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

“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

Wait! What??!!

My grandson is a nine year-old who is often too busy to listen to what is going on around him. Still, he is keenly interested in EVERYTHING. So when conversations or events are happening and he is preoccupied, but hears something that intrigues him, he will stop in his tracks and ask, “Wait, what??!!” My dad, his great-grandfather, does exactly the same thing. It’s funny how a nine year-old and a ninety-four year-old react the same way, with the same expression, when something piques their curiosity.

“Wait! What??!!” has become a little joke in our family. It’s one of those expressions that can almost always be anticipated. Perhaps if the “wait!-what?-ers” could pay attention they might not need to interrupt the conversations or events as they unfold. When you’re nine or ninety-four I suppose many things are competing for your time and your interest. Those two and their “wait! what?” almost always bring a smile or a laugh. And I suppose it’s okay to be preoccupied or disinterested or disengaged at times. It’s humorous that these two react so predictably. This shared trait in great-grandson and great-grandfather is truly funny and even charming.

Unfortunately lately I have found myself exclaiming “Wait! What??!!”, too. But my “wait! what?” reaction is to what is happening in our country and it is not amusing; it’s frightening. It’s not that I’m disinterested or disengaged but it seems that no sooner than I wrap my head around one tragedy or disaster, another even more horrific event presents itself. As corona virus deaths surpass 108,000 in the U.S., many people have become cavalier in their disregard for social distancing and safety. To ‘mask or not to mask’ seems to sadly have become a political issue rather than a valid health decision. Gatherings at beaches and resorts have sent the message that all is well while healthcare professionals say otherwise. The senseless killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd remind us (again) how racist, hateful and divided we remain as a nation. The threat of military action against our own citizens who choose to protest these killings from some unknown, unidentified troops looks as though we are living in an authoritarian dictatorship. As a nation we are restless, anxious and fearful. Information from television, radio and social media outlets abound but how much is trustworthy? And rather than providing leadership and comfort to our nation our president seems complicit in exploiting all this heartache for some twisted political advantage.

I am trying to stay hopeful and I do see positive signs: The economy is taking “baby steps” toward recovery; There are fewer recorded cases of Covid-19 in some of our local hospitals; Peaceful, respectful protest marches are taking place all over our country, including in my own hometown; Military leaders, religious leaders and some politicians are showing the courage to speak truth to power.

Most days when I turn on the news or look at social media, I still find myself saying, “Wait! What??!!” and yet I believe that life will be better. I pray for peace and justice. I pray for health and safety for all. I pray for understanding in this whirlwind of chaos and confusion. I believe that love will lead us to a better place. I believe that God will not abandon us.

I believe…

Peace,

Denis

Looking For The Ocean

There’s a story attributed Anthony de Mello that he would share at spiritual retreats. It goes something like this:

A fish was swimming frantically from side to side in the ocean. Another fish asked, “What are you doing?” He answered, “I’m looking for the ocean.” The other fish said, “You’re in the ocean.”

This is my dilemma. I am the fish swimming from side to side. Covid-19 has come as a silent invader. It has crept in and robbed people that I know of their health, their livelihood and in some cases, even their life. I am looking for the ocean. I am looking for that safe place, where I know that life will return as I remember. And I feel frantic and weary because I can’t find that place.

I am the fish swimming from side to side. And I need to be reminded that I’m in the ocean. It’s my inability to recognize that I am surrounded by everything I need that is exhausting. Because I don’t focus long enough to see what I have, my spirit is sapped. Because I can’t stop frantically searching, my joy is gone; my hope is lost.

And then someone or something reminds me. Sometimes it’s like a flash of light! Suddenly I am keenly aware of all that surrounds me. I AM IN THE OCEAN! All the love and understanding and compassion that I need is here. In me. With me. Around me. Other times it seeps in slowly. I begin to faintly reckon that I am where I belong. It’s a flicker of light. A gentle wave of consciousness. I am serenely in the ocean. Surrounded by love. In me. With me. Around me.

The Corona Virus is awful and it is life-changing but I am determined to stay prayerful and be grateful for what I have. I will cherish what I have now because I know that it is not guaranteed to last.

And when I am with my loved ones, with my friends and my family, I know that I am in the ocean. Our presence is prayer. And God is with us.

Peace,

Denis

Putting Life On Hold

We’ve all experienced the frustration of calling a doctor’s office or bank or billing department or any government agency and being put ‘on-hold’. Those minutes can seem like hours and usually the ‘on-hold’ music makes the experience even more intolerable.

Covid-19 has put our lives on hold. Work has been interrupted or completely stopped. Schools are closed. Graduations, weddings, and family reunions have been postponed or cancelled. Even more heart-breaking are funerals that have been restricted to only a handful of family members with a promise of a memorial at “a later date”.

As I watch the number of Corona Virus cases continue to climb and the death toll surpass 60,000 people in the U.S. alone, I feel hopeless and weary. When will it end? Will our lives ever return to normal? So much is unknown and so much information seems to be inaccurate or downright misleading. Should I watch and listen to media “health experts”? Can I trust any politicians? Do I listen to well-meaning friends and family members? Often it all seems like so much “hold music” interrupted every now and then with a “please continue to hold” thrown in for good measure.

When will this incessant ‘on-hold’ ever end?

I for one, have decided to hang up on the hold call. Instead of focusing on the health scare, financial uncertainty and forced isolation, I’m trying to take this time to be more prayerful, more attentive to my wife (after all we’re stuck in this together) and more grateful for the many blessings in my life. I’m thankful for friends and family members with whom we have safely stayed connected via social networking and technology. I’m thankful for an employer who has allowed me (so far) to work from home. I’m thankful for schools and teachers who have supported our grandchildren in their efforts to learn-at-home. I’m thankful for the health care professionals who are striving to keep my dad safe and healthy at his assisted-living residence. I’m thankful for the countless numbers of people I encounter who are wearing masks in an effort to mitigate the transmission of this deadly pandemic.

And I’ve found some joy: The laughter of our younger granddaughters responding to my silliness via FaceTime: the willingness of our grandson and his older sister to continue to do their school work before they go out and play each day; that same granddaughter who has decided to write letters and send small gifts to residents of a local care facility in her community; the text exchange between our oldest granddaughter, where she confirmed that I would likely look like Santa by the time our quarantine ends (I’m sure she was referring to the beard I’m growing and not my ever-expanding waistline); the more frequent phone calls from our younger son who says he’s “just checking in” (but even if he’s just bored or lonely, it’s great to hear his voice).

So, life is ‘on-hold’. But I hope when we return to normal or to our new normal some of these ‘on-hold’ measures remain: Siblings happily spending time together; families slowing down enough to cherish one another; parents learning by teaching their youngsters; friends staying connected; phone calls from our sweet boy.

I’m still not happy to be ‘on-hold’ and I haven’t turned a blind eye to the suffering and loss in our world. I’m not expecting someone to “flip a switch” and magically take this all away. I’m not looking for a panacea or a miracle cure. What I hope for is courage and patience. What I pray for is compassion, understanding and continued faith in my fellow man.

May you all stay safe and healthy.

Peace,

Denis

Easter Season

On Easter the Alleluia returned! But for many of us it was a muted alleluia.

Usually Easter Mass is exultant, but not this year. If the bells tolled and the organ played but no one was there, did it still make a sound? Virtual was not actual. iPads and televisions were poor substitutes for the true sights and sounds and smells of Easter Vigil.

I for one missed the ‘carnival atmosphere’ of Easter Sunday morning services, too. My version of heaven is filled with wiggles, giggles, and jelly-bean breath. I missed seeing kids stuffed full of Easter candy, wearing itchy new clothes, packed into an overcrowded church, and expected to sit quietly for over an hour. You can’t get that kind of entertainment on TV.

This year was different. This year we must be smart. We must be safe. We must stay healthy.

So perhaps this was not my favorite Easter. In fact, this was the worst Easter I can ever remember, and my 93-year-old father says it’s the saddest Easter of his life. But our inconvenience and our disappointment are small prices to pay for protecting our loved ones and our neighbors from this pandemic.

Why do you search for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!

I’m reminded that the first Easter was a pretty quiet affair, and the group was smaller than 10 persons. Still, our salvation is secure. Without fanfare. Without cymbals. Without trumpets. We are saved.

Let’s have a joyous Easter season and remain a grateful people!

(And maybe next year we can have that Easter Parade and you can wear your bonnet with all the frills upon it)

Peace,

Denis

Good Grief, It’s Good Friday!

Hard to believe that today is Good Friday. I thought that the saying was “time flies when you’re having fun”. Nothing seems like too much fun right now. And here it is – Good Friday. Another year has gone by.

I’m on a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Today marks one year since our Mom passed away. Holy Week was important to her and to our family. Watching Holy Thursday Mass yesterday on my i-Pad just didn’t feel quite right. I’m grateful for the technology and I wouldn’t want to put anyone at risk by attending Triduum services, but still…

So I’m grieving today. Missing Mom. Missing Holy Week. Missing our friends. Missing my family, especially our children and grandchildren. Worried about our Dads in their isolation.

I’m grieving for friends and family that have recently lost loved ones. There can be no funerals. No gatherings. No holding on to one another. Just plans for memorials “in the future”. I’m grieving today for the nearly 100,000 victims of COVID-19 worldwide. Many of these souls will remain faceless, nameless statistics. God help us. God be with us.

Lucy (of Peanuts fame) often would exclaim, “Good grief!”. Her ire was always reserved for poor hapless Charlie Brown. After she would shout at him, his response was often an exasperated, “Good grief” in return.

Good grief – what a funny expression. What is good about grief?

I’ve been struggling with this and praying about it. I’ve come to the conclusion that grief indeed can be a good thing. It can be healing. It can be cleansing. Certainly no one wants to grieve. Surely no one wants to deal with loss. But grief allows us to own our feelings. Grief allows us to love beyond death. And everyone must grieve in their own way; in their own time.

I suppose Good Friday is a good day to grieve. If we’re Christians we can grieve the suffering of our Savior today.

Regardless of our belief traditions, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to breakdown a little. It’s normal to want to hold on to those whom we love. It’s human to feel the pain when we know that we must let go. But we can also be assured that death is not the end. Our loved ones remain with us in spirit. We see them in the sunrise and the sunset. We see them in the stars at night and in the clouds by day. We hear them in the songs of birds and the rustling of leaves. We feel them in gentle breezes and the warmth of the sun on our skin.

And if remembering and loving them until it hurts is grief, then I suppose it is good.

Peace,

Denis