They’re in my rafters, silent and dark, in the boxes that I stored them in last January. I’m sitting here, quiet and tired, wondering if this is the year that they stay where they are, and what they are; inanimate objects gathering dust in a place that nobody goes. I see in my mind what I could create with those things, bushes illuminated, doorways made festive, windows lit with a soft glow from a candle bought in a different time, in a different home.
The problem is I just don’t feel like doing the work needed to pull it off. When the reward for doing a job no longer makes doing the work worth the trouble, many jobs just don’t get done.
A giant house with all the things that go with it just wasn’t worth the effort after our kids established lives of their own, so we moved into a smaller house, with less work to do. When the kids visit Mom and Dad’s house now, they no longer think of it as their own. I had to remind them they don’t need to knock before entering. Without memories a house is just a place to live, and we hope that the magic we created a lifetime ago won’t be as forgotten as the candles in a box in the rafters.
It seems like yesterday that I lived in my parents’ home. When Christmastime was truly magical it was up to me to make sure all of the candles were lit in our windows. The bulbs were orange then, the candle sticks colored ivory with plastic wax dripping down the sides. They were placed between the real windows and the storm windows, the heat they produced enough to melt the frost and sometimes ice that lived between the glass, creating a halo of orange light surrounded by almost surreal whiteness.
I couldn’t wait for sunset most days, and as the last traces of light receded to darkness I would begin my work, first downstairs, plugging the ends of the electric cords into the outlets that turned them on. There were five windows on the ground floor of the colonial, and it didn’t take long for me to plug all five in. The effect was okay, but lost with the everyday lighting and the racket from my brother and sisters, and the noise in the kitchen from my mother’s meal preparations.
It was upstairs where the true Christmas Spirit resided, in the bedrooms. Only during Christmastime was I allowed access into my parent’s room without an invite, and my sister’s room without being chased into it. It was quiet up there, nobody but me, and I took my time, basking in the orange glow in each room before moving on to the next.
I saved the room I shared with my brother for last, and after the final candle was lit would lie in my bunk bed and let the serenity I created fill me with happiness. I wouldn’t spend long up there. I didn’t want to miss what was happening downstairs: some treat to gobble or game to play. But for perhaps five minutes I would lie there feeling connected to something far bigger than myself, or anything I could imagine.
I close my eyes and bring the memories back. Before long I’m off the chair, eyes wide open, coat on, hat and gloves in the pocket and out the door, into the garage and up the ladder. The boxes are right where I left them last year. A few candles wouldn’t hurt, I think, and before long every last snowman, elf, Santa and wreath is on the garage floor, waiting for me to create something magnificent.
You can take away the things we accumulate as our lives unfold, but nothing can deprive us of the memories forged by doing the work needed to create them. A little hard work never killed anybody, and I’ll be damned if I let memories yet to be experienced die before they have a chance to come alive in my family’s continuing story.
She actually apologized for calling us.
“I didn’t want to bother you, but I can’t stand the pain any longer.”
Her home was meticulous, nestled on a quiet street in the Mount Pleasant section of the city, surrounded by beautiful yet modest homes that showed the pride of their owners. The city has a few neighborhoods like this, though they are becoming scarce. She handled her pain well, as a lot of people from her generation are prone to do. No theatrics, just a matter-of-fact explanation of her problem. She insisted on walking to the ambulance, turned out the lights and locked the door behind us.
She was remarkably independent, especially when considering her age; born in 1920 she had seen a lot of changes during her nine decades on this earth. She reluctantly agreed to ride on the stretcher, but only after I insisted, and looked uncomfortable with “all the fuss.”
“No fuss at all,” I said and assessed her vital signs, noted a-fib, hypotension, and a weak pulse on my report. She didn’t fuss about the IV, and I managed to get it on the first try, regardless of her paper-thin flaky skin, spider veins, and obvious dehydration. I watched the IV drip, slowed down the flow, and tried to put an 02 mask over her face in hopes of getting her oxygen level past 93%. She won that argument but only after explaining that I was the first person she had talked with in weeks, and I simply couldn’t deprive an old lady her dying wish.
We settled on a nasal canula, I disagreed with her assessment of her condition, and we got moving, leaving her peaceful sanctuary and traveling through a more desolate part of the city toward Rhode Island Hospital.
We looked out the dingy rear windows, watching the world go by backward, and settled in for the five-minute ride. There wasn’t much activity at four in the morning; the old houses that we passed look much the same in the dim moonlight as they did when she was a younger woman, and it was easy to forget what is so obvious in daylight. When the sun rises and the city wakes, the real changes become clear.
A few of the houses were still illuminated with Christmas lights.
“I don’t think you will have to stay in the hospital for Christmas,” I said, assuming her ailment could be treated without an extended stay.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, sadness filling her voice.
“My husband passed away last year, and I’m just waiting to join him. We were married 64 years; it’s hard to live without him.”
“You must miss him,” I said.
As we neared the hospital, she told me of the greatest gift he ever gave her. “As he neared the end he told me this: If I could live my life over again I wouldn’t change a thing. That kind of love is what keeps me going. We had a wonderful life together.”
The truck stopped at the ambulance bay. “He must have been a great man,” I said.
“He was. He was a captain on the Providence Fire Department, Ladder 5 at Point Street.” She glanced at the captain’s bars that adorned my collar and gave me a knowing smile, which I gladly returned. We wheeled her in, and she was swallowed by the hospital, but her memory lingered.
I had been at work for nearly 38 hours, having worked an overtime shift between my nights, and never had I felt so lonely. I looked toward the east, where my home sat some eight miles away, and the first traces of dawn touched the sky. Below it, my wife slept, alone in our bed, again. If she could live her life over again, would she do things differently? Life is hard for a firefighter’s family. It was up to me to make sure that she wouldn’t want to change a thing.
I wrote this while feeling hopeless and desperate. I asked for help, and help arrived…
I stood in line at the grocery store, patiently waiting for the people ahead of me to finish. A mom and her daughter; the girl filled with excitement and anticipation, her mom too busy to notice much more than the bottom line displayed on the register readout as it went incredibly higher, and higher: $68.35, then 97.32, a few more items, then 110.87.
As the last item rolled down the treadmill a look of relief crossed her face, probably mentally subtracting the groceries from the balance sheet in her head. She swiped her card, and the little girl stared at me, and I stared back. I tried to smile, but all I could think of was the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary school this time just five years ago, and how this little girl could easily be just a memory.
She smiled anyway, oblivious to the thoughts in my head, and it brought me out of my reverie, and I managed to give her a lopsided grin, then she was gone, following her mom out of the store, mesmerized by the ornate holiday decorations as only a six year old at Christmastime can be.
I wondered then about the homes in Newtown, Connecticut, and the empty places where the Christmas trees would be. Try as I might to make sense of the tragedy and put it behind me, and think of it as some aberration; a blip in the serenity that I try so hard to convey every December, it was impossible. All I lost that day was a temporary suspension of my own manifestation of goodwill toward men, and peace on earth. I did not lose a child, or a mother, sister, daughter, or friend. My life moved on, what Christmas Spirit I had managed to create lost, but likely easily re-ignited. I would be able to fake it and get through the season, and make the next one better.
But what of the people directly affected? What happened in December, 2012 cannot be dismissed, or rationalized, or prayed away. For them, their lives will forever be scarred. Time will not heal their wounds; time will allow the anger and disillusionment to fester, and the hopelessness of it all to seep in. We get old, and as we age the magic in life becomes harder and harder to capture.
Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone, and the thrill of living ended abruptly for the victims and families of Sandy Hook.
I’m just a guy in Rhode Island who had nothing to do with any of it, yet still I find it difficult to forget the events that happened that day, and move away from the thought that such madness can coincide with the joy that the Christmas season brings. It is unfathomable to me that so many people had their faith, innocence and optimism taken away from them, and must live with the harsh reality that life veered out of control with no warning, and nothing would ever be the same.
I hope that little girl in the grocery store never has to think about these things, and that her mother keeps her as safe as she can, and manages to somehow provide a magical Christmas for her. Grant me that, and I’ll never ask for another thing for Christmas.
My Christmas wish was answered a few days later by “Anonomous from Sandy Hook, ” who read my words and was compelled to respond:
“Thank you for remembering our community. It’s so hard to answer the question of how we’re all doing since so many people are at different places in the healing process.
We will never forget and there are some scars that can never be healed. Our community has been forever changed. Our children who survived were robbed of their childhood innocence and forced to grow up faster than you can ever imagine.
In a Remembrance Mass last night, we certainly prayed for those families and first responders who experienced hell on earth three years ago. But we were also reminded that it’s in our moments of greatest weakness that we often gather our greatest strength.
Our community has been blessed with the true meaning of compassion and kindness and we are reminded of the pure love and goodness that those victims represented innocent, happy, loving children and educators who sacrificed their own lives to protect those children.
Christmas does live on, those trees are still lit in the homes that were directly affected and Sandy Hook Center just celebrated another beautiful tree lighting.
There is joy this time of year, but also a great amount of conflicting pain for many who are still broken.
It was a sign-up sheet, fairly 8.simple, just some names under the heading “volunteers needed.” Being a reasonably able young man, I figured I could help. So I added my name to the list, thinking I could flip some burgers at the league snack bar or something. Soccer was a mystery to me; I was looking forward to getting involved and maybe even learning something about the game while 8-year-old Brittany ran around in circles chasing a checkered ball.
They gave me a team. Head coach. Boys and girls, Under 10 Division.
All of my protests were in vain. It mattered not that I knew nothing about coaching, soccer, kids or how best to manage a herd of them. They needed coaches. The internet had yet to be invented in 1988, so I went to the library and checked out five books explaining the rules of the game, the history and even an autobiography of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne.
Rockne, I was not. I showed up at the field at 0800 hours, as instructed, to pick my team. Hundreds of youngsters were there, with their little shin pads taped to their legs, and brand-new soccer shorts, T-shirts and cleats ready for a season of fun, maybe even a championship. Intermingled among the kids were eight adults, grown men with whistles on cords around their necks, clipboards in their hands full of — I kid you not — scouting reports. They had an intensity I had not seen since I watched Clint Eastwood play Dirty Harry.
The kids performed a series of tasks that had something to do with soccer, I think. They ran and kicked and stopped and shuffled as most of the adults took notes. I did not.
Instead, I was busy remembering my own miserable organized sporting experiences as a child. Baseball was awful; waiting in right field for the grass to grow while praying the ball would not be hit to me. Football tryouts scarred me for life; I did not know how to dress in the gear the league provided so one hand was busy holding up my pants while the other kids crushed me. Hockey was fun, as long as I was skating backward; I couldn’t quite grasp the forward motion. Basketball tryouts were a hoot; I was the tallest kid on the court but I couldn’t dribble.
When the moment of truth came and our subjects were lined up to be chosen I took my place with the other head coaches. We picked our players, one by one. They picked the fastest, biggest and most fearsome. I chose the kind, shy and sad-looking ones. Thus, the losingest team in the history of The Warwick Boys and Girls Club Soccer League was born.
I was fortunate to know the Bishop Hendricken High School soccer coaches, and listened when they advised me on how best to help the kids become sound players. Our practices were productive and kind of fun as we worked on the basics; kicking the ball properly, dribbling and the rules of the game.
Somehow, as the losses added up and it became abundantly clear that we might never score a goal, never mind win a game, the team grew close. The highlight of the season — for me, anyway — was the field trip we took to a real soccer game between Hendricken and Pilgrim high school. The kids got to goof around, make funny sounds, disappear under the bleachers and be kids, and I got to see that the fundamentals were more important than winning games.
It was a great season. The kids learned how to kick, play their positions and work as a team. Lifelong friendships were born. I was so impressed with the experience I bought 15 little trophies from Emblem and Badge and, long before anybody had heard of the term participation trophy, presented “Good Sports” awards to the kids at our season-ending pizza party.
If I am responsible for creating the Millennials, so be it. I wouldn’t change a thing.
From the book, Mr. Wilson Makes it Home
We had always adopted or just ended up with the pets that shared our lives, and were a little concerned about buying a cat. Adopting is great, but we wanted a purebred. And we got one. People have criticized our choice, claiming that we are selfish, or are contributing to the problem of unwanted pets, or by buying a cat we essentially sentenced another one to death. Maybe they are right. What is definitely right is the fact that we take care of our animals, and spay or neuter them, and take them to the vet, and give them all the love and protection they need, and more.
Lots of people don’t. Lots of people let their dogs and cats have litters, and try to sell the offspring, or give them away when nobody buys them, or they let them escape, and they end up in a shelter. By giving up on responsible pet owners and only taking care of the animals that have been abandoned or neglected we are in essence giving up on ourselves, and letting those who choose to act recklessly and in total disregard for the sanctity of pedigree, or proper breeding dictate how we live our lives and who we will live them with.
I like living in a world where people can enter their pets in dog and cat shows, and the animals get to prance and preen and show off a little. It keeps the pets happy, and I have yet to hear of anything but well cared for and pampered pets at these shows. I like seeing an animal in all of its glory, and the differences in breed celebrated. I do not want to live in a generic, blah world, where everything looks the same and nothing is allowed to be different.
Pets from responsible breeders are every bit as precious and deserving of all we have to offer as responsible pet owners as Wilson, or Victoria, or any other pet that survived the school of hard knocks. Because they from a breeder doesn’t make them better than an adopted pet, and it most definitely does not make them less deserving of a good life.
Pets for adoption are not always available with exact specifications that meet the owners needs, and if you are looking for a particular breed of dog or cat, and none are available where you can visit the site and meet the parents of the pet you want, chances are good that by using the internet or pet store to get what you want you will be supporting the people who operate inhumane puppy mills. Local breeders can back up their claims of ethical treatment of the pets that they sell, and are committed to their work, and the welfare of the breed.
Still, pet rescues are in my opinion the best place to find a great pet. We have always begun our searches for our pets there, and more often than not find what we were looking for. Now, with the help of the internet just about any breed of companion can be found, either at a shelter or in a foster home. Those resources weren’t available when we got Luna, or if they were, they were rudimentary at best.
I often wonder what will happen if everybody stops buying dogs and cats from breeders. Would the breeders keep on breeding? Probably not; the supply and demand principles that dictate the market would flood the world with purebred animals and not enough people who want them. How long will it take to end the cycle, and have as many people available as pets who need them? Years? Decades?
I just don’t know. I don’t even know if such a thing is possible. I like to think that it is. But I would hate to see purebred dogs and cats disappear while we were busy solving the problem
My other dogs come and go. Zimba, the biggest of them all, half-wolf, half-Alaskan malamute, is as regal as a prince. Lakota, the husky, keeps her half-blue, half-brown eyes focused on whatever distracts her — people, a car, a bunny or her favorite, a squirrel. She runs ahead so fast my eyes can barely keep up. Shannon, my Irish Setter, with her golden red hair as soft as a cat’s, stays beside me always. She would take a bullet for me.
Mr. Wilson is oblivious of the others as we make our way to the beach. He’s just happy to be alive, happy to be with me, and glad to be outside. He enjoys sleeping most of the day on his velvet chair, or on the bed. But say the magic word “walk,” and nothing else matters.
I taught Mr. Wilson to walk on the leash without pulling, and he trots on until the slack tightens. The second he feels pressure on his neck he stops and sits until I catch up, and we do it all over again.
I smell low tide long before the water peeks between the homes that line the shore. So can the dogs. The pavement under our feet is sturdy and makes walking easy. We leave no evidence of our passing as we make our way to the water’s edge. The sand that waits will give, leaving marks of our journey behind us as we travel the water line.
At the bottom of a steep drop, easy to travel thanks to some wooden steps buried in the sand by some soul long gone, is Warwick’s Gaspee Point. Mr. Wilson and I take our time navigating the tricky decline; the others are long gone, already exploring.
Shannon swims, Zimba and Lakota race along the water’s edge, then suddenly stop, turn around and come back to us. Shannon shakes her velvety hair and the five of us walk together along the shore. There are crabs in the sand, stranded by the tide, oyster shells, clams galore, seaweed, bugs and random sticks, perfectly sized for a game of fetch. I lean over and pick one up; it’s heavier that I thought, waterlogged. I throw it into the ocean and watch it float.
The walk to and from the beach is far longer than the actual time spent there, unless I stop and sit on a log where last night some neighborhood kids built a fire. But I keep on trucking, Mr. Wilson by my side. He never asks to go off of the leash. He’s content to stay next to me. The six feet that the nylon cord gives him is enough.
We have rounded the point, and a shorter span of beach waits. It’s an invigorating walk, and it’s good to feel the salty wind as it brushes my skin, and the sun as it warms my back. There’s a break in the vegetation that protects the dunes, and we walk toward it, knowing that this is the way back to the road that will take us home.
Mr. Wilson stays with me as we leave the beach. I look back at our footsteps, a man and a dog, side by side, two feet and four paws, over and over again. I don’t have to call the others. They never leave me. Neither will Mr. Wilson, even after his time on earth is through.
I have no idea what possessed me to stick my hand into the bowl, little white pebbles were sitting next to a candle, luminescent, perfect and drawing me in.
“Are those edible?” I asked, then stuck my hand in. Too late I realized it was a water candle. I’m glad the apartment was dimly lit as I felt the blood rush to my face.
The patient thought it was the funniest thing he had seen all day, so did his roommate and the three firefighters from Engine 15. So much for my grand entrance. What can I say, it had been a long day.
“Robert” had been having trouble breathing for about a week, suffered from COPD and was also HIV+. He was thin, and frail, and not at all well.
“Can I go to Miriam?” he asked.
Miriam Hospital was the furthest hospital of the city’s five, but was also the most appropriate facility, considering his history. Considering I had just stuck my ham sized hand into his water candle, it was the least we could do.
He lived with a roommate in one of the public hi-rises in the city. Their space was dignified, graceful and perfectly suited for them. It was comfortable, tastefully decorated and serene. We loaded him up and started the fifteen minute journey toward the ER. He told me that my hand in the water trick was the first thing to make him laugh in a long, long time. He had a dignified air about him. Born in South Carolina he had never lost his Southern charm, even though the job he had in his previous life took him all over the world. He lived in San Diego, Texas, Chicago, Jamaica and his favorite by far, Malta. A friend of his still owned an oceanfront villa there, and he planned on visiting soon.
The HIV medications that saved his life also cost him the things in life he thought most precious. His homes-he had two, one on each coast and a few timeshares scattered around the globe; he sold his Mercedes, his stocks and bonds, his “things.” His once vast accumulation of possessions now fit into a three room apartment in a run down facility filled mostly with people scraping by on social security checks. Yet he seemed happy.
“What good is a big house when you can only sit in one room at a time?” he asked. “Who needs a Mercedes when there are gardens, and woods, and city streets, and the stars with their infinite possibilities. What more can I ask from this life than what I have at this moment, which is a nice conversation with another person who is not afraid to stick his hand into a stranger’s water candle?”
We talked about life, and what it means, and how to handle loss, and failing health. I did something that I seldom, if ever do. I told him a little about myself, and my life, and the big home we used to live in, but could no longer keep because of my wife’s illness. I let him know about the heartache we felt when we lost the pool, the cabana, the gardens and friends, then the dogs, then the second house that turned out to be all wrong, and the rental, and how each move chipped a little bit of our soul, and tested the very fabric of our marriage.
As we backed into the ER bay, we agreed that through loss much is gained. That what is essential is invisible to the eye. What matters cannot be bought, we all need to live and find happiness with what we have, because through it all, we have a lot to be thankful for.
He asked me to put his coat over him before we wheeled him out of the back. It was cold outside, and an icy mix rained down from the starless sky. I picked up his coat, and grinned.
“Mink,” he said as we rolled him out of the truck. “I didn’t give up everything.” He looked to the starless sky, felt the cold, freezing rain fall on his face and smiled.
And so did I.
The people behind the lights are the reason we find ourselves out in the cold, patroling the streets, answering the bell and keeping the neighborhood as safe as we can.
It’s Christmas time, and even though we had to leave our homes behind we bring some lights with us. We ride through neighborhoods not our own, our lights illumitating the way, flashes of red and blue bouncing back at us, reflections from darkened windows, crisp sirens piercing the silent night.
I love Christmas lights. I love the way they look. I love the way they make me feel when I look at them. I love leaving my house at four in the afternoon and turning them on, knowing full well I won’t be home till long after the timer turns them off.
I used to only turn them on when I was home to enjoy them. Then I realized the lights aren’t about me, or even for me. The lights are for everybody, just like everybody else’s lights are for me.
I’m glad I realized that, it makes me like the lights even more.
People without Schnoodles probably think people with them are a little nuts. I know I’m a lot nuttier since Mr. Wilson made our house a home. Thanks for considering ordering a copy of my book this Christmas, it’s a great gift for yourself or somebody you know who could use a little Schnoodle love!