Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

What ‘good grief’ really means

Like most people, I loathe funerals. And as regular readers know, I’m not very good at them.

It’s not that I don’t know what to do or say: I give great hugs and I usually know the right words (sometimes I even sing them). But I just can’t make my upper lip stiffen, no matter how how hard I’m trying to avoid putting my grieving loved one in a position of having to comfort me. I blow it every time, and Saturday was no exception.

My friend T’s younger sister Gina passed away suddenly, just over a week ago, and her funeral took place on Saturday.

I became friends with T several years ago through work, where she’s as strong, successful, and poised as sales executives come. T’s one of four sisters with whom she’s close, and she’s not much older than I am. That makes her far too young to lose a cherished sibling, in my book. The pages of my book, in fact, depict a dreamy fairytale landscape where siblings are always around. I need those pages to look like that because my brother and sisters are my best friends. They make me laugh so hard my face hurts, they stand ready to hug me at my happiest and saddest times, and they love me no matter how badly I screw up (something I have tested, alas). I simply can’t imagine life without them. Until Saturday, I had refused even to let such an awful thought enter my brain. Saturday morning, however, that thought saw no need to ask for permission; it just barged its way to the front of my mind and heart as I approached T at the funeral home.

One look at my friend proved that absorbing a staggering loss on a balance sheet is one thing and in life another altogether. No kind of training prepares you for the latter, not even intellectual awareness that big love sometimes means big pain. The sorrow on T’s face telegraphed the enormity of her grief. I hated what it meant for her, and what it might mean for me someday. Overwhelmed, I was in tears long before I reached her. So much for putting my friend’s needs ahead of my own.

Then the ceremony got underway and I learned about Gina, a woman I’d never met but soon wished I had. Everyone who spoke mentioned her generosity of heart, the way she loved unconditionally and her capacity to love people through flaws most of us couldn’t abide. Her family members poked gentle fun at some of her quirks –evidently she loved to plan events, which meant you’d better head for the hills when she started writing the to-do lists–but to a person they painted a portrait of someone who was a nurturer by nature, a superwoman who took care of anyone who needed it. Gina didn’t let her loved ones get away with any crap, but they knew she always had their backs.

In describing Gina’s steadfast loyalty, no matter the circumstances, T’s son said, “I could be dead wrong, and I knew she’d be standing right there, being dead wrong too.” I laughed with the crowd while thinking that’s exactly the kind of aunt I aspire to be (minus the event-planning part). So whether she ever set out to or not, T’s sister set an example, even for a total stranger like myself.

(Speaking of setting great examples, I give very high marks to the way the family structured the service. A few relatives and friends had been selected to speak about Ts sister, and according to the program, had been allotted two minutes apiece. But we all know emotions can make it easy to lose track of time. So in a nod to one of the more redeeming feature of the Oscars, the minister notified the speakers that, if they were still talking at two minutes, the organist would begin to play. If they kept going, well, so would the organist, and he was gonna crank up the volume. I can only hope T starts to run meetings this way.)

No matter how hard you try to smile through the tears, it hurts like hell to say goodbye to someone who set an example like Gina clearly did. It’s like losing the coach who not only knew how it was done but taught you everything you ever knew, the one you counted on to keep you motivated when you faltered. The minister acknowledged that pain while exhorting all present to use Gina’s example to examine our lives and repair any dysfunctional relationships we might have.

I liked that call to action. I heard it as a reminder to live well not because life could end at any moment –we all know it could –but rather to honor the beautiful example someone left us by doing similar good works.

I left the funeral home in tears, but glad to have been there. Though I absolutely stink at funerals, I go because I believe it’s important to show up for your loved ones whenever you can. Never once have I regretted going, and every single time I walk away having learned something important. In getting up close to a loss that terrifies me, I realized T’s sister will live on not just in memory –a fickle and increasingly unreliable thing as the years pass –but in the actions of those whose lives she touched.

May we all live, and leave, so well.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she's going to go first.

When I saw my sister Lynne last night, I told her about the funeral. In an impressive display of sibling rivalry, she assured me she’s going to go first.




You’ve Got Mail. Way too much mail.

I have a confession to make: I’m an e-mail hoarder.

Though I have little trouble unloading possessions I don’t use or need, I can’t bring myself to delete the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve exchanged in cyberspace with my loved ones. Those messages mean as much to me as actual letters, even if they take less effort to send and travel in an ethereal medium. I’ve been hanging on to them since 1996. Like a box of old photos, these e-mails capture all sorts of moments in my life, and it reassures me to know I can pull them up when I want to take a nostalgia trip.

Some of these personal exchanges live in my work e-mail in-box. It does not have unlimited storage capacity, so every now and then I get an automated love note informing me that, if I don’t start getting rid of things, I won’t be able to get anything new. (Too bad my parents didn’t think to use that logic on me and my siblings when it came to storage space in their basement.)

I got one of those automated love notes today, so I began picking through the digital pile in search of messages to dump or at least file. As I moved several messages to a folder I’ve labeled “Personal,” I couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to peruse the contents of the folder.

If “Personal” were a tangible folder whose items I’d organized chronologically, it would have a gigantic bulge right around July 30, 2011, when I left the Lawnmower. I rolled out that news slowly and usually by e-mail because the emotions associated with it –sadness, embarrassment, anxiety, shock—put me in constant jeopardy of bursting into tears. Every email I sent at that time prompted an incredible response that I saved, and as I read those notes today, they moved me again.

Most of my friends wrote to express shock and dismay and made immediate offers to show up. These two messages are a representative sample, one from a law school pal and another from one of my oldest friends:

Well please let me know the first instance you are available and I promise to be there…no matter where. Keep that chin up.  You are one of the most beautiful, intelligent, talented women I have ever known.  Just remember that.

My dear Karen, I am at a complete loss for anything approaching adequate to say.  Just know that I am so, so sorry and that I am here for you at any time and for anything you need.  I would love to see you soon.  For one thing, I’ll rest easier once I can see you in person and give you a huge hug, not that that will change a damned thing, but I really, really want you to know that I am here for you.  You name whenever is good for you, and also name what you’d like to do.  And in the meantime, call me ANYTIME you need a friendly ear.

Then I came across a note from my friend J, whom I’ve written about before. In typical J fashion, his note started from the same foundation as many of my friends, but then he made it his own. Because one of the Lawnmower’s first acts as my new husband was to ex-communicate J, one of my first acts as the Lawnmower’s soon-to-be-ex-wife was to re-communicate my pal. Fortunately for me, J was happy to pick up right where we’d left off without uttering a word of blame. J’s version of showing up for me over the course of our friendship usually meant plying me with food and booze at his condo or at a nearby restaurant. I had learned long ago to pack an overnight bag in case of overindulgence, and that preparation paid off in this case. Though the details of the evening mentioned in the note below have been lost to the ravages of time and/or Pinot Grigio, some of the constants of our friendship came through loud and clear, including a shared hatred of Tuesdays, mutual affection for the movie Airplane!, and a healthy dose of mocking.

YO-I just wanted to say, “Good Luck, we are all counting on you.”  …OK, Airplane references aside (though really, is there a better theme for a Tuesday?), it was great to see you on Saturday.  I am looking forward to getting back on a regular schedule and hopefully cooking together when schedules and inspiration allow.  BTW, I wanted to let you know that you left your rings, earrings and CD here.  I have copied the CD, am wearing the rings, and have an appointment scheduled to get my ears pierced.  …thought you should know.

Joseph and I have drifted apart over the past three years, but that note proved the truth of Victor Borge’s famous observation that “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” As I read the message, I laughed, and for at least a few minutes, I didn’t feel quite so far away.


A true friend is one who’s still your fan even after you’ve gone all fan-girl

Everyone has a concert buddy, and mine is my friend “Tom.”

We met as awkward seventh graders at Lake Braddock Secondary School and bonded over music and writing. Both of us were words nerds who wrote for the school paper (though I skewed far more heavily in the nerd direction than Tom ever did) and played instruments in our spare time. Tom played the bass in a rock band, whereas I played piano someplace slightly less hip: the pit orchestra for school musicals.

After we graduated in 1989, we stayed in touch through reunions and Facebook. The latter helped us reconnect in person last December.

We caught up on all the life we hadn’t posted about on Facebook. Our old bond was not only intact but stronger, and it still included music. Neither of us plays our instruments as regularly as we once did, but we still know how to appreciate music. And though we listen carefully and critically, Tom and I can find something to enjoy in just about any live performance. This makes us natural partners for shows that might not interest other people.

Last winter, Tom invited me to see Stanley Clarke, a renowned bassist, at the Birchmere in Alexandria. I had never thought of bassists as headliners, but I have such faith in Tom’s taste in music that his proclamation that Stanley was a musical god among men was all it took for me to want to hear the gospel. Two hours with Stanley and his incredible trio proved that he’s a gifted bassist in the way that Shakespeare knew a few things about iambic pentameter. I was converted and ready to evangelize.

In April, I bought tickets to see Phil Vassar, one of my favorite performers, at the Hylton Arts Center in Manassas. I invited Tom and he accepted immediately, though he didn’t know who Phil was. A few days before the show, I won passes for a meet-and-greet. I asked Tom if he was up for it and got an enthusiastic, “Hell yes!” He knew it would make me happy, so of course he was happy to do it.

A few days before the concert, I emailed Tom with the crazy idea of giving Phil a copy of my book. Never before had I considered doing anything so utterly fan-girl, but Phil had played a brief, yet important, role in my life at a crucial time and I wanted him to know. I waited for Tom to tell me it was a terrible idea. My friend is a straight-shooter, plus his background in security put him in a good position to assess how Phil might react to my gift. Tom liked my plan and thought I could pull it off without seeming like a stalker.

A few hours before the concert, I typed up a letter to include with the book:

Dear Phil,

I’m sure fans give you strange things all the time, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I give you some backstory.

Your music won me over the moment I first heard “That’s When I Love You” on WMZQ in 2001. Not a fan of country music at the time, I was listening to that station only because my then-boyfriend –possibly the least likely person on Planet Earth to belt out those lyrics—kept his car radio perpetually tuned to it. That song led me to buy your debut album, whose piano-heavy tracks planted the seeds of my long-term addiction to your particular brand of country.

When I started going to your shows, I was blown away not just by the way you would tear up the piano, but also by the amount of humor and personality you brought to the stage. I came away impressed with your musicality and moved by what your performance seems to say about your approach to life: respond with resilience and humor.

When I turned 40 in June of 2011, my marriage was heaving its last gasps, so I didn’t have much of a celebration. By September, I had moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, leading my entire family to conspire and stage a surprise 40th birthday do-over at the Ram’s Head Tavern. Your show was the centerpiece, and it couldn’t have been more perfect. My family members strolled in one at a time, the arrival of each person putting a smile on my face and sending a tear of joy down my cheek. I spent a glorious night with the people I love, doing something I love, and I cherish that memory.

As my way of saying thank you for the gift of your music, I hope you enjoy this collection of humor essays. If I got them right, they embody the same spirit I hear in your music.

Thanks again for being a consistent bright spot.

I stuck the letter and book in a gift bag and drove off to meet Tom. When I picked him up, I learned he’d studied up on Phil’s music before the concert. Some people do that to enhance their enjoyment of the show, but knowing Tom, he did it to enhance my enjoyment of the show. He didn’t want to stand there just bobbing his head, he wanted to sing along with me, because if something matters to one of Tom’s friends, it matters to him.

As we stood in line for the post-show meet-and-greet, we learned it would include a photo op.

“I’ll hold your purse and take the picture,” Tom said.

When handed a purse, your average man will react as if you’ve asked him to hold a norovirus. But Tom volunteered to throw himself on the purse grenade so I would have clear path to executing my plan.

When the moment came, I handed my purse and phone to Tom. I gave the gift bag to Phil, who opened it as I explained what it was. He received it politely, meaning he did not discard it as I stood there, nor did he seek a restraining order.

Such was my state of shock that I nearly allowed Tom to take the photo, which would have meant he wasn’t in it. Fortunately, Phil was paying attention and got one of his bandmates to snap the shot. That photo of me, Phil and Tom is one of my all-time favorites.

What stands out in my memory about that night wasn’t the music or the meet-and-greet, though. More than anything I remember how hard my friend worked, in ways great and small, not only to share in my happiness but to grow it.

Tom’s generosity of spirit is especially remarkable considering he has long struggled with depression (one of the things I learned when we got together last December). He has sought help in every form imaginable, but his brain chemistry continues to do its damnedest to rob him of hope and purpose. He battles the crushing pain of his illness daily, and always with courage and grace.

He sometimes posts on Facebook when the pain becomes intolerable, as it has in recent weeks. He reaches out when all he wants to do is crawl inward, which shows astounding bravery, strength, and selflessness. By sharing his story, Tom gives the people who love him a chance to remind him, and he lets others in the grip of depression know they’re not alone.

Tom wrote a Facebook post yesterday about feeling hopeless. It drew an immediate, heartfelt outpouring of support from the many people who know Tom’s presence in our world changes it for the better. We know he brings incredible joy to the people in his life. We know he matters.

We can’t change the wiring of his brain or fight this horrible battle for him, but we can stand with him, and we can thank him for letting us.

So thank you, Tom, for giving us a chance to show up for you, as you do for all of us.


Your Fan Club

Ninety percent of friendship is just showing up

[Posting the Aug. 29 entry a day late because I wound up without wi-fi…]

I try to live by the principle that ninety percent of friendship is just showing up. But I come up short sometimes, and that’s been particularly true with respect to a friend I’ll call Dave.

We met in the late 1990s at a birthday party for my dear friend LC and we’ve been pals ever since. We did typical friend stuff—grab dinner, go to the occasional concert, catch a ballgame –but he also showed up for me and all of his friends in ways that weren’t typical.

For example, when an on-and-off boyfriend broke up with me for the umpteenth time in 1999 and then left the area, Dave arrived bearing hugs and adult beverages. Instead of being praised for his kindness (something he certainly deserved but never expected), the only recognition he got on that occasion came from my cat, who left a hairball of gratitude on Dave’s shoes.

A few months later, when I’d been exiled to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for a three-week course, Dave again came to my rescue. He gave me frequent flyer miles so I could meet him in Chicago and pal around for a weekend. (Dave is a big baseball fan, so we found it necessary to sneak in to Wrigley Field during that trip.)

In September of 2002, Dave was among the crew who helped me load up the contents of my one-bedroom apartment into a U-Haul and move it to my parents’ basement and my friend LC’s house. Few acts will land you in my friendship Hall of Fame faster than volunteering to assist with a move. You earn extra points if you make me laugh while you’re at it, which Dave did by taking a recliner we were moving, plopping it in my parents’ front yard and taking a load off.

A couple of years later, Dave met Ann, a warm, kind, caring and hilarious person who made my friend happier than I’d ever seen him. I adored her, too, as much for her epic personality as the way she embraced his circle of friends.

Dave and Ann gave me a chance to show up for them in 2006 by asking me to do a reading at their wedding. I was so honored that I straightened my hair for the occasion. A few years later they became parents to a beautiful daughter and I took huge delight in their joy.

They took equally huge delight in mine in October of 2010, beaming at me as I spoke my wedding vows. When I left my husband less than a year later, they felt my heartbreak and were among the first to offer support, consolation, and wine.

Just as I was trying to piece my life back together, theirs began to disintegrate.

First, a blood disorder Dave had wrestled with his entire life claimed his sight, one eye at a time. Then came the pulmonary lymphoma, which my friend battled and beat, with Ann at his side the whole time. His bravery, her dedication and their determination astonished me.

Not long after that, what I believe would be labeled a neurological event (they’ve endured so many medical calamities in such a short time that I struggle to get the details right) landed him in assisted living in Loudoun County, where he remains and is likely to remain.

Ann shows up there every day. I hadn’t shown up at all.

I changed that today. Finally.

I was excited to see my friend but also a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. I also worried that words might fail me, either because I didn’t have any to say at all –it doesn’t feel quite right to talk about your very normal life to someone whose existence has been turned upside down — or because the wrong ones might come flying out. “This is so unfair!” seemed particularly likely to break free of the thought bubble it’s been floating in for quite some time. And then I got annoyed at myself for making this visit more about me than him.

This jumble of thoughts may explain why, when I went to sign in, I identified myself as a resident instead of a visitor. On resolving that minor error, I headed up to Dave’s room and knocked on the open door to announce myself. Because he couldn’t get up to greet me, I asked if it was okay to hug him.

Dave still being Dave — which, selfishly, came as a huge relief  –he welcomed my chair hug and everything else about my visit. We covered comfortable subjects, like my family, our sports teams, and some of my travel adventures, and then I asked about his health. My questions came out clumsily, but Dave didn’t seem to mind. He seemed to know I wanted to understand as much as possible, and he wanted to help me.

Even though my friend now struggles to get out of a chair, he can still teach a master class in the art of showing up. And he reminded me that late is better than never.





Everything came up roses at the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler

Blue skies, bright sun, temps in the 40s and trees exploding with pink flowers made the conditions for the annual running of D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Ten Miler ideal. Good thing, too, since my condition as a runner could not be described in similar terms.

My friend Val had talked me into putting my name in for the CB Ten-Miler lottery a few months ago. Given the race’s popularity, I felt certain my name wouldn’t get picked. Naturally, the odds turned out to be in my favor, in a Hunger Games sort of way.

I “trained” by running upwards of five miles once or twice a week, an inadequate regimen by any measure. Because I hike and do various other sports, I figured I’d find a way to finish the race. But as an over-40 and under-trained runner, I was well aware that the race might decide to return the favor.

I shoved that thought of my mind as our 7:30 start time rolled around and Val, her friend Nat and I crossed the starting line.

Because we were joined by fifteen thousand of our closest friends, this quintessentially D.C. race had the feel of something else that’s quinteCB monumentssentially D.C.: the Beltway at rush hour. We began bumper-to-bumper and trudged along slowly. (Meanwhile, I pictured the elite runners who started 10 minutes ahead of us already finished and tucked into a booth at IHOP, ordering Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruities.)

As we kept our eyes peeled for a chance to break free, I couldn’t help but notice that people were running a whole lot like they drive around here. Most at least made a token attempt at courtesy, but some runners zigged back and forth constantly, squirting into any opening they could find, no matter how small and no matter who they had to cut off to do it. I made a mental note to run with a horn next time.

Unlike the Beltway at rush hour, however, just about every person on the road was happy to be there despite the traffic. Time and again I overheard fellow runners remark on their good fortune to live in a place so replete with natural and manmade beauty that it makes sharing space with Congress almost tolerable.

I found myself nodding in agreement. I’ve lived in the D.C. area for most of my life and the cherry blossoms in their full glory always fill me with awe. I busted out my phone and snapped pictures of them as I went, the kind of thing you can’t do without blurring unless you’re a decidedly non-elite runner.Hainespointrunners

As we went around the Lincoln Memorial and made our way across Memorial Bridge, another trademark D.C. thing came into view: the low-flying black helicopter. Only in this town would people greet it with enthusiastic waves, as if it were a cherished mascot.

And speaking of enthusiastic waves, when I wasn’t busy checking out the cherry blossoms, I couldn’t help but notice the number of spectators lining the race route. D.C. sometimes gets bashed as a place full of transients, a place with no soul, a place where people care only about their status. But I saw just the opposite yesterday morning: thousands of spectators who got up ungodly early on a Sunday morning to cheer not just for “their” runners but for any runner who looked like she might need it. Ahem.

Some of those spectators didn’t even seem to be there for a particular runner, like the two people dressed up in full Incredibles regalia, blasting music from an acoustically favorable underpass that leads into Haines Point, or the guy who set up a beer and Oreos station near the Mile 7 mark.

By that time, unfortunately, Nat and I had lost Val, and I didn’t want Oreos and beer so much as I wanted the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler to become the Cherry Blossom 7-Miler.

Since that option wasn’t available, Nat and I decided to chat our way through the rest of the race. This gave me a chance to learn a lot about her, including the fact that this otherwise likable person has an appalling propensity to speed up as a race goes on. Having never experienced such an alien urge, I decided not to knock it til I tried it. And I must admit that it didn’t feel utterly hideous until Mile 9.

Our pace had dropped to near 8:00/mile and was on the verge of dropping me altogether until I did some very fast math and said, “Hey, I bet we only need three bad date stories to get us across the finish line!” Hope sometimes arrives in the unlikeliest of forms.

Nat laughed and volunteered to go first. This suited me fine because, regardless of how I run, I’m a rock-solid closer when it comes to bad date stories. I was in the middle of Story #2 when we passed a sign that read “800 to go.”

800 what? I wondered. Furlongs, I decided, as the interminable sprint continued and I exhausted my supply of wind, if not bad date material. After cresting a gentle slope that might as well have been Everest, the finish came into view. Suddenly, a person I’d met just two hours earlier and I were urging each other across the finish line.

That moment—a tiny triumph shared with a new friend on a stunningly beautiful day, amid scenery found only in D.C.—is, to me, what life in this town is all about, and I love it.

CB haines point

Of birthdays, bonfires and birthday suits

My dear friend Philippa’s birthday was on October 13. We made a huge deal of it last year because she had just received a breast cancer diagnosis, was staring down a double mastectomy, and was more conscious than ever of making the most of the life you’ve been given.

A dozen or so of us marked the occasion by holding a good ol’ fashioned bra burning.  The goal wasn’t to free ourselves of societal constraints but rather to show of solidarity for our friend who would no longer need the famously female undergarments. (Unlike standard-issue boobs, fake ones don’t need a restraining device to keep them from migrating south late in life like anatomical retirees.)

Philippa had never really cared for bras, so on the one hand she wasn’t sorry to set a bunch of them ablaze. On the other, whether she liked ‘em or not, those undies held up a part of her that undoubtedly formed part of her identity as a woman. I can’t imagine what it felt like to let go of them and what they represented, and not by choice.

When I try to think of a single word to describe this gathering that blended support, concern, love, determination, optimism and fear, the one that comes to mind is: reckoning. Being on the cusp of a long, difficult journey made Philippa take stock, and I think it had that effect on the rest of us, too.

A year later, Philippa’s physical recovery was complete. But I still broached the topic of birthday plans with care, recognizing that emotional recovery goes at its own pace. My friend said she was torn, and I could understand why. She survived an ordeal–clearly something to celebrate—but was forever altered. What type of gathering commemorates that?

After thinking about it for a few days, Philippa said, “Let’s have a beach bonfire.”

“Sounds great,” I said.  Of course, I would have forced myself to react with great enthusiasm to anything she suggested, including a quilting bee, but another big burn sounded like it could be therapeutic.

A slightly smaller group than last year’s trekked from DC to Dewey Beach on a beautiful Sunday morning and were rewarded with clear skies and temps in the 60s. We spent the afternoon on the beach and then came home, put on some music, and  started making dinner.  After a few minutes of cutting up vegetables, we decided to cut a rug instead. Yes, a dance party broke out right there in the living room in broad daylight. (I say this as if the dance party acted alone, but it had an accomplice: the apple cider/rye concoctions that had quenched the group’s thirst while out on the beach.)

There I was, dancing in the living room of a beach house with mainly middle-aged people, belting out Michael Jackson songs, when suddenly “All About That Bass” came on.  You might not have thought Meghan Trainor’s bubble gum ode to bubble butts would appeal to our demographic, but the whole room sang it loud and proud, especially Philippa. After a year that was all about her treble, I guess she was glad to focus on the bass for a change.

Because we’re all about that bass.

When the sun had sunk and with it the mercury, we bundled up and returned to the beach.  This bonfire was far less somber than the previous one.  But it did have some things in common with last year’s.  It, too, had a strong “letting go” theme.  And it also involved reckoning, as in Philippa and a few other people reckoned they should let go of their clothing. (I reckoned I would keep mine on, thank you very much.)

And off went a small and very merry Birthday Suit Brigade, dipping the skinny while the rest of us stayed on shore and chewed the fat, thrilling in watching our dear friend live large.



Long, Not-So-Lost, Friends

I found Mr. C.!

It took me less than two weeks to do it, proving that you can accomplish nearly anything if you’re willing to dedicate all of your resources to the task.

It wasn’t easy to come up with $0.95 to buy an address report, especially since I had to commit to a monthly service for $6.95 to get the $0.95 deal and then remember to cancel it the next day.  But when something’s important enough, you make these kinds of Herculean efforts.

Once I got Mr. C’s address, I started writing a letter, with an actual pen on actual paper.

I wanted to keep it chatty and light, a bit of a challenge given some of the events of the past few years.  I figured I’d go with something like: “Dear Mr. C, How are you? Not much new here in the past eight years, just the garden variety ‘get married, tear down your house, start building a new one, realize you’re in a disastrous marriage, make a hasty exit 10 months into it, wacky hijinks ensue’ sort of thing. Oh, and I’ve started wearing my hair curly. That about covers it.”  I filled three pages with my scrawl and then plopped the letter in the mail.

Mr. C responded in record time and via email, a route he chose either to save time or (more likely) as a polite way of saying, “Your handwriting is so bad that I deciphered only two words in your letter: ‘Mr.’ and ‘C.’  Do not ever pick up a pen again.”

He wasn’t bent out of shape about my eight-year disappearance, nor did he dwell on the story of my marriage (perhaps because he couldn’t read it).  Instead, he thanked me for finding him –he’d intentionally omitted his return address because he didn’t want me to feel pressured to respond – and he picked right up where we’d left off, as your great friends do.

Days after I got Mr. C’s note, I learned via a Facebook status update, complete with a photo that made the words of the update superfluous, that my friend “J” had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was in the middle of chemo.

J, her husband and I had become friends in law school some fifteen years earlier, bonded by the common adversity of working full-time and going to law school at night.  We were part of a close-knit group of 15 or so similarly situated students.

As sometimes happens in a group like that, a personal conflict whose origins I don’t remember arose in 2003 or so and splintered the group.  A nucleus remained that included me, but not J and her husband.  I never quite understood what happened or why—I thought it was better in some ways not to know – but I missed them.  From time to time I thought about contacting them but wasn’t sure if an overture would be welcome.

I rekindled my friendship with J very timidly about a year ago, after Facebook kept pointing out in its helpful way that perhaps I might know J and would want to be friends with her. Well duh, Facebook.

The fact that the update J posted last week came as a complete shock to me tells you that, other than using the passive channels of social networking, I’d done nothing to close the gap in our relationship.

Few things make a person regret inaction faster or more deeply than a cancer diagnosis.

Since I couldn’t do anything about the past, I acted on the now. I reached out to the law school group, they mobilized, and we came up with a care package for Team J.  Last Sunday I set out for their house, intending simply to leave the loot outside the front door.  The last thing J and her family needed was a lapsed friend bursting on to the scene, unannounced.

Sunday brought surprisingly balmy temps for early February, the kind that make you walk around without a coat, drive around with the windows down, or, in the case of J and her husband, leave your front door wide open.  I hadn’t counted on that.

If I executed my original plan, I might get busted in the act.  The only thing weirder than a derelict pal randomly showing up at your door is a derelict pal fleeing it, so I didn’t think I should risk it.

Instead, I summoned up a little courage, rang the doorbell, and braced myself for a reaction ranging from chilly politeness to “Honey, call an exterminator! FAST!”

What I didn’t expect was for J’s husband to give me an immediate, warm welcome, or for J herself to come rushing up, break into an exuberant grin, and envelop me in a hug so fierce that it left me wordless.  The tears that sprang to my eyes and appeared in hers closed the span of years in seconds.

These recent experiences with Mr. C, J and her husband remind me that the essence of friendship really is just showing up, and that, though I should have done it years ago, sometimes late is better than never.

A Hair Out of Place

I’m 42 years old.  When people who meet me hear this, they often say, “Wow, really?”

I never know quite how to take this.  Do they mean, “Gee, you look a lot younger than that,” or “Gosh, I’ve never seen skin mini-blinds on the forehead of anyone under 70”?

Look, I have no idea what 42 is “supposed” to look like.  I do, however, have a very clear idea of what I don’t want it to look like: grey and saggy.  Exercise is my main weapon in the war against sag, but it does nothing to combat the gray.

For those of you who haven’t experienced it yourself yet, gray hair comes in like clover on a pristine lawn.  The first sprout stands out, so it’s easy enough to pluck it.  But that’s just the beginning.  The stuff proliferates, because gray hair has ambition your standard-issue hair could only dream of.

Eventually, the proverbial clover grows to the point where it poses a very real threat to the grass and  the only way to kill it is through chemical weapons.  For me, that point came at age 33 or so.

Having never been one to spend all that much time on my appearance, I didn’t make the decision to wage a chemical assault lightly.  Primping bores me, I don’t care much about clothes, I shop only under duress, and I have a five-minute makeup regimen.  Against this backdrop, coloring my hair seemed frivolous and vain.  Then again, 33 seemed a tad early to look like a fit Bea Arthur. I decided to embrace a little vanity.

In the beginning, my stylist used her weapons sparingly, but now it’s a full-blown campaign that lasts two hours every time.  It’s the one time Miss Five Minute Face would rather be shopping.

The minute my butt lands in the chair, my stylist always asks what I want her to do.

I repeat what I’ve said for the past nine years: “Make it look natural.”

She then applies a purple chemical paste to my hair and seals it with strips of aluminum foil. As you do in the wild.

Totally natural, dude.

As common as this particular vanity is, especially among women, I still feel a bit ridiculous about it.

Or I did, that is, until Day 2 of my post-op stint with my dearest friend Philippa.  I sat on the edge of her bed, discussing the follow-up appointment we’d scheduled with the cancer surgeon for Tuesday the following week.

“It’s going to work out perfectly,” she said.  I assumed she was referring to the time of day — an afternoon appointment guaranteed that the surgeon would have the all-important pathology results—until she added, “My hair appointment’s the day before, so at least I’ll go into the follow-up with good hair.”

I did not share her view that good hair was vital to a positive pathology report.  I offered my thoughts diplomatically, as follows: “YOU ARE NOT F&^-ING GOING TO A F$%^-ING HAIR APPOINTMENT SIX DAYS AFTER A DOUBLE-F%^$-ING MASTECTOMY.”

Because we were talking about a life-or-death issue –the hair, I mean, not the cancer—she fought  me.

“Do you have any idea how long I waited to get that appointment?” she said.  And then, for emphasis, “My roots are showing!!”

Her roots had nothing on the glare I gave her.  Grudgingly, she called the salon and told them the truth.  They responded with warmth, compassion, and an appointment in February 2014.

I’m kidding, of course.  They moved her appointment out a week, because even they knew better than to split hairs.


Moved To Tears

When a trusted friend calls and says she needs you to do something, you offer before you know what the “it” is.

You hope something benign motivates the call—she’s going on a trip and needs a ride to the airport, she’s hosting a party and wants you to bring your signature mango salsa, or she’s getting married and needs you to juggle fire at the reception.

My friend, Philippa, placed the call a couple of months ago for a reason that was anything but benign.  She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed some post-op help. She’s one of the most independent people I’ve ever met, so I knew she hated to ask. I hated the reason that placed her in need but was more than happy to answer the call.

As we ironed out dates for appointments and such, I told her I was unavailable the weekend of November 9.

“Oh, what’s going on that weekend?” she asked.

“My whole family is doing the Moving Day walk on the tenth to fight Parkinsons Disease.”  Philippa knew my dad had been diagnosed with the disease in 2007 but didn’t know about the walk.  I explained that my three siblings, their spouses, their kids, and my aunts and uncles on both sides were mobilizing for the walk, which takes place at the stadium where the Nationals play, to support Dad and the millions who suffer with PD. I also told her that, since my brother and aunts and uncles had to travel for the walk, on the ninth, we were planning to have an early Thanksgiving or, as I call it, “Yanksgiving.”

During my post-op stint at Philippa’s place, on a day when her mom happened to be there, she mentioned the walk.

“What about it?” I asked.

“I’m gonna do it,” she said. She was horizontal when she said this.

I said, “That’s nice.”  Then I mentally dropped her comment in the bin marked “Vicodin Musings” and went off to feed Louie.

When I heard her mom say, “I’ll do it, too,” I wondered if Mom had been hitting the painkillers, too.  I asked her to repeat herself, just to make sure I’d heard correctly. “I’m doing it,” she said, somewhat defiantly. “You walked with my family, now I walk with yours.”

I knew better than to argue with her.  I was at a loss for words, anyway.  My dear friend, who was still going through her own ordeal, was already thinking well beyond herself, and so was her mom.  And I hadn’t even placed the call.

Philippa’s friends, her brother, her niece and her nephew followed her lead.  Within hours of Philippa announcing her walk decision on Facebook (where she also thanked me so publicly and profusely that my mother began to worry about being dislodged as the President of my fan club), their names began to appear on my list of donors and on the Team Yank roster.

As the date neared, I sent an email out to our team with logistical information and one important instruction.  “Wear purple,” I wrote.  “It’s Dad’s favorite color.”

Mother Nature was on her best game when we arrived at Nats Park this morning, delivering clear skies and balmy temps.

Dad and my brother had gotten there early.  Dad pretty much always gets to the ballpark early.  He can’t get enough of the game –aside from watching it, he still coaches an American Legion summer league team—  and he never misses batting practice if he can help it.

Today, he had an even better reason: Because our team had raised over $4,000, we were invited to have two of our team members come an hour early for a private tour of the Nats dugout.

We sent our two baseball junkies.  (My brother pitched at Georgia Tech and then professionally until injuries ended his baseball career.)  And boy did they make the most of it.  While my brother took pictures, Dad picked up the dugout phone and called the bullpen.  He stood there for a few seconds and then hung up the phone.

There’s more than one way to make a dream come true.

“Nothing happened,” Dad said. “Just like the Nats.”

After the dugout tour ended, the fourteen-person Philippa branch of Team Yank joined our twenty-one person contingent.   Philippa was again in fine sartorial form.  This time she blamed it on Dad.Philippa, modeling the latest outfit from the Vicodin Line

After 97 hours of speeches, Team Yank was off and walking. Philippa and I are both very competitive people, but for once, we weren’t in a hurry.

We, and everyone else on Team Yank, just reveled in the beauty of the day and the people who had come together to fight PD.  Their walk reminds us to just keep moving forward, no matter how fast.

Small Comfort

Humans tend to seek out comfort objects, no matter how old we are.

Babies want pacifiers.  Little kids reach for stuffed animals and blankets.  With adults, it gets a little more complicated.  Some find solace in a particular piece of furniture, like Archie Bunker with his recliner; others, a beloved piece of clothing.

When I was a kid, I had a Winnie-the-Pooh bear that I slept with every night. I loved that WTP to the point where one side of his black plastic nose cracked off, revealing a mustard-colored sub-nose underneath.

His red felt sweater frayed to tatters and then eventually disintegrated altogether.  Even though I was left with a broken-nosed nudist, I loved him just the same.

Somewhere along the way, I no longer needed WTP to comfort me when darkness set in.  Mom knew how much I loved him, so instead of throwing him out, she put him in a plastic storage bin.

I’ve carted that bin around for years, one of those things that you move not so much intentionally as out of habit.  WTP is somewhere in my basement as we speak, living it up with the Christmas ornaments and camping gear.  Though I haven’t laid eyes on him in years, I have to admit that I like knowing he’s still there.

Comfort objects worked their way to the front of my mind when I moved in with my friend Philippa a couple of weeks ago to care for her after her breast cancer surgery.

I found myself wishing I knew which tangible thing might soothe her.  She already had Louie, but every now and then he bites, so I figured I’d better have a backup.  A teddy bear didn’t seem like the right thing, but some tangible form of inspiration did. With that in mind, I hung up signs on the wall opposite her bed so she would always wake up to encouragement.  I hope they helped.

Signs of hope

On the drive home from Philippa’s house on Thursday, I started thinking about my own comfort items and decided I didn’t have any.  As I walked through my front door, my eyes automatically scanned the living room for the super-soft Ugg slippers my sister Suzi gave me for Christmas years ago.  So much for not having any comfort items.

A wave of fatigue hit me as soon as I slipped on the Uggs, so I headed for the white love seat to take a nap.  My body doesn’t quite fit on it, which makes it ideal for a short snooze.

Without thinking, I reached for the nondescript brown blanket I got as a Christmas gift from the law firm I worked for in 2002.  Though not the softest thing in the world, it makes me feel cozy.  I can’t nap without it.

This dealt another blow to my “no comfort items” theory and brought the revelation that I’m not as grown-up as I’d like to think.  Transitioning from a teddy bear to a blankie is hardly a step up.  It’s a lateral.

Even more troubling, what does it say about me that I derive comfort from enveloping myself in a monument to billable hours?

Forget the love seat, I oughtta make a beeline for the shrink’s couch.

Which objects bring you comfort? (Really hoping to hear from an accountant who cuddles with his calculator.)

There it is. My woobie.