Pi Day

Today is Pi Day.

It is the day we celebrate the elusive, mysterious and incalculable mathematical equation known as pi, or the constant ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle.

It is also Einstein’s birthday, a curiously divine celestial arrangement.

But to me, March 14th will always be the day my dad gave up his battle with cancer, a year ago.  It is fitting.  Just as pi is in constant harmony to it’s circumstances, so was my dad.  No matter his circumstances, large or small, he was content.

In early December of last year, knowing that the sands of the hour glass were falling fast, I traveled back to Illinois to spend time with him.  Other than the fact that he couldn’t get warm, he was doing okay.  He napped a lot but he enjoyed visitors, getting out and could walk a short distances.  I put up a little Christmas tree for him which he loved to look at from his recliner.  I took him to get his hair cut.  I took him to Wal-Mart.  When he stopped to pet a display of flannel shirts I bought him one and he wore it every day that I was there.  But mostly I just sat nearby so that when he woke from a nap he could see me and we would just pick up the conversation right where we had left it and pretend that he hadn’t dozed off.

The day I left he tried to get out of his chair to see me off.  I told him to keep his seat and I bent down and kissed the top of his head and promised him that I would see him again.  And that’s a promise I intend to keep.

A  year later, I am compelled to record the day we returned my father to earth from whence he came, a spot only a few miles from where he lived his whole life.   Beyond the fact that it was blindingly sunny and 31 degrees with a lacerating north wind, I want to remember three unexpected things that marked the day for me — the first being the unexpected sight of a crowd of mourners, which I think would have surprised him, particularly given that he had outlived all but one of his lifelong running buddies. I had assumed there would be 15 maybe 20 people at most.

My dad was the kind of guy who didn’t want any sort of fuss made over him.  He had pre-planned his funeral years ago to be the simplest of affairs.  He didn’t even want his obituary published until it was all said and done.  He  didn’t want flowers or awkward postmortem displays of affection.  So it was really surprising on that bitter cold day that such a big crowd of people showed up to see him off.  In spite of my dad’s best efforts to keep it low-key, word got around.

The second thing that I recall from that day was the unexpected sound of a voice out of place.

My father’s death was not unexpected.  I had cried an ocean of tears for him off and on in the preceding 18-months. On the day of the funeral, I was more or less numb and occupied with the details of the day.  I was holding it together.  Or so I thought.

As people began to gather graveside, I greeted friends and relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years.  Then I heard the sound of a familiar voice behind me.  I reeled around to see my friend Ruthie who had flown in from Texas to St. Louis and then driven two and half hours north through the cornfields and flat lands to be with me. And I lost it. I just fell into her arms and sobbed, heaving big ugly mascara-melting sobs.  It was like when I was little and had hurt myself and I would hold it together until the moment I saw my mom and then I would melt down into a puddle of tears.  I will never forget that she came to walk alongside me that day and how hearing her voice released the floodgate of sorrow that I thought I had bridled and what a comfort it was just to have her near.

The third thing was an expected sound with an unexpected reaction.

My father chose to have a simple graveside military funeral.  The military chaplain warned us beforehand that they would fire three gun shots.  I have attended military funerals before, so I knew that and I thought I was prepared.  Yet when the first blast pierced the air, the shock of it forced the air from my lungs in a bellowing gust, like I had been punched in the gut.  That awful sound that had come from somewhere deep within me, hung large and heavy in the thin air in the immediate silence that settled over the crowd after the first blast.  And then it dropped to the ground and shattered at my feet. When the second and third blast came, I startled and shook, but I did not bellow.  There was something about the sound of my breath, the very essence of my life, being expelled from my lungs with such force that made me feel all too mortal and I will never forget the sensation or the sound.

When the funeral was over, the crowd dispersed in a hurry, anxious to get out of the wind and back to the warmth of their cars.  But I couldn’t make myself leave, my feet were literally and figuratively frozen.  I didn’t want to move forward into a new life without my dad, I wanted to somehow stay in my old life.

I stood by the coffin with my bare hand resting on it, thinking about the hand print I might leave upon it, thinking about the hand print dad had left on my life and Sean’s life and my brother’s lives and most importantly on my mother’s life.  I watched people walk away towards their cars and back into their lives and I felt invisible, like I was watching a scene from a movie.  I turned my back to the thinning crowd and put my forehead on the coffin and watched my tears turn white as they slid onto the metal.

Finally AD tugged on my arm, telling me it was time to go and gently reminding me that Papa Ed wasn’t there.  That I knew, but still, I just didn’t want to go.  If I couldn’t stay in my old life, I wanted to at least be the last one standing by him in my old life.  After a few minutes, AD tugged on my arm again.  It was time.  The cemetery staff was standing at a respectful distance, no doubt anxious to do what they do when the family leaves.

I patted the coffin one last time and promised that I would see him again.

Blessings Recounted: Contentment

Today is my dad’s birthday.

As I think of him today and the many odd and unexpected blessings that were gathered to me in this last year of his life, the blessings that I am trying to capture here for Sean and for me so that we might recall them on some distant day, what comes to mind is how contented he was in all circumstances and the goodness it added to my life.

My dad was a simple guy.

That’s not to say he wasn’t smart.  He was good with numbers and had an intuitive knowledge of words, thanks to the Latin he learned as an altar boy.  He was loaded with common sense and had a terrific memory – some of the same qualities I see in Sean.

He never went to college, he never had an important job, never ran a company, never managed any one, nor did he want to.  But he was smart enough know this:  It’s not the finer things in life that bring joy but the simple things.

As a foolish teenager, I saw his contentedness with his modest middle-class life as a lack of ambition, and it is with shame that I confess that I had some resentment about that, that he was not terribly concerned about seeing to it that I get the material things I craved.

Eventually, after life knocked me around a bit, I learned that no amount of stuff you can accumulate will add one drop of goodness to life, but rather will usually get in the way of it if for no other reason than the pursuit of such things robs you of your most precious resource – time.

I’ve often wondered what is it that makes some people content and others restless?  For Dad, I think the fact that he always thought of himself as a pretty lucky guy was at the center of his contentment.  He wasn’t one of those annoying perpetually “glass is always half full” sunny side up guys, but he was grateful for the good things that rolled his way and I guess he felt like more good came his way than bad, or at least on the important matters.

In the early 1950s dad went into the army with three buddies.  There is a picture of the four of them standing together on the day they got their orders.  Three were sent to Korea or elsewhere where they were either killed or witnessed unspeakable horror.  But Dad shipped out to Germany, where he said it was like being on vacation.

He went skiing in the Alps, he went to Oktoberfest, he saw the great cathedrals and historic sites of Europe – but most importantly he came home.  He was lucky.  The only part of being in the Army that he didn’t like was the boat ride over and back.  One time I offered to take him and mom on an Alaskan cruise and he shook his head.  “No thanks,” he said, “I was on a big boat once in the army and I have no desire to do that again.”  I could have argued that a cruise boat was not exactly like the army, but sometimes Dad could be stubborn.

When he got out of the Army, the first thing he did was marry my mother, and if not one other thing went right in his life, marrying her would have made him feel like the luckiest guy who ever lived.  They bought a 50-year-old fixer upper and spent the next 58 years fixing it up and tending to the details of middle-class life:  three kids, boy scouts, bicycles, too much week for too little paycheck,  too cold winters, too short summers, old cars replaced by newer old cars, employment and unemployment, grandkids and then great-grandkids.


And it seems to me, and to those he left behind, those 58 years passed more quickly than the time it took you to read these ramblings.

When the cancer diagnosis came in April of last year, he didn’t feel so lucky.  He was having a great time in his retirement years with my mother and wasn’t ready for that to come to an end.

In time though, when the shock wore off, he came back around to seeing that even in the midst of awful, he was a lucky guy.  He had a wife and three children who would see to it that he felt well loved and well cared for to the very end.  He had seen his children raised and he knew he knew he could count on us to look after our mother.  He had outlived all but one of his life long friends.  He had enjoyed much sweetness and little bitterness in life.  And somewhere, beyond this life, he knew something wonderful was waiting for him.  What more could one hope for?

So on this day that would have been his 82nd birthday, I think of my dad and what a blessing it was to be raised by a man who thought of himself as a lucky guy and how he lived his life in pursuit and appreciation of simple things that neither rust nor moths will destroy.

It is a rich inheritance.


Blessings Recounted: Driveway Time

When we got the call in April that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer, we knew that our time with him was limited.  We just didn’t know what that limit was and it took some time for the doctors to sort that all out to the degree that they could.

That is something we all know, isn’t it?  That our time with the people we love is limited.  But most of us don’t live that way until the day we get that call.

Why is that?  Do we not live in the full light of that knowledge because we get so caught up in getting day-to-day life done; lunches packed, bills paid, laundry folded?  Or is it because living in the full light of that knowledge would be so paralyzing that we couldn’t go about the business of getting day-to-day life done?

Either way, a cancer diagnosis, is just that — it’s a blinding flash that seers the retina with that awful truth, that we are fragile and limited beings.  And it leaves you squinting, stumbling and disoriented, like walking out of dark movie theater into the mid-day sun. And the only way to move forward is to look down at your feet, looking no further ahead than the next safe place to step.

Sean’s second-grade year ended late in May and the very next day, the three of us left for Illinois not knowing what to expect when we got there.

Steroid therapy and radiation had shrunk the brain tumor enough to restore his cognitive and speech abilities, so by the time we got home that first week in June, he was more or less like his old self, albeit a bit more tired and a lot more cold.

We spent our time together that week mostly out on the drive way, just as we often did in my growing up years in that house.  Only this time instead of fixing stuff, mowing or working on a car, he sat in a lawn chair in the gentle June sun, wearing a hat and coat, trying to absorb the heat from the concrete, and watching the earth awaken to another season.  I wore shorts and a t-shirt and tried to amuse him like I was seven again. “Hey Dad! Watch this! Watch me jump rope! Hey Dad watch me do a cartwheel!  Hey Dad!…”  Until he would nod off.  Then I would sit beside him and watch the cars go past and his chest rise and fall until he stirred again.


That week was as unremarkable as any other week I might have come home in the past 32 years.  We hung out together on the driveway, not doing anything in particular, just happy to occupy the same space. That’s the way it’s always been with us, that’s the way we like it.

We didn’t really talk about the cancer, we talked around it.  We didn’t deny it, but at the same time, we didn’t acknowledge it.  We are not a people who cry and hug and pour out our feelings.  We know how we feel about each other, so pointing it out with words isn’t necessary.

At the end of the week, I stood beside our packed car.  We had said our goodbyes and now it was time to head back to Texas.  AD was behind the wheel with the engine running, Sean, in the backseat, having done several rounds of hugs and waves and had settled in for the long drive.  But I stood there beside the car, with the door open, paralyzed, unable to make myself get in.

My dad stood away from the car on the driveway, just as he did 32 years earlier, the day I got in a car and left for Texas, where I would make my life.  On that day, long ago, I was but 21-years-old and did not yet fully understand that time was limited. But I did take note of something about him on that day, something about his posture or the tensing of his mouth that told me that this day had come too soon for him, that it was snatching something he loved and treasured, right out of his hand and out of his house and out of his life.  And I never needed him to say that.

On this day, he held the same posture of 32 years before, only now he leaned on a cane, the same tensing of the mouth, only now he looked tired and small and his fragility was beginning to show.

I dropped my chin to my chest and began to sob.  “I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to leave…” was all I could say.  My mother hugged me.  My dad stood away and looked down.

I took a deep breath and got in the car and we backed out of the driveway.  AD patted my leg because what else is there to do?

I would make two more trips home to spend time with my dad but Sean would not.  As we  pulled out of the driveway, he hung out the window and waved and yelled, “Goodbye Papa Ed! See ya later alligator!”

It was time to get time to get back to getting day-to-day life done for awhile, until the next phone call.

I cried all the way to St. Louis.

Blessings Recounted

It was last year, in this month of April, that I got the phone call.

My mother, trying to sound only mildly concerned, called to tell me that they had taken my dad to the hospital and they were running tests.  The catch in her voice betrayed her calm.

While working his usual Saturday morning crossword puzzle his brain had gone a little fuzzy.  He couldn’t seem to get the words to travel the familiar path from his brain to his tongue.

Don’t worry, she said, don’t worry,  I’ll call you when I know more.  I heard the phone click as she hung up, and just like the click of a light switch, my world went dark.

In 52 years, I have never known of a world without my father.  And somewhere in the part of my mind that stores all things that are unbearably true, emerged something that I had been denying since I was a little girl – that someday my father was going to die.  And now dawn was breaking on that someday.

Over the course of the next week, we would learn that my dad had cancer.  It had started in his lungs and made it’s way to the brain, which was further complicated by a multitude of other existing issues.

My parents were referred to an oncologist who laid the cards plainly on the table.  Cancer was my dad’s new landlord and this heartless landlord was serving an eviction notice.

Together my parents decided that they would not do chemo, but they would do radiation to buy some time, but whatever time they had left, they wanted it to be free of the misery that medicine often brings.

My mother asked the doctor how long he thought they might have.  Doctors don’t like to answer that question, so she asked him another way:  Could they have the summer? she asked, as if for permission.  The doctor said yes, with radiation they would probably get to enjoy the summer. But after that all bets were off.

And so that’s what they set about to do – to enjoy the last of what would be nearly 60 summers together.

As tragic and sorrowful as this past year has been, it has also blessed me in countless and unexpected ways.

The stories that follow in the coming days and weeks (or however long it takes to get it all out) are those blessings recounted.

No One Drops In For Coffee Anymore

As I was driving home from dropping Sean off at school the other day, I noticed the long line of cars wrapped around Starbucks and the crowded parking lot and I got to thinking how no one drops by for coffee anymore.  It seems that everyone goes to Starbucks instead.

Friends dropping in for coffee is all but a remnant of another era and I think that is kind of a shame that we aren’t available for spontaneous interaction anymore, that we don’t open our homes for that sort thing, that we are just too busy or that we don’t think our homes perfect enough or clean enough or whatever enough.

As I have mentioned here before, my parents live in the same house they bought in 1956.  In that time, they have served approximately 23,436 cups of coffee to neighbors, wayfarers, odd-ball relatives and the occasional long-lost friend who just dropped in.  My parent’s coffee pot has been on for 54 years.

My parent’s kitchen defies everything Southern Living tells us we need to create a warm and welcoming space for visitors.  Their home is not big and bright and you certainly will not find anything new or matching or from Pottery Barn there.  Their kitchen would make Martha Stewart cry.

The avocado green paneling is circa 1972. The pattern on the linoleum floor is all but worn off and slick from the constant ironing of the rolling chairs. (Aside:  I’ve always thought that chairs with rollers were an interesting choice for a kitchen so small you can reach anything without having to get out of your chair.  And in a 100-year-old house that has settled substantially, rolling chairs on slick linoleum means you could potentially roll out the back door if you are not paying attention.)

The refrigerator is covered in pictures of grandchildren and great grandchildren and postcards and magnets with wise sayings.  The table is always so cluttered that you have to scooch books and puzzles and prescription bottles aside just so you might carve out four square inches of real estate to set your cup down.  The trick is scooching it all en masse, like a tectonic plate, to just the correct degree, so that whatever is on the other end of the table doesn’t fall off like California into the Pacific.

The 45-year-old Melmac coffee cups don’t match, nor do any of the not-silverware.

My mother does not serve fancy or flavored coffee — it’s Folgers or whatever is on sale and if you want cream, it’s store brand Coffeemate.

Their kitchen is teeny tiny and cramped and cluttered and woefully out of date.  It’s not fancy or comfortable and would not pass the white glove test.

Nonetheless, people want to go there and hang out for a time and chat,  and they have for more than half a century.  Something there draws ’em in and it ain’t the kitchen or the coffee.

Must be the conversation and the company.


I recently received an email offering me samples of Rubik’s Revolution, an electronic version of the Rubik’s Cube as well as an electronic pocket-sized version of the popular game show Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? I told them not to send the Rubick’s Cube because I am in still in therapy from when it came out the first time in the 80s.  Between the Rubiks Cube and Pac Man, the 80s were really stressful for me.  I am not wired to do those kinds of things.

But! I love the game show Jeopardy! and so I figured I would like the Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? game. And I do, even though I am not.  I’m not even smarter than my 4-year-old most of the time.

If you think you would like to have one of these little gadgets and have a US mailing address, leave a comment on this post before midnight on Sunday, telling me your dad’s first name (or your favorite dad-type person) and some fun factoid about him.  I’ll randomly select a winner or just whomever I like the best.  KIDDING! I’m just messin’ with y’all.  Monday I will email the winner.

I’ll go first.

My dad’s name is Ed, but anyone who really knows him calls him Shorty.  When I was growing up, the family across the street had a scruffy little dog named Shorty and sometimes that would get confusing when they opened the screen door and hollered for the dog to come home. Oh, and my dad makes the best boiled hotdog ever. I should know. He made me one for lunch every single day the year I went to kindergarten.  Every. Day.

Happy Father’s Day everyone!

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Edited to add:  I am loving your comments y’all – it just blesses me to read this treasure trove of tiny stories. If you have a blog, or even if you don’t, I hope you will consider expanding your comment into an essay or short story for future generations.

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And the winner is….. Natalie!  Natalie, look for an email from me with further instructions on how to claim your fabulous prize!

A Decision

I am fascinated by stories of people who manage to survive in the most extreme and unimaginable conditions.  When I hear those stories, I wonder what it is in them that keep them hanging on and I wonder if I have it in me.


Sometimes, when I imagine that I’ve accidentally fallen off a cruise ship, I don’t really see myself treading water for days at a time.  If faced with bobbing up and down in freezing waters, I would probably take the easy way out and allow myself to slip away.  I would be happy to move along to the next life sooner rather than later as opposed to suffering for any extended period of time.  I am not afraid of what lies beyond.  I know where I am going when this life is over.


On the other hand, I really like my life and am in no hurry to leave it all behind.


About 14 years ago, I was in danger of drowning, not in an ocean but in my own sorrow.  Like a person lost at sea, I felt hopeless – without hope, not one ray of sunshine could I find.  I couldn’t see that life would ever be good again.  I started thinking that maybe it would just be easier to slip under the waters, to yield to the darkness.  All the while everyone was saying, “You are amazing!  You are so strong!”  I didn’t understand that.  How could they not see how desperate I was?


During that time, my dad came out to Texas to hang out with me.  Unlike everyone else, maybe he sensed that I wasn’t holding it together as well as it appeared from the outside because one day he sat me down and told me about a story he had read about a girl who was lost in a great forest.  He said that every day she would climb the tallest tree she could find and she would shout at the top of her lungs, “I am a survivor! I will survive!”  And then she would listen for her own voice echoing back, “I will survive I will survive I will survive…”   Eventually she was rescued or found her way out of the forest, I don’t recall.


I don’t know if my dad really read that story or if he just made it up on the spot, but on that day, I became the girl who climbed a tree every day, shook her fist at the world and shouted, “I will survive!”  On that day and in that moment, I made a decision to carry on, to go on and live and to live well.


A decision — the difference between life and death. That is the certain something that survivors have in common.