Thursday, September 17, 2015

On Death and Dying

I've been thinking about death and dying a lot lately, especially as seen through they the eyes of J.P., 7, and Joe, 3.

I wanted to organize my thoughts, so I could write a cogent post on the subject.  I don't think I'm there yet.

Tonight, when I got home with takeout food from Martin's Barbecue after J.P.'s baseball game, I could tell he was down.  I was a bit surprised, since he played well in the game and was fine when we left in separate cars a little while earlier.  When I asked him if anything was wrong, he started crying and said "I miss Great."  (J.P.'s Great Grandmother, Rita White, died on August 6, 2015).  He allowed me to pick him up, which is rare these days, and he laid his head on my shoulder and cried.  Joe sat in the floor behind us. playing Candyland, oblivious to what was going on.

I held J.P. and talked quietly to him while Jude bustled about the kitchen.  I told him part of having faith - and part of the reason why we were in church almost every Sunday - was that we believe that Great is in heaven.  She's with her husband, Jim, whom she missed dearly after he died.  And she's not sick and she's very, very happy.  I also told him she watched over him (and us) every day and that she was proud of him.

I believe that.  I have to and I really do.

At dinner when we eat at the table in the dining room, we always say a prayer before dinner.  It's the same prayer, kind of a "White family tradition."  Sometimes - actually most of the time lately, anyway - Joe adds his own prayer at the end.  He prays for Grandpa's back and legs to feel better, for Meemaw's back to feel better and for Great's head and back to feel better.  He blissfully ignorant when it comes to death, which is how it should be at age 3.

When Joe and I go to Bongo Java most mornings before I take him to Children's House, he sometimes looks for Fudgecake (the cat that inhabited the Bongo Java grounds and the establishments on Belmont Boulevard on both sides of Bongo Java for the past decade).  Fudgecake died recently, not too long after Great passed away, and I just haven't had the heart to tell Joe or, especially, J.P.  Lately, Joe is asking about Fudgecake less and less, which somehow makes me feel even worse about his death.

To top things off and because bad things always seem to come in threes, I stopped in our neighborhood Kroger a couple of weeks ago and while I was in line, asked about our friend, Eddie, who has been a fixture in that store since we moved here in 2002.  The cashier and the bagger looked at each other, then at me, and told me that Eddie was sick - cancer - and would not be coming back to work.  Eddie has been so great to J.P. and Joe over the years on their many, many trips to Kroger.  The boys adore him.  Shit, I adore him.

And now he's dying.

I told Jude about it and the boys made him a card and dropped it off at the service desk at Kroger.  I hope he got the card and I hope he remembers who the boys are and, most importantly, that he had a really impact on their lives.  His kindness and friendliness toward them was a small thing, but it was a  huge thing, too.  I haven't had the heart to tell them that Eddie is terminally ill and that he's not coming back to work.

Unlike Jude, I am kind of an expert at losing people you love - people to whom you're close - when you're very young.  The loss of my father when I was 5 or 6 (strange that I don't know exactly how old I was) marked me for life in ways seen and unseen.  I know that.  I also lost my grandfather, Robert Ussery, and my mom's sister, Ann Miles, while I was in elementary school.  That's heavy stuff for a young boy to go through.

I think - no, I know - that when you're young, like J.P., and someone you loves dies, you experience a profound loss of innocence.  That's what makes me the most sad, for him.  He's 7 years old and much like me at that age, he realizes that nothing lasts forever and that people die.  People he loves will die and there's nothing he can do about it.  Again, heavy stuff for a 7 year old.  He realizes, I think, on some level that nothing lasts forever and that life is impermanent and fleeting.  He probably couldn't verbalize that notion, but I think it's what he feels.  And I think it's why he started crying tonight and on a few occasions recently, thinking about Great and how much he misses her.

I wish there was some way I could shield him from that reality, some way I could protect him from the loss of innocence.  But there's not.      

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Return of the King(s)

It's Monday morning, Labor Day, and I'm enjoying the relative quietude at Bongo Java.  Jude and the boys are on their annual sojourn to Neptune Beach, Fl, to visit the Baines family.  I'm reflecting, just a bit, before I go the airport to pick them up in a couple of hours.

While I enjoyed the down time, I'm ready for them to get home.  A few moments ago, J.P. called as they were about to board the airplane for the return flight to Nashville.  "Dad," he said.  "When we get home, can we throw the baseball or go to the gym for a workout?"  Music to my ears.  "Of course," I responded.  One of the advantages, I think, of raising boys who aren't tethered to a screen (television, iPad, iPhone) is that want to "do" things instead of just "watching" things.  I want my boys to be participants in life, not merely observers.

Probably the highlight of my weekend, strangely enough, was finally finding the time to read Wright Thompson's wonderful, insightful long form piece on New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday, after going to the office and working for most of the day, I sat in a quiet corner of the bar at Edley's, had a couple of beers (Oskar Blues Pinner Throwback IPA's) and read the entire article.  Amazing work and a perfect example of why Wright Thompson is one of the best writers working today.

The link to the story is here:

Yesterday morning, I ran 7 + miles on the trails at Shelby Bottoms.  I've been getting out there more lately, which has been nice.  Finally, I'm getting into a rhythm, I think, and finding some balance between work/family/running.  Getting up early, well before 6 a.m., and running has made a big difference.  It's funny, but running five days last week and getting 20 miles in is a big accomplishment when, a few years ago, that was my routine.

During my trail run, I listened to a fantastic "This American Life" podcast, "9 + 10."  Ira Glass and crew took a walking tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, ten years after Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it wrought.  By the end of the podcast, I was in tears as I listened to a recording of the reunion of two friends who hadn't seen each other in the decade since the flooding that followed the hurricane.  It was beautiful radio.

The link to the podcast is here:

All right, enough reflection.  It's time to stop by the house and head to the airport.  I want to hug my boys.


Friday, September 4, 2015

No Ordinary Joe

I'm sitting at Bongo Java, listening to a Trampled By Turtles playlist on Spotify, wondering how I got here.

In approximately 20 minutes, Jude will drop Joe off at Children's House for his first day of school.  And so it ends.  And so it begins.

Gone is the age of true innocence for Joe, when most of his days involved Carley, Maghan, Grandma and Grandpa and whatever it was that he wanted to do next.  Play in the sandbox, go for a walk, listen to Thomas the Train music, go the playground, call Jonny Love, go outside (at our Elliott Avenue house), take an nap, have some milk or snack or, more recently, play games (Candyland, Guess Who, War, Hullabuloo, etc.).  In essence, the world revolved around Joe, or so it seemed to him, anyway, at least during the day when J.P. was at school.

That all changes today.  While I love - and I mean LOVE - Children's House and all it provided for J.P. and will provide for Joe, I'm still sad that Joe has reached the end of a long line of seemingly endless days of living life in the safety of his own home are at an end.  The flip side, of course, is that starting this morning, the world is going to open up for him in a landscape of endless possibilities.  I take comfort in that, but still, I can't shake the nagging feeling that something will be lost this morning when he walks through the doors of the school.

I wonder what Joe will think - what he will feel - when Jude drops him off 15 minutes from now.  I have no idea, obviously, of the thoughts he's capable of forming or the emotions he's capable of feeling, beyond happiness, excitement, sadness, anger, fright, etc.  The basics.  I don't know how nuanced his ability to think and feel actually is at 3 1/2 years of age.

I do know, however, Joe is an extraordinary young boy.  He's so verbal, intelligent, funny, stubborn, shy at times, strong willed and athletic.  When he smiles and laughs - which is often - he literally lights up the room.  He has a vivid imagination.  He seems to have an inner sense of self confidence, although it's hard to put my finger on why I feel that way.  He loves sports, especially baseball.  I guess that's natural, since he's accompanied J.P. to virtually every practice or game he's had since the day he was born.

After today, Joe's life will be irrevocably changed.  Sure, he's gone a couple of days a week to play school at West End United Methodist Church the past year, but Children's House is different.  It's more structured.  There are rules.  There will be learning.  There will be lots of playground time.  And there will be lots of others children, his age and older (4 and 5).  He will be around the teachers and children in Classroom B almost every day for the next two years.  His world will expand to include Children's House and that will become a vital part of his life and development.  And I know that's a good thing.

(As an aside, I have to mention that "Alone" by Trampled by Turtles is playing right now.  That has always been Joe's favorite "Turtles" song, by far.  We have a video of him singing along to that song, in my truck, a couple of  years ago as we left Gentry Farm on a glorious fall Saturday).

He's ready, I think.  I'm waiting on the call from Jude any minute now, so she can give me a full report on how Joe did at the dropoff.  Will he cry?  Will he not want to get out of the car?  Or will he hop right out and walk inside on his own, not looking back, like J.P. did four years ago?  I was the one that cried that day, actually.

God blessed me with a second son when I least expected it.  And now, today, I'm blessed again as Joe takes an important step in his life's walk to wherever it is that he's going.  It's an honor and a privilege to be along of the ride.  

Monday, August 24, 2015


Recently, on our first ever trip to the Wilson County Fair, I made one of my bottom 5 worst parenting decisions.  That's saying a lot, for me.

We arrived at the fair in Lebanon shortly after it opened on Saturday morning, about 10:15 a.m.  Most of the rides weren't running yet, so Jude, J.P., Joe and I wandered aimlessly around the midway.  We hit what passed for the Wilson County Fair's version of the "Euroslide," always a favorite of the boys at the State Fair.  There's not much to it, really.  A tall slide (a long walk up), burlap mats and fast slide down.  J.P. raced Joe and me down several times, with Joe riding in my lap.  Good stuff.

So far, so good, until I decided it would be a good idea for J.P. and me to to shoot some live zombies with paint ball funs.  Now, mind you, I'd never shot a paint ball gun or a zombie, for that matter.  Still, the concept seemed sound.  Paint ball guns, paint balls, live zombies. What could go wrong?

As we walked over to the setup (2 trailers pulled together longways) with tents of some sort off the open sides, J.P. and I joked about who would be more scared.  That question was quickly answered after we picked up our paint balls and walked inside the trailer.  It was dark, there were folding chairs for us to sit in and paint ball guns chained to a wire in front of us.  There were disembodied legs, arms and hand hanging in the air.  The lights went out, music started playing - loudly - and strobe lights flashed.  Then, zombies darted across the grassy, tented area.

J.P. was terrified, near tears as he huddled behind me.  I, of course, shot zombies with a vengeance, or tried to, anyway.  After my "ammunition" was spent, we started to walk out of the trailer.  One of the zombies reached through the half window and grabbed J.P. as he screamed.

Father of the year?  Not anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Weekend at Joe's Place

Last weekend, Jude and J.P. traveled to Charlotte, NC, for the christening of Jude's niece, Caroline.  That left Joe and me "home alone."

I was excited about spending the weekend with Joe, in large part because he's stuck in a bit of a "mommy phase."  For example, he wants Jude to do things for him that I can do, like pouring his milk, helping him down off his stool after breakfast, getting him out of the car, etc.  Truthfully, it gets annoying, although I know - based on my experience with J.P. - that it will change with time, about the time Joe turns 4 years old and I start coaching him in various sports.

I was a little apprehensive about how Joe would behave once he realized Jude was gone for the weekend.  Of course, I shouldn't have been, because he was perfectly fine hanging out with me and we had a blast.  From my vantage point, it was a landmark weekend for the two of us, because we really got to spend time together, one-on-one.  It's difficult to find that kind of one-on-one time when you have two boys, both of whom need and demand attention and supervision, and an exceptional mother like Jude.  Joe did great with me, and it was amazing to spend time with him, just the two of us.

Friday early evening, we went to Martin's BBQ for dinner.  Although we arrived early, it was a bit crowded, so Joe and I grabbed a table near the front of the restaurant, where people queue up to wait to order food.  By design, we sat directly in front of a television showing the Dodgers-Pirates game.  As always, Joe was really, really into the game.  After every pitch, he looked at me earnestly and asked, "was that a strike?"  If the Dodgers were in the field and I answered in the affirmative, he yelled "Yes!" and pumped his fists.  If the Dodgers got a hit, he clapped and cheered, loudly.  The people in line nodded our way and laughed at his enthusiasm.  My three year old, the diehard sports fan.  Craziness.

After dinner, we went to Bongo Java, where Joe played football with Megan, one of young ladies who works there.  She loves him and it was a joy to watch them playing together on a slow night at the coffee shop which, of course, is my second home and my second office.

That night, I put Joe down to bed, but not before reminding him that once he laid down, there was no getting up until 7 a.m. the next morning.  No water, no going potty one more time, no fixing his blanket to cover his feet.  We covered all of that before he got into bed.  And you know what?  He went to sleep immediately and at 7 a.m. on the dot Saturday morning, I heard a pitter patter of little feet, then Joe peeped in our bedroom.  A perfect night!

Joe and I watched "Sid the Science Kid" (which I absolutely love), then drove to East Nashville for Tomatofest.  We strolled up and down the streets near "Five Points," then went to the Cumberland Water Park.  Joe had a great time playing in the water at the park.  Such a great time, in fact, that he punched me when I insisted it was time to go.  Well, you can't win them all.

Saturday afternoon, I strolled him down to Mafiozza's while he napped.  I had a couple of beers and talked to my guy, Doc, at the bar.  It was cool, because it had been a while since I had talked to Doc and it was a repeat of some afternoons J.P. and I spent there when he was Joe's age.  Then, it as back home, where we met my mom, who had driven up from Brentwood.  We went to dinner at Burger Up, which went well.  Saturday night, Joe went to bed again with no fussing and slept the entire night without a problem.

Sunday morning, Joe and I went to Bongo Java for breakfast, where we ran into Ms. Hagan, J.P.'s kindergarten teach at USN last year.  It was great to see her and we made plans to meet her again when J.P. could be there.  Then, it was off to Kroger, church and home for lunch.  Joe napped in his bed and Jude and J.P. got home that evening.

It was such a meaningful, special weekend with Joe.  We laughed - a lot - played games and just enjoyed each other's company.  In short, we figured it out, which is a lot of what parenting boils down to, it seems to me.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Jude's grandmother, Rita White,  whom my boys called "Great," died last night.  She had been in hospice care for a couple of weeks and although it was time, I think, it's still sad to those of us who loved her and were loved by her.

Classy.  Kind.  Caring.  Smart.  Funny.  Spiritual.  Generous.  Wise.  Strong.  And, to the end, as Jude's dad, Jim, said yesterday - Scrappy.  Man, was she scrappy.

Jude and I had struggled with what to tell J.P. and Joe about Great and how she was doing.  Reluctantly, we decided we didn't want J.P. worrying about her every day and night, which would have been the case if we told him she was in hospice care.  Instead, we told him she was in the hospital.  The right decision?  I hope so.

The first or second night she was admitted to hospice care, Great and Jim called us at home.  She talked to each of the boys, who were completely oblivious to the fact that it might be the last time they would talk to her.  Jude and I fought back tears as J.P. paced around the living room, carrying the cellular telephone with him, describing in detail for Great his day at Zoo Camp.  She listened patiently and asked questions, as she always does, or did.  My heart broke a little bit toward the end of the call, when she told the boys "to always be good boys" and that she loved them.  She was telling them goodbye.

Fortunately, Jude and J.P. were able to stop by and see Great before we left for the beach.  That was a relief to Jude, I know, and something I think J.P. will appreciate as he gets older.  Last night, on the way home from work, Jude stopped by to see Great.  I think God had a hand in that, as we later learned Great died about 15 minutes after Jude left.

Last night, at bedtime, Jude told the boys Great had died.  J.P. took it really hard, as we knew he would.  He yelled "what!?!" with a confused look on his face, then dissolved into tears as Jude hugged him.  There's no blueprint for helping your child through the death of someone he loves, especially  the first time it happens.  We tried to comfort him as best we could and let him know that it's okay to be sad.  We also let him know that if he had questions or wanted to talk about it, we are here for him.  He tends to internalize things, but I hope he will open up to us about Great's death in the coming days and weeks.

When J.P. was born, I kidded Great and told her I had arranged for nicknames for all of the ladies on Jude's side of the family.  Jane (Jude's mother) would be "Big Momma" and Rita (who was called Grandmother up to that point) would be called "Great Big Momma."  I kept up with that for a bit, until finally, Great looked at me somewhat sternly and said, you will not teach J.P. to call me "Great Big Momma."  Message received and soon thereafter, the nickname "Great" was born, which she seemed to enjoy.

As a father, part of what I loved the most about Great was watching her interact with J.P. and Joe.  There was no invisible wall of reserve or decorum between them, as there sometimes is between grandparents and grandchildren.  From day one, she hugged them, kissed them and doted on them.  And they loved her with all of their little, growing hearts.  It was a joy to see.

On a personal note, Great accepted me into the family without reservation, from the first time I met her at her house in Bellevue on Easter weekend 17 or 18 years ago.  I'll never forget that,  because I think in some ways she set and example for others to follows.  Over the years, we kidded each other and I grew to love our interactions, as she quickly responded to something I said in jest, with an ever present twinkle in her eye and a sly smile on her face.

As I told J.P. last night, if ever there was a life well lived - a full life - it was Great's life.  She raised five amazing children, served as a role model to grandchildren (and their spouses) and great grandchildren and in her quiet way, I think, reminded all of us of the importance of family.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Reach the Beach 2015

It's Friday afternoon and Joe and I are sitting at the bar at 45 Central Wine Bar in Seaside, FL.  It's anew place I discovered on one of our forays to Seaside earlier in the week.  It opened 3 months ago and it seems the masses of tourists haven't discovered it yet, so it's quiet.  That makes it the perfect place for Joe to sleep while I write.

We leave for home tomorrow morning, so I'm a little melancholy this afternoon.  As always, our week in Santa Rosa Beach went by far too quickly.  I was thinking yesterday, it's so rare that Jude and I get a full week with the boys all to ourselves.  No school, no work, no sports and no real distractions.  That's part of what makes our annual vacation here so special, I think.  It occurs to me we'll get, if we're lucky, 18 weeks like this with our boys.  Actually, less than that, because soon enough J.P. will want to bring a friend or he and Joe will want to do their own thing while we're on vacation.  It boils down to one week year with my boys, while they're still relatively young, then they're off to college and it's over.  Damn, now I'm really feeling melancholy.

It's great, as J.P. and Joe are getting old enough to play together and enjoy each other's company.  It's really cool to watch them fooling around, making each other laugh, as only brothers can do.  We're blessed to have the boys we have, no doubt about it.

As always, memories from the week, in no particular order -

  • By far, our best long car trip with the boys on the ride down (let's hope our luck holds on the way home tomorrow).  2 stops, only for restroom breaks (no McDonald's play areas!) and we made it in about 8 hours, with some traffic.  J.P. didn't get sick until we were about 2 miles from the beach house.  We were THIS close to a vomit-free trip.  
  • Joe loved the beach, which was a big, big change from years past.  He loved everything about it  the sand, the waves and the ocean.  J.P., too, was all about the waves and the ocean.  It was great to watch J.P. swim nearby, but not to have to be with him every minute.  He's getting more and more independent.
  • Playing football with J.P. in the ocean, especially when we took turns pretending to be Blaine Bishop (former Titans' star) on a safety blitz or Javon Kearse sacking the quarterback off the edge.  When I tackled J.P. in the surf and stripped the football, he laughed and laughed.  It was a beautiful thing.  
  • Joe, baseball crazy as ever, playing a form of "beach baseball" with Jude for hours every day.  He would "hit" the ball with a modified, toy lacrosse stick, then "run" the bases on the beach while Jude chased him.  Then, Joe would "pitch" and Jude would hit.  Over and over again, with Joe squealing and laughing the entire time.
  • Lots of fun in the mornings in the pool with J.P. and Joe.  Again, Joe played a form of "pool baseball" with Jude while J.P. and I roughhoused with each other.  
  • An aborted dinner at the abominable Goatfeathers restaurant, which led to a top 10 all-time family meal at La Playa.  J.P. tried (and liked) the fish dish off the children's menu, which was huge for him!  He also tried (and liked) the grouper I was eating.  A couple of nights later, when we decided to get takeout from Local Catch, he requested a fish dish.  Amazing.
  • Lots and lots of game playing.  Sorry, Battleship (I'm still the champion - the "admiral"), Guess Who (I defeated J.P. 8 games to 7 and he was pissed), UNO and Boggle.  When J.P. won a game - any game - he got Jude's cell phone and pretended to call the newspaper to announce his victory.  Monkey see, monkey do, as Joe started doing the same thing even though he wasn't exactly winning any games.
  • I finished a truly amazing book - Long Man - by Amy Greene.  Phenomenal, probably the best novel I'll read in 2015.
  • 21 + total miles of morning runs on the Longleaf Pine Trail near our beach house in Old Florida Village.  I remember when I could (and did) do 20 mile weeks in my sleep.  Now, it's an accomplishment to be celebrated.  Strangely, I didn't run any of my other routes, sticking to the trail I discovered a couple of years ago.  
  • A cameo appearance by Carl P. Spining, one of my oldest friends and a law school classmate, and an afternoon of beer drinking with him at the Great Southern Cafe in Seaside, FL, while Joe napped beside me.  An unexpected treat, for sure.
  • Ama Vida Coffee.  Sadly, Grayt Coffee House is no more, I discovered, but Ama Vida filled in nicely.
  • Watching "Deadliest Catch" with J.P.  Need I say more?
  • Learning about the death of my friend, Joanna Stanfield.  My former paralegal, Suzanne, texted me Wednesday morning and my heart sank as I read the text.  The best paralegal I have ever known, Joanna found her voice after she was diagnosed with cancer 5 days after the birth of her daughter, Maggie, almost 4 years ago.  She touched and inspired so many with her blog, "It's Cancer, Baby," and the courageous way she fought for every day she could spend with Maggie.  The world is a lesser place without her.
  • Joe's earsplitting scream, whenever he was unhappy with something J.P. and I were doing. 
  • Jed.  Seeing our longtime friend, Jed, whose family owns Blue Mountain Beach Creamery, our favorite ice cream store in the world.  We've known Jed for 5 + years, since he opened the store.  Every year when we come down, the business has grown and grown.  This year, after dinner, we stopped by one night and the line stretched around the building and down the street toward Blue Mountain Beach.  We knocked on the window and asked for Jed.  When he saw us, he smiled widely and treated us like VIP's by getting our ice cream and refusing to allow us to pay for it.  Fortunately, we got to spend some quiet time with him yesterday afternoon, when it wasn't too busy.  J.P. adores Jed, so getting the one-on-one time with him was special for J.P.
  • And, right now, in what is maybe the highlight of my week, Joe is waking up in the City Elite stroller, right next to me.  We've shared so many afternoons with him in that stroller and before him, I shared them with J.P.  Joe is looking up at me and smiling, innocently, as he tucks his knees up to stay warm.  God, those eyes and that smile.  My heart is full and I don't want this moment to end.  Ever.