Category Archives: Faith/Theology/Spirituality

When Good Friday Eclipses Easter

Regular readers to this page know that I have a condition known as degenerative disc disease.  This is sometimes called disc and joint disease or DJD.  It was precipitated by a genetically inherited “bad back” on my mom’s side of the family (her brothers have both suffered similar fates) and a traumatic injury to my back when I was four years-old.  The whole thing came to a head for the first time when I was 23 years-old and I had my first spinal fusion at the L5-S1 level.  Fun.  Thirteen years later I had another spinal fusion at L4-L5 (the adjacent level).

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This pic is tired, I know.  I’ve used it before but it shows the current state of my spine in case you didn’t know.

I had really hoped that I would be able to avoid another fusion (or at least the symptomatic back pain and debilitating sciatica for at least 5-10 years at the next level.  So far, I think I’m doing well in that regard.  I got more serious about my health than I ever have before.  Hell, I started eating vegetables and lots of them.  I took up running before realizing that it required one to run.  The thing I’m proudest of, however, is that I got serious about getting jacked.  I haven’t had the kind of success I had hope but I’ve done OK.  You see, it’s important for me that I build up ever single muscle in my body in order to safeguard my spine.  It’s not really a vanity thing – not really.  Still who wouldn’t love being almost 40 and looking like one of the Jersey Shore crew on summer vacation?  I won’t lie, that’s a cool prospect considering I looked far from that from the time I was about 15 until recently.  But I stepped it up and looked into things I had never done before, all the while remembering the lessons learned from surgeries and physical therapy.  In other words, I’ve been doing all of this safely.  Currently I’m doing a program called Body Beast designed to bulk up.  I figure the more muscle the better.

About a year ago I was at my standard weight, hovering around 200.  I have a medium sized frame so that’s not impressive.  But when I got serious-serious I dropped down to 173 with Insanity.  I felt great knowing that I could complete something most men (including many athletic men) attempt and give up because it’s hard.  I took heat for it, good natured I believed.  Then I decided it was time to build up.  I’m going back toward 200 but this time hard-core, solid muscle because I need it.  I’m up around 187 after two months and again, I feel great.  I’m enjoying seeing results (even if I’m the only one who sees them).

So why is God screwing with me?

Just when it seems I’m doing something good for myself, for my health, sacrificing time away from sleep or from my wife and kids to get in that workout I need to do I start to notice twinges of pain here and there.

About a year ago I began to experience what I knew was Restless Leg Syndrome or RLS.  It’s not painful just uncomfortable.  Fortunately it only hit me at night so my job and family life wasn’t affected.  I looked it up and it seemed to be a common side-effect of spinal fusions at L4-S1.  Then in the past few months (following around the time of my dad’s death) the symptoms morphed into painful leg cramps that strike in the middle of the night.

Time to see the surgeon.

I went for a visit to a man I trust with my life.  Hey, I’ve never let anyone cut me before nor even put his hands inside my body.  That’s how much I trust this guy.  He’s Mayo Clinic trained.

I love his response after looking at my X-rays.  “I can’t know what’s in the box until I open the box.  But before I cut you let’s run some tests.”

I had a nerve conduction study first.  This showed no nerve damage.  Praised be God.

Then it was time for the Myelogram CT.

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Me after my Myelogram.  See, it’s not that bad.  I’m smiling.

This past Thursday (Holy Thursday) I went to an imaging center and had a dye injected into my spinal column so images could be taken.  The procedure is painful in itself.  The after effects aren’t pleasant either.  I went home and went on bed rest for 48 hours.  My dear sister, an RN, came to town for an Easter visit and was put to work as my caretaker.  This consisted in lying on the couch watching 85 episodes or the 1980’s-90’s crime documentary Unsolved Mysteries while drifting in and out of sleep.

On Good Friday I had an opportunity to unite real physical pain with the crucifixion of Our Lord.  I was truly thankful.

Then came Holy Saturday.  And… unfortunately it still felt like Good Friday.  Throughout the day I tried to make myself believe that the pain was dissipating and I could do things like mow the lawn.  I had been told that by 48 hours I’d be golden.  On Saturday night my wife, kids, and I got dolled up and headed to the Easter vigil – a tradition for us.  Unfortunately I made it into the first of seven readings before the splitting headache got the best of me and we had to leave.  A consult with the surgeon’s office on a Saturday night uncovered that my puncture wound from the Myelogram hadn’t healed and I was leaking spinal fluid into my body, thus causing a spinal headache.  He called in an awesome script and after more rest I felt better.

Here’s the thing.  For the Christian the pain of loss and agony of death on Good Friday makes sense because of the promise of resurrection and joy of a new life and a glorious body on Easter Sunday.  Tomorrow I’m going in to have something called a blood patch performed.  They’ll take blood from my arm and inject it into the puncture wound to clot and stop the leaking of fluid.

I think I can take it that my Easter is coming a bit later?  That’s OK because I know myself and I know I deserve a bit of a longer Good Friday.

I’m writing all of this because I’ve received comments over the years from people who’s been faced with spinal problems and have apparently been helped by reading about someone else’s experience.  I’m also writing to ask prayers.  Pray the procedure goes well.  It’s not a big deal.  But also pray I can get back to my Body Beast.  LOL.  I’ve only got five more weeks until I look like Charles Atlas (in my mind) and I am pumped about that.  Of course, since it’s just me who’ll notice the difference I suppose I can convince myself I look that good now.  Yeah… that’s it!  It’s an Easter miracle!

Happy Easter to all of you reading this!  In the Catholic liturgical calendar, Easter lasts for seven weeks so enjoy every minute of it.  Remember the Lord is risen indeed.  This isn’t a spiritual resurrection.  He conquered death, destroyed that bastard.  He is all-powerful and lives and reigns forever and ever for you and me.

Amen.

Alleluia!

Mr. Euclid

First, thank you to everyone who has continued to offer their prayers for my family following the death of my dad two months ago.  They mean so much more than you know and I pray for each of you daily.

I want to tell you all that Dad’s been quite active lately, at least in my mind.  Over the past month especially he’s been showing up in my dreams.  As I told me wife today, the dreams make absolutely no sense on one level and more sense than anything I can think of on another.

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Artist’s rendering of a shape

Last night I went to bed as normal.  At 4AM I awoke from the following dream.  My father and I were in a very ethereal setting.  I can actually still envision all of this.  It’s almost like we were on a cloud but it wasn’t that hokey.  We were looking at, really examining, an equilateral triangle that was simply floating in the air in front of us.  He was instructing me on the properties of the triangle.  His words made perfect sense to me and I never liked math.  Dad was an actuary with a savant’s knowledge of all things mathematical.  I distinctly remember him saying (in this dream) as he had many times when he tried teaching me geometry in high school “According to Mr. Euclid…” referencing the Greek father of geometry.  What are you getting at, Dad?  Triangles?  Really?  Is it the Trinity?  I already believe in the Blessed Trinity.  Remember?  You taught me the sign of the cross as a four year-old when you taught me my first prayers.  Were you trying to show me something else?  Are you popping into the dreams of other people too or is it just me?  This is so strange.

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Hairy but solid

Another thing that’s going on (and I really don’t think the dreams are related) is that my Restless Leg Syndrome has intensified.  It’s now gotten to where the muscles in both legs cramp up about halfway through the night.  I get out of bed and, like this morning, leg down to see that my toes are curled and I have to physically unbend them.  It’s painful.  But, I’m getting it looked into.  This morning I’m going for an EMG/nerve conduction test.  I’ve had several of these done before.  Read about one of my experiences with it here.  In the meantime, enjoy this picture of my leg.  It may be the cause of great pain right now but at least it still makes my trainer jealous as all get out.  “Your calves seem to eat everything in sight” he told me.  Trainer?  My offer still stands.  I’ll happily trade you my calves for everything above your waist.  Then again he could just be messing with me…

Two Months Later

It was two months ago today that my dad went home.

I thought of him a couple of nights ago.  My wife, kids, and I were gathered around our living room praying our nightly family rosary.  Dad was so incredibly devoted to the rosary.  I can still hear his voice as he would come to round us up each evening.  “Rosary time!”  It had a particular sing-song tonal quality to it.

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The astute observer will note the resemblance to the Garden State…  Dad would get the humor here.

And of course, today is St. Patrick’s Day.  My father was particularly fond of his Irish heritage.  I remember when I was growing up and he would go into the deli to get his morning papers after daily mass.  Seemed to me that each year on St. Patrick’s Day he’d emerge from the store with a green-colored carnation pinned to his lapel.

So on this day, in honor of Patrick, in honor of Dad, and in honor of the Blessed Mother I will ask that any of you who read this offer a rosary for the souls in Purgatory.  If you understood that sentence, you’ll know what to do.

I Hesitate to Tell You that My Life is Bizarre

Being a writer is tough.  I know.  I asked one once.

Sometimes your mind spins in a million directions throughout the day as you take in one seemingly improbably event after another.  You think to yourself: “Damn, this is gonna’ make a great blog post when I sit down to write it!”

But hours later when you sit down to write it you hesitate.

You’re not sure if you can’t prioritize or perhaps you’re thinking back and realizing it only seemed funny to you.  Sure, that cat who was minding its business on the couch in the waiting room of your doctor’s office should not have been slapped by that child who should not have been there and is probably a satanist.  Wait a minute, that actually is funny.  You think back again.  Perhaps you hesitate because you can’t remember and you start to feel like Julianne Moore in Still Alice.  If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry.  Spoiler alert: she battles Alzheimers Disease throughout the flick.

Tonight I hesitate for one reason.  I don’t know that you’ll believe the things I’m about to share.  But hesitation is only good for a moment then it becomes angry and spiteful not unlike Christina Aguilera.  Oh well, here goes…

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I cut the cord!

Our microwave broke right before Thanksgiving.  It was three weeks outside of the warranty.  Lowe’s wouldn’t touch it.  An appliance reply lady said it would be cheaper to buy a new one.  We’ve been using a borrowed microwave from my wife’s aunt.  The woman actually has at least two of everything you could ever need in her house.  She lives alone and does not know how to use most of her things.  I contacted General Electric where I received some of the best customer care I’ve had in a long time.  A service rep informed me that they would essentially pay us for the full cost of that microwave.  All I had to do was peel a sticker off the inside.  Oh, and I had to provide proof of purchase.  Done and done.  Oh, and I had to cut the cord off the microwave and send a picture of it.  Rachel at GE did not explain this one to me very well, nor even exactly what kind of picture she wanted.  I experimented before settling on the picture you see here.  On closer review, perhaps I was not supposed to pose with the cord?  Why bring this up now?  Well, after emailing the pictures to GE I got another reply from them that they had not received the pictures.  Turns out the email was still in my drafts folder.  No, I did not take new pictures.  Yes, the check is on its way.  Go GE!  You bring good things to life.

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Limey, you’re a terrible friend.

I had friends over this past Saturday and decided to get creative with my bar.  Say hello to Mr. Limey.  He’s British, naturally.  I thought the evening went beautifully until my wife informed me after our guests had gone home that I was a little drunk.  Limey was supposed to see to it that I kept it classy.  Bastard.  He hate me because I’m also Irish.  The next day my wife changed her words a bit to say that I wasn’t “drunk just talkative”.  I’m not sure which is worse.  My apologies to my guests that night.  I thought we had a good time.

My workout is going very well (I think).  I’m on week 3 of BodyBeast.  This is the first phase and it’s called “Build”.  The next six weeks after this are called “Bulk”.  Then the final three weeks are called “Beast”.  I don’t like to brag – because there’s precious little I can honestly brag about – but somehow I was blessed with calves the size of Howitzers.  Think I can skip leg day and continue to work on my pathetic chest?  I think that’s a distinct plan.  Seriously, though, calves?  I only know one person who says “Man I wish I had calves like yours” and he’s a trainer.  I’m also never sure when he’s pulling my leg.  No one walks around saying “Gotta’ get huge calves!”

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Thanks, God.  Couldn’t have made this my biceps?

Finally, it is Ash Wednesday.  Or at least it was until an hour and five minutes ago.  At midnight on the dot, this Daddy went straight to the fridge.  As a Catholic, Ash Wednesday is one of our two fasting days.  I’ve gone days in my life where I’ve eaten less.  But when someone tells you that you can’t eat; that’s when you want food.  Also, I’ve been up around 3000 calories a day on this BodyBeast diet.  To drop down to almost nothing really was painful.  Thank God a day is just a day.

And thank you for reading this far.  I’m off to bed.  I’m sure there are many more bizarre events to happen for me tomorrow.  Don’t hesitate to share this post with others.

Strange Dream of the Century

I would hazard a guess that about half of my readers are not quite familiar with my attitude regarding titles for various blog posts.  So, for the both of you (I round up), here it is in a nutshell.  I firmly believe that a good title will write a good post.  That being said, there’s no accounting for many of my posts…

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As you can see, it’s a stock pic.  Dad’s, though, was pretty much the same.

Yesterday morning the most bizarre thing happened.  It was Sunday and the four of us all woke up in plenty of time for the 8AM mass in our parish.  This is unusual only because we typically rush to the 10AM and if we’re really tired (and feel like punishing ourselves) it’s the noon mass.  If we have to go to the 5:30PM mass on a Sunday we see it as penance for the sin of laziness for that is the mass with the “teen choir”.  Enough said.

My wife thought this was going to be a great day because we now suddenly found ourselves at home, having already been to mass, at 9:15 with a whole day open wide in front of us.  The only flaw in this thinking is that some of us were so tired from having been up so early that he (I) drifted off toward a nap.  And a most pleasant nap it was too.  Until…

I Had A Dream

No one really knows how these things work except God so I won’t attempt to explain it.  At some point during my less-than-an-hour nap I found myself sitting in the drivers seat of a car that was parked at a curb in a familiar-looking location.  I recognized the car right away.  It was the last Buick my dad had owned.  He liked Buicks.  This was a dark blue 1994 four-door Century and I found it strange that the car looked so much better than the last time I saw it sometime around 2008.  It almost appeared to have come right off the assembly line, it was that pristine.

I looked out the window and saw my passenger coming across the street.  Somehow I knew I would be driving someone.  It was my father.  I was fairly surprised considering he’s been dead for over a month.  But I didn’t let that bother me too much.  In fact I either thought the following or said it outright in my dream: “This will be fun!”  He was dressed sort of how I remember him with a black woolen overcoat over his suit, a tweed fedora, and carrying a folded newspaper.

He got into the backseat of the car on the drivers side and Started unfolding the paper.  None of this was strange to me.  He owned the fedora I was seeing.  He did the folding thing with his paper in such a way that I could copy it move for move, it was that routine.  The only things that were a little off were the overcoat (I don’t remember him ever owning a black wool variety) and the fact that I was driving him.  He had let me drive him places but not normally in his car.  If we took his car anywhere, he’d drive.  The other thing that surprised me was how healthy he looked.  He wasn’t any younger than his 80 years at the time of his death.  He was just not “old” looking.  I took note of the fact that he was not rail thin.  He looked much like I remember him from around the time he retired.

Turning to my passenger I said “So, how are things?” to which he replied “Good,” while glancing at his paper looking for the crossword.  It was at this point that – even in my dream – I knew I was dreaming.  I figured I’d have a little fun with the old man.

“So,” I asked him rather coyly, “Where’ve been you hanging out these days?”

My father didn’t even look up from the paper.

“You know that,” he replied.  There was a hint not of pride in his answer but rather of matter-of-factness as if to say “you know where I am because you have faith.”

“I know, Dad.”  And I couldn’t resist needling him once more.  I mean how often do you get to spend time with your dead father just the two of you?  I had one more question.  I asked it with full knowledge that he had received an Apostolic Pardon.  Click the link if you don’t know.

“Did you go right in?”

Almost getting a little bothered at this line of questions, again for the seeming lack of faith, he said “Of course!”

Again I added, “Yeah, I know…” before struggling to find the next thing I’d want to ask him knowing I could wake up at any moment.

“How’ve you been?”

That seemed like a stupid thing to ask and a question I had already asked at least three times in different words.

“Well,” he said, “your mother is upset with me…”  And here’s where it just got plain weird.  “Because I never thanked her for a pair of pants she bought me a few months ago.”  “Well, Dad,” I said, “Why didn’t you thank her?”  His reply was classic.  “Well I meant to, I just didn’t get around to it.”

They say all good things must come to an end.  At that moment my phone – the one in my the hand attached to my very real unconscious body lying on the couch – rang.  I knew it was over.  I opened my eyes and looked at the screen.  It was my mom calling.

I shared this story with her.  She laughed.  “I’m very happy to hear that,” she told me.  It turns out that she had bought him some new clothes a few months ago.  My father was very particular about the clothes he wore.  “I never thought anything of it,” she said, “but I was a little annoyed that he didn’t even try them on.”  You see, at that point in his decline bouts of confusion had begun to set in.  He would sometimes get dressed in ways we were not used to (for a man known far and wide for his natty appearance).  These pants, it turns out, were made by a company that had started to save costs on production by, of all things, shortening the zipper.  For Dad, this simply would not do.  Also, he couldn’t distinguish whether they were navy or very dark gray and it was hard to match them to his shirt.  For the record, they are black.  I know because they hang in my closet and I’ve worn them several times.  And the shorter zipper is a bitch.

Dad, I don’t know why you chose to speak to me or to use me to get that message to Mom; but I’m sure glad you did.  Do it again!  I’d love to chat some more.  Maybe next time I’ll actually get to take you for a spin in that old Century.  Until then, as always, I love you.

Another Why I Write

You (both of you) have been eagerly awaiting an update on my new workout so I’d like to take a moment to share.

Actually, my mind is a jumbled mess right now so I’d like to take a lot of moments to share (and sort) a lot of things.  Indulge me?  Look, I’ve been through a lot lately.  Consider it your work of mercy.

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If I didn’t blog, how would you ever see fun pics like this?

At work today where I joyfully bounced around between the spiritual battle raging all round us as relayed in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and the concept of authentic freedom as being something wholly different than license; the subject of this blog came up.  I don’t hide my blog from my students but I sure don’t advertise it either.  “If you can find it, you can read it,” I tell them.  I just like to keep things by and large separate on this one front as I feel I can be more authentically free that way.  A student asked “So why do you blog?”  I thought about it and said “I blog because I need to.”

The truth is that I do love to write.  As I said to my trainer-friend recently “Some men can move heavy weights around.  I play with words.”  Looking back I truly hope he didn’t take that as an insult as I always wanted to be able to one of the former and I greatly admire men like him who actually can move heavy weights around.  Weightlifting gives you an enviable body.  Writing can, well, let’s talk about that…

I write because I am a twin.  Sound odd?  OK, I was born, in all likelihood, speaking a secret language that only one other person understood.  So I spent the next few decades trying out different forms of communication to get my message across to a larger audience.  That period of monosyllabic grunts was kind of awkward for sure.

No?

OK.  Here it is.  I write because I love to write.  I don’t know who reads it and I don’t always care.  After my dad died I got a comment on a post about his funeral.  A woman said she had been reading for years and felt that she knew me and wanted to convey her sympathy.  I was touched.  I have never met her but we have a connection.  Words, you could say, are sacramental.  They make real in the physical world that which is invisible — namely our thoughts.  And when we write we are committing our souls to posterity.  It might not ever be very good writing but a piece of my mind and heart will live on as long as there are eyes to see it.  I have seen this so clearly over the past two months while reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my son at bedtime.  I have become enthralled with these books, with Lewis. I said to my son: “How amazing to think that this man wrote these books so long ago.  He’s dead but the thoughts in his mind are still speaking to us.  His brilliance lives.  The soul lives.”

To me, it’s fun.  I know what I’m capable of.  It is probably the only area of my life where I feel any measure of confidence.

I certainly don’t always feel that confidence in the gym (or the home gym as the case may be).  And that’s where we end for this post.  Did you really think I’d ramble on for 2500 words about a mess of different subjects with no underlying theme?  Ha.  Guess again.

Another Anniversary

Two days ago we celebrated the 35th anniversary of my twin sister’s passing.  I say we “celebrated” yet I did little more than treat myself to a few hundred extra calories.  But that’s part of a new bulking diet and I’ll write more on that in another post.  Those calories, by the way, came from sprouted grain wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and hard boiled eggs; not exactly a trip to the Dairy Queen.  In years past I actually celebrated the day with more festivity.  We’d go out to dinner at least.  But times are different and after shelling out quite a bit to cover travel expenses for Dad’s funeral, a low-key remembrance is fitting.

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Like father, like son. Harvey’s old man in the late 1950’s (age 21?) and Harvey in 2009 (aged 31) Dad switched to a pipe not long after.  I guess that’s one way to be more like him.

Today was the anniversary of my brother’s passing.  That would be my older brother Owen who was six when he died as a result of the same house fire that claimed my sister.  There’s one more in two days and I’ll cover him then.

Imagine, if you will, what that week was like for our family.  Put aside for the moment the absolute tragedy and shock of losing your home and all your worldly possessions in the middle of the night (not to mention the trauma of how it went down).  Now imagine you’re a relatively young couple with an enormous family.  My parents were in their early 40’s.  For Dad it must have been hell.  Before the fire’s even out your wife is lying critically injured from a jump out the second floor window, your children are being loaded into ambulances to be dispersed to multiple hospitals in the area, your house is gone, it’s cold, there’s snow on the ground, you’re in your boxers because that’s what you went to bed in.  And you’ve just realized that your four year-old daughter is dead.

If ever there was a case for daily mass, this moment proves to me where the man got his strength.

Two days later with your wife and many of your children still in hospitals being treated for broken bones from being tossed into the snow from the second floor porch and while you’re planning a funeral for your child, your six year-old son succumbs to the smoke inhalation.

As with my twin, I have no memories of my brother.  Years later I did use his middle name for my son (and to honor the pope).  Yet, he is the brother I always wished I’d gotten to spend more time with.  He was the next closest sibling to me in age (after my twin).  Thinking of all this three and a half decades later I’m completely in awe of my father.  When my kids get sick I freak out.  I can’t imagine losing either of them, let alone both.

Do you know what Dad did?

He planned a double funeral.

These are my first conscious memories.  Standing in the funeral home I remember the thousands of people who came, and to the church for the mass.  I remember it was Catholic Schools Week and the principal of the parish grade school halted whatever activities were scheduled.  Close to 700 children in perfect uniform in the church with us.  I remember a procession of priests that, to me, seemed to go on forever.  The Benedictine abbot from my father’s alma mater, I think, was there.  I’m sure one of my siblings will correct me if he wasn’t but I remember seeing a mitre.  Coincidentally, I think this is where my love of Catholic schools was truly formed and to this day it is my life’s work.  I remember things like the drive to the cemetery with a line of cars stretching well past where I could see.  And I remember feeling like this was huge, like my life was completely different now.  And I remember gray skies, light snow, and cold.  And from their grave I could see the Twin Towers and I was a twin and that was cool.

He never talked much about it.  It’s a wonder the stress of that week didn’t kill him outright.  The thing is that he was a man.  He was an honest to goodness, genuine man; without swagger, without false machismo – the kind of man we used to hear about and read about and see in Frank Capra films.  He wasn’t soulless, he wasn’t a robot.  He cried.  But he knew and lived his faith.  These two were safe and supremely happy.  The rest of us needed love, protection, and support.  Who had time to wallow, though that wallowing was more than deserved.  The fact that he lived another 35 years is a testament to his faith.

And I’ve realized I need to be more like him.  I need to return to mass every single day without exception.  I need to provide more for my family.  I need to show my children what true strength is.  From my dad I learned that it involves a healthy dose of having a lot of fun with your kids.

There’s a reason for that.  Dad used to say (especially in the last few years):

“Some men invest in their retirement plans.  I invested in children.”

Well, I started out talking about my brother’s anniversary and wound up talking about Dad.  Please forgive me for these posts of late.  I certainly don’t intend to be morbid or to depress anyone.  I walked into a friend’s classroom the other morning before school started and he was crying.  “Why’d you do that?” he asked, almost angrily.  Turns out he was reading my last post about my sister.  “Do you enjoy making me cry?”  Sidenote: if I told you he’s also the trainer-friend I’ve mentioned before then you can imagine it was a kind of payback for the tears I’ve shed that I’ll never be in his shape.  But I never want to make people cry.  “Some men can move heavy weights around,” I said.  “I guess I can move words?”

Truly I am celebrating the beautiful lives of the people in my family and I do rejoice for them.  I’m also realizing so much more now that he’s gone how very special a man my father is.  And I’m seeing now so acutely just how much I’ve wanted to be like him.  And for now I’ll stop writing.