The Teenage Prank and the Angry Driver

A1A is a dangerous road to back into from your driveway. The middle-aged woman was late again for work as she quickly jolted the lever into reverse, placing her coffee on the dashboard and fumbled blindly to buckle her seat belt. Susan’s emotions were so focused on the fight she’d just had with her husband that her flash-glance right and left for traffic proved faulty. As she lifted her foot from the brake to accelerate onto the road, something quickly surged into her periphery. She slammed the brakes, just as the bicycle sped past, coffee spilling all over the passenger seat and down onto the console. His angry words were shouted before he saw her puffy eyes and wet face, “Ass hole!”

He was right, she thought. She was an ass hole, and she had almost killed someone Why couldn’t she and Gerry get along anymore? Maybe he was right too. Every day lately seemed to start like this. She just knew he didn’t care about her anymore and neither of them seemed to put forth any effort at all. Now most mornings seemed to start with these emotions. She would find herself snapping at everyone in the office, and acting out her own misery by causing theirs. This could not go on.

“Please, oh dear God, if you’re even up there, send me some kind of a sign,” she thought the words, hoping He was up there, and somehow could read her mind. Her own mother and now, just last year, her sister had gotten divorces because they were miserable. But they still seemed pretty miserable. Regardless, wasn’t Gerry supposed to “make her happy?” What was the point of being married if they couldn’t be happy? “You complete me,” how distant the memory of those words. How long had it been since he brought her flowers? She’d give anything for roses, or even a single rose. She had to stop crying and get her self together before she arrived at work, so she switched on the radio.

“Happy,” by Terrell Williams was just finishing up, and she snickered cynically just as the DJs on the morning show started talking about today, February 14th. Her anger and frustration now seethed into a depression, and her bottom lip quivered as she bordered on tears again. And she prayed again.

But this time she spoke out loud, for emphasis. “Just send me a sign, any kind of a sign God, and I’ll do anything. Our marriage was supposed to be different, not like all those crumbling around me! Really, I’ll do anything. It won’t be about me, I don’t even care if I’m happy. I am SO SORRY I’ve been so selfish, WE’VE been so selfish. It’s not about me at all, I DO still love him, and I’ll work so hard to show him. Then he’ll see the difference, and start giving for me. That should have been how it worked all along! We’ve been so selfish, so stupid. Send me a sign God, just send me a sign to let me know this is even possible!”

My son Noah glanced down at his new Nixon surfing watch to make sure he wasn’t going to get another “tardy note.” The neighborhood carpool sometimes fell victim to the morning lethargy of its riders, pulling into the high-school parking lot just as the bell rang, with the first class across campus. Sean ran across the grocery store parking lot, clutching the card and bouquet of roses he had procured for his “valentine.” As he charged through the parking lot, the bouquet accidentally met a rear-view mirror and ended up on the pavement. He quickly swooped them back up and slid into the car full of laughing adolescents.

As his sister Kaylie just made it through the yellow light, Sean smiled proudly at the ten-dollar bouquet, but then noticed one of the roses was now drooping down, because the stem had broken in the fall. Pulling that one from the bunch, he rearranged the rest, and said, “These are really pretty!” Everyone laughed, and his sister teased him mercilessly, and reminded him not to leave his trash in her car. The rejected bloom lay on the floorboard, and as they pulled up to the red light he reached down to throw it out the window.

As the window went down, they all looked over to see the woman in the car next to them at the intersection. They laughed hysterically at her angry face, as she seemed to be talking, no shouting at herself. There was no one in the car with her, but she was carrying out quite a conversation. With no one. Or whoever it was, she seemed so mad, or just upset with them. Kaylie pleaded, “No!” as Sean finished lowering the window and motioned to the crazy lady to lower her window. She just knew her brother was going to further torment this emotional looking woman. And perhaps he was, but as he saw the tears in her eyes, he tossed the single rose over at her, and said, “Smile, it’s Valentine’s Day!”

They continued to laugh as they sped off, because Sean’s aim had missed its mark. He hadn’t accounted for his sister’s acceleration, and so the rose hit the car door and slid to the ground. The laughter turned to howls as Noah turned to inform those in the front seat that she had gotten out of her car and picked up the rejected flower.

Having witnessed how this played out, the cars behind did not honk with impatience. This fleeting moment, this silly little adolescent prank had changed Susan’s day. Perhaps her marriage. Perhaps her relationship with God. That rejected rose now was now such a good thing. From out of nowhere, Susan had received the sign she had pleaded for, just seconds before. She smiled as she realized the work ahead of her.

The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone (MT 21:42)

You think there’s no God? Or that you’re too small and insignificant? What’s the point of talking with Him? So many people really feel this way. I think we all do sometimes. But this would be a “vending machine” god – ask for something, and get it – or else its a “broken” machine – or an “imaginary” machine. Our Lord may indeed ZAP away a cancer, or change the trajectory of a bullet, but I think our everyday, subtle miracles are much more common than we think. We’re given choices to change our lives. If we pray for patience, we don’t wake up one day as Mother Theresa. No we’re presented, over and over again, with opportunities that require patience, so that we can choose that road, and develop that virtue. We can ask for Faith, but then we’re frustrated with our lack of faith, and then “come to our senses” that it’s all just a joke, some imaginary fairy tale for weak people. But didn’t we plead with God in our times of trial and our own weakness? Is it possible that we simply expected Him to ZAP us with the graces of faith, but ignored His response? All those opportunities He presented us with that required faith, would have enabled us to change our lives and grow.

I truly do believe we live in the midst of so many everyday miracles. We simply fail to see them, and grow frustrated and cynical.

This was a parable. But it was based on true events. Life is based on these very same truths. I pray that I may always see them.

Much Love.
wilted rose

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Svedka and the Gifts Left Behind

“I never really liked little dogs, but now that my wife is gone, ‘Sandy’ is all I have left of her.  My God, she loved this dog.  I don’t think I could go on if anything happened to her,” the old man told me as he clutched the Pomeranian. Sandy was getting on in years and had severe periodontal disease and now an abscessed tooth from years of having refused routine prophylaxis. Seventeen years or not, the old dog was suffering and we really needed to so some dental work, the risks of anesthesia were now irrelevant. But Sandy was not just this man’s pet, she was how he was gasping to keep alive this only remaining part of his spouse.

A Jack Russell Terrier named “Buddy” squirmed and bounced on the exam table, a complete lunatic. These little dogs (what we like to call Jack Russell Terrorists) are out of control on a good day, and this one was truly a “special needs” case. This dog hadn’t heard the word “no” in months, and was coddled and talked to in ways that defied logic, unless you know the story. Buddy had been best friends with the 16-year-old daughter of this couple – one of the teens killed last year in a horrific auto accident that made state headlines.

Cullen and his best friend Tim ran up the stairs with all the excitement and giddiness that would accompany a new puppy.  They had slipped out of Tallahassee after classes, passed us in Melbourne and spent the morning sitting on the ground in South Florida, with a litter of Siberian Husky puppies running, licking, and jumping all over them.  He would leave in Miami half of what he had saved that semester, from tutoring classmates in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, and return with so much excitement he was ready to burst.  “Svedka” was an absolutely stunning pure white Husky with eerily transcendent crystal blue eyes that would pierce into me.  I’ve been a vet for almost 30 years and had never seen a white husky before (although now they seem to be everywhere), and I was taken back at this beautiful creature.  She immediately squatted to urinate when he put her down, no surprise to me after a 4 hour car-ride, but Cullen was surprised and embarrassed, as he was so proud and thought everything about her was “perfect.”

Having had no prior knowledge of his stealthy plan, I was astonished and confused.  I do remember the YouTube video of the Husky howling “I love you” that Cullen had thought was so cool, playing it over and over in amazement and asserting that he was going to get one and teach it to talk too!  But my prodigy would be graduating at age 19, and leaving on a Chinese Master’s degree fellowship in just a few months.  “Have you lost your mind?  Why would you get a puppy right before you leave for two years in China?!!  Are you crazy or just irresponsible?” (One more thing I said over the years that I wish I could take back)

He just looked at me and smiled, telling me to calm down, that he had all the details worked out.  Tim would take care of Svedka while he was gone!  That seemed pretty logical to a 19-year-old.

Cullen Sved Puppy Sved Puppy Crop

Amy Hollingsworth authored a book entitled, “Gifts of Passage,” where she describes “gifts our loved ones leave behind.”  She artfully weaves Where the Red Fern Grows, the “Myth of the Red Thread,” lots of C.S. Lewis, and experiences from hospice care nurses into this masterpiece that finds the reader constantly nodding their head in affirmation.  This had been one of a dozen or more books I had been given when I was in the depths of grief after my darkest day.  The baby boy that I had prayed for and been given on my (our) birthday, nineteen years ago, would leave for China, and be killed in the strangest of accidents.

One can not comprehend the anguish of losing a child, nor be of any consolation.  Witnessing the sobbing of several old men when they shared with me the loss of their own child makes it clear that the grief, like the love, endures decades, and forever.

I have, however, come a long way.  I can type these words without weeping, although a later re-reading, as I proofread, will tend to prove painful.  We’ve struggled with lots of things to make sense of, or at least accept our loss.  I went to one Compassionate Friends grief support group for parents.  It was so depressing with many parents still hysterical with that drunk driver, or that f’ing cancer, or simply at God, and ironic that now so many were now drunks and addicts themselves, climbing inside the bottle or vial of Zoloft to be numb.  But I did not want any of this stuff.  An open, bleeding wound where my heart used to be would probably remain forever, but surely there was some form of healing to be had.  And so we worked on it, and “working through” grief is truly work.

Sharing stories and feelings with the rest of the family, mentoring with friends and priests, lots of conversations with our Lord, and my infamous 500 mile Camino de Santiago have all helped immensely.  I have become an avid reader, having read more in the last year than my preceding 50 years combined.  My days always start with a page or two of scripture to think about during the day, and usually end with a few chapters of my “book of the week.”

I’ve now read this Hollingsworth book three times, and always tear and laugh at the same places.  There is a legend in Asian culture of “the read thread” that connects and pulls certain people destined to be together or to impact each other in some way, providing  love, a lesson, or support.  Wending its way, crossing time and culture, spanning age and death, this red thread connects me to those whose stories would matter to me, would teach me.  Each gift has unraveled like a mystery, so that I have learned not only about the gift, but about the process I am going through to discern my own.  With each of these stories, the red thread tightens, pulling me closer to the meaning of his “Gift of Passage.”

This may well be what we Christians call “God’s Providence.”  Our days, our very lives are directed by our free, often stupid, choices.  However, His hand presents us with continuous new choices and second chances to live righteously – despite, or perhaps especially because He knows well in advance the outcomes, and how our time here will end.  His loving hand guides us to opportunities and choices where we can overflow His love, or not.

Hollingsworth tells of these gifts left behind – the most obvious ones are the conscious, intentional gifts of those who know they are dying.  Sometimes in a will or a list of “worldly goods,” or may be simply a conversation or heartfelt confession.  They plan out thoughtful comfort, meant to convey a loving message, something they want to be remembered by.  But the surprising gifts are those where an acute or catastrophic accident occur, where no one has had warning.  Such times the gifts aren’t so obvious but they become evident as the journey continues.  The “seeds have been planted” to help us cope, or even understand.  Like The Red Fern, there’s no way to know where seeds are planted until the red fern begins to push its way out of the soil.

Cullen had left many such gifts: Stories from his friends of his acts of love and kindness, memories of the recent times spent with us, the loving compassionate things he had said to complete strangers, the fighting people he had brought together, the itinerary he had planned for us to visit him in China, and the most loving text message he had sent me that very morning.

Svedka was also my gift left behind.  I had been so adamant that his getting a dog was such a stupid, irresponsible decision.  So after moving him out of his apartment at FSU, we dropped Sved off with Tim’s grandmother, Joyce.  We already had three big dogs who had destroyed the yard and made the house impossible to keep clean.  Our house was too full of dogs already.

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Svedka on floorboard under sleeping Cullen, on the way home from FSU

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Cullen inscribed a classmate’s notebook, “Cullen was here.” They later added, “For a reason.”

But on May 18th 2012, our home suddenly was very empty.  Much like our hearts, this house was desolate and drained, devoid of happiness and life.  We tried desperately to force some normalcy to feign sanity, especially for Cullen’s siblings.  So we sat on the bleachers, watching Noah enter the dugout with his head down.  Without prompting, each of the South Beach Dodgers went up to my 11-year-old son and hugged him that day.  As he approached the plate for his first “at bat,” he crossed himself and pointed to the heavens.  It was more than I could handle; before I left, I leaned to Shar and said, “I want to get Sved.”  She smiled through her own tears, glad that I had suggested something so rational.

I don’t remember Kayla and I speaking as we left the game and made that long drive.  Nor do I remember Joyce and I speaking.  Not with words anyway.  We wept as we hugged in her driveway; Svedka had already jumped in and was on Kayla’s lap, kissing her.  Now she rides with my old boxer, Nieve and me every day to work, and never complains about the long commute.  Most of the drive she leans against the back of my seat, often leaning her head on my shoulder.

These gifts are not a “consolation prize” for my broken heart, but rather they set in motion an anguish through which the real gift is given.  Like Psyche‘s rage against Cupid in C.S. Lewis’ Until We Have Faces, my real gift is that I have learned how to love, really love the god who separated me from my son.  The real gift is the transformation of the beast into something beautiful, a true understanding of the love of God.

Much Love.

IMG_6493   svedCullen Sved Carsvedsmile1

Dreams and Signs

My brother-in-law Donny spoke matter-of-factly as he described that night, in great detail, what he saw through sleepy eyes.  He had dozed off on the couch in the living room, and woke to the feeling that he was being watched.  This startled him, prompting him to suddenly open his eyes and lift his head.  He rubbed his neck from the awkward neck cramp and turned towards the hall to see his mom standing there, very much alive, looking down at him with a smile and shaking her head.  “It’s as if she was laughing at my having dozed off on the couch again,” he explained.  “She used to always think I was so funny – guess I should be glad that I can still entertain her!”  I feigned a laugh, but deep down I was so frustrated.  Regardless of whether or not he was really awake or simply dreamed this, I was so jealous.

When I was a child, I had colorful dreams, sometimes even screaming nightmares.  I remember my father rolling his eyes, calling me “a dreamer” with his heavy “Missoura drawl,”  and Mom agreed that I had a vivid imagination, as I would recount the adventures I had encountered the night before.  But I don’t dream much anymore, or if I do, I just don’t remember them – even tiny glimpses into what I had encountered in my slumber.  Oh, how I wished I could see some of my own loved ones.  A vision of some sort would be really cool, but I’d even settle for a dream encounter.

I’ve lost several of my favorite people recently: my dad 16 years ago in 1998, my mom in 2010, then my grade school best friend 2 years ago and my 19-year-old son 5 months later in 2012.

Last year, a friend who knew of these longings, told me that a famous psychic would be speaking just a few miles away.  Mark Anthony (his “professional” name) owns lots of credibility because he is also a licensed Florida attorney, is well-educated, well spoken, and, as you can imagine, quite charismatic.

I wrestled with the ethics of it all.  Christians are prohibited from “conjuring up” the dead (necromancy), and specifically consulting for advice or to predict the future.  The logic is that there’s no possible way to discern between your loved one, a good spirit, or an evil one.  The “evil one” is a master of disguises, and sure to lead us astray.

But it’s always easy to make an justify exception for yourself for basically anything.  First of all, according to Anthony, we’re not conjuring up anyone – the spirits, including our loved ones, are right there with us all the time – we just can’t see them.  But a psychic can, apparently.  Furthermore, I wasn’t looking for advice or predictions, I just want to know they’re ok.  Sounds good, right?

So, of course we were there in his audience.  What we didn’t know was that we really needed to get there early, sit in front by the aisle, and be the first to volunteer if he asked for one if we really wanted something for “free” .  The idea that he would pull us out of the crowd and describe Mom or Cullen, Mike or Ricky was perhaps unrealistic, even if it happens that way on TV.  Shar did pull my arm and tell me to stand up when he asked if anyone knew an elderly woman in a flowery yellow dress.  At this point I was back to my skeptical “Missoura show me” cynicism, so I simply rolled my eyes at the thought this might be my Mom.  But three others certainly thought it was theirs.

I did feel obliged to give him a “second chance” when we went up afterwards to have him sign one of the books he had authored (I had read it years ago).  I also wanted to ask him a question regarding something he had said during his talk.  Someone had asked him about feeling so important, being able to connect the living with their loved ones who had “crossed over.”  He replied with much humility, that he was just a regular person, that for some reason could pick up on the different “vibration frequencies” that these passed spirits have, much different from our own, since we’re still alive.  He said he had the same questions and doubts that everyone else has.  But this intrigued me; I was fascinated.

As my turn in the queue to Anthony’s table neared, he looked up, turned to me and kind-of gave me a funny look.  I wasn’t sure whether he saw “something” around me, or if he was just perturbed that so many wanted his signature.  Just as I was making sure that my “Camino with Cullenbracelet was hidden, and my Chinese tat of Cullen’s name was tucked under my sleeve, he greeted us and I proceeded to ask him my question.

“Mark, you mentioned having doubts, just like everyone else.  What the heck does that mean?  If I could see and communicate with the other side, I can’t imagine having any doubts.  As a matter of fact, I’d be on TV and the radio, proclaiming from the mountaintops what I had seen!”  Frankly I don’t remember his response, because before he answered he said something about knowing St. Francis of Assisi being important to me.  Now, I hadn’t told him my name yet, so there’s no way he could know I had once owned “Assisi Animal Hospital,” and since I wasn’t coming from work, I wasn’t wearing scrubs or any other tell-tale animal or vet adornments.  So I was in a bit of a WTF mode and I forgot everything else he said to me.  Bear in mind that this was also more than a year before our new Pope would take the name of Francis, so even if he had seen me at church or come other Catholic “marker,” he couldn’t even know this.

Whether or not dreams really mean anything, it would still be nice to talk to my son.  Or Mom.  Or Daddy.  Until then I just need to keep plodding forward on “Faith.”

“Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed they who have not seen and have believed.” JN 20:29

Guess having faith is what we’re supposed to do anyway.  So although I’d love some kind of a vision or apparition, I really gotta stop demanding one.  As I remember, Jesus got pretty upset when people were demanding “signs” so they could believe.

“The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  MK 8-11-12

I suppose the line forming for “people who have made Jesus upset” is another one I’d rather avoid when I leave here.

Much Love.

Holding the spirit