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On loss, and fear, and teeth, and flowers

1 Dec

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Three months after Raymond died, I dreamt for the first time of my teeth falling out.

I cupped my hands together, and stared at the pile of silver-capped teeth. They had fallen en masse from my mouth and, as is often the case in dreams, that somehow seemed normal.

When I woke up, it felt very not normal.

It was the first time in my 46 years that I dreamt what I soon realized was quite the common nightmare.

For me, it was strange and uncommon and confusing, but I learned quickly (thanks to Google and plenty of amateur dream chasers) that it really wasn’t. In fact, people everywhere have the dream every night.

And it meant something.

The dropping-out-of-my-mouth teeth represented loss. And, more than that, they meant I was afraid of more loss. The “official” explanations I found said that the dream “highlights your feeling of having experienced a profound loss of something or someone in your life” and “signifies powerlessness, fear and loss of control.”

Looking back, it surprises me that it took that long for that particular dream to invade my sleep. Because loss—despite my sunny disposition, strong faith, undeterred resilience—had crashed into my life and settled onto my couch like it was an old friend (or an unwelcome intruder).

Loss—unexpected, inexorable, ugly—had moved in. Had taken an entire family of friends, my three-year-old cousin, a vibrant best friend with a toddler who needed her, my grandmother, our Raymond.

But I guess Raymond was the one that did it.

I’d had enough, and I finally listened.

The dream fairy crashed into my nighttime, kicking and screaming: “Here’s Greg and Karen! Here’s Haven! Here’s Erin! Here’s Grandma!”

And then she howled, “Here’s Raymond!”

Raymond—my dear, loved, haunted adopted son—took his own life on Christmas Eve, and it was too much to bear.

So the teeth fell out, and piled up.

Loss, it seems, piles up too and transforms itself…mostly into fear.

Suddenly you’re fearful of so much—the things that are rational and the things that are irrational; the bumps in the dark, but also the things right out in the sunlit open; the things you know are happening, and also the stories you create in your imagination; the memories of the past, and the future whatevers that you think might manifest.

It doesn’t make sense, and yet you’re simply afraid of something.

Of more.

Of something more.

My middle daughter told me of that dread, that worry that sits heavily on your chest, as she prepared to sing and play piano at one of the too-many memorial services we attended during this span of time. She understood on some level similar to me.

On a dreary, snowy day, she sang of “beautiful things” that come out of the dust, and I think that must be the message that has to emerge from loss and uncertainty and fear.

A while after my wake-up dream, I dreamt again.

I boarded a train and settled into a cushy, velvety seat bound for somewhere. Outside the window, flowers—yellow, crocusy, open-up flowers—began popping, growing, emerging from the ground.

They were all I could see, for miles and miles and miles.

And I didn’t need a book or an expert to tell me (or yell at me) what the dream meant.

The meanings were as clear as day (or as night, in this case):

I’m on a journey.

Things start anew.

Stops don’t mean it’s over.

Fear can’t control you.

We must enjoy the view.

It might take a while (it will take a while), but we’ll get there.

Flowers bloom. They always do.

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Gan Gan’s dressing and other Southern blessings

25 Nov

thanksgiving

Just a pinch.

A cup or so.

A handful of that.

Whatever looks about right.

After-Thanksgiving dinner table discussions at my in-laws’ house invariably settles into one familiar conversation.

“Gan Gan, how do you make your dressing? Someone else has to learn how to make it before you’re gone. Are you going to teach us?”

The questions are always asked—by me, a cousin, my husband, a first-time visitor who has become infatuated with the dish—every single holiday.

Gan Gan (my husband’s grandmother) laughs.

“There’s not a recipe,” she says. “I just know how I make it.”

Gan Gan’s dressing is a wonderful concoction of cornbread, shredded chicken, saltine crackers, vegetables, spices (but no sage) of imagined variety.

But it’s all only imagined; she’s told us what’s in there, but without the evidence of a transcribed recipe, I can’t actually verify that for you.

And so it goes in the South.

If you were blessed enough to be raised by a Southern mother, grandmother, or aunt—or fed by an armada of church ladies–you know what I’m talking about.

Southern women own the best recipes in the world—for banana pudding, macaroni and cheese, shrimp n’ grits, hoppin john, chicken fried steak, biscuits, divinity—but none of those recipes are on paper.

They’re all recorded for posterity in these ladies’ heads, and in the “here’s what you do” lessons they’ve tried to give to their children, grandchildren and greats beyond that.

It’s the same way with my Mom’s sweet potato pie.

My favorite Thanksgiving dessert is a heavenly blend of sweet potatoes and sugar and butter and vanilla (I think) that’s better than any pumpkin ever dreamed of being.

But Mom doesn’t look at a recipe card or in a cookbook when she stays up late the night before Thanksgiving whipping it up.

She just makes it—with those pinches, handfuls, and dashes.

I’ve watched Gan Gan make her dressing, and I’ve watched Mom make that pie.

A few days after Thanksgiving last year, I tried to replicate the dressing.

The optimum word here being “tried.”

It was too dry, and not flavorful enough, and the accompanying gravy (also a treasured Gan Gan secret) wasn’t quite right. I had watched Gan Gan make it that year, and had even written down what I considered a pretty-accurate recipe for it.

Still, it wasn’t quite Gan Gan’s.

And that, I think, is the point.

It will always be Gan Gan’s dressing. And Mom’s sweet potato pie. And Miss Jane’s rolls. And Gran’s divinity.

Until I’ve become the recipient of the treasured secrets, or have become the bearer of my own secret favorites (I can make a mean red velvet cake and love to cook, so there’s certainly hope), I will do what all Southern daughters, granddaughters, nieces and adopted children do.

I will sit at the table with my fellow admirers and savor every single bite of the mystery and wonder that is Thanksgiving dinner.

And for that I am grateful.

The Day I Got My Daughter Back

16 Sep

(I originally wrote this story for AL.com, as the 2012 Alabama vs. Texas A&M game approached. As the game approaches again, I’d like to share this essay with you; it tells what the weekend, and this game, will always be for me and my family.)

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The Day I Got My Daughter Back

As a sports reporter, I live mostly within a kingdom of wins and losses. Things are pretty black and white.

On the eve of the game of the year (a little something called Alabama vs. Texas A&M), this is even more obvious than usual. Fans will live and die with every rush, tackle, reception, fumble, sack and touchdown.

The sports world sees Alabama vs. Texas A&M as an epic battle between two top 10 teams; one is attempting to cement a dynasty, the other is forging its way with the season’s most controversial yet talented player. There are storylines aplenty, and for that reason it’s the center of anything and everything sports-related this weekend.

It’s something entirely different to me.

Game day for the Alabama/Texas A&M matchup will now (and I imagine forever) be known as the day I got my daughter back.

Last year, my husband and I were sitting at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham watching our 8-year-ol d daughter recover from a diagnosis three days before of Type 1 diabetes. While people across the state were praying for AJ McCarron to rally the team back for a late-game win, I was praying that we would somehow learn how to deal with this disease that had tackled us out of the blue.

I was covering a Division II football game days before when I got the call that Sydney had been rushed to the hospital and quickly diagnosed with what used to be called juvenile diabetes. She had a blood sugar of 760 and was in a diabetic coma.

We learned over the next several days what an insidious and life-altering diagnosis this was. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that keeps Sydney’s pancreas from creating insulin; for the rest of her life (or until there is a cure), she will give herself insulin shots at least four times a day.

On the day we were learning all these things (from someone called an “educator,” but who felt a lot—in our sleep-deprived state–like a slave-driver), the Crimson Tide’s lone loss of the season was taking place. Our educator taught us about blood monitoring, and ketoacidosis, and carb counting, and long-term dangers while nurses, technicians and parents of patients whooped and clapped and then wailed throughout the halls.

A few hours later, the staff loaded us up to be discharged.

It was an eerie experience; if you’ve ever witnessed the reaction of the general public to an Alabama loss you will know what I’m talking about.

People’s faces were long; no one seemed capable of smiling; strangers nodded at each other the way they do at funerals.

And yet, here we were … relieved, dare I say jubilant.

Alabama had lost, but we had won.

The rest of the Tide’s season was, of course, a quest to learn from mistakes, get better, stay focused, show character, prove what they were made of. It’s something that all teams attempt to do after a loss.

Our family similarly came up with a game plan. We learned everything we could about Type 1 diabetes. We armed ourselves with the best doctors and the best medicine. We taught Sydney to take charge of her daily life and body. She learned when her blood sugar was low and when it was high; she learned to eat high-protein snacks and drink water all day long; she learned to give herself shots.

To borrow Coach Nick Saban’s favorite word, we learned that the “process” was the thing. Coping with the disease was not a one-afternoon win or loss; it was something that had its ups and downs, goods and bads, challenges and blessings.

One of my favorite post-diagnosis moments came during an all-star softball tournament in which Sydney’s team played for the 8-and-under district championship. During an early inning, she rounded the bases and headed for home. As she crossed home plate, she found me in the stands and yelled, “Mom, I’m low, I’m low, I’m low, I’m low.”

How the girl had hit a ball into the outfield and made it across all the bases with a blood sugar of 52 I still don’t know, but it represented something to me. It showed me that she was learning, even thriving, and that nothing would keep her down.

Legendary football coach Vince Lomabardi once said, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get back up.”

Sydney’s favorite quote about the disease that has changed her life forever is, “Type 1 diabetes doesn’t own me. I own it.”

Our entire family has learned—crazy as it sounds—that this awful disease could actually do wonders; it brought us closer, strengthened our faith, taught us to treasure the really important things.

It taught us that even a defeat could be cause for celebration.

Moment to remember: Wheelchair bound 10-year-old scores touchdown

6 Sep
bradeen2.jpg

(Stories like this make my job one of the best you could ask for. I had the privilege of talking to this awesome family, and sharing this inspiring story.)

Ask Erin Jones about her 10-year-old son, Braden, who is confined to a wheelchair, and she’ll tell you about a simple plan for his childhood.

“We are always going to make sure we find a way to not limit him at all,” she said. “We want to make sure he has the same opportunities as any other child.”

Erin and her husband, Mike, want to make Braden’s life normal, despite the challenge of living with hypophosphatemic rickets, a disease that makes bones weak and often causes multiple breaks.

Jones said that her son’s attitude is always inspiring.

“He has the best heart, the most open mind, the best positive attitude,” she said. “Very seldom does he have an ‘I can’t’ attitude.”

That spirit was on full display Friday night when Braden did something he’d never dreamed possible by scoring a touchdown for a high school football team, in his wheelchair.

In so doing, Braden and Victory Baptist School in Millbrook, Ala. created a moment to remember for the boy and the many fans in the stands.

(Watch the video here of Braden scoring the touchdown.)

Victory football coach Jim Hardy came up with the idea, after he met Braden as part of his Outdoor Friends Forever organization, which is committed to giving children with special needs different opportunities to hunt, fish and do other outdoor activities. Many of his football players volunteer with the organization and had become friends with Braden, who is from Talladega.

He knew Braden was a football fan, so it seemed natural to get him involved with the team.

Victory Christian plays 6-on-6 football in the Alabama Christian Education Association. The school won the state ACEA championship in 2013 and 2014.

Hardy invited Braden to participate in Friday night’s game against Brooklane Baptist Academy from Hueytown, but didn’t tell him about the plan to get him on the field until the game was underway.

He was given a jersey, spoke to the team during pre-game meetings, wheeled onto the field with the team and was asked by Hardy if he wanted to help coach the team.

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“He was so excited on the sidelines that I asked what play he might want to call. He was nervous and wasn’t sure,” he said. “Then, a few minutes later I asked how cool would it be to go on the field? He said he’d want to, but that he didn’t want anyone to tackle him.”

“I got some of the seniors to talk to him, and we reassured him that he would be fine,” Hardy said.

Players and coaches from Brooklane were also in on the “secret” and helped make the moment special by missing tackles and then celebrating in the end zone afterwards.

“We are grateful to the coaches, players and cheerleaders at Brooklane, the fans on both sides and everyone that made the night so special,” Hardy said.

After the game, Hardy said that many players, family members and fans went to a dinner party to celebrate Braden. When he tried to serve food to the guests, Braden stepped in and helped serve alongside him.

“It just took it to a whole other level,” he said. “You’ve got high school players learning what it means to care about others.”

Jones said that the night, and the way Braden was treated, is something she’ll always remember.

“Both teams made it special. They were falling down, getting tackled, and they all celebrated with him in the end zone. To witness his face right then and see the acceptance he felt, was just wonderful,” she said.

“Some people talk to him differently, sometimes he is treated like he’s not normal, but all those players cut up with him, gave him high-fives, treated him like the regular kid he is,” she said. “All of these experiences have helped him come out of his shell. Now he knows he can do so many things.”

To Kill a Mockingbird: another reading

1 Aug

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(I recently took place in a rereading of To Kill a Mockingbird for an online book group called Red Clay Readers. The group is sponsored by Alabama Media Group, the company I work with; I was asked to kick off the group reading with an analysis of the first chapters. When I reread the book–for the umpteenth time, since it is my favorite of all time–the following is what I came up with. Do you love To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it resonate with you now?)

To Kill a Mockingbird

Let’s start before the first chapter.

In my preparation to reread To Kill a Mockingbird once again, my first important question was: which copy should I read from? I have six different copies held on bookshelves throughout my home.

The one I decided upon quite casually was perfect for this Red Clay Readers project.

My 1993 hardcover edition includes a foreward by author Harper Lee, in which she argues against any introductions to her novel. “I associate Introductions with long-gone authors and works that are being brought into print after decades of internment…Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without preamble,” she wrote.

To Kill a Mockingbird is far from long-gone; projects like this one remind us of its durability and beauty and legacy, to both new readers (perhaps some of you) and old friends (like me, and many others of you).

And so, while Lee herself might wonder at our endless discussions of her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1933 novel, we shall indeed discuss again.

To Kill a Mockingbird’s first two chapters immerse us immediately into two of its most important elements—its place and people. Its setting, in fact, is a character all its own; the town of Maycomb (based on Lee’s hometown Monroeville, halfway between Birmingham and the coast) is as alive as narrator Scout and her father Atticus.

The book’s first pages provide a fascinating Alabama history lesson, as readers are introduced to how the Finch ancestors settled into Maycomb. An early description of the town is one of my favorites in the entire book:

“Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Soehow, it was hotter then…Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”

Place remains a prevalent theme throughout the novel, but in the beginning we see it primarily as the setting for the youngest characters’ adventures. Later on, it will come to serve as the stage for many deeper issues.

Those youngest characters take center stage in the first two chapters. We meet and quickly come to love Jem (Jeremy Atticus) and sister Scout (Jean Louise) Finch, along with neighbor friend Dill (a character based on Lee’s real-life childhood friend, Truman Capote) as they make their way through a Summer and start of the school-year in Maycomb.

Jem is wise, Scout is precocious, together they are at-odds and yet protective of one another. Dill is eccentric (he is, after all, from exotic Meridian). They are friends, co-conspirators and innocents as the story begins.

We also, of course, “meet” Boo Radley, described by Scout as the “malevolent phantom” who lives in the old Radley Place on the Finch’s street. As Jem accepts Dill’s dare to run across the street and touch the Radley house, the readers know there’s more going inside the house than the townspeople gossip about.

Other characters are introduced and, while Calpurnia and Atticus will become vastly important and central as the book progresses, for now they are in the background of the story of the children’s adventures.

When the second chapter takes Dill home to Meridian and the Finch children to school, the first sense of where the story might be going is hinted at. There are glimpses of the haves and the have-nots (or the have-somes and have-nots, since Atticus explains that everyone in Maycomb is poor), as Scout tries to instruct her teacher Miss Caroline to no avail of how the class system works.

“That’s okay, ma’am, you’ll get to know all the country folk after a while. The Cunninghams never took anything they can’t pay back—no church baskets and no scrip stamps,” she tells her, when young Walter Cunningham won’t take lunch money from their teacher. “They never took anything off of anybody, they get along on what they have. They don’t have much, but they get along on it.”

As I read the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird yet again (my first time was in ninth grade English class, the most recent was last year), I was reminded again of the book’s power. Lee’s language, the eternal voice of Scout (which is sometimes criticized; how could a six-year-old speak with such authority?), the mystery of Boo Radley, the sense of place—it all still works.