Jan 22

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes …

We got a text in the pre-dawn hours this weekend, the sort that comes with a sting and a great ache created by a newly formed hollow place.

Our friend Brian’s father passed away. He’d been fighting some heart-related problems and things were starting to improve until, suddenly, the doctors and nurses had to say they’d done all they can do. It’s just terrible.

Tom was a husband, a grandpa and a father. He is the father of one of the most steadfast men I know. Brian and I worked together for four-and-a-half years. Everyone called us office spouses. We shared a cubicle, mostly because I didn’t drive him crazy. I only didn’t drive him crazy because I admired him so much.

And that was the guy at work. Away from keyboards and glowing screens, Brian is the person that knows my wife and me as a couple longer than anyone. He delivered the toast at our wedding. He helped us move. Multiple times. For many years, when we lived in the same town, we dined with Brian and his wife, Elizabeth, weekly. We have celebrated countless little successes with them. We have boasted unceasingly about the achievements of their brilliant daughter. We have all held each other and cried in the most unimaginable grief.

Tom and his wife, Janet, who (I’m trying to find a not-clichéd way to say it, but she) is just about a perfect gem of a human being, took us in for no other reason than we were their boy’s friends. It is part of their shared generous spirit to the world beyond their door. A lot of people do that, sure. The McAlisters made it feel like it was just for you, like you were the only lucky people that got added, which was far from the case. Felt like it, though. They met because they were spelunkers, and it worked. They had two sons and their family, official and otherwise, just grew and grew and grew.

Here’s Brian and his dad, Tom, after Brian’s daughter’s birthday party. She was a wee thing then and is a certifiably genius college student today. I don’t have a great frame of reference for father-son moments, but this felt like one, almost 14 years ago, to the day.

It looked important and cool. I didn’t want to intrude.

What’s more, their welcoming spirit was familiar. Felt like part of my family. My grandmother was that same way. Never met a stranger. She ministered with food and laughter. There for most anyone for most anything at most any time. Tom and Janet, always gave off a known sort of kindness. Their easy, unspoken, cherished bosom buddy sort of personality was normal.

One terribly sad year, Brian and Elizabeth decided to not have Thanksgiving. Their son passed away a week before and they needed some time to themselves. Rather than think of them being alone, I invited Tom and Janet, the grieving grandparents, to my grandparents’ for Thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t live that far away and it was the obvious gesture. I don’t recall if I asked my grandmother’s permission to bring people into her home. Probably I did, but I knew she wouldn’t care. These were good people because they were my people and that would have been enough. Besides, that’s what she did. There was never a “Why?” but “How many plates do we need to set out?”

And so Tom and Janet drove over and 10 of us sat around the kitchen table. In the blessing, I prayed for the family that was with us and I prayed for those who were elsewhere. I asked for strength and health for those who needed it and peace and patience and understanding for those seeking it.

Eight days earlier they lost a grandbaby and had to watch their son and daughter-in-law crumble before them. And Tom and Janet were rocks, smoothed and weathered by time and sharpened by experience. They were the great, steady, oaks of the forest. They were the comforting lights in the night. Only they were better than all of that. We don’t have imagery for such an inconceivable thing, really. After one of the services, I wrote about our friends, Tom and Janet, “You don’t know of pain until you see a parent who knows they can’t comfort their child. You don’t know strength – a true strength borne of love – until you see them do it anyway.”

That Thanksgiving, I realized that you don’t know vulnerability, real human rawness, until you’ve seen people unabashedly share their grief in a stranger’s kitchen. I also learned that you don’t know the best stuff of the human spirit until you’ve seen strangers grieve for new friends.

We laughed, too. Everyone told tall tales and we all tried to talk about other things. Tom and Janet, so grateful for a brief evening of normal, stayed a long time. I was proud we could all do that and not at all surprised that they were sent home with food.

I’ve always thought of that as a story about my grandmother. It’s one of my most precious and fondest moments with her, the materfamilias, always teaching the best of her traits by example, always demonstrating that the simple things are the important things. But I’ve come to realize it’s a story about the family I was lucky enough to get, and the family I was wise enough to choose.

I’ve been writing this with teary-eyed emotions, but now comes the hard part.

Four years later, when my grandmother died, Tom and Janet made the drive over again. For just a moment, in a way I couldn’t have anticipated, dear sweet friends covered the unfillable hole.

Since we got that early morning message I’ve thought of little more than how difficult it is to fill such a hole, even temporarily, for the people you love. How I want to do that for my friend Brian, and his mother, Janet, and that lovely family.

Dec 21

Enjoying our time at the Christmas cottage

It’s always such a treat to be able to open our winter home on the Gold Coast. Though we learned that one of the neighbors is considering moving away. That would really be a shame.

Even on a cloudy day like yesterday, the Saugatuck and the Sound never fail to inspire.

We went out for a four-mile run, but I pulled the rip cord just a bit early when I slammed my heel into the road. Remember, it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my shoe’s fault, it was the asphalt.

I didn’t move quickly enough to catch the Canada geese, but I did get the heron from a distant, if only with my iPhone.

And of course, we ran by the old cemetery. You’ll love this marker.

1681- 1771

Families represented: Burns, Church, Gray, Hendricks, Shaw, in whose memory this tablet is dedicated by Compo Hill Chapter DAR and the Morris Park Association 1933.

In the American context of history the cemetery is getting up there in years — in the American context that plaque is aging nicely, too — one across the state is just a few decades older, and it is considered one of the oldest in New England. And if you start googling those names you begin to find the earliest English settlers in the region.

I believe there are just a handful of known graves in this cemetery, but I could be wrong. It sits beside a modern road, and in between is a walking path, and throughout you can enjoy some lovely birding and, just beyond, some decent fishing. Beyond that, you’re in a large city park that’s pretty quiet this time of year.

This evening, after she hanged her stockings by the chimney with care, I put the star on my in-laws’ Christmas tree.

It’s the little big things like that that make you understand you’re really a part of the family.

And how are your holiday festivities coming along? We’re opening a few presents this evening. And tomorrow I have to take on an entirely new role. It could be a hit! Or a miss!

Dec 21

Our journey continues

We were at a one-year-old’s birthday party on Saturday evening. A small family event and with Zoom for those that couldn’t be there. The birthday girl’s aunt made the cake and, at one point in the evening, surrounded by screaming children, we found ourselves talking about colors and aesthetics. There were too many artistically-minded people in that house is what I’m getting at. But look at this beautiful cake.

That’s homemade. The snowflakes are edible. The tablecloth was seen as both a conflicting and a complimenting color, depending on your shot composition. At some point, to keep the cake away from impulsive three-year-olds and adults, it was moved to a secret location. (The back deck.) This gave us some different, softer, lighting options.

And that’s what you talk about when grandparents are watching 3- and 7- year olds run through sugar highs.

It was a delicious cake. The cupcake was for the birthday girl, who is the calm in the storm. Even her smashed cupcake was dainty, dignified and not especially messy.

She’s wearing a hat The Yankee made. Her parents call her Hazelnut, and so now she has a hat made to look like a hazelnut. There are leaves on top, and everything, as you’ll soon see.

Yesterday, we went for a run before holiday festivities. It was an easy, and awfully chilly, four-miler. Here are The Yankee and my godsisters-in-law (just go with it) at the sign marking the highest point in Delaware.

And I also ran from Delaware into Pennsylvania. That’s at least the fourth state line I’ve run across, but it seems like there’s one or two more I am forgetting in that list.

And last night we had New Jersey Christmas. This is usually the last of our family Christmas parties, but this year it came first, because everything is upside down. We had a delightful evening, from the scrumptious appetizers to the hearty homemade lasagna, to the lovely company. Our hosts and my in-laws are lifelong friends. My mother-in-law and the hostess were in nursing school together. My father-in-law and our host have known one another since elementary school. Our hosts met at my in-laws’ wedding. They are each godparents for the other. And they more-or-less raised their kids together, too.

They open presents there by age. Meaning I’m closer to the end of the line than the beginning. I distract myself from that thought by paying close attention to the kids enjoying their new toys. I got a shirt and a nice jacket in a big box that was decorated with a classically whimsical Santa.

We also received a few neat ornaments, because you can never go wrong with thoughtful ornaments.

Oh, and here’s another shot of Hazel, wearing her Hazelnut hat, at her grandparents’ home. Note the leaves on top. Handmade with love, by her god-aunt.

This one is a little blurry, but look at the smile on that kid’s face.

Also, now that she’s one, she has quickly moved into self-taking mode.

At the end of the night we said our goodbyes and climbed into my in-laws car and continued our trip. Here we are on the Cuomo Bridge, crossing the Hudson River, and having just entered New York.

But that’s only a quick cut across the corner for us. Tonight, and for the next several days, we are in Connecticut — our sixth state since Thursday.

Dec 21

Let’s start the family holidays

We have arrived in Pennsylvania. We departed Nashville this morning, an airport experience without incident. Checked a bag, got a free offer to check another bag and so we did. From the ticket kiosk to the desk agent, through security, no problem. The Yankee did the pre check and I went the conventional route. We found ourself on the other side of the security checkpoint at almost the same time.

We had plenty of time for the plane, so we sat and read things for a bit. Boarded our plane, and were told about the upcoming turbulence. There was minimal turbulence. Everything was great, except for the people who don’t understand masks. And also the landing. It was a bit hard, but as I’ve been told before, it wasn’t the pilot’s fault, it was the asphalt.

We taxied a bit, and then the plane was brought to a halt. There was, the pilot said a VIP moving through the airport and everything was coming to a halt. Clearly the pilot didn’t know about the guy sitting in 20F, me, who is literally wearing a VIP arm band.

I got a good two minutes of material out of this, which earned polite chuckles from the people around me. The Yankee, meanwhile, had looked it up. How many VIPs could there be, anyway? It was the president, of course. Air Force One was landing at about the same time, and the president was heading home to Delaware. They shut down everything for these sorts of moves. Entire airports, surrounding interstates, and all of that. But it took a while.

I sent him a note.

I did not send him a note. But it got another good chuckle.

And then our plane moved to the terminal, we got off the miraculous flying tube and went through the building and out the front. My godbrother-in-law (just go with it) picked us up and drove us to his home. We’re spending two nights with their family before moving on to other family events.

An event they had scheduled tonight was postponed because of some of the scheduled attendees tested positive and, following the news, this is obviously going to be the theme of the holidays. But there are children involved in all of this and you roll with the punches, and the kids are used it at this point.

So they decorated gingerbread houses and we had lasagna and I taught one of the girls a little bit about volleyball and everyone had fun. There were three couples and five kids, four of them 10-and-under. It was a whirlwind. That will also be a theme!

How are your holidays starting? I hope they’re pleasant and safe and full of promise.

Nov 21

More of the big cats

Here’s the final batch of photos from our Monday trip to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center. We took my in-laws, and had a private tour because they’ve just recently reopened (masks required) to small groups. Because it was just the four of us, our guide let us linger. And it’s a great family fun visit, too. We’ve been before with kids, and the sense of wonder is palpable. And most of the kids survive the tour!

Only kidding. Children are easy targets for apex predators. But, the fences are sturdy, and the cats at Exotic Feline Rescue Center are well pampered.

You won’t find anyone that isn’t impressed by the experience. Visit if you can. Go before lunch if possible, because the cats are a bit more active in the morning.

You can see the first installment in yesterday’s post. Here’s my second batch, full of tigers and a grumpy lioness. Enjoy!

Come back tomorrow! We’re going to hear a lion roar! And maybe some other stuff, too!