Broken Cookie

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The young woman ascended the stage with frailty, dragging a cane up the steps in her left hand.

The pastor’s wife stood near, ready to help her if she tipped or became wobbly. Stepping to the stage behind the woman was her husband, cradling their infant. Neither of them were over the age of thirty.

“I’m not here to tell you that our lives are perfect or great,” the woman said with a mild slur into the mic. “Our last year has been filled with garbage.”

The couple spent a good portion of the year handling her husband’s Crohns Disease flare ups, and it took a lot out of them. Then in September their child was born, a beautiful healthy baby. Two weeks later the young woman had a stroke. It changed so much of their lives. Now she talks with a slur, and walks assisted. But through it all she portrayed a strength and confidence that transcended any cane or paralysis.

“Life continues to be hard. But we have a beautiful healthy baby, and we are still together,” she said. “I could sit back and wonder why it all happened. These events were put in our lives for a reason. We’ll find out why someday, and I would rather look ahead and known that what we’ve endured may end up helping someone else.”

Her mindset reminds me of a broken cookie.

It may be in two pieces sitting there on the plate. It’s not perfect. Some might consider it unpresentable. The crack may have been unexpected, and the crack may also be severe. You can sit there and complain about the broken cookie, or you can eat the damn thing and take in all the wonderful tastes and textures it still offers even in two pieces. A cookie is a cookie. It tastes like a cookie. Work with the two parts and you still have a cookie. Expecting that cookie to be an exact circle, and unbroken, is like expecting a perfect life that only exists on paper or in a movie from the 1950s. What happened to that young couple could happen to anyone.

Expecting perfection sets all of us up for failure.

Life is real and life is unfiltered. There will be hardships, trials, setbacks and sideswipes. We don’t always get the promotion. Sometimes getting a 4.0 doesn’t mean you’re on a track to moneyville. There are bumps in the road. Curve balls come out of nowhere, and next thing you know your path has completely changed. I will admit that I don’t always react well when faced with an unexpected trip-up. But lately I’ve worked on taking a different approach when sidetracked by adversity; I ask myself “where could this take me?” I also try to look at it in a productive way. It’s not easy giving up control over something that you feel must be done a certain way. For some people, it’s nearly impossible. But consider this: It could be that the sidetrack was actually the way something was supposed to happen, and not necessarily the original plan. I’ve discovered that unexpected opportunities have presented themselves by taking the unexpected path.

I look at the cookie as a whole, and ignore the break.

If a young stroke victim can stand with her husband and child on a stage, and proclaim publicly that she’s taking on what’s being handed out, then I can look at my own life and unexpected struggles in a different way. How we see it is how it plays. Do you want to wallow or win? I choose the latter, and so did that young woman.

The cookie tastes great if you want it to.

Lighting The Past

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“Dad? Can we light my candle?” Jack asked me yesterday morning.

I looked to the clear mason jar on the hutch in the living room.  It was magnificent.  The lid was dotted with toy gems, while the innards of the jar were filled with colored granules in a red/white/blue flowing pattern.  Jack’s handiwork had been sitting there long enough for the candle to be invisible to my eyes over time.  “Sure,” I said, despite it being the middle of Summer with the temperature hanging around 80.  “How come?”

“We were never able to use it after I made it, because of Grandma’s oxygen machine.”

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Let Go And Let Them Scoot

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“Hey Dad,” Jack said to me while he scootered to school, “if you want to get exercise and lose weight – no offense – we could do this every Monday!”

His school is about a mile from home.

With his short legs and prosthetic limb, that distance would take over an hour and wear him out to the point of exhaustion if he were to walk. He had been talking about scootering to school all weekend, and this morning he insisted once again. I first said no, because the weather was changing and I was fearful that it would take too too long. Then I saw an article link in my FB describing how a father hauled his disabled son up to the top of an amazing outlook in a National Park because he thought his son would like the view – a trip that would have been impossible for someone with his disability. ‘Jeez Kurt,’ I thought after that, ‘get out the dang scooter.’

Jack rolled his way to school in twenty minutes.

Let ’em loose and find out what they can do.

 

The Secret to Staying Skinny ‘They’ Don’t Want You to Know

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The news has been filled for several years of reports that Americans are getting bigger.

It’s being called an epidemic, a problem our society will need to address in short order to keep from destroying any chance of America having a healthy future. But for many – like me – maintaining a healthy weight is a constant struggle. What I fight – in my opinion – is actually an addiction to food, which is also an addiction to the very thing that is also supposed to sustain my life. How does one battle that? It’s not like a person can just not eat. We all must eat to live, but somehow my body seems to be greedy. I’ve grown to tolerate – because my body can’t accept – the ties between portion size and feelings of hunger; if I eat regular size meals I’m constantly hungry.

Maybe there’s something wrong, or maybe I’m weak.

Ten years ago a doctor told me she couldn’t help with the hunger I felt. Three months ago – in the hopes that medical science had advanced since my last request – I asked a doctor again to help me, after losing 35 pounds and enduring comments from the nurse that I should lose weight. Doctor Two couldn’t help me either, stating there was “no magic pill” which would take that feeling away. Oh, and I needed to retrain myself while waiting for my stomach to shrink.

So that means medical science can create drugs like Viagra and Cialis, yet they can’t produce something to keep mankind from eating themselves to death.

I feel my body telling me to eat twice as much as I need to live. As I write this my hunger is nagging at my middle, but also down by 45 pounds from the summer of 2011; it has been the toughest struggle to get there. But I will say this: The hunger I endure – even right now – gives me compassion for the multitudes around the world who feel this inner emptiness every day / all day – and not by choice.

With doctors and the media telling us that our belt lines continue to increase, it makes me wonder how we Americans ever stayed thin in the first place.

Pictures from our historic past show well-proportioned landscapes of slender people working the magnificent jobs of an industrial America, void of any body fat and simply beaming with weight-healthy bliss. The Library of Congress archives on Flickr are teaming with these images, presented in vivid Kodachrome to further push our ancestors’ color-filled birthright of thin living on the rest of us. It’s a memorable image, ripe with sentimentality and patriotism.

“Honor our forefathers, who forged this landscape with the muscles in their backs and the remaining fingers of their bare hands.”

The can-do spirit of this majestic endeavor, creating a free land for all at the cost of a few, can be felt in Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy. But my question remains: How is that 1940s Man could go to work a 12-hour day on the budding infrastructure of America, while holding a paper sack holding only a simple sandwich and an small apple? I have a theory; a crude and untested one, but mine alone.

They all smoked.

Yes, the industrious worker of the 1940s was also a two-pack per day burner, enjoying with billowing freedom the toasted flavor of a filterless Lucky Strike while completely forgetting that his body needed more than nicotine. The ashtrays gracing the armrests and bathrooms of older theaters and 737s will attest to the breadth of the practice of replacing food with a good smoke. And why not? Doctors standing next to big Chryslers – while citing junk science like nicotine satisfying the N-Zone of the brain with little or no medical after effect – were telling readers from the ad pages of the 1950s to relax, and grab a light for that smooth rich tobacco flavor.

But now we’ve traded one epidemic for another.

From where I sit, food has replaced cigarettes as America’s guilty pleasure. State laws doom smoker-friendly restaurants like The Pine Cone, while giving permits to build another fast food restaurant that is rumored to use Pink Meat Paste. As I look at the calorie counts at restaurants – any restaurant to be honest – I’m amazed at how may can serve meals which contain an entire day’s allotment of energy. I use to eat like that. Three times daily. Okay, four or five. Now I only wish for it, looking sadly upon the menus while ordering something light that is sided with steamed broccoli. I’m thinking maybe the doctors couldn’t help me because the only weapon they had against hunger was a pack of Pall Malls. It’s the secret to staying skinny they can no longer let us in on, and the secret to staying skinny we can no longer use.

Think I’ll go grab another burger…I mean apple.

Originally published Feb 29, 2012

Eulogies and Enlightenment

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“So sorry for your loss,” I said while putting a hand on her shoulder. “I learned a lot about your husband today in the service.”

She smirked and looked away briefly.

“I guess we all did.”

While attending the memorial service for a friend’s father yesterday, I heard the wondrous tales told by friends and family, who described this man of 75 with warm tidings and funny stories. Big-hearted. Compassionate, Best Friend Ever. Excited about life. Epic Handshake. Devoted to God and family. Pinochle master. Hard working. An award-winning BBQ cook. Huge sports fan. Enthusiastic singer. Unwavering moral compass. To his friends, he was the guy who got them out of pinches, laughed with them about life, and dedicated much of his free time to teaching kids about baseball or umpiring for their leagues. Even in his last years, while fighting a multitude of illnesses, he went out of his way to help friends in any manor that his physical limitations would allow.

They were describing a man I didn’t know.

In the years that I knew him, I never saw any of those things. I wasn’t on the BBQ list. He had a tendency to bark at or ignore me when I was over at their home. I don’t think I ever experienced his Epic Handshake, or heard a kind word from his baritone voice. My only memory of him in the house was sitting in a chair watching a game. Any game. It didn’t matter what. I tried engaging him in conversation many times, but was shut out quickly – over and over. The reason he didn’t like me may be sad and simple to explain.

I was his daughter’s boyfriend.

While the eulogy at the service was read, and the friends shared their memories, I listened with an ear tempered by an odd combination of confusion and anger. I was perplexed because I couldn’t connect what I was hearing about this man into my own perception of him. Mad, because in a way I felt robbed of ever knowing the moral and compassionate side of him – a side which would have been far more enjoyable to me than the one he ever offered.

I wasn’t the only one.

The people he and his wife attended church or school with seemed to know him better than his own family. His daughter had no idea he had lettered in Football during high school, until the family started digging through his boxes – only to find the awards and trophies which marked his past as a noteworthy athlete.. When he died, friends from church and from the past seemed to spring out of nowhere – ready to share their fond memories of him with anyone who would listen. His daughter smiled wryly during the reception afterward as we talked about the stories.

“There was much left unsaid,” she commented. “He also had an explosive temper.”

It was that temper, along with some unresolved family issues, that made home life difficult for her. I was honored to be the one she called when she and her husband came to town for the memorial. “You were always there Kurt,” she said. “Through all the mess. It means a lot to me that you’re here now.” It was really the first time in thirty-plus years that we talked about those hard days, when the mere act of putting her in the passenger seat of my station wagon for a trip to Dick’s Drive In was enough to make the night a good night. It got her away from a brother who had difficulty expressing feelings in a constructive way. It got her out of the house, and away from a Mom who was very quick to interrupt her Dad any time he started telling stories about his life.

And it got her away from his temper.

While I wouldn’t say that my perception and that of others was an example of pure dichotomy, I would say that there was very little overlap between what I remember and what I was hearing at the memorial. So who’s right? I think everyone is. Their perception was based on years – sometimes decades – as his friend or coworker. One man – who had known him since grade school – described himself as “The Dash in that 1937 – 2013 on the front of the bulletin.” While many knew him during the later years, he was proud to say he knew him during the in-between ones – the “dash” if you will.

My perception of him is probably a product of circumstance or timing. I was “the boyfriend,” a symbol from which he felt compelled to protect his daughter. I also saw him at the end of work days; I recall cringing whenever his brown Ford pickup truck was in the driveway, knowing I would get some sort of grumpy comment when I came to pick up his daughter. These are my only memories of him, and I’m sad that they are.

During the service I determined that I was going to find some overlap, between what I knew and what his friends shared. In the end, after thinking long and hard about my own dealings with him, I could tell that he was fiercely devoted, dedicated to and protective of his family. He also stayed married to his wife for 49 years, even though it was a difficult partnership. I had personal experience with those two things. There was no point in discussing the less-than-stellar matters with people who were there to celebrate a life of someone they clearly cherished; it would serve no purpose other than to hurt feelings. In the end I saw that he had touched a lot of lives in positive ways, even if I wasn’t on that list. He made a difference for someone, and that’s a good thing. When I talked with family and friends at the memorial, I said simply that I “had learned a lot of about him today,” and that it was clear from my own experience that his family was very important to him. The enlightenment, while small, was enough to help me better appreciate some aspects of his life and service to the community.

I’ll keep that sense of robbery to myself.

The Push Game

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The pregnancy was emotionally difficult for Jack’s birth mother.

Early in 2005, technicians discovered through an ultrasound that his legs were not growing at a regular rate. Best estimates indicated they would be shorter than normal, but doctors did not know the extent of – or what was causing – the deformity appearing in the printouts. Because of the severity in what they saw from the ultrasound, doctors also wanted to do a test on the birth mom’s amniotic fluid. “If his legs aren’t growing right,” they told her, “then it is possible he will be mentally disabled too.”

But the birth mom was skeptical.

The test was risky, and there was valid concern that the long needle used would stab Jack – a grave and potentially-fatal possibility. Like her parents, she was also concerned that a family would not want to adopt him if there were both physical and developmental issues; one family had already backed out of the adoption process when the issue with his legs was discovered. It almost seemed like a pointless test; the family was already struggling with a physical disability, and now the doctors wanted to check for a developmental one. It was a trying time for her, stuck between wanting to do the right thing for Jack and the science which was telling her that things for him were not going to be great.

And to top it off, Jack was pushing on her stomach.

As babies often do, he was moving around inside the womb. He didn’t really kick all that much, but during those moves he would wiggle and push – hard she told me – against the wall of her stomach. After three days of discomfort, she gently pressed on her tummy out of frustration.

Jack pushed back.

This was exciting for her. She started pushing in multiples – two, maybe three – and each time Jack would push back in the same amount. This went on for three more days, and it became The Push Game for them. She would push and he would answer. At one point she saw the outline of his hand pressing out against her stomach, and they would “hold hands” through the lining. It was a special time for her, and also the moment she knew there was nothing wrong with Jack’s mental development. The test was never done.

She concluded with confidence that there was no need.