Light a Candle

I took my niece, Bekah, to New York City Saturday.  We walked through Time Square on our way to Radio City Music Hall.  The city buzzed with all the sights and sounds I’ve come to love about New York.  Bekah and I held hands as we hustled through the crowds so we wouldn’t lose each other.  The naked cowboy was playing his guitar. Elmo and Oscar ran away from Sesame Street to work over the tourists with photo ops.  A drum line played away in full uniform.  I could tell Bekah was a little relieved when we moved past the chaos and as we rounded a corner, I saw The Church of Saint Mary the Virgin.  On the drive up, Bekah mentioned that she wanted to visit a church while we were in the city, so I pointed it out to her.  It wasn’t until we stepped inside that Bekah told me why she wanted to visit a church – so she could light a candle for her Uncle Keith.

In the quiet dark of the Episcopal church, my Catholic niece touched the match to a candle away from all the others already burning.  “For Uncle Keith” she whispered to me.  It was so fitting that she set him apart – in life, he was a stand out in the crowd.  We walked out and that dreaded burning sensation started in my eyes so I put on my sunglasses despite the clouds. Bekah filled me in on how she had already lighted 5 candles for her grandparents and her great grandparents in New York, but never had a chance to light one for him.  I was beyond the burning sensation, but the beauty of sunglasses is being able to smile without any one seeing what your eyes are really saying.

Keith was always a little harsh about death.  Phrases such as “What can you do? It happens to everyone.”  and “So, their gone. Move on” and “Get over it” and “You can’t stop it” would crop up whenever someone we knew passed away.  I don’t think he really believed what he was saying.  I’m sure he said those things to buffer the emotional impact.  In his last few months with us, I know he fought for his life and yet readily stated that he wasn’t afraid to die.  When we were in the cancer center at the University of Maryland Medical Center, he kept telling the doctor that.  “I’m not afraid to die, Doc, but I have everything to live for.  A beautiful wife and children I’m so proud of.  I’m going to fight this.”

Even Keith would have lost his harsh words in that church.  He wouldn’t have been able to conjure up a “shit happens” while his Zen step-son got his Led Zepplin tattoo to honor him.  Keith would have been rendered silent at the sight of his son’s tribute tattoo which reads “Have Faith in Me”.  He wouldn’t have even been able to muster a “bite me” as Kitson read the Episcopal prayer while we delivered him to his first stop on his bucket list.  His Methodist raised wife never would have gotten a “Cherish, what is this nonsense” as she asked for the Rabbi on his last days.  Because he knew that regardless of our deities, our houses of worship, the beliefs we carry – we are all still part of the human spirit.  We send out our prayers in our own way in honor of that spirit, the same spirit that helped Keith fight to the end.  I am witness to all of this and rejoice in the knowledge that a few steps away from the glorious noise and bustle of New York City, a candle burns for Uncle Keith.

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With a Cherry on Top

What is it about the simple little cherry?  I’m a fruit lover but there’s nothing quite like the cherry.  Remember those cans of fruit cocktail with loads of bright yellow and orange fruit and 1.2 cherries?  I always wished for more of them and would fight to get to them.  Maybe that’s how the phrase “cherry picking” got started.

The rain was threatening but hadn’t started yet as I drove home tonight, so I indulged in opening the car’s sunroof and windows.  I could smell the electric air and as I rounded a turn, the glorious vision of a roadside produce stand came into sight.  A giant sandwich board announced that they had bing cherries.  I stopped and grabbed the biggest bag I could find, and started munching on them before I even put the wallet away, leaving pits and stems in my wake.

My love affair with this little red treat started a long time ago.  My grandparents had a cherry tree in the back yard.  It was here I learned my first lesson in cherry consumption.  Never eat the ones on the ground.  They’re buggy and rotten and this royal taster tried her best to find a few good ones but quickly learned that to get to the prime ones, you have to climb the tree.  Even then, this particular variety of cherries were never meant to be eaten in anything other than a pie.  It didn’t stop me though – I’d nibble away on the tart fruit making lemonade faces with each bite.

I also discovered the cherry tree in my babysitter’s yard.  Her daughter and I would spend endless hours sitting in the tree, eating away until our fingers and faces were stained red.  On one sunny summer day, we sat in our usual perches, indulging ourselves when she suddenly let out a shriek.  I looked over to see her entire face and arms covered in milky lavender bird poop.  The only thing left untouched were her big brown wide eyes staring out from under the mess.  At first there was silent shock followed by me pointing out that we should climb down and clean her up.  She managed to get to the ground without spreading it to much further but as I followed her to the house, I started giggling at the sight of her walking along, arms outstretched, covered in purple poop.  As soon as she heard the giggles, she turned around and glared at me, prompting me to hold my breath until she turned away.  I’d start up again, she’d glare, I’d suck in air, she’d turn away, I’d giggle, she’d glare, and this is how we traveled all the way to the back door.  Her mother took one look at her and started laughing which took my giggles to a higher decibel.  As her mom washed off the mess, she continued laughing and I continued giggling until our poor flyby bird-bomb victim hollered “It’s not FUNNY!”  We both busted out laughing.  I don’t remember her ever climbing the tree again.

My great grandmother had a few cherry trees.  Occasionally, she would have me and my cousins climb as high as we dared to tie pie pans to the branches.  This Appalachian trick would prevent any bird-bombs and save the fruit for our young appetites.  The sun would reflect off the pans, blinding the birds just enough to distract them from finding a safe simple landing in the trees.  Of course, we consumed more cherries than any bird as we climbed up and even more cherries on the climb down, justifying our snacking as a way to keep up our strength during such physically demanding work.

As a teenager, I discovered the more sensual aspects of the cherry.  You knew a guy really liked you if he hand fed you his cherry from the top of his sundae.  He knew you were into him too if you took it very very slowly while making eye contact, maintaining a small smile on your lips, freshly glossed in cherry flavored lip smacks.  I wonder if they still make that stuff.  It never stayed on any one’s lips that long because it was so sugary sweet, we’d lick it off as soon as we applied it.  Regardless of gender or lip gloss preferences, you were one serious hottie if you could tie a knot in a cherry stem using only your mouth.

Now that I’m all grown up, I frequently settle in front of the TV set with a great big bowl of cherries.  Actually, make that two bowls – one for the cherries and one for the pits and stems. It was on one of these cherry munching movie watching nights that I discovered my little dog Grommit loved the pits.  I was sitting on the floor, totally engrossed in the Nicole Kidman movie “The Others” popping cherry after cherry in my mouth and tossing the refuge in the bowl.  Grommit would come over and nose around in the dish, rattling the stems and pits against each other, then wander off, then come back and nose again.  At the end of the evening, I picked up the bowl and realized that there were only stems left behind.  She had been eating the pits the whole time.  After feeling all those little pit lumps in her belly, I thought for sure I would have a dead dog on my hands but my little junk yard dog never once showed any signs of ill effect.  I should have known better – this was the same dog who ate every piece of Zach’s Halloween candy one year – wrappers, taffy, chocolate, jawbreakers – everything in the bag – and never once showed signs of digestive distress.

Flash forward to tonight – driving down the road, windows opened, wind whipping around the car, the smell of rain heavy in the air, bag of cherries at my side, my mind a blissful blank for a change.  Then it struck me.  Maybe life really is a bowl of cherries.  We’ve all gotten caught up in our bucket lists.  I’m more guilty of this than anyone.  After losing Keith, I think about our bucket list way too often.  I forget to focus on the simple joy of eating cherries in the rain.  Maybe we need to add climbing trees, laughing at what isn’t funny, tying pie tins to branches, marveling at our pets, and licking gloss off our lips to the list.  Since I have a bag full of stems, I bet I could practice that hottie stem knot trick – now that’s bucket list worthy.  The pits can wait for another day.

Friday the 13th

We can plan all we want for the big party but eventually, it will just have to unfold as it was destined to do.  When signing up for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, I plotted to use my birthday as a fundraising event.  Easier said than done for me.  As the date rapidly approached, I found myself missing my fundraising partner in crime – Keith – who could talk the birds out of the sky and sell ice cubes to Eskimos.  Everything seems to be falling into place but scattered alone the path to the big day I have been visited by specters of fundraisers passed.

Keith was fundraising chairman of Easton High School’s S. O. S. (Support our Sports – I think – it might have been Save our Sports).  He’d go around to all the local vendors and get them to sign up for discount offers for the cash cards S. O. S. would sell.  He took a business sized card with 9 discount offers and turned it into a 2 sided 18 discount card.  Once we had everyone lined up and their graphics, I’d set to the task of laying out each offer on the card.  It was a tricky task to cram all 18 on the card and still make it readable.  Today, my Mother went at the task of decorating all the prizes and I could hear the old familiar sound of the scissors running down the curling ribbon.  What I saw in my mind was Keith and I leaning over that same kitchen table, assembly line producing hundreds of little cash cards with 18 little logos.  He’d feed the laminating machine and I’d send them through the paper cutter.  We got frightfully good at cranking them out.

When I sat on the Band Booster Board, Keith was always there to volunteer for the spaghetti dinner, serve up refreshments at concert intermissions, and he made sure each band member’s bag was safely loaded on the bus before we headed down the road on our band trip.  I was in charge of designing the programs for the concerts, and he’d dutifully jump in to assemble them with the rest of the band parents.  It became it’s own party at every dress rehearsal.  All of us sitting on the floor, folding and stapling.  I was notorious for always wanting to add a hand crafted touch – white glitter on snowflakes, paper flowers on the spring program – Keith and the band parents always indulged me.  It brought out the finger painting kid in us all.

When our friend Alex was diagnosed with cancer, Keith would bring Pepsi to him in the hospital and constantly checked in on him to see how he was doing.  He decided to raise money to cover the medical bills and we marched down to Talbot Bank and opened a checking account.  My parents made several contributions just like they have generously contributed to my Team in Training efforts.  In just 4 short months, Keith managed to bank over $2,700.00 for Alex.  He spread the word to the community and checks rolled in.  Then mutual friends hosted a barbeque through the Lion’s club.  As usual, Keith was out there under the tent, tending the grill.

I lack his silver tongue.  I don’t have his gift for rallying the troops.  I can’t hustle like he did.  I am the organizer, the decorator, the planner.  It isn’t easy raising money in memory of the King of Fundraising.  The fit is all wrong for me and it’s compounded with constant reminders of how good he was at it.  What I can do is throw a really good party and dance in celebration of all the memories I carry with me of the man that shared my past 10 birthdays with me.  Never mind that it took him 6 of those 10 birthdays to remember the date.  I don’t think he would forget this one, falling on Friday the 13th – a lucky day for me.

The Fireworks

On July 4, 2010, Keith, Brandon and I found ourselves on the deck of the Intrepid in New York City watching the fireworks.  It was stunning and as the city skyline lite up and the music blared, I was enthralled with the reflection of them in the shiny glass facades of the buildings behind us.  It was no easy feat to get Keith to go.  The two of us had very different ideas about adventures such as this one.  I am the impulsive one.  All someone has to do is say “road trip” and I’d be the first one with keys in hand and the GPS fired up, asking “where to?”  It was my idea to see fireworks in New York.  As I was sitting in our office, I turned to Keith and announced that we should see them.  Keith morphed into Jeff Dunham’s Walter right before my eyes, as he often did when my impetuous nature displayed itself.  It prompted him to run down the list of requirements I would have to meet before he would agree to go.  It went something like this:

“I won’t stand in line, we aren’t going to spend a fortune, I better be able to sit, I’m not going to lug a cooler and chairs through the city, there is no way I’m going to fight crowds, if we don’t have a good view then I’m leaving, We better have reservations because I’m not interested in heading into the city at the crack of dawn just to stake out a spot, . . . .” and my personal favorite that he often quoted when discussing any hot outside activities “I’m not going to go somewhere and sit around while my balls are dripping in sweat”.  He’d pull that one out whenever I invited him along on camping trips.  I’d always pack up Zach and Brandon and we’d leave him at home.

My work was cut out for me and when I found the Intrepid for just a few bucks each, with reserved seating and private entrance, I was able to convince him to do it.  The entire event from boarding the Intrepid to the last boom of the firework show met all his requirements, except for maybe the sweaty ball part – but he didn’t care.  When it was over, he was like a little kid – all wound up and excited.  He had video taped the whole show and over the next few weeks, would play back the video to everyone he knew while providing constant commentary about the weather, the fireworks, the Intrepid, and that he couldn’t believe that he had grown up right next to New York and had waited so long to do this.  We were a good match in that respect.  I’d throw out some hair brained idea, Keith would give me a laundry list of requirements that I needed to meet if I wanted him to attend, and then just like that – we’d have a plan of action laid out that would feed my need to explore and keep us safe and comfortable.

Keith loved fireworks.  He never went a year without catching the display.  I’d want to stay home and he’d look so hurt that I didn’t want to join in.  I’d eventually buckle under the puppy dog look and go.  I was always glad I did.  Not because of the show, but because it was such a joy watching him.  He really was a wide eyed kid every 4th of July, as if he had never seen fireworks before in his life.  This 4th of July, I couldn’t bring myself to watch them. I brought the dogs inside because they don’t fare well with explosives and the three of us sat around in the dark.  I could make out the big booms in the distance.  I’m sure Keith was there and I hope he can forgive me for sitting this one out.  I just know that in all the whistles, booms and bangs, I would have been too keenly aware of the silence he left behind.