Friday, December 14, 2018

A Christmas Party to Forget . . . and to Remember

It's Friday morning and sitting in Honest Coffee Roasters waiting on my coffee.  15 or 20 minutes of solitude, then I'm off to the races.  I'm dog tired.  I was up late last night working on a project for a client.  Unlike most holiday seasons when I'm able to gear down near Christmas, this year I'm simply covered up.  It's been that way the last quarter of the year.

Tuesday night, Jude and I attended our 7th and final Christmas Party at the Governor's residence, hosted by Governor Haslam and the First Lady, Chrissie Haslam.  Jude worked as Director of the Children's cabinet for almost severn years.  She's very fond of the both of them, as am I.  Her job was challenging but rewarding and she learned so much.  Jude's fiercely loyal and part of the reason why she stayed on until almost the very end of the Governor's second term was her loyalty to the Governor, his administration and the importance of the work she was doing.  It probably shows, but I'm very, very proud of Jude.

We've been blessed to be invited to several events over the last 7 years at the Governor's residence and elsewhere.  Christmas parties, summer picnics, inauguration celebrations, etc.  Likewise, the boys have been with Jude to trick-or-treat at the Governor's residence and to see the Christmas decorations there every years.  As a family, we've attended the Christmas tree lighting at the state capital almost every year.  J.P. has attended the Governor's State of the State Address every year, proud to dress up in a suit and tie.  It's been a good and special run for Jude, and for us.

This year's Christmas party was different.  No formal address from the Governor, just quiet conversations with him for a minute or two as he made the rounds.  Attendance was down, which is to be expected.  There were few younger people there.  So many people have moved on to new jobs in and out of state government.  The mood was subdued and not as festive as in years past.  There was a nervous energy, as many of the attendees don't yet know where they will end up or are waiting for a decision from the new Governor, Bill Lee, as to whether he will keep them in their current position, move them or let them go.  In fact, one young man I talked with - whom I see at every event - has an interview scheduled on Monday with Governor Lee.  He desperately wants to remain in his current position and I hope it works out for him.

The contrast between the atmosphere or mood at this year's Christmas party and in years past was profound.  Melancholy is probably the word that best describes the overriding feeling at the party.  For many people - certainly, some of the older commissioners of various departments - the last eight years has been the culmination of long and sometimes storied careers.  There was a feeling of nostalgia, too.  Gone was the feeling of promise, of optimism, of work yet to be done and policy goals to be reached.

When Jude was contacted by the Haslam administration about the job, she was pregnant with Joe.  Very pregnant.  She was working as a consultant to Mayor Karl Dean, cloistered away in an isolated office, or maybe a cubicle, working on a long-term planning project.  That was the way she wanted it after a seven or eight year run as Executive Director at Renewal House.  She was working 24 hours a week.  Perfect for a woman with an almost 4 year old and another son on the way.

Suddenly, roughly seven months pregnant, Jude was working in the mornings at the Mayor's office and in the afternoons for the Governor.  Full time.  It was a whirlwind until she had Joe, after which she took three months off for maternity leave.  Then, she was off to the races as Director of the Children's Cabinet.

It was a good run.  It was nice Christmas party, kind of a bookend to Jude's seven year run working in the Haslam administration.  I'm glad we went.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Requiem for a President

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, died yesterday in Houston, Texas, surrounded by family and friends.  The New York Times, as always, published the definitive obituary.

President Bush was a single term president, serving from 1989 - 1993.  He was popular, immensely so after the success of he first Gulf War, then almost suddenly, he wasn't popular.  In the presidential campaign he eventually lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, he appeared disconnected and out of touch with the problems every day people faced as a result of the recession.

Above all, though, President Bush was a good man.  A family man and a patriot.  A man who served the country in one capacity or another for 40 years.  His death makes me sad and I've been wondering why.

I voted for President Bush when he ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988.  This, in spite of the fact that a few of my fraternity brothers called me Michael Dukakis during the campaign after noticing that my eyebrows resembled those of Mr. Dukakis.  That's a fun fact, for sure.  I'm smiling now as I remember my friend and fellow fraternity president, Goat Neal, pointing at me in the hall of the fraternity house and yelling, "Michael Dukakis!!"  I saw him at a Predators' game the other night and, as always, he brought a smile to my face.  I digress.

I was 22 years old when during that presidential campaign.  I was finishing my final semester of college in Knoxville, living in the fraternity house, coasting though the two or maybe three classes I needed to graduate.  It was an innocent and fun time in my life.  I quite literally had my whole life in front of me.  As I recall, I had a job in sale with Wallace Computer Services lined up in Nashville.  I was still dating my longtime college girlfriend, Jenny DeWitt, graduated that fall with me, I believe.  I assume we would get married at some point in the near future and raise a family together in suburban Roanoke, Virginia (her hometown) or in Brentwood (my home town).

30 years later, I find myself living in a thriving neighborhood near downtown Nashville as a 52 year old father of two boys, 6 and 10.  In my 22 year old mind, I thought Jenny and I would have four or five kids.  I also thought by age 52, all of my kids would be out of college or, at worst, finishing college.

Man plans.  God laughs.  Right?

So, I find myself this morning at 52, thinking about my 22 year old self.  Idealistic and naive.  Supremely confident.  Probably overconfident.  Immortal, for sure, and unbowed and unbroken by life's travails.  Blessed with a youth that I thought would last forever.  Blissfully unaware that there were hard times ahead, for me and for my family.  Good times, too, to be sure, and many of those.  but hard times, as well.

At 22, I couldn't possibly imagine what it would feel like to be 52.

I also couldn't imaging that Jenny and I would break up, reunite briefly a year or so later, then end our relationship for good.  First, she would break my heart, then I would break hers, not out of ill intent or maliciousness, but because that's the way life goes.  I couldn't imagine, then, that I would find myself in law school in Knoxville in the fall of 1990.  I couldn't imagine that I would meet my future wife in law school or that Anne and I would later divorce after a few years together.  I couldn't imagine how heartbroken I would feel in late 1997 and early 1998.

I also couldn't imagine, at age 22, that I would meet Jude and that we would get married in February 2003.  And, without question, I couldn't imagine the pure, unadulterated wonder and joy I would feel when I held J.P. for the first time on March 28, 2008, and that I would feel the same way when I held Joe for the first time in February 20, 2012.

And, of course, I couldn't imagine - at age 22 - what it would feel like to be sitting at Portland Brew in 12South, sipping a cup of coffee and gathering the mental and emotional strength and energy to go visit my mom in the memory care unit of an assisted living facility.  I couldn't - and wouldn't - have imagined that my mom, the rock of my life and my biggest supporter and best friend for as long as I can remember, would be reduced to a shell of herself at age 78.  I couldn't have imagined that she would be confined to a wheelchair and unable to carry on a coherent conversation with me.  I couldn't have imagined that the very light that is her personality - her soul - would grow dim and that I could do nothing to prevent it from happening.

President Bush said goodbye to those he loved the most.  I'm glad it worked out that way.        

Our situation is different with my mom.  Sometimes I feel like we didn't really get to say goodbye, or, alternatively, that we're saying goodbye a little bit at a time, every day and every week.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sunday Morning at the Monkey

I'm sipping my coffee, sitting at my favorite table in the corner at the Frothy Monkey and listening to  Neil Young before I head down to see my mom this morning.

The Christmas decorations are in bloom, which I love.  Employees' stockings are hung from the winding staircase leading to the upstairs office.  White Christmas lights line the windows and hang from the office doorway.  The early Sunday morning regulars are shuffling in sitting in their usual places.  

I typically get here early on Sundays, around opening time at 7 a.m.  I like to watch the coffee shop open up.  Josh, Grant and the other employees laugh and banter easily back and forth, comfortable in the rhythm of their conversations.  There's a familiarity to it all which I find comforting, like an old sweater or a pair of old jeans.

Josh and his wife, Rachel, run the Frothy Monkey in 12South.  I don't know them well, although Josh and I exchange small talk whenever I stop in.  They're two of the most positive, optimistic people I've ever met in the way they deal with people and seemingly in their approach to life.  It rubs off on all of the employees and, as a result, the vibe at the Monkey is unmatched at any coffee house I've visited in town, although Honest Coffee Roasters comes close.

I've never seen Josh not seem happy to be here.  Grant, his friend and a talented barista and fellow musician, is the same way.  Always friendly, always has a kind word for me.  Neither of them know that part of the reason I come here on Sunday mornings is to recharge my batteries and gather my emotional energy before I visit my mom.  He's almost like a bartender, speaking to the regular customers about sports or asking about their morning as he makes a predictably excellent coffee drink.

Virtually every new employee seems to take on Josh's personality (and Grant's personality).  It's a leadership thing, no doubt.  Frequenting coffee houses as much as I do, I've learned that so much of the vibe flows directly from the manager.  The Frothy Monkey in 12South is a perfect example of that.

Time to get up and get on with my day, a good Thanksgiving weekend almost behind me.  


Saturday, November 24, 2018

Grandparents' Day and a Twinge of Jealousy

Yesterday, I had coffee with a high school classmate of mine, Joe Imorde.  Joe is a great guy who grew up in my neighborhood.  He joined the army after college at Western Kentucky and served 20 years before ending up with his family in Virginia.  I rarely see him, so spending an hour together was a treat.

I've known Joe's family for years.  His sister married my law partner, Mark.  Joe's parents are the best and I was happy to hear they're doing well.  His dad plays golf almost every day and his mom stays busy, too.  I also felt a twinge of jealously as I thought of my mom's plight, confined to a wheelchair in a small wing of NHC Place as the world continues to shrink around her.  Why her?

I try to avoid those type of thoughts, emotions and existential questions.  They're unanswerable and to ponder them too long is like staring at the sun for more than a split second.  Too long contemplating the injustice of my mom's fate sends me into an emotional tailspin.  So, I compartmentalize and move forward.  Always moving forward.

Grandparents' Day for the boys was Tuesday at University School.  Jude and I attended the dress rehearsal on Monday.  It was bittersweet, of course, because I knew my mom wouldn't be able to attend.  Still, it was the one and only Grandparents' Day that the boys would participate in together, since J.P. will move on to middle school (gulp) next year.  Needless to say, watching them sign and dance, together, was special.  I was too busy taking photos to cry when all siblings danced together at the end of the performance.  I can't say the same for Jude, who ended up passing some of her Kleenex to other moms.

Notice the focus and concentration.  Singing and dancing is my either of my boys' favorite things.

J.P., thinking, is it over yet?

The turkey costume is killer.  We still have J.P.'s.

J.P., dancing with Mom.

J.P. and me before the performance.  He was an usher.


Joe and Myles, his book buddy.  Joe's almost as big as Myles.

J.P. and Mom.

Do they look like they were glad it was over?  

Ms. Hagan taught J.P. in kindergarten.  This year, she's teaching Joe.

Tears.  Nothing but tears during the sibling dance.

Joe, dancing, sort of.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Saying Goodbye Twice

It's hard to say goodbye twice.                

My sister, Tracy, and I had a rambling telephone conversation on my way home from work last night after a long week.  We compared notes on my mom, as we often do.  Knowing that she remains the tie that binds us together would make her happy.

I had given Tracy and Alice my tickets the Belmont-MTSU basketball game on Monday night.  I have great seats on the third row, almost dead center court, between the benches.  The Curb Center is a great college basketball venue and Belmont has a very, very good men's basketball team.  My friend and childhood neighbor, Scott Corley, is the athletic director.  Grayson Murphy, a good friend of mine's son, is a redshirt freshman and starting point guard for the team.  And I can walk to the games.

Tracy and I were lamenting how much mom would have loved going to Belmont basketball games with me.  She was such a huge college basketball fan.  So many of my early sports memories are of her taking me to Vanderbilt basketball games and living and dying with her as they won or lost.  It was something we shared and those are memories I'll always treasure.  I can easily see my mom transitioning from going to Vanderbilt basketball games - where she had season tickets for more than 40 years - to going to Belmont basketball games.

Scott Corley would have doted on her.  She would have met Coach Byrd and become a huge fan.  She would have loved watching Grayson Murphy play.  She loved guards, especially point guards - shout out too her favorite point guard of all time, Kaitlyn Hearn (aka the Short Answer) - and she would have been so taken with the way Grayson plays the position and the game.  She would have loved getting to know my friend Russ's mother-in-law, Connie, also a season ticket holder.  Going to Belmont basketball games at the Curb Center would have been a bookend of sorts, something we shared.  Again.  It makes me terribly sad that we didn't get to do that together.

It also makes me sad that I never really got say goodbye to that version of my mom.  I miss her terribly, all the time.  It's like a dull ache in my heart that never really goes away.  I compartmentalize, I smile for others, I immerse myself in my work, I find quiet time for myself to recharge my batteries and sometimes, when I'm alone, I cry.  Not a lot, but sometimes.

As Tracy and I lamented our loss and, more importantly, my mom's loss, we reminisced about how much and how quickly things have changed for my mom since she moved into Maristone two years ago this month.  In some ways, that seems like a lifetime ago and, in other ways, it seems like yesterday.  That's another post for another day, though.

"It's hard to say goodbye twice, isn't it?"  I quietly said to Tracy, as I sat in the dark, in my Yukon, driving to J.P.'s basketball practice.

Like magic and through the miracle of modern technology, she answered through the speakers in my Yukon, as if she was sitting right beside me.

"It sure is."  Then, she sighed and we were quiet for a moment.

It's hard to say goodbye twice.


Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Terrifying Randomness of Parenthood

I was in mediation next door to my office on Wednesday afternoon - Halloween - when one of our staff knocked on the door and asked me to step out of the conference room so she could talk to me.

"Call Jude," Lisa said.  "There's been an accident at the playground and Joe is hurt."  My heart sank and I rushed outside to call Jude.

As always in times of stress, Jude was calm and cool when I reached her.  "I'm on the way to University School.  Joe fell on the playground and his arm is hurt.  I don't know any more than that."

Jude agreed to call me when she got the nurse's office at school and assessed the situation.  It turns out that Joe had fallen, or gotten pushed, off a tunnel on the playground he was walking on and had stuck out his left hand and arm to soften the blow as he hit the ground.  He was crying quite a bit when she arrived and saying his arm hurt.  The nurse didn't think it was broken but Jude thought it best to take him to see his pediatrician anyway.

Dr. Godfrey examined Joe and suspected he had broken his arm after all.  He called ahead to the radiology department at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital so Jude could get Joe in without waiting.  X-rays revealed a fracture in the ulna, nearer the elbow than the wrist.  He was casted from the wrist to above the elbow and told to come back in four weeks.


Joe's been awesome about it the whole time, never complaining, at least no so far.  He trick-or-treated (as Luke Skywalker) that night.  He's slept well, maybe because I made a big deal out of giving him the pillow I've used four different times when I've broken bones in my left hand over the years.  He's miffed about missing basketball, particularly after he scored six points in the first half last week (turning to the crowd after each basket and making the money sign with his hands).  Overall, he's been great.

Me, not so much.

Joe's broken arm is a reminder of the randomness and helplessness of being a parent.  I do everything I can to keep the boys healthy, send them to best school and keep them safe, and still, Joe gets hurt.  I know it could have been worse but I can't shake this feeling of helplessness, like I'm in boat on the ocean with no way of steering in any particular direction.  The wind and the current are going to take me wherever they want me to go and I'm just along for the ride.  That's parenthood, I guess.

I'm also struck by a feeling of mortality as it relates to the boys.  I want them to be indestructible and impervious to outside forces or random chance the might conspire to injure them.  But, they're not.  Something else for me to worry about, I guess.

Joe will be okay, though.  And we've got a long way to go, raising two athletic, active boys.  Damn, it's going to one hell of a roller coaster ride, isn't it?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Be Careful

Yesterday (Sunday) morning, as I got up to leave after a visit with my mom, she instinctively said "be careful."

As I walked out of NHC Place on my way to pick up JP and drive to Bowling Green for a soccer tournament, I marveled at how much those two words meant to me.

Be careful.

So many, many times, as I left our house to go to school, to work at Walmart, to go out with my friends, to drive to Knoxville for college or law school or to return to my house after a visit, my mom always said the same thing as I walked out the door.

Be careful.

No matter how many times I told her, in later years, that I was 30, 35, 40, etc. years old and she didn't need to tell me to "be careful," she always said it anyway.  She would laugh and shake her head and say to me, "You're my son.  I'm always going to tell you to be careful.  Always."

Sometimes it mildly annoyed me, mostly when I was younger and dumber.  As I grew older and began to realize I wasn't actually 10 feet tall and bullet proof - as I began to develop a sense of my own mortality - I found those two words to be endearing.  With them came a sameness that was comforting, perhaps with the realization that no matter how much in my life changed, my mother would always love me and always be thinking about me.

Be careful.

Those two words meant that I mattered.  They meant that to someone, always, I would be one of the most important people in their lives.  Those two words were proof that my mom loved me unconditionally.  They meant I could count on her support, above anyone else's, when times were good and in times of turbulence.  They meant her love was a constant in my life, ever present.

Yesterday, those two words meant a little something different.  They meant my mom is still my mom.  This terrible, terrible disease - Alzheimer's - has ravaged her body and mind and continues to steal from her every single day.  And yet, for just a moment - a sliver of time - she was instinctively still my mom.  Her unconditional love that has supported and sustained me for 52 + years is still there, somewhere, in her mind and in her heart, maybe in her very soul.

She's wheelchair bound and, yesterday, as she dozed off and on while I read her poetry from the latest  issue of the New Yorker as we sat together in the library, her love for me was as strong as it always has been and, I think always will be.

Just this morning, a colleague at a breakfast fundraiser I co-chaired and emceed asked about my mom and how she was doing.  "You look tired," she said.  "My mom's hanging in there," I replied.  "And I'm fine."

Am I putting up a bit of a facade for others?  Perhaps.  I give a lot of myself, emotionally, to my clients, to the boys I coach and to my family and, of course to my mom.  But I am fine.  I am a survivor and I have to look no further than my mom to find the strength I need to be what are who I need to be every minute of every day.

I take a little more time to myself - like now, having a quite cup of coffee at Honest Coffee Roasters, or like last night when I ran 5 miles in the neighborhood after the boys went to bed.  I'm probably a bit more reflective.  I'm nearer to tears and my emotions are a little closer to the surface, which is saying a lot because I am nothing if not a sentimentalist.  But I am fine and I will continue to be fine, if a little subdued, at times.

My mom's unconditional love sustains me.  It fuels me in ways I will never comprehend.  And it will continue to do so, I think and hope, long after she is gone in a physical sense, from this earth.

Be careful.

Two words, only two.  They mean everything to me.

Thanks, mom.