Remembering To Laugh Along The Way

Today is our wedding anniversary. It might have been predestination or providence or happy coincidence but somehow we met and fell in love. Deb and I started out laughing (mostly she at me) and we haven’t stopped laughing since. There is no one funnier and no one who “gets me” more than she does. The rest is history or rather our story. We were married and we never looked back.

We had no idea what lie ahead in 1975, which may have been a blessing in disguise. We somehow managed to find our way, one step at a time, one day after the next. Usually our plan was “There Is No Plan” and we just dealt with whatever came our way. I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart but so far it’s worked for us. Laughter has helped. And patience. And respect. And love. But we always remember to laugh.

Our journey has had it’s ups and downs. But the downs have been few. We raised three amazing children or more accurately: they raised us. During those days of cribs and diapers and preschool and science projects we usually laughed at our mistakes and prayed that they would create no permanent damage to our children’s physical or mental health. Somehow we all survived and still laugh about some of the funnier moments: Having to explain to a 2nd grade teacher that when our son told his class, “An eagle landed on my arm in our front yard!”, he was just using his imagination and we weren’t actually animal trainers. Or the time when our daughter felt the need to correct her 1st grade teacher’s vocabulary (a trait she still possesses) because, “It’s pronounced pretty, not purdy!” To this day we still call that teacher Miss Purdy. Our baby boy provided most of the laughs but I will forever remember the time that he threw himself on the floor of a department store while having a complete meltdown because we refused to buy him a tiny trench coat. He cried and screamed at the top of his lungs, “But I want to look like Inspector Gadget!”, the cartoon detective. Prying him off the floor while he was wailing, “You’re breaking my little arm!” proved to be less humorous at the moment, but we laughed as we ran out of the mall. Those memories still make me chuckle.

Later a new job offer moved us out of state. What a blessing our years in Wisconsin would turn out to be. Great schools; great neighbors; great friends. We survived the teenage years. Of course, laughter was a necessary ingredient in our survival. Our youngest child took us on some unexpected journeys along the way. Turns out, he was smarter than most of his teachers and certainly smarter than his parents. Ultimately our kids grew up and became adults. Along the way Deb and I tried our hand at adulthood too with limited success. We mostly stayed on the “No Plan” plan and stumbled along in blissful ignorance.

After 11 years in Wisconsin we had an opportunity to come back home to Missouri and took the chance. It was a bittersweet moment: leaving two of our children at the University of Wisconsin, and leaving friends we had come to count on plus a home we loved, to return to our roots. But coming back to family and life-long friends was another blessing in this life we share. The ensuing years would bring great joys and much more laughter. Greatest amongst our joy are our five beautiful grandchildren. Who knew all those years prior that our daughter would find love in Wisconsin and gift us with two of those grandchildren? They along with their cousins provide much of the laughter in our lives today. An added plus is that I’ve been able to recycle many of my old jokes for a new audience. I’m certain that the older grandkids laugh out of courtesy these days, but hey, laughter is laughter. I’ll take it any way I can get it.

Work once again provided an opportunity for a new adventure and in 2012 we lived in England. We often found ourselves laughing at our hapless efforts to carry on as ex-patriots. Our misuse of the language, our driving skills, our tiny washer/dryer and the eccentric neighbors and shopkeepers all offered countless hours of laughter. I’m sure we supplied many a laugh to those who encountered us along the way.

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Through it all, Deb and I have remained partners, friends, lovers, and two of the funniest people that I know. We have a saying in our house, “Funny Trumps All!” Of course not everything is a laughing matter but even in our darkest hours we have found something to make us laugh. On her deathbed my Mom made us laugh by telling us that although she would miss all of us, she certainly wouldn’t miss Donald Trump. It was her last gift to us all. She took all the sadness out of the room with that simple sentence. Once again she was the Mom who knew just what we needed. I’m sure she’s looking down on us now and laughing at some of our antics.

46 years ago when Deb and I made our vows there were promises to love and honor and to stay together in sickness and in health. There was no mention of laughing. And yet here we are, still laughing all the way. They say that laughter is the best medicine. And I would add that nothing is healthier than being able to laugh at yourself. I suppose God has given some of us more opportunities to do that than others.

A true blessing is having someone to share that laugher. Happy Anniversary – Deb (thanks for all the love and laugher!)

Peace,

Denis

Christmas Present

It’s hard not to feel nostalgic this Christmas. I’m longing for days gone by. Our house is quiet this morning. No trips to the airport to gather loved ones. No extra house guests. No last minute dashing off for a forgotten gift or overlooked ingredient for someone’s favorite Christmas dish. No giggles and wiggles waiting for Santa to show up. All is calm.

Most years I am secretly fighting with my ‘internal Scrooge’ on Christmas Eve morning. I’m usually a little cranky by now and complaining in my head about all the expense, the preparation, the aggravation, and the exhaustion. And for what? One day when we all get together and “celebrate” Christmas and hope (and pray) that we can all get along. No disappointments. No disagreements. No hurt feelings. No tears.

But Christmas past is past. This year it’s Christmas present that I’m struggling with. Two of our children, our daughter-in-law and three of our grandchildren will not be with us this year. None of my siblings, nieces nor nephews will be joining us. Neither of our dads will be here. And of course, our moms, who have gone on to greater glory, won’t be here again this Christmas.

So many have lost so much this year. And I feel ashamed of my selfishness. I want ALL my family to be together. I want the cacophony of little voices and old jokes and silly games. I want a house full of noise and mess and chaos. I want all that stuff that I (maybe not so secretly) complain about any other year. I don’t want disappointments, or disagreements or hurt feelings but I’ll take it, if that means there will also be surprises and laughter and love.

Tonight I will try to embrace my Christmas present. And will thank God for my smaller, healthier gathering. I promise to cherish each and every moment. I will hold in my heart those who cannot be with us. I will love the ones who are with us all the more. This year my Christmas present is my present. I hope that I can accept it with grace. And perhaps a few tears along the way might be cleansing.

2020 has been exhausting for all of us. My prayer this Christmas is that the weary world can rejoice once more.

Peace,

Denis

Waiting in Line

This year it seems there are lines wherever I go. Waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store. Waiting in line at the drive-through restaurant. Waiting in line outside of the DMV. Waiting in line for a Covid-19 test. Waiting in line. Patiently. Six feet apart.

Recently when I was grousing about all the ‘waiting-in-line’ my beautiful wife remembered that when she was a secretary at a parish in Wisconsin, Sister Dorothy with whom she worked, always told her, “The poor must wait in line.”

The poor must wait in line. Wait in line for healthcare at over-worked and under-staffed clinics; wait in line for food at pantries which are often depleted before they can be served; wait in line for shelter and a safe place to rest; wait in line for refuge and asylum from violence; wait in line for justice.

During Advent I wait. I wait for the coming of Christ in my heart. As Catholic Christians we are supposed to have a “preference for the poor”. I seldom think about what those words truly mean.  “As followers of Christ, we are challenged to make a fundamental ‘option for the poor’—to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess lifestyles, policies and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor”.

Perhaps this year is a good time to reflect on my own spiritual poverty. Maybe I can stand in line in solidarity with my poor sisters and brothers. Maybe I can do my small part to ease the suffering of so many. When I throw those few coins into the Salvation Army bucket I will pray for the poor person who may receive some part of my small gift. When I donate food to a pantry I will ask God to bring blessing to whomever may be nourished by that meal. When I give to charity this year I will try to put a face on the person who will benefit from my donation and pray that they are afforded dignity while being served. I will support candidates and causes that serve the under-served in our nation.

This has been a year of waiting-in-line. And if I stop complaining and quiet myself during my wait, I might just catch a glimpse of heaven this Advent season. I hope that you do as well.

Peace,

Denis

Be Watchful; Be Ready

During the four weeks of Advent we are supposed to be waiting for Jesus. And most years I am too busy to settle myself into contemplation of Christ’s coming. But this year is different. We are shopping on line. All the Christmas baking is done. The house is already decorated. We are not traveling. We are not entertaining.  There are few gifts to wrap because everything is being delivered by Amazon. And still I find little time for Jesus. So it seems all my “too busy” excuses of Christmases past were just rubbish.

This year I have plenty of time to quiet myself and listen for His voice. Instead I grumble about not having MY CHRISTMAS. The Christmas that I WANT with all our extended family; with Christmas cocktail parties; with Christmas concerts; with Christmas pageants; with Christmas shopping. After all isn’t that what Jesus wants, too? You know, normal Christmas with all the pomp and circumstance and just enough time to squeeze in a little “holiness” like Midnight Mass or a Novena to make it all seem sanctified.

But here I am in 2020, with plenty of time to pray and reflect on Christ’s coming: Christ coming into our world as a helpless infant; Christ coming into our world today as the love that surrounds us and sustains us; Christ coming at the end of time to save us and bring us home. I’ve complained about all the disruptions, pain and loss that Covid-19 has brought to our world. And I’ve readily used it as an excuse to not do some things I might have otherwise done. But I cannot use it as an excuse for not celebrating Advent and Christmas this year. I have the time!

I’m certain that the first Christmas wasn’t exactly what Mary and Joseph had planned but events beyond their control forced them to travel to Bethlehem. Mary’s joy was not diminished because she gave birth to Jesus amidst the most humble of circumstances. Neither should our joy be diminished by circumstances beyond our control. The corona virus and all it’s related heartache has had a profound effect on all of us this year but still our Savior comes. Perhaps I can use this time of uncertainty to remain watchful and ready.

Aristotle is credited with saying, “To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.” Maybe a cold, harsh winter is what I need. Maybe freezing my backside off will make me appreciate the warmth and beauty of my home and stop my complaining about what I have missed this year.

Mostly I pray that a long cold winter will help me embrace the coming spring and create room in my heart for His love.

Peace,

Denis

Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.

James 5:7-8

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

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

“Dad” – the best honorary title I’ve ever been given

It’s Father’s Day. The day that Hallmark invented because men were feeling a little left out because of all the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s true. The dollars spent on Father’s Day pale in comparison to what we fork over on Mother’s Day gifts, cards and flowers. Of course, mothers deserve more respect and reverence (and stuff, I suppose) if for no other reason than enduring childbirth. I was in the room for a couple of those. I’d take a double hernia any day!

Still, dads have some tough stuff to do, too. As dads we change our share of poopy diapers and mop up puke and wipe away tears. Some of us taught our kids how to ride a bike or drive a car. Some of us have instilled great wisdom in our young charges. Some of us are models of virtue, faithfulness, patience and courage. But most of us are just trying to make it through to another day.

Did you ever take your 13 year-old daughter swimsuit shopping and have to examine in detail nearly 100 swimsuits all of which “weren’t quite right”? Or have to sit through your 9 year-old’s ‘Parent-Teacher Conference’ and listen to Junior’s litany of sins while realizing that your kid is smarter than this teacher? Or did you ever have to fish something out of the latrine at boy scout camp that your son couldn’t manage to hold on to, and find yourself screaming, “Why the hell did you have that in here in the first place!” These experiences are not for the faint of heart. It takes a real man. It takes a Dad.

I’ve been blessed. God has chosen me to be a Dad. Somehow with limited intellect and no training or background in child development I was able to plod through this journey of fatherhood. My efforts were, at best, questionable and my mistakes as countless as the stars. Still my results were beyond my imagining. Three amazing humans walk this earth that I have the joy of calling my children. They are loving, caring, capable people who you would be better for knowing. So if a dumb-dumb like me can pull off a feat like this, there is hope for all of humanity.

Being called Dad is an honor and it is one that I treasure with my whole being.

Happy Father’s Day to all dads, stepdads, foster dads, mentors, and men who make a difference in the lives of children.

Peace,

Denis