Life is absurd. And life is precious. Family is a lot of both.

Monday, January 19, 2015

On the Day You Were Born

Happy 10th birthday, Samuel Hutchens!

We will celebrate this year on a sunny, mild day in Missouri. Your dad will be the one to wake you up with a tickle and a birthday song. He'll be here soon after you get home from school too and will be the one to light the candles and help you set up your new Lego sets and listen to you explain for the 1000th time who's who in your Minecraft world.

No big deal. He's just a dad being a dad.

But being around on your birthday IS a big deal to your dad. He missed your actual first day, you know. He wasn't late, but you were early. He was just steps from getting on a military airplane, headed home from months in Iraq, when he got the call that you weren't waiting.

On the day you were born, I awoke in labor and thought, "Oh no. No way. Not today, baby boy." Your dad was due to fly home on January 22. You were due to be born January 26. That was a pretty good plan. But the thing about babies is that they aren't all that good at following plans.

Your Grandmama was with me and your big sisters and brother at our home in Germany. Maybe she had an intuition that you might come early, but she wouldn't take no for an answer. Always trust your Grandmama's intuition. It's a good thing she was there on that very cold, very dark, very early morning.

Now that you know us both so well you might think it's a little bit funny that your Grandmama and I got lost in the icy, windy weather. We wandered the roads for a while before we found the right turn for the Krankenhaus (which is a great German word... isn't everyone cranky when they have to go to the hospital?). Thank goodness you weren't in TOO much of a hurry. Just enough to make sure we would all have a really good story to tell.

I called Dad's sergeant and he called Dad. I think he said something like, "I've got bad news, Sir." That scared Dad half to death so when the sergeant told him you were going to arrive before his plane made it back, Dad wasn't as upset as he might have been. Maybe that sergeant knew what he was doing.

You'll have a hard time imagining this, but you were born before cell phones were easy to use internationally. That means your dad and I had no way of talking to each other until he found a land line that would connect to the hospital. You hadn't quite arrived and we discussed for a minute or two what we should name you (I know...we should have had that figured out already). I told your dad that I didn't really care (having a baby isn't easy and I was so tired at that point that he could have named you Big Duke for all I cared). We'd narrowed it down to Samuel or Benjamin. Your middle name was definitely going to be Hutchens, the maiden name of your other grandmother.

The line was bad so we had to hang up. You were born pretty quickly after that. You were so pink and round and adorable. I think you had a smile on your face from the very beginning. It's like you knew you'd pulled a joke on all of us by choosing your own birth date. Your sisters and brother showed up pretty quickly. They took one look at you and said, "He looks like a Sam." And, well, you did. So I signed the birth certificate that made you officially Samuel Hutchens Bartee.

Then Dad called again. As soon as I told him that you were healthy and happy and perfect, he said, "I decided we should definitely name him Benjamin." Umm... I had to tell him that you already had a name. Poor Dad had a rough day. It wasn't until he actually saw you that he agreed you really did look like a Sam.

And, oh, when he actually saw you. Would you believe I remembered to grab the camera and snap this picture?

Look at your dad. He's still in his uniform. He still has sand in his boots and the sweat of two days traveling on a cargo plane. And the exhausted face of someone who has not slept in about 36 hours. And you can't see it in this photo, but he has the proud tears that every daddy has on the day he finally holds his baby. 

He got to you as fast as he could. He's a dad you can count on.

Happy birthday, kid. You still keep us guessing. And you still give us great stories to tell. We should have known from that very first day that you'd be one of a kind. Kind a chip off the old block.

Monday, December 22, 2014

One Less

This year we will celebrate Christmas for the first time without my mother-in-law. We lost her after a swift battle with lung cancer this past summer and are still getting used to speaking about her in the past tense. She was a quirky and boisterous part of so many of our holidays that it seems incomprehensible to plan gift lists and menus and phone calls home without including her.

She was the first grandparent our children have lost. Lucky kids to have held on to so many of the grands for so long. Our oldest kids have never had a Christmas without shopping for Memaw (an avid collector of all things Elvis, she was usually the easiest to please). Our youngest, who will likely not remember her at all as he was barely three when she died, is already being coached by his older siblings about their grandmother’s famous cinnamon rolls and her borderline-obsessive devotion to the Denver Broncos.

Grief seems at its most heart breaking in December. I suppose it’s because we are knee-deep in family traditions more than at any other time of the year. The hole left behind by someone missing looms larger and deeper when we unwrap special ornaments or bake a traditional recipe or take the year’s photos knowing that there is one less than the year before.

Even if you have your own quirky relative still with you, or you’ve welcomed your Soldier home for the holidays, or you have your home so stuffed with family that there’s hardly room for one more, you are still likely missing someone. And whether it is death or deployment or disagreement or the details of a busy life that is keeping you apart, it stings.

I imagine Mary and Joseph could fully relate to missing the ones they loved. After all, the very first Christmas found them far from home, misunderstood, alone but for each other, and no doubt longing for the peace and tradition and warm embraces of home. Yet they received a gift unsurpassed that night and, because of that gift, they heard the angels sing.

I could not compose a more touching prayer for all of us than Edmund Sears when he wrote “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1850. No matter who or what you are missing this year, may you “rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 5, 2014

If Only In My Dreams

A friend recently returned home from a 10-month deployment in Afghanistan, just in time for Christmas. Is there a more joyful time of year for a reunion than the freezing days of December? He pulled off surprising his youngest at her elementary school and was featured on the local news, which was nice because we are all desperate for some happy news these days.

The whole thing made me think about our own reunion-after-deployment and it seems impossible that it was almost a decade ago.

Christmas 2004 found us celebrating on three different continents. The kids and I remained at our home in Germany while Dad deployed to Iraq in September. I wasn't sure I could pull off Christmas (alone and eight-months pregnant with #5) so I decided to fly us home to Texas for the holidays. My husband was less than enthusiastic. As in he stated, "No way. You're not doing it."

Christmas 2004 in Tikrit.
Thing is he was more than 2,000 miles away and couldn't do much about it. I don't usually just defy my partner in life without some profitable discussion. But I did in December 2004.

Among the long list of crazy stupid things I've done, this is right up there.

Flying to the States out of Germany is no small thing. But when you live two hours from the airport, have four children (one still in diapers), more luggage than can fit in one car, and a seriously-pregnant's nuts.

I honestly thought the folks at the airline would take pity on me. Poor dear. This brave military wife is battling her way back home to provide a magical holiday for her many, many children. We oughta upgrade her to first class just to show our appreciation. 

That's not exactly how it turned out.

Christmas 2004 in Marktbergl
(before the insane flight).
Instead I had to bustle us all in, lugging luggage, and stand in a long line. I didn't even get a smile from the grumpy agent. In fact, I'm pretty sure she rolled her eyes as she clicked through five tickets. I swear she looked at me like I was crazy. As did the security guards. And the gate agents. And the flight attendants who directed our circus to the very last row of the plane.

By the time I got everyone seated and all carryons stowed away, I popped into the airplane bathroom for a quick visit before takeoff. As I washed my hands I caught my reflection in the mirror and looked at MYSELF like I was crazy. But there was no backing out at that point.

I don't remember much about the eight-hour flight except that the toddler spilled a full cup of dietCoke all over her older sister, causing both of them to burst into tears. And the various crayons, pretzels and toys that were dropped onto the floor could not be retrieved because have I mentioned I was eight-months pregnant? And no one slept until the last 30 minutes. Which means everyone was disheveled and sour as we disembarked and stood in line at customs for another 35 minutes. I think I hated the airline, my husband, the Army, and pretty much everyone I could think of at that moment. Not my finest hour.

But God bless my family. The moment we were through customs, I collapsed into my mother's waiting hug and turned over all planning, discipline, effort and thought to them. For two weeks I did nothing but just show up.

At several points during that rough trip I doubted it was worth it. I'd have been better off in Germany with just the kids, I thought. It wouldn't have been that bad to have Daddy gone for Christmas.

But when the phone rang on December 25th at my sister's house because, by some miracle, he'd been able to find a phone line and call to wish everyone Merry was awful. The kids cried. I cried. He cried. I knew I didn't have it in me to pick up the pieces all by myself. Again, it was grandparents and cousins to the rescue. A whole lot of Christmas silliness (that's the year our 6-year-old led the family Christmas dinner prayer wearing his Darth Vader voice-changing helmet) helped redeem the day. No doubt we made memories that year. It's certainly one I will never forget.

And forever after I will deeply appreciate every Christmas spent with my sweetie, a house full of kids, my wonderful family, and airline personnel who find it within themselves to offer even the tiniest of smiles to the craziest of travelers.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Fairy Tale 60 Years in the Making

They say, If it seems too good to be true then it probably is.Probably. But not always. This is the story of a happily ever after that is as true as true can be.

At age 17, Betty King enrolled at Southern Methodist University as a music major. In the first months on campus, she met a fellow music major named Bob Skinner. They had several mutual friends and spent lots of time together. Bob liked Betty an awful lot, but since she was dating his best friend, he contented himself with just being pals.

After graduation, Betty married her beau and Bob found a pretty wife. Life unfolded for both of them as life often doeswith love, regret, happiness, heartache, victory and defeat. They kept in touch over the years, attending New Years Eve parties as young couples and, later, meeting up occasionally to enjoy a symphony concert and reconnecting each year through Christmas cards.

The years passed as Betty enjoyed a long and happy career as a beloved music teacher in the citys school district. Bob put aside his music career to pursue pharmacy and established a successful business. Each of the families grew and splintered as time went by due to divorce, death and growing children. The Christmas cards and occasional visits continued, honoring what remained a deep and lasting friendship.

As each reached retirement age, life toughened. Betty left her teaching position to be the primary caretaker for her aging parents. Her daily activities shrank to what was necessary within the household and telephone calls became her main source of a social life. Bob was dealing with the cancer deaths of both his first wife and then his second. Talking to Betty was a comfort.

Shortly after the death of Bettys mother and Bobs second wife, the college buddies planned a face-to-face meeting to catch up in person, reconnect as old friends, and offer the kind of solace that can only come from an old and trusted companion.

And sparks flew.

Sixty years after the fresh, young students first met, they met again as weathered, wisened old people. And they fell in love in a way that only the deeply experienced can appreciate.

On August 9, 2014, in a church decorated with SMUs red and blue, Betty and Bob stood before 100 guests and pledged to be true for the rest of their lives. Afterward they posed for photos, cut a beautiful white wedding cake, accepted hugs and congratulations, spent the night in a downtown Dallas bridal suite, and then drove away for a two-week honeymoon in the Tennessee hills.

The most unlikely of fairy tales sometimes does come true. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Bob are proof. May their happy ending last forever after.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Chilly Phenomenon


The ALS ice bucket challenge has been an amazing social media phenomenon to observe. To say it's swept the nation is an understatement as everyone from my next-door neighbor to former President George W. Bush has taken to video with some ice water, some words, and some money for research.

It's the stuff marketing and fundraising people dream about. Who can predict what will capture the public's attention and motivate them to give?

And people really are giving. That's the more amazing part of it, I think. People can star in their own "watch me dump water on my head" show for whatever reason. But to actually write the check or click and donate is a much bigger deal. Media accounts say the donations are about $40 million more than the average August. $40 million. 

The most interesting part of the movement, at least on my newsfeed, has been the varying reactions from participants and non-participants. On the one hand, it's fun and it's for a great cause and who are you to throw cold water (pun intended) on a good deed by questioning the filmer/donor's motivation. Does she truly care about ALS? Is he really going to donate? Don't they know about embyonic stem cell research? 

I get it.

I did not want to do the challenge. Mostly because I try to avoid silly things in public. Also because we already donate just about all we can afford on a monthly basis to very worthy causes. Also because I do have very strong feelings about embryonic stem cell research. (Why? Read this.) Or here's the synopsis - 
  • Embryonic stem cells are “starter cells” that can be coaxed into becoming any of the specialized cells of the body, meaning they are “pluripotent.” Embryonic stem cells are derived from eggs fertilized in the laboratory, not in a woman’s body.
If you believe, as do I, that human life begins at fertilization, then you believe that lives are being created and then disposed of for the sole purpose of medical research. If you don't believe that life begins at fertilization then you probably don't see what the big deal is. But of course you'll respect the belief of others and why it motivates them to find another adult stem cell-only research project. 

Side note: from what I've read, the ALS Association  allows you to state your preference for your donation to avoid their embryonic stem cell research project and go solely to the others. It's hard to find that option on its donation page however. So most of the anti-embryonic stem cell crowd has chosen to donate to other places that also support ALS research.

So I had my reasons to be glad that I'd flown under the radar and not been challenged. But then I was. So was my husband. Same day. We thought we'd ignore it. But that seemed, well, rude and snobbish. Also our children were ecstatic about the idea of dumping water on both of us.

Since I was in a dress (and I just hate to change clothes more than once per day), my always-funny husband declared he'd put on a coat and tie and we'd do a classy version. So we did. The kids howled. We wrote our check to the John Paul II Research Institute.

And then my husband said, "Let's upload it to Facebook."

Wait. What? Whoa!

Because, like I said, I don't like looking silly. Especially on a public forum. And this video is silly. Not so much because of the water (and the ensuing hair don't), but mostly because I have my hand on my hip!

I don't know why I have my hand on my hip. I was just striking a comfortable pose. But I kind of find the hand-on-the-hip-to-make-my-arm-look-smaller-in-this-photo fad just, well, silly. So I never do it. Except on this ice bucket video. Argh. So silly.

And then it hit me.

Many of the nay-sayers of the whole ice bucket challenge are poking fun (if that's what you want to call it) at the motivation of people doing it. It's all just so self-centered, they proclaim -- "Look at me! Look at what I did! I did something silly and now I'm giving money!"

I get it.

But if, in the end, one minute or one dollar is focused on helping someone else, that someone else couldn't care less what the motivation was, just that help is coming.

So I stepped away from my own self-centeredness and posted our own silly video.

"I did something silly and now I'm giving money!"

That's about right.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Reading Her Story

We all write a story with the way we live, what we choose to do and say, sometimes what we choose not to do and say. And we never know who is paying attention or how they might be affected by what they see.

There is a woman I knew in Georgia. We picked up our children from school at the same time each day and always visited in a group on the parking lot. Her two older children shared classrooms with two of my kids and she had a curly-topped toddler in tow each day too. I never got to know her beyond the parking lot and a few field trips and birthday parties. But she was one of those people who caught my attention because of her story. 

She had a radiant smile and great laugh and wasn’t afraid to show up in her workout clothes and no make up if that’s the kind of day she’d had. She was a constant volunteer and good listener and the kind of mom who seemed to never tire of swinging her toddler around and around just to hear her giggle. She was the kind of mom, the kind of person, I wanted to be.

Then life brought us back to Missouri and we stayed Facebook friends and I watched as she trained to run a marathon and I continued to be impressed with how she was living her life. I was reading her story and she probably never knew.

Then one day she posted about having some annoying health issues. Then about having tests run and her optimism that everything would be great and she’d run another race soon. Then the diagnosis came and it was colon cancer at age 40. She wrote about how she told her children, about how her relationship with her husband went to a new level, about how she hated relying on others to do the things she had always done for her family and community. About how she hated her body. And then loved it. About how her faith was challenged, then strengthened, then challenged - an ongoing cycle.

It’s impossible not to put ourselves in the shoes of others when we read their stories. I think my friend knew that. So she began to write beautiful journal pieces about living with disease and treatment and hope and disappointment and frustration and gratitude and anger and wisdom and all the things that people with terminal illnesses face. They were tough chapters she would never have chosen to write, but she wrote them with dignity and an openness that was riveting.

She died last month. The end came swiftly, at least it seemed to those of us on the fringe of her life, but she had gained almost two full years with those she loved by fighting hard to do whatever it took to get through just one more day. In the end her closest friends and her husband took over her journal page and shared her last thoughts. 

Among those was the poem by Emily Dickinson her husband read at her funeral:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

I am very grateful that I got to read her story. She lived, and died, in hope and beauty and remains the kind of mom, the kind of person, I want to be.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Right on, Target

I don't like whiny bloggers so I try to steer clear of being one myself. Which means I typically stuff my negative feelings down down down. Where they pile up until I can't take it and then I explode all over my sweet family on what we might call "one of Mom's bad days". Not all that good or healthy or worth reading about.

However, I hereby suspend my self-imposed ban on whining in writing to bring up something that I really think should be a national topic of conversation: re-stocking the big box stores.

I have noticed over the last several years that both Target (my big box store of choice) and my weekly grocery store have taken to re-stocking the shelves at all hours and with extreme enthusiasm. This means I often come around a corner with my over-stuffed buggy (here we could talk about the different regions of the country and how they refer to the shopping cart/basket/buggy, but Texans call it a buggy, ya'll) and I find myself stuck between the shelves, an employee, and a huge cart piled with cardboard boxes.

I am overall congenial and long-suffering (unless it is "one of Mom's bad days") so the first few dozen times I experienced this inconvenience I smiled at the shelf stockers and apologized for intruding. Until one day. When I wondered why the heck I was apologizing for being in THEIR way while I was trying to spend MY money in THEIR store.

Nevertheless I continued to shop early mornings (right after school drop off is my preferred time) because, really, who can fight the need for Target? I tried fueling myself for the restocking obstacle course by stopping at the in-store Starbucks first. That kind of backfired as my intake of coffee directly influenced my need to get done shopping so I could visit the bathroom.

A hyped-up mom with a full bladder and a busy schedule is not the relaxed shopper who smiles and apologizes to the employees in her way.

Which is why the other morning, with three children in tow and trying to navigate five separate aisles that were partially blocked, all while juggling my hot latte, I snapped.

A red-shirted employee innocently asked, "Are you finding everything okay?"

I snipped, "Not really since it's so hard to reach around you."

Poor guy quickly looked away and I'm pretty sure he used his handy walkie-talkie to alert the other re-stockers with the "watch out for the Code Crazy [otherwise known as "Mom's Bad Day"] on aisle 11" button.

I passed three more re-stockers on my way to the cashier and not a single one made eye contact.

Finally ready to check out and go, after negotiating with my 3-year-old over the need for multiple Chapsticks, the manager of the store approached me. To tell me that my cart was too full for the return/exchange lane (which, by the way, reads "return/exchange and check out").

Rules follower that I am, I kindly moved my full cart and three children to another lane. I almost apologized for the incident until I remembered just how much of MY money I was about to spend in THEIR store.

So I turned around and told the manager the following: "It is all but impossible to shop with so many re-stockers on your floor. I think you should know how frustrating it is."

His reply, "You should come later in the day because we start re-stocking at 6 a.m. and often don't get done until noon."

Really? My fault for shopping early. When it's most convenient for me and their doors are open for customers.

He continued, "We've had to cut back on hours so it takes a little longer."

Really really? I spend so much money in your store (as do most of my friends) that it's hard to stomach that we must pay further by stepping around those huge re-stocking carts in order to help your bottom line.

I just smiled at him. I really am a nice person and get a pit in my stomach whenever I do officially complain.

We headed out to the car after paying. He offered to help me unload my cart at the curb. I declined.

Almost to my car, I turned to see him running up to me. On his lips was an apology for my inconvenience. In his hand was a coupon to reward me, I guess, for speaking up.

It's for $3.

Really really really?

I'll be back to Target before the week is over, because I know it's the same at other big-box stores. And I need stuff. A lot. But I'll go later on a Tuesday (best time according to Mr. Manager) and enjoy the quiet, open aisles.

I'll have my $3 coupon and, just to be on the safe side, I'll spend it on a coffee at the in-store Starbucks. I'm sure that will make everything all better.