My Son

When my son was born, Dad took what turned out to be the last trip he’d ever take when he traveled with my mom to Seattle for the impending birth. That trip marked only the third time I’d convinced my parents to leave their well-worn spots on the sagging furniture in their living room and venture beyond the state borders. It took the birth of his first grandson to dislodge Dad from that seat and convince him to endure a five-plus-hour flight clear across the continental U.S. He wanted a grandson that bad.

I eschewed tradition, familial rituals, and myths of ancestral lineage, but it was important to Dad to “carry down the family name.” I never understood why it was so paramount, but I humored him because I loved him. Mom, who had dedicated her entire life to taking care of Dad, despite the fact that he was a grown man, parrotted his sentiments. Not a single call home went by without a reminder of the crucial nature of these things as Mom had long ago surrendered herself to the repetition of the obvious.

Tiffany and I decided on Troy James for our boy’s name. James, my dad’s given name, is also my middle name. I’d been happy to give him a completely unique name to set his own path within the family, but I felt a nod to Dad was in order given he’d waited so long, and I wanted Troy to have a connection to his paternal grandfather much like I did. Needless to say, my parents were ecstatic, especially Dad.

On the morning Grace turned 18 months old, Tiffany and I left Dad and Mom alone with Grace at our house and headed to the hospital to induce the arrival of our second child. We arrived bright and early and spent the greater part of the day cajoling Troy to join us in the real world. I should have known from how long his birth took that he’d be a stubborn little guy. By the evening poor Tiffany was exhausted with the effects of the epidural fading, but she kept going, and our almost-ten-pound bundle of joy finally arrived before the day was over.

I’d never bought into the whole idea of some special father-son bond. Dad and I had a good relationship and we had a lot in common, but I resisted the idea that the father-son bond was any different than that of a father-daughter connection. I didn’t want Grace to feel like she was second fiddle to Troy because of her gender, which, to me, is an absurd bifurcation of the world. My daughter would rain down the glass ceiling upon the affectless patriarchs who doubted her.

Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t something entirely different about having a son. That electrifying moment when I held him for the first time had a different energy about it. I loved him just like I loved Grace from the first moment I saw him, but in his eyes, I saw myself and all of the hopes and dreams that never came to pass. I wished that for my son at that seminal moment, but I knew the weight of such expectations would crush him. I saw in him the chance to relive my own childhood without the pressure and disappointments. He was barely ten minutes old and already my wishes threatened to swallow him whole. I had to tamp down these inclinations if both of us were going to survive his meandering trip to adulthood.

Troy was a chubby little guy more so than most babies. He had an out-sized belly that protruded like that of an old man carrying the weight of too many stagnant years along with cherub-like cheeks that shined like new money. He looked like the Michelin Man or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The fat rolled off his thighs like frosting on a warm cake. I loved it. I’d hug him tight just to feel the weight of him and kiss his chubby cheeks until he couldn’t take it anymore or until I got tired of holding him, which didn’t take long as much as he weighed.

The next day after his birth, I brought Grace and my parents to the hospital to see Troy. Grace, already a vivacious and engaging little girl, was ecstatic to see her new baby brother. She asked lots of questions and shared her observations on the arrival of her younger sibling. One of my most cherished photos is one where she’s holding her brother for the first time, a moment forever burned into my happy memories.

In another heart-warming moment, Dad held his grandson for the first time. He didn’t get emotional, but I could tell he was over the moon. In the space of less than two years, he went from no grandkids to two beautiful, healthy ones. His life felt complete. I wished we could have talked more about it, but I was harried from a sleepless night spent on the cushioned bench in the hospital room, and he was getting antsy about getting back home as he always did when he left his house for any extended period of time.

My parents left soon thereafter and returned to North Georgia, but not before Grace gave them a run for their money. Tiffany and I had eagerly anticipated the day when Grace would start talking, and as if she knew what we had hoped for, she started talking pretty early, and she didn’t stop. She quickly developed into a loquacious little girl, and while my parents were keeping her, she apparently talked them to death. Dad, whose contributions to conversations could be measured in syllables, didn’t know what to think of the constantly chattering granddaughter who followed him around the house in our absence. His cigarette breaks on our front porch relieved him of the cacophony for a moment, but Grace waited patiently for his return so that she could continue their “conversation.” I laughed heartily when Mom relayed this story because I knew Dad avoided lengthy conversations like he avoided leaving his house.

As we settled into our lives as a family of four, I loved watching Troy’s personality emerge. He didn’t know what to think of his sister at first, often staring at her in that perplexed-baby way that is usually reserved for animals. For a while, Tiffany and I feared he’d be overrun by Grace, who can be dominating and intimidating to others, but we quickly realized that would never be the case. Troy emerged as a high-energy and quick-witted little boy whose curiosity and atypical risk-aversion was only outmatched by his refusal to do just about anything asked of him, especially when said requests came from his sister. He was going to be okay, my little Bartleby.

First Born

Tears streamed down my cheeks when the nurse handed me my newborn daughter and I held her in my arms for the very first time. She had me the moment that I looked into those big, brown eyes and cradled her tiny hand in mine. My heart overflowed with a love so strong that only another parent would understand it. It’s inconceivable how such a tiny thing can have such a powerful effect on a grown man, but I knew then that I’d lay down my life for this little girl. She’d never live a day without love. That much I knew.

We named her Grace Marie, and she instantly became the center of our small universe. Her birth changed us, both of us. Something awoke in my wife that I can only describe as amazing and wonderful and just a little frightening. That momma bear instinct is not a myth. It’s real, and its power will not be denied. Tiffany and I went from being doting, equal newlyweds to me being pushed down a rung or two on the ladder of importance. I knew my place, and I watched in wonder as she became a mother in every sense of the word. I’d never been prouder of someone in my life.

In the months leading up to Grace’s arrival, excitement brimmed in our family. My parents were set to be grandparents for the first time, an event that they thought would never come given that none of their boys had shown any sort of inclination toward parenthood. Watching our own parents struggle through it made all three of us very hesitant to take on the responsibility, but maturity and meeting the right partner changed all of that.

Dad and I talked almost every day as we had for much of the past few years. I could hear the excitement in his voice when he asked about Tiffany and how she was doing. For much of his life, Dad was rarely sentimental or reflective, but the impending birth of his first grandchild opened up a part of him that I hadn’t seen. He’d long ago abandoned the dispensing of fatherly advice, but that version of him reemerged for one last time before Grace was born. It was during one of those moments of clarity that he gave me the best advice I ever received about becoming a father.

“Just love ’em. That’s all you can do. A lot of things will happen that you can’t control, so just love ’em.”

There was nothing earth-shattering or revealing in that little bit of poignant advice, but I always came back to it when I over-thought my role as a father. It certainly helped when Tiffany and I took turns getting up in wee hours of the morning to tend to our newborn daughter. It helped later when she started to crawl, then walk and began to develop her own, very independent personality. No matter what I just love her. It really is that simple.

On the drive home from the hospital the day after Grace was born, Tiffany started crying because we were alone and had responsibility for another human being. Unaware of the drama, Grace slept soundly in her car seat in the back of the car, strapped in like she was flying on an F-16. I consoled Tiffany as I gripped the steering wheel with one hand, but I just kept thinking to myself to take one step at a time. Thinking about the days, months, and years ahead seemed too overwhelming at that moment.

Later that evening we gave Grace her first bath. While she had taken one at the hospital with nary a sigh, she screamed bloody murder when we put her swaddled little body in the warm bath water. She didn’t calm down until her frazzled parents had returned her to her cute little duckling pajamas. Back in the warmth of her onesie, she lay on the changing table staring at her own reflection in the window while we sighed in exhaustion. Neither of us thought we’d make it. Day one was that hard, but in spite of it all, she came to life right before our eyes.

No matter the difficulty, there wasn’t a day that went by where I couldn’t wait to get home from work to see my little girl. As she got older and began to interact more, she would get the biggest smile on her face when she’d see me come through the door. Sometimes, Tiffany would hear the garage door open and she’d hold Grace at the door when I walked in. I’d walk into Grace’s outstretched arms and tiny kisses, and life was never better.

We fell into our routines, the three of us. Tiffany and I usually ended our days reading in bed, and Grace became part of that ritual. I’d read her a story or two every night before we put her to bed. The B Book, Green Eggs & Ham, and Goodnight Moon were on a regular rotation with her before she could even sit up on her own. I’d read in funny voices and react with surprise when the big, brown bear bumped into the banana boxes. Grace squealed with delight. Cuddling that sweet little girl in my lap every night to read became one of my favorite things to do. I bonded with her over one of my favorite activities, a bond that we still share today.

As idyllic as those days seemed (at least in my memory), it wouldn’t be life without adding yet another change into the mix. Tiffany and I planned on having two kids (or four, but that’s another story), and we decided that we wanted them close together in age so that they could relate to each other more easily. We also likened it to yanking the Band Aid off quickly rather than pulling it off slowly. By the time Grace reached nine months old, Tiffany was pregnant with our second child. It felt different, this second go-round, experience (and survival) made it all seem plausible that we could manage an ever-larger family.

I remembered how much fun I had with my brothers growing up. Sure, there were some difficult times when we fought like mortal enemies, but there were many more good times. I couldn’t imagine life without them, and as I had grown older, I realized how important they were to me. I hoped to give Grace and her future sibling the same thing, which to me was the one of greatest gifts a parent could give their kids. I didn’t think much about that growing up part, which often obscures the whole idea of a “gift.”

Life B.K.

Tiffany stood huddled next to me for warmth. She wore a hood, drawstring pulled tight, scrunched around her angelic face with only a few strands of hair shooting out like starbursts from the edges of the head cover. Her smile beamed at me despite the shivering cold. Even dressed in a drab, heavy overcoat and over-sized ski gloves, her beauty was undeniable, knee-weakening. She put her hands to her face to warm her nose and leaned into me. I pulled her close as we stood staring out at the darkened horizon with the jagged edges of the top of Mt. Haleakala barely visible in the minimal ambient light. The chatter of the crowd enveloped us.

The horizon slowly brightened until the sun rose above the sea like a photo being developed right before our eyes. Bright oranges and reds trickled across the sky as the sun woke up and stretched out to the volcano at the heart of Maui. We stood there, mesmerized, enthralled. I’d seen many sunrises in my life, but none captured the beauty and wonder of life like the one I watched with Tiffany that morning. At an elevation of ten thousand feet, the sun did little to warm us up on the outside, but on the inside, a sense of fulfillment brimmed within us as we leaned into each other and basked in the glorious sunrise.

After the unique thrill of watching the sun peak above the sea from an active volcano on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean subsided, we hopped on a couple of rented mountain bikes and began the perilous trek back down the steep slopes to sea level at a sometimes furious pace. The road that snaked down the mountain had enough precipitous descents and switchbacks to make me question my sanity, but we were still high from watching that sunrise. Other bikers beat a path before us and many trailed behind us as descending cars hugged the curves not too far from our pedals. It was equal parts exhilarating and nerve-wracking.

Despite the potential for disaster, our senses adjusted and we pulled off the road a few times to soak in the stupendous views from the side of the mountain. The lush green valley below welcomed us to the tropical paradise, a great respite from the chilly, rarefied air atop the volcano. Somewhere in the distant northwest sat our hotel on a beautiful stretch of beach in Kaanapali where we would later snorkle with sea turtles and brightly-colored fish. We continued our breakneck pace down the mountain smiling at each other from beneath our neck-straining motorcycle helmets like winsome newlyweds do.

Near the foot of Haleakala, we pulled off the main road and parked our bikes at a quaint restaurant perched on a plateau overlooking the valley. We ordered waffles and coffee and sat outside enjoying the sun-soaked view as much as the food. We were famished from the long drive to Haleakala, the wait at the top, and the dizzying bike trip down. Not that we were complaining. Life was good. Very good.

That excursion to Mt. Haleakala came to define the way we lived our lives in those two short years before everything changed. Newly married and without any serious commitments beyond ourselves, we quenched our unabated thirst for life as if we were living our final days. Two people in love with each other and life.

Of course, nothing ever stays the same. By the time we celebrated our first wedding anniversary, change was in the air. FedEx went through a restructuring and announced that the field roles including mine would be moved to Memphis. Knowing that I never wanted to live in Memphis again, I decided it was time to move on from FedEx despite how much I loved the company. It turns out company loyalty is a fool’s errand, a tragic, unilateral fallacy in logic.

After years of traveling to the Seattle area and having fallen in love with the city, I convinced Tiffany that we’d love living there. I took her on a vacation there, and she seemed to warm to the city despite the uncompromising overcast June days that persisted throughout our long weekend. I started connecting with other professionals in the area and just two short weeks after my last day at FedEx, I landed a job at Microsoft in the northeast suburbs of Seattle.

With a job in hand, Tiffany and I left behind another brutal cold, January day in Chicago and flew to Seattle to begin our lives anew. It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the Seattle I had loved for so long. The city, bookended by the perennially snow-capped Olympics in the west and the Cascades in the east, has a dour, overcast and rainy reputation, but what few outsiders realize is that the winters are remarkably mild and the summers are unsurpassed in terms of temperament and beauty. We loved the huge outdoor playground that was the Pacific Northwest with its old-growth forests and countless hiking trails. The move suited us very well.

All of that change had us thinking about other aspects of our lives as well, including children. Had anyone asked me at any point in my twenties if I ever intended to have kids, my response would have been a resounding “No!”, but that changed when I met Tiffany. For the first time in my life, I could see the possibility of kids with a woman like her. She changed a lot of things for me, all for the better.

By the spring of that first year in Seattle, Tiffany was pregnant. I felt equal parts elated and frightened. I had never had much responsibility beyond myself and a dog, and now, I faced the very real prospect of being responsible for another human being. I had no idea what to expect despite all of the advice I received. Like most expecting couples, we dutifully prepared for the imminent arrival of our first child, a girl, as we found out later. Growing up in a family of all boys did nothing to prepare me for having a daughter. I’d have to wing it like I had a lot of times in my life. By the end of that first year in Seattle, we closed the book on our lives before kids, and I swore that I heard “Taps” playing in the background in the waning moments of our childlessness.

Concept: A Thin Line

Ed Warner stood, precariously, on the building’s edge looking down at the tiny cars below. He could barely make out the small dark dots of the pedestrians’ heads, but he knew they were there. No one could see him, at least from where he stood. No one ever saw him. He gasped a breath sucking in a sob that desperately wanted to escape his throat. A warm breeze buffeted him making him teeter ever so slightly. The weight on his shoulders threatened to topple him over the ledge and send him onto the cold concrete far below. He pushed himself against the wall cupping his palms against the rough, rock facade. Deep breath.

He fixed his eyes straight ahead at the horizon trying to gather his thoughts, which flew through his mind like a flock of nervous birds. No coherent thought could land. His wife fluttered before his eyes, her own eyes damp and pleading. His two daughters wept at her feet shrieking like crows feasting on a carcass. He shook these thoughts from his frittered mind focusing instead on the deep blue sky that hung overhead. The gentle sun warmed his face. He tried to smile one last time to enjoy the sunshine, but his face froze in fear.

His mind ricocheted back to the moment he knew this would happen, that he would meet the same fate as his mother. That day, likewise deceptively warm and sunny, began with a trip to the beach with his wife and young daughters. While his wife frolicked with the girls near the edge of the foamy waves of the Pacific Ocean, he sat further back on a plush beach towel already littered with sand and frowned. A melancholy mood beset him. The beach had done nothing to cure that.

His wife had promised that a day off from work spent at the beach would cure all that ailed him, but it didn’t. Instead, it brought into sharp relief the anguish and despair that riddled his heart and mind. He’d never feel normal again, or he never had felt so to begin with. He couldn’t escape the clouds even on a bright, sunny day.

As his daughters, slick with seawater and dotted with bits of sand, giggled and ran from the encroaching waves while his wife snapped photos on her phone, Ed knew then that he couldn’t do this to those he loved, that he couldn’t contaminate their lives with his presence. He knew first hand what it felt like to grow up with a parent embroiled in the quicksand of depression. His mother had died a slow death before his eyes from his earliest memories. He had never known her to be happy, and hence, he had never been happy either as if her woes were his cross to bear.

A high-pitched squeal caught his attention. His wife swung one of his daughters around and around, both of their arms extended as his wife pivoted in a tight circle. The sun caught his daughter’s face at just the right angle when she spun furthest from him and she glowed like a little angel sent down from heaven to save him. He felt like smiling as she shrieked and started to loll her head in dizziness, but all he could do was tighten his lips across his teeth. His other daughter bounced up and down near them pleading for her turn. His wife’s laughs filled the mostly empty beach, and despite the glee of his young children, Ed felt empty, too.

His heel scraped against the grainy ledge shocking him back to the present as he thrust himself against the wall behind him to retain his balance. The ground wavered below him, and for a moment, he thought he wouldn’t recover. His heart rate spiked and ragged breaths escaped him before he levered back onto the ledge. The warm breeze had stopped leaving nothing but the faint sounds from the streets below to assure him that he was still alive. He tucked his chin to look at the world beneath him.

The shorter building across from him cast a shadow onto the street below. The sun had settled well past mid-day, but the buildings, crammed together like mottled, irregular teeth kept the streets in the shadows except for a small window of time each day. He’d fall into that darkness, a fate befitting of someone who had always battled it. A gloomy wave washed over him. Gravity beseeched him. He wavered on the ledge drunk from his own misery.

An image of his mother appeared before him. She said nothing, but she looked at him with that dismal, meager frown she had always worn. He could not conjure up an image of her smiling because he could not be sure she had ever done so. What kind of life is one in which a person never smiles? Why prolong such misery?

He’d been the one that found her, stiff and pale in the deep, bone-white bathtub tucked against the wall of her bathroom. The blinds had been turned down casting the weak overcast light from the window onto her such that she looked like an apparition. Her eyes were shut like she was sleeping, but her lips, the eminent purveyors of her truth, were frozen in that ever-present grimace.

He could only see her head, slightly turned toward the entrance, and the tops of her bare shoulders when he finally opened the door to the bathroom. He called out to her quietly, but she didn’t move. She refused to acknowledge his presence, which wasn’t far from the ordinary in the last few weeks of her life. She’d grown more withdrawn with each passing day often hiding in her dark bedroom for hours at a time. As a young teenager, he should have been happy to be removed from his mother’s spotlight of attention, but Ed longed to engage her and rid himself of the foreboding feelings that overwhelmed him at times.

When she didn’t respond to his words, he crept closer to the tub, each step confirming his worst fears. The long, rectangular room felt like a stretched hallway whose walls were closing in on him. His heart raced and his breathing became erratic. Before he touched her cold body, he wanted to cry out, but he didn’t want to accept the harsh reality before him. He almost crumpled onto himself when he finally stood over her.

She lay in her white underwear, which matched the phosphorus glow of the tub, with streaked crimson stains on either side of her. Her wrists were upturned on each side with dark, gelatinous slits across them, exclamation points on a life not lived. His whole body shivered like a cold, winter breeze wafted through the closed window on the other side of him. His hands trembled as he reached out to touch her. He pulled his hand back, and then, he forced himself to shake her slightly. He whispered to her as if saying her name would thrust him from the nightmare.

When she didn’t open her eyes in that lazy way she had adopted after years of medication, when she didn’t whisper his name in that raspy voice that had replaced the motherly timbre of his childhood, and when she didn’t sigh in exasperation as she had for much of his life, he knew she was gone, that death had finally relieved her of her burden. What burden he did not know. Him maybe?

Another stiff breeze scattered the image of his mother across the sky before him as Ed recoiled to the present. His heart sank further. After all these years, he finally understood his mother. Life, like a hungry lion in pursuit of an exhausted prey, eventually overwhelmed it’s target, a slow death of a thousand cuts. His mother simply preempted the inevitable rather than suffer the indignity of living. For years he had resented her, hated her even, but now, he had some semblance of empathy with her.

A tremor wracked his body. His cupped hands pulled away from the wall at his back, and he could feel the earth pulling him into her bosom. He hesitated, stalled. The voices in his head waged a war of reason and emotion and hope and despair. The battle had been fought time and time again with nothing more than a stalemate until this very moment. He wanted it to end in the worst way. He wanted peace, final peace, just like his mother had found so many years ago.

A tear escaped his eye and trickled down his cheek. As if some internal dam had broken, more tears followed. A bleating sob forced its way out, and the tremors began to overwhelm him. He had lost control of his own body much like he had his life. The affront became unbearable. He bent his knees slightly and then propelled himself over the edge.

The shock of being suspended in the space above the street shocked him. His instincts kicked in and he grasped for something to save himself, but he only squished air between his fingers. He kicked his legs for purchase and swung his arms as if he could somehow fly like a bird. The windows on the building next to him smeared into some blurry canvas devoid of any vivid color. He couldn’t breathe as he watched the the tiny cars grow bigger and the dark dots turn into the upturned heads of pedestrians. He wanted to scream, but nothing came out. He fell faster and faster until his mind mercifully faded to black.

A Summer to Remember

The year 2001 will forever be a stain on the trajectory of human history thanks to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but in spite of those terrible events, that year will go down as one of the best of my life.

Having freed myself from the noose of a terrible relationship, I had no intention of entering into anything resembling a serious relationship (I believe my exact words were “never again”). I went out and moved on, preferring instead to think of dates as friends hanging out long before “Netflix and chill” became a thing. Highlife provided ample opportunities to meet new and interesting people, but I was having too much fun to settle down.

The New Year also brought a new challenge. I had decided to attempt a marathon. I had never run anything more than a half marathon, and I had no clue what training for a marathon would involve, but I was determined to give it my best shot. After reading a book about completing the distance, I began to train in earnest for the next Chicago Marathon in October, but I often found my social schedule at odds with my ever-longer runs.

In late April, I joined several of my friends for a Highlife-sponsored dinner at an Irish restaurant west of Chicago. We had one of those long, rectangular communal tables that sat about 20 people in a small, roped-off section of the restaurant. The host greeted us at the entrance and we took our seats at one end of the table as the rest of the guests slowly filtered in. The waitress took our drink orders and I fell into an engaging conversation with two friends and a couple of other people I had never met before, a typical hyper-social event for Highlife.

The seats filled up rapidly and our end of the table became embroiled in a raucous discussion about the Cubs vs. the Sox when a young woman with the most beautiful smile I had ever seen joined our group. I watched as she waved to a few people at the table and walked to the opposite end to have a seat. The distance between us felt like a mile in that confined space, too far to talk or shout a conversation. I wanted to meet the woman who possessed that smile, but we were both pinned at our respective ends of the table by other friends and lively discussions and the night slipped away before I had the chance to introduce myself.

Fortunately, I did finally meet her and introduce myself. It happened over several subsequent Highlife events that both of us attended where I eventually learned her name was Tiffany. Not only was she an incredibly beautiful woman with a captivating smile, but she was down-to-earth and damn cool, too. She liked to do many of the things that I enjoyed doing, which explained why I kept seeing her at the Highlife events I attended. I’d never met a woman as interesting and fun to talk to her as she was. We developed a rapport and started chatting outside of the Highlife diaspora.

Eventually, I asked her out on a date to a Train concert in mid-May. I did it through email because I was at work when I finally got the nerve to ask her out. Those minutes between the moment I hit send until I received a response from her felt like endless, tortuous hours. When her response popped up in my inbox, I nervously clicked on her name to see that she said yes.

Relieved, I could sense the start of something wonderful. That single email started a chain of events that made my year, my life even, and it remains one of the most fortuitous turning points in a life full of them. On that first date, in spite of the loud music, we talked most of the time, leaning into each other so that we could talk over the music. Each time I got close to her, I could feel the electricity between us, and the more I got to know her, the more I liked her.

We didn’t stop there. Our next date involved tandem skydiving, which was second only to her in terms of sheer thrill. We spent that entire summer together doing everything, anything, and nothing. We drank from the fountain of those long summer days in Chicago like draining a beer in the bleacher seats at Wrigley Field. We capped off that magnificent summer with a trip to Italy as part of a Highlife tour group. By then, I knew that I loved her. I couldn’t imagine my life without her, and I seriously considered proposing to her on our Italian vacation, but I decided to hold off to make sure she could handle being with me for seven days in sometimes cramped and unfamiliar conditions. If she could survive that, I knew she could survive being married to me.

Luckily, the wonderful tour of Italy confirmed what I knew in my deepest heart to be true. We explored all of the familiar landmarks in Rome, Florence, and Venice, and finished our trip near the southern Alps in Lake Maggiore with a memorable night in a quaint, Italian resort town. Most importantly, all of that time together in tiny hotel rooms with inconveniently-sized bathrooms that seemed like an afterthought and on the confined tour bus did not send Tiffany screaming for the exit.

Instead, we returned to the U.S. more in love than ever just in time to experience my personal low point of that year. In early Oct, I ran the Chicago marathon barely a week removed from our Italian adventure. Being my first marathon, I didn’t know what unprepared felt like, so I toed the start line that day in the throes of blissful ignorance as Tiffany cheered me on. The large crowd propelled me through the first ten miles with a smile on my face, but as the seemingly-endless miles wore on and the crowd thinned, my “preparation” came back to haunt me in a bad way. By mile 18, I shuffled along like a drunk trying to find his car in a blizzard. I stopped and walked a bit to make the pain stop, but it didn’t help. Forced to choose between quitting and finishing the race, I shuffled-stepped my way to the agonizing finish line near Buckingham Fountain.

After four hours and ten minutes, I trudged across the finish line a broken man. When I met Tiffany near the fountain, I collapsed on the ground beneath my feet and cursed my penchant for crazy ideas. She sat patiently near me as I wallowed in disappointment and belittled my own poor effort. I told her I would never run another marathon again. It would take me eight years to eat those words.

That small fracture in the most wonderful year quickly faded into my memory after I recovered. On the date that marked six months since that first date, I took Tiffany on a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan aboard The Odyssey cruise ship that often sailed along the shoreline by Chicago. I wore a suit, and she wore a gray formal dress that accentuated those feminine curves that left me googly-eyed. She looked positively stunning making her smile all the brighter. After dinner we ventured downstairs to another part of the ship where I bent down on one knee and asked her to marry me. She said yes, very quietly at first, but then, she excitedly repeated her answer. I had never been happier in my life.

To Love a Story

The thrill of a new story idea sends a tingle down my spine. That first encounter heightens my senses and kicks my heart into an extra gear. Suddenly, I can think of nothing else as I bask in the glow of its loveliness. The touch of the keyboard feels electric. Its promise augurs something I have yet to know, but I throw all caution to the wind because it can be nothing but greatness.

Possessed by the idea, I begin in earnest, words flowing from my fingertips as lightning bolts from Zeus striking the ephemeral page. The courting of words, a beautiful siren’s song, coaxes my muse onto her balcony. The manic progress ebbs and flows like the tides shaping the sand into a work of art. My heart swells as I breathe life into characters, paint the canvas of settings, and speak the indelible words that will be remembered and quoted by generations. With desires announced and conflict put in motion, the flower blooms with a frenetic passion.

My infatuation bursts into the night like a firework that launches with great promise of visual and aural display. The tremor-inducing first few chapters rivet me leaving me tangled in the sheets of literary desire. My best ideas spent, shot into the vague darkness of the plot, I languish in solitary repose, my imagination besting reality. The hype and hope begin to flicker ever so slightly as the pretense of fantasy loses its grip on me.

The beauty and perfection I had once held in high esteem fade. The imperfections become more obvious and out-sized, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. Suddenly, the story seems askew and inhospitable. We need time apart to determine how we really feel about each other, but one day leads to another, and then, the once-promising romance falls into the dustbin of memory. The pages languish unfinished. A melancholy falls over me, a feeling of missing someone or something that had once been the center of my universe.

Erstwhile bright alleyways fade to a misty gray leading to ever darker paths through the graveyard of potential, a sad relic of the fatal arc of a love story. Feet scuffing the ground beneath me, the petulant little boy inside me feels dejected and discouraged until a glimmer catches my eye. Up ahead in the misery sits something bright and glittering. My pace quickens until I am upon it and hold it in my hands in all its glory; my love flowers once again.

A familiar tingle trickles down my spine. I can think of nothing else.

Mele Kalikimaka

Before I had time to settle into Chicago that first December, I took a vacation over the Christmas holiday to spend time with Jason, my youngest brother, who, at the time was stationed at the Schofield Army base on O’ahu. I stayed in Waikiki and spent the days and a good part of the nights with him.

Separated by seven years, my relationship with Jason is markedly different than it is with Danny. Growing up, he was the baby of the family, the one Mom protected at all costs despite the fact that Danny and I would often slug it out over the smallest of things. We’d try to pull him into the thick of it, but Mom would put her foot down. The rough and tumble of our childhood was somewhat lost on Jason. Danny and I could punch each other silly, but if either of us laid a pinkie finger on Jason, Mom would have a conniption.

Of course, we laugh about it now, but there’s never an escape for Jason when we get nostalgic. Danny and I greatly exaggerate everything that happened to Jason as a child mostly because that’s what big brothers do, but also, to salve our wounds a little. No idiosyncrasy escapes our intense spotlight, and one can bet that had he grown up in a normal family, no one would have noticed the targets of our ridicule.

One of my proudest moments as a big brother came when Jason enlisted in the Army and graduated boot camp. I was proud because he had done something for himself and he was serving our country in the most admirable capacity. He also did something that I could never do – join the military. Short-tempered and disparaging of authority types, I wouldn’t last a day in the military. I’d either be ground to a physical nub due to punishment or I’d quit in a fit of rage.

I knew my limitations, but Jason found his calling. He seemed to thrive in the environment and became a helicopter mechanic for the Army settling in the idyllic climes of Hawaii on a choice assignment. By the time I visited him, he’d already lived there for a couple of years, but I hadn’t seen him much in that time since he couldn’t make the flight back to Georgia too often. It seemed a shame for him to spend another holiday alone no matter how glamorous the locale.

Spending Christmas in Hawaii made for an interesting experience. Even native North Georgians expect Christmas to be chilly enough to warrant a fire in the fire place. As kids we rarely held out much hope for snow on Christmas, but we never experienced the holiday in anything approaching tropical weather either. Hawaiians spend Christmas on their beautiful beaches much like they spend the rest of the year. Seeing Christmas decorations on display there felt like a non-native holiday had been jammed into the middle of a foreign country. It was like playing a game of “What Doesn’t Belong.”

The oddity of it all quickly wore off. I’d never been to Hawaii before, so Jason showed me around the island. We went hiking at Diamond Head, a volcanic cone on O’ahu, hung out on the beaches in Waikiki, and walked the streets of downtown Honolulu soaking in the sights. It reminded me of my travel days except without the work, and I absolutely enjoyed it, and I loved the opportunity to have some time alone with Jason.

One thing that never changes about siblings is that it’s hard to view each other outside the context of our common childhood. To me, Jason will always be my baby brother, but that holiday afforded me the chance to see him as the adult he had become. It was a rare thing because most of our interactions had been in the middle of family gatherings, and those moments often put us back into the roles we filled as children no matter how old we were.

That vacation, the first true one I had taken as an adult, opened my eyes to what I had been missing. I’d spent so much time working that a decade of my life had evaporated with nary a thing to show for it other than a juiced-up resume. There was nothing magical about turning thirty, but it did force some perspective upon me. All I had to do was look in the mirror to see the toll my choices had taken on me. I knew I had to make some changes.

With that in mind one morning, I decided to take a run on the beach. I hadn’t been diligent about running over the previous few years, but I had managed to sustain some level of capacity. My feet thumped heavily on the sidewalk when I bounded out of the my hotel’s lobby and took the path to the beach. Upon hitting the sand, my legs felt like rubber bands on the squishy surface, but I didn’t care. The beautiful sunrise shot vibrant colors across the horizon, and the mesmerizing song of the waves greeted me as I ran on the mostly-empty beach. The run was short, but I huffed my way through it, pulling the weight of too many days off from running. By the time I returned to the hotel lobby, I felt a positive vibe that I hadn’t felt in a very long time, something that I’d carry over into the new year.

On my final night in Hawaii, Jason and I went to see Castaway at a theater in downtown Honolulu. We drove under a sign that said “Mele Kalikimaka,” or Merry Christmas in the native Hawaiian language. Of course, I had no idea what it said, so I asked Jason. The phrase rolled off his tongue like any English one would. That exchange epitomized the revelation I had on that trip. My baby brother had grown up. He had ventured out of the narrow realm of our collective childhood and discovered something unfamiliar and intriguing. Rather than running from or dismissing it, he had embraced it in a way that only the openness of youth could.

That was the last time we’d see each other for a while, a memorable and tranquil time before the world apple cart was upended in the name of outdated, irrational dogma. The year or so ahead would put Jason inextricably in harm’s way, but for the moment at least, I left the islands thinking everything was going to turn out all right.