The Land of Serendip

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a King, his three Princes and his one Princess, and their wonderful spouses and families. When we last visited the Land of Serendip, the Princes received a visit from an Angel, we now return, 18 short months later…

The King of Serendip was about to embark upon another journey. The Prince of Whitetail issued a proclamation on the King’s behalf. “Hear ye, in the name of the King! Let it be known across the land, the time has come for the King to leave the Forest of Hawthorne and reside instead in the Village of Hickory. The Princess of Whitetail and I will see to it he has the necessary comforts for the journey and for the winter ahead.”

As the word spread throughout the kingdom, messages were delivered from the Prince of the Western Lands, the Prince of Raymond, and the Princess the Green Lakes. Each messenger brought words of support and the offer to travel to the Forest of Hawthorne if need be. The Prince of Whitetail sent them on their way with assurances there was no need for them to undertake such journeys.

The day of the King’s journey was soon upon them. The Prince took the King by the hand and led him from the Forest, while the Princess and her porters packed some of the King’s belongings to be sent on ahead to the Village of Hickory. The King was distressed, he did not want to leave the Forest. The Prince and the King halted at the shop of Maidens of Medicine for the King’s treatments and to ensure his room at the Village of Hickory was ready for his arrival.

The wait merely added to the Prince’s feeling of dread for the journey ahead. He tried valiantly to relieve the King’s distress, while the dread mounted within his soul. His mind was racing with thoughts of threads to pull. What was that sound? The sound of someone approaching. The Prince looked momentarily without recognition, but then…the veil fell from his eyes to reveal Sir Larry of Sayre! Why was he here outside the Forest of Hawthorne?  

Familiar with the journey ahead and being a long time friend of the King, and much older (and therefore somewhat wiser) than the Prince, he’d come from afar to provide the magic of listening ear to the King. As the sands in the hour glass slowly moved from top to bottom, he was there to share the burden of the Prince and Princess. Through his laugh, through his stories, through his heart of empathy and compassion, he was able to lessen the King’s distress and cause the Prince’s dread to nearly vanish.

As mid-day faded and the shadows lengthened, it was time. The much older (and somewhat wiser), Sir Larry of Sayre, with a tear in his eye, bid adieu to the King and Prince as they took the road toward the Village of Hickory to meet the Princess.

The King and Prince arrived at the Village of Hickory, where the Princess was just finishing up with the King’s room. She had done a wonderful job preparing the way and ensuring even the smallest detail was tended to for the King.

Thank you, Larry. Thank you for not asking, because the answer, as you knew, would have been “Nothing”. Thank you for knowing what was needed even when I did not. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being present. You gave us more than you will ever know…then again, maybe you do.

family, 60's

Copyright – Playboy

September marked the passing of a cultural icon. Love him, or despise him, Hugh Hefner almost single handedly changed American society…and the lives of many adolescent boys! His passing sparked the memory of my first encounter with his magazine.

I grew up in a small town. It was the 1960’s. Watch a rerun of “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and you get a pretty good idea of life in the 60’s in small town USA. Innocent. Simple.

I don’t think those pre-teen years could have been more stereotypical. My siblings and I walked to school and back every day. At school, I had a close group of friends. We’d been together since Kindergarten. One of the most vivid memories is of my best friend, Jeff and I bent over a transistor radio during recess as the Tigers won the ‘68 World Series, the Tigers themselves could not have been more excited as we celebrated by raising our arms above our heads, and racing across the playground, screaming with joy at the top of our lungs! Most of the memories have faded over the years, but the names and faces have not.

Every day after school, I delivered papers. All the paperboys (and girls) would gather at the newspaper office. We would spend a half hour or so folding our papers before loading them on our bikes and heading out to various parts of town. My route was several blocks south of our house. A lot of my friends lived along my path. I would buzz down the street on my bright yellow Stingray bike tossing papers toward front doors.

Baseball pretty much was IT. Yeah, there was football and basketball, but those were to merely pass the time until baseball. I played Little League baseball. My dad was usually my coach. However, most of our playing was sandlot ball…or water tower ball as we call it now. There was a small grassy area next to one of the town’s water towers. We spent days cleaning it up, hauling away trash (thanks to one of the dads for driving the pickup), and marking base paths. We spent hours and hours playing ball. Not enough kids to have teams?…home run derby was the game of choice.

Other than baseball, we spent the majority of the rest of the time playing some variation of “good guys/bad guys”. This could be Batman and Robin against the evil villains, Green Hornet and Kato, cops and robbers like Adam-12, or Combat. Our neighborhood was our “battlefield”. Our block was mostly residential. It was cut into four sections by two intersecting alleys. In the northwest quadrant was our house and the church where my dad preached. The northeast and southeast were all houses. The southwest quadrant, had an small apartment building, a Citgo gas station, a small, single story office building, and an insurance company. This quadrant was further dissected by a couple of “shortcuts” between the buildings. GREAT hiding places for bad guys and good guys alike! In fact our “Batcave” sat at the intersection of these shortcuts in a small outbuilding that held, of all things, the trash dumpsters for the office building.

It was during one of these neighborhood adventures that Roddy, one of the younger kids from down the street, and I found ourselves in need of a hideout. Not being incredibly creative, we chose the outbuilding. Inside, were two large cardboard boxes about the size of an oven. After checking to be sure they weren’t filled with trash that was “too disgusting”, we jumped in to hide. Within seconds, Roddy exclaimed, “Jeff, look at this!” In his hands was pristine issue of…PLAYBOY! Me, being older and wiser, after all, I was 10 and Roddy was just 7, I snagged the magazine from his hands. Within moments, we were staring at the Centerfold of Miss July 1968!

“Roddy,” I asked incredulously, “where did you find this?”

“Right here! Look, here is another one!”

Sure enough. We had discovered the motherload! The oven box was filled about a third full of dozens and dozens of the magazine! For a young kid who had just seen his first Playbook only seconds ago, this was a discovery of a lifetime! Holy Airbrush, Batman, this was an incredible find!

About that time my younger brother, Joel and his friend, Dale (also from down the street), showed up. For about the next 20 minutes, we dug through the magazines, each one of us in turn holding up another beauty! “Hey, look at her, she’s tough!” (For some reason “tough” was slang for “hot”) Trust me, we were not reading the articles!

Soon it dawned on us that we could not leave our goldmine where it was…we had to move it…but to where. Leaving Roddy to stand guard, the three of us began to scour the neighborhood for a good hiding place. Down the alley just past our house was a row of garages. A friend of my parents owned them and he used them to store antiques for his business. Mr. Carson rarely ventured into those garages. We tried the first door, locked. We tried the second door, locked. We got to the fifth door and the door opened. We lifted the door about two feet and peered inside. It was dark and musty…a perfect place! Our treasure would be safe here until we found a more permanent location.

We spent the next hour carefully moving armload after armload. We had to use all our skill and cunning to avoid discovery. We are on a mission! All those years of playing Good Guys/Bad Guys was really paying off. We took our last load, but before we closed the door, I snagged one of the magazines to hide in a hollow branch of the tree in the back yard. One can never be too careful.

As dinner time approached and we all needed to head home, we took the most solemn oath of all…the pinky swear…we would not breathe a word about our historic discovery. We planned to meet the next day to find a more suitable hiding place.

The next day we met behind our garage as planned. Before we discussed suitable hiding places, we went to gaze at our glorious find. We raised the door on the fifth garage…no magazines. Zippo…zero…zilch…thinking we miscounted the doors, we tried to open the other garages. All of the were locked except the fifth and seventh. No magazines. We were stunned. We’d been robbed! Who were we going to tell? I remembered the lone magazine stuffed in the tree branch. Quickly we ran to the yard and scaled the tree. I reached into the hollow branch…NOTHING. That one was gone as well!

How could this have happened? It didn’t seem possible that Mr. Carson had discovered them, especially since the one in the tree was missing as well. I smelled a rat! Someone had broken our sacred vow! Roddy had no siblings and his mom was a single mom (and honestly, we all thought she should be a centerfold!). I couldn’t imagine even if Roddy had told her that she would have pilfered our contraband, no, she would have called my parents.

I began to interrogate my brother. Had he told our older siblings? He swore not. Besides, I’d been with him all night after all, we did share a room. That left Dale. Dale, who had two older brothers. Dale, who had remained suspiciously quiet after the robbery had been discovered. Dale, who had three sets of eyes now trained on him. Of course, he vehemently denied any wrongdoing. After intense interrogation, he finally caved. He had told one of his brothers, but the brother had promised not to tell, he pleaded.

About that time my older brother came walking out of the house. “What’s the matter? Missing something?” The plot thickened! It seems Dale’s older brother had told my brother and sister. They had all had a good laugh as Dale’s brother told his story of stealing our cache of magazines. Not much we could do about it. We couldn’t tell on him. We certainly couldn’t retake our treasure using force, he could whip us all! We could do nothing but accept the fate!

It would be a long time before I found myself in possession of another one of Mr. Hefner’s magazines. Ten-year old preacher’s kids just don’t have many opportunities like the one that was ripped from our grasp! The sixties were drawing to a close. The innocence of those days is long past. I can’t help but wonder, if Hugh Hefner was launching a business today, what societal norm would he help to change?

July 19, 2017: The day the music died.

July 19th the world lost Mark X. Hatfield, and, yes, on July 19th…the music died.

Mark X. Hatfield - The day the music died...

Mark X. Hatfield (Photo from Mark’s Facebook page)

Mark as an organist. A church organist. He brought his gift to thousands around the world. Words cannot describe the majesty of his music. I urge you to listen to some of his performances on YouTube.

If Mark had played rock ‘n roll, he would have been known as a “keyboardist”. With no disrespect to Elton John, Billy Joel or the late Keith Emerson, that label diminishes the enormous talent God had given Mark. Whenever Mark played the organ, the congregation would come early to hear the prelude. After the service, they would sit in the pews until the last notes of the postlude echoed throughout the sanctuary.

Mark was an organist. A church organist…and so much more. Mark came to our church in the early 70’s to be the organist. When the Minister of Music left, Mark took over those duties as well and truly began his ministry. The music became an integral part of the service. He would work with my dad (the minister) to really understand the message he wanted to convey on Sunday and deeply tie the music to that message.

Mark brought a bright sense of humor with him as well. Member of the choir having a birthday? Aren’t those notes of “Happy Birthday” subtly being played underneath the melody of the offertory? “The Bringing of the Tithes” Sunday in November? I swear I hear the tones of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof!

As Mark expanded his ministry, he resurrected the youth choir and started a youth handbell choir. The bell choir became known across the state. We were a ROCKING bell choir. I don’t mean we played rock music (other than Tubular Bells, I can’t imagine bells in rock music), I mean we ROCKED it! He was able to take us all as a group further than we ever imagined. The complexities of some of the pieces we played required some of us to play four, five, six and more bells in a given song. We were GOOD…because Mark taught us to accept nothing less than perfection.

The world will forever remember Mark for the music he made through his own fingers and feet and through the voices, hands, and instruments of those he led. Me? I will always remember Mark for what he did for me. As a young pimple-faced teenager of 17 or 18 he took me seriously. He took my dream of music seriously when few others did. All I ever wanted to do when I grew up was be a rock star.

During the 70’s I was deeply moved by the Broadway Rock Opera “Jesus Christ Superstar”. So moved, I wrote the sequel. After writing the lyrics to 20 or so songs and plinking out the melodies on guitar, I nervously shared it with Mark. To my amazement, he did not laugh. He did not make fun of me. What he did do, was spend hours and hours meeting me before Bell Choir practice and helping me write the music. When Mark took my melodies and played them, it was magical. He made those silly little songs sound REAL!

As I prepared to graduate high school, I turned my attention to college. I enrolled at Indiana State to major in Music Theory & Composition. I submitted my rock opera as part of my portfolio of work. About six weeks before school was to start I learned that even in Music Theory & Composition one must declare an instrument…oh, and rock guitar did not count (uh, nor did classical guitar). I was crushed! But, there was Mark.

Mark found an accelerated piano curriculum for adults and for the next six weeks we met several evenings a week. Mark taught me to play. He taught me to play well enough to actually audition…and to pass. I was given provisional acceptance into the school of Music.

For a variety of reasons (mostly because I had no talent) my career in rock and roll never materialized. What was born in me through Mark was a lifelong love of music, a dedication to lifelong learning and the dare to dream. Last summer, Carmen and I, along with our friends Hal and Beth Bloss, had a chance to reconnect with Mark for lunch. With tears swelling in my eyes, I was able to tell him what he meant to that pimple-faced teenager and what he means to a somewhat older and grayer grandfather today.

Mark, you will be missed deeply.  Your music will live on in the ears of all who heard it, your love will live on in the hearts of all of us who felt it!

 

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Divine Coincidence Divine Coincidence, the term an old friend of mine (thanks Melva) uses to describe those moments in life when the unexpected happens in an otherwise routine day. These might be moments of “small world-ness” (like flying to Paris, taking a train, bus, and taxi to an old castle, walking into the grand hall of the castle, and seeing someone you know from back home), or they might be moments of “serendipity” (like a dear friend buying a cabin and needing furniture at the same time you are downsizing your father’s house), and sometimes, on rare occasions when the universe aligns the stars, they are moments that takes your breath away.  This is one such tale.

Blogging is an interesting hobby. You write, you post, you hope your words resonate. I am thrilled when someone “likes” on a post and even more thrilled when they comment on a post. When I meet someone and they mention they read my musings, it touches a chord deep within my soul. (Buck, for someone reason Carly Simon is singing in my head, right now). And then… and then there is this story…

Carmen and I were in the midst of a large remodeling project on our rental house. Her mother and husband were scheduled to move in in a few short weeks. Carmen wanted to give her mom a special surprise…a garden window in the kitchen. She called a couple of local window companies and settled on Faerber’s Bee Windows.

On the day of the appointment, Bee Windows’s representative, a man in his fifties, arrived and introduced himself as Ty Swincher. They walked next to the rental house and now stood in the kitchen (or what used to be the kitchen before it was stripped to the wallboards and subfloor.) Ty re-read his paper work, looked at Carmen and hesitantly asked, “Mrs. Ton, by chance do you know a Jeff Ton?”

Carmen tiring of all the work and the endless stream of contractors, laughed, “You mean the guy that is paying for this? Yes, I know him, he’s my husband. Do you know him?”

Ty put down the paperwork and began to explain.

“A few months ago, we had a horrible mole problem in our yard.”

Carmen is smiling now, still not sure where this is going, but knowing we have been battling those little devils for years. Just the week prior, we had been talking to our friends John and Ruth Vess about “mole eradication techniques”. The maze of tunnels criss-crossing our yard flashed in her mind. She was about to warn him not to get his mole advice from me.

“Well, we seem to have gotten rid of the moles, but then our yard was just a maze of dead grass and humped trails where their tunnels had been. Someone told me the best way to repair the yard was to be sure to evenly water the entire yard. So, I went to Google and began to research sprinklers.”

By now, tears were beginning to form in the corners his eyes. “That was when I came across your husband’s blog about “The Sprinkler Head”. That post changed my life. I made my kids read it. It has changed our relationship. You see, I’ve learned recently that I have skin cancer. I will be going in for another surgery in a few weeks.”

In a flash, memories bombarded Carmen as she remembered the post about that old sprinkler head. Months before, as we packed my dad’s belongings and moved him to an apartment, she had repeatedly told me to be sure and claim some of dad’s tools. I would mumble something about having all the tools I need and then some. I didn’t need anymore tools, I insisted. But, she knew better. Her dad had passed away 22 years ago and she still clings tightly (and occasionally lets me use) the tools of his that she had managed to keep.

She knew my dad would never be able to use them again, and he, himself would be gone from us one day. She knew we would want them. I finally decided she was right. I selected a few things to save, among them was the old sprinkler head. It was the memory of her father and his own battle with cancer that now flooded her mind.

As Ty finished the story of his upcoming cancer surgery, both he and Carmen were now crying.

As they stood in the garage of the rental house, Ty declared,  “You know, I couldn’t figure out why they sent me out on this job. I don’t typically make sales calls. I’m one of their most senior Project Managers.” At that moment, they both knew the answer.

A few days later, I had a chance to meet Ty when he delivered the estimate for the window. He thanked me for the post as he retold the story. He and his wife were leaving in a couple weeks for a trip of a lifetime to Belize. His surgery would follow their trip. As we talked, I learned more of his background. Prior to joining Bee Window, he had been a sports reporter and columnist. His column had been syndicated and appeared in papers across the midwest.

I reached out to Ty this week to see how he was doing. Their trip to Belize was a magical as you might imagine, sunrises on the beach, hiking ancient ruins, swimming with nurse sharks and giant sea turtles. But the surgery has had to be postponed until June for a variety of reasons so he is still facing that with a bit of trepidation. 

Call it a serendipitous moment, call it a small world moment, or call it a Divine Coincidence, it’s a moment I will remember every time I put pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as the case may be), it is a moment I will never forget.  Ty, I am thankful my words touched your life, your story has profoundly impacted mine, thank you for sharing it with Carmen and me!

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Love is Thicker than Blood, Blood is Thicker than WaterThere is an old proverb that states, “Blood is thicker than water.” In modern day, it has come to mean that family bonds (blood) are stronger than friendships (water).  “Love is thicker than blood” was my attempt to state love relationships are even stronger than blood relationships. As is my practice when quoting something, I wanted to ensure I understood its meaning. What I learned in this case (and in many cases, actually) is the quote has been used incorrectly. And, at least in this case, the original meaning is closer to what I want to say in the first place.

Tracing this proverb back to its origins reveals, “The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.” Originally meant to convey the blood of battle forms a bond among soldiers that is stronger than family bonds, I like the direction Richard Back took it. In his book, “Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah”, Bach wrote, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.”

So, by now you are asking, “Jeff, what in the heck are you trying to say? You’ve written 200 words and I still don’t know what you are trying to say.” In Rivers of Thought I have written a lot about love, I have written a lot about family. Today, I want to celebrate someone whom I mention frequently, but too many times take for granted. Today, I want to celebrate my wife, Carmen.

This is a second marriage for both of us. An only child, without children of her own, she was thrust into the family of Tons. Admittedly, we are not the Rockefellers nor the Kennedys, but we can be a pretty intimidating bunch. But, she opened her home and she opened her heart to all of us (I don’t think she understood she was marrying all of us when she said “I do”!).

When I say she opened her home, I mean it literally. In early 2001 Carmen and decided to move in together . . . in her house. Not only did I move in, but so did my 16 year old son Brad, who lived with me 50% of the time. Even before moving day, she made sure Brad would feel welcome by transforming her guest room into a teenage boy-man room. Admittedly, those first few years were tough. Teenage years are filled with angst enough, throw in a divorce and you get a lot of pent of anger, a good dose aimed at me. Carmen played consoler and referee. Always wary of the the “stepmother” line, she danced the tightrope incredibly well.

Early in our marriage, we struggled, and I do mean we struggled, to build a relationship with my parents. Divorce is hard on everyone. My divorce seemed to be particularly hard on my mom and dad. While they labored to come to grips with the new reality (as Brad would say, “This ain’t Leave it to Beaver any more!”), the first to really open her heart to Carmen was my grandmother Granny Ton. Sara. She and Carmen developed a very strong bond in a short time. Granny loved it when Carmen came to visit and chat. Honestly, through Carmen I was able to get to know my Granny as, well, as Sara. A woman who had lived a life of love and family. I don’t think I would have ever learned of that woman without Carmen. I will treasure the stories she shared with us during her final years and those final days.

As the years passed, our house became the place for holiday gatherings, birthday parties, and celebrations of all kinds. All put on with organization and planning that make them look easy. All with a touch of elegance and grace. (Yes, even with name cards at our plates so everyone knows where to sit!). All were invited and all were welcome. The invitation extended beyond family to friends who were without a place to go. Friends became family, family became friends.

She and my mom became friends…buddies as mom would say. The two of them would chat and carry-on like young school girls. They would go shopping and have “girl time”. As aging began to take its toll on mom’s body, Carmen was there to take her to doctor after doctor. She became her advocate when she couldn’t advocate for herself. She became her voice when she could no longer speak. She truly became mom’s Daughter-in-Love.

In the summer of 2010, we became grandparents, of sorts. Our son, Brad, had moved in with this his girl friend (our soon to be daughter-in-love), Holly. At the time, Holly was a single mom to two awesome kids, Donny age 10, Charity age 8. Before school let out for the year, it became apparent Holly’s plans for the kids was not going to work out. Who stepped forward? Carmen, of course. Of course, the she would wrangle the kids all summer. Oh, did I mention, our house was undergoing a major renovation? Construction going on everywhere. No kitchen. . . for about a year! Yet, those kids (and Carmen) had a wonderful summer . . . making tree branch tepees in yard. . . hunting for “treasure” in the woods and creek. . . climbing trees. . . and, of course, signing their names in the concrete of the new foundation. Today, Charity, now 14 and a freshman in high school, still loves to get off the bus at “Grandma’s house” after school.

A couple short years later, Jeremy’s son Braxton was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. For many months, our sweet Braxton could not travel to Indianapolis for visits. So, Grandma Carmen and I would travel to see him. They immediately formed their bond. Just a couple weeks ago, Braxton (oh, and Jeremy, too) were visiting. Carmen, Braxton and Jordan (more on him in a minute) duckpin bowled together. . . incredible smiles. . . incredible laughter. . . incredible love. Later, Braxton would help Carmen make garlic toast for dinner. Sunday found Carmen and Braxton busy at the kitchen table. Carmen was helping him practice writing in a new “learn to write” book she had bought for him. It was a beautiful scene! And one that melted all of our hearts!

I mentioned Jordan. March 2014 we were again all gathered in a hospital waiting room. Several hours later we were introduced to Jordan, Brad and Holly’s son. Twelve weeks later, when Holly had to return to work, Jordan would come to hang out at Grandma Carmen’s, like his big brother and sister had done. Today, Jordan loves to visit “Meemaw’s House”, and play dinosaurs, or kitchen, or cars. He loves to watch “Meemaw’s deer” in the yard, and ride “Meemaw’s tractor”. Last night, he and I were playing in the small play house at our property next door and he couldn’t wait to open the door of the second floor deck (ok, it’s a pretty big “small” play house), stand on the deck and yell for “meeeeeeeeeeemaw”, “meeeeeeeeeeemaw”!

Over the last few years, she again, has taken on the role of caregiver. This time for my dad. As he ages and his dementia worsens, he needs more and more help. Carmen is there to help around his apartment, to take him shopping, to haircuts, to optometrist appointments and help him to learn his new reality. During the few days I have been writing this post, Dad has been sick with an intestinal bug. Who was there (twice) to help clean him after an accident? Carmen, of course. In many of our private moments, dad expresses deep appreciation and love for Carmen. I know he is thankful to have her care for him.

There is not room in this post to retell all of the stories of my life (our life) with Carmen. Our little clan has grown. Together, we have celebrated life’s most treasured moments. Together, we have held our kids, our grandkids, and yes, our parents in our arms and cried through life’s tougher moments. Carmen is the glue, Carmen is the bond that holds it all together. I know, there is no one I would rather have by my side, there is no one I would rather share laughter with through life’s celebrations, there is no one I would rather share tears with through life’s challenges than Carmen.

She may not know “nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies”, but she she does know how to love, care and nurture; she does know how to be a rock in life’s craziness; she knows how to birth a family not based on blood . . . or, the water of the womb. Thank you, Carmen Suzanne, you are loved and treasured more than you will ever know.

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I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colours anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I first met Brandon Tidwell in 2009. My son Brad was launching his Hip Hop career with his first gig at a local dive. Honestly, I didn’t know much about hip hop music or performances. As Brad took the stage, he was joined by his college roommate as his DJ and another guy. I would learn later his name was Brandon Tidwell. His role was that of “Hype Man”. A Hype Man is somewhat of a backup singer. He interjects throughout the song with the intention to hype the crowd and highlight some of the lyrics. (I have to admit, I learned that later, as well).

What I did know was that, in contrast to Brad whose energy exploded on the stage, Brandon barely moved. When he did interject, it was very tentative and hard to hear. This first performance did not bode well for a long career as a Hype Man.

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby, it just happens everyday

Over the course of the next five years, Brandon grew as a performer. His confidence increased, his stage Paint It Blackpresence blossomed. He was truly living up to his role of Hype Man and friend, even serving as a groomsman in Brad’s wedding to Holly.

Another thing happened over that time. Carmen and I got to know Brandon and his family: wife, Bobbi Jo, son Timmy, and daughter Avari. Brandon was not only Brad’s Hype Man, but he was also one of his best friends. What we saw in Brandon was an incredibly loyal and supportive friend,  a man who loves his family and puts them above all, a man with a huge heart.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door and must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes

That huge heart belongs to a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Brandon loves deeply and he hurts deeply as some of his Facebook posts will show.  He is a man that feels emotional pain for himself and for others in his life.

Given the time we all spent together, we knew nothing of his extended family. We were stunned to learn of the death of his mother, Vicky Hensley on September 5,  2015. After being a heavy smoker, her cause of death was listed as COPD. Brandon’s huge heart was broken. His posts revealed his pain to his Facebook world. Her funeral was a simple service and his mother was laid to rest.

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colours anymore, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

Barely seven weeks later, Brandon’s father, Mark Hensley, died on October 29, 2015 from his long battle with ALS.

I wanna see it painted, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky
I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black

Thus began Brandon’s journey through the “year of firsts” without both his parents. The pain in his heart was almost unbearable. He tried to hide his tears. For the most part he was successful. He threw himself into coaching Timmy’s baseball team and doting on Avari. Through it he tried to be the best husband he could for Bobbi Jo.

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, their birthdays…those were tough days. The visits to the cemetery…the pain broke through. Christmas 2016…

…..

In the days that followed Christmas, Bobbi Jo’s father, Tim Marcon came to visit. Never one to sit still, he spent the time helping Brandon by fixing some things around their house while Brandon was at work. He came across an old stereo. It had belonged to Brandon’s dad. It hadn’t worked in years. In fact, it probably hadn’t been played in ten years. Yet, Brandon could not bear to get rid of it.

Tim opened the cover, cleaned it, reconnected some wires and soon had it playing music for the first time in a decade. When Brandon got home from work, his father-in-law encouraged him to give it a try. With a lump in his throat, he pushed the power button. The stereo came to life. He noticed there was a CD in the player. Long forgotten, stuck in the player the it had died. Reaching down, he pushed “Play”…

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love, both never to come back

The words and music hit him, hit him hard. Now, I don’t know if you believe in such things, but, it may have been dumb luck…a coincidence, or maybe, just maybe, it was his father’s way of telling Brandon he and his mom miss him too. Their hearts are broken that they had to leave so soon.

When Brad relayed the story to me, I knew Brandon had been “painting it black” for over a year. When Mick and Keith were writing of pain, depression and loss five decades ago they were describing exactly the pain, depression and loss Brandon was feeling.

Perhaps what his father’s stereo was trying to tell him was the pain of loss never really goes away. You will always miss those who have left. Don’t let that pain colour your world, don’t let the loss turn your world to black, don’t miss the moments with your beautiful family and your friends. Remember those who have left, share the stories of your memories, make sure Tim and Avari know your mom and dad.

I can hear Brandon now…”I know, I know, but I don’t know HOW”. To answer that, I will turn again to the sages of my generation, Mick and Keith.

From “Waiting on a Friend”

A smile relieves a heart that grieves, remember what I said
I’m not waiting on a lady, I’m just waiting on a friend
I’m just waiting on a friend, just waiting on a friend
I’m just waiting on a friend, I’m just waiting on a friend

And…”Let It Bleed”

Well, we all need someone we can lean on
And if you want it, you can lean on me
Yeah, we all need someone we can lean on
And if you want it, you can lean on me

Brandon, we are are here for you. Together let’s make 2017 a year your parents would be proud of!

Jeff, Carmen, Brad, Holly, Jeremy, Donny, Charity, Braxton & Jordan

Paint It Black
Written by: Keith Richards / Mick Jagger
© Abkco Music, Inc
Waiting on a Friend
Written by: Keith Richards / Mick Jagger
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management US, LLC
Let It Bleed
Written by: Keith Richards / Mick Jagger
© Abkco Music, Inc

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(Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Family, Friendship, Love

It started with an Angel. An Angel named Mary Ellen. The three Princes were gathered in the palace of the King. The Princess could not join them, not well enough to make the long journey. Nor, in fact, was the King present. He, being on a journey of his own. Days before, prior to his departure, the King had issued a proclamation: “Not that you will want them, but, take what you will of the things I have left behind. What you do not want give to the people as a token of goodwill.”

The three princes found themselves surrounded by untold treasures left abandoned in the castle. The King’s prophecy seemed to be true, barely a treasure had been spoken for by the Princes or the Princess. It was then an Angel appeared amongst them (hey…I’ve heard this story before!). She spoke not a word. She seemed to float, yet not. Light surrounded her. Upon her robes there was writing. An ancient text; given the date written after the words. As luck would have it, the bride of one of the Princes knew the ancient language. The fair maid, translated the words: “The Family of Sayre”.

The middle Prince, and most handsome (hey, it’s my freakin’ blog, you other two can write your own blog if you want to be the most handsome!) immediately sent word to the head of the Family of Sayre to join them at the castle. There were a handful of trinkets representing the Holy Days, surely the Family of Sayre would find use for them during the upcoming Season.

When Larry of Sayre arrived, the Princes bestowed upon him a dozen or more trinkets. Being an old and dear friend of the King and very well known to the Princes, they took to telling stories from the ancient of days and more recent news from the Family of Sayre. They were acquiring a second castle in the southern part of the kingdom. A place for their family to rest and to feast. A place for his Princess and Prince to bring their offspring and frolick in the spiritual waters.

Now, I don’t recall who thought of it first, I believe it was the handsome middle Prince (again, it’s my damn blog!), “Don’t you need some fine furnishings for this new castle? Perhaps, a bed upon which to rest after a day of chasing the fox with the hounds? Perhaps a dresser to store your robe and garments? Perhaps a lounge upon which to look out across the kingdom?” Perhaps, a rack in which to store your pages? Perhaps a roll of paper with the King’s seal?

Larry of Sayre was overcome. Yes, he would be honored to take use of the King’s things. He called upon more of the Family of Sayre to bring their wagons, they would fill them with their good fortune. Wagon load, after wagon load of treasures were taken to the the Castle by the Water. Soon, the King’s Castle had but a few items left. The Princes were pleased, they knew the King would be pleased. Not only were his things taken, they were taken by the Family of Sayre. That evening there was rejoicing throughout the land.

…and they all lived happily ever after.

An Angel Named Mary EllenOk, enough with the Fairy Tale…I could not resist! As the actual events described allegorically in the tale unfolded, the word “serendipity” was used multiple times throughout the day. The fact that we found a ceramic angel, upon which mom had written “The Sayres – 2007” was serendipitous. The fact that we called Larry and he was immediately available to come over was serendipitous. The fact that Larry and Nancy, along with their daughter Laura and her husband were, at that moment, in the middle of purchasing a lake cottage was…serendipitous. The fact that they needed furnishings for the cottage…almost the exact furnishings that dad could no longer use was…yep…serendipitous.

Serendipity was a word my mom used a lot while were were growing up. I thought it was some 60’s thing the church had created to compete with groovy, far out, and alright to try and sound cool to teens. I don’t think I had used the word in a sentence in 40 years! When Larry (of) Sayre started using it, I was transported to another place and time.

As I sat down to write this post, I went to Google to look up the definition. Little did I know I would be taken back a wee bit further than the 1960’s. I was taken back all the way to the 1750’s! 1754 to be exact, when Horace Walpole coined the term in a letter. He was describing a Persian Fairy Tale to his correspondent. The fairy tale? “The Three Princes of Serendip”.

There are SO many layers here. Three Princes…(now, do you get the three Princes reference in my little fairy tale??)…the Three Kings from biblical texts, one or all of whom could have been Persian…Persia, today’s Iran. I love when history does that to you…you go looking for one thing and you find another, far more powerful…it’s incredible, you might say…or rather, it’s serendipitous!

 

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dad, family, loveIt came when I least expected. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked through that garage. Dozens? Hundreds? At that moment something caught my eye. I had seen it a million times, but had never given it more than a passing thought. What was that? Today, I had to know. I walked over and picked it up…WHAM! A 2×4 right between my eyes. Holy shit! Dazed, I staggered back,as I did…UMPHFFFFF! Jeeeeeeeezussss! A sucker punch right to the gut. It would be cliche to say, “life passed before my eyes”, nay,  lifefroze before my eyes! As the moments passed, life did indeed pass before my eyes…but it wasn’t my life.

I could see them, mom supervising the planting of the spring flowers, no longer able to help, much less do any of the work. I could hear them discussing which flowers to put where, how best to plant them, and my mom’s reminder to dad to keep them watered.

Life rewound…to happier times. They would shop together at Wild Birds or Altums, picking out the perfect feeder or plant for the small manicured lawn, chattering excitedly as they drove home to place it just the right spot. Later, holding hands as they walked around the yard to examine God’s handiwork.

There they were again, moving into their new home in the retirement community. Doing it for the kids, they’d say. The pride they took in decorating the house just so. The paint colors, the fabrics, the knick-knacks. Out front was a flag pole, shrubs trimmed just so. Welcoming. The prettiest house on the block. At Christmas (a favorite time of year), lights were hung, their twinkle giving the appearance of falling snow.

Now there is a different house. They look younger. This house had something special. Grandkids! Five in all. Oh how they loved to visit Mimi and Popper. Mimi would spend hours with them exploring the scary crawl space. The boys begged for her to take them down there…even though they were a little bit afraid of the dark. Calling out occasionally in shaky voices, “Mimi are you still there?” I’m right here, just shine your flashlight this way,” would come the response.

Popper loved to play in the yard with them. They would play hide and seek for hours on end. The giggles once again giving away the best hiding spot yet!

The house and yard was as you might expect. Immaculate (except after the visit of the grandkids!). The grass mowed and trimmed. The trees bursting with leaves. In the back, were his rose bushes. He would meticulously prune them, fertilize them, and water them. He loved to take her and point to each blossom at is began to unfold.

A new image takes the place of this one. It is a house with four teenagers. Chaotic Sunday mornings getting everyone ready for church. The house was decorated with dozens of banners. Each one made with love and care. Each one with one of her favorite quotes, or scriptures. “Bloom where you are planted”, “Marantha, Our Lord Come”, “Celebrate”, “For God So Loved the World”. The newest one placed in the entry hall, the others hung throughout the “Wreck” Room (hey it WAS a house full of teenagers!).

Together they would explore their faith, their relationship, and their marriage in new light. She was beginning to be her own person. Yes, she was still the minister’s wife, and, very, very proud to be. But she was learning that she had a ministry as well. She could write! At first it was for a Sunday School lesson, then short magazine articles, finally a book. Yes, a book! I could not tell who was more proud…her, or him.

As before, the image fades and a new one takes its place. The kids are younger now, but then so are they. The house is a huge old house next to the church where he served. The house was clean and tidy, despite four young kids (don’t look in their rooms). The garage held the car. THE car! One of the first new cars they had owned. The car was hand washed and waxed…it sparkled. He loved to take her for a ride in the car, letting the wind blow through the open windows (4×4 air conditioning they would call it).

Every Sunday, she would sit in the balcony with the kids (squirming less visible there) and look on with pride as he tended his flock. He was magnificent. His faith and passion exposed with every word. His hair was dark, his eyes flashed. Without anyone being the wiser, he would look to her for affirmation that his words were heard and his message, nay, God’s message, was delivered. After church, they would all sit down for Sunday lunch around an ancient kitchen table.

The images came much faster now, like life as we age, the years moving faster and faster. They were getting younger. The four kids, were three, then two, then one. Then it was the two of them. She dressed in white. Beautiful, simply beautiful. He dressed in black, barely able to breath as he looked at her. Handsome, eyes blazing.

They were teenagers now. He making excuses to go visit his friend Chuck just so he could catch a glimpse of her. Acting totally cool and disinterested, in his rolled-cuffed jeans. She just happening to leave this doll, or that doll out so she would HAVE to go pick it up, her dress clean and bright, like she had just put in on (because, of course, she had). Days, weeks, and months before he would work up nerve to ask her out…to a church youth event (yes, a first date at a church youth event, would you expect anything else from him?).

And then it stopped. I was back in the garage. That same garage, I had been in countless times before. That same garage, where we stacked some of her things when she passed three years prior. That same garage, where I helped him fix his golf cart to make sure he could still get around, even though he could no longer drive. In my hand was a sprinkler head. The shelves before me, organized meticulously, untouched in the three years since mom had died, just as she and dad had left them, now covered with dust and cobwebs. Frozen.  It was frozen. Nothing touched, nothing moved in three years.

We were there to pack dad to move from this house to an apartment. He would be safer there. He would have better care there. We were moving him from this house. The last home they had together. The house where she laid and took her last breath. The house where he had hoped to take his last breath to join her once again. He isfamily, dad, love no longer able to care for the house, I said. He is no longer able to care for himself, I said. He cannot live alone anymore, I said. It is the right thing to do, I said.

I carefully placed the sprinkler head where it had laid, even straightening it, just so. Packing the garage would wait for another day. I took a deep breath, wiped away a tear, and went back in the house to continue packing. Later, as Carmen and I left for the day, I held my hug with dad just a little bit longer, kissed his check a little bit firmer, told him I loved him just a little bit louder. Finally knowing, what I had known in my heart for a long time…he died when she did three years ago this month.

 

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I am very excited to have a guest blogger for this installment of Rivers of Thought. This is from the pen (ok, keyboard) of a great storyteller. I have been after him for MONTHS to write a post for Rivers of Thought. This storyteller is none other than my cousin, Kenn Beckwith.

Kenn and I were pretty close as cousins go, even though he grew up in Milwaukee and I grew up in Indiana. A couple years ago we reconnected after being out of touch for DECADES! As we have gotten to know each other’s life journey, it is remarkable the similarity in our paths. So without further ado:

family, leadership, #AllLivesMatterIt was last October.

I was late for a meeting.

Traffic was heavy.

I was in the HOV lane because I can afford to pay the toll.

I was driving 69 in a 55.

I was pulled over.

As the trooper approached the car I had my license and insurance in my hand waiting for him. He took them and went back to the squad car. I have a clean record, but was bracing for an expensive fine.

Upon his return he noticed the windows of my recently purchased car and observed they were darkly tinted. After checking the glass with a gauge, he confirmed they were too dark. I explained I had just purchased the car and he told me to take it back to the dealer to rectify.

He then noticed my low tire pressure warning light was illuminated. I told him I had just swapped tires and the sensor had yet to sync. He walked around the car to check for himself.

He then handed me a warning ticket for the entire episode. He was polite, helpful, and in all ways, represented his profession well. I thanked him for the warning; since then I’ve slowed down and I’ve told this story many times.

I’m white.

A few nights ago ago a 33-year old man, his girlfriend, and 4-year old daughter were leaving a grocery store and were pulled over due to a broken tail light. We all know what happened thereafter. I used to have a carry permit – this man did exactly what I was trained to do – he notified the officer.

He’s dead now.

He was black.

I do not pretend to know what it is like to live as a black man in our society. Every time we add one more body to the count of dead people we hear the words “black lives matter.” Then we hear well-meaning people say “all lives matter.” As President Obama said yesterday, “you cannot ignore the data.”

The one question crashing around my brain every time I’ve told the story of my traffic stop has been, “would I have had the same experience if I had not been a 59-year old white male driving a nice car?”

No answers – just sad about the state of our country.

 

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family, autism“Momma”, “Dadda”, “Bye-bye”. Three of the sweetest sounds I have ever heard. I could not imagine a more perfect ending to what had been a very long week! I think I probably watched the video a dozen times…”Momma”, “Dadda”, “Bye-bye”…the last two words barely whispers.

The week started much like many others, Monday morning and off to work. Pretty typical Monday, One on One’s with my staff in the morning, followed by an afternoon full of meetings. That evening, while sitting in my office at home catching up on email, my cell phone rang. It was a number I did not recognize. So, I did what I always do with a number I do not recognize, I ignored it and let it roll to voicemail. Before I had a chance to listen to the message, it rang again, this time it was my dad’s number.

I answered, fully expecting to be talking to my dad…except I wasn’t. It was one of the nurses from the retirement community where dad lives. Dad had fallen several times and was very disoriented. She was calling an ambulance. I dropped everything and rushed to his condo. As I arrived, they were loading him into the ambulance. One of the firemen gave me the low down on his condition, I asked them to tell him I was here and I would see him at the hospital. After speaking with the nurse and the neighbors who had called her, I followed the ambulance to the ER.

Hours later, after myriad of tests, we learned that dad had experienced a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini-stroke” and was also suffering from pneumonia in both lungs. They started a series of IVs and admitted him into the hospital. (For those that know Dad, he has improved and is now back in his duplex.) As for me, I stayed with him until he was in his room for the night. I think my head hit my pillow about 2 AM.

I was up and off for a 7:30 meeting the next morning. The rest of the week was a blur. Carmen and I would tag team. She would spend hours at the hospital during the day, texting me with updates. We would talk by cell in between meetings, then meet at the hospital as soon as I could get out of the office. We would spend the evenings with dad and then head for home, stopping for dinner on the way. Most nights it was 9 or 10 before we arrived home.

Dad was improving, albeit, slowly. By Friday, we were exhausted. As we talked mid-afternoon, we decided Carmen would head for home, and I would stop in and visit with dad before I headed home. As was typical, dad would be awake and talking one minute and fast asleep the next. During one of his “naps”, I was checking Facebook. There it was, a post from my son Jeremy. A short video of my grandson, Braxton, uttering his first words. “Momma”, “Dadda”, “Bye-bye”. Not wanting to disturb dad, I texted Carmen and my heart beating like a drum…”OMG, have you seen Facebook?”

First words are always a big deal. These first words, however, had been a long time coming. You see, Braxton is 3 ½ and has been diagnosed with autism. His language skills and socialization have been particularly slow to develop. He had not spoken a word, not even close.

Carmen was not responding to my text, nor was she “liking” on the Facebook post,  could barely contain my excitement, I wanted to share the news! Finally, dad woke up and I called Carmen to share the news, then showed the video to dad. By now, all three of us were in tears.

The next morning when Carmen and I went over to Jeremy’s house to visit with him and Braxton, all I could do is grab Jeremy by the shoulders and look him in the eyes and say, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God, Oh, my God!!!”

After the week we had had, I can’t think of a better way to end it. Dear, sweet, beautiful Braxton speaking his first words.

“Momma”, “Dadda”, “Bye-bye”…the sweetest sounds I had ever heard!

 

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