Oh Rats!

January 28, 2021 – Listening to Kimmie Rhodes “Send Me The Sun.

Kimmie’s story about her battle with rats is more than a tale of extermination. It is a lesson in resilience and bouncing forward and finding resources to help you get through the things you have to get through. And coming out on the other side.

When Joe Gracey’s cancer returned after more than a decade of remission, he and his wife of nearly three decades, Kimmie Rhodes, faced it head on, with their team of warriors at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.  They closed their home in Austin’s Briarcliff on Lake Travis, and moved into a long-term hotel in the hospital district for this final tour of duty that would last nearly four years.

Kimmie and I are dear friends. More than that, she has been my #1 widow mentor. Is that a thing? Yes. We have soaked in the pool until nearly sunrise, played cards from morning till night, and driven the backroads of West Texas.

A lot of tears and even more laughter. Is that okay? Yes. There is nothing more frightening to outsiders than widows chortling at the kind of gallows humor that can only be earned when you are left to pick up the pieces. 

Kimmie wins the pitiful widow lesson championship it comes to one-upmanship with her Rat Story. It begins with French cadmium oil paints and ends with an unlikely hero.   

Well, I will share the story just as Kimmie told me:

For years, I have collected beautiful oil paints.  I have a house in France and had been traveling and touring there regularly. I love to go to an art store in Paris called Sennelier that has been there since the 1880s. When you go into this store you can just feel the magic, walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists in the world: Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Monet….

This paint is not even the same as paint you can get here. Their Cadmium Red is so much more vivid. Apricots, flesh tones, burgundy all come alive. It’s made with safflower oil and organic stuff.  The colors are so rich, and just make me happy.  Instead of bringing home souvenirs, I would bring home tubes of paint, and had accumulated more than 100 tubes of oils in different stages of use in my upstairs art studio at home in Austin.

Backstory: in the middle of touring, my husband, a thirty-year cancer survivor, came home from the dentist with the news that the cancer had come back. Life got in the way of our dreams.

We went back to M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston and embarked on what turned out to be a three and a half year residency in Houston with occasional short treks back to our hill country home. I would come home for a few days and then go back to M.D. Anderson to be with Gracey.

All the while, our home was turning into a haunted house.  The wisteria I had planted near the front porch and faithfully trimmed back every season had grown up and into the eaves. Spiders were taking over with cobwebs everywhere, and everything had a layer of dust on it. And I thought I saw tell-tale signs of a rat. Or maybe two.  But that was not my priority. I’d come home, grab a few things, and go back to Houston.  

During that time, Central Texas was experiencing one of the worst droughts in memory. We live at Lake Travis and the lake dropped about 75 feet.  Then, in the heat of the summer of 2011, some power lines collided and sparked a brush fire that burned more than 6500 acres and destroyed more than 60 homes.

Gracey and I sat on the bed at the Zsa Zsa Hotel, where we were “living” at the time,  and watched The Weather Channel. Only instead of tornadoes or snow flurries, the reports were of the huge fires that we could follow on tv,as they came closer and closer, beating a path to our Briarcliff home.

The last house that burned was only a mile from our house, and then the wind changed and blew the fire back the way it had come. After eleven days of terror, the fire put itself out.

But between the drought and the wildfires, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, and all sorts of animals cut a path to run away from the fire, and what had begun as a small rat problem in the house had become a HUGE rat problem.

The thing about MD Anderson is that once you are there, you feel safe and you don’t want to leave. I’d leave Gracey and come home for a little while and then want to race back to Houston to be with him. On one of those quick trips home, I noticed these curious Easter egg colored pellets all over the house. Beautifully colored rat shit.

It was because – it turns out –rats like fat. And grease. And oil.

And I had a whole lot of really beautiful oil paints in my studio, made with safflower oil. And all these rats had come into the house through the attic vents and the wisteria vines and crimps in the roof and they found the oil paints. Since no one was living in this abandoned house, there was not any other food for them. So they got into my beautiful, vivid oil paints.

And I had zero time to deal with this. I didn’t have time to even buy a trap, let alone set a trap and wait for them to die. It was not a priority.

My husband dying was a problem. Rats were not on my to-do list.

Every time I would come home, there would be more multicolored pellets all over the house. But I did not see the rats. I did not even go upstairs. My brain was not connecting. I did not think about this being a Real Problem. It simply did not sink in. I saw these  brightly colored pellets, and wondered about it for a half second and then left.

My good friend, Beth Nielsen Chapman had lost her husband to cancer a few years before, and she was helping me through this. She flew to Houston to be with me at the hotel for a few days while Gracey was in the hospital, and I needed to go home and get some things. So we drove to Austin to spend the night, planning to drive back to Houston the next day. This was in the early days of The Infestation.  We stayed up talking well into the night, and were standing in the kitchen when I saw a rat tail sticking out from behind a broom in the corner. I moved the broom and there was this little injured rat. One side of its body was wounded so he was scooting sideways across the floor.

Now, I am out of my mind and my husband is dying and I am not paying attention to much of anything, and Beth is jumping and saying “Ew Ew Ew!”

At this time, we had been at M.D. Anderson for a year or so, and I had seen so much worse than this. I had seen so much suffering. So I was pretty hardened to pain.  Beth said, “I know! Get a shovel and we will scoop it up and take it outside, and some hawk will have a good breakfast!”

I got a shovel and looked at that rat and said, “You know, Beth, here’s what we are going to do.” And in one fell swoop, I just bludgeoned that little crippled rat – and put it out of his misery. I said we are NOT going to take this rat outside and let him suffer. I killed him instantly and scooped him up and put him outside.

Beth was horrified. She said, “Oh My God! I saw that look in your eye! I cannot believe you had that in you!”

And I said, “I just cannot stand to see anything else suffer.”

Long story. And then, my husband died.

After three and a half years, I came home to this haunted house. The lawn is dead. The garden is grown over. The house is full of rats. The wisteria vines are like Jack and the Beanstalk, and  have grown into the eaves and destroyed the porch, and what had been tearing the house down was now holding it up.

I was not in any place to rebuild. My heart was broken. I was having nightmares and trauma. Gracey died on November 17, and I came home to live with the rats. I was not thinking clearly, and I did not even know where to start.

Things just go over your head when you’re grieving like that, and the rats kind of seemed appropriate.

I remember waking up one night to get a drink of water. I walked into the kitchen and they were grazing. A rat came out from behind the stove. He was just looking at me. I looked at him and he didn’t even run. He was studying me from about five feet away. We looked each other in the eye and I said, “I WILL get you, but I just can’t right now.”

That really said where I was. I did not have the strength to deal with it.  But I was going to play on the Delbert McClinton Cruise in January and then Emmy Lou Harris had invited me to take part in her 25th anniversary celebration at the Grand Ol Opry. I planned to be gone for five weeks.

So I hired a guy to come in and plug up the holes and fix the vents, and get rid of the rats, clean up the mess, and paint the walls.  Everything was going to be clean and fresh and taken care of when I got home. He finished the job and locked up the house and reported that it was all good, and I wasn’t due home for ten days.

Right before I came home from Nashville, my son Gabe called and said, “There are rats all over the house! And they have torn it completely apart! They’ve wrecked the pantry and chewed through the lids of your liqueur bottles and eaten all the electrical cords!”

What people don’t know is that if you don’t know what you are doing, you can trap rats INSIDE the house – and that is not good. I had just paid $4000 to get rid of the rats and plug up the holes and the rats were trapped inside the house and had gone insane.

What I didn’t know then was that rats are smarter than dogs. It was like if you had twenty German Shepherds trapped inside the house trying to get out.

So I took a breath and said, “Okay, Gabe. I will pay you $25 for every rat you kill. We have to start all over on the house because it is ruined.”

He called me back the next day and said, that one of the rats had fallen in the commode and drowned. I said, “Okay, I will give you $50  for every rat that drowns.”

 He would call me every day with the rat report.

Meanwhile, I decided that this was war. I am going to get them.”

I went online and found the name of a rodent control guy with Five Stars. The best.  I booked him to come to the house on the day I got home. I flew in and drove straight from the airport to the house and met him. It was a real eye-opener.

His name was Rio Tenango.

Rio Tenango calls himself an urban wildlife remover. He has a brown beard, a round shaved head, strong teeth, and round brown eyes. He arrived with his wife. They are a couple who are passionate about rat killing.

Rio Tenango is very clever – and thinks like a rat. It turns out you have to be very clever to get rid of rats.

He immediately recognized the problem and explained that we had trapped our rats INSIDE the house. He put on gloves and those little slippers over his shoes and started scrambling all over the house. He scurried upstairs and into the attic. He pulled out the dryer and looked behind the stove.

I just sat in the living room like I was waiting for the test results at a doctor’s office. He finally came back into the living room and gave me the news.

He had discovered two populations of rats in my house, and they were probably not even aware of each other. They were co-existing without knowledge of the other colony. He said I probably had 17 rats. I don’t know how he came up with that number, but he was confident.

Then he went around the house and told me all the mistakes we had made. He was a rat expert and I paid him a lot of money.  After all, he had Five Stars. I was not going to get some three star rat man. 

Jeff, the guy who had been working on my house, had plugged the holes all right, but he plugged them at the wrong time of day. And if rats cannot get in, they cannot get out!

Rio Tenango explained that you have to plug the holes at a certain time, when the rats are out.  He said we’d need to unplug the holes and let the rats out. Then he walked me all around the house and showed me all the places rats could get in through my corrugated tin roof. It there was a crimp that I could put my finger in, the rats could squeeze themselves flat and long and wriggle into the house that way. So, after we got rid of these rats, we would have to put steel wool and caulk in every nook and cranny.

But for now, we had a rat jail.

I think I just had bad rat karma. Or good rat karma. I am not sure which.

Back to Rio Tenango. He vacuumed all the rat shit from the attic and put rat poison up there and left a place for them to escape.  After rats eat poison, they want to go outside to get a drink of water and then they die. So they needed an exit.

As he was explaining all of this to me, it occurred that he was starting to look positively ratlike. He could do great rat impersonations.  as he explained that rats are smart – and strong. He said most people don’t know how intellegent rats are. They are smarter than any other animals. He knows the way rats think. Most people don’t get that. That’s why they use rats in laboratories for scientific tests. They’re gonna hit the cocaine button every time. They’re smarter than rock stars.

And then he told me what I needed to do to get rid of the ones that were still in the house. I had pets and grandkids in the house so I didn’t want to have poison downstairs where they might get into it. 

Rio Tenango said, “Now look. I can charge your $400 to do this or you can do it yourself.”

I said, “I want to pay you to do it, but tell me anyway.”

And he wanted to tell me. He is all about rats. Have I mentioned his Five Star rating?

Rio Tenango said, “Here’s how you catch a rat.”

He said to get the old fashioned wooden traps – the seventy-nine cent kind. Not the box they climb into that is sticky or the new plastic traps. Get a dozen of big wooden rat traps, at least. And remember that rats want fat. That’s why they got into all that oil paint.

He said to use the rat traps as feeding stations. And remember that if a rat sees another rat get killed in a trap, you will never catch that rat in a trap. So you have to  train them, and catch them all by surprise.

For a week, you use the rat traps as feeding stations.  Yes. Feeding stations.

Set them up all the way around the room next to the walls. Never in the middle of the room because rats don’t walk into the middle of a room.

Every day for a week, at the same time, you feed the rats a piece of cheese in the UNSET trap – feeding stations. Then, on Day 8, you put a piece of cheese with a thin piece of fishing line tied to the trap and SET the trap. They will all go to the feeding station at the same time, because rats are easy to train and are creatures of habit. On Day 8 they will all go to the feeding station at the same time and this time, they will ALL get caught in the traps.

I left Rio Tenango the keys to my house and went far away. And they went to work.

Once the attic rats were poisoned and had left the building, and the downstairs rats were trapped in the feeding station/traps and disposed of, Rio Tenango had his people put steel wool into every corrugation, and sealed it with a special NP1 caulk that rats don’t like.

Rio Tenango knew exactly what to do.

He proved his Five Star rating.

And he gave me a four-year guarantee.

Christmas in the Time of COVID: Hallmark Holidays


I am not a big TV watcher, generally watch news channels or those true murder programs where the the Little League coach kills his wife so he can marry the teenaged babysitter, and is caught because he went to Walmart and bought a tarp and a shovel and some rope and a gasoline can, and left the receipt in the car the day before the murder.  (Note: Always toss the receipt).
In this time of COVID, I have not done any holiday decorating, and was having trouble mustering up some “cheer,” but I discovered that if I tune the TV to the Hallmark Channel and leave it on all day, in my peripheral vision, one part of the room “looks” like Christmas. Every scene of every Hallmark movie includes a Christmas tree, or snow, or holiday sweaters, or gingerbread and hot chocolate.
In case you are a movie aficionado and have not explored the depth of these movies, you really should watch one. They are mindless and simple, filled with flirtation and decorations, and if you get off track and don’t see the end of one, just catch the next one because the stories sort of morph together and it seems that they have a troupe of actors who switch roles for the different movies. In general, they have no plot, and even the non-white people look like they are darker shades of white. Everyone is beautiful in a homogenized Barbie and Ken way. And all of their clothes come from the same racks at The Mall. Or maybe the Burlington Coat Factory.
The storylines do not really build or have conflict or a climax or a resolution because, as I said, everyone is happy, dressed warmly in turtlenecks and overcoats and scarves. Lots of scarves. And they love Christmas.
So, last night, a Hallmark movie was just the ticket for holiday cheer. I don’t remember the name of the flick, but it could have been any of the titles listed above, so I will give you the overview of AnyHallmarkMovieEver.
You need to understand that no one in any of these movies works at any kind of job, because they all have spend the month of December getting the town ready for Christmas. I take that back: the Black couple owns the  “tinker” shop, and the Very Handsome Grandson lives with his grandmother, and they “own” the library, which is the first floor of their house. They host story-time every morning with the children of the town – who don’t evidently go to actual school. 
And all of these stories are in places where no one has heard of COVID, so that is an added pleasant nostalgic bonus.
The working-aged people all spend their time decorating trees on the Main Street or practicing Christmas carols for the nightly events where six to ten people walk into other people’s nicely decorated homes. The homeowners are evidently are not real Evergreen Vermont residents because the real townspeople  are all doing the singing- so I am not sure who these people are but suppose the Evergreeners might carpool to the neighboring town that lacks in its own Christmas cheer. Of course, the Very Handsome Grandson plays one chord on the guitar while everyone sings joyfully and then they drink hot chocolate at every house. 
The next morning it begins again in a Groundhog Day way, at the coffee shop where everyone eats pancakes and Christmas cookies… and plans the day’s holiday events. 
This goes on for a long time – maybe three weeks – leading up to Christmas.  
So okay, there is a little plot. 
A stranger, a pretty, young woman, comes to town to get away from The City, (but it takes a while to remember which one she is because all the young women look alike and dress alike).  BUT,  come to find out, she is a journalist ,and decides to write a story about The Town That Loves Christmas. Of course everyone is suspicious of her, because she might be just there to write a hit piece on The Town That Loves Christmas and ruin it all. (Because that is what a liberal journalist from The City would do.) 
And just when she starts to fall in love with the Very Handsome Grandson in the home-owned library, he finds a page of her story on the community printer in his living room. This paragraph of her draft article questions the validity of the Evergreen community holiday spirit. And the town turns against her, but within two minutes they have all come to love her again, because it appears that she really does have the Christmas spirit, so much so, that she gets to turn on the Christmas tree lights on the town square. The romantic tension heats up when the Very Handsome Grandson has to brush a snowflake from the nose of the Journalist.
Alas, she has to go back to The City to live her life, and I suppose, file her story. The Very Handsome Grandson comes to The City the day before Christmas to tell her that Evergreen misses her, and takes her back to Vermont on a train that is red with gold trim and no grafitti or dirt; and they all stand around the lighted tree on the town square on Christmas Eve night, wearing colorful wool coats and scarves and turtleneck sweaters, and hold hands and sing.
Throughout the entire movie, no one drinks anything but hot chocolate on the street, and fancy coffee drinks in the cafe.  
If you are not familiar with this genre, you might be thinking, “But surely, they have a mass shooting at the Christmas tree lighting” and “Do you think the Christmas train will crash on its way back from The City?” but no one is ever murdered and even the grandmother in the home-owned library doesn’t die of a natural cause. 
By the end of the movie, you may be wondering what sort of people watch these movies. You might be tempted to rewrite the movie to have at least a dead body show up at the end, or find out that the very Very Handsome Grandson is really a child predator, or that everyone in the town is in the Witness Protection Program.
And, what if the liberal journalist really did write a “hit piece” on The Town That Loved Christmas? How would that ruin it? 
I was kind of hoping for a shaggy folksinger and a hooker. But they never showed up. And no one even almost shot his eye out with a Christmas BB gun.
It  is Christmas in Hallmarkville, and everyone is perfect.  And, I do like the scarves and warm coats.
Maybe these really are scary movies, after all if your greatest fears are of a place where everyone is healthy and happy, and community spirit abounds and no one has to work, and everyone kind of becomes the same color in kind of an equal way, and they all  hold hands and sing and make  snowmen and of course, snowwomen in the town square, and no one is poor – or rich, or sick or worried.   And these movies are sort of addicting. So what if they won’t ever win an Oscar. Sometimes, it is nice to just breathe, and escape to Evergreen.
After a few glasses of Very Good Wine and one Hallmark movie (so far),  I am in the holiday spirit for 2020. 
If you need me, I’ll be drinking hot chocolate, and watching another movie. And wishing everyone a Very Merry Holiday Season.

Travels with Kimmie: Lovin’ Lubbock

I’m breaking a major secret pledge here when I tell you how much I love Lubbock, Texas. The people who get there and “get it”  – and love it –  are sworn to secrecy to help preserve West Texas’ best kept secret.  But I can’t keep secrets worth a damn.

You may remember that about a month ago, I bought a one-way ticket to Lubbock.  No one seemed too surprised. Perhaps a pilgrimage to the Hub City is yet another of the things Texas widder women do after a fashionably appropriate amount of time. Or it could have been just another oddity as I stumble along, the kind of action that good friends politely ignore.  Someone even thought I had sold my house and was moving there.

No to all of the above. It’s a long story that begins with Kimmie Rhodes and Joe Gracey; and includes Curtis Peoples and the Texas Tech Southwestern Collection and the Crossroads of Music archives;  Buddy Holly, Shere Forkner Dickey; Tamara Saviano, Kathleen Hudson, Amy Manor; and winds down with drunk monkeys, a wasp museum and lots of backroads.  And most of all, this trip is about Radio Dreams(I will be posting a longer blog all about Radio Dreams soon, but for now, visit her website for details about the project.)

Kimmie has a new “duet memoir” out that she pieced together, wrote,  and edited from journals and notes and letters from her late husband, Joe Gracey, and her own path to right where she wants to be today. The book, Radio Dreams, captures an era of desperate struggles, heartbreak, hungry musicians, amazing talent, dreaming entrepreneurs, and success that is measured as much in happiness as fortune and fame.

Kimmie and I caught up on the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches cruise in January.  My book about Delbert  (Delbert McClinton:One Of The Fortunate Few) had just launched to generous reviews. Her’s was soon to be released. It’s kind of like raising your children together. Our books connected us. She invited me to go out to Lubbock with her,  as she was donating some of her archives- journals and scrapbooks, clippings and costumes – a lifetime (so far) of memories – to the Crossroads of Music Collection at Texas Tech.

When I arrived on Wednesday,  Dr. Curtis Peoples, director and archivist at the Crossroads of Music Collection,  and archive manager Jon Holmes were deeply involved in Kimmie’s story, saving every scrap and snippet of her road to success that began in a little clapboard house on 27th Street in the heart of old Lubbock.

A quick tour of the archives led me through the collected works of The Stamps’ Odis Echols, Jr.,  and cowboy singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey; the Kerrville Folk Festival archives and Texas Heritage Music Foundation collection; the Maines Brothers and Jesse “Guitar” Taylor; and the list is growing every day.  Kimmie has delivered two truckloads of treasured memories to the Crossroads, and they are in good hands.

I have been through quite a few archives of this sort, and Curtis and Jon share a passion for this collection that is unmatched.  It might have to do with that West Texas hospitality, but there was no doubt that Kimmie’s materials have found a good new home in a working collection at Texas Tech – one of only 115 institutions in the nation designated as a prestigious research university.

We had dinner on Wednesday night with Kathy and Jim Gilbreath, a delightful couple who literally know just about everyone who has ever planted a crop in Texas, and everything about raising funds for the arts and culture in Lubbock and beyond. The dinner was great fun as we learned much about Buddy Holly Hall, a state of the art music and arts facility that will break ground soon.

Curtis and his wife, Amber have an AirB&B  that includes two suites – one, attached to their ranch-style home, and the other, my home for the week, a casita in the back yard.  Thursday morning, Kimmie and Curtis went to speak to a class,  and I stayed back at the casita to tend to some business and catch up by phone with my friend, radio legend Bill Mack. (Watch for more on Bill Mack in an upcoming blog!)

We grabbed some lunch, and then headed back to the archives to identify and mark a few more photos and documents, before heading to the Buddy Holly Center for a little Radio Dreams music and a book signing.  Did I mention that Kimmie is an Ambassador for the Buddy Holly Educational Foundation (sharing the honor with a dozen or so people including Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger,  Duane Eddy, Dolly Parton and more). She played her commemorative Buddy Holly guitar, presented by the foundation.

After the Buddy Holly Center event, we jumped in the car and headed for a dinner party at the home of Dean Bella Gerlich (the dean of libraries) and her husband, Grant. But, because there are no straight lines to anything on this trip – we got to swing by Kimmie’s childhood home  for a quick trek down memory lane.

The dinner guests included those of us who would be on the panel, “Women and West Texas Music,” on Friday night, and a combination of about twenty really cool “town and gown” folks. Kimmie and I ran into our long-lost soul sister, Shere Forkner Dickey, who promised to take us on the full tour of Lubbock on Friday afternoon.

The next day, we wrapped up the work at the archives, went to lunch with Curtis and Shere, and then we were off on The Big Tour. First stop – the  Lubbock Walk of Fame, where we paid homage to Delbert McClinton and Tanya Tucker, Barry Corbin and Buddy Holly, Sonny Curtis, Mac Davis, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Keys, and more.

Then, we rode over to the site of the original Stubb’s Barbecue – now a memorial site with a beautiful sculpture of its namesake,  created by homegrown sculptor and Stubbs aficionado, Terry Allen.  A born and bred Lubbock girl, Shere took us through the back gate of the cemetery, where we visited Buddy’s grave.

I should insert here that these are traditional Lubbock landmarks,  and I was with two of the best sports and tour guides  I have ever traveled with.

After the cemetery tour, we went over to MacKenzie Park, where generations of Lubbock kids have lost their innocence. We drove through the American Wind Power Center, where they have every fashion of windmill ever created – even one that looks to be directly from the Netherlands! We continued through the park to Joyland. Now, this looks like every kid’s dream amusement park – circa 1964. Built in 1949, it boasts of exciting  Tiltawhirls and Bumper Cars, a Carousel and more.

But alas. Joyland was locked. It was not open for the season yet, so we stood outside the gates and peered in, practically tasting the pounds of cotton candy and miles of funnel cakes that have filled the tummies of generations through the years.  But we were Locked Out.

We were not disappointed for long. Shere gunned the engine and made a u-turn out of the parking lot, and we were off to Prairie Dog Town in a cloud of dust. To heck with JoyLand.  I hopefully asked, “Will we see any prairie dogs at this time of day?” (About one in the afternoon – the heat of the day). “Of course,”  these Lubbock natives both laughed.  “Prairie dogs are always out!” And did we ever!

The City of Lubbock has a wall about 30 inches high around a large dirt field. Nothing grows in this little “town” except Prairie Dogs. I later read about them on the City of Lubbock website and it suggests visitors bring carrots or other vegetables to feed the little rodents. They look like tail-less squirrels – and are incredibly playful – dodging one another and chasing around, ducking into the burrows in a critter version of hide and go seek.

The Crossroads of Music archives notwithstanding, this was the most educational part of our trek – as we read the kiosk – and learned that prairie dogs are pretty smart. They are interior designers with multi-roomed dens underground.  We learned a lot more but wound up spending most of our time being thoroughly entertained by these  West Texas versions of cartoon’s Chip and Dale.

We stopped by the grocery store and drove through miles of cotton fields – (where Kimmie graciously jumped out of the car to pick some real Lubbock cotton for me to take home) and  then took a tour of Shere’s beautiful home in the middle of a huge cotton field; with enough time to get back to the house and clean up for the panel discussion to be held that night.

 

The panel discussion was Women and West Texas Music, sponsored by the Crossroads of Music Collection at Texas Tech University. The locals had mentioned the cultural competition in Lubbock that night, with the opening of a community theatre production, a Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakum concert, and, of course, a televised NCAA Basketball Championship playoff game which the Red Raiders handily won. Yet, we managed to pull a comfortable crowd at the International Cultural Center for this event and book signing, with Kathleen Hudson, Tamara Saviano, Amy Maner, Kimmie and me talking about things we know.

After an evening of fun, we headed over to Shere’s house for the afterparty.  Kimmie tried to teach us all to drink Rosé, and we filled up on snacks, warming our spirits with new friends and great stories well into the night before heading back to our casitas for our last night in Lubbock.

Saturday morning we slept in and got the car loaded. Curtis led us to a delightful Mexican food restaurant with a little New Mexican flavor. A good breakfast had us on the road before noon, heading back to Austin on a six hour drive.

Note: Six hours becomes more like nine and a half when you have adventurers in the car. We came home the back way and took several side trips through the residential section of Snyder, the museum district of Ballinger, and the best barbecue joint in Llano. We stopped at a couple of junk and treasure stores, and rolled into Austin at about nine pm.

 

Lessons from Lubbock: Laughter truly is the best medicine. You would be hard-pressed to find more entertaining traveling partners than Kimmie Rhodes and Shere Forkner Dickey.

It may have been the West Texas wind. It may have been the flatlands. It may have been the company I kept. But I am pretty sure I have not felt that much freedom in a long time.

And I came home

Lovin’ Lubbock.

 

Listening to: “Radio Dreams” by Kimmie Rhodes

 

 

Gimme A Sign….

2:18 am

48 hours ago just about now, the transplant team wheeled my son, Sterling, out of the CICU pod and down to the operating room for his long awaited heart transplant. It has been an amazing whirlwind – and in “Transplant Time,” the doctors and nurses are calling the day we are entering “Day Two.” We had Day Zero, Day One, and today.

This morning, I am sitting a genuine Naugahyde recliner in Sterling’s CICU pod, and thinking of all the blessings of this week. Here’s my wee hours update. I will eventually gussy it up and write an essay. – but here is the stream of consciousness. For now.

Some of you know how much I have sought a sign from Mark that he is on the other side, or the Rainbow Bridge, or wherever people go. A real sign.  That it’s going to be okay.

Not a tails-up penny in the parking lot – but a genuine sign – that could be argued to be more than a coincidence.

And for the most part, I had pretty much given up on A Sign.

Day Zero was a Tuesday.  August 1st. The early morning hours. Sitting in a straight back chair in the Critical Care Waiting Room, watching a loop tape of the local cable news channel (because they evidently lock up the remote at a decent hour and the channel cannot be changed without it), I had plenty of time to think – and connect dots.

On Tuesday morning, time to think about this year – and the fact that here we were. Marking yet another dreaded Tuesday milestone in this never-ending year since Mark died – thirty Tuesdays ago.

But wait.  Here is something good happening on a Tuesday – maybe our luck is changing. And a less particular person might take this as A Sign from Mark. After all, I had come to dread Tuesdays – and this particular Tuesday marked seven months of Tuesdays since The Day.

And so, I gave a nod and passing commitment to stop grumbling about Tuesdays. Perhaps this was a stretch in “a sign from beyond.” Maybe a nice coincidence, but it gave me a smile.

I was more than a little anxious as I sat waiting and watching the clock – and local cable news. Our daughter, DeLynn had sent me a text that said “It’s underway.  It’s okay. Dad’s got this,” signed with a smiling face emoticon with a halo. It was going to be seamless. Hmmm.

Seamless.That was always Mark’s favorite word to remind me to stop worrying – and that things are going to work out.

And the transplant went like clockwork. Tina, the transplant coordinator and Michael, the OR nurse, updated me every hour during the transplant surgery. Two hours before the anticipated end time, Dr, Kessler, the transplant surgeon came out and told me that it was, indeed, seamless. A success.

In fact, he said, as soon as he had stitched the last ventricle, this really strong heart began pumping so hard that it nearly knocked an instrument from his hand!

The transplant team, the clinic staff, and others stopped by throughout the day, telling us they heard how well he as doing – and Sterling knew every staffer from the heart institute by name. After all, he has been in their office every week since June of 2015. Many of the medical professionals who stopped by had tears in their eyes as they obligatorily Purelled® their hands and came to pat his leg and give him a thumbs up.

Sometime later on Day Zero, Leslie, the Transplant Team Social Worker came by and we visited as Sterling dozed.

“How long have you been here,” I asked,
“Since the beginning – 1986,” she said.
“How many heart transplants has your clinic done?” I asked,
“Over 400,” she said, adding, “I used to know exactly – and knew them by name and number, Sterling is in the 400s, but I don’t know the exact number. I will go back to my office and look it up.”

Day Zero passed in a blur as people came and went – testing and poking and prodding.

As I played a few hundred domino games on my phone.

And then I got a text from an unidentified number.

The text read: 417

I had no idea who it was from – or what it meant. I wrote back:
?

My text tone blinged immediately and the message read:
“Sterling is the #417th heart transplant for Seton Heart.”

Leslie had gone back to her office and looked it up.

Granted I was tired.
And emotional.
And more than a little grateful for all of this.
But with that text, my knees buckled and my eyes welled up.

417.

Just three numbers. Unless…

It’s a sign.

Mark and I were married on April 17.

417.

Sterling’s heart is #417.

Thanks Mark.

I am going to take this “sign.” This afternoon, I told Sterling that if I were ever to get a tattoo, I now know it would be the number 417. But where? And does it hurt? What color tattoo is a good all-season accessory?

My friend, Johanna, offered another suggestion.
Maybe I could do with a nice, simple,  James Avery bracelet with 417 engraved on it.
I would never take it off.

xo
diana

__________

Listening to The Lucky One by Raul Malo

 

Resolutions, revelations and restorations.

One of the handy options in WordPress is the ability to write headlines when we don’t have time to actually sit down and write an entire blog.  Later, we can come back and jog our memories and write something profound – or doodle around the margins until something sticks to the page. That is how it usually works. But today,  an old headline brought with it much more meaning than originally intended.

This weekend, I sat down and started to putter through the dusty corners of this long-neglected online diary.  I have been in quite a slump and have not been able to write much of anything. Maybe I can kickstart my brain by playing with this blog.

I had last logged in on April 1.   That was the day I had written an email to close friends and family members about Mark and how he died. I pasted it into blog form. Before that, it was late January, when I pasted the words I said at Mark’s memorial service.  But I  never got around to hitting “publish” on either one of them. Until today.

Then, I went back to look at some drafts and headlines from Before. Resolutions, revelations and restorations. This was a headline/idea I saved on January 2, 2017.  In case you have not been following along, that was Before.

I wonder now what  my resolutions would have been if I’d taken the time that day to write some words.  Mark’s foot surgery. Trips to the beach and Texas hill country. A refresher course for Barkley at Dog School Austin. Some landscaping around the pool. And regular entries in this blog.

Those plans seem pretty unremarkable in the After.

Knowing that my only faithful reader is my good friend, Janice Williams, I think she would have written back and jokingly complained about me kicking her into gear and we would have agreed to be better about writing this year. Sometime between then and now, I have misplaced my resolutions.  The bulk of my revelations have involved gut-punches. But there have been some major restorations along the way.

Resolutions 2017:2.0: To-do lists, phone numbers, probate, refinance and other tasks fill three Moleskine journals,  as my resolutions have gone from us-plans to basic survival skills. There was a moment early on when  I thought I might write down actual feelings and work my way through this somehow.  That was a frivilous thought. I could barely write my name. One day, I wrote out a check for the housekeeper and didn’t even recognize my own signature. Even my handwriting has changed. The thought of going in to change my signature card at the bank crossed my mind. Add it to the to-do list.

I am marking some of those perennial resolutions off my list forever. You know, the ones that come back every year. They are not nearly as important as they were Before. Who really cares if I organize the garage  – this year or never. Starting now, I am going to work on putting one foot in front of the other every day.  I am going to heal. And see where I go from here.

Revelations: I have a bucket full of these.  And many are blessings. Women. Friends. Sisters.  This is family.  Real people who may or may not be related by blood, but are really Here. And who say and do the right things. Or nothing at all.  Those who do the dirty work with and for me, like juggling their schedules around the probate court. And those who email and call and insist that I really should go out for frozen pizza at an old friend’s house, or to a girls’ night slumber party out in the country – to chicken dip in a pool, and laugh at and with ourselves. (By the way, I learned a new phrase this week: toC chicken-dip is to skinny-dip in your bra and panties.)

And those who let me cry. And be angry. And sad. Those friends ask how I am today — rather than a simple “How are you doing?” And they tell me they think I am doing better.  And in spite of myself, sometimes I believe them. I may not be better than last year, but I am definitely better than last January.

Restorations: The  most obvious is that I have a fabulous new Talavera-tiled bathroom. My bedroom en suite reminds me of San Miguel de Allende. A good place. It’s bright and cheerful and warm, and I know that Mark would love it as much as  I do.

I have successfully rearranged the furniture in most of the rooms in the house, and even though the living room arrangement is anything but Feng Shui,  I was just going for different.  I didn’t want to walk in and immediately look for Mark in his familiar place on the recliner. And no. The arrangement really doesn’t work this way, and I have stubbed my toe on the corner of the displaced ottoman several times. So yes, I am probably going to rearrange it again sometime this month.

The first hundred days were a fog. I don’t remember details but can look back in Moleskines and be reminded of important names – of coroners and mortuaries,  probate judges and appraisers, and painters and tile masons and plumbers.

The main restoration I am working on is The Second Hundred Days. Along the way, the kids and I were all together when we realized that we were on Day 98. Someone pointed out that we had come pretty far from that horrific first day. Looking back, I guess we had. The meltdowns had grown further apart, the tears were no longer several times a day,  and the construction crews had quit coming in waves.

Today, we are almost halfway through the Second Hundred Days. In fact, I am writing this on Day 141. After.

Somewhere along this journey,  I decided that this  hundred days would be my chapter of Revelations: The Time of Me. I have started going to a sweaty, no-frills gym and am trying to take better care of myself. I redid my office and am getting more organized. And looking at ways to make myself stronger, happier and more secure, in all aspects of life. And I am struggling to learn to let myself have some fun along the way.   I really do want to learn to be happy again. Recognizing that I have to “learn” is a step in the right direction. I am grateful for those who offer to help.

I don’t know what Forever will look like. I don’t even believe in Forever anymore. I have lost a lot of faith in a lot of basics that I once took for granted. Mark and I promised each other we would never take one another for granted. We kept that promise till  the last time I spoke with him.  We knew all along that  we would not have as long as we wanted- but Mark always believed in Forever more than I did. He knew he would have my heart as long as he lived. I guess I always knew the reality. I would likely outlive him. And I wanted more.

I am tired of the “how to grieve” gift books. A mountain of these books sits next to my reading chair in the living room. Grief guides tend to be like travel books, telling you what is around the next bend.  This is not a trip – like DisneyWorld in Three Days or A Week in Kaua’i.  Some of the well-meaning titles are really bad. And I have come to realize most of the advice just doesn’t work for me. So far, I have found two books that I will carry with me through this journey: Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B and Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gifts from the Sea.

I am weary – and wary –  of platitudes. I am tired of being angry when people ignore what happened.  Or say, “I know how you feel.” Or compare this to someone else they know who lost a kitten or a mother or a grandfather or even a spouse through natural, albeit sudden causes.

No.

It. Is. Not. The. Same.

And I know now that I will never be the same. I am different now. It’s not easy. But it could be worse. I see improvement. I am not sitting on the ground in the front yard sobbing. That deliniation between Before and After will always be January 3, 2017. I will never look at the New Year with the kind of excitement I did before.

But I made it through the memorial. And Valentine’s Day. And our wedding anniversary. And Easter and Mother’s Day and a couple of our kids’  birthdays. And I am still standing –  most of the time.  Maybe that is a good enough goal for now.

It’s After.

And i am still here.

 

_______

Listening to In This Life by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

 

 

 

 

 

 

i

Burying the Lede

Dear Friends,

I cannot say thank you enough to each of you for what you have done for us over the last eleven weeks and four days (but who’s counting).   To  say that it has been a struggle would be an understatement. But we have all grown a lot since January 3, 2017.  In a single instant, I learned two of the most important lessons of my life.

I cannot control anything, and I cannot fix everything.

I have also learned enough to write a book about what to do – and what not to do – for grieving families. Wow! The what-not-to-say book is something we have already begun to smile about – if not laugh out loud.  (Note: Do not call a widow who lost the great love of her life less than a month before, and tell her that she is going to be okay because she’s “still marketable.”)

On the other hand, our extended family, friends and community have raised the bar so high in Being There. And, equally important, in Giving Us Space.  Amazing meals. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Chocolate Covered Almonds. Advil PM.  Dog Walks. Bringing Toilet Paper. Tequila. And Trash Bags. Pantry Organization. Spice Cabinet Alphabetization. Folding Clothes. Going to the Laundry. Haircuts. Crystals. Moving Mark’s Clothes. And Moving Them Again. And Taking Them Away. Holding My Hand. (And kicking my ass a couple of times when I was just being pathetic).

And after the memorial, you were still here. A phone call away. (though I have been avoiding the phone so please forgive me if I have not returned calls promptly).  A knock on the door when I thought I wanted to be alone and I needed you most.

And so here we are. It’s been eleven weeks and three days since I lost the great love of my life. I cannot say enough about how amazing the past thirteen years have been. Mark took my breath away.  I kicked my foot up when he kissed me. And we laughed.

And since January 3, I have been heartbroken and lost.

Our lives have changed. All five of our children are closer than they have ever been, and I feel closer to each of them than ever before. Maybe in part because of those two lessons it took me this long to learn.

I never wanted to let them see me weak – and not in control – and not able to fix things.

Today, the meltdowns are rare. Not completely gone.  I do stand in front of the gift bag (yes,  a red paper gift bag with white fiberboard box that fits perfectly inside and holds Mark’s ashes) and say, “What the hell am I supposed to do now!” pretty regularly.  And my heart skips a beat when I see something I want to share with him right now and remember.

He’s not here.

As much as I have struggled with what happened, I have been stumbling over what’s next. I considered writing a blog, but quickly realized that I didn’t want to read some pathetic tome about getting through loss. There are plenty of people doing that. Geez –  I would even avoid my own blog about that.  I thought about writing a lot of those thoughts I have been meaning to put down in my Moleskine journal.

Just for me. And I will probably do that sometime.

Meanwhile, life is going on. For the past year, I have been coordinating and producing a video project that will be shown in police departments across the nation about resiliency and recovery, and how the actions of the first responders immediately after a traumatic event  (specifically active shooter events) in a community or a neighborhood or a family can start the recovery at the scene. We are talking to survivors, and heroes and community leaders – folks with boots in the ground who helped in the recovery. Lessons learned. Things that worked. Things that didn’t.

Little did I know that I would face my own boots-on-the-ground experience on January 3 of this year.

It was a fairly normal day.  Mark was suffering from what we thought was a terrible allergy/sinus infection. We had been in the ER a few days earlier where he was given allergy meds and antibiotics.  He was scheduled for foot surgery in December in San Antonio – complications from diabetes that had limited his mobility to the point where he was unable to drive and only walk with a walker. The surgery had been postponed due to the upper respiratory issues and was on the books for January 19.

I was leaving on Jan 5 for the Delbert McClinton cruise, to pre-promote the book, and rest and relax and listen to great music. Mark loved the cruise,  but could not go this year because of his mobility issues. DeLynn was planning to come in and stay with him while I was gone, and the other kids were going to pitch in and help with the usual routine.

Mark woke up as I was getting ready for work, and asked me if I was “hearing all of that noise.”   I heard nothing. He  said he heard voices like someone had been injured on the lot next door to our house, and was screaming for help.  There was nothing.

I said that maybe he was half dreaming and he agreed. He got up and started his morning routine.  I said, “I love you,” and he said, “You’re gorgeous,” and I laughed, and gave him a kiss, and went to my office.

I had to run an errand and stopped by the house at about 10:30. He was sitting in his chair, watching CNN. He was planning to have a salad for lunch. Routine conversation. I said, “I love you, have a good day.” He said, “Love you too. See you later.”

Mark and I wrote emails, text msgs, and notes to each other all the time. I generally went to bed before he did, and it was not uncommon to wake up the next morning and find a late night love-letter email waiting for me to start my day.

I got an email from him at about 1:30 that afternoon. “Just watched Paul Ryan get sworn in. Ugh. Think I’ll go take a nap. Love you.”   I was busy and didn’t get another email from him.

In journalism lingo, here comes the part we call “burying the lede.” It means beginning  the story with details of minor importance while postponing the most newsworthy or essential facts.

I left the office a little before 5, got home and he was not in his usual spot on the sofa. I went into the bedroom and he was not on the bed. Barkley was laying across the doorway to the bathroom.  I stepped across him, and Mark was slumped in a chair. I thought he had hit his head or vomited. There was something all over the floor and blood everywhere.  I grabbed him to my chest to try to fix him, and said,  “Oh no. Oh, Mark.” And screamed for  Patrick, who was in his room, with headphones on – working at his telecommuting job.

I rant to the living room and dumped my purse and found my phone. Patrick ran with me back into the bathroom. He was reaching for Mark to move him to the floor when I saw the gun – on the floor of the closet next to the chair– where it had fallen after he pulled the trigger.

The firearm was a family heirloom – a Colt .45 that his highly-decorated Marine Corps father had purchased in 1943, and carried with him through WWII, the Chosin Reservoir in Korea, and leading the 11th Marines, 1st Marine Division through Viet Nam. Mark  had showed it to me, and told me  stories about it, but I had never seen Mark shoot it. In fact, he never shot a gun in the thirteen years we were together.

Patrick and I were both on the phone with the 911 operator when I saw the gun. She told us to go outside and we did –  clinging, holding one another, down on our knees on the sidewalk, sobbing. The fire department, EMS and police came. They asked me who I wanted to call. Who do you call? I asked for my colleague who just retired from the local SWAT team.  He would be able to deal with the process. John Curnutt arrived quickly.

Our neighbor, Brian Burleson, drove by the house and saw the commotion, and went directly around the corner to the Porterfields’, our best friends. He told Winton, “A lot of emergency vehicles are at Diana’s and Mark’s. Joanne Prado (the Justice of the Peace) just drove up.”

Winton was at our house within minutes. Kim arrived soon after. We were all journalists. The JP arriving with emergency vehicles can only mean one thing.

We started making calls. Our family has blended famously, and it is hard to say stepchildren  – or mine and his – but I called “my” kids,  Jenni, Sterling, and HalleyAnna got to the house quickly.  Patrick made the hardest call. He called his sister, DeLynn. I told him to call his mom, Becky, and ask her to come over too. DeLynn drove up from Katy, and was here in record time.

That evening and the days to follow blurred together. I knew that there was little I could control anymore, but one thing was important enough to push through the fog.  I did not want everyone to know that Mark had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

I did not want him to be defined by that final moment.

(As an aside, the final toxicology reports from the autopsy revealed severe kidney failure, possibly contributing to hearing voices and gaining a substantial amount weight in the last two weeks)

When the Austin American Statesman reporter called to ask me about a news obit, they asked how he died. I said “From complications from diabetes.” I will stand by that. The diabetes was at the root of all of his illnesses.

Mark did not leave a note.  In fact, he had  a pretty normal day up until he decided to end his life.

He had paid the electric bill online, and written the mortgage check earlier on that ordinary day. No. He didn’t leave any indication as to why he did this. If he made the decision that he was not getting better and did not want to spend more time in hospitals, filling up with prescription meds and being basically locked up at home, I am going to accept it.  I don’t really have a choice.

The kids have been unbelievable.  At least one of them is within arm’s reach (or at least their phone number is) any time I feel like I might stumble or fall. They are pulling together and surviving their own challenges while keeping an eye on me.

So, we got through the first couple of weeks. We got through the memorial service. We got through getting the cremains (in the red paper gift bag).  We got through sorting through Mark’s clothes, and giving them all good homes. And I got through Valentine’s Day. Our anniversary is right around the corner. And Barkley is constantly by my side. Faithful.

And here I am today. Eleven weeks and four days from the moment Mark was pronounced dead.

Suicide.

My life is now divided by an indelible demarcation  – BEFORE and AFTER January 3, 2017.

Last Tuesday, while working on the video project, I found myself in a debate with someone about the use of the word victim vs. survivor, with regard to community tragedies and school shootings. I considered the mortally wounded “victims,” and those who lived through it “survivors.” The other person said he thought everyone involved was a victim.

I said, “Victims give in. Survivors go on.”

And then I went home and wondered which word describes me.

The  next day, DeLynn sent me a text about an “Out of the Darkness” walk at the University of Houston. Hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, it is an event that is dedicated to providing support to those affected by suicide.

She wanted to create a team to raise money for the AFSP, to bring the stigma  of suicide “out of the darkness,”  and to memorialize her dad, but first needed to be sure I was okay with it. I said, “Of course. I am glad you are doing that.” She asked if I was sure – because, she said that if she does this, she wants to tell the story.

The stigma is real.

Today, I don’t know who among our family and friends knows and who doesn’t know that Mark’s “complication from diabetes” was, in actuality,  a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I have come to believe that most everyone knows, and, thankfully, you are too polite to ask for the  (literally) gory details. I have tried to give you all of the details in this email, and answer the questions you may have.

I have no more answers to any questions, and I really have a difficult time talking about it.  When people wisely nod and say, “Oh yes, everyone’s grief is different,” it is often followed by examples of what worked for them. And I have pretended that whatever they said would help.

But it’s getting better.

I have learned a lot in the last few weeks. It was only last Friday when we finished dealing with the insurance claim for remodeling the bathroom, and we paid the contractor. And I have put great effort into imitating the person I used to be.   Which leads to people saying, “Wow, you are doing great.” Or “It’s good to see you back in the swing of things.”  And I try to smile and say, “Thanks.” And “Fine.” And “Yeah.”

I am glad that DeLynn’s idea of the walk was the catalyst to make me realize that I am coming out of the darkness, too.  I am cautious. I am sad. I miss Mark terribly. And most of all, I do  not want him to be remembered for the last thing he did in his life. I hope you will remember  what an amazing, wonderful, romantic, funny, smart and loving man he was. And how happy we were together.

I listening to my wonderful psychoanalyst, and taking her advice. I have learned that post traumatic stress is real, and am dealing with this the only way I can.  I can’t talk on the phone.

I cannot have a conversation about this – because there is nothing more to say. Now you know all that I do.  I am going “off the grid” for a little while. I desperately need to take some quiet time for myself. And both my psychoanalyst and internist have told me that I need to start focusing on myself. And try to heal my broken heart. I am the only one who can do that. I guess I understand it will take time and I have to take some baby steps to get there.

Then I will turn the page or start a new chapter in my life. It may be a whole new book. Thank you for being there.

Love,
Diana

__________

Listening to Theme from M*A*S*H* by Michael Altman and Johnny Mansel

Instead of Sheep

(Diana’s remarks at the Celebration of  Mark’s Life, January 22, 2017)

Thank you all for being here today to honor Mark Hendricks, the greatest man I have ever known.   If you have known Mark, seen the tribute website, or heard the words and songs here today, you are going to know a lot about him.  Please allow me to tell you a little you might not know.

Before we began dating, Mark was diagnosed with health problems that had gone undetected for too long and had already caused other complications.  He  warned me that his doctors had told him that he might not live eight to ten more years. Even if the doctors were right, we had found each other and we knew what we were in for – and we vowed to celebrate every day loving one another.

On January 24, 2004, 13 years ago this week, he asked me to marry him. Today, I can honestly tell you that I would have wished for forty more years with the great love of my life. But we got thirteen so I guess we “beat the house” on that one.

As you know, Mark and Becky had DeLynn and Patrick, and Kent and I had Jenni, Sterling and HalleyAnna.  Blending a family can be a challenge, but ours came together, even if often in a chaotic way.  Patrick and HalleyAnna grew into kindred spirits as they grew into adulthood. .DeLynn asked Jenni and HalleyAnna  to be bridesmaids in her wedding, and Sterling quickly considered Patrick the little brother he always  wanted. Through chaos and fender benders, boyfriends and grandchildren, we have watched the family grow.

When Kent died in 2015, I was there. When Mark died, Becky was here.

Remember when they used to call those “broken homes?”   We are thankful for this blended family gathered here today.  We are family. And I am so proud of each of you. And we are so blessed to have Mark’s 92-year old mother Mary living within walking distance.  Not only do we get to celebrate all of our holidays together,  but she has led by example and offered me sound  advice for getting through this time of heartbreak and sadness, in the true manner of a  Marine Colonel’s widow.

In 2014, when we adopted Barkley from PAWS animal shelter – Mark was convinced that it was Barkley who rescued us, rather than vice versa. Barkley is pretty much the best dog in the world, and I don’t make such boasts lightly.(Note that we have never made such claims about  any of our five children!)

We have filled the past thirteen years with the stuff that sappy love song are written about.  We have had fun and traveled, had parties and good friends. Kim and Winton Porterfield are about as close to next of kin as we can get. And the outpouring of true friendship in the past two weeks has been overwhelming. I will never be able to thank each of you enough for all you have done to help us get through this time.

We were so lucky.  Who knew love could be so easy? We have chronicled those precious years in notes and journals, cards and letters.  On our first anniversary – the traditional paper gift year –  he wrote a note to me on a standard sheet of paper. It began with: “Paper is an interesting substance. It can be torn but also has remarkable strength. Take a typical piece of paper. Yes, if you start at one edge, you can tear it apart. But if you hold it by two edges at the same time and try to pull it apart, you can’t do it.  There’s something meaningful about the kind of strength in paper. One of us could be torn, but together we cannot be pulled apart…”

He was right.  We have stumbled,  and hit a few walls, but we were never pulled apart.  Father Ben reminded me this week that Mark and I are still together, and it’s okay to still talk to him – and hear him –  – and be “us.” Even if It is in a different way.

Mark brought three important lessons to our marriage that have served us well.

  1. We are on the same side. We never argued. We debated sometimes but we were on the same side – we both wanted the best for US – and we knew that working together, things would work out.
  2. Do one thing at a time.. Do your best, and move on to the next thing. (That has certainly come in handy in the last couple of weeks.)

3.. “It will be seamless. Trust me.”  Stop worrying . When I would fret about the what if’s and consider all of the bad things that MIGHT happen, Mark would remind me what his father told him. Generally if you are in the right place doing the right thing, for the right reason, it will work out. But Worrying is not going to change the outcome one way or another.

 

While I am talking about platitudes – I have one more to share.   We had a wonderful – if uneventful new years eve three weeks ago – at home alone – watching  the new year roll in across the time zones, listening to one after another of our favorite songs on our playlists.

As we were toddling off to bed well after midnight,  Mark said , “You know,  we should get a giant rock  – big enough to sit on – and set it out back by the pool.  I want to put a plaque on it that says “Instead of Sheep.”

I said, “Instead of sheep? What the heck does that mean?”

Quoting the Irving Berlin song from our favorite holiday movie, White Christmas,

Mark said,

“You  know:

If you’re worried and you can’t sleep,

 just count your blessings instead of sheep

And you’ll fall asleep,

counting your blessings.”

 

So that is my next project.

Instead of sheep.

Thank you.

______________________________

Listening to: Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep  by Bing Crosby

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Resigning my commission

newer_sleeker_wonder_woman_tiara_by_zigorc-d61rsdg.jpgToday. I am respectfully resigning my commission. Turning in the tiara.  I  have finally come  the realization that I don’t have to try to be Wonder Woman anymore.

As is customary with strong southern women, firstborn children, and peasant stock, I was raised to think that I was The Fixer.  My goal in life – my predestined profession – was to be Wonder Woman. And I guess I was pretty good at fixing things and making it work– from dead car batteries to broken spirits.  Mine was the generation of self-improvement books. Entire sections of bookstores (remember those?) were devoted to empowering us to be all things to all people. Maybe I skimmed over the self part of self-help.

My generation was one of New Pioneers. We came of age on the cusp of the second generation of women with (almost) equal rights — we knew we could Have It All if we worked hard enough. We learned about getting a seat at the table and breaking glass ceilings. We cracked the pantyhose Legg and laughed at our mothers’ girdles. And believed that we all we needed to do was keep climbing – and climbing – and continue to prove our competency at all things for all people.

It didn’t stop in the workplace. My generation of mothers raised our children with stacks of books next to our chairs. We championed Benjamin Spock, and fought for legislation for car seats and bicycle helmets. My generation proudly created hyper-parenting and helicopter moms. And some of us couldn’t let go. I believed that parenting came with a lifelong contract.

It has occurred to me in recent months that my adult childen have morphed into these fairly competent hybrid adult friends.   And they don’t really need me to  hover and offer advice and tell them how they ought to do things. In fact, they will be better for it if I let them fly and make a few mistakes and learn from them — like our generation did. And I have permission to let go. We can land that helicopter now.

Community. It has always been important to me to be a community organizer, activist, volunteer and, when necessary, leader.  But I started looking around tables as i sat on   advisory boards or planning committees and I saw a room full of people my age  or older – somewhere between 48 and death.   Where are the 20s and the 30s… and even the early 40s.  Who is giving them a chance to become community leaders?

And so today, after much consideration, I am resigning my commission as Wonder Woman. I am proud of the accomplishments of my generation – and I am grateful for the opportunities to serve my children and my community. The glass ceiling has cracked if not completely broken – and I am comfortable with my professional life.

And now it is our turn. The way I see it, my generation  has a new challenge. Letting go without guilt. I am going to try to pioneer that movement  – at least for me – starting today.

I am proud of our children and believe that they have and continue to learn to make good choices. I cannot deny them the privilege of learning life’s lessons for themselves. And deciding what they want to do to make a living and how they are going to work toward their own dreams. And I will be respectful of their decisions.  Our children’s generation has a new battle to fight. Who is going to write the self-improvement books about that?   Someone needs to write Overcoming Hyperparenting  or Letting Go Without Guilt.

It’s  been a good job  but I believe my work is done. I am looking forward to a  new  chapter in life, one  of relaxation, love, respect and friendship with those great human beings that we have raised and come to know. They have earned their independence.

My well-worn and slightly tarnished tiara is going up on a shelf. My track shoes are going in the trash,  and I have landed the helicopter.  It is their turn.

I am still dragging a little guilt around – but am learning that it is time to let go. It’s my turn to focus on happily ever after with the great love of my life and those dreams I have put off for so long.  What are your dreams? What is your happily ever after?

It’s  our turn. We can fly. But we have to give ourselves some quality time.

Listening to  I Can’t Be Your Hero Today by Jimmy Buffett

 

 

 

Letters.

We open the mailbox most days to a pile of circulars and bills. The closest we get to personal  letters are invitations to fundraising events and an occasional wedding announcement. Sometimes I am tricked. The envelope looks hand-written. A real stamp is affixed to the top corner, a little crooked.  But it’s just a sales pitch from a car salesman or a financial planner who wants to buy us din11741225_10103148670196777_7941987607073222440_o.jpgner at the local steakhouse.

I’m guilty. I don’t hand-write, stamp and mail letters either. I guess  I should lower my expectations. But I do have two very special letter writing pen pals.

My good friend, Janice Williams recognizes the value of archiving our lives through correspondence. She is a geneaologist  (why does that word insist on autocorrecting to gynocologist?) and has connected with family members all over the country and collected their stories. She has even written a book about the Cunningham Family that is so good, people outside of the family want to read their story.  She had names and vital statistics, but she dug deeper. Found pictures and letters, and learned  the stories of her ancestors. How would she have done this without old letters bundled and tied with string. How will our generation be remembered?

The internet seems to be the answer to everything. So the information superhighway will probably take care of  our birth and death stats, marriage licenses and other legal documents. Most likely, handwritten letters will go the way of the quill and ink well. Are we really hearing arguments about whether or not to teach cursive to school children? Who needs it?

A sidebar here: No Cursive? How our grandchildren to read such great works as the Declaration of Independence? How will they read signatures? How will they understand the phrase, “Put your John Hancock right here…” How will they…. Oh.  Not to worry. There will be a New Way.  It will be better.

Back to Letters.

Janice and I write email letters back and forth with fair regularity. She is one

of my best friends. We live 30 miles apart and make a point of seeing one another at least three or four times a year.  And we always

say we are going to do this more often.Time and life get in the way of those plans, but we stay connected. We don’t depend on those visits to keep us up to date. We know what is going on in our day-to-day lives by way of letters. Janice is a great writer. We push one another to write more – not just letters, but blogs and magazine articles and just everyday stories waiting to be told. We know our current prescriptions and latest diet plan and favorite new wine,  and share the ordinary days in our lives. While the letters are not necessarily filled with earth-shattering news, they touch us. Connect us. And bring us joy. Sometimes, one of us or the other will j

ust send a quick note: I owe you a letter! so that we know to expect something soon.  It’s better than The check is in the mail.

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Pals.

My other pen pal is my son, Sterling. He lives about ten miles from me, in the same town. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” Like David,  Sterling has traveled much in Central Texas. He has a good eye for seeing things the rest of us might miss. He has a wonderful knack for storytelling, and a beautiful way with words. We don’t write to one another about the weather or the latest headlines. Mostly, lately, we write about the great people, stories, writers, teachers, moments in our lives – and one another.  We might throw in an occasional dream or goal.  A theme to our writing? It might be No Regrets.

One of our favorite songs is Kilkelly, Ireland. Written by Steven and Peter Jones, it is the true story of John Hunt,  an Irish emigrant to America. The song is based on a box of old letters written between their great-great-grandfather, Brian Hunt, and his son John, their great-grandfather.  The father, Brian was illiterate, so the letters were actually written by dictation to the local schoolmaster, Patrick McNamara, a family friend, who mailed them to America.  Steven and Peter found the forgotten box of letters in their grandfather’s attic.

I am grateful for boxes of old letters.  And for cursive. And for people who like to receive and send letters.  And for Janice and for Sterling. My pen pals.

Listening to Kilkelly, Ireland performed by Robbie O’Connell. . 

The Great Book of Unfairness

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A friend of a friend decided that there really should be a Great Book Of Unfairness. And that people should write down everything that is unfair in this Great Book and let it go. So she set forth to do that. She passed the book along to some of her friends to pass along and send back. It wound up with my friend. And in the fullness of time, my friend passed it along to me and told me that I had a week or so – and one page.


The Great Book of Unfairness came to me in a big black briefcase. Like the kind someone’s dad used to carry to The Office in the 1960s. The book is the size of a Houston telephone directory, it was bound, black, hardcover, with bright endpages with quotes. You could say the book was heavy with the burden of unfairness.

About 60 people had written in it. Some wrote one word. Some filled their page.  Someone just doodled around their paragraphs and daydreamed about what they wanted to say. Someone almost tore a hole in his page trying to erase something that maybe wasn’t that unfair after all.

Day One: What a great idea, and I am glad I get a chance to write in it. I have a lot to say. I need to gather my thoughts. Only one page? Will I have room?

Day Two: Granted, it’s a big page but where do I begin.  I should write in small print so it will all fit. I probably should write with a pencil with a very sharp point in good handwriting. I can use that good box of Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils. My handwriting used to be good but I’ve gotten out of practice since I rarely write words with a pen anymore, unless you count the occasional signature on one of those screens at the grocery store when they say credit or debit, or doodles on the side of an agenda as my mind wanders in stifling meeting.

Day Three: Organize, I think. Don’t waste this opportunity.

My head spins as I think about how to put the unfairnesses in order.

Chronologically?

By level of importance- or greatness?

Alphabetically? I am sort of blocked. I cannot think of an “A” unfairness that is worthy of this list. Wait, I just thought of one.

Day Four: I know – How about if I start with the self-created rule of promising to let go of the personal unfairnesses that I write on My Page. Will I be able to do that? Do I want to make such a commitment?

Day Five: Should I begin with those unfairnesses that have fallen on me personally, or those of a more global magnitude? I’m thinking it would be a little unfair to have to give up my page to those big picture things. But then again, it is sort of a big page.

Day Six: Maybe I should divide the list into columns: Personal unfairnesses | General unfairnesses | Global unfainesses | Historic unfairnesses | Friends and Family Unfairnesses …

Day Seven: Has it been a week? Where has the time gone? I am starting to feel panicked and a little guilty for not doing this already. Maybe I should just write one sentence and draw some stars and circles around it and let it go. Things will slow down tomorrow. I will do it then.

Day Eight: No. I cannot just scrawl out a sentence and send this book on its way. This is My Chance. Not just for me, but for my friends who don’t get to write in this. I am going to sit down and start that list tonight.

Day Nine: Maybe I should not have started a “draft” list on a legal pad with a pencil. Lessons learned: Unfairnesses are hard to categorize. It is hard to come up with equal numbers for the Personal list and the Global list and the Historic list. And when my personal list starts to get long, I feel obligated to add those poor children with cleft palates in the ads in the Reader’s Digest, and people who don’t get Morton’s Iodized Salt so they get big ol’ swollen goiters on their necks, and wildabeasts that get run down by lions and die painful deaths. And while those are huge unfairnesses, they seem sort of generic and general, and they seem to diminish some of my personal unfairnesses… and then all of a sudden my pencil is getting dull again.

Day Ten: Maybe I ought to just use a nice roller ball pen and just push on through with a few random thoughts and scratch out and make edit marks when I mess up and when I get to the end of the page, I should just close the book and let it go. I am starting to think that I am overthinking this opportunity.

I have to start somewhere. It’s my turn. It’s my page. So don’t judge me. That would be unfair. *I really do have a strong social conscience, and I am sorry for all those things in the world that are unfair that are too many to list here.

I am going to start at the beginning of my life and use this whole page and let go of the things I write about.

… to be the firstborn child of an 18 year old girl who deserved much more. And before she knows it, that mom is raising three kids by herself, and then she is 34, and has a 16 year old daughter who is getting to do things she never got the chance to do. But it’s not fair. She’s only 34 – or 36 or 40… .   No matter how successful the mother’s life may become, she can not get past the youth she sacrificed.  It’s not her daughter’s fault. And to be fair, it’s not her fault either. From a distance it’s easy to see the problem and to rationalize how to heal and improve relationships, and believe it is not too late. But up close, things blur out of focus and lots of lines are crossed. Someone owes someone something. Or maybe no one owes anything at all. And no one quite knows how to let it go – or hold on. Unfair.

… to try to not make mistakes with my kids. To read all the books on parenting and relationships , and debate whether to use cloth or disposables, or schedule feedings or feed on demand, or piano lessons or t-ball, or television or books, and believe with all my heart that I am doing the best job I can do – and then to suddenly have grown children and see as clear as day, all the mistakes I made, and feel sick about it, and wish with all my heart for a do-over. My greatest fear is that my children will resent me for not being the parent they deserved. I know now that I could have done better. I read somewhere that a parent only gets 936 Sundays between the time a child is born and he or she reaches the age of 18, to spend quality time doing something worthwhile. Boy, I wasted a lot of those days. And I didn’t do that great of a job some of the time. But there are no do-overs. Unfair.

…to finally find the great love of my life and truly know that if I get to spend fifty years with him, it won’t be long enough. To know that his was my last first kiss and that THIS really is happily ever after. And know that we won’t get fifty years. That we might not get twenty years, and we have already had almost eight years of this. And to wake up sometimes and wonder what life was like before US. And if I will be able to accept the inevitable with grace, thanksgiving, and Winnie-the-Pooh and Dr. Seuss-esque platitudes like “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Be happy because it happened.” Is this an unfairness? Maybe not. But it is a useless worry that is far beyond my realm of control. So I am going to put it here and try to let it go. Unfair.

…to have let myself go. To carry an extra 40 pounds and to not have the willpower to make a life change. To know rationally that all things would be better if I invested more time in self-improvement and less time in self-destruction or laziness, but not having the core drive, motivation and self direction or whatever it is that some people have – to make that change. Unfair? Maybe that is not the word I am looking for.  

When it comes to tying knots in a length of ribbon to let go of my worries, or writing words on a page to let go of unfairness, maybe my list is not as long as I thought it would be, after all. Maybe I don’t need a whole page in this book after all. In the big picture, my unfairnesses are couched in good fortune. I have a mother who wanted to fight for me almost as much as she fought with me. I have children who, if you asked them, probably think I did okay by them, at least today. I have a husband who loves me, and we both recognize and cherish our good fortune to have found one another. We know our time together is precious and try to make every minute count. And I am going to see what I can do about that self-improvement thing. Writing those words in this book  is a giant step forward.

While I am not an overly evangelical person, I have been, for the most part,  what can be deemed a “good Episcopalian.” And for anyone has read this far into my trivial list of unfairnesses, I want to share this benediction that my friend and priest, Ben Nelson offers: “Friends, our time here is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those around us. So be quick to love. Make haste to be kind, and be assured that God is infinitely more concerned with our future than our past.”

And I think that’s fair.

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Afterword:

I wrote most of this essay in 2012 – after my week with The Book. A young friend is going through a rough patch right now and I told her a little about it. I went back to find this essay and update it. And today – three years later, I have learned that it helped to make that list, to  write all of that unfairness down. And let it go. Glue the page together. Burn it in a fire pit. Tear it into tiny pieces and scatter them to the wind.   Or just save a file in the bowels of your computer.   Did the unfairness go away? Did everything get better? Well, yes and no. Butterflies are not circling my head. But since the day I closed that book, I feel stronger and happier and – I guess “at peace” with unfairness. It’s out there. In a book. In a briefcase. Somewhere. Just one page of many contributed by people who have had much bigger and somewhat smaller and louder and quieter unfairnesses in their lives. And three years later, I am glad I saved this essay and dusted it off to read again.

I told my young friend to get a journal and write her list of unfair things in it. And then glue the pages shut. And to keep writing – and doodling – and dreaming. And in the midst of her to do lists and dreams and plans and wishes and wants, to start writing one good thing every day.

And for those good things, she can have all the pages she wants.

Listening to: I Had A Real Good Time by Delbert McClinton.