Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Longest Night

“There's always another storm. It's the way the world works. Snowstorms, rainstorms, windstorms, sandstorms, and firestorms. Some are fierce and others are small. You have to deal with each one separately, but you need to keep an eye on whats brewing for tomorrow.”
Maria V. Snyder, Fire Study


                It’s hurricane season again.  After 37 years of living here along the Alabama Gulf Coast, hearing those words evokes in me a mixture of emotions-annoyance, resignation, a hint of excitement, caution, and even nostalgia .Even now, with Isaac on its way, I am not particularly fearful, for I survived, and vividly remember, Baldwin County’s most powerful hurricane. I say most powerful, because, although Ivan did extensive damage and Katrina scared us all, in my mind nothing compares to Frederic.

                Perhaps my memories are exaggerated or distorted as I was only thirteen when Frederic ravaged the Gulf Coast, but my mother remembers things the same way, and she has lived through many more hurricanes than I. She has told stories of slogging through huge puddles of standing water during the eye of Hurricane Dorothy, frantically searching for the family dog , who was finally located under a neighbor’s porch. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, where hurricanes are also commonplace.  Once when I was very young, we experienced the remnants of a hurricane while on a camping trip. My own recollection of most of these storms is of a lot of rain, wind that blew stuff around a bit, a couple of days’ reprieve from school , and the inconvenience of being without power for three or four days.  Frederic, however, was different.

                I remember that my eighth-grade history teacher, upon hearing that a major storm had formed in the Gulf and could be headed our way, showed us a film about Hurricane Camille that frightened and disturbed me.  The loss of life in that storm was awful, and the film was mainly a cautionary tale about taking hurricanes seriously. Two days later, I woke up to the news that school was cancelled, and we were in the projected path of Hurricane Frederic. My father had already gone to his office to make sure everything was secured. My mother set my sisters to washing clothes and dishes and my brother to picking up every loose object out of the yard.  She took me and my fifteen-month-old niece, Tiffani, with her to the grocery store. I was given a list and sent to hunt batteries, paper plates, kerosene, candles, and matches while Mom and Tiffi filled the cart to the brim with canned goods.  It was very early in the morning but lines were already forming and items were going fast. I remember thinking that I had never seen the Spanish Fort Delchamps doing that much business.

                When we arrived back at home, I went out with the neighborhood gang of kids to search for my friend Lori’s missing kitten, Ali.  Ali, a little gray ball of fluff, had slipped out the door before daylight when Lori’s dad had gone out to secure their boat and move the cars to a safe location. It would be several hours before we would begin to feel the effects of the storm, but the clouds were gray and lowering, the air humid and sticky. There was also an odd sort of silence and I realized that I heard no birds or frogs.  That gave me a strange feeling, but I didn’t share it with my friends, who were all just happy to get out of school.  We finally located Ali in someone’s garage, and by that time our moms were beginning to call for us to come home.  A few people were leaving town but most had chosen to ride out the storm in their houses.  Dads and older boys were boarding up windows. I helped my brother put tape on the sliding glass doors and then began looking for my own pets.

                At that time my family owned two dogs. In fact, we had owned two dogs ever since I could remember. The current pair consisted of a collie named Shadrach and a mixed-breed called Misty, who was one of my dearest companions throughout my childhood. In 1979 she was already ten years old, blind in one eye, and terrified of bad weather. She was already on the porch and Shadrach was in his pen, standing by the gate. He had a doghouse but there was no thought of leaving him outside in a hurricane; I had beds made from old blankets in the garage for both dogs. In addition to the dogs and my hamsters, Nicky and Charlie, we had four cats. I looked all over the yard and in the woods behind the house but the cats were nowhere to be found. I found this odd because there were usually at least two somewhere in the vicinity, stretched out on the railing of the sundeck or lounging on the windowsill or curled up on the old sofa in the garage. There was Triple, a yellow tabby with six toes on each foot; Clyde, an orange and white marmalade who had lost an eye in a fight; Spits, a gray and white striped tom, and Sydney, a calico with attitude. “Dad, I can’t find any of the cats,” I said worriedly.

                “It’s okay, Red, they’ll turn up when it’s time, “he assured me.  Sure enough, an hour later, I looked out the window and saw all four of them lined up on the deck.  I got them into the garage along with the dogs, made sure there was enough food and water for everybody, and then helped my mother fry about fifty pieces of chicken. My mother always cooked a good meal right before a hurricane.  We all took baths in rapid succession, then cleaned the bathtubs and filled them up. We also filled every jar and pitcher in the house with water. Having made all of these preparations , there was nothing left to do but watch the weather coverage on the news and follow the path of the storm on the tracking map. It was indeed bearing down on us, a strong Category 3, although to this day there is debate about whether Frederic was actually a 4.

                The feeder bands started way before dark, but by nightfall we were beginning to feel the wind.  We were all gathered in the family room except Tiffani, who slept soundly through the entire storm, much too young to understand what was happening.  Daddy sat in his recliner as usual. I tried to read but was distracted by the wind. It is a sound I will never forget. As the storm’s fury increased, Daddy took a flashlight and went to the window. He flicked the flashlight on and off twice. The neighbors in the houses across the street did the same, a signal that all was well. This continued throughout the night, even as we heard the wind screech and the sound of tree limbs breaking off and trees crashing to the ground.  We held hands and prayed that none would hit our house. Then Mom sent all of us to bed. I lay with my head under the covers, one hand reached out to touch my hamster cage. In the light of my candle I saw that the two little creatures had burrowed down under their shavings.  I had checked on the dogs and cats before I went to bed and they were a little scared, but calm, except for Sydney, whose fur was standing on end as she paced.

                I finally slept, but not soundly until the wee hours of the morning when exhaustion overtook me and I fell into a heavy slumber.  Daddy was keeping watch. I knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to us.  Mom had reminded us of the words from the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God.”   Mom was keeping watch, too, I knew, even though Daddy kept telling her to go to bed.  It is a testimony to the love and security in that house that all of us were able to sleep during the worst hurricane we could remember.

                In the morning I was awakened by the sound of chainsaws and the scratch, scratch of rakes. I looked out the window and my jaw dropped. The yard was a disaster, a mess of trees and leaves and pine straw and other debris. My mother was raking at the pinestraw while my father surveyed the damage. I scrambled out of bed and dressed quickly in shorts and a t-shirt. The power would be out for three weeks and the heat would become nearly unbearable at times. I let the animals out of the garage and they dashed to freedom, then stopped, confused. Everything was all over everything; that was the only way I could think of to describe what I saw. Shadrach’s pen was squashed as was Daddy’s company car, and I could see a couple of places where trees had narrowly missed the house. We lost 21 trees in that storm, mostly dogwoods, but we soon discovered we had fared better than many others. One tiny corner of our roof was damaged and that was all.

                In the days that followed, we began to appreciate the small things-ice, for example. I will never forget when the relief trucks came delivering ice down at the shopping center. There were National Guardsmen standing watch with weapons in order to make sure no one took more than two bags. In my imagination, I thought it was similar to what things would be like in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. There were people lined up to get the ice, and many of them looked haggard, exhausted, and hungry. However, I do not recall anyone trying to take more than his fair share. What I do recall is a community coming together to help and support one another. Bobby Wilson, whose gas station had been badly damaged, got things up and running as soon as possible and gave free food and drinks to anyone in need. My father grilled all of the meat that was in our freezer and fed the entire neighborhood. We feasted for about two days and after that it was Dinty Moore beef stew and sandwiches with no mayonnaise. I don’t think any of us complained.

                Frederic was the most costly Gulf Coast hurricane until Katrina came along in 2005. The devastation was heart-wrenching, but at least there was minimal loss of life. Still, when we were able to get down to Gulf Shores, a place that a friend of mine has aptly referred to as “the extended backyard of my childhood”, we were shocked at what we saw. The sand dunes were no more. Debris was everywhere, and building after building was reduced to a concrete slab. I remember being savvy enough, even at thirteen, to wonder what this would do to Baldwin County’s economy. I remember listening to harrowing stories on the news of people who had ridden out the storm in Gulf Shores and on Dauphin Island and how they managed to survive. Mostly, I remember our neighborhood coming to life again , the sound of chainsaws (there was no shortage of firewood that winter), and yes, even laughter.

                I learned a lot of things from Frederic. I learned about God’s incredible power and His amazing grace. I learned that in a crisis, most people behave honorably. I learned that when you are without air conditioning, a cold shower actually feels good. Because I was a kid, there was a sense of romantic adventure about the whole ordeal, and I will admit to enjoying the unexpected three-week holiday. I read a lot of books, played boardgames with my family, and roamed the neighborhood with my friends, looking for someone to rescue (and we actually did find a frightened cat in a drainpipe, and returned it to its owner with a sense of satisfaction). I learned that really, one can get along with a lot less than he assumes.

                With the passing years the sense of fear I had during the storm has faded and instead I think of my father sitting calmly in his recliner while the storm raged. I recall with a sense of wonder the fact that when Frederic came up the mouth of Mobile Bay, he sucked the entire bay into the sky and spit it back down again. I remember my niece walking into the living room the morning after the storm, looking out the back door at the chaos, and saying, “Uh-oh,” with wide eyes. I think of how my mother contrived to keep us fed and in clean clothes, and how generous the neighbors were when they got back their power before we did, inviting us over for hot showers and a home-cooked meal. I remember my dad maneuvering his squashed car carefully down the street and how amused our neighbors were. I recall going back to school and the sense of camaraderie we all felt as we shared our storm stories. Our school gym was gutted , so for the rest of the school year we had Health on rainy days instead of P.E. This was fine with me because I hated volleyball anyway, but our health texts were so ancient that the pages were yellowed.

                Eventually, the Gulf Coast was restored to its glory. Baldwin’s Longest Night ended and hope returned. Today the dunes stand sparkling in the sunlight, covered with sea oats. The tourist business is booming even in the wake of the oil spill two years ago. Neither Ivan nor Katrina caused the amount of devastation to our beaches that Frederic did, and there are people who have forgotten what a powerful storm it was. But I have not forgotten, and the funny thing is that my memories of that time are so incredibly sweet. Our family drew closer together, our community stayed strong, and Bobby Wilson gave away free Cokes. On the Sunday following Frederic, we went to church and our pastor Pierre Burns (the second greatest man in my world) preached a sermon about how God is most present in times of danger and trouble. I knew it was true. Incredibly, only five people perished in the disaster, even though many chose to weather the storm in extremely dangerous areas. That had to be the hand of God at work.

                As I sit here, the rain is bucketing down and the tarp we put on the roof is holding. I hope that my children’s memories of hurricane days, like mine, are mostly about togetherness and love and laughter, not terror. We may lose power shortly but we have plenty of candles, and playing Clue by candlelight is a lot of fun. I pray for the safety of our horse and the safety of those who have to be out on the roads. All is in God’s hands. Maybe that’s the greatest lesson I learned from September 12th, 1979.

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back to School

“Riding along on a big yellow school bus
Elmer's glue and a brand new lunch box
Writing my name for the very first time
With a pencil that was bigger than me
From jumping rope and skipping school
To doing things that grown-ups do
Life goes by like that big old bus
If you miss it, it's history…” –Carolyn Arends

            I remember my first day of kindergarten quite well. Being the youngest of five children, I had for years watched sadly as my siblings headed off to school in the mornings, leaving me lonely and bereft. In the afternoons I would wait eagerly for them to come home, forgetting the fact that they often tormented me for pure amusement. I would listen as they shared stories of the classroom and playground, and I was outraged when I discovered in the fall of 1970 that, although I would be five in the spring, I had to be five much earlier than that in order to be allowed to go to kindergarten.Some of my classmates from Sunday school had made that magic cutoff date and came to church bragging about it. So I made my own “school” with my stuffed toys and the workbooks that I always begged my mother to buy for me. I tried in vain to teach my dogs and cats the alphabet. I perused my siblings’ textbooks and sometimes coerced them into playing school with me. I wanted to enter that wonderful, mysterious world and learn everything there was to learn.

            As with many things, the reality was a letdown.

            First of all, there were the school supplies. At home, I used regular Elmer’s glue for craft projects. In kindergarten, we had to use paste, which doesn’t work very well and dries out quickly if you don’t put the lid back on just right .Furthermore, some of my peers liked to eat it, which was disgusting to watch. At home, I used regular pointed scissors. I wasn’t stupid and my parents weren’t worried that I would stab myself or cut my fingers. At school, however, we had to use blunt scissors that didn’t cut anything properly, if they worked at all. Then there was the pencil that was “bigger than me”. I had been writing my name for two years-with ordinary, skinny #2 pencils. Using that giant pencil was like learning to write all over again, and the letters looked ugly and awkward on that flimsy, blue-lined primary paper.  But the crayons were the absolute worst. I don’t think they make them anymore-at least I hope not. They were called “anti-roll” because they were FLAT on one side, which kept them from rolling off the table.Having taught preschool, kindergarten, and the primary grades, I guess I can see why this would be considered a good thing, although frankly I don’t see why crayons falling on the floor is that big a deal.You just pick them up. The big flat crayons were totally ineffective and, to add insult to injury, there were only eight of them. What good is that? I wanted my pack of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener!  But no-we had to have our anti-rolls, blunt scissors, two ginormous pencils, and clumpy paste packed neatly into a red school box labeled with our names neatly lettered on the top. And thus I went forth on my first day, box and writing tablet under my arm, Snoopy lunchbox clutched in my sweaty hand. The lunchbox was so I would not feel left out-kindergarten was only a half-day-so I loaded the lunchbox with books, thinking I would actually be allowed to read in school.

            Then came the second disappointment-in kindergarten, no one was supposed to be reading yet. I had overheard my mother talking to the teacher on Registration Day about the fact that I could read already, and the teacher had frowned as though this was a terrible thing. I did not realize that I would actually not be permitted to read at school-at least for the first two weeks. One day I was taken out into the hall and given some kind of test where I had to read words off of flashcards, and another test where I had to point to the picture that went with the word the teacher said, and then there was some kind of discussion with my parents about advancing me to second grade, which my parents firmly refused to do. After that, my teacher’s perpetual scowl deepened whenever she looked at me, but I was allowed to read my books while the rest of the class had Alphabet Time. On the first class trip to the school library, I headed for the junior section to get a chapter book, but was steered over to the picture book section by the sweet-voiced librarian who explained to me in a gentle tone that “the junior books are for the big girls and boys.” I was not accustomed to being talked to as if I were a moron, and I was also horribly shy, so I didn’t try to explain but grabbed Make Way for Ducklings, a book that I had enjoyed hearing read by Captain Kangaroo. By that point, utter bewilderment had set in. I had thought school was a place for education, but all I was learning was that either all of my classmates were a little slow, or I was just plain weird.

            The third blow came when we were given our very first dittoed picture to color. It was a cat playing with a ball, and I became excited, planning to make the cat yellow with orange stripes and the ball red, purple, and blue. I could actually visualize in my mind how beautiful it would look, and I would bring it home to my mother and she would put it on the refrigerator with my brother’s Good Work handwriting paper and my sister’s “A” math test. Alas, before I could even pick up one of my flat yellow crayons and begin, the teacher was saying something in her screechy voice.”Everyone hold up your BROWN crayon. Now say BROWN.” We all did. “Now, hold up your GREEN crayon. Say GREEN.” We all did. After reviewing BROWN and GREEN ten times, we were allowed to color the cat BROWN and the ball GREEN. I was saddened. Whoever heard of a brown cat? I had several cats at home. One was gray (Lightning), one was black with white feet (Boots) one was orangey-yellow (Barney), and one was calico (Rover). None of them were even close to brown, and to this day I don’t think I have seen an actual brown cat. Maybe I missed something. I was sad but resigned; however, a little rebel named Bill colored HIS cat purple-and outside the lines. Miss Screech snatched his paper away from him and held it up for the class to see. “This is exactly what we DON’T do in kindergarten,” she snarled. “This is the way BABIES color, so I guess Bill is a BABY.” Bill slipped down in his seat, his face red.I felt sorry for him and resolved to be very nice to him, even though he was one of the paste-eaters.

            I wish I could say that my year got better, but it didn’t. Every day we had warm milk and either slightly stale animal crackers or slightly more stale graham crackers for snack. Every day Bill couldn’t learn his colors or his letters or his numbers or how to color in the lines and was sent to the corner. “Bill, you will be a REPEATER”, Miss Screech told him. Indeed, the next year Bill did not get to go to first grade with the rest of us, but was stuck in the land of Painting With Chocolate Pudding for a second round. Miss Screech was the only kindergarten teacher so he had to suffer through her humiliation again. She probably yelled at him for eating the pudding again, which even at five I thought was absurd. You do not give small children food with which to make art and expect them not to EAT any. I was to recollect that many years later when my preschool class made igloos out of sugar cubes (which, by the way, is a terrible and demented idea) and necklaces out of Froot Loops ( a better idea, but a huge supply of cereal is essential).  My kindergarten experience was a daily routine of kiddie songs, counting things and circling numbers, trying to lie perfectly still at rest time to avoid the wrath of the Screech, and getting knocked down at recess.

            My kindergarten teacher could have written the book on how NOT to teach. I thought she was a little bit mean at the time. In retrospect, as a teacher myself, I see that I was wrong. She was VERY mean. I am by no means a perfect teacher,and I make mistakes every day, but publicly humiliating a five-year-old for not being able to learn? Really, Miss Screech? It is no wonder that I almost never spoke during my first year of school. I was introverted anyway, and I was completely cowed by Miss Screech. I didn’t tell my parents anything about it until years later, and they were horrified. But, like every experience I have had in my life, I did learn from it, and I would never, ever treat children the way Miss Screech did. To be fair, I had far more good teachers than bad ones during my school days. I will write of them in future blog entries, since I suspect that my theme the next few weeks will be “school”. After all, I am a teacher. That’s what I am. Oddly enough, if you had told me at almost any point during my elementary, middle, or high school days that when I grew up I would WILLINGLY choose to go every day to a classroom, I would have laughed and laughed. I couldn’t wait to get out and go find myself-and then I found myself right back at school, exactly where God wanted me. On Monday I will begin a new school year, teaching English and Bible and creative writing to ninety unique and beautiful students. I will have days that are wonderful and days when I get frustrated and days when I wonder if I am doing any good at all. But no two days will be exactly alike and that is part of the joy of what I do. Now…get busy and do your homework!

“Mom, is the world coming to an end?" Jonny asked, picking up the plate of cookies and ramming one into his mouth.
"No, it isn't," Mom said, folding her lawn chair and carrying it to the front of the house. "And yes, you do have to go to school tomorrow.”
Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life As We Knew It

Monday, August 6, 2012

For He Could Feel The Mountains Grow

“…and should some why completely weep
my father's fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.”

                Next week is That Anniversary-the anniversary of what I still call Black Saturday. It is hard to believe that almost twenty-five years have passed since that awful day. When it happened, I could not see past the next moment. And yet, in a blink, the years have passed, and I have gone on living. Not merely existing, either, which was what I feared most. I feared that life’s magic and music were forever gone. I feared that nothing good would ever happen again, or that if it did, I wouldn’t care. But here I am, with a husband and kids, a career I love, and a passion for life that has increased rather than disappeared.I know why, too. It is because my father himself taught me by example how to live well and to die with dignity. He taught me that the life of one ordinary person can matter a whole lot. He taught me that you do the very best you can with what you are given and that it is possible to be content in all circumstances.

                He was by no means perfect. He had his flaws like any human being. He got mad sometimes and on one infamous occasion threw a coffee cup at one of my sisters. As a parent of teenagers, I can forgive him that and sympathize. Quite honestly, I am amazed that, with three teenage girls in the house at the same time, my parents didn’t kill or even harm anybody. I have two teenage daughters and a nineteen-year-old son. There are days when I worry that they won’t live much longer. I hope my father forgives me for the horror that I put him and my mom through. I have heard theology that states that everyone in Heaven is an adult, which would mean there are no teenagers. But if there are, it would be so like God to put Daddy in charge of the youth group up there.

                Or maybe He made Dad the teacher of the first and second grade Sunday school class. He and Mom and I taught that age group for several years, and there were kids in the class who thought Daddy was the smartest man in the world. I always believed that myself. If he didn’t know the answer to a question, he would do his best to find it out, even in the days before Google. I sometimes ponder what he would have thought of Google-indeed, of much of our modern technology. He died in 1987, way before social media and such. I think he would have been fascinated and entertained, but would still have preferred face-to-face conversations. He never even really liked talking on the phone. He kept telephone conversations short and to the point, but would talk to people for hours in person.

                He talked to my friends a lot. They would sometimes show up in the middle of the night, knocking on our door. Kids from troubled homes always seemed to seek out our house as a place of refuge. I never really appreciated, at the time, how blessed I was to have two parents who loved each other and stayed married to each other. Even in the 80s, this was becoming less and less the norm. My friends liked to hang out at my house and I was conceited enough to think it was because they enjoyed my company, but it was really because of my parents. They were not of the “cool” sort who would buy the keg of beer for the party, but rather they were the kind who would look straight into your soul and see that you needed a good dose of the truth. Then they would give it to you, no sugar added. But they weren’t mean about it; there was always compassion and love that motivated them. After my dad’s passing, one of my friends said, “Your dad was the best. He didn’t lie.”

                He didn’t lie, but he sure could bluff in a game of cards or checkers or Scrabble. Just when you thought you were winning-BAM! Out came the Q on a triple word score and you were dead. That’s how I learned to lose gracefully. He didn’t believe in letting us win once we reached a certain age-like five or so. He might not play cutthroat and skunk us as badly as he could have, but if he had let us win we would never have learned how to play half so well as we did. If you could beat Dad at a board game, you had accomplished something. To pout and sulk over losing was very bad form. The question was, had you done your best? If so, then there was never any reason to be ashamed.

                This philosophy carried over to everything in life, like schoolwork and sports and music competitions. Be as good as you can be, and if you aren’t satisfied, keep going. You can always improve. I once got a rating of Excellent in a piano competition. I hated practicing piano but since I had to do it and had to be in the competitions, I wanted to make the best possible score. I didn’t like the Excellent; I had wanted the Superior. One particular piece-I remember the title to this day, “The Old Merry-Go Round”- was at a higher difficulty level than the others and it kept me from getting a Superior. I told my dad I wanted to drop that piece for the next competition and substitute something easier. “Okay,” he said. “Let an inanimate object like a piano defeat you. Fine with me.”  I bristled at this and stalked into the living room and started pounding the heck out of that piece. I played it so often I was constantly hearing it in my head and could practically play it in my sleep. I loathed it with a perfect loathing. I also got a Superior at the next competition. Then I learned “The Marines’ Hymn” and would race to the piano to play it when I heard Dad coming in the door from work every day. He loved that, being proud of his stint in the Marines.

                Dad didn’t talk much about his childhood and from what little I knew, it wasn’t that wonderful. He grew up in the Bronx, his dad died when he was very young and his mother wasn’t very responsible so he was raised mostly by his grandmother. Yet he got into Brooklyn Technical High School and graduated with honors. He stole a poetry book from the school library. It was An Anthology of English and American Verse. As a Christmas gift several years ago, my husband had it rebound for me because the covers were coming off. It is one of my greatest and most treasured material possessions. My dad loved poetry and so do I. He also loved God, his family, animals (except cats, he claimed),good food, flowers, and hard work. He enjoyed gardening and cooking, reading, watching baseball and football, and spending time with us as much as possible. He would take time off work to come to our plays and recitals and ball games. Having not had a father for most of his life, he assumed that fathers did pretty much what mothers did, and thus he was very involved in our lives from infancy on. When he was home, he was home. He wasn’t one to go play a few rounds of golf or go out drinking with the guys from the office. That just wasn’t his style. When he died, we notified his work, the extended family, and our church. That was it. He had no separate life-yet the memorial service was standing room only. That’s because one man’s life touched so many others.

                He could have chosen many different roads. He loved the water, the sea. Maybe he could have been the captain of a ship. He could have stayed in the Marines and seen much of the world. Or he could have chosen, at a young age, to do the wrong thing and end up in prison or dead before he was twenty. After all, he was a boy from the Bronx, poor and surrounded by undesirable people. So at the age of nine he started selling vegetables on the street corner and daily got beaten up, only to return the next day. He was called names and made fun of because he didn’t have a father. He could have turned the hurt into bitterness and hatred, but instead he joined the Boy Scouts and was led to Christ at the age of fourteen by his Scout leader, who now has a star in his crown. He chose the more excellent way. Thus God led him to meet and marry my mother, who is rather an amazing person herself. Whatever dreams he may have had paled by comparison. His wife and kids became the only dream he needed. We were the reason why he worked long hours and put up with all of the junk that goes along with the corporate world.  Yet in spite of his work schedule, he once sat up all night with a sick hamster. He helped us with our homework no matter how much he had to do. He cooked us magnificent dinners on weekends, helped deliver litters of kittens and puppies, tended his beloved roses, and watched with pride as we sang in the church choir or marched in the school band. He could be a thunderstorm, but also a playful breeze. He was Dad.

                I have two adopted siblings. Sometimes rude and insensitive people would ask, “Which ones are adopted?”  Dad would call us over, line us up, look us over for a minute, then dismiss us with, “Nope; can’t remember!”  That might be his greatest legacy to me. I grew up understanding that family is defined by ties of love and not blood, and, though I did not know then that I would not be able to have children. I did know that whatever happened, I would adopt. I had the idea that adoption is just part of how you build your family. I don’t think it would hurt if everybody felt that way. In fact, if everybody did, there would be no children left in foster care. What a wonder that would be! And when people say to me, “I wish I had known your dad,” I can only say, “Yeah. I wish everybody had known him.” 

                On Saturday I will watch the meteor showers and remember that on the night of August 15th, 1987, a very great man departed this earth. Heaven sent down a perfect shooting star that we saw from our window that night. It was a goodbye, and an assurance that everything would be all right. Everything has been all right. There have been trials and hard times, and we have suffered and struggled. But there has also been laughter and delight and love and beauty. The man who lived well died well, and, while he left no monetary inheritance, he left something so much better, something intangible that is more real than the trivial things money can buy. So thanks, Dad. The world is a much better place because you were in it. You had great success.

“his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he'd laugh and build a world with snow.”

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Perspective, Please!

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake.”
Victor Hugo

                In the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is for many reasons a particular favorite of mine, there is a quote that speaks of what we call in good old English slang guts. The young protagonist, Francie Nolan, is thinking about how it seems that in plays and movies, things never get quite as bad as they could. At the last minute, something miraculous occurs or a hero sweeps in to save the day. But what if that didn’t happen? Would the people still go on living? Francie thinks to herself, “You betcha they’d live. It takes a lot of doing to die.” This is an idea born out of Francie’s own poverty-filled, daily struggle to survive. Yet throughout the novel, we see that Francie and her family love life, however painful it may be. They can’t get enough of it. And I believe that at heart, that’s how most of us really are.

                Perspective is everything. On Monday I went on a day trip with my sister to Cawhaba, the site of Alabama’s first capitol as well as a Civil War prison. I thought about the variety of lives that were lived,and were snuffed out, on the very sites where we stood. I thought about the slaves, and their owners, and the Union prisoners, and the Confederate soldiers, and the myriad stories that took place centuries before I was born. People worked and played, romanced and married, laughed and cried, suffered and struggled. They loved and they dreamed. They had their hopes crushed time and again. Yet through it all, they lived. We tend to think of ourselves as existing separately from those who came before and those who will come after, but from God’s perspective, it is all happening right now, and He sees the ultimate end.

                When I returned home Monday evening, my husband had had a very bad day that included Internet problems, a broken air conditioner, and the demise of Jim the Fish. For the past two nights we have camped downstairs in the living room because it is stifling upstairs-but at least we had air conditioning downstairs. Furthermore, at least we have a home. Having watched a “60 Minutes” segment on Sunday evening about homeless people living in their cars and daily trying to survive while praying they don’t get their children taken away from them, I just can’t complain too much. By tonight, we will have air upstairs again.True, it is an unexpected expense, but by God’s grace we have the money to pay for it. It was no surprise to Him.

                And what if we didn’t have the money? Well, we would make do until we did. Making do is a concept with which I am quite familiar. It isn’t always easy, or always fun, but it keeps people going until something else happens. I have no desire to lie down and die. I want to see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I want to lose another fifty pounds or more and be able to hike and swim with ease. I want to watch Raina barrel race in rodeos with Legend.I want to finish writing my novel. There’s a lot more of life to be lived and a lot more people to love.

                For the past three weeks I’ve been sick-sicker, really, than I cared to admit. I went to the doctor yesterday for a follow-up on my bloodwork and indeed, my liver is a bit more inflamed than it was before.  Because of this, coupled with my symptoms, the doctor ordered an ultrasound. Does that scare me a little? Yes. I am human. I don’t want to have something wrong with me. But the doctor also said that he has never known anyone to die from this. At worst, I might have to eventually have a liver transplant, if it got really bad. I know someone who has had a liver transplant and he is doing fine. When it is my time, it will be my time. Chances are that I will live to be very old, but stuff does happen. For a Christian, there are worse things than dying anyway. I rarely contemplate my mortality, but when I do I always remember that there is Something beyond. It’s called eternity.

                It is so important to keep things in perspective, and, because God is good, He gives us whatever we need to face whatever we have to face. From broken air conditioners to unspeakable losses, He holds us in His arms, and we are safe. Not only is he good, but he is merciful. Today He gave me something new to think about, which is the creative writing class I will be teaching when school starts. I guess He wanted to make sure I didn’t waste too much time worrying about the ultrasound. I have been wanting to teach creative writing for awhile now, and He decided that this would be the perfect time. What a blessing it is to know that He is wise-too wise, as the song says, to be mistaken.

                On my own, I have no courage for life’s great sorrows or patience even for the small annoyances. On my own I worry and fret, fume and yell, weep and lament. Sometimes that’s okay, because we are human and God understands. But I won’t be like Jonah, who, when we leave him at the end of the story, is sitting on a hill overlooking Ninevah, fuming and sulking because God didn’t handle things the way Jonah thought he should. I’d much rather be a Job, who emerged from his suffering with a whole new perspective. He just humbled himself and admitted that God was God. The fact that God restored his fortunes is really just a postscript. The real triumph was Job’s understanding that there were things he could never comprehend.

                We are so prideful. I know that I have often said, “When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask God about why He did such-and –such. “ But the reality is that I won’t. I’ll be too busy praising and worshiping Him. I will know all that I need to know. In that place that transcends place, in that time beyond time, I will be so fully who I was intended to be that nothing will matter except His glory. I wouldn’t be surprised if I am more graceful than the Olympic gymnasts I have admired since I was a little girl. Unlimited, unencumbered by things like weight and pain and gravity, maybe I will even be able to fly. I’m gonna “play all over God’s Heaven.” It will be beautiful.

                Until then, all we can do is live our lives as completely as we can, following His will as best we can, trusting Him to guide us. Hopefully, we will have our own little Fellowship of family and friends to see us through. God has put so many amazing people into my life, and I have had so much love in my life already, I don’t see how it could be any better.The very idea that  there is Something More excites me and delights my soul. What a wonderful world it is-and how much greater is the next!

“Oh weary,tired and worn, let out your sighs
and drop that heavy load you hold 'cause Mine is light
I know you through and through; there's no need to hide
I want to show you love that is deep and high and wide

 I am constant; I am near
I am peace that shatters all your secret fears
I am holy; I am wise
I'm the only one who knows your heart's desires
your heart's desires.”