Happy Bird-Day

My family always had a bit of fun with me at the Thanksgiving table when it came my turn to say what I was thankful for. Maybe I waxed a bit too poetic about deployed soldiers, the homeless and the lonely. I just felt it needed to be said. Eye rolls and sarcastic cracks aside, I still do.
Recent events in my life, while debilitating in some aspects, have had a profound impact on my ability to be grateful. It is almost a superpower. I have so much for a guy with so little. The best part is that it lasts all year, not just the holiday season.
If you live with the knowledge that no matter your situation, someone always has it worse you will achieve a generous spirit that will survive more than one Thursday a year.
This time of year there is an abundance of people who show up at pantries and shelters to volunteer. Sometimes people are even turned away because too many show up. But in August they are begging for volunteers. The need doesn’t go away when the trees are taken down, neither should the spirit. Giving doesn’t have to be a grandiose gesture. A simple smile and a good word may be all someone needs to have their faith in humanity restored or energized.
No-one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
I am grateful for my family and my friends. I am thankful for all kindness and generosity, regardless of the scale. My goal is to spread that mentality like a bee spreads pollen.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. If you have a little extra spirit, I’m sure someone would love a slice.
Every day can be Thanksgiving with the right outlook.

Where you are is where you are meant to be

Today was a good day.

One year ago today I showed up at the town Food Pantry to hand out Turkeys and meal baskets to the less fortunate in our community. I was already a steady volunteer each Saturday but the Thanksgiving event was a separate, annual occasion. Our Pantry really steps it up, I think it’s the most generous around, we give absolutely everything one could ever need for a Thanksgiving feast including multiple Turkeys. We offer frozen and fresh, and I was charged with helping hand them out. As the youngest person there, charging me with manual labor made sense. I took my station on the Tailgate of Pete’s F250. Pete was a nice older guy, and as the day progressed I would learn that he had stage 4 Lung Cancer. Yet there he was, in the cold, handing out Turkeys in the cold. That day I went home feeling as if I was destined to have met him. I even wrote a post about it that nobody read. You can read it here if you would like.

Today, a year later, I worked with Pete again. I made a point of telling him how happy I was to see him. He was happy to be seen. He was one year older, much weaker and thinner. But he was there. He needed more help than last year and I was feeling good so I took the load off of him. I was proud to share a soul-warming endeavor with him. Little did I know that  today my heart would be challenged again.

I had gone to pick up a Christmas tree with another guy and when I pulled in to the pantry I parked behind a very decrepit Ford sedan. When I got out of my truck I noticed that the door was half open and the driver seemed to be struggling with it. I approached the driver and asked if she needed help. The gaunt, wrinkled face, adorned with an oxygen tube that greeted me was heartbreaking.
“Is this where the Turkeys are being given?” she asked me. She had labored to get the sentence out. The oxygen didn’t seem to help her, she was almost gasping for breath.
“Yes, in addition to a whole bunch of other goodies.” I replied. “Are you coming in?”
“I am, I’m just having a hard time getting out of my car.” Her labored breathing tugged at my heart.
I opened her door and helped her out. It was snowing and she was parked on an angle and really struggled. When she finally made it to her feet, I sized her up. 80 pounds at the very most, soaking wet. I assisted her up the driveway.

When we got inside, she claimed her allotted food. We offered her 2 turkeys, she insisted on one but we talked her into another. As I picked up her box of food I realized it weighed at least 50 pounds. There was no way that, even if I put it in the car for her (which I did for everyone) she could ever get it out. I portioned the box out into bags. When done, I concluded that she still would not be able to carry them. I knew what I had to do.

I walked with her to her car, 5 bags in one hand and 2 turkeys in the other, and loaded it into the trunk. I opened her door for her and helped her in. She thanked me for my help and said
“I’m June. I hope you have a nice Thanksgiving. You’re very kind.”
“I think I can do more” I replied. “Can I follow you home please, I would like to help you bring all of this heavy stuff in.”
“Oh, I could never. I have a friend that I can call. And my place is very messy.”
“June, may I insist? You also have a low tire. It’s snowing. I’d like to make sure you get home safe.”
She reluctantly agreed.

It was a slow ten miles. She drove very slow because of the weather and her tire. When we arrived at her apartment I knew from the humble exterior that the interior would be worse. I got out of my truck and met her at the trunk of her car. I knew she would try to grab some bags, she was very proud, so I grabbed them before she could. She laughed a little and led the way up her unshoveled walkway.

Entering her apartment I confirmed that it was indeed humble but it had a certain charm. She had plants and grow lights, some interesting décor and decent furniture. The only real clutter was about 75 feet of plastic oxygen tubing all over the floor. It was her lifeline of sorts.

After a slew of “Thank you’s”, we talked for a bit. As sad as her physical appearance was, her story was worse. June lived alone. Her youngest son is serving his 7th (yes you read that right 7th) tour in Afghanistan. Her other two sons are divorced and they moved to Kentucky. One ex-daughter in-law is still in the area with one grandson who is disabled. She has Emphysema from Asbestos exposure. When I asked her about Thanksgiving and who would be joining her she thinks that her ex-daughter in law is coming over. After hearing all of this I asked June if she had a pen.
“Why do you ask?” she replied.
“Because you are going to write down my name and my number and you are going to call me if there is ever anything I can do for you. You call and I will be here. Promise?”

She teared up a bit and she did. She said she will. I went outside and found my portable air pump and extension cord in my tool box. I found an outlet on the outside of her building and pumped her tire. Then I left.

When I got back to the Food Pantry a couple of people praised me for helping her. I personally couldn’t imagine not helping her. One lady, a regular volunteer, cautioned me about how some of our “clients” are “Sponges” and that I should be careful with my efforts. I couldn’t disagree more.

Basic kindness is the definition of a oft-misused expression…”it’s the least I can do.” Helping others, even in a small way really is the least that you can do. And you can do more.

I’m glad I met June today. In fact, just like last year, I think I was supposed to meet her. It all started by putting myself in the right place at the right time, and where I needed to be.

 

sleepless nights

He met her when she was just 18. He was 23
She was a waitress, working through School
He was a dropout line cook, working through his issues
She would later say that it was love at first sight
For her
To him, she was too young
overbearing
clingy
without boundaries
serious

She made excuses to be near him
to get him to notice her
He wasn’t ready for anything steady
but She was starting to look good

One day he noticed her
where a girl once stood there stood a woman
He weighed the situation
decided He was ready for a regular life
She would later become his wife
It was good for a time, but they soon found
There was less in common
and too many differences
but they made a go of it
they bought a house, started a family
did their best for the kids
they became civil strangers

She was unhappy, incapable of joy
He tried to please her, appease her
He thought he could fix her
but it wasn’t to be
She sought solace elsewhere
not in the arms of another
but in a friendship
an obsessive
fucking destructive
friendship

Her friend became her support
her comfort
her everything
He didn’t understand, but He knew
that He no longer mattered

One day it came to a head
that She would leave him for dead
if forced to choose
He wanted to leave
He sat down with the kids
He loved them so but hated the fighting
they loved their dad so
they asked him not to go
He wiped his tears and dug in his heels
and He stayed

This lasted for years
until His health failed
the job was gone
the money ran out
She told Him to find somewhere to live
and they went their separate ways
For a year this lasted, neither one initiated
the ugly topic of divorce
“for better or worse” indeed
the “better” was a memory
the “worse” was all that remained
completely resigned, together they signed
on the dotted line
to the end of a once great story

They now live far apart
She has 2 of his kids, the other 2 are grown
He sees them rarely
talks to her barely
He thought he would savor it
the lack of contact and newfound freedom
but he grew to miss Her

She is not well, in the head and the purse
He wants to help, but is barely able to help himself
He feels bad
obligated
wants to save Her
the bad memories aren’t enough
to set Him straight

He dreams of her at night
bad dreams of Her with another
He wakes and agonizes over why
He doesn’t want her when he’s awake
why does He care if She takes a lover
But He does care, he aches to know
Was it just him?
why were His advances rejected
his affections neglected
forced to sit outside the door
as she cried in the dark

did He drive her away?

He knows it would kill him
if She were to love another
The only answer he can live with
is that She gave up on love
and not just him

He still asks himself how
that 18 year girl of so many years ago
who loved him so much
would one day stop
and just walk away

 

 

The Reunion

When the 5th Reunion invite arrived I immediately discarded it. Likewise with the 10th. I wasn’t ready. The scars were still fresh and sore to the touch. When I opened my mailbox to see the invitation to the 15th, I decided I would go.

I arrived, with my wife of three years on my arm and a bad attitude. I had caustically joked to her in the elevator that “the same people that didn’t talk to me in HS can have the luxury of not talking to me tonight.” I left that night not knowing if I was right or wrong, her father had a heart attack and we hurriedly left after only an hour.

I skipped the 20th. And the 25th. I was too busy, too tired, too fat, too poor, too unsuccessful…let’s face it…too full of excuses. I just wasn’t in a good place. I wasn’t prepared to talk to people about my life because I felt like a failure. I had visions of regaling people with details of my remarkably mediocre life and then sit in the corner and drink until it was time to slip out the door.

I went to the 30th with a slightly better attitude. I reconnected with a few old friends and made small talk with quite a few people. But I confirmed that I was still largely a Ghost. The people that didn’t talk to me in HS didn’t talk to me then, my caustic joke  of 15 years before had proved correct. It would later occurr to me that I didn’t talk to them 30 years ago either. It was a sobering, powerful lesson. You get what you put into things. I decided that I hated reunions and would likely not attend another.

My terribly negative, yet persistent view of Reunions had clearly stemmed from my HS experience, or lack of therein. I left HS unfulfilled and unhappy. I had few friends, few prospects, and few memories. I tried too hard to fit in. When I failed to, I drew within. I walked the halls looking at my feet instead of making eye contact. I worked a lot. I dropped out of clubs and quit teams when I got the slightest bit of grief from classmates. I ran Cross-Country because it was a solitary sport.  For years to come I blamed others for my lack of fulfillment because I wasn’t yet mature or aware enough to put the blame squarely where it belonged, on myself.

It was liberating to stop casting blame. Reviewing my High School years with a clear, honest eye, I realized that it was mostly a giant missed opportunity. A regrettable one at that.

When I received the invitation to the 35th Reunion I immediately decided that I would go. It was time to cast the monkey off of my back once and for all.

When I arrived at “The Shoe”, the place was full. I took a deep breath and walked in. I wasn’t concerned with “measuring up” against others, and I was genuinely interested in the lives of my peers without the burden of jealousy or envy. Fully prepared to say, if asked:

“Hi, I’m Bill. You probably don’t remember me. I was the color of the walls in HS. I went on to have a unremarkable career and a failed marriage. I’m on Disability. I lost almost everything to End Stage Renal Disease and I may not be alive for the next one of these. But I have 4 amazing children that I live for.
It’s goddamn good to see you though. Hey, where are you going?!?!?!?!?”

I never had to say that. Here is what happened instead.

Everyone looked great. Everyone was happy. Drinks flowed and conversation roared. The people that I recognized, I talked to.  I had a few conversations with people that I didn’t know so well. I saw most of the people that I had hoped to and definitely missed opportunities to chat with some that, after 35 years, were still strangers to me. I mused to myself, as I sat in the corner nursing a beer, the old proverb “A stranger is a friend you haven’t yet made.” As true as it was, it was a bit late for that with most in the room. I needed to be OK with that.

I left early. I didn’t feel well and was struggling with light-headedness and headaches all night. But I’m glad that I attended. For so many years I actually thought that I was the only one who had struggled in HS. That everyone else loved High School and would all grow to be happy, well-adjusted adults but me. It was when I realized that life maybe didn’t turn out for them as planned, that they maybe struggled in HS, and life after as well, that I finally gave myself a break. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you planned. All I can say is, I struggled for years to find myself, until I realized I was me all along.

It was great to see everyone. I wish I knew you all better. I wish I had made more memories to laugh and reminisce about. Alas, as the saying goes…there is no second chance to make a first impression.

 

Someday

It’s a tired bit from movies and sitcoms.

Someone, when faced with losing a friend to marriage, or moving, or some other life-changing event says something to try to make them change their mind.
“But what about our plans to hike the Appalachian Trail?”
“Who will I travel Europe with?”
“We were going to make that movie.”
The response would be, to great audience applause, “Dude, we have literally never done any of those things.”

I always got a warm and fuzzy out of those gags because there is some truth to them. We do often envision ourselves doing something different, something exciting, something completely out of our comfort zone. Some are goals, others pure fantasy and others are doable, if one is able to overcome the logistic or emotional challenges that hold us back. Logistical challenges such as being employed, married with children could make hiking the Appalachian a challenge. Emotional challenges such as fear of flying make traveling Europe unlikely. Then there is the fear of change, a likely crippling yet common emotional challenge.

I have indulged in such yearnings myself but I failed to capitalize on the opportunities provided by youth of being free and unencumbered and able to go and do anything anywhere. Elements of my life always forced me to push those yearnings to the back burner. I worked and made money but I didn’t save any. I lived on what I made and before I knew it I was living to work and not working to live. Unfortunately, that never changed. Still, I had things that I wanted to do someday.

“Someday” is a wonderful notion. It is the carrot at the end of the stick. The mechanical rabbit at the dog track. It is the want of future “stuff” and “experiences” at a time when we have all of our shit together, are financially secure, and emotionally and physically able to do the “want-to’s” that call to us through open windows as we toil through the “have-to’s” of life. As we age, or sink further into the harsh requirements of survival they seem farther from our reach. Many, through planning, good decisions or good fortune reach that point. They successfully raise their kids, manage their careers and finances and eventually buy the boat, RV or Beach House, travel to Europe or spend the winter in Florida. I applaud them. They recognized, worked towards and then achieved their someday.

That’s not me. Still, the “somedays” call to me. They beckon to me to drop everything and just go. To shake it up. To jump out of that plane, run with the bulls, to get the adrenaline pounding through my tired veins again. My reality rejects them.
“Sorry, I’m just too tired.”

Fortunately I am a simple man that has never assumed or envied wealth. If you were to ask anyone who has talked with me over drinks about this and they will tell you that if I had a Billion dollars, I wouldn’t be much different than I am now. I wish for enough of basic things. Enough money. Enough food. Enough enjoyment and satiation. Rich enough to not worry when my oil light comes on. If I were to indulge in extravagance, I would want a small house on the lake, a new truck every 2 years, a snowmobile and 2 spaces in the garage for a rotating stock of American muscle cars. I would still wear jeans and flannel shirts.

I am now single and no longer working. My children are grown. All of the logistical challenges with the exception of financial have been removed. I may have only enough in the bank to travel to the end of my driveway but I am able to attempt some modest adventures. This should be a very encouraging time for me to chase a few “somedays”. Unfortunately, in the place of the aforementioned removed obstacles, the specter of illness has clouded my horizons. It has rendered me weak and requires me to be close to home. My somedays, despite their simplicity in scope and cost are very far out of reach. In short, my simple dreams went from Goal, to Unlikely, to the morbid status of Bucket list, the status that implicitly denotes an urgency to do certain things before you die.
Fortunately, I do not fear death. I have faced it several times and have handily beaten the bastard each time. What I fear is a life unlived. If given the gift of clarity when I take my final breath, I hope to look back at the film reel (gag reel?) of my life and see that I left it all on the table. Then I will die happy. I will hopefully be remembered as someone who left an impact on those that that I met.

I have accepted the fact that I am not going to live a long life. Reconciling with my mortality has been liberating and I am thankful for the lessons it has taught me. I learned to tell people how I feel about them today, I don’t want to talk to an unresponsive slab of granite later on. I try to be honest, grateful and kind to my fellow man because all of these traits are vanishing from society at an alarming rate. Finally, I learned to live for today.

Yesterday is gone, today is almost over, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. My “someday” is not as far off as it is for others. Each day is a gift, that’s why it’s called the Present.

the 2 fat Firefighters

3 AM on a Monday. I awoke to the most intense cold I’d ever experienced. I was shaking violently, uncontrollably. My teeth were chattering so badly I feared I would break a tooth. I was on the couch where I had fallen asleep watching the game. I frantically grabbed for my blanket. Covering myself, I begged aloud for it to stop. It was no relief. I somehow mustered the strength to get up and trudge up the stairs, hoping my bed would provide some relief.
I was beyond cold, I was scared.
I crawled into bed and wrapped myself in the blankets, everything had to be covered down to the last toe. The trembling continued for what seemed an eternity. I had never experienced anything like it. Finally, it stopped.

Cold. So cold. The thought of a finger or a toe escaping my cocoon absolutely terrified me. I knew this wasn’t normal, something was terribly wrong with me. I needed to yell out to my mother downstairs; I needed to reach for my phone to dial 911. I needed to do something. But I didn’t. It was just too overwhelming and so very, very cold.
You may die, a voice in my head persisted.
“I don’t care”, I fired back.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

“Bill, you need to wake up! You’re going to b e late for dialysis!” my mother said in an elevated, scared voice. I faintly recall her doing this several times. I vaguely remember sitting up once in bed, when my blanket fell off I grabbed it and fell back into bed. The next thing I remember was 2 heavy Firefighters carrying me downstairs.

The next thing I would remember was waking up in the ICU. Struggling to focus through the bright lights, I saw several nurses bustling about the room and my mother and ex-wife in the back, chins on hands.
“Where are the 2 fat Firemen?” I croaked.
My Mother joyfully exclaimed to my wife “Yup, he’s fine.”

In the 6 days I spent in ICU and the 5 spent on the Cardiac floor I had plenty of time to gather the pieces. I was haunted by the grim faces of my family, by the cautious explanations of the medical team. I had a feeling that I had been to the 9th gate of Hell and no-one was telling me how bad it really was. I knew that I had lost 2 full days and I wanted answers. Fortunately, my ex-wife stepped up to the plate.

I had gotten an infection in the dialysis port in my chest.
I had gone on 2 ambulance rides. One to the local, useless hospital that was unequipped to treat me. They iced me down to control my 104.9 degree fever and shipped me 60 miles to a better hospital. I don’t remember one second of those rides.
I had been sedated with a breathing tube and catheter as antibiotics were pumped through me.
The port in my chest had been surgically removed and I had been given dialysis through a temporary access in my groin. You would think I would remember that.
At one point I tried to rip my breathing tube out of my throat. It took a team of very strong nurses to restrain and sedate me. I did this in front of my entire family.
My wife was preparing to tell my children that I was gone. My DNR had been discussed. It was that close.
I had Sepsis, at a 104.9 fever a man my age has a high risk of brain damage. When I asked where the 2 fat Firefighters were, I had proved that I was indeed fine.
Last, and perhaps most significant, and I say this without drama…I almost died.

In my 11 day stay, I was haunted by the unknowns. When my ex filled me in on all of the unpleasant details I had more questions than answers. Sure, the doctors told me the essentials, but I’m thankful for family for telling me the truth and for their support.

____________________________________________________________________________________________
Once I was alert I began my recovery. It’s what I do. The doctor’s were astounded at how fast I bounced back. I don’t know what the expected recovery time is, but I beat it in street shoes. After 8 days in bed, I was told that I would be working with Physical Therapy to see if I needed to go to a Rehabilitation center.

The next morning I was asked to get out of bed and try to walk. It was amazing the amount of strength it took just to sit up. I was in a complete state of Atrophy. With the assistance of 2 therapists, I attempted to walk the hallway. I was weak, dizzy, unable to support my own weight. I made it 6 steps before needing a wheelchair. It is astounding how much strength I lost by being bed-ridden.
I was told that my going home was contingent upon my physical strength and ability to walk out of there.
By the end of the day I was able to walk the hallway 6 times unassisted. The PT Therapists were floored. I was sent home 2 days later.

I have been home for a week. Recovery is slow. I’m weak and still haunted by how close I came to a dirt nap and by the unknowns. I have no memory of almost 3 days and it bothers me deeply. However, nothing bothers me more than being visited by my Mom’s best friend, who was at the hospital with my Mom when I was admitted. Her first words to me were,
“I have to tell you, I never thought I’d see you again.”

Yeah, that’s not something you hear often. Nor do you want to.