Friday, July 31, 2009

Free Advertising

Well, dad and daughter and cat are home safe, but they had an adventure.

They started with a day and a half of hard packing and loading the truck and hauling trash. By the end, they were packing trash in the truck, since it was closer than the dumpster and the truck had extra space. The second night was camping out on the apartment floor. Dad went for the grunge look - didn't pack his razor and there was no shower curtain, therefore no shower.

Bright and early Wednesday morning they headed up Interstate 75, dad driving the Penske rental truck with daughter following in her little Hyundai Accent. About an hour and a half into the trip, even before a breakfast break, dad gets a call.

"My window exploded!" Daughter has pulled over to the side of the road and doesn't know what to do next. Dad has no clue what has happened since his side mirrors don't allow that view. He takes the next exit, four or five miles ahead, then doubles back ten miles to the exit he needs and finally comes up behind her. Her driver's window is shattered, with glass everywhere around her, and the side of the car looks like it's been sanded by a buzz saw.

Truly thank God for cell phones and tempered glass. When the Florida highway patrolman arrived, they together determined she had been side swiped by a semi-tractor trailer. The semi was likely moving back to the right lane after passing a rest stop. The box of the semi's trailer hit her window just before its wheels raked the body of her car. The trucker never knew he hit someone. She didn't see the truck since the shock of the breaking window was so distracting. The patrolman said a semi hits a car without noticing at least once a day on that stretch of interstate.

You often see cars on the side of the road, by themselves, and you wonder what happened. Now you know.

The car was driveable, so they made it the few miles to a nearby Penske dealership. Yes, there was a car trailer available but it was parked behind a truck with a dead battery. So more time ticked by as they replaced the truck battery to move the truck to get to the trailer to attach to our truck. Daughter had to drive the car up on to the trailer, since she was the only one small enough to squeeze behind the wheel. She did a good job for someone whose life really had just flashed before her eyes.

After the three hour delay, they were on the road again - a shaky dad and daughter and a nervous cat in the cab of a Penske truck pulling a car taped up with plastic to keep out the rain. Shortly after their re-start they drove into thunderstorms. Dad called to let me know he expected lightning to hit them soon.

But lightning didn't strike, the plastic covering on the car held, the truck and trailer performed admirably and now they're home.

So here's a plug for Penske, with quality equipment and enough locations to be quite handy. And major kudos to Hyundai, a company that builds tough little cars that know how to break in only the right places. It could have been so very much worse.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sometimes the Good Die Young

Two years ago I spent the last weekend of July with my friend Sally in her Houston home. We had a great visit. I am thankful that I chose to go see her that time. Her home has been a retreat for me where we would relax together once or twice a year. We would gossip about our kids and our clients and even have fun discussing work related problems. (I know, I'm a nerd.)

Sally and I met while working together at that big accounting firm that can no longer be named. Both our husbands were attorneys. We were pregnant at the same time and shared the same obstetrician. My second child and her first child were born a few weeks apart. Our families vacationed together when our children were little. Sally and I left that accounting firm and started our businesses about the same time and continued to stay good friends for twenty years, even though I had moved north.

A week after Sally and I visited, she died while participating in an open water swim event. Sally's local swim club had traveled with spouses to have a fun-filled weekend, culminating with the swim club members racing from Alcatraz Island to the shore of San Francisco. Near the end of the race Sally quit swimming, about a hundred yards from the finish, and could not be revived. When her husband called me that Sunday afternoon and told me the news, I thought a boulder had landed on my chest. It was as devastating as when the doctor told me my daughter had a very serious and rare form of cancer that needed immediate treatment. When told about my daughter's condition, the bottom fell out of my life, but was soon restored with hope and activity. There were things I could do to help and save my daughter. But Sally, she was gone.

After hanging up the phone, I packed a bag and drove the 275 miles to Houston, still in shock. My daughter was living with Sally and her husband during a summer internship. We had to get her packed up and moved out of the way so that Sally's children could come home and have their space and privacy. It was an awful week of disbelief as I called Sally's clients and helped any way possible. Unexpected death is jagged and raw. It stays immediate and aches for a long time.

I will never know exactly how or why Sally died that day. I like to think that her death, by changing the end of summer travel plans of her college age children, kept one or both of them from a disastrous course. Sally would have traded her life for the life of her children in a heartbeat, and perhaps she did.

I do know that Sally was prepared. She had done her best to coordinate the assisted living care of her parents and was pushing her siblings to be more involved going forward. She enjoyed her children and they were thriving. A few years previously she threw a grand to-do in celebration of her 25th wedding anniversary. She had confided to me that she didn't want to wait for her 50th, since her husband's family's longevity record was not the greatest. She wanted to make sure she had the chance to celebrate her marriage and her family.

Sally and I often disagreed on politics and religion. I am a compassionate conservative. She was a compassionate liberal. I think she questioned the value of organized Christianity and the interest God had in her individual life, while I see God's hand everywhere. To me, it was no accident that her life was in such order. She had everything caught up so she could spend several weeks touring the Middle East with her daughter, a trip scheduled to start shortly after the San Francisco trip. It was no accident that I had visited her the week before and, in an unusual course of conversation, she showed me exactly how her work was organized and what was finished and what was left to be done. It was no accident that her husband was surrounded by close friends throughout his terrible ordeal. It was no accident that she had secure relationships with her children.

I miss Sally and always will. I miss having her on speed dial to share jokes or laments. I miss her sentimental attachment to pets. I miss her exasperating tendency to obsess over small details. I miss our shared future of grandchildren and retirement adventures. I'm still mad at her for choosing this particular adventure two years ago. I wish she had changed her mind at the last minute and just enjoyed the festive weekend without unnecessary risk. But it was not in her nature to back away from a challenge she had committed to.

The wise teacher Dumbledore said that the dead we loved never truly leave us. Because of who Sally was and how she lived her life, I now try to leave fewer things undone. Remembering the joy she had with her pets, even in the midst of their infirmities, helped me decide it was worth the trouble to have a dog. I have more friends and cherish them more, knowing how valuable real friendship is and how hard it is to let it go. And, to the relief of my husband, I have taken hang gliding off my list of things to do, at least until I'm eighty.

It is a trite expression to say you should live each day as your last. Instead, I encourage you to live each day more completely. Live without regret for what was or might have been. And when you have the opportunity for true friendship, hold on to it as tightly as you can.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Holding My Breath

Life as we know it is about to get crazy again. (Again?) Ricky is flying to Orlando today. Our oldest, a casualty of the sluggish Florida tourist industry, is moving back to Texas. Dad and daughter will fill up a truck and drive it and her car back home in a couple of days. They should be pretty closely bonded at the end of that experience - packing, loading, cleaning and driving 1200 miles with an apartment full of stuff and a cat.

We are excited about having her closer to us again so she can be part of things more than once or twice a year. Another positive side effect is the clean garage we have now in anticipation of storing her stuff and the clean garage we'll have again when she eventually gets settled into a job and an apartment. I'm also curious to find out if those "fore-arm forklifts, as seen advertised on TV" are all they're cracked up to be. If they are, I can't wait to rearrange our furniture!

Anyway, at least for a while, we'll be a household of two "mature" adults, two young adults, a teenager, a dog, three cats and a business office. The only thing missing is the revolving door.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Trigger Happy

This is how we were on our trip.
Wiley is taking a picture of us while we take a picture of him. And Mr. Photogenic knows how to take a picture without hiding his own charm and good looks. It's a wonder he avoided carpal tunnel syndrome, with all the button pushing he was doing. He took about 2,000 pictures on vacation. It would have been far more if he had not been limited by all the venues that prohibited photography. I shouldn't have been surprised. On Christmas Day he took over 800 pictures with his new camera.

Recording our lives is so easy now. Everyone has a digital camera or a cell phone camera and pocket size video recorders are common. Pictures are immediately posted and shared in so many domains and formats you can't list them all. On our trip we downloaded cameras to our laptop every night.

When I was twenty, I went to Hawaii with my family, accompanying my dad on a business trip. I took my Kodak pocket camera with my 24 exposure roll of 110 film and rationed my pictures over the week we were there. It took some deliberation to decide which scene was photo worthy. After returning from my trip I sent the film off for mail order processing, in order to minimize the significant expense of developing. I have some beautiful pictures of the Haleakala Crater on Maui that I still look at. The other pictures were special or unique in other ways. During my college years I only used a few rolls of film. Receiving prints back from the developer was an "event," allowing me to relive the moments photographed. Good times.

I have virtually no pictures from the first three years of marriage, living on one income while paying substantial law school costs. For my first birthday after the advent of dual gainful employment, I received a fantastic 35mm camera and began photography with abandonment. Shortly after that we inherited about $1,500 and used it to buy a video camera so that we could record family scenes with our new baby. I've taken and printed thousands and thousands of pictures and recorded hundreds of hours of video, upgrading cameras over the years. The closet under the stairs is completely full of photos and tapes. I am slowly adjusting now to images on screens rather than paper, and that's probably a good thing. I have no more closet space.

But, save special occasion like our recent London trip, I take far fewer pictures than in the past, even though technology makes it much easier. A few years ago I realized that sometimes you can be so busy recording life that you don't really get to enjoy it or appreciate it and have difficulty recalling it. Would I rather snap away during a kid's ball game, or would I rather watch it and watch the game and cheer and clap and focus on the effort and the expressions? What we see through a lens is not the same as what we see when we are involved. I would find myself trying to anticipate the next great photo shot rather than actually watching the game. Or I would be unnaturally quiet, not wanting to hear myself later on a video recording, rather than cheering and supporting.

In family gatherings I was often on the fringes, taking pictures rather than visiting and playing. Once I was so involved video-ing my children in a play pool in the backyard that it was probably a minute before I realized that my daughter was struggling and in real danger. I was so busy watching through the camera, making sure the picture was framed and centered, that I didn't notice my child was underwater.

So now my camera doesn't stay an arm's length away. Even on our vacation, I left it in the hotel room a couple of days. And our fourth child won't have as many pictures of himself doing cute or silly things. He won't have as many video recordings of his games as his siblings have. There should still be enough, I think, to vividly recall the past to mind, and that's what's important.

I'm not sure who will look at all those pictures and videos, anyway. We're too busy living, absorbing and being truly part of each others' lives to record and watch it all the time.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bitter Sweet

Today is my mother-in-law's 70th wedding anniversary. It's the first anniversary without her husband, who died last August. I am honored to have joined this family thirty years ago.

Jim and Lucile had five children. Their first child, a daughter, died at birth with the cord wrapped around her neck. That wouldn't have happened in these times. I still can't comprehend the grief from that loss and the fear for each successive pregnancy.

The four survivng children are all married, with marriages ranging from twenty-seven to forty-two years. There are eleven grandchldren (six are married) and seven great-grandchldren.

I hope for a similar legacy, although I doubt I'll make it to a 70th wedding anniversary like Lucile has.

More than anything, I wish I could chat and joke with my mother-in-law about the ups and downs of being married to a Balthrop, of raising four kids and meeting their individual needs and what it's like to have eleven grandchildren. But she had a major stroke shortly before I met her, permanently paralyzing her right side and stealing her ability to speak.

For the first twenty-five years I knew her we had some fun. She has a wonderful singing voice and I always sat close to her in church to hear her hum the songs. Some of my children have inherited her voice. She was good at writing notes, laughing at the funny things my kids did and was generally encouraging and always appreciative. She made sure Jim behaved. (She and I could share exasperated looks behind the backs of our husbands.)

I do miss the ability to have a conversation with her about what it was like to have four kids, then four teenagers and finally grown children. I particularly miss the stories she has in her heart about each individual child - my husband and his brother and sisters. Jim wasn't paying attention to the same things a mom would pay attention to and while he told good stories, it wasn't what I hungered for. My faith tells me I will hear those stories some day, I'll just have to wait a little longer.

In the meantime I thank God for the marriage of my in-laws and the example they set for me, my husband and our children to follow.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Blessing in Disguise

I live in the flat world of north Texas. My son has a second floor bedroom, but I don't go there. I was not prepared for our vacation.

After being in London for a few days, I've climbed several thousand stairs.

How so? To begin with, London is hilly with a river running through it, so stairs and inclines are everywhere. Underneath London there is a network of tunnels for several layers of trains. Scooting around London on these "tube" lines means up and down stairs to change altitude. (Is it altitude if you are underground?)
Using a bus means a climb to sit on the top deck. The tourist sites include steps - whether it's climbing the turrets of the Bloody Tower or the White Tower at the Tower of London, climbing down to and up from Churchill's bunkers, climbing the steps from street level to bridge across the Thames, or climbing the 530 steps to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral.
And in a moment of insanity, I descended halfway down from the top of St. Paul's only to go back to the top one more time to take a picture I missed the first time. Actually, it was to take a picture my son decided he wanted. He owes me, big time. It is a neat picture, though, a picture of the floor of the cathedral you could take through a peephole, and I'm glad we have it.

Every time we eat fast food we order our food on the ground floor and then eat at tables either upstairs or downstairs. And there are 44 stair steps from the hotel lobby to our third floor hotel room, which we climb at least three times a day.

I cannot adequately describe how intensely my legs and ankles and feet hurt after five days in London.

On our sixth day, we take a day trip to Stonehenge and the town of Salisbury. The nearly two hour train ride, sitting down, is pleasant. The climb to the second level of the bus is manageable. The leisurely stroll around the gentle slope of Stonehenge is pleasant.
We spend some time at Old Saren Castle, with some slopes to climb, but nothing difficult. Then we head back to the town of Salisbury, with the primary agenda to see the Salisbury Cathedral. It's peak is the tallest in England. There are 345 steps up to the base of the steeple.
When we arrive at the cathedral we discover that the tower can only be climbed as part of the guided tour, which is already full for the day. So I'm left on the ground with the common folk, impressed and awed, but a little disappointed that the climb will have to wait for another time.

Disappointed, that is, until I wake up the morning of day seven and, miracle of miracles, nothing hurts!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Bataan Death March

That's what my husband says we're doing. We're not. We're on vacation. In the first two full days of London we have toured the Tower of London, walked the Tower Bridge, climbed to the top of St. Paul's Cathedral (some of us twice), seen "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (standing against the stage) at the Globe Theatre, walked up and down and around Hampton Court, spent an hour or so at the British Museum, watched the private Ceremony of the Keys at the closing of the Tower and walked and walked and walked......

I'm not surrendering yet, but it's close.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Thursday, July 2, 2009

How Old Am I?

My age has always been a little "off." Of course, there are those in my life who would say that many things about me are a little off. But I will admit to the age part.

My birthday is in April and as a youngster I ended up a grade ahead. So I was usually one to two years younger than my peers. I enjoyed that uniqueness most of the time, especially when I married a man from the class behind me who is actually older than I am.

But there were a few times it was inconvenient. For example, I turned sixteen (can we say driver's license?) near the end of my junior year of high school. For most of my high school years my mom took me to school or I rode the bus. Not fun. Then through my first year of college I had to make other plans when friends went clubbing and my age seventeen ID would not admit me.

I finished school, graduating with a Master's degree, got married and started my career a month after turning twenty-two.

When I began working full time there weren't many professional women in my field and being young was not an advantage. As props for seeming older I learned to drink black coffee and imply I was older than my chronological age. I don't know if the coffee drinking did the trick, but it all worked. In fact, when it somehow slipped that I was turning thirty, my boss demanded to see my driver's license because he was convinced I was lying about my age and had to be older than thirty.

In my early thirties I decided I would go by fives, always rounding up. It's just easier, plus when you do that people think you really look good for your age! Whenever the question of age came up, I would say thirty-five, or almost forty, or ...... There were a few years when I actually couldn't remember my "real" age, having to think back to my birth year and do the math. Right now I'm fifty-five.

Often when I meet or see an older person, I try to envision that person as he must have looked as a teenager or young adult. It's not hard. When you actually have an opportunity to look at old pictures of a friend or family member, you can usually recognize the person, even if the picture is from half a century ago. I have puzzled over what makes a person familiar over his life span. I think that, absent disease or debilitating life circumstance, a person chooses the age he is. Age is an attitude more than the numbering of days. Someone steps toward old age only when he sets aside the interests and passions of his youth without replacement.

Some people become old and insular with that first whiff of adult responsibility. Others stay engaged with the world to the end. I see a picture of my dad with his college classmates, or sitting on his horse at age sixteen, and I see the same earnest, young man with a zest for life that I see now. I see a school-age picture of my mom and I see the same determined, anxious young woman I see today, a woman reluctant to rest or sleep for fear she might miss something or run out of time to complete her ever growing agenda. My father-in-law was an engaging, handsome man well into his seventies. Then, with the onset of macular degeneration, he determined his functional life was over. He rapidly settled his affairs and declined, becoming an unrecognizable little old man waiting for time to expire. We started missing him well before his physical death last year.

There is a nationally televised talent show that allows contestants of all ages. This week there was a sixty-two year old dancer who walked on to the stage in her simple clothes and dancing shoes, with gray hair and deep circles under her eyes. The judges smirked. The lady left the stage, at the end of her dynamic, funky dance, with a standing ovation and a ticket to the next round. When interviewed, we find out she's a single mother working hours on her feet each day as a grocery store checker. The passion of her life is dancing. She works every day in her dancing shoes to remind herself that she is a dancer, not a store clerk. She spoke of this audition as one she had been preparing for her entire life. Another thirty-five year old contestant came on to the stage in his jeans, backwards cap and guitar. He spoke of his regular job on a chicken ranch and his inability to do simple math. The crowd guffawed at his country drawl and plain looks, loudly anticipating his quick exit from the stage. Twenty seconds into his performance the audience sat in stunned silence, mesmerized by the singer's heart piercing rendition of a country ballad. One of the judges said the singer could end up winning the competition. Afterwards, the emotional contestant spoke of the years spent singing and song writing, waiting for the opportunity to be heard. Both contestants are truly young.

I think of my father-in-law, before the end, as forty-two. My dad turns thirty-seven on his birthday each year. Next month will be the thirty-ninth celebration of his thirty-seventh birthday. My mom is twenty-eight.

Me? I'm twenty-five, just with a little more judgment and generosity, and a few more varicose veins.

How old are you?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

It's a sign

We committed our son to his new soccer team tonight. On the way to practice we quizzed Wiley on what number he would like to have for his uniform in case "his" number was not available. He has had the same uniform number since age six. It's the same number his sister used in basketball and his brother used in soccer. Number 21 was available. We definitely picked the right team.