Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mt. Tallac's "The Nut Cracker"

Mt. Tallac’s “The Nut Cracker”

It was July 19th, 2011. I had spent the last four days hiking and climbing small peaks around South Lake Tahoe in California. I planned to spend seven days around Lake Tahoe, climbing and hiking pieces of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) and the Tahoe Rim Trail and take one day to climb the tallest peak in the area, Mt. Tallac. The eighth day I would drive south to Yosemite and hook up with a few buddies to do some hiking and climbing there for a week.

Mt. Tallac stands 9,735 ft and almost anywhere you stand in Tahoe, this mountain dominates the southwestern sky. This particular winter provided record snow falls for Yosemite as well as Tahoe, and even in mid July, many of the peaks were still heavily laden with snow. Wild flowers of every color dotted the rocky slopes and grassy meadows only missing noticeably in snow fields that could be four feet deep in places. The skies all week had been cloudless; the temperatures in the seventies during the day but dropping to the forties at night even in the lower elevations. It provided perfect weather for my agenda.

The trails and peaks I attempted this first week were relatively tame. The only one that I would have considered difficult was Mt. Tallac. I consulted the rangers at one of the many ranger stations as to the trail conditions, amount of snow I would encounter and up to date weather forecast before I took off for the trail head of Mt. Tallac. The rangers informed me that even though there was still plenty of snow on Mt. Tallac, especially above 8,000 ft., it was passable and I shouldn’t encounter any problems. Hiking and climbing by myself, I feel more comfortable when trail conditions and weather are in my favor.

It took me a full day of strenuous hiking and climbing to reach the summit and to work my way back down the snow and scree fields on the eastern slope. It turned out to be one of the most difficult climbs I had ever done. Once I had reached 8,000 ft elevation the trail would disappear, being covered by four foot deep snow fields the size of football fields. I would cross the snow fields then have to zig zag on the other side till I found the trail. Then I would find myself facing a series of scree fields which I would have to negotiate my way across, doing bouldering across the larger rocks and then find myself scrambling up steep slopes of loose scree, which flowed down the steep slopes below my feet as if it was lava.

Once I reached the upper most ridgeline, about a mile south of the summit, the hiking and climb became much easier. There were grand views to the east and west and the snow fields became almost non-existent, giving way instead to huge alpine meadows filled with wild flowers. It was about this part of the hike that I realized that somewhere on the way up I must have sprained my left hand. My left index finger and knuckle was swollen substantially and throbbed with pain. There had been a very precarious traverse across the face of a bowl on the eastern slope of the mountain. The slope was close to a 45 degree pitch and the snow was very unstable. Where there was not snow, there was loose scree. I had fallen several times during this section and eventually found myself mostly on my hands and knees as I inched my way across the difficult section. It was probably during this traverse where I had injured my hand. I figured it was probably just a bad sprain and continued toward the summit.

Once on the summit of Mt. Tallac there were tremendous views of Lake Tahoe and Fallen Leaf Lake to the northeast. The two huge lakes appeared to be two small drops of royal blue amongst a range of snow peaked mountains layered across the topography below. The view gave no hint of any civilization. I knew from my angle of view where South Lake Tahoe was, and with its many high rise Casinos, one would have thought these would have been visible, but as hard as I tried, I could only imagine.

I sat there amongst the jagged rock outcroppings at 9,735 ft. looking down, imagining the sidewalks of South Lake Tahoe, busy with tourists, gamblers, honeymooners and families stopping and staring at the huge, snowcapped peak to their southwest, looking so close yet so inaccessible. They no doubt stared at the peak and stood amazed at the grandeur and the beauty that Mt. Tallac portrayed, yet as I sat on the very top and looked down, the massiveness, the grandeur and beauty was even more impressive. The actual size and the personality of the mountain becomes evident only when one climbs it, immersing oneself into the actual parts of the mountain, the individual rocks, standing knee deep in it’s snow, crossing it’s many streams, and resting in a meadow of wild flowers that appears to dance to the silent song of a soft breeze. So as I looked out to where the casinos were, I couldn’t see them, and as hard as they might try, they couldn’t even begin to see the real Mt. Tallac.

The climb back down Mt. Tallac was not any easier than the climb up. The difficult traverse across the eastern slope full of soft snow and scree was not any easier and maybe even more difficult as the snow became softer as the day’s heat worked at melting. My left hand continued to swell and nothing seemed to give relief from the throbbing pain. I fell many more times on the way down, scraping my arms and legs. Bruises began to appear on my thighs and forearms from falls that I could not identify because there had been so many. I steadily worked my way back down to the bottom, slipping, sliding, and falling most of the way till I finally reached the end of the trail, which had been the beginning ten hours before.

By the time I drove back to the hotel where I was staying, my body was aching all over. Every joint pained with the slightest motion and I was tired beyond belief. I limped into my room, throwing my pack onto the bed and grabbed an ice cold beer from the mini fridge. I circled my left hand around the ice cold can, attempting to use it as a cold compress, treating the swelling and pain of the sprained left hand. I started the shower, allowing the room to steam as I took off all my clothes. I stood looking into the mirror examining the surfaces of my body, noticing the numerous scrapes and bruises that appeared in places that I couldn’t imagine how they occurred. As the mirror began to become opaque with the warm steam from the shower, I noticed that not only my left hand was significantly swollen but also my left scrotum.

As I studied the swollen sack, I was relieved to realize there was no pain, nor any discoloration to the area. I wondered to myself what may be the cause for the significant swelling. Could it have been caused by one of the falls? Could it be the result of over exertion resulting in some form of a hernia? No answers came to me immediately and since there were no other symptoms, I simply gulped down my cold compress (my beer) in two lengthy gulps and climbed into the shower.

After the shower I felt somewhat better and continued to use cans of beer as a cold compress for my left hand and taking the beer internally for my swollen nut, brings new meaning to beer nuts!. Even though the swelling in both my left hand and left nut did not seem to be reduced by the effort, I did begin to feel better.

Over the next ten days, I continued to ice my left hand and to monitor the swelling of my family jewels. Actually it was only the left jewel that seemed to have a problem. I continued to hike and climb, eventually hooking up with several buddies and spending a week in Yosemite. None of my injuries seemed to be debilitating in any way and I continued the trip as I would have done if no injury had occurred. Once at Yosemite I did briefly consider seeking medical attention for my left hand, but I didn’t want it to interfere with my trip and I knew I already had a scheduled physical exam with my family doctor the week after I returned home. I decided to ignore the injuries and once back home; I would address the issues with my family physician.

Thirteen days after the climb of Mt. Tallac, I was home and on my way to my appointment with my family physician for my annual physical exam. I must admit that I was a little anxious about bringing up the issue of my swollen left nut. I realize that I should not be embarrassed. I should simply explain what happened, let the exam progress and listen to his findings and possible treatment. My left hand had finally returned to normal and I had decided not to even mention that injury. Once at the physician’s office the receptionist informed me that my regular family physician was out, but Ann, the physician’s assistant would see me. “Have a seat and she’ll be with you shortly.” The receptionist said as she went back to schedule book and answering the phone.

I sat in the waiting room with a whole new level of anxiety. Not only was I going to have to drop my drawers, show my manhood, have them poke and prod what I consider my privates but it would be done by a female that I hardly knew. I don’t want you to think that I’m some sort of prude, because I’m not. I have no inhibitions when it comes to nudity. I’ve gone skinny dipping, frequented hot tubs and routinely parade around the house nude and I have no concerns doing so. Somehow, in a clinical setting it’s different. I began to formulate the verbiage I was to use when I discussed the swollen appendage with Ann.

“Hello Mr. Morgan…… let’s see….. last physical exam about a year ago. Blood pressure good, pulse good, we’ve taken some blood for the lab, and we’ll get those results in a few days. Any problems?” Ann said as she looked up from the chart.

“Well kind of……….” I stopped as she stood and put her stethoscope to her ears and told me to take a deep breath as she moved the device across my back.

“Lungs clear….. what’s been going on?” Ann said.

I began to explain the last three weeks, where I had been, what I had been doing and began describing Mt Tallac in detail. I explained how difficult the climb had been, how many times I had fallen and the severe swelling that occurred to my left hand due to an apparent sprain. She grabbed my hand and I waved it off saying that the swelling had eventually gone away and the pain was almost gone.

“What did you do for the sprain?” She questioned as she began to feel my neck, probing for unseen glands and other things I assume.

“I found that an ice cold can of beer worked perfectly as a cold compress. I simply held it in my left hand. Seemed to help.” I said almost proud of myself for thinking of the ingenuity of the treatment.

“Hmmm…. that works.” Ann said as she stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth and told me to say ahhhh. “Any other problems?”

“Yeah…… After I came off the mountain I noticed I had a significant swelling to my…..” and I just simply looked down to my crotch, hoping that she could read my mind, preventing me from having to say, “My left nut magically grew to the size of a baseball, you want to see?”

“A swelling to the groin?” She questioned. “Any pain or discoloration? Let’s take a look.” She said as she sat back down on her little round stool and asked me to stand.

I realize that these professionals, these physicians, physician assistants and nurses, routinely see the different parts of the human body; parts from female, male, old and young. To them these examinations of the anatomy are probably not much different than an automobile mechanics viewing a blown head gasket or a leaky carburetor. They simply look at our parts as just that, parts of a system that they have to make work correctly. While waiting in the waiting room, I gave this much thought, and I rationalized that my problem was just another part, on another patient, that must be fixed, but as I stood in front of the physician assistant, I was sweating and shaking with embarrassment as I prepared to reveal my blown head gasket. At least it wasn’t a broken crank shaft!

I dropped my drawers and stood facing her as she adjusted her eyeglasses and stared at the area of appendages, that hung unresponsive to the coolness of the room or even to the attention they were receiving.

“My…… there is a lot of swelling to the left side. Is there any pain or discomfort?” As she gently felt the surrounding area searching for I don’t know what.

“No…. not at all. As a matter of fact I thought about letting it stay as it is… I’ve never looked better in Speedos!” I said in an attempt to lighten the stress I was feeling.

Ann, the physician gave a little chuckle at my attempt at humor and continued feeling the area of my lower abdomen. “Can you have sex?” She questioned as she continued to probe.

This question took me off guard, and looking back I probably should have expected it, but for a brief moment I was speechless. Let me say that like most men, I am very uncomfortable in any type of clinical setting, especially when I’m the patient. It becomes very uncomfortable when there becomes discussion as to my ability to perform. Not that I’ve ever felt that I’ve had problem, but when questions are asked about performance there is no easy answer. If you say…… “Oh no not at all.” Then you become a braggart. If you say “Sometimes..” Then you become a wimp of sorts. There is no easy answer.

Enough silence occurred to cause Ann, to question me once again, “Sex…….. can you have sex?”

“Well…… I’m happily married to a wonderful woman that I love very much, so I better not…. But thanks for asking.” I said this on the fly, another attempt at humor and it worked for me, because I was beginning to feel for once at ease. Ann glanced at me as if to say “What?” Not able to fully understand my remark while at the same time holding my swollen left nut in her right hand.

“I mean…… can you……you know….. perform……. With your wife?” Ann said as she grinned, albeit was almost to herself, wanting to maintain some amount of professionalism.

“Yeah…. No problem.”

“Have you taken anything for the problem….any cold compresses….Advil or Motrin?” She questioned.

“I used the cold compresses on my hand….. you know the ice cold beer cans…. Then I would drink the beer…. Seemed to help that some.” As I pointed to the issue still in her hand.

“Well…. Probably wouldn’t hurt any…but I doubt it would help either. Let’s set you up with an urologist. Make sure nothing else is going on there. They’ll probably set you up for an ultra-sound. Ok?” She said as she rolled herself on the little round stool back to the counter and started writing notes in the chart.

“Ok.” I said as I began to pull my pants back up to a point of respect.

The next couple of weeks went by with me seeing a variety of physicians, and ultra- sound technicians and the same scenario ensued with embarrassment and concern on my part and concern, interest and embarrassment to a degree on their part as they decided my fate.

Surgery! That was the final prognosis. The details were explained in vivid detail but I elected to ignore the details then reluctantly signed for the necessary procedure. They explained that what had occurred was merely due to trauma and that the only way to correct the problem was surgery, controlled trauma?

I was lying in surgery pre-op when everyone who was the least remotely employed by the hospital seemed to show up and come in, introduce themselves, and begin asking me questions. What’s your name, what’s your date of birth, Why am I here, Which side…. Left or right and it went on and on. The anesthesiologist, an Indian lady, came in and began asking a series of questions. Date of birth? Any allergies? Any problems with anesthesia in the past? Then she asked, “Mr. Morgan any heart problems?”


“Any history of heart attacks in the family?”


“Any history of Tachycardia or Bradycardia?”


“So no issues with the heart?”

I stopped, and once again I could not help myself, “Once……..” and I waited to measure the physician’s response.

Nothing was said; the physician simply brought my chart closer to herself as she prepared to make the necessary notes for her protection.

“My heart was broken once in high school….. Still have the scar….. you want to see?” I said this so matter of factly that for a moment I thought she was going to expect me to pull my gown up for her to view the grotesque scar.

Instead she made a few notes in the chart and briskly walked out of the room, apparently pissed at something.

If she had looked….. noticed the enlarged appendage…. And understood how it had happened….maybe she would not have been so pissed. Maybe she would have understood how I felt. Embarrassed, worried, and apprehensive, but she was gone in a flash, on to the next patient with their own concerns and insecurities.

The surgery went well. No problems. And after several days had passed, I was back to normal. The swelling was magically gone. There were a few stitches and a little pain, but thinking back on how I felt on Mt. Tallac, the pain, the concern, and the worry; this was minuscule. It made me think about the view from the summit, looking down on the valley below. The tourists, the families below were unable to see the full grandeur of Mt. Tallac before them. I on the other hand became a part of the mountain, struggling and pushing myself to its limits. I was able to fully realize the beauty, the grandeur of the mountain. I find it strange that the only way to view a mountain is from a distance, but one must climb it, suffering, feeling the aches and pains, dealing with the exhaustion, to be able to see the mountain in its entirety. I think that’s why I and many others do what we do, to see the mountains in their entirety. They brought a wheel chair to wheel me to my waiting car, and I stood, took a few tentative steps, and thanked God that I was going to be able to climb the next Mt. Tallac.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Valentine Letters

The Valentine Letters

Here it was February 6th and I still hadn’t decided on what to get my wife and daughter for Valentine’s. I had been shopping for that special present, which would portray my deep feelings for the two most special women in my life. This year I was having an extremely difficult time with this task.

In years past, I would simply buy an expensive red sweater, a gold bracelet or necklace, combine it with a sweet valentine card and I would be done. The cards would most always be poetic, penned by an unknown author. This unknown writer was paid by Hallmark to crank out a multitude of sweet messages, offering a bit of variety in the messages, so that all the insensitive and non-talented, husbands and boyfriends, like myself, would have a choice of sweet sayings and heart felt lines of poetic words, to hopefully impress and possibly convince their loved one that they were sensitive and emotionally endearing. My wife and my daughter were always pleased with these tokens of affection, but I knew they fell way short as to what I really felt and even though my wife and daughter feigned being surprised and pleased, I knew my attempt failed miserably.

I remember signing my very first Valentine card when I was in the second grade. My Mother had purchased a box of the cheap, cartoon type, children’s valentines and informed me that if I wanted to give one classmate a card, I would have to give every classmate a card. She explained that if I only gave one person a card, that it would hurt the other classmate’s feelings and to make me further understand she gave me an example. She questioned me as to whom did I want to give a card to. I answered without hesitation, “Diane Gwen and Ricky Gallaher.”

She looked at me with a slight smile on her face and said, “Now what if Diane gave Ricky a valentine card but did not give you one?”

She waited a moment, studying my face as I wrestled with the idea myself, trying to find a way to argue the point, but finally realizing that like always, she was right. I bowed my head as if ashamed and began thumbing through the meaningless cards before me, saying under my breath, “Yeah….. I guess your right.” As I began to shuffle through the cards, studying them in detail I looked at my Mother and asked, “But can I give Diane the one with the bear on it and Ricky the one with the dog? They would like those.”

“Sure you can. You see if they realize you know them as well as you do, by picking out the bear and the dog for them, then they will know you think their special.” My mom said this with a hint of pride, hugging me, realizing that I had begun to understand the concept of friendship and love.

Here I am fifty years later and struggling with the same concept, and this time I can’t give one the bear and the other the dog! So I pull into Jared’s Jewelry store determined to find those special trinkets that captures the feelings I have for these two special people in my life.

There was a middle-aged lady, standing behind the jewelry counter, and as I entered the store she smiled and asked if I needed any help. I could not help but think she saw the desperation on my face as I entered but I tried to be cool and simply said I was “just looking.” I walked around the jewelry cases, studying the necklaces and bracelets, trying to picture what they would look like on my wife and daughter. Most of the pieces of jewelry had their prices hidden; the tag turned upside down, or coded such that I could only guess at the price. Eventually the nice middle-aged lady approached me once again and simply said that if I had any questions that she would attempt to answer them for me. Giving in to her offer, I explained to her that I was looking for something very special for my wife and daughter for Valentines. I continued explaining to her that I wanted it to mean something. It had to be special.

She questioned me as to their ages, and did they prefer white or yellow gold, necklaces or bracelets, diamonds or gem stones. After answering all of her questions to the best of my ability she took me to the far end of the counter and opened the case beneath. She selected a LeVian, 14k Gold, Diamond & Raspberry Rhodolite necklace. It was a teardrop pendant of raspberry Rhodolite, surrounded by intense round chocolate and white diamonds, suspended on an 18 inch cable chain. It was pretty…………................. It was nice………......................... It was $799.99.

The nice lady handed it to me to hold and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it. Was I to bite the diamonds to make sure they were real or spit on the gold cable chain to see if it turned blue? Maybe I would shock her and ask her to clasp it around my neck. I studied the workmanship in the piece of jewelry and it truly was beautiful. The lady then said, “This particular piece has been extremely popular this Valentines. We’ve sold ten this week. Your wife would love it.”

“I’m sure she would.” At least till she realized that the neighbor down the street had the same necklace given to her by her dorky husband! “Thank-you so much for helping me, this necklace is really pretty, but I need to find something………..

“Special?” She finished my sentence for me, and I simply nodded and handed her the $799.99 necklace back. I started to ask her if she had a necklace that had a bear on it and one that had a dog on it but I don’t think she would have understood. I walked out empty handed once again.

By the time I was in junior highschool and I had reached puberty, Valentine’s Day had a whole different meaning to me. It was much different than what my Mother had taught me back in the second grade. With hormones raging in both the boys and the girls, Valentine’s Day was the day of ‘Reckoning’ for most. The strategy was simple. You picked the best looking girl which you felt you might have a chance with, and put all your efforts into that one girl. You saved every dime from your allowance and you’re mowing of lawns to buy her the most grandiloquent card and gaudy piece of jewelry you could afford. You would present it to her and then sit back and enjoy the hugs and kisses that came your way. In a way this was exactly the opposite of what my Mother had taught me back in the second grade. Now you didn’t worry about the other peoples feelings, because in reality there were no feelings at all. You simply gave a gift, an acknowledgement of sorts to someone you thought was attractive, and if your strategy worked you got paid back in the form of attention and possibly a little affection. Life was simple.

College days were even better. I don’t know if it was the result of all the education or simply gained experience in relationships but by the time I reached college, I realized that going steady, dating, and showing extreme affection toward a girl was the best thing I could do to keep life interesting and subdue the stress of studies, although it was important to realize that for three months, December, January and February, one had to stay out of a relationship. I discovered that if you were not in a relationship during those three months then there would be no Christmas presents to buy and I would not have to worry about the Valentine’s Day gift or card at all. All the expectations that surrounded these two special holidays were eliminated, simply by avoiding a relationship during this time. I don’t want you to think that I was being cheap or cold hearted, because in reality the relationships I speak of were rather shallow to begin with. One of the relationships was based primarily on the fact that she and I drank the same kind of beer, and we could easily share a pitcher at the neighborhood watering hole without much discussion or debate. In my eyes, we were very much compatible and in an entrusting relationship. Even though this immature strategy worked for me in college, I don’t think my Wife or daughter would like the idea of me breaking it off with them for three months out of the year, and to tell you the truth, I would not like it either, because our relationship is meaningful, it is deep and heartfelt. That is why I have to find that special gift for both of them. You’re probably wondering how I’ve managed to find the perfect gifts for them in the past. I have been married thirty years now and my daughter is twenty-four, and I don’t think I have ever given them what they deserved. I can give them my love, my devotion, my respect and trust, but to find that present, that gift, or that card that expresses all this seems to be beyond my capabilities. So I continue to search, debating all the options, how best to show my love.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on-line searching for romantic weekend getaway destinations such as the Bahamas, Virgin Islands and even considered a Bed & Breakfast in Hot Springs, North Carolina for my Wife and I. I studied several Adventure weekend getaways for my daughter and I. Several of these appeared to be promising and I decided that, yes, I would have to do some of these but not for Valentine’s Day. There was no way I could whisk my Wife or my daughter off for a long weekend, without some in depth planning on my part and also had to have their input for their schedules. It would not be a surprise.

After several days of frustration, visits to the mall, more jewelry stores, and on-line searching I gave up. I decided that once again I would buy one of those cheesy Hallmark Valentine cards, throw in a sweater and a box of chocolates and be done with it; after all they had to know how much I loved them.

That’s when it hit me. The second grade when my mother said, “If you know them that well, they will realize what you chose was special for them.” I knew then what I would do for my wife and daughter. I would simply write them, in my own words a letter, expressing how I felt for each of them. How much they each meant to me. I was on a mission now, not to find a card, a necklace, or a box of candy but rather the right words that mirrored my heart. This was not going to be easy!

The letter I wrote to my wife is as follows:

To Rhonda, My Dear Wife,

Let me first say that I am so sorry that I don’t tell you how much I love you more than I do. It’s not because I don’t feel the love, it’s simply because I run out of ways to say it in a meaningful way. The way it deserves to be said to you.

I don’t pretend to know what love is to everyone, but I know what it is for me: Love is knowing all about someone, and still wanting to be with them more than any other person, love is trusting them enough to tell them everything about yourself, including the things that you might be ashamed of, love is feeling comfortable and safe with someone, but still getting weak knees when they walk into the room and smile at you. I guess in a way, love is just a word, until someone like you comes along and gives it meaning.

I spent many years looking for the right woman. The woman I could live with the rest of my life, instead I found you, the woman I could not live without.

I thank God everyday for bringing you into my life. You inspire me to be a better than I would have been on my own, teaching me to laugh and see the joy in life. You have given me your unconditional love and demanded nothing in return. You have been an unselfish mother to our daughter, sacrificing your time and energy to give her a better life and even after a hard day at work, an afternoon full of running errands and car pools you still find time for me. You give me that smile, you have my undivided attention, you give me that laugh, you have my urge to laugh with you, when you cry, you have my urge to hold you, but when you tell me you love me, you have my heart forever.

Thank-you so much for being you.

Love you

The letter to my daughter followed:

To My Daughter Haley,

If I had been asked twenty-four years ago, what more could a man like me want, I would not have known how to answer. I had everything. I had a beautiful wife that I loved dearly and she apparently loved me. I had a good job, good health, a nice house and a bright future. I was happy.

Even though I did not know what I was missing, God did, and soon you were born.

From the very first time I laid eyes on you, I felt love like I had never felt before. I had never held a baby before in my life, and immediately after you were born you were thrust into my apprehensive arms. My heart raced, trying to remember the things I had read on how to properly hold an infant, but then a funny thing happened. My heart took over and the love I felt somehow guided me to do the right things.

I watched as you grew, and I shouted with joy as we together took your first steps. I shared in the joy of your discoveries of the world around you and felt your pain as much if not more than you, when things did not go just right.

I watched as you became a woman, reminding me of your beautiful mom, when she was your age and even though I consider you lucky not to have acquired my looks, I still see part of myself in you everyday. I am glad you have learned to see the humor in life, the joys, the trials and the rewards that come with living and I thank God everyday that I am there to share it with you as I was when I held you that very first time.

I know I don’t tell you I love you as much as I should, but I simply run out of ways to express it in a meaningful way. Sometimes I wish I could just simply turn my heart inside-out, and simply let you see for yourself, but we know this is not possible, so I will continue to attempt to show you how much you truly mean to your Mother and I. Hopefully as I did the day I first held you, I will let the heart take over, and let the love guide me to do the right things.

Thank-you for being such a loving daughter

Love You,

Once the letters were written, I read them over and over, changing a word here and there and even though I knew it would never win a Pulitzer Prize or even draw accolades from Hallmark, I knew it was written from my heart, and somehow I knew that both my wife and daughter would see these letters much the same as Diane Gwen and Ricky Gallaher viewed the ‘Bear’ and ‘Dog’ cards, they would understand that they were special.

I sealed each letter in their respective envelopes and addressed each, and stopped by the FedEx store to send the precious documents to my wife and daughter. I was assured they would be delivered on Valentine’s Day. I walked away feeling satisfied with my effort.

Valentine’s Day arrived. I, myself, received a touching and sweet Hallmark card from my wife and I got a beautiful red sweater from my daughter. I anxiously waited for the girl’s letters to be delivered.

Mid-afternoon there was a knock at the door, my wife and daughter, glancing my way as if to encourage me to answer the door. They both were watching television and seemingly did not want to be disturbed, but I did not budge. I picked up the newspaper, pretending to read, seemingly oblivious to the knock at the door. Rhonda, my wife, begrudgingly walked to the front door, retrieving the two FedEx envelopes addressed to her and my daughter. The expression on their faces was priceless as they both wondered what the two envelopes could contain. As they tore open the envelopes and began to read, their expressions turned from inquisitive, to surprise, to heartfelt emotions as tears trickled down each of their cheeks as they read the contents. As they both finished their letters they both came to hug me, tears on their cheeks dampening my beard, both expressing their surprise and appreciation for such thoughtfulness. My wife hugged me and still with tears running down her cheek and a smile gracing her lips, she explained, “That was the sweetest thing I have ever received from anyone. The only thing that could have made it better was if I had gotten my letter and Haley had gotten hers.” She gave a little laugh under her breath and reached up and kissed me on my cheek. I glanced at her and my daughter and they explained that the envelope addressed to my wife had actually contained the letter to my daughter and my daughter’s envelope contained my wife’s letter. They exchanged the letters and each read the correct one as I sat dumfounded, amazed at my stupid mistake.

After reading the correct letters they both were even more impressed and assured me that actually it was kind of neat to have read the wrong letter first. They talked about each other’s letter and how sweet certain lines were and how they could not believe I was so thoughtful as to reveal these heartfelt emotions in the way I did. I then excused myself and went to my desk and retrieved two small envelopes. One simply said ‘Rhonda’ the other said ‘Haley’. They tore open the envelopes only to reveal two, child like, Valentine cards. One was a bear that said “Be my Valentine” the other was a dog that said “Be my Valentine”. Both my daughter and my Wife looked at me as if questioning my sanity. I simply said, “Let me tell you the story.”

Monday, January 24, 2011


Evening Star

Two days after my mother had passed, I found myself sorting through old photos in her now vacant room at the nursing home. I felt overwhelmed, not by the quantity of items, for there was not much to go through, but it was the emotions that were attached to certain items and in particular certain photographs. These I found to be heart wrenching. Every nook and cranny in my Mother’s room seemed to have photos of our family’s past. There were old black and white photos, yellowing with age, images of what once was. A photo of my Mother and Father as a young married couple, their happiness apparent in their smiles and their eyes gazing into the lens of the camera with a sense of anticipation and hope, full of dreams of what the future might bring. There were recent photos also intermingled throughout the agglomeration of prints. My Mother wrinkled from age, hair thin and gray, a slight smile gracing her pursed lips and the twinkle in her eyes dimmed to just a glimmer of what it had been in years past. All the hope, dreams and anticipation she once had seemingly vanquished from her soul. I thumbed through a stack of old photos, stopping at one of me and my Mother when I was only about six years old. I was smiling broadly, probably laughing at something the photographer had said and my Mother smiling the same, as if there were no worries and her dreams fulfilled. A tear slowly trickled down my cheek as more memories came to mind.

“Morning Glory.” That was what my mom used as a greeting to most everyone and in time everyone began to associate this simple and unique greeting to Garnet, my Mom. She would always insist they give the proper response which was “and Evening Star.” I never understood the meaning behind the greeting, and I’m not sure she did either, but it became a part of my Mom as much as her blue-gray eyes and her comedic personality. It’s been said that the Morning Glory flower symbolizes ‘Love in Vain’ and the Evening Star, which is actually the planet Venus appearing on the Western horizon just after sunset, has been used for centuries by ancient civilizations to give direction to lost sailors and to aid in navigation. What-ever the real meaning behind the greeting and response, I like to think it was something my Mom had a clear understanding of and to her it was special.

Three days ago I was called and told my Mother was taken from the nursing home to the hospital. The attending physician sadly informed me that she was not expected to live through the night. I notified my brother and sister and we all made the necessary arrangements to travel and be by her side. Hopefully we would all arrive before she succumbed. My Mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years previous and the disease had taken most of her mental faculties, leaving only a worn and sickened shell of a body. As the disease progressed and we saw our mother regress we began to realize the end was near, it still left us in disbelief; unable to accept and comprehend the simple finality of life.

The hospital room was small, my mother lying in her bed, appearing to be unconscious; struggling with every breath was what we watched. We found ourselves trying to breathe deeper ourselves, subconsciously trying to take her next breath for her, only to see her once again grab another gasp of air. The only sound was an occasional beep from the monitors that disturbed the slow, shallow whispers of breathing as we sat in silence. Each of us lost in our own thoughts, struggling with what we knew was inevitable. I found myself dwelling on memories of time past with my Mom. Back to when she was healthy and young, always there to hug me when I was hurt, always giving me encouragement when I struggled, and seemingly absorbing all the pain and sorrow of each of her children with no regret or hesitation. She was the backbone of our family, the cohesion that held the different personalities and souls of our family together.

Looking back to when I was young, I realize now that even though I can only remember a couple of times that my mother actually spanked me, she was our family’s disciplinarian. She kept order by casting a warning glance or quoting a bible verse to make a point, making us feel ashamed and guilty for causing her so much disappointment. She would often say, “Just wait till your father gets home,” a warning that would always put fear in us, but never did it ever come to be. By the time my father arrived from work, the punishment had always been administered in her motherly way, leaving us alone in our room having to deal with the shame that we felt having disappointed our mother.

I remember once being punished in a very unique way. What’s strange is I can’t remember what I did wrong now, but I can vividly remember her punishment. Giving me that glare of motherly disappointment she instructed me to go out to the yard and retrieve a switch. She further instructed it had better be a substantial one. Sobbing and feeling terribly guilty, I slowly did as I was told, bringing her a long, flexible, whip of a stick. As I quivered and sobbed, begging her not to whip me, she simply knelt and instructed me to whip her instead. I stood there confused and bewildered as to her command. With sobs of her own she explained how much it hurt her to spank or discipline me and that she wanted me to feel the same pain and hurt she always felt when administering any form of discipline. I stood there shaking and crying, begging her not to make me whip her. At nine years old, I learned a life long lesson that day about love, life and pain that runs much deeper than I had realized before.

Sitting on her hospital bed, with the smells of antiseptic cleaners and solutions filling the tiny room in the nursing home my mother had spent her last days, I once again began thumbing through the old photos. My emotions were darting from past to present with a confused mingling of thoughts. I came across a photo of my brother and me, posing with our mother on the front steps of our house. I was about thirteen, my brother sixteen and we all appeared happy and content. It reminded me of the time our family was sitting around the dinner table, which was almost always an informal event. Five of us crowded around a small dinette, plates filled from the stove, each describing their individual events of the day. Fish sticks and ketchup, macaroni and cheese and black-eyed peas filled our plates and we each held our glasses out for our mother to fill with her pitcher of sweet tea. When it came my turn for my glass to be filled, there was an urge deep within me to suddenly yank the glass away from the slow pouring pitcher my mother held in her hand. I’m not sure if I thought that it would be funny or maybe just some adolescent prank that was willed into me by some unknown force, but just at the time she began to fill my glass, I yanked it away. The tea went splashing onto the table. For a brief second there was total quiet as what I did slowly began to register in everyone’s mind. I was waiting for everyone to start laughing, and they eventually did, but not until my Mother, the master of discipline, took the full pitcher of tea and poured it over my head. I sat there aghast, drenched in the cold, sweet beverage amongst the roaring laughter of my siblings and my father. This was one of the few times I ever heard my mother use profane language. As she emptied the pitcher over my head she said, “You little piss-ant.” I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time but I figured it wasn’t good.

Sometimes there was no need for punishment because she was adept at giving sufficient warning and explaining what consequences may occur. One of her favorite sayings was “I’ll cut you down to size,” or another one was “I’ll paint your breeches red.” As a parent myself I have tried these simple phrases on my own daughter, but for some reason they never seemed to have the same affect on her as they did on me.

Profanity was seldom used within our family and this may be why that to this day I still feel uncomfortable using profanity in public. With the exception of sh..t, usually pronounced shhheeee, never completing the sound with the final ‘t’ seemed to make it ok to use in a mixed family setting. When riding with my mother in heavy traffic, showing frustration at some inept driver, I would sometimes hear her say, under her breath, “either shhhheeee or get off the pot.” I do remember on a couple of occasions, her ‘flipping off’, ‘giving the finger’ to an unsuspecting driver that either cut her off or made one of many other driving faux pas. I always found this humorous, because it never seemed very natural for her to do. She always appeared to struggle with the necessary dexterity to maneuver her fingers in such a way as to display the necessary finger in a timely manner.

My mother was extremely religious, dedicated to her church and her deep faith in God. She insisted the family attend and participate in the church as well, and I feel deeply indebted to her for these values. Some of my best friends and many of my mentors that I still try to emulate came from these church settings. She would often speak of the relationship she had with God, describing her conversations with God as if it was done with a friend over a cup of coffee. She always seemed to be closer to God than most, and this now brings me a peace of mind, knowing that she will be in heaven soon, without pain and with God whom she knew so well in life.

After much thought I once again began sorting the photos. I found myself putting family photos in one pile, friends and acquaintances in another, attempting to have them in somewhat chronological order. I study another photo, this one recent, of my worn, tired, and sick Mom posing with her new Great-Grandchild Henry. This photo had just been taken a few weeks before and her happiness overcame the pain and sickness of her physical self. Smiling broadly, she looked at the new soul, the small infant Henry in her arms and seemed to briefly be at peace. I imagined her to be saying, “Morning Glory” as she cradled little Henry in her weakened arms.

Mom passed January 7th, 2011, one day before her eighty-third birthday. My brother Ron, my sister Jodie and I were by her side as she breathed her last breath. It’s comforting to know that she passed peacefully and without pain, with her children by her side seeking comfort and understanding from each other, something Mom had always wanted to be. Everything was silent; there was no sound of shallow breaths or beeping monitors, a moment of reckoning for each child as we gazed at her departed soul. I listened for a sound of life, a comforting word from God, but there was only a whisper within myself that simply said, “Good-bye Evening Star.”

Everyone will deal with the death of a loved one sometime in their life, this is inevitable. No matter how well we prepare ourselves for this, it still will remain difficult and overwhelming emotionally for most. Some will try to lay blame for the taking away of their loved one, sometimes blaming God. Some may blame the physicians that treated their loved ones saying it was their fault, their inability to save them from the illness that took their life. Sometimes one will claim that it is not fair, as if there is an option to death. Kahlil Gibran, a famous Lebanese poet, philosopher and artist once wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

Thanks Mom for everything, you will be missed.