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

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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.

 

The Childbirth

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Thought I’d post an excerpt from my book, Laughter, Tears and Braidsfor those who have not yet read it.  My book describes good times before cancer, our journey through, and the beginnings of putting it all back together.  This was a good time:

Childbirth

I don’t specifically recall being told that we were expecting our first child.  Perhaps it was in September, just a pregnancy kit at home.  I do recall an overwhelming feeling of responsibility.  I enjoyed the process of trying to get pregnant so the news in fairly short order was a bit of a letdown.

We attended Lamaze classes at the hospital closet to our house.  There were about 12 couples in the course and all but two took things rather seriously.  Lisa and I were in that camp.  Our instructor, however, took it all very seriously.  Her classes were well planned, and she did not hold back one teeny detail.

One night our teacher had the soon to be fathers sit on the floor and prop back on pillows.  His spouse was then told to sit in his lap and practice breathing.  Lisa was struggling to get comfortable.

“What’s wrong baby?  Why are you wiggling?”

“Your belt buckle is jabbing me in the back.”

“Oh, I need to remember not to wear a belt on delivery day.”  I took out my pencil and pad and began to scratch a note to myself.

“No worries honey, this is just a breathing exercise.  I don’t think I’ll be lying in the floor propped up against you when the baby actually comes out.”

“Oh.  Right.”  I erased.

On the night they showed a video of the C-section, I began to get light-headed.  Before they even began the operation, I excused myself.  “I cannot watch this, I think I’m going to pass out,” I told my wife.

“YOU    ARE     PATHETIC!  Go drink some water or something.”

Lisa and I talked about our birth plan.  The instructor told us we needed to make decisions about what we wanted to occur during labor and delivery and write it in a notebook to share with our doctor prior to our final visit to the hospital.  She discussed natural childbirth and even suggested that we might want to use a tub or whirlpool during labor.

Who in their right mind would have a baby in a whirlpool?  Does the doctor get in there with you?   Are we all in our bathing suits?  Do you need a snorkel?  Perhaps you don’t have the baby in it; maybe it is a pre-delivery method or something.  Come to think of it, being in water can make one need to go to the bathroom, especially if it’s warm.  Maybe it’s the same phenomenon.

After the first night of class, Lisa looked at me and said, “Our birth plan is to get as many drugs in my system as is humanly possible.  I want them the second I walk into the hospital.  If we go to the hospital and they say I’m not ready to deliver, we will stay in the parking lot.  That is our plan.  You can write it down if you want.”

I fully concurred.  I did not want to see my wife moaning and groaning in pain while delivering my baby.  It’s just all so unnatural.

Lisa also told me that I had three other important jobs during delivery.  Job one was to stay up by her head.  She told me she did not need me down there checking things out.  It was private, between her and her doctor. 

I said, “Honey, I though that area was between you and me.”

“It was between you and me.  Now it is between my doctor and me.  I don’t need the image in my mind of you having that image in your mind.  Stay up by my head.”

That was fine with me!  I’d seen enough childbirth in Lamaze class to last time a lifetime.  I agreed it was probably best not to watch.

The second job I had was to make sure the nurse cleaned off the baby before she slapped her on Lisa’s chest.  

“When the baby comes out, have them wash it off before they give it to me.”

“Why?”

“Because I want a Gerber baby moment, and Gerber babies don’t have blood all over them.”

I’d seen the commercials.  She was right.  I didn’t even know they would try to slop a nasty, unclean baby on you.  I was glad to have something specific to add to the cause.

“Your final job, and I know this is going to be hard for you, is not to make jokes.”

I had no problem with jobs one and two, but no jokes?

When we left the delivery room with our first-born daughter, DJ, the inside of my mouth was as bloody as a Freddie Krueger horror movie victim.  I had bitten my tongue so hard all day to keep from cracking jokes that it was like minced meat.  

Laughter, Tears and Braids is available on Amazon.  Click here to order a copy.

 

 

46

Bailey Ham 3

Lisa would have turned 46 on Monday.  The girls and I have chosen not to spend a ton of time remembering mom on the anniversary of her death, but rather to more officially celebrate her life on her birthday.  The casual remembrance typically includes Diet Dr. Pepper, Kanki Japanese Steak House and happy memories.  I don’t love Dr. Pepper, but on April 18, I drink.  I don’t love the Skanky Kanki (my nickname for the establishment), but on April 18, I eat.

We laugh and talk about her on a regular basis, so this isn’t a particularly difficult or odd time for us.  It is, however, a time to stop and reflect.  To answer questions.  For me, a responsibility to ensure her legacy lives on.

On Sunday I was invited to speak to an adult Sunday School class at my church on how to support those dealing with difficult situations.  Prepping to teach, I pulled out a stack of cards I received when Lisa died.  Although cathartic, and perhaps important at times, not necessarily a happy way to begin a fresh weekend.  Looking back, it is sort of amazing how you tend to forget the intensity of the pain experienced during that time.  It’s also shocking how quickly you can revisit the emotions with a small reminder.

One friend wrote this quote in the card she sent two months after Lisa died:

“The fullness of a person’s life is measured not in years, but in how he lived … there are rare people in this world who engage life at a different level – a deeper level than the rest of us.”

Although I’m sure that quote gets tossed around at many funerals for folks who die before 60, and although I believe it to be true, I wonder what really constitutes engaging in life at a different and deeper level.  As I poured through the notes near the top of my stack, there were a few that struck me.

“It sounds trite to say she was ‘unique,’ but she really was.  She was driven but not overbearing; she was kind but not patronizing; she was firm but compassionate.”

“(Lisa) has inspired me to be a better mom, friend, volunteer, Christian and worker because of how she lived her life.”

“Was there anyone in Raleigh she didn’t know?”

“One of my favorite memories of you and Lisa was when I visited the Y on one of my days off.  I will never forget walking up and seeing you and Lisa on the roof … I still wonder how the two camp directors were able to pull off tanning for an entire day and still get paid for it.  Who was in charge of camp?  You and Lisa were a great team!”

“She was such a force of nature.”

“I was a friend of your mom’s in college.  She was one of the first smiling faces I saw at our sorority.  From that moment on, she made me feel welcome and included.  As you know, that’s just how she was with everyone… making you feel comfortable.”

“My lasting image of her is seated on the Capon Springs stage, surrounded by all of the Capon kids, leading them in song.”

“She was an extraordinary person – someone who I remember trying to emulate as a teenager.”

“She was such a natural leader and full of such positive energy!!”

I believe that Lisa did engage life at a different level.  I don’t think she tried, I just think it was natural for her.

It doesn’t come as easily for me.  But I do think that her death has pushed me to intentionally and strategically work to live more boldly.

I do not want someone to spout out some quote at my funeral simply to fill up a 15 minute homily.  With Lisa, the remembrances were true, sincere; all who knew her could nod enthusiastically.  I’m learning later in life, but I think that losing Lisa has given my daughters the gift of living at a deeper level much earlier.  To watch them is as their mom is a beautiful thing.

Six and Counting

bruce and Lisa

It’s beautiful to remember the happy.

Six years ago today, our wife, mother, daughter, and friend died.  I want all who knew her, especially my girls, to remember the good stuff.  And there was plenty!

Her fingernails were impeccable.  She used gel.  It coats your fingers with some fake substitute for your claws, and it costs a fortune.  She argued that they last “forever.”  I don’t know what forever she was referring to, but in my book a couple of weeks does not constitute a lifetime.

One time the two of us cooked Thanksgiving dinner.  I thought the neck bone stuffed in the turkey’s cavity was his penis.  She didn’t know any better either.  We burned everything, except dessert which was grossly under-cooked.  Cheesecake soup anyone?  I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

She was a sale shopper.  Problem was that she’d buy a blouse at a “great price” with no matching bottom.  When she died, I found countless items of clothing with the tags still on.  I’m sure she would have worn them, eventually.

She gave our girls wings.  When we dropped DJ off at four week camp for the first time, my daughter teared up.  I ran to the car to get the heck out of Dodge.  Lisa, on the other hand, gave her words of encouragement and distracted her with new friends.  “I am nurture,” I explained to my wife on our way home.  “You, you give them courage.”  I had done my job, she had done hers.

Fortunately, all got some of her bravery genes.

She insisted on matching dresses for the kids when they were younger.  In one Christmas photo, when DJ was about 9, she stood behind Santa in a dress that made her look like a prairie child.  It didn’t matter.  The whole family blended so well.

She once stood me up on an early date in our courtship.  I was so stinkin’ mad.  But apparently not mad enough.

We spent our first weekend together hiking on Grandfather Mountain, I flossed at the apex.  And she still married me.

Our honeymoon got cancelled on the night of our wedding because American Airlines pilots went on strike.  I’ll never forgive those greedy mongrels.

She once bought a rug for DJ’s bedroom that cost so much she never divulged what she paid.  To this day I do not know.

She built relationships with everyone she came in contact with.  She was as close to our babysitters as she was to her college roommates.  Her hair dresser was a confidante.  Those at work called on her to approach their boss, because he loved her to death.

She enjoyed a bit of gossip and was the last person to walk out of the church on any given Sunday morning, because she was talking.

She was a leader in our community and could organize a thousand high school kids, a Junior League Committee or a kitchen drawer with ease.  But she seldom lifted a finger until the day before a deadline.

I fell in love with her on a canoe at Camp Seafarer.  She got to me.  There was just something about that Lisa Tanner that I couldn’t shake.

I am thankful for the years we had.  I am thankful for these beautiful memories.

95%

It came early this year.  Generally, it’s two weeks out – like clockwork.  I begin to well up when certain songs come on the radio.  I get a pit in my stomach when I look at family photographs.  I long for what could have been.

I think the anticipation of the anniversary of Lisa’s death has been magnified this year.

Last fall I found some old pictures on my computer that I thought we had lost.  They captured the Tanner family from 2005 – 2006, four years before she became sick.  I recently uploaded them to Shutterfly and have been working to order prints and create one of their memory books.  It’s a task you should only have to do as punishment for a terrible crime.

Keeping up with family pics was not my job – until 2010.  Lisa held that responsibility, along with most of the other things I currently do that are unrelated to my work, tickling kids or putting them to bed.

I’ve dug through these pictures for two weeks, there were over 1,000:  beach trips, Disney World, The Grand Canyon, birthdays, Halloween, huge smiles at Christmas, a shot of the two of us dressed up for a night out.  I keep thinking, we had no idea… absolutely no idea that cancer was about to kick our asses.  If we would have known…

If we would have known, what?  What could we have done?

Ab-so-lutely NOTHING.  We could not have done anything except lived those last few years in fear.

This past fall I was told by someone that I hadn’t written a new chapter in my life.  That I had to put the past behind me.  I thought that was a ridiculous statement, proud of what I’ve accomplished – astonished at my fairly happy demeanor, blown away by my three daughters’ blossoming, excited about the new things in my life.  But maybe, in a way, this friend was right.  Or maybe, you do move on but in a different sort of way.

I will never, ever, be the same.  I will never fully get over my loss.  Perhaps those who have not experienced what I have aren’t able to fully comprehend my inability to slide through February unscathed even after significant time.

Yet, only I can ensure that I’m not stuck, unable to move forward with new relationships and experiences with real joy in my heart.

Occasionally I teeter between thriving and shriveling up.  Weird, these incongruent worlds.  Ninety-five percent of the time I’m ready to tackle the world, completely pleased with how I’ve grown, excited about today and the future.  Five percent of the time I’d like to curl up in the corner of the closet.  The wound fresh again.

It’s been nearly six years.  I am grateful for the 95%.  It’s been nearly six years, why isn’t it 100?

Halloween, Gone?

DJ and Stephanie, Halloween, many years ago

DJ and Stephanie, Halloween, many years ago

Interestingly, Halloween is one of the toughest times of the year for me.  It is odd which days become peppered with melancholy.

Christmas and Thanksgiving, although bitter-sweet, bring family together.  My girls are home.  We see grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  Happy stories are relived and new memories are created.  Although I miss Lisa, I revel in the time with other loved ones.  Yet Halloween, which was orchestrated on Dellwood Drive in typical Lisa Tanner fashion, has simply left a void.

She was the one who decided we needed to have a neighborhood gathering each year before trick or treating.  The handful of kids on the block would parade from one end of the street to the other with pizza as their prize for completing the eighth of a mile hike.  Mrs. Eckles, an elderly woman who lived at 1417, pulled a 1950’s lawn chair to the curb and cheered us on as Cinderella, the Ninja Turtle and Hannah Montana proudly waved to the slight crowd.

Mrs. Eckles, like Lisa, is gone.

Ghoulish tunes and the Monster Mash played in the background on our front porch, the same CD repeated from 5pm until 9pm without ceasing.

Our early years left Lisa at home with Jeana, our neighbor, drinking wine in rocking chairs as they handed out treats.  The dads set out with PBR and wagons, stopping halfway at a friend’s house for our annual trick or treat potty break.  Hauling that three kidded wagon up Elvin Court, a cul-de-sac with a rapid descent, took more strength than bench pressing 200 pounds at the gym.

We had few rain nights over the years, but the one I remember was miserable.  An hour in I wondered to myself why I ever had children.

This year was my first kidless Halloween.  DJ is a college, trick or treating on Embassy Row in DC.  Stephanie had friends over to watch scary movies – dads not needed to protect anymore.  Michelle was invited to a friend’s house, a more appropriate trick or treat partner for a newly turned 13-year-old.

There was no music on the porch, simply a large bowl of candy and a sign that read Only take two or I will find you.  Of course, some bozo emptied it out about an hour in I understand.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this Halloween.  I had dinner with a friend and then met others for grown up conversation.  But man how times have changed.

I’m sure there would have been Halloween voids even if Lisa had lived.  We would have had to develop new rituals.  It isn’t likely I would be pulling around three teenagers in the Radio Flyer.  And yet, that realization is meaningless to me because I didn’t get that chance.

Someone hurts a little deeper on Veteran’s Day, which is an easy one for me.  It could be black Friday stings for the daughter who spent that day at the Factory Outlets with her mom who is no longer here.

I think sometimes grief magnifies the things that were most special to us about the ones we’ve lost.  Often it is something that we never considered would hurt us at all.

We Have To Do Something – NOW!

Early last week, I heard a news story that I just can’t shake.  Two men sort of cut each other off when merging lanes on a highway, and one went ballistic.  The first guy opened fire and killed the second guy’s four year old daughter.  Just got mad and boom, a child is dead.  All this over traffic.

I simply don’t understand.  I wonder if this murderer has ever experienced grief.  I simply can’t believe that if he has felt what I have felt he would do anything that could intentionally take a life.  How could you purposefully want to make someone feel the way I have felt?

My heart is also heavy for the families I see floating on overcrowded, flimsy rafts across the Mediterranean Sea.  How fortunate we are here in America.  Well, unless you happen to cut the wrong person off on I-95.

I watch the stories on ABC, and I see the faces, and I ache for them, until the newscast is over.  Then, I go meet a friend for an overpriced dinner out.

What in the hell is going on?  How can I eat Chinese takeout while checking Facebook when there are so many people in the world who are hurting the way I did several years ago?  How can I think about excessively celebrating Christmas when there are folks all around, even in my hometown, who don’t have the money to pay their rent?  How can I toss out half a sandwich because I filled up on a sleeve of sour cream and onion Pringles when 3.5 million children die each year because they DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FOOD TO EAT?

And each of those 3.5 million has a face, a name, an individual personality.  Each one has a mother and a father who misses them dearly.  Each is someone’s Lisa.

Day after day after day someone in my community dies needlessly – from a gunshot or a drunk driver or domestic abuse, and I just don’t know what to do about it.  Everyday thousands of people, thousands, die in places like Syria.

We have to do something.  We have to do something now.

Sticktoitiveness

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Birthday Buddies in Bow Ties!

The day after Lisa died, I sent an email to a group of friends asking them to meet me in the church fellowship hall thirty minutes before her Memorial Service.  I told them we would save seats for them up front in the sanctuary and that they would all walk in together, united.  I wanted to be able to look over and see those I knew would usher me through the intense shock and pain I was experiencing.

I also told them that they were the ones, like it or not, who were stuck with me, that I needed them to stand by me until I got my feet back up under me.

I think I underestimated their sticktoitiveness.

Last week, on my fiftieth birthday, five years after Lisa’s death, this incredible group of friends threw me a surprise party.  They rented out the second floor of a bar and filled it with the people in my life that I love the most.  When I walked up the steps, there they were, this incredible group of folk, who genuinely care about me.

It sort of blows my mind.  I haven’t been as good to them as they have been to me.  Man, am I blessed.

This past week, I was in Greenville, SC, speaking to a group of YMCA staffers.  After my talk, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes.  She said, “I’ve heard you speak before.  I just want you to know that I keep you and your girls in my prayers.”

Maybe that’s why we’re all doing really well!

As I write, tears well up from my gut.  They aren’t tears for loss.  They are tears of knowing that I can never repay what has been given to me.

When praying, I sometimes struggle to remember those around me who hurt.  I forget the guy I met with a few weeks ago who recently lost his wife or the high school buddy who has been diagnosed with cancer.  They roll through my head on occasion, but I don’t have the same level of persistent, perpetual care that others have had for me.

My friends and family could write the handbook on caring for those experiencing grief.  For them, it isn’t a short story.  It’s an epic novel.  They’ve been working on it for five plus years.  I have this feeling that it will go unfinished.

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