Thursday, October 12, 2017


There was an interesting novel (later turned movie) called A Dog's Purpose by Bruce Cameron--maybe you read it.  Without giving too much away, it's the story of a dog who spends his life (actually, several lives thanks to reincarnation) trying to figure out his purpose in existence.  I enjoyed the story and have often looked into the eyes of my pets to contemplate what they feel their purpose must be.  For our dog, Abel, it's simple:  to bark relentlessly for an hour each morning into the darkness to chase away unseen ghouls and goblins that could be lurking in the fields behind our house.  But for our older dog, Charlie, it was a lesson learned only this week.
Actually, it was yesterday.  When he died.  After a long, sad, slow couple of years, old age crept up and stole him away.  At 14 1/2 years, this big black-lab-of-a-dog was not shortchanged by life--he did what he wanted as long as he could.  But despite the strength and size of his heart, time finally caught up and overtook him and left his tearful owner staring into the inky darkness and asking questions to himself such as: what would Charlie say was his purpose?
Well, my drooling, wagging friend, that isn't an easy question to answer!  From the day he entered our family some 13-years ago, Charlie made it very clear that he was "too cool" and "too sophisticated" for the average dog routine.  Charlie never retrieved a ball or stick (despite being a "retriever") and had no interest in impressing anyone.  Content with a dip into our mossy pond (his previous owners had a mansion and in-ground swimming pool) or a long nap in the sun, Charlie was nobody's fool.  That's not to say he wasn't easy-going...I've never seen an animal so laid-back.  Charlie wouldn't think of biting or growling or showing angry teeth.  Even when other dogs playfully nipped, he stood and took it without the slightest hint of fierceness.  A newborn baby human would be perfectly safe in his company. He did enjoy the occasional long walk in the woods and he loved a good snack...but a "purpose?"
The answer to that question became clear to me in recent days as I started to accept the dire reality of the situation.  As Charlie got older and it became painful to go up and down steps, he decided, bullheadedly, to spend most of his indoor time on the cool floor of the basement.  The obvious negative side of this decision was that it kept him out of normal family "activity."  Without such interactions, Charlie spent a lot of time alone and I felt terrible about it.  He did still enjoy days outside lying in the sun when weather permitted, but that wasn't always the case.   Even our long walks became harder and more unpredictable.  But he always there...and, boom, therein lies my answer.
Charlie was Always Just There and that's a wonderful trait to have.  When I needed a friend, he was Always Just There.  And when I was busy or tired, he waited, patiently, until he was needed.  Always Just There--the golden trait of any good friend.    I'd tell him my problems, complain about my day, and, for a small scratch behind the ears, he'd give me his close attention and those deep, brown eyes, which seemed to absorb my stresses and spirit them away.  No pressure, no demands...Charlie was Always Just There.
I tried to pay him back, even a few pennies on the dollar, this week as he started to fade away.  The night before he died, I spent hours on the cool basement floor alongside him because that's what friends do...they're Always Just There.  And now he's gone, and I miss him terribly.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Looking Back

Recently we decided to retire our mini-van.  After 351,000 miles and trips West, North, South and East over the last ten years, we decided that the time had come to downsize and move forward.  Our next vehicle will be smaller and have all-wheel traction to battle the rural winters.  In truth, with one son working out-of-town and another living away at college, there is no need for a vehicle that seats six.  The new vehicle eliminates one row of seats and we can certainly count on better gas mileage.
But what I didn't count on was a trip we took--not far--just last weekend.  In some fortunate confluence, all the "baby chicks" were back home for one night.  We decided to go out to get something to eat and immediately the oldest hopped into his car to follow along.  But mom and dad, sensing something important, strongly advised everyone to take one vehicle--the battered old mini-van with duck-tape on the fender...and I'm glad we did.
As we ventured across the back country roads on an absolutely stunning sunny afternoon towards our destination, I glanced in the rear view mirror and immediately my eyes began to swell with tears. It hit me.  Quite unexpectedly, really.  This would be it.  The final time all six of us will be traveling in one vehicle together.
Granted it was a unique situation reserved for those with multiple children.  I really doubt my parents ever faced such a thought (I'm an only child) and so there might not be universal understanding.  But the groundswell of emotions that flooded within me at that moment was powerful:  the sounds, the conversations, each bobbing head in its place.  Dom and Theo in their spots in the "way back" seats, Gabe listening to his headphones behind me, Tony readings something in the seat behind Sue--everyone in their place where they "should" be.  My goodness, how I witnessed that routine countless times!  We traveled out West to see Yellowstone, headed many times to the beaches of Florida..."Are we there yet?"  "Mom, he crossed the line and is touching me" "Hey, what was that for?"   "When is the next stop?"
There was no such fighting on this short trip (well, not much) because they are all older, but the noisy ghosts of the past kept bouncing around my head.  And the tears welled.
As "the dad," more often than not, I was behind the wheel of the mini-van and my attention was equally split between the road ahead and those bouncing heads behind me.  I yelled, I broke up fights, I pointed out (what I thought was) interesting sights.  For a fixed period of time, the bobbing heads were my responsibility.  No matter how tired I was (literally slapping my face, at times, to stay awake during overnight trips), or how dark and lonely the highway, it was my job to get them to our destination safe and sound.  Now they are growing or have grown and they no longer need me.  As the number of bouncing heads has reduced over the last couple of years, I really didn't notice.  Not until they all came back last weekend.  My heart soared during the moment, the last trip.  It was sunny and warm...but I also had to wipe my eyes.
After returning home, the older boys said goodbye and went their separate ways into the night. And the new vehicle will arrive in a week or so.  It will be nice--heated seats, zone air conditioning, no duct tape--and it will seat four, maybe five, comfortably.  I know I'll continue to have responsibilities for several more years until the last two chicks fly away from the nest.  My mission is in no way completed.
But I can't help but rewind and replay the sounds of that final full mini-van trip over the open country roads and I also can't stop glancing back into the rear view mirror of my life searching, looking, for something familiar and wiping my eyes over what I see and what I won't see again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Music Teacher

The passing of the woman who first taught me a musical instrument, Sr. Frances Jean Sandschulte, O.S.F., recently reminded me how much my life is infused with the love of music. Sr. Frances Jean taught music at my grade school in an era when nearly every kid at least attempted to learn how to play an instrument.  Eddie, next door, tried the trumpet...Lisa, across the street, studied flute.  I went into Sister's office with every intention of learning how to play the saxophone.  Ultimately, I left that initial encounter with a loaner trombone because she said: "you look like a trombone player!"  (Later, I learned that the trombone player in the school orchestra graduated and there was a vacancy that needed to be filled!)  In time, Eddie and Lisa retired from their musical careers but I stayed on with the trombone through college and it changed my life.  Band camps, pep bands, marching, basketball games, band tours, clown band, stage band and music ranging from the silly to the serious...trombone, band and music have been an important part of my life.
Sr. Frances Jean was a patient teacher, too.  While I liked playing the trombone, I had a conspicuous aversion towards "practicing" and, thus, I was never very good. Decent, perhaps.  Sister was an accomplished musician in her own right--a CCM grad who excelled on piano and organ, but who could also play flute and any of the brass instruments.  She was strict and could be riled a bit by an occasional uncooperative youngster like myself, but she never yelled (although she'd tap briskly a key on her piano to mark a sourly played note.)  She must have taught tens of thousands of students in her career, which spanned 65 years, at several grade and high schools. I wonder how many other students were introduced to new musical worlds because of her.  If patience is indeed a virtue, she earned her angel wings with me alone.
And I also wonder about current and future kids and lament the fact that there are far fewer opportunities for them to learn music the way I did.  Instrumental music requires practice and more practice.  Gratification comes in small droplets over weeks and months and it's tough for such sluggish endeavors to compete with the flash of video games and computers.  I've seen the numbers of my own high school band shrink every year and I am saddened that there aren't more kids who display the patience required to practice scales or paradiddles.  Also, are there enough teachers to endure the curious kids toe-dipping into the rudiments of a wide range of instruments--particularly the non-guitar and non-piano types?  Surely, FA music degree grads need jobs.
Sr. Frances Jean lived to be 97 and I'm sure music added years to her life.  She was playing trombone, herself, in several Cincinnati community bands well into her 90s.  At the time of her death she was still organist and pianist in her Oldenburg, Indiana religious community.
Meanwhile, It remains to be seen if or how music affects my longevity but I do know it has added to its quality and richness.  It's rare when I actually pick up the old trombone anymore, but I listen to and enjoy music daily.  If I could better articulate that influence, perhaps maybe some young person reading this would be sparked toward attempting to learn an instrument.  Just trying is half the battle.