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.

House fire

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The Downtown Mall in happier times.  Photo: visitcharlottesville.org

I have no memory of my first visit to Charlottesville. I was a baby in my mother’s arms. She would have been in Charlottesville visiting Aunt Lillian – her mother’s older sister. I would visit that home, near the Downtown Mall, many times as a child.

I grew up in Harrisonburg, VA, a small town about an hour from Charlottesville and travelling there always felt exciting – like going to a real city. There have been many trips to Charlottesville since that first one some 60 years ago, including a dozen years that I lived there beginning in the early 80’s. My father and my sister went to college there. My mother took her last breath in a hospital there. Charlottesville has always felt like a second home to me and what happened there on Saturday has broken me.

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog post. If you’ve followed me at all on any social media you most certainly are aware of my leanings. No, this is a personal post – more of a lamentation if you will. I am grieving another loss – the loss of what little innocence remained in my life. Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced a great deal of loss – my parents, my longtime partner, and a job I dearly loved – that’s just a bit of the inventory. I’ve become comfortable with loss. No, I don’t like it but it feels familiar to me.

When you suffer such loss, you tend to cling tighter to happier times – you grip those memories with white knuckles and you don’t let go because sometimes you feel like your life – or at least your sanity – depends on it. So over the years, my memories of Charlottesville have been a virtual safe house for me. It was a place I could go in my head to feel whole and happy again. I am either blessed or cursed with a wicked memory and I can see my times in Charlottesville like a movie I’ve watched a dozen times.

I can see my dad and me on a sun-dappled October afternoon in Scott Stadium watching UVA play football. I can hear him cheering – more like yelling – and I can feel his big bear hugs after a touchdown. UVA would more often lose than win but my father, ever the eternal optimist, would always put his arm around me as we walked out of the stadium and say, “We’ll get ‘em next time, Adda.”

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Win or lose – a happy place for me and my dad.  Photo: virginiasports.com

I can see my mom at Mother’s Day brunch at the Omni Hotel, dressed so elegantly and relishing being the center of attention as she sipped – more like gulped – her champagne. Good Lord, my mother loved champagne. I can also see her take that last breath at Martha Jefferson Hospital on a blustery cold night in December. That may sound morbid to you, but I don’t intend it that way. My mother was in death as she was in life – a lady – and she exited with courage and grace and that moment is one that I will cherish until my last breath.

I can see my former partner and me at an apple festival. So many apple festivals! I’m not even that wild about apples but those festivals were such pure joy – folks out in sweaters and fleece enjoying the grand weather, eating apple everything, listening to bluegrass music. I wonder now what we possible could have worried about back then.

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A bushel of fun.  Photo: tripsavvy.com

I suppose it was a simpler time everywhere across our nation but Charlottesville is my personal frame of reference for a precious time of great contentment.

That was until Saturday. I don’t care to recap the horror that unfolded in downtown Charlottesville, not far from Aunt Lillian’s house. Heather Heyer, 32, is dead and several people are recovering from injuries. And a beautiful city has been terrorized.

I know what happened in Charlottesville on Saturday is way bigger and far more important than me. It happened to our whole country and the national grief is palpable. I feel it – you feel it. But my grief is also personal and I don’t know where to go with it.

My safe house has been burned to the ground.

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The end of the innocence.  Photo: nytimes.com

Permanent record

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I ran across my 5th grade report card yesterday when I was emptying the last remains of the storage unit I’ve had for the past two and half years.

I know what you’re thinking – why did I save my 5th grade report card, right? You’d have to ask my dear departed mother because it was in a box with assorted odds and ends that she had saved over the years, including the most hideous Plaster of Paris mold ever made that I painted at summer camp when I was nine. Jeez, what a mother does for love, I guess.

plaster of paris

Crap only a mother could love.

Anyway, the yellowed report card made me laugh out loud and once again supported that adage that the more things change; the more they stay the same.

Let me explain. Back in the olden days when I was in elementary school, in addition to the various subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic, students also received a grade of satisfactory or unsatisfactory under a heading of Citizenship. Included under this odd section were items such as “Practices Self Control” and “Takes Care of Personal and School Property.” I noticed a big “U” with an asterisk beside it in the 3rd report period under this category and below the grading grid, the teacher had written by the asterisk, “messy desk.”

u grade

U not good.

Yes, the dye was cast early on with that label. I’ve always worked better in a slightly less than organized environment. Quite frankly, I don’t trust a desk that’s overly neat. You know the type – like the one the person in the bank has where the only thing on top of the desk is a phone and a business card holder. They’re just too clinical.

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Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I also received consistent “C’s” for writing – as in handwriting. My mother wrote back in one of the comment sections, “I do hope Addison will improve her writing.” Yeah, that didn’t work out so well, Mom.

Apparently I started out poorly and only got worse. These days I could forge the Unabomber’s signature with ease. I’m not proud of it and I’m not exactly sure when the deterioration began. I really don’t think about it until my wife looks at the grocery list I’ve written and says, “Do we really need eye of newt?” And then I look at the list indignantly and snap, “That says Cream of Wheat.”

desk bnow

These days I think I could get an S-. Or a U+.

Not to worry, the 5th grade apparently ended well with the final comment from Mrs. Reeves being, “It’s been a pleasure teaching Addison this year.” And, yes, I’m sure she wrote that note on the other 27 report cards that year.

And one of the sweet gifts of growing up in the small town of Harrisonburg, Virginia, Mrs. Reeves attended my mother’s memorial service about 35 years later. She came to the reception my family hosted after the service and as she walked towards me, I could feel my hands getting clammy. You know how you would always get nervous if you saw your teacher in the grocery store or anywhere out of context?

She took my hand and said, “Hello, Addison.” I took a deep breath and before I could speak she said, “That was a very well written eulogy that you gave.”

And that more than made up for that “U” she gave me.

 

einstein

Exactly.

 

 

 

House Call

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Harrisonburg, Virginia

Cancer never plays fair.

One of my oldest and dearest friends was recently diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. She has never smoked, rarely drinks and could be a poster girl for fit over 50.

I’m not a doctor but even I know that on paper, she has about as many risk factors for this type of cancer as Snow White.

She retired a few months ago after 30 plus years as a pediatrician. Her father was my pediatrician. Yes, we go back a long way.

I met her in the 4th grade when my family moved to Harrisonburg, VA and we have been friends for 50 years.

She was always the smartest one in the class and went on to be our valedictorian when we graduated high school. But she wasn’t smart in an intimidating or condescending sort of way. She could be as silly as any of us and was often the butt of our practical jokes because she was so absolutely gullible.

I think she knew she wanted to be a doctor before she went to kindergarten. Her father is still living and I had the pleasure of seeing him recently at the funeral of another old friend’s mother.

He looked remarkably well for a man nearing 90 and he has retained his impish smile and charming bedside manner.

My friend (I don’t want to use her name for privacy’s sake and it feels weird to make one up) married a doctor and her son is now in medical school. I guess you could say it’s the family business. She has been a healer most of her adult life and now she is the patient.

She has one of those websites that keeps everyone updated and I have been blown away by her courage, grace, honesty and humor as she shares this journey with those who love her.

Her initial post was very clinical and written like well, a doctor. She wrote about how her cancer presented – an ulcer on her tongue – and the path to eventual diagnosis and surgery. She wrote in medical terms – cms and resections and such.

She had hoped that once her tumor was removed the pathology on the lymph nodes in her neck would reveal no more than two nodes involvement which would mean no further treatment. She had three positive nodes.

And that’s when the tenor of her posts changed. They became more vulnerable and very intimate.

It was real before that but if all it took to be disease free was an operation, I can do that. When (her doctor) started talking about radiation and chemo that hit hard. This wasn’t just a battle anymore. This is war and sometimes people die in wars. I was forced yesterday to face that possibility. I had to listen to my husband and children cry as we processed the news.

It doesn’t get any more real than that.

My friend noted in another post that she is much better with numbers and reasoning than talking about feelings. And she made me smile when she shared that her SAT scores were Math 720 and Verbal 520. Mine were the exact opposite but it turns out that she is much better at writing than I am at math.

Her posts have been a balm to those of us who love her and are still reeling from her news. She has a great faith – a faith that has been severely tested in the past few weeks – a faith that will sustain her through radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy.

Our High School Emblem

Our high school emblem. #bluestreaks

I last saw her at our high school reunion last October. She, of course, served as one of the chairs of the reunion committee and had spent a crazy amount of time on the fabulous decorations. She was a cheerleader and still retains that youthful enthusiasm for life.

We had a blast and giggled like school girls again. And, yes, she may have done a cheer or two. The girl’s still got it.

Her first grandchild is due any day now and she wants to get in lots of grandmothering before she starts her treatments at the end of the month.

Today the sunrise was beautiful. (A friend) and I prayed together and I feel at peace with all the treatment decisions. Now I need to get myself physically, emotionally and spiritually ready for this war.

Onward, Christian soldier, dear friend. We’re cheering for you now.

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The Longest Day

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I start dreading this weekend as soon as the Mother’s Day cards appear in store aisles. It’s the Great Wall of Grief for me and I try to avoid it as much as possible.

And every year since 2003, my first Mother’s Day without my mother, I’ve tried to come up with a strategy for the day. Every year I seem to have a different plan but they ultimately have one thing in common – they fail miserably in helping me through the day. mother's day

I want to be alone. I don’t want to be alone. I want to say home. I want to go out. And so it goes.

Most every Mother’s Day begins the same way for me now. I wake up, open my eyes and remember the day and then I feel this sudden churning deep in my gut– sort of like that feeling when you’re in an elevator and it descends really quickly and you try and catch yourself.

And then I cry. Sometimes softly, but sometimes I sob. I think about going to Harrisonburg, VA and taking my mother out to brunch at the Country Club. I think about what she would wear. My mother never really owned any casual wear and she always looked so stylish and elegant when we went out.

I think about drinking champagne with her. My mother loved champagne. Years ago at an outdoor wedding, we both were in our cups – or flutes as the case may have been – and giggled together all the way home in the back seat while my father and my partner at the time shook their heads.

Mostly I think about what we would talk about over brunch. We never ran out of things to talk about.

We just ran out of time.

They say that the longest day of the year is the Summer Solstice in June. I would argue that it’s the second Sunday in May.

Afterword: Through the magic of Facebook, I was given a gift this Mother’s Day weekend in the form of a blog post from Kate Spencer, entitled How I’m Making Mother’s Day My Bitch. It is, in a word, brilliant. Brilliant.

May it be a gift to all of you missing your mothers this weekend.

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