Seeing the Invisible

The bundled figure on the North Carolina park bench could have been any homeless man, curled up and trying to sleep. Well, except for two things.

First, the figure was made of metal.

Second, it had visible nail prints in its bare feet.

That’s right. The bench was being occupied by Homeless Jesus.

The sculpture, “Jesus the Homeless” by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, was made for St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, N.C. And it’s caused a bit of a commotion. According to NPR, a number of people have praised it (including the current Pope) while others have condemned it for bringing down the neighborhood, or just for depicting their Saviour as … well, a bum.

Me? Every time I’ve seen the statue surface on Facebook — which it has, many, many times — I’ve smiled. And my own personal faith is only part of the reason.

Oh, if this were a Sunday School class, I’d go into detail about Jesus’s admonition to serve him by serving “the least of these.” And I’d probably add a side order of Paul’s warning that in caring for a stranger, we may entertain angels without knowing it. But since I have a more ecumenical readership here, I’ll go to something a bit more basic.

Put bluntly, it’s an uncomfortable image. And I like that.

It forces us to see the unseeable.

We don’t like doing that. I know I don’t. There’s certain topics we instinctively avoid in conversation, certain sights we often turn away from. The ones that make us feel helpless. Or afraid. Or just strike too close to home.

It’s little kid logic. If we don’t see it, it’s not there.

In school, it’s easier not to notice the bully. Then he won’t beat us up. Right?

As adults, it’s easier not to talk about death. Then we won’t die. Right?

And at almost every stage of life, it’s easier not to notice the hurting, the poor, the afflicted. To look past the people who have nothing left except their presence. Then we don’t have to feel the mix of fear (what will he do?), embarrassment (did she notice me staring?), guilt (did I just think that?) and discomfort that’s bound to arise.

Especially the last. Because that’s the part that says all the disurbing things: “This shouldn’t be. Why is it? Why doesn’t someone do something?”

And then of course, the even less comfortable sequel: “I’m someone.”

If we don’t see it, it’s not there. But what we can’t ignore, we have to address.

That’s a huge prospect. Terrifying, even.

But is it as frightening as a people that would rather have the uncomfortable stay invisible?

I don’t know what the answers are. But I do know they won’t be reached by ignoring the questions. And so, I offer my thanks to St. Alban’s, to Mr. Schmalz and to everyone else involved for forcing the spotlight to where it doesn’t always want to go.

After all, consider the subject. There are stories of Jesus healing, teaching, lifting up, reaching out. I don’t remember any of him carefully looking the other way while walking past a leper.

He looked. He saw.

Shouldn’t we?

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Goodbye, Dude

The Dude abides no more.

Picture a small bird. No, smaller than that. A zebra finch, about the size of your thumb, lively with song, gray with age and deaf as a post.

That was The Dude. Yes, was.

I found him in the cage Wednesday night. Just five hours earlier, he’d been his usual self, hopping and flittering and singing that unique burble that only a finch possesses, somewhere between a running faucet and a squeaky toy.

He wasn’t gone yet. Not quite. But he was clearly on the threshold, his small body curled in the corner, barely moving, barely breathing.

Heather couldn’t stand for him to be alone in the dark. We brought his cage to our bedroom and sat up with him. We promised if he was still lingering in the morning, we’d go to the vet and do the gentle thing.

It wasn’t necessary. In the wee hours, he turned once on the bottom of his case, just enough to notice. And then he made the final flight, the one without wings.

Nine years had come to a quiet end.

If you’ve not kept birds, you may not realize how uncommon that is. Most zebra finches last between five and seven years as pets. There have been older ones, sure, but even if The Dude wasn’t quite George Burns, he was sure as heck Christopher Plummer.

Maybe a bit of Harrison Ford, too. After all, he did get a ride in the mouth of Big Dog Blake and lived to tell the tale.

Amazing, in a lot of ways.

But then, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. If there are two things that our families do well, it’s birds and long-lived pets.

The birds come from Heather’s side. She and her sister Jaimee are the Bird Ladies, embracing anything in feathers. Before The Dude’s passing, our informal aviary comprised three parakeets, two zebra finches, one society finch and a cockatiel whose shrieks could wake Rip Van Winkle. No partridges in pear trees, but I’m sure it’s a matter of time.

The pets that won’t quit, meanwhile, are a hardy Rochat family tradition. Growing up, I had a dog that made it to 13, a cat that made it to 17 — heck, I had a goldfish that lasted around 13 years. It didn’t happen with every pet, every time, but it was strong enough to make a trend.

Put ‘em together, and you get a heck of a flock.

And also one where it’s really hard to say goodbye.

It’s human to assume that what has been always will be. That only gets stronger when a gentle soul does indeed keep going day after day and year after year. Maybe they’re a little slower or a touch more careful over time, but they’re still there. Still wonderful. Still loving.

And then, one day, that love leaves.

And so does a little of you.

I wouldn’t trade the time for anything. No way. But deep roots pull harder when they’re finally torn free. Even the smallest of bodies — a finch, a gerbil, a horned toad — can leave a hole the size of the Grand Canyon.

The hole will be filled, with memories and tears. But it never will be what it was before. Neither will you.

And on balance, I think that’s a good thing.

I am a better person than I would have been without Mitzi the dog, Twinkle the cat, and a host of others, right down to the tiniest Dude. And I know I’m not alone in that feeling. There’s a care that only animals can teach, as they magnify the best and worst you choose to show them.

And if it hurts to leave, you probably did it right. It’s a hard comfort. But it’s also an assurance that you touched a heart to a heart and brought both back full.

That’s a treasure beyond words. And as I think on that, I realize that I got the first sentence of this piece wrong.

Down where it counts, The Dude abides.

And he always will.

 

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A Memory of Water

The surging water quickly filled the gutter, cascading down the nearby grating in ripples and bubbles.

I watched in the dark, hypnotized for a few seconds.

Part of it, in all honesty, was probably fatigue. Normal people sleep at 1 o’clock in the morning. Even crazy ones will sleep at 1 a.m. when it’s snowing outside. But as a reporter, I’m a special breed of crazy, so I was out in the snow showers, trying to get a halfway-decent picture that could run on our website come morning.

But lack of sleep only goes so far, especially for a night owl. The larger part of my mind, the part that couldn’t look away, was hearing an echo. One that was six months old.

A memory of a river that would not stop rising.

***

I doubt I’m alone here, either in my reflex or in my embarrassment at it.

I mean, water is the treasure of the West. It’s what starts small towns and big fights. It’s the heart of everything we do in Colorado, from farms to breweries to ski lodges.

What’s more, I love water from the sky. I glory in rainstorms (especially since their arrival means my early-warning pressure headaches can go away). And snow has been a special treat for me since childhood, a chance to see the world transformed and the California drivers at a loss.

It’s beautiful. Marvelous. Powerful.

And last September, we all got a reminder of the other side of that power.

I was one of the lucky ones. The flood didn’t reach my home, didn’t harm my family, didn’t turn my life upside down. Even so, I still have memories from the first day, reporting from the south side of Longmont and not sure how I was going to get back to the north.

I remember the “Missouri river” created when Left Hand Creek emptied into the nearby street. And the sea that had been Boston Avenue, stranding those who lingered even a moment. I can still see water slowly filling neighborhoods or quickly roaring under bridges or ripping away railway beds. And I doubt I’ll ever forget the sight of people walking across a flooded-out Hover Street, desperate for any way to get back home.

That’s from someone for whom the flood was a job. How much stronger still for those whose lives passed through the current?

And no one emerges from a trauma unmarked.

It’s like having a death in the family: the smallest things will trigger the most powerful memories. And so we sometimes wince to see gray clouds in the sky, or to hear rain on the roof, or to even think of what spring’s runoff may bring down the St. Vrain’s channel.

It’s a natural reflex. And not an entirely bad one.

When a relative passes, the unexpected memories help preserve a loving tie even beyond death. When a flood passes, the memories can keep us alert and watchful — a useful thing, so long as it doesn’t degrade into a fear and panic that paralyzes instead of primes.

We know what can happen now. We can be ready. Even if we don’t anticipate everything, we can prepare for enough.

And someday, down the road, we’ll be able to hear the rumble of thunder without anxiety.

Maybe not yet. Maybe not now. But someday, when watchfulness has built security, the time will come.

Until then, all we can do is navigate as best we can among a flood of memories.

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Getting “Over” It

When the news broke, reporters and editors went up in flames. Within minutes, the stunned outcries and passionate debates were filling the social network.

Russia’s invasion of the Crimea? Nope.

The passing of Topeka’s most infamous preacher? Uh-uh.

The early exit of Duke and Kansas from March Madness? Maybe a little, but … no.

No, this was an issue designed to strike at the very soul of journalists everywhere. Are you ready? Brace yourselves.

The Associated Press declared that “over” could mean the same thing as “more than.”

I’ll stand back while you recover from the faint. Feeling better? Good.

OK, it sounds like a silly thing. Frankly, it is a silly thing. But from the commentary I saw from most friends and colleagues in the industry, you’d think it was December 2012 and the Mayan gods had come to demand sacrifice.

“NOOOOOOO! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

“That AP concession is making my brain ache.”

“More than my dead body!”

For those who don’t know — or, most likely, care — about fine points of journalism style, the AP’s stance for decades has been that “over” is a position and “more than” is a quantity. So it’s incorrect to say that I’ve had over a dozen arguments on this subject since the change was made.

Or at least, it was incorrect.

Excuse me while I grin.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much of a style and grammar geek as any reporter. I’m insistent that “cement” is not the same as “concrete,” that “literal” does not mean figurative and that “enormity” is a horror, not a size. From the AP’s complex use of numerals (“Write out one through nine, except for all the times you don’t”) to the non-existent period in “Dr Pepper,” I fight the good fight and do so pretty well.

But — brace yourself — I don’t see the big deal here.

Part of my “meh” is because the AP has been swimming against the tide for a long time. “Over” as a figure of speech has at least a 700-year history, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a frequent guest on lists of “language rules that aren’t,” right up there with the myth that you are not to in any way split an infinitive, lest you be sentenced to a career on Star Trek.

But the larger reason is that the change does nothing to obscure understanding. No one who reads that “Babe Ruth was the first baseball player to hit over 700 home runs in a career” is likely to think that the Babe stacked up all those home runs like cord wood and then hit a ball over them, any more than someone would expect sunny side up eggs to come with a weather report.

It’s a harmless change. The end of a rule that existed only to have a rule. And really, don’t we have enough of those already.

And to those who fear that English is about to lose all meaning — well, the language has taken that step. Many times.

You could ask William Shakespeare. But he’d probably have to listen carefully to hear past your outlandish grammar and curious word choice.

You could ask Geoffrey Chaucer. But he’d likely understand one word in 20 at best, and that badly accented.

You could ask the anonymous Beowulf poet. Assuming you could even get past “Hello.” Or should it be “Hwaet!”?

Actually, you can’t ask any of them because they’re centuries dead. Minor detail. But you get the point. Language changes. Especially English. Over time, those changes add up. At some point, old and new become strangers to each other.

Our job is to keep clarity for the readers and speakers of now. While recognizing that “now” is a moving target.

By all means, fight to save useful words. Those are the paints that allow fine shades of meaning.

Absolutely, encourage prose that gives more clarity instead of less. Without mutual comprehension, there is no language.

But recognize the moment when a rule has become nothing more than a habit. In language, or anything else.

Those don’t help anything except stylebook sales.

And now, I think I’ve said more than enough on this topic. It’s time to sign off.

Over and out.

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A Mighty Wind

I admit it, I brag pretty shamelessly on Colorado. I’ll talk up the mountains, I’ll cheer on the Broncos, I’ll even fill in a newcomer on our weather’s four seasons – as in 6 a.m., noon, 6 p.m. and midnight. But there’s one area where I have to admit that my “second home state” of Kansas has us beat.

Wind.

I know, Colorado gets gusts. Pretty good ones, too. But Kansas gets wind. The name means “People of the South Wind” and they ain’t kidding. Never mind the tornadoes that sent Dorothy to Oz, it’s the straight-line winds that’ll carry off Auntie Em, Uncle Henry and Toto, too, if you’re not careful. I’m talking about a mass of moving air matched only by the collective filibusters of the United States Senate, with a presidential speechwriter or two thrown in.

That big.

I think about it most at this time of year. March and April are known in Western Kansas as the “blow season,” the time of year when you really didn’t need the shingles on your roof … or the homework in your hands … but you probably did need that dent in your car from the door that blew open next to you. It’s a time when wind can grab a headline all by itself – and just about anything else that isn’t nailed down securely.

Maybe a bit of Kansas blew inside me, too. Because “blow season” remains a time when I can look for my own winds of change. And usually find them.

It was during my first blow season 16 years ago when I became a Kansan, a reporter and a fiancé all in the same week.

It was at that time of year five years ago that I gained my brother-in-law Jay and lost my grandmother-in-law Val on the same day.

Three years ago, the winds carried us to Missy, Heather’s developmentally disabled aunt. We moved in her with that April, became her guardians not long after, and – well, “change” is too small a word for everything that’s happened since. So is “wonderful.”

That’s the thing about wind. It doesn’t let things rest. It upends them, frees them, forces them to move, often in directions no one could predict.

When we notice, it’s mostly the inconvenience; the trash bin that got blown over, say, or the old aspen that was finally born down. It’s human nature. We grumble, even on the rare occasions when we think of the big picture. (Theatrical voiceover: “It was a world without a breeze … without a season … without a hope. Columbia Pictures brings you a Joel Schumacher film. Gone … With The Wind.”)

We need to be stirred up. Even if we’d never admit it.

Granted, that sort of change isn’t limited to March and April, any more than big wind is. But it’s not bad to have a time when it’s in your face, a season when you have to think about it. To be reminded that we only determine so much – and that that can be a good thing.

Good or not, it’s a wind we have to ride.

I’ll try to remember that as the windows rattle and my sinuses scream with the shifting air of our own Colorado gusts. Today’s blast of wind may be tomorrow’s welcome rainstorm.

Or, perhaps, tomorrow’s snowstorm.

After all, this is March on the Front Range. And the next season is due any hour now.

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The Book Twice Traveled

Missy leaned in slightly as Harry Potter counted down the seconds to his 11th birthday.

“Maybe he’d wake Dudley up just to annoy him,” I read from the side of her mattress. “Three … two … one … BOOM!”

At the sudden noise, she jumped in bed. Then Missy giggled and I laughed. Her eyes came alive as she twitched with eagerness and delight. Something good was coming, she knew it.

She ought to. After all, we’d been down this road before.

Regular readers will remember that I read every night to Missy, my wife’s developmentally disabled aunt. Attentive readers will remember that we made the journey through all seven Harry Potter books about two years ago. Since then, our travels have taken us to Tom Sawyer and Percy Jackson, to Peter Pan and Homer Price, to secret gardens and yellow brick roads. Every path led to a new horizon, new places to go and faces to meet.

It’s been a delight, our special time of magic and discovery. But … well … some kinds of magic are too good to only experience once.

Missy certainly thinks so.

Granted, Missy is a woman of strong habits. The familiar doesn’t seem to get old for her. She can spend an hour taking apart and putting together the same puzzle, or carefully arranging photographs in a Ziploc bag, then taking them out to do it all again.

Even so, when I offered her the chance to pick out our next book – on a whim, showing a mix of old titles and new —  she pointed at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with a certain … forcefulness. Energy. Even glee.

I quickly understood. After all, I’m a veteran of the road twice traveled myself.

I’ve had people wonder at that sometimes. “How can you read a book so many times? Don’t you get tired of it?” To me, the sentence might as well be in Martian. After all, do you get tired of a friend who visits more than once?

And that’s what certain books are to me. Old friends. Not arranged like bookends, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, but between them, always ready for another call.

It’s not easy to explain to someone who doesn’t share the passion. So many things are wrapped up in it.

There’s the memories that a certain passage will evoke. When I go back through The Hobbit and reach the death of Thorin Oakenshield, the reference to the Dwarf’s rent armor always evokes Dad’s voice, explaining to an 8-year-old boy that “rent” meant the mail was torn or damaged.

There’s the anticipation that comes with a second trip, the ability to watch for details you missed the first time or realize just how early a seed was planted. Walking through Murder on the Orient Express or The Time Traveler’s Wife, I can see the pieces of plot assemble themselves, waiting for their moment on stage. Resuming the Harry Potter books, I can see Hagrid arrive on the motorcycle of Sirius Black and know who Sirius is and what heartache is about to be set in motion.

And of course, there’s the tales themselves. If I revisit a story, it’s because it’s worth spending time with. Often, it means a particular scene can still make me laugh, or wince, or start to tear up. That it can come alive like it’s happening for the first time again. Maybe this time the message will reach Romeo. Maybe this time, Sam won’t accuse Gollum. And will the Stone Table still break at the Lion’s coming?

That’s powerful.

It takes something special to reach that point, to have a story become a treasured memory. And like the best memories, re-examining them brings together who you were and who you are into a single, timeless moment.

And if it leads to a giggle in the night with a loved one  – well, that’s a bonus.

Even if it does lead to a Harry situation.

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Going Out a Champ

I came home one day to find my ground floor had become a cat’s cradle.

You get used to spontaneous home decoration when much of your family is below the age of 3. Even so, this was impressive. Our young visitor had found my wife’s yarn ball and, with her smiling help, unraveled it all. Round and round they went, binding the bannister, the couch, the basement door in multiple layers of bright red strands.

It looked like a giant spider had eaten a Hobby Lobby.

I laughed in admiration, praised the work, took pictures by the ton. And then, when the time came and everyone had gone home, I reluctantly pulled out the scissors.

I knew it had to go. But I hated to do it. It had been so much fun that I wanted it to be for always.

I’m sure Pat Bowlen and John Elway understand just where I’m coming from.

If there’s been a more-loved Bronco on the current team than Champ Bailey, I haven’t seen him yet. His amazing play on the field made him admired, his quiet attitude off the field made him adored. Last year’s rallying cry may have been “Finish the Job,” but a close second was surely “Win One for Champ.”

But the real test came Wednesday.

It’s easy to swoon over someone who’s flying high. Every Bronco fan knows how quickly a bandwagon grows seats in the good times. The company’s welcome, of course, but the question always lingers “Where were you guys when it was hard?”

It’s been hard for Champ Bailey for a while now.

Last season was a painful one for the Bailey Bunch. Denver’s favorite cornerback got hurt, played, got hurt again. He played only five regular-season games, and only in the AFC championship game did he really seem like Champ. The rest of the time?

The rest of the time he played like a 35-year-old man with a couple of bad injuries. Willing, even eager, but with a body that couldn’t keep up with his mind.

Had it been anyone else, there would have been no question what should happen next.

Because it was Champ, the sky fell.

“That’s the worst news I’ve heard all night,” a shocked cashier told me at the grocery store.

“Poor Jaimee!” my wife declared. (Her sister harbors a not-so-secret crush on the Champ.)

“I know why they had to, but ….” said friend after friend on Facebook that evening.

Yes. But.

Those three letters say it all.

That’s when you can see the impression that one man made.

That’s when you know that a region has fallen in love with a person, and not just a player.

That’s when you know this was truly one of the good ones.

That’s how you always know.

Not just in football, either. Everyone’s had the friend or the relative or the co-worker who passed their glory days long ago … but whose glory remains undimmed. After years of what they’ve done, they’re left with who they are, and who they are is something pretty special.

That’s the life I think all of us want to have lived. It doesn’t take a trip to the Pro Bowl or a shelf full of trophies. But it does take work, humility and a willing spirit.

Willing for what? For whatever’s needed.

Champ, if you’re reading this, hold your head up high. Whatever happens next, you have the triumph that really counted. Others may hold the rings, but you hold hearts. And you’ve earned every single one of them.

Yes, it has to come. We hate to see it. We want it to be for always.

And the best parts are. Every time we remember when.

And so ends my tangled yarn.

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Train of Thought

Ever since the news, my inner Arlo Guthrie hasn’t stopped singing.

Writin’ on The City of New Orleans,

Simon & Schuster, Monday-morning rail,

It’s got 15 cars of would-be J.K. Rowlings,

Three pot-boilers, 25 plots so frail …

The occasion, of course, is Amtrak’s decision to begin a “writer’s residency” program aboard its trains. As in take a seat, hit the keys and type the miles away.

No charge.

It’s a rolling dream for a lot of writers, and not just because it’s free, though that word does hold a lot of power for the Order of the Smoking Word Processor. Anyone in the press knows that the best way to draw reporters isn’t to issue a release, it’s to serve free food — an observation that has broadened both coverage and waistlines.

But while a free train ride might hold some attractions by itself, the real draw is in what the train can bestow. Separation. Focus. Time.

Time, maybe most of all.

Every writer has their own idiosyncracies. Lewis Carroll wrote standing up, Truman Capote lying down. Mark Twain needed yellow paper, Rudyard Kipling demanded black ink, and Roald Dahl had to have his Dixon-Ticonderoga pencils. Isaac Asimov didn’t seem to need more than oxygen, and if he could have made his prose literally breathless, he’d probably be writing still.

But the one thing we all have to have, the one indispensable, is time.

Not time to write. That’s actually the easy part. Anyone who can spend three hours a day looking at cat pictures on the Internet can find a way to write a page or two. The time spent watching the last Super Bowl could have produced several anthologies — and arguably would have been more productively spent, especially for Manning and Co.

No, the hard part is the time to germinate. To let ideas lie fallow. To let your brain absent-mindedly chew on a thought, a thought that mingles with others and evolves like the monster in a B-movie, suddenly alive and demanding attention.

It’s important. And these days, it’s difficult. The absent mind has a plethora of things racing to fill it, from headline news to bacon jokes. We live in a sea of stimulus and interaction — great things for starting an idea, but not always so for nurturing it.

It’s like trying to plant a flower garden on the interstate. And daylilies versus Peterbilts was never a fair match.

And so — separation.

The retreat is an old idea, especially in religious tradition; to step away from the world for a while in order to refocus your mind and soul on what matters. Like most things, that deliberate loneliness gets more valuable as it gets harder to find. Not just for writers, either; who couldn’t use even 20 minutes to get away and let the mind be a field instead of an engine?

The Amtrak idea, of course, promises a lot more than 20 minutes. (Well, so long as the WiFi is turned off, anyway.) But while that’s attractive — OK, downright seductive — it doesn’t have to be that extreme. It can be an hour at night after everyone else has gone to bed. Or a weekend away. Or even an uneventful drive on a boring road, one of my favorite spots for musing on columns, fiction and intractable problems.

If you’ve ever been behind me in traffic, by the way, I do apologize. And I swear, that light was yellow when I entered the intersection.

Time set apart. Mind set apart. A chance to be quiet, even bored. That’s where souls are refreshed and ideas are born.

That’s priceless.

In fact, it’s worth volumes.

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Clowning Achievement

It started with a puking dog. As all good comedy should.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The author Spider Robinson once speculated that the universe is connected by a number of invisible switches, set to activate at certain times. For example, the switch that rings your telephone is located in the bottom of the bathtub, guaranteeing a sales call as soon as you sit down. Meanwhile, the switch that turns traffic lights red is just under your accelerator pedal, for maximum fun on mornings when you’re running late to work.

I say this only because I seem to have a switch in my life that’s labeled “Chevy Chase.” And I’d really like to find the plug before someone dies laughing.

I’m not alone here. A friend of mine used to flip that switch any time he tried a home improvement project. An oil change would drain the transmission fluid. An attempt to stain the deck would also paint the house … or the fence … or would see the dog get out and run right across the wet surface and into the yard.

But even he, in his genius, would be hard-pressed to top the comedy routine that erupted when Blake began to heave.

The sound of a dog about to throw up on your bed is like nothing else in the world. It brings every sense to full alert, like a Mission:Impossible tape announcing “Your bed comforter is about to be irrevocably stained in 10 seconds. Good luck, Jim.”

Did I mention the dog weighs 80 pounds and is not easily moved?

“Towel!” I called out, jumping up and dashing to the bathroom. Somewhere … somewhere … here, the old ratty one we were about to throw out. Success!

I turned in triumph. And smacked nose-first into the door.

BANG!

“OW!”

The door rebounded. Hit the frame. And smacked me a second time.

THUD!

“OWWWW!”

I staggered forward, vaguely aware of my wife Heather and our ward Missy trying desperately not to laugh. It didn’t help their struggle much when my next step went into Blake’s water dish.

SPLASH!

True laughter now, as I woozily reached the bed in time to get the towel beneath Blake’s chin. The first “shot” hit the terrycloth perfectly … at which point Blake decided he’d feel better on the floor.

“Blake, wait!”

“Not on my book!” Heather called out, seeing his head perilously near a discarded paperback.

Round and round the bedroom floor I danced with the Canine Puke Machine, alternately offering the towel or yanking an endangered item out of the way. Finally, both of us done, we collapsed on the hardwood floor, panting side-by-side.

As my adrenaline lowered, I recognized the sound of music in the distance.

Missy’s stereo. At full blast.

Playing KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Keep It Comin’, Love.”

I couldn’t help it. I started laughing, too.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

The universe contrives to put us in some pretty ridiculous places sometimes. Ranting and roaring about it only raises the blood pressure and (more often than not) extends the chaos. A good laugh frees you to be human, lets the stress go, and just makes you more pleasant to be around.

After all, you’d pay good money to see someone do this on purpose. If you’re the star, why not just enjoy the show?

You might even live longer.

At least, until that bathroom door comes back for a third swing.

“Owwwww ….”

 

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The Face in the Mirror

When I was little, getting my hair washed could be a life-changing event.

Every parent and grandparent knows the drill. Get the child in the tub for a bath. Pour water over their head. Shampoo, then rinse with another drenching that leaves the hair plastered, dripping, soaked.

By the time Grandma Elsie was done with me, I would look into the bathroom mirror and see a werewolf cub that had been left out in the rain too long.

“That’s not me!” I’d shout out. And, smiling or laughing, Grandma would brush and dry my hair until, indeed, it did look like me again.

That memory passed my mind a lot last week as I sat at her hospital bedside with the rest of the family.

It had happened too fast, and then too slow. A moment of socks slipping on bathroom tile had broken Grandma Elsie’s pelvis and sent her to the hospital. Recovery seemed to be painful, but likely – until the internal injuries set to work.

From recovery room to intensive care. From intensive care to hospice. Time passed and turned to pain, pain submitted to medicine and became an hours-long sleep.

Then, the sleep too, passed. And with it passed Grandma.

A part of me hasn’t come back from that yet.

In many ways, Grandma Elsie was the third parent to me and my sisters. For a few years, she lived with us; for all our lives, she was never far away. We only had to hear her English accent or see her smile – a mix of kindness and mischief – to feel better, to know that things were OK.

On her last day, I couldn’t see that smile anymore. And that wasn’t right.

That wasn’t her.

But how do you brush and dry out pain?

I think that’s the great fear at the heart of a death: that you’ll lose someone in truth and not just in time. That, deprived of their presence, even memory will fade to a half-recalled voice and a blurry image, that the person will become less real until you find yourself wondering if you knew them at all.

It’s why I’ve always been offended at the idea that someone will “get over it” or “let go” or “move on.” A piece of you will never let go entirely. And that’s OK. It means a piece of them is still with you, that they touched your life and shaped your soul in a way that still echoes down the years.

Even when the pain of those last memories threatens to color everything else.

“That’s not me.”

No, it’s not. But like the sopping hair, the pain is only a veil. The real face can still be found.

My youngest sister, Carey, found it. Always the most visual of us, she gathered photographs that had been saved through the years and built a display.  Grandma getting married in her hat and coat during the war. Grandma laughing riotously at a wedding. Grandma posing with my two sisters in elaborate grade-school hairstyles for a “seniors prom.”

That was her.

My other sister, Leslie, found it. Always the best speaker, she reminded everyone at the service of the little moments that made Grandma who she was – including how she teased Leslie mercilessly for describing her as “spunky.”

That was her.

Me? I’m the one with the written words and the bulging notebooks. I’m the one who interviewed Grandma while she was alive (at Mom’s request), who built the obit from notes and memories and began working on a “book” for the great-grandkids. From the canary named Bill to the teacher who taped her mouth shut, from the wartime work in an airplane factory to the fractured Christmas carols of my childhood, she was there.

That was her.

When my other grandma passed in 1987, one of my sisters hugged Grandma Elsie tightly and asked “You’re not going to die, are you?”

“Honey,” Grandma assured her, “I’m not going to die for a long, long time.” (As she neared 93, she told me with a laugh “I didn’t realize it was going to be this long!”)

The time finally came. But we’re still holding her close. Trying to remember the last instruction she wrote for us. The one that said “Laugh, don’t cry.”

That’s how she lived. And that’s how she’ll live on.

That, indeed, was her.

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