“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!

Please Check Your Rollater Here, You Will Not Be Needing It Beyond These Gates

When I call my maternal grandmother for semi-regular phone chats, at some point I ask her how she’s feeling in the aches and pains department. She usually underplays the back pain or the leg pain with some cavalier comment like, “Oh there are good days and bad days.” So often she will change the subject to something for which she’s thankful. And every conversation includes her saying how richly blessed she is to have such a wonderful family.

She and my grandfather (who passed away four years ago) have lived extraordinary lives. Her days have not been without struggle – growing up during the Great Depression, watching her father leave the family when she was just a girl, having a still born child after being exposed to a gas leak, losing her husband after 61 years of marriage, enduring debilitating pain from arthritis – yet no trial could squelch her joy. It runs too deep. Both she and my grandfather have exuded joy, laughter, strength, generosity, and graciousness. That is their legacy. I am the one who is so richly blessed to have such an admirable lineage.

I love the memories of Grams humming while working, breaking into song and dance during conversation, and laughing uproariously. Laughter is big in our family, and we usually feed off of each other to a point of no return. When Grams laughs hard she breeds tears with no breathing and no noise, just open mouth and squinted eyes, and then she throws back her head and puts a tissue over her face – maybe as a way to mask the laughter paralysis.

The examples of humor in our family are endless. Here is an exchange between Grams and my mom from last year after Grams had a miserable bladder infection. Anticipating the Q & A time with her friends at dinner that night, she called my mom at work with the following question.

Grams: What’s another word for ‘crotch?’  I can’t be telling my friends that I have a pain in my crotch!

Mom: Gee, Mom, I don’t know.  Let me look it up in my thesaurus. [Looks up ‘crotch’ in Roget’s Thesaurus.] There’s only one word here, Mom.  Angularity.

[Both start to lose it.]

Grams: So I can tell my friends that I have a pain in my angularity?

Mom: Yep.  Matter-of-fact, that sounds so good and genteel, you can even use that in your Christmas letter next year!

[Grams has to get off the phone, presumably to put a tissue over her face.]

A queen of puns. Able to wear big, silly bear paw slippers yet still look perfectly put together – hair done just right with classy jewelry and an outfit that matches her furniture. Wise. Beautiful. Challenging card player. So crafty and clever. Always ready to say how much she loves us.

I learned some valuable April Fools jokes from Grams. She taught me how to make homemade picture frames in 6th grade. She and my grandfather introduced me to the classic movie, True Grit. Their marriage was one to emulate. Their faith was one of the important models in my own faith journey. I have rarely seen such humble sacrifice of time and money for those in need as I have seen with Grams and Grandpa. Their lives have been an offering to God and an overflowing gift to others.

***

I received an unexpected phone call yesterday. I knew when my mom’s voice broke during the message that the news wasn’t going to be good. Grams passed away. She missed a regularly scheduled brunch in the dining room of her retirement community, and her friends reported her absence to a nurse on staff. The nurse found Grams in her apartment around noon. Shortly after, my mom arrived at the apartment. There Grams was sitting in her chair in the TV room. With cookies beside her and a reminder note to meet her lifelong friend for Sunday brunch at 11:30, she did not sit down yesterday morning knowing that she would not be getting up again.

But you know, as unexpected as this was for all of us, I find great peace in knowing that she was not unprepared. On her footstool lay a page and a half of notes she had taken from the Charles Stanley sermon on TV that morning. For most of her 87 years she professed a faith in the God of the Bible and an acceptance of Jesus as her Savior. In her final moments she continued to worship Him and study His Word, not because of an obligation to perform religious routine, but because of a personal relationship she sought to deepen. She was not unprepared; she was ready at any unsuspecting moment. She was ready at this moment.

Mom and I cried on the phone together as she said that she wished Grams wasn’t alone when she died. I wished that too. But, as indicated in Grams’ sermon notes, one of the discussion points of Charles Stanley’s message yesterday morning was an elaboration of Jesus’ proclamation, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Grams wasn’t alone at her final breath, and she isn’t alone now. She is forever with her Savior.

It is no coincidence that Charles Stanley’s memory verse of the week is Romans 6:4 – “We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

My late grandfather wrote a beautiful letter when his mother passed away. I cannot find better words to express the loss of a loved one who has this personal relationship:

“1,952 years ago, a Man stood on a hill near a small lake far away from here – and said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I am sure I have never understood those words as well as I do right now. Thank God for Easter morning! The grave is not the end!

You go on ahead, Mom. We’re here between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – and because of what these two days mean, we can still look forward to more celebrations like you wanted – when all your family is home again – where there is no more hurting, no more loneliness, no more tears, and no more dandelions!”

You go on ahead, Grams. We will look forward to celebrating with you again!

In the Spirit of the Olympics

It is impossible to watch the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing without evoking a sense of nostalgia for my Olympic experience over a decade ago. As college sophomores, three of my girlfriends and I worked as security guards at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Yes, security guards. Not so much the gun and cuffs type of guards, more like the crowd control type of guards armed with walkie talkies and hip sacks.

The crowds we managed usually took us seriously, though we did not look or feel serious. Our uniforms screamed FOREST RANGER! more than security guard, and as our Ranger Rick hat and black Reeboks went on each day, we tried so hard to transform into no-nonsense guards, but never made it much past giggling teenagers.

At first we worked eight-hour days, but during the second half of our stint our shifts increased to twelve hours. We had a whole lot of thick polyester going on for our company to expect us to withstand twelve hours in Atlanta in August, but somehow we endured. Well, I know how we endured…

…Walkie talkies. Our supervisor reprimanded us repeatedly for abusing our walkie talkie privileges, but the urge to update each other with famous people sightings, event scores, and A Few Good Men quotes was too tempting. In our minds, seeing the Dream Team, Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, etc. were legitimate reasons for walkie talkie usage.

We also endured the long days by trading sponsor pins, an extremely popular hobby during the ’96 Games. Fortunately for us, three stations to which we were frequently assigned were located at the entrances to the Sponsor Village in Centennial Park (the town square of the Olympics). Manning the entrances to Sponsor Village in a sponsor pin-trading world would be equivalent to striking oil in your backyard or finding a Dorito in the shape of Elvis, which you know would sell for millions on eBay. “I need to see your credentials before entering, please. Ah yes, you are with Kodak. And do you happen to have any extra pins today, sir?” In the picture below, Tracy and I had exchanged pins for a gourmet lunch while on duty at Post 33. This station was much tamer than the ones surrounding Sponsor Village and it also had seating, which was not the case with all posts, so we capitalized on these little luxuries as they came our way. (Note my neck garment, a cooler that you could fill with water and freeze.)

But not every moment as an Olympic security guard was bliss. Sometimes the masses leaving a venue were nearly riotous, swarming at us like Alfred Hitchcock’s birds. Sweaty, smelly people angrily pecked at us for denying them permission to take the short-cut through Sponsor Village to other venues. Additionally, the same day Tracy and I enjoyed our shrimp cocktail at Post 33, we regretted turning our walkie talkies to channel 3 (the police channel) as incoming reports warned policemen about a bomb threat in the kitchen immediately behind us.

Then there was the actual bomb. Until this point in our Olympic adventure, our gravest perils were 1) the punctured water bed at my brother’s (Cliff’s) apartment and 2) the non-friend of Cliff that stayed at the apartment for several days during our stay despite Cliff’s demands for him to leave. This non-friend closely resembled Cliff’s cat, Pookie, in that he laid on the couch all day and left one of the bathrooms gritty and smelling of something in the same genus as kitty litter. The water bed and the loitering non-friend were such minor inconveniences though, really arousing more laughter than aggravation. Cliff’s apartment was otherwise ideal. It had the frill of leather couches, yet the environmentally-friendly flare of cardboard coffee tables – perfect for scribbling phone numbers, messages to roommates, and haikus without wasting unnecessary paper.

And Cliff (and his roommate/best bud, Bill) were incredibly hospitable.

Surely I didn't deserve this

On the night of July 27, 1996, however, we encountered peril on a different scale. Off duty and in civilian attire, a group of about ten of us visited Centennial Park to enjoy the sights and live entertainment. As rockin’ as the Jack Mack and the Heart Attack concert was on this stage…

…after about twenty minutes of Jack Mackin’ we were ready to call it a night. Just as we were leaving the park the bomb detonated near this concert sound tower (far left in photo).

We estimated being less than fifty yards from the explosion, a distance that could have easily resulted in serious injury if we were in the explosion’s line of fire. Providentially we did not exit at the same end of the park that we had entered, which kept us away from most or all of the shrapnel. The two people who were killed and 100+ who were injured could not say the same. A couple people in our group suffered from minor scrapes when mass exodus induced mild trampling, but generally we were all safe. We all handled the crisis differently – tears, panic, humor – but each one of us felt blessed.

When we showed up for work the next day, Centennial Park was closed and wrapped in police tape. This pulsating, dynamic time square had become lifeless and eerie overnight. It was a relief to be assigned to stations at other venues for the several days that the park was closed. I spent some time working at the Olympic stadium that hosted the track and field events. I appreciated having the liberty to walk on to the field if I so desired. You know, in case U.S. star sprinter Michael Johnson needed a pep talk or a high five or help carrying his gold medals.

We saw many different sporting events on our time off. The most exciting moment of this volleyball game was sneaking over to the gymnastics side of the building during the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team practice and receiving a friendly wave from the team, including Kerri Strug (pre-broken ankle). The second most exciting thing was discovering that Dippin’ Dots were served at the venue. Not to say that the volleyball game itself was not a thrill, but this was a time when Dippin’ Dots were starting to come alive in popularity. Ice cream of the future?! That’s a big deal!

During a free day reserved for shopping, we stumbled upon a rare opportunity to hold the torch that carried the Olympic flame first from Greece to Los Angeles, and then across the United States…

…before it was passed to Muhammad Ali so he could ignite THE Olympic torch and thus commence the 1996 Games.

It is unfathomable what kind of experience it must be for athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, but I have come to learn that the life-changing experience belongs not just to the athletes and the teams competing, but to anyone who has the opportunity to participate in an event of this magnitude in which the entire planet participates, sometimes with intense competition, but almost always with peace and sportsmanship. It is no wonder the Olympic theme song stirs such nostalgia within me – the tune carries a piece of the world’s history, but it also carries a piece of my history as well.

Newbie

The last weekend of June my family and I traveled to Idaho/Washington for a Cousins Reunion. My mother was looking forward to sleeping in her first morning in Seattle after a long, exhausting day of travel from Ohio to the West coast with my step-dad and grandmother, both in their 80s. Mama did not get her wish. Grams’ memory has been deteriorating for the past five years or so. Alone in her hotel room, surprised that she had slept in until 9:30, Grams called my mom’s room at 6:30 in the morning and spouted, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know why I’m here.” Whether she knew it or not, those were profound words for a jet-lagged senior citizen.

I can identify with this mantra – not so much in my existence on Earth, but more like in situations that I thrust myself into, big or small. Whether I’m pushing my limits, responding to a divine calling, or just living life with reckless abandonment, I sometimes stand aghast in new surroundings thinking I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know why I’m here. Like when I found myself swimming in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Like on the first day of my doctorate program. Like when I was asked to take a quiz on Facebook to find out which Disney Princess I am (Cinderella, by the way). And much like now. I have thought about running my own website for quite some time. I eventually want to create a website that has several features in addition to a blog, but taking my first step with a URL and a blog leaves me feeling a bit sheepish and confused. Right now I’m not sure of my place in this cyber world, or exactly why I chose to be a part of it for that matter.

But here it goes…