The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Category : Family

Window Recordings

We here at the Family Compound have had a running joke for years.  Raising kids – especially Special Needs kids – you get many, many opportunities to say things that…well, let’s just say it isn’t always easy to formulate eloquent expressions.  Or graceful expressions.  Or logical, or reasonable, or quite frankly even coherent expressions.

And it is precisely the instant after those expressions when you become weirdly aware, hyper-aware if you will, of every open window in the house, and of the presence of neighbors or passers-by near that lurking security hole: the dreaded Open Window.

And so the running joke is that we hope aloud to others present that no one is running a recorder outside the Open Window.

Window Recordings.

That (so far) mythical extortion tool that would be devastatingly hilarious were these heat-of-the-moment exclamations to get out for public consumption.

“DUSTAN!  PUT PANTS ON BEFORE YOU COME TO THE TABLE!”  Instantly I check to make sure the windows in the room are closed.  I recover from the shock brought about by events necessitating this outburst and lower my voice.

“Dustan, me lad”, I intone in a vague pirately brogue, “Where be your skivvies?”

I always get better results with the pirate brogue.  Or at least a smile.  He reacts badly to loud noises.  But well…I just wasn’t prepared for that.

“Sean!  LET GO OF THE DOG’S LIPS!”

Charlie the Dog has the patience of a saint with Sean, but I sense an impending flood of calls to 5 government agencies including animal control, all originating from a 200 yard radius of Ground Zero.

“TAKE THE WAFFLES OUT OF YOUR BROTHER’S PULL-UP!”

 

The specter of Cold-War recording devices dangling under the eaves dance  in my imagination like box shaped goblins.  These are difficult things to explain out of context.

My children have embraced this traditions well.  They sometimes send me messages when the grandchildren get sideways, laughing about their own “Window Recordings”.

“FOR THE LAST TIME, SKITTLES ARE NOT AMMO FOR YOUR NOSTRIL GUN!”

Followed soon with “NO!  YOU MAY NOT HOLD YOUR NOSE AND BLOW AIR OUT YOUR EARS!  YOU’LL BLOW YOUR EYEBALLS OUT!”

Short silence.

“NO, THAT IS NOT COOL!”

And they report to me how they suddenly had this zen-like awareness of all nature within a square mile of their location.  Every creature that stopped at the noise, every living ear that bent to understand what was happening inside that house.  They could sense all of them, listening.  The Whole of Nature wanted to see a little boy attempt to blow his eyeballs out just to propel a skittle at his little brother.

All of Nature.  Keenly listening.

This evening, the Torch has been passed to yet another generation.  My wee granddaughter walks past me, glances over, and suddenly screeches, “Grandpa!  YOU’RE SITTING ON MY BUTTERFLY!”  And then she regained her composure, came over calmly, tapped my already attentive awareness and said in the most polite voice you’ll ever hear from a 5-year old, “Grandpa,  your butt is on my butterfly!” choking back a snerk of embarrassed amusement at what she had to say.

The circle is complete.  The tradition is set.  I basked in familial unity, contemplating the togetherness of shared laughter at ourselves.  I’ve learned to throw the windows open and sing out with the joyful abandon of a Jester’s Herald.

Maybe…just perhaps, that’s exactly what I am.

The Ten Commandments, as seen by a dog

I was thinking about New Year’s Resolutions today.  As far as promises go, I decided to keep it down to something I can actually follow through on.  I was sitting with my dog while this thinking was going on, and I thought about a saying I’ve heard.  I think it’s going to be my Resolution:

Wag more.  Bark less.Charlie

That’s it.  But of course, I didn’t stop thinking there.  I jotted down some other resolutions, and started to be aware of an emerging, vaguely familiar pattern to what I was writing.  It turns out there is a Universal Truth to some of the rules I learned as a child.

The Ten Canine Commandments.

  1. Figure out who the master of the house is. This where your love goes first and foremost, and also where your Snacks come from.
  2. Don’t follow anyone but the master unless he tells you to. And make sure and let it be known you’re not happy about it if you have to follow someone else.  “Hang-dog” is your legacy.  Use it.
  3. If you’re going to act like a guard dog by day, don’t go stealing chickens by night. Blood on your fur in the morning eats away at your credibility.
  4. Take a nap when the pack takes a nap.  Yes, even if you still haven’t caught the red laser dot.  In fact, especially if you haven’t caught the red laser dot, because someone is just screwing with your head.
    1. Lay down in places you won’t be stepped on.
    2. Find a lap if you can.
    3. Be happy when nap time starts.  Be happy when nap time ends.
    4. It’s best when the whole pack naps together.
  5. Make your pack proud.  Make your breed proud.  Leave people who’ve never met dogs before thinking dogs are awesome.
  6. Let the squeaky part of the squeaky toy live just a little longer.
    1. On second thought…nah, ripping its gizzard out is like a rodeo event. Eight seconds is plenty long.
  7. Food is Love – but only when it comes in little exquisite tidbits and a “who’s a good boy?”.  Otherwise, it’s just that stuff that keeps you alive despite all the odds.
  8. Take what is given you, leave what is not. Consider carefully whether something is worth owning, because once you pee on it, you own it.
  9. If someone asks, “Who did this!?”, do not cower, even though you believe with every fibre of your being that you should.  Do not blame the cat, nor the baby.  Stand by what you’ve done with pride – tail and tongue wagging and panting.  It might not stop them from being angry at the moment, but it will bring you special social media fame and snacks.
  10. Everything on the other side of the fence is interesting, and wants to be explored.  Just wait to explore it until you hear the clink of the leash release.
Addendums:
  1. “Do you want to go for a walk” is not actually a question
  2. Chase the cats that think you’re going to chase them. They probably deserve what’s coming to them.

The Stupid Dog

Charlie

At 7am, demanding the door

with the restless snuffles and scratch on the floor

bleary and weary I dress for the chore

of letting the dog go out to explore

At 9am with the dew on the grass

showers of dirt from the garden fly past

unseen vermin, escape way too fast

the dog’s disappointed, and I stand aghast

At 12 in the midday, sun overhead

rusted squeak of the mailbox being fed

reason enough to wake up the dead

with an outburst of snarling, terror and dread

In the heat of the day, the late afternoon.

dinner is served, or should be real soon.

sooner is better, depends on for whom

paws on the counter foretell certain doom

Evening rests dreamy in the family hut

food is all eaten, the kitchen is shut.

tortuous, repast rumbles the gut

stench in the room – it comes from the mutt.

Day-weary humans, devoted pup

retire for the evening, he’s not allowed up

left on the floor, the ostracized cub

licks hand anyway, ignoring the snub

4am comes, drenched in nightmare’s sweat

demons come haunting the battle-scarred Vet

canine nuzzles the face beset

 muzzle lies heavy on the heart upset

hand stroking fur till comfort forgets.

hand stroking fur till love forgets

hand stroking fur, companions forget

hand stroking fur till mourning forgets

hand stroking fur, morning forgets.

Let It Shine

I rode alone, a Solitary rider, pushing a small sphere of light across the darkened landscape. I count the elements of night riding amongst my closest friends. The storms, the languorous moonlit sky , the chattering twinkle of starlight, we have ridden together many times.

But tonight, as I passed through the mouths of coastal valleys that reach inland like fingers, and the hills and ridges between, I could sense something important afoot, something much larger than the usual intimate setting. The clouds drift in a fractured, broken floe, holding together like pieces of a stained glass window. Their only color is a somber pale gray-blue of moonlight weeping through the broken sky. It forms jagged halos around the clouds, bathing the landscape .

The fields, that should have been brilliant with the festival of tonight’s full moon, lie alert, waiting, listening. This is not a night to talk, nor revel. Nor was it a languorous moon, casting a lazy respite from a busy day. This night, the council of all the land and sky attend to its own affair, all the smaller beings of the night – accustomed to being in itself with the moonlight in attendance, leave off their nocturnal intimacy of individual doings, and hearken to the celestial council.

The closest clouds only barely veiled the majesty of this night’s Queen. The nearness of the clouds made the moon’s light feel a little too close for the grave matters being weighed. But it was not the queen’s majesty that was the center of attention. It was the matter of a light, that had gone out too soon.

Some lamps, extinguished, are easily replaced or relit. But some shine in small but irreplaceable ways, in places that would destroy the average lamp and keeper. These are kindled by troubles, mistakes, and sometimes bear the soot of hell itself. They burn in a dank wilderness most would not go into, and many could not. Their service is not for the highway traveler, nor the seafarer. Nor does it announce a destination. It is a scarred, dim, smoldering outpost, mere yards from hell, the first ember guiding the unluckiest souls back towards home. The keeper of that light know little of highways, but everything of the twisting badlands beyond.

And now, this night’s council was set, a loss unexpected, a lamp had gone out too soon. Such a small lamp, but giving a critical service. It’s loss grieving all of nature. It’s replacement unknown.

This little light wasn’t a pretty one, unless you were a traveler lost in the dankest of swamps. But it’s keeper let it shine anyway.

This light wasn’t bright, but in that deep a darkness, he let it shine anyway, a salvation to those lost, even as he himself struggled

This light struggled to stay lit. He let it shine anyway.

If you have a light, Let it shine.
Let it shine.
Let it shine.

 

My Mother did not give birth to me

My Mother
did not give birth to me.
She arrived 18 months late for my birth.

She did not carry my developing body around in front of her – to the grocery store, to the park, the library, to work.  To the bathroom, to bed.  She did not lie in pain on the edge of a chair, waiting for me to get out.

 I did not drain her body of nourishment.

We did not share that battle of gestation together, that epic struggle that bonds mother and son together, that makes a mother nurturing, or fiercer than any living being when the need arises.  No, all that stuff was already in her.

She was sent when I needed her, when the one who had gone through all that could not continue. She took on a battle with no shield.  With no sword.  She took on the world for me.

She took on me.

There are easy things to love, and easy ways to do it.  Its fragrance is light and delicate, like the delicate garden flowers.

And then there is the love whose scent is of courage.

It takes courage to be someone’s mother, when you have not given birth to him.  It takes the deepest bravery to look inside, and find the very best of yourself, and give that to your child – when he is not your child.

The things she looked inside for were yet unknown.  The love she committed to required experience she did not have.  And yet, she stepped in, and called me her own.  She gave me everything she had.  She somehow gave me more than everything she had.

She loved and endured this wild boy who could not stop.
She loved me all the way through that awful, petulant day when I tantrumed, “You’re not my real mom!”
She guided me, prayed for me, taught me how to BE.
She loved me enough to let me BE, eventually, what I grew up to be.

My mother did not give birth to me.

She arrived when God sent her, right on time.

Queen of the Realm

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My wife has been gone this last month and a half, on a mission of mercy to Nevada – tending the last days of one of her relatives there.  I had been left to run the house as best as I could.  As it turned out, I wasn’t quite as good as it as I had dreamed I might be.  Nor was I as good at being home without her as I thought I might be.  the house seemed less a home, and more a place to stay in her absence.  The day of the conclusion of her mission came, and this last week I and the family that had stayed with me went down to join her and now, last night, we all returned home,  Unexpectedly one of the Daughters and family also came for a visit.  We all arrived about an hour apart.
The house has stood completely empty for a week, and the Queen has been absent for a month.  This house of ours, is an old, 1930s era Colonial at the end of a quiet street in a quiet town.  It sat cold and moody in the absence of the family within it.  One week ago today, I had turned down the thermostat, locked the doors, and tiptoed away to let it sleep for the duration of our absence.  Now, a week of winter weather later, it sat in wooden hibernation, nothing more than a carefully arranged stack of old, dried lumber.
 I was actually the last one in the house.  an hour ahead of me, daughter and son-in-law had arrived with two or our grandchildren.  with instructions in hand, they had travelled all day themselves, and arrived, turned on the furnace, and set about unloading the car, making kids comfortable, and straightening up a bit.  Next in a half hour later was our college daughter, along with our youngest son and cousin.  More luggage, more joy of meeting, and a fire was lit in the wood stove.  Lastly, my wife and I arrived with another son.  My wife went in ahead while I assisted our son in.
As I entered this old, freshly reoccupied house, the relative importance of everything stood in clear relief.  The furnace was churning out hot air and warming the bones of the house slowly, but it was still cold.  The pulse of this house beat to the rhythm of the people.  Each person doing something – some more usefully than others.  But there, at the core of the commotion of arrival and settling in, was my wife directing the traffic, getting things put away, put right, food for the youngest being planned and prepared, the important little things being minded – with the skill of a queen.  I stood for a moment in the front entry, watching and listening.  I realized with the clarity of a Salvation that indeed, she was a Queen in her realm, and that she, more than anything, was the lifeblood of this home, that Essence that had been missing for too long.
Welcome home.  I am the King of this house.  Thank you for being the Queen of our home.

The Tragic Demise of an Innocent Trout

I still remember the way my little brother looked at me with sad, melancholy eyes the first time we went fishing. The stoic, shocked stare at what I had done haunts me like malevolent demon of shame.

 It was a fine, hot summer weekend, the sort that you can’t really get away from in Southern California, unless you flee to the beach or the mountains. We were a camping family, so we headed for the mountains. We weren’t rich folk, my dad was still a medical student, but we still took the time to get out, and were well prepared with tent, sleeping bags, and a mother who could conjure a good meal out of almost anything. On this fateful trip, we had left the house with dreams of going a big adventure further into the mountains. Upon arriving at our favorite site, though, we found it full. The adventure was spoilt! Being intrepid adventurers, my parents decided we would simply find another campground. We worked our way back down the mountainside full campground by full campground until we found ourselves at a small fishing campground, with a large puddle filled with hapless farm-raised fish, circling the puddle, awaiting their foregone fate. Normally we were above this kind of pandering commercialism, but we had left the house to camp, and by golly we were gonna spend the weekend out camping if it killed us.

There is much I don’t remember about this place. The memories of it are vague and fragmented, but one single event stands out as clear to me as if it were yesterday’s news. We had scarcely gotten camp set up before my brother and I realized that the proposition of fishing meant we had the opportunity to kill things with our bare hands, and possibly even eat them. All it took was walking over to the camp office, renting a pole and tackle, and waging war with the Murky Deep of the Puddle. With my dad facilitating, it wasn’t long before we were outfitted as steely-eyed killers. I, being of the ripe age of 8, needed no assistance, and in no time had managed to throw two hooks into the pond. Sadly, the line had not followed. But eventually, I managed to get set up. I found myself a sprig of grass, imagined myself a straw hat, and lay back with the pole dangling into the water for oh, at least 23 seconds. I then realized that clearly, no fish were to be had here, and moved on. For reasons that escaped me, the fish didn’t flock to me as I hopped around the lake, throwing worms into the water and frothing the waters.

My little brother – 4 years younger – was infinitely more patient than I, and sat quietly with the rod set up for him, and while my dad went back to finish with camp. within a few minutes he had caught a fish. This was especially good news to me, as it relieved me of my requirement to actually sit still and fish, and instead went to my little brother’s rescue. My attention span being as short as they come, I had never caught a fish in my life, only read about it. My boyish hunter instincts told me that I was supposed to whack the fish on the head to stun it. I have no clue where I had gotten this idea, but action was required NOW, before this slimy wriggling package got away. Since my brother didn’t seem to know what to do with the monster of a fingerling he had reeled in, I took charge. I whacked that thing on the forehead with God’s Own Official Hammer – the pliers.

It kept wriggling.

I was nothing if not proud of my sense of determination, so I whacked it again. The fish clearly lacked the sense to die properly – it still moved. I popped that poor piscine forehead about 15 times with all the muscle my 8-year old big brother arms could muster. My dad saw the flailing from across the street and came jogging over to see what Sea Demon had attacked us.

What he found was my brother, standing in speechless horror as the first landed fish of his life was slowly being reduced to fertilizer before his young, innocent eyes. I explained, in frustrated tones, that the fish was still wiggling. He had approached the scene thinking that I was assaulting my brother’s fish in some sort of jealous fraternal rage. The realization that my violence was actually an act of brotherly love left him momentarily without a solution to the commotion. The fish hung limply from my determined grip, channeling the mother of all migraines with a dented forehead and still weakly wiggling with reflective determination. 

I stood before my father, and furtively tapped the fish’s forehead one last time trying to make it stop before having to explain to my dad why I could not seem to kill the thing. My brother stood, quietly grappling with the horror of an older brother who meant well. My father stood, trying his best to abide the parenting principle of never laughing at your child openly. In the end, we all failed miserably at our respective tasks.

I’ve had to grapple myself with this question of wanting to be helpful to others, and yet not smack their fish into metaphorical fertilizer. Over the last several years, my wife and I have volunteered to foster children with disabilities. Our own youngest son is disabled, and after years of struggling through the process of figuring him out, connecting with resources, navigating medical and education needs, we had the idea that the experience qualified us to help others. As it turns out, there is nothing that qualifies you ahead of time for those kinds of challenges. What keeps one child safe from himself has kept another child away from independence and freedom. Each child, each set of circumstances, is different from all the others. The only qualifications that have gotten us through the misunderstanding, and the pain of being misunderstood, is an open mind – a willingness to understand the next set of challenges differently than the last, and compassion.

My wife has supplied more compassion to the world than anyone else I have ever personally known. She taught me to care again after the circumstances of military service had left me unable to reach beyond my own self-interest. About the same time, the tragic demise of my brother’s trout – along with the years of endless retelling of the story at family gatherings and the inevitable mirth – finally began to sink in. My brother has forgiven me decades ago, but he still won’t let me touch his stuff. Between my wife’s example, and my brother’s forgiveness, I’ve learned to be cautious of assuming too much when the urge to help someone strikes.

After all, stunning is momentary, but pulverizing lasts forever.

On Pistols and Boyfriends

It is hard to imagine the power of inspiration that a crisp autumn morning can hold.  The kind that filters through the cobweb-covered windows of the dingiest of shops inspires curmudgeons like none other. It inspires them to do things – useful things. The most useful thing any curmudgeon worth his salt can do is clean his firearms. And so it was that I came to be sitting at my stool in front of my bench, basking in the wide panel of dirty, aged window panes filtering a panoramic view of a valley filled with pasture, contented dairy cows chewing various stages of grass, reflecting on my pride and joy: a reproduction .67 caliber Revolutionary War era flintlock pistol.

Its handle was the sort of deep brown walnut that speaks of ages upon ages of history. It was first polished with care at the family table years ago – but not this family table. It was assembled when I was a young lad myself, under the watchful eyes of my parents. My dad had bought three Black Powder kits – a Hawkins .57 cal rifle, and a Kentucky long-rifle, and this Thing of Beauty. We had sat amidst directions sheets, parts, chemicals of various sorts, and my wonderment at this device, whose thick barrel was tapered slightly in the style of a cannon. Indeed, at .67 caliber, it seemed like a hand-cannon. It hefted nicely in the hand, it imposed itself visually, its graceful curves and the innuendo of intimidating fire-power nestled well in the mind of a burgeoning young man. There’s something that speaks to the young man’s mind, the ability to control power.

A family friend of ours often went into the hills to practice, and she took us along to debut our freshly completed projects a few days later. Craftwork – the assembly, the blueing of the barrels, sanding and more sanding, and finally staining and polishing of the wood-work, was familiar work to me, but always seemed a little tedious. Now, though, now was the time for action. We had gone over the process for loading the proper charge, setting up the flash pan, aiming with the rudimentary sighting systems. I was pumped. I was primed.  And now was time to make some noise.

We chose as our victim an half-rotted stump that jutted out from the clearcut hillside several feet, deep in the Coastal mountains of Oregon. We tacked a paper target to the wood, and my dad fired his rifles first. To be honest, I hardly remember that part now. Every sense in my body was focused on this pistol, and I wanted desperately to be the one firing it. Wisdom prevailed however, and and our friend took on the responsibility of the commissioning firing.

We knew from reading that the effective range of the pistol was very short, and so she set herself up about 35 feet from the target. She set herself up, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Having listened to plenty of guns firing, I had in mind an idea of what I expected. What I heard…was a click.

And then another click

And then another click, followed by words I didn’t normally hear.

It seemed that the flint wasn’t adjusted properly, and so we adjusted the stone in its clamp, and tried again. Another click.

And then one more click, followed by, “aw, shoot, it just isn’t…” hssss-KaBOOOOM!

She had just started to pull the pistol back, when the flash-pan finally lit, and a lead ball the size of a large marble scribed an unseen arc over the clearcut hillside, never to be seen or heard again.

We all stood slightly dazed for a moment. No one had been ready for THAT. The delayed fire was unexpected, sure, but that BOOM! – it was unlike any other we had ever heard. Gerry stood, holding the pistol off to her side, the barrel still smoking, and we all looked at one another, stunned silence evolving into devilish smiles. That…was…awesome!

And so we adjusted some more, reloaded, and fired again. It took 5 or six shots, but finally we got to the point where the hand-cannon would fire regularly, and could hit the target. We all took a turn, Gerry first, then my dad, my mother (who was none too thrilled, but took her turn anyway) and finally, me. I will never forget that moment.

There are some things I learned about this gun. The reason this pistol is so inaccurate is because the ball comes out very slowly, by modern standards. It is a huge piece of lead, and only has a few inches to develop its speed and idea of direction. When you pull on the trigger from 25 yards, what you hear is: “Click..hssss..BOOOOM…thud.”

Yes, “thud”.  I could hear the ball hitting the target, distinct from the explosion of gunpowder. That firm, unyielding “THUD” served well to put the whole experience into perspective to my young teenage mind, the understanding that pulling that trigger would leave a mark in something.

Many a ball went downrange over the years to follow. It was, technically, my parents’ pistol, but eventually it became mine, and for a time I took it out as often as I could. Then it fell into some years of disuse.  The Navy shooting ranges didn’t seem to appreciate black powder.  I was able to take it up into the hills a couple times east of San Diego, but for the most part, it stayed in its box, wrapped in cloth, waiting.

But on this clear autumn morning, light streaming in through the window of my shop, I pulled it from its box, gently removed it from its oilcloth wrapping, and set about cleaning the barrel. I stood as I worked, wearing my heaviest Navy coat that had kept me warm through long January nights on the submarine pier in Groton, Ct.  It had warded off frosty air before, and today it was every bit as good a coat – and bulking agent – as it had ever been.  I caressed the stock with oil.  I took a brush to the barrel.  And I held the piece against me as I worked methodically, the tedium I had felt as a child replaced with a certain sense of meditation.

As fate would have it, unbeknownst to me my oldest daughter had met her first romance just a few days earlier.  She was an outgoing girl, to whom everyone was a friend, but finally the time had come to feel a little differently about someone. One of the groups she liked to hang out with were a couple of guys from her school, and I had made all the half-joking threats about her oncoming romantic interests I thought were possible. I knew these two boys, though, and knew that first of all, it was just friendship and second, they were good kids.  I stood, working my large-bore pistol, with the thought of my daughters blossoming romantic interests furthest from my mind, just focused on the revival of an old friend, when I heard my wife’s car returning from town. I knew it carried our four children, and began to extricate myself from my work, planning to set it aside for a while. But before I could quite finish, the door to the shop swept open behind me.

“Hi daddy”, came the ever-cheerful voice of my daughter. “I have a boyfriend, I want you to meet him”.

The words drove into my heart, and summoned something dark that I had never felt, from down in its depths. It struggled to take over my mind, as I struggled to remain at peace. I would win this round, its only effect was to raise my left eyebrow – strongly. With this countenance upon me, and pistol still held in my hands, I turned toward the group, smiled a wan smile of politeness, and took in the scene before me. Her two other friends, both 7th graders, were staring at me in a way that did not register for a second. All three boys huddled against the doorway they had just entered, subtly trying not to be the one I would talk to first. It finally dawned on me that what they saw was a 6’4” man in a military heavy camouflage jacket, with one eyebrow raised in consternation, holding a hand-cannon. All three boys stood stock-still, staring at my hands.

The import of that moment never registered with my daughter. Still looking at the new member of the gang, I asked my daughter for the lad’s name. She pulled along side of me, took me by the arm and innocently announced his name, her cheerful voice lilting in stark contrast with the expressions on the boys’ faces. Intentions to watch football were announced, and the crowd was gone.

And in the vacuum of the moment they piled gratefully out of the shop and back into the house, I realized what had just transpired.  Somewhere deep inside me a slow chuckle came to boil, and then laugh. I couldn’t have scripted a better introduction.

Many years have passed since this event, and the story has evolved into a family legend. It was perhaps 20-30 seconds, but every potential boyfriend of every daughter since then has endured the tale at some point. Boyfriends have been made and lost in that moment. Husbands have been married and welcomed to the family. All have been hazed through the various re-tellings, and the Ones Worth Keeping have stood the test. It’s odd that an implement designed for intimidation and destruction should have turned into a proving ground for boyfriends not by their courage, but for their sense of humor.

I still say I couldn’t have scripted it better if I had tried.

This Sunday morning began, as do many of the weekend mornings around here – slowly, with my wife and I bringing online our various faculties – awareness of our children’s status and location, the reason for the Odd Gait on the way to the bathroom, the most appropriate contortion required to correct said Odd Gait, and creating the illusion of presentable appearance. The latter generally comes in stages, as we come to grips with the level required. On a Sunday, “Functional and decently enrobed in Fuzzy Things and comical T-shirts” is the norm. “Functional” generally means glasses, coffee, and something to keep the hair out of our eyes.

From my entry to the Submarine Service in 1983 until a few years ago, I had maintained short hair, but a few years ago I woke up on my normal haircut day wondering to myself, “Why am I going for a haircut? I don’t even like haircuts”. And so, on that brisk December morning 5 years ago, I stopped. It has created endless mirth and/or derision with the kids and wife, but it’s my hair, and it’s length is my choice. My wife threatens to cut my hair in my sleep sometimes. I threaten to beat up her relatives with the jawbone of an ass. And thus…the hair grows.

This morning I had the early morning duty, and so was well ahead of her in the process of coming to grips with Sunday. Fuzzy things: check. Comical shirt: check. Coffee: double-check. Hair-thingy: check. And I was well on my way to my Sunday morning station, waffle-making in the kitchen.

This week was Strawberry Waffle week, and so I headed to the basement freezer to retrieve a bag of berry sweetness. Alas, I found the stack of ruined food in a bucket, barring the opening of the freezer door. My wife told me about this bucket two days ago, and asked me to take out to the trash. Seems one of the kids had raided the basement, and left the freezer door open long enough to created a frost-laden tomb for most of our stores as the freezer had valiantly tried in vain to freeze an extra 1200 square feet of space, and a path to melted freedom for that which rolled out of the freezer during the invasion, which then marched on in the great circle of life to “rotted food” status.

I shoved the offending bucket aside with a fuzzy-cloaked foot, and came up against the Tomb of Ice. Fortunately for me, right next to the freezer is an area I use for working, and a crowbar happened to be sitting there. I snatched up the tool with biblical flare, and applied what turned out to be the only appropriate tool for the Philistonian strawberry freezer bag. The usual butter-knife-as-a-lever approach would have never worked, the strength of the foe was too great. As it was, my hands spent long enough inside the freezer to go nearly numb – completely numb on the right side. When the top bag sprang free of its frozen bonds and bounced its brick-like weight onto my foot I was so proud of myself. I started back up the stairs with crowbar and strawberries in hand, and the bucket of rotting food went quietly back to forlorn decomposition.

It was in this state that I first met my wife for the morning. She had gotten as far as the coffee pot, but no further. She took one glance at her battle-weary husband ascending from the basement with the crowbar gripped victoriously in his left hand, and her eyebrows shot up in a way incongruent with her level of awareness. The poetic “first waft of coffee in the morning” moment made ubiquitous by endless coffee commercials…they never show these moments. These are the harsh reality – that wisdom is truly bought by moments when your shocked and overwhelming response is slowed by a mouthful of hot coffee, and the physical restraint required to contain that coffee gives you an aire of wisdom and tolerance.

There was one other area that I was ahead of her on this lazy Sunday morning. My hair was safely out of the way, held by my own, non-glittery plain brown hair-thingy. She realized this as I walked past her to put the crowbar on the counter, and the frozen berries in the microwave. As the microwave set busily to warming the berries, I sauntered into the living room, and she apparently launched a covert attack, tracking down and grasping to steal the hair-thingy from the back of my head. By all accounts, her pre-caffeinated state caused three misses before she finally grasped the swinging ponytail.

At this point, caught totally unaware, all my submarine training came to bear fully on the attack at hand. I wheeled around to pull my hair from her grasp, and simultaneously pulled her close by circling my right arm behind her. The sudden movement floated her fuzzy things just enough that my hand slipped under the comical t-shirt and met her bare back. This was, you may recall, the hand that spent the most time in the freezer just moments ago, and was still numb.

Her reaction to my hand caused the hair-thingy she had managed to slide off my hair to become immediately available for my retrieval. Also available was the munition of a non-verbal acoustic assault that defied several laws of physics, and made me blink. But I held tight, basking in the sudden warmth my numb hand felt, and the unexpected intimacy of we two, in our fuzzy things and comical t-shirts. The desperate panic of a moment ago was punctuated with an intensely quiet, focused moment between us, and our lips clung to each other until the cold in her back sent her kidneys into cryogenic stasis. And then, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, we watched…to see which of us would flinch first…which would make the dive for the hair-thingy lying on the floor four feet from us.

Her eyes darted first, and I let her go. It has long been an accepted fact in our relationship that she is quicker than I. I never really had a chance. I threatened her relatives, but she pointed out that the ascribed Ass’s jawbone was already flailing the air in a futile soliloquy, and the matter was dropped in uncontrolled mirth. She had her hair-thingy. She had her strawberries. And, she had the last laugh.

And I? I had a tub of decomposing food in the basement, a free-flowing mane of hair, a warm hand,

…And a coffee-flavored kiss from a queen wearing fuzzy things and a comical t-shirt.

I win.

 

Sense of Home

Inspiration seems to find me in the oddest times and the strangest places. This morning it was on the stairway, following my son up the stairway. Sean is severely mentally handicapped. This means that while he is capable of doing many things physically, sometimes he gets lost in the doing, forgets what comes next. He has a seizure disorder to go along with his other issues, which takes away his ability to hang on to new things he learns. He leans heavily on things he learned long ago, when he was young.

 

One of our big struggles in his daily routine is getting him up the stairway to the shower. It’s not that he lacks the physical capacity to get himself up, though it does test his endurance, but that he forgets how to do it. He is well over 6 feet tall, and almost 250lbs, so carrying him upstairs is usually out of the question. I am somewhat bigger than him, but even so, on the stairway, that size doesn’t make the trip upstairs much easier.

This morning I was trying to think of a way to explain to someone how to get Sean up the stairway safely. I was watching and listening to myself do what I do every day, to see what key element in it makes the whole thing work for Sean and I. It became clear after a little bit that I start by accepting that I can’t force him to do much. Well, I could simply push him up the stairs, being bigger than he, but when I start doing things for him, he stops trying to do them himself and focuses on hanging on to what he knows. Then we both wind up exhausted halfway up.

 

So what I focus on is his initial position. He’s pretty good at following repetitive things once he’s started, so I make sure he gets to a “home” position that then leads to him remembering the next steps (no pun intended) to moving up. I put his left hand on the rail, despite the fact that he doesn’t want to reach out. I put his right hand on the wall, against the strain of him trying to pull his hand back to his chest. Once each hand touches the holding-point, he relaxes that arm and grips it like he remembers how to do it again. When he’s all positioned, I tap on the back of his right hamstring which makes him instinctively draw up his leg, and then suddenly he’s in his groove, he has remembered what to do. He slowly takes over, lifts that leg, puts his foot on the next step, and shifts upward. As we go up, if he forgets what he’s doing, I tap that hamstring again. It’s always the same foot, he seldom alternates feet. Once he gets into position, and gets started, then step by step he makes his way up until he reaches the top. On good days, he does a little happy dance to celebrate making it up and then charges into the shower room. On bad days, I have to repeat the process for the next task, walking through the door, with its own “home position” and reminders that makes it ok for him to let go of the door jamb.

As we went, step by step up the stairway this morning, I got to thinking of other situations where this method is important to him. He has a certain way of getting into the car, one foot has to be in just the right spot or nothing else works for him. He forgets how to get in, so I take him by the hand, walk him in a short loop away from the car, and approach it again. Once his approach is right, usually he gets the rest of it right.

It didn’t take long for this thought process of mine to spill over into my own life, and thoughts about raising the many other children we’ve had, that have come through our home as foster kids, or been adopted. We often think of home as that safe place where we can hide from the world. It has come to mean, in our modern lexicon, a place to step out of the world entirely, to be ourselves without the world’s intrusion. And of course, it is that. But home is not somewhere we can stay, or even want to stay. I thought of Sean, and the “home position” there at the bottom of the stairway.  Many of our kids have come home again for a spell, to get their head back together, or to just remember where it is they come from.  Home is a starting place, a place to figure out where we’re at when we’re lost, so that we can get started toward the goal we remember again. “Home”, for our children, is not “Mom and Dad and a house”, but the collection of growing up experiences that gave them their sense of values, and goals. For each child it is different. But for all of them, Home is not a destination, but a good beginning.

 

And then my thinking spread to spiritual life. God has not spent a lot of time forcing me to do things, forcing things upon me that I could not handle. But He created me, and knows what I was created to do and what to be, in ways I only vaguely understand most of the time. He has spent some time over the course of my life sending me back to home, walking me in a little loop so I can figure out where to start, and orienting myself, remembering where I want to go, when I become hopelessly lost in the milieu of life.

For my children, most of whom have grown, I don’t hope to keep them here forever, though I love them and their company. But I do hope that when they become lost, they remember to come home, and that in that thought they figure out where it was they need to be, and which direction that was.  Maybe it’s as simple as “left-hand bannister, right hand wall, right leg up”.  Sometimes it is for me.

As for me – I realized, by the time I got to the top of the stairway this morning with Sean, that I have two homes: the one that I was born to, that gives me an awareness of who I am now, and where to start in pursuit of my life’s purpose, and the other that I am created to be, that for now is my destination, but when I get there, will again be my starting point.