I didn’t know my husband was behind me taking the picture.
All I knew at that moment was my dad wanted to see the ocean one last time before we left Charleston, South Carolina, and I wanted to make sure he had that chance.
My dad, central Ohio’s retired channel 4 garden guy, Tom McNutt, used to have many opportunities to see the ocean. For more than 25 years, my parents were afforded the luxury of trading the chill of a Midwest winter for the warmth of the sands of Florida. But when the spreading symptoms of dad’s inclusion body myositis robbed him of so many of the abilities you and I take for granted, eventually landing him in a wheelchair, mom and dad said “goodbye” to the yearly ocean views and “hello” to the new possibility of never travelling again.
But after a few years of not seeing their beloved ocean, my husband and I agreed it was time for them to say, “Hello, again”.
After searching for beachfront destinations closer than Florida, we found Charleston. After a few phone calls determining whether handicapped accessibility was indeed, wheelchair accessibility, we had a place, a vision, and a determination. And soon my husband and I began a journey with my parents, many medical supplies, and a ton of great expectations, all tightly packed into a wheelchair accessible van.
Diseases have a bad reputation for a reason. They steal bodily functions, making difficult the once most carefree endeavor. They take away the spontaneity of a moment. They rob us of the extravagance of the idea of never-ending time.
But what diseases can also do for us is to act as a gentle reminder of the goodness of yesterday and even more, the preciousness of today.
For those reasons, I spent a lot of my beach vacation remembering all the wonderful opportunities my mom and dad provided for us kids over the years. Sure I remembered the vacations we shared, but more than that, I recalled the day-to-day normal sacrifices they made that formed me into the adult I am today.
I also spent a lot of my vacation marveling at my mom and dad’s new normal. Their day-to-day life is a physical embodiment of the wedding vows “For better or for worse” being lovingly played out in the simplest, most mundane task.
But, lastly, I spent a lot of the week realizing that these special moments together end way too soon. Just when we settle in to a new place, it’s time to say “goodbye” –even if we are painfully not ready to even begin to say that word.
And so, on our last day in Charleston, when I’d run upstairs to grab a cup of coffee, I looked over the balcony and saw my dad in his electric wheelchair trying unsuccessfully to glimpse the ocean over the door of the pool’s fence directly below.
I dropped my coffee and ran. After all the doors, he’d opened for me over the years, it was the least I could do.
By the time I got to him, he had left the door of the pool area and had returned to his place in the sun by the edge of the pool. “Let’s go see that ocean,” I offered.
“I’m okay,” he countered, with his typical grin.
“I know you’re okay –but let’s go see that ocean.”
Because he knows I am as stubborn as he is, he knew better than to argue. And so we made it out the door of the pool and onto the dock leading into the sand. Before that brief excursion was over, my dad even had sand between his toes for the first time in a long time.
And as we stood there together, taking in the ocean accompanied by a tidal wave of nostalgia, I didn’t know my husband was behind me taking the picture.
All I knew was that moment was one neither time nor disease could ever steal from either of us.
It never fails. A student, long-graduated, stops by my classroom at the end of the school day and asks the same question, “Remember me?”
I sometimes think this is sweet vengeance for all the pop quizzes I may have given over the years. And truth be told, after getting my education degree more than 30 years ago, I can’t possibly begin to recall all the names of students gone by.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember.
And so I want to once and for all say to each and every student I have ever had:
Yes, I remember you.
I don’t care if you were the quietest student in class, or the one who competed for attention daily. It doesn’t matter whether your hand shot up with every question I asked, or if your eyes darted to the ground each time, praying you wouldn’t get called on.
I remember you.
You see, even as an English teacher, I can do the math. And we spend 180 days together –for close to an hour a day. Together. I realize that the time I spend standing in your presence might be longer than any amount of time you spend with many of the adults in your life who share your last name.
Trust me, I never forget that. It matters to me. You matter to me. Because you, your story, and your personality are unique and belong only to you.
Sure, you spend a good portion of your school career trying to fit in, blend in, be in. But what I honestly remember about you is your uniqueness.
I remember you, my student who got so mad one day about the school lunch. This seemed a petty concern to me until I finally discovered your free lunch was the only meal you’d sometimes get each day. And yet, when I’d offer you food, you’d turn it down unless everyone in the class got food too. I’ll never forget that.
And I remember you –the one who wouldn’t look me in the eye for the first half of the year. But in one writing assignment, you pulled the veil completely off and showed me who you were. And it was beautiful.
And of course, I remember you—the student who left class every day announcing, “Thanks for the class –have a great day,” while paying no attention to the rolling eyes of your classmates behind you.
And I remember you, and you, and you.
The one who barely talked.
The one who talked too much.
Somewhere, in my heart, I remember you all.
True, I cannot recall your name as often as I used to. Honestly, I can’t recall the names of my current students all the time. Maybe it’s a cognitive overload thing; maybe it’s a getting older thing. But don’t for a minute confuse recall with remembering.
Because, I swear to you, I remember.
One day, you might understand the difference. And on that day, far from today, you most likely won’t remember the name of the crazy English teacher who got so excited each day when she stood in front of the classroom and introduced a new novel or writing assignment. You may not recall what imagery is and you certainly won’t care about prepositions. And that’s ok. I don’t kid myself into believing you will remember most of the things I taught you.
Sure it’d be nice if, after my class, you sounded more intelligent when you spoke or wrote something. And I truly do hope you would have learned that reading is a gift, not a punishment.
But beyond all that, whether you will remember my name or my curriculum and learning goals, I want the most valuable thing you learned from me during our 180 hours together to be one very important fact that I tried to teach you each and every day:
You are, indeed, worth remembering.
Are you ready for my Evan?
Are you ready for my fourth child who wears a “Coolest Grandpa in America” sweatshirt?
Are you braced for his wild mismatched socks and even wilder sense of humor?
Are you ready for a young man who can quote any sports stat imaginable, who also named his band after a quote from The Great Gatsby?
Can you handle someone who knows as much about the perfect way to grill a hamburger as he knows about the perfect way to perform a song in front of hundreds of people?
Can you completely be ready for someone who, a couple of years ago decided he liked the name Wolfgang, so he asked people to start calling him that? And, they did.
Are you ready, world?
Nineteen years ago, when my husband told a co-worker we were expecting our fourth child, the co-worked inquired, “Oh? Is this your last one?” to which my husband responded, “No, the last one was the last one. This one is a bonus.”
And that was true.
You see, the dictionary says the word “bonus” means “something welcome and often unexpected that enhances something that is itself good.”
And all these years later, knowing Evan (or Wolfgang) he, indeed, is something welcome and unexpected. But nineteen years ago, I couldn’t have had a clue as to how much that bonus baby would enrich my life. I didn’t know how his unique perspective or his funny personality would color my life with the richness of a deep hue I’d never known.
And now that bonus baby is about to share his perspective and personality with you, dear world, via Oxford and Miami University.
And as I get ready to watch him walk away in those mismatched socks, I realize “bonus baby” may not have been the perfect term after all. Although the word “bonus” means something wonderful, it also implies something that you could have managed to live without. And my fourth child, whatever you call him, is indeed, someone I needed for my life to be complete.
So, I take a deep breath and watch my last baby, my Evan, my Wolfgang, walk forward into his (undoubtedly colorful) future.
And I will watch you, dear world, embrace him.
Please be good to him.
Keep him safe.
And of course, laugh with him. A lot.
I suspect you, dear world, are ready for this last child of mine.
I know for certain, he is ready for you.
It was the end of September when I saw my cousin at my dad’s 80th birthday celebration. As we had both just started wandering through the complicated maze of our new school years, burdened by the new teacher evaluation procedures, that topic monopolized our conversation.
We had become teachers at the same time, close to thirty years earlier and had seen proposed changes and complications come and go to the teaching system; but this new system packed with tests after tests for students and task after task for teachers, was agreed to be the most concerning yet. And so we spent our time together discussing this evaluation system and how this year was destined to be our toughest year yet.
A few days later, she would find out she had cancer.
A few months later, she would be gone.
Looking back, I think of so many more worthwhile topics we could have spent our last big conversation on. Maybe we could have remembered summer weeks spent together at grandma and grandpa’s house picking beans and then snapping them on the front porch while listening for the sound of the noon whistle that alerted us to grandpa and his white truck coming home for lunch from the mill.
Perhaps we could have laughed at how we would race up the gravel driveway, arriving breathless to the end of the apple orchard to wait for grandpa to pull in, lower the truck’s gate and take us on a ride around the orchard while we bopped up and down, certain one of us would bounce out, if we didn’t hold on to each other.
We might have spent our precious time that day discussing shared secrets, whispered dreams and girlish giggles that filled our youth. We could have reminisced about our weddings, our children, our shared hobby of crocheting which grandma had taught us both during those summer vacations spent together.
But instead, we spent one of our last moments together lamenting on the dark shadow of the new teacher evaluation looming before us.
These few months later, I am less a fan of the teacher evaluation system than ever, and I’m sure, had she been here, my cousin and I would have more to complain about today.
But she’s not here.
And that fact is enough to wake me up to what is really important in my life.
This teacher evaluation and all the hoopla that accompanies it is here. It will do what it needs to do and then move on for something else to eventually take its place and sooner-or-later, concern us as well. But I am going to try not to dwell in that shadow of its darkness anymore. There are far more wonderful things to discuss with the people in my life. There are infinitely more precious memories to share as well as make today.
I guess we all need to be reminded from time to time that we never know when the last conversation we have with someone might truly be the last conversation we have.
One day I believe there will be a worthwhile evaluation of my life and it will have nothing to do with scales and tests and data. And today, I better understand how I want to spend the precious time I have between now and that ultimate Judgment Day.
Central Ohio has known Tom McNutt as their Gardening expert for the last 23 years. But, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him by an even better title: dad. And today, as my dad hangs up his television microphone and his gardening tools, I want to share a very private detail of this very public man.
Perhaps his viewers have noticed the fact that many of my dad’s latest televisions appearances have been done sitting down. If you see him in public, he is usually on his scooter, or walking with a cane or walker. The reason behind this is a muscle weakness.
This muscle weakness had been slowly affecting my dad for years before he was finally told a name for his condition. The diagnosis was Inclusion Body Myositis, but the easier to remember name is the acronym, IBM. This diagnosis was a mixed blessing. After such a long process of seemingly endless doctor visits, there is definitely something good about getting answers. But there is admittedly something bad when the answer comes back as a chronic condition for which there is no cure. He was told by his doctor that his quad muscles would weaken with time, most likely landing him in a wheelchair within a few years. That was many years ago.
Over the years he has reluctantly given in to using a cane, a walker, or that scooter, to keep himself from falling as much.
Now, to say his falls are unpredictable may seem odd, since most falls, indeed, are not predicted; but it seems all the more true when talking about my dad. My dad always walked with a purpose. He walked with a destination in mind. Full speed ahead. His walk always said so much about him. He is strong, determined and heading somewhere.
I remember, as a little one, having to run two steps for every one step of his just to keep up. And somehow, I usually would manage. In more than one way, it has frequently been a goal of mine to keep up with my dad.
Today, my own kids beg me to slow down as I shop with them or even just walk around the neighborhood. I have to smile when they complain about my rapid pace, because I know where it came from: the man who taught me to walk with a purpose.
He vows he won't go willingly into a wheelchair. And with the determination that is my dad, I don't doubt for a minute that he will do all he can to avoid it. After all, he is the man who, after his first "retirement," took on the career that brought him into the gardens and lives of all of Central Ohio for the last 23 years.
But no matter what happens in the future, there's one important fact Tom McNutt, the beloved gardening expert, needs to understand, especially today. Whether he falls, walks unaided, with a cane, or even one day ends up in that wheelchair, to me, no man will ever walk as tall as my dad.
As the journey of my life travels down a new road, my mode of transportation is detouring to reflect this change. And reflecting on that transportation transformation makes me realize more has transformed than I might have realized when I walked into the car dealership for the first time.
Yes, I am driving away from the minivan stage of life.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise. My four children all have this one characteristic I cannot deny: they're growing up. Preschool days flew into elementary school,
which whirled into middle and high school.
College and careers soon would be calling. And with only one child at home fulltime now, the minivan seemed excessive. So when that minivan was given the ”do-not-resuscitate” order upon its last auto-shop visit, the decision loomed behind me like the shadow of my children’s childhoods.
Much is written about the monumental moment in life that dictates the need for a bigger car. That moment when the family purchases their first minivan symbolizes the exciting changing dynamic of a growing family. What then does the moment mean when the same family no longer needs room enough in a car for multiple children and car seats? My family hasn’t shrunk in size, but admittedly the number of times we all travel together has shrunk drastically. There’s no denying, the dynamic is different as I acknowledge a stab of sadness, realizing the days of
family road trips with toys and games and sing-a-long tapes are over. The exhausting yet sometimes exhilarating hours spent in my home-away-from home minivan are all behind me. Most poignantly, my moving on symbolizes the fact that my children also are moving on.
And so I walk into the car dealer with my heart a little heavy.
But as luck would have it, my heavy heart soon enough finds a cute little red number that calls to me, promising with its flashing dashboard lights to never grow up and go off to college. Its finger-print-free interior invites me to sit and stay and faster than you can say, “gear shift”, I find myself honking goodbye to that minivan along with the stage it represents. And cruising down this new road as my high tech CD player broadcasts music I can sign along to, I have to smile.
Part of me will always relate to being a minivan mom. Those moments, as messy and manic as they were, are planted in a precious part of the definition of who I am. But I’m starting to comprehend the idea that while driving my kids around is no longer a major focus of my day, my kids, as old as they might get, will always be a driving force of my life.
And as my new sporty tires quietly hum along the pavement, a feeling washes over me that this new road I’m traveling might also be pretty fun to navigate.
You don’t know me, but I know you. I recognize the look of exhaustion on your face as you juggled young children, a bottle, a pacifier, and a quest for an hour of worship. I’m familiar with the tone in your frustrated voice when you whispered to your husband, “Please take one of them.”
I know the expression that fears the judgment of other worshippers around you, afraid we will see misbehaving children. You are worried we will see parents who can’t control their young ones.
But as the mom who sat in her childless pew behind you, let me tell you what I really did see:
I saw joy in the sweet faces looking back for a quick game of peek-a-boo.
I saw pride in the older ones attempting to mimic your moves and care for the littlest one.
I saw curiosity as their young eyes turned to you taking in your every move.
I saw peace as they reached for you, to be held secure in your arms, their tiny heads nestled in the nook of your neck.
I saw a precious reflection of my own little ones, now so grown.
But what I saw the most was a mom and dad setting a significant example for their young children about the importance of worshipping even when it seems so far from easy, or even remotely holy.
And trust me, young mom in the next pew, the day will come way too soon when you will be sitting in a childless pew, no sticky hands poking you, no fussy ones distracting you, and you will see little ones close by, and your heart will hurt a little for the way the world spins so quickly. You will play a quick game of peek-a-boo with them, and smile as you realize you sometimes miss those crazy, exhausting days.
Then, you, too, will fight the urge to tell that young mom, “You don’t know me, but I know you.”
Or maybe you will write her a letter.
Maybe it was the pet carrier he was riding in, but I couldn’t help but to think of another time so long ago. After not eating for a couple of days, and a painful walking gate, we were on our way to the vet hospital.
Suddenly, I remembered each of the four kids gathered by the window waiting for daddy to pull up with our new puppy: our Cody. Arguments over who would first get to hold him quickly abated when the puppy arrived with what appeared to be nervous puppy intestines. Our little white fur-ball was not so white when he made his debut.
Upon immediately giving him a bath and swaddling him in a soft towel, I wondered if he knew he was now at home. He closed his eyes and I swear he smiled.
I think he knew.
And now thirteen years and so many baths and swaddles and smiles later, he was in that carrier being uncharacteristically sedate. My mother-heart that understands the difference between children and pets, couldn’t help but hurt for this little guy who believes himself to be my fifth child. The doctor diagnosed arthritis and prescribed medicine and sent us home. I was happy we were on the right track, but sadness crept in the back of my mind.
I think I knew.
A few days went by. He ate too little and limped too much. I noticed he followed us everywhere, not letting us out of his sight. He seemed to be taking it all in as long as he could.
I think he knew.
A week after the original vet visit, I returned with a weaker dog who refused to eat or take any medicine. X-rays revealed the real culprit: bone cancer. Upon finding it had aggressively spread to his lungs, the vet this time sent us home with a few days' supply of Morphine, telling us there was nothing else to do but try to keep him comfortable, love him… and say goodbye. But she didn’t really have to tell me that.
I think I knew.
Too soon it was time. And as we waited, waited, and waited for the beginning of the end to begin, I watched as my tearful daughter held my trembling dog and I fought the urge to hold them both in my arms and make it all go away.
It was time for the I.V. to be placed in the paw of his now 12-pound body. Then, I held him as the injection began. Within seconds he was at peace for the first time in a long time. No more trembling. No more pain. No more cancer.
No more Cody.
And as I held him, the precious family memories of which he is so entwined raced through my mind: the Christmas we told the kids we were finally getting a puppy; the walks, the games, the days, the nights. Remembered photographs of holidays and birthdays flashed before me. But even more than that, so many memories not photographed because they seemed so unimportant, but at moments like these, become so important, all played like a slow motion slide show in my mind.
And I think I knew.
I always understood that Cody wasn’t really my fifth child. I recognized he was our pet. But more than that, he was such a vital part of our family dynamic. He was both devotedly loving and devotedly loved. He belonged to us. We belonged to him. We’re family.
As I looked down at the eternally sleeping dog in my arms, through my own tears I swear he smiled.
I think he knew.
Eighteen years ago, above the swish-shish of the ultra sound machine, I heard the doctor announce, “Without a doubt, this one’s a boy.” Soon I was blinking back tears of joy which spilled into worries of how much pink in our existing nursery needed to be replaced with a cute hue of blue. Then, after dismissing the nursery rhyme line of “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails,” I finally allowed myself the precious pontification, “What will we call him?”
There is something so monumental about assigning a child a name that will be his calling card, his introduction, his label of who he is for the rest of his life. Having had two other babies in five years, we, of course had some boys’ names as back-up just in case. But at the moment when it wasn’t just a possibility he would be a boy, but a fact he was, choosing a name took on even more responsibility.
As a teacher, several names that had been favorites over the years often became unflatteringly attached to the mannerisms of another child who also just happened to answer to the once favored name. That shortened the possible-name-list a bit. And having had a Megan and a Katelyn, we needed a brother’s name that sounded like it could be said in the same breath as the others. “Megan, Katelyn, Frank—time to eat!” just didn’t sound natural.
So it was, we came up with a name. The baby books said it was Irish which went well with his sisters. They also said it meant “Little King” which sounded like a name that should certainly lead a child to a life of confidence and success.
And soon after, our “Little King” was born and we removed the “Baby Boy Bundy” sign and christened him “Ryan”. Not long after that, he would assume the alternate titles of grandson, nephew, baby brother, big brother, and “little Brad”.
Over the years he would also answer to “Ry”, “Ry-guy”, “Bundy” and, at the age of 9, after mistakenly climbing into the Tasmanian devil’s pit at the zoo (and hurriedly climbing out) he became known as “Taz-Bundy”.
Later, he’d grow into other names. By his own efforts, he has been referred to as friend, volunteer, fan, student, musician and athlete. In sports he’s been numbers 14, 34, 1, and for the last four years, 2.
Still today, he has earned yet another name: “Graduate”. And as he prepares to leave Wyoming High School and walk his path to Miami University and the endless stage of the world, I can’t help but to marvel at the amazing young man he has become and how much he has blessed my life from that first moment of the tell-tale swish-shish of the ultra sound machine. It’s then I realize that of all the names, nicknames, and monikers he has had over the years and will have in the future, there is one of his titles that fills my heart, meaning the most to me: “Son”.
Standing at the dawn of my second half-century of life, the words of Mother Superior echo in my head. No, I’m not considering joining a convent and picking up a new habit, but I am hearing a song over and over. The song is “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music because I’m coming to realize that’s what it’s been about for my first fifty years.
Over the years I have climbed mountains: Education mountains. Marriage mountains. Parenting mountians. Career Mountains. Some have assured me after days or weeks or years of climbing, that I have indeed, climbed the right mountain. And yet, my victory dance of completion is always interrupted by a metaphorical sign that tells me, “But wait… there’s more…keeping climbing.”
Still others, have been in vain; a realization I find only after laboring away for long periods of time to find it was the wrong mountain --- the sign this time tells me the mountain I have spent my time on wasn’t my mountain at all.
Of course, there have been mountains in my life where I have begun to climb, but backed down. Tired, discouraged, distracted, bored, there were many excuses I found for ending the climbs prematurely. But today, they still remain mysteries to me –my what ifs, would-a beens, could-a-beens and should-a-beens.
There’s something about a milestone birthday that calls us to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. There’s also something about it that forces us to acknowledge we are getting old. Would I like to look younger? Sure. Would I like to see better, move better, remember better? Okay, I’ll give you that. But would I like to be younger? Absolutely not. Because being younger would mean taking away the experience of one of those mountains I spent my time climbing. Even the ones that didn’t turn out to be meant for me, taught me something along the way. And the ones that were mine to climb? Which one would I give up? I can’t part with any of them. They are mine. They are my yesterdays that guided me into my today that point me to my tomorrow.
So I kick off my next 50 years, grateful for the steps I took before and excited for the steps to come. I pray for the strength to keep climbing and the discernment to pick the right mountains. Of course, these days I also pray for some soft spots to rest along the way; and when I get to the top, I’m hoping those metaphorical signs will be in large, bold print. But whatever my next years hold for me, I never want to stop climbing those mountains. Who knows? I might also start fording streams and following rainbows. There’s no guarantee I’ll find my dream, but it’s a chance of a lifetime to try.