

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Six Months

Six months.

It’s been six months since I’ve posted here. Six months since I’ve written anything, to be totally honest. Six months since I’ve even been able to locate all the parts of the computer in order to set it up and even try to write.

Six months since the Big Guy died.

A lot has happened in those six months.

Like anyone who passes away so suddenly, so unexpectedly, he left behind a lot of unfinished business. It’s been an avalanche of cleaning up, signing off, sorting through and a whole lot of asking, “what the hell was he thinking here?”

A big part of that “unfinished business” was my fault as well. Ahem. Confession time.

The Big Guy and I never actually finalized our divorce. Oh, we filed. We split up and divided our belongings and set up a shared custody arrangement, complete with child support and all that stuff. But we never actually went before a judge and wrapped things up. We postponed the original hearing date and then the filing expired and we just never got around to re-filing.

It didn’t seem necessary. We both kept what seemed fair and we were better parents as a team that didn’t live under the same roof, so it seemed sort of silly to involve courts and judges and legalese when everything was going so smoothly without all of that.

And then he got sick.

Suddenly, there were decisions to be made and documents to be signed and a lot of hurt feelings all the way around as people in our lives realized that he and I were, in fact, still married. Only on paper, but definitely still married as far as hospitals and funeral homes and finances were concerned.

At the time of his death, my name was still on the deed to the house we once shared. When we split, we didn’t fight over the house; it was his, plain and simple. I didn’t want it because it was his dream home, not mine. He loved the country, the acreage, the trees, the ramshackle old farmhouse that he could repair and renovate and love.

And now it’s mine, as are the cats, the dog, and apparently a snake as well, although I’m still in serious denial about the snake.

I couldn’t bring the animals back to the apartment and I couldn’t abandon them, obviously. And I couldn’t afford to pay both the rent on the apartment and the mortgage on the house, so I cancelled my lease, put my belongings in storage, and moved back into the house I had left four years earlier.

Totally pissed off some folks by doing that.

Over the past six months, I’ve tried to clean out his house and prepare it for sale so I could move into something smaller, less expensive, and closer to civilization. It’s been overwhelming, to say the least. It’s as if the universe has lined up to throw obstacle after obstacle into my way.

I believe it’s what the Big Guy would have referred to as a Cluster Fuck, or at the very least, a Goat Rodeo.

The kids and I had a “family meeting” about a month ago and came to a decision: I’m staying. Rather than investing in a new house, I’m going to fix up this one. I’m going to keep their childhood home, and I’ve hired people to do the work that the Big Guy never got a chance to finish.

So.

Here I sit, at my husband’s old desk, wrapped in an afghan made for him by his great-aunt. Drinking coffee made in the coffeepot I gave him for Christmas a few years ago. There’s a huge eight-point buck’s head mounted on the wall above me, staring at me reproachfully, while three cats and a stressed-out Blue Heeler chase each other around my feet.

I really hope the snake isn’t down there with them, but I’m too afraid to look.

This is not the life the Big Guy and I imagined when we bought this house all those years ago. It’s definitely not what I imagined when I packed up my belongings and left the house behind four years ago. But it is what it is, and I am doing my best to make this home something he would have approved of.

Minus the snake, of course. If I ever find it.

I unpacked the computer and asked my son to set it up for me. I located my favorite coffee mug. I’ve opened up documents that have been gathering virtual dust for six months, and I’m on my way back to my little town of Serenity to get back to work.

I think I’m heading in the right direction, and I have a feeling the next part of my journey is going to be every bit as crazy, convoluted and downright strange as the last part was.

All I can do is fasten my seatbelt and hang on for dear life.

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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.

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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!

Shamrocks, Blarney, and Mom

When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, I always think of my mother.

She was part Irish, although I have to be honest and say she was sort of part-everything. Her maiden name was Kirk, and she always told us that she had once traced the family tree back to the first Kirk to come to America from Scotland; he married an Irish girl, and their son married a Cherokee, and so on down the line. She insisted that we had our own Tartan and family crest, and swore that our family history also included Welsh, Swedish, Dutch, French and German ancestors.

She also insisted that she was 5’5” but barely reached my chin, and I am 5’4”, so I think it’s safe to say that many of my mother’s “truths” should be taken with a grain of salt. Irish or not, she definitely had the Gift of Blarney.

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She loved St. Patrick’s Day. She was an incredibly irritating Morning Person who was hard enough to deal with on a normal day, but on St. Patrick’s Day, she amped it up by blasting “Irish Washerwoman”  on the radio and clog-dancing around our beds to wake us up. She insisted on speaking in a thick Irish brogue all day, and the real tragedy here is that she thought she was good at it.

She was not.

She had a song that she liked to sing on that day, in the same terrible brogue, that involved a drunken fool coming home late at night and doubting his wife’s explanations about a hat on the hatrack or a head on the pillow. I’ll admit that I thought the song was really funny as a child, especially the part that went, “A football with a mustache on I never saw before!

Of course, now that I’m a parent and have access to Google, I looked up the song and was promptly horrified to discover that my mother’s favorite song was a delightfully filthy little ditty called “The Traveler.”  I honestly don’t remember if she left out the following verses or not:

“Oh, you’re drunk, you fool, you silly old fool,
You’re as drunk as a fool can be;
That’s not a cock a-standing there,
But a carrot that you see.”
Well, I’ve traveled this wide world over,
Ten thousand miles or more;
But a carrot with balls on,
I never saw before. 

And I’m sure she omitted the following:

“Oh, you’re drunk, you fool, you silly old fool,
You’re as drunk as a fool can be;
I ain’t your wife, this ain’t your house,
You have never lived with me.”
Well, I’ve traveled this wide world over,
Ten thousand miles or more;
It’s the fifth time that I’ve stuffed this bird,
She ain’t never complained before. 

 

 I also remember the year she was supremely offended when I met her brogue-to-brogue with some alternate lyrics I had learned for “Irish Washerwoman:”

Oh, McTavish is dead and McTivish don’t know it
McTivish is dead and McTavish don’t know it
They’re both of ‘em dead and they’re in the same bed
And neither one knows that the other is dead.

She was not amused.

Neither were my sisters, as I recall.  It was pretty early in the morning for a brogue-off.

But the real reason I think of my mother on Saint Patrick’s Day is McDonald’s Shamrock Shakes.  Dear Lord, those things are pure evil.  Nothing should taste so good! Cold and sweet, just minty enough, creamy and smooth. I am not usually a big fan of milkshakes other than plain old vanilla, but Shamrock Shakes are so much more than just a milkshake.  They are an experience.

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In the final days of Mom’s battle with breast cancer, she developed a craving for a Shamrock Shake.  She had lost her appetite and her weight had dropped to well below 100 pounds, so we were happy that she had a craving for anything. The cancer had invaded her brain; she was childlike in size and behavior by that point.

One of us stopped and bought her a Shamrock Shake on the way to the hospital that morning.  I don’t remember now which one of us it was, and it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was Mom getting something that made her happy at the moment. Before she could even take her first sip, however, one of the nurses who was drawing her blood at the time somehow managed to bump the tray and spill the shake all over the floor.

The nurse was even more devastated than Mom.  Mom wept like a child over her lost treat, and Debbie, the nurse, couldn’t stop apologizing. I remember that she cried a few tears as well. For the next several days, she stopped on her way in and brought my mom a new Shamrock Shake every day until my sister gently told her it wasn’t necessary any more.   By that point, Mom didn’t remember any of it.

I’ve never forgotten Debbie’s kindness, or the horrified expression on her face when she realized what had happened. It was just a shake, just a stupid mixture of frozen milk and too much sugar, but it meant the world to a dying woman with seven brain tumors and three grieving daughters. Debbie could have dismissed it as just a stupid shake and shrugged off my mother’s tears, but she cared enough for her patient to worry about more than just who was going to mop up the mess. She let my mom into her heart and I knew, even then, how much that cost her.

Now, more than thirty years later, I still buy myself one Shamrock Shake to drink alone every St. Patrick’s Day in honor of my Mom, but also in honor of Debbie and nurses like her everywhere, who care enough to let their patients into their hearts, no matter how much it hurts.

It’s just a shake, just a stupid mixture of frozen milk and too much sugar, but it’s so much more than that.

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This is a Finish The Sentence Friday post: “When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day. . . ” hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Kelly from Just Typikel, and Lisa from The Meaning of Me. Please take a few minutes to check out what some of the other bloggers did with this sentence!

Mother’s Day

This week’s Finish the Sentence Friday is a rough one for me.  I wasn’t really sure about doing it, but I’ve missed the last couple of Fridays, so I don’t really have a choice.

This one might hurt a little.

 

Dear Mom:

I’m supposed to write a letter to you for Mother’s Day.  I think this is where I’m supposed to talk about how much I miss you, and lament the fact that you aren’t a part of your grandchildren’s lives.

Screw that.

You were a Drama Queen, and we both know it.  When your cancer came back that last time and we all had to face the fact that this was going to be your final battle, it was a given that you were going to leave us in the most memorable way and on the most symbolic day possible.  Since you were heavily into your religious phase at that point, we were all placing our bets on Easter.

It never crossed my mind that you’d die on Mother’s Day.  That was a little cruel, even for you.

Yes, I’m angry.  Twenty-seven years later, I am still pissed off at you for dying on Mother’ Day.  I mean, Mother’s Day was always going to be hard without you anyway, but to mourn the anniversary of your death and miss you on Mother’s Day on the same day is really a double-whammy I could have done without.  It’s not fair.

So I’m being selfish.  Damn it, I want my own Mother’s Day.  I want my Mom.  I want to know what it’s like to have an adult relationship with the woman who brought me into this world.  I want to have someone in my life that I can turn to when I have questions:  “Was I as stubborn as my daughter is?”  “Did I talk as much as my son does?”  “Do my kids look anything like I did at that age?”

Did you love me anywhere near as much as I love them?

Do you miss me, just a little?

I’m sure you are watching from above.  You have to be.  You’re up in Heaven, finally getting along with Dad and his sisters.  You’re reunited with your own little brother, and I know you find the time every day to wrap your arms around your niece Randee just to hear her call you “Aunt Kay.”  God, how you loved spoiling that little girl!

You have to be in Heaven, Mom.  If there’s no Heaven, then you are simply gone, and I can’t accept that.

I think you would have liked my husband.  You probably would have urged us to end the marriage sooner than we did, but you’d be here for me right now when I so desperately need you.  I don’t know how I’m going to survive this divorce without someone to lean on.  I don’t know how I can be a single mom without my own mom in my corner.

That corner is pretty damned lonely, Mom.

This Sunday is Mother’s Day.  Your grandkids will make me breakfast and we will have a good day, just the four of us.  I’ll probably tell a few funny stories about you, make them laugh.  We’ll call their other grandmother and wish her a happy Mother’s Day.  I think you would like her, by the way.   You probably wouldn’t get along very well because she is every bit as determined and strong-willed as you were.  But you’d like her.  Even more than that, I know you’d respect her.

She’s been the best mother-in-law I could have had.  I call her “Mom.”  I don’t do it to hurt you, and I hope you can forgive me for loving her as much as I do.  She’s been a great mom for the past eighteen years.

I’ve been blessed in my life to have two amazing mothers.  I’ve lost you both now; you to breast cancer and her to the divorce from her son.  I’ll have to call her “Jean” now, instead of “Mom,” just like I have had to start calling her son “Ken” instead of “Honey.”

Mom, I never appreciated how strong you were.  You were a single mom before it became fashionable.  You worked a dead-end job that you hated, and you had to know that your second husband was an asshole.  You knew what his son was too, I think; there was a reason why you kept convincing him to move out, wasn’t there?  I’m so sorry I doubted you.

I think of you all the time, not just on Mother’s Day.    I’m a single mom, just like you, and I am so afraid that I’m not going to do it as well as you did.  I wish you were here to tell me what to do and how to do it.  I don’t want to be the grown-up all the time.

I want my Mommy.

I want to spend Mother’s Day with my children, and I want to enjoy it for what it is:  my day.  Not yours.  Just once, I want Mother’s Day to be Mother’s Day, not The Day My Mother Died.

This year, can you give me that gift?  For just this one day, just this one time, stay out of my thoughts.  Let me have a Happy Mother’s Day.  For Once.