If There’s Anything …

I’m tempted to just write the words “Thank you” and be done with it this week. After all, what else is there for me to say?

I’m referring, of course, to the steady stream of comments, offers and good wishes that followed the appearance of last week’s column, where I noted that my wife Heather had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. That included the oddly celebratory mood both of us had been feeling, since we had finally ripped the mask off our opponent and knew what we were fighting.

Pieces like that are always a little risky to write. My oldest rule for this column, taught to me a long time ago, is “No navel gazing” – anything said here has to be of interest to more than just me. There has to be a universal tie, something for a reader to latch onto and care about, even in the most personal of stories.

Even so, I was shocked at just how many of you turned out to care very much indeed.

Some of you shared words of encouragement or stories of friends and family with MS that kept living normal lives. Others had suggestions for how diet could help Heather, or how activity could. A couple of very powerful accounts talked of their own struggles to put a name to a chronic condition and how isolating and painful it could be to just not know.

And of course, from friends and family across the board, we’ve heard the invocation: “If there’s anything I can do …”

Simple words. Powerful ones, too.

We’ve all said it, of course. Often when we don’t know what else to say. The times when the mountain seems so large and threatening, a mystery too great to even comprehend – and yet, we know we can’t let a friend go up it alone.

And so, when the hard news comes, we reach out a hand. Maybe with a confident grip, maybe unsure of our own strength and ability. After all, sometimes there isn’t much one can do. The late, great fantasy author Terry Pratchett, who died recently from Alzheimer’s-related complications, once said that he appreciated the sentiment but was only accepting offers from “very high-end experts in brain chemistry.”

But it does help. More than anyone realizes.

Pain isolates. It can be the physical pain of an illness, the emotional pain of a death, the all-consuming anguish of news too terrible to comprehend. All of it tries to draw limits, to seal us off from the world, to trap us in our own bodies and heads.

Granted, some withdrawal can be necessary to heal. But it’s easy to get trapped in the cycle, to become convinced that you have to deal with this yourself, that you don’t want to be a burden. It feels like a surrender to ask for help, an admission that you’ve lost control.

And then, someone reaches beyond the walls.

It may not be huge. It may not even be much more than the words themselves. But like a candle in the night, it becomes a small gesture that changes the landscape.

Someone cares.

Someone noticed.

Someone wants to help, even if they’re not quite sure how.

Someone’s heart has opened to me.

That is a powerful realization.

A friend recently reminded me that it’s a gift to allow others to give. It’s a harder lesson than it sounds. But a true one.

In admitting our mutual need, we summon our mutual strength. We become a family. No … we remind ourselves of the family that we already are.

Thank you for that reminder.

“If there’s anything I can do ….”

Trust me. You certainly have.

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Full View

My wife Heather may be the happiest person to ever receive an MS diagnosis.

“Yes!” she shouted after the doctor’s call came in Wednesday afternoon. “I told them I was sick! I told them I was sick!”

Regular readers know that we’ve been searching to an answer for Heather’s “mystery illness” for some time. The symptoms have been a regular cavalcade, including fatigue, pain, loss of coordination, foggy eyesight, foggy memory, a foggy day in London town …

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, after being introduced to a spinal tap that’s not nearly as entertaining as the Christopher Guest version, Heather can now definitively tie her troubles down to two words: multiple sclerosis. Yes, that ugly disease of the brain and spinal cord, the one that can’t really be cured, only contained.

Of course, anyone who saw our huge, relieved grins after the diagnosis would probably conclude that there wasn’t much brain left to affect, anyway. But in a weird way, it’s exciting.

At long last, something makes sense.

Any chronic pain sufferer should recognize the feeling. You can spend weeks, months, even years in shadow boxing, going through the medical motions without hitting anything solid. You get told that you’re fine, even when you know better. You get medicines that don’t help, tests that don’t show anything, advice that fails to illuminate. Sometimes people will suggest you’re a hypochondriac. After a while, you may start to wonder if they’re right.

And then, BAM – you hit something solid. Or it hits you. Either way, there’s a reality that can no longer be denied. You’re not crazy, you are in a fight, and even if it’s one against Mike Tyson himself, you can finally see the other fighter in the ring.

That’s huge.

You don’t even need to be a patient to understand. We see the same thing every day in the political world, or the business world, or in military strategy, or in the thousand small-scale issues we deal with every day. To solve a problem, the people involved have to agree 1) That a problem exists and 2) What exactly the problem is. What you cannot define, you cannot defeat.

Put down a name and you can have objectives. Goals. Tactics. Hope.

Heather has a name. A nasty name. But a real one.

That means we have a road forward.

Even better, the road may not have as many potholes as we feared. The tests caught her MS early. That’s one reason it slipped through the early scans undetected, and it means the disease may be at a more manageable stage.

Still better: this is something we know from the outside. We have good friends who have been through this, people who still live full lives despite the need to recharge and recover. One even kept up a position in the Navy Reserve until fairly recently.

I know, there are stories of worse as well as better. But again – what you can name, you can know. And some of that knowledge is encouraging.

We’re not alone.

Not that we ever were. But now our friends and family have something to rally around as well. Unease and uncertainty can drain a caregiver as well as a patient; a lifting of the fog can be almost rejuvenating.

Is it any wonder we smile? And even laugh?

No wonder at all. Not when there’s a purpose that can outweigh the fear.

It will not be unremitting joy. We know that. We’re looking at a hard struggle, probably a painful one.

But we’re looking at it. And that makes all the difference.

I hope someone out there can take encouragement from this. The fog can someday lift. The light can shine. The battle lines can be drawn and defended to the inch.

Victory is never certain. But knowing, really knowing, is a victory all its own.

It’s time to celebrate.

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Making Faces

At the risk of letting my inner geek out, I think I’ve figured out the real reason Spider-Man wears a mask.

Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those oddball columns that discusses Superman’s immigration status or Batman’s patent protection. You don’t have to know the mighty Marvel footnotes in order to hang around here or care about how Hollywood treats caped crusaders. (Though if that sort of thing does light your fire, I’ll track you down for coffee later, OK?)

No, this has its roots in more familiar territory: in hospitals, in family, in simple conversation. And, as with so many things in this space, it starts with Heather and Missy.

My wife Heather got to spend the night at Good Samaritan hospital recently. Regular readers may remember that we’ve been chasing some medical mysteries worthy of Dr. Watson and not getting much in the way of answers. To move things along, Heather’s doctor suggested it was time for a sleepover, so that all the tests Heather needed could be run at once instead of strung out over weeks.

Logical. Helpful, even. Certainly appreciated.

But it did mean explaining a few things to Missy.

Despite her mental disability, Missy can be pretty sharp. Sharp enough to guess that when one of her guardians goes into the hospital and doesn’t come back right away, something may be wrong. Vanishing without explanation was never an option – not only do we respect her too much for that, but she’s stubborn enough to sit in the bay window for hours waiting for someone to come home if they’re not back on schedule.

So I took her up to the hospital in the afternoon and let her see that Heather was in good spirits. Missy lost her own mom to cancer, so we assured her that this wasn’t like that, that the doctor was just having a look around to see what was going on so Heather could feel better.

Even so, on the drive back, I could see Missy wasn’t entirely buying it. Not judging by the sniffs and red eyes and careful glances out the car window.

“It really is going to be OK, Miss,” I told her. And I believed it. But at the same time, as I tried to keep Missy’s worries at bay, I felt a sudden kinship with the ol’ webslinger.

Spider-Man, like I mentioned, wears a mask. The comics always have plenty of good reasons, starting with the need to protect his family from supervillain retribution. The fact that his real-world boss is a Spidey-hating jerk offers some extra incentive.

But masks hide more than just an identity. They hide feelings, too, especially fear and anxiety. Comic geeks know that one reason for the wallcrawler’s constant string of wisecracks in a fight is that he’s covering for nervousness, so that he can keep being a hero, to the world and himself. A mask makes that all the easier.

And it’s one that I think many of us have put on a time or too ourselves.

A good parent doesn’t lie to their child, or a guardian to their ward. I firmly believe that. But there are times when you stay brave to keep them from worrying, when your own fear and uncertainty have to stay out of sight so that you can help them through a tough situation. There are times when sharing everything you know and feel would just make the situation harder, especially when the real quest isn’t for information – it’s for reassurance.

I’ve been on the other side of this long ago, when Mom had to deal with breast cancer while my sisters and I were in grade school. We knew that Mom saw a lot of doctors and even went to the hospital sometimes. But Mom and Dad never weighed us down with stress we didn’t need. We knew we were loved, we knew we were safe, and we never knew about the anxiety they felt in the small hours of the night until much later.

There’s a funny thing about reassurance, though. If you provide it enough times, you can start to feel it yourself. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Mom is fond of saying. I can’t argue: not only is Missy doing better, so am I. In talking to her, I was somehow talking to me, too, and making both of us stronger.

Sometimes, over time, the mask can create the hero.

And that’s a marvel more real than any radioactive spider.

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Words of Honor

“He wrapped himself in quotations – as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors.”

— Rudyard Kipling

 

Slowly but surely, the words are claiming the wall.

Muhammad Ali watches from one point, Saint Paul from another. Novelists share space with masters of social media. It’s a small crowd right now, but I know how quickly it will grow, piling wit onto wisdom onto timeless endurance.

I ought to know. We’ve been here before.

And as before, it’s more comforting than a few rows of taped computer paper has any right to be.

 

“In the garden of literature, the highest and the most charismatic flowers are always the quotations.”

— Mehmet Murat ildan

 

It started, as it often does, with Heather’s health. My wife is a lovely, funny, creative and tough-minded person. But she also tends to attract chronic illness the way a car accident attracts rubberneckers. Years ago, before we met, it was Crohn’s disease. A couple of years after we married, ankylosing spondylitis came along for the ride. Endometriosis used to be part of the mix, and we’ve never been quite sure if lupus was milling about in the crowd or not.

Lately, as some of you have read here, there’s been something new. We’re still pinning down all the details – which is a bloodless way of saying that we’ve been going through a lot of sleepless nights and painful days trying to figure out what in blue blazes is going on.

One morning I had just checked in with my boss to mention that I was going to have to work from home – again – in order to help Heather through the day. She sent back her best wishes for the struggle – and a few words from Muhammad Ali for comfort.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses,” the words read, “behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

And all of a sudden, I remembered.

 

“Have you ever observed that we pay much more attention to a wise passage when it is quoted, than when we read it in the original author?”

— Philip Gilbert Hamerton

 

The last time something like this happened, back in Kansas, Heather had had to spend far too much time in the bathroom. (Having Crohn’s in combination with severe back pain will tend to do that.) So, to make life a little more bearable – or at least entertaining – I started to paper the opposite wall with quotes.

Like many writers, I’ve always been a fan of the well-chosen word, whether from prophets or Muppets. A good quote is a quick moment in life when your mind suddenly blinks and then laughs, or winces, or nods “Yes – yes, that’s exactly how it is.” They’ve decorated my college papers, my desks, even my email at work.

And now, they decorated my bathroom. Heather found the first one and I quickly gave it a lot of brothers and sisters. Soon, you couldn’t drop a hand towel without coming across the latest aphorism or wisecrack.

Now, we seemed to be in a similar place. Maybe it was time for a similar remedy. This particular illness was keeping her confined to bed for much of the day, so I picked a readily visible bedroom wall and went to work.

Some space went to encouragement. (“We must live lives of unstoppable hope.” – Stant Litore.)

Some was claimed by humorous sympathy. (“I’m not clumsy. It’s just that the floor hates me, the tables and chairs are bullies, and the wall gets in the way.” – Liza Mahone.)

And some, inevitably, went to doctor snark. (“I firmly believe that if the whole materia medica could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.)

I don’t know. Maybe it’s not doing anything but using up ink and Scotch tape. But maybe, in its own small way, it helps. It’s a way to bring life over the walls, to remind us that someone’s been there before, that there’s more to think about than “Ow, ow, ow.”

Maybe, to borrow from Miguel de Cervantes, these “short sentences drawn from long experience” are better medicine than we know. I hope so. I really do.

Sticks and stones can break our bones. But words can maybe heal us.

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Laughter in the Shadows

The “Murder on the Nile” rehearsal had been going well. Plenty of threats, plenty of clues, the body being found just when it should. And then, as a character cracked a minor witticism, I heard a cackle from the audience.

Despite having to keep character, I almost smiled. There was no denying when Missy was in the house.

There are silent theater audiences in the world. Missy is not often one of them. When it comes to a performance, my wife’s physically and mentally disabled aunt often wears her emotions on her sleeve … and on her lips. A funny bit of business on stage may get a whoop of laughter. An injury to a character will suddenly get an “Ow!” from her sympathetic lips.

It’s not constant, like a “Mystery Science 3000″ commentary track, but it’s not held back when she’s there, either. And because my wife Heather hasn’t been feeling well, Missy’s been there a lot, coming with me to practice after practice as the plot falls into place.

So, once in a while, we find ourselves with feedback from the darkness. I can’t really complain. In this, Missy truly is family.

I have never been what actors sometimes call a “smiler” – the sort of person who sits in the audience of a show, smiles and nods, and then ambles off to my car thinking how pleasant it all was. I laugh. Loudly. Strongly. Often infectiously. My actor friends have been accused of planting me in the audience just to get things moving, like a lighter held to a piece of kindling.

One memorable moment came when I took Heather to a long-ago performance of “The Mikado” at the Longmont Theatre Company. The show is GIlbert & Sullivan at its finest: beautiful music, a crackbrained plot and funny as heck. I laughed without hesitation or restraint several times, and I had plenty of company.

And then, at one point, a gentleman in front of me turned around. He whispered “Do you mind? Some of us are trying to enjoy the show!”

I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t. But at that moment, I was seriously tempted to respond with “I’m succeeding.”

Thinking back on that, and on Missy’s moments of shock or joy, the importance of that keeps coming back to me. How often do we show our appreciation? How often do we make it obvious?

An actor beneath the lights can’t hear smiles. That’s obvious. Most people we meet aren’t any more telepathic than that, yet we often ask them to be. Not necessarily with small compliments – as a people, Americans are pretty good at dropping those into a conversation – but with the real joys and worries that drop below the level of small talk and into true understanding.

I know, we’re reluctant to drop that mask of “I’m doing fine” with just any stranger. (Stranger? Missy’s never learned that word yet.) But many times we keep it up even around friends, reserving the true depth of what we feel. What if we didn’t?

I don’t mean striding the stage like a ham Shakespearean actor in mid-soliloquy. Heaven knows my own personality is on the quiet side many times. But loud or quiet, there’s a power to be had when we open ourselves up and lay our feelings bare. It’s why gatherings such as weddings or funerals can be so memorable and have such power; we’ve been given permission to open the gates, tear down the walls and show how we feel.

I don’t pretend it’s always comfortable. Or easy. But it can draw people together like nothing else. If you’ve ever had a friend you could say anything around, you know what I mean. Things come so much easier when the inner guard can relax at last.

It takes practice, of course. Maybe start with a safe, controlled environment. One designed to elicit broad emotions, where you can open up and react in a crowd of strangers, comfortable in your anonymity.

If only I knew somewhere like that ….

Oh. Wait a minute.

See you at the show. And maybe I’ll hear you, too.

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Taking His Best Shot

Lucas Hinch may have become a new international hero.

Granted, few of us have ever met the Colorado Springs man. But he managed to seize his 15 minutes of fame recently after his computer gave him one battle too many. Mr. Hinch, of course, dealt with his frustrations in a mature and responsible way.

Oh, who am I kidding? He took the computer into an alley, pulled a gun and put eight rounds into it.

I’ll wait a few moments for the cheering to die down.

Naturally, I’m not endorsing this as a method. Spontaneous gunfire is rarely a solution to anything, including the latest televised adventures of the Rockies’ bullpen. (Pillows are the traditional projectile for a television screen bearing bad sports news, at least in the case of my late grandfather-in-law.) But I think anyone who has ever spent more than five minutes staring at a Blue Screen of Death can sympathize entirely with Mr. Hinch.

For my wife Heather, it’s a no-brainer. More than once, she has intoned the magic words “Scotty, I’m throwing this thing out the window!” after our machine of the moment ate a college research paper due in an hour … or dropped a connection in the middle of an online game … or simply got its power button stuck, requiring fingernails worthy of Dolly Parton to pry back into operation.

She never did commit that act of electronic defenestration, by the way. But I think that had less to do with sweet reason, and more to do with chronic illness and the annoyance of putting up new storm windows.

How do so many of us reach that point?

That may seem as obvious as asking whether I-25 will be a pain in the neck tomorrow. But it’s a valid question. Certainly, computers have become vital to our day-to-day life. But not every critical aspect of our life tempts a 9mm sonata.

The answer, I think, comes down to communication.

The other day, I saw a bumper sticker in the grocery store parking lot: “If animals could speak, we would all be vegetarian.” Whether you agree or not, it underlines a larger philosophical point – it’s harder to hate something that has become real to you, that has a face and a voice and a genuine response. It’s why prejudices sometimes wither when an “other” is met personally, or why a famous personality may seem to be so much nicer when met face-to-face.

And, on the flip side, it’s why our blood pressure goes through the roof when communication is hopeless.

The best example may be road rage. If someone accidentally walks into your path on the sidewalk, the most likely response is a quick apology, maybe even an embarrassed laugh. Come just a little close while driving and the results are screams and angry horns. It’s not just the higher speeds and masses of metal, it’s the fact that we no longer have another person in our midst – just a metal box that’s impervious to our hard feelings.

I don’t know how to solve PC rage, short of giving the machine actual reasoning abilities – and that way lies Skynet, or at least a future where humanity never wins at Jeopardy! again. But it does suggest a way to lower the pressure in so many other areas of our lives. Talk. Listen. See the faces around you, not just their positions on the landscape.

We don’t have to agree. But if we can at least see each other as human beings worthy of attention, the rest can follow. Maybe we can even find some common interests to share.

And if those interests include a recalcitrant laptop and a pair of sledgehammers, I’ll be over in five minutes.

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April Love

As I write this, the Colorado Rockies are sitting on top of the National League West. King of the hill. Top of the heap. Masters of all they survey.

Or, more realistically, the lords of April.

I can see some of the longtime Rockheads nodding in agreement. For the newer fans, excited by the fast start of the boys in purple, let me give you some real-world comparisons for perspective:

“What a beautiful wedding! Oh, that marriage will surely last forever.”

“4-0 in the preseason! I’m telling you, the Broncos are going to crush the Super Bowl this year.”

“He won Iowa hands down. You know it’s just a matter of time before we all start calling him Mr. President.”

“Man, this Colorado spring is gorgeous. Aren’t you glad to finally say goodbye to ice and snow?”

You get the picture?

Yes, our hometown baseball crew is doing well in April. I’m pleased but not terribly shocked. The Rockies always do well in April. They last just long enough to get everyone excited and then a) the first three injuries happen, b) the wheels fall off our pitching rotation and/or c) Dinger the Dinosaur attracts the wrath of the baseball gods merely for existing.

How bad an indicator is it? In 2007, the year the Rockies actually made the World Series, they managed a 10-16 record in April. Mediocre with a side order of painful.

Until, suddenly, they weren’t.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I love the grand old game.

If ever there was a sport where the cream rises to the top, it’s baseball. Sure, there are bizarre flukes and bad calls, just like any other sport. But a 162-game regular season acts as one heck of a filter. When you hit a five-game winning streak in football, you’re playoff-bound for sure. When you hit a five-game winning streak in baseball, it’s … Wednesday.

Well, unless you’re the Marlins. Then it’s more of a miracle. But I digress.

I’ve had friends complain that baseball is too slow a game, that nothing seems to happen. They’re missing the point. Baseball, at its heart, is a game of patience.

There’s no clock. Any moment could be the one that wins or loses it all, however lopsided the score. (Especially with our bullpen.)

There’s a long season. You build the foundation of your season slowly and carefully, to where an unusual two weeks may mean nothing – or it may be the capstone of everything you’ve been working toward.

And there are players behind the players, always building to the promise of tomorrow. Baseball has perhaps the best-developed minor league system of any sport, a farm ground that allows you to watch not just today’s stars but the potential for years down the road. (Assuming they don’t get swiped by a richer club, of course, but that’s an argument for another day.)

It’s a life lesson turned into a sport, that you don’t have to win every at-bat, or even every game. But if you do the small things right enough, often enough, over time the small things become the big things.

It isn’t all staked on one April.

Sure, I’ll sit back and enjoy the Rockies’ wins. For today, they’re good. For tomorrow, there are no promises. Such is baseball. Such is life. A good beginning has to have follow-through if it’s to be more than a memory.

Maybe it’ll be there. Maybe not. We’ll see. Patience now, patience always.

Yes, the Rockies are truly towering. But only time can tell if they’ve peaked too soon.

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Cracking the Case

There’s something very soothing about being in an Agatha Christie play.

I admit that sounds a bit odd. After all, Dame Agatha delighted in mayhem. Over dozens of books, she never found a cause of death she didn’t like, from the prosaic knife or pistol to the ever-threatening digitalis in the teacup. And the danger could come from anywhere, including a previous victim, the detective, or even the narrator.

But at its heart, Agatha Christie’s world is a sensible place. Order is disturbed and then put right. No problem is impossible to solve. Consider the information at hand, discard preconceptions and the answer – never an answer, always the answer – can always be reached.

It’s a nice place to visit. And starting May 1 with the Longmont Theatre Company’s “Murder on the Nile,” I get to do just that.

I just wish I could live there.

Oh, we’ve got our own set of mysteries at Chez Rochat. Most of them, at any given time, tend to revolve around the health of my wife Heather. Heather is to chronic illness what Mozart was to composition: a natural talent, with new and surprising directions emerging at every turn.

She’s dealt with Crohn’s disease. With multiple rounds of endometriosis. With a condition I’ve mentioned here before called ankylosing spondylitis, a disorder as painful as its name is musical.

And now … now we’ve got a newcomer in the deck.

We’ve been trying to track the source of what Heather calls her “mystery pain” for a while. The clues haven’t been as prosaic as a pistol, a scarf and a three-day-old bottle of nail polish. Instead it’s keeping track of pain here, numbness there, fatigue lasting this long, and so on. What’s happening in the limbs? The face? The spine? What’s new and what’s overlapping with the old conditions?

It’s enough to make you wish that Hercule Poirot had a grandson in the medical field.

With patience, time and a recent ER visit, we’ve teased out one piece of the jigsaw: trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve pain that can be unexpectedly triggered by a simple touch to the face. Or not. Like every other villain in this detective series, it’s come-and-go, though over time, “come” can be more frequent.

Even if we have that to stand on, though, there’s still so much more puzzle to solve. The initial clue gives us some possibilities for the bigger picture – some of them quite disturbing – but until a doctor locks down an answer, we can’t be sure.

An answer. Not necessarily the answer.

And no guarantee that order can be restored.

I won’t lie. It’s hard. Sometimes we get long windows where things go well. Sometimes she can barely move from the bed without help. It’s a guessing game, one that even Miss Marple’s shrewd sense of the human condition couldn’t outfox.

It’s tiring. Painful. Frightening, even. And yet … and yet, that’s not the most important story.

Because through it all, and sometimes to her own disbelief, Heather has still held on to what’s important.

She still cares.

Sometimes that’s frustrating for her, especially when there are things she wants to do and can’t at the moment. But so many times, Heather’s found a way. She’s been a guardian and “mom” to her disabled aunt Missy, a comfort to the world’s craziest dogs, a tease to her sisters, a “weird aunty” to the family infants and toddlers. She’s been a loving – and loved – partner to me.

And in the midst of so much pain and uncertainty, that’s pretty near miraculous.

We don’t have all the information, or a flawless set of gray cells to solve it with. Some days, we barely seem to have sanity or patience or sleep. But we’ve got each other. And through the stress, that’s enough.

Some mysteries defy detectives. And the biggest ones are never quite finished.

But so long as the clues can carry us to tomorrow, that will do for now.

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The K Word

When I used to watch “Happy Days” as a kid (and boy, does that date me), it was always hilarious to watch the Fonz try to apologize. He’d take a running start at the key word, like a verbal Olympic track star, but never quite clear the barrier.

“I’m s-s-s-s ….” (Stop, grimace for laugh track.) “I mean, I’m real s-s-s-s- ….”

But that was a sitcom. I’m a grown adult in the real world. Which is why I will have no problem saying that my four-year-old niece has been declared ready for k ….

You know. For k-k-k-k …

This is ridiculous.

Kindergarten.

Wow. It’s even hard to look at that word on the page.

I’m proud of her, of course. And objectively, it should be no surprise at all. She’s the right age. She’s been doing very well at her pre-school. When she visits, the living room now has a more focused mess that receives at least a token effort of cleanup. And she’s very good at telling our behemoth of a dog “No, Blakie!” when he accidentally whaps his gigantic tail in her face.

So she’s ready. Beyond a doubt. And it’s a good thing.

So why does it feel like the world just caved in?

I know I’m not alone here. (If I were, “Sunrise, Sunset” would be a forgotten song.) And I know a lot of it is sheer human cussedness. We like to think that our world will go on the way it is forever, never changing in any significant way. And when reality intrudes – a shrinking hairline, a growing child, a friend or relative that moves away – it’s unsettling. Sometimes it even seems to give you eyes to the future, where you can suddenly envision the new kindergartner’s first date, her college graduation, her efforts to start a career … all this from the individual who once bound the first floor of your house in yarn because it was fun.

With me, the shock is a triple whammy. Some of you may remember that 2010 was the year I became Uncle Scott in spades, acquiring two nieces and one nephew in a six-month period. (That makes it sound like “The Price is Right,” doesn’t it?) Sometimes at close range and sometimes from over a thousand miles away, I’ve watched them discover finger paints, the Blue Angels, drums, the solar system, ballet and the non-negotiability of naptimes.

So when one of them is ready to cross the bright blue line of The Big K it means all of them are. That they’re growing up. Maybe even that they’re growing away a little, with a part of their lives happening at a distance.

Mind you, I know we want children to grow. I’d be even more disturbed, and for different reasons, if the Terrific Trio of 2010 was 35 years old and living in our basement with no immediate prospects for departure. No one wants to be the helicopter relative or to be dealing with a family full of Peter Pans.

But when so much of a life has been so close, it’s hard to let go. Even a little.

Their life has changed. Your life has changed. And it’s time for you to do a little more growing up, too.

I know this isn’t the end. There will be plenty of exciting adventures ahead. Probably more than a little exasperation, too. But Heather and I watched them transform from confused babies into enthusiastic toddlers and we’re ready – if a little sobered at times – to see what’s coming next.

So go ahead, word. Bring on the k-k-k-k …

The k-k-k-k…

Sigh.

Arthur Fonzarelli, where are you when I really need you?

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The Moment of Pain

Sometimes news is hell.

I don’t use the word lightly. Yes, at the best of times, the daily news can seem to hold enough misery, anger and grief for anyone. Major wars. Minor cruelties. Kardashian news. We know it, we brace for it, we sigh as it goes by.

But some weeks are worse. This one, for instance.

If you’re among my Longmont readers, you know what I mean. The murder-suicide, with a man suspected of killing one parent with a knife, nearly killing the other and then taking his own life. The stabbing attack on a seven-months pregnant woman, where the child-to-be was physically removed. Each hard on the heels of the other, gruesome and horrific.

If there’s anyone who simply turned their computer off on Wednesday and refused to read any more Internet news, I can’t say I blame them.

Some scenes hit you in the heart and rip your soul open to scream. They’re the calls that every cop and paramedic hates to get, that every reporter hates to write, that every reader hates to bear witness to. They’re the ones that your brain refuses to let go of, asking the heavens “How is something like this allowed to exist?”

It doesn’t matter if the audience is the world or the folks inside city limits. The audience is you. And it’s too much to hold.

I don’t have a magic word to make it go away. I’m not sure I could be trusted with one if I did. To feel another’s pain is to be human; if I banish that pain, am I sending my humanity away with it?

But oh, the temptation.

So what do we do?

If there’s any answer at all, I think it has to be “What we can.”

Grief like this doesn’t just shock, it isolates. It makes you feel alone and helpless in an overwhelming world. Other hurts seem minor compared to that big boulder that refuses to move.

That is when we most need each other.

This community has a powerful heart. It showed in full force during and after the 2013 flood, when no sort of help was off limits. People cleaned their neighbors’ homes, housed their neighbors’ families, sometimes saved their neighbors’ lives.

It’s harder with something like this. I know. There’s a less visible enemy to fight, a less obvious way to help. But the gist remains the same.

Be there.

Be there when someone in pain needs a kind heart and a listening ear.

Be there when they don’t dare talk but just need someone nearby.

Be there when you see a friend or a neighbor or a stranger who seems to need a hand.

Not as a snoop. Not as a looky-lou or an intrusive pest. But as the brother or sister we all need to be to each other.

Most of us may never know any of the people who were at the heart of this. (Those who do, bless and keep you all.) But we all know someone. It can start with something as simple as a word of kindness to a police officer or EMT, a reminder that they’re remembered and appreciated. It can grow as big as you want it to.

If we all care for one of us, we all care for all of us.

Good news happens, too. But it’s rarely as easy as looking. We have to find it, to make it, to create it ourselves. We have to be it. And that can be a frightening prospect.

But not half as frightening as having to stand alone.

News can be hell. Undeniable. True.

But together, maybe we can be heaven.

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