A Text Upon Arrival

I travel a lot these days. To the home office in Vineland, NJ. To wedding shoots from the metropolitan areas of Maryland to the shores of Delaware. As I move around these three states, I carry Keith’s voice with me. From early on in our relationship, he’d track my progress as I traveled around. He’d monitor traffic and weather on the computer and call with notifications.  He’d have me describe the landmarks, which mile marker I was passing, point out where to look for cops, and always asked me to call him when I arrived. If I was traveling late at night, he’d ask me to text him.  “I’ll be asleep when I get it but at least I know you’re safe” he’d always say.

When I started working at Earthtec Solutions, I was given an IPhone. Anyone familiar with this little gadget, knows about the “Find My IPhone” feature. I shared with Keith how to bring it up on the computer, and one evening we tested it’s accuracy as I drove up Route 13. He called and then tell me where the computer pin pointed my path and I’d let him know how close it was. It was pretty darn close. We did this from where I turned off of Route 1 all the way up to the New Castle airport. My techie man was beside himself as he watched my little green dot moving along the road.  Before we hung up, he reminded me to send him a text upon my arrival.

Several years ago, he and his friend Billy Scaletta had a business installing satelite systems as Tech Pros.  They’d make their way up to New Jersey and New York, and go to work over the evening hours installing the systems at local grocery stores.  He’d call me as I was going to bed to tell me they had gotten there then call me as I woke up to let me know they were going to bed and the job was done.  It was a little over a year ago that Keith started working for Earthtec Solutions as well and traveled quite a bit himself.  We tried to do the same tracking game with his droid but it didn’t work as seamlessly as the IPhone, so he’d take pictures of his drive as he went along.  Of course, he’d call me as he traveled and when he got to his destination, even if it was late.  He knew I’d be up any way, being the night owl that I was.

I always had a different philosophy on texting upon arrival.  I was from the school of “no news is good news” and this would baffle him to no end.  My son, Zach, would go out for the night and Keith would constantly ask me if I’d heard from him.  “No, I haven’t, which means there’s nothing bad happening.” I’d say.  Poor Keith struggled with the concept and over the years, managed to convert me to his way of thinking.  I believe that Zach has converted to it as well.  These days, I ask for the text and Zach sends it.

Even if I hadn’t been converted, sometime in the spring of 2011, there was a crystal clear moment that would have.  Shortly after starting the new job and at the point that we both realized that something was very wrong with Keith’s health, he planned on heading to Vineland for work around 5:30 AM.  He was in the bathroom at some crazy hour of the night when I heard the thud.  When I got in there, he was passed out on the floor.  I was convinced that he had hit his head on the vanity and panicked when I saw him there, not moving.  But then he spoke to me as if this was nothing unusual.  The stoic in him told me not to worry, he had just gotten light headed and was resting on the floor.  I panicked even more at the calmness in his voice combined with the fact that he still wasn’t moving at all.  I sat with him for a while until he felt able to get up.  I didn’t sleep much after that.  5:00 AM rolled around and he crawled out of bed, determine to drive up.  Keith said he didn’t want to let anyone down.  They were counting on him.  I told him to call me as soon as he got up there.  Those were the longest 2 1/2 hours.  It was my Dad who called and both he and my coworker, Frank, were alarmed by Keith’s appearance.  Despite all of this, Keith still went out and did the install.  All of us were wanting a text upon arrival that day.

In November, I drove back from the cruise and with each state line I crossed, I called Keith.  He managed to make it to South Carolina with me.  After that, Agent Jay would answer his phone.  As I drove down route 50 on my final leg, I almost called as I went past the cell phone tower that marked the turn-off to Billy’s house.  Whenever Keith gave directions, he’d reference cell towers as landmarks.  All those years in the paging industry created that phenomenon and we’d all tease him about using them as a point of reference.

In the 15 hour drive from Cousin Patti’s in Merritt Island to our home in Easton, I was pulled to him along the ribbon of I95.  I wanted to touch him, hold him, see him again.  I missed the days of him in front of his computer, monitoring travel conditions, watching my green dot move across the digital landscape.  I missed the calls I would get as he would see how close the dot was to my actual location.  Most of all, I missed hearing his voice as he chatted away the miles – always calling during a great song playing on the radio, irritating me and exciting me at the same time.

In the days and months that followed in his absence, I found myself untethered from the safety of my text upon arrival.  My parents stepped up for a while.  I eventually found a surrogate textee in the most unlikely person – my mortgage loan officer, Gary.  He invited me out for a motorcycle ride with his friend, Bill, on an unusually warm day in March.  After dropping me off at my car, he asked me to text him when I got home.  “I won’t see it till the morning because I’ll be asleep, but at least I’ll know you got home safe” he said.  It was as if I was hearing Keith all over again.  Since then, he asks for a text upon arrival whenever he knows I’m traveling.  I often imagine the text reaching out to Keith as it zips along its cell phone path.

Monday evening I made my weekly commute up to Vineland.  I had just gotten on Route 1 in Delaware when Brandon called.  He shared his day with me and filled me in on all he did in Ocean City and now he was on his way home.  We hung up and then he thought of something else he wanted to talk to me about, so he called back.  We chatted some more and then he said “text me when you get in so I know your safe”.  I told him I would and as I hung up the phone, I merged onto Route 13.  The same Route 13 where Keith first watched my little green dot.  It was another moment of feeling him with me, a part of me, one with me.  Today I drove back to Easton.  I could almost see the dot on Route 13, see Keith pointing to the cell tower that marked the turn-off to Billy’s house, hear his traffic and weather reports.  Tonight, I am sending my text upon arrival to all of you – I’m home, safe and sound – and somewhere out there, Keith is watching my little green dot.


The Anti-Elly May Clampett

A few weeks back, a skunk sprayed my car.  Mind you, I didn’t hit the pesky pole cat.  I didn’t run out of my house, jump in my car, and startle Mr. Le Pew as he napped in the shade of my undercarriage.  Nope – while nestled in my bed, blissfully resting away the day’s woes, Flower had at it with my car.  I came out the next morning and could smell him all over and just thought he had sprayed nearby.  Then I opened the door and the smell was stronger, and I thought “how strange”.  As I got out of the car at the office, again I smelled that oh-so-familiar scent.  That’s when it dawned on my fuzzy morning brain that my car was the victim of a spray and run.  My co-workers commented on the smell.  I took it to a car wash but they had just closed because of the threat of rain.  For the next two days, I drove around smelling skunk.  I took my nieces for a ride to the park and the youngest one promptly announced as she got in – “Aunt Cherish, your car stinks”.  My parents wanted to paint a white stripe down the center of my black car.  All I could think of is that poor cat from the Warner Brothers cartoon that happened across an accidental paint stripe, only to get relentlessly chased by a love struck stinker.

This is not my first encounter with a critter that had it out for me.  There was that possum that decided to stand in the middle of the path and hiss madly at me as I made my way to college class – in broad day light – which had me convinced that he must be a figment of my imagination or rabid.  Either way, it wasn’t looking good for me so I took a different route and subsequently was late.  Then there was the deer I struck as I drove back to campus.  I had stopped to allow a small herd to cross the road and had started to pick up speed when a tiny little doe hollered “wait for me! wait for me!” and leaped to her death in front of my headlights.  I called one of our RA’s, Brad, knowing he was a hunter and asked him what I should do.  He jumped right on it and met me at the security office, called in a dead deer, and then agreed to remove it from the road.  I went back to my dorm room with various parts of my car stuffed in my pockets, looking a little like that deer in my headlights right before I struck her.  The next morning, I found pieces of my grill lying in the hallway just to remind me that I hadn’t dreamed it all.  Meanwhile, back at Brad’s dorm, the guys went to town skinning and gutting their freshly killed find.  Someone told me later that a prankster had put its head and front hooves in a bathroom sink so that it looked like it was climbing out.  Good thing we didn’t have ready access to videos back then.  I’m sure that would have been a crazy one.  A couple of days later, one of Brad’s hall mates, Todd, left me a limerick.  It went as follows:

There once was an RA named Brad
A taste for venison he had
Then Cherish hit Bambi
And he thought that was dandy
But Thumper and friends are all sad

That spring, Brad’s entire dorm had the biggest venison cook-out that had ever taken place on campus.

There was a moment when I tried to strike back.  I was working for Maryland Shakespeare Festival as a property designer.  One of the props I needed for the first show of the season was a death puppet.  I came up with the brilliant idea of making one from an animal skull draped in a hooded red velvet robe.  I put a shovel and plastic bag in my trunk so that if I found the perfect road kill, I could grab it up.  Sure enough, I’m driving along one day and find a dead gopher on the road – bonus! – I have my skull! I pull over, scoop him up with the shovel and plastic bag, so proud of myself for my advanced planning.  I rushed back to the theater and promptly set about trying to remove the head.  My friend Dan saw me struggling with how to complete this task and offered to get the reciprocal saw.  We thought this was an excellent idea, until we were out on the lawn with the saw on the gopher’s neck and found that all we were doing was making his head wiggle around with the vibrations.  Finally, Dan came to his techie senses and removed it with a knife.  It was off with his head and off to the pot to boil him so that I would have a nice clean skull.  It didn’t take long to discover that our little gopher would have the last laugh.  Neither of us bothered to check the skull before starting all this to make sure it was intact.  It wasn’t – so we were left with a stinking furry soup and weeks of quoting “gophers?  We don’t need no stinking gophers.”  Lesson learned – step away from the road kill. For my birthday, my friend Kitson sent me the Road Kill Cookbook for tasty recipe ideas for future finds on the road.

My Dad knew how to do it right and I should have paid attention in his class.  I could have spared myself my critter catastrophes.  He could even handle the bigger than average critters.  We had a couple of cows that we kept on the farm.  On a chilly Fall day, Dad was having issues with one of the cows breaking the fence and running off.  He’d get her back in, start mending the fence, and then watch her break through another section.  He had enough so he went to the house and grabbed the shotgun.  My Mother, my Mom-Mom, and I were all in the house and one of the matriarchs asked what he was doing.  “I’m going to shoot a cow” he said as he calmly walked out the door.  Mom-Mom started chanting to us “he’s not really going to shoot a cow.  Why would he shoot the cow.  He’s just joking.  He’s not going to shoot a cow.”  This was followed by the sound of the gun going off and then she started a new chant “He shot the cow.  He actually shot a cow.  I can’t believe he shot the cow.”  Shortly afterwards, Dad returned and promptly got on the phone with our neighbor.  The conversation started like this: “Hi Leon.  I got a problem here.  It seems my cow walked in front of a bullet.”  She was cleaned, gutted and sent to the butcher, and she was the worst tasting beef I have ever consumed in my life.  I didn’t even bother to taste the Bambi road kill years later for that very reason.

I wonder what Dad would have done if he had been around to witness the gopher?  He probably would have stood back and shook his head, waiting till the final reveal to point out that he knew it couldn’t work.  But then again, I wouldn’t have been smart enough to ask him his advice from the start.  It doesn’t change the fact that although he is perfectly comfortable channeling his inner-Jed Clampett, his daughter is definitely the anti-Elly Mae.  After all, he was the first one to figure out that my car had been skunked.

Happy Mr. Mother’s Day

My trip to Arkansas was sprinkled with reminders of how much of a mother’s spirit Keith had. Kitson and I spent the morning before going to Crater of Diamonds park quoting Keith as if he were sending us off in our travels “you two are going to call me as soon as you get there” he asked and then “Check the tires. You have a tire gauge, right? . . . Full tank of gas?. . . Sunscreen, don’t forget sunscreen. . . You have water? Yes Keith.

We got there and dutifully watched the diamond finding how-to video, then rented our sifter for $7.50. We lasted all of a half hour in the hot humid Arkansas sun. Kitson poked away with her $1.75 trowel. I moved a few handfuls of dirt around the sifter. We found a few rocks and then turned to each other and announced that it was time to leave. Kitson recited an episcopal prayer, we each put our handful of dirt on him in the Jewish tradition, and we gathered up our things and walked out. Two women bent on their next mission – sundress shopping in Hot Springs. The Keith quotes rolled off our tongues again “You drove all the way down here to dig for a half hour? You didn’t even find enough loot to cover the rental fee on your sifter. Come back and I’ll show you how to do it right.”.

He would have shown us how to do it right. He would have spent the months leading up to the trip researching how to find diamonds on the Internet. Keith would have built contraptions and gadgets and widgets that would advance the goal of uncovering the mother load of carbon gold. He would have investigated which of his tools would travel safely and meet TSA regulations and which ones would have to be mailed. What he got was two silly middle aged women taking a joy ride and poking around in the dirt. At the moment of leaving him there, I felt a stillness. I was standing in a latitude and longitude that had been written out on someone else’s bucket list. How does a person honor that? I bet the next person that digs there will find a big diamond but I also know Keith – they will have to work to get it.

My, how I digress. I need to speak to the mother Keith was. He always cooked up big meals that could feed an army even if we just had one dinner guest. We’d tease him and tell him he was a Jewish mother trapped in a man’s body. He was the only male soccer mom for his daughter Christie’s team. He’d roll up to the field in the cobra, top down, and a giant cooler in the back crammed with juice boxes, water, fruit, and gorp (A. K. A. trail mix). Keith worked from home as much as possible to be there for his children. He would fuss over scrapes, bumps, bruises, coughs, sniffles, and tears. Not only with his own children but with my son, Zach. He loved them with every inch of his soul and spirit. He was proof that what makes a human being a mother transcends pregnancy and gender. Happy mother’s day, Mr. Mom.

The Bucket List

This is harder than I expected. I am sitting here at BWI waiting to catch my afternoon flight to Little Rock, AR. I keep fighting that burning sensation behind my eyes that signals the start of tears. This is the first stop on Keith’s bucket list. He will dig for diamonds tomorrow.

Last night was the first time I moved his “urn” – the ammo can that he resides in, sitting on a cabinet in the kitchen which was the favorite spot for Chef Keith. It was the first time I actually opened the bag of his ashes. This was the closest I have been to his actual physical presence since I laid over his body and wept in the funeral home. Chopin’s Prelude in C was playing through the speakers and later that night, in the quiet of the house, I clumsily played it on the piano.

Last night I wept over him again. I found myself with a dilemma. I needed to find something appropriate to scoop a part of him out of the bag. I couldn’t bring myself to use an ordinary kitchen spoon. He should be handled with something better than that. Then I remembered his silver birth spoon. The handle is a stork and on the concave side reads “Birth Record” with his date of birth and first name. Also on the spoon is his time of birth – 3:23 PM, and his weight – 6 lbs 10 ozs. A strange thing happens when you lose someone you love. Every thing you learn about them after they are gone feels like the most important piece of information you could ever hold. That spoon now stays with his ashes inside the ammo can.

As I placed a small part of him in a bag, I thought back on the cruise he insisted I go on. It gave me my second wind and without that break, I don’t know that I would have had the strength to carry him through to the end. It still didn’t change my longing to be with him, or the worry, or my eagerness to get back home. I can still hear him tell me “You better go on that cruise. You’ve been looking forward to it all year. And if anyone gives you grief about it, they will have to deal with me.”

Well Keith, here I am with a tiny birth spoon’s worth of you tucked into a little stuffed dog. He’s sitting quietly next to Cow. I forgot your favorite neck pillow. I miss being able to rest my head on your shoulder while we wait to board. I don’t want to go to the bathroom because you aren’t here to watch my bags. I keep expecting to look up and see you walking over with a Starbucks in hand for me. I want to put my sunglasses on so people can’t see me cry.

Despite all of this, I know we can do this. We have a bucket list. We will be on Time Square for our anniversary. We will go to Cuba, even though I am not too keen on doing it. We will take an Alaskan cruise. We will visit Pearl Harbor with your son. We will go to Amsterdam. I promise you, if anyone gives you grief for traveling around in a little stuffed dog with your crazy Cow toting wife, they will have to deal with me. You taught me how to stand my ground each and every time you protected me with your pit bull tenacity. What you couldn’t teach me is how to move into this strange new world of mine with only a handful of your ashes. Today, I will start to learn.