Losing Pop

This is a story that ran in our EDGE of the Lake Magazine

I was on a country highway I had not travelled in years. To my right, a road wound over a hill and then dipped away into a dense, green landscape. Something told me I had memories along that blacktop, right over that hill. I wasn’t sure what they were, only that they suddenly felt powerful and recent, not faded and lost. There was no time to turn back and investigate.We were going to my father in law’s bedside. He was dying.

His given name was Gerald. Depending on who you were and what he meant to you, you might also have called him Pop, or Counselor, or General.     

The first morning I visited his home as his daughter’sboyfriend I found coffee, toast and fruit in the kitchen. No one else was around, so I put some margarine on the toast. There is no word to describe how bad that margarine tasted. I checked the date on the container. It had been purchased three, maybe four boyfriends previous. 

Just after I spit the toast into the garbage my future father in law came in. He was wearing running shoes with no socks and shorts that looked like cocktail napkins strapped to his upper thighs. Most sweating men would reach for water. He poured a cup of coffee. Then he picked up a piece of toast and dug a knife into that margarine.

I try to tell myself there wasn’t time to warn him, but it was more than that. The front walk leading to his door had been worn down by the soles of many suitors. I said nothing because I represented a sudden change in the boyfriend lineup and had no idea where I stood with this man. 

When he crammed that toast and God-awful margarine into his mouth I waited for his eyes to pop out. I waited for him to run to the garbage can. But there wasn’t even a grunt. He just stared at me and chewed while a puddle of sweat gathered at his feet. Then he washed down that margarine plutonium with scalding coffee. His expression never changed. 

That sums up Pop nicely for me. Even when things weren’texactly right he wouldn’t let you know it. He knew that silence could be as powerful as words, although that rule was always dumped when the stories started flowing with dinner and wine. And, at least for that moment, I represented the enemy by way of a new boyfriend. Of course, he would never let me see weakness.

I don’t know, maybe that’s just me looking at it. Sometimes Pop intimidated me even after twenty years and four grandchildren. Not so much by who he was, but by who I wanted to be. He was a big man in many ways, with big appetites and a bigger heart. Not the kind of guy you heard say “ouch” too often. He adhered to a strict moral divide between right and wrong, and if something needed to be said, no matter how cringeworthy or painful, he would do it, plainly and right to your face. Sometimes he would stare at me and all the bad decisions I’d made in life seemed naked before him. And yet, I solicited his advice on numerous occasions and he never once told me what to do. He would listen, ask questions, listen some more, ask more questions, and then the answer I sought would suddenly be there.

I think that’s called wisdom. And grace. And generosity. And patience.  

Pop’s death was a terrible loss, but I try to see his life as a victory. He was married to the woman he loved for more than fifty years. Who wouldn’t covet what they shared during the time they had together? They raised a family, they travelled, they made a difference in the lives of people around them. And they did it all while they loved one another. I am sad only because Iwanted them to have a chance to make a few more memories, and maybe be with them while they did it.  

On my wife’s birthday we travelled home to say goodbye to her father. 

She grew quiet as we stopped at the town’s first red-light. Roads filled with distant memories were all around us. Memories that came alive as we passed. I had turned left on that street, sneaking to Pop’s office to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. (I was terrified. He made it easy.) I took a left on that road, then a right, to reach the house where he got to know his grandchildren and ate that terrible toast. Further down the same street to the left was the church where I married his daughter.

Those were some of my memories as we drove to the far side of town. To their final home. I know my wife was reliving those and many more.

We pulled up to their house. The rest of the family was inside. For more than twenty years I had been arriving at homes owned by this man, my children and pets and noise and chaos spilling out of the car. For the first time ever, this one time, I did not want to be there.

Speaking to Death

 

My wife and I waited in a line that snaked down the church steps. We were there to pay our respects to the family of a friend. The funeral director approached us. Even though we no longer lived in the town where I grew up, our paths had not been totally different since high school. I eventually ended up in radio. He found himself in the funeral business by way of country music.

We spoke about the friend who had passed, he hugged my wife, and then the funeral director said, “Tell your mom I’ll put that dented coffin in her garage.”

Perhaps my mouth hung open.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” my old friend said. “It still closes and it’s never been used. It’s just got this big dent on one end and I told her I’d give her a real good price.”

Just for the sake of saying something I asked what it looked like. The dented coffin was white, and offered a plush, pink interior.

I immediately wondered if my mother was trying to get more mileage out of her lifelong companion. Maybe she planned to prop that coffin on two saw-horses in the garage. He would see it every day as he left for work and when he came home, just in case he was getting a little life weary. She was probably betting my father would live another twenty years just to keep from being buried in anything pink.

I didn’t have more time to consider my mother’s dented coffin because we entered the church.

The family we had come to see stood along the front, meeting person after person who filed past to pay their respects. The woman who died had been smart, opinionated, beautiful, and wonderfully Southern. When we reached the front of the room, I looked into to the eyes of her husband and tried to imagine myself on his side of our exchange. I could not. The burden of what was before him and the weight of what he had endured was etched in his face. He had seen and was seeing things I could not comprehend.

I had no idea what to say.

At these times, there are few among us who really know what to say or how to say it. My wife does. But many of us stumble down the line, mumble something about loss, and try to get clear as quickly as we can. On this day, the father who was about to bury his daughter bragged about some cheese-straws my mother had delivered to the heartbroken family. The mother who had lost her child hugged me and thanked me for taking the time to come. And the woman who had just lost her sister asked about my family, calling me by name among the hundreds who were lined up to pay their respects, even though we had not seen each other in years. I offered little, other than my physical presence. I could not think of anything to impart that was close to worthy of what they had lost. And, they sensed that discomfort in me and compensated for it. That’s how funerals go sometimes. The bereaved work hard to ease the comforters.

And I’m not being hard on myself. Having been to plenty of funerals, I’ve seen those who are trained to provide solace struggle to speak about loss in a meaningful way. I often wonder if the mourners in the front of the church, staring up at whoever is delivering the eulogy, only hear the teacher from Charlie Brown and a dull string of noises that mean nothing. Or are they clinging to every word because it is the last time someone will speak about their loved one before they are lowered into the ground?

I don’t know. It is probably a little bit of both.

Throughout history, it meant something for people to say you died well after you were gone. I will not die well. If I have time to consider my coming demise, I am going pass from this world like a kidney stone. Even now, when I enter a room, I check out the people in it to see who I do, and do not, want providing resuscitation should I pass out. I constantly keep a mental score of exercises skipped, fried meals eaten, and drinks imbibed, hoping that my behavior, or lack of it, might have a direct impact on my day of reckoning.

Despite the problems I think I have, and the fact that we all exist on borrowed time, just being in the church that day made me want to live longer and better. I didn’t comfort anyone at the funeral, but, indirectly, it comforted me. I’m still here. I’ll speak to death at as later date, even though I know it is waiting. Not unlike a dented coffin, on two saw-horses in a garage.

A Bunker in the Sky

 

We took our Thanksgiving break with my wife’s family in Gulf Shores this year, where my in-laws own a condo. It was a large group and two more condos were needed. One of them, the one my crew stayed in, belonged to a friend of the family and was in the same building as the one my in-laws have on the fifth floor. This borrowed unit was on the fourteenth floor. I will be the first to admit I can get a little squeamish with heights. As long as I look toward the broad expanse of water it doesn’t bother me. But if I look down while standing at the rail, I’m in trouble.  The fourteenth floor only amplified my unsteadiness. The views from within, like the unit I had been in many times below, were unbelievable. And even on the balcony I was good, as long as I didn’t get too close to the rail.

Strangely enough, once we were up there, heights or not, I felt safe. Like I had my little family in a bunker in the sky.

So we did the family event and my sister-in-law downloaded some sketchy virus on her computer and blamed it on me but other than that the time went too fast and too easily.

On the final morning I loaded the car, got everyone downstairs, then make one last sweep of the condo. The view caused me to hesitate. As I was standing there, fourteen floors up, I thought, what if we didn’t leave? What if we squatted in this guy’s condo? How long, legally, would it take him to get us out?

Sure, you could say that doesn’t sound real charitable of me. The guy has let me stay in his condo and I choose to repay him by locking my family in there and not coming out. But, on the other hand, was it really the nicest thing he could have done? Exposing my family to his wonderful place and then expecting us to voluntarily vacate? So, I thought, what would happen if I made a quick run for supplies, barricaded the door with some heavy furniture and set a watch on the balcony? How long could we make it as squatters in paradise?

You don’t hear about this happening much along the Gulf Coast. Most of the time when you see these squatting situations on the news it involves a ranch and some guys in unfortunate combinations of flannel, not a bathing suit and a hot tub. But why is that so?

I began to imagine how it would shake out once we barricaded ourselves inside the condo. Would the authorities be forced to set up a command post in the parking lot far below? Maybe one of them would yell up at us with a bull horn: “Come down with your hands up.” And we would look over the rail while holding a margarita and yell “no thank you”.

For that matter, which child would I let deal to the negotiator when they called? Wayne is so stubborn he will say no just because you said yes, so he would be no good. Beth would be perfect except she doesn’t do old fashioned communications like a phone so unless the negotiator reached out to us through Snap Chat or Instagram she’s out. Jacks seems like the logical choice but he has a sly, devious side so I wouldn’t trust him to keep the flash bang grenades at bay. Maybe Wilkins would be the best, since he talks at length about anything and has a pretty cheery disposition. Yes, he would probably buy us the most time before the SWAT team made their forced entry into our bunker in the sky.

And then I shook myself out of it.

Yes, I voluntarily left the fourteenth floor without any drama. Well, except for the chaos that typically travels in our car. But on the way home I thought about those rancher types with their boots in manure and their compounds and their guns and crazy anti-government rhetoric and decided they have it all wrong. Condos high above the Gulf are where this type of dissent should be going on. A little sun-block and some Vienna Sausages will go a long way. And even now I’m there in my mind. Safely barricaded away with my little brood on the fourteenth floor, my problems and a crazy, scary world looking awfully small far down below.

 

 

Vacation Truth

 

 

When I go on vacation I always tell myself this will be the time when I get my life together, even if only for a short while. Somehow, I will escape the crazy and chaotic life I lead and enjoy one week of a calm and serene existence. I will exercise on the beach before dawn. There will be sessions of yoga, where I will learn that Downward Dog is nothing to be ashamed of if I accidentally type it into my Internet browser. There will be bran cereal, yuck, but being regular helps with the calm and serene. (And then I remind myself to go easy on the bran since I never eat the stuff and there is nothing calm and serene about being TOO regular.) So, that is what I imagine the yearly family trek to the beach is going to be like.

But, in reality, my vacation always becomes a jail break from responsibility. There is hair of the dog instead of Downward Dog. There are little nephews screaming a dirty phrase in unison again and again, not because they know what it means but because they heard someone scream it… maybe me… six hours before the hair of the dog thing. There is not a shred of bran but plenty of Pop Tarts and Frosted Flakes. And, instead of a new me returning home, it is an older, exhausted me after my vacation becomes a parenting Studio 51 with sand.

I tell myself what I want in life is discipline, but that is only another word for control. I want to eat right, take long walks with my wife, sleep through the night, and generally end each day with hope for what the next day holds and how brilliantly I will manage it. But I’ll probably never get it or do it. Time is going to keep plowing forward. My kids are walking, talking adults when just yesterday they were the Dennis the Menace twosome that are now my nephews.

I also imagine the vacation experience will be moderately high brow, otherwise I would have vacationed in Daytona. Mostly it isn’t. There is late night heckling over vicious games of dominoes, steamy beach reads in well-thumbed paperbacks that are banned in libraries across half the country, and statements yelled down from the balcony at other family members that the Kardashians would consider crass. I heard a couple of gems this past week, like this one from the back seat of the minivan as we traveled there: “Hey Dad, sorry but I gotta drop a deuce. What can I say? You sleep, you eat, you poop. It’s the circle of life, dude.” Or the one that sounded like a Darth Vader imitation as I passed a darkened bathroom with the door closed. Someone was clearly enjoying the echo in the small space: “Yup, I’m peeing in the dark. And from the sound of things I’m doing a pretty good job.”

Now, perhaps you are noticing there is a lot of potty content. I wiped the butts of these little creatures which meant I was involved in every “movement” they had and yet what is currently happening with our digestive systems seems to be even more conversationally relevant now than when I was chasing them down the hall with a slightly uncomfortable but thankfully clean Pampers knock-off. And I know this will not get better as I age. Hell, I might be closer to those diapers than they’re away from them.

I don’t know. Maybe it is time for me to be a little more honest with myself, and with my writing. Truth be told, I am a lazy writer. I start great, I finish not so well. Clearly, lack of sleep or alcohol are not steroids for the sport of writing, despite what some scribes would have you believe. I can barely focus my thoughts long enough to write a check, let alone a novel. I am not taking care of myself. And sometimes I look the other direction when it comes to proper parenting. In some ways, with both my writing and my life, I feel like I’m nearing the point where Picasso cut off his ear. (Except right now I write and live by the numbers, and I have pretty big ears, too.)

And despite all this complaining, I would not give up a single thing I have now to achieve whatever the hell I think I am seeking when I set off on a break from my day to day life. I am desperately in love with my wife. I am so proud of my kids it is probably a little nauseating for those who have to hear it. I still enjoy the company of my extended family. I get satisfaction out of my job. And, at the end of the day, I feel pretty good about the person I am trying to be.

So maybe vacation is supposed to be exactly what it always is for me. A jailbreak from the responsibility of being a husband, a father, and a decent person. (I am not talking about full blown debauchery here, but it ain’t things I’m doing on a typical Tuesday either.)

And now the family unit is setting off for another vacation with the other side of the extended family for the 4th of July. Maybe as we pack the car I will make the same lies to myself about peace of mind and exercise and discipline. Except I’m not sure this crew we’re visiting practices a ton of yoga, and I can’t wait to hear what they say if I ask about bran cereal.

The Graduate

 

(I wrote this last week prior to my son’s graduation.)

 

 

I was sitting on the front steps of my parent’s house. My best friend was there as a witness. My first son was teetering on his feet before us, then he wiped out onto the driveway. Grabbing my best friend’s arm before he could instinctively aid the fallen child, I whispered, “Don’t move.” My son looked around, debated whether it was worth the effort to cry, decided it wasn’t, then went back to the business of getting to his feet. Once again he teetered like the planet was spinning a little too fast. He steadied himself, then took one step, and another, and another. Then my son made a joyous noise as he waddled away from us with alarming speed. We huddled there like we were watching a rare animal on the Serengeti.

“He started doing it last night,” I whispered.

My best friend hadn’t had his first child yet. “Amazing,” he breathed.

My son was ten months old. He had just learned to walk.

 

—————–

 

grad pic

 

 

Fast forward seventeen years. In just a few days my son will take one of life’s other important walks. I doubt his steps will be as hesitant when he accepts his high school diploma and begins a new chapter in his life. And I begin a new one in mine.

(He might fall down though, since he will be wearing actual shoes, something his perpetually bare feet might not understand. He got away with the sandals at his awards ceremony, but he was told the Jesus shoes were a no-go for graduation. We’re praying he doesn’t try to stage some kind of protest.)

I know I am supposed to give him advice at this stage in life. That’s what we do as our children step out into the world, right? And, yet, I am struggling to do so. There are a few things I guess I would offer:

  1. Home is a state of mind that has nothing to do with bricks and mortar.
  2. Being imperfect is a good thing. Imperfections are what make you interesting.
  3. I hope your college introduces you to someone named Al or Lou, a Dan-the-man, a Vinnie, a Ray-baby or a (insert any of 25 names here). Your college friends will entertain you, challenge you, and might even get you arrested. Together you will make memories that will be a big part of the rest of your days, if only in small batches.
  4. And maybe, just maybe, you might meet the love of your life, even if you don’t know it at first.

But as I write those words I know that advice is more about my life and less about his own. It is time for him to chart his path now. The stakes are much higher than in my time. Things are different. Schools are expensive. Money is tight. And but for his own accomplishments the path he takes right now would not be possible.

So why am I not more nervous for him? Maybe that will come later but I don’t think so. This young man truly seems to be made up of the best parts of the people who created him, and a few more good quantities we can’t claim. He is smart, competitive and bullheadedly stubborn. He is also open-minded, accepting of others, and has a gentle heart. Oh sure, there have been a few moments of eyebrow raising stupidity. (Like maybe he needed to prove that he is my son.) But as he enters college I mainly hope that life’s great unknown storms on the horizon don’t burden his mind too much and that he will enjoy the relatively calm waters of any given day. His days in college, like life itself, will pass in a blur.

I had the opportunity to witness a kindergarten graduation the same week my son will graduate from high school. (If only everyone had to attend a kindergarten graduation once a year and wash off the ugliness of being an adult there would be far less hunger, death and anger in this world.) Seeing both ceremonies in the same week made me think about who my son was as a little boy, and the man he is now. And it reminded me that life never stays the same. It always changes. In my rational mind I know it is time for my son to leave. He is a grown man. He is ready. In my emotional heart I know I will miss the boy beyond words.

I have been watching him find his way for eighteen years now.

So life’s safari continues. And I will continue observing his accomplishments from the bushes while searching for a word that means profoundly happy, impossibly proud and terribly sad all at the same time.

Maybe that word is parenting.

We’ve got serious personality

bowl chairs cooking cuisine
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Last night my family started taking a personality test around the dinner table. The wife had found some website that would ask you about ten questions and then tell you exactly the type of person you were, if you would amount to anything in life, and whether you would spend any time in jail. She went first and then told us she was “I” “N” “F” “C”, or something like that. The rest of us all looked at each other. What the heck did that mean?

“Each letter stands for something about you,” my wife said, but did not elaborate.
I quickly came up with “Introvert”, “Nice”, “Funny” and “Crazy”. I could see the kids coming up with their words, too, but nobody wanted to say what they were thinking in case they were wrong.

Introvert was a no-brainer when it came to my wife, and that surprises some people because she can get sweeter than your grandmother’s tea in about five seconds. She teaches kindergarten and she’s good at it. She’s bubbly. And she dresses like she wants to audition for Welcome Back Kotter. (Of course those surprised people don’t see her crawl into the house at the end of the day.)

Maybe “N” was nurturing. Anyone could see that. As a little girl she had a toad farm and a gay college friend once called her a “Natural Born Breeder.”

Except it turned out “N” was for Intuitive.

Wilkins held up his hand. “Why wouldn’t that be an ‘I’?”

The rest of the kids nodded.

“Because ‘I’ already stands for introvert,” my wife said.

Wilkins rolled his eyes. “That’s just stupid.”

“F” stood for feeling.

“Like what?” Jacks asked.

“What?” my wife said.

“Feeling what?” Jacks said. “You don’t just feel. You gotta feel LIKE something!”

My wife took a deep breath.

“P” was her last letter and it stood for perceiving.

Wayne had been looking up her results on his phone. “This says that INFP’s are flexible and laid back.” Heads nodded. “They have deep caring and are genuinely interested in people. Their sincerity is sensed by others, making them a valued friend and confidant.”

“Nailed her,” Beth muttered.

I nodded at my daughter. People always dump their stuff on my wife. I’ve thought about carrying around a blow up couch and trying to turn a buck off of it.

Wayne went on. “Oh yeah, Dad, this says INFP’s can sometimes appear irrational and illogical in conflict situations, not really caring who is right and who is wrong.”

The rest of us exchanged looks.

“And when their value system is threatened, they become aggressive defenders.”

No one moved.

“Well, let’s see what you are,” my wife suddenly said. She began asking me a series of questions, each of which had four answers. A typical question would be “Are you this way because you learned it, or because that is just the way you are?” And I would have to say I agreed with that statement all of the time, some of the time, rarely, or never.
“I have a feeling if I take this Briggs and Stratton Test I’m gonna be “D” “U” “M” “B”, Wilkins said.

My daughter hung over my wife’s shoulder as she kept reading questions and feeding in my responses. About halfway through the test my daughter said, “That’s not what he said.”

My wife shushed her and read the next question.

I held up my hands. “You mean you are changing my answers?”

“Only when you respond incorrectly,” my wife said.

With my wife’s help I came out as an INTP. I never found out what that meant, except apparently the INTP’s get to clean the kitchen.

Scars

When I was seven I had surgery on my right arm for a bone marrow infection. The scar looked like the doctors were not as worried about the cut as they were with saving my arm. When I wondered what other people would think of that ugly gash, my dad draped his arm over me, smiled and said, “Tell ‘em you were playing pool down at the bar and got in knife fight.”
I also have a small circular scar on my chest. It looks like someone jabbed me with a lit cigar. I don’t recall ever being tortured. One doctor who looked at it said it might have come from some rare kind of spider.

I have scars on a hand that got jammed under a skateboard at a high rate of speed. I remember that one. It hurt. I was about 12 years old. After the wreck I ran to my house, yelling for my mother, convinced this one was pretty bad. She washed off the blood with a garden hose, took one look at my hand, and told me to “stop being a baby.”

Continue reading “Scars”

Middle Age Malaise

A few days ago I got in the shower and accidentally water-boarded myself. I mean it. I was so tired I stood in front of the shower head with my mouth open while water poured in. As a reasonable husband, given that torture was involved, I assumed the spouse was behind it. So I started confessing like crazy. After all, petty crimes had been committed.

“Fine! Sapporo is NOT the Kia of Asian beers,” I yelled. “It is REALLY expensive, but I like it A LOT.”

The water did not stop.

“Yes I lied! The lawnmower was working fine, but the Saints were on TV.”

Still the torture went on. I began confessing to crimes I had not committed, gurgling pitiful lies through self-inflicted mouthfuls of water.

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Nostalgia is a Bitch, Y’all

photo of head bust print artwork
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I was standing in my living room with my mother. Two eight year olds were battling with Lightsabers around our knees. Since I wasn’t wearing a protective cup at the time, I was shielding my crotch with both hands, not the most intelligent look for having a proper conversation.

“Believe it or not,” my mother yelled over the bedlam. “One day you’re going to miss all of this.”

Yeah right.

I mean, I know that’s what is supposed to happen. In a perfect world, I’d live to be this arthritic, stooped old guy and I’d think back affectionately to those times of screaming Lightsaber duels, but, at this rate, I wonder if I’ll have this half fried brain and look back on my life and say, “What the hell just happened?”

Miss it? Really? These days I can’t even pull off something as simple as a trip the bathroom. One of three things will happen if I sit on the toilet at my house, and not one of them is something that should happen in a restroom.

Continue reading “Nostalgia is a Bitch, Y’all”

Swimming with the fish(s)

“Dad, look what we won! Look what we won!”

My twins were racing through the school, ducking around other parents and students. It was carnival night and I felt like correcting them; we were not winning anything, we were investing vast sums of money on handmade games of chance, in exchange for trinkets that would be in the garbage before the sun rose.

I said nothing, squinting to see what they held in each hand. Was it water balloons?

No.

They each had two small plastic bags. Inside each bag appeared to be one very seasick goldfish.

Continue reading “Swimming with the fish(s)”