No, it’s not an “Hobbit” reference. (Though I applaud those of you who might have gotten it) This morning (Sunday) there was a slight bite in the air, a Fall sort of feel the likes of which I don’t remember in Sacramento when we first moved but quite reminiscent of the days we spent together in the Midwest and South.
On my way out the door to get some final things for our Thanksgiving dinner I grabbed a shabby, worn black leather coat that I’ve had forever. I hadn’t had occasion to wear it in a very long time but it just seems so comfortable and familiar that I really wanted to wear it to keep warm on the way to the store. I had it on for quite awhile, throwing my keys in the pocket, looking at the hole wearing in the right shoulder, and just went about my day.
It was on the way back to the car with the groceries I noticed it. I reached into the pocket to get same said keys out in order to unlock our ancient and worn Suburban (the vehicular version of my leather coat) and something else fell out with the keys. When I picked it up, I realized that it was a red, oval-shaped flash drive from years ago, one I’d thought had disappeared like so many other pieces of tech that I’d misplaced or destroyed in the intense world of television news. This was old enough that it was only 512k, had no fancy cover or pre-loaded software, it was simply a way to transport files or pictures without emailing or compressing. It had gotten caught in a small hole in the bottom of my pocket, something that sat there, waiting for another item to catch on its lid and bring it up from the abyss in the lining of the coat.
I didn’t have time until late tonight, when I check my email and clean up details of the day and decompress by writing in this blog. I had to make an effort to head down to the coat rack in order to get it this evening, figuring it had some old scripts or other short video clips. I hadn’t remembered using this for anything more than that.
But I was wrong.
I must have either loaned this to Andrea or she just used it because it was handy. There, at the top of the file list, was a folder full of pictures, most of them out-takes, from a session we’d done in 2006 to shoot our Christmas Card Picture. It was another of those insanely complicated, delightfully chaotic and beautiful times where Andrea had an idea and threw it my lap telling me to figure out how to make it happen. I was the photographer, after all. I had the eye, the equipment, the know-how. She used to joke when we were first dating that she’d wasted a good opportunity for me when she’d taken a photography class at Creighton University. She had taken it as an easy elective, never realizing that she’d ended up with Pulitzer Prize winning priest, Dr. Don Doll as her professor. She cared so little for the photographic side of journalism she felt like she was wasting the good father’s time and he was determined to make her realize she had talent. This day was a perfect example, though she wasn’t one to capture moments in a frame of time, she was brilliant at creating them.
I remembered the picture, the one we chose, and it was just fun. We’d turned it Black and White, which must be why it was on the flash drive, but it’s the picture I’m attaching that really tells the whole story. Andrea had this idea to put a tan/textured background, all of us in jeans and barefoot wearing shirts: the kids’ saying “blessed” and ours “grateful”. The regular picture, the full-0n family photo was fine, a decent picture of all of us, Andrea in her trademark glasses because the Bell’s Palsey made it impossible to wear her contacts anymore. She, of course, couldn’t wear Costco specials, though, hers were Tiffany frames. The advantage being she’d found some insane, complicated way to get them for half the price. Andrea had a knack for going into stores, or later going online, and finding ways to piece together good deals or find one full outfit from the pieces of three different designers. Always cheaper, always on-sale, never full-priced. It was brilliant when you had no money. It was maddening if you were in a hurry.
The picture below is what makes me smile and brings a tear at the same time. You see, Andrea in later years hated pictures. Even here she’d been through some hard times and gained some weight due to her liver. (a condition that was remedied, but you all know – it’s easy to gain weight, insanely difficult to lose it)
She was sad, even depressed when she saw herself. Andrea was always proud of her smile and it was “damaged” (her words, not mine) by the palsey. Her father always, even when she was a mere 160 pounds, told her she was fat and needed to watch her figure. She was 5 foot 10, by the way, not a frame that carried 160 pounds like it was heavy. She saw the now-crooked smile, the extra weight, and just started to fade. She told me how her way of looking at the world – the synesthesia that caused her to see people and sounds in versions of colors – was fading, everything turning dull.
So when these pictures popped up, I realized we’d caught her in a moment of her old self. You can see the sparkle in the eyes, not worrying about how many teeth you see or if the left side of her mouth didn’t turn up. She was playful, goofy, and smiling. She didn’t realize at the time that I’d snapped this picture. It was just so amazing to see the woman who had forced me to see the world as the wondrous place it was.
My kids have had that same dull, tenuous feeling. It was something that worried me, but how could they really be back to themselves when they are still figuring it out like I am.
This weekend we saw a little of our old selves pop in. Years ago we lived in this little house, a 2-bedroom Craftsman, in Omaha. There were trees everywhere, which is amazing when it’s fall, surrounded by colors. Fire and earth, tones of life slowing down were everywhere, and when the wind blew the leaves covered the lawn. Saturday and Sunday were the same way, for the first time since we moved here, in our yard. It was cold, crisp and perfect. I went out back to rake the red and brown leaves into piles, readying them for the yard waste when the kids came out. They said they wanted to help, but I could see it – I could see the twinkle, the mischievous little spark that they’d all inherited from their mother. They had no intention of putting those leaves in the canister.
Within fifteen minutes, they were all back on the lawn like a scene out of a Charlie Brown cartoon. All they needed was the wet sucker and they’d be stuck to their faces. The fun of jumping in a pile turned into throwing them at each other, and for the first time in a long time I heard laughter. Pure, happy, unadulterated laughter. They rolled around, got dirty, got wet, cold and just plain goofy.
It was like looking in the face of the woman who’d invited a colleague just to get me to the bar a couple decades ago.
It could have been a dangerous thing, finding that little red drive in my pocket, it really could have. Instead, it gave me a glimpse into what the kids were missing. Abbi had been there all through those Omaha years to jump in piles, stamp into the canister and roll around in the Fall colors. For the first time, the other three did it, too.
I’m finally seeing life return. It’s not perfect, and by no means is it easier. Not a minute goes by I don’t think about the amazing woman in the photograph. But finally, in the crisp bite of a Fall day, I can see that all of us, even Hannah, the perfunctorily academic student who was so closely tied to her mother, are seeing the color of the world again. It makes me happy and sad at the same time.
We’re getting on with our lives, but there’s just a small part of me that wishes we weren’t. It’s so hard to watch her go, to see the bits and pieces of her dwindle with each passing momentous occasion.
The thing people don’t realize, I don’t think, is that you don’t lose the person you love the minute they pass away. When you lose them is with every passing moment you’re able to accomplish without them. You have to get on with your life, keep moving forward on the road. What hurts is that you’re going on without them, and every little moment you accomplish without them leaves another piece of them behind and you can see them fade, bit by bit. Moment by moment. It hurts, but if you don’t do it, you’re stuck, the world moving around you while you stand still hoping to hold onto a memory.
Then you miss the little things. You miss the colors in the world all around you, and you forget to laugh. It’s hard, but you have to do it.