This may get me in trouble

I’ll probably get in trouble for this. Or at least be on the receiving end of a cacophony of “You shouldn’t have done that” and “Did you have to?” and “That really wasn’t necessary.” But that’s ok; I rather like living my life on the edge. I’ve been known to stir the pot, to not let sleeping dogs lie, and to eschew the leaving of well enough alone.

So here I go.

This post is all about Ed.

He’s going to hate it.

See, Ed is not one for calling a lot of attention to himself. Or any attention, really. But sometimes, like ripping off a Band-Aid, it’s gotta be done.

He deserves it. It’s his birthday, so today it will be all about him.

Ed’s been our best family friend for a long, long time. In fact, it’s been so long, he’s dropped the “friend” and moved right on into “family.” Sometimes family has nothing to do with blood and genes and trees, and everything to do with the contents of one’s hearts and the meshing of like-minded souls. Assuming souls have minds, that is. I don’t think they operate on auto-pilot, do they?

I met Ed while toiling away in the publishing biz many moons ago in Austin. He and Trevor were in grad school at UT (Hook ‘Em!) at the same time, but we didn’t know each other during school; he was reading thick, musty books in the history department while Trevor built up his brain and hung with the geek squad in the computer science world. I hate to think of the years we wasted not knowing each other during that time, but our livers certainly breathe a sigh of relief. There was a fair bit of drinking going on in those days (as opposed to now, when kids’ schedules, middle age, and the threat of recurring cancer tempers my tippling). We did make up for some lost time, though, once we met; happy hours at Trudy’s with multiple Mexican Martinis and extra olives, watermelon margaritas at Maneul’s on South Congress, beers on the roof deck at Waterloo Ice House; and the infamous wine tasting club run by our resident oenophile Anthony King. I hope I never forget the carefree youthful nights spent lifting a glass, enjoying our youth & freedom. None of us will ever forget Trevor puking in the rose bushes at one of the Hess brothers’ houses, then coming back for more. Good times.

But back to work…Ed wrote and I edited. His hair was long back then (mine was too), and he labored over every word, every sentence, every TEKS standard (see how far we go back — long before the TAKS and now the STAR state standardized tests for public schools). I learned real quick that he was smart. Really smart. And he really cared about his work. He had such a high standard for himself that sometimes, just once in a while and not really very often (!), he made me wait for his work. I really don’t like waiting.

See, there was a progression to creation of a textbook, and we were both cogs in the wheel. Schedules were made, which we had to follow. Deadlines were enforced, because if our book wasn’t ready to go to print–back in the day before e-books and widespread Internet use — another publisher would get our spot and the book would be delayed. And we would all be fired. So I learned pretty quick with Ed that some tough love was necessary. I schooled him in the “good enough is good enough” principle that editors must embrace in order to keep the line moving. Oh, how that boy labored over every word, every sentence, every standard. There were days when I was a hair’s breath away from snatching the copy right out of his hands so that I could get my red pen all over it and keep the line moving.

It’s probably no surprise that Ed left publishing and took a rather circuitous route to teaching. A heart-wrenching detour to care for an ailing parent, work for an educational non-profit that trained teachers, a foray into self-employment in the handyman biz, a little time off to determine the color of his parachute (tricky when you’re a little bit color-blind), and finally, he was home.

Ed has a job that not many people would take on: he teaches kids who’ve been sent to the alternative school. Reasons for being sent there vary from fighting to drug use to crimes both petty and serious. The classes are small in number but large in ramifications. Several years ago, when Ed was contemplating whether to enter the teaching profession, I told him that he would be the kind of teacher who made a difference in kids’ lives. It sounds hokey but it’s true: he’s the sort of teacher who kids will remember always, and they’ll look back and say, “Man, Mr C really cared.” It’s true, and he does. He guides kids that a lot of people would cast aside as lost causes. He listens and becomes the sole person who cares. It’s no surprise to me that kids who pass through his class come back to visit, bring him a homemade Christmas treat, and mail him an invitation to their graduation ceremonies.

Those kids are not the only people who benefit from Ed’s unique brand of caring. After enduring the rigors and heartache of watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer, he became my sherpa when my mom got sick. I’ll always remember him telling me that if I thought it was bad now, it was gonna get worse. A lot worse. He was right. It was awful.

My mom knew Ed well, and when she moved in with me after retiring and moving away from Houston, it was Ed — not me — who she wanted as her caregiver for the icky parts of her cancer battle. She wanted him to sit through the class at MD Anderson on how to care for a PICC line, not me. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was trying to shield me from the routine horrors that make up a cancer patient’s life. When she was too frail and weak to step into my deep bathtub, it was Ed she asked for help. She would rather have had him see her in that state, to spare me from the eternal impression of being able to count each rib in her battle-weary, wasted body. It was Ed who she requested, not me. He made many food runs in the maddening game of “What can we get her to eat?” only to see her take 2 bites and be done. So much for that. But he never got frustrated, he never pressured her to eat. It was Ed who bore the brunt of the fallout from her radiated bowels. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

It takes a special kind of person to volunteer for such service, but that’s just the kind of person he is. My mom knew it, and so do I. Ed’s the kind of guy who sets up the ladder and willingly allows grafitti in his garage. No project is too big, no mess too messy.

He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t freak when a little kid pukes on his brand-new couch, which Macy (right) did just after this photo was taken at Ed’s house in DC.

He’s the kind of guy who gives a little kid his watch to wear while patience runs short and naptime runs on by during sight-seeing in DC. He knows how to make a little kid feel like the most important person in the world. 

He knows how to keep a little kid quiet during a long, boring grad-school graduation ceremony, and he thinks anytime is the right time for a junky snack.

He digs the deepest sand-pit every year at Salisbury Beach every year, even when he’d rather be reading his book, and waves off the old-man critics who pass by and warn of the pit’s collapse and threat of said pit swallowing little kids whole. He knows what he’s doing.

He’s the creator of Halloween costumes too far-out for my brain to imagine.

He knew Maddy, the best dog on Earth. Ever. In the history of dogs. He loved her with his whole heart, and finally gave in to my years-long pestering that he needed a dog of his own. Not once, but twice. And he let my kids name both dogs. Hence, a female chocolate lab named Snoopy, and a wily basenji-mix named Sugar.

We have Ed to thank for the Red Sox fever that exists in our lives. A native Mass-hole, Ed is a Sox fan for life, and he taught Payton the joys and heartbreak that is Red Sox nation. When Payton was four years old, at his first trip to Fenway, Ed showed his devious side when he made Pay think that Nomar Garciaparra hit a foul ball right into Payton’s lap. Eight years later, I think Pay still believes it really happened.

When Macy came along, a new bond was forged, and the strength of that bond sometimes startles and always amazes me. Mrs Dally, Macy’s first-grade teacher, told me in confidence one day that I might want to be careful because Macy told the class, during an exercise about friends, that her best friend is a 42-year-old man. In the case of anyone but Ed, this might raise a few eyebrows. But spend two minutes with him and you get it. In third grade, Macy filled out the “getting to know you” questionnaire from the teacher on the first day of school. For the question about  her best friend’s favorite activity, Macy wrote: landscaping. Those two are tight. 

Happy birthday, Ed. May the day be as fantastic, wonderful, and all-out-awesome as you are.


6 years later…

Today is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Congress said so, and in making such a proclamation, let’s hope we get some action. Action beyond pink ribbons and promotional tie-ins like toilet paper and cups of yogurt. The estimate is that some 160,000 women are dealing with metastatic breast cancer, but I suspect the number is much higher. Metastatic means the cancer has spread. Stage IV. There is no Stage V. Every BC patient’s worst nightmare. Because being diagnosed at all, regardless of stage, isn’t nightmare enough.

I’ll save the mets post for another day, because there’s another commemoration taking place today, and I won’t be able to rest until I get this post out of my head.

Or so I thought.

I sat down at my computer to mark this important day, but I got nothing. I am stuck. The enormity of the topic overwhelms me. I want to write just the right thing, but in my quest for perfection I’m struck down, unable to convey the importance that screams to get out.

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, particularly on this little blog. I rarely have trouble thinking of what to write, and most days the topic guides me. Sometimes a topic pops into my head and I have an overwhelming urge to write. My fingers on the keyboard can hardly keep up with my thoughts as they tumble out of my head.

But today, I’ve got nothing.

And rather than make myself crazy on this day, this important yet heartbreaking day, I’m going to re-run the post from last year. I added a few more pictures, because this time last year I was brand-new to blogging and hadn’t quite figured out how to manage the images in my posts. But more importantly, I added a few more pictures because I need to remember what she looked like.

My heart is heavy as grief once again rears its ugly head and reminds me that she is gone, forever. 
It’s been exactly 5 years since my mom died. Lots of people have written about loss & grief, and most of them have done it more eloquently than I. If you knew her, you loved her. Plain & simple. She was one of those people. She never met a stranger and could talk to anyone. The stories are endless, and if I think really hard I can conjure up the sound of her laugh. I have to work hard to remember her voice, though, because her “sick” voice is the freshest one. I also have to think back to how she looked, pre-cancer, before the dreaded disease ravaged her body yet was unable to extinguish her effervescent personality.

My mom was an incredible cook. She grew up on a farm and lost her own mom at age 13, so she assumed more responsibility than a middle-schooler should. She taught me a lot in the kitchen, although I’ll never match her skill with pie crust. I try every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and end up exhausted, frustrated and having used a month’s worth of curse words. One year at Christmas she gave coupons for a homemade pie, and those were highly prized gifts for sure.

She was a “white” woman who married into a Greek family. “White” means anyone who’s not Greek. Sometimes the Greeks aren’t happy about “whites” joining a family, because they want their kids to marry other Greeks. My mom didn’t let that stop her. She ingratiated herself into the lives of the Greek women and learned their culinary secrets. It wasn’t long before she was the best cook in the bunch. Not bad for a “white” girl.

My sweet mama was the quintessential suburban at-home mom: PTA president, Girl Scout leader, queen of homemade Halloween costumes. She put a homemade meal on the table every night for dinner, and I was halfway through elementary school before I realized that the homemade cinnamon roll that was my lunchbox treat was a rarity.

She had a love of learning that I see echoed in my own kids. I’m sure she flourished at college, probably thrilled to be responsible only for herself for the first time in years. She was president of her sorority and got this fancy necklace to wear during her reign. The look of pure happiness on her face makes me smile all these years later. In her typical over-achieving way, she graduated college in 3 years, then became an English teacher before she became a mom. My whole childhood, she had us look up words in the dictionary to learn how to spell. I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and to this day am proud of being a good speller. She instilled a love of words and reading that I’ll carry with me my entire life.

When Trevor graduated from business school in 2004, she was as proud of him as if he were her own child. In fact, once he married into her family, she considered him a son. Not a son-in-law, but a son. She was sick at the time this photo was taken, but hid it well. She didn’t want anything to interfere with his big day.

She had a lot of success in life, but her greatest achievement was being YaYa. She loved her grandbabies to the max, and when she knew she was losing her battle against cancer, she spoke of her sadness in not being able to watch them grow up. She’s missed out on a lot. But loss is a 2-way street, and the 4 kids who were lucky enough to have her as their YaYa, albeit way too briefly, have missed out as well. As each year passes, and her grandbabies grow up, they change and take on new interests and habits. She would have loved every minute of it. Something tells me she would have been quite adept at navigating whatever stage those little darlins are in.

Here they are on the day of her funeral.

Andrew was 8, Payton and his cousin Megan were 6, Macy was 3 when YaYa died. She was 67. Way too young, all the way around.

Life isn’t the same without her. While the pain of loss has lessened over the years, it’s still there, and I suspect it never goes away. No one in your life loves you the way a mother does. And no matter how old I become, I will always miss my mother’s love. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “mothers carry the key of our souls in their bosoms.” That certainly was the case with my mom.

Milestones are hard when you’ve lost someone so dear. Every year, the week or so leading up to the anniversary of her death has been miserable. I find myself transported back to the time of  illness and all of the unpleasantness that entailed. Taking care of her was both the hardest thing ever and the greatest honor. I went into it knowing it would be hard, but having no idea how brutal. Balancing that with taking care of my young family was grueling, no doubt. But I wanted to come out of it with no regrets, and I’m happy to say that I did.

This year, however, was different. I wasn’t dreading the date. Maybe because I’ve got a lot on my mind and a lot on my plate. Maybe because as I get ever closer to regaining my “normal” life after my own cancer battle, I have a new perspective. Maybe I’m just getting absent-minded in my old age.

For a while after she died, I looked for her in crowds: at the grocery store, at a baseball game, at any random gathering. I knew, of course, that she wasn’t there. At least my rational brain knew that, but I looked anyway. I don’t know when it was that I stopped looking, but at some point, I started to see her. Not really her, but glimpses of people or expressions on faces that recalled her: the woman at the gym who looks a lot like her from the back. The resemblance in my niece to my mom’s photos as a child. My aunt’s hands, which look just like my mom’s.

This year, today, on the anniversary of her death, I wasn’t looking for her, but she was there. Today in my much-anticipated first tennis match since my mastectomy, my opponents’ names were Barbara and Ann. Guess what my mom’s name was? Yep, you got it — Barbara Ann.