Sunday Post 154: Feeling Again

The other day Michelle and Stephanie decided they were going to organize the cabinet in the living room where I’d crammed our hundreds of CDs. Their work gave me motivation to pull out some of the old tunes –

A little Chicago:

Everybody needs a little time away, I heard her say, from each other… even lovers need a holiday, far away from the one that I love…

As I was heading out for a three-hour drive to Charlotte last week I grabbed a handful of nostalgia and began listening – and singing – hadn’t forgotten a single word.

I do well with my grief now. I’m not wallowing in it. I seldom cry about my loss. I’ve done a pretty good job, nearing the four-year anniversary, of putting my life back together.  My counselor told me it would take that long.

But sometimes, I just need to miss her.

As I cruised down I-85, one song socked me in the gut. It was about desperately loving someone.

I could tell from the onset that listening to it was going to be emotional. I knew if I listened to it I was going to fall apart. Not slightly tear up, no, this was going to be significant.

Oddly, I played the song all the way through. And I cried. And I missed her. And I played it through again, and again, and again.

When, on occasion, I go to that place, I generally swallow hard – fight it back. But on that day, something inside me said go ahead… miss her. It’s OK. Get it out.

It didn’t ruin my day, nor my week. I didn’t get stuck there. I’m still moving on. I’m still really happy.

I just temporarily needed to feel, to feel that sad again.

Purchase Danny’s Book Laughter, Tears and Braids: Amazon or Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh

If you have read the book and are willing to write a short review, it would be helpful: Click here. And thanks

Sunday Post 133: If I could give her a gift

It’s difficult to understand this place, Capon Springs, WV , until you visit yourself.  It’s a small “resort,” nestled right across the Virginia border not too far from Winchester.

Capon has been a getaway for DC politicos for over a hundred years.  It’s less than a two-hour drive from the Capital.

Lisa’s mother started going to Capon with her parents when she was in elementary school.  They met family and friends there the third full week in August, and over sixty years later, we still do the same.

It’s quaint and unique.  Steeped in tradition, very little has changed since I first arrived in 1993.

There is a spring fed pool that stays at a cool 68 degrees.  Some call it refreshing; I call it sterilizing.  Heat it?  Absurd!  It’s always been that way.

BINGO is on Wednesday night.  This year someone suggested we move that event from the traditional venue, The Meeting House, to the covered pavilion on the golf course.  You would have thought someone suggested we dig up the golf course.  All of the kids sit on The Meeting House stage during this annual event.  Michelle said she would boycott BINGO if it moved.

“I like sitting on the stage!  There is no stage at the pavillion.  I’m NOT going if they move it!!”

The same families come to Capon year after year.  Some are blood relatives; some may as well be.

It’s often the place where you get your first kiss.  Curfew’s at 11, but if you’re between the ages of 16 and 25, it’s tradition to break it.

If you grew up coming to this place, it’s like magic.  For Jesse, Lisa’s sister Sallie and for my kids, it’s the best week of the year.   There aren’t words to describe the excitement, the buildup for this reunion.

We spent several weeks exchanging family emails about our entry into the Friday night talent show this year.  Although there isn’t a winner, you want your family to show well.  Stephanie turned 13 in June – that means she was finally eligible for the mixed doubles shuffleboard tournament.  I was her proud partner, we made it to the second round!

To get to Capon from the east, you drive over a dirt mountain road.  In our family, tradition calls for John Denver’s “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” to be playing on the iPod the moment your tires hit gravel.

The first time Lisa brought me we were engaged.  We left Raleigh after work on a Friday night and hit the mountain at around midnight.  As the car eased over the hill and winded around the curves in the pitch dark, I wondered if perhaps this woman I loved was taking me somewhere to torture and kill me.

“Where in the hell are we going?  This is like a scene from a horror movie.”

As we rounded the final corner of the three-mile Capon driveway, small 19th century buildings began to appear – and a calm fell over my body.  That relaxed state doesn’t leave until you depart.

There is no cell phone service at Capon.   Only one building has internet access.  You’re essentially unplugged for seven whole days.

Although I’ve grown to love this place, it was part of Lisa’s DNA.  I feel so guilty that I get to go, and she doesn’t.  I really enjoy the week, but she adored it.

If I could give her a gift, if I could share one thing with her, I’d give her my spot in the Capon week.  I gladly stay at home and let her return, once each year, to the place she loved so much.

She should be there, not me.

Book Update:  Laughter, Tears and Braids

Several of you found my book, Laughter, Tears and Braids on Amazon last week.  We took it down because I found five typos.  It’s going back up to be released on September 11.  If you’re brave enough to order a copy, consider doing so on the 11th.  My publisher says big sales on the first day will help in the world of Amazon rankings.  More to come next weekend, including a link.

Sunday Post 118: Bliss

Happiness just used to be.  It was constant, almost never-changing.

Now it’s not like that.  Happiness is more tentative.

I guess it’s like having a permanent job versus being a temp employee.  With a full-time regular position, you have security.  You have benefits.  You know you’ll get that paycheck every two weeks.

As a temp, the minute the staffer returns from maternity leave, you’re out.  There is no retirement plan.  There isn’t any short of long-term disability insurance.  If you have a catastrophic event, you’re on your own.

Losing someone you love is sort of like that.  The stupid happiness is gone.  Yeah, it’s possible to laugh and enjoy life, but it’s never ongoing.  Once a day or once a week or a couple of times each month, something comes to mind that drags those feelings of unease right back up.  And the long-term future you’d planned – weekends out-of-town when the kids grow up, an early retirement, places we wanted to visit, all are gone.

I wish I’d have known when I was going through the endless years of bliss that I was going through the endless years of bliss.  When they’re gone, happiness becomes less easy and more work.  And yet, I guess I appreciate it more when it’s here.

Perhaps there is value in both.

Sunday Post 114: Looking Down From Above

Stephanie and I had a date night last weekend.  We ate dinner and went to see the movie Safe Haven.

The movie is about several things, but one major component of the film is that the main character is a single dad who lost his wife to cancer.

At the end of the movie, it becomes obvious that his dead wife is helping to orchestrate their lives, working to make sure that the father and her two kids are going to be alright.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know that those who have gone before us can, in some way, help us heal and move forward?  What if they could intervene, maybe speak to us in dreams to drive us toward the good things that await us here on earth?

I’ve really struggled with that notion.  I find it hard to believe that Lisa can see us.  I think her grief would be so deep.  Seeing her in pain as she neared the end of her illness nearly killed me.  I can’t imagine her having to watch me grieve.  I can’t fathom her looking down from above watching Stephanie cry night after night after night that first year.  How sad she would have been to have missed our trip to Hawaii.  How difficult not to be there to help DJ pick out her first dress for a high school dance.

And yet, how comforting to know we’re OK.  What a relief to see us laughing, gut wrenching, on the floor guffaws.

At times I can’t convince myself that heaven has windows that can see outside.  At other times, I think she must have had a hand in, or some influence on our fate over the past three years.  There are just times that her hand seems to be on my shoulder, guiding me in my decisions.

Maybe she does help in ways we can’t yet imagine.  Maybe she is provided a daily excel spreadsheet that outlines our progress, a way of keeping up without the burden of visual impressions:

1. Washed the whites with the darks again   X

2. Joined that men’s support group  √

3.  Forgot to bake the cupcakes for special snack  X

I wouldn’t want to see her hurt any longer.  She had enough pain.  But I guess there is a part of me that hopes she thinks of us as much as we think of her.

Sunday Post 110: What counts the most

Xmas at Disney, Ham Family

It may not be the big things in life that you’re most remembered for.  Three years ago today, my wife died peacefully at Duke Medical Center.  Last night, I asked the kids what they most remembered about mom.

It wasn’t her leadership in the community or the fact that she spearheaded the effort to build their new school.  It wasn’t her accomplishments at the Jr. League or the vision she shared on the church building committee.  What they remembered most were the small things.

“Mom always wanted to shop at Harold’s at the mall.  As soon as she was finished shopping, she’d take us to the candy store right by the escalators.  I looked forward to that every time!”

Sweet memories.  Sweet,  sweet memories.

She drank diet Dr. Pepper.  Her fingernails were impeccable.  Once she got addicted to Afrin – wouldn’t leave the house without it!

She’d only listen to one type of music at a time – winter often brought country, the summer was pop.  You didn’t even think about changing the Christmas station from November 1st on.

She was a stickler for tradition – chili and cornbread on Christmas Eve and the song “Almost Heaven, West Virginia” as we drove over the mountain to our August getaway at Capon Springs.

One of the things that they miss the most is her back scratches.  “Dad, you don’t have fingernails.  Mom scratched.  You give a nub rub.”

Instead of trying to change the world, maybe I should just grow my fingernails out and take more visits to the candy store.  In the end, maybe that’s what counts the most.

Tree Traditions

For the past decade, our family has gone to the mountains Thanksgiving weekend to cut down our Christmas tree.  It’s a pretty big deal.

We get two, and I’m sort of picky.  Most years Lisa and the girls would end up in the car as I meticulously combed through each tree on the lot.  I mean seriously, how can you choose one until you’ve reviewed them all?  You gotta browse, test drive, measure, envision – it’s a very important decision.

I’ve been known to lay on the ground in front of the tree to ensure that it is wide enough for the space in our den – six feet works well.  We have A LOT of ornaments, plus I like big stuff.  I  don’t want a petite tree.  I want a hunkin’ manly one – I want to yell TTTTiiiiimmmber as it falls to the ground.  You don’t get to say that often.

One year I overshot the height, and we had to cut off about a third of the tree.  It looked odd.  But it was big.

Since Lisa died, I sort of count the day at the tree farm as a passage – I ‘m a little bit further down the road.

The first year after she died, Uncle Jesse went with us to cut down the tree.  It was really nice to have him there although the two country men running the farm determined that we were a gay couple.  They were snickering behind the barn as we coerced another hand to take our family Christmas card photo.  It sort of ticked me off – I thought maybe we were beyond giggling about that.  Plus, if I was gay, I wouldn’t pick him!  He’s just not that good-looking, and he really isn’t very good around the house.

Before we left, I introduced them to my brother-in-law and let them know my wife had recently died of colon cancer – the giggles dissipated.

Last year we stayed in a sort of seedy motel.  The kids thought the television was a microwave –

“Where’s the door dad?”

“The door to what?”

“The door to the microwave.”

“That’s not a microwave, it’s a TV!”

“But it has brown paneling.”

My kids are so dang privileged.

We went to a nearly empty restaurant with a one man band.  The girls and I danced under the mirror ball.

I thought this year was going to go off like a charm.  I was quicker than usual and actually managed to choose two trees from the $5 off lot.  Both were small enough to load onto the top of Uncle Matt’s car.  But after I’d made my choices and gotten the kids’ approval, they disappeared.  When I finally found them, they had planted themselves around a tiny tree that had been lost among the tall ones.

“Dad, we want this tree.”

“Look Charlie Brown, we have two, don’t need another, let’s go.”

And clearly in a rehearsed voice, all three said, “We’re not leaving without him!”

Yes, much like the Hostess employees, they had a minivan walkout.  The union had spoken, and there was no room for negotiation.

When I discovered it too was on the $5 off lot and would cost me a mere Lincoln, I was swayed.  Some things just aren’t worth the trouble.

When Lisa died one of her “House Rules” was:  Gang up on dad when he won’t do something that you know I’d approve of.

These chickens are taking her at her word.  It’s a hard argument for a tired old man.

Merle Norman…

I wasn’t privy to the decisions about ear-piercing when Lisa was alive.  No, she was the one who made that decision.

Although she was Presbyterian and believed in baptism at birth, that was not her view on pierced ears.  There would not be a Tanner kid with piercings until at least a decade of their life had passed.  She thought it made them look too grown up.

When she was nine, DJ nagged her mom for a year for the lobe holes until finally, Lisa and her gaggle of women friends decided that ten was in and the countdown began.

I’m not sure how these moms came about that decision, but they unveiled their calendar as if they were the Misses Manners of preteen etiquette.  Not only did they determine the appropriate age for piercing, they also informed all involved as to the appropriate age for a Facebook page (12) and the point when a cell phone was needed (the start of middle school).  No one dared ask for an exception.  The Mother Mafia had spoken.  I believe they actually signed a treaty with one another and apparently a full on embargo would be imposed on anyone straying from the agreement.

When it was time for DJ to get her ears punctured, Lisa drove her to Crabtree Valley Mall and met another mother/daughter pair at the entrance to Merle Norman.  That is where Lisa had her ears pierced approximately 25 years prior.

DJ desperately wanted to wear earrings, but she also desperately did not want a hole punched in her ear.  She apparently sat on the piercing stool three times, chickening out as Merle approached with the lobe stapler.  Finally, Merle had had enough and kicked her out of the store.  DJ then threw the most massive temper tantrum my wife had ever seen right at the main entrance to Belk.  Lisa literally carried our ten-year old to the car and locked the doors because DJ threatened to jump out of the minivan and run back into the mall.

Stephanie’s journey toward earring mecca was very different.  She turned ten four months after Lisa died.  She reminded me that DJ got her ears pierced at age ten and asked if she could too.

I actually thought it was a law in Raleigh, and I didn’t want to break the treaty – so the two of us hit the mall quickly.  It was four months after Lisa’s death.

Sweet Stephanie was so excited!  Her father was so very, very sad.  As she patiently waited looking at her barren lobes for the last time in their handheld mirror, I fought back tears.  It was one of the first milestones I had tackled by myself.  What father takes his daughter, alone, to have her ears pierced?

I suggested the silver balls; her mother only wore silver.  She agreed.  There were tears that June night, but not from the kid.

Well today it was Michelle’s turn.  I had avoided the subject because I knew the costumer in A Christmas Carol frowned upon jewelry in the play.

“There were no piercings in 19th century England!” she announced last year as a warning to those who were bejeweled.

But when one of her best friend’s moms inquired about a joint trip to see Merle, I just couldn’t turn her down.   It’s sort of a rite of passage – one that can’t be denied.  So now my baby girl has her ears pierced.

I’m beginning to see something different in my daughters.  No longer are they 100% kid.  Now I see glimpses of young women.

I wish Lisa could see what I see – the slight changes coming month by month by month.

I will take it all in for her.

Sunday Post 92: The Birthday Blues

It crept up on me again.  I wasn’t expecting it.  I thought I was just overwhelmed – too much to do, too many details.  Both true; neither my problem.

Turning 47 wasn’t supposed to be a big deal.  We never much celebrated birthdays.  Maybe an ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins – perhaps on the exact day, maybe earlier, maybe later.  It didn’t much matter to us.

Some guys rearrange their work or travel schedule to be home for the anniversary of their wife’s birth.  Not me.  Mine didn’t require it.

Lisa did throw me a party on my 40th.  She catered bar-b-q and hired a man to play his guitar in our backyard.  My father-in-law passed out beer on our front porch as our guests arrived.  My parents manned the kitchen.  Lisa and I worked the crowd – friends from all the corners of our lives.

So why the weepiness for me?  I heard the same song last week with no affect.  This week is different.

Maybe I was sad because Lisa never got her guitar player in the backyard.  She didn’t quite make it to 40.

Maybe it’s because I’m the only one still celebrating birthdays.  Maybe it drags up the anger and the frustration that the world just isn’t fair.  Why couldn’t we add her years to mine and divided by 2? 40 years for her, 80 for me – 60 for each of us.  That seems more fair.

No.  She didn’t get to celebrate 47.  She also didn’t get to pick out an outfit for the middle school dance with Stephanie tonight or quiz Michelle on her continents and oceans.  She didn’t get to read, with pride, DJ’s paper on the Iliad.  She didn’t even get to go on the Target run to buy the gargantuan package of toilet paper, giggling all the way through the store.

All of that is in a knot deep, deep within me – the anger, the frustration, the regret, the sadness.  Occasionally some of it comes out.  But not all.  There are parts of the wound that are so deep, they’ll never see the light of day.

Most of the time it won’t matter.  Mostly, it won’t be visible to the naked eye.  But a few will see, and me – able to compare now with then.

My day is over.  The cake is gone, and the knot tucked neatly beneath my spleen.  It’ll come back out; I just don’t know when.

Sunday Post 87: The Grief Relapse

This weekend marks three years since we learned that Lisa had cancer.  There are really only two dates left that without fail I will feel sadness – the Friday before Labor Day and February 24, the day she died.

I don’t typically burst out in tears anymore.  I have sad moments – watery eyes at times – but not the hard stuff.  But twice this week I had a grief relapse.  

It’s OK.  In a way, the release feels good.

As I approached this weekend, I looked back at my journal to see where my mind was one, two and three years ago.

September 2009

It’s cancer.

Fear, Sadness. What does our future hold?  It’ll be OK

Talked to Brad on the back porch – he said, “It’ll be OK.”

Talked to mom and dad, they said, “It’ll be OK.”

I don’t believe any of them.

September 2010

Not only do I miss Lisa, I miss US…She was my companion, my answer to the children leaving home – my Friday and Saturday nights and New Year’s Eve.

And now, my biggest fear, loneliness, stares me in the face – and for now, my biggest fear is winning.

September 2011

Today I began to see the sun again.  And today, I cranked open the car windows, all four of them, and the sunroof, and turned the volume of my stereo as loud as it would go, and I sang with all my might.  A woman with big hair in the car next to me looked my way – I’m sure she thought, “What’s up with that guy?”

And I thought of Lisa – but they were happy thoughts.  Thoughts of her cracking up when I sang all the words to rap songs on the way to Target.  Thoughts of her singing in the passenger seat not knowing that I was hanging on every word.  And I didn’t cry.  And I could breath again.

My grief counselor lost her husband many years ago.  She told me that there would come a time when I didn’t think of Lisa every day.  She was wrong.  Not one goes by without her face appearing in my mind.  Perhaps I’m reminded by a song or by an expression of hers now being donned by one of the girls.  Often I think of her right before I go to sleep – her side of the bed empty.

It doesn’t bother me to think of her each day.  I actually find it sort of comforting.  So I’ll not fight the memories; most are so very good.  I’ll be thankful for our time and thankful for my growth. 

I think the life I’m building has room for those reflections.

Sunday Post 83: A Really Good Uncle

Posted by Danny

Uncle Jesse moved out about a month ago.  He has been working his full-time job and starting a sports video production business on the side.  Both of his offices are across town.  We haven’t seen much of him since February.  He says his move is an attempt to be closer to where he spends 95% of his life.  I’m taking him at face value hoping his exit isn’t due to a big brother watching over his shoulder and three girls who idolize him and watch his every move.  The man has been a trooper.

His new business has him editing video into the wee hours of the night.  Five out of seven nights a week he’d come home after we’d gone to bed, and we’d be out of the house before he stirred.  We’ve actually seen him more since he left – making it a point to plan dinner a couple of times each week, catching movies and listening to his advice on what we should do to make our lives better (buy a pig, move DJ to the basement apartment, move the laundry room upstairs, etc.)  It’s just like when he lived here but even more! 

We’re still The Real Full House.  Jesse isn’t going far.  He’s still the first one I text when Michelle says something funny; he’s still the first one I call when I need an in town kid sitter; he still rolls in to razz the kids throughout the week.

Sometimes God puts people in your life at just the right time. He did that for me when Jesse agreed to move in with us in January 2010.

Jesse has more friends than Cher has hair follicles.  Everybody in town knows him – young and old, married and single, Democrat and Republican.  He’s just that kind of guy.  That is why it meant so much for him to put his life on pause for us.

I’m not sure what the future holds for him. He may continue to develop his career in sportscasting. Or maybe his production business will become the next ESPN. Perhaps he’ll get married and have kids.  If his love for my children is any indicator, he’d be a really great dad.

But regardless of what his future holds, he has already accomplished one of the most important things that one could do on earth.  You see, Jesse saved my life.  He saved my family too.

He came in to our house at our darkest hour and helped us find laughter. He danced and joked and tickled when I didn’t have it in me. He brought the music back when our most beautiful voice was silenced by cancer. 

More than that, he was my closest confidant – sitting across from me in my den late at night as I searched to find pieces of a life that was shattered.

Yea – he’s done his work. He has helped make us whole again.

I have  really grown to love Jesse; he’s more like a brother than a brother-in-law.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him.  But I will try; yes I will try.

Because he hasn’t been around much, I thought the transition would be easy. But there was just something about having his junk in the basement.  When I first walked into the house the day after he moved, two things hit me.

Wow, I’m really alone now.  I really wasn’t more alone than I had been the day before.  He hadn’t been home on a weeknight in months.  But on that Monday night, his absence was glaring.  It is interesting how stuff can be a whole lot of company.

My second thought was that another little piece of Lisa was gone. They were alike in so many ways.

And yet he’s not gone.  You will still hear Jesse stories.  He dropped by last night and wiped his sweaty basketball head on Michelle – sort of a special Welcome Home from summer camp.  We’re eating dinner together tomorrow night and went to see the new Batman movie last week when all of the girls were out of town (he slept through most of it).  We’ve had some good conversations lately about his importance in our lives – I think he’s all in for the long haul.

He has developed a really special and yet different relationship with each of the girls.  I suspect when asked by the minister at their weddings, “Who gives this woman to be married?”,  I’ll reply, “Uncle Jesse and I.”  Maybe he can just wear DJ’s Winter Formal dress.

I owe that man a lot. I thank God for Jesse and for the love and joy he has brought, and will continue to bring, to our family.

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