Monday, December 27, 2010

Through the Eyes of a Boy - The Giver

My old, brown Oldsmobile Cutlass was loaded as the warm, August sun beat down on the gravel driveway. It was strangely quiet as I stood there…looking, thinking, wondering. Geoff was still asleep in his room and dad was off somewhere, maybe at work. Mom was in the kitchen or perhaps sitting in on the couch doing a crossword or some other type of puzzle. Frank was married now and had already moved away. Debbie had been out of the house several years and was now living in Portland where she worked. Today was the beginning of a new season in my life…I was going off to college at the University of Idaho in Moscow.

I’m not sure what I was expecting as I stood there, but I’m sure it was more than was taking place. I was leaving home and going somewhere I had never gone before. There had been no college visitation. I had received the scholarship late…during mid-summer and had scrambled to get all of my paperwork in. If it hadn’t been for a couple of kids I’d graduated with, I would have had no idea where to look for a place to live but a couple of friends had given me the name of the dorm they had been accepted to and it still had rooms available when I sent in my application. The truth was, I didn’t even exactly know where the college campus was located. I’d never been there. But after all, Moscow wasn’t “that” big, so it shouldn’t be that difficult to find.

And so, I walked back into the house and told mom I was leaving. She came over and gave me a kiss and watched from the doorway as I got in my car and drove out of the driveway. I don’t know what was going through her mind…I never asked and she never said.

About two hours later, I found myself in Moscow driving down the main street looking right and left for any sign that indicated where the campus might be. I took a left where I should have taken a right and ended up on the outskirts of town in what was definitely NOT a college neighborhood. I turned around and by sheer luck eventually found the campus with the old, turn of the century buildings about an hour later. I drove up and down streets until I finally found the housing complex that I would soon be calling home.

College life wasn’t easy for me. I was attending on a NROTC scholarship which meant that I had to have a military appearance. When I arrived, my hair was thick and long…and was soon laying on the floor of Frank and Deb’s trailer where I got a haircut. This was the mid-seventies and “buzz cuts” were not the style of the day. The Vietnam War had only ended a short while before and there was still great anger and animosity directed at anything military.

The dorm that I moved into had a few friends from high school who spent most of their time in their rooms smoking pot or getting drunk. The drinking I could get away with…after all I’d been drinking quite regularly for the past five years. But for me, I just wasn’t interested in the drug culture. My new associates in the Navy were…well, the kindest word I can probably use is “different”. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Most of the men that were in the NROTC program would have been called “geeks” or “nerds” in their respective high schools that they came from.

It is because of these strange new surroundings that “they” became so meaningful to me. Each day shortly before we began to make our way to the cafeteria for lunch, the mail came. There was pushing and shoving from the guys as they would look into their mail “cubby” to see if anyone had remembered that they went off to college. I’d been at the University for about three weeks when “they” started to arrive. Usually an envelope with a Portland, OR return address with the familiar handwriting. But on some occasions, there would be a note in my mail box to see the R.A. I knew what that meant…there was a package!

As I sit and write these words today, I can still remember the love and joy I would feel as I received those letters and the “care packages” that would be filled with home baked goodies. It wasn’t because the fresh, chocolate chip cookies were the best I’ve ever eaten (although they may well be), or because I was getting something in the mail that most of the other guys in the dorm wasn’t…it was because receiving these gifts helped me to know that I wasn’t forgotten and that I was loved.

But that’s who my sister is. For as long as I can remember, Debbie (it’s so hard to call her Deb) has been generous to me. I think she was to Frank and Geoff as well, but for some reason it just takes on a special significance to me. I remember the Christmas before I entered college…my senior year in high school, when as a family we didn’t have much money. So we decided not to really do any gifts…or if we did, it would be very small.

I remember her talking to me about an idea for mom and dad – to make a photo album. I loved to take pictures and had accumulated quite a collection of family photos. Debbie suggested that we “go together” on the gift…we would use my photos and she would put together an album that would be from both of us. So she took the box of my pictures and “borrowed” one of my poetry books and off she went.

I really didn’t know what to expect as a final product. If I had been putting it together, it probably would have been pictures symmetrically arranged on each page with perhaps the names of whoever was in the photo. But Debbie has the gift of writing as well as the gift of giving. The “product” of this venture together has become a bit of a legend. One each page were artistically placed photos with a short poem, or a descriptive phrase. Each page was a masterpiece in itself. Resting now in a drawer at Geoff and Lynn’s, we will occasionally pull it out and relive through memories the experiences that are recorded in that album. A gift for mom and dad at the time… but a gift for the family forever.

Growing up, my memories of Debbie are filled with her smiles and her “bigger than life” presence. The first to get a job away from the farm at the optometrist’s office in downtown Sandpoint. The first to go off to college at Whitworth. The first to move away to the “big city”…and always having a place stay if I wanted to visit. The “big sister” who never treated me like a “little brother” in the negative sense of the word. The pride and the angst that come from sitting in a high school classroom and having the teacher say, “You’re Debbie’s brother, right? I’ll expect the same quality of work from you that she gave me.”

Whether she recognizes it or not, Debbie has given me a legacy that I’ve aspired to come close to. Being human, there are some things that aren’t on my “to do” list…but I hope that I will be remembered as someone to gives, and loves as much as she does.

This is one of a series of stories written for my family - Christmas, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Blink of an Eye

I could feel my stomach tighten as I read the subject line in the e-mail: “Urgent Prayer Request!” The e-mail was from Jean, my former administrative assistant who is now retired. Each year, she and Twila, a retired high school English teacher/Harley “mama” who used to work for me come over and we spend a wonderful lunch to celebrate my birthday and catch up on everything going on in my old stomping grounds. So as I read those words, so many possibilities leapt to my mind.

“Had Twila’s cancer returned?”

“Had something happened to Rich, the former superintendent we had both worked for and respected so much?”

“Was there a dire need in Jean’s life that she was requesting prayer for?”

I continued to read the short message.

“I just got a text message from Linda Thomas that John Repp is unconscious and has been air lifted to Seattle with bleeding in his brain. I don't know what happened. Please add him to your prayers.”

John was also a retired teacher who had worked for me when I was a high school principal. Sadly, he wasn’t a very good teacher and not very effective in the classroom. A former soldier, he continued to maintain a military bearing with short, cropped hair and a hardened attitude toward performance. As a result, it seemed that we were often times at odds with one another as I would work to try to help him improve and then not have that advice carried over into the classroom. But while John was not the greatest teacher, he had turned out to be an amazing friend.

When I was first arrested, I felt like the most alone person on earth. Paula, my wife was gone…trying to make sense of all that happened and helping our kids cope with all of the changes that were coming as well. I had pretty much removed myself from any relationship with my own family over the past several years and didn’t reach out in that direction for advice or comfort. The majority of the relationships that I had built up over the years were with other educators…and the nature of my offense was also an insult to the profession that I had served. So I pretty much isolated myself, with the exception of continuing to talk with my wife.

Then out of the blue one day, Paula asked if it was “Ok” to give my address to Jean because there were a number of my former colleagues who wanted to write to me. I gave my permission and several days later I received a letter from John. Of everyone who had been on staff at the high school, John was the last one that I would have expected to write me. But he not only wrote me, he comforted me. He shared that I wasn’t alone in my struggles with pornography and sent me a book to read that he had studied in a men’s group at his church. He said that he would like to write a letter to the judge on my behalf to be considered at my trial.

Over the next four years, I saw a soft side of John that I didn’t know existed. While in prison, each month like clockwork I would receive a short note from John. Sometimes he would include a newspaper clipping about the high school or he would keep me updated on how the sports teams were doing. He always asked how I was doing…was I safe? How was the food? Was I getting counseling? He would ask how things at the chapel where I worked were going and how my guitar lessons were progessing. In most of the envelopes that bore his letters or cards, I would find a receipt for twenty or thirty dollars that he had sent to be deposited in my commissary account. While not a large amount in society’s eyes, they were a gift of amazing abundance to me.

When I was released from prison, John continued to correspond with me. Once again, like clockwork I would receive a phone call from John each month. We would talk like old friends and share stories of all that was going on in our lives. For him, stories of his grandkids and his work. For me, updates on trying to find work or sharing the blessings when work finally came. We maintained the connection for over a year and then busyness in both of our lives resulted in the conversations becoming more infrequent.

So when I read the words, my heart sank. I quickly e-mailed Jean back asking for her to keep me updated on John’s condition and prognosis. I paused in my activities at work and said a silent prayer for John and his wife Judy…and their two kids who had been students and passed through the high school during my tenure there. Over the next several days, the news came in. Uncertainty over the cause but perhaps from a fall he had taken at work the previous week. Initial partial paralysis and some loss of eyesight in the first few days…but movement returning as he began to heal. Reminders from Jean of John’s extremely strong faith and his determination to recover.
John’s situation was a stark reminder to me of the fragility of life and our lack of control in it. So much can happen in the blink of an eye. Life as normal one moment, everything turned upside down the next. But it also reminded me that even as unpredictable as life can be, the relationships that we invest in are so important. John had invested in me during my time of need and had build a solid foundation for both of us. Now it’s my turn to return the favor.
Photos from Flickr

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dreams Fulfilled!

I could feel the exciting building in me all week long. Today was going to be a day of perfection…of the completion of a dream. Actually, more than one dream. And not only a dream of mine, but of others that I love as well.

“Dreams are the seedlings of reality.” (Napoleon Hill)

It seems that dreams have become an important aspect of my life in the past six years. I think that’s pretty common for someone who has lost everything and finds himself in every sense of the word back at square one…or is it negative one? I recall the days in prison when I was surrounded by men who had either given up all hope of ever achieving their dreams, or men who were literally living in a dream world that just didn’t exist. They were making up life one day at a time. The dreams that I had were only vague…but I was always certain that there was going to be a life that was good for me in the future.

When my pastor flew to California to pick me up from prison when I was released, I had no idea what the future might hold for me. There seemed to be more uncertainty in my life than there was during my 1086 days behind the razor wire. I knew that I had temporary housing in a motor home that my former pastor was loaning to me but I had no idea what I might do for employment, or any type of income for that matter. I also knew that I was going back to a family that was fractured and I had removed myself from any kind of close relationship with any of them for the past three years or more.

As the years have passed since that hot August day in 2007, I’ve found myself re-establishing relationships with my sister Deb and my two brothers, Frank and Geoff. I’ve found forgiveness from each of them and have extended my own toward them. My heart has softened and I cherish the moments that I spend visiting or just simply talking. In all honesty, I never would have dreamed four years ago that I would be as close to each of them that I am today.

I was also blessed to get a job with a wonderful Christian man and his wife in the construction industry. The love and support for me they’ve demonstrated is well beyond anything I could have ever dreamed. And while the business is struggling, they continue to help me in any way that that can. I’ve learned much and I know that as long as our little business can survive, I’ll have a place here.

But it seemed that those dreams weren’t enough. There was still something missing…actually a “big” something missing. That is, until Friday.

She arrived just before 11:00 and we greeted each other with a hug and a kiss. She said that she had heard there was an antique business here and wanted to stop and see. Her mouth dropped open and stepped back a little as I pointed to the stacks of containers and boxes that lined the wall. “There it is”, I said. I’m not sure we’re going to get it all down there in one load though.

My sister had driven up to help me set up my case in the antique mall for my new business. I had made the decision several months ago to pursue a dream that had been fermenting for more than twenty years. I love antiques and the adventure of antiquing. And that passion has grown over the past couple of years. So I took the proverbial “first step” and got my business license and leased a space in a local antique mall. Today was going to be the first day of my new venture. Today, a dream was coming to fruition…and I was truly excited. And so was Deb.

But I’ve had another dream as well…and in many ways, a much more important dream. For the last two years, I’ve looked for opportunities to get all four of us siblings together somehow. In the past ten years, there have only been two occasions that we have all been in the same room. At a funeral for my brother Frank’s father-in-law and for a golf tournament earlier this summer. And this wasn’t only “my” dream, my sister has dreamed of a restored family as well.

As she stood in my little office area, looking at the wall of boxes and containers, we talked briefly about what the schedule for the day might look like. There were a lot of things that needed to be done. Not only did we need to set up the case at the antique mall with my pieces, there was also some shopping that we wanted to get done.

Finally I said, “I have a confession to make.” She looked at me with a slightly perplexed look.

“We’re going out to dinner tonight for your birthday.” I could see a smile forming on her lips. “And both of our brothers are joining us.”

I wish that I could have a picture of the reaction that I saw. It was something out of an old black and white movie. The “news” is delivered to a beautiful woman and suddenly, she appears faint and her hand moves to her face and she begins to fan herself from the overwhelming nature of the news. That was Deb’s reaction…and it was priceless!

When I realized that my sister was going to be here on her birthday to help me set up my case, I called both of my brothers and asked if they would like to take Deb out to dinner on her birthday with me because she was going to be here helping me. To my great pleasure, they both agreed. It was at the moment when I got the final confirmation from Geoff that my excitement began to escalate.

A dream was going to be realized…the hope and dream of a reconciled family! Frank and Clare stopped by the antique mall as we were nearing completion and helped us clean up. The joy and happiness that they extended at this beginning of my new business was genuine and filled with a type of wonder. I think they were even a little overwhelmed by the beauty of the antiques that were in my case…and the artful way the Deb had set it up.

We drove to the restaurant and Geoff and Lynn arrived a short while later. The next hours can only be described as magical. Even in my exhaustion, I could see the glow of joy and happiness as an aura around my sister. It seemed like all of us were just comfortable…and happy. There was no tension, no hesitation, no barriers. As dinner was coming to a close, both of my brothers and their wives gave me a tight hug, whispering a "thank you" for making this evening happen. It was a perfect evening. The only thing that would have made it any better would have been if Walt was there…and if I were still married and Paula would have shared the evening as well.

There are certain words or phrases that we all cherish…at least I believe we do. I was blessed to hear them as Deb was getting ready to leave Sunday morning to drive back home. We hugged and kissed and as she got ready to turn and walk to her car, she said “this was the best birthday I have ever had!” The magic in those words is that I believe they are true. It was a day of dreams fulfilled…not only mine, but hers as well.

Photos by Frank Lyons (group photo by the waitress)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Curfew!

I really wasn’t sure what it might be when it first arrived in the mail. I was a little excited because I had been waiting to hear back from Jamie (my probation officer) for a few weeks concerning appealing the remainder of my supervised release. I had a call into her, but she hadn’t returned my call. I opened the letter as I returned to my call and as I sat back down in the front seat, I began to read.

“As you are probably aware, Halloween is on Sunday, October 31, 2010. In order to reduce the risk…”

I could feel my chest begin to tighten as I read the words. A part of me wanted to simply wad the letter up and throw it away. But another part of me wouldn’t…or simply couldn’t. I numbly drove the short distance down to my little home and walked inside. I randomly tossed the envelope on the tabletop and sat down and reread the letter.

“…of either direct or indirect contact with minor-aged children, you are directed to remain at your residence beginning at 5:30 PM and ending at 11:30 PM, and you shall not answer the door to children.”

This is my fourth Halloween that I’ve celebrated (if that can even be considered the right word) since I was released from prison in August of 2007. Each year, the passing of all of the holidays seems to move me further away from that season of my life. From that time when there was nothing to celebrate, even if the “day” was marked on the calendar. Until today that is. Today I felt like I was back in “that” place…surrounded by the razor wire and double fences. And the sounds of the heavy iron doors and the clicking of the locks.

”You are prohibited from passing out candy and your outdoor lights should remain off in order to discourage children from coming to your door. I may be conducting random home visits during the evening hours in order to ensure compliance. “

I tossed the letter on the floor and sat there quietly, trying to figure out how I felt. It wasn’t really anger. Nor was it bitterness or frustration. There was a bit of sadness…but most of all, I think I simply felt insulted. I had never received a letter like this. I would have thought for my first Halloween out, it would make sense to send a letter like that…just for awareness. But this letter was just a reminder that “we” are all simply lumped together into one group! Each of us must be the same level of danger to our community. What should I expect in the mail tomorrow…a sign to post beside my house with large scarlet letters?

The holiday has passed, and all the kids in the neighborhood are safe (at least from me). I followed the letter of the directive and stayed back in my bedroom watching football and the world series…all of the lights turned out except for the glare of the television. I’m sure I can expect another letter next year…at least it won’t catch me off guard. And I won’t feel like I’m back behind the razor wire and lockdowns. One day…I might truly be free again.


Photo by liquidnight on Flickr

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Grownup Binkies

When I was six years old, I had to spend the night in the hospital because I was having my tonsils removed. As I reflect back, I remember very little about that event. I’ve been told that I was extremely ill…one doctor had told my mom that I might have leukemia. But apparently most of the medical issues were solved by doing a little cutting in the back of my throat. I’m guessing that my mom must have seen that I was somewhat frightened about the surgery…or perhaps having to stay in the hospital, because she bought me a gift. It was a small stuffed animal…an elephant.

I didn’t have many stuffed animals that I can recall as a small boy. No Teddy bear (that I remember). In fact, the elephant is the only one that I can remember. I kept it for a long time…sleeping with it for years. When we helped my mom organize stuff for our farm auction when she sold the place when I was in my 40’s, the old stuffed elephant was still with my stuff. Faded…and torn it places. It was missing one of its glass eyes, but it was still there. For many years during my childhood, it had served as my “binky”…an object that would provide me with some level of comfort.

Most of us “think” that we outgrow the need for a “binky”, but I think that as adults we simply replace them with something more “grownup”. I’ve thought a bit about that the last couple of days and put together my list of “grownup binkies” that I use. They are listed here in no particular order.

1. Coffee – As much as I hate to admit it, coffee is one of my comforters. While I’m not like many who practically need to hook up a “coffee IV” before they get out of bed in the morning, I definitely look forward to my cup of hot coffee on my way to work each morning. And if I don’t get it for some reason…well, look out. I’m going to be pretty grumpy at work that day.


2. Hot chocolate – I’m sure it goes back to my childhood, but there is just something about a cup of really rich (translate lots of Nestle’s Quick mix) cup of hot chocolate on a cold night…topped with marshmellows, of course. Even now, at age 50 plus, I will pull my largest mug down out of the cupboard on a cold rainy or snowy evening in the winter and put the tea kettle on my stove to make a large cup. It’s not quite as good as the stuff we made with real milk growing up, but it still hits the spot.

3. Neck tickling – Not a joke. I love to have the back of my neck softly tickled. Not the front…that causes panic attacks, but that’s a different story. It almost makes me purr like a kitten when my neck is gently massaged or lightly tickled. I most definitely relax.


4. A blanket just out of the dryer – Ok, this one might be cheating…or a throwback to being a kid. There is just something about the feeling of a blanket that’s just been pulled out of the dryer to cuddle with on the couch. I think it’s the smell of the fabric softener sheet and the warmth that penetrates my entire being. I don’t remember ever having a warm blanket like that growing up…but my kids (and my wife) loved it whenever I pulled one out of my dryer and wrapped them in it.


5. The ocean surf – I’ve always loved the sound of the ocean. There is just something so peaceful about hearing the rhythmic sounds of waves lapping on the beach. It almost transforms me into weightlessness…like a feeling of floating over the ocean like the billowy clouds suspended from the heaven above.

I’m sure there are a number of other “binkies” that I could name here. But as I listed these, it was such a nice reminder that there are many things in my life that give me comfort when I need it. How about you?

Binky photo from Flickr

Hot Chocolate photo from Bing



Monday, September 27, 2010

The Old is Gone!

It hasn’t been an easy 37 months. So much uncertainty faced me when I walked out the doors of Taft Correctional Institution in August of 2007. Unable to even comprehend what my life was going to be like, at times during my last months of incarceration, I wondered whether I would end up living under a freeway overpass. Or perhaps I would become one of the many panhandlers seeking a hand-out at the top of the off-ramp holding my “Hungry and need food. Anything will help. God bless you” cardboard sign. While it never ended up that badly for me, it hasn’t turned out as I expected either.

At times, it seems like a little sign has floated over the top of me with arrows pointing, saying “ex-felon”. There are some things that I just can’t seem to get past. A few weeks ago I was laying on the couch on a Sunday afternoon after playing a round of golf with some friends when I was interrupted by a rapping on the front door of my home…a fifth wheel trailer. As I opened the door, I was greeted by a deputy sheriff. For a second, my heart seemed to skip a beat. Then he kindly asked me for my name and then ID that could verify it. He was simply doing his job…confirming that I was living where I said I am. A small thing…but certainly not an everyday occurrence for most of us.

As a result of the uncertainty of my life, I’ve been hesitant to move forward as quickly as I probably could. Still facing up to 23 more months of supervision, there are some things that are difficult to arrange. A simple trip out of state…even for a day requires at least two weeks of advance notice to get the proper permission. A trip out of the country is out of the question. Moving into an apartment complex or a condo community isn’t possible because of the restrictions that I still face. For the past three years, I’ve worn the prison issue glasses that I had on when I was released because money is tight, and frankly they still worked.

But the last month has brought a great deal of change in my life. For reasons that I can’t really articulate, I made the decision that “enough is enough”. While I don’t exactly have control over my life, I choose to move forward. A trip to the optometrist resulted in new glasses. Not a significant change in my appearance on the outside, but a gargantuan impact on how I see myself from the inside. They were the last “moniker” that I wore from my incarceration. There are no more visible external reminders of that dark period of my life.

The change didn’t stop there. I love antiques and every opportunity I have, I will visit an antique shop or mall and usually walk out with some little treasure. Many of the items, I give away. I buy them because they are unique and they represent a different time…maybe a better time. About a month ago, my sister Deb suggested (perhaps in jest) that I should get a business license and open a shop, or at least become a dealer. The idea resonated deeply within me and it has turned into a reality. Three weeks ago, I applied for the business license and became a small business owner. Angelwings Antiques was born. Scripture teaches us that in Christ, we are a new creation…that the old is gone and the new has come. Through God’s grace, I’ve become “that” new creation. But now I’ve become a new creation in a different way as well. While I will always be an “ex-felon”, I’ve chosen to become more. I’m a business owner and a construction company manager. I’m a singer in the church choir and a Sunday school teacher. I’m a loving brother, a loving ex-husband and a good friend. That old label is gone…a new label has come.

Photo by Mark

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Middle of the Rainbow


I remember as a small child how excited I would get whenever I saw a rainbow. It seems that they didn’t appear all that often…when it rained, the clouds wouldn’t allow even a glimmer of sunshine slice through. So it was even more special when that arc of color would splash across the sky, from one horizon to the other. But even then, I would rarely see one that was unbroken by clouds still spotting the sky.

For some reason, the rainbow is a little bit of an enigma. Perhaps, it’s because of the mystical nature of “the pot at the end of the rainbow” that legends are made of. Or maybe it’s because they are one of those things that you can see…but not touch. Even as you get close to it, it is always “just out of reach”. And when it seems like you are actually putting your fingers on it…there is nothing there to feel. But I think it’s a bit magical for a different reason.

As I listened to the radio this morning, a woman called in to share a story about the rainbow…and her life. And as I listened, she could have been talking about my life…or the life of many that I know. She had seen a rainbow in the sky, but like many rainbows the full arc wasn’t visible. She could see where it started and where it ended, but the middle of the rainbow was hidden in the clouds. It seems that the image of the rainbow is where my life is. I know where I started and where I’ve been. And I trust in God’s promises for where I’m going…where my destination is. But that part in the middle…where I seem to be now is as hazy as the clouds hiding it.

But the woman who called in helped to put it in perspective. Even though I can’t see the middle of the rainbow, God can. He knows what’s going to happen behind the clouds. And He knows why it’s happening. He is orchestrating my life...and all that occurs in it, both in front of and behihnd the clouds. My challenge is to simply let it…and trust. For a man with a boy’s heart, that is a difficult challenge indeed.
Photo from Flickr, by Saturn h

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Do-Overs?

I sat there with my arm raised over my head, waving frantically. My face was beet-red and I could feel my eyes start to well with tears. I looked down at my desk again…it wasn’t possible! How could I have gotten an A- on my paper? Mrs. Walters was soon standing beside my desk, leaning down.

“What is it, Mark?” she asked?

“It’s my g-g-g-rade, Mrs. Walters!” I stammered. “It’s not g-g-good enough. Can I have a do-over?”

I thought back to my early school years the other day as I was driving to work. The radio program I was listening to had posed a question to its radio audience. “If you could have a ‘do-over’ in life, what would it be?” The twenty-five minute commute to work on the back roads gave me plenty of time to listen to the various listeners who called in. I was especially struck by the response of one particular listener. In essence, he said that initially there were a lot things he would want to do over…he had made a number of bad choices in his life. But as he thought about it, he decided that every choice (good or bad) that he had made had molded him into the person he was today.

That response has rolled around in my head for the past ten days. I’ve been trying to decide how much I agree with him. For my own part, I’ve made far too many bad choices in my lifetime. Some of them have been extremely costly…leading to prison time, the loss of a marriage and family as well as a career. Others haven’t come at the same cost, but have nonetheless negatively impacted others’ lives. But the other side of the coin, if I follow the listener’s line of thought has led me to an amazing relationship with Christ and a much deeper understanding of who I am. And the ability to accept those truths. So, if I had a chance, would I want a “do-over”?

Mrs. Walters got down on knee level and looked me in the eyes.

“Mark, your work is very good. An A- is still a good grade”, she said.

“B-b-but I knew the right answer”, I cried. “I just accidently turned the number backward. Please, Mrs. Walters…can I have a do over?”


I don’t think she gave me that “do-over” 44 years ago when I sat in the upstairs fourth grade classroom in the Old Farmin Elementary school. And because she didn’t, it probably made me a better student…paying closer attention to details and checking my work before I turned it in. And as I reflect on the other areas of my life, most of them wouldn’t warrant a “do-over” either. The lessons that I’ve learned from the bad decisions have taught me valuable life lessons. But if I had a chance to get one “do-over” in my life, I would take it. The question is…which one?

Photo from Bing Images

Monday, August 30, 2010

Good News/Bad News

I looked at my Blackberry and felt my heart rate begin to increase slightly. I’d missed a call, which isn’t all that unusually, but this missed call was from Paula, my ex-wife. She doesn’t call that often…I’m usually the one to initiates contact so I was excited that she had called me. I used my trackball to click on “Call Paula” and waited. After a couple of rings, I heard her soft voice as she said “hello” and asked how I was. As I responded, suddenly I lost the connection. I redialed and could hear the short “beep” at the end of the ring that indicated that she was on the phone. She had mentioned that she was waiting for a call, so I waited a few minutes and called back.

Once again, she answered after the first few rings. She apologized for the lost connection and we continued to visit.

“I wanted to be the first to tell you,” she said. “I just didn’t want you to hear this from someone else.”

Suddenly my mind was working. What could it be that she wanted to tell me? Had something happened to mom or dad? That didn’t seem plausible because I don’t think she could hide the pain of that in her voice. Maybe she had met someone. I feel my heart constrict at just the thought of that. Were the kids ok? Finally, as calmly as I could, I asked her what the news was.

“Conrad is getting married,” she said. “I wanted to be the one that told you. I haven’t even told Tina because I just didn’t want it to slip in conversation.”

As I held the phone to my ear, I was filled with a variety of emotions. Conrad is our youngest son (actually my stepson, but I claim him as my own as I do all the kids). When we first got married, he was the only one of the kids who lived with us and was the one that I spent the most time with. While I deeply love each of our kids, my love and relationship with Conrad was a little different because he had lived with us.

“I’m so happy for them,” I replied. “Have the set a date yet?”

A date! Why would I even ask the question? I knew that this was a wedding that I wouldn’t attend. And just the realization of that was heartbreaking. I had been at the marriage of both of our older children…had even worn a tuxedo as a representation of my position as their dad (even as their biological dad did as well). I had been in the hospital for the birth of all four of our grandchildren, sharing in the joy of creation and birth.

But that was all in the past, and choices that I had made changed the future. I hadn’t talked to Conrad, or seen him, since shortly after my arrest. And though I know he loves me, the pain that I caused has left our relationship in limbo. My last image of him was with tears streaming down both of our faces as he hugged me and told me that he loved me. Paula keeps me up-to-date on his life but I’m no longer a part of it.

It’s not that an invitation to the wedding is out of the question. They may invite me. But attending isn’t an option for me. That day is for Conrad and his bride-to-be. My attendance would only take the focus off of them as many of his friends and family would question why I was there. I could never do that.

I’ve discovered that the consequences of my choices and my crime will never be fully paid. I’ve spent my time in prison and “paid my debt to society”. I’ve lost my career and my family. I no longer have the financial resources and wealth that I had once begun to accumulate. But I am changed. My relationship with God is stronger than ever and I’m not the man I once was. My sibling bonds have been restored and I see grace clearly each and every day in my life. But still…there are days when the reminder of my loss is more painful than others. And the realization that sometimes “good news” is “painful news.”

Photo from Flickr
Computer image by Mike Licht, Notions Capital.com

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beyond the Clouds

Each morning as I carefully descend the three metal steps from my fifth-wheel trailer I call home to go to the car to head for work, I take a glance to the east to look at the mountains. I never know what I might see. The property that my trailer sits on has one of the most magnificent views of Mt. Rainier in the region. Sadly, I have to admit that on most days, the entire mountain range is obscured with cloud cover and not even the foothills are visible. But even with that knowledge, I still take the time to look because I know that “it’s there”.

We sit on the tarmac as the plane loads…filled with excitement for the next week. As usual, the black asphalt glistens from the rain that falls so regularly in the Pacific Northwest. As I look out the window, the sky is gray with the sun invisible…hiding somewhere “up there”. I have flown enough to know that if we fly high enough, we will break above the clouds and be in the light of our nearest star.

I’ve thought about clouds and what’s hidden behind them a lot over the past couple of months. I’m not sure if it’s just my nature…or all of human nature, to look for those things that we believe should be there. Or, seek after those things that we really want, even when it seems that they are too far out of reach. A journey beyond the clouds was culminated this past weekend at my younger brother Geoff, and his wife Lynn's home in Bothell.

I was there for a celebration. Not only me, but also my sister Deb and her husband Walt and about thirty plus friends of my little brother’s. For the past several months, he and his wife have been trying to purchase the property that they have been living on. For the three years that he’s lived there, on many occasions he has commented on how much he loved that place and that it was exactly the kind of place he would like to buy some day. But he knew that it wasn’t going to be this particular place. It was a rental house and large shop building sitting on a little over an acre that was destined to be torn down so that a sub-division could be built.

But then something that has become so familiar in these tumultuous economic times occurred…the developer went bankrupt and the property was turned over to the bank. Six months ago, Geoff was informed that he would need to find another place to live…he was being evicted. Suddenly his life was engulfed by thick, heavy clouds that obscured a vision of the future for him. For a while, he looked for other places to live, all the while continuing to pay the monthly rent on the property. One month stretched into two…then three. I asked him on the phone one night how his search for a new home was coming. “We’re in denial”, was his response. They simply didn’t know where to go or even where to look. When we’re in the clouds, that’s what life is like.

A few months later, a plan started to formulate. A decision was made to make an offer to the bank for the home. They knew that there was no way that they could offer what the developer had initially paid for the property, but they also realized that a lot of property was selling for considerably less than what its market value had been only a few years earlier. After some negotiating, they settled on an “offer” and started to work with the bank for financing. They had qualified for a loan through another lender, but the bank apparently wouldn’t accept that type of loan. As the deadline for the offer neared, the final paperwork was submitted…and it was time to wait. A phone call from the bank and suddenly the clouds pushed back in. Denied. No “ifs, ands or buts”. It was done.

I was with my little brother the day after the notification and you could see the weight of sadness on his face and in his voice. No anger…just the disappointment of not getting to the top of the mountain, of not being able to see around the next bend in the trail. He had an attitude of grace, simply telling me that if this wasn’t the place that God wanted him, then He must have an even better place picked out for him.

A few days later, something amazing happened…the clouds started to clear. He received a phone call from the lender that he had originally qualified through. Interest rates had dropped nearly 3/4th of a point and he would now qualify for the amount of the offer they had made on the house. Calls were made to the bank that held the deed on the house to get the offer extended for another month…something the bank didn’t seem excited to do, but that they did nevertheless. More paperwork filled out and submitted. A bit of stress in the household as Geoff and his wife worked to navigate the purchase with everything seemingly against them.

The final day that the offer was valid for quickly approached and it seemed that the top of the mountain was in sight. A meeting at the bank and the final closing papers were signed. A request for the money to be wired to an escrow account submitted and confirmation that it was received. It was time to put the sunglasses on because it seemed that they had finally ascended beyond the clouds. But….

Then the phone call. “The escrow company has wired the money back. The lender needs proof of seven more months of rental receipts.” It was after three o’clock in the afternoon when the news was received. The lending bank was in Texas, two time zones ahead. The banks were closed. It was a Friday and the offer was only good until midnight on Saturday. Suddenly, the clouds moved back in. A weekend of uncertainty lay ahead.

There is no coincidence in my mind that last Sunday as I stood in the backyard of my brother’s newly purchased home that there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Through perseverance and a desire to achieve the goal of purchasing his home, Geoff and Lynn refused to allow the dark clouds to turn them back. While most of the time, the end was never really visible…never really clear, life teaches us (if we look) that there is ALWAYS something beyond the clouds. It may be the snow capped peak of Mt. Rainier. Or perhaps the sun as it reaches down from heaven shining on a jet as it streaks across the sky. Or maybe, it’s a dream realized.


Mt. Rainier photos by Mark

Geoff and Lynn photo by Deb Shucka

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Shadows

My eyes slowly adjusted as the pale morning light struggled to penetrate the dust and grime on the windows of the old milking parlor. I stood there with my hands stuffed into the pockets of my blue jeans…the knees ripped and worn and in need of new patches. I could feel the cold, fall air on my neck as it drifted over the collar of my old, red coat. In the corner where the calves were penned, I could see him down on his knees. I slowly walked forward, not really thinking about whether or not I should be here…after all, it was daddy’s farm and Mike just worked for him. I was startled by the sound of a snap and crunch, followed by a short bleat of the young calf.

“Whatcha doin’, Mike?” I asked as I stood watching, partially obscured in the shadows. I walked toward him as he looked up from the motionless calf laying at his feet.

“I had to put this one out of its misery”, he replied as he looked up with a start. “It was born with his hips twisted and couldn’t move. I think his back was broken.”

“How’d you put it out of its misery? All I heard was a crunchin’ sound.”

“I just broke his neck….that’s the easiest way. And they don’t suffer much that way.”

“You must really be strong to be able to do that.”

“Not really. It’s pretty easy to break the neck of things that small.”

I looked down at the dead animal, its body lying in a limp mass at my feet. Even though it was a newborn, it was still bigger than I was, and its neck was certainly thicker. I turned to leave and told Mike I might see him later on.

“Hey Mark. Would you like to come by my trailer and have some pizza with me some time?” he asked as I reached the concrete steps that led up out of the milking parlor.

“I’ll have to ask Mommy”, I said as I opened the wooden door and stepped out into the sunlight, “but hopefully she’ll let me. We don’t get to eat pizza very much and its one of my favorites.”

It was only a few weeks later that it worked out that I could go to Mike’s and have the pizza for lunch. I was looking forward to getting to be in his trailer and eat one of my favorite foods. I knocked on his door and waited…shuffling my feet with my hands stuffed into my pockets. He opened the door and invited me in and I entered the dimly lit trailer he called home. The space was small and had the smell of a room that was kept closed up. The windows were covered by pull-down blinds and the small kitchen table was covered with papers and books.

“I thought we’d eat over on the couch,” he said as he walked over into the kitchen area. “It will be more comfortable there than at the little table I have.”

I walked over and plopped down on the couch…older, yet it still looked newer than anything we had in our house. I was filled with excitement as only little kids can be as I sat there waiting for lunch. The smell of the basil and marinara sauce on the pizza drifted in from kitchen as Mike opened the oven to take it out, making me realize how hungry I was.

“It will just be a minute to let it cool and then we can eat,” I heard him call out. “Would you like some root beer or do you have to have milk?” he asked.

A choice? I was thrilled that I’d be able to drink something other than the water or milk that it seemed I had to drink at every meal.

“Root beer, please,” I said as I sat on the small couch that was the only piece of real furniture in this small space. In a few minutes, Mike came over with a plate with the pizza and a glass of root beer and sat down beside me. We sat and ate while Mike told stories of his work and asked questions about how I liked living on the farm. After gobbling down two pieces, I was full and started to get up to take my plate and glass into the kitchen.

“I’ll get that for you, Mark” he said as he stood up and took the dishes from my hands. A moment later, he returned and sat back down beside me…closer it seemed than he was before. As he sat and continued to talk, I felt his fingers run through my short crew cut and down along my neck. My body responded with goose bumps as his fingers touched my neck.

“That tickles Mike!!” I said as I leaned away from him.

“Oh, you’re ticklish are you?” he responded as his hands and fingers started to move across my young body. I twisted and squirmed on the couch as he continued to touch me all over, not containing himself to my neck or my arms and chest. My body shuddered as his fingers touched my private area the first time. The touch was electric and I stopped all movement…barely breathing as the sensation coursed through me. His hand stopped and started to rub and stroke me more deliberately.

“Does that feel good?” he asked as his fingers touched me in a way I had never been touched before. I stammered as I replied that it did and just sat there on his sofa. He slowly unbuttoned my pants and slid down the zipper, his fingers sliding inside my underpants. I gasped as I felt his rough fingers touch me. “I bet it would feel really good if you touched me like this too”, he said as he looked at me and continued to caress me. “Would you touch mine for me, Mark?”

My mind raced as I sat there, enjoying the pleasure but feeling and emptiness grow in the pit of my stomach. There seemed to be something wrong but I had no idea what it might be. I nodded that I would do that for him as he unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. I began to touch his privates with my small fingers and could hear him begin to moan. His hands stopped touching me and I soon felt his hand move up to the back of my neck. I suddenly felt the pressure of his hand pushing my head down toward his lap. As I tried to pull away from him, his fingers tighten their grip on my neck. My face was soon pressing against his groin.

The next several minutes were a blur as he forced me to perform oral sex on him. Tears burned my eyes and streamed down my face as I did what he told me to do…his hand continually on the back of my neck. When it was over, he released his grip and I pulled away…slinking into the corner of the couch.

“I gotta go Mike”, I said as I drug my sleeve across my face to wipe the tears away. He fastened his pants as I stood up to leave. “Just a minute”, he said as he stood up in front of me. He slowly leaned down until his eyes were at my level. Resting his hands on my shoulders with his fingers touching my neck, he stared directly into my eyes.

“This is something you can NEVER tell anyone…ok Mark!” he said. I stood there trembling, feeling his strong hands on my neck. Suddenly my mind saw Mike kneeling over the calf…and the sound of a snap and a crunching sound. It felt as though my heart stopped for a moment and I stood there frozen. “It’s pretty easy to break the neck of things that small” was suddenly screaming in my ears.

“I promise I’ll never tell anyone Mike. I promise, really I do! Ok?!” I spit out as I stood there more afraid than I’d ever been in my life. He stood up and stepped out of my path. I quickly walked to the door and out into the late afternoon air. The shadows were falling as I walked up the hill toward the house. What I didn’t realize then was that the events of the fall afternoon were also the beginning of a perpetually darkening shadow in my own life.

Photos from Flickr

Monday, August 2, 2010

Beyond Frank...

There is a part of me that can still feel the excitement…we were going on a vacation! And not only was it a vacation, but it was an over-night vacation. Mom and dad talked about it for weeks before we left. We didn’t have many opportunities growing up to get away from the dairy. After all, the cows needed to be milked every day, the milk processed and bottled and then delivered to waiting customers six days a week. Even now as I think back, I’m not sure how we were able to get away for even this short trip.

My mind rushed with the possibilities of what me might discover when dad said that we were going to Frank, Alberta. While I had never heard of that particular part of Canada, when he told us that there had been a major landslide that buried a small mining town at the turn of the 20th century, I fantasized about what we might find as we rummaged through the rocks once we got there. Would there be treasure or other “old” stuff that we might find? What if we found some bones of someone buried alive? That would be “so cool”…if not just a little bit scary for a little boy.

We finally started out on our adventure…the long awaited vacation. As we pulled out of our gravel driveway, the sky was dark with clouds and the threat of rain. We headed north up highway 95 toward the Canadian border. We crossed the border at Porthill and continued the drive toward Frank as we passed through Cranbrook…a not so unfamiliar destination of frequent Sunday drives. I barely noticed the rain as it started to fall, my mind racing with the thought of the explorations that was only a few hours away. As we continued toward Crowsnest Pass, the rain began to fall harder and the cloud cover seemed to thicken as we made our way up over the pass at 4,455 feet.

When we dropped over the top, my face was plastered to the cold, damp window. Surely I’d be able to see the huge mound of dirt and rocks that had buried this once bustling mining town. I was sure that dad would be pulling off the road any time now so we could go out and start to dig for old stuff. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of dad talking to mom.

“Well, there it is,” I heard him say. I turned my head, peering out the window, only to see huge rocks bigger than our car strewn across the country-side. "Surely there was something wrong," I thought. "This can’t be it!" This was supposed to be a landslide, with dirt and little rocks that we could dig through. This was going to be an adventure where we were going to go digging and searching…and exploring. I could feel the burning of the tears as they started to well in my eyes, keeping my face pressed to the cold window so no one else could see.

Finally, I turned away from the window and asked if we were going to get to stop at all and check it out. I could see mom give dad a furtive glance. “It’s pretty wet out there in the rain, but I guess we can stop for a little bit if you kids want to,” he replied. We soon pulled off the side of the road, and pulling on our coats, we got out of the red Rambler station wagon and climbed around on a few rocks. There was no way we were going to be able to explore anything. The boulders we climbed across were too large to even try to budge. Our stop lasted only a few minutes before we were all getting cold and damp from the falling rain.

As I think back on that weekend of my youth, I’m reminded of the power of dreams. As the days dragged leading up to the “big vacation”, I couldn’t wait for the adventure to begin. My mind was filled with images and thoughts of all of the “what-if’s” that we might encounter. It gave me something to think about, something to ponder, something to hope and wish for. It also reminds me that sometimes our dreams are fulfilled in unexpected ways. In this case, there is a little more to the story.

We drove away from huge rocks and sandstone boulders and continued to drive further north into Alberta. Finally, someone asked where we were going.

“Mommy has always wanted to go to Banff and Lake Louise and since we’re this close, we’re going to drive up there,” dad responded.

“How far is it?” I asked.

“About another 200 miles,” he replied as he relit his pipe filled with his Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco. He rolled his window down a crack to allow the sweet fragrance of the smoke to escape as he drove along the Canadian Rockies toward our destination. It was nightfall by the time we reached Banff and found a place to stay. The air was still filled with the dampness of fallen rain. My heart filled with the weight of another disappointment.

The next morning, we were greeted with a cloudless sky as we awoke. The city of Banff wasn’t bustling on this Sunday morning as we searched for a place to eat breakfast, but at least the sun was shining and the air was warm. The food seemed tasteless as we sat in the Canadian restaurant and soon returned to the car to pack up for the drive back home. But before we headed south to return to the North Idaho dairy, dad started the 35 mile drive up to Lake Louise.

“What a waste,” I thought as we drove along the narrow two-lane highway. “We live by a lake. Why can’t we just go home.”

We finally reached the top of the nearly 2,000 foot climb up the mountain to the lake. As we turned a final corner, I felt like the air was knocked out of me! There in front of us was one of the most beautiful lakes I had ever seen with a huge, castle on the shore. This was a completely unexpected treasure that was delivered to us on this trip that had seemed such a disappointment to me.

I’ve discovered that dreams are like that. All too often, I get something built up in my mind about how great it is going to be…only to find that it wasn’t what I expected at all. Instead, something else is revealed during the “dream quest” which turns out to be even better.

I’m reminded of this trip down memory lane as I follow the dream quest of my sister, Deb. A pent-up dream of being a writer for years finally became a reality for her a year ago. Dreams of completing her first book, finding an agent, getting published and sharing her story have been left mostly unfilled. But like our trip to the Canadian Rockies as children, an even greater treasure is being revealed. Healing. Recognition as an amazing writer. The development of friendships and relationships that only occur through the willingness to share and be transparent. And ultimately, a book that will far exceed anything that she could have conceived when she started this journey.

Photo of Frank Landslide - by dimoreien on Bing Photos
Chateau Lake Louise - Bing photos

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chewing the Cud

She would seem to simply lay there, hour after hour, eating. To my young six-year old mind, it didn’t really seem to make any sense.

“Daddy”, I asked. “Where does Beaulah get all of her food to eat? I didn’t see her get up and get some hay, but she’s still eating. And nobody brought her any new stuff.”

“Oh, she’s just chewing her cud. All cows do that,” he replied.

I walked away, still perplexed. “What was a cud…and why did she keep chewing it,” I asked myself.

It wasn’t for quite a few years before I really gained a clear understanding of what the “cud” was and why the cows on our dairy farm always seemed to be chewing on it. The short story is that cows eat grass and hay that contain materials that they can’t easily digest. As a result, they will swallow the food and then regurgitate the material back up and in the process be able to slowly digest the food.

I’ve thought about this process of “chewing the cud” lately as I’ve been working to write my book. It isn’t coming easily…and part of the reason is that I don’t yet have everything processed in my mind. And it seems that if I try to force it, I’m not discovering the richness of everything that needs to be in the story.

There are some who believe that it is foolish to keep bringing up my past memories. They say that it is better to either simply forget or to only focus on the positive. But I want more than that. I want to know the richness of my entire life…of all of my life experiences. I want to know why I am who I’ve become. I want to be able to share the impact of my life with others who face the same struggles and difficulties that I have…and do. Like the cows of my childhood chewing their cuds to receive the maximum nutrient from their food, I need to wait patiently chewing on my memories…allowing them to be regurgitated. And then chew on them some more...discovering my whole story.

Photos from Flickr

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Missing!

I was somewhere in that magical place between deep sleep and actually awaking…my favorite time of slumber. I could sense that it was nearing time to wake up when I heard the sound. Barking and yapping. The “kids” were awake. As I glanced at the alarm next to the bed I realized that I was planning to get up in a few moments and realized that I wasn’t going to get any more sleep on this Sunday morning. The magical moment was lost…not to be retrieved for at least another day.

I pulled a t-shirt on and went down stairs to find the three of my temporary babies wagging their tails and barking their “we’re so happy you’re up now” greetings looking at me through the gate that keeps them from the run of the house. I reached down, giving each of them a quick love and opened the door so they could go out and do their morning “ritual” in the fenced back yard. As they took off romping and barking across the backyard, I walked to the laundry room for the watering can and went outside to take care of the watering needs of some of the plants I had been left to care for during the week.

As I emptied the last of water into the hanging tomato planters, I noticed that the back yard had grown quiet of both sound and movement. Perhaps the pups had finished their business and gone back inside. After all, it was kind of cool and damp with a light fog still hanging in the early summer morning air. I took a quick look inside and saw that their beds were still empty. I took a quick walk around the side of the house where I knew they liked to occasionally explore and found it empty. As I walked back around the corner of the house, I looked to the back of the yard…and suddenly it felt as if my heart stopped beating!

It wasn’t possible! I had been out here last evening watering plants and letting the dogs out and it wasn’t like this. But there it was…the back gate was open. While the gap between fence and gate was only about 8 inches, it may as well have been the entire fence knocked down. I jogged across the yard in my bare feet, successfully avoiding the “deposits” left by the dogs over the past week. I stepped through the gate entrance and looked both directions. To my dismay, the small park area behind the house was empty.

I made a quick decision and headed to the west…following along the fence line. My head turned to the right and the left as I scanned the park area for signs of the dogs. Suddenly my heart started racing as I saw an opening in the fence along the southern border of the park. I walked over and looked through. I was greeted with the sight of an overgrown field with dried grass and weeds at least waist high. Along the edge of the fence a trail was visible that had been used by some kind of animal. Was it possible that Babe, Buddy and Missy had taken this route only moments before?

Looking down at my bare feet…growing cold and wet in the morning dew-stained grass, I realized that I was not prepared to venture down that path. I turned away from the fence with its missing boards and continued to the far end of the park. Suddenly, I heard the sound of barking dogs! It was the familiar sound of the “yap” that small dogs make. As I turned the corner, across the yard I could barely make out a small black dog and a second small dog with light brown fur.

“Come on Buddy!” I called out.

I was greeted with even louder barking as I started to step into the yard. Without my glasses on it was difficult to see much more than the dark blur of the barking dog. Then I realized that the dog was on a chain…and my heart fell. These weren’t the canine charges left in my care for a week. I turned and started to walk in the opposite direction, calling out for the dogs. As I approached the still open gate, I walked back through the house and out the front door. I walked to the street and scanned in both directions. Still nothing. I hardly noticed the cold and rough pavement on my bare feet as I started walking up the street to the nearest intersection. Once again I called out for Buddy. Then Missy. No barking...and no dogs.

I walked back to the house to put on my shoes and grab my glasses thinking about what was happening. What was I going to tell Paul and Mary? How long should I wait? Was I going to miss church this morning in order to scour every street in this secluded development…knowing that the dogs could be just one street over constantly moving away from me? Or even worse, somewhere in the vacant, overgrown field that I had discovered on the south side of the park.

Grabbing my phone and glasses from the bedside table, I turned and started back down the stairs. As I turned to open the gate back into the kitchen, Babe and Buddy trotted into the kitchen through the sliding glass door that I had left open into the back yard. As each one looked at me, for a moment I could see in their eyes a slight “oops, sorry Mark” look as they walked around the kitchen. Buddy went directly to his bed and laid down. In her normal hyperactive prancing, Babe jumped up against my leg seeking some form of attention.

“Where have you guys been?” I asked, trying to keep any hint of anger out of my voice. “And where is your sister?”

I don’t know if was expecting a “Lassie” moment with one of them running out the door to lead me to Missy or not. If I was, I was gravely disappointed. Instead, the only response I got was Babe running to the far end of the kitchen and Buddy sniffing at his favorite stuffed rabbit toy.

I walked into the backyard looking for signs of the last of the missing dogs. Nothing. I went back out through the still open gate and walked to the fence with the missing boards. It didn’t appear as if anything had been disturbed since I was here a few minutes earlier, so I turned and decided to look up on the east end of the park in the area that was open to the street.

Suddenly, the familiar sight of the gray terrier turned the corner. Her head down following the familiar scent of her siblings, she moved slowly along the edge of the fence.

“Missy!” I called out. As she lifted her head, the small stub of her docked tail began to move back and forth as she began to run toward me. I walked toward the open gate and as she approached she looked up at me as she ran into the backyard. Content that all were accounted for, I reached up and secured the latch on the top of the gate…double checking to be sure it was completely locked.

I opened the door into the house and after a quick stop at the water dish, Missy went in and joined the other two pups. The three looked at me as if it had just been a "normal" morning. I looked at the clock and realized that I still had plenty of time to get ready for church. Looking back at the three little dogs that have found a place in my heart as I care for them every few months, I went to the laundry room and broke off a piece of their favorite treats and brought them back out. Leaning down to give each of the tail-wagging dogs their treat, all I could say was “I’m glad you’re home.”


Photos by Mark
Buddy, Babe (back) and Missy waiting for their treat)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Treasure!

The muscles in my forearms were beginning to ache and knot occasionally as walked the final few aisles of the Expo Center. Hanging from each of my hands were recycled department store sacks and plastic grocery store bags containing the “treasures” and “deals” that we had come across during the course of the antique show. The cord handles cut into my fingers as I occasionally switched hands to the ease the discomfort. The day that had begun nearly eight hours earlier was coming to a close. Our only pause during the day had been to grab a coffee as we explored the 1000+ booths to add to our collections. Most of the items that we had on our mental check-list had been handled and examined…and in many cases, purchased and carefully wrapped and packed in our recycled shopping bags.

As we came around a corner, my sister Deb immediately made a bee-line for a booth. Sitting on the back shelf, tucked away with other memorabilia from the last century was a yellow, McCoy vase. She had started her collection a few months earlier, and one of her goals for the day was to add to the expanding assemblage of yellow pottery on her wooden sideboard at home. Earlier, she had come across a bargain, finding a beautiful pitcher in exquisite condition. But this item was special…it had birds on it, and birds are one of her favorite things.

She gently picked the vase up, checking the bottom for a “mark” and then carefully examined it for cracks, chips or other blemishes. It seemed perfect. And then she saw the price…$45. Our eyes met as I could see the wheels in her mind turning. Forty-five dollars was a lot of money for the item, even in the condition that she found it.

A moment later, a woman who appeared to be in her early fifties walked over and asked if we needed any help. Deb had learned well from me throughout the day as I haggled with the different vendors to get the best price possible for an item. I had been an antiquer long enough to know that it was usually expected.

“What’s your best price?” Deb asked, holding the yellow treasure lovingly in her hands.

“I’ve already marked all of my pieces down as far as I can go,” the owner responded. “That’s a beautiful piece. I had it in my home for years and the way it’s tapered really allows for a perfect arrangement of flowers.” In my mind, I thought "of course it's beautiful, lady. That's why my sister wants it", but the I kept my thoughts to myself.

I could see the disappointment on my sister’s face as she looked at the vase one last time, setting it back on the shelf. She thanked the woman and we continued on our way down the bustling aisles.

“If she would have come down five dollars, I would have bought it”, she said. “Why would she mark items down before the show?” I didn’t have a good response for her.

The last several aisles of booths held no more treasures for us, and as we began to walk toward the exit, we once again passed the booth holding the McCoy. My sister slowed and once again walked over and picked up the vase. No, the price hadn’t miraculously gone down in the past 45 minutes. The rest rooms were nearby and I silently hoped that Deb would excuse herself to use them. My plan was to secretly buy her the vase while she was gone. But she was “fine” and we decided to call it a day.

As we walked out into the hot afternoon sun, there were a few rows of outside booths that we hadn’t checked out on our way in.

“Do you want walk through before we leave?" I asked.

“We might as well. You never know what we might find.”

We hadn’t passed more than a half a dozen vendors when Deb’s pace quickened and she veered to the right to one of the many, white-tented booths that lined the hot asphalt. There, on the top shelf was a yellow vase that looked the same as the one she had so carefully examined inside the exhibition hall. Checking the bottom she saw the familiar “McCoy” stamp. Her hands nearly trembled as she turned to me.

“It’s identical to the one inside,” she said, her voice quaking just a little bit.

She turned the vase gently in her hands, checking once again for cracks or chips…and for a price tag. The item was perfect, but there was no tag in sight. She carried the beautiful, yellow vase to the man sitting casually in the corner engaged in conversation with another gentleman.

“I’m sure you’re probably not giving this away today,” Deb said with a laughter in her voice. “This one doesn’t have a price on it.” The man gently took the vase from my sister’s hands and quickly looked it over.

“How does $20 sound?” he asked.

Forgetting all about the “haggling” nature of buying antiques, Deb quickly blurted out, “you don’t know how good that sounds! I’ll take it.”

The man took the vase and began to wrap it carefully in paper as my sister fumbled in her purse looking for the money. As she handed it over and we walked from the booth, we both realized what an incredible treasure we had been given this day. The treasure wasn’t only this “God-gift” of a $25 savings on a vase my sister wanted. The greater treasure was the day we had spent together…enjoying each other’s company. Discovering new antique pieces and learning new things about items we had seen before. And most of all…the treasure of the love between a brother and his sister.

Collection photo by Mark

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Going Home...2

I wasn’t sure what I expected as I retreated from mom’s tobacco tainted kiss…the stench of stale cigarette smoke imprisoned in the fabric of the thin, brown sweater she wore. The eyes weren’t red and puffy from crying. No make-up smeared from tears that had leaked from her moderately bulging eyes induced by a thyroid condition. I’m sure that she had shed the last of her tears for dad a long time ago.

She offered me a cup of coffee from the half empty carafe in the Mr. Coffee that sat on the counter-top. I politely declined, telling her that I was fine and walked across to the couch. She poured herself some of the pale, three-time filtered coffee and came over and sat at the other end of the couch. The empty hospital bed with the head-end inclined sat as a silent reminder as the reason why I was here.

“How are you doing, mom?” I asked.

She sat quietly for a moment and then responded that she was doing fine, her gaze out the east-facing window. I didn’t know if she was looking at the now-empty bed, or if she was just lost in her thoughts. I was uncertain what to say at this point. Mom and I have never been ones to have “deep” conversation. Whenever Paula and I would visit, it was usually mom and Paula who would do the talking while I simply sat and enjoyed the stories. For the next several minutes, we just sat there quietly in a silent peace.

I finally asked how it had happened.

“He just stopped breathing. I’m sure he wasn’t in any pain at all”, she replied. “The paramedics said they think that it was probably pneumonia. I guess there will be an autopsy since he died here instead of at the nursing home. The Medical Examiner said they always do that.”

I nodded a few times as she spoke… as my mind wandered. I was still trying to understand how I felt and if my own feelings were a mirror image of my mom’s indifferent description of dad’s death. It seemed more like she was talking about a neighbor or a friend than a man she called “daddy”…her husband for nearly 40 years. I had to assume that the past several years of watching him decline in health and mental capacity had leached the last of her emotions from her being.

“He wanted to be cremated, you know?” she continued. “I’m sure you’ll want to see him first…to say your good-byes. Tomorrow would be a good day for that, if you’d like. They took him to the Moon Funeral Home and I’ll call them to make sure when a good time will be”, she added.

She absently lit another cigarette and took a sip from her now-cold cup of coffee.

“Would you like me to fill that for you…heat it up a little bit?” I asked.

She nodded an affirmation and I took the cup to the kitchen. As I reached for the coffee carafe, I could feel the thin coating of dust and cooking grease on the counter top and coffee maker. On the bar opposite the stove, the counter was nearly invisible under old mail, unread newspapers and other “stuff” that was haphazardly left there. The dish strainer was piled high with dishes that had been washed sometime during the previous days, but never put away. To the left of the sink, the "mulch dish" sat empty and stained...waiting for the next batch of coffee grounds or potatoe peels to fill it. On the stove-top, the ever present cast iron skillet sat on a grate with a layer of congealed bacon grease resting in the bottom. The sight of the skillet caused me to smile inwardly as I remembered the time my aunt Bea had nearly had a heart attack when she went to the kitchen one morning to find a mouse...still alive, in the skillet covered by a lid. Apparently mom or dad had awakened during the night, saw the mouse and trapped...it figuring they could take care of it in the morning.

I took the cup back across to mom and handed it to her. She thanked me and set it on the “hour-glass” stand that stood at the end of the couch…a gift to dad many years before. The “Viking Ship” wall hanging tilted slightly to one side above her behind the couch, a victim of neglect. A thin veil of dust covered the hardwood floors and small bits of firewood and old newspapers cluttered the corner in front of the fireplace. Dad’s sabre, an artifact collected at some point in his early life, hung unceremoniously above the mantle...tarnished and blackened with soot.

As I looked around this house…this place where I had been raised, I felt a sudden need to get out and get some fresh air. I looked across at mom and asked if she needed anything. She shook her head “no” and I told her that I wanted to just go outside and walk around…that I would be back in a little while. She looked up at me and asked if I was alright? I quickly responded that everything was fine, I just wanted to walk around the place for a little bit.

I turned and grabbed my coat and as I walked out the front door, I had to ask myself… “Was I alright?”


Photo from Flickr

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The "Gibb's Slap"!

When it dawned on me, it felt like a legendary “Gibb’s Slap”…that upward slap on the back of the head that the fictional character Jethro Gibbs on NCIS gives to Agent DeNozo whenever he says, or does, something stupid. It was so obvious…yet I have been so utterly blind to it for years. Maybe blind to it my entire life.

A lot has been revealed to me over these past several years as I search for healing and truth is my life. Some of the lessons have been discovered simply in my times of self-reflection and writing. This one, however, has become evident in the life of others…the lives of several people who are very important to me.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk and visit a lot with my sister over the past 35 months, and during our discussions over morning coffee or leisurely visits to antique shops, we’ve both discovered that we can be vulnerable with each other. But even though I’d heard the words a number of time, they just hadn’t penetrated my understanding. A couple of incidents that have occurred in the past several months have taken care of that.

A little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of getting to spend a day with my family…my sister and two brothers. And while that doesn’t sound like an extraordinary event, in the case of my siblings it was. It had been nearly a decade since we had been together for anything other than a funeral. We were brought together to play in a golf tournament. At least, that’s why my brothers and I were there, along with my brother-in-law. My sister, however, was there for a much more important reason.

Whaack!!!

It wasn’t because she probably wanted (or needed) to walk the three and a half miles through soggy grass. And she probably wasn’t all that impressed with the wayward shots or the knuckle-bumping on the good ones. Even though she loves nature and the view of Mr. Rainier walking up the seventh fairway is spectacular, she was there because…well, she was invited. She belonged with us!!

Whaack!!!

Last Friday, as I drove the 55 miles up to my younger brother’s home for the fourth of July holiday, I called my sister-in-law. Again, not a special thing by itself…but Clare’s birthday was the next day and I wanted to wish her a Happy Birthday. When my brother answered the phone, I asked for his wife and then sang her my best rendition of “Happy Birthday” in my “not-so” Frank Sinatra voice. I could hear the joy in her voice as she thanked me for calling and serenading her for her birthday. I hadn’t called to talk to my brother…just her. In my own little way I had helped to feel like she is a part of our family. She belonged! It had only been a few months earlier when I discovered that she (or at least Frank) didn't believe that we had accepted Clare as being a part of our family.

Whaack!!!

WHAACK!!!


I finally got it! The need of belonging and how important it is to us…even to me. I had “learned” all about it during my education coursework. Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”. I’d seen how important it was as it played out in the lives of the young people that I had taught and coached over the years. But I had never put my finger on it in my own life…or in the lives of those that I love. I guess I just took it for granted that they always knew they were loved and that they belonged as a part of my life. I was like the man on his wedding night who told his new bride, “I told you during the ceremony that I love you. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”

We need more than that. I need more than that. And I need to make sure that those who are important to me know that I want them in my life…that they are important, and that they are loved. And I hope that in the future, I don’t need Agent Gibb’s slapping me in the back of the head to remember.

Head Slap photo from MotivatedPhotos
Maslow photo from Wikipedia

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reunion at the "Greens"

The ringing of the phone jarred me from wherever it was that my mind had wandered into. The digital clock on the dashboard read 6:18 AM and I thought I knew where everyone was that might be calling me this early. I pulled my cell phone out of its holster and my heart seemed to skip a beat as I read the name displayed there.

“Geoff Lyons”

My mind started racing, thinking of all the possibilities that a call from him might mean…today of all days!

“Did he get lost?”
“Was Lynn’s mom ok?”
“Were they just leaving the house?”
“Did he change his mind about playing today?”


I pushed the green “connect” button on my Blackberry and as calmly as I could said, “hello”.

“You’re late!” came the familiar voice on the other end of the line. I smiled as I visualized the twinkle in his eye as he verbally chastised me for insisting that he leave early to be at the golf course in time just the night before. I explained that we were about three minutes away and then pushed the off button. “He made it”, I thought as I travelled the last two miles to the Tanwax Greens Golf course. And so started an amazing day!!

It didn’t turn out anything like I would have imagined it. In fact, a golf tournament had never even crossed my mind over the past year. Fishing maybe. Or even a Mariner’s baseball game. Perhaps even simply meeting for coffee. But golf….never. The truth is neither of them had even picked up a golf club in nearly a decade. For Geoff, it had been closer to three decades. But nevertheless this is what was bringing us all together.

It had really just started as a blanket invitation on our family website. “Anyone for golf?” the invitation read. I didn’t really get any takers. When my sister read the comment, she thought that her husband Walt might like to come up and play. He loves the game like I do. But it honestly never crossed my mind that my brothers might be interested in playing as well. But over the course of the next three weeks, after using my best marketing skills everyone confirmed that they would play. And now…the day was finally here!

Pulling into the parking lot with Deb and Walt in the car behind me, I parked next to Geoff's little Geo Metro and got out. We greeted each other with warm hugs…and warmer smiles and I wondered for just a second if we would see many more smiles throughout the day. After all, today would be the first time in nearly a decade that the Lyons’ family would all be together for anything other than a recent funeral. Our family had been fractured…no, broken for the past nine years and I knew that I had been a part of the wrecking crew. So today was even more important to me as a day of reconciliation for all of us. I knew deep in my heart that we all desired that…a family that could, and would, outwardly share the love we have for one another. The arena for that to occur just hadn’t been discovered…not until today.

Only a minute later, my older brother Frank arrived in his deep blue Jeep Liberty. As he pulled to a stop, I knew that this would be a defining moment…actually a moment that might define the rest of our family history. His door opened and he walked across the parking lot and each of us received a hug and a smile. As I watched, I was reminded of my ex-wife Paula and the relationship that she has with some of her closest friends. They can be apart and not speak for months and when they meet again, they pick up like there had never been a time of separation. That’s what appeared to be unfolding in front of me. Anyone observing this group of grey-haired men and woman on this early summer morning would never have guessed that this wasn’t a weekly occurrence. Rather, they probably would have assumed this was simply a close family that enjoyed spending time together.

The remainder of the day was magical. At different times, ending up in a group of two or three…congratulating someone on a great shot. Or commiserating over a poor one. Or simply catching up on what was occurring in each of our families. There never seemed to be a stressful moment. No one had a “mask” on so there was no risk that it might slip during the course of the day.

I will be forever grateful for the love that four other people showed on that Saturday in June. A sister who was to travel 150 miles to walk around a golf course just to be with men she loved. Brothers who gave up their only morning to sleep-in to play a game that they had avoided for many years...and leave wives at home who would probably prefer that their husbands were home as well. A brother-in-law who loves his wife enough to be a part of this magical day…and wanted her to share in it as well.

For some, the golf clubs have been put away for the year. Over time, the birdie on the opening hole will be forgotten and the “day-after” soreness will fade away. But for each member of our family, the “day” will remain with us forever.

(Walt, Mark, Deb, Frank & Geoff)

Photos by Deb Shucka