Thankful (even in 2020)

This year Thanksgiving Dinner will be a small gathering. How can we celebrate without ALL the family? Will the turkey be as tender? Will the stuffing be as savory? Will the sweet potatoes and cranberries be as flavorful? And dear God what about the Pumpkin Pie???

Less than a full table this year…

My head tells me those things don’t really matter but my heart wants this Thanksgiving Dinner to be like every other. I want us ALL to be gathered around the table. I want the house full of family and friends. I want it to be noisy and a bit chaotic. I want to eat too much, drink a little too much, and yet somehow still manage to have just one more piece of pie.

Of course it occurs to me that our Thanksgiving Dinners haven’t all been Hallmark moments. There were years with undercooked turkeys and burnt rolls. There were years with family fights. There were years when at least one of our kids threw up either immediately before or after dinner (or maybe both). There was the year we ate fish and chips at a pub in England – no turkeys in sight. There were the years our son was stationed at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea and Thule Air Base in Greenland eating in mess halls, while his place at our table remained empty. There was last year – our first Thanksgiving without Mom. So, my perfect Thanksgiving Dinner is more aspiration than realization. And yet we remain thankful.

We give thanks and we should. We should be thankful for one another. Thankful for love. Thankful for a full belly and a place to lay our heads. Thankful for a God that provides light even in our darkest hours.

A smaller table and a smaller gathering is disappointing but this year it is necessary. It’s tough not having Dad at our table because of Covid-19 restrictions at his assisted living facility, even though I know it is the right decision. There is certainly no shortage of heartache or suffering in our world today. And perhaps you’re suffering, too. I pray that your suffering, whether in mind or body, is temporary and your healing is swift.

Tomorrow I will remember to give thanks. And if Thanksgiving Dinner isn’t perfect in every way, I will try to remember that it’s the thanksgiving and not the dinner that really matters.

Peace,

Denis

Planned Parenthood (or something like that)

We had our first child after we were married nearly four years. It seemed like a good plan. And it was!

He was a perfect baby. He was beautiful. He was healthy. He ate well. He slept well. He was always happy. He loved everyone he encountered. We were clearly excellent parents.

We weren’t just good parents, we were brilliant and so good at this ‘baby thing’ that we decided to plan our next child right away. Finding out that we were having a second child on “Perfect Baby’s” first birthday seemed like a dream come true. And it was. She arrived only a year and half after her brother, tiny and pink and so soft that my rough hands could barely feel her tenderness. She looked like a little rose bud. Our planned had worked!

So there we were with two cribs, two high chairs, two diaper pails. Our new addition would certainly be as sweet and easy and happy as her (only slightly older) brother. This planned parenthood would prove our brilliance to those who had doubted our wisdom – naysayers all! Big Brother went to bed every night promptly at 8:00pm and didn’t wake up most days until 8:00am. We were certain Baby Sister would get into that groove, too.

But Baby Sister had a different schedule in mind. She began crying (no – let’s call it screaming) at 8:15pm. This usually only lasted 3 or 4 hours EVERY NIGHT. Her pediatrician said she was colicky. Of course all the “old wives” (mother and mother-in-law) with their old wives’ tales, offered little comfort. Try lying baby on her stomach across your lap after nursing. Try rubbing baby’s tiny belly after nursing. Try nursing baby before she started crying. Try waiting to nurse baby until she was really crying hard. Try having Daddy hold baby after nursing because baby could sense Mommy’s tension. The message that I was receiving: TRY NOT PLANNING ANY MORE PREGNANCIES. They won. The naysayers. The “I told you so”-ers. What in God’s name had we been thinking?

So we battled on like war-weary soldiers fighting a lost cause. We knew that we might never survive, but we also knew that we could never surrender. The mockers and naysayers would win! We couldn’t let that happen. So we carried on. Night after night we rocked and cuddled THE TERROR. Night after night we soothed THE BEAST. Night after night we cried ourselves to sleep, we three, while (only slightly older) brother slept through it all.

And then six months later it happened. A miracle. The colic stopped. Our angel appeared. She became the most beautiful baby girl that the world has ever seen. She and big brother became best friends. They were inseparable. They literally grew up together. Often mistaken for twins, Baby Sister and Big Brother were usually in lockstep. Once again, we were brilliant parents. We were unstoppable. And few years later when a sort of general amnesia clouded our colicky memories, Baby Brother joined our ranks. And we lived happily ever after. Until adolescence.

But that’s another story of survival…

Once Upon a Time in a Land Far, Far, Away…

Our oldest granddaughter is a sophomore in high school now and our second oldest granddaughter is in 7th grade and is looking at high schools. Because of this I’ve been reminiscing about high school lately.

For many of us high school was a distant time and place. Still, high school wasn’t just the school building or the four years spent there. It was the people. It was the experiences. It was social order or disorder as the case might be. For many of us high school left an indelible mark on our psyches. Being accepted or rejected socially; being scholarly or not; being on the team or not; being physically attractive or not; these things in many ways defined our ability to succeed as adults. In some cases rejection may have made us work harder to find our real worth. In other cases gliding through the high school years might have given us the impression that life would be a breeze and we ended up stagnated or unfulfilled. Regardless if we were jocks or geeks, cheerleaders or bookworms, trouble makers or do-gooders, those four years had an effect on us.

I was a geek who thought he was cool. Kind of a hipster-doofus with most of the emphasis on doofus. I was not a good student. I was not athletic nor particularly attractive and I think I was invisible to most of the popular girls. Although I wasn’t a target of abuse or bullying like some of my geekier friends, I was nonetheless relegated to the “loser” group. I had some popular friends too but it’s likely that I thought we were better friends than they thought we were. I wasn’t miserable in high school, I just knew my place. If there was a contest (and thankfully there wasn’t) I would have probably been voted “Most Likely To Be Forgotten”.

Then the strangest thing happened. I graduated. I got a part-time job near home and went to a local college. I met a girl at that job who had attended a neighboring high school and was attending a different local college. I flirted. She flirted back. We dated (in that we’re-both-poor-college-students sort of way). We had fun together. And she really seem to like me. I learned from others that she had been popular at her high school and was on the Coronation Court – the royalty of high schoolers. It suddenly occurred to me that I was no longer defined by the high school cliques. I was still a geeky weirdo but she didn’t see me that way or she was too polite or too kind to point it out or maybe, just maybe, she liked me the way I was. This changed everything. Everyone seemed to know her and love her. She had been in the upper echelon of high school and I was, well, just me.

But she liked me, in spite of who or what I was. The Princess and the Frog! I learned a valuable lesson from that girl. She took the time to look past my outward appearance. When she looked at me she didn’t see the kid who didn’t measure up. She saw a young man with potential. With one kiss I turned into her Prince. And she changed our lives forever.

I hope that all our grandchildren have good high school experiences. And whether they’re the popular girl on Coronation Court like their grandmother or the doofus standing on the sidelines like their grandfather, I hope they measure their self-worth by what’s inside and find a princess who will hold the mirror up to their soul.

Peace,

Denis

Respecting Life

As a Catholic Christian I have a responsibility to respect life. Lately I’ve been thinking about what respecting life means to me. Not “Respect For Life” the pro-life mantra with all of it’s political implications but respecting life; the life we’ve been given and the lives of others.

In 1996 when our daughter was in high school she had the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student. At sixteen years old she traveled alone to Santo Domingo, Ecuador and lived with a host family for the summer. Her hosts welcomed her as part of their family. She attended school with her sisters, joined in family events, was never allowed to walk the streets alone without her brother’s protection and was completely immersed in life in Santo Domingo. During her time in Ecuador, she and several other international students spent a bonus week in the rainforest. They rode an antiquated bus into the jungle, slept in hatched huts, encountered huge snakes, fought off marauding monkeys who would snatch food from their picnic tables, and experienced a life most hadn’t realized even existed. Part of that week also involved meeting indigenous peoples in order to appreciate their culture.

Because this was before the days of smart phones and texting and easy access to the internet we were able to only receive one fax and two phone calls from our daughter during her time abroad. Needless to say, when she arrived home she had much to share.

I remember vividly her telling us about her experience in the rainforest. Her best friend was over and our daughter was sharing her photos while describing in detail everything we saw. She mentioned how they had all been offered a drink of some concoction from a wooden bowl. I believe it was considered a blessing or sign of hospitality. She took the vessel and held it up to her mouth but she didn’t swallow. Pretty discerning for a sixteen year old. She was respectful but cautious. (Her mother’s influence should be credited for that gracious maneuver). When we looked at the photos of how the people were dressed (and undressed) and had painted their faces. Her friend exclaimed at the top of her voice, “Oh my God, I would stare!”

Those two girls, at sixteen, respected life. My daughter concerned by what might be mixed in that unknown concoction, nonetheless was respectful enough to accept the gift given. Her friend’s reaction to the native Ecuadorians unusual costumes was only an embarrassed, “I would stare!” Neither girl expressed disgust or hatred or fear of a different life. They were respecting life. A life so different from their own but deserving of dignity and respect. I was so proud of those girls then and I am proud of the women that they have become. They are both mothers now and they are raising their children to also respect life. And they are changing our world. One works in immigration; one works in education.

In a interview in America Magazine on October 1, 2020, Jeannie Gaffigan said, “My faith, family and Catholic education have given me the belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Human life is sacred, and all humans have equal value. Of course, this means it is wrong to intentionally take a human life under any circumstances, but it is also wrong to disregard human life through racism, unjust social and economic structures, providing inadequate access to health care, wantonly harming the environment, abusing or neglecting anyone—a child, a mother, a father, a grandparent, an immigrant.”

Our daughter and her best friend were also given a Catholic education and faith and love of family was instilled in them as well. I can’t take too much credit for the amazing person that our daughter has become but we did teach her to respect life.

So here is my prayer; here is my hope. That one parent will teach one child to respect life. And our world can be transformed one child at a time.

Peace,

Denis

The House That Love Built

My wife and I have been married for a while. We’ve weathered our fair share of storms through the years. Money problems; career challenges; parenthood; health issues; the loss of loved ones; 2020.

Somehow we’ve always held on; held out; held up. I know that we’ve been blessed with some great fortune. Not the monetary kind but the true treasure in life – loving family and friends and faith in God. I also believe that early on in our marriage we learned some valuable lessons in humility. Those humbling experiences weren’t fun at the time but they strengthened us and tempered our resolve to make our marriage work – even on the worst days.

Respect for one another is a big part of our success as couple. Folks say that marriage should be 50/50 but those of us who have been at it for a while know that sometimes it’s 80/20 or 30/70 and you have to step in and step up for your spouse when they need you. Being respectful to the one you love when they need more from you than they can give in return is challenging. It requires patience from the giver and humility from the receiver. I believe that it is even more challenging when you’re the one who needs to be carried for a time. But that’s what love is. Love builds us up. Love holds us together. Love gives us the strength to be the “carrier” and the grace to be the “carried”.

This has been a tough year for most people but at the end of each day I am blessed to able to look back and realize, once again, that I have had an amazing partner by my side. We’ve laughed and cried. We’ve cursed and prayed. And yet, even in 2020 somehow we’ve managed to hold on, hold out, and hold up.

When we were first married we had no idea what lie ahead. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Predictable journeys are, well predictable. Ours has been a serious of adventures. We’ve been surprised, heartbroken, blessed, scared and delighted along the way. We’ve grown up (and grown older) through it all. And we’re still standing…

Peace,

Denis

In Good Times And In 2020

Nothing could have prepared me for this year. Everyday seems to bring more sad news. More than 185,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Our nation seems more politically divided than during any other time of my adult life. Fear and anxiety have affected all of us in some way or another. It’s a struggle to find joy most days. Families are being torn apart by job loss, illness and death. Parents are juggling jobs and the education of their children. Weddings, vacations, funerals, and graduations have been cancelled or truncated. Often those we most love are the only outlet for our frustrations. Patience is wearing thin. Our families, our friends, our neighbors, unwittingly become easy targets for our ridicule and wrath in these darkest days. “I love you but…” seems to be a sad anthem for 2020.

In marriage (and in life) we realize that it’s in good times and in bad that we must live. We don’t just walk away when the going gets tough. I admit that I’d like to bury my head in the sand most of these days of 2020 but I refuse to give up hope. I refuse to let sadness and madness rule my life. I still have joy although sometimes it’s just a flicker of light in a mostly dark room. I still have peace in my soul even though I feel surrounded by hate, violence and despair.

I’m angry. I’m frightened. I’m heartbroken. Sometimes (many times in 2020) I need to be reminded that better days are ahead. These are tough times but I have faith in God and I have faith in my fellow humans. Wishing bad things away is not enough. We must fight injustice. We must work hard to end systemic racism. We must work to provide healthcare and living wages for all. We must welcome asylum seekers and refugees into our country. We must be a light to others, even if it is only a flicker.

I am privileged. Not just by the color of my skin but also because of being born into a loving family. I am privileged because I have shared my life with my partner of 45 years. Our foundation is strong enough to hold us together during good times and bad. Enjoying my blessings without working for others is selfish and cowardly. 2020 is a bad year, but for many it won’t ever get better. The foundation I’ve been blessed with is strong enough to hold me up and shelter others in need, too.

Perhaps I can use this time of strife to be more forgiving and charitable to others. I’m praying to be a better husband; a better father; a better brother; a better son; a better friend; a better neighbor; a better citizen; a better man; and to be a light…

Peace,

Denis

The Year of Hank

Our youngest child is named Blake, which originates from Old English and means ‘the fair one’. It was a good fit for the blondest of his dark-haired mother’s three children. Geneticists tell us that dark hair is a dominant trait but my beautiful brunette wife kept popping out blondes.

Anyway, being born blonde was only the beginning of a lifetime of anomalous characteristics that define our beautiful blue-eyed baby boy. Blake was the sweetest and most demonstrative of our children but also the quickest to lose his temper. He was the most curious and restless of our brood, and therefore the most likely to disassemble lamps and small appliances, but he was capable of tremendous patience and compassion with classmates who were unpopular. He was a ‘gifted’ student and a discipline problem. Too much going on in that little head of his to sit still and listen to the teacher, I suppose. At an early age he displayed a very mature sense of humor with a healthy dose of sarcasm thrown in (this really perplexed those teachers – especially the dull ones). He questioned and often resisted organized religion as a boy but was (and is) the most profoundly spiritual of our three.

Life with young Blake was like being on a roller-coaster. The highs were high and the lows were low but that ride was a hell of a lot of fun!

The teenage years bring their own set of challenges and it seemed at times that Blake might need to find a new home. How could we ‘out-smart’ a kid who was clearly smarter than us? Prayer helped. And love (which is prayer in action) was always plentiful. Oh, and we learned to not sweat the small stuff. Turns out most of the “stuff” is pretty small anyway. We didn’t object when he came home with his hair dyed bright green. My response was just, “Well actually blue is my favorite color but it’s your hair…” We didn’t freak out when he wasn’t excepted into the National Honor Society (even though he was a National Merit Semifinalist). Apparently hurling an F-bomb at an assistant principal disqualifies you for that sort of thing. When he casually asked us one evening over dinner to start calling him ‘Hank’ our only question was why? His response: “I like the name.” And so it was. We called him Hank. For the better part of a year he became Hank. It was really no big deal and we just decided to roll with it.

During ‘The Year of Hank’ he remained as academically gifted and artistically brilliant and maddeningly headstrong as ever but somehow the challenges became fewer; the fights were less intense. After a year or so of being Hank, he seemed bored with the novelty and became Blake once more. He recently told a friend that we were cool parents because we let him be Hank for a year. It occurred to me that we never ‘let him’ do anything. We usually stood in amazement as he ‘did him’ while we desperately tried to catch up.

He’s a grown man now but I still spy a glimpse of Hank now and then; in his voice; in his smile; in his compassion; in his sense of fairness and justice; in the way he loves with complete abandon; in his authenticity; in his loyalty.

And I thank God for the ‘Year of Hank’ and the grace that allowed it to happen.

Peace,

Denis

Growing Up

My twelve-year-old granddaughter Anna is growing up and our relationship is changing. We discuss books she’s read. I marvel at her intelligence, poise and thoughtfulness. She has enlightened me on the finer points of the musical phenomenon, “Hamilton”. She shares her arts-and-crafts projects with me; looking for approval I suppose, but confident in her abilities. I study her beauty which emanates from within a deep place in her soul. I listen with intent as she describes her love of horses and riding, while never sharing that I am frightened of the beasts. I am delighted to see her in the kitchen with her Nana; learning and sharing the joy of cooking that completely escapes me. In my eyes she is ageless and fearless and flawless. I am equally astounded and amused when her mother or grandmother seem to take over her body with their words and actions, as I am transported to some distant place and time. She is already a nurturer, protector and enforcer as are all the good women before her. Her younger brother is often the recipient of her caring, her teaching, and her demands, after all, someone must be in charge. She has no idea of the power that she possesses.

I’m carrying a secret little sadness concerning Anna. I fear that I am becoming unnecessary – still loved and respected but not needed to hold a hand, wipe a tear, fix a toy, or mend a torn page in a favorite book.

She’s impatient, as she should be. She needs to explore more, give more, learn more, and experience more independence. She is growing up. She is finding her wings. She is finding her way.

Our relationship is changing, and I need to learn to adapt. I’ll get there, but some journeys take detours. And some journeyers stumble along the way.

Recently Anna climbed onto my lap, as she often did when she was much younger. She’s still tiny and easy to hold. So, she climbed up and I held on for dear life. Perhaps she sensed that I needed her affection and her tenderness. Maybe she knew that I needed her loving embrace. Or gasp – maybe she needed me! I wanted to hold her forever. Even in my dotage, I am still able to remember how I once felt when her mother was on the verge of abandoning childhood. I remember the panic, the sense of loss. I was frantic and sad and angry all at the same time. Thanks to memories still intact, I can take comfort in the knowledge that age doesn’t equal apathy; growing older doesn’t mean growing apart. As Anna continues to mature, I’ll try to behave maturely as well, knowing full well it won’t be easy.

Our relationship is changing, but we can cherish our past and we can look forward to our future. That day when Anna crawled on my lap I asked her, “Do you think that someday you won’t want to call me Pawpaw anymore and that maybe you’d prefer a more mature sounding name like, Granddad or Grandfather?” She looked at me in disbelief and said, “I don’t really like the way that sounds.”

As a tear escaped and a prayer was answered, I thought to myself, “Neither do I, Anna, neither do I…”

Peace,

Denis

Coping and Copying

Recently I reached out to some friends to see how they were managing during this most unusual year. Of course, calling 2020 an usual year is the understatement of this unusual year. And now I’ve done it again; unusual. Clearly I need a better adjective – perhaps abysmal or abnormal or outlandish or freakish or monstrous, but none of those words truly do justice to the pain, disruption, and misery of 2020. Eight years ago we lived in England and my British friends consider 2020 a terrible inconvenience. My American friends consider it a sh*t-show; not nearly as eloquent but certainly to the point.

While inquiring how friends are coping, I’ve learned a lot about resilience, good nature, humor, perseverance, hope, love, and faith.

Here are some of the comments my friends have shared:

“Summer is here with its ‘heat warnings’ and ‘water restrictions’. We thank God for AC and don’t venture out for walks, unless it’s early in the morning or late in the evening.”

“It helps that Missouri is one of six states with no open container law!”

“I cope with humor. I haven’t had a haircut since February and my hair gets frizzy in humidity. I am worried about my memory. Every time I see my reflection I think that although I don’t remember putting my finger in a wall socket, I must have.”

We have closed the office and are all working from home. My wife’s office closed before mine so she commandeered the study. I am reduced to working at the kitchen table. Schools are closed now, and with the boys locked up, they have turned feral!”

“Sure miss you guys. Hope to be able to get together soon.”

“I just finished one of our “chat sessions” where a dozen of us were on Zoom. It isn’t perfect but it is surely a good solution.”

“I miss friends and all of the activities we enjoyed. We are just watching and waiting.”

“We are just driving around. Pretty much the only thing we can do safely.”

“These are very difficult times, but we will be okay with God’s help and our friends holding us up in prayer.”

So, my friends are coping, each in their own way, and I am trying to cope by copying some of their positive attitudes and gentle humor. I am also trying to remain hopeful and prayerful. It certainly helps to know that even though we are not physically together, we are NEVER apart in spirit and love.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay hopeful.

Peace,

Denis

Independence Day

It’ll be a different celebration this year. No parades. No “bring a dish” large family gatherings. No splashing around at the public pool. Fireworks (maybe) from a social distance. It’ll be quieter, safer, healthier and possibly a little disappointing.

Still, today is America’s birthday. This should be a day to be proud of our great nation.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much to celebrate lately. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have our nation in it’s grip. Our president is once again crying “hoax”, this time concerning revelations that Russia may have paid bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protests have turned into opportunities for hate groups to exploit and distort a message of unity and hope.

I pray for my family, especially my father and father-in-law, that they continue to be spared the Corona Virus. I am saddened by the ever-widening political chasm in this country and lack of trust of our elected officials. I worry that my black and brown family members and friends might become victims of someone’s misguided hate.

I wonder what has happened? Where is the love of our neighbors? This is America!

Recently my niece wrote, In a time when everything can seem so bad, let’s not lose focus on the small things that mean so much! Do what is best for your tribe. Stay humble, and enjoy life!”

I found tremendous comfort in her words. This 4th of July weekend we will do just that. We will focus on the small things. We will have a quieter celebration at home this year. We will love one another the best we can. We will call or video call those who cannot be with us. We will avoid the crowds and watch fireworks from afar. We will continue to thank God for our freedom and pray for peace, justice and healing in our nation. We will stand with our brothers and sisters of color. We will be humbled, once again, to be called citizens of this great nation. We will wave our flags. We will vote.

And when we tuck ourselves into bed tonight, we will rest in the comfort of knowing that our small tribe has made a difference.

Peace,

Denis