Dropoff Success

We arrived at Carige Dorm at UNC last Friday at 9:30 AM.  Right on time.  We took two cars.  Stephanie drove her silver Honda Civic.  We couldn’t fit the wares and three humans in one.  Most of Michelle’s belongings were stuffed in my SUV, all seats down. 

It’s sort of amazing how much one can fit in a dorm room.  They ain’t large.  Michelle warned me, she looked up the measurements.  Wall to wall: 12’ x 13”.  Our living room rug is two feet longer and three feet wider than her entire living space – that she shares with another co-ed!  But, she’s young, and it’s nice to be able to high five your roommate without getting out of bed.

My first house had one bathroom.  The ceiling was slanted over the toilet.  You had to lean back if you peed standing up.  It was actually a nice abdomen stretch.

Dropping a kid off at school is sort of like walking to a flogging.  The criminal is dreading it as well as the flogger.   The uncertainty for her, the anxiousness for me.  How could I leave my kid alone in this unfamiliar place?  Michelle decided to ride with Stephanie, fearful of my frame of mind.  Who knew if Butterfly Kisses might cue up on Spotify, a sure tearfest to follow.

God works in mysterious ways.  An August, 100 degree day and a sixth floor dorm room help alleviate emotion.  It felt like we were moving into Satan’s attic.  Any water that might pour out of my tear ducts was redirected to my armpits.

Being your typical dad, I refused to take the elevator.  The staircase was much closer to the car, and I was too impatient to wait my turn.  I had a job to do and nothing would get in my way. 

I heaved the largest Tupperware bins on my shoulders and hiked the flights of stairs to the top floor, young bucks holding doors for me.  In retrospect, maybe I was trying to keep up with them, the handsome young fellas who I used to be – more girth in the shoulders than the waist.  No doubt in my mind that i was a fit a they.

A friend warned me to bring a second t-shirt, he had moved his son in the day before.   I’m not a big sweater” I told him.  I was wrong.

I prayed for strength.  I hoped her mother’s spirit would come out – strength, grit, and courage to fly.  I couldn’t be with her, but Lisa could.

It worked! 

We unloaded, hauled, unpacked and “decorated” like champs.  It was fun!  We enjoyed the time and her roommate’s family.  After lunch we walked back to the dorm.  We hugged in the lobby of Craige.  We both welled up, our masks helpful in hiding our fears – then, Stephanie and I exited quickly.  My middle kid put her hand on my back as we walked down the cement walkway to the parking deck.  We didn’t talk, but she knew. 

I held the emotion until I got back to my car.   It wasn’t pretty.  

 It’s been a transition for me and a transition for her.  But surprising to us both, all is calm.

Next we launch Julie’s two:  Virginia and Scotland.  In September, we rest. 

Blessings…

I struggle with the phrase “I’m blessed.”  Maybe not generally, but to be blessed with a great house, or plenty of food or health seems to imply that God has withheld these things from others.  Why would he bestow all this on me, and not on my neighbor?  I most certainly didn’t do anything to deserve what I have.

What I do know is that my kids, actually our kids (Julie’s and mine), are a blessing to me.  Each has their own personality, their own quirks and take on life.  None are the same.  Yet I find all intriguing.

Michelle, the youngest, graduated from high school in May.  She’s headed to UNC-Chapel Hill on August 13.  She is a humorous, fun-loving, smart, salty, pretty young woman.  A times a bit reticent, but when she wants, she can light up a room.

I’ve spent so many years zeroed in on raising this kid – actually all three!  I remember times when I would stay up until 1 AM completing the online school health forms (those reminder emails to TURN IN THE PHYSICAL were like a scolding from Mrs. Buie, my fourth grade teacher).  I remember packing lunches at 10 PM so I could sleep a couple of minutes later the next morning.  I remember bra shopping and 12 girls at my house combing out their, at the time stylish, “side bangs” readying for the middle school dance.  I remember spending too much time crossing off my checklist and not enough time just being with them.  I remember snuggling and tickling and dancing in the kitchen. 

Now, they don’t need the same level of attention they have demanded over the past decade.  I suppose I don’t either.  They spent a lot of time making sure I was OK, worrying that I might be alone on a Saturday night or stressed that I didn’t have enough presents to open on Christmas morning.

We still need each other.  There are insurance premiums to pay and weekly updates required by dad.  But the intensity of the reliance is less – a sad relief.

As I look back on the past eleven years, I can see God’s plan unfold.  We grieved for a time.  I met someone special.  The girls grew up.  And then, seamlessly, at just the right moments, all of the houses sold, all of the jobs worked out, all the kids began to create their own futures. 

In the aftermath of horrible, there can be beautiful. That is a blessing indeed.

A Letter to Myself

DJ and I were talking recently about the insanity that we’ve seen over the past 11 years.  She asked, “If someone had told you what would happen over the past decade, would you have believed it?”

It made me wonder.  What if 54-year-old Danny Tanner could write a letter to 44-year-old Danny Tanner?  What would I say to that naive guy?

May 13, 2020

Dear Danny,

I am you exactly eleven years from now.  It’s May, 2009, where you are, and you’re about to experience one of the best summers of your life!  You have four trips planned:  Yellowstone National Park, the beach, the lake, and your annual trip to West Virginia.  Enjoy every second because when you return, the wheels are gonna come off your bus.

You are about to face the saddest, most difficult time of your life.  Lisa, your incredible wife, will die before this time next year.  The devastation of this loss with change you, your children, and your entire family forever.

You will be pushed beyond your comfort zone in ways you never imagined.  You will tackle things that you thought you’d never have to or never be capable of.  With the support of family and friends, you will move forward.

You will:

  • Raise three incredible girls who will be independent and strong
  • Perform for eight years to sold out crowds at the Duke Energy Center and the Durham Performing Arts Center in the play A Christmas Carol
  • Start a blog (you’ll find out what that is in a year or two) and write a book (I know that’s hard to believe)
  • Pack up and drop off your two oldest kids at college and cry like a baby on your ride home
  • Watch your girls grow in ways you could never imagine

Oh, and in seven years, you will fall in love again, deeply, with a woman who compliments you in amazing ways.  She will love you to death and will give you renewed hope for the future.  To make it a bit more complicated, she lives in Charlotte, NC.  You’re going to spend a lot of time on interstate 85.

Some people you love dearly will struggle with you moving forward.  That will be hard.  Some of the relationships you rely on most deeply now will fade, but new ones will blossom.

A pandemic will break out throughout the world and DJ and Stephanie will move back home – just when you’ve adjusted to being at home with one kid.  You won’t be allowed to leave your house for months and when you do, you will wear a surgical mask even to go buy beer!

You’re gonna come out OK, Danny, a bit bruised and battered, but better in many ways.  I want you to know that because there will be times you won’t think you will.

And by the way, Donald Trump is the President…

My best,

Danny

Re-imagine, Meaning, Connection

(View Justin Yopp’s Ted Talk above)

I’ve shared before about the group of men I met in 2010, about six months after Lisa died.  Two psychiatrists from UNC formed a grief group, Single Fathers Due To Cancer.  I apprehensively attended the first meeting.  Four years later our monthly get togethe’rs subsided, replace by annual reunions.

The grief I felt ten years ago next month, seems far away.  In fact, I have isolated it because it is grueling to go back.  The pain, the disbelief, the fear – I don’t ever want to feel that again.  It’s easy to isolate those feelings when you’re happy.

Recently, Justin Yopp, one of our group leaders, did a Ted Talk titled More Than Grief.  He shared our story, seven men who struggled together and, in time, moved forward.

I didn’t know at the time, but Justin was learning from us.  He works with those experiencing loss on a regular basis and listened very closely as the seven of us shared over this 48 month period of time.  Justin shares in his talk that he saw three distinct steps in our recovery from grief:

  1. Re-imagining – Justin describes our grief like a trip.  We were on the highway, moving forward, when suddenly the road stops.  The map says the road should continue, but it doesn’t.  Justin began seeing growth with each of us when we began to re-imagine what life might be again.  For a very long time, we recanted our loss.  For a very long time we lived in the here and now trying to figure out how to manage our day to day lives.  But slowly, conversation turned.  We began to dream again, to imagine another road.
  2. Finding meaning – Justin argues that when we began changing the focus from our loss to helping others, there was movement toward our futures.  When we were able to consider how our group, and how we as individuals, might help other men going through similar situations, it helped us heal.
  3. Connecting – Finally, Justin saw in us a connection that was rare.  We weren’t best friends, but we knew a heck of a lot more about these guys we saw just once a month than we did about folks we saw on a daily basis.  The deep and intense level of sharing was surprising.  This connection and ability to share was crucial to our healing.

What the seven of us learned, what Justin and Don our leaders learned, is that you can create new paths, and you can move forward.  It just takes work – and maybe a couple of other really good men.

Second Chance

This was the tenth Thanksgiving without Lisa.  I realized it on Wednesday as the girls and I drove to my parents’ house in Fayetteville.

That first year was unbearable.  I told my dad we could not eat at the dining room table.  I could not fathom sitting there without her by my side.  When we arrived, he had indeed set that table.  I refused to sit so the entire family picked up plates and resettled in the kitchen – some at the table, some at the bar.

Even butterbeans reminded me of her.

I don’t like to revisit the pain.  It’s a dark place for me.

What I’m most thankful for this year is second chances.  I’m thankful that I was able to move again after years of paralysis.

Not everyone gets that chance.  Some don’t have the good fortune of accepting the loss and having the strength to find their new selves.  Some can’t get over the hurt, the betrayal the world cast on them.  Some aren’t able to find what I have – genuine happiness in a new partner.

My girls too have found happy again.  They are thriving, each in their own way.  Perhaps the greatest gift I can give them is to be solid myself.  I hope that my example of pulling out of the hole, of giving new life a chance, will enable them, regardless of what they face in their futures, the ability to dig out themselves.

I don’t take my second chance for granted.  I thank God for the people who have been put in my life – the ones who tossed me ropes and ladders and flotation devices not so long ago.  I thank God for bringing Julie into my life at the exact right time – at a time when she and I were both ready to take a leap from tough to happiness.

It’s not easy.  Sometimes grief is more comfortable.  It can be very secure – you know your role.  You don’t have to move.  Sitting is much easier than running.

But had Julie and I not trusted again, had we not been willing to leap, I can’t imagine what life might be.

I hate I went through loss.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I am thankful I jumped.  It was the second hardest – and yet, the most exhilarating of my life.

 

One-on-one

Last night I got a text message from a co-worker.  She shared that a third grade boy at one of our after-school sites, a kid from a single parent family, lost his mother and sister in a horrible car accident yesterday.  He rode with them to school.  At 6 pm when our program closed, no one came to pick him up.  That was very unusual.  Then the news.  He spent last night in foster care.

He lost his mother and middle school sister and then had to, at least temporarily, go, alone, to a stranger’s house to spend the night.

I don’t know the kid.  I don’t know much about his situation.  Yet my heart aches for him.

This little guy now has to navigate life without the two people who were his foundation.  His world turned upside down.

I’m thinking about what must be going on in his mind today.

Two weekends ago I spent the day at Elon University with Stephanie.  It was Men We Love weekend with her sorority.  It was likely designed for dads but knowing not everyone has a dad, they broadened it to men.

We spent a little time with her crew at school, but mainly we had an almost full day together.  We laughed and laughed.  Talked about her future.  Talked a bit about mine.  Saw the better part of a football game and an acapella concert together.

I cherish the time I get, especially one-on-one, with those I love.  It might be the most meaningful of all.

None of us knows how many more days we have left on this earth.  Man, I want to spend more of it intentionally building connections with those around me.

That’s the important stuff.

The Group

Group photo

None of us wanted to go.  It was approximately six months after our wives had died, and we were all still stunned.  We were ripe with grief; shocked; stunned with the mess we had been left.

Over seven years ago, on a Monday night, I drove twenty minutes to a nondescript office building in Chapel Hill, NC.  It was a couple of miles from the university, a couple of miles from the hospital where parents were dying from cancer.

Two doctors, Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp, who treated those with psychological fallout from their disease, were stunned at their realization that no one in the world to their knowledge had studied fathers who had lost their wives.  There was no research, no support.  The wife died, and the men bucked up or seemingly did.

Eight of us showed the first night.  We sat around a table and shared our stories.  Looking back on it, I’m surprised that any of us went back.  You watch eight grown men, strangers, vomit their most vulnerable emotions, tears running down all sixteen cheeks, for what seemed like hours – and you might not return either.  But seven of us did.

What began as a six week trial lasted for four years.  In fact, nearly eight years later, we convene bi-annually just to catch up.

We aren’t all alike.  One is very shy.  Another tackles life like he’s building a Boeing 747.  One swears the wrong parent died.  One, me, can toss a one-liner like a champ to avoid going too deep.

What these two doctors did through their work with us is stunning.  With unwavering support and listening ears, they ushered us back to our new normal.

Three in the group are remarried.  I am engaged.  Two others have had significant relationships.  Our families are fine and broken and have coped in their own ways.

It is fascinating to see our evolution.  I call it the making of men.

Last week Don and Justin published their book about us:  The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine LifeIt outlines stories that we shared at our meetings with significant insight from an outsider’s view.  I’d say it is worth the read.

I am indebted to many, many people for getting me through to a point of incredible happiness but especially to this group.  My single father buddies gave me a soft place to land assuring me I wasn’t losing my mind.  They let me know that the mistakes I made weren’t any worse than theirs.  These dudes I’ve spent less time with than most of my other friends, understand me in very deep ways.

As for Don and Justin, they have been the heartbeat.  Encouraging.  Sharing insights.  Occasionally kicking one of us in the butt.  For them I am grateful.

Lemonade out of Lemons

The girls and I recently became hooked on a new TV show on NBC called This Is Us.  Although my kids can watch a 12 episode series in a weekend’s time, I don’t often have the inclination to sit that still that long.  But, there is something different about this show.

One storyline is set in the 70’s and 80’s and is about a family with three kids.  There is a parallel storyline set today that follows the children as grownups.

I am particularly drawn to two characters in the series.  My first attraction is to the father of the three kids, Jack Pearson.  He has his flaws, but he is an incredible man.  He brings life and fun into the family.  He is wonderfully sensitive, crying multiple times in the very first show.  He just wants things to be OK for his kids and for his wife to be genuinely happy.  It is refreshing to watch how he invests in others.

There is also a 70-year-old man, Dr. Nathan Katowski the wife’s obstetrician, who is also a regular on the show.  He is a widower and sort of mentors Jack.

I want to see pieces of each of these men in me.

At one point, the young father and his wife lose a baby in delivery.  This is the advice that the seasoned Dr. Katowski gives to Jack:

I’d like to think that one day you’ll be an old man like me, talking a younger man’s ear off explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade. 

I think when you go through tough times, folks are more prone to sharing their setbacks with you.  Perhaps they feel that you can understand.

I’ve recently had acquaintances lose loved ones – children, parents, spouses.  I know of those who have lost their jobs.  I’ve spent time with a widower who has six children under the age of 12.  I am amazed at how many rediscover good out of really nasty situation.

If for no other reason, as a young widower, I was propelled to drive forward for my kids’ sakes.  I couldn’t bear for them to live in a house with a father who was paralyzed by grief.  In the end, I was the one who benefited.  I found happy.

I hurt so bad seven years ago (this week marks the anniversary).  I was messed up.  And yet, today, I can’t imagine there are that many out there with more blessings than me.

 

Healing does not mean forgetting.  For me it is figuring out how to put grief in its appropriate place.

Writing makes you ponder things that perhaps you wouldn’t otherwise.  I think about my legacy often – what I want to be remembered for when I’m gone from this earth.  I think it’s important to me for my kids to look back and say, “Man did dad make some good lemonade.”  Like the pink kind with real slices of lemon floating on the top, in a really nice pitcher with grandma ice cubes.

How fortunate I am to be sipping again.

Ninety-six Percent

I was at a concert last Friday night – it was an event for work.  I was excited when I ran into an old friend.  He knew Lisa.

I asked how he was doing.  He said, “96% great!  4% could be better.”  He teared up.  “Your experience taught me that can change at any given moment.”

I had some times where finding 4% good was a struggle.

My former boss gave me a journal the day after Lisa was diagnosed with cancer.  He told me to write down blessing that we found throughout the ordeal.  He had a son who had struggled with major health issues early in life.  He and his wife found value in listing the good things.

Lisa and I looked.  The good was very hard to see; in fact, I’m not sure there was any.

Now that I’m on the other side – much closer to a 96/4 good to bad ratio, you’d think I would spend my time focused on the 96%.  All too often, I zero in on the 4, looking for ways to get to 100.  The sad thing is that if I spend all my 96/4 time focused on the 4, I get no reprieve.  Surely I’ll have more times when the bad is the dominate percentage.  How awful to spend the really good times frustrated on the small things that aren’t going my way.

That 92.3 grade in English is not quite an A.  But it is damn near close!  Perhaps I shouldn’t remind my kid that she missed a 4.0 GPA by only .7 points.  She likely already knows.  Instead, we should have a party to celebrate that high B!

I have one zit.  But dag gone, the rest of my face looks pretty handsome if I do say so myself!

I don’t make as much money as that other dude at work (the one I clearly outperform), but I have a job I love, and I have plenty.

I want my kids to relish in the 96%.  I should too.  Life is so very good so much of the time.  To heck with the bad.  There isn’t really enough to waste time on.

It’s Quiet Uptown

IMG_0383

When in New York, we were fortunate enough to score tickets to the Broadway musical Hamilton.  I can’t really put into words how moving this experience was for the girls and for me – on a number of levels.

The story, the dancing, the historical lessons and the music were incredible to say the least.  One song particularly struck me.  It’s about grief.  It’s called It’s Quiet Uptown.

I’m assuming the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has experienced significant loss.  I find it difficult to believe that someone who has not could possibly describe the hole this sort of suffering leaves.

The song starts:

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is suffering too terrible to name

You hold your child as tight as you can

And push away the unimaginable

The moments when you’re in so deep

It feels easier to just swim down

I did not lose a child, but in my grief there were moments that the words didn’t reach.  There weren’t  adjective that could describe the pain.  It was so deep.  So different from anything I’d ever experienced.  Unique.  No one could provide consoling words, because there simply weren’t any.

The Hamiltons move uptown

And learn to live with the unimaginable

It isn’t about getting over a loss.  It is about learning to live with it.  Figuring out what place the one who has gone will now play in your life.  That may sound absurd, I mean they’re dead.  And yet, there is a role for them.  Memories.  Lessons learned.  Pieces of you that grew from them.  Sort of a spiritual connection that doesn’t just disappear because of physical separation.

I would guess that those who have lost parents feel that connection.  They see their mother or father in themselves.  I have so many traits of my grandfather.  As I age, they become even more apparent.  His legacy lives on.

Miranda describes the changes we encounter in ourselves:

I spend hours in the garden

I walk alone to the store

And it’s quiet uptown

I never liked the quiet before

I take the children to church on Sunday

A sign of the cross at the door

And I pray

That never used to happen before

Grief makes you ponder things that you haven’t considered before.  It makes you question.  It brings about doubts and fears.  You pray in ways that you never have before.  Or perhaps, for some, you stop altogether.

If you see him in the street, walking by

Himself, talking to himself, have pity

The conversations I’ve had – with me.  The physical changes.  Aging.  Maturing.  A loss of innocence.

His hair has gone grey.  He passes every day.

They say he walks the length of the city.

The guilt you find for living.

If I could spare his life

If I could trade his life for mine

The older I get, the more people I meet who fully understand loss. I’m thankful there are others.  I’m glad there aren’t more.

 

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