Life is a highway

I have a love/hate relationship with surprises. It’s simple – I love being the surpriser and hate being the surprisee. I mean I do love little surprises – like when my dear wife comes home with a case of my favorite wine or a friend sends me a card in the mail when it’s not my birthday. I’m just not a fan of the big surprises – like a party where you never really are surprised, but you have to act like it to make sure everyone else is happy. That is no fun, but I’m all in as the surprise generator and I orchestrated a really good one for my sister over Labor Day weekend.

Sisters. Everything.

My sister lives in California but has been on the east coast for business and was visiting her dearest friend from high school – Paige – who lives in Waynesboro, Virginia. We grew up in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley in Harrisonburg – God’s country as my father was fond of saying – so Waynesboro is close to home for us. Paige and my sister have an extraordinary friendship dating back to the 8th grade. I hope to write about it some day in a book – yes, it’s that rich. They will both turn 60 next year, but when they get together, they’re like two teenagers and I was excited to crash their slumber party for one night. Bonus – Paige’s party mix is legendary.

Like the back of my hand…

The drive to Waynesboro up U.S. 29N through Virginia is the MapQuest of my life. I have made that drive at least 200 times since I moved to North Carolina in 1995. It was the route I took to visit my parents until they died in 2002. And during that darkest of years as they both succumbed to cancer, I was on autopilot, making that trek on an almost weekly basis. I was a little apprehensive that the drive might stir up some painful memories of that time, but instead, my trip was a comforting collage of many of the best times of my life – trips home for Christmas with my former partner, the car loaded with presents, goodies, and giddy anticipation; drives past miles of burnt sienna colored trees to Charlottesville to meet my folks and my dear friend Chris for a UVA football game; day trips to Lynchburg to visit my favorite aunt who always called me “Love” and made me feel cherished. This was a solo trip, but my car was filled with loved ones past and present.

My lucky number

My mind was so full on the trip up that I sometimes forgot that I was driving. Not in a dangerous way – more like when you enter a drive-thru carwash and slowly pull into the grooves of the tracks and shift your car into neutral and take your foot off the brake. There’s that sudden lurch forward, but then the car is driving itself and you simply let go, knowing that you are safe as you are mesmerized by the spray of changing colors. That’s what Route 29 feels like to me. I was being gently pulled forward in a cocoon of gauze filtered memories.

The Gospel according to Anne

As if the drive wasn’t already delicious enough, I treated myself to a free Audible trial and listened to a book by Anne Lamott – Almost Everything, Notes on Hope. Lamott is, of course, a wonderful writer and I love to hear her read her own work. It’s like sitting over a cup of coffee with her at the kitchen table. Neither one of us is in a hurry and I feel like she’s speaking directly to me – sometimes a little too directly. She often writes about family – a subject I find heartbreakingly fascinating. Lamott says that “family has to be a cauldron of challenges and loss or we couldn’t grow.” Yep. I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time stooped over that cauldron since my parents died – endlessly stirring lamentations and disappointments. I’m tired.

Me with my BFF Anne Lamott in 2016

Lamott shares a story about an uncle that she had a huge row with many years ago – while she was still drinking. A few years after getting sober, she offered an apology to the uncle and he reluctantly accepted. They remained distant and life went on and they both got older and he moved into assisted living. She visits him often now and says that she will miss him when he dies. Lamott explains that our old identities within our families keep us small and that our work, and it is hard work, is to forgive ourselves and our families. For years, my role in my family was that of the dutiful oldest child – a role Lamott describes as “code for filled with rage” – that made me laugh out loud. I was damn good at that job, but when my parents died seven months apart from each other, my identity was obliterated. I desperately clung to a role that no longer existed and set myself up for years of disappointment with unrealistic expectations of others. Lamott describes these expectations as “resentments under construction.” See? She was totally speaking to me.

I could not bear the idea that my perfect family no longer existed. Of course, it never existed – no family is perfect. Lamott says that this journey we call life is mostly about reunion. And she ends the chapter on family with four words that made me almost stop the car – “Don’t bank on never.” These words were a hopeful balm to me as I motored down memory lane.

I thought about a couple of interactions I had had on my birthday last week with two people I hold very dear. We’ve been estranged for many reasons – some quite valid, some tethered to those old identities. Whatever the reasons – the connection with those people gave me a bit of the peace I have been longing for. I felt hopeful that there might be more.

So, I made it to Waynesboro and surprised my sister and Paige – a good surprise I think – at least they made me feel like it was. And we laughed and laughed and shared old stories and inside jokes – the kind of things that families do when they get together. We cried a little, too, when we remembered those no longer with us and some of the hard things we had all been through. When I went to bed that night, my body was tired from holding so much joy. I want more of that tired, please – the restorative tired that connection and reunion bring.

Sunny surprises

My drive home the next afternoon was lovely. I stopped at the scenic overlook on top of Skyline Drive and stood in the breeze for a good while looking down on the beauty below. There was a family picnicking nearby – just as my family had done many times over the years. They were happy and laughing and I wondered how things get so achingly complicated when it comes to family.

And then I heard dear Anne’s wise voice again – “Don’t bank on never.” And I got back in my car heading towards Route 29 because somehow, that road always leads me home.

No matter where I live, I will aways be a Virginian.

On purpose

“I love you on purpose.” Emma, age 3 ½

Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you find a nugget of hope and inspiration in the most unlikely of places. I found mine with a stack of French toast at a breakfast outing a few weeks ago with some much younger women – twin sisters Emma and Molly. Their mom shared the story of Emma recently declaring that she loved her “on purpose.” Mommy was very touched, of course, but also a bit bemused, and questioned Emma if she knew what “on purpose” meant – to which Emma quickly replied, “I mean it.” Gulp.

Ouiser Boudreaux. My doppleganger.

Emma’s beautiful words have challenged me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to love on purpose – in the big picture, as in the world – and specifically, the United States. Some days, I feel like Ouiser from Steel Magnolias who famously declared, “I’m not crazy – I’ve just been in a very bad mood for 40 years.” My bad mood is only going on six years and its origin story can be directly traced to November 8th, 2016. Like so many good souls, I went through the five stages of grief after Hillary’s loss to Donald Trump. You know them – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The problem is that four (it only felt like 37) years of Trump made me relapse into a permanent state of stage two – anger. Joe Biden’s victory in 2020 granted me a brief sabbatical from my fury, but not a total absence – my anger was more like a simmering sauce pan on the back of the stove for a few months.

That saucepan has morphed into a full-blown dumpster fire the past several weeks – beginning with the horrific school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, TX. I learned of the carnage the afternoon before my dear wife and I were departing on a two-week vacation to the Pacific Northwest with our good friends Lori and Sue. Suddenly, picking out the right shoes to pack didn’t seem so important anymore. We had planned to watch the series finale of This is Us that evening and had joked that nothing says leaving on vacation like a good cry. Ironically, This is Us, premiering in the fall of 2016, became a balm for many of us during the dark chaos of Trump’s reign of terror. The fictional Pearson family often reminded us of the unexpected joys in everyday life. Yes, they also made us ugly cry every single time (dammit). True story – my wife and I would joke that “we hate this show” every time we cried – sometimes even before the opening credits were finished. But that was okay – we needed a safe place to cry, and the Pearsons were there for us for six moist seasons.

The Pearsons. My people.

We didn’t watch This is Us that evening, but we cried plenty of tears watching the news coverage of the massacre of 19 children and two teachers. I don’t have children and I always think of my younger friends who have school aged kids when these shootings happen – over and over again. I often wonder what my parents worried about when they sent me and my siblings off to school. They might have been anxious about us getting hurt playing sports or not doing well on a math test, but the idea of some other kid with an AR-15 rifle mowing us down was beyond their wildest nightmares.

Our flight to Seattle left early the next morning and I felt a bit relieved – and guilty – that I would be away from the news cycle for six hours or so. My wife and I usually reserve two aisle seats on flights – they provide a little more leg room and you have at least an outside chance that the middle seat might be empty for your flight. After I sat down, I started my usual screening of the folks filing towards me down the aisle. You know the routine – you really hope that frazzled mother with the cranky baby is not your seat mate. And you really hope it’s not the dude in the Dockers who screams manspreader and will knock you out slinging his carry-on bag into the overhead bin. I lucked out and got seatmates right out of central casting for the reboot of Dawson’s Creek. The pair were a young couple in their very early 20’s. The guy even looked like Kevin Pearson – the younger version – and he was completely unaffected by his good looks. His girlfriend was beautiful, too, and wearing shorty shorts – the kind I was never comfortable in even when I was 10. I usually give an eyeroll to this sort of airline attire, but she looked like she was on her way to pick flowers for her grandmother – just that creamy perfect skin and an irresistible smile. They apologized for making me have to get up so they could take their seats, and I could feel myself smiling too much at my good fortune.

Even at 30,000 feet, the grief was palpable.

I was a bit apprehensive that there might be a lot of PDAS between these lovebirds on the long flight – nobody wants to see that. They did hold hands a lot and giggle softly in each other’s ears and for a few precious hours, I believed that love could heal our broken world. And then they shared a pair of earbuds to watch a movie on one of their phones – Finding Nemo. I couldn’t make that up if I tried. Seriously? They were so freaking cute together. I wanted to get the addresses of their parents and write them thank you notes for creating two such lovely humans. They appeared so unblemished from cynicism. They were like that perfect new composition book you carried with you on the first day of 7th grade – full of possibilities just waiting to be written.

Spoiler alert: Dawson and Joey end up together in the reboot.

As we began our descent into Seattle, you could see the snow-covered crest of magnificent Mount Rainier appear. Young Kevin was snapping pictures out of his window seat, and I leaned over and asked if he would take a few on my phone for me. He smiled that sparkly smile and chirped, “Yes, ma’am.” And that didn’t even annoy me. I was invested in this young couple’s future – or at least, their trip to Seattle. I got a grip on myself and dialed it down as I said goodbye when our flight deboarded. They were probably climbing Mount Rainier later that afternoon. Anyway, I hope they can change the world with their bright spirits.

Depoe Bay, Oregon. Why don’t I live there?

And so, our great Pacific Northwest adventure began and something truly remarkable happened. I did not turn on a television for two weeks and somehow Nicolle Wallace and the rest of the MSNBC tribe managed without me. I read the headlines on my NYTimes app, but that was it. My screen time was filled with mountains, waterfalls, forests, flowers, coastlines and vineyards. I have been to Seattle a couple of times but had never been to Oregon – big mistake. Huge. I was absolutely gobsmacked (you don’t get many chances to use that word) by the breathtaking beauty of the state. I was totally immersed in nature, okay, and a fair amount of pinot noir, and I felt better than I had in months.

Cannon Beach. Goonies anyone?

I was also touched by the genuine kindness of so many folks we met along our journey. Sure, we saw plenty of hipsters, but mostly a lot of outdoorsy people who were friendly and laid back. They just go with the flow out there – literally. Rain does not prevent Oregonians from hiking, biking or anything else. I love that! They don’t bother with umbrellas because, well, they’re a pain and it rains a lot. I think they know how lucky they are to live there so they’re just naturally kind of happy. A craft beer bar and a coffee shop every 30 yards might have something to do with it, too.

Hood River.

One day in the Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Valley, we had planned to have a picnic lunch at a vineyard but learned upon our arrival that they did not allow outside food. We turned around and drove a bit before we pulled off onto a dusty patch next to a silo. We were unpacking our picnic when a guy in a pickup truck pulled up near us. I immediately went into full Ouiser mode preparing my retort for when he told us we couldn’t park there. Then the guy smiled at us and asked if we were lost. He said, “I saw you turn around up there and I wondered if you needed directions.” That’s the part in the cartoon where the dumbass (me) character’s face turns into an actual heel. I was disappointed in myself that anger was my default before I even knew what this man wanted with us. Wine country is a small world and the next day we ran into the same guy at Laurel Ridge Winery. He recognized us from the day before and said, “Hi, I’m Lucas – I’m the winemaker here.” I tried to make amends for misjudging him the day before by buying six bottles of his wine. Some apologies are easier to swallow than others.

Wine bandits. Give us your pinot and no one gets hurt.

The morning we left Oregon to return home, I took a walk on the beach by myself. We were staying in a very cool Airbnb in the tiny town of Netarts at the mouth of Netarts Bay on the edge of the coastal rainforest. I called it Pop-tarts because I’m goofy like that. The coastline is dazzlingly beautiful – so pure and untarnished – sort of like that young couple on the plane. I stood on the beach and tried to commit to memory everything I was feeling in that moment – the cool air on my face, the sound of the birds, the gentle lapping of the water. It was the one souvenir I wanted to take home with me – peace – and maybe a shred of hope that maybe we the people don’t have to keep screwing everything up.

The last time I wasn’t hot. Netarts Bay, Oregon.

Reentry into my real life was harsh. We returned to a heat wave and my car had to go in the shop for five weeks. Oh, and the Supreme Court went on a justice bender and overturned Roe v. Wade and Justice Clarence Thomas intimated that same-sex marriage could be on the chopping block next. And there were more shootings – and more shootings – and more disturbing revelations from the January 6th Committee. My moment of Zen from Netarts became a distant memory. I felt like so many of the things I had worked for most of my adult life as an activist were circling the drain.

And then I had breakfast with a couple of three-and-a-half-year-olds who seem wise beyond their years. Children are so present – what a gift that we alleged grown-ups abandon so easily. All that mattered to those two in that moment were the stuffed beavers we had brought them back from Oregon. Hey, I may not have children, but I do know how to get on their good side.

Beavers, sticky fingers, lots of giggles and a side order of inspiration were just what my weary spirit needed that morning. So, lately I’ve been trying to listen to my inner-child and put Ouiser on mute. I know it’s a tough challenge – I was a grouchy old woman long before my time – but I’m trying to be more present to the everyday gifts this broken beautiful world can offer.

 I’ll keep trying. I mean it.

I’m delighted to report that the beavers are very happy in their new habitat.

The missing years

My dad passed away peacefully on a beautiful Sunday morning 20 years ago today. These deathiversaries – as I am wont to call them – have become sacred days on my calendar and I try to celebrate my father in a special way. He loved being outdoors, so you’ll most often find me on a long walk or a stroll in some gardens. And I find myself almost always happy. That was one of my father’s most indelible traits – he was an eternal optimist. Damn him. It’s a tough act to follow for sure.

Twenty years is a big one to wrap my head around – so I did some math. That’s funny because I’m not good at math but I did figure out that I have now lived 31% of my life without my father. That’s almost a third of my life – you can check my work on that. I’m not sure why I did that because it certainly didn’t comfort me. I guess this is just my convoluted way of telling you that I have lived a long time without my father.

Same.

Lately, I’ve been imagining a conversation with him – probably over a Coors Light – his beer of choice. I would give him a recap of some of the highlights of the past two decades. (There are a lot of ways to measure 20 years.) Without a doubt, the very first thing that I would tell him is that his beloved University of Virginia Cavaliers won the NCAA National Championship in basketball in 2019. Nothing on this earth would have made him happier. Nothing. My father loved sports – as a participant and a fan. More importantly – to me at least – he was a good sport, too. He was a humble winner – although his teams didn’t do a lot of that – and he was the rarest of men – a gracious loser. No one was louder than him watching a game – well, maybe me and my sister. We inherited his sonic capacity for yelling. I don’t use that voice very often anymore – it terrifies my cat and makes my dear wife question her choices in life. Dad was always in it to win it, but was amiable in defeat and would optimistically lament, “We’ll get ‘em next time.”

Here’s an ironic sidebar. That magical night UVA captured the national championship, I watched the game alone in my condo silently while said dear wife was sleeping. You see, she cares less about sports than anyone I’ve ever known. It is one of her few flaws and I have learned to live with it. Let me remind you that that game went into overtime. Silent overtime. Granted, I was ferociously texting with my sister in California and my dear friend Chris in Charlottesville – but I didn’t make a peep. That said, I’m fairly certain that I damaged some internal organs by keeping all of that emotion inside. When the game was over and UVA had finally won THE BIG ONE, I wept with unbridled, albeit hushed joy. And I swear I could smell my father’s cologne. He was right there beside me. He still is in so many ways.

Rarer than a Bigfoot sighting – my dear wife enthusiastically cheering at a football game. (Probably because it was over.)

I would also tell my dad about the lore of the Bubba lucky charm. He had season tickets to UVA football games – no doubt where he honed his good loser skills. After he died, I kept the tickets for a few seasons. They were great seats, and it was nice to get together with Chris in Charlottesville on sun dappled fall afternoons. I don’t recall exactly how it began, but we invented a good luck ritual to use during games – the Lucky Bubba. My niece and nephew called my father Papa Bubba, and it became an endearing nickname that we all used. Chris and I decided that during each game we would be allowed three “Bubbas” to use when we needed something good to happen for UVA. We took this lark quite seriously and used our three lucky charms strategically. Sure, more often than not, UVA would still lose the game, but the Bubbas worked enough times to keep us engaged. And when a Bubba brought us to victory – well, that was the best. We still rely on Dad’s lucky charm – mostly by text. Laugh if you will, but we’ll always have that 2019 national championship.

Me (quietly) celebrating UVA’s Natty with my dad. And yes, those are of tears of joy.

I would most certainly tell my dad that I got married – real married. A lot can happen in 20 years. He would be pleased that I married a woman who shares his very best qualities. My wife is also an optimist and like my father, wakes up cheerful every morning. And like him, she is tall. My father regarded height as a virtue. He was 6’4’’ so I guess he did have a particular perspective on the subject. My wife also shares my father’s reverence for nature – particularly flowers. He had a green thumb and grew the most beautiful roses. He loved caring for them, and I can still picture his long frame bent over pruning his beauties on a hot day.

My dad was an everything’s coming up roses kind of guy, so it makes sense he had such a way with them.

I don’t know if I would tell Dad about the pandemic, but I have often thought that he would have done well with it. My dad was a resolute handwasher. He grew up dirt poor on a farm with no indoor plumbing, but I guess my grandmother instilled the importance of proper handwashing in him. He had big hands to match that tall frame and when he would come in from working in the yard, his first stop was always the kitchen sink to wash his hands. His hands were graceful, and he was never in a hurry as he scrubbed them. He was almost prayerful about it – as if he were giving thanks for the beauty of the earth and the soil between his fingers. I can just think of him washing his hands and feel peaceful.

The lucky truth is that I have a conversation with my father almost every day. These chats can run the gamut from fuchsias to flounder to Tony Soprano. My dad is in so many of the things that I love, too, and I’m sure that’s no coincidence. I don’t have to search for a connection to him – it runs deep inside me. No, I’m not the eternal optimist he was, but I am more often hopeful than not, and I think he had something to do with that. And Lord knows, I’m a good loser and I have found this to be an invaluable gift in this life.

My father had a mantra long before mantras were fashionable. He would tell us, “Only cry in victory, never in defeat.” As I kid, I thought he was talking about sports. Turns out it can be applied to all sorts of situations and his words have been a compass for me these past 20 years. And that is why should any of my tears fall today, they will gently land on the corners of a smile.

Thanks, Bubba.

I keep this photo on the bookshelf in my office. It is the essence of my father – outdoors, shirt off, cold beer in his hand and a smile on this face. Cheers, Dad! And keep those Bubbas coming – we need them in all sorts of ways.

All heart

It’s a traffic jam when you’re already late

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

It’s like ten thousand spoons and all you need is a knife

It’s meeting the man of my dreams

And then meeting his beautiful wife

Lyrics from Ironic by Alanis Morissette

Go home, irony. You’re drunk.

I will remember my late friend Johnny McGee for many reasons, not the least of which being that he is why I have lost my affection for irony. You see, I’ve always been rather enchanted with the concept of irony. It can be funny or dramatic but almost always clever. Irony used to amuse me, but not so much anymore. A few weeks ago, my friend Johnny, a man with the biggest heart I’ve ever known, died of a massive heart attack. Yes, a little too ironic.

Everybody loved this guy.
All photos courtesy of Charlie-Theresa Dodson McGee

Johnny and I met over 25 years ago when I moved to Greensboro from Washington, DC. with my then partner for a new job opportunity for her. Most of our friends thought we were crazy for deliberately moving to a state where gay basher extraordinaire Jesse Helms was a longtime senator. We were certain that we would be the only gays in the village so imagine our surprise when we found the Triad to be teeming with our tribe. I met Johnny – and his husband Bruce – at a meeting of the Triad Business and Professional Guild – a deliberately ambiguously named networking group for the LGBT community. Several Guild members were teachers or worked in law enforcement and were not out professionally for fear of losing their jobs. It was a different world in 1996 and the Guild was created to be a safe space for all.

Johnny and Bruce. These are a few of my favorite men.

Johnny and Bruce were gentle giants who stood out in a crowd so I’m sure they were one of the first couples that we met. This blog post is about Johnny, but it is hard for me to type his name without Bruce’s. They were together for 36 years and I seemed to almost always say their name as one word – Johnnyandbruce. When you met them, you immediately felt comfortable – they were both softspoken and kind. And I would soon learn that they were tremendous advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS in the Triad. They were founding members of Triad Health Project (THP), a local AIDS service organization that continues to this day. THP’s main office number was originally Johnny and Bruce’s home phone number – just process that. Client records were kept securely in a shoebox under their bed and Johnny and Bruce were often surrogate family for people who had been abandoned by their own.

I penned a letter to the editor in honor of Johnny following his death and posted it on my Facebook page to share with folks who might not have heard the sad news. I was overwhelmed by the volume and genuineness of the comments on the post – some from folks I had never met. People used words like legacy, generosity, and compassion. Some recalled Johnny’s wonderful hugs. My friend Susan Ladd, a former writer at the Greensboro News and Record, credited Johnny and Bruce for helping to educate her and the community on the humanity of those living and dying with AIDS. A woman who was a student when Johnny taught high school Spanish and served as a Young Life coordinator wrote that he was “exuberant, loving, always positive and non-judgmental – all the qualities needed to work with highschoolers.” She forgot patience. Johnny had a lot of that, too, but he did not suffer bullies – or bigots – gladly. He was never afraid to be the voice for the marginalized.

When Facebook becomes Wailing Wall.

I find comfort in grieving with others and my aching heart was buoyed by so many folks sharing their thoughts about Johnny, one of the most humble men I have ever met. I spent over 25 years in non-profit development, and I learned early on that some people give for recognition – often the people with the most money – there’s my old friend irony again. Johnny McGee gave a lot in all manner of ways and never once did it for the acknowledgement – so it was fitting that I heard from Bruce later that evening. He messaged me and said, “Thanks for all the kind words in your letter to the editor. Johnny would be blushing all over.”

You know you are a mad baker when your nickname is Johnny Cheesecake.

Johnny was that rare man who was comfortable in himself. He was a big man – well over six feet tall – who was never interested in what was trendy. He could make a cheesecake that could put that factory joint out of business. And he loved his final teaching post at Bennett College, one of only two all-women HBCU’s in the nation – especially marching with his Belles in all white on special days. He was gracious to a fault. One time my partner and I were hosting a cocktail party the night before a big THP fundraiser. When Johnny got his invitation, he called to see if I needed to borrow any of his chafing dishes – plural. I teased him for years that that was the gayest thing anyone had ever asked me. I told him that lesbians and open flames are a recipe for disaster and we laughed ourselves silly.

Maybe now you can understand why the idea of Johnny McGee succumbing to an attack by the very thing that defined him is just too much irony for me to bear.

I’ve thought a lot the past few weeks about how best to honor Johnny. I know he would appreciate memorial gifts to Triad Health Project, but more than that, I think Johnny would want us all to simply be more kind. So, I’m going with a new mantra, with no sacrilege intended – WWJD. What would Johnny do?

Easy answer – the right thing with a ton of heart.

To scale drawing of Johnny’s heart.

Last call

I see what you did there.

I fancy myself a pretty good writer sometimes, although I know I am guilty of overusing metaphors. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Dammit, there I go. Anyway, sometimes the metaphors just find me, and I can’t turn away – like grabbing a peek at a car accident. See? Make it stop!

Looking for the light.

A few days before Christmas, I took my dear wife in for a colonoscopy. She’s a cool cucumber about the whole thing – she’s had several because her brother was diagnosed with colon cancer at 27. Yeah, that will get your attention. I wasn’t able to sit in the waiting area during her procedure because of heightened COVID protocols, so I found myself in my car on a cold morning at 7AM looking at the brick wall of the doctor’s office. The only thing I could see were a few lights shining in some tiny windows. I knew my loved one was on the other side of that brick wall, and, well, like I said – sometimes the metaphor parks right in front of you. That view was basically the past two years of this pandemic. So many people on the outside just hoping for a glimpse – of connection, of life, of hope.

Another pandemic parking lot view. The bleak midwinter.

I had brought a book to read in the car, but my mind kept racing through the past two years – a dark pandemic montage directed by Guillermo del Toro. I thought about all those people who never saw their loved ones again after they went behind those walls. That was just too much to think about while it was still dark, so I tried to find something more cheerful to occupy my thoughts. That’s when images of the helpers came to me – thousands of people I will never meet that worked so hard to keep it all together for the rest of us. Then I zoomed in on the helpers that I do know and love. People like my good friend Ann, a public health nurse who retired last week after 44 years on the job. That’s a lot of Band-Aids. She gave me my first Moderna vaccination exactly one year ago on New Year’s Eve. I knew she was a lovely person, but to see her in action made me see what kind of nurse she was. The kind that doesn’t make your blood pressure go up. The kind that smiles so sweetly you can almost see it through her mask. She poked me so gently, I didn’t realize we were done. The past two years were hard on her – she never had the option of working remotely – and I’m so happy that she can enjoy some well-deserved rest.

My friend Ann. It’s fun doing shots with her.

And I thought about my sister who ran two cancer centers in California during the pandemic. Her life that first year was basically one never-ending loop of work. Her city was on lockdown, and she would drive home down empty streets each night. She has a compromised respiratory system and I feared that she would get COVID and die. I didn’t tell her that, but I knew she knew. She, too, never worked from home and kept so many immunocompromised cancer patients safe while they were undergoing their treatments.

The cumulative effects of all that isolation wore on her and I am so grateful to so many of my friends who were so good about texting her and sending her cards. I’ve said it many times – this pandemic has not been equal, and some have sacrificed far more than others. There is no grand scoreboard in the sky, but if there were, my sister would have a big lead. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of anyone.

My beautiful sister. Unmasked.

Finally, I thought of my wife, the psychotherapist. She worked from home for only seven weeks – guiding so many of her older and cyber challenged clients into the strange new world of Zoom. In her line of work, she sees a lot of folks with anxiety issues, so you can imagine what a two-year pandemic has done for her business. There’s something to be said for job security. She has chronic asthma, so I worried about her safety, too. One of the happiest days of my life was when she texted me to let me know that she was getting her first Pfizer shot. I cried. She cried. We all cried. And that’s okay because pandemics are not like baseball.

Joy. My dear wife could not have been named anything else.

I thought about all those days that Ann and my sister and my wife went to work in those dark unchartered waters. I know there were days even they didn’t know how they did it, but they did. And I’m so grateful for them and all the helpers that did the same thing. I’m a sentimental fool at heart and I usually wax poetic at the end of a year, but perhaps never so much as this year. We’re all exhausted and angry and scared and sometimes we are all those things at once. I don’t know how to make it better but telling a helper or two thank you can’t hurt. And I highly recommend squeezing the ones in your bubble.

A kind attendant wheeled my wife to the car when she was all done with her procedure. Everything had gone smoothly, and she asked me if I had read my book while I was waiting on her. I said, “No. I wrote a blog post in my head.” She asked me what the subject was. I smiled at her and said, “Helpers.” She seemed intriguied, but that could have been the lingering effects of the anesthesia.

And as we drove off to find her a big girl breakfast and a cup of coffee the size of an ice bucket, I concluded that metaphors are like helpers – you just can’t have enough of them.

This. Every day.