Help Me Make It Through the Night

Standard

The telephone awakened me from a sound sleep. My bedside clock showed that it was a few minutes past 1:00am. Caller ID on my phone informed me that the caller was my friend, Bill. What could he want to talk about at this hour of the night. We had talked earlier in the evening for almost an hour.

Bill apologized for waking me up. The sound of his voice told me that something was wrong. I couldn’t get him to share with me what was on his mind, or why he called me at this ungodly hour, even though I asked him more than once what was the matter. Rather than quiz him further or demand an explanation, which it was obvious I wasn’t going to get, I simply asked him, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Talk to me, “ he replied. “Please help me make it through the night.”

Only a couple of days earlier we had been talking on the phone about our favorite song writers, and Kris Kristofferson came up in the conversation, where we had agreed that we both liked his music, and this song in particular.

“Talk to me,” he repeated.

“Would you like for me to tell you a story?” I asked.

“Yes, please.”

Drawing from my writing and my collection of days, I began telling him about a game my sister and I played as children, Runaway Orphans. Since Bill and I both grew up in the same town, he was familiar with the places my sister and I visited when we played this special game. I embellished the story and added drama to it in an attempt to entertain Bill with its telling and perhaps help him get whatever was troubling him off of his mind.

When I finished, he said to me, “Tell me another one.”

I then went into the story about the day I ran away from home when I was five years old.

“Another one?”

I dug deeper into my childhood, recalling our family tradition of making homemade peach ice cream on the Fourth of July every year and about my job of sitting on top of the churn while Daddy turned the crank. From there, I went into the story about my special brother, Johnny, and a story about my daddy’s pocket watch. As I finished this story, I realized I had been talking for well over two hours, and that it was very quiet on the other end of the line.

“Are you still there? Are you feeling any better now?” I asked.

Bill’s voice, barely above a whisper, answered, “Yes, I think I am.”

“Do you want me to tell you any more stories?”

“No, I think I’ll be ok now. Thank you.” And he hung up, leaving me wondering what had just happened. It was now 4:30am.

Bill never told me why he needed me that night. The next evening when we talked, I commented, “Well, we made it through the night last night, didn’t we?”

“Yes, “ he said. “And it was no small feat. I’ll forever be grateful to you for staying on the phone with me all night long.”

I never learned what was troubling Bill that night. Over the course of our three-year friendship, I discovered that he had his own demons he was battling, and little by little, one by one, he shared a few of them with me. He also recalled tidbits of his history and life as a journalist – he truly had the gift of the story teller, and could have me laughing uncontrollably or sympathizing with tears running down my face as he’d relate a tale from his past.

Bill also encouraged me as a writer. He never completely understood my style of writing – I am not a journalist or reporter, but a weaver of tales and a painter using words instead of paint of my memories and adventures through life. He would sometimes tell me that I needed to step away and be more objective in my writing, that I put too much of myself into it. I’d politely disagree with him, and he’d keep on complimenting me on my writing, even though I didn’t take this piece of advice. He said on many occasions that I was a better writer than he was. That wasn’t true. He was a gifted writer, a diligent researcher, and an extraordinary communicator through the written word. I could never do what he did.

One thing that Bill told me often was that he didn’t believe he would live to be an old man. He once said that he didn’t think he would live to see 70. And he was right. I guess he somehow knew his limits and sensed his life span. When a classmate of ours died recently, he told me he thought he might be next. I wish he had been wrong.

Bill was my friend. My heart is aching as I write tonight. I’ll miss hearing his voice, listening to him telling me about his latest writing assignment, and being the recipient of his praise and admiration of me and my writing.

I wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye.

“I don’t care what’s right or wrong,

I don’t try to understand.

Let the devil take tomorrow.

Lord, tonight I need a friend.

Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow’s out of sight.

And it’s sad to be alone.

Help me make it through the night.”

“Help Me Make It Through the Night” by Kris Kristofferson

Reunion!!

Standard

I did it. I almost backed out, but I didn’t. I went to my 50-year high school reunion last night. Thanks to a wonderful posse of long-time friends, I fought back my childish insecurities, sending them packing to the far corners of my brain, and I went.

I had a wonderful time. It was amazing.

It was a 50- year reunion for most, but for me it was 52 years, since I moved away from my hometown the summer before my junior year. And one of the best serendipities of the event was the representation from my elementary school. There was a bunch of us there who grew up and went through the grades together. It was more than wonderful seeing these kids again.

While some faces seemed to be ageless, I had to do a little bit of searching on others to discover the teenager that I remembered. But they were there, just beneath the surface, and once conversations began, they emerged in smiles and were easily recognizable. It was a night of remembrance, celebration, and yes, even healing of old wounds.

There were several discoveries. Among them was the realization that I still have no sense of rhythm and am a terrible dancer. But nobody seemed to care, and I was whirled around the dance floor a few times by a boy who grew up around the corner from my childhood home. Another good friend and I did our best to catch up on a half century, and finally concluded that there is much more to talk about, with a promise that we will keep in touch and find out more areas where our lives strike similar chords. Hugs were plentiful all night long, as I ran into people from my past, and as others searched me out.

I think we were the best looking group of grownups (I refuse to use the term “senior citizens”) I’ve ever seen in one place – the most interesting, fun-loving, and friendliest. Although I was hesitant about going, and even somewhat nervous upon my arrival at the registration table, it all evaporated with the first, and then the second, and followed by a quick third hug from old friends. And one old wound in particular found its healing touch in the form of a smile, a hug, and a warm greeting from one I was especially apprehensive, yet eager, to see again. From that moment on, all was well with me, a load was lifted, and I was able to fully enjoy the evening.

50 years – for some who didn’t make it this far with us – they were honored in a special display of remembrance. It was tough walking over to that board and looking at the photos of those who have passed on. How I would love to see them, to remember special times with them, and to embrace them one more time. It’s all a part of reunion, but not the part that we like or enjoy. They were truly missed last night.

And so, today, I return to my home, my life, and my adult world. I feel different this morning. Tears well up in my eyes without my bidding, my heart is full to overflowing, and I am very, very grateful.

I want to thank my wonderful friends who encouraged me to attend, who stood by me and had my back, and who love me for the sometimes insecure, introverted adolescent who at times sneaks back into my life. You’re the best!!

Reunions such as this one remind us that history, and having a history, is a very good thing!

My Friend, Big John

Standard

I had to say goodbye to a very special friend today. When we were teenagers, he was Johnny, but when we reunited in 2008, he was affectionately known by everyone he knew as Big John.

I didn’t know that today was going to be the day. If I had known, I would have gone to his house for a visit yesterday. I’ve been going over to see him almost every week for the past two years. When his health declined, he asked me if I would pick up his mail at the post office for him. Of course, I said I would, and even during the times when he was better and able to drive, I still got his mail. I think he enjoyed my visits, and didn’t want them to stop. I enjoyed them, too, and never suggested that I return his mailbox key. Some afternoons he’d phone me and ask me to stop and pick up a hamburger or fish dinner for him, or something from the grocery store, on my way home from work. I was always happy to do so.

I found him this morning when I delivered his mail. The door was open, and his keys were still in the lock. I called out his name, with no response. I stepped into the house, wondering why the door wasn’t closed. He hadn’t answered the phone when I called him to tell him I was on my way, like he usually did. I knew something wasn’t right. He was in his lounge chair – asleep, I thought – at first. I didn’t want to disturb him. I knew he had trouble sleeping, and recently had been having problems with his breathing. I didn’t want to startle him, but then it sunk in. I gently touched his arm, feeling its coolness and knew he was gone.

I stood next to him for a few minutes wishing he would wake up, but knowing he wouldn’t. He looked so peaceful resting there, my heart sang and wept in harmony. Finally, I pulled out my phone from my pocket and dialed 9-1-1.

Soon a police officer arrived, followed by paramedics, and then the coroner.

I knew this day was coming. Just last week on my visit with Big John, I sensed something different – maybe a look in his eyes? Or was there something in his voice when I asked him how he was doing, and his reply, as always, was, “I’m doing well. What have you been up to?” Or the way he hugged me, and said when I got ready to leave, “I love ya, darlin’.” I stayed longer that day than I usually did; I didn’t want to go. I told a friend later in the day that I didn’t believe Big John would be with us much longer. But I’m not ready to say goodbye today.

Big John helped me through the toughest two years of my life. He listened, offered advice, propped me up when I was weak and frightened, and cheered me on during those dark days. I will forever be grateful to him for his love, his loyalty, and for the special bond of friendship that we shared. I think he was Big John because he had such a big, big heart.

So now, my friend, I must say goodbye. Soar with the angels on warm and gentle winds, free from the oxygen tubes and insulin needles that held you down.

Please check on me now and then, Big John. I’ll be watching for you.

A Valentine’s Day Memory

Standard

My decorated shoe box sits along the chalk tray with twenty others.  I went to Woolworth’s last week with my best friend, Susan, to buy red and pink construction paper, paper lace doilies, and heart-shaped stickers.  We spent the entire Saturday afternoon cutting out paper hearts of all shapes and sizes, layering them with the lace doilies, and pasting them onto shoe boxes we had retrieved from our fathers’ closets.  We each covered our shoe box with the construction paper, and carefully cut a slit into the box lid big enough for the fanciest Valentine to fit through, but too small for a hand to reach in to count the cards.  We created two masterpieces, works of art, beautiful beyond comparison.  We couldn’t wait until Monday to place them in the classroom.  None in the entire class could compare with our Valentine boxes.

Susan’s box sits down the shelf from mine. They are arranged in ABC order.  Susan is lucky.  Her box is between Jane Richards’ and Stephen Summer’s.  Jane’s is decorated and frilly, Stephen’s is a boy’s box –  no competition, whatsoever.  But my luck is to be sandwiched between Kathleen Brown’s and Dan Davidson’s.  Dan’s is a lot like Stephen’s – no sweat.  But Kathleen, always Kathleen.  I don’t know how she does it.  The same materials adorn her box as mine, but her box makes mine look like an orphan.  I don’t understand it.  Everything Kathleen does is perfect, from Friday spelling tests to Valentine boxes!  Her box is even bigger than mine.  Her father is very tall, and has a larger foot than my father’s.  What luck.  I bet she’ll have more cards in her box than I do, too.

Each morning the week of Valentine’s Day, we are allowed to bring in our cards and “mail” them to our classmates.  I check my box daily, peeking through the narrow slit to see if I can tell how many cards I have.  I also check Kathleen’s and Susan’s boxes.  I am positive that they have more cards than I do.  I even addressed a few of my extras to myself and slipped them into my box to make it look full.  My beautiful box is looking plainer and plainer everyday, as it sits next to Kathleen’s.  It just doesn’t look as fancy as it did at my house last Saturday.  I am feeling very sorry for myself, and I dread Valentine’s Day instead of looking forward to it.

Valentine’s Day arrives, and with it an excitement in the air.  Someone’s mom brings decorated cupcakes to school, and my mother arrives with cut-out heart sugar cookies.  Our room ceases to be a classroom as a party atmosphere fills the air.  Our teacher stands up in front of the class and gives us her lecture about how it isn’t important how many Valentines we receive, but what kind of friends we are everyday.  I have heard the same speech every year since first grade, but for some reason this year it strikes very close to my heart.  I have been so consumed with my own box and how full it is, I have forgotten the other children in the class.  I look at Dan seated in the desk next to mine.  Did I remember to put a card from me into his box?  I can’t remember.  And Kathleen?  She is so smart and talented, she does everything to perfection.  Her spelling test papers are flawless and her penmanship is perfect.  I wonder if she is as nervous as I am about opening her Valentine box.

The boxes are distributed to us, and we are allowed to open them.  Mine is full of cards, but many of them are from me.  I separate these from the rest only to discover that I still have lots of cards.  Oblivious to anyone around me, I open each card, read it, and look on the back to see who it is from.  I am feeling good as I go through my pile of cards.  I do have friends, and it really doesn’t matter anymore if my box is as fancy as Kathleen’s.  I open a card from Dan, and turn toward him to say thanks.  He has just torn open an envelope, and I recognize my printing on it.  I am so relieved that I did send one to him after all.  I turn my attention back to the job at hand, and find a card that is different from all the others.  The envelope is handmade of construction paper, and it is larger than the others.  Who can it be from?  I pull the sticker off very carefully that seals it, and I gently pull out a card made out of cut-out hearts and pictures from a store-bought card from another year.  It is the most beautiful Valentine I have ever seen in my life!  I am afraid to turn it over to see who it is from.  I look around the room to see if anyone is watching me, but everybody is busy opening their own cards and eating cupcakes and cookies. Furtively, I place one hand in front of the card to shield it from any eyes that might be looking in my direction, and with my other hand I silently flip the card over on its back.

Written in painstakingly neat handwriting on the back of this wonderful card is “I love you.  Be my Valentine.  Stephen.”  I feel the blood rush to my face, my very first blush.  Embarrassed, I slide the card to the bottom of my stack where it can’t be seen by anyone.  I cut my eyes over toward Stephen’s desk.  He is looking at me, but drops his head quickly when he sees my eyes move his way.  His face turns rosy, his first blush.

It was a very special Valentine’s Day.  Fifth grade, if I remember correctly, maybe sixth.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that it is the Valentine’s Day when I discovered new truths and gained new insights about competition, friendship, first love.

Stephen and I probably never said more than a dozen words to each other throughout our elementary school years.  We held hands once at a school carnival, but never worked up the nerve to say anything to each other.  I kept his Valentine for years.  I am not sure what finally happened to it.  I still remember exactly what it looked like, and I can still see his words printed on the back of it.

My Friend, Steve

Standard

This past week-end I drove to Kentucky to visit my high school friend, Mike Hannah, and his wife, Chris. While I was there, Mike and I drove up to Ohio to see our mutual friend, Steve Langlais, who is living in a nursing home near Columbus. It was a great afternoon, as many, many funny and not-so-funny events from our lives were recalled, and we had the privilege of spending some time with our long-time friend.

Steve and I talked a little about my writing, and I remembered that I had written a piece about him, probably 20 years ago, that I put into my book, “A Collection of Days”, which has evolved into this blog.

I don’t think Steve realized how much our friendship meant to me, or how much he helped me as a transfer student at Dunedin High School, where I didn’t have many friends, and had a hard time finding my niche at my new school.  Steve called me his psychiatrist, but he was mine, as well.  I was so happy to see him again, and decided to dig out the piece I wrote about him years ago.

Here is “My Friend, Steve.”

My Friend, Steve

I don’t remember the day I met Steve.  I remember that I heard him long before I ever knew who he was.  That may sound funny, but I can still hear the click-clack, click-clack of Steve’s metal crutches as he headed down the echoing hallway at Dunedin High School going from one class to the next.  I also remember hearing loud metallic clatters from time to time when Steve “wiped out” upon hitting a wet place on the polished hallway floors, sending him tumbling onto the floor or sliding through a classroom doorway, sometimes making a grand entrance into class to the cheers of his classmates.

I officially met Steve in Journalism Class our senior year.  I had seen him almost everyday the year before, but never had a class with him or had the opportunity to meet him.  In Journalism class, as we worked together on the school newspaper, we became very good friends.

Steve was handicapped from cerebral palsy.  Both his legs were skinny and weak, and he needed the help of his metal crutches to walk. Writing was also a challenge for him, as his hands didn’t want to go in the direction he would like. He wore black-rimmed glasses, which he insisted gave him a sophisticated air. He was a snappy dresser, and was always right in style. Fortunately, he had no speech defect, as many victims of cerebral palsy are afflicted with, and he was highly intelligent.  He had a keen sense of humor and a dry, biting wit.  He always had a new joke to tell, or something funny to say that would put all of us around him in stitches, in danger of falling out of our seats from laughing.  Steve was just plain fun to be around!

Everyday in Journalism class, Steve and I would talk.  We got into constant trouble with the teacher, because we would start talking to each other, and forget about our school newspaper assignment.  Steve was the sports editor of the paper.  He loved sports, and had aspirations of becoming a sports announcer.  Most of the time our conversation would be lighthearted and fun, but some days he shared with me his dark thoughts about being crippled, and I listened as he confided feelings about girls he liked and his dreams of love and romance.  He wanted more than anything to be able to stand straight and walk without crutches.  He accepted his life, but carried a hidden hope that someday he would have an operation to straighten and strengthen his legs.  I don’t think he truly believed his doctors’ promises of new surgical techniques on the horizon, but he still had hope.  Steve called me his “psychiatrist”, but in actuality he did more for me than I ever did for him.

Click, clack. Click, clack. Here comes Steve down the hall. I know that I will soon be smiling as I see my friend make his way into the classroom.

Two Years – What a Journey!

Standard

Two years ago, over the Labor Day week-end, I left my safe harbor nest of two months at the home of my friends, Lynne and Terry Mays, and moved into my little in-town apartment in Monroe, Georgia. I couldn’t afford the $500 per month rent, but I was determined it just had to work, and I knew that this was a step I must take. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, I was scared to death, and I feared the future. I was a mess, on a new journey on an untraveled path, but I knew it was a much better one than the one I had been on.

Everything I had in my possession fit into my Honda Civic as I drove away from the Mays’ home. I unloaded the car at my new place, unlocked the door to the apartment, and after a few trips back and forth from car to new home, I was in. I didn’t have much. Almost all of my personal belongings were still at my house in Social Circle that I had left in July. The only furnishings that first night in my new home were a canvas lawn chair and an air mattress. Before I moved in, I had purchased a few necessities- a shower curtain, a small frying pan and spatula, a cheap set of dishes, and a toaster oven. My brother and sister-in-law had given me some sheets, and I borrowed a couple of towels from the kennel where I work. I was ready for my first night in my new home.

I lived this way until later in September, when I was able to go back to my previous home and retrieve some of my things. Even with what I was able to get, the apartment was still pretty bare. I continued sleeping on the air mattress on the floor for another couple of months, when my cousin, Laura, gave me a lovely bedroom suite, and nephew Steve brought it to my new home for me.

Friends and family circled my wagon to support me and to help me furnish my new home, and thanks to some very special ladies from my church, it wasn’t long before I had a pretty adequately stocked kitchen and linen closet. They were wonderful! Somehow, they knew exactly what I needed, and unselfishly gave me more than I would have ever dreamed of getting. Another friend kept me updated on yard sales in the area, and I was able to pick up some very nice additions to my home from things other people were discarding. He also gave me an old sofa that he no longer needed.

Almost a year later, I was back in my former home, going through the last things remaining after an estate sale pretty much emptied the house, and found a few more of my personal treasures. Both happy and sad, I brought them home, where they added to the coziness of my little apartment and made me feel good and bordering on whole again.

As I look at my home today, two years later, I still don’t have a lot of furnishings, and what is here I have dubbed “contemporary divorce.” But my home is filled with family photographs, special books and photograph albums, and other treasures that hold sentimental value to me. It is a warm and welcoming home, and with my little dog, Sunshine, we are a family.

My collection of days over the past two years have included days of fear and uncertainty, loneliness and heartache, and introspection and soul-searching. But as I write this and look back over this time in my life, I see myself in a way I never could before, and I have a sense of contentment and serenity about my life that at one time I doubted could ever exist for me. I continue to live frugally, as my financial situation nudges me to keep me on edge if I let it. But I have regained my sense of purpose, I can feel the raveled edges of my life getting trimmed and smoothed out, and I am adapting to my new life.

I don’t know what my life would be like if I had chosen another path to travel. I only know that the scenery on the one I am now on is very nice, the vistas stretch my imagination and invite creativity, and the quietness that I now experience allows me to have time for meditation and for discovering the spirit of God that surrounds me and nourishes me.

Two years. It seems like a lifetime. In a way, it is.

The Story Behind My Ice Bucket Challenge

Standard

 

Lori was my choir buddy. I can’t say that we were good friends, but we sat beside each other every Wednesday night at choir practice and again on Sunday morning during the church service. I would have liked to have been her friend, but I was the preacher’s wife, and hardly anybody in the church my husband was serving seemed to want to get close to me on a personal basis. Like others in the church, Lori was friendly to me, but kept things at a safe arm’s length from me, not wanting to get too close.Lori had a beautiful alto voice, and I was able to carry the harmony better with her voice near my right ear. Lori was probably ten years younger than I was – she had a seven-year-old daughter- while my sons were already teen-agers.

One Wednesday evening in choir practice, she began rubbing her left arm. She said that it was tingling and felt like it had fallen asleep, and she couldn’t get it to “wake up.”  All during choir practice, she was either rubbing her arm or gently shaking it, trying to get the prickly feeling to go away. I didn’t think anything of it. I had just gotten over a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome, and suggested that she might have the same thing. The next week at practice, she said that the tingling was still there, and was now in both arms. She had a doctor’s appointment the next day to try to find out what was wrong.

During this same period of time, one of the library volunteers where I was a branch librarian told me that her brother had just died, and she needed to take a couple of days off. When I asked her how he died, she told me that he had ALS. Noting the blank look on my face, she explained, “Lou Gehrig Disease.” I had heard of it, but I really didn’t know anything about it. She explained to me what it was and shared with me how her brother had suffered and died. I was completely taken aback – I knew that the disease didn’t have a cure, but I had no idea how it attacked and killed. She took her days off for her brother’s funeral, and thoughts of the disease became hazier and hazier as days passed and we had other, more pressing matters to attend to at the library.

Wednesday nights at choir practice, Lori would give me an update on her doctors’ visits, how they  were shuffling her around from one to another, all puzzled over her symptoms, and thinking that she might have MS. She was not getting better, and was now experiencing weakness in both her arms and legs. An avid runner, this was difficult for her to take, because she was having trouble keeping up with the exercise that she loved. Then, the Wednesday night choir practices and Sunday church services would come and go without her being in the choir loft every Sunday. She said that she was just too tired.

At this same time, my husband got the nod from the District Superintendent of our church district that it was time for him to move to another church. I dropped out of the choir, began planning to move, and turned in my letter of resignation to the branch library.  In June, we left the little church where we had been for three years and moved across the state to our new home.  I didn’t forget about Lori, but my life was taking a new turn in a new location, and thoughts of her came to mind less frequently. It was sometime during our first year at our new home that one of our former church members phoned us.  As I asked her about different church members and was catching up on what different ones were now doing, I asked about Lori. Sadly, the phone conversation took a solemn turn as my friend told me that Lori was now bedridden most of the time with ALS, was unable to do anything for herself, and was having difficulty eating, drinking, swallowing, and breathing. It was not long after that we received word that she had died. I remembered the story my library assistant had told me about her brother’s death, and my heart broke for Lori, thinking about how she must have suffered, and how frightened she must have been. I have never forgotten her, and whenever I hear anything about ALS, the vision of her precious face and the sound of her beautiful voice fills my memory.

And so, in honor of Lori, I let my friend, Pennie, dump a bucket of icy water over my head last week. The shock and chill was nothing compared to what I know Lori experienced with ALS. And I wrote a check and sent it to ALSA.

Some way, somehow, somebody must find a cure for this disease!