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Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Tale of Two Brothers


I never had any brothers.

I had a great brother-in-law and an incredible Father who grows even more incredible the older I get and the longer he’s gone (thus, the more I miss him). I have great male cousins, Uncles, a grandfather who thought (erroneously) that I hung the moon, and men friends who have been rocks when I needed it and a boot in the ass when I needed that. I even have what I can only refer to as a boyfriend-in-law (my sister’s boyfriend) who is another strong male presence in my life.

And don’t even get me started on my Sister I could live a thousand lifetimes and never begin to show my Sister how much I appreciate her. She is -- and this point is inarguable -- the greatest Sister in human history.

But I never had any brothers.

So why is this titled “A Tale of Two Brothers?”

Of the men I’ve had in my life, two of them stood out and are large reasons why I am alive today: Roger and Mike. Roger was a cousin and Mike was one of the closest friends I’ve ever had.

But both of them were more than that. They were like brothers to me. They knew everything about me. They saw me at my worst and still loved me, never rejected me. Both were members of a fellowship I joined in 1996 and were instrumental in helping me navigate what I saw then as the impassable path to entry.

So when I say I’m alive today in no small measure due to the love of these two men, it is not empty hyperbole. I literally, sincerely do not believe I would have been able to get here from there without them.

Mike and Roger are my brothers. And today I’m very sad.

I learned recently that Mike took his own life in November of last year. Roger died today of pancreatic cancer.

*

Without getting into the details of Roger’s life, the nature of exactly how we were related was somewhat convoluted at the beginning, though the connection I felt to him was always there. He was my sister’s age (a few years older than me) so he was the big brother who picked on me whenever we were around each other. But it was never mean. He always had a smile on his face and even then, I knew him as a safe place in my life, someone from whom I never had to protect myself.

I was stationed in Tucson, Arizona in the mid-1980’s so I was able to spend time with Roger. At that time, he ran his own insurance agency and when I mentioned that I was considering getting out of the Air Force, he offered me a job. I had no insurance experience and there wasn’t much call for a forklift driver at his agency. But he offered me a job, to include teaching me how to actually do the job.

Roger was like my big brother as far back as I could remember and in 1996, I discovered we had yet another connection. As I struggled, he was happy and offered support, encouragement, and of course love. With a smile and a hug, he let me know things would be OK and when they weren’t, he was always available to me to listen and tell me he loved me. Over the years this connection remained strong, even though we didn’t see each other nearly as often as we’d have liked. But he was always there for me.

After all...he was my brother.

I saw Roger last in August 2016. We both travelled to Las Vegas to celebrate my Mother’s 80th birthday. And of course, as he always had, Roger lit up every room he was ever in, just from the pure love and joy (and Joy) of life he had.

Life hadn’t always been kind to Roger but you would never know it from his demeanor and, more importantly, how he treated everyone. You could never leave an encounter with Roger without feeling like you were the most important person in the world to him at that moment.

Roger got word that he was sick last fall and in December, I finally joined a social media platform that enabled us to stay in even closer touch, chatting several times a week. Even as he battled treatment and the illness that ultimately took him from us all, he always made it a point to make sure I was OK.

Imagine...him going through cancer treatment trying to cheer me up.

But that was Roger. And Roger was my brother.

*

Mike and I were both in the Air Force and we first met in the late 1980’s. He was stationed in Homestead Air Force Base in South Florida and I was at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Following Desert Storm in 1991, I was reassigned to Hurlburt Field in the panhandle of Florida. Less than a year later, after Hurricane Andrew basically wiped Homestead off the map, Mike got stationed at Hurlburt as well.

From the outside, Mike and I were nothing alike. He was confident and smart and moved easily in any situation whether at PT with Pararescuemen and Combat Controllers or traversing the halls of the Pentagon. He knew more about our common Air Force specialty than I did and I leaned heavily on both his knowledge and his generosity in sharing it.

While at Hurlburt, Mike and I had a standing Wednesday lunch date at the Pizza Hut on Miracle Strip Parkway. We would talk shop, share gossip about our colleagues, and talk about our families.

Mike’s sons and mine were in the same social circles and spent a lot of time together. When I needed a regular Tuesday night babysitter, it was Mike’s daughter, Leah, who not only sat with my daughter every Tuesday night for almost two years but who also provided an incredible role model for her as well.

Toward the end of my drinking days, it was Mike who opened his home to me when mine was no longer an option. He picked me up when I was in no condition to drive more times than I can remember and took me to his home. He had a Bernese Mountain Dog (a very large breed) named Page. When I would walk into their home, Page would drop his tail and run away from me. But Mike never did.

As I mentioned, I struggled with some aspects of the fellowship of which Mike, Roger, and I were members. And it was Mike who made clear the path. Nine months before the very end, he and I spent an afternoon atop Mount Rainier, him trying to help me find some peace. (It was also during this trip that he kept me from falling into a bear’s den along a riverbank but that’s another story for another time.)

When I struggled to even consider the idea of a God, it was Mike who explained it to me this way: “Do you know how to make a bird? Do birds exist? Well, then something smarter than you is out there, otherwise there’d be no birds.”

And that was enough. Because of that, I was able to walk through the impassable door to a life I’d never imagined.

Mike and I had divergent political views (though he’d be happy to know I’ve since come around to his way of thinking...he was always one or two steps smarter than me) but that never stopped us from discussing politics intelligently and respectfully.

I guess that’s the overriding thing about Mike. I respected him. A lot.

And Mike never turned his back on me, even when I probably deserved it.

But that was Mike. And Mike was my brother.

*

When I saw Roger in Las Vegas in August, he was getting ready to celebrate 27 years of sobriety in a few days.

I’m glad I got to hug him and tell him I loved him days before his #27. And I’m sad that he won’t get to celebrate #28.

According to Mike’s wife, Cindy, he didn’t stay sober after our paths diverged. He started drinking again about ten years before whatever demons were chasing him finally ran him down. Cindy contacted me about a month ago to tell me he was gone. It was a couple weeks after that when I learned he had killed himself.

I’m just glad he was able to walk Leah down the aisle before he left.

*

I don’t know what the point of all this is. I just know that tonight I’m sad. But this story isn’t about me. It’s a tale of two brothers. Not brothers to each other except in the most abstract sense. But they were my brothers.

And now they’re gone.

I can never fully express my gratitude to these two men for the love and support they showed me over the years, particularly during my worst times. They never turned their backs on me and never stopped loving me, even when I was unlovable.

The best I can hope for is to carry their strength, compassion, empathy, warmth, humor, joy, and love forward in my life. I can’t pay them back but I pray I can show someone else even a fraction of the love they showed me.

So tonight I just want to thank these two for being a part of my life. It hurts to know that they’re no longer with us physically but I am grateful to a God I couldn’t believe in 21 years ago that He put these two men in my life.

I’m grateful to God for Roger and Mike.

I’m grateful for my brothers.





If you find it in your heart, please consider supporting the American Cancer Society in memory of Roger Norris (https://www.cancer.org) and/or 22KILL, an organization that works to raise awareness to of suicide, educate the public on mental health issues such as post traumatic stress, and serves as a resource for veterans in honor of Mike Urban (https://www.22KILL.com).

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Story of Teddy Rucksbag

Teddy Rucksbag loved to travel.
Teddy was literally born to travel. Well, really more like “made” to travel since he was handcrafted in the mountains of India from fine goat leather and treated with natural oils before he
was sent out into the world. So he wasn’t really born. But he still liked to travel. A lot.
As soon as he sprang to life, with the last stitch stitched and the last zipper zipped, Teddy traveled down the mountain, across the ocean, and to a strange and exotic land called “Florida” to meet his new family.
Teddy’s new family was a handsome and kind man whom Teddy called “Shoulder,” a beautiful young princess named Lily, and two small, hairy people named Zoe and Charlie. Zoe and Charlie called the handsome and kind man “Lap” when he wasn’t around because whenever he came home and sat in Teddy’s cousin, Recliner, Zoe and Charlie would pile onto his lap. So they called him “Lap.”
But Teddy called the man “Shoulder” because that was the part that Teddy grabbed onto whenever the two of them went out on their daily adventures. Teddy loved to go on adventures with Shoulder and Shoulder took him on an adventure every single day.
Sometimes Teddy and Shoulder would just walk outside and go for a ride in a truck to Shoulder’s office, where Teddy would sit on the floor and watch Shoulder work all day. But that was OK with Teddy. He loved Shoulder and he knew that after Shoulder was done working, they would go for another ride in Shoulder’s truck again and go home to see Lily, Zoe, and Charlie.
When Teddy and Shoulder got home, Teddy sat at the bar on a barstool. Even though he wasn’t traveling, he loved his barstool and Shoulder would come visit throughout the day and evening to get things out of Teddy. Teddy loved it when Shoulder would visit because he liked to be useful. So he decided he would be the most useful rucksack ever.
But sometimes when Shoulder, Lily, Zoe, and Charlie were asleep, Teddy would think back to another friend, the first friend Teddy ever had. Teddy and his friend were made together, in the mountains of India. But Teddy’s first friend was more than just a friend. She was Teddy’s girlfriend. And her name was Sandy.
Teddy and Sandy left the house on the mountain on the same day. While Teddy went to live with Shoulder in the strange and exotic land called “Florida,” Sandy travelled to another strange land called “Texas.” Sandy was adopted by a beautiful and gentle woman whom Sandy called Queen Flower. Sandy loved Queen Flower and loved to go places with her but she still sometimes missed her boyfriend, Teddy. She sometimes missed him a lot.
Both Teddy and Sandy thought about their brothers, sisters, and cousins back at the house on the mountain. Besides Teddy’s brother and sister rucksacks and Sandy’s family, the Satchels, they had lots of cousins. Their cousins were all bags and had family names like Briefcase, Laptop, Messenger, Camera, Handbags, and Travelers.
And not all of the bags were brown like Teddy and Sandy. The Funny-talking man whom everyone called “Grandpa” (even though his real name was Trevor) didn’t want just brown bags. He also wanted bags made with black leather, too. “All bags will be equal, wot?” Trevor said, in that funny way he talked. And the people who made the bags at the house on the mountain smiled because they liked brown bags and black bags and all bags. They were bag-happy and Teddy and Sandy were glad about that because they were bag-happy, too.
Teddy and Sandy got to see each other one time after they left the house on the mountain, when Shoulder went to visit Queen Flower in Texas. The four of them had a wonderful time and Teddy and Sandy were able to talk and laugh and tell each other about their adventures in the strange places they lived, “Florida” and “Texas.” The visit was very short but Teddy and Sandy were very happy to spend time together. Plus they were happy when Shoulder and Queen Flower told them they would get to visit again real soon.
Not long after visiting Sandy and Queen Flower in “Texas,” Shoulder told Teddy that they were going on another trip, this time to a place called “Washington, DC.” Teddy was very excited to get to travel again, since traveling was what Teddy was made for. Shoulder even introduced Teddy to another new friend, Sam S. O’Knight. Teddy and Sam quickly became good friends and Sam would even let Teddy ride on his shoulders when Teddy got tired or just to let him see more of the fun things there were to see on their trip.
Even though he had fun on the trip to Washington with Shoulder and Sam, Teddy was sad that he didn’t get to see Sandy. When Teddy got to ride on a train for the first time, all he could think about as he stared out the window was how much Sandy would have enjoyed it, too. When he rode in the fancy car with Shoulder and Sam, Teddy was still lonely and sad because his girlfriend Sandy wasn’t there to ride in the fancy car with him.
Still, Teddy was grateful that he got to travel to a new place and get to become friends with Sam. After all, Teddy was a travel bag and travelling was what he was made for. He got to fly on another airplane, see new and exciting things, and begin to fulfill his destiny as the greatest travel bag in the history of the world.
Once Teddy, Sam, and Shoulder got home, Sam went back to his place under Shoulder’s bed. Teddy went back to his routine of riding in the truck to Shoulder’s office and then sitting on the barstool when he and Shoulder got home. Teddy thought about Sandy and Queen Flower often during the long, quiet nights when Shoulder, Lily, Zoe, Charlie, and Sam were sleeping. He thought about how much fun they had in Texas and thought about how great it would be when he got to see Sandy and Queen Flower again.
Then one morning, Shoulder told Teddy some exciting news.
“So, Teddy, ol’ buddy...guess who’s coming to visit us in a few weeks?”
Teddy hated guessing games because he wasn’t very good at them.
“Who?”
Shoulder smiled and slipped Teddy onto his left shoulder as he walked out the door toward his truck.
“Let’s just say that both of us will be getting to see our girlfriends again very, very soon.”
Teddy knew immediately that Shoulder was telling him that Sandy and Queen Flower were going to come visit them in their strange and exotic home of  “Florida.”
And that news made Teddy very, very happy.