Mom’s house

When you visit Mom’s house some things are sure things. Like the bed sheets are always fresh and crisp and still smell and feel like a warm dryer. The Kleenex and toilet paper is the really good kind. She always has extra batteries and she sneaks a couple into your bag just in case. And if you need a spoon, it’s always in the drawer clean, never with chunks missed by the dishwasher because she is the dishwasher. And there’s no dust. Anywhere. She always has a choice of ice creams. Always. And blanket fairies who visit when you doze on the sofa. The clothes you wore were magically folded in the middle of the night. Sometimes washed and folded. You could shave in the reflection of the bathroom fixtures and if you had to, you could eat off the toilet seat. But if you tried, she’d bring you a plate. Moms are really great. Every kid should have one.

I loved Lucy

[I wrote this short story about my elderly next door neighbor. This was his struggle and the likely reason I found him dehydrated, immobilized and naked alone on his living room floor after noticing three days of unclaimed newspapers at his front door. He was felled by a stroke and laid parched and crying for help to no one there for as long.]

I Loved Lucy

Each day is a colorless fade to the next early black and white morning which begins and ends the same. It’s 4am and through our common wall, I can hear his TV, teapot and sometimes, the unsure shuffle of his slippers on a path to the darkened front door he opens to again curse the late paperboy. An occasional cough punctuates the silence of the otherwise dirty, furry apartment where with two old cats, he’s lived eight years, and died one and a half.

He waits for no one but the twice weekly nurse with a key and a bag of useless treatments, because his condition is incurable. Lucy passed right there in the living room in a cold steel hospital bed he wanted to keep, if not only for a tangible but morbid memory of their final moment together last summer when he kissed her forehead and said goodbye to fifty-eight wonderful years and hello to this mere existence without her.

Neither poor nor rich, he’s now not much of anything but the shell of a man and husband trying to find himself and any purpose in a weathered, withered 89 year old body whose expiration date is long overdue. And this isn’t my own summation, it is his as he sits in the easy chair across from me, holding his frail little body, arms crossed, lying in repose, waiting for something inside to change. The depression is killing him slowly, deliberately and with a pain no longer quenched by tears or talking. He is a silent, dying man.

I saw her the day before she passed in their living room as a courtesy mostly. I’d been their closest neighbor with a common wall for many years and when I’d heard of the accident, I sent flowers, made food and cards for a couple weeks until she was gone. Nice lady. Very simple, Midwest Lutheran couple for 58 years, I heard them shuffle past my front door together sometimes on the way to church or the casino where it happened. She’d fallen her final fall which ultimately brought her to the end of her life and his.

I used to help him bring in the few bags of groceries around the first of the month but have since stopped at the door for the stench of the cats he loves, and who are as old and matted as he. The bending needed for a litter change is something he can muster only a couple times monthly. But he’s used to the smell. He’s used to a lot of things. But not used to being as lonely as he is without her.

I’ve cajoled him a couple times during our early morning conversations and if he could find it again, I’m pretty sure his laugh would be contagious.

“Don, do you love someone?” he asked me.

“Well, I have my three kids and my dog and they’re pretty special to me, but if you’re asking if I have a deeper love in my life like you had in Lucy, no. Maybe someday.”

While I was trying hard to get as used to the smell of the catbox as he, I listened to his autobiography of the couple who lived next door and the countless moments of their countless memories together for the good part of an hour. When we parted for me to get home to shower for work, I left convinced that my “maybe someday” love–if ever–was unlikely to be as incredibly beautiful as theirs. It was a “Notebook” kind of love and as I stood there in the shower, the hot water mixed with my tears and I think for the first time in my life, I finally tasted the salty love explained to me by a salty 89 year old man.

Work was rough. All day long, I thought about the hour in his living room that morning and the epiphany he’d given me. Arriving home, I hugged my dog harder and I texted my three kids to say I love you before bed, and went to sleep.

And this morning, I woke very early as I always do. And through the steam of my coffee on the patio at 4am, I watched his living room light turn on and heard his front door open as he cursed the paperboy once again, and knew we were both next door, thinking about love. And Lucy.

And through the wall, the teapot screamed.

kids these days

I thought they’d be like the other thugs who like so many before would take their sweet time walking in front of my car like they owned the sidewalk while I fumed waiting to make my left turn. Not like kids of my youth who looked, paused, then scurried across to the other side, thanking the waiting driver for the generosity of their right of way.
I was dead wrong and momentarily ashamed for having judged these boys who waved and threw me a synchronized thumbs up quickly making their way across my egress. I threw back a thumb and a smile as they finished the crossing to which they were fully entitled but didn’t act like it.
It was a tiny reassuring moment of humanity, but comforting that I was wrong in my expectations of the moment, and that kids these days aren’t all always like I have come to expect kids these days to be.

call your mother

Don’t call her an old woman, for she’s lived much longer than you with more experience at important things in life than you have yet to even consider.
Don’t call her forgetful, for she still remembers every birthday and anniversary with a handwritten card while you forget to even pick up a phone.
Don’t call her stubborn, for she’s a wealth of opinions years in the making and voiced for all the right reasons while you still worry what others think of you.
Don’t call her old-fashioned, for she can recite decades of memories by heart as if they were yesterday while you rely on Facebook photos and reminders.
This Mother’s Day, don’t call your Mom anything, but call her while you still can.

An Easter song for you.

Lauren Daigle – Still Rolling Stones (Audio) – YouTube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQZNcZcfo8E
Lyrics
Out of the shadows
Bound for the gallows
A dead man walking
Till love came calling
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)
Six feet under
I thought it was over
An answer to prayer
The voice of a Savior
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)
All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
(You’re still rolling rolling, you’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
(You’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
Now that You saved me
I sing ’cause You gave me
A song of revival
I put it on vinyl
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)
I once was blinded
But now I see it
I heard about the power
And now I believe it
Rise up (rise up)
Rise up (rise up)
All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
(You’re still rolling rolling, you’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
(You’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
I thought that I was too far gone
For everything I’ve done wrong
Yeah, I’m the one who dug this grave
But You called my name
You called my name
I thought that I was too far gone
For everything I’ve done wrong
Yeah, I’m the one who dug this grave
But You called my name
You called my name
All at once I came alive
This beating heart, these open eyes
The grave let go
The darkness should have known
(You’re still rolling rolling, you’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
(You’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
(You’re still rolling rolling oh, you’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
(You’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones (you’re still rolling, rolling)
(You’re still rolling rolling oh, you’re still rolling rolling oh)
You’re still rolling stones
Songwriters: Jason Ingram / Lauren Ashley Daigle / Paul Duncan / Paul Mabury
Still Rolling Stones lyrics © Essential Music Publishing, Capitol Christian Music Group, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

a chance encounter

It was purely a chance phone encounter with an old friend who has since made it to celebrity and the big time. We said our hellos and briefly caught up mostly about his new found fame and sizable fortune. No agenda, we were just touching base. My turn at the pause, I condensed my past 30 years into a potent nutshell and handed it to him. Dead silence… and then he dropped both the nut, the shell and the phone call all within seconds leaving me with a dial tone. Funny how people change, or perhaps how they never do when your story ceases to be worth their read.
Six months have passed and I just read a newspaper article about him and his six indictments. I didn’t gloat or credit karma for the news. I cried a little that, nut and all, he missed my happy ending which I think maybe could have helped to change his.

5 years

9:30am five years ago today I answered the phone of the second chance. So many wrong turns I’d taken had shaken me from a promising rise on the ladder of life down to the bottom rung for nine months as a highly educated janitor, thankful for the work but terribly underemployed. I accepted a job challenged with making a critical difference in the lives of the elderly and underserved and now direct Nevada’s largest privately funded program of senior advocacy and the undisputed model for senior outreach in Nevada providing critical services at no cost to move forgotten elderly out of poverty with dignity, respect, love and compassion. HopeLink took a chance on me to change my normal and redeemed me from my own dismal fall, a gift for which I’m forever thankful, especially today. It has enabled me to write and share countless happy ending stories of a generation I serve and whose own normal I now help to change.
Never say die. Never.

a changed perspective

The young kid who works the night shift where I get my 430 coffee each morning asked about my name badge: “So what exactly do you do every day?” I replied “In a nutshell, we keep people housed and fed with the lights on.” He said it sounded like a cool job. Not to miss the teaching moment, I asked in return, “So what exactly is it you do every day?” Puzzled at my question, he paused, then replied “Well, I serve coffee, snacks and things people need to get through the day and I try to keep people happy.” As I walked out, we both smiled as he realized, probably for the first time ever, that we are essentially in the same business.
I hope he never looks at his job the same way again.

Sh*t rolls downhill.

Sh*t rolls downhill.

There are a few jobs everyone should have at some point in life. Among other humbling lessons, they teach you important truths like the one in the title of this post. Usually these kinds of jobs are minimum-wage, entry-level training for young, energetic people who by realizing the value of starting at the bottom, will appreciate the ride to the top. I found the reverse is also true.

By that, I mean I did it backwards. I was neither young nor energetic and like that one long slide down the game board in Chutes and Ladders, I rolled the dice of life, lost, and though still in the game, I was forced to start over again on the bottom rung. But at 53 and a janitor, I learned more about life from that work than in any other job before. Or since.

Contentment trumps happiness.

If for $9 an hour you’ve never willingly entered a freshly ripened restroom so thick with stench that your eyes water to chop up a stranger’s giant loaf in a toilet bowl so it will finally flush, your lesson in humility may be incomplete. If that didn’t gross you out, I have plenty more janitor stories that will.

Let’s be honest. In this world of status, janitor hangs on the last rung. The single, scowling, homely, isolated man who works alone late into the nights in a dark and dingy workroom nobody dares to visit unless they are making a scary movie. You know all the stereotypes. This is the guy who never made much of his life by the standards of most. Being a janitor generally means if it stinks, smokes, leaks, drips, bursts, doesn’t work, wasn’t ordered or isn’t right, it falls into your lap and scope of responsibility regardless of your ability to find the solution. You are the first line of defense when others excuse themselves from the task because by default, you’re the expert.

I was at a time in my life when my peers were winding down their work and earning and if not there already, planning stages for a comfortable retirement filled with travel to exotic locations, golf and grandkids, American-style. You would have had every right to call me a liar if I didn’t admit my envy. I lived out their Facebook vacation travel panoramas and dining extravaganzas with a mix of happiness for them and their lovers and still a fair amount of regret that my life had taken a different path far down the ladder.

But I can’t lie about the fact that I was yet pretty content. My happiness had been achieved largely through having lost everything to drugs and in the recovery process, having gained a self-respect for things I had found will matter most of all in the end. Yes, I would have rather been pondering this truth over a steak dinner on a Greek island than with a bowl of mac n cheese on the run in a 23,000 square foot campus. But I learned that contentment is not always the consolation prize for happiness lost. Contentment trumps happiness every hand because it is an intrinsic, self-reliant condition of the heart that depends on no circumstance. It is solely dependent on character.

Everyone matters.

Respect is like humility in reverse. When you’ve learned to be humble despite your place in life, your ability over a lifetime to respect those in similar situations naturally increases. You know what it’s like to have been there. It’s called empathy.

During my 9 months as a janitor, the most meaningful moments had been at the hands of strangers. The brief pause of a stranger who knows what it’s like to be taken for granted can move you from invisible to visible in a single stroke. “I appreciate what you do, thank you.”

At the church where I worked, I sat down for a bagel and a cup of coffee and calculated what all went into making the Sunday morning experience. There was a premium effort to make a seamless hour-long event for those who come seeking something more to life. Behind the scenes, it is the culmination of hundreds of hours each week by staff and volunteers who endeavor to foresee every possible detail as if were the very last Sunday on earth in which someone might come to realize there is more to life. All efforts are meaningful, interconnected, synchronized events oftentimes dependent upon the success of one another like the gears of a fine timepiece. The feat is truly an incredible one but in large part, invisible to most. In this effort, there is no strata, no status, no rungs on the ladder. The endeavor is much too important for personalities to get caught up in such posturing. Because everyone matters. And so did I.

I learned that the people who have set their sights on things much bigger than themselves and issues of profound importance, like ants in an anthill, the effort eradicates class lines. Respect, empathy and valuation of the person–not position–prevails.

A job well done is its own reward.

My parents taught me well. I learned to work a $5/hour job as if it was a $50/hour job and that someday it would be and my efforts would be rewarded, if not only by my own conscience. Paychecks are necessary, but conscience is vital. And doing a job well isn’t entirely a money thing.

I recall a study in which employees of several different companies were surveyed and asked to make a choice between a)receiving a small raise and b)receiving a genuine compliment from the boss on a piece of work they did. The result was surprisingly and overwhelmingly for the latter. Conscience-driven people create meaning in even the lowest of positions and in doing so, elevate that job to a place of importance for themselves and those around them it might not have earned otherwise. Pride in performance is a currency which eventually cashes a bigger paycheck if you are thankful to just be working.

Bloom where you’re planted for now.

Apart from things like knowing the staff’s snack habits through the emptying of their office trashes, their pooping schedules and various hygienes, as a general rule, being a janitor was not so bad. It’s a physical job with lots of dirt, sweat and germs you can wash off with a hot shower or a licking frenzy from your best friend when you come home through the door after a long day.

Some say I’ve had a tough life. But a tough life is being a child sold as a sex slave to support a parent’s drug habit. A tough life is in a plentiful world, foraging for food, water and a place to lay your head. My own mistakes brought me to the place I was at, the bottom rung with a master’s degree at 53 years old where the shit that rolled downhill literally fell into my lap and I still smiled and said thank you. Because as a janitor, I learned work isn’t just a job, a paycheck or a position. Sometimes it’s about accepting the roll of the dice and staying in the game.

life itself

Today, from birthdays to bridal showers, bachelor parties to proms, even baby showers are now bigger than life. 48 hour weekends, whole weeks, even entire months are dedicated and spent at great cost to celebrate single milestones to which we used to only donate hours of a day. It wasn’t a competition back then and nobody was starved for a party. Seems maybe we’ve passed the point of considering life itself the celebration and its measures the mere exclamation points. We used to go big, and then we literally just went home.