7.07.2018

For Richer, For Poorer

The Next Great Adventure: A True Story

For Richer, For Poorer


Just before the wedding, in January of 1983, my friend and mentor, David Johnson, gave me some marriage advice that he said he was passing along from Jerry Hancock.

"There are three things you need to take care of in marriage - money, sex, & in-laws - not necessarily in that order."

When I shared that advice with Cindy she mostly agreed, but said she would replace sex with romance. I was 22 years old. For me they were the same thing so I didn't see any need to argue the semantics. It seemed like solid advice. My biggest concern was the money part. We were pretty broke. I didn't see how we could get poorer, but I also knew that if we didn't start making some progress toward richer that it could become a problem.

The "for richer, for poorer" part of the vow seems to have an economic intent. Even at 22 I knew that marriage required huge practical considerations, everything from housekeeping to managing finances to common courtesy for each other. Our goal was never to be wealthy, but we did want to make money a non-issue. My parents argued about money a lot. Cindy's father, Darvis, was the tightest man in 5 counties, at least until Cindy's brother Rodney took the title away. We were both acutely aware of how money impacted a marriage, and we took "for richer, for poorer" seriously, by working hard and steadily and, for the most part, living within our means.

Over the next 35 years I learned that romance does not, in fact, equal sex, and that rich or poor applies to more than finances.

We spent our first Christmas together, just us, in our one bedroom apartment in Atlanta, Georgia. We
had gifts for each other, and a few that had been mailed to us from friends and family. We had a small, real Christmas tree and part of our Christmas budget included lights and ornaments for it. We cooked a special meal. We spent time on the phone, in the days of long-distance charges, with family back in Texas. I learned that "It's A Wonderful Life" was Cindy's favorite Christmas movie and it seemed to always be on. It was a wonderful first Christmas together.

When I close my eyes and put myself back in that place, the memory that comes back is Cindy waking me up early, telling me it was time to go open the presents that Santa had left. We never did the Santa thing growing up, Santa was for suckers, but I woke and smiled and said "let's go!" I had a Santa present for her, too. She was anxious to see if I liked the present she picked out; she was excited to give it to me. I was anxious about the presents I had bought, too, but in a different way. I was worried about it. Would she like it? Would she think it was silly? Would it be sufficient?

I received a present from Darvis and Frances, my in-laws. I fretted over what it might mean, why they had picked that particular thing. I wondered about their motivation ... did they do it out of obligation? ... what were they expecting from me? ... did Cindy coach them on what to get? To my credit, I did discuss this with Cindy. I confessed I was not good at receiving gifts. In my world there was always a cost associated with a gift. I was always acutely aware of the sacrifice that had to be made to provide a gift for me, and consequently there was always gift guilt, that my gift from limited resources meant someone else got something less. Cindy spent a good part of the day convincing me that my gifts were given out of love, and not for any other reason. I had always enjoyed giving gifts, but never knew how to receive a gift. Learning how to accept a gift was my most memorable present that year, and it made my life richer.

Christmas in Plano, in the house on Emerson Drive, was always memorable. By that time we weren't as worried about having the money to spend on presents, but rather if we were spending too much, if we were spoiling our son. Once, we bought him a Thomas the Train table top railroad as his big Santa gift. My high school friend, Linda, who now owned a toy store in Amarillo, sold me their store display at a discount. We frequently spent Thanksgiving with my family in Pampa. We had new friends in Plano from our church. All of my siblings and their spouses and families came to visit us at one time or another. There was always at least one Calhoun family holiday activity at our house. We had visits from old Kraft friends, like Gloria, and old Garland friends, like Cindy P. My brother's mother-in-law, Detta, made traditional British Christmas pudding for us one year. Even my old Pampa friends like Eddie and Denton friends like Joey stoppped by.

There was always a party, a Christmas get-together of some kind. It could be work related. It could be family. It could just be the girls from the bunco group or couples and kids from church. The world I grew up in was very insular. There were no family get-togethers at our house, other than my older siblings making it home for the holidays, and I honestly don't recall my parents having any social friends, and they didn't have anyone over to the house. Cindy pulled in everyone from my life, from high school friends to new acquaintances, treated them like family and taught me to be welcoming, to be hospitable, to enjoy being with family and friends, and it made my life richer.

I distinctly remember waking one Saturday morning around Christmas in the house on Celadine. It was cold out. The heater was on, blowing warm air across our bed. Either the sun was just rising or it was overcast; the light coming through the slats of the window blinds was muted. Cindy and I were sleeping back to back, and as usual, she had crowded me to the very edge of my side of the bed. I rolled toward her, nudging her back to her side to gain a little extra territory for myself. She woke briefly to tell me, "It's early. It's cold." She turned back toward me, searching for the warmth on my side of the bed, and ended up with her head on my shoulder. I marveled at how well she fit, how I knew the smell of her hair, at how many times this scene had been repeated over the years. I surrendered myself to the familiarity and comfort. Time stopped, and I wondered.

We had been to a Christmas party the night before, a group of church friends had gathered at someone's house to eat and drink and sing carols. This particular seasonal Saturday the schedule for the day was light. Some last minute shopping where Griffin and I would go out to buy his Mom's present and maybe pick up some gag gifts. It was also the day for Griffin to bake Oatmeal Scotchies for Bonnie. There would likely be an impromptu get together for a meal with friends at some point. Cindy had presents to wrap, which would take several hours and a few Christmas movies to complete. Kerry would likely come over to help. Nothing seemed urgent. Nothing seemed difficult. I was looking forward to it all.

As I lay there, wondering about it all, I was overwhelmed with contentment, almost to the point of tears. Our home. Our family and friends. Each other. I realized how fortunate I was, what a blessed life I was living, and how I had spent far too much of it focusing on my discontent. Growing up I moved carefully to avoid amplifying the underlying tension in our house, trying to steady the emotional whipsaw.  I was never quite good enough, and consequently never really succeeded at the balancing act. When you know you're not going to win, it's easy to give up, blame yourself, and be discontented. On that morning, in that moment, with that brief experience of peace and personal insight, I found a new source of strength, a new way of accepting uncertainty. Shortly, I would come to need it more than I imagined.

I attempted to capture that morning in a rambling, mystical sort of blog post in January of 2014, though on re-reading it's more confusing than explanatory. In simpler terms, the richer from our wedding vows did not ultimately mean money. It meant the complexity and depth and character of anything that develops with use and age and stress over time. Whiskeys and wine, antiques and everyday objects, your life and relationships ... they all develop their own unique and truthful richness, a patina, that can't be manufactured or faked.

Cindy made my life richer by teaching me how to give and receive gifts, by expanding my concept of
family and what familial relationships should be, and by walking with me on a path that eventually allowed me to glimpse contentment. I hope that I made her life richer as well, but it's hard to see the impact you have on others. My intention was to enrich her life, not take from it or make her poorer, because I loved her. Surely I must have, given the time and energy we spent on each other, but even if I did not, I still remember our first Christmas, where I learned that gifts given and received in love need to be cherished, not questioned. It is a rich life, indeed.

6.26.2018

The Best Dog Ever

We got the dog because Kerry couldn't say no to a rescue. We got a poodle because Cindy had declared "The next dog will not shed!" We got a Standard Poodle because I don't do little, yippy dogs, and because Griffin would have been happy with any dog. Despite all those conditions, we somehow wound up with the best dog ever, and I will forever be grateful for having him in our lives.

The Whitson's and the Turner's made a parenting deal ... we would hold the line on getting a family dog, and we told Griffin "When Haley gets a dog, we'll get a dog" and the Whitson's told Haley the same thing about Griffin. Kerry was the weak link, though to be honest, I would have cracked sooner or later. Both families had had older dogs that had to be put down when the kids were very young and we knew how much time, energy, money and emotional investment dog ownership required.

Our dogs were Pearl and Cosmo. They were Dalmatians. Pearl was the hard, smart, protective one
and she was my dog. Cosmo was the goofy, sweet, cuddly liver spotted one, one of Pearl's puppies, who loved Cindy and couldn't get enough of her attention. When Pearl got old and very sick, we had to put her down. We brought her blanket home for Cosmo and a few months later he just gave up and we had to put him down, too. He just quit eating or drinking and refused to get up. He had never spent a day without his mother until then, and I think he died of a broken heart.

 Anyway, somehow Griffin learned that Kerry and Haley had come home with a rescue dog, Isabelle, and excitedly asked "When are we getting a dog?!?! Haley got a dog!" and I went in search of a Standard Poodle. We found one in Oklahoma. He had been born in a barn, was four months old and the runt of the litter. The breeder was anxious to get rid of him, so we drove to Sherman, meeting her halfway, paid her some cash, put the super fluffy puppy in the back of our SUV and headed home.

On the way home, somewhere around McKinney, he threw up. On the carpet. The first lesson in dog ownership was a failure. I ended up cleaning it up. Neither Griffin or Haley, who went on the puppy excursion with us, was willing to use paper towels to clean the barfed up kibble. He was cute and "Parti-colored," mostly white with black/grey/blue splotches. We debated names all the way home and once home he was promptly named Cooper, after the MINI Cooper parked in the garage.

Of course, the plan was for him to be Griffin's dog, but Cooper was having none of that. The first night we attempted to put him to sleep in his kennel in Griffin's bedroom. He howled and cried and barked for 2 hours until I finally relented and brought his kennel down to our bedroom. I would like to think that he had identified me as the alpha male in his new pack and just wanted to make that bond. In reality, he picked me out as the person most likely to cater to his every need and give him everything he wants. He was smart like that.

We bonded pretty quickly. I was working from home, or as I prefer, "living at work," and so we got to

spend a lot of days together. It wasn't long before I could say "let's go to work" or "time to clock in" and he would sprint up the stairs, waiting for his pre-work treat. He'd spend the day at his security post on the upstairs landing where he could surveil both the front and back yards, dutifully barking when there were potential intruders at the gate like the UPS guy and the lawn mowing crew. If he needed to go out, he didn't whine or scratch, he'd come put his head in my lap and give me puppy eyes. In the middle of the night that involved him putting his head on the bed and staring at me until I woke up.

He liked to chew plastic bottles, so we taught him to take them to the recycle can when he was done, for a treat of course. He liked to sneak drinks of coffee from any unattended cups, and preferred black coffee to anything with cream or sugar. He didn't like to swim at all, but he loved to lounge in the shallow water of the pool's sun ledge. He had a long, lanky, looping sort of gait when running, reminiscent of Tigger's bounce, not especially fast, but then he was never in much of hurry. He was a calm dog, excited to greet visitors, but never jumped or got too nosey. We'd have a house full of people and he would curl up on the rug or a cool spot on the tile and just keep an eye on things. When the kids got too rowdy, he'd go find a quiet place. He never demanded a lot of petting, usually content to just be with the family, rather than in someone's lap.

When he was a few years old we had a very scary episode where he refused to eat or drink, lost a
bunch of weight and energy and strength. For a few days the vet was at a loss to diagnose the issue, but then determined that he had Addison's disease, a hormone disease that affects Poodles and Chows and a few other breeds especially. He's been on daily meds to control it since then and we generally managed it well. Since the move to Sugar Land he's been doing great. He put on some weight, which was always an issue, and we've been getting a mile walk in nearly every day. He was a picky eater, but I take a lot of responsibility for that. He never over-ate or scarfed food like some dogs, so I indulged him with whatever he liked.

I just turned my chair, to go get a smidge more bourbon, and he wasn't there, in any of his customary, proximal spots. I miss him already.

Today I learned that he had a tumor in his heart that was effectively untreatable. He was miserable. His heart was pounding all day and his breathing was labored. I elected to put him down. It wasn't a hard decision. He was the best dog ever, and I could not bear to see him suffer through treatments and procedures when I knew he would be perfectly content to put his head in my lap and go to sleep with me holding him.

Last October/November, when Cindy got so miserable that she could only sleep in the recliner, Cooper would sleep in the corner of the living room, where he could keep an eye on both of us. We had gotten past his habit of wanting to go out in the middle of the night, but he would come put his head on the bed and wake me up if Cindy was restless or if she told him to "get Dad." In late February, early March, when Cindy was pretty much home full time, he stopped barking at the doorbell or when strangers came up the sidewalk. He did it a few times and it always startled Cindy, who was either sleeping or zoned out watching TV, and she'd yell "Cooper! Stop!" He was a smart dog, and learned quickly not to scare her. Instead he would run to me, anxiously wagging his tail and looking at the door.

Later in March, when the hospice workers came, he would hover next to me, waiting for clues on
how to behave. If, for some reason I had to leave to run an errand, leaving Cindy home alone, he changed his routine. Instead of going to his bed and meeting me at the back door when he heard the garage door go up, he would sleep either behind Cindy's recliner or on the corner of the rug in front of her, and he would wait for me to enter and check on them, instead of greeting me at the door. The full time hospice folks were only here for a couple of nights. When that began, Cooper stayed in bed, dragging his cushions into the very corner of the bedroom, and only coming out when coaxed.

For about a month after Cindy died, Cooper refused to leave my side. If I was in a room, he was there with me. The master bathroom had always been off limits to Cooper, and he respected that everywhere we lived. The morning after Cindy died I stepped out of the shower to find Cooper in the middle of the master bathroom floor, waiting for me to step out. I scolded him and he left, but he laid down with his butt in the hallway and his nose in the doorway.


For the past three months he's kept me company, and kept me sane. He was the recipient of too many one sided conversations. He listened to my disjointed, lost and broken, spoken prayers. He heard me reading the bible out loud, because that's something you can do when it's just you and the dog. And he let me hold and pet him when listening to those sad break up songs that take on a whole new meaning when your lover is truly, truly gone. He never complained. He never asked for anything other than my attention. He was my faithful companion on morning walks and a steady worker, who never missed a day, napping in the corner under the ceiling fan or in the warm sliver of sun by the front windows.

I did my best to give that sorry, spoiled rotten poodle a good and happy life. He more than lived up to his end of the bargain. He was, and always will be, the best dog ever.



6.19.2018

Faith and Control

The Next Great Adventure: A True Story

Faith and Control

When Griffin moved up to a "big boy" bed, we bought bunk beds. As a kid, I loved having bunk beds. Cindy and I understood how great it is to have siblings, how much of an impact they have on you, and that an only child has unique difficulties to overcome ... mainly revolving around being the only non-parent in the house. One or more kids after Griffin was our plan, but sometimes plans don't work out. People operate as if they have control of everything in their life, a good survival trait I suppose, but it is surprising when you find out you don't.

It was 1999 and Griffin was nearly 3 years old, by that time an "upperclassman" at Rainbow Wonderland Daycare. There he made fast friends with Haley, while Cindy was making friends with Haley's Mom, Kerry. This inevitably led to birthday parties and other kid-centered social activities. Somewhere along the way, Cindy and Griffin started attending a Wednesday night program at Kerry and Haley's church, Churchill Way Presbyterian Church, which was called 'Children of God.' It was weekly, kid-focused bible stories, games and dinner. The twist was eating dinner with someone other than your own parents. Couples from the church volunteered to be 'table parents' and the kids got to learn what it was like to interact with other families and people. Griffin's table parents were Bill and Sally Terry, who he still has a relationship with today.

I was making an honest effort to read and study and try to figure a way out of my religion issues, but certainly didn't feel ready to join a church or hang out with strangers in a fellowship hall. My self-study primarily served to add to my confusion. One week I'd be reading "The Jesus Mysteries" and whatever 'The Jesus Seminar' was publishing, and the next I'd read C.S. Lewis "Mere Christianity" and G.K. Chesterton "The Everlasting Man." Everyone claimed they had "the truth" I was seeking. My vague conclusion was that the "pro-Christian" side was trying to explain and offer hope, to find truth beyond this world, while the other side primarily wanted to prove their own 'rightness,' disproving God and elevating themselves, validating this world as the source of truth. Perhaps I'm just naturally skeptical of humans.

I still wasn't convinced that church was a place I needed to be, but we were invited to attend worship with the Whitson's and, as I often did when I couldn't think of a valid argument or excuse, I conceded to Cindy's wishes and we went to worship as a family. We started visiting regularly in the fall of 1999.

We joined in early 2000. Presbyterians do infant baptism and Griffin was shortly baptized. The social aspect of church was important to Cindy and she latched on to the value it would have for Griffin, too. He acquired a whole group of siblings and aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents. It took me much longer to warm up, but I was fascinated by how these "church types" actually implemented their faith, and how they understood their own religion, because it was certainly different than my understanding. It was a much more graceful and open-minded approach than I expected. No one claimed to have all the answers. They debated; they didn't demand. Without the latitude to explore and learn I couldn't have stayed, but ever so slowly, over the past 18 years, my faith has grown, at least I hope it has.

As with most things, Cindy's approach was the opposite of mine. She just believed, and did her best to live it. She didn't need to deconstruct and re-assemble, she just wrapped herself in it and moved forward, doing her best to take faith "into" her world, instead of trying to build it up "around" her. I understood her approach about as well as she understood mine, but we moved forward together as always, respecting our differences and offsetting each other's strengths and weaknesses.

We got an immersive education in how Presbyterians manage their business. I had grown up in the Church of Christ. Cindy grew up Baptist, and joined a Lutheran church in Victoria. 'Churchill Way' was in the process of changing its name to 'Bentwood Trail', to better reflect its geographic location, and they were also in the middle of a search for a new pastor. There were rules and committees and votes and published meeting minutes. Robert's Rules of Order seemed integral. Later that year the new pastor, Rev. Dr. Todd Collier, was called. As newly minted Presbyterians we were starting to feel plugged in and connected. By Advent, it felt like "our" church.

Griffin was now 4 years old and we had had a few pregnancy disappointments in those years. There was another early miscarriage, and a painful tubal pregnancy that never fully developed, but we were still hopeful. Early in 2001 we knew that Cindy was pregnant but kept it fairly quiet, having learned from previous experience.

Cindy was 34 when she was pregnant with Griffin, but because she would be turning 35 before his delivery date, she was considered "Advanced Maternal Age." I teased her about that a lot, but the short of it was that they encouraged extra testing, specifically amniocentesis, where they do a sonogram and take some amniotic fluid to test for genetics, sex, and general health of the baby. Cindy was close to 40 years old so we knew it would be part of the plan again.

The day of the "amnio" we went down to Baylor Hospital in Dallas where her OB/GYN had
privileges. It was a routine thing. We had done it before. There was a tech and a doctor we didn't know. I instinctively knew something was wrong when I saw the tech point at the screen and look at the doctor. She didn't say anything, she just pointed. Cindy didn't see that part, and the doctor didn't say anything. He just went ahead with the procedure. When he was done he said, "There's a problem with the baby, we're going to need you to stay for a while and we'll discuss it after we finish the tests."

We were stunned. We sat in the waiting room, trying to puzzle it out, waiting to hear from the doctors. I convinced myself that it had to be something obvious and serious if they could see it on the sonogram at 14 weeks, but I had no idea what it could be. Cindy was a wreck. Not crying, not showing she was upset, but going full tilt at all the what-ifs and how-comes and why-us's, trying to plan around a situation over which she had no control. We waited. And there, in that waiting room, waiting to talk to the specialists and the genetic counselor, I made my decision.

We learned that the baby had a serious birth defect, an omphalocele, where the internal organs are outside of the abdominal wall. That was likely what the tech was pointing to. Correcting it would require serious and life threatening surgery, immediately after birth, and it may not ever be corrected to the point of being 'normal.' The surgery can cause complications with the internal organs requiring lifelong 'maintenance' surgeries to keep them working well. More seriously, the baby had a genetic defect called Edwards Syndrome or Trisomy 18. The details are frightening. They told us that the one year survival rate was 5-10%, but with the omphalocele complication they considered the baby's condition to be "incompatible with life." They also told us the baby was a girl.

Our options were to try to carry the baby to term (with less than 20% chance of making it), deliver it, and deal with the confirmed medical and genetic issues, or terminate the pregnancy. I had already made my decision and shared it with Cindy while we waited. I expected the worst. I told her that though I might be able to deal with the medical and genetic issues, I would not spend the rest of this time just waiting for death, that it was too much unnecessary suffering for everyone, including the baby. It didn't seem practical. It didn't make sense for Cindy or for Griffin. I was adamant that we would terminate the pregnancy. It was clear to me that this was mercy, not murder. She did not argue. I don't think she was in an emotional state to make much of an argument, and I took advantage of that to do what I thought was best for the family.

We made arrangements for Griffin to spend a few days with Aunt Nanny and Uncle Billy, and scheduled the procedure for the following week. Baylor Hospital does not do abortions without board approval. Our OB/GYN presented our case and got the approval. We checked in early, they gave drugs to induce labor, and after did the D&C. Family members and some friends were there for support, along with our new pastor, Todd. We stood around the bed, held hands and Todd prayed. I can't tell you what he said, but I can tell you it was a comfort, it gave me some strength. We gathered ourselves and continued the adventure with a new, major inflection point in the course.

Recalling this story, trying to get the scene and emotion correct and honest, a memory from my childhood comes back to me. An ambulance shows up at our house. We have one of those front doors with the three staggered windows and I see the lights flashing through them, but hear no siren. Two men come in and take my mother away on a stretcher. I'm not entirely sure what's happening and no one bothers to explain to me. The next day, or shortly thereafter, I'm at my Grandma Turner's house. I explain to her that the ambulance men took my mother away and everyone told me not to worry about her, that she would be fine. Grandma Turner told me that everyone was right. That she would be fine. That she had 'lost the baby,' that she had lost them before and always been fine afterward. I had no idea what losing a baby meant, but it didn't sound like something that led to being 'fine.'

Afterword:


In my life I have been personally involved in two abortions. The one described above and another one when I was much younger. A friend came to me saying she was unexpectedly pregnant. I knew the father by reputation only, and it was not good. I knew her family would not condone an abortion, and I also knew that their dysfunctional "support" would do more harm than good. She wanted to know if I could give her money for an abortion. She needed $125. I wrote her a check. It was the easiest option, and the one I was sure 100% of the single women I knew at the time, who didn't want to get married, would have taken. We thought we were wise. We thought we were in control, doing the smart thing, doing what was best.


I wish she would have had someone wiser to turn to, someone with more than $125 to give her.


I wish I would have known in 1983 that future studies would show a link between early and prolonged use of oral contraceptives and Triple Negative Breast Cancer, the type of cancer Cindy had.


I wish that research on the connection between induced abortion and breast cancer wasn't labeled inconclusive, because it feels like what they are really saying is that the research is inconvenient.


I understand that people will take this personal story or my comments and twist them to fit their ideas, their "principles," regarding the politics of pro-choice/pro-life. They'll judge me and that's fine. I own my decisions. In the political world this is nothing more than an anecdote. It has power because it's true, but truth has no value in politics that I can find. I'm not sharing this for politics. This is a story I need to tell, for my own sake, as confession and catharsis, but also because it could be helpful to someone else.


We make the best decisions we can with the data we have, but that's not control, that's informed gambling, and there is no guarantee you'll walk away 'fine,' regardless of your analytical power or your plans or your intentions. Knowing that, I would advise having faith in something other than yourself.

6.09.2018

Things Change

The Next Great Adventure: A True Story

Things Change

Though there was a waterbed store near Parker Rd and Alma Dr in Plano in the 1990s, there's a good chance that Cindy and I were the last married couple in Collin County to ditch their water bed in 1996. I bought one when I moved to Atlanta in 1982 because they were cheap. We got a slightly better model when we moved into our house in Missouri City. They were still cheap. But I remember the occasion when we finally got rid of it and bought a grown up bed. It was February, 1996, and we had just confirmed that Cindy was pregnant.

When we moved to Plano, closer to family, it was mutually understood that children would be on the agenda. Of course, with Cindy, everything had to be planned and, unfortunately, conception is rarely concerned about your planning. In 1995 we had one brief period where we thought Cindy was pregnant, at least according to the home pregnancy test, but before she got to Dr. Fuller to confirm, she had a miscarriage. That made us both very nervous and concerned. What if we couldn't have children? We had put it off so many years and I knew what it meant to her. It could have been devastating to us.

After that first miscarriage I was desperate to understand how and why it happened. One of the things that came up in my crazed search for answers was that electromagnetic fields could be an issue, power lines and such, and that made me suspicious of the electric water bed heater. Yes, it was probably me buying into someone's crazy theory, but the day her pregnancy was confirmed by the doctor we started sleeping in the guest bedroom, on a regular bed with mattress and box springs.

Fortunately we found a "real" bed for ourselves soon enough and the guest bed was available again, which was a good thing because later that summer our niece Cassie would begin spending a lot of time in that guest room and, eventually, doing a lot of babysitting. In the following months we pored through 'What to Expect When You're Expecting,' took birthing classes at Baylor Hospital in downtown Dallas, spent countless hours discussing baby names in earnest, and, with Cindy's usual project management mentality, decorated a nursery, outlined a birth plan, and detailed my instructions up to and including delivery day.

It was marvelous.

In all the years we were together I do not recall Cindy being happier. Yes, she had some morning sickness. And yes, being pregnant in the summer in Dallas was not easy duty, but none of that mattered. She would come home from work, strip down to her skivvies, lay under the ceiling fan on our grown up non-waterbed and say "this kid will be prepped and ready for Texas summers." She's pregnant in her graduation photos from Dallas Baptist University. Her cravings were chocolate milk and tacos, and for the only time in her entire adult life she abstained from coffee because even smelling it made her nauseous. The pregnancy and her constant laughing about the silliest things caused a leaking bladder problem. She joked about having "baby brain" but the lists and notes in her ever-present steno pad kept things moving along smoothly.

To the outside world, to her co-workers and friends and family, she was managing pregnancy like every other thing she managed. To me, she expressed concerns. Would she be a good mother? Would we be able to provide? What if she didn't want to go back to work? Would everything work out? Would we, Cindy and I, be able to grow beyond husband and wife to father and mother and what would that look like? I had all those concerns and more, but knew my role was to reassure, not add to her worries, and besides, she was obviously happy and that's all I ever really wanted.

It was about this time that I realized "I'm not ready to have kids" was me being selfish. It wasn't, or shouldn't have been, about what I wanted, what met my needs. We should have had children earlier. I should have considered what would be best for both of us. We could have had more children, but we didn't. Cindy, for her part, never looked backed with regret. She only looked forward with hope, always believing in the meant-to-be.

Griffin was born in late September. A few days before we had each made a separate, secret list of first names that we liked. The middle name was already decided. That morning, in the hospital, we compared lists and found that Griffin was the only name on both of our lists so the choice was easy. In typical Cindy fashion she had multiple tasks and lists prepared for me and I dutifully checked off the to-dos as we waited to go to the delivery room. At one point she almost forgot about being in labor. The local TV station was reporting that students had been pepper sprayed at Rowlett High School, during some sort of school assembly/riot, and she was adamant that we find out if Cassey (another niece), who went to school at RHS, was okay.

Someone once told me that a group of mothers sitting around telling labor and delivery stories was like listening to Vietnam vets talking about patrols outside the wire, each story more harrowing than the last. I won't attempt that level of detail here, but from my perspective it went pretty smoothly and was relatively uneventful as medical procedures go. I think Cindy and the all female crew of doctors and nurses were a bit disappointed that I didn't faint or get nauseous, but there was nothing unexpected or unsettling and I didn't really understand why they were concerned, though I suspect there was some sort of wagering going on.

Frances stayed with Cindy and Griffin that night in the hospital and I went home to take care of the dogs and get some sleep. It was fairly late when I drove home. I had stayed in the hospital room, holding Griffin, to watch the Texas Rangers clinch the AL West title. I remember driving home, north on US 75 Central Expressway, with the roof open on Cindy's ES300, just singing along to pop songs. It was a remarkable, happy feeling - wondering what the future would hold and knowing that we would be raising a child, the epitome of hope and potential. I knew it was a big responsibility, and I knew we could do it. Unjustified confidence I suppose.

It wasn't all emotion and contemplative reflection ... I was still going through Cindy's checklist ... Did you call Eddie? Don't forget to put the car seat in. Here, take home this blanket from the baby for Pearl and Cosmo to smell. Be back early in the morning to relieve Mom!

Despite excellent planning there were still many adjustments to make and a few bumps in the bringing baby home process. We dealt with jaundice and breast feeding struggles and a long line of visitors, and of course juggled those with work and recovery and wedging Griffin into every facet of a developing new routine. He cooperated for the most part and was, as they say, an "easy" baby. We figured it all out soon enough, I think primarily because we were not exactly "young marrieds" trying to figure out marriage and babies at the same time. We were much more calm than panicked.

Cindy returned to work shortly before Christmas, and she was ready to go back. We found a good day care and made the adjustment to our routine. Christmas itself brought an explosion of toys and gifts and visitors but we got back to our new normal not long after. While Cindy was home with Griffin all day she was happy when I came home to take him off her hands for a few hours. After going back to work, she was equally anxious to spend all of her home time with him so it worked out about how I expected. The baby got the attention and I was bumped down a notch or two on the priority list. I'm not complaining; it's just an observation. I knew it would happen and I think that's how it should be.

Cindy took on the additional responsibilities of motherhood without missing a beat. She simply re-prioritized and worked it in to everything else she was already doing. I thought I was doing well, too, but in the spring I started to be concerned about how I was managing things. Something just didn't seem right. I tried to talk to Cindy, to explain what was going on, but she just couldn't see it. She was frustrated with me at times, but other than that couldn't see why I was feeling "off."

I had changed jobs in July of 1996, just before Griffin was born. It wasn't just a job change, it was a career change. I moved from office/clerical management to computer consulting with a company named Paranet. I bounced around from project to project doing basic Unix administration and system/software support. And then Griffin was born and I had all these new concerns.

Some new parents don't sleep because the baby wakes them. That wasn't an issue for us, but I struggled to fall asleep, and in the morning I just couldn't get out bed without a big effort. I was often late for work, something very unusual for me, but wrote it off as needing to adjust my routine. I was having headaches and stomach issues, something I rarely had problems with. I was easily irritated and forced myself to just be quiet, to the point of clenching my jaws, just to prevent myself from venting at everyone and everything. Most evenings I stared at the TV, not even paying attention to what was on, just replaying the day's events in my head and imagining how things would have gone differently if only I had responded better or had the right knowledge or was better understood. I felt completely incompetent at everything - work, father, husband - and was settling in to a permanent state of not caring about any of it anyway.

Eventually it was bad enough that I knew something had to change. Cindy still didn't get it, she didn't see anything drastically different I guess, so I scheduled an appointment with a therapist through the Employee Assistance Program. On the first visit she sent me across the hall to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist confirmed what the counselor suspected; I was depressed. They put me on anti-depressants, scheduled weekly follow ups with both of them, and sent me home with some instructions on how to discuss this with my spouse. Once we got past the "why didn't you tell me you scheduled the appointment!" discussion, it clicked for Cindy and she realized that my earlier attempts to talk to her were a sign she had missed, she had missed all the signs.

By mid summer I was on a steady project at Mobil Oil and started getting my feet under me at work. I stayed on the medication for about 6 months. I joined a gym because I needed to get active before they would take me off the drugs. Eventually, I worked through it, but since that episode I'm hyper-aware of when I start feeling "off." It's a scary thing, knowing that you can be so easily, or unknowingly, broken.

The counseling revealed that I had many unresolved issues that I needed to work through, or at least learn to accept. The therapist was an older Jewish lady and sometime during the course of our discussions we talked about faith. I explained to her my conclusions about it all. Basically, after spending the first 17 years of my life being dragged to church I thought I knew exactly what it had to offer and that I didn't need it. In our last meeting, she encouraged me to re-visit all of the faith things that I thought I had figured out many years ago. She suggested some reading material, and also strongly suggested that I read not just "here's why you should believe books" but also the "faith is for suckers" side as well.

"You're a smart guy. You can figure it out. No one can tell you what to believe, but you have to believe in something other than yourself, because you, my friend, are imperfect. It's not easy. If it is, that's a clue you're doing it wrong. Dismissing faith because it was too hard for you to understand at 10 or 15 or 20 years old is too easy. Do the work. It should take your entire life to finish."

The early days of parenthood had a profound effect on my self-perception and my understanding of my purpose. Those days would influence my decisions for the next twenty years, and in retrospect the effect has all been positive. It is still marvelous, a miracle, and when I pause to think about it, to consider the impact of love and marriage and raising a child and how that has shaped me as a man, I can only conclude it is an undeserved blessing, because I am an imperfect man.


5.22.2018

Birthdays, Babies and Brides

The Next Great Adventure: A True Story

Birthdays, Babies and Brides


We moved to Plano, TX in 1992 and lived there until 2016, twenty-four years. We owned two different houses and 10 different vehicles, 3 of which are still in the fleet. Cindy worked for Oxy the entire time. I made a major career change and worked for eight different companies. We had one child, Griffin. We joined a church, Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church. We lost three of our four parents. We had hail storms, a kitchen fire, termites, and remodeling projects. I built a fish pond at one house and had a pool built at the other. Both homes were always open to friends and family and one of our great pleasures was being able to provide them a place to stay, whether it was for a vacation, a relocation, or simply escaping their own remodeling project.

And we celebrated. We celebrated everything. Birthdays. Babies. Brides. Going away parties. Graduation parties. Welcome to Texas parties. We had a party to build a fence and a party for a visiting New York Metropolitan Opera lyric soprano. We hosted bible studies, church youth group parties and impromptu swim parties. And Christmas, well, it was truly a season and not just a holiday at our house.

This was, of course, all Cindy's doing. She loved being the hostess, providing that celebratory
atmosphere, giving people an easy place to have a good time. Once we got to Plano, with family near and Cindy's 'everyone is family' attitude, the celebrations became habit. It was what we did. It was not easy for me to make that change. It's hard enough for me to put on my extrovert costume and go to a party, much less host one, especially the way that Cindy did it, where everything was planned from the themed napkins to the separate kid & adult beverage coolers to the parking. But, it made her happy and I, eventually, learned how to be her trusty hosting sidekick.

There are many, many Plano stories, maybe a lifetime's worth, so in figuring out what to say about the Plano years I knew I could not, practically, cover it all. Looking back I realized that the theme of those years was celebration. There was always something to celebrate today, always the next thing to celebrate tomorrow. Even the times of mourning became times to gather, remember, and be grateful. Every celebration happened with the knowledge that my partner, my right hand, would be either leading or supporting the effort, not out of obligation, but from a sincere love and desire to make others happy.

We had grown from impetuous young lovers, learning about each other and how to live together, to comfortable, dependable partners, able to handle all that life throws at you, together. There were many times I missed the passion and excitement of the early years, too many perhaps. It's only on looking back that I realize what a blessing it was to have such a comfortable, constant, competent spouse. I loved her so much. I never told her that enough. It was like breathing, unnoticed and easy until you can't. Then you panic. Then you struggle. Then you force yourself to relax and remember how to breathe, what it felt like, thinking about the effort it takes, wondering if you will ever breathe so easily again.

I can't tell every Plano story. I can't describe everything that happened; it's more musical score than
narrative. I can't explain how we changed over the years; it would be better suited to a multi-season TV series than the stack of snapshots I could write here. I do plan on writing some of the impact stories, the course changing ones, but for this introduction to the Plano years, I want to focus on what I do remember about how to breathe, the common, simple things that kept us alive and moving forward.

She would fall asleep on my shoulder. I would smell her hair, kiss her forehead, wondering how in the world she could be comfortable in that position, and then gently push her off to her side of the bed before my shoulder went permanently asleep. Sometimes she would wake up and chastise me, "oh, you don't love me anymore?" before giving me a peck and rolling over to her side. Sometimes I would get that last bit of instruction, "don't forget you need to take care of that thing about the thing tomorrow" and somehow I would know exactly what she meant. Sometimes she wouldn't wake, exhausted, and I would kiss her behind the ear and say "love you more" because I knew that was the only time I would get the last word.

She would fall asleep on the sofa. After a long day at work and a glass of cabernet, she would lounge on the sofa in her pajamas, watching some frivolous TV show and then announce, "I'm going to bed after I watch the weather." She rarely made it to the weather report on the 10 o'clock news, much less through the forecast. I'd wake her up when I was ready to go to bed, usually giving her some bogus information on how the TV show ended or tomorrow's weather forecast. If she was really tired and the bed was cold I'd lay on her side of the bed to warm it up for her before she crawled in, and I would get "Aw, you still love me!" and my good night kiss.

Anytime I cooked, she cleaned, especially if it was a party. Part of it was to keep some control of the chaos, and part of it was to be in the middle of the action, keeping tabs on who needed what. One of my favorite things was to come up behind her at the sink, when she was elbow deep in soap suds, squeeze her butt cheek and nuzzle her neck. Sometimes I got pushed away with soapy hands. Sometimes I got my own butt cheek squeezed. Every once in a while she would grab both of my hands with her soapy ones, pull them tight around her waist, turn her head and whisper in my ear, "Later."

I never knew what might happen when she would unexpectedly come sit in my lap. Sometimes, she just draped her arm around my neck and said nothing, just staking her claim to me. Other times she would look me in the eye with raised eyebrows letting me know that I was too loud, or had had too much to drink, or was telling an inappropriate story. But most often it was sliding onto my lap, getting my attention, kissing me and then saying something sexy like "Why don't you take out the trash?"

A partner who loves you, who tries to understand you, may not always get everything right, but because they love you the mis-steps are easily forgiven. When my father died, Cindy assumed I would struggle and was overly solicitous. She was assuming I would react like her and would need to be supported, carried. What I really needed was time alone, to sort things out, to understand the impact this would have on me. Cindy struggled with how to support me. I struggled with how to explain to her that I just needed to be left alone, something she didn't understand because her comfort was in friends and family. Just days after my father's burial we went to the Trail Dust Steak House outside of Denton, Texas with a group of our new church friends. The event had been planned for a few weeks and Cindy thought it would be good for us to go. I'm not sure our new friends even knew my father had died. We weren't that close, yet. At one point Cindy handed the band a song request, Bob Wills' "Faded Love." Not long into the first verse I got up, went outside, sat on a "hitching post" in the parking lot, and began to cry. Shortly, Cindy came out, sat beside me, held my hand and said "Let me know when you're ready to go back in." Though she didn't know what I needed at first, she figured it out and did and said the perfect thing. That was my partner for you.

"Which ones, the pumps or the flats?" "Which ones, the dangly ones or the studs?" "Which one, the scarf or the hat?" The 'which one' question was fairly regular in our getting ready for work or to go out routine. Cindy would pull out two pairs of shoes or two sets of earrings and ask, "Which ones?" Early on the question petrified me, how should I know which one to choose? Later, it annoyed me because I did not know if she was asking me which one I preferred, or which one would look better for the occasion. Again, how would I know? Eventually, with enough experience on her preferences, my preferences, and how she would want to present herself, whether at work or for an evening out, I was able to answer with confidence "The pumps" or "I like the dangly ones." Since I nearly always liked the dangly ones, I knew she was just asking to let me think I had a say but it was one of our things, the things we did that reinforced working together.

"Scratch my back." "Massage my shoulders." "Rub my head." It seems like Cindy made one of those requests every night. A lot of husbands might interpret this invitation to touching as a precursor to certain activities, but I learned early on that she wasn't being coy. Her back itched or her shoulders ached or her head hurt and she needed to get past that and get to sleep. If I have a super power, it may be the ability to put a woman to sleep quickly, as evidenced by all the sleeping described here. For years I thought of it as more of a curse than a super power, until Cindy explained that it wasn't boredom that put her to sleep, it was comfort and security and peace.

The last few years I rarely got those requests. Between surgeries and chemo and general fatigue, her greatest relief came from being still, in a comfortable position, not from being touched or held. When the cancer first came back it was in her bones, specifically in her sternum and her right 8th rib near the spine. It was painful. There was nothing I could do to comfort her, except make sure she took her meds and figure out a comfortable way for her to sleep. Six months after metastasis her sternum and rib were basically dissolved. It was a constant struggle to manage pain meds to their best effectiveness. For my part, I worked very hard at being patient and understanding and her comfort became my primary focus. For her part, she was strong and brave and rarely gave in to despair. She made it easy for me to take care of her, as easy as she could. All of this was possible not because we had special skills or positive attitudes, but because that's just how we did things. We had practiced breathing together that way for decades. It was all very natural.

The daily ritual, the routine, that rhythm of life that moves you along from one day to another, from one adventure to the next, it has to be powered by something. It seems to me that the quality of your life depends a great deal on what you choose to power your daily, routine breathing with. For us, it was celebration, or even more basically, gratitude. We were grateful to have each other, to have love to share. Sharing love with another inspires you to seek and accept grace elsewhere. Grace allows you to let yourself be loved. Once you know you are loved, you can be a blessing to others in many ways, like celebrating with them, partnering with them, caring for them. 

Gratitude. Love. Grace. Blessings. Yes, this is God language, a fundamental place to find your breath.

Genesis 2:7 - then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.