Roadkill

Somewhere in my mid-twenties, a handful of years into graduate schooling, with a series of rotating apartments and a persistently ring-less finger, my dad and his best friend, Lynn, began referring to my boyfriends as “Roadkill.” I wasn’t particularly promiscuous, but inching up on 30, the sheer numbers of boys who would never be my husband got, well… numerous. More often than not, I was the one who was bored, disillusioned, or unfaithful (sorry, boys) and the one to call it quits. Thus, Roadkill.

Ty was my neighbor and probably one of my closest buddies during senior year of high school. He will always be one of the funniest people I have ever known. Carpooling to school through rural neighborhoods we once saw a horse do a yawn-whinny thing that we imitated often and at impromptu times. It was only hilarious to the two of us. “Are you cereal?” he’d ask. “Not nece-celery,” was the answer. He loved The Grateful Dead, so my Julie Andrews covers were deliciously irritating (to him) and entertaining (to me): Roooolll A-Wheyyyy the Doooo! Do you have that one friend who makes you laugh at nothing—a Jerry Seinfeld with a Pez dispenser? That was Ty for me.

Ty and I spent many bellyaching, laughing-too-hard-to-breathe nights together. Chastely. We were truly just friends. But you can imagine how well Ty went over with The Roadkill. One summer night I brought a new boy home. Ty was over for dinner, which was common. Wine was flowing, which was really common. And everyone was making fun of each other, which is in the Stockton Family Syllabus. Future Roadkill misread the room– or was too thin skinned– and got a little territorial about being the boyfriend (with its implied set of privileges) instead of the friend. Ty didn’t miss a beat.

“Whatever, dude. Next year Britt will be with some other guy, but I’ll still… be… right… here.”

Roadkill was the only one who didn’t find this funny. He didn’t last very long. The next one did, but even he ended up smeared all over the grille. Those were Lynn’s words as he and Judy poured me the tallest and tastiest vodka tonic I’ve ever had, and listened to my latest misadventures in love. After that break up, I drove 7 hours to see them, their daughter, and to languish ring-less-ly on the deck of their gorgeous beach house… and to laugh.

I met Bernie just a few months later.

Thinking about Valentine’s Day, these memories shifted to the top of my mind like the big popcorn pieces when you shake the bucket. Suddenly I’m aware of Great Loves in my life who never gave me flowers or chocolates or rings, but made me pee-a-little giggle and poured me gigantic cocktails as I plowed through the dating years that led me to the best one.

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Ty and me on my 21st birthday. Can’t imagine why all the Roadkill hated him.

Dreaming

In the dream, Joe picks me up like a little girl… high over his head… beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me up to the ceiling.

“Put me down,” I tell him. “You’re going to pop my implants.”

Joe laughter. Loud, unbridled joy guffaws from Joe. I’ll miss that the most.

Joe’s last will and testament directed The Stockpeople to join the extensive Burke clan and other good friends to celebrate his life. So we did just that, meeting in gorgeous Shoreham, his childhood home. We came from all four corners of the country to live like nuclear Stocktons before there were any husbands or babies or faraway jobs. The only thing missing was a golden retriever. It was exhilarating and exhausting, full of giggles and tears, ocean panoramas and pink skies. It was perfect.

My favorite eulogy was from Nancy. With classic Burke humor and love, she reminded us that Joe’s bigger-than-life persona included a larger-than-human ego. Joe was quite aware of his handsomeness, seductiveness, magnetism, and crowd-wowing abilities. He wasn’t perfect (who is?), but we adored everything about him. I read The Joy Vacuum out loud. I couldn’t get through that without ugly, gasping tears. But Joe appreciated things that were real… even if they were messy. So there was that.

I miss them already: Erin’s not-aware-how-stunning-they-are daughters, the overtall boys, the staggering beauty that accompanies the Burke genes. Why didn’t we do this sooner? We kept asking ourselves that. Joe probably had, too, as he traveled thousands of miles to visit everyone– one last time. Did he know we’d do it? Did he know we’d quit work early, board planes and ferries, rent houses, and buy cases and cases of wine? Maybe not. But if he knew we did (and we think he knew), it was just what he had imagined. We loved each other all over again and for the first time.

It was supposed to rain. Instead: this.

Joe's Sunset

One thing Joe did beautifully in his later years was to live soberly, with purpose, mindfulness, awareness, and kindness. In the past five years, Joe had introduced me to a handful of people I now call friends. If Joe thought you should probably know so-and-so, he’d broker the introduction, and then watch with great satisfaction as it all played out the way he knew it would. At his own memorial service, we could feel him mayonnaise-smearing his joyful love all over us, forcing us into a huge Dagwood sandwich of piled up people—messy and delicious.

*          *          *

At least an hour late, the Burke family pulls up to the Stockton home, noisily spilling out of the family car. Joe’s body fills the frame of the doorway, and announcing in his made-for-radio voice he bellows, “THE LOUD FAMILY IS HERE.” I’m 11. He picks me up, beaming at me with an imp grin like he might toss me to the ceiling.

I don’t want him to put me down.

The Joy Vacuum

Every photo picks at the wound. Every memory aches. Every time I think of you, gone, I stop breathing. But then I smile. And then I cry. And then I go back to Facebook to find your community—your ministry of fun and kindness—to pick at the scab some more. This is where we are today, Joe. Scab picking.

You’d want me to write about it. That I know. You told me some of your best writing flowed through tears. Where you are now is beyond the effects of flattery and clever words conceding your awesomeness. But here on our little island home, we still need them. I want to fill this huge hole, this joy vacuum, with thousands of words that say, “Me, too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans.”

You were one of Dad’s best friends. The two of you, so different except for the irreverent joy you brought to every room. The two of you, so smart and loyal and hilarious. The two of you, holding court, poking fun, quick to hug, slow to end the party. Booming voices, huge laughter, enormous personalities… the Heroes of my Youth.

It’s so quiet, Joe. Jay and Heather told us about your perfect day. The best haircut, the promise of Spring, and the choice to walk home. (You’re Home now.) That helps us. So does your manifesto from July, presciently outlining this exact moment. There was no “glide path” for you. Neither fear nor anger at Nature’s timetable, you planned the ultimate road trip. I’m happy I was on one of the stops. Reading one of your essays feels like a visit with you, but actually pressing Burke flesh is food.

We’re a little bit more like you today. We’re making plans to be with each other and do the things we say we want to do… or at least figure out if we really want to do those things. We’re reaching out to everyone in your joy orbit to grieve together and marvel at the girth of your Spirit, the enormity of your Love. I think you’d like that.

Before I was born, you promised Dad to help paint my nursery. There was so much discussion about the wall paint, Chris thought that was my name. I’ve been WallPaint since birth. Except when I was Mewhinney. Or Blondie. Or whatever popped into that clever, fun-loving noggin of yours… and usually stuck. We could fill pages with the silly monikers you gave us. We’ll probably do that. We’ll do lots of things to make you feel closer. Anything to make the joy vacuum suck less.

I miss you viscerally, Joe. Though you had made peace with moving on, I wasn’t ready. But we’ll get there. Just a few more scabs, Joe. And then we promise to get to the hugs and giggles and some sort of serenity. Benny is going to help. Look at this kid so obviously infused with Joe-ness.

Benny

Me too! I loved him, too! He was the best, most human of humans!

I love you in that forever kind of way… your admirer, your friend, your Mewhinney, your WallPaint.

 

 

Grief, the sixth sense.

$100

$100.

That’s a lot of money, right? Or maybe it’s not that much. It’s too expensive for a t-shirt, but pretty reasonable for a wine-fueled lunch for four. $100 pays the babysitter when we’re out too late, or the airport garage when we’re too lazy to bus in from the remote lot. Those red envelopes always have a Benjamin or two inside. Sometimes I find them at the bottom of whatever purse was seasonal during Chinese New Year and it’s a fun little $100 surprise. And then I’ll just use those crisp bills to pay for play date pizzas, or Halloween candy, or another stockpile of phone chargers.

$100. Is it a lot of money? Sometimes. Could it change a day, a week, a life… a Church? Maybe. Maybe it could.

Recently I had a rare and delicious afternoon alone with Zealot Sister. We’re hardly ever together, and never alone. But we were visiting Aunt Billie for her 80th birthday bash weekend and the two of us stole away for a bit of shopping. Midwestern Law dictates that if a quorum of female cousins assembles, a trip to Kohl’s is mandatory. So we did that. But first, it was just Paige and me in the fancy shopping district of Columbus, Ohio buying unnecessary and unnecessarily expensive stuff.

As I fed the meter with stray, bottom-of-the-purse quarters, a young woman approached.

“Can I bother you for some change? I’m so hungry.”

Who has cash, though… am I right? I was already digging for meter money, so she could obviously see how currently cash-free I was. But then I remembered my secret stash—the bill I squirreled away after the $10 fiasco. So I gave it to her.

$100.

I didn’t know her or her story. And like most people, I’m leery of strangers in general and especially street-dwellers violating my personal space. I hardly have a habit of giving away money in such an unplanned, impulsive manner. And I’m sure even as I was handing over the money, I wanted the whole exchange to end quickly because I’m a horrible person and loathe any reminder of ugliness or pain in the world.

“I have no idea why I did that.” I said to Zealot Sister as she looked at me all beatifically and quoted Scripture from memory because Zealot Sister isn’t called Zealot Sister just because it’s fun to call her Zealot Sister.

“Britt, she said she was hungry.”

Yup.

It wasn’t the last request we received on the mean streets of Columbus. And even though I truly had no cash left to give, I wouldn’t have anyway. First of all, I am a horrible person. Also, no one else was hungry.

Is $100 a lot of money? For some, it is always a lot of money. For fewer people, it might not be. For a lucky handful of us, maybe it would be easy to give $100 away all of the time. Not every single day–though wouldn’t that be super fun? But what about once a week, or at least those weeks when you’re in the pews praying for a safer world and protection of the hungry people who have no home or country or shoes or hope. How about sending $100 along with those thoughts and prayers. Not every day; some days there’s only change in the bottom of the purse. But maybe today is the day to give away the emergency bill—because someone else has a greater emergency.

Is $100 too much? For me, it’s not. For me, $100 is the happiest check I write each week. I put $100 in the Church plate to travel along with my prayers for a broken world, hurting friends, and to accompany one thousand thank yous for the life I have. $100 sounds cheap for that sort of thing. To me, anyway.

There are 175 of us who pledge regularly at Church. I assume most people who send in that yearly Stewardship check sit in the pews at least 20 of the 52 weeks of the liturgical year, even with summers off and unavoidable skiing. I wonder… what if all of us dropped $100 into the plate each week along with our prayers for hope and healing? Is it too much? Is it enough to be considered tithing? Is it too little and we’re already sending a yearly pledge so purse change is sufficient for any given Sunday?

The math tells us it could change everything. $100 from some of us, some of the weeks could add up to $350,000 a year, or just exactly the shortfall between what we collect and what we need to keep our Church growing, current, music-filled, and just the way we love it. Is that a coincidence? Not to me.

$100. Is that a lot of money? Is it too much to give a hungry girl on the street, a faraway stranger with no home, programs helping kids living in public housing or those with no homes at all, initiatives to make all of our public spaces inclusivefunds for cancer research, the local food pantry, or to drop into the offertory plate? That’s for you to decide. Giving Tuesday is December 1st. Where is your $100 (or $10 or $100,000) going to go?

Share your $100 stories… the ones that remind us we are One Community responsible for feeding all who ask.

Benjamin

Please add links in the comments to your favorite causes and tell us why you would happily part with your emergency Benjamin to further its mission.

 

The Goddess

She stretched her long legs on the towel and coated them with Johnson’s Baby Oil. Her sun-streaked hair went past her freckled shoulders and when she wasn’t wearing her glasses, Patty was the sexiest girl at the Elk’s Club pool. She let my big sister and me tag along. Paige was thirteen, but I hardly remember a time when her figure and demeanor weren’t an all access pass to the older kids. But at age 11, I was little. I hung on every word Patty spoke—to Paige, and to Patty’s friends who were also exotically adult with their bikinis and bits to fill them. I wanted desperately to understand what they thought was so funny, learn the words to their favorite songs, and smoke those menthol cigarettes that filled them with a cool worldliness. I wanted to be both giggly and blasé about Boys. But I was still so little.

I was 11. Patty was… a Goddess.

I was twenty–home from college with one of the boys I encouraged for probably too long– when Patty and John drove up to show Mom and Dad the new baby. Chelsea was still at the put-her-on-a mat-and-stare-at-her stage. And over a few bottles of celebratory wine, I got a glimpse into newly married life. Patty and John made it look ambitiously easy and fun somehow, with their combined smarts and steadfast love. The baby seemed like a drag, but even that they did well: Chelsea was plump and adorable and mostly happy on her little mat. Sitting on my parent’s breezy screened porch behind their plenty big house, Patty said she and John wanted all the same things. I stared at my older, wiser cousin and her handsome husband and perfect child and I knew Patty would have it—all of the good stuff.

It was close to seven years later when Paige called. John was gone. John– Patty’s forever boyfriend who became her forever husband– gone. One hundred thousand no’s. THEY HAVE THREE SMALL DAUGHTERS. Because everything felt sad and helpless and impossible, we got on planes. And when we got there, Patty made all of us feel better. To date I’ve never witnessed a eulogy so full of love and promise and hope and forgiveness. Patty who had every right to be a keening, catatonic widow instead hosted us in the plenty big home we always knew they’d have. John died happy, exploring every passion, achieving every goal; this is a life to celebrate, she taught us. Patty lost her best friend, partner, and husband and she instructed us to honor a life well lived over mourning a life too short. It was Chelsea who broke our hearts, toddling around saying how this uncle or that cousin was “just like her dad” and then growing up to be an aerospace engineer… very much like her dad.

Always the overachiever, Patty found true love twice. Over the years, I have used My Cousin Patty as an example of how Love surrounds us, how Love is always possible, how there are Second Chances for Love. But that isn’t fair. Were any of us very surprised that Patty would find true love twice? No. Not really.

Patty is a Goddess.

I’m 44 now. Once so young I could never dent her rarefied sphere, now we’re essentially the same age. Seventeen or seventy Patty will always be that gorgeous girl with the oiled legs who graduated early and married young and had it all and lost it all and then found and curated something beautiful all over again. Along the way she has brought two loving, awesome men into our family fold and created five incredible goddess spawn who mirror her intelligence, determination, stubbornness, luckiness, and beauty. Today, on Patty’s 50th birthday, I offer this outsider view of her charmed and cursed and blessed and difficult and gorgeous life. Patty has inspired, impressed, and encouraged me in ways she cannot know. Happy Birthday to the sexiest girl at the Elk’s Club… our Goddess… our Patty.

Patty, on her second wedding day.

Patty, on her second wedding day.

Goddess Spawn

The Goddess Spawn… all five of them.

My Mixtape for You, by Steve Safran

An early Valentine, and possibly my favorite bit of writing from Steve Safran… read, listen, rewind, repeat.

 

We’ve known each other a while now, dear readers, and I think the best way I can express my affection is through that most ancient of all rites: a mixtape. Cassette tapes are hard to find and somewhat impractical to distribute via the internet. Instead, I’ll link to 10 songs. However, you really should hear these over good speakers– in your car, house or through headphones. If you have Spotify, most are there. Otherwise, pony up and get them from iTunes. NOTE: I realize there are few things more boring than what someone else considers a “good” song. So I appreciate your sticking in here.

 

SIDE ONE

  1. “Knock on Wood” http://youtu.be/CVt3GWuGM9s (Otis Redding & Carla Thomas) While there won’t be thumpy dance floor music here, I dare you to hear this at a reception of some sort and not “Knock-knock-knock-knock-knock… on WOOD!” If nothing else, it will embarrass the kids.
  1. “The Lord Bless You And Keep You” http://youtu.be/NN7b-DZgGjs (Composed by John Rutter): TOTALLY caught you off guard there, didn’t I? You were expecting something else from the Atheist Jew, right? On the second song? The power of a good melody is transcendent. I sang this in high school choir. I was never again in a choir that sang anything nearly as good again. And we were going through puberty.
  1. “Landed” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vPygzPSg8M (Ben Folds): This is for everyone who has gone though a change in their lives. Nominally, it’s about a guy who needs to be picked up at an airport. Bigger picture: He made a big change, flew back across the country and is reaching out for help. You’ve been there.
  1. “One Day Like This” http://youtu.be/OUUASDWrBdc (Elbow): Magnificent and devoted ode to the power of a single morning– a moment really, where a man celebrates “the now.” “Throw those curtains wide/One day like this a year will see me right.” It was recorded with the BBC orchestra and chorus.  And oh, those lyrics. “Kiss me like a final meal.” “When my face is chamois-creased.” If I made you a one-song mixtape, “One Day Like This” would be it.
  1. “Big Sky” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaDUFC8nigM (Kate Bush) The only ‘80s track on this side. And we’re going out huge here. This is an album that contains the directions “PLAY LOUD” and if this song isn’t on your exercise tape, you’re missing valuable heart rate potential.

 

SIDE TWO

  1. “Nowhere to Run” http://youtu.be/ABbc-O_3_Ac (Martha and the Vandellas) We ended side two uptempo and loud, so there’s no need to adjust the volume just yet. Note: The “Vandellas” are named in honor of Della Reese. So, something for you “Touched by an Angel” fans.
  1. “My Ride’s Here”  http://youtu.be/NRkcBcyB7v4 (Warren Zevon): “I was staying in the Marriott/ With Jesus and John Wayne.” You can find better Zevon songs, but I love this one. Zevon, dying of cancer at this point, puts out a peppy song about those he might meet soon. When asked in an interview if he had any advice for the young people, Zevon answered “Enjoy every sandwich.”
  1. “Tempted” http://youtu.be/7PmtS_qMdXg(Squeeze): This is the perfect pop song. This is the A+ of pop. It’s High Honors. It’s the essay your friend wrote, and pisses you off a little because you didn’t think to write it first. It tells a story, has a great hook and my gosh, that Hammond organ at the top. I’m biased because I’ve seen Squeeze more often than any other band. However this is not my favorite track of theirs. It just belongs here, in this context.
  1. “Little Bit O’ Soul”  http://youtu.be/bMIydy3Tyuw (Music Explosion): Should I ever take over this or any other country, “Little Bit O’ Soul” will be our national anthem. Listen to it and picture a stadium groovin’ to it.
  1. “Moonlight Serenade” http://youtu.be/VHBX0813MXc (Glenn Miller Orchestra): Nothing comes after “Moonlight Serenade.” It’s the end of the evening in a smoky room as the janitor sweeps the floor through the haze. One last couple slow dances while a few drunks are passed out at the bar. The room lights have come back on. The bartender drags a dirty rag across the tables. It’s the last song you hear before heading home. I’ll say it again: Nothing comes after “Moonlight Serende.”

That’s the mixtape I made for you. Wear it out.

For those of us who used to own shoe boxes full of these... this remains a symbol of starry-eyed love.

For those of us who used to own shoe boxes full of these… this remains a symbol of starry-eyed love.

A new kind of awareness

Today, this made a lot of people really happy.

I’m in awe. I want to meet her and hug her and be her (millionth) best friend. Look at her all adorable and smiling sunbeams and effectively preventing everyone in that room from crying! But I’ll bet you a Beyonce hair extension that tears flowed after the camera stopped and anesthesia started. A woman this spectacular is a woman adored. And no one wants what happens next to happen next. To anyone. To her. In addition to the millions who “like” this, there are thousands more sobbing atop their restructured parts (please pass me a tissue).

Roughly one in eight of us is thrilled October and all its yammering awareness is over. After Halloween, we were relieved that daily reminders of our personal demons had stopped polluting our newsfeeds, and tote bags, and cereal boxes. I wonder if, like me, they watched this gem of a video and thought, “This. This is ‘awareness.’” A beautiful, groovy gal in a backless gown shows us one way to plow through the terror of it all: with love… and a bit of Beyonce.

I’ve been quite vocal about championing Angelina Jolie for her spotlight on breast reconstruction after mastectomy. She brought awareness to the triumph of reconstructive surgery over devastating mutilation. Famous for being stunning before and after her mastectomies, she provides compelling evidence to women with this distressing diagnosis that the road to recovery isn’t necessarily the autobahn to ugly. Bravely sharing the nitty gritty of her medical treatments, she effectively outlined what women should expect as a “standard of care” faster than any number of 5K runners in tight, pink clothing. Today, I applaud Dr. Deborah Cohan for putting a groovy spin on awareness, for showing us the triumph of spirit over fear.

I hope today’s viral, feel-good story will be famous for longer, and for so much more than her johnnie jamboree. Deborah Cohan hijacked “awareness” like a John Malkovich movie cameo, showing us it can be quirky and cool. (For all of the good they do, Komen has become a bit of a Kardashian.) Don’t you want to know Dr. Cohan and her fun bunch of boogying buddies? What a gift to the people who love her: to show them joy when they feel dread, to give them Beyonce when they’re expecting dirges, to share herself (with the world!) when they (we!) need to know desperately that this isn’t breaking her. While I’m preoccupied with Pink-tober backlash rants, here is this brave woman reminding us of the big picture in a tiny space. She marshaled six minutes on the scariest day of her life to show everyone who loves her that she knows she’s loved, that joyfulness hasn’t died with this diagnosis, that it’s going to be OK. And in our hearts, we’re all dancing with her.