The Gut

A dear friend of mine just resigned from the YMCA where we have worked together for thirty years.  She got an awesome opportunity to work with a former co-worker at the Y in Richmond.  Her kids are both in college, and it just seemed like a great opportunity for her to start anew.  She basically lived in Raleigh her entire life and most of her career, although in different positions, has been in one organization.  Gutsy move.

Big decisions are daunting for me.  I play out scenario after scenario – what if…

I recently went through a significant one with Michelle on high school choice.  That one was not mine to make, but I did hold some responsibility for coaching.

Stephanie is beginning to ponder colleges.  Another biggie.  Where you go to college will set the compass for the rest of your life:  where you live, your future spouse, your kids – all of those things ride on ONE significant decision.

Through the years, I’ve had opportunities to apply for other jobs similar to my friend.  I’ve considered selling my house and downsizing.  Occasionally I get the bug to pick up and leave the comfort of Raleigh, where I’ve spent the past 33 years, just to try something new.  But my roots are so very deep.

I have another friend who has had job after job.  She has lived in at least four cities in North Carolina, in Minnesota, and Colorado.  She has gone to various higher education institutions to chase her dreams.  And, she has always made new friends and adapted well.

I once saw a movie called Sliding Door.  The movie highlights Helen’s life.  She gets fired from her job and heads to the subway for home.  In one scenario, she catches the train and finds her boyfriend cheating on her in their apartment.  In another scenario, she misses the train and has no idea what he did.  The movie follows these two parallel lives.  And the outcome at the end is remarkably different, simply because of one train ride.

I suppose the lesson here is that any decision we make, big or small, can drastically change the course of our lives.  Lisa’s sister met her husband at a bar one night years ago.  Had she stayed at home to watch Grey’s Anatomy, who knows?

I asked my friend how she decided to make the move – what pushed her to jump.  Her reply?  “My gut.”

She simply felt it was the right thing to do at the right time.

Although I’m not happy with her for leaving, I’m pretty sure she’s made the right decision.  A little prayer and the following of your “gut” can lead you to some pretty incredible things.

 

 

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.

Joy

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I got a weird and wonderful call this week.

The area code was 910.  I recognized it because it is the same as my parents’.  On my phone screen the word Fayetteville popped up. Most people would not get excited by that word.  My hometown does not have the most exciting nor stellar reputation.  But for me, when I imagine that city, I just get all warm and tingly inside.

The voicemail was jumbled and cut off a few seconds into the call.  But I could clearly make out the name, and I surely recognized the voice.

“Danny, this is Joy from Fayetteville.  I saw a picture of you on Facebook and…”

Joy!

Joy was the pianist and a youth leader at my church when I was growing up.  Although old to us at the time, she was probably early thirties, she was so stinkin’ cool.  She was one of few adults who let my friends and me call her by her first name:  Joy.  How fitting.  She brought a ton of it to me.

In many ways, I was an insecure teen, not quite sure what to think of myself or my place in the world.  I did not peak in high school – that is an understatement – I didn’t even slightly ascend.  But Joy and Doug and Kim and Mike and Mr. Lundy and Mrs. Byrd and Miss Patty hurled themselves into my life with the full intent of helping me to discover all that I had that was good.  I’m sure it was a chore – like finding a pineapple tree growing in the Alaskan Tundra.

It didn’t seem to bother them that I was imperfect.  Sometimes I cussed.  Once I led the brigade of boys on a youth retreat in a full on mooning convention.  We pulled our pants down every single time a girl in our group walked by and even mooned passersby from the church bus windows.  These adults showed me love and compassion and how to invest in the lives of those around you.

Because of my work at the YMCA, I often read articles on how to insure that children grow up with a strong self-esteem and the ability to be productive members of society.  Having adults outside of your family who care about you is a key factor in accomplishing those goals.

I am thankful for Joy and for my church that poured into me for so many years.  I am thankful for the adults who have done the same for my kids.

Now, it’s my turn.

 

Better With Age

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The snow in Raleigh this past week was a bit disappointing.  There was a smidge covering a solid layer of sleet.  You can’t make a snowman out of sleet.

In year’s past, Lisa and I worked hard on these days to keep the girls from climbing the walls: snow angels, sledding, hot chocolate and tons of soaking wet laundry.  We were exhausted by their bedtime.

All of my kids were home last weekend, and there we were – with no plans and no strong desire to venture out.  Thus the beauty of their ages: 19, 16 and 14.  We are beginning to enjoy the same sorts of things.

My youngest and I sipped a hot cup-o-joe together.  I remember similar imbibes with my grandmother at her white, speckled linoleum kitchen table.  Michelle nearly used an entire bag of sugar to get the brown liquid drinkable, but I started that way too.

Stephanie and I went On Demand and began watching a new TV show on NBC, This Is Us.  We are nearly caught up on the first season, something we can enjoy all semester.  What a pleasant change from Barney.

DJ is spending a lot of time working out right now, so I introduced her to Tony Horton, the 50-year-old hunk who leads P-90X.  I happen to own a collection of his exercise CD’s.  We did the shoulder and arm video.  She hates Tony as much as I do and agrees with me that he has a major crush on Dreya who exercises on the mat next to him throughout the video.

“Clearly something is going on between them.”

“Yeah, I noticed that too.”

On Saturday night, we played Trivial Pursuit.  But knowing we aren’t the smartest family on the block, we decided to change it up a bit.  We reassigned the color categories and made up questions of our own.  You landed on Brown?  The topic was Family, and your team had to answer a question that the opposite team made up like:  In which city was each of your grandparents born?  Or, where did your mother attend middle school?

Pink was questions about church.  Yellow about the camp they attend.  Orange was school.  Green miscellaneous.

It took us three hours to determine a winner, but man did we have fun.  Oh, we learned a lot about each other as well.  That’s not a game we could have played five years ago.

Sometimes I lament the aging of my kids.  I wish they were younger, that I had more time with them.  I long to carry them in my arms from the car to the house, their little noggins nestled between my neck and my shoulder.

That was a sweet age.  But you know, this is too.  I imagine in ten years I will enjoy them even more.

Perhaps it is not the stage they are going through that strengthens my delight.  Perhaps it is the depth of our relationship that makes each year more precious to me.

Hands-on Giving

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I fully buy into Christmas being about giving.

As a kid, Christmas presents were a big, big deal.  My parents went over the top with Santa followed by gifts from them.  In addition, my brother and I were the only grandchildren on both sides of the family.  They ensured that any potential gaps in our want list were fully covered.

My parents also didn’t buy us anything the other 11 months of the year.  December not only brought in the toys we desired, but it also stocked us up on socks and underwear for the year, a leisure suit for church and shoes.

In November, we looked like we’d just stepped out of the play Oliver Twist.  Our pants too short, and we had holes in our drawers.    January 1, it appeared as if Daddy Warbucks was kin.  We were looking great again!

But now, I have the ability to buy what I need, when I need it.  I’m not rich, but if my tennis shoes are worn, I pretty much have the capacity to replace them winter, spring, summer or fall.  Thus, this time of year has shifted for me.  Unlike my youthful self I am appreciative, but unmotivated by what awaits me under the tree.  A coffee cup with my kid’s art on the side is more exciting to me than a Brooks Brothers’ suit.  It’s all about maturity and perspective.

I do, however, really, really want others to appreciate what I have chosen for them.  And it saddens me to think of those who aren’t able to celebrate the holiday with the same vigor as we do.

For years I have adopted a family from the YMCA’s Angel Tree.  Our organization works to help bring Christmas to thousands of underserved kids who participate in our programs.  With my busy work schedule and the play I’m in with the girls, I became overwhelmed this year.  I was stretched in so many directions.  Therefore, I made the choice to give money to my church for those in need rather than to take a name off the tree and go on a shopping spree for a specific child.

That decision hasn’t ruined the season for me, but I’ll have to say that I regret simply giving a check.  I truly miss the excitement of picking out cool stuff for someone specific.  Each year, the girls and I would get so excited about a cool pair of jeans and a hat for our unknown three-year-old boy.  Finding the Thomas the Train playset he requested filled my cup.  With no boys in my house, I was pumped to pick out little dude tennis shoes and boy toys.

I took the easy way out this year.  I checked the ”helping others’ box” on my Christmas list with absolutely no effort on my part.  And it is just not the same.

Certainly the money I give will be helpful, maybe more so.  But there is a difference in giving to fulfill a quota and being fully invested in the process.

I give checks to several nonprofits throughout the year understanding that they must have my support to do their work and don’t bat an eye.  But at Christmas, I feel compelled to do more.  I won’t make this choice next year.

More Parades

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Lisa’s sister, my niece, Michelle, Stephanie and me on parade day

You know what this world needs?  More parades!

For years Lisa and I took our girls down to her father’s office on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh for the annual Christmas Parade.  He would provide the essentials:  doughnuts, hot chocolate, coffee, a parking space and a bathroom.  Our kids would be PUMPED, ready to kick off the holiday season.

When the girls and I began participating in Ira David Wood’s A Christmas Carol play five years ago, our parade routine changed.  We were no longer spectators, we were full on participants.  We don our costumes and walk the two-mile route encouraging the onlookers to ignore Scrooge who is shouting through a bullhorn to the crowd:

“Go home!  Christmas has been cancelled this year.  We’re going to have two Halloweens instead!”

The adults laugh and often respond with “Humbug!”  Some of the kids get fairly angry at the notion emphatically communicating with a man who is rolling down the street in a robe with a Christmas ghost at his side.  “WE ARE NOT CANCELLING CHRISMAS MR. SCROOGE!”

Although this is my sixth year in the parade, I noticed something different this go round.  Perhaps it is the political climate that made me more in tune.

What I saw were people, lots of different people, sitting together, laughing together, smiling together.  A man twice my age with a different color of skin responded to my hat tip and “Merry Christmas” with a hat tip of his own.  A girl in a wheelchair had a smile on her face that showed every tooth in her head.  Kids from 2 to 14 held out their hands for a parade high-five.  Groups of unrelated people came together to yell, “Merry Christmas Mr. Scrooge!” in unison. There were carefree smiles for miles.

My heart aches when I watch the news.  I sometimes feel as if our problems are so deep seated that there is no way we can ever mend.  But last Saturday, I had hope.  I saw laughter, and joy, and happiness and unity, and it did my soul good.

My prayer for my family, my city, state and country is a perpetual parade.  May we all recognize our blessing this week and bestow grace upon each other.

Musical Memories

Dixie Chicks (2)

Several months ago, DJ texted me to inform me that the Dixie Chicks were playing at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on the night that she and Stephanie would be returning home from overnight camp.  I don’t think she asked me to buy tickets; she told me.

I know a ton of their songs, but perhaps the most widely acclaimed, Wide Open Spaces, was released in 1998.  That was a year after DJ was born.  It was also around the time that we purchased a brand new forest green Honda Odyssey minivan with a CD player right in the dashboard.  We had hit the Big Time!

Our oldest child sucked her pacifier to the beat of Where’s Your Trouble and Cowboy Take Me Away.

In the 90’s, I was not a fan of country music.  I was more Earth, Wind and Fire than Miranda Lambert.  But my wife, she liked country, and she made sure that her daughters did too.

As songs were played last night, DJ and I had a ride down memory lane.

When the much slower song, Top of the World, came on, my oldest reminded me that I did not like the tune.  “Remember dad?  You would always fast forward this one.”

“It’s depressing.”

“But I loved it!  When mom was in the car, she would make you play it.”

“I don’t specifically recall.”

Toward the end of the song, there is a long pause.

“And every time we got to this part, you would press the skip button.”

“It’s a long pause, I’m sure I thought it was over.”

“And then I would cry and mom would make you rewind so I could hear the end, which is the best part of the song.”

“I still don’t love this song.  Makes me want to cry.”

When they played Stevie Nick’s Landslide, I was reminded how Lisa and I got into a feud about whether they were singing the word “older” or “bolder” at a certain point in the song.  I did not recall this dialogue either.

“Dad, it was a big deal.  You were both insistent that the other was wrong.”

Isn’t it interesting what kids watch and remember?

Of course, I was too cheap to purchase good seats for the concert so we were on the lawn in beach chairs.  But I was glad.  The view of the open sky was amazing that night, and there was one star that shone regardless of where the clouds moved.  I think I know why.

The Dj’s Calling My Name

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I remember several dances in high school – Elizabeth Hall was my girlfriend.  Like other couples at that odd stage of life, I put my hands cautiously on her hips.  Her arms were draped around my neck.  We weren’t like Sam and Diandra, they were clearly more comfortable with each other than we were.  I don’t think the Keywanett dance was the first time he’d cozied up to her.

In college, I took social dance as a PE elective.  There were more girls than guys in the class which was a bonus for a Freshman who was desperately trying to expand his social circles.  We learned the Fox Trot, the ChaCha, the Waltz and, most importantly, how to Shag.  Next to public speaking, that was the most practical class I took at NC State University.  I use the knowledge gained from Roxanna, our instructor, much more than my understanding and memorization of the Periodic Table in Chemistry.  Perhaps important for some careers, there is scant opportunity at the YMCA to put to use the fact that Berkelium has 14 known isotopes and that its atomic number 97.

One night after my class ended, I persuaded a group of friends to join me at Cheers, a local club, that had three distinct dance rooms:  pop, country and beach music.  It was there I decided I’d focus more on my beach dancing skills.

We were in the pop club and had run into my ex-girlfriend.  She had dumped me the week before, and it was important that I impress her.  I wanted her to get a real sense of what she was missing.  There was a large area where folks would congregate to show off their moves, but the pinnacle was to make your way to the front where there were several elevated stages, a place for the advanced to exhibit.   One stage was set apart with vertical bars as if you were dancing in a cage.  I grabbed a friend, and we forcefully jumped in front of others so that I could be on display for all, and particularly my ex to see.

It started out well but deteriorated quickly.

As Michael Jackson belted out You wanna be startin’ somethin’, you got to be startin’ somthin’, my red bottomed Dirty Buck landed on a piece of ice the previous entertainers had left.  My leg popped out from under me, and I did the most amazing, yet unexpected, split one could imagine.  I worked diligently to pop back up as if simply completing a planned John Travolta Saturday Night Fever maneuver.  It didn’t work.  It was clear to all who saw me this was ugly; a spontaneous accident.

My focus away from spastic, freestyle gyrations to more controlled movements led me to observing and working to perfect the more cautious Shag.  It is amazing how many genres of music this dance can endure.

Some couples learn to move in sync, to anticipate the other’s next step on the floor.  Lisa and I had gotten to that point.  We even practiced in the kitchen, killing time while waiting for the ground beef to brown.

There have been moments over the past six years when I thought I would never enjoy dancing again.  But, I am fortunate to have three daughters!  I have taught all three the basic Shag steps.  And now, they happily fill in when the dj calls my name.  With three, my dance card stays full all night long.

My niece told me that young folks her age don’t know how to dance.  I think, for the most part, she’s correct.  Hopefully my girls can pass along what I’ve taught them to future generations.  Without their guidance, I shutter to think of my grandsons trying to impress girls on the dance floor with my gene pool.

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.

 

46

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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.