Because of Diamond

Our Canine Companions for Independence journey began in October of 2009 when we joined the CCI family as we welcomed Diamond, an 8 week-old black Lab puppy.
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Gah…. little Annie was only 2 years old…

Given that this was our first foray into the world of service dogs, the learning curve was steep. Once Dizey became housebroken, we began leaving her alone in the kitchen… and then were horrified when she would chew through chair legs. She also learned the art of counter-surfing (including a cake to celebrate a friend’s newborn) – a habit that, according to her forever family, proved impossible to break (our bad!). Being consistent in our training – no jumping on anyone, even if they love dogs; no random climbing on the furniture, no matter how snuggleable the dogs look; no pulling on the leash, despite how much longer walks might take to get it right – was tough. But we learned. And Diamond taught us.

Bringing a pup-in-training with us everywhere we went was also an entirely new experience. We soon discovered the best times to visit the grocery store (lest a pup get its paws run over by the cart), how to fasten a CCI cape/vest in blinding Rochester snow, just how many paper towels and plastic bags to have on hand at any given time, which things might spook a dog (automatic doors, floor grates, and mannequins, I’m looking at you), and that, no matter how many times you’ve offered the pup a chance to hurry, there are no guarantees that a visit will remain accident-free.
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These were taken for the girls’ valentines; their cards said, “Puppy Love”

We also learned that there are no “quick stops” when you’ve got a cape-wearing dog with you. This is simultaneously one the most wearisome and most awesome parts of raising a service pup: everyone, and I do mean everyone, wants to tell you their dog story, and especially their dead dog story. A simple trip to grab milk and toilet paper could turn into a 20-minute sojourn when Diamond came along, as we were stopped so people could scratch her head (only with permission, thanks very much), tell us about their black Lab back home, how their best friend’s cousin’s uncle’s boss’s wife once dreamed about getting a black Lab, or about good ol’ Rascal or Butch or Princess who was the light of their life but crossed over the rainbow bridge last week or last month or six years ago. It’s almost compulsory, this desire to share dog stories with us because of the cape-wearing pup at our side.

And, for us, those stories have become almost sacred. Dogs are special. Sharing them is special.

So was Diamond. She came with us to Kiawah and Minnesota, doing a stellar job on the airplane both times. (Our trip to Minnesota did, however, provide us with our favorite dog disaster story of all time: when Diamond left Easter egg-filled diarrhea all over the moving sidewalk at the MSP Airport…) She went with the girls into their classrooms. She joined them in the snow and the water, posed for photos in costume, and never, ever complained.
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After returning Diamond in May of 2011, we knew we wanted to raise another service dog pup. By the time Langston arrived in September, we felt more confident and were excited to put what Diamond had taught us into practice.

We’d been told that CCI could release dogs from Advanced Training at any time; only so many are cut out for a life of service. Nevertheless, we were surprised in October, 4.5 months into Advanced Training, to receive a call that Dizey was being released. (Long story short, she was occasionally, but unpredictably, aggressive with other dogs.)
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We adored Diamond. We would gladly have taken her back.
But because we adored her, we knew she couldn’t live with us. She deserved a home without other dogs to make her nervous. So we put the word out – and, very happily, Diamond became the forever pet of local friends who loved her dearly (even though she never outgrew counter-surfing). Her nickname was D-Money. She graced their Christmas cards. They brought her on countless adventures. And when she became mysteriously ill, they never gave up on trying to find out what was wrong, to help her, to make her comfortable.

Very sadly, despite their Herculean efforts, Diamond passed away three days ago. She was only eight-and-a-half years old.

It’s a strange feeling, losing someone who held great importance during a particular period of your life. Not quite missing; Diamond hadn’t felt like “our” dog for many, many years; Ella and Annie barely remember her. Not quite heartbreak; we loved her then, and remember her fondly, but it’s been a long time and our hearts have made room for 5 other CCI pups since then. There’s a buffer of respect and deference, too; Diamond was our puppy, but she was her forever family’s beloved pet.

Her passing is nevertheless a somber, poignant milestone, and Diamond will forever occupy a unique and significant place in our hearts. She introduced us to CCI – their specific commands, training methods, and approaches. She also introduced us to the world of service dogs and puppy raising, which has become one of our most central and important missions.
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Gabe and Fenwick

Because of Diamond, there was Langston – who, though he flunked out, has become our very best boy. Because of Diamond, there was Jambi, a pup-turned-breeder whose pups have directly changed the lives of dozens of people in need. Because of Diamond, there was Fenwick, whose placement with Gabe has forever made him happier. And because of Diamond, there was Jitter (now in her 5th month of Advanced Training) and Arlington (who has become a gigantic, genius goofball)… and who knows how many other pups yet to come.
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Jitter navigating the LIRR during Advanced Training; photo courtesy of her handler
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Arlington taking in ‘Black Panther.

Because of Diamond, we found one of our purposes in life. We cannot possibly express our gratitude to her, not only for being a fantastic puppy, but for introducing us to the world of service dogs. Diamond brought us into the CCI family, and nothing has been the same. Thank God.

Or, in this case, thank dog.

Godspeed, Dizey. You were a great pup, a terrific pet to your forever family, and you can bet that next time Arlington and I are stopped by someone in the grocery store, I’ll be sharing your story with them.
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From That – To This

It feels a little as though things have been turned upside down. (Not a Hamilton reference, believe it or not – although the sentiment is the same…) Since the white supremacist flyers were distributed in our town’s neighborhoods, all of the fears and anger and hatred that were happening Somewhere Else, that had seemed almost hypothetical, were suddenly impossible to ignore. It was one of my most difficult parenting moments – my daughters and husband being targeted for their race, knowing others’ privacy had been violated, wondering if we would be next. I began having difficulty sleeping; I awoke every morning anxious to see if our driveway had been hit, if, on the way to school, our girls would find strips of paper disavowing their existence.

Turns out, I was far from the only person feeling this way. Within 48 hours of the initial intimidation campaign, a meeting was scheduled for local residents to discuss a counter-response. Over 50 people showed up on a Sunday afternoon, including Nick and me; we strategized, imagined, and shared ideas on how to organize a visible anti-racist, inclusive message – both in the immediate aftermath and well beyond. A group was formed: Pittsforward. I left the meeting feeling wary but energized, so grateful that others were willing to be brave enough to come together and say, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” rather than silently condemning from the safety of our houses.

We agreed that, among other things, a march or walk of some kind was in order. Exactly one week later, all of the details were in place and we gathered for our Unity Walk.

(I always have said I’m not the kind of person who marches for stuff; it’s just not my thing. Turns out, when you literally bring hate to our neighborhoods and driveways, I have a different reaction. Funny, that.)

It wasn’t just the 50 of us, however; hundreds upon hundreds of people showed up to stroll peacefully en masse through our little town, joyfully and resolutely declaring that racism will not be accepted here, that we stand united, that we celebrate our differences, and that everyone is welcome here.

That so many residents in my community wanted to stand with one another and say, NO, NOT HERE! was deeply heartening. That they did so in a steady rain kind of blew my mind. img_7253img_7255

Neither of our girls was particularly looking forward to the walk. Part of this was our waiting until the last minute to tell them about it, and part of this was their relative lack of perspective on why something like this was worthwhile. Often, when Ella or Annie strongly object to participating in a “family” outing, either Nick or I will step in to say, “Hey, maybe this isn’t so important; let’s allow her to skip it.” (Like, I might say this regarding a hockey game and Nick might say it regarding a dance performance. YOU KNOW, JUST AS HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLES.)

On this, however, we were in agreement: our family would walk, period. It was important. It was necessary. We were going, driving rain or sunshine. (Side note: we would have preferred the latter.)
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So, this is a totally crappy photo… It’s actually a screen shot – from my phone – of a video that was shown by one of our local television stations.
Still, it’s the only photo (such as it is) of us at the walk, so… yeah.

After almost 41 years of tearing up at Budweiser commercials and getting misty over inspirational memes on Pinterest,  you’d think, by now, that I would expect to be emotional at things like this. Apparently I still surprise myself, because I was not prepared to become so choked up at the sight of everyone in their raincoats and umbrellas, coming together to support one another.
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Low bridge, everybody down… (Get it?)

There were families with kids – from babies in strollers to high schoolers. Some were biracial families, like ours. Others had adopted children of mixed race. Others were all people of color. And, alongside them, hundreds of white folks – who, despite being “included” in the “acceptable” list provided in the supremacist flyers, found their rhetoric anything but acceptable.

There were older couples without any children (accompanying them). There were college students. There were groups of adults with signs and placards. There were women in headscarves. There were priests in collared shirts. We passed our local Chabad House, where members were preparing for the start of Rosh Hashanah; despite their preparations, they stepped outside to wave and join our chorus.

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A couple of the many signs from the walk…

We walked behind our local Flower City Pride Band, their 60s and 70s rock songs providing us a cheerful soundtrack. Police had cordoned off portions of our little town to make it safe for the marchers to go by; they were on hand, directing the traffic that inevitably backed up. As we passed them, we leaned into their patrol cars to thank them for being there. And, at the end, we gathered – alongside many of our locally elected officials and members of the school board – in a town park. The display of love in the face of hate, of support in the face of threats, was so incredibly powerful.

We can do this. Together, we can do this. Just look at all the people willing to say so.

I will fully admit it: I cried. More than once.
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Because our little town is, indeed, little, the entire affair lasted only twenty minutes or so… but that was enough. We said what we needed to say. We were where we needed to be. And, whether they understand or not – whether they like it or not – we showed our girls what it means to stand up for diversity, acceptance, and love.

There is a time for deliberate indifference, for willful ignoring. I absolutely believe that, sometimes, the best way to handle an ignorant bully is to not even acknowledge their existence – to not give them the attention they’re seeking. I also believe that, sometimes, when a bully pushes too hard, when they threaten you by coming to your turf rather than spouting their message from afar, a strong, direct, vocal opposition is exactly what’s needed.

The time had passed for quietly shaking our heads in disapproval. We needed to take a stand, to make it clear that not only would we not tolerate this kind of hate and propaganda being delivered to our homes, but we also celebrate our differences and our diversity. Perhaps most of all: we are not alone. 

I’m a silver lining kind of girl (see: yes, the basement flooded, but at least the floor is clean!). The flyers were certainly The Bad. But there is The Good, too: people are no longer content to be complacent. We are making connections, having conversations, coming together. We are recognizing that our neighborhoods are more than just where we live; they’re also the people who live there. If nothing else, the flyers’ aftermath has caused me to want to get to know my neighbors better, because it’s much more difficult to hate and fear someone you’ve talked with face to face.

This isn’t going to change overnight. Yes, the walk was tremendous and important.But there is so much more to do to make our community truly inclusive, safe, and open to other viewpoints. Together, we can make a difference in our community. I have to believe it’s so, because the alternative is just not okay.

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Worth It Already

Last Friday was one of the best days of our lives. We’d dreamed about it for years – literally, since 2009, when we brought home our first service dog puppy for Canine Companions for Independence. Our first two pups had been released from Advanced Training (flunked out, basically). Our third was accepted as a breeder – a success, but not quite the heartwarming, This Animal Has Become A Service Dog And Will Now Change Someone’s Life moment that we’d imagined.

Then came Fenwick.
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After six months of Advanced Training, he’d learned all the skills he could master and, after nearly two weeks of intensive Team Training, he’d been matched with someone in need. He was, indeed, to Become A Service Dog And Change Someone’s Life. Seven years later, we were finally attending the first CCI graduation of a puppy we’d raised.

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Reunited!!

It was almost more than I could handle.

I thought I understood why this was such a big deal. I assumed that Fenwick’s long-awaited placement would be the “reward,” that after a seventeen months with him – obedience classes, vet visits, bringing him everywhere with us, loving him with everything in us – we would finally see our hard work “pay off,” and that would feel great.

Turns out, assumptions really do make an ass out of you and me.

Ten days prior to graduation, we learned that Fenwick had been matched – but we didn’t know with whom. That news was, in and of itself, tremendous. He’d done it. OUR BOY HAD DONE IT!! Whoever he was placed with was surely perfect for him; it was all good.

Three days prior to graduation, however, when we learned that Fen’s perfect partner was a twelve year-old boy… Somehow, that made things seem even more tremendous. A boy – a child – would grow up with a buddy by his side. A child‘s life was going to be different because of Fenwick. That joyous news nearly did me in.

Again, I thought I understood why I was so deeply moved. Children tug at our heartstrings. Children are supposed to be carefree. They’re supposed to play, laugh, run, grow, and dream. They’re not “supposed” to have to deal with the hardships that adults face, whether they be financial difficulties, illnesses, physical limitations, losses, or heartbreaks. When we hear that a child is going through a challenging time, our Not Fair genes kick into high gear and our empathy goes into overdrive.

I assumed that was why I was so moved by Fen being matched up with a young child. But that was only part of it.

On Friday morning, we arrived at the CCI Northeast regional center right at 9:00, which was the earliest we were allowed to meet up with Fenwick. We hadn’t really worried that he’d have forgotten us since February, but seeing him wiggle around with glee at the sight of us and physically knock us over with his exuberance felt pretty great nevertheless. After an hour of hugs, belly rubs, a walk, and making him show off a few of his recently-acquired skills (he totally gave us some side eye when we made him “get” my cell phone off the ground), it was time to bring him to the reception room where the graduate teams were waiting.
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No way around it: I was nervous. Would it be awkward, this meeting of two families who loved the same dog? What if we didn’t have anything in common? How could we convey that we were genuinely thrilled that Fenwick was being placed with them, but we still wanted to hug him one more time? Could we explain how delightful we thought it would be to keep in touch, without it seeming stalker creepy?

And most important: What if they didn’t like us?

After a few deep breaths, we entered the room and found G and his mom almost immediately. There were introductions and polite greetings until G’s mom and I got to one another. Rather than accepting my handshake, she held her arms out for a hug. I was so relieved and grateful, I thought I might sink right into the floor; and then, as our arms encircled one another, she whispered, “I can’t thank you enough for doing this.”

The tears that had already escaped a few times that morning let fully loose; I pretty much didn’t stop crying for the next five hours.

All of our concerns and anxiousness disappeared the moment we began talking with G and his mother (her sister was with them as well, and equally lovely). They were nice! They were funny! Our kids are six months apart in age! They like books and Star Wars! Best of all, it was readily apparent that Fenwick and G were crazy about one another, and that this was exactly what Fen was born to do: be with G. We never felt awkward or uncomfortable; they could not have been more gracious about the “we love the same dog” thing.

The 90 minute brunch absolutely flew by as we exchanged life stories, Fenwick stories, ate scrambled eggs and cake, traded mementos and gifts, looked at Fenwick photos and videos, and generally took one another in. It was a bit mind-bogglingly awesome to think that what connected us was a yellow furball asleep at our feet.

Things were going just about as well as I could have hoped when G’s mom explained how she’d sought out CCI in the first place: because she knew that G needed help, and a service dog was a way to obtain that help. As was said during the graduation ceremony, Fenwick provided G with “the bridge between ‘I can’t” and “I can” (and is) “the friend (he) can always rely on.”

All at once, what had been light and happy became substantially heavier and more meaningful. Fenwick’s placement with G opened up avenues and possibilities in G’s life that, two weeks prior, had only been hopes and wishes. Within the span of mere days, and embodied in one furry being, G’s entire life had changed. While I had considered all of this before in some capacity – it’s why we started with CCI in the first place – seeing it right in front of me was more affecting than I can describe.

While this is true for every graduate, from eight years old to eighty, and is why what CCI does is so incredible, hearing G’s mom describe how the life of her son was changing drove everything home. Yes, my heartstrings had been tugged because G is a kid and kids aren’t “supposed” to have to go through the hard stuff, but now I saw things through G’s mom’s perspective. She had been searching for answers to help make things better for, easier for, open possibilities for her child – and BAM! all at once, those wishes came true… in a four-legged pup. As a mother, I cannot imagine anything more significant or worthwhile.

With comprehension finally dawning, I felt like the Grinch with his suddenly three-sizes-larger heart; no joke, my heart literally felt bigger, spreading a warmth throughout my chest that lasted all day.

When we’d learned that Fenwick and G were to be matched, I’d gleefully announced their pairing on Facebook. A wonderful friend of mine commented on the post that it was a “full circle moment… Such a great example of the love you showed him!” I had never considered it in that way but before instantly latched onto the idea. For all of those months, through those vet visits and grocery store trips and Target candle aisle mishaps, through nights snuggling close and days romping about, we were loving on Fenwick with everything we had. That love was stored up inside of him – and maybe even made him just a wee bit more awesome (I mean, we’re pretty cool) – and now he was able give that love back to G.

Mic. Drop.

IMG_0539One last hug for Fenwick at graduation before we turned over the leash…

I’ve written before about how raising CCI pups changes lives… most significantly, our own. I’ve also written about how it’s pretty much awful saying goodbye and turning the pups in for Advanced Training. Through it all, I’d assumed that, if one of the pups made it and became a service dog, it would have been worth it.

The more the girls, Nick, and I talked, the more we understood that the joy of Graduation Day – and all it means – so far eclipses the sadness of Turn In day, there’s no comparison. Fenwick becoming a service dogs wasn’t the reward (although, don’t get me wrong, it’s one of the most incredible things that’s ever happened in my life).
Raising him was, in and of itself, the reward.

Fenwick has taught us – and our girls – more about what it means to love, to give fully, to believe, to hope, and to dream than most people ever will. We couldn’t teach Annie and Ella those lessons on our own if we spent our lives trying; raising CCI pups does it for us. Saying that it was an honor to have raised Fenwick, and then to have seen him pass that love and those hopes and dreams along to G is an understatement; our Grinch-grown hearts are so full with pure joy, they are nearly bursting.

I’d worried that saying goodbye to Fenwick for the final time would be tough. Turns out, it wasn’t at all; he’s doing what he’s meant to do and we’re so thrilled him and G, sending them off was happy and hopeful.

Plus, we had our own CCI furball waiting for us at home… With another year to pour love into her, just imagine the possibilities…

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Balloon Jesus

A week ago Saturday, I found myself doing something I never imagined: making Balloon Jesus dance in Rochester’s Pride parade.

When my friend, Nancy, explained that our little church group (Sophia Community) would join other local church communities to march at Pride, I knew I wanted to join – and bring the girls. Given that we have both family members and close family friends who are gay, Ella and Annie are completely un-fazed by the thought of same-gender people loving one another; in fact, hearing that others don’t believe that this is completely okay and normal absolutely astonishes them. “But mom – they’re people! No one can control who they love!”

Participating in the parade would be an opportunity for us to actually demonstrate our acceptance and support at an event where the LGBTQ community feels not only safe but celebrated for exactly who they are.

Also, let’s face it: the gay community knows how to throw a party!

In the aftermath of Orlando, I wanted our outfits to be focused on spreading the love. We spent the morning before the parade decorating some t-shirts and psyching ourselves up for the joyful spectacle that was sure to occur along the parade route.
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Annie’s shirt: “PRIDE” {plus drawings of same-sex couples holding hands and a heart with “love” written many times}
My shirt: a geeky music reference that reads |: love is : |  (get it??)
Ella’s shirt: “LOVE is a magic to live by” (the parade’s theme was “Let’s Make Magic”) {also, a drawing of a magic wand}

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Me: “fill the world with music, love, and PRIDE – LMM” (from JLo and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s new song, “Love Make the World Go Round,” written in tribute to the Orlando massacre)
Ella: “Love Is Love Is Love Is Love”
Annie: “LOVE is PRIDE”

On the drive over, I attempted to let the girls know that we would encounter some… unusual… costumes, displays, signs, etc. I also shared my not-so-secret hope that we’d be marching near some drag queens, ’cause ever since seeing Kinky Boots, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with men capable of pulling off “female” waaaay better than I ever will be.

Due to blocked off streets, we had to park in a church parking lot about a mile away from our assigned gathering spot and wait for Nancy’s husband, Paul, to shuttle us closer. Paul wasn’t there when we arrived… but a complete stranger another man was. He approached us, saying, “Are you looking to get to the parade, too?” I acknowledged that we were waiting for a ride, but didn’t want to engage in conversation. Being polite to strange men is totally cool, but more than that? Nope. Need to set a good, cautious example for my children.

Then the man said, “Are you waiting on Paul, too?”
Um, yes actually, we are.

“Was he supposed to bring you to Nancy?”
Um, yes actually, he was.

“You’re meeting at 210 Alexander Street, right?”
Yep.

“I’m driving people, too. I can just take you!”

And that is how we wound up riding to Pride in the backseat of a sedan driven by a man we’d met 30 seconds earlier. As soon as we got out of the car – after thanking the nice gentleman for the ride – I whirled around to Annie and Ella and said, “You do understand that accepting rides from strangers is usually a DEFINITE NO, right?”

Good examples, y’all.

Although it took a while to make our way to 210 Alexander, the walk over gave us an opportunity to pass the other participants, floats, etc. I had to stop and collect myself at the We Are Orlando group, where marchers held photos of each of the massacre victims, but otherwise, it was pretty much the very definition of happiness.

All ages and races, rainbow everything, glitter, spandex (so much spandex), butterflies, mermaids, leather bodysuits and masks (the Rochester Kink Society float was particularly eye-catching), tutus, Speedos, unicorns, a log cabin-esque float for a local gay campsite, muscular bare-chested men with towels around their waists atop a float advertising “Bathhouse: The Musical!” … and more smiles and laughter than I can remember seeing in one place in a long damned time.

Oh – and Balloon Jesus. Gimme a sec.

After taking only 20 steps or so, the girls’ eyes were so wide, they looked like young Botox patients gone awry. I leaned close to whisper, “Normally, I’d tell you it’s rude to stare… but everyone here is dressed up specifically so you’ll look at them – so feel free to look! Just try to make your expressions more ‘interested’ than ‘terrified,’ okay?”

I’d seen some in-progress photos of the Sophia Community float, but didn’t know what to expect from the final product. When we rounded the corner to 210 Alexander, I could  vaguely make out a large balloon structure in the distance. This didn’t surprise me – Nancy and I have a friend, Kelly, who makes incredible balloon sculptures for a living (how cool is that!), so having a balloon sculpture as part of Sophia’s float wasn’t particularly unusual.

I briefly considered the possibilities – a balloon cross? Doves? Angels? – but then, upon realizing what it actually was, said aloud, “Oh my gosh. It’s Balloon Jesus.”
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The first great thing about Balloon Jesus was all of the phrases he inspired. “Let’s go meet Jesus!” “I know we’re where we belong because we’ve found Jesus.” “We’ve been touched by Jesus!” 

The second great thing about Balloon Jesus was the sculpture itself. Kelly always does a remarkable job of turning balloons – balloons!! – into incredibly realistic-looking re-creations of whatever she’s modeling, but Balloon Jesus was particularly fantastic. I mean, he looked like Jesus (or whatever I imagine Jesus looks like). To make him more authentic, Nancy had requested that the balloons for Jesus’s skin not be pink or peach – as a Middle Eastern man, Jesus wasn’t light-skinned – and the tannish color of his radiant face was pretty terrific.

The very greatest thing about Balloon Jesus, though, was the reaction that onlookers had upon seeing him. One of the floats behind us was for a local nightclub, and it blasted pop-y music as we made our way along. (This float also featured drag queens; score!) Marching to the celebratory sound waves, Nancy and I – who were each holding a stick propping up one of Balloon Jesus’s hands – decided to move Jesus’s arms so that he appeared to dance.

The parade route was a relatively straight shot, so it was pretty easy to see the folks on the sidelines before we reached them. We watched as they scanned each float or marching group, shouting affirmations (“Happy Pride!”) and cheering. We also watched as their eyes eventually panned to our float, narrowed with contemplation about what on earth they were viewing, and then widened with joy-filled realization.

That’s when the awesomeness really began.
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Other awesomeness: tossing candy!

It was fun, certainly, hearing people call out some version of, “Balloon Jesus is dancing!” and calling back, “Yes, he is!” It was affirming and lovely hearing a good half-dozen onlookers delight, “Hooray! Jesus isn’t white!” or “It’s black Jesus! YASSSS!” 

But I was unprepared for how it would feel hearing people yell, with triumph and utter jubilation, “Hey – you’re right! Jesus loves EVERYBODY! Even us!!”

I never thought I’d feel comfortable shouting to the world, “Jesus loves you!” And yet, as these rainbow-bedecked onlookers gleefully cheered at the thought of Jesus accepting them, when maybe their faith communities had not, it felt not only comfortable but pure, real, beautiful. “Yes, he does! JESUS LOVES YOU!”

I am so grateful to have found Sophia Community, whose members espouse what I’ve always felt about Jesus: that we are, indeed, loved just as we are. That’s the grace and power of God’s love; it is endless, boundless, and meets us right where we are. God’s love is for Ella, Annie, and me. It is for those who go to church every Sunday and those who will never step foot inside a cathedral. It is for those who pray religiously (yes, a pun; God has a superb sense of humor) and even for those who don’t believe.

God’s love is for everyone marching and everyone on the sidelines – the married heterosexual couples with kids, the older men in dapper hats holding one another’s hands, and the younger women with multiple piercings wearing rainbow tank tops that said, “GAY AS F*CK” (there were a good many of those). God’s love is, sometimes to my annoyance, even for the guys on the corner shouting through megaphones that God says gay people are going to hell.

I’d worried that, by marching in the parade instead of standing on the side, we’d miss out on (what I assumed to be) the best part: seeing all of the participants. Now, I understand that, by marching, we had the remarkable opportunity to spread the Love Wins message, to see people feeling accepted and celebrated for exactly who they are… because of Balloon Jesus.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.
Amen!
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A Lesson in Living

Last Saturday, I lost a longtime friend to cancer.
It is something I’m absolutely not okay with.

Sara was funny. She was witty. She was an incredibly talented artist and craft-person, sewing and knitting and taking photos with the best of them. She even owned a lovely boutique that sold fabulous goodies. Sara loved to bake, to play games, and to play music. She spoke often of her faith in God and Jesus – certainly after her diagnosis, but before, too. She was creative and clever and generous and devoted.
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The girls wearing the Easter outfits Sara made for them, circa 2009. 
Ella’s skirt was super-cute – she and Annie saved it for dress-up long after it had become too small for wearing otherwise – but it was the dress Sara created for Annie (complete with apron — an apron!!) that absolutely stole my heart. 

Sara was diagnosed five short months ago. She fought valiantly and hard, remaining hopeful that she would be able to beat this cruel and unpredictable disease. She came home for hospice just two weeks before she died.
She was only thirty-nine.

Sara and I met on the same December 2004 Moms message board where I met Sarah, Karen, and Jenifer; we’ve been friends for nearly eleven years. Her three children are young – the youngest is a December ’04 kiddo, like my Ella. Just imagining them trying to navigate this world without their mama makes my heart hurt. Cancer is so effing mean.

Like so many friendships, Sara’s and my relationship did not take a linear path: meet, become pals, happily ever after, the end. Although we met in person, joining together with other December ’04 friends in Atlantic City for a rather, um, epic long weekend, the bulk of our communications were online. Because we weren’t accustomed to seeing one another face to face, it was all too easy for months to go by without getting in touch.

The first time that I sent Sara a Christmas card and didn’t receive one back from her (we’d been exchanging them for years), I assumed that she and her family hadn’t done cards that year. By the second year, I didn’t know if they weren’t sending cards, period, or if she simply wasn’t interested in sending one to me anymore, for whatever reason. I sent a card anyway, happily imagining her opening it. This went on for a few more years until I heard through the grapevine that Sara had moved; thus, the time came when I copied her address label in my Excel spreadsheet from the “current” list to the “no longer” list. I didn’t really want to, but if she wasn’t even receiving the cards, it seemed silly to continue sending them. Our communications essentially ceased.

And then, lo and behold, I received a Facebook friend request from Sara this past December! It had been several years since we’d been in contact and I’ll admit I was wary to accept her request. Would it feel strained? Weird? Too much water under the bridge? In the end, I decided that I didn’t care about the water; I cared about the bridge.
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Sara and me on our Atlantic City trip, 2006.

We kept in touch on Facebook, commenting on one another’s photos or status updates. I loved seeing how her kids had grown in the years since we’d last talked, loved seeing what Sara was up to. When she was diagnosed in the spring, the years of not keeping up with one another seemed to disappear. All that mattered was that my friend was sick and needed support, love, encouragement, and prayers.

It’s easy to see what’s really important when things become really hard. Funny, that.

So often folks are hit with a crisis or a tragedy, people are quick to quip, “Live each day as though it were your last!” I get it: don’t put off your dreams until later because who knows if that time will come, live with joy, tell people you love them, don’t wait to do that thing you’ve always wanted to do because it may be too late.

That’s well and good, really it is. But I’m not terribly interested in living each day as though it were my last. If I thought that I’d be gone tomorrow, I sure as heck wouldn’t spend today doing the laundry. I’d be buying airplane tickets – first class, baby! – to visit family and friends, pulling the girls out of school, and making sure to drink my weight in Starbucks salted caramel mochas.

And as for regrets? Well, I just don’t see how it’s possible to live without them. If I were to bite the dust next week, I’d be bummed as heck that I never took up the cello or visited the Great Wall of China. I’d be devastated to think I’d miss Ella and Annie growing up. I’d be super annoyed that I didn’t get to see the new Star Wars that’s coming out in December, and I’d definitely regret having spent this morning working out instead of watching the first few episodes of Modern Family.

Alas, living like it all could end in a moment simply isn’t practical. Neglecting the laundry would result in a nasty situation pretty fast. First class tickets would destroy our savings. As much as I do want to learn to play the cello and visit the Great Wall – I absolutely plan to do both, someday – and it might seem tempting to say, “Screw it! Carpe Diem! I’m taking lessons and booking a trip to China next month!”, it doesn’t always work that way. Not every dream is meant to be realized at the same time.

Sara’s death – and our friendship – taught me something much simpler. It’s not that you need to live every day as though it were your last, but rather that you should live openly, wholly, with the good and the bad and everything in between.
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Sara also made the silkies that Annie so cherishes. She was devoted to them at age one… and still now, at almost-nine. I love that this little bit of Sara’s goodness is still bringing such happiness into our house.

The thing is, living openly can be really freakin’ hard. It’s easier not to reach out. It’s easier not to forgive. It’s easier to assume that you’re right rather than trying to see things from another person’s perspective. It’s easier to let past hurts get in the way of present joys. It’s easier to keep difficult times to yourself rather than sharing them with others.

But being privy to Sara’s battle with cancer – as weird or hard to believe as it sounds – was such a gift. She shared her treatment plans and hospital stays with us, her diagnoses and aches and pains, her optimism that she would beat this, her hope and her deep faith. Instead of it being depressing and overwhelming, it was tremendously healing and connecting; I felt like I was with her, even though we were hundreds of miles apart. Her honesty and vulnerability were compelling and beautiful. I thought of and prayed for her all the time, but also gained a perspective and sense of awareness of my own life and priorities that might not otherwise have been present had Sara not allowed herself to be open with all of us.

Through Sara, I learned that not only is it okay to ask for help or to ask people to send you good wishes, it’s lovely and wonderful. Every time she updated her Facebook status, even when she was relaying bad news or saying she was in pain, Sara managed to put a positive and humorous spin on things. I couldn’t help but feel hope – mingled deeply with devastation and helplessness, yes, but still hope – when I read her posts. How amazing is that!

And to think I might have missed out on all of it if I’d been too afraid to accept her friend request.

As I mentioned recently, I know there are times when we all need to curl inward rather than open up. We need to protect ourselves, to heal, to recharge, and that’s okay. I’m so thankful, however, that through Sara, I discovered how powerful it can be to take a leap of faith and go forward with something that is uncertain or scary, how freeing it can feel to open your heart again.

I’m so very sad that Sara is gone – sad for me, sad for the hundreds of people who were able to attend her funeral and who miss her terribly, sad for her family, and most of all, sad for her husband and their children. No child should have to grow up without their mama. It simply isn’t right.

But I’m so deeply grateful for Sara – for her sense of humor, for her intelligence, for her kindness, her ingenuity, her cleverness, her faith, her enthusiasm, her friendship. I’m so grateful that she showed me the beauty of vulnerability, and for everything she taught me about grace, forgiveness, second chances, and always looking for the silver lining.

Thank you, my friend. Godspeed.
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Beautiful photo of Sara taken from her public obituary page.

Finding my religion

I am not really what you’d call religious.

We do celebrate Christian religious holidays like Christmas and Easter – but we also eat latkes and spin dreidels during Hanukkah, just because we enjoy it. Ella and Annie were baptized in our wonderful, little Episcopal church back in Westchester; Ella’s (phenomenal) godparents are Jewish. I took the girls to church weekly for years, but I’ve never read the Bible. In fact, I’m unfamiliar with most biblical stories unless they’ve worked their way into popular lexicon.

I would probably be a great People magazine Christian. “Joseph’s Eleven Brothers: Where Are They Now?”

With that being said, religions have always fascinated me, both from a personal/ spiritual and a historical/ anthropological perspective. Theology is really cool; understanding the beliefs of different religions is something I believe in, deeply.

Still, I haven’t exactly felt that belief, myself. I mean, I know that I believe – in God, in Jesus – but it’s never really moved me. I really wish it would.

I want to figure out how to make sense of my liberal social politics, my love of science, the voices of my friends who feel that people who believe in God are either stupid or blind, my negative experiences with organized religion… but also that part inside of me that just knows there’s something more out there, that does believe in God, that wants to reconcile that belief with all the rest of the stuff I’m lugging around.

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Cyclops Easter egg!
I know this photo seems oddly out of place; I think it’ll make more sense in a minute…

Basically, I want to attend a church run by Anne LamottGlennon Doyle Melton, and maybe Brené Brown, too. These women rock my world. They curse. They openly support gay rights. They don’t take the Bible literally. They doubt. They wonder. They encourage and enlighten and broaden and brighten and inspire, not to mention that they’re freakin’ hilarious. BUT ALSO they feel super-tight with God and Jesus and don’t feel weird about saying so. I want me some of THAT religion.

Alas, these three amazing women live nowhere near me… but I’ve found the spirit of their messages in the new little start-up church that I’ve been attending since October, Sophia Community. Every week, we gather together, read from the liturgy, and discuss it (“Um, what the heck is going on here? Why on earth would this be in the Bible? I really don’t like this passage.”). We wrestle with finding meaning in the words, even though we don’t take them literally. We pray, hard. It’s a completely safe space; every viewpoint is encouraged. There are no right answers, and I have loved every minute of it.

Still, I’ve been waiting for the Big Moment — I mean, I’ve been reading biblical passages, I’ve been talking and thinking and opening my mind! I am talking about Jesus and it doesn’t feel totally weird!!! Surely my spiritual epiphany is just around the corner. COME AND GET ME, GOD!

Well, it’s been a lot of months and no bolts of lightning. Damn it.

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Just one more sentence and these photos will make sense, I promise…

When my grandma asked us if we were going to church on Easter (AH HA!) morning, I quickly answered (maybe a little too quickly) that we were not. We used to for the sake of “tradition,” but when the girls began absolutely dreading the service and Easter morning became a combination of wrestling match meets bribery meets hysterical sobbing, I decided that the church traditions I really enjoyed on Easter were a) the music and b) wearing new clothes. Forcing Ella and Annie to sit through the service by shoving jelly beans in their mouths and threatening to take away their Easter baskets if they didn’t stop braiding the bookmarks in the hymnals just didn’t feel right… so we stopped going.

Instead, for the past several years, I’ve pulled up the “Hallelujah Chorus” on YouTube and we’ve all slapped on new duds on our way to brunch and all has been right with the world.

Well, almost all. A lot of people seem to get really excited about Easter – like really, really excited. They exude this JOY about it that seems to go beyond excitement over Cadbury caramel eggs (it must be caramel; the creme eggs are gross). I, myself, get pretty psyched about those eggs and I love watching my girls with their baskets… but true joy at Easter has been basically nonexistent for me.

This year, especially with all of my new Jesus knowledge, I wanted to find Easter joy. Joy is fun. Joy is feeling. I wanted to FEEL Easter.

So, after the girls had gone to bed the night before the big day, I decided to haul my Bible and, for the first time ever, read the four New Testament accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection. The stories were interesting enough (I honestly had no idea that they were completely different from one another; I mean, it’s the same story four times – how different can it be? HAHAHA WRONG) and I was genuinely bummed out by the way that Jesus died, but I wasn’t moved. No joy for me.

When Easter morning came around, the girls waited patiently for us to come downstairs so that they could earn their eggs. Yes, that’s the right word – earn. The previous day, Nick and I had told them that we didn’t have the energy to create an elaborate scavenger hunt for their eggs and baskets (as we did last year), but we could either hide their eggs or they could earn them. To our surprise, they chose B: earning their eggs.

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Nick and I hemmed and hawed over whether or not to make the tasks fun/silly or actual work. In the end, we chose a combination of both… with heavy emphasis on the silly… and wrote them down on little cards, to be chosen at random in the morning.

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This is what awaited the girls when they came downstairs: a bowl with tasks to earn their eggs, the eggs themselves (one completed task = one egg), small baskets in which to put their eggs, and one final egg each that told them it was time to go find their actual baskets.

And so, on Easter morning, Annie and Ella sang to us, played the piano, made our bed (holla!), engaged in some Harry Potter trivia, cleaned the kitchen floor (for real), and played cards in order to get their eggs and baskets. As we dealt the fourth hand (’cause nothing says “He is risen” more than competitive card games), Nick and I looked at one another and said, “This is already the best Easter ever!”
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Giggling over Cad (a family card game).

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An Easter duet (okay, so it was “Heart and Soul,” but it totally captured the exuberant spirit of the day).


Even the more “serious” tasks were met with gleeful enthusiasm… Chocolate and presents are powerful bribes motivators, y’all!

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We dyed eggs with my grandma, listened to “The Hallelujah Chorus,” got all fancied up, and went to brunch; we were totally knocking this Easter out of the park. Then, on our way home from the restaurant, the girls leaned forward in the car and said, “Ummm… So, what is Easter again?”

You’d have thought, after being dragged to church all those years, something would have stuck. Apparently not. (Except the jelly beans.)

Have you ever tried to explain Easter to young kids? Holy crap – it is THE CREEPIEST story EVER. Murder… coming back from the dead… walking around, talking to people… HOW WEIRD IS THAT?!?! Jesus is basically a zombie and everyone thinks it’s great. Let’s celebrate by dyeing eggs! Oh, and a bunny came to the house last night and dropped off a basket! Yay, Easter!!

So I told Ella and Annie the story, they nodded their heads (“Oh, right… Jesus came back from the dead… I remember now…”), but I could see that, even though they’d heard me, it wasn’t making any sense. They didn’t get why Easter was so special.

I understood. I mean, for the past 39 years, I haven’t gotten it, either.

Mostly, I’ve been okay with this. Easter’s just strange; no need to “get it” to have a good time. As the day went on, however, I grew unsatisfied with my answer. Because, frankly, Zombie Jesus isn’t a very happy thought. Just ’cause the Bible says it’s special doesn’t make it feel special – not for me, anyway. I wanted more.

And as I thought about it – as I considered why Jesus’s resurrection was such a big deal beyond the zombie mechanics of it – I felt something shift. I found myself calling the girls back and saying, “I want to talk to you a bit more about this. You know how I’ve told you that the Bible says that Jesus was dead, and then he wasn’t, and that’s what Easter is? And you know how you think that sounds really weird – probably because it is really weird? Well, I think there’s more to it than that.”

So I told them what I’ve learned, starting with ideas I’ve heard from Sophia Community, from Anne Lamott and Glennon Doyle Melton. As I went on, though, I discovered my own ideas — about why Jesus was different from the people who’d come before him, how he was really an awfully cool and amazing guy, how radically new his message was — not about God and the bible and “being saved,” but about us. About how we’re just right exactly as we are, about how we don’t need to do any more to be worthy of being loved; we are, with our flaws and imperfections, exactly who we are supposed to be. We are each enough, and we are loved, and we can do this.

It doesn’t matter if the story if real, I told them. It doesn’t matter if it ever happened. It doesn’t even matter if Jesus was real (although I think most scholars agree that he was, in fact, a real actual human; the whole divine thing is up for grabs). What matters – for me – is the message that Jesus, or even the idea of Jesus, spread: the message of love, of connectedness, of wholeness, of you are good enough just as you are. I have no idea if any of this really happened, but it doesn’t make a difference; the message, and how that message makes me feel, is what matters.

And as I spoke, I felt this very unfamiliar thing burbling up inside me – a little like indigestion, except it was happiness. It was joy.

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Easter brunch in our fancy duds. Tradition, preserved!

The week before Easter, we were visiting family in Charleston and had the honor of attending my cousin’s daughter’s baptism. Before the big day, we were chatting with everyone, including my cousin’s father-in-law – a retired Episcopal priest who was in town to perform the baptism (and visit with his baby granddaughter!). Annie happened to casually slip into conversation that we used to go to church, but hadn’t in a while (kids are such fun), and then followed up with this gem, “What even *is* religion? I don’t think I have religion.” 

As I was struggling to craft a response that would explain that, of course, we have religion and how much I love my little Sophia Community and that I haven’t completely led the kids astray — TO THE RETIRED PRIEST — my cousin’s father-in-law just smiled at my little heathen and answered, without missing a beat (I’m paraphrasing slightly here because I don’t remember the exact words, but the sentiment is true and real),

“Oh, Annie, I promise you you’ve got religion. What religion boils down to – no matter which one it is – is that we’re all in this together, and we’ve got love in our hearts, and we’re helping one another. I watched you tonight, helping out, laughing. Everything you did, you did with such love. Your love came from inside of you and you gave it to all of us. That’s religion; I saw it. You have definitely got religion.”

All these months, I’ve been looking for my religion – in church, in books, online, in discussions. I’d hoped, if I figured out enough, if I learned enough, that I would find God or Jesus or something; I’d hoped I would feel it.

Turns out, my religion’s been right here inside me all along. (This is sounding an awful lot like The Wizard of Oz…) It’s in card games on Easter morning, it’s in the “You were great!” text from a friend, it’s in the holding open the door for someone at the mall, it’s in your husband and mom and dad being proud of you, it’s in the hugs that my girls give me each night before they go to sleep.

I still don’t consider myself religious, but I have definitely got religion.
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My little heathens and me all gussied up on Easter. 
They are my religion, every last one of them.

 

To the point

It’s *occasionally* been remarked upon that I tend to talk a lot. (Or, as I like to put it, why use a few words when dozens will do?) Sometimes, this is a nuisance – not only for those listening to/reading what I have to say (because there are only so many hours in a day, I get it), but also because my brain simply does not think in small phrases. One of the reasons I have yet to Tweet – despite having a Twitter account so I can follow random celebrities (especially of Harry Potter movies fame *ahem*; also Ken Jennings and Eric Stonestreet are hilarious) – is that I absolutely cannot condense anything into 140 characters. Even ordering a pizza takes me a good while.

On the other hand, being overly loquacious has sometimes come in handy, like when I’m teaching and need to fill the last few minutes of a class with anything to keep the kids occupied. I might have even won several Talk-Offs (you know, those “competitions” where you and an opponent are given random topics to discuss and whoever stops talking first loses. The word “competitions” is in quotes because, people, please), and I carry a certain swagger in my step as a result of those definitive victories.

My father, on the other hand, is a man of few words – and even that might be an overstatement. He’s not one of those stoic, grunted-response kind of guys, but more someone who speaks as succinctly and pointedly as possible. This has certainly gotten him very far in business, but when I was a kid, we didn’t really have a lot of heart-to-heart conversations. (I did tend to use up all of the oxygen in the room, so there’s that.)

As I became a teenager, my relationship with my dad began to change. It’s not necessarily that we began having long, detailed conversations, but rather that I began to appreciate his way of communicating just a bit more. (In fairness, although I think he’s often practically knocked over by the steady stream of words coming out of my mouth, he has always seemed to appreciate that that’s just how I roll.)

He would write me cards for all sorts of occasions – birthdays, milestone events, just because – and, rather than gloss over them because of their lack of expanded prose, I began to see them as perfectly him: direct; to the point; honest. I called them “Dad Cards” and saved every one, tucking some of my favorites into scrapbooks and diaries.

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His penmanship is not quite as clear as his message, but it all evens out in the end.
Somehow, this looks like it was Photoshopped – very weird!

The cards continued all through high school, college, and beyond, with more and more arriving for no reason at all other than that he wanted to let me know I was on his mind. A cute card, a few words (unlike the paragraphs I would write to my friends). Each time I received one, it was like a smile coming through the mail.

In addition to the cards, with the advent of cell phones, my dad began calling and leaving voicemail messages. Some asked me to call him back because he had a matter to discuss with me, but more often than not they simply said, “I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking about you. Talk to you later!” 

As email has taken on increasing importance, so, too, has my dad adopted communicating with me electronically – in brief. Every once in a while, I’ll receive a message that requires me to actually scroll past one screen on my iPhone, but the vast majority are one or two liners that convey exactly what he’s trying to say. In fact, because he now frequently sends them via iPad – a device whose keypad is not exactly conducive to typing long diatribes – his emails are consistently just a few words per email. (For example, to comment on one of my blog entries, I’ll receive an email whose subject line is the title of the blog and whose message says: “Great post” or “Never knew you liked olives.”)

Just as often, he’ll forward me an article from the Wall Street Journal with no preamble or additional writing at all. Although I usually understand why he’s forwarded me the story (Ah, yes, a discussion of Disney Cruises), I’ll sometimes have no idea if the article was meant as an encouragement or an admonishment (Wait, does he think I should be drinking Starbucks beverages daily, or is this a subtle hint that maybe I’ve got a problem?).

No matter, the underlying message remains the same: You’re on my mind. You’re awesome. And I love you.

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Vermont, 2011

My dad and I do talk a lot more these days than we used to when I was growing up – like, actual, for real, back-and-forth conversations. Admittedly, I’m probably responsible for 85% of the words used between us, and his responses are still short and sweet – but hey, old habits die hard. At least there’s dialogue.

Still, despite our increased discourse, some of my very favorite communications – not just from my father, but from anyone on the planet – are the brief cards, emails, and voicemail messages from him that are so perfectly Dad. There’s no one (at least, no one I know) who doesn’t enjoy being remembered, being thought of. Far harder (for me, anyway) is actually taking the time to reach out and let that person know that they’re on your mind.

For a man of few words, my dad is an expert at this. He has taught me that communication comes in all forms, and that sometimes, bigger isn’t better. Obviously, I haven’t quite managed the art of this myself, but I know my dad doesn’t care. (Although if I receive the link to a Wall Street Journal article detailing the detriments of too much talking, perhaps I’ll change my mind…)

So, this post is my very long-winded way of simply saying:
I know this is a day late, Dad, but I’m thinking about you.
You’re awesome.
And I love you

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My first birthday, 1976.
I am undoubtedly getting ready to say something to him.