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

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.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Snakes of June

Ah, June. The season when the flowers bloom, the sun shines long, the birds chirp more than ever, and I don’t notice any of it because I am too busy looking around for snakes. Why? Because years ago, the first June we lived in this home, I was practically murdered on my own front porch by a deadly black snake poised to reach out, wrap itself around my innocent neck, and squeeze the life out of me before calmly slithering on to find its next victim.

Sure, common knowledge states that black snakes are “good” snakes, that they will not attack a human and certainly could not kill one even if they tried, that they are completely harmless at worst and helpful at best, willing to stalk and devour all those pesky mice and bugs but leave us people alone.


I’m telling you that black snake laid in wait for me. On my front porch. Hanging right at eye level, where it had wrapped itself securely in my pretty flowered wreath.

You shuddered, didn’t you? It was HANGING IN MY WREATH!

In hindsight, we suspect that the snake was climbing its way up to the swallow’s nest in the rafters of our front porch. I should point out that I was not in favor of letting the swallows build their nest there. (And this was before I knew they would attract the deadly devil snake.) My soft-hearted husband did not want to knock the nest down and risk killing any innocent, pre-born birdies. So he left the nest, which enticed the snake, which climbed my door, and attempted to attack me.

It is clear who is to blame for the entire traumatic incident.

Lucky for me a brave neighbor was home (because the spouse sworn to love and protect me was not of course) and came to my rescue. The snake was apprehended and given the death penalty. Once bludgeoned and sent on to snake heaven (just kidding…no such thing), my neighbor offered to dispose of the body. But I stopped him because I knew my family would never believe me when I told them the story. I asked him to coil up the dead snake right by the door. I’m a little bit sadistic when it comes to soft-hearted husbands and big-mouthed kids.

There were varying reactions to the snake. After the initial surprise, my husband was shocked that it really was more than five feet long. My littlest ones were both intrigued and horrified to have such an up-close viewing. The eldest was distraught that the snake had to die (even when I told her it was convicted of trespassing and attempted murder).

In the end I think the experience served as some good exposure therapy for me. I had to throw away the wreath (and to this day my door is bare), I avoided using the front entry for several weeks, and I had goose bumps every time I thought about it that entire summer. But eventually the horror lessened and by the next year, I was not nearly as upset when another black snake came to visit.

Possibly because I’d become less afraid. Possibly because that time the snake decided to crawl out from under the front stoop at exactly the moment my husband, who had found my front-porch experience so hilarious, bent down to tie his shoe. Both man and serpent were surprised enough by each other that I’m fairly sure I heard two shrieks, and I learned it’s much more difficult to be terrified when you’re laughing so hard.

I've worked up to hanging a wreath on the INSIDE
of my front door. If I ever find a snake there,
I'll just have to move. To Ireland.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Golden Anniversary

My parents celebrated 50 years of marriage on June 5. That’s a lot of day-to-day-ness—exactly 18,262 days of sharing a house, a bed, a table, a garage, a bank account, a family, a future.
You could call my parents’ long relationship a beautiful American love story. And you’d be right in a way. But real life is not exactly like the movies or the novels. Though romance and drama and emotional mountaintops are all delicious, any long-married couple will tell you that those things are not part of the winning formula that gets you to a Golden 50. Because odds are that the longer you’re married, the mortgage statements and insurance forms will stack up faster than the heartfelt love letters. The evenings of mowing the lawn or rocking the crying baby or repairing the leaky toilet will occur way more often than the candlelit dinners out on the town. The “Can you make it home in time for the game?” and “Did you put gas in the car?” conversations replace most of the love-longing, eye-gazing romantic proclamations of courtship.

June 5, 1964

Depressing? Not to me. Because here’s the thing. I imagine my mom was pretty easy to fall in love with. She was a stunning brunette, an ambitious student, and a flirty-fun girl always up for adventure. Think of Gidget, but on the Texas plains instead of the beach. My dad was a hunk in a baseball uniform, driven to succeed as he worked his way through college, and the kind of guy who figured out a way to buy his bride a brand new car just because he knew she’d love it. They were young and optimistic and fresh and easy to adore.

Fast forward several decades. They’ve both gone gray. Dad limps on a bad knee. Mom fusses about wanting the roof fixed but fusses more when he climbs up the two-story ladder on his own. They have three children, all married and who gave them a total of 11 grandkids. There is a constant stream of birthday parties, sporting events, graduations, and other projects for them to attend and assist. They have defined “retirement” as raising cattle, tending goats, tutoring local students weekly, extensively researching family genealogy, and building a new family home. That’s just a regular week for them. On any given day at their ranch they have wrestled flat tires, ornery calves, rattlesnakes, or a cranky water pump.

So while maybe they used to take long walks hand-in-hand and slow dance in the kitchen, now evenings together mean two glasses of iced tea and a Fox News Channel special. The normalcy of life has distilled their commitment to each other into a very simple formula. You + me = always. Life isn’t always pretty or easy or screen-worthy. But spending all the moments, both wonderful and horrible, side by side is what writes a beautiful story. Choosing to stick together when it might be easier to drift apart is what creates a love song worth singing.

I realize now that never having to worry about them letting go of each other was the biggest gift they gave me as a child. I’m still their kid and it’s still a gift.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. I am forever grateful that you said, “I do.” And then you did.