Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Letter from Heaven

Another Fiftieth
On July 28th, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday — obviously a big milestone for me. However July 29th marked another fifty-year anniversary I would like to commemorate as well.
A month ago in my hometown of Anderson, Indiana, at my family’s Annual Cousins Reunion (which is held each summer, but which I had never gotten off my butt to attend until just this year), I was approached by my cousin Maggie, whom like about 90% of the other folks at this gathering I hadn’t seen more than once or twice in the past 35 years. She didn’t greet me with a hug or even a “hello.” She simply walked up to me, leaned in and deadpanned, “Did he give it to you yet?”

“Oh…HI!…and, um…no…no he hasn’t, but he says he will.” I replied, believing I understood what she meant.

“Tell him I will HURT HIM if he doesn’t give it to you AS SOON as you get back to his house this evening.”

Maggie is a former marine. She could make good on that threat.

So what was “it?” It was a letter; a letter from Heaven; a precious piece of personal history that Maggie discovered amongst the belongings of her Mother (my Aunt Lee) penned by my mother, Annie, fifty years ago yesterday.

After running across it this past Spring, Maggie sent the letter to Jack, who was supposed to give it to me in late March, when I was in town for Uncle Jake’s funeral. But he set it aside and forgot. After learning about it in a phone conversation later, I was determined to remember and retrieve it when I returned for the reunion in June. Nonetheless, no one brought it up and I had forgotten all about it until Maggie’s query jogged my memory.

The letter was originally a communiqué from Annie to her Mother, my Grandmother Vera, the morning after the day I was born. Annie was in the midst of a four-day hospital stay — unusually long by today’s standards, but right in line with the custom of the day — recovering from her fourth out of an eventual five childbirths, all of which were boys.

My Dad would tell me years later just how much my Mom hoped I would be a girl — her “Julie Ann” — but as you’ll see shortly, while her understandable desire was to have at least one daughter, her love played no favorites.

Having never had the opportunity to ask her about it, I have often wondered if she really ever was disappointed that in me, the Y chromosomes had won again. But now, wonderfully, via this gift of yellowed, dime store stationery, I have my definitive answer.

Whether the letter was ever mailed, I do not know, but it ended it up among Aunt Lee’s keepsakes where Maggie found it following her mother’s death of a few years ago.

Let me now publicly thank both Lee and Maggie for blessing me with such an incredible link to my past; a gift too precious for words.

To briefly set up the context of the letter, Annie had just given birth to me, her fourth son on Saturday, the day before. However the circumstances were rather unique in that Lee, her directly younger sister and lifelong sibling companion was also pregnant and could deliver at any time. The hospital agreed to reserve the bed beside Annie’s for Lee, who would give birth to my cousin Samantha just the next day, on Monday July 30th.

Annie was understandably excited to be able to share such a rare and special experience with her sister, and while waiting for Lee to arrive, wrote to my Grandmother to talk about it.

In addition to being a very personal, wonderful, priceless glimpse into the mind and personality of the woman who gave me birth, this letter is just a tremendous slice of life; an authentic sampling of late-1950s American culture. My Mother’s description of her hospital room and meal; her doting accounts and descriptions of my brothers, as well as her simple, almost naïve-sounding commentary about childbirth, speak to an innocent, less-worldly existence back in a day when life just seemed to make sense.

Of particular interest to me is the wonderful grammar and sentence structure she exhibits in her writing; it’s nearly perfect — also a sign so typical of that time, but which is nearly non-existent in today’s culture of colloquial communication.

My Mother was a woman of faith — that much is obvious. She speaks of her relationship with God with such calm sureness; it is a testament to her spiritual strength. Included in the letter are numerous references to friends from church, a community from which, along with her family, she drew strength and purpose.

While nothing in the letter is really all that profound on its own, the fact that it affords me an opportunity to glean even a little bit more of the essence of this woman — whom I have so little first-hand knowledge of — is highly significant to me.

The Players
And since ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard, here’s a brief reminder who they are:

Mother: My Grandmother Vera, age 65
Annie: My Mother, age 37
Darren: My Dad (heretofore unnamed in any of my stories; It isn’t his actual name of course, but it means, “Great” so it fits), age 35
Lee: Annie’s younger sister, age 35
Jackie: My eldest brother, a.k.a. Jack, age 9½
Davie: My brother David, age 7½
Kenny: My brother TK, age 2½
AJ: Your neighborhood bouncing baby boy, age 1 day

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sunday Morning

Dearest Mother:

I’m lying here in bed wearing your yellow gown and your blue bed jacket while a nice cool breeze is blowing in on me. The bed next to me is still empty — waiting for Lee to come up here. I don’t know if they will hold it much longer — actually, thanks to Dr. Donaldson, they’re holding it as a personal favor to us.

Honestly, I’ll just die if they bring someone in who smokes, swears or has a radio. It’s so peaceful and quiet up here. This room is the nicest one I’ve ever had; it’s nice because it’s a corner room with one window on the west — alongside my bed and another window at the foot of my bed facing south. Then there is another window facing south at the foot of Lee’s bed.

So much about the room. Well, Mother my girlhood dream has finally come true — I have the four children I dreamed about for so many years. You can’t imagine how proud I am of them.

I know lots of people are disappointed that I didn’t have a girl, but Darren, the boys and I don’t care so why should anyone else! We are the ones who should be concerned. Before Jackie went to camp, he said, “I don’t care whether it’s a boy or a girl — it doesn’t make any difference to me.” When Davey left for Tippecanoe to go after Jackie yesterday, the last thing he said to me was, “Mommie, just be sure it’s a little boy.” And Kenny all along has said, “I don’t like ‘gulls.’” It isn’t that we don’t like girls or that we didn’t want one — it’s just that we never believed we could get one.

The real test for me came when I came to yesterday and Darren told me we had a little boy. If I had hoped for a girl — as Rev. Losh claimed — there would have been a tinge of disappointment in my heart when he told me the news. But there wasn’t a tinge of disappointment at all. A little girl would have been very welcomed, but for some reason it wasn’t in God’s plan. And after all, He gives us what He feels we need.

So actually the prayer I prayed while I was in the delivery room was answered. I simply asked Him to have His way and we wouldn’t complain.

I was disappointed though in the fact that AJ only weighs 5 pounds & 4 ounces, although I don’t think I’ll have the trouble with him that I had with Jackie. At least he drinks his glucose and has nursed just a tiny little bit. If I can keep him awake long enough to eat, maybe I won’t have the trouble getting him started — like I did with Jackie.

I just had a wonderful dinner. I had the breast, wing and neck of a chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, broccoli, fruit salad on lettuce — chocolate ice cream and iced tea. Believe me I ate every bit of it and I’m stuffed!

Now I’ll get on with my news. Darren would probably get mad at me if he heard me say this, but I believe in being honest. AJ isn’t a pretty baby like Kennie and Jackie were. As a matter of fact, Davey wasn’t a pretty baby either. But just look how cute Davey turned out to be with his dimples and dark eyelashes. So there is hope for AJ too. When he fills out he’ll be cuter. But now he’s skinny and scrawny — but awfully, awfully sweet. He’s just a teeny, weeny thing. The first two times they brought him to me he wasn’t asleep nor did he cry. He just looked at me with such a sweet helpless look and I wondered then how anyone could be disappointed in the sex of a child.

I think Lulabelle Palmer paid us a great complement when she said, “Annie, boys need lots of love, care and understanding, and I think God knows which parents to give them to.”

We do love our boys and they’ve given us an awful lot of happiness. If I can just get AJ to nurse so that he’ll gain weight quickly I’ll feel a lot better.

Mother, I didn’t tell you about my water breaking because I didn’t want you to worry. I figured you were sick enough as it was without something new to worry about. Actually Davey’s birth was the easiest, but this one too was a cinch. Dr. Donaldson isn’t in favor of having “forced labor” and the only reason he did me was because I had lost all my water. I didn’t cry with any of my labor pains at all. In fact every time I felt one coming I would picture Jackie’s sweet face as we had devotions together before he left for camp — then I’d picture Davey’s dimpled smile and pretty eyelashes as he said goodbye to me and told me to bring home a little boy — and finally I could see little Kenny as he said, “Mommie, do you know what? I love you!”

And by the time I pictured all three of my boys in my mind, my pains were already gone! I learned more about having babies this time than I ever had before. I asked the nurse anything I didn’t understand and she told me.

By the way, AJ has a lot of real black hair and he’s dark. He doesn’t resemble anyone I know. Lee and Darren think he’s cute.

Well I guess I’d better bring this letter to a close. Maybe I’ll remember to ask Darren for a dime tonight and I’ll try to call you up.

Bye for now and here’s five kisses for you. X X X X X. I miss seeing you a lot, but I’ll be past Tuesday afternoon to show you your 6th straight grandson.

Lots of Love,


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I’ve never heard an untoward word ever uttered in association with my Mother; though there’s no doubt in my mind that she must have had some type of shortcoming, I’ve just never met anyone so inclined to list a single one. Naturally to that end I have to admit feeling more than a little bit cheated in not having any memory of a true connection with her.

Sadly, I don’t remember ever having a conversation with her on any level; only flash images of her doing housework, talking with friends on the phone, sunbathing on the back patio — wearing shiny copper pennies over her eyes to protect them from the sun — things of which I’ve written before; these are the memories I cling to, yet which often ring hollow; mere silent movies with no meaningful interaction.

Unfortunately I can’t hear my mother’s true voice within my memories. More often than not, the only voice I hear is that of the confused, middle-aged woman I knew when I was eight years old; her mind clouded by physical forces she had no way of understanding. I hear only frustration and the anger, not the love and vitality I’ve come to know as her hallmark by the accounts of those who knew her well; those fortunate souls who can reach back and pluck from their memory banks any number of rich interactions with Annie in her prime.

And though I’m indeed envious, I’m really not bitter, because I know I’ll meet her again someday, and I’ll know everything there is to know about her; and she about me.

But for now I’ll be content to augment my own memories with those of others. I’ll take advantage of opportunities such as the advent of this wonderful letter, projecting Annie into new scenarios, creating new memories for myself of her; learning what I can; what she thought; how she lived.

What a powerful thing to fathom, knowing what she was thinking so long ago. What a humbling experience to actually feel through her written words, the love that only a mother can have for her children.

Sunday Morning

Dearest Mother:

I’m sitting here at my computer, wishing so much that you could see the man your scrawny, little black-haired baby boy has become; wondering if you’d be proud; wondering how different my life would be if I hadn’t lost you so very many years ago. And although I cannot know the answer to these questions now, I look forward to the time when I will know all things fully, just as I have also been fully known.

Thank you for this letter; for giving me another precious glimpse into your life and spirit; a spirit I’ve tried so desperately to emulate over the years.

I’m not sure whether or not they have Internet access in Heaven, but I trust this will get to you somehow. Thank you for giving me life; for loving me. Thank you for always being with me.

Love, eternally,



Friday, July 28, 2006

50 Sense

Look Who’s Back
It figures. As busy as I’ve been all this year (and particularly the past two months), it figures that on the occasion of my birthday — the only birthday since my 25th that I’ve actually felt inclined to acknowledge with much more than just an extra candle on the cake — that I should wind up pressed to the eleventh hour trying to come up with something to say in its remembrance.

So once again, I’m breaking up another series for the sake of a special occasion. What else is new? And guess what else is new? I worked until nine o’clock tonight — again. But hopefully that sort of thing is coming to an end soon (more on that when I get back to my current series).

So needless to say, I’d planned on starting this post a lot sooner, but here it is, an hour-and-a-half before the big five-oh, and I’m just getting started. Oh well…sleep’s overrated anyway, right?

Heh…Twenty-Five; what a kick in the ass to realize that twenty five was half a lifetime ago; that I’ve now lived more than half my life as an adult.

That can’t possibly be right, can it?

I’ve decided the only thing weirder to me than thinking about being fifty years old is trying to make myself actually believe it.

I mean, fifty’s OLD, right? How come I don’t feel it?

I honestly don’t feel all that different than I remember feeling twenty-five years ago. Well…not much anyway. But I certainly feel better now and am in far better shape than I was ten years ago.

Forty was a rude awakening for me. I didn’t deal with it well; but not so much for the reasons you might think.

While many folks want to stay thirty-nine forever, I was sort of looking forward to it. Forty isn’t fatal was my battle cry. And quite frankly, I rather enjoyed the fact that at the time I didn’t even look thirty-five, let alone forty. It was fun watching people’s jaws drop when they’d unsuccessfully try to guess my age.

I felt pretty good about myself; maybe too good.

Beg For Mercy
As I wrote about at great length last year, perhaps that little bit of haughtiness caught up with me. Sipping a lethal cocktail of denial, depression and apathy, I worked my life up into one hell of an emotional hangover between ages of thirty-nine and forty. I narrowly escaped losing my house and even more narrowly eluded losing my family. All the many things I had going for me seemed to dissolve as I eschewed the life that God had so richly blessed me with, in favor of pursuits so selfish I was hardly recognizable as the person I’d always been. For awhile, I wondered if I’d lost my soul as well.

My life imploded at forty. I literally had to start over in terms of my self-confidence and feelings of self-worth.

The good news is that I was surrounded by friends, family, and a wife who loved me enough to forgive my stupidity and lack of will; to forgive my rash break from reality. Although the damage was considerable, it was not irreparable; we all pitched-in to pick up the pieces.

Miraculously, my emotional state was restored, but the effect that period had on my body left changes that seemed considerably more permanent — at least that’s the way it felt.

I don’t know if it was the incredible stress I was under during that year-and a-half period, or simply the way of nature that everyone goes through, but my body started breaking down. I felt as though I was coming apart at the seams.

Seemingly overnight, my lifetime of 20-20 vision went by the wayside. I didn’t want to, but had to get glasses. However I was so unwilling to admit to myself that I needed them that I intentionally sabotaged my first eye test, fudging on which letters on the chart were actually clear and which ones were fuzzy, but pretending they were clear. Apparently I guessed right often enough, because my first pair of glasses were utterly useless, which in turn didn’t encourage me to wear them, which in turn made me even more miserable, having to strain harder and harder to see anything less than a foot and a half in front of me.

Meanwhile, the stress and financial woes I’d helped create for my family lent themselves toward a host of bad body-related circumstances.

I took on two extra jobs to help get us out of debt. However, while I felt great about the accomplishment of overcoming that burden, the solution was had its own set of costs. I delivered pizza for Papa John’s for three years, and made a tidy sum of money, but the circumstance also forced me into some predictably unhealthy eating habits. I found myself eating pizza for dinner five nights a week, and when I wasn’t pizza, it was some other kind of fast food at 11:00 PM or Midnight. I gained nearly 25 pounds, which is a heap ‘o lard when you’re a person of slight stature like me.

But likely the most damaging part was the way it changed my lifestyle and longstanding mentality of being an athlete. I became sedentary in what little off-time I had. So instead of working out two or three times a week, as had always been my habit since high school, I was suddenly in the midst of a two or three year lapse without any vigorous exercise to speak of. While I can’t say it with absolute certainty, I think those years took something away from me that I’ll never get back. Maybe it’s a pipe dream to believe that my body wouldn’t have begun breaking down at that age anyway, but I’m pretty certain I hastened the process along. However in the greater scheme of things, I believe it was actually a fairly good thing for me to experience because of what it taught me about appreciation for what I have.

Get Fit or Die Tryin’
I’m now a little easier on myself than I used to be. I’m able to appreciate the progress I’ve made in recent years a lot more readily now as opposed to always taking my health for granted. I’ve been working out again now continuously for almost two years. It’s been hard — really hard — but I feel great; maybe not in the same way I did in my twenties, but really good, nonetheless. I can appreciate the sometimes delicate balance between fitness and fatness so much more now than when I was younger and didn’t have to worry about what I ate or how much; those days are definitely gone forever.

It doesn’t take much to find yourself flat on your keester with the wagon speeding off into the distance. The key for me has been learning how to get back on board.

Back in 2000, when I was at my worst, I felt like absolute crap. I had fallen far and I knew it. The only consolation I had then was that working as I was to get out of the red was the right thing to do for my family, if not to myself. I truly wondered whether or not I would ever feel good again.

Thankfully, now I do.

I’m fortunate enough to work for a company offering a wonderful onsite fitness program and state-of-the-art training facility. Two years ago our CEO started a program promoting fitness across the company. They even hired a full-time professional fitness trainer who conducts circuit training classes several times a day, five days a week.

It’s been a godsend, and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have access to it, all completely free of charge.

So now I truly appreciate the strides I’m making, because the more time passes, the harder it will be to hold onto what I have physically. At this point I’m just about where I want to be, body-wise. The challenge of course will be to maintain it for as long as possible.

I really feel as though I’ve been on both sides of the mountain — from the valley to the summit, and while I’m definitely on the backside decent, it’s a great hike and I’m enjoying it. It feels good…it really does.

50 Sense in the Future?
The occasion of my fiftieth birthday also brings me pause (but hopefully not for too long) pondering the fact that the more distant in the rearview mirror my forties become, the more likely it is that I have indeed survived the family curse.

However, there’s still the chance that I haven’t.

Although the times and his austere personality make it difficult to know for sure, my Maternal Grandfather, the patriarch of the strain of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease that runs through my family, was not institutionalized until his early fifties, but died a few years later. There’s really no way to know how old he was at onset, but it appears that he began getting sick a bit later in life — possibly in his late forties — than the majority of his children and grandchildren who would carry on his ill-begotten legacy decades after his death. Typically the early forties (ages 41-44) have been the period in which my affected family members have lapsing into dementia. So that my Grandfather lasted well into his mid-fifties casts at least a shadow of concern as to my vulnerability.

Also providing anomalies to the course of the inherited disease, two of my family’s female victims, my Aunt Ruth and Cousin Kay also showed unusually late signs of onset — late 40s and early 50s respectively. One possible explanation — the fact that they were both on menopausal hormone therapy — has been offered as evidence that estrogen seems to delay the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Guess I’m sort of outa luck there…

But all in all, I think there’s a pretty good chance I’ve been spared. Nevertheless, until I go back up to Indy to learn the results of my AD diagnostic tests from November 2004, signing my life away via a stack of legal waiver forms in the process, the only way I’m gonna know for sure is to just wait it out. If I’m still thinking clearly in about five year’s time, then I think we’ll pretty much know that I’m out of the woods.

Cradle to the Grave
But just in case I’m wrong; if perchance I’m not as lucky as I think I am, the thing that I’m doing right this moment takes on all the more importance — especially for me.

Perhaps the best thing I’ve ever done to strengthen my mind is what I’m doing right now — writing. My blog is my life, and as far as I’m concerned, will always be.

This weekend I’ll be sharing with you a wonderful gift I received on my recent trip to Indiana. It’s a letter that my Mother, Annie wrote while in the hospital the day after I was born. She was writing to my grandmother, sharing her thoughts about her family, her faith, and about how scrawny I was, among other things. It’s a snapshot I could have never hoped to have, but was unexpectedly passed my way by one of my cousins who found it among her mother’s things and wanted me to have it. I so look forward to reveling in the wonderful emotions it already has stirred in me. What a perfect case in point to the very special thing that writing about my life has become.

On entering the second half of what I hope is my one hundred-year existence, I’m both scared and excited about what the future holds. Which direction will my health take? Will I truly have the option of retiring in another ten years, or be forced to continue working whether I want to or not? These are the kinds of things I never thought about before, but now find myself mulling over more and more often.

But I can only do what I can do, trying to stay as healthy as possible and living my live to the fullest now, with an eye toward the future, not my entire gaze. Tomorrow will take care of itself. I want to focus on being happy now, utterly basking in the joy that each day can bring, and the memories thereof.

I can’t worry about family curses. I just want to embrace the blessings I enjoy; things that I am so very fortunate to have; things that I clearly don’t deserve

But whether or not I ever lose my memories, I know that I never want to stop saving them. This form of self-expression is a gift I love to give to myself, and have sorely missed doing so over the past few months. So since it’s now well past Midnight…

Happy Birthday to me.