Kindness, served.

Wind and driving rain
Greet us as we emerge from memory care.
“Where do you want to eat?” he asks.
I shrug; indifferent.
“The Nepalese place is really good.”
I groan inwardly, petulant,
Like a toddler who only wants mac and cheese.
“Would you rather go somewhere else?”
I would. But I’m indecisive and don’t have any better ideas,
Nor the wherewithal to think of them.
So I shrug.
I really just want to go home and eat cereal.

We pull into the dated strip mall, brown and dingy,
And walk in, stomping our feet outside,
Shaking the water from our jackets.
I see a slight Nepalese man, likely the owner,
Peer at us from the kitchen as we walk in.
The dining room smells deliciously of curry and other spices;
My eyes take in the spotless tile, vibrant red walls, and
The faded but still spectacular
Photos of the Himalayan Range.
Two other families share the small dining room.
My gaze meets the dark eyes of our host and server,
Who smiles warmly and seats us.

We sit, mostly in silence, exhausted,
Feeling deep sadness, eyes averted. I feel sure that
If our eyes meet, I will start crying.
A few tears escape, anyway.
The owner comes to our table; he is polite and serious,
Inquiring if we had visited before.
I shake my head no, while my husband nods an affirmative,
But we are unable to make small talk,
And conversation does not take root.
I pick up the menu, which makes it clear
That all food is made to order;
And I sigh a little, and try to choose.

Our server returns with hot tea and crunchy naan,
I breathe in the spicy ginger and honey,
And take the steaming mug in both hands.
It’s early September, yet I crave the warmth that is offered.
I think he must sense our sorrow—after all,
It shrouds our table in fog.
But the fragrant tea is filling the gray space.
He gives us respectful distance,
Then returns to take our order.
His face is open, his smile genuine and kind.
He listens to and answers our questions with care,
Making sure the dishes we order won’t burn our palates.

We talk now, just a little, about the inevitable next steps,
Anticipating hard times ahead.
How it feels impossible to prepare our hearts,
Try as we might.
Knowing that today may be the best day we have with her,
And that each moment is a gift, we remind each other.
Yet we struggle to celebrate them.
Our exchange is quiet, and punctuated with silence.
I guess the meal takes a while to prepare; earlier,
I just wanted to be home in my pajamas.
But the warm tea sustains me, and sharing these sad feelings
With my husband, makes them bearable, if not better.

Our server returns to our table with steaming bowls of curry;
Tender lamb, savory spices, and fragrant jasmine rice.
We eat, and the owner comes by,
To ask how we like the meal he prepared for us;
Finally we can smile, look into his generous eyes,
And thank him with our hearts.
If food can connect people, I think we found it here.
Tonight, recipes shared from someone’s homeland
Sustain us, and fill our empty vessels
Allowing us to walk back out into the rain
Hand in hand, feeling just a little restored
Grateful, and humbled, to receive such kindness.

Photos from 919blog.com.

Remembering Mary Oliver

I ran early this evening
Thinking of her, and missing her voice
Shadows growing long,
then fading into twilight–
In January you can see
A long way through the woods
Stripped of leaves and other finery
Earth’s bones, contour and shape
Truth without adornment
Like her words, precise and spare.

Pausing at the lake, daylight fading
Two ducks silhouetted against
The orange-stained mirror
I watch, find the words and continue on—
Moon rising now through the trees
Casting a silvery light on my path
Up ahead, pale reflection on Sycamore Creek
I hear splashing below the bridge
And realize that it is always there
But I did not hear it until nightfall.

Climbing now, I pass the red oak
Two years since her proud limbs reached skyward
I grieved the loss each time I passed
But today I see her
Sinking gently into Earth’s embrace
Sharing energy and minerals and earthy rot
Housing wild creatures as always
Feeding hungry young seedlings—
Nurturing tomorrow’s forests with unbridled joy
She is here; her words are everywhere.

Umstead Lake at sunset. Two ducks in the middle.

Thank you, Mary Oliver. Rest in peace.

Snapshots of my Nana

It is Thanksgiving Eve, and my Nana’s birthday*.

My nana did not like to cook, but whenever I visited, she made chocolate milk in her blender to make it frothy, and she always had at least two kinds of ice cream, which we ate in the afternoon. It was wondrous to my child’s mind, the kind of spoiling that nanas do best.

My nana called me Steph, Dear, and Snoopy in equal measures, most of the years that I knew her. But her face would alight with recognition whenever she saw me, so it didn’t matter.

I thought my nana’s living room was scary. It was formal, dark, and Victorian. There was a large painting in a gold frame portraying the death of King Ferdinand. I could not understand why anyone would want something so dismal. There were ornate lamps with pointy crystals. I would stand at the edge of the room, in the kitchen, hold my breath, and run quickly over the Oriental rugs and past the marble coffee table and uncomfortable furniture to her sun porch, where she always sat working on craft projects.

My nana impatiently guided my small hands through craft projects I was not yet ready to do—my first embroidery at age 4, and an astoundingly detailed string art sailboat at age 6, with macaroni letters spelling out the name of our boat. I remember making a shadow box with a cliff we made from clay and rocks, a tiny lighthouse, and a tiny stairway down to the water with a tiny boat tied to a tiny dock. By then I might have been 8. We would start a project and when she ran out of patience, she’d finish it. My nana was not a teacher.

But my nana was an artist—a watercolor painter—and I wanted to be an artist like her. Her watercolor painting of the Sandy Hook lighthouse, where I grew up in New Jersey, hangs in my living room. I realized early on that I did not inherit her artistic talent (nor her love of Victorian decor). But when I was old enough, I’d help her make bows from curling-ribbon in large quantities for the Riverview hospital gift shop.

My nana had many friends through her women’s club and I remember their craft bazaars and charity craft projects. Two of my nana’s favorite friends were much younger and visited often. When I was little, my mom would tell me not to be upset when they came over. Mrs. Baumeister shouted because she was deaf, she’d explain, and Mrs. Serpico shouted because she was Italian, but they were never angry, just loud.

My nana did not like to cook, but she loved hosting parties. She had a swimming pool, and one of those small buildings called a cabana, with two changing rooms grown moldy over time, and scary spiders in the corners. She hosted a pool party for my 8th birthday, and decorated fancy cupcakes in pink, blue, and yellow. I wore a pastel rainbow bathing suit and had stripes of zinc oxide on my late-summer, sunburned face.

For many years, my nana drove a blue 71 Chevy Impala. The back seats were covered with a thick layer of dog hair, and the car was so wide that when we were buckled up, my brother and I could not touch each other. It also had electric windows. She drove to the A&P nearly every day, so I was surprised when I heard that she got lost driving home.

I loved being outside at my nana’s house. Her land went on forever. There were weeping willows next to the river, an old, boarded-up water tower, back woods with lily-of-the-valley in early spring, and a huge sycamore tree at the edge of the woods. She had two great copper beeches—I could climb one high enough to see over the roof of her house and all the way to the river. I could disappear for hours with her dog Snoopy–most of the time she didn’t notice we were out.

My nana had a green painted stoop on the side of her sprawling ranch house, and below it, soft yet prickly Bermuda grass. I loved jumping barefoot from the sun-warmed stoop onto the spongy turf. It was years before I wondered where that door went, the one at the top of the stoop. I peeked through the clouded glass, but all I could see were stacks of boxes and furniture inside.

Much later, I learned that it was a secret room inside her house. It was secret because the doorway was completely hidden by stacked boxes and furniture. Today we would call it hoarding, but to me, it was just Nana’s house. It was the visual, chaotic debris of a once-sharp mind.

I lost my nana long before she died, to Alzheimer’s disease. She didn’t like having her picture taken, so I have no photographs of her. Nevertheless, these snapshots are the Nana I knew, and I keep them in my heart.

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*Postscript: Today we moved my much loved mother-in-law, who has frontotemporal dementia, into memory care. I’m not yet ready to write about that journey, but I wrote this to honor my nana and hoping that my boys will have happy memories of their nana too.

One week til Chicago.

The miles are in the bank. We are T-9 days away from the Chicago Marathon, and I feel confident that our Down. Not Out! team will cross the finish line together. I’m so proud of Ann, and I’m excited that I will be with her to see this goal through.

I am looking forward to the adventure, and yet, part of me is dreading it.

I am relieved to have my Table Rock 50K behind me. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I was nervous about potential injury. Table Rock is a wicked course—one I hadn’t run—and there’s nothing easy about 5700 ft of elevation gain on single-track trails. In fact, it was harder than I expected (but I loved it all).

A couple of weeks ago, friends asked if I was doing extra training in addition to my weekly training with Ann, plus joining her long runs whenever we were both in town. Sometimes Chicago training looked like powerful walk/run intervals; other days we needed to do more walking. Ann persevered. Marathon training with stage 4 cancer is tough. There is no manual or instruction book. She’s writing it.

I sure as hell was not doing extra training. I don’t have time, and I’m not that dedicated. I was undertrained for distance and terrain, but that’s happened before, and it turned out OK. Still, I fumbled over my response. “No, but it’s fine.” Well, of course, duh. “Look,” I said, trying again, “my priorities are clear.”

I knew they were missing the whole truth, but I didn’t try to explain. I was worried that I might burst into tears unexpectedly and make everyone uncomfortable. Still, I squirmed inside about the possible misunderstanding.

My priorities are clear. That is true enough. A mistaken assumption, however, might be that my only priority is to help Ann finish her marathon. I think even Ann worried about it some. However, that isn’t the case at all. First, Ann has had many, many friends support her training. Second, I needed these miles together. For me.

As we neared the longest runs of her training two weeks ago, Ann said one day, with weariness, “I can’t wait for this training to be over. It is really hard on my body.” Her honest words filled me with deep sadness.

We knew that she would need to hang up her running shoes, to protect her long-term health and have energy for other goals. I’ve worried about her training. I know she’s making a good decision, at the right time, and I admire Ann for making the call and doing it on her own terms. Living life large has always been her style.

But there will be weeks and months and years ahead where I would trade anything for that time spent running together. Time that is free of distraction, often in the company of other friends. No agenda, just time spent sharing what’s on our minds, laughing about our kids, making plans, and telling stories.

I will miss it terribly.

So today, we run together. To get Ann to the start—and the finish—of the Chicago marathon, and fulfill a longtime dream of hers. At the same time, I am filling my cup for the road ahead, one without my best friend running by my side.

My priorities are clear. I treasure every single day that we can lace up our running shoes together.

ann and steph crystal coast 2011

Crystal Coast Half Marathon, 2011. One of our worst races together (Ann had a fever and my IT band crapped out), but the girls’ weekend with friends more than made up for it.

2015 tour de cure

Tour de Cure 2015. This was an awesome challenge for us to tackle together, since neither of us is very comfortable on a road bike. One of my favorite pics, taken at the end of the second long, hot day of riding.

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Sunset Beach Half Marathon last spring with the Peeps. It takes a flock!

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Chicago Marathon training in July with some Peep support.

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Many adventures are still ahead. We don’t just run. We also camp, eat Krispy Kremes, and listen to bluegrass. Plus a whole lot of other stuff.

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Our husbands (and kids) never question our crazy adventures and are our rocks of support. We’re looking forward to celebrating 20 years of friendship in 2018.

Ocean of Stars

I want to lose myself in the night sky,
Shiver in the November air,
Lie by the sea among grains of sand.
I want to feel dwarfed by the universe
Tiny, and inconsequential.

Perhaps then my cares, too, will seem small
Fear drifting away with the outgoing tide
My heart growing lighter
So I might twinkle again,
Just one of a billion stars above my head.

Les Etoiles

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“In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You–only you–will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

This weekend was hard. Two years have not been enough time to ease my sorrow. It was a long day Saturday missing one of my closest friends. Suzie loved the wisdom of Le Petit Prince.