So much …

I’m looking around the kitchen. The floors and the cabinets are color coordinated with the countertop. A designer tried to help me pick out colors that you would like, but in the end, I chose exactly what was in the model home. I had no idea if I had done right. You came and saw it, and you loved it.

You put a sign up on the top of the cabinets, just over there. “LOVE” it said, in all capital letters. It’s gone now.

There was another sign over there, next to the stove. It said “This kitchen is for dancing.” We danced a lot in this kitchen you and me, long before there was a sign. I loved to dance in the kitchen with you.

I sat you up on the countertop, and you wrapped your arms around my neck and pulled me close, so many times. I kissed you. I loved kissing you, while the stove behind me sizzled.

There was so much love here.

Just over there, I had them build the stacked stone fireplace because you said you liked that look. I remember the times we’d drag the mattress downstairs and cuddle up in front of the fire. We would sleep there all night, after we’d made love.

There’s a verse on the wall, the width of the room. “He is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine, by His power at work within us,” it promises. I would meet you at dawn under that covenant and kneel and pray for you and your son. When you cried, I cried. You loved for me to pray with you.

And there, in the corner, we would sit and talk out our grievances, the kitchen timer telling each of us when our time was up. We were learning to work things out. We’d make up and tell one another “I love you, babe.”

Up on the wall, five tin stars hang. We had been driving through the mountains and stopped in that little antique shop. You loved the big stars, and wanted one of your own. I couldn’t limit you to just one. They hang there still, just as you arranged them.

There was so much love here, not long ago.

Upstairs, we sat in the living room and worked a thousand puzzles, a thousand pieces each. We would talk about our days, our plans, and our fears. We laughed a lot here, the two of us. We watched the movies that you love, and I’d cuddle up next to you and watch, and kiss you on the shoulder. I loved kissing you on the shoulder.

And here, in our bedroom, on the wall are the giant initials, G and B, joined by a golden ampersand. They were the first things I hung up after the house was completed. Just off to the side is the picture that once hung in my lonely apartment; it reads “Today is the day.” For 8 months I read that sign every day, hoping that that day would be the day that you would come and marry me. That day finally came.

There was so much love here … so much love.

In this bed I took care of you when you felt sick. And here I lay as close to you as I could, trying to keep my breathing from waking you up, as I watched you sleep. And in this bed we laughed and we cried and we shared so much of our life, of our love, of our energies and of our emotions, of ourselves, intertwined.

There was so much love here.

And now, you are not here. The pictures are gone. The dresser is empty.

And yet you are here still, in every corner, and I rattle around this empty shell of a home and plead with God in Heaven to wake me up or to let me sleep forever. There is still so much love here, even now, at the end, when you’re not.

There is so much love here.

Ghosts of a Christmas Past

CLARKESVILLE, GA – We are on the way to somewhere larger when we reach the outskirts of this sleepy little southern town, my wife and I.  We are city folk with big plans tonight and a schedule to keep.

The December sun has set just half an hour ago, and already it is dark and cold.  Christmas lights occasionally dot the landscape, outlining a farmhouse, giving a twinkling whimsy to the front porch of a trailer, but they are the only signs of life of the 1200 residents who call this tiny county seat their home.  There is no other movement, no traffic, no sound.

We round a corner and suddenly everything changes.  Downtown Clarkesville appears out of the darkness, a glowing wonderland!  Like a scene from a Frank Capra movie, Christmas lights are everywhere: wrapped around every tree branch, outlining windows, climbing lamp posts.  And the people!  Families hold hands as they walk along the sidewalks.  A friendly police officer directs traffic, helping kids cross the street.  There’s music too; over the sound of the car’s heater, we hear in the distance brass notes of Christmas carols playing on the square.  “Oh come,” they beckon us.  “Come ye … oh co-me ye …”

Everything looks delightfully old-fashioned and inviting.  It is as if the entire town and its residents have been transported 60 years out of the past.  The sights evoke a sweetness, an innocence, a sense of community from a time long ago.  We cannot resit.  We find a place to leave the car, and we step out into the cold.

Holding hands, we walk towards the center of town.  The brass band’s carols echo around the square, rising above the laughter of children and the occasional scolding of parents.  A line stretches past the town’s War Memorial and makes its way to a gazebo.  Inside, talking with children, sits old Chris Kringle himself.   Outside, there is hot chocolate and a warm campfire waiting.

We are silent; we are in awe of what we see.  It is foreign to us, this place, these people, and yet it is so very strangely familiar.  We speak little, and we watch carefully.

A man carries his little girl on his back, a stick in hand.  He sets her down near the campfire, and produces a marshmallow out of his pocket.  He skewers it on the stick and kneels beside her, one knee raised for her to sit upon as he holds her.

“You want to toast the marshmallow,” he asks?

Of course she does.  Her pigtails and her polka-dot coat reek of cuteness.

The wind blows smoke into her face, and just like that, she is done.  “It’s smoky,” she declares as she hands him the stick.  The attention span of the four-year-old has reached its limit, but Dad continues.

“It’s not done yet,” he encourages her, but there is no arguing with a woman, certainly not with one who is four.  “Let’s finish toasting it.”  I recognize this conversation already and know how it will end.

“Uh uh.”  Her attention lost, she looks back towards Santa.

He continues half-heartedly to try to raise her interest, but he can’t win.  She tries to climb on his back for another ride.  In short order, he declares the marshmallow — still bright white — to be done.  He offers her some, and she takes the entire thing.  He raises her on his back and turns toward the crowd.

“Okay, let’s go find Mama,” he says.

I smile at the moment, filled with a strong sense I’d lived it all before.

We walk on.

As we walk and watch, the band’s carols seem to flow through me, and I begin to lightly sing along.  Silent night.

A mother bends over to look her boy in the eye.

“Yes, we are going to see Santa Claus,” she says sternly, a frustrated edge to her voice.  It is apparently not the first time she has answered the question tonight.  Without a touch of irony, she says “Billy, you have GOT to learn to be patient.”

This time it is my wife who smiles knowingly.

We walk on.  “Peace on earth, and mercy mi-ld,” I sing under my breath.  We keep to ourselves, watching the events around us.

Another little girl, this one cannot yet be three, is bundled up tightly in a puffy pink coat, wearing oversized gloves and a pastel stocking cap.  Standing behind her is her father, who is talking to someone else.  She steps forward, and instantly loses her balance.  Her father, vigilantly attentive, bends quickly and grabs her waist with one hand to stop her fall.  She teeters slightly and, top-heavy, continues to fall forward in slow motion.  Dad grabs her with his other hand, but not before her knees and her hands touch the pavement.

For her, it is a tragic injury.  She cries.

He scoops her up and cuddles her immediately, making a big show of taking off her glove and blowing on her hand.  There is no injury, not a scratch.  She is reassured, and ready for her next adventure.  The tears cease.

“Are you okay now,” he asks?

“Down,” she says!  “Downy down!”

The band plays Jingle Bells, and I whistle along.  I’m taken by the thought that we haven’t spoken with anyone, that we are almost in a dream world.  Or a memory.

“Mom, Johnny and I are gonna go find Wayne,” a boy shouts!

“Okay, but be back here in 10 minutes,” his mother calls after him.  “We have to eat dinner.”

“Okay,” he answers, his voice trailing off already as the boys run out of sight.

We come to the corner, and wait to cross the street.  For the first time, I interact with a local.

“You staying warm tonight” I ask the police officer directing traffic?

“Huh?”  It’s almost as if he did’t even see me at first.  “Yeah, I’m tryin’ to,” he says.  “Y’all havin’ a good time?”

“We are,” we smile.  Yes, we are.

“Do you have kids,” I ask him?

He leads us halfway across the road.  “Yeah, I do.  Three of ‘em.  But they’re older, they ain’t out here.”

“That’s too bad,” I remark, thinking how much I’d like to share this night with our own children.

“Yeah,” he says.  “They’d think it was lame.  They ain’t interested.”

I think about that for a while.

This town isn’t anything from the past at all.  Kids grow up.  Families change.  Teenagers become independent.  Young adults marry and have kids and raise families of their own.  That’s just the way it has always worked.

But me, I realize I’m from the future.  I see in these moments between parents and children the past, my past, and my wife with me, hers.  We are not seeing strangers; we are watching ourselves and our children and the way we were, a way we didn’t fully appreciate when we were in these same moments so many years ago.

What a terrible loss, to see these moments and know that they are gone.  What tremendous joy to be able to visit with them again, even for a little while!

I see what these people cannot now see, but will, sometime in their own futures.  I know how their lives will change, how these silly little moments will be treasured gold at some not-so-distant point ahead.  I know how they’ll long for a crying child to seek their comfort someday, how they’ll think back to a time that stresses played on their patience and how it affected their response, how they’ll recall with a tear in their eye a tender moment that has passed. I come from a future of pride in the accomplishments of these children, and a sense of loss in their growing up.

I want to reach out to them, to tell what they’re missing, to tell them to cherish every moment, before it’s too late.  Just now I see the pig-tailed polka-dot marshmallow toaster, and her daddy.  I want to tell them that they’ve made my day, just by watching them together, that they’ve brought back memories of a time long past for me, the man from their future, but I cannot.  Something catches her attention, and off she goes.  Her daddy quickly follows.  “Wait, come back!  Don’t run!”

It is time to go.  My wife and I walk to the car in silence.  We stop behind it, and embrace.  Without a word, we hold one another and sob, thankful for the memories and sad for the losses of time.

Saturday night in Clarkesville, we had a good Christmas, my wife and me, with our kids.


Burton — they call him Burd at home for short — is dressed in a black stocking cap and a dark canvas coat.  That’s not what you notice about him at first.  What you notice about Burton is the white beard wrapped around his gaunt face.  It fits with his tall, thin frame, slightly stooped.  The beard isn’t combed, but it is well-groomed.  Burton has a face filled with character and hardship.  By his appearance, you’d think him more at home on a fishing vessel than where he actually is.

When he speaks to you — and he wants to speak to you — you notice his sparkling blue eyes.

Yet what’s most noticeable when you stop to speak to Burton — and you can’t help but stop — is the overwhelming odor of stale urine around him.  When you live on the street, finding a public bathroom isn’t always your top priority, and even then, not everyone is willing to let you do what you’ve got to do.  Things happen.

“Do you think I can make it in this program?,” he asks me.  He is looking for some reassurance. 

Burd and I are both in the cafeteria of a homeless shelter, each for entirely different reasons.  I can’t answer his questions, and I apologize for not being the person that can help.  That doesn’t bother him any more than the odor does.

“I’m not from here either,” he says, looking me in the eye over the top of his cup of coffee, two spoons of powdered creamer. “I’m from way up north.”

That information fits better with his appearance.  How far north?  New York?  Maine?  Canada?

“Ever hear of Dahlonega?”

I have.  In fact, my daughter is in school there now, I tell him.  Just 60 miles away from Atlanta, it’s not very far north at all, unless you’re walking.  I tell him I used to live in Cumming, a half hour south of his hometown.  At this, he decides we are practically neighbors.

“I lost everything in 2015,” he volunteers.  “My wife left me.  She took our kids and our house.  She took everything.  I’ve been on my own since then.  I was a mean drunk.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I tell him, and I am.  I know the pain of divorce too well.  Does anybody ever really recover?

“I’ve never taken any drugs,” he feels compelled to tell me.  “I’m not an addict.”

That’s good, I tell him.  I’m not sure what else to say.  In truth, it matters not if I say anything.  This is a man that needs to be heard, acknowledged.

“I haven’t been here too long, but I’ve already seen more drug stuff than I think I should have to see.” 

It’s apparent that he doesn’t much care for addicts.

“Alcohol though, that was my problem.  I started drinking in 1990.  In 2015 my wife told me she’d had enough, and that was all.”

“I was a mean drunk,” he repeats to no one in particular.

He was a truck-driver by trade he tells me, and that’s what led to his downfall in a round-about way.

“I was smoking marijuana,” he says.  “Then, in 1990, they started doing random drug tests for truck drivers.  I had to quit smoking pot if I wanted to keep my job, so I started drinkin’.  I never missed marijuana after that.”

He drove a concrete truck, for a while. 

“After three years they discovered I had the wrong class of license, so they made me drive a tractor-trailer instead.  That wasn’t as much fun, because I was going to the same place and back day after day.  There and back, day after day.  I did that for 17 years.  But drivin’ ready-mix, I was always goin’ someplace new.”

He has aspirations.  There’s life in those eyes, an energy, a pride that remains unbowed.  Hope.

“I’d like to get Social Security,” he says. 

He has injured a leg, and walking can be difficult.

“I’m hoping to get disability payments.  That’s why I’m here in Atlanta.  I think I’ve worked enough.”

The Social Security Administration is three blocks away.

“I’m 58,” he tells me.  He looks 10 years older, easy.  Life and the booze have both been hard.

“I hear they’ll let you draw Social Security, and still work some.  That’s what I’d like to do.”

I don’t think you can be both substantially disabled enough for Social Security and yet gainfully employed, but it’s not my place to tell him that.  I wonder aloud what he’d like to do.

“Truck drivin’,” he says.  “I’m still a truck driver.  I need to get my license back this year because it expires next year, and I’d have to start over and take the test again.”  If he could get his disability payment it would give him the margin needed to get his license back.

I’m called away for a moment, and there’s disappointment in his eyes.  “I’ll be back in a minute,” I tell him.  “Hang tight.”

He does, and when I return his face lights up again.  I’ve offered him really nothing more than my attention.  I’ve had very little to say, and no answers for any of his occasional questions.

Nevertheless “I’m glad you’re back,” he says.  “I was enjoying our conversation.”

“I was too,” I assure him.

We talk just a minute or two more about what kind of a truck driving job he could get, but then roll call for the program attendees starts, and he needs to talk to the leader.  We say our goodbyes and I tell him I hope to see him again soon.  He excuses himself and limps to the front of the room.  As I look back over my shoulder I see him remove his stocking cap and bunch it up in his hands as he approaches the man with whom he needs to speak, a sign of his nervousness.  It’s the last I see of him.

A week later, I’m in that cafeteria again.  I look for Burd.  I’d like to know how he’s doing.

I’ll never know.  Burd isn’t there.  He’s not there the week after, or even the week after that.  He never returns.  Nobody knows where he went or why he didn’t come back.

When you live on the street, you do what you’ve got to do. Things happen. 

Freddie and Me

Freddie watches from the shadows. I’m not aware that he’s watching me, not at first.  Not until it is too late.

I had thought I could get my mind off of my personal problems by getting out of the house and having a laugh. It didn’t work. Show over, now my companion and I are walking through the city at night, invisible to the million-dollar penthouses high above, and I am once again rambling on about the hurt of a divorce that I don’t want and have tried to avoid. I am not coping well, and I know it.

Divorce is hard enough.  When the woman you love won’t even speak to you, it is unbearable. I try to explain this to my friend but choke, and the tears begin to flow again. I pause my walk and sit on a low retaining wall in front of a darkened building, as I try to compose myself.

My friend asks, “So what did she tell you?”

“Nothing. Not a damn thing,” I tell her.  “She had gotten her own place, but we were still working on things, you know? She refused my offer to come along with me and bring her kids on the trip for my daughter’s graduation, and so we reluctantly went ahead without her. That’s when it all changed.”

I can’t seem to stop talking. I ramble on, giving too much background information and never really answering her question.

“After I got back into town, my mother tried to reach her but couldn’t, so I called. I couldn’t get through either.  That was unusual. I got worried about her safety, so I went to her apartment.  She wasn’t there, but the callbox rings to her cell phone. When she answered, it immediately disconnected.  That was weird too, right? I had no idea then, but she was just hanging up on me!  I was worried about her.  I started to call the police; I even dialed 911, but before I placed the call, I realized it was Sunday afternoon, so she might be at the grocery store. That would explain the issues getting through to her phone, also.  I was relieved to see her car in the parking lot! The last time I’d seen her, we’d had dinner together. Now, just 9 days later, when she saw me she flipped out, telling me to stay away from her, causing a scene, saying she wasn’t talking to me anymore. That’s how she told me.”

My friend is silent.  There’s really nothing she can say even if she could find the words. Even then, nothing would make it easier. She knows this, and so for the moment she just listens, and shivers in the crisp November air.

That’s when Freddie spots me. My guard is down, and I’m vulnerable.

“She was just screaming at me,” I cry. “Screaming! Everyone in the store was staring. She told me not to speak to her.  She told me to get away. I had no idea why.  I still don’t even know what happened, and it’s four months later. I just stood there, stammering. She just changed, like overnight.”

I sniff and wipe the tears from my eyes yet again and look up.  That’s when I see Freddie approaching. 

Freddie is tall and broad-shouldered, but thin.  In the dark, with the streetlights behind him, his silhouette is imposing. He also lacks the awareness to see he’s intruding on a difficult moment. He’s either getting ready to rob me, or asking for a handout. I’m instantly on the defensive. He speaks, but I can’t tell what he’s saying, either because he’s speaking softly or because my mind is reeling.

“I’m sorry,” I respond before thinking.  “What did you say?”

From the looks of him, he doesn’t eat much.  From the smell of him, he doesn’t seem to bathe much, either.  I’m not sure what Freddie’s drug of choice is, but as I get a better look, it’s pretty apparent he has a favorite.  His uncombed hair and his shaky voice underscore the point. 

Realizing now that he’s probably only looking for a handout, for just a second I consider pretending he isn’t there, ignoring the interruption as I deal with my own issues. It’s too late for that though; I’ve already spoken to him.

Freddie manages a meager smile.  “First of all,” he speaks slowly, “thank you for acknowledging me.”  As he says this, he dips his head a little and raises his hands slightly, as if to say he’s not a danger.

His voice is soft and gentle, and now I realize he is also nervous.

“Thank you for acknowledging me,” he repeats with another nod.  “Most people won’t acknowledge me.” 

Perhaps he realizes that would’ve been my preference too, and I feel guilty for it.

“What do you need?,” I ask, a little annoyed. I’m still sniffling and embarrassed, trying to hide the fact I’ve been crying.

“I’m just trying to get a little money to get a train ticket home,” he says.  Do you have a few dollars that I could have?”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any cash at all,” I lie.  I’m confident that if I give Freddie any money, he’ll be drinking it or smoking it or shooting it into his veins soon.

He looks disappointed.  He’s gentle, but jaded.

I’m not sure why, but there’s something about him that affects me. I get a sense of injustice about him, like I’m not the only one to tell him an untruth. I’m taken aback by both his thanks for a simple acknowledgement — as if it is a gift I have given him — and the guilt I feel for not wanting to give it. Before I have a chance to think it through, I’m compelled to make him an offer.

“I’ll tell you what: If you need a train ticket, I’ll walk with you to the station and get you one.”

I’m surprised at my suggestion and surprised when he accepts the offer; I wonder if I misjudged him and he really is trying to get home, instead of a fix. As we walk along my friend, now a little wide-eyed, holds on to my arm and stays close.  The silence is awkward, and I try to engage Freddie in conversation.  He’s reluctant to talk; I keep trying anyway. I don’t think to ask him his name.

“So do a lot of people just refuse to talk to you?,” I ask. 

“Most of them pretend I’m not there,” he says.  Again, this troubles and convicts me. He doesn’t elaborate.

As we near the train station, I ask Freddie if there’s anything else he needs.  Is he hungry?  Yes he is, and I offer to walk with him to a nearby grocery, but he declines.  Instead, he’d just like some noodles from the gas station if it’s not too much trouble.  I find this to be odd, because I’m offering what I think is a far better option. Nevertheless, he’s bent on that gas station. Very well.

We get the train ticket and he leads me up another block.  We enter into the glow of fluorescent lights, shuffle past the pumps, and step into the little store.  As we enter, Freddie’s arms are now folded across his chest; I think he looks anxious. As we enter, the clerk, with a heavy accent, shouts something across the store, but I don’t pay attention. It’s Friday night and the place is full of customers getting gas, buying beer, and taking a chance on the lottery.

Freddie is even more uncomfortable, it’s now obvious. Again the clerk shouts, and I realize it’s Freddie that’s the target of his anger.

“You know you are not supposed to be in here,” he shouts through a thick Caribbean accent.  “Don’t you come in here trying to steal anything!

I’m shocked at this. It’s both unprofessional and rude, and I ask Freddie if we are okay in this place or if he wants to go someplace else.

“I’m okay,” he says as if he’s used to it all, and he quickly makes a beeline for what he wants.

Another employee steps up to Freddie and just stands there, watching his every move. Every time Freddie takes a step, this guy shadows him.

“Is everything okay, sir?,” I ask.

“Yep.” He doesn’t take his eyes off of Freddie.

“Is there a problem?”

“Not yet.” His gaze is still fixed on Freddie.

Now the clerk, finished with his latest customer, steps from behind the counter and shouts again, heading our way.  There are still customers in line. “You get out of here right now!,” he yells.  “You’re a piece of shit, and you don’t belong in here!”

All eyes in the store are now on us.

I’ve had enough. 

“Wait a second,” I say.  “This guy is my friend, and he is here with me.”

“I am not talking to you,” the clerk says, never meeting my gaze.  He looks past me.  To Freddie he says “I am talking to this piece of garbage here.”

Freddie tries to defend himself.

“Don’t talk to me,” the clerk says.  “Get away from here. Get out.”

I do not know why, but I am suddenly hurt, stung by the callous uncaring of this clerk. It feels like he hates me as much as he hates Freddie. It feels wrong. It feels personal.

“No,” I demand.  “You don’t talk to him.”  I lean into his field of view so he has to look at me.  “You talk to me.”  I am suddenly angrier than I think I should be, and I’ve now determined that I’m in charge. A fire has been lit within me, and I don’t know where it came from. Not yet.

“I’m buying some things, and all you need to do is ring them up.”

“He can wait outside,” the clerk insists.

“No.  That’s not what I said. We can both leave and buy nothing, or we can both stay and buy whatever my friend wants. Your choice. Either way, I’m responsible. You talk to me, not him.”

The clerk frowns at this, but to my surprise shrinks back behind the counter to address the customers waiting in line. “Hurry up,” he says.

Freddie seems to stand a little taller. Now I get it, I think. Did he really ask to come here so I would provide him some cover? The argument over for the moment, he now takes his time, going to the back of the store to open his noodles and add hot water from the coffee maker.  There’s a little defiance in him, some confidence he didn’t have before. Dignity. We’ve overstayed our welcome, but he seems to be enjoying the delay. I’m anxious to get out.

The clerk rings us up and I pay, being careful to use a credit card, keeping my cash hidden. The total bill is less than four dollars.

We get outside finally, and my friend and I wish Freddie well.  He’s holding two hot cups of noodles and doesn’t have a free hand to shake. “God bless you,” is the best I can offer.  His response is a sneer, an annoyed look that conveys he doesn’t have a whole lot of expectation for coming blessings. 

Having gotten what he wanted, he ducks between construction barrels, takes a turn behind an old building undergoing demolition, and scurries down an overgrown hill, disappearing into the night.  I realize then that I didn’t even get his name, and will have to make one up to share his story.

My friend and I walk along, mostly silent.  We shake our heads at the abject cruelty of the clerk, and discuss the pain Freddie must feel at being denied that most basic human need of acknowledgement. We part ways soon afterward.

Alone, I am still bothered, disturbed by the cruelty that life seems to have handed Freddie. I walk back outside alone, into the night, and look up at the lights in the lofty residences. The people who live up above me are as different from me as I am from Freddie, but we all have the same basic needs. He remains on my mind the rest of the evening, as I think about the pain he has experienced, both at his own hand and at the hands of others.

At 2:00am I awake with a start. It suddenly makes sense.

I saw the pain it caused Freddie to cease to exist, to be denied that most basic of human gifts, simple acknowledgement.

I watched as Freddie, in a store, was yelled at, silenced, and embarrassed. He was treated worse than anyone should deserve.

The tears roll down my cheeks as I realize why I am so deeply affected by him, why it feels so personal.

I think about my own story, the way my own bride has refused to acknowledge me. I think about how she, in a grocery store, shouted at me not to speak and to go away. I think about Freddie and I feel his lack of hope, and know this is something else we share. My whole body shakes as I sob into my pillow.

We are from two different worlds. We have two different stories. We could not be less alike.

And yet we share the same pain. Rejected.  Denied. Shut down. Cast off. We are unwanted.

I am Freddie too.

Good Times at the Big Show

It’s Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Championship Bowl Game Day, and I’m in the city of Atlanta, just a few blocks away from the stadium.  I grab a jacket, put some cash in my wallet, and hit the streets.

Outside, the only thing denser than the traffic is the air of excitement.  People are coming from every direction, side streets spilling out onto the throughways, everyone heading to ground zero for the big game.  They are all talking and singing and shouting and laughing.  I join in tentatively, and shortly am buoyed along by the teeming crowd.  Most have their cell phones recording every moment, and they are dressed in every conceivable way, the thinner they are, the tighter their clothing.  Big guys in loose jerseys, small girls in tight dresses or leggings. Sequins are plentiful on the ladies.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked.  I decide to haggle a little to see what the going rate is to get into the game.  At the first offer of $2800, I say “I don’t want to waste your time.  That’s not in my price range.”  What it is, is the price range of a Yugo.

As we teem on towards CNN Center, I see a protest taking place.  Colin Kaepernick has been big news this week, and so I assume it’s political in nature.  Wrong.  The first sign I see reads “It’s Not Your Mother’s Penis.”  I have no idea what that means.  The group is protesting circumcision, and they claim that the barbaric process removes 16 functions.  Now I am baffled and a little self-conscious, because I can only think of two functions for a penis.  “What am I missing?,” I wonder. I have a Swiss Army knife with fewer functions.

Onward we teem, and I’m getting a little more comfortable with my teeming technique in this human wave of anticipation, just a few minutes before kickoff.  “There aren’t this many seats in that stadium,” I think.  All of these people can’t possibly have tickets.

“Need tickets?,” I’m asked again.  This time, the price is down to $2000.  I assume that the closer we get to game time, the lower the price will go.  $2000 is still too much.  Ten times.

A megaphone is blaring.  “… and all of you drug addicts, and you perverts, and you alcoholics, you’re going to be surprised on that day when the Lord tells you ‘I never knew you.”  There are a couple of groups of street preachers here.

“Wailing and gnashing of teeth await you, unless you repent,” another megaphone blasts.

It’s almost a competition to outdo one another with their condemnation, two teams in the Super Damnation Bowl.  Clearly, they believe that Jesus went from town to town with a microphone, criticizing everyone.  I watch for a little while as an older man first debates with one of them and then curses at them.  The preacher will only respond through his loud megaphone.  It reminds me of the dunking tank at the fair, where a clown taunts the public with amplified insults, but the only response he hears is the rubes who pay $5 for another three balls to throw. He wants to be heard — not necessarily listened to — and he again condemns the old man, this time for his language.  It is a middle-school playground argument.

There’s a young man here too with a piece of cardboard covered with black velvet.  On it, he has three soda bottle caps.  He is running a shell game with the crowd of young men circled around him.  There’s a lot of shouting and jeering as the latest victim ends up getting fooled.  Again.  Some things never change.  I can’t help but notice that both the sheep who can’t find the pea and the wolf who is fleecing them are having a lot more fun than the preachers.

The media says that Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Quarterback Tom Brady is the polarizing figure of this event, and there are merchants on both sides of the street to prove it.  “TOM F’ING BRADY” appears on the T-shirts being sold on one side of the street.  On the other side, in the same font and in the same colors, guys are selling “TOM BRADY SUCKS” T-shirts.  Entrepreneurship at its finest.

“Tickets?,” I’m asked yet again.  This time, the price is down to $1750.  I figure if I can wait until after the kickoff, I might be a buyer for something south of $200.

The stadium rises up in front of us, as we reach the end of the street.  It is brilliant and blue and beautiful, and through its windows the crowd can see Gladys Knight singing the national anthem on the big screen.  Suddenly, the air shakes and the crowd collectively looks up as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds scream by, right to left, leaving long contrails behind.  The crowd cheers! This is fun!

We stand there in the middle of the street, 20,000 of us without tickets and about a dozen who have too many.  To get inside, it currently takes both $1750 and a willingness to part with that much cold, hard cash. As far as I can tell, none of us here has both. The kickoff happens, and after seeing the first couple of plays on the big screen through the windows, the crowd, now without a purpose, begins to break up slowly.

I watch the street preachers a little more, and then begin to be drawn away slowly with the crowd.  The wave, having crashed against the rock, is now receding.

I come upon another circle of shouting men in the middle of the sidewalk.  This time, it’s the three card monty going on, same scam, same sheep, different wolf.  He notices me and asks me to find the red card.

“Nah, I’m okay,” I say.  “I’m just watching.”  He tells the man next to me to find the red card.  He picks the center one and is wrong.

“Come on, my man.  You pick the card,” he says to me.  The odds are 50/50.

“It’s the left one,” I say confidently, and he flips over the red card.

“You got a good eye; let’s try that again,” he says.  I have no idea how he controls the cards, but I’m not interested in being fleeced.

“I can’t play, but I like watching.”  Then I bluff, “I do have a good eye.  And you’ve got a pretty good technique.”

“Yeah, you right.  You can’t play,” he says.  I smile and move along.

I pass a man heading back toward the stadium.  “You got tickets?,” he asks.  “No, no tickets.”

“How many you need?”

“Just one,” I say.  It’s $1000.  Still too rich for my blood.

“I’m looking for a cheap one,” I admit.  “No more than $200.”

“Shhhh,” he hisses, and spins on his heels as he strides away.

“Yo, you need a ticket?,” I’m asked immediately afterward.  Most ticket scalpers have a look about them.  They’re hustlers.  They look a little slick and a little untrustworthy, sort of like used car salesmen.  By contrast, this one looks disheveled and a little nervous.  “Only $500.”

I’ve looked at half a dozen tickets tonight, felt the raised lettering, seen the Vince Lombardi trophy towering over the Mercedes Benz stadium in the background, the bright blue and red inks crisp and sharp.  This scalper holds his ticket low, showing me only the front.  The picture on the ticket’s image looks like a high school field lit up at night.  “Super Bowl” it says in murky black letters.  I’m confused, wondering if this guy was foolish enough to buy the fake ticket he is now trying to pass off to me, or if he’s foolish enough to make a fake ticket this bad, thinking someone will pay for it.  As I chuckle, I decline his offer and move on again, headed back towards home.

In front of me, I see a set of the street preachers.  As I walk along behind them, I strike up a conversation.

“What I’m wondering,” I ask, “is why you want people to fear God?”

He stops.  “Proverbs 1:7 says ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,'” he quotes.  “Do you know the Lord?,” he challenges me.

“I’m just thinking that if God made each of us as unique people, and He wants to know us, and He loves us so much that He sent his only son to die for us, that maybe he doesn’t want us to fear him so much as love him,” I say.

He doesn’t wait for me to finish.  He quotes Paul in Phillipians, saying we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  He moves on to Luke, quoting that God’s mercy is on those who fear him.  After about five verse quotes, he asks, “Now isn’t all of that true?”

“It is,” I respond.  “But it’s only half of the picture.  In most of those verses you quote, ‘fear’ is used in a form that connotes respect.  You’re not quoting anything about Jesus and his love of people, or his message that God loves us all.”

He doesn’t let me finish before he’s off again, drawing closer to me, quoting scripture right through my body.

“Now wait a second,” I ask.  “You keep interrupting me …”

“We’re having a dialogue here, a back and forth,” he interrupts yet again.

“Yes, we are,” I respond.  “But you have to let me forth before you come back.”

His companion enters the discussion.  “Let him make his point, Jack,” he says.

“I know his point already,” preacherman says.  “You just want to tickle the ears,” he tells me.

“I guess we are done here then,” I say.  “Good luck to you, brother.”  I’m tempted to shake the dirt off of my shoes as I move on with a smile.

I pass CNN center, where the earlier protest was happening.  There’s an iconic 10-foot high CNN logo sign in front of the building.  About four feet up, there’s a new hole in the sign, the shape of a fist.  Someone must have taken the protest personally.

I cut through Centennial Park, and run into another T-Shirt vendor.  This shirt lacks profanities, and shows the two teams playing the game.  Yes, I’ll take one for $20.

“I need an extra-large,” I say.  He has maybe four shirts with him.

“Okay, I got you covered,” he says.  He holds the shirt up in front of my chest, the way a mom does to test fit something on a boy who’s eight.  “That looks good,” he says.  He folds it in half and tosses it over my shoulder, looking for his payment.

I pull the shirt off my shoulder and look at its tag.  It doesn’t say XL.  “This is a medium.”

“Oh, my bad,” he lies.  “I guess I don’t have an extra large.  How about a medium?”

Yeah, that won’t fit.  He wants me to follow him up the street for the extra large shirts.  I do.  At his stash, he still has only mediums, but he tries to convince me that they run large and they will fit.  Suspicious, I wonder if there’s a box of medium t-shirts that fell off of a truck somewhere this afternoon.  I grin and move on again.

A homeless man sees me put my $20 back in my pocket, and suddenly is very interested in talking to me.  He walks along with me, telling me about his troubles.  “I’ve been volunteering at the homeless shelter,” I tell him.  “Have you been there?”  Yes, but he doesn’t like the way the place is run.  The homeless run the place he says; this is largely true, but it’s part of the program of building discipline and accountability.

He tells me he can get off of the street and have a garage apartment, but he’s coincidentally just $17 short of the $480 he needs for the rent, and an employer will give him a job when he rents the apartment, he says.  He’s a nice enough guy, but his story is fishy.  When we stop at a crosswalk, he steps behind me so the police officer directing traffic can’t see him.  His voice drops to a whisper.  Too late.  The officer shoos him off.  “Didn’t I tell you to stop panhandling here?”  The cop tells me that Atlanta has a lot of resources for the homeless, and the biggest problem is that people give them money, which keeps them on the streets and gives them cash to stay drug addicted.

I walk on alone now, the crowd around me having dispersed.  I take a back walkway past the aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum, and as I cross the street to my building, I look back over my shoulder towards the glow of the lights and the orbiting helicopters.

The most-watched show in the world was held here tonight.

The best show was the one outside, that everyone else missed.















A Little Better

She sits alone, at the top of the stairway, waiting.  Every afternoon, waiting.  And praying.

Positioned to one side, just down from the top of the staircase, she cranes her neck to see, and yet tries not to be seen.  She cannot hear the bus as it stops along the main highway, but she knows it is coming soon, and she will not allow herself to miss it.

“Please, Jesus,” she prays aloud again, her hands folded.  She doesn’t dare bow her head or close her eyes, lest she miss him.  “Please let today have been a better day.”

Soon she sees him.  Her boy comes running, always running.  He comes into view as he charges down the road, running with his schoolbooks under his arm.  With too much to carry, one slips loose.  He grabs at it, but drops them all instead; books fall and papers scatter across the roadway and fill the air.

She can’t quite understand what’s said, but she can hear catcalls and laughter that follow.

Her boy stops, turns, and stoops to gather his things haphazardly.  He doesn’t look up.  He misses a paper that the breeze carries out of his reach, but he doesn’t bother to chase after it; that would be more for the kids to laugh at.  He quickly heads for home, for his mother, for peace, books and papers jutting out in all directions, as he tries to hold them against his body in a hurried walk towards safety.

Behind her boy and further up the road, several kids finally come into view, three boys and two girls, all of them older, maybe 13 or 14.  The boys are ahead of the girls, with one a few steps ahead of the others; it is he that was doing the chasing, but only enough to make her boy run and only long enough to look tough to the girls.

She is filled with anger and with questions.  What could make this kid so mean?  What is wrong with these kids that makes bullying her boy fun for them?  What’s funny about hurting someone else’s child?

As her son comes up the driveway, safe, she moves to the kitchen, thinking she is unseen.

“Mommmmm!” the boy calls as he enters.

She greets him with some cookies and a hug.  She knows what is coming, but she asks the daily question anyway: “How was your day?”

What follows is a 20-minute stream of consciousness about how school is terrible and the kids are mean to me and I don’t have any friends still and nobody will let me work on the bulletin board like they did at my old school and Blake is not nearly as good of an artist but nobody will give me a chance to show how good I am and at P.E. nobody will throw me the ball even though I played baseball for four years before we moved here and they don’t care and nobody will sit with me at lunch and I don’t even like the food in this cruddy cafeteria like I like the food at my old school and Sean pushed me out of the way at the sink in the bathroom and I wasn’t even doing anything to him and the other kids laughed when I got all wet and I still don’t like my teachers and the way they let people work together and nobody wants to work with me because they think I’m dumb and I hate this whole town and I hate everything and I want to go back home where it was better.

She listens to every word, never interrupting, letting him get it all out.

“I’m sorry buddy,” she says.  She hands him some milk.  “But was it at all better today than it was yesterday?”

“Not much.”

“I’m sorry.”  She pauses.  “But it was a little better?”

“A little.”

What he can’t share with her, what he couldn’t even articulate if he could understand it himself is the profound sense of shame that he feels at not being able to fit in, the shame that comes from running from a bully, the shame of not turning and fighting, the shame that his mother knows that he’s a coward.  All he knows is that the kids don’t like him and he doesn’t like himself much either.

He cries.  It only compounds his shame.

“Why can’t we just go back home?”

“We live here now,” she says.  “It will keep getting a little better, every day.”

It tears at her heart to know that her son, her only child, is so miserable.  She feels responsible for it and helpless to fix it.  She feels like crying with him, but she does not, cannot.  That will come tomorrow, after he leaves for school and she is alone.

“Please Jesus,” she pleads through her own tears.  “Please let today be better.”


“How was your day today?”  She knows what’s coming, again.

“My boss is impossible to deal with.  I don’t even think he understands what he’s asking us to do, and there’s no way I’m going to get that promotion.  There is far too much to do and too little time to do it, and I think I should look for a new job somewhere else.”

“Is it getting any better at all?” she asks, through the phone.

“A little.  Not much.”

“Good!  I’ve been praying it would get better.”


“How did it go today?” she asks.  She knows what to expect.

“I just don’t understand why she won’t talk to me,” he cries.  “I know divorce is hard on kids, but to have your own daughter refuse to talk to you, that’s tough.  She won’t even answer the phone when I call.”

“She will come around,” she encourages.  “It will get better.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  I can’t see how.”

“It will get better.  I’ve been praying for her.  And for you.”


A mother loves her son.

In spite of seeing him at his worst, she continued to expect his best.  She believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself.  She encouraged him when he needed it, and understood like no one else could.  Because of that, he spent three days writing what you just read.

A Mother Speaks


LILBURN, GA – The parking lot is nearly empty as I pull in; ten minutes early, I sit in my car and wait until it’s time.  I had not expected a big turnout.  There are only two other cars here, and a limousine.  And of course, there’s the hearse.

As I enter, an older gentleman, a Baptist preacher, introduces himself like only a Baptist preacher would; he’s a little too glad to meet me and a little too eager to thank me for coming.  Ken was Catholic.  No, he never met Ken he says a little sheepishly, when asked.

“It must be tough to perform a funeral service for someone you haven’t met,” I say.

“The only thing tougher is doing one for someone you knew really well,” he replies, and it’s clear he speaks from experience.  He looks to me for some information that he can use in his eulogy, some golden nugget, some anecdote.

I’ve got nothing for him.  “Ken was kind of odd,” I offer as helpfully as I can, and the pastor’s shoulders fall in disappointment before he goes to seek better insights elsewhere.

Why did I come to this funeral?  Ken and I had not spoken much over the past several years.


We were in 10th grade in Journalism class when I met Ken.  I was the new kid, uncomfortable, unsure, awkward, and out of my element.  Ken was all of those things too, and so we had that in common.  He said he’d moved from Brooklyn, but to a kid from the Georgia hinterlands, Brooklyn seemed a foreign country.  He talked of his old home with enthusiasm, and said he was already planning to return.  Someday.

Ken was interested only in the things that Ken was interested in, which is to say that he would gladly talk about places I’d never been and music I’d never heard, but he wasn’t concerned with  much else beyond his likes.  I found that, like the other kids, I couldn’t really connect with him.  We weren’t close, but I had a sense that he viewed me as being among his closer friends, if Ken ever considered himself close to anyone.

He showed me something he’d written about his memories of Brooklyn.  His writing was good.  Poignant even.  As I read his piece, I was surprised to learn that Ken wasn’t the new kid in school that I thought he was; he had moved more than five years prior.  He had apparently just never adjusted; he still felt out of place.  His writing gave me a feel for the love he had for his old home and alerted me to a sense of pain that he felt within his own skin.

I got lucky.  Something I wrote caught the teacher’s attention, and I was promoted to the school newspaper staff, big time journalism.  It also meant that I’d found my niche, a place where I wasn’t so awkward.

We were talking about what to do with a part of the paper, and I thought of Ken’s Brooklyn piece.  I shared it with my new friend Mark, the editor.  Mark read Ken’s story and thought it was good, too.  He even gave Ken his own column, arranged to fit at the edge of the page.  “Ken’s Corner” he called it, and Ken could write about any odd thing he wanted.  He did.

Ken wrote about whatever pleased Ken.  There were columns about alternative bands nobody had ever heard of.  He wrote about the challenges of getting a girl’s attention.  He wrote about television shows and radio stations and TV Guide ads and other minutiae that ruled the lives of 80’s teens, but always from a perspective that was a little outside the norm.  He seemed to enjoy that space, that place that was just out of reach of mainstream ideas of fashion, of culture, of life.

What he wrote about music offended some kids, and what he wrote about dating, some others.  Ken never flinched.  He would publish one column and immediately begin to think about ideas for the next one.  Writing his own column seemed for him to be an outlet. Ken shared with others – maybe for the first time ever – something about himself.  Kids began to see him in a new light.  He became a minor celebrity with that column, and he seemed to finally find a place where he fit.

I didn’t try very hard to keep in touch.  20 years later, I found by accident that we lived just 10 minutes apart in the rural South.  He hadn’t returned to Brooklyn after all.  I saw him a few times, to catch up.  He was older.  Like me, he was heavier.  Ken was still the same Ken though.

He had high blood pressure, and didn’t take it – or his medication — seriously.  Last week he was hospitalized and while there, had a mild stroke.  I visited with him briefly, the first time I’d seen him in three years, and he was optimistic.  He was going to take his medicine, he said.  He was a looking forward to losing weight.  He made all of the resolutions for a changed life that a man makes when forced to face his own mortality.  He went home soon after.

A few days later, he was dead.


At his funeral, there are only seven of us present, including the preacher.  It seems like an awfully small number to reflect on a man’s 47 years.  The pastor, still looking to fill time, asks if we wouldn’t mind talking about Ken some in the service.

I don’t know what to say, but I stand before his mother, his sister, and his uncle at the front of the chapel.  “I knew Ken a lot less than anyone here,” I begin.  I talk of meeting Ken, of our journalism class, and of his high school newspaper column.  I speak about Ken’s unique spirit, the best that I can.  It’s not much.  I tell someone else’s story, the only funny anecdote I have to offer of Ken, of how he was surprised to learn that the Brooklyn Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles.

“Why didn’t I know this? When did this happen?” asks an incredulous Ken.


The story gets a laugh, and with it, I get his family’s confirmation that they too know that Ken was different.

Afterward, there’s a brief reception.  There’s food for maybe 25 people.  Most of it will go untouched.  His family politely thanks me for coming and for speaking, and I’m embarrassed about that, because I wasn’t a good friend.

A parent shouldn’t have to bury their child, no matter his age.  Ken’s mother is devastated, and the day is understandably difficult for her.  She speaks with me for a while about Ken.

“Oh, he was so proud of that column,” she remembers.  “He came home from school so excited, saying ‘Ma, they gave me my own column!  Can you believe it?’” She talks with the pride of a mother, and for a little while, the past 30 years are gone.

“Of course they did, because you are good!  You are a good writer,” she says.  She glows as she remembers the moment, and her face softens.  The encouragement I hear in her words makes me think she tried often to make her boy believe in himself more.

They had left New York for South Florida when Ken was 11 years old.

“He hated Florida,” she tells me.  “He always wanted to go back home to Brooklyn.”

I wonder if his desire to go back was because he couldn’t make friends, or if he wouldn’t make friends because he wanted to go back.  I see in her eyes the doubt of a mother who wonders if things couldn’t have been different for her son.

“There weren’t many people here,” she tells me, “but you know what?  I’d rather have a few people who care than a whole room full of people who were here because they felt obligated.”

It’s an indictment, but she doesn’t realize it.

“He was so smart,” she says.  “He had such a memory.  He could tell you what page an article was on in the encyclopedia.  If you wanted to know where ‘Animals’ was, he would tell you the page, and what pictures were there.”

She’s right.  That’s pretty impressive.

She’s thankful for those who reached out to her son when he was ill.

“When he was in the hospital, people wished him well over the internet.  He called me and he said to me, ‘Ma, all these years I thought people didn’t care about me, but they do.  They’ve been telling me they hope I get better.'”   Her voice echoes the excitement she heard in his.  She knows about my short hospital visit and thanks me for it, but I suddenly feel guilty for not doing much more.

She talks about how her son wanted to be a journalist.  He started college she says, but then lost interest; she doesn’t know why.  The question seems to haunt her, all these years later.

That’s not all that haunts her.  There are unanswered questions about why her son died, and whether or not someone could have done something to get help to him sooner.  Details are sketchy.  There are conflicting stories.

“I’ll never get the answers to those questions,” she laments.

Me, I get the answer to my question.  Now I know what I’m doing here.

A mother deserves the right to talk about her son, and to have someone listen.  For a little while, I can do that.



Our Kayaking Scare

Though we are having a fun vacation, today nearly ended in tragedy.

Ginny and I went kayaking for the first time last month.  The water was calm and the kayaks were stable and we had a good time with no trouble.

Because we had such a successful outing, we go kayaking again today, Ginny and I, and we take Zach and Alexis as part of our Staycation.  We drive to Blue Ridge, near the Tennessee border, where we are told the Toccoa river is smooth and easy to navigate.  The water in the Toccoa River rises daily, when the gates to an upstream dam are opened, and then  it gradually returns to normal.

We are all beginners I tell the guides, and we need the easiest, most stable kayaks to paddle.  There is not much in the way of a safety briefing, but we are made to initial a sheet of paper that has several key points on it like these:

  • I understand that the water flow is dam controlled, and it is cold and swift.
  • I understand that safety is the number one concern of Blue Ridge Mountain Kayaking.

I ask about this last one.  “We’ve had people say that we aren’t concerned enough with safety,” the guide says.  Soon I will understand why this is.  When someone makes you sign a waiver that says safety is their primary concern, you can be sure that, as a concern, safety falls somewhere on the list below being able to deny legal liability.

I am first in the water.  Immediately my kayak is propelled downstream, in a very swift current.  I paddle against the flow to try to get back to where the others are entering the water, but it is no use.  I can at best hold my position, but I can not overcome the swiftness of the water.  We do not know it at the time, but we are entering the water shortly after the dam has been opened, and the speed of the water will continue to increase for a while.  We are less than a quarter mile from the dam.

It is obvious that this boat is not as stable as the ones Ginny and I used before.  I am wobbling in the water, and have to make an effort to stay upright.

Still, we manage to get all of us in the water and float along together.  The current does the hard work, and mostly we only have to keep ourselves pointed straight.

A half an hour in everyone is ready for lunch, and we debate whether or not to try to eat while paddling.  Not wanting a wet sandwich in cold water, I figure we are better off to try to beach the kayaks and have a picnic.  On the first attempt, due to the relentless current, not everyone makes it to the shore, and since the water is moving so swiftly, they can’t come back against the flow.  Zach manages to stop his kayak further down the river up against a fallen sapling, and first Ginny and then Alexis pull alongside him.  I am last to join.

Getting out of the kayaks is not possible here however, again due to the stiff current.  The group decides that we are better off to keep moving, rather than trying to find another spot.  We pass out sandwiches and move on.  Last to join the group, I am first to pull away.  Alexis and Ginny follow, and finally Zach who, now upstream from us, can’t get cleanly away from the sapling.  Caught by the current, the side of his boat goes under water and rolls away from underneath him.  He is suddenly in the water without a boat, and there is no way to get back to help him.

Ginny is quickly in full Mom-Panic-Mode, and who can blame her?  Having lost sight of Zach, she fears all sorts of catastrophes for the moment.  Zach is young, strong, and experienced in the water however, and he is able to quickly swim after his kayak and catch it.   I retrieve an unopened bag of potato chips and manage to catch the bobbing cooler that had been on Zach’s back deck, along with his paddle.

Zach realizes quickly that a plug that is meant to keep water out of the hull of his boat is missing.  The bottom of his kayak has been filling with water, and he is now listing.  He tries at first to bail it out with his hands, but unfortunately the swift current carries him back into more brush, and shortly afterwards he is in the water again without a boat.  This time he loses a shirt, sunglasses, and his iPhone.

Initially, I’m not worried about Zach, but only because I don’t realize the seriousness of his capsizing or understand the speed and the treacherous nature of the current.  I am far more concerned with Ginny, who by this time is quite fearful, and getting mad.

“I’ve had enough of this!” she complains.  “I want out of here!”

“You’ve got to calm down,” I tell her, “or you’re going to be in the water next.”

Ginny first tries to paddle back to Zach, and unable to do so, looks for a spot to stop and wait on him.

I try to paddle back towards Zach also, but when I look back at Ginny, she is headed towards a large tree, which is standing 15 feet from shore.  This is a 12-inch diameter tree that’s easily a hundred years old, a tree that had the misfortune of growing by the banks of a gentlly-flowing river before men built dams that temporarily widened the channel of the river on a daily basis.

The tree was loosely shaped like the number four, and its horizontal branch is just about three inches above the surface of the water.  Around it, the swift current is roiling as it pulls against smaller branches that trail in the water.

I call after Ginny to tell her to avoid the spot, but I don’t even finish my warning.  There is no way she can avoid the tree at this point I know, and the only thing I can do is turn and go after her quickly.

Ginny tries to stop against the tree the way we had against the sapling minutes earlier, but here away from the riverbank, the current is much stronger than it was at the sapling that capsized Zach.  This tree, larger and unbending, doesn’t cushion her against the current.  I am maybe five feet from her when Ginny’s kayak strikes the tree and the current comes up over the stern.  The boat is suddenly out from under her, and she is immediately in the water.  Her paddle strikes her in the mouth.  Her shoes are torn off by the current, and they disappear.  Her body hits the tree hard, and it scrapes her arm.

I throw myself in after her in a futile attempt to grab her, just as my kayak collides with the tree’s low branches.

I am left breathless from the cold blast of hitting the water, and I am shoved towards the tree trunk.  Only now do I begin to appreciate the swiftness of the water.  If it is moving quickly on the surface, it is racing and brutal below, and it almost seems to tear at my clothes, my life vest, my shoes.  It is impossible to resist, and I am thrown into the trunk of the tree, right shoulder first.

Unlike Ginny’s, my kayak isn’t taken right away.  It is caught in the tree’s low-hanging branches for a moment, but the current is too strong to resist, and with the crunching of low limbs, it is pushed down and pulled under by some unseen monster.  It is gone without a trace.

I grab the tree.  It takes all of my strength to hold on to the horizontal branch.  The water is pulling at me, flowing down the back of my life vest, trying to pull me under.  The tree branch is slimy and slick, making it harder to hold.  The water is pushing me into the tree, and I know that if I can’t resist the water, my head will be slammed into the branch.  I fear being knocked out if that happens.  My feet are trailing downstream, and I can’t get them down to hold myself against the bottom; the current is flowing that quickly!

Ginny is in the same situation, but with a slightly better position. She is closer to the bank and in slightly slower water, but she is also worse off.  Being weaker, she is still struggling to hold on to the tree.   She can’t get any footing, either.

I know that I am going to have to get around the end of the tree to get to the bank, and that means that I have to get past Ginny as well.  It makes little difference, because I’m unable to move from where I am anyway. If I loosen my grip on the tree, I will be pulled under the branch and go wherever the kayaks went.  I am gripping the slimy branch with all of my might, both pulling myself up to stay above the water, and pushing off of it to keep my head from slamming against it. It is exhausting.

Maybe our best option is to stop resisting the water, I think.  If we let go, we’ll be carried downstream and can swim to the bank.  I consider this briefly, but it is too risky.

Our problem is that we can not see what is under the water around and ahead of us.  There is another large, partially fallen tree leaning out into the water just 30 feet ahead of us, and I don’t know what hazards it conceals.  I have not seen either kayak since they were pulled under, and I imagine that they are pinned against underwater debris.   If we go under water, there is no guarantee that we will ever surface.

I am unable to move.  I cannot continue to resist the current.  Help is not coming.

I am going to drown.

Ginny has a similar revelation.  She also cannot continue to hold on and will be swept away soon.  I can see the fear in her eyes.  She can see it in mine.

I do not remember my head going underwater, but my sunglasses are ripped off of my face.  They too disappear.

“Can we climb up the tree?” Ginny asks.  It’s a good idea, but just as impossible as every other option.  We cannot even move; we are held in place, still struggling.  To climb straight up out of the water onto the branch would require pulling ourselves up with our arms, and we can’t let go of the tree to try.

And then miraculously, over the course of just 10 seconds, the water drops just a bit.  The surge of the water released from the dam is slowing some.   It has loosened its grip on us, just a bit.  It is the difference we need.

I am able to release my grip on the tree long enough to reposition my left hand, and I pull myself over to the end of the horizontal branch where Ginny is.  At the same time, she is able to move around behind the tree, where she can hook her elbow around the “4” branch, which gives her some leverage to hold on.

Just as suddenly as it fell, the water begins to rise again and picks up speed.  We are still in grave danger, but in a better spot.  I am no longer at risk of being dragged below the tree branch, but we still have the debris downriver to contend with.  It is impossible to get out of the water here; even if we can get to the bank, it rises straight up about six feet.

I carefully work my way around behind Ginny, while she clings as hard as she can to the tree, her elbow still wrapped around the upright branch.  I’m now another step closer to the bank.  A small, mostly rotten stub of a branch juts out towards the bank, and I grab this and try again to get my feet down on the bottom.  The riverbed feels as if it is covered with smooth, flat, grapefruit-sized stones, loosely stacked upon each other.

I am able to finally get some tentative footing here, largely because I am closer to the bank and behind the tree, where the current isn’t as swift.  Still, the water presses against me, and the smooth stones under my feet slide against each other as I try to stand on them.

The branch I am steadying myself with suddenly snaps off in my hand, and my feet began to slip, unable to hold against the water and unsteady on loose river rocks below.  I’m going to drift away back into the stronger current.

“Ginny, catch me,” I say matter of factly, and somehow she is able to do so.  Her right elbow hooked around the branch, she is able to let go with her left hand.  She reaches it out to me and I grab her.  It gives me just enough stability to stay where I am.

At this point, my thoughts flash to Alexis, who is obviously long gone by now.  I envision her drifting down the river, in tears, unable to stop or fight the current to get back our way.  At least Zach will be with her, if he’s gotten back up on his boat.

Now I am able to step to my right, towards the left bank.  The current is much calmer here, just 12 inches away from where I’d been.  I am able to stand on my own, without support, though it is still difficult.

At this point, someone calls to us from above, “Hey, did you guys lose your boats?”

I can’t figure out how someone has been able to see us from the shore, but I am glad there is help nearby.  It takes a moment for me to realize that the voice is Zach’s.  He has managed to right his kayak and get back aboard, then paddle across the river, where he’s gotten out someplace above us.  I am relieved to know that he is okay, but I am quickly horrified to think that Alexis must surely be alone, headed downstream, frightened, and unable to paddle back.

Zach wants to try to get down to us, but the bank is much too steep.  He goes downriver to look for access and returns a moment later to tell us that we can get up the bank just down stream, beyond the fallen tree ahead of us.

“Okay, babe, you’ve going to have to come to me now,” I tell Ginny.  We have to get into calmer water, or our strength is going to run out.

Ginny, sizing up the situation, responds “You go ahead, and I’ll come later.”

I consider that for a second.  Could I get more secure footing, then have her let go and catch her as she drifts by?  It is too dangerous, too risky.  What if I miss her?  What if I catch her, but slip and we both float away?

“No babe, you’ve got to come with me,” I tell her.  “Push off towards the bank and hold on to me.”

To her credit and despite her fear she does exactly this, and we are both able to get our feet beneath us.  The closer we get to the vertical wall of the riverbank, the smoother the water is.  We work our way downriver to the tree that we had been afraid of being caught in, and are able to duck underneath its trunk.  The tree is concealing a steeply sloped shore.  Zach is there at top.

“Where’s Alexis?!” I shout.  I am panicked.  It has suddenly occurred to me that she might not just be alone on the river, but she might be in trouble like us.

“I don’t know,” Zach tells me.  “I was behind you, and I didn’t see her.”

Of course.  I realize he is right.  I have no idea what I’m going to do now to find her.

“Alexis, we are okay!” I yell as loudly as I can, trying to think positively.  I want her to be calm on the water.  I don’t get a response.  She is surely a long way away by now … or unable to answer.  I have to get out of the water!  I have to find her!  I call again, but again there is no response.

I try to climb up the sloped shoreline, but it is sandy and steep.  I can’t get my feet up out of the water, because there is nothing to hold on to.  What little grass that is there is easily uprooted as I grab it.

Zach disappears again for a moment and returns with his paddle.  It is long enough to reach down to me, and I grab it and pull myself up.  At 235 pounds, I am afraid I’ll pull Zach in, so I don’t put my full weight on it.  Ginny puts her hand on my rump and pushes, and Zach pulls and I pull and I am finally able to get up on the shore.  The past 10 minutes feel like they’ve passed in 10 hours.  I turn to reach for Ginny.  Zach says “No, I’ve got her,” and I am glad for that.  I don’t have much strength left, and I need to find Alexis quickly.

At the top of the bank, I start to head downriver.  Ginny is now out of the water.  My heart is pounding, and I think to myself that it would be a hell of a thing to survive a drowning only to die of a heart attack.

Alexis, often my timid child, has been nervous about kayaking today.  All day she has been reluctant to be out in front of everyone, and has pretty quickly learned to control her kayak well so as to remain in the middle of the group.  “I think I like this better than tubing!” she tells me just before the incident.  I hope that she has been calm enough to survive on her own.

My cell phone is sealed in a waterproof pouch and looped over my neck, and luckily it is still with me and dry.  I head through a field of milkweed and try to dial 911 as I frantically look for my little girl downriver.

“ALEXIS!” I call again.  This time a sweet, sweet voice responds.

“I’m here!”

I cry now for the first time, as I write this.  What a relief it was that she was okay.

I reach the other side of the field, and there she is, safe.  She has paddled her way to the shore, and found a gently sloping bank where she beached her kayak and climbed out.  She had seen our lost kayaks go by, and she tried to catch a loose paddle but couldn’t quite reach it.

She had also heard my calls to her, the shouts I made when I thought she must be far away.  She had answered me each time, but the churning water between us had drowned out her voice.  She had decided that she should wait for us where she was, rather than try to come to us on land and miss us going by in the water, a good decision.

I am quite proud of my girl.  In moments she has grown up and developed a cool and logical head.  She has handled herself perfectly, all alone.  She has used her head, and not let her emotions get the best of her.

We return to where the others are standing, Zach holding his mother while she cries, a cry of relief.  “Thank you for not leaving me,” she tells me, and it moves me deeply.

We call the kayaking company.  They are annoyed that we have lost our kayaks, and tell us to watch out for them, that they will be coming in a three person boat to ferry us downstream to find the lost boats.

Ginny throws her hands up and shakes her head violently.  “I don’t think you’re going to get my wife in another kayak,” I say.  What I don’t say is that there’s no way I’m getting back in one either, not on this river.  An hour later, a van arrives, and we are returned to our starting point.

In all, we’ve lost a pair of shoes, a shirt, an iPhone, four lunches, our rented cooler, two kayaks, two paddles, and two pairs of sunglasses.  We are lucky that this is all we’ve lost.  I expect to have to pay for the lost equipment, but by the time we get back to our car, someone has called and reported finding the missing boats.

We can talk of little else for the rest of the day, both discussing seriously what has happened and and joking about it because we need to laugh.

I am moved by the thought that it was not our time to go.  We were cared for, protected, and I have to acknowledge this fact.  I was tiny and powerless in the grasp of that river, and yet I made it out alive, my family with me, not because of any skill or ability I had, but because the river subsided at just the right moment.

Life is a gift.  It is not earned, not deserved, not manufactured.  Every moment is precious and irreplaceable.

I’m fortunate to get that reminder.


Open for Business?

“Harvey’s Garage Door Service, Harvey speaking!  How many I help you today?”

“Hi, Harvey.  I need to have a garage door opener installed, please.”

“Great!  We’ll be glad to do it.  We can do that work Friday, for just a hundred and ninety dollars.”

“No, I think you misunderstood, Harvey.  I don’t need the door and the opener.  I just need the opener installed.”

“Right.  Installing your door opener is one-ninety.  Will Friday work for you?”

“Wow!  Nope, that’s too expensive for such a little job, Harvey.   I’m going to call someone else.”

“Okay.  Thanks for calling.  We’ll speak to you soon.”




“Thank you for calling the Home Depot.”

“Yes, hi, I’d like to speak to someone about …”

“Your call is very important to us.  For English, press 1.  Para Espanol, marque numero dos.”


“Pour Français, appuyez sur 3.”


“Voor Nederlands, drukt u op 4.”

“1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. …”

“Za Bonsanske, pritisnite 5.”

“1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1. 1.”

“Gracias por llamar al Home Depot usted.  Has llegado a la mesa de ayuda española.”



“Thank you for calling the Home …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.”

“One moment please.”

“Sigh …”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”

“Hello, Brittney!  I’m glad to talk to a real person.  I need to find out about having a garage door opener installed.”

“What department is that in, sir?”

“Excuse me?  I don’t know … the garage door department?”

“Let me try Building Materials.”

“Wait, I don’t think …”

“Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”

“Brittney, you were just trying to connect me to someone to …”

“Did they not pick up?  Okay, let me try Lawn and Garden.”

“No, I don’t th—“

“Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.  Ring.”

“Hi, this is Brittney!  It’s a great day at the Home Depot, where low prices are just the beginning.  How may I direct your call?”



“Thank you for calling Sears, home of the Sears Shop Your Way program for loyal customers …”


“… and the brand names America trusts, like Craftsman, Kenmore …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.”

“… and Die Hard.  Check out our new website …”

“0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0! 0! 0! 0! 0! 0!”

“… where you can find all of the great products we offer, at everyday low prices.  Your call is …”


“… very important to us.  Our store is located at 24 …”

“Why do you idiots not have a human answer the freaking PHONE?!?!”

“… and we are open weekdays from 10:00 am to …”

“I don’t CARE where you’re located.  I just need to speak to a real person!”

“… and Sundays from 12:00 to 5:00.  Now, what department are you calling?”

“Uh, garage door openers?”

“That’s … HARDWARE.  Is this correct?”

“Sure.  That’s correct.”

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t understand your response.  Please try again.”


“What department are you calling?”

“Hardware!  Hardware!  Hardware!”

“That’s … HARDWARE.  Is this correct?”


“Please hold for … HARDWARE.”

“Oh my goodness.”

“Hardware, this is Jake.”

“Hi Jake.  I’m trying to have a garage door opener installed.”

“I don’t think we do that.”

“Don’t you sell garage door openers?”

“Yeah, I think we do.  Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”


“Hello, Sir?  Yeah, we sell garage door openers.”

“Right.  I’m trying to have one installed.  I need to hire you to install an opener in a new house.”

“Oh, okay.  I don’t think we do that.”

“Are you sure?  You used to install them.”

“Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”


“Hello, sir?  Yeah, we install garage door openers.”


“You just call our 1-800 number, and they can set you up.”

“Why do I call you for you to tell me to call someone else?  Can’t you just take my money now?”

“No, I’m in the store.  If you want to order from the store, you can’t.  You have to come into the store.  If you want to order over the phone, you have to call another number.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Let me ask my manager.  Hold please.”

“Wait, ask him what?”


“Sir?  I talked to my manager, and that’s our policy, sir.  You’ll have to come into the store or call our 800-number.”




“Thank you for calling Sears Home Services.  My name is Frank.  Do you need help with a product warranty?”

“No, I need to have a garage door opener installed.”

“We have a special deal on product repair agreements today.”

“I just need to have my garage door opener installed.”

“Okay, I can see here that the fee for that installation is one-hundred twenty dollars.  Would you like me to set up installation for you?”

“Yes.  That’d be great, Frank.”

“And how would you like a way to save money on costly repairs for your garage door opener through our exciting new repair agreement program?

“No thanks.  I just need the opener installed.”

“Okay.  Let’s start with your name.  Your first name sir?”


“Okay, and your last name?”

“Carver.  C. A. R. V. E. R.”

“Thank you mister Barber.  I’ll need your address and your method of payment.”


“We have a one-time deal on Maintenance Agreements today, if you’d like to know how you can save $300 on maintenance and warranty calls, Mr. Barber.”

“No, thank you.  And it’s Carver, with a C.”

“I apologize, Mr. Carber.  Lastly I’ll need your ZIP code, Mr. Carber.”

“My ZIP code is 30028.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Carber.  I see here that we don’t offer installation services in your area.”

“I thought you had nationwide installation.”

“We do, Mr. Carber.  What country are you calling from?”

“I’m calling from ZIP code 30028.  In Georgia.”

“We don’t have an installer for your area, Mr. Carber.  I’m sorry.  I can save you hundreds in repair costs on your new gara–”



“Harvey’s Garage Door Service, Harvey speaking!  How many I help you today?”

“Hello, Harvey.”

“No luck at Sears, huh?”


“Tried Home Depot too?”


“Usted no habla español, ¿eh?


“How’s Brittney?”

“Perky as ever.”

“Okay well, I still have a slot open for Friday, if you’d like it.  Can we install your door opener then?”


“The price will be just two-hundred fifty dollars.”

“Two-fifty?!?  An hour ago, you said it was one-ninety.”

“Yes, you’re right.  It was.  Maybe you want to try Lowe’s?”

“Okay.  You’ve got me.  I’ll see you Friday.”

“Cash only, please.”