My Favorite Baritone

On Sunday morning, December 7th, I received a concerning phone call about my step-father.  (His name is Robert, but decades ago the nickname Ro was given to and seamlessly stuck with him.)  Ro was in the ICU with renal failure.  The situation looked grim.  I was in a sickly state myself, but felt a tug at my heart to venture to Cleveland, so we went.  Brian and I were greeted at the hospital by my brothers and mom, and we all waited for Ro to return from a surgical procedure.

The nurse finally gave us the go ahead to see him, two at a time.  Brian and I went first.  Ro was tired but alert.  I tucked my hand into his clenched fist and used my other hand to stroke his hair.  I tried to lean over the bed rail to plant a kiss on his cheek, but my torso wasn’t long enough.  I stretched onto my tip toes and puckered out my lips as far as they could go.  The three of us chuckled as I worked my lips out a nanometer at a time.  It didn’t work, so I went flat on my feet and took a step back, ready to attempt this again with more momentum at the start.  Lips ready, the second attempt was successful.  Ro nodded and smiled in approval.  We had a short conversation, exchanged I love yous, and then Brian and I returned to the waiting room to tag in the next pair.  The visit wasn’t easy, but the strength of family together made all the difference.

After exhausting Ro, we watched football in the waiting room and dined in the cafeteria so he could rest.  A couple hours later, Brian and I went with my mom to see Ro one last time before returning to Pittsburgh.  I took the same position at bedside, gripping his hand and petting his hair.  I once again leaned over the bed rail for a kiss, and once again we laughed as I found myself trying to reach his cheek by straining my puckered lips.  Didn’t work.  Just as I was about to lean back in a failed attempt, Ro turned his head and puckered his own lips to bridge the gap.  Such a sweet kiss.  Eye to eye we both said I love you to one another.

The week to follow was a whirlwind of emotion and turmoil.  I was struggling with my own health, which was deteriorating by the day, but that seemed so irrelevant compared to Ro’s fight for life.  For us, it was this roller coaster of feeling hopeless about his outcome one moment, but then in the next moment getting an encouraging update that maybe the next procedure they attempt will make all the difference and he’ll improve.  Ultimately, procedure after procedure failed, and by Thursday Ro was unresponsive and in transition to hospice.  Over the years, he had fought his way through so many ailments, but this time the battle was too great.

Saturday morning he started singing again…in heaven’s choir.

***

I struggle with the word “step-father” because it sounds so second rate, like when you put the word ‘step’ in front of ‘father’ it somehow lessens the parent-child relationship.  Sure, I have a father who I know and love, and sure, my mom tended to make the big decisions for me and my brothers during our childhood, and sure, Ro was closer in age to a grandparent than to a parent, but there is nothing ‘step’ about the relationship that I had with and the love that I have for my step-father.  He has been a father figure in my life from about the age of four.  There aren’t many memories that I have of my life before he entered in to our family.

He did all of those parenty things, like make me eat my vegetables, drive me to extracurricular activities or to friends’ houses, encourage me, love me.  He was my tooth fairy and my teacher at the piano bench.  He would watch me swim in our pool when I was so desperate to get in the water, but wasn’t old enough to swim alone.  When we went camping and I had a distraught look on my face as I took my first bite of sour cereal one summer morning, he told me that I shouldn’t eat that because the milk sat out on the picnic table all night.  He mowed, he raked, he buried our dead pets in the backyard.  He teased that I always had to be on center stage, but I knew he loved it when I sang, danced, or raised my voice louder than anyone else in order to be heard at the dinner table.

He helped me learn to ride a bike and was the chaperone of my very first drive with a learner’s permit.  In my high school days, I joked with Ro – though it’s true – that one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that, when in a bind, your socks can be used to wipe dirty hands.  I still laugh about the one morning when he served as my alarm clock – he opened the bedroom door, threw a shoe at me, and left.  So random.  But just as randomly, one day he walked through my bedroom door and gave me a watch that he had bought for me earlier that day, just because he was thinking about me.  I don’t know how old I was or the day it happened, but I remember the moment when I recognized that he had stopped pushing me to study and instead reminded me to make sure I didn’t overdo it.  All along he encouraged me to pray and to read my Bible, and most certainly led by example in this regard.

Do you see this theme of me, me, me, what he did for me?  Yes, kids are needy little creatures, and Ro was such a big part of meeting those needs and wants during my childhood.  It’s such an unselfish act and he did it willingly as any loving father would do for their child.  There was nothing second rate or ‘step’ about any of this.

For the past decade he had grown dependent and in need of increasing care and I have long been married off, but even still there was a special bond between the two of us.  And even though we have lived a state apart for many years, there has been a comfort in knowing that my roots are just…there.  They are a constant in my life; they ground me.  Ro is part of my history and has had a hand in who I’ve become.  I miss the comfort of this root just being there.  I miss him.  I will miss our breakfast dates where we talk about politics, current events, the end times, and the Bible.  He always listened when I shared about my most recent adventures and believed that I could succeed in whatever I was doing.  I will miss his laughter and his song.

Ro had so many wonderful attributes – he was a great listener, humble, a prayer warrior, hard-working, encouraging, supportive, and patriotic, to name a few.  Jesus was on the throne of his life, and because of the relationship he had with God he studied the Bible like crazy.  My mom found a note that he had written from a devotional referencing Psalm 98:1-3.  He wrote: “Victories in sports, business, or politics must be won again and again, year after year, but there is a victory that was won once for all.  The psalmist celebrates the victory of God’s power and holiness, beautifully prefiguring the final victory of Christ over sin and death.  Our greatest victory is receiving God’s gift of salvation, and this victory need never be won again.”  Ro lived in the light of this victory.

There’s no mistaking – his God-given gift was his voice.  He studied music, taught music, and had music seeping from his pores.  He performed in a multitude of choirs and was a professional soloist.  As he would practice at the piano in our living room, I always felt this great privilege of being serenaded on any given day.  Beyond all this, his music was an offering and helped people connect with God.  I remember sitting in church during a duet he sang, “Household of Faith.”  I was not even a teenager, but still recall the power of the two voices – not only did they have the chill factor, where my arm hair was on end and I was pushed back in my seat breathless, but those voices also invoked a connection to the lyrics and a call to respond.  I remember this same response as Ro sang “He is No Fool” and “He’s Alive” as well.  This was not just a talent, but a powerful spiritual gift.

At Ro’s memorial service, my mom did such a beautiful job honoring Ro’s life.  At the end of her reflections, she shared a story about Ro auditioning for a choir in the Cleveland area about 17-18 years ago, the Singer’s Club.  She didn’t think he should have to audition given his ability; he humbly shrugged his shoulders and went to the audition.  When he returned, my mom asked him how it went.  He sheepishly replied, “They said, ‘To what do we owe this honor?’”

I echo my mom’s words:  It has been an honor to listen to this man, to know this man, to love this man.  But Robert would say, “To whom do we owe any honor?”  To his Lord and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who won that greatest victory.

(Click here to hear an excerpt from “God’s Great Grace,” Ro’s last public solo in 2001, age 76.)

“Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner”

A week ago today we had the funeral service for my grandmother. Of course there were many moments of tears and sadness, but the weekend overall was really nice. Nice? Yes. Because the entire weekend was about our family. My mom and step-dad, my brothers and their families, my uncle and aunt, my cousins, family friends, other extended family… Amidst our mourning there was room for joy and laughter because of the bond we share with each other and the fun memories we have of Grams.

A couple times my mama asked, “What are you going to say about me when I die?” I think this question arose for two reasons – 1) she knows that there are several things she has done in her day that make her vulnerable, and 2) she, the daughter, spoke at Grams service and if I, the daughter that occasionally is accused of being unrelated because of my total weirdness, would have the charge of speaking at my mom’s service, she would again feel very vulnerable left in my hands.

Well, just as you felt it was challenging to speak about Grams in fifteen minutes, Mama Bear, I also feel like I would need at least five days to sum up what I would want to say about you at your funeral. But yes, I probably would share the story about you telling Tod that you couldn’t figure out how to rewind his DVD. I would have to talk about you letting me stay up until 2am one night when I was in elementary school so that we could all go over to your friends’ houses and mischievously decorate their yards with toilet paper. Celebrating your life would not be the same if I didn’t offer up to everyone the pictures of you dressed as a sumo wrestler in a purple dress or in an old-person mask to greet people at airports or to liven birthday parties. Dress as a horse with a friend and canter in to the church office to wish the senior pastor happy birthday? That’s my mom! When I learned last weekend that you wore an olive barrel to high school on dress down day, at that moment I better understood why you helped me make an outfit out of garbage bags for a high school dare rather than scoff at the idea. We get each other that way.

All these things you love to do, it shows the world that you love life, love to laugh, and love to make others laugh. You have that legacy of joy and laughter from Grams and Grandpa, and you spread it like wildfire into the lives of others.

At your funeral, I would also share about another trait you inherited – your kind, giving heart. I know you often feel tired and spent, which in part comes from being such a diligent worker, but the main reason for the exasperation is because you spend your days giving every piece of yourself away to those in need. Like Aunt Helen, who outlived her husband and her son and didn’t have much family around her, you poured your energy in to helping her move, helping her pay bills, reminding her to laugh, and giving her company when she had none. You answered her frantic, confused calls at the wee hours of the night. You planned medications and treatments for her with the nursing staff. Teens with deficient parents. Your elderly parents. Your aging husband. Ro spoke for so many when he grabbed your hand that one time and said, “I don’t know what I would do without you. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

I have been on the receiving end of this sacrifice and generosity. Okay, so there was the one night when I was a child and I wanted to crawl in to bed with you because I thought there were millions of bugs crawling all over my walls. I came in to your room late at night, explained my predicament, and begged, “Pleeeease could I sleep in your bed just like the kids did on the Cosby Show?” You told me to pretend Jesus was with me and to go back to bed. So not the most shining moment of theology or sacrifice, but in your defense, I did just wake you and I was annoying sometimes as a kid.

With those few minor exceptions aside, you gave and gave and gave to your children. Moonlighting so that I could have luxuries like braces or a high school trip overseas, taking us on mystery trips, relinquishing personal time in favor of our sporting events and household upkeep, doing word searches with me, reading Bible stories at the dinner table, leaving a touching note in my sock drawer on my first day of college, loving me unconditionally even when I was a brat – you offered these things and more without asking in return. At the age of eight, I didn’t think about the inconvenience for you when I barfed beef and noodles in my bed and hair in the middle of the night. But I do remember you patiently consoling me and cleaning me up, and the next day buying me a 101 Dalmatians sticker book.

By your words and more importantly by the way you live your life, you have taught me to be committed, to never give up, to be crazy, to work my hardest, to be strong, to walk humbly, to love God, to serve others. You saw my talents and strengths before I did and helped me to develop them. I remember you created a game out of memorizing Bible verses on our road trip to California in ’87, and I am still able to recite many of those verses today (not so hot with the state capitols, though). It was your firm foundation that gave me confidence to go forward courageously in life. Sometimes I sit and think how I could repay you. There’s no way I could. It would be like trying to create a beach one teaspoon of sand at a time. All I have to offer is teaspoons compared to the bulldozers of treasures you have bestowed upon me.

And then there’s this magical bond that you and I have. It’s uplifting and encouraging in times of need.  Other times it takes on the form of plastic bugs, Dirty Dancing quotes (the other day you sounded just like Jennifer Grey, by the way), unabashed laughter, or gentle petting (usually me petting your baby butt soft face). One of my favorite laughing moments was when you called me while we were IMing. We both held the handsets to our ears, but never actually spoke one single word. As we continued IMing, we got to laughing so hard on the phone that we had to hang up and put on oxygen masks. We have this unsquelchable connection that runs mysteriously deep.

At your funeral, I would need to capture your wit and creativity and come up with the best stories to exemplify your strength and athleticism (sooo many stories to tell!). So beautiful, so smart, so wonderful. My job will not be easy. I have an idea – you must NEVER DIE!

Finally, I would share the story that Grandpa shared at his mother’s funeral and that you shared at Grams’…

The young Mother set her foot on the path of life. “Is this the long way?” she asked.  The guide said,” Yes, and the way is hard. You will be old before you reach the end of it. But the end will be better than the beginning.”

But the young Mother was happy, and she would not believe that anything could be better than these years. So she played with her children and gathered flowers for them along the way and bathed them in the clear streams. The sun shone on them and the young Mother cried, “Nothing will ever be lovelier than this.”

Then the night came, and the storm, and the path was dark. The children shook with fear and cold. The Mother drew them close and covered them with her mantle. The children said, “Mother, we are not afraid, for you are near and no harm can come.”

The morning came and there was a hill ahead. The children climbed and grew weary, and the Mother was weary. But at all times she said to the children, “A little patience and we are there.” So the children climbed, and when they reached the top they said, “Mother, we would not have done it without you.”

The Mother, when she lay down at night, looked up at the stars and said, “This is a better day than the last, for my children have learned fortitude in the face of hardness. Yesterday, I gave them courage. Today, I have given them strength.

The next day came strange clouds which darkened the earth – clouds of war and hate and evil. The children groped and stumbled. The Mother said, “Look up. Lift your eyes to the Light.” The children looked and saw above the clouds an everlasting glory, and it guided them beyond the darkness. That night the Mother said, “This is the best day of all, for I have shown my children God.”

The days went on, and the weeks and the months and the years. The Mother grew old. She was little and bent, but her children were tall and strong and walked with courage. When the way was rough, they lifted her, for she was as light as a feather. At last they came to a hill. Beyond they could see a shining road and golden gates flung wide.

The Mother said, “I have reached the end of my journey. Now I know the end is better than the beginning, for my children can walk alone, and their children after them.”

The children said, “You will always walk with us, Mother, even when you have gone through the gates.” They stood and watched her as she went on alone, and the gates closed after her.

They said, “We cannot see her, but she is with us still. A Mother like ours is more than a memory. She is a living presence.”

Your Mother is always with you. She lives inside your laughter. She’s crystallized in every teardrop. She’s the place you came from, your first home; she’s the map you follow with every step you take. She’s your first love and your first heartbreak.

Nothing can separate you. Not time, not space…not even death.

You have always been and will always be a living presence in my life, my friend, my hero, my teacher, my mother. I love you!

Details, Details

My friend’s water broke last night, another friend is going to the doctor today and may get induced, and about a dozen other friends and family members have due dates set for late 2008/early 2009.  With all of the birthing around me, especially the one(s) this week, I’ve begun to wonder what kind of phone chains will be established to deliver news of the deliveries.  This thought immediately took me to last November.

At that time, Brian and I had the same cell phone model.  Of all days, OF ALL DAYS for Brian to grab my cell phone and take it to work with him, it happened to be the day that a dear friend, Christie, went into labor.  I was given the high honor of relaying her news to some other friends, and now my phone was in the hands of…A MAN!  Not just any man…MY HUSBAND (you’ll see what I mean by this in a minute)!

On my way to work I took Brian’s cell phone and did two things: 1) called my friend’s husband, Mark, and left a voicemail saying that the best way to get a hold of me was via Brian’s cell, and 2) called Brian and told him to call me as soon as he heard any baby news (in case Mark didn’t get the voicemail).

Later that day I received a phone call from the proud father.  He said that he sent a text to my cell phone first, but then got my message to call me on Brian’s phone.  Christie had done wonderfully during labor and the baby boy was healthy and beautiful.  Awww, a boy!  I had waited nine months to find that out.  I was so ecstatic for them.  Immediately after Mark and I got off the phone, I carried out my duties as phone chain messenger.  There was so much excitement in the air that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized there could have been a real kink in the chain —  Brian understood the importance of relaying any messages right away, why didn’t he contact me as soon as he had received the text from Mark?

So I called him to find out…

Brian: Hello?

Me: Hey.

Brian: Hey.

Me: I heard that Mark texted you. Why didn’t you call me?

Brian: Oh yeah. They had their baby. It’s a girl!

Me: A GIRL?! No it’s not! It’s a boy!

Brian: Wait a second. [Checks text message.] Oh yeah. It’s a boy.