Odd couple

How do you measure a year in a life? Remember the love.

Grief is a greedy bastard. You can quote me on that.

My mother died twenty years ago today. No Hallmark cards for this milestone. Come to think of it, I bet there are – I just haven’t seen them, but now I’m certain to get a pop-up ad in my Facebook feed. Anyway, I knew I would write about this anniversary and well, let’s face it, I’ve had a lot of time to gather my thoughts. I had decided a while ago that I wanted my post to be more of a celebration of my mother’s life than a somber reflection, maybe share some stories that would tell you what I want you to know about her. The kind of stories that reveal someone’s true character. Like the time my conservative Republican mother cared for one of my suitemates in college after she had a miscarriage. Yes, it sounds like an Afterschool Special, but it really happened.

I attended college at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia – the small town I grew up in. I lived on campus and was quite the naïve freshman when I met my two suitemates from Northern Virginia – Molly and Julie (yes, the names have been changed). They had been good friends in high school – schools much larger than mine and they arrived at JMU with a lot more experience in all manner of things than me. They seemed nice enough, but I rolled my eyes when I saw their matching Winnie the Pooh comforters when I walked past their room on move-in day. I had to readjust my initial impressions after they both snuck their boyfriends in that first night. It was a lot for a greenhorn virgin to process. I was terrified we would all be expelled if Mrs. Layman, our dorm mother (shut up, I’m old), discovered the contraband boys. Fortunately, Mrs. Layman was ancient and could have never made it up the three flights of stairs to our suite.

Me my first night at college.

Turns out Molly and Julie were fun, sweet girls and I really liked their boyfriends, too. We became fast friends and they schooled me in some of the more colorful electives of higher education. I’m not sure what my mother thought of my new friends, but she was nice to them – fed them, let them do laundry at our house – real perks when you’re living in a dorm. One weekend that fall, most of us went away for some reason – I can’t remember where – and Molly was the only one left in our suite. She had seemed edgy for a few days and I assumed it was a combination of boyfriend issues and cramps – a debilitating duo for sure.

When I got back to campus that Sunday evening, I went to check on Molly. She was tucked under the covers in her bed, looking rather wan. I asked her if she was okay. And then she told me about her weekend. She had been feeling bad on Friday evening and went to the infirmary – where she had a miscarriage. I think I stopped breathing and I became very aware of my own racing pulse. She told me that she thought she might have been pregnant – she had missed a period – and that’s why she had been so upset lately. The infirmary released her on Saturday and sent her home with a few parting gifts. Turns out an 18-year-old young woman scared and away from home needed more than some Ibuprofen and a box of Maxi Pads. So, she called my mother. At this point, I remember thinking having a heart attack would have been preferable to talking to my mother about what had happened. And what did my mother do? She picked up Molly and brought her to our house and gave her ginger ale and Saltine crackers and let her spend the night in my old room. Now I was ready for a trip to the infirmary.

My formative years were pre-internet. There was no Siri. The struggle was real.

Mom was a wonderful mother in many ways, but she never had “the talk” with me. Everything I learned about reproduction growing up was from a grainy film I saw in the basement of the Health Department when I was in Girl Scouts. Let’s just say that I did my own research. I barely dated in high school – mainly because I knew I was gay and well, such things just weren’t talked about back then. My mother was strict and I knew she would have a strong opinion about Molly’s situation. When I finally gathered the courage to call her to tell her I had gotten home safely from the weekend, she didn’t mention what had happened. We small talked for a bit and when it was time to hang up I somehow managed to form the words, “Thank you for taking care of Molly.” Gulp. I braced myself for her onslaught of disapproval, but her response was brief and resolute: “She needed a mother.” We never spoke of it again and I think that might be the only story about my mother that you need to know.

I’ve certainly known that feeling of needing a mother over the past two decades. I deactivated my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago. It’s not like I had a following or anything, but creepy Elon Musk was just a bridge too far for me. I did enjoy some of the snarky humor on the site and once in a while, it was fun to connect with a celebrity or two. I followed the actor Mira Sorvino – I found her posts relating to #MeToo very insightful. Her father, the late great Paul Sorvino, died this past July and Sorvino made a post I understood all too well.

Stars. They’re just like us.
When Twitter is used for good and not evil.

As a writer, I cherish words and I swoon when someone chooses just the right one. Unmoored. Mira Sorvino nailed it. I knew exactly what she was speaking of – that uneasy and sometimes scary feeling of drifting with no sense of direction. Pilots can sometimes experience this as spatial disorientation – feeling like they are flying in a straight line when in reality, they are leaning into a banking motion. Spatial disorientation was determined to be the cause of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crash near Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Kennedy was confused about his plane’s position over water while descending at night and lost sight of the horizon. In simple terms, he wasn’t where he thought he was. I think grief is a form of spatial disorientation. There have been many times during the past twenty years that I thought I was doing fine – or at least okay – when, in truth, I was drifting dangerously off course. Once in those early years, I spectacularly crashed and burned and hurt people I deeply loved. These days I try to practice gratitude over regret, but the residual damage can never be undone.

What it feels like when grief is your co-pilot.

I grabbed for any lifeline when I was searching for the horizon and my younger sister was the one who most often caught me. She was only 38 when our parents died. We have taken turns rescuing each other over the years and in those truly despicable moments when we have both been dismally adrift, we have somehow managed to keep each other upright. During these times, we often recall stories about our parents – most of them not as dramatic as the one I shared from my college days. Most are funny and sweet and quite ordinary. The sharing of the knowing is what keeps our loved ones alive and we treasure these conversations. Often, when we’ve made it through a particularly rough ride, we find ourselves laughing at our own resilience. And we always express our gratitude for each other. We know our parents would be proud of us in these moments.

Sister’s got a hold on me.

So, I knew I wanted to be with my sister to commemorate the anniversary of Mom’s death. It’s a little tricky since my sister lives in California and I’m here in North Carolina, but she’s always been a bit of a gypsy and as fate would have it, she’s on the east coast for several weeks for work. I wanted us to meet in a place that was meaningful to all of us – me, her and my mother. The town we grew up in no longer holds any comfort for us. It’s a funny thing when you lose your parents, you lose your hometown, too. We have no connections there – just the house we grew up in. Charlottesville, Virginia has always held a significant place in our lives. My mother spent a lot of time there as a child – her mother’s sister lived there and they often visited from their home in Lynchburg. My father attended the University of Virginia and passed his love of all things UVA on to my sister and me. My brother went to Virginia Tech, so the UVA gene skipped a sibling – but that made for a lively rivalry over the years. My sister also studied at UVA for a while and I lived in Charlottesville for a dozen years when I was a department store buyer for Belk. It remains the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived in and some of the happiest times of my life were spent there. It feels like home to me in a way that Greensboro or Winston Salem never have.

Wait, I may have buried the lead here. On a blustery Saturday night in December of 2002, my mother took her last breath as I held her warm hand in a quiet hospital room in … Charlottesville. Her death was beautiful and peaceful, so Charlottesvile felt like the perfect place to celebrate her by doing some of her favorite things – like shopping and drinking champagne – both aerobic activities in her book.

And then, on a Sunday night a few weeks ago, three University of Virginia football players were gunned down on a charter bus in a parking lot on campus as they returned to Charlottesville from a class trip to Washington, DC. Unfathomable. Charlottesville was once again the site of unthinkable violence and thrust into the national spotlight for the most heinous of reasons. My wife and I awoke to the horrible news on that Monday morning when we turned on the TODAY show. There have been over 600 mass shootings in the United States this year – this year – we rail at all of them, but when they feel personal, it is different. I was gutted. I immediately texted my dear friend Chris who has lived in Charlottesville for almost fifty years. It felt important to be connected with someone else who was heartbroken.

The fallen Hoos. Those smiles…
Charlottesville knows how to grieve. Mourning on the Lawn.

That’s another thing about grief – it stirs our innate communal needs. We desperately long for union with others who feel the same way. Anderson Cooper has a new podcast about loss and grief, Is That All There is With Anderson Cooper. It reached No. 1 on the Apple Podcast charts in the United States after two days in release. Turns out grief is the Taylor Swift of podcasts. Cooper is 55 and lost his father when he was 10 and his brother, to suicide, when he was 21. Cooper has known grief but kept it at a distance until his mother died a few years ago and he had to deal with sorting out her things – and, in turn – his unattended grief. He felt isolated and wanted to hear about how others navigate this lonely journey. The podcast is very personal and deeply moving, especially when Cooper’s voice cracks with emotion as he articulates his own grief. You see, grief is also a great equalizer – it can even bring intrepid war correspondents to their knees.

A good listen with a good listener.

I listened to each episode of Cooper’s podcast at my desk because I wanted to take notes. I can be nerdy like that. The other day, I went back and reviewed them because I knew there would some pearls of wisdom I had gleaned about grief that I would want to share in this post. Turns out that nothing I wrote down that Cooper and his guests had shared was anything I had not said or thought myself these past twenty years. I had just found so much comfort in hearing other people say these same things. Grieving is such a solitary act that this communal experience felt so affirming to me – life affirming, because to be alive – to be human – is to grieve. As Dr. BJ Miller, a hospice and palliative care physician, succinctly sums up in Episode 3 of the series, “A full life includes sorrow.” The title of this episode slayed me – Sorrow Isn’t an Enemy. In fact, sorrow is often our link to others and why we share our stories over and over again – to feel connected and keep our lost loved ones alive.

There will be lots of stories in Charlottesville this weekend and on Saturday evening we will have dinner with some dear friends who knew and loved my parents. They will have stories, too. There will be lots of laughing and most certainly a few tears. And my mother will be gloriously in the middle of all of it.

You see, joy and grief may seem like a peculiar pair, but they really can coexist. Perhaps not always peacefully, but the good news is that they mate for life.

Joy comes in the morning. Photo credit: The University of Virginia

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.