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Family Valued

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

“Goddamn Obama!” My father never minces words when it comes to elected officials, celebrities, professional athletes, religious leaders and other miscreants. After reviewing the monthly social security payments for him and my mother, he estimated they would be short up to $600 in 2016. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama hasn’t ensured social security recipients would see annual increases. No fan of George W. Bush, my father continued his anti-Obama rant. “He’s more concerned with those goddamn Syrian refugees than with old people who’ve worked all their lives!”

He continued, pointing out that, combined, he and my mother had put a century’s worth of their lives into the work force. For years my father dealt with a stingy boss at a printing company where he stood on concrete floors for hours; his feet and knees now paying the price. My mother labored in the insurance industry, beginning at a time when pregnancy was considered a terminal offense and women had to put up with sexual harassment the same way they put up with a runny nose.

I reassured my father that, no matter what, I’ll be there for him and my mother. It’s become especially critical as their health falters – something to be expected in the ninth decade of life. A few years ago I had joined some friends at a dinner party, when the subject of aging parents arose. I mentioned my mother’s declining memory.

“Have you thought of putting her in a home?” one young woman asked.

“She has a home,” I replied. “It’s the one she’s in now.”

She then proceeded to lecture me on the benefits of assisted care facilities, as if I was an ignorant farm boy and she was an omniscient philosopher who’d come down from her golden thrown atop the Himalayas.

I quickly shut her up. “That’s so bleeding-heart liberal of you,” I said. “We don’t do that in my family.”

The idea of putting my mother in a “home” is akin to abandoning my aging dog in a Wal-Mart parking lot should he get sick. If I won’t dump my beloved canine into a strange environment where he’d surely perish, do you think I’d do the same to the woman who almost died giving birth to me?

The other day I spent time with a long-time friend, Pete*. His birthday was recent, and I’d promised to treat him to one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Ojeda’s. He had also sent me a free pass to his gym; a tiny joint in East Dallas, near where he lives. So we agreed to visit the gym first and then head to the restaurant for an early dinner. He just happened to have the day off from his job as a customer service agent for a major insurance outfit. But he’s never idle. Both his widowed mother and one of her sisters live with him in a huge house he bought through an auction a few years ago. His younger sister – who lives with her husband and toddler daughter in the house where she and Pete grew up – drops by daily to help, as does an old family friend who cleans the place. Between his mother and his aunt, Pete often finds himself running on fumes. His aunt, who’s in her 90s, has dementia and spends her time in bed watching the Catholic channel on TV.

“She’s gone,” he told me the other day, as we stood in the front room of the house. He said it with the same degree of ordinariness as if he’d told me rain had fallen that morning. “She’s completely gone.” I’d met and spoken with her before, but Pete assured me she probably wouldn’t recognize me.

I caught a glimpse of her, quietly peeking in through the open door of her bedroom. She faced the large-screen TV; surrounded by a gallery of religious relics.

Pete’s mother ambles around on crunchy knees with a walker. An orthopedic surgeon had told them both years ago that knee-replacement surgery wouldn’t be viable at her age. His mother took it in stride, but Pete became irate with the doctor; bringing up such new-age remedies as shark cartilage.

Our visits to the gym and the restaurant provided a much-needed respite from our respective daily grinds. The gym is an old-fashioned place where solid-iron weights outnumber the handful of machine weights; the paint is peeling; the water fountain trembles with every usage; and men can walk around shirtless without offending suburban soccer moms. The restaurant, Ojeda’s, is practically a Dallas landmark. Family-owned, it looks like one of those quaint hole-in-the-wall eateries you won’t see listed in travel brochures. I like it because they serve gigantic swirls and monster homemade pralines. Pete likes it because they use real cheese – his one true test of a Mexican restaurant’s authenticity. As usual, I ate too much. But virtually floating out of the restaurant, instead of walking, I still felt good. Right now that’s one of life’s simple pleasures.

Neither Pete nor I get out of the house much. “You’re my only real friend,” he told me at the restaurant. Almost everyone else he called a friend had pretty much disappeared.

I thought about my own collection of friends. I never was an outgoing type of person. I’m too much of a loner; the kind people wonder about when they learn of mass shootings. It’s not intentional on my part. Ironically, Pete had once expressed concern that I was becoming too much of a “recluse.”

“I’m a writer,” I reminded him. “We’re loners and reclusive by nature.”

Pete and I have something else in common: our fathers grew up together in East Dallas. They’d attended the same grade school and the same high school. When Pete’s paternal grandmother had become too frail to care for herself, she’d moved in with one of her other children. As my paternal grandmother aged, two of my aunts periodically hired independent caretakers; young Mexican women fluent in Spanish. But my father and his siblings often spent time with their mother. They didn’t just hand her off to those young women, before going about their own lives. Growing up, my father told me, almost every family on their street had an elderly relative living with them.

The aforementioned little gal who talked of “homes” couldn’t understand such dedication to family. She recounted stories of digging water wells in Africa for the Peace Corps.

“Ten million years after humans began walking upright, and African still can’t dig its own water wells?” I queried.

That really pissed her off! I didn’t care. For folks like Pete and I, there is no other “home” for our loved ones, outside the places where they already live. When we returned to his home after the gym, he told me it was alright to park in the neighbor’s driveway. A few years ago, when Pete staged a Memorial Day cookout, I’d met the neighbor; a quiet elderly gentleman who lived alone in a house as big as Pete’s. But, Pete told me, the man’s children had recently placed him in one of those “homes;” their answer to his frequent falls and other health concerns.

“How could they do that to him?” Pete lamented.

I didn’t have an answer. Even after returning home that evening, I struggled to comprehend how some people could hold such disregard for their relatives. What goes wrong in a family to create that kind of animosity? Well…I suppose a number of things. My dog, Wolfgang, was the only one who expressed unmitigated excitement at my return the other night. After I’d left, my father told me, my mother had developed yet another excruciating headache, and he had become sick to his stomach. They were fine by the time I arrived.

It seems, though, every time I leave the house for an extended period – just to get away and relax – something goes wrong. On the day after Thanksgiving I joined some friends for a post-holiday lunch. It’s something of a tradition among them. Someone offers to host the gathering, and everyone else brings food, beverages and / or money to pay for it. This time the location was clear on the south end of Dallas, in the Oak Cliff area. Cold rain was falling. But I made it and had a great time. When I arrived home, my father lay in bed, shivering uncontrollably. All the happiness from that day evaporated, as I settled in; tired and wanting to lay down for a short while. But I didn’t because a sense of guilt overcame me. I couldn’t just relax, while my father trembled in a near-catatonic state. I’m not that heartless. The trembling – whatever its cause – finally subsided.

Two days before Christmas another close friend invited me to lunch; just to hang out and commiserate about life’s antics. The day was bright and cool, and I had a great time. A simple, good meal and a mixed drink can do wonders for the soul! But, when I returned home, both my parents were sick. My father was actually angry. They’d lay down for a nap, whereupon my mother experienced another severe headache – a life-long scourge for her. That somehow induced an argument between them. As before, the happiness I felt from a pleasant afternoon got wiped out in a second.

Goddamnit, I yelled deep inside. Why the fuck can’t I leave the house for a little while and NOT come home to a medical drama?! As always, Wolfgang was the only one who seemed genuinely excited to see me. I looked at him, as I do every time something like this occurs, and whisper a secret wish into his dark eyes: “I want to grab you, jump in the truck and go. Just go somewhere. Anywhere! Just get away from here.” But I always sigh and realize I can’t do that. Not me. Someone else very well could.

For decades archaeologists have argued over what drove the Mayan Empire to collapse: drought or internal warfare. Perhaps both. What caused the Roman Empire to collapse? It grew too big, some theorize. Perhaps it did. But have scientists ever considered another more personal dilemma: the collapse of the family unit? Whether a community is a titanic empire, or a small band of hunter-gatherers, one thing has always been certain throughout human history – the family. Without a solid family structure, no society can function properly. Here in the U.S. social and religious conservatives have wildly pointed to abortion and gay marriage as the biggest threats to the family unit. And, in their narrow minds, I’m sure they believe that. But the greatest threats to any family usually come from within: alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, infidelity. If threats come from outside, they’re often society itself: unemployment, underemployment, lack of medical care, poor schools, wage inequality. These latter elements are what could bring down the modern American state, if those noble elected officials aren’t careful.

I recently perused through some family photo albums; not looking for anything in particular. I’ve finally reached that point in life where the concept of family takes on an entirely different meaning. I really can’t explain it. But, when you reach that time, you just know it. It felt good to look at those old pictures. Yes, it was nostalgic. Like with the pains of old age, that’s to be expected.

Later the other night, as my parents readied for bed, my mother ambled out of their bedroom and asked who all lives here. “Is it just the three of us?”

“The four of us,” I corrected, gesturing to Wolfgang.

“Oh, yeah!” she exclaimed, adding that she didn’t understand why she kept forgetting that simple fact. She reached down to scratch Wolfgang’s downy ears and bade him goodnight.

After she returned to her bedroom, I merely looked at Wolfgang. He cocked his head in the same way I shrug my shoulders. What can we do? This is it. This is our world. Our family. That’s what we value. Little else matters.

 

*Name changed.

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It Came from the Cup

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This could only happen in the 21st century. In 2009, Jennifer Schreiner and her partner, Angela Bauer, decided they wanted a child. Either adoption wasn’t good enough or artificial insemination through a medical facility was too expensive and cumbersome; perhaps both. Regardless, the Kansas couple selected the next available option: they placed a Craigslist ad. Yes, the same site that has become renowned for furniture scams and serial killers suddenly became the poor people’s avenue to familial concoctions. Trailer park trash has moved online. Again, only in the 21st century!

And, as fate would have it, Schreiner and Bauer got a response. William Marotta thought he had the right stuff for the job and contacted the duo. After some semblance of background checks and medical screening, Schreiner and Bauer decided he was “The One.” They offered him the going rate for off-road sperm donation: fifty bucks a pop. But, perhaps out of some degree of compassion, Marotta declined. Among the variety of legal documentation Marotta signed was one absolving him of any legal or financial obligation. In other words, once he fired the gun, he wasn’t culpable for whatever happened to the bullets. Schreiner got pregnant and gave birth to a girl later that same year. Then, things got messy – at least from a litigious standpoint.

In 2012, Schreiner and Bauer sought financial support for the child from the state of Kansas. As required by state law, they provided Marotta’s name and other personal information. At first, Marotta denied he had anything to do with Schreiner and Bauer, other than polite conversation. But he conceded the child was his, after the state forced him to undergo a paternity test. What’s happened over the last three years is the stuff of bad daytime dramas.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families filed suit against Marotta in October of 2012 seeking $6,000 in state aid provided to Schreiner and Bauer. In January of 2014, a Kansas judge ordered Marotta to pay the $6,000; declaring the initial contractual arrangement wasn’t legal because the insemination occurred outside a license medical facility. (I don’t want to know the details.) Marotta has appealed, and the case returned to court last month. His reasoning? “I’m the sperm donor; not the father.”

Amidst this legal carnage, of course, is the hapless child who didn’t ask to be born, much less born into the arms of stupid and arrogant adults. Marotta’s statement that he’s merely the “sperm donor” feeds into the misandric sentiments of the feminist left that views men as nothing more than just that: sperm donors. The legal claims of Schreiner and Bauer is also typical of feminist ideology. To them, men have no role in the lives of children until financial support is needed. Then, suddenly, it becomes his child. It’s a twisted, hypocritical philosophy.

Things can get weird with sperm banks. Last year an Ohio woman, Jennifer Cramblett, sued an Illinois facility she’d visited, when she gave birth to a daughter who was half-Black. Cramblett had selected donor No. 380, a White, blond, blue-eyed man. Someone at the bank apparently misread it as No. 330, which was a Black man. Now Cramblett is stuck with a biracial child, instead of a pure White one. I imagine she was traumatized when the baby came out with kinky locks of hair and dark brown eyes. I mean, what neo-Nazi lesbian chick would want that in her house?

That particular case reminds me of the infamous Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” which was founded in California in 1980 by millionaire Robert Graham. Its purpose was simple and direct: produce children with superior IQs. Nobel recipients and other geniuses were ideal donors. One if its most infamous benefactors was William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor radio who became better known for his curious theories of race and contemporary eugenics. Shockley believed people with IQs under 100 should be sterilized and asserted that those of Native American and African extraction occupy the lowest rung of the human food chain. In reality, Shockley was one of only 3 Nobel laureates known to have donated sperm to the RGC, but the facility’s reputation was as damaged as Shockley’s. It quietly closed in 1999 with its founder dead and its records sealed. Graham’s self-styled “genius factory” had produced at least 200 children. Its goal of creating a better future didn’t turn out so great. Think “Logan’s Run.”

I have no respect for people who patronize sperm banks; whether they’re making a deposit or a withdrawal. The men obviously think their sperm cells are akin to gold bullion; priceless and treasured like nothing else. The women surely believe they are perfect enough to raise children without a father. I never had children – outside of dogs – but I know that women and men each offer different things to children. We have our own unique ways of raising kids. Neither way is superior to the other. To say men have no role in bringing up children is like saying women have no role in business or politics. Eliminating half the human race from one endeavor because you don’t think they can do anything right isn’t practical; it’s just plain bigotry.

I know full well there are plenty of single parents who’ve done an extraordinary job of raising their children; whether natural-born or adopted. But I’m certain many of them don’t have an unmitigated and pathological hate for the opposite sex. It doesn’t help, of course, that there are men who screw like rabbits on Viagra. A close friend of mine was never close to his own father and knew the man had sired other children. I once offered to help him play a cruel joke on his father; meet him for beers and pretend I was one of his many offspring. My friend was tempted to go through with it; he despised the man enough for abandoning him and his mother at a vulnerable point in their lives.

Watching my father conduct extensive genealogical research on both sides of his family for more than a quarter century has brought me closer to him and other relatives than most anything else. It made me comprehend the importance of culture and heritage, and the critical roles they play in each generation. A long-time acquaintance of mine was adopted in the late 1960s. Because of his features, he’s always believed he may be of either Native American or Mediterranean descent. I had to stop and think about that. How would it feel not to know your true family? Where do I come from?

The children born of sperm bank machinations eventually get old enough to ask those same questions. It’s only natural. And it’s unfair to dismiss their curiosity. But their situation is already causing heartache. It’s also bringing doubt about the practice of sperm – and egg cell – donations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Kirk Maxey was a champion sperm donor and – by his own estimate – fathered some 400 children. Years later he apparently developed a conscious. It began in 2007, when two of his daughters found him through the Donor Sibling Registry, an outfit that is answering the call for help. Meeting his previously-unknown offspring conjured up a startling realization: his kids could possibly (an unknowingly) encounter one of their half-siblings; start dating; fall in love; get married; and…produce children. If you hear banjos playing, you know where this could lead. Maxey is now calling for stricter regulation of sperm and egg banks.

Children aren’t commodities to be bought and sold. Creating perfect offspring is not just a nightmarish scenario from low-grade horror movies. It’s been tried in the past – long before Robert Graham’s ill-fated attempts. Decades ago sperm bank weren’t thinking of the children they were bringing into this world; they were thinking only of some well-manicured society they wanted to create for themselves. They didn’t consider the powerfully natural bonds children have with their parents; an ancient human sentiment that can’t be subjugated to test tubes and cryogenic machines.

We’re all worth something. More than $6,000 and a quirky dream. People have tried, but you can’t put a price on humanity.

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When Family Christmas Photos Go Bad

Family Christmas photographs are a grand tradition that stretches back almost to the invention of photography. Christmas is all about family, whether the family is comprised of blood relatives or close friends who provide that irreplaceable sensation of family. A few of my friends mailed me their usual Christmas cards bearing portraits of their own beautiful families.

Some folks like to get creative with their holiday photographs. Often they’re cute and even funny. Other times, though, you have to wonder how many spirits these people had beforehand, or if local child protective services has a case file on them. Herein are a few examples of people who should’ve just left the camera the hell alone.

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What’s It Like?

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My father sat on a riding lawnmower; an interesting thing considering we’d never had one. But, as he traveled across a vast field of bright green grass, he came upon some people standing beneath a large tree; an oak, he thought. Getting closer to them, he realized they were some relatives: his parents, his oldest sister, his older brother and another sister. They all had one thing in common – they were deceased. He could see his parents clearly, especially his father who died in 1969. He could make out the face of his older sister. His brother looked to be in the shadows, and the other sister was cloaked in a black veil. But he knew it was them.

“Do you want to come with us?” his mother asked him.

My father turned to the expanse of grass and nodded his head no. “I can’t,” he told her. “I have to finish mowing.”

Then, he woke up. It was late 2004, and he abruptly snapped out of a depressive funk. He’d lost his second-oldest sister and his older brother within a five-month period that year. Our family was still reeling from that. But, when he recounted the episode to me, he wondered aloud if his time was coming sooner than expected.

“No,” I told him. “They were testing you. They wanted to see if you were ready to give up. But you obviously have a lot of things left to do in this world.” He’d always liked gardening, I reminded him; a trait he’d gotten from his mother. The large field of grass was just a metaphor for life.

What’s it like, I wonder, to be dead? How do people navigate in the afterlife? I’ve always been fascinated with that; what happens to people when they die. Unlike some people, I don’t pretend to know what exactly will happen to me once I expire. But, unlike others, I don’t believe this is it; our life here on Earth is all we get. I’m not so arrogant as to express a firm knowledge of such things. I just have my own beliefs.

When my father’s oldest sister died in February of 1998, we had a simple ceremony in a chapel at the cemetery and then watched her be interred in a place near her father. That’s how she wanted it: just throw her body into a box, drop her into the ground and go on with our lives. Nothing fancy; no drawn-out church mass; no miles-long funeral procession; and no rosary. When I told a close friend about it, he expressed shock that we didn’t have a rosary; a pre-funeral Catholic affair akin to a Protestant wake.

“I hate to tell you this,” he said matter-of-factly, almost ominously, “but your aunt’s chances of getting into Heaven are slim.”

If we’d been sitting face-to-face, I would have smacked him. “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” I screamed into the phone. I unleashed a slew of other invectives, before slamming down the receiver.

This came from a guy who was raised devoutly Catholic, like me, but who – at some point in his early 20s – detoured into voodoo. He had renounced the latter and returned to his Christian roots. Yet, his self-righteous proclamation about my aunt’s spiritual survival was more than an insult; it was an abomination.

Several years ago, while attending a Catholic parochial school, an antiquitous nun (I knew of no other kind) abruptly informed me and some other students that animals have no soul. They just die, she said, and that was it. I was horrified. Did that mean I would never see my beloved dog, a German shepherd named Joshua? I cried deep inside. How could that be? Why would God be so cruel as to deny we animal lovers the company of our pets in the afterlife?

Fortunately, I’ve long since recovered from the perversions of Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. It’s one reason why I divorced myself from that mess – a sin unto itself. Religion makes people say and do stupid shit.

Theology or not, I’ve never really been afraid of the unknown. I’m not a Goth-like critter who looks for ingenious new ways to kill himself – well, not anymore. My fascination with death started when I was young; perhaps, because I really did think of killing myself. The relentless bullying I experienced in school and the loneliness of being an only child made me contemplate suicide when I should have been thinking about sports or games.

Now, as an adult, I still think about death, but not so much dying. I consider it the afterlife, or more appropriately, the after-this-life. It’s another level the human soul attains; a world superior to this one. I’m not eager to get there! I’m just curious about it. I tell people I have so many books I hope I get to read them all before I die. But then, maybe my after-this-life activities will include reading. And playing with dogs!

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Happy Thanksgiving 2014!

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“Great Spirit and all unseen, this day we pray and ask You for guidance,

humbly we ask You to help us and fellow men to have recourse to peaceful

ways of life, because of uncontrolled deceitfulness by humankind. Help

us all to love, not hate one another.

 

We ask you to be seen in an image of Love and Peace. Let us be seen in

beauty, the colors of the rainbow. We respect our Mother, the planet,

with our loving care, for from Her breast we receive our nourishment.

 

Let us not listen to the voices of the two-hearted, the destroyers of mind,

the haters and self-made leaders, whose lusts for power and wealth will

lead us into confusion and darkness.

 

Seek visions always of world beauty, not violence nor battlefields.

 

It is our duty to pray always for harmony between man and earth, so that

the earth will bloom once more. Let us show our emblem of love and goodwill

for all life and land.

 

Pray for the House of Glass, for within it are minds clear and pure as ice

and mountain streams. Pray for the great leaders of nations in the House of

Mica who in their own quiet ways help the earth in balance.

 

We pray the Great Spirit that one day our Mother Earth will be purified

into a healthy peaceful one. Let us sing for strength of wisdom with all

nations for the good of all people. Our hope is not yet lost, purification

must be to restore the health of our Mother Earth for lasting peace and

happiness.”

Techqua Ikachi – Hopi Prayer for Peace

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Please, Jesus

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Cameron Parish, Louisiana – September 23, 2005

I need to pay more attention to my instincts. And to my father. Hurricane Rita was just offshore. Closer to Texas actually than Louisiana. But they kept saying it would move north before nightfall. My father said it would take the same path as Audrey back in 1957. I was surprised when he told me that. But, while his Alzheimer’s seemed to be getting worse, occasionally his memory would let him call out stuff from way back when. Regardless, we were right in the storm’s path. That always sounds so cliché and dramatic, but, in this case, it was more than true. And frightening.

This is just what I need right now, I kept telling myself – a hurricane named after me. Katrina had just hit a month earlier, and now, we have this bitch bringing in the second act. How many other storms were looming out there in the Gulf or the ocean? Just waiting to come in and finish us off. What did the state of Louisiana do to deserve this?

I’d managed to pack my father, Tara, James, both dogs, the computer, the safe and as many clothes and old family photos into my SUV. Thank God the dogs were small. But I still couldn’t believe James, all of 15, managed to wheel that damn safe out to the SUV and shove it into the back by himself. Well, his sister helped – more or less coordinated. “Just stay out of my way!” he kept telling her.

My husband, Eric, was halfway across the globe, stuck in Iraq. My oldest, Carla, was up at Illinois State. They’d each called the night before; frantically telling me to get the hell out of there.

I just told them I was monitoring the storm. The CPA in me was taking a meticulous view of things. I was calm – on the outside. But, inside, I was petrified.

“We’ll be okay,” my father mumbled.

Several years ago he’d said Black people don’t often die in hurricanes because we know what wind and rain do to our hair. People would laugh, and my mother would roll her eyes. But he was actually kind of serious about it. Dealing with his condition now was frustrating – and heartbreaking. It had been four years since mother passed and nearly eight months since I made my father move in with us, until the family could figure out what to do with him.

I looked out the patio door. The dogs stood behind me, trembling. The only good thing about Rita was that it could end this heat wave and bring lots of rain. The bad thing is that folks on this side of the state wouldn’t take it seriously – like folks in New Orleans didn’t take Katrina seriously. Everyone had put too much faith in the levees. And the state government.

“We need to go,” my father said. He donned his gray hat and grabbed an old family bible.

By then, it was getting darker, and the rain was coming in stronger.

I guess we were the last ones out of the neighborhood. But, once we made it to the highway, it looked like we were also the last ones out of the parish. Then, a few cars and trucks made their way past us.

“Mother, let me drive,” Tara said at least twice. She sat beside me.

“No,” I told her. “I’m okay. We’re not going to stop just to switch seats.”

I first headed north, eventually passing under I-10, which sat above us like a parking lot, and then west. There was nothing for us east of Cameron. That part of the state was still a wreck. If we made it to East Texas, I hoped we’d be okay. Please, Jesus, I kept saying to myself. Get us out of here safely.

“We will,” I heard my father mumble.

It was getting darker and wetter. Traffic had thinned considerably. I stayed to the right. The constant thump of the windshield wipers and the heavy beat of the rain were the only sounds. I always loved rain at night. Who doesn’t? Eric often made love to me when it rained – okay, focus on the road, focus on the road.

A thin ribbon of blue-gray hovered in front of us; the remnants of the sun. And the one thing that kept me steady. If we could just make it to that light…just make it to that light.

And, through the dimness, James suddenly jutted his hand over my right shoulder. “What’s that?”

I looked at the dashboard – the engine light had come on. I felt my stomach drop into my pelvis. I didn’t need a hurricane named after me and I damn sure don’t need this shit!

“Watch your language,” my father said.

“Oh, my God!” Tara said, leaning over, almost far enough to block my view.

“Everyone, calm down!” I hollered.

The dogs moaned.

“Are we running out of gas?” Tara asked.

“No, I have a full tank,” I said.

I gripped the steering wheel tighter; a way of saying I was starting to get scared. I wasn’t good with cars. No one in the family was, except for my father and Eric. That’s why they got along so good. James hung out with them, not so much because he liked cars, but mainly so he could get away from the womenfolk.

The engine light remained on – glaring bright orange against the onyx backdrop of the dash. It was staring right at me; like a demon taunting me to do something.

Tara kept leaning over to look at it.

“Tara, would you please stop,” I said.

“But, mother, I’m worried about that,” she said.

“I know. But we need to keep going.”

“Let’s stop at the first gas station we see.”

“Oh, Lord, no! No gas station is still open around here.”

It was just after 6:00 p.m.

Then, a deep rumble came up from beneath the seats, and the entire vehicle began to shudder. Tara gripped the dashboard and looked towards me. I kept my eyes straight ahead; hoping no one would notice if every organ in my body failed at once. My hands were getting moist still holding onto that steering wheel.

The SUV kept rumbling and shaking. And then, started slowing down – while my foot was on the accelerator.

“Mother, just pull over,” said James.

“No!” I told him. “We need to keep going.”

“It’s not going to go much further!” He never raised his voice at me.

The thing was slowing down more and more. Then a loud clanging sound felt like the bottom of it had fallen out and took my sanity with it. I managed to veer off to the right, the windshield wipers still thumping madly. I was surprised to see a few more vehicles come up from behind and then, pass us. I flicked on the emergency lights. Oh, God, this can’t be happening, I screamed to myself.

“We’ll be alright,” my father muttered.

We’d managed to travel less than sixty miles from home and we were just north of I-10; sitting on the side of a state highway. I don’t even remember which one. “Oh, Lord,” I said. “This is just great.”

“Just turn off the engine and let it rest,” James said matter-of-factly. I could see him stroking his chin, like my father did when he went deep into thought.

“No, don’t turn it off!” Tara screamed. Her voice startled everyone and made the dogs bark. “What if it doesn’t start back up?!”

“Tara, do not scream like that!” I hollered.

The sound of the windshield wipers and the rain couldn’t drown out our voices.

“Mother!” cried Tara.

“Tara, stop!” I said. “Please, stop! Yelling isn’t gonna help anything. We’ll figure this out.” I caressed her shoulder, as she looked ahead. Her lips were trembling.

Deep inside my soul, mine were, too.

“We’ll be alright,” my father said.

Oh, Lord, I said quietly, please send your son, Jesus, to help us. I glanced through the driver’s side window, as a few vehicles rolled by, seemingly oblivious to our presence. I kept asking the good Lord to help us; to send his child to get us out of this mess. I don’t know why I kept saying it like that: please send your son, Jesus, to help us. But I did.

It was completely dark now. The blue-gray ribbon had fallen into the horizon ahead of us. The highway lamps on either side of the road bobbed nonchalantly; the light fading.

Tara’s left hand found my right one. She maintained her gaze straight ahead; lips still trembling.

Oh, Lord, please send your son, Jesus, to help us, I screamed into my mind. Oh, please, Lord! Help me get my father and my children out of here. My head began to hurt from hollering inside so much. Please send your son, Jesus, to help us.

I don’t know how long we sat there, alone in the darkness and the ever-increasing rain. At least we were far from the coastline. But, we had nowhere to go.

Lord, please send your son, Jesus, to help us. I let out a sigh and dropped my head down.

Then, I looked out the driver’s side window for what I thought would be the last time, before a wall of water would come rushing up and swallow us whole. And, through the blankets of water pressing against the glass, I saw a pair of headlights in the distance. They were high beams. It was the first vehicle we’d seen in what seemed like hours.

“Well,” I said, “who could this be?”

“Jesus,” I heard my father mumble.

Tara looked up into the rear-view mirror and then, turned around. “Oh, my God! Maybe they’ll stop to help us!”

“I hope so,” I said. I was tempted to jump out and flag them down; my hair be damned.

“Okay, mother,” James said, “if it’s a state trooper, just keep your hands on the steering wheel.”

“Thank you, counselor,” I smirked.

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The headlights came closer.

I reached for the door handle. It was now or never. I had to jump out and try to make them stop.

The lights were upon us.

I unbuckled my seat belt.

Then, without warning, the headlights veered off to the right. Whoever it was, had pulled up behind us.

I jumped out, almost falling face down.

“Mother!” Tara screamed. But her voice was drowned out by the rain.

James jumped out of the other side. His sister screamed his name, but again, the rain snuffed her out.

Then, the vehicle – an SUV as large as mine – lurched out from behind us and back onto the road.

“Oh, Lord, no!” I yelled into the wet darkness.

The driver stop right beside me and lowered the passenger side window.

I gripped the doorframe. But, I was already out of breath.

The driver was a solitary young man, his bright green eyes grasping my attention. “Are you alright, ma’am?” he asked.

“No!” I yelled back. I hated to yell at strangers. “I don’t know what happened. This thing just gave out on me! I have my children and father – and my dogs – with me. We’re trying to get the hell out of here!”

“Okay, hold on!” he said. “Let me pull up in front of you.” He inched his vehicle forward, the emergency lights already glowing, and hopped out.

In a matter of minutes, we had everyone crammed into his truck. The back of it was filled with boxes. There wasn’t much room for our own belongings, but the young man even grabbed my box of family photos. I crawled into the back of my SUV and opened the safe, which held our birth certificates, social security cards, a .45 gun and bag of cash. I stuffed all of that into James’ gym bag, which he’d emptied immediately, as if he knew what I was thinking. The other things in the safe would have to stay. Most everything else in my SUV would also have to stay. I turned off the emergency lights, grabbed the keys and hopped into the young man’s vehicle.

Each of us was soaked. “Kind of a bad night,” he said with a chuckle and bright smile, as he moved back onto the road.

“I’ll say,” I told him. “Oh, Lord! I knew we should have left sooner.”

“Yea, me, too,” he said. “I was in Lake Charles on business.”

“Oh, okay. We live out further south.”

“I thought of heading up north. But, I thought, no – better head back to Texas.”

“Oh, okay. Is that where you’re from?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Thank you, sir,” Tara told him. “Thank you, thank you! We thought we’d be stuck there forever.”

“Oh, think nothing of it,” he said. “I’m glad I could get you out of here.”

“That makes seven of us,” James said.

We all laughed.

“I just had that thing serviced,” I said, wiping my face with a damp hand. “It’s only five years old.”

“Oh, I know how that goes,” the man said.

“Well, we – oh, I’m sorry! Where are my manners? My name is Rita. This is my father, William; my daughter, Tara; my son, James; and our dogs, Rocky and Bruno.”

“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” James said.

“Same here,” replied the young man. “My name is Heh-soos.”

“Say again?” I asked.

“Jesus,” my father muttered.

“Heh-soos,” the man repeated. “It’s Spanish for Jesus.”

“Oh, how nice.”

© 2014

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I’m Just Not Ready to Let You Go

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“Oh, yes,” my mother moaned, exasperated. “Just take me. Please, just let me go. Take me now.”

She’d consumed several Tylenol Migraine pills to quell yet another relentless headache that prevented her from sleeping, and my father had admonished her.

“You’re going to overdose and die!” he said matter-of-factly, as if he was a cardiologist talking to an obese man who’d just had open-heart surgery and still refused to give up beer and hamburgers.

“That’s fine,” my mother replied, equally blunt. “I’ve had enough.”

My dog, Wolfgang, looked at all of us, as we stood in my parents’ bedroom in the pre-dawn hours of some nondescript weekday. He finally sauntered back into my room and curled up with his towel. He’d always had a fetish for towels.

In the spring of 2005, I’d lived and worked in Oklahoma; laboring on a special project for the engineering company where I worked at the time. Wolfgang had stayed with my parents throughout most of that period, except for the month of May when I decided to bring him with me. Instead of flying into Tulsa and renting a car to drive to the work site, as we’d normally done, I’d rented a vehicle in suburban Dallas and drove up to Northeastern Oklahoma on a Sunday night. I just didn’t want to put him on a plane for a 30-minute flight just to end up in a car for an hour anyway.

One evening, as I sat at the desk in the room, scouring over my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang strolling out of the bathroom – a damp, dirty hotel towel in his mouth. I had a small pile of towels beneath the sink. I didn’t allow housekeeping into the room, unless I was there. I didn’t want to take the chance that Wolfgang would dart from the room in a frenzy and somehow make it out of the hotel into highly unfamiliar territory. I’d grown too attached to him by then; only two years after I’d taken custody of him from a troubled ex-roommate.

A few minutes later I looked again at him and was startled to see all of those damp towels stacked in front of the closet. He’d literally hauled every one of them out of the bathroom and then plopped down in front of the stack. I chuckled. Dogs do the funniest things sometimes; things only they fully comprehend and amuse we befuddled humans.

He was almost three back then. Now, he was eleven and just didn’t want to be bothered by the drama we bipedals have the tendency to create. I turned back to my parents. My father merely stared at the lamp on a nightstand, while mother rubbed her forehead; more out of frustration, I suspected, than pain.

I massaged my forehead, too. At their age, they were enduring – sometimes just tolerating – the physical quandaries of a long life. My mother with her headaches; my father with his acid reflux. On nights – mornings – like this, they sometimes openly wished they’d just die. They were tired; they’d had enough. I heard Wolfgang sigh.

There’s a price to pay for living so many years. You get to experience a number of different things. Hopefully, most are good, but for certain, many are bad. Regardless, at some point during that time, you fall in love; you laugh; you dream; you enjoy good food and beverages; you dance; you ogle at sunsets and sunrises; you may have children; you might have a pet; you become sad; you get angry; you work; you get sick; you drive a vehicle; you fall and break something; you meet all sorts of people; and you die. You can’t possibly live as long as my parents have and not go through a few bumps and bruises. You don’t even live to be my age – 50 – and experience some of that.

Last summer Wolfgang fell mysteriously ill. I was recuperating from a freak accident here at the house in which I’d severely damaged my right arm and hand. For some reason, amidst my frustrating recovery and exhaustive job searches, Wolfgang became incredibly lethargic; he’d yelp if he barked. Even the slightest growl seemed to hurt him. Then, he began urinating spontaneously, as if he’d grown so old he couldn’t control his bladder. My priorities shifted – and I thought back eleven years.

In August of 2002, my then-roommate Tom* had to put his miniature schnauzer, Zach, to sleep. In the few days preceding his demise, Zach began throwing up and urinating uncontrollably. His body shrunk so much we could see his ribs. It turned out he had a kidney infection. If Tom had gotten Zach to a vet in time, he probably could have saved him. Shortly after Zach’s death, Tom got a new puppy; the one I’d adopt when we parted ways in January 2003 and would rename Wolfgang. Zach had been 11 when he died, and I wondered last summer if Wolfgang was facing his mortality. His vet diagnosed a mild intestinal infection; an ailment a couple of shots resolved. But, it was a frightening week – for all of us. I caressed Wolfgang’s downy ears one night and whispered, “You can’t leave me now. I’m not ready to let you go.” And, I wasn’t and I’m still not.

My father sat near his computer one evening last fall, after doctors had confirmed that his acid reflux was more critical than anyone had realized. His gastroenterologist had referred him to a colleague who – unbeknownst to her – wasn’t accepting new patients. He referred my father to a younger colleague; a doctor who, although pleasant and affable, looked like he’d just graduated from high school. My father said bluntly on this one particular evening that he was waiting for his parents to come get him.

“No,” I said, “not now. I’m not ready for that.”

My father and I want to write a book about our family history. On his mother’s side, we are descendants of Queen Isabella of Spain, the woman who financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage westward across the Atlantic. On his father’s side, we are descendants of Spanish noblemen who first arrived in what is now South Texas in 1585. My father began doing genealogical research in 1990 as a hobby; a way to spend the free time he’d encountered while working part-time at a printing shop. He’d been a full-time employee since before I was born. Then, in 1989, the company owner laid off him and a few others; only to rehire them as contract employees. The genealogy metamorphosed from a quaint past time to a heartfelt passion. The book I want to write with him would be a true labor of love. I couldn’t do it alone.

“I talk to Margo sometimes,” my mother revealed one day. Her older sister died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 59. “I talk to her when I’m ironing, or doing the dishes, or folding towels.”

That, I realized, provided her with a sense of normalcy. Like my father, my mother has never lived alone. She’s always been with someone. She came from a time when women got married young and had a family. Career women were alien creatures; unmarried women without children were subhuman. When I was born, my father didn’t want her to return to work – ever. But, she did – and retired at the age of 70.

I get so frustrated with everything here – bouncing back and forth between my parents’ all-consuming ailments, my unpaid student loans, recycled resumes – that I want to grab Wolfgang and everything I could pack into my truck and just go. Leave. Run away. Far away. Some place no one knows me. And, start all over.

I can’t. I just can’t. It’s not a question of fortitude or finances. It’s a matter of love and commitment. I can’t forsake the people who brought me into this world.

“I think I’m going to die in this house,” I told a close friend over lunch at a favorite restaurant.

“What’s wrong with that?” he replied, looking at me as if though I dreaded such a day.

“Nothing! I’m just saying I think I’ll die in that house – alone.”

Hopefully, alone – meaning no dogs will be trapped in here with me. I never got married and had children and I’ve never had any long-term relationships. But, I see a future as a secluded writer with dogs rescued from shelters.

Wolfgang will be 12 in a couple of weeks, and my parents bide their time; my mother doing crossword puzzles, and my father digging through ancient church documents. Sometime, I’ll have to let them all go.

But, not just yet.

A “tango lily” from our back yard.

A “tango lily” from our back yard.

*Name changed.

© 2014

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Years of New Year’s

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother.  One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother. One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

On December 31, 2010, I decided spontaneously to go out for New Year’s Eve.  I had been laid off nearly three months earlier from an engineering company and wondered when things would improve.  I visited my favorite bar just north of downtown Dallas and was glad to encounter a few friends and acquaintances.  As I stood near the DJ booth, surveying the eclectic crowd, I suddenly recollected the very first New Year’s party my parents had decided to throw – 1973.

We had moved into our new house in suburban Dallas a year earlier.  My parents had already made friends with several neighbors; their ebullient personalities attracting even the most staid of individuals.  As the clock struck midnight, and we welcomed 1974, I pulled back the heavy drapes against the patio door to look for my then 7-month-old German shepherd, Joshua.  His ears already beginning to triangulate, he glanced at me and jumped up.  I went outside to pet him and wish him a happy New Year.

By the time I rang in 2011, Joshua had been dead for a quarter century, and my parents had long ceased their partying ways.  Last night, I sat with some wine coolers and watched television.  My parents and my dog, Wolfgang, all had retired for the night.  I’m so glad to see 2013 go, happier than I was three years earlier.  In fact, I haven’t been this thrilled to let go of a year since 1985 – the year we put Joshua to sleep; a year I’ve always considered the single worst of my entire life.

New Year’s is my favorite holiday.  It’s not just the feverish atmosphere surrounding a fresh start.  For me, it’s always been associated with the gathering of family and friends; people who occupy our lives and make it good.  Besides, most everyone feels giddy on New Year’s Eve.  Why not celebrate?

My parents threw a number of New Year’s parties.  Ours was the fun house on the block.  It was during those raucous indoor festivals when I learned how to spin records (on a turntable), mix drinks, and show people how good I could dance.  I can still bump and grind with the best of them, but usually the lights have to be dim.

Two of our perennial guests were among my parents’ closest friends: a young couple who lived next door and were among the first people we befriended in the neighborhood.  They were both exceptionally tall.  They got me addicted to “National Geographic” by purchasing us a gift subscription in 1976.  And, they offered my parents and me one of the best bits of advice anyone could hear: always hang around people who know more than you do.

At one particular late 1970s New Year’s gathering, a neighbor got so drunk we escorted him into my parents’ bedroom to lie down for a while.  My dad took Polaroids of many of us – including the man’s wife – encircling him on the bed.  It was a while before he returned to our house for another New Year’s party.  When he did, his wife became so intoxicated she had to spend the night in my bedroom; her husband returned home (I think) alone.  I slept on the living room couch.

Some other neighbors, a couple whose kids attended the same high school I did, were also frequent visitors.  The man would often bring his guitar and sing along with his wife.  And, they really could sing.  As newlyweds in their native New México, they once entered an amateur singing contest, but lost out because the judges said they sounded too much like professionals.  That didn’t matter to us so many years later, though, as they strummed out tunes from José Feliciano and even The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

That was quite a different reaction from that of another neighbor, a housewife who lived up the street with her stony husband and three unruly children.  At one New Year’s party, she imbibed in too many of the margaritas I’d whipped up and haphazardly commented that she liked to sing.  Seeing a chance to humiliate a fat, drunk stay-at-home mom who sold decorative glassware on the side and considered herself a devout Christian, two other friends – a neighbor and a man my parents had known for several years – began escorting her around the house; telling certain individuals, ‘You gotta hear this!’  And, as the woman started to croon, sounding much like a Hereford cow going into labor, the two men merely stepped away.  They’d return a minute later to set her upon another unsuspecting partier.

My favorite New Year’s gathering took place at my parents’ home in 1979.  I was excited to bring in not just a new year, but a new decade.  If you’re old enough to recall the fashions and hair styles of the 1970s, surely you can identify with my elation in sending that decade into the history books.  It was a unique affair in that we invited both family and friends – and they all showed up!  We didn’t think this house could hold that many people and not incite calls to the police.  Even my grandmother was there – and, aside from midnight mass on Christmas Eve at her local Catholic church, she was almost never up past 9 P.M.  Above the fireplace I hung a large piece of blue poster board with the term “The ‘80s” on it.  I had spent days cutting up sheets of colored paper into tiny squares to make confetti.  I stuffed it all into a large brown paper sack and hurtled the pieces into the air at the stroke of midnight.  As we cleaned up later, my mother commented that “we’ll be picking up confetti for a year.”  And, sure enough, exactly one year later – after another New Year’s blowout – I found a single piece of confetti buried beneath a couch.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song.  My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song. My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Of course, we attended New Year’s parties at the homes of other friends and neighbors.  Whether at my parents’ house or somewhere else, I always made it a point to have a good time – and not just because alcohol and food were plentiful, although that adds to the fervor.  I just really enjoy New Year’s celebrations.  Regardless, there’s something unique about ringing in a new year with the people closest to you.

On New Year’s Eve 1988, I was at the apartment of a friend, working on a stage play.  Along with some other friends, her and I were trying to launch our own theatrical group and had scheduled a handful of gigs for the spring.  It was almost half past midnight before we realized it was 1989.  We hugged and clinked wine cooler bottles, then got back to work.  I did make it a point, though, to call my parents from there and wish them a Happy New Year.  I was surprised to find out they were already in bed.  “I was just thinking about all the New Year’s parties we used to throw,” my dad told me, sounding rather sad.

A year later a friend and I decided to usher in the 1990s at Dick’s Last Resort in Dallas’ West End.  For a $20 cover, we could have all the food we wanted and a variety of drink specials.  But, my friend was coming down with a cold and, around 10 P.M., asked me to take him back to his apartment.  So much for that $20!  But, I decided to join another friend at a warehouse party just south of downtown.  He was both surprised and glad to see me.  Standing 6’7”, he was almost a whole foot taller and considered me his adopted little brother.  His older brother had died of cancer shortly before Christmas 1978.  Even though a fight broke out between two guys – one who showed up high on something – I had more fun than I probably would have at the other place.

I spent New Year’s Eve 1990 with a friend, Daniel, who I wrote about recently.  He was sad because he’d just learned his former long-time boyfriend had died of AIDS a month earlier.  As we sat listening to a jazz version of “Auld Lang Syne” on a local radio station, his two Lhasa Apsos resting near the fireplace, we heard what we thought were firecrackers.  When I looked out the patio door of his second-story apartment, I realized the popping sounds were coming from a burning car on the opposite side of the highway.  “I hope they weren’t on their way to a New Year’s party,” I said.

I peruse the bevy of old photos from our various New Year’s gatherings and wonder about some of the people in them.  The tall couple eventually sold their house and moved to El Paso, Texas before I graduated from high school.  They promised to stay in touch, which they did – for a little while.  But, we haven’t seen or heard from them in over two decades.  The drunken neighbor moved away a few years ago – not long after his wife succumbed to cancer.  The guitar-playing couple died within two months of each other in the summer of 2010.  The would-be songstress and her husband also vacated the neighborhood long ago.  Strangely, I ran into their daughter in the summer of 1985 at the country club where we both worked.  My friend Daniel died in 1993, and I eventually lost touch with those other three friends.

My grandmother passed away in 2001, and most of my cousins have married and had kids of their own.  We’ve all gone on to lead our own lives, but I’ve managed to stay in touch with a few.  It’s still fun, though, as I recollect the good times and gaze at the scores of glossy photos that captured those moments.  Yes, that’s happening with greater frequency as I get older.  But, life isn’t worth the trouble if you can’t have fun with family and friends and then, remember it all.

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983.  My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real!  When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983. My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real! When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

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One Good Friend

How many friends do you need to make your life complete?  For me, it’s only a handful.  I’ve always had trouble making friends and therefore, I’ve never been a people person.  People usually get on my nerves – especially when they’re driving.  Earlier today, I had lunch with a good friend, Preston*, who I’ve mentioned before.  We try to meet for lunch on a Saturday whenever our schedules permit.  He’s definitely been busier than me lately.  Married with 3 kids, he and his wife have their hands full.  I’ve always envied Preston; he has a beautiful wife and 3 equally beautiful children, all living a pleasant suburban existence.  I would have liked to have that for myself, but it never happened.  I’ve told him that in past conversations, and he’s always expressed appreciation for my candor.

But, today he said something that surprised me: he envied me because of my close relationship with my parents, especially my father.  I met Preston at a tae kwon do studio around 1995.  We struck up a casual friendship, but found we had a lot in common; mainly exercise, jogging and rock n’ roll.  He’s an avid runner, though; having competed in a few marathons.  I just like to run around the block at my own pace.  That year, 1995, had been a bad one for me.  Everything in my personal and work life seemed to be going wrong.  Occasionally, in between flying fists and legs at the tae kwon do studio, I’d tell Preston what was happening.  He became one of the few friends who could relate to my dilemmas.  But, he honestly couldn’t comprehend whatever situations I encountered with my parents.  He wished he could though.

Preston’s parents had divorced when he was young.  I never exhorted him for details, but I suspect he was never close to his father.  His dad had moved to coastal Texas not long after the divorce and died several years ago.  He had perused his father’s belongings with a strange sense of detachment; occasionally surprised to find a curious bit of information about the man, or learn of a relative he never knew existed.  I don’t know the exact nature of his relationship with his mother – knowing how sensitive those subjects can be – but I gathered they weren’t too close either.  About the spring of 2003, he sent me an email with ‘Feeling kind of blue’ in the subject line.  I called him and asked what happened.  His mother had planned to visit and see her grandson for the first time.  Preston and his wife already had a daughter, and their son had just turned one.  Why Preston’s mother waited more than a year to come visit for the first time bothered me; but again, I just didn’t want to ask.  He was upset, though, because his mother had cancelled at the last minute; something else more pertinent had arisen.  From what I recall, it was nothing Earth-shattering; like a sudden illness.  It was more of a ‘I need to buy a wedding gift for a friend’ type of thing.

‘That’s more important than the grandkids?’ I asked myself.  “Don’t feel too bad,” I assured Preston.  “You get to spend time with your own family.”

His voice brightened.  “Yeah!”

On that level, I can’t relate to Preston.  I can’t imagine either of my parents passing up an opportunity to see their grandkids.  Of course, the closest they have to a grandchild is my dog.

Even though I’ve been unemployed for the better part of a year and will start a new job next week, I bought lunch for both us today.

“You’re unemployed!” he retorted.

“And, you have three kids!” I said.

Besides, I was feeling good.  I’m approaching this new job with caution, I told him, especially since it’s a contract position.  In that regard, he can certainly relate; contract work is pretty much all he’s done since about 2001, when the tech bubble burst.  Except for a brief stint at a home improvement store, he’s labored at a number of different software programming jobs; forced to jump from one place to another to keep a steady paycheck.

Like most men, we discussed work and family.  But, we also talked about religion.  Preston and his wife are devout Baptists; their two oldest kids have been to church summer camp since school ended.  Having been raised Roman Catholic, the Baptist religion had always been a distant entity; to Catholics, Baptists are the heathens of Christianity.  Another close friend calls them “heretics.”  Neither of those terms apply to Preston and his wife.  But, I emphasized that I am very spiritual.  I believe in a Great Creator and an afterlife.  I just don’t care to worship in the confines of a religious environment.  Yet, when we said a prayer over our meal, Preston expressed some concern that casual observers might “look at us funny.”

“Well, let them come over and say something,” I replied.

As we left, I reminded Preston that he’s one of the few friends I have.  A loner and an introvert, I no longer crave the attention and approval of others.  Their rules don’t apply to me.  I generally prefer the company of my dog to most people.  But, Preston’s friendship is too important to dismiss.  His thoughts and opinions rest comfortably with me.  I guess his quiet, unimposing demeanor have managed to work their way into my mind without being intrusive.  And, that’s just fine.  We men often have trouble forming friendships with other men in this society that says a man isn’t whole unless he has a woman in his life.  But, I can’t bring myself to follow those confines anymore.  One good friend, a simple Saturday lunch, and that’s all I need to make my life complete.

*Name has been changed.

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