Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Letter

To say that there were many changes in the Crawford family and world this year would be a grievous understatement. The major changes were precipitated in May of 2014 with the passing of Newton Ulysses Crawford, Sr. (Grandpa Crawford to our clan and the family patriarch) at age 96; he lived in his house most of his life (with the exception of his 30 years of service as a naval officer) on the plethora of land that has been in our family’s hands for over 100 years. 

Before we could fully process that event and what it meant to our lives, Newton Jr. (Dad to me and my siblings as well as Gaffer to 20 grandkids) was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Newton the Third (aka Sonny) moved into Grandpa’s house with his two kids. In August when my daughters and I visited Missouri for Crawford camp, Dad lamented that he would not live long enough to farm, and he gave each grandchild a coin from his childhood collection that had just been returned to him. Soon after, he received his treatment options and chose hospice.

Aunt Clarice, the reigning matriarch from Mom’s side of the family, the Cunningham Clan, had passed away the previous fall, and Mom traveled with her two brothers to help settle the estate in the fall of 2014. I remember Uncle David distressingly recounting that the three of them were all that was left now of the family in their generation. 
Last fall, Laina and I packed up our three-bedroom condo, selling or donating much of the furniture, and drove to the Missouri farm to be with family. For a semester, we moved into the upstairs of the farmhouse where I grew up, and Lexi flew in for the holidays. After enjoying an emotional and action-packed Christmas with the family, what we knew would be our last one with Dad, I drove Dad’s Cadillac to Kansas City so that Lexi and Laina could see their dad’s family for a few days. We spent New Year’s Eve/Lexi’s 20th birthday with their grandparents during the day and then with Uncle David and Brittany that night, ringing in the new year with family.

We stopped by Brittany’s house on the way back to the farm but had to cut the visit short when Dad’s condition began to deteriorate more rapidly. I pulled an all-nighter, driving back late that evening, arriving first thing on the morning of January third. I knew he was seriously ill; however, I couldn’t comprehend a world without him in it. Regardless, we had to say our final goodbyes, and by the next morning, Dad was gone.

The first part of the year, we spent attempting to adjust to our new world, a place without Dad. An arduous task.

I’ll never forget April 28th and the phone call that changed everything, again. Uncle David died suddenly, and we were left to pick up the pieces, again. So within the first four pernicious months of 2015, we attended two funerals and lost two important men in our family. Since then, Mom has moved into another place on the farm, and our childhood home is now Ben’s house. Uncle Bob moved into Uncle David’s house, and the Cunningham farm where we made apple butter for over ten years is now cousin Robert’s home.

So, what has everyone been up to in the midst of dealing with the aftermath of our personal family earthquake?

After enjoying the severe winter and lovely spring of the Ozarks (not to mention the family birthdays and events, Bado church services, Stars Foundation theater and ballet performances, and numerous Spades tournaments), I moved back to the eastern coast of Florida where I had classes lined up to teach and where Laina could finish high school with her friends. We moved into a two-bedroom condo near her school, and I went back to taking as many classes as possible to make ends meet. Cost of living has gone up, so I am teaching even more classes (seven per semester if I can get them). I also applied for and even interviewed for jobs, though so far nothing has emanated. This fall, I joined a GreifShare group at our local church in order to have support through this difficult time. That and writing these blog entries (I still haven’t been able to start journaling again…maybe next year) and conversations with friends and family and weekly phone calls with my cousin Alyssa have helped me as I process everything.

Lexi graduated from AMDA performing arts school in February, and after staying to audition in New York for another month, she moved to Orlando, Florida where she began coaching gymnastics at Metro Gym and went to numerous auditions. In August, she attended the Rockettes Summer Intensive in NYC and then quit her job as a coach, moved back home, and signed up for classes at Eastern Florida where she will finish her AA in a year and graduate in the honors program. She also started teaching dance classes at a local studio. College classes, dance classes, and auditions keep her busy, and on top of all of that, she started working at Chili’s as a hostess during the weekends.

Laina is a junior at Viera High School where she and one of her best friends volunteers as a student assistant for the football team. She attended every practice and every game, standing on the sidelines with the football team, handing them water and other needed supplies. This year, VHS varsity football made it to the state championship, coming in second in their division. Laina is an honor student, taking advanced classes like Honors Pre-cal, Honors Economics/Government, Honors English, and Physics. She is also on a local competitive cheer team, so she has practices during the evenings.

Brittany continues thriving in her job and community where she is not only the school counselor but also the girls’ softball coach, Junior class sponsor, and NHS advisor. Sean is playing saxophone in the band and playing basketball. He has a pet snake named Rusty and a sheltie named Chap. Mark holds everything together and was the tootsie roll drive chairperson who helped double the amount made in previous years.
Sonny still lives with his family on the farm, working with Sam and Dan at Walmart warehouse. A straight-A student, Carly is a sophomore in high school and was crowned Houston High Homecoming Queen this fall in between her active schedule at school in band, choir, student council, and sports (a pitcher on the softball team and a point guard on the basketball team). She had her sweet 16 birthday, got her driver’s license, and recently started waitressing at a local diner. Little Sonny played 7th grade football and spends his free time plotting pranks.

Amanda has been working with Palen for four years and enjoys traveling and working with many different area band programs. Tom is in his fourth year of teaching at Ozark, and the band had a very successful marching season this year. Brett is now 12 years old and active in piano, trombone, and swimming. Brett, a musical prodigy following in Gaffer’s footsteps, has performed several outstanding piano recitals. Cale is seven years old and active in swimming and baseball. Brett and Cale are unique rapscallions. In fact, Tom posted once about how anyone considering having children could borrow their boys for a day of clothing shopping to cure that desire!

Sarah has had a tumultuous year in and out of the hospital and rehabs; however, the experiences have helped, and she has turned her life around. As always, she is a hard worker who is always helping those around with various projects. Malachi graduated from Houston High School with his high school sweetheart Chelsea. Aidan started his freshman year at Houston High and played on the football team.
Jill and Adam left Rolla to move onto the family farm, digging a well and settling in to their new home. Jill continues waitressing and began working with Mom as an enumerator for Missouri Agriculture Statistics (which means driving all over the Ozarks and interviewing farmers). Also, Jill entered the Labrada Lean Body Challenge, a national contest that included Canada with thousands of entries, and she won first in her age group. She continues working out and is studying for her personal trainer certification and inspires us all along the way. Adam is taking classes towards his degree and working at UPS. Their family adopted Uncle David’s small terrier mix, Lucky, in May, and a small tabby kitten, Gracie, who showed up on their doorsteps this fall. Owen is homeschooling and excelled in basketball while Jax started preschool and his first year of soccer and basketball. Mia is a force to be reckoned with. 

All of Sam and Serena’s kids are excelling in school and getting great reviews from their teachers who even mentioned how exciting it was to have “intelligent” Crawfords in their classes. Katch, another musical prodigy following in Gaffer’s footsteps, is a middle schooler who is playing the trombone in the high school band. He has taught himself songs on the piano and is interested in the guitar. Coached by his uncle and dad, the defensive coach, Kayden finished football with a super bowl win while Isis started school and played her first round of basketball, showing off her dribbling skills. Kane and Owen played on the same basketball team, making a great combo and shooting most of the baskets for the team. Sam and Serena are using the house plans created by Uncle David, and their addition will include six more rooms and a garage. Serena also runs a highly successful business of cake toppers out of their home, and at work, Sam became the first worker to throw a million cases and earned a photoshoot that had him and his brothers running for the hills.

Ben farms, raises rabbits and beef cattle, and is a supervisor at the Houston Walmart while Christin works at a daycare and volunteers at church, working with the 4-H Clover Kids. Cadence is a straight A student who plays piano and basketball, and the twins played soccer and basketball. Ember started preschool and has aspirations to be the next Dolly Parton, Granny says.

Dan recently left Walmart and is in the process of embarking on a new career and a new life with his girlfriend Lynn and her daughter Hailey. 

Martin took a break from welding except for projects around the farm and spends his time playing videos and various sports as well as tormenting his nieces and nephews.

If I continued to tell you all of the activities and accomplishments of this prolific and precocious family, it would fill pages. Just this week, Mom told me a story about how someone remarked that there were sure a lot of kids in the Christmas play at Bado Church this year. Mom soon realized that out of the 31 kids participating, 15 of them were her grandchildren!

Thus, in the midst of a painful and challenging year and although we have a litany of protests regarding so many changes, we continue in the vein of those we’ve lost as we use our creativity and intelligence in productive ways.
This year brings a whole new world to our family and our holiday celebrations; as Greifshare recommends, we have to find a “new normal” now. We don’t know what that looks like yet, and the process is extremely challenging; however, we will do our best and carry forward. That means we will start some new traditions while continuing others. Regardless, we know we are blessed. We have our memories, and we have each other. We stand on the solid foundation of a strong legacy left by Grandpa Crawford, Dad, Uncle David and others that we lost and remember (like our great-grandparents Iva, Brick, and Joe, Myrtle and Claude, Homer and Bessie, Grandpa Bruce, Grandma Bonnie, Grandma Juanita and the generations before them). And, we are grateful for Grandma Helen’s continued role in the family. We stand on the solid foundation of our land and our faith and all of the gifts God has provided. Gifts like family, intelligence, creativity, strength, beauty, and love. Gifts like land, talents, work-ethic, farming, and knowledge. We cherish these and vow to use what we have been given to bless others. Legacy, tradition, and family, not money or material possessions.  Family, tradition, and legacy, we embrace these during this season and in the New Year to come.

PS: No words were harmed in the writing of this letter. I wrote this in the time-honored tradition of Dad and his voracious use of large vocabulary words (at least I did my best!). Should you not know the meaning of a word I’ve used here, in the words of Dad, “Look it up in the dictionary.”

Blessings to you and yours this holiday season. We wish you laughter, love, tradition, fun, peace, and joy. Most of all, we wish you time together with those you love.

Written in loving memory of Dad and Uncle David.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Holiday Blues

Dear UD,
I stand here, looking at the next month and a half, and I am paralyzed. All that’s left of 2015 is the holiday season, and for us, that means my birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lexi’s 21st birthday and New Year’s Eve, not to mention several other family birthdays.

Flip the calendar back one year and the landscape changes drastically. 

A year ago today, I prepared for our much anticipated trip to visit Lexi, and in many ways, you were part of my unforgettable birthday celebration and our adventures in Manhattan. We experienced a NYC Thanksgiving, five people and a toddler scrunched around the table in a kitchen the size of a closet. Dinner was delicious, and the whole day was lovely and perfect. That evening after watching a movie in plush recliners, we walked to 85th street and took pictures of the apartment where you lived for years, right on the edge of Central Park.

A year ago, we planned and packed, selling or donating most of our furniture to return home for the holidays. Christmas on the farm with family, surrounded by loved ones. Photographs with Dad for the last time. Huge meals, stockings and presents around the Christmas tree, kids jumping on the trampoline in the cold, games of Spades, Bridge, Cribbage, and Scrabble, 10 siblings, 20 cousins. 

A year ago, Lexi’s 20th birthday and New Year’s Eve celebrations with you and Britt. You treated us to opening week of Into the Woods at the movie theater, and we all loved it. Afterwards, we ate birthday cake and played Broadway around your dining room table until the ball dropped. We clinked glasses, sipped our sparkling apple cider, and welcomed in the New Year with kisses and hugs. Love and laughter. The first day of 2015, we woke up to family and you, cooking omelets for each of us.

I didn’t know then that it would be the last movie with you, the last time we’d play the game you created. I didn’t know then that Dad would be gone in just four days. Yes, he was on hospice. Yes, he was shrinking and struggling for breath, but he hid how bad the pain was, and we thought we had more time. More time with him and definitely more time with you. I didn’t know then that you would leave us, suddenly, near the end of April.

Last holiday season….so many memories that I cherish. I look back and smile.

I look forward and weep. How do we move forward into this first holiday season after such loss?

Just yesterday, someone mentioned decorating Christmas trees, and suddenly, I remembered the I love NYC ornament that I bought for you last November and gave you last year for Christmas. Gut-punched, I realized that you would never get the chance to put it on your tree.

I talked to a sister and cousin, both also missing you so much. The prospect of putting together a family calendar without you is unthinkable. How do we do this?

Instead of Christmas songs, I’ll put on some Muddy Waters and B. B. King. Eric Clapton and Etta James will sing me a bedtime lullaby. And, I’ll think of you and Dad.

The activities, the busyness, I can do that. I can continue on, do the traditions, but the emotional part, the joy and peace and love that belongs to this season, I don’t see how I can get there this year.

What I can do is choose my focus.

A new baby in the extended family, and what a sweet blessing.

A sister off the streets, on a bus headed home for the holidays.

Gracie, a calico kitten, purred and bounced her way into my sister’s home. 

My daughters, intelligent and talented, bold and beautiful—together for this holiday season. 

So, I reach my way through paralysis and take a small step.

UD, I will sing a song for you and Dad, raise a toast to you, play a game you taught me, think of you…always.

Love, Rach

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

24 Hours

Dear UD,
Too many times I reach for the phone to call you. I want to hear your voice, your deep, infectious laugh, and I want to hear your thoughts, your wisdom and insight. Or if nothing else, I just want to talk to you, to tell you everything and hear you say that it will be okay. To hear you say that I’ll be okay.

Especially this past week when I received so much bad news in such a short amount of time.

A sister left rehab and was living in a van (now sleeping in a laundry mat), homeless and ill on the streets of San Jose.

I didn’t get the full-time faculty position, even though I was one of the top two. One phone call and I’m right back where I started—an adjunct with no job security, no health insurance, no stability. I don’t know how I will make ends meet, once again, and I just have to trust God. Still, the stress presses on me, and I feel scared and alone.

One of my best friends had to go to the doctor for tests this week, trying to find out why she’s having attacks of intestinal pain.

A brother in law in surgery and a sister with a hurt back from a fall on Halloween.

Laina home from cheer practice in tears from her flyer’s leg slammed onto her forearm, maybe a torn muscle.

One of the family dogs run over. An accident. One of the grandkids left behind. For a moment.

It’s been so hot, even though it’s November, and my electric bill is, again, so high. I get my paycheck, pay the bills, buy gas and groceries, and the money’s gone.

Mizzou, in the news this week, with hunger strikes, protests, threats of violence, and racial unrest.

And then, Friday the 13th and Paris. Horrific acts of terrorism. Hundreds of people enjoying an evening out with family, friends. Now over 100 dead, more injured, even more psychologically scarred.

The whole world in mourning.

What happens when there’s too much negative too quickly? When we are bombarded by bad? Boom, boom, boom.

Are we like a sponge? Do we soak it all in?  And expand, expand, expand? So that we are stretched so thin and stringy that there’s no room for something good? Does it become part of us or do we, eventually, explode? And what will that explosion look like? Who will it hurt?

How do we help each other through? Before, during, after such tragedy? So many bombs both personal and worldwide?

Perhaps we need to, every day, put on the armor of God as Ephesians 6:10-18 tells us.

I think of Mandela’s words from Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

Still, I wish you were here to listen, UD. To share the burden. To help process it all. To remind me that it will be okay. Or that if it’s not okay, that I can handle it.

Imagine that you’re walking through a storm, you’d tell me, but the storm can’t touch you. Or, you’d say, imagine that you’re walking through a pit of rattlesnakes, but you have on tall, heavy boots, so the vipers can’t bite you. They can’t hurt you.

I wish you were here to show me the way through with your spirit of love. To tell me: you’ve got this.

Love, Rach

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Tectonic Plates

Dear UD,
Last night I dreamt of you again, and of Dad, and the family farm, the rolling beauty of the Ozarks—
snatches of dialogue, mirror distortions, only pieces, images remain
yet I wake up heavy with sadness,
longing to hear your voices again.

Everything reminds me of you or Dad or you and Dad. Everything.
Even dreaming because I think of the first sentence of your favorite book.
From Rebecca: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Last month we went to the World Premiere of “Sherlock in Love” at the Cocoa Village Playhouse, so of course, I thought of you who loved anything to do with theater and of Dad who loved anything to do with Holmes. I wanted so much to call you up, afterwards, so we could do our thing. Analyze the play, the acting, the scenery, the atmosphere. Dissect the writing and costume and ending. Share the connection, the moment.

I hadn’t realized how much you brought to my life, how much I relied on you, how much I’d miss you. You were a huge part of my creative process for writing, teaching, living, and I don’t know how to fill the void that opened when you died.

Last night, Halloween, I watched one of the movies about a massive earthquake that destroys so much in one terrifying day. Scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time, partly because it’s too realistic, but also because it shows what so many are going through right now.

Tectonic plates shift shift shift. We don’t even know. We can’t see or feel anything. Until it’s too late. Until the earth shifts again and breaks apart, displacing and demolishing everything in its path.

I’ve heard of so many friends and family and even strangers who have recently experienced this devastating rearrangement in one way or another. For me, in the past two years…

My ex made a decision that impacts me and our daughters. Shift.

Grandpa died at age 96, leaving land and legacy. From my earliest memories until May 2014, he was part of my life, yet now he’s gone. Shift.

Dad died on January 4, 2015, leaving us without him and his knowledge and brilliance. Our roles in the family transformed. Shift.

And then you, Uncle David, on April 28. Another shift and my world broke apart, displacing, annihilating, obliterating.

Everything in pieces.  

We are left to put the pieces back together, to rebuild, restore. It’s been six months now, and I’m trying, working, processing. But it’s difficult to do it without you, to sort the pieces, to process the emotions.

Like this morning, UD, when I realized it’s a new month, and I turned the page of the last family calendar that you will ever make for the family. That hurts. Then, I turned the page of the Lexi-Laina calendar that you made special for us, and I see the November images you chose, the photographs I took of Lexi and Laina during our trip to New York City last Thanksgiving. The girls smiling in Central Park with the backdrop of autumn leaves. The girls huddled together against a brick wall in Uptown NY. The girls standing in front of the strong iron gates of Columbia College where you earned a Masters in Clinical Psychology once upon a time. The memories are bittersweet. Lovely because the three of us were together. Lovely because you were part of our vacation in many ways. Lovely because we will always have our NYC trip. Sad because it’s a year later yet you are not here anymore.

November is my birthday month, and I can’t help thinking of last year when I was in NYC with my girls, and we had the most magical day. It began with a special breakfast of coffee and gluten-free muffins that Erin fixed for me. After that, Lexi, Laina, and I rode the subway all the way to the end and took the Ferry to Staten Island and back, viewing Ellis Island, the shorelines of Manhattan and New Jersey, Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty along the way. Next, we took the subway to Greenwich Village where we ate lunch at Jekyll and Hyde, which I loved and which was possible thanks to your generous birthday surprise. After our delicious meal, we walked around the area until Lexi had to return to school for class. Then, Laina and I went to Chambers Street where tourists asked us for directions. We walked to Wall Street and St. Paul’s Cathedral and visited Ground Zero and the 9/11 Memorials and Museum. I teared up just walking to Ground Zero, and being inside the museum was challenging. 

We ended the day by eating NY pizza at Kesté Pizza before taking the train back. I will never forget that extraordinary birthday and how loved I felt because of you, my girls, and my friend.

At this moment I’m not looking forward to this birthday or the upcoming holiday season. Too much loss. Shift. Shift. Shift. Too much change, and the tremors shake us. Another shift, and we stand amidst the ruins of our lives and wonder how to go on.

Everything is different.

Thus, I am led to the awareness that part of reconstructing and renovating the devastation in our lives is to create new traditions, new relationships, and new ways of processing. The problem is where to start. When I stand here overlooking the destruction, I am paralyzed.

I feel alone and lonely. Like if I let go of the grief I will be empty. As if the void left from these losses will fill me up until I am nothing. No one.

The truth is I cannot do it alone.

So, I surround myself with others who understand. For instance, I talk to my cousin every week because, like me, she knows loss, and like me, she knows you, UD. We have that bond, and nothing can break strength that emerges from a battlefield. Also, I joined a grief share group where I can leave behind my responsibilities and roles, where I can simply be a girl who lost her grandpa, dad, and uncle, where I can lament and learn new ways of coping.

The truth is that I must rebuild on a solid foundation, on something that will never be destroyed, will never be taken away, will never leave me.

My faith leads me to that foundation as I turn to God and the promises in His Word. Like the promise to “never leave nor forsake.” Or the hope we can have because of Him in this life and the next. He is a God I can count on even if I don’t understand the whys or the ways. His love is fierce and forever. And, He is here, close, and all I have to do is ask. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8. So, God I ask you to heal my heart and restore my life.

The truth is that I need a change in perspective. From negative to positive. From masks to authentic self.

I know this, though it’s hard to do right now. Too many triggers snap me back to deep sadness or throw me into anger or fling me into heartache. Underlying everything, I am exhausted and stressed—emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually.

Enter November, the month of thanksgivings, the month where I normally join others in 30 days of gratitude. I can’t, or won’t, do so again this year. I’m not there yet, though I want to be. I miss you and Dad too much. I miss me with you guys in this world, in my life. And if I am going to rebuild in this new world, the one without you, then I need new ways. I am rebuilding not only my life but also myself.

Therefore, I am going to start a new November tradition in honor of you, Dad, and Grandpa. Grandpa had a sweet spirit and always looked for the best in everyone and everything, and you and Dad both loved life in unique and interesting ways. So, I am going to look for and share a thing of beauty every day this month.

A Thing of Beauty is combining gratitude with seeing things in a new way and with authenticity; it’s living in the moment and acknowledging what is (good and bad) and reinventing what life gives us. This reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Valentine for Ernest Mann” where the narrator sees beauty and connection in the eyes of skunks. This I feel I can do. I can look at what is, whether I like it or not, whether it’s ugly or bizarre, and find beauty or create meaning out of the muck. Like a lotus flower, I can find a way to blossom out of the mud.

As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, “Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment.” A Thing of Beauty is just that: to approach life with the “openness” and sense of “wonder” in order to reveal meaning.

Lamott also writes that “It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.” My heart and spirt have been battered by this earthquake in my life, and my hope is that this activity will renew my heart and spirit and touch others in the process.

UD, I think you would love this idea. I can imagine what you would say, and this month, I will hold you and Dad close as I choose A Thing of Beauty each day. My first choice is the memories I hold of you, Dad, and Grandpa. I’m smiling as I remember enjoying family events at your house, fishing in our pond with Grandpa, or watching road movies with Dad. One of the last movies I watched with Dad was About Time, and the protagonist shares that “We're all traveling through time together, every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.” As I focus on these positive memories, I am filled with contentment and love in this moment. All three of you taught me so much, and I have become who I am because of you. I consider it a privilege and am grateful. Your love enfolds me and stays with me no matter what, and that is A Thing of Beauty. 

Love, Rach   

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


(To Uncle David, who was a safe haven for many)

Dear UD,
Don’t worry about the world ending,
you’d tell me,
but then my world ended three months ago
when you died suddenly—
cracking your head on the marbled counter as you fell,
leaving a half-drunk glass of iced tea, lunch preparations, and a world that needed you.
Your heart failed,
they told us, and
unmoored, your beloved dogs Harley, OB, and Lucky ran so crazy outside that the neighbors wondered.

Three months before, in January, the ground was frozen and the chilled wind too cold to lower dad’s coffin at the graveside ceremony. But you were there, wrapped in your heavy coat, leaning on your cane. The arrangement of flowers (every single flower mentioned in Shakespearean literature) a testament to your generosity.

Then, in April, when the world is mud wonderful with celebrations and renewal of life, with the beauty of spring, and instead, blindsided, we had to return to a cemetery.

Don’t worry about some catastrophe,
you’d tell me,
as we talked for hours on the phone;
even though you lived on 85th street in Manhattan that fateful September 11 when the twin towers fell, you’d say that the world is fine and that people have been predicting Armageddon for ages.

But you are not here, and the world is not fine.
I am not fine.

I think of the headlines, since you died, and I wonder what you’d say now, a mere three months later. The flash flooding, the church shootings, the fires, the murdered health care workers, the politics, the earthquakes, the list goes on, and today, the famous lion decapitated for sport. I wonder if you’d see it, apocalypse here now. Is that why you left us so soon? So you wouldn’t have to see it?

Three months. Only three months. Three neverending months.

It’s been raining every day lately, dark storm clouds blotting out the sun, keeping us cooped up, but an ocean of tears couldn’t fill the void inside, couldn’t make me feel safe or secure again. I throw out the rope, but there’s nothing to hold it. 

Unmoored. Unmoored. Unmoored.

I am adrift.
I cannot journal. I cannot read devotions. I can, barely, talk to God. I am depressed. I am bored. Facebook is boring. Everyone is on one extreme or the other. Everyone finds some proof that his or her belief is true—both sides 100% truth, so nothing is true, nothing is real, and nothing makes sense. All of this information at our fingertips. The whole world connected. Yet, no one checks sources or credibility. No one thinks.

Overwhelmed and alone.

Am I supposed to be the wise old crone now? Or can I simply say I am a bird, say that I identify as a bird and step off the cliff and fly.

I am adrift in an ocean of tears, and I cannot find my way home. I am adrift in a sea of words, and I cannot understand. I am adrift in an ocean of beliefs and facts that contradict each other.

Hopeless and alone.

Is this what the end of the world looks like?

I wish you could have stayed to see it with me.

Love, Rach

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Seasons of Loss

"Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends… Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."  ~Joan Didion

They say things come in threes, but three deaths within one year is arduous. Last May when Grandpa Crawford passed away at 96, I wrote this in my journal:
May 2014, a major stroke, Newton the first, lying in a hospital bed, unable to swallow, breaths slowing, in out, in out, body shutting down. So many advances in medicine, in technology; still, nothing to do but say goodbye. Family swarms the hospital room, surrounding him, pressing in to voice all the words bubbling up, to show him, somehow, how much his life matters, to release him with all the love he shared.
Son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren shattered, like seeing a hundreds-year-old forest gutted.
Without him, who are we?
Without him, how will we hold anything together? How will we continue to build?
Body laid to rest, but Newton the first lives on in hearts, minds, a million memories.
From him, how much we learned. 
Halfway across the country at the time, I said goodbye over the phone and mourned alone. Though expected, that death was a blow to our family; however, we knew he had lived a long, full life, and he left a legacy of land, loving kindness, hard work, gardening, positive attitude, service, and family. Life changes, and his passing brought about much change to our family and lives. For instance, my girls and I traveled to Missouri together to see family for the first time in five years that August for Crawford Camp, and I began to reevaluate everything in my life. 
Our extended family had barely begun to process this loss and adjust to the changes when we discovered that my dad, Newton Jr. had lung cancer and was suddenly on hospice. Although we had known his health was declining from being a heavy smoker for forty plus years, we had no idea that things would take such a dramatic turn for the worst. I decided to return to the family farm for the winter holidays and for a semester. Although we weren’t ready when Dad passed away on January 4th, at least we had a chance to heal any wounds, tell him in person what he meant to our lives, and say goodbye.
It was difficult. Once again, we were grieving and processing and reexamining our lives. Once again, our lives had changed, including our roles in the family circle. Additionally, he was the most intelligent man that I had ever met, and it was hard to imagine such a brilliant mind and creative spirit lost to us and this world. Nevertheless, we trudged onward, doing what we could, some of us handling it better than others, all of us trying to help each other through it.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion quotes from a letter a friend wrote saying, “The death of a parent, he wrote, ‘despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had thought gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean's bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections’."
Just a few months later, we were still in the middle of dismantling my dad’s collections and belongings, still in the middle of mending our hearts and rebuilding our lives when we received word that our mother’s youngest brother David died unexpectedly.
This time, there were no goodbyes. No last words. No sharing of how much he touched our lives. This time, he was simply gone, and we are eviscerated.
On Tuesday, April 28th, I was in the middle of grading the first of ten essays that I had been putting off when the phone rang and Mom told me the news. I screamed NO and have continued that silent scream inside. My whole world stopped, and all I could do was wail and write. After I posted David’s eulogy, I forced myself to finish grading the papers about Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily before we drove to Uncle David’s house where I slept in his bed with his three dogs, Harley, O. B. (Otter Bear), and Lucky. Harley and O. B. are large dogs with completely different personalities, Harley frisky and friendly with O. B., David’s silent shadow, sensitive and scared. Lucky is a small terrier mix that had joined David’s pack along the way. These dogs had been spoiled by David, and they lamented with us. Already, his home, without him in it, felt empty, hollow, and we struggled with seeing his shoes and clothes he would no longer wear, his uneaten food, and the games he would no longer play with us.
I had the most difficulty with this funeral, partly because of three in a row and partly because it didn’t look like him in the casket and also because of how close I was to him. And I think many family members can relate.
The relatives who spoke at the funeral ended up sharing a common theme: that David had a hospitable, kind, and generous heart, that he was creative, talented, and brilliant, and that we honor him by continuing his heritage. My mom said that God gave her brother a special spirit of love, and that is so true. David had a heart that blessed others. 
And the last song at the funeral, “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler, was beautiful and perfect for many reasons, and the lyrics spoke to our hearts:

Did you ever know that you're my hero
And everything I would like to be?
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings
It might have appeared to go unnoticed
But I've got it all here in my heart
I want you to know, I know the truth, of course
I know it
I would be nothing without you
After the graveside visit, a local church prepared a lunch for our extended family. Then, we returned to David’s home to clean and pack. One of the last things UD did was prepare two decks of cards per family so that we would be ready to play Dragon Joust, the game he invented. Always, he was thinking of others.
That evening, back in Texas County, we watched Laina perform in the Cinderella ballet, and it was both good and hard to have a positive focus that evening.
Lexi had flown up for the funeral and was staying with us for a few days, so we went to church with my mom on Sunday morning. As part of the preacher’s message, he repeatedly mentioned the will of God, and tears coursed down my cheeks because I cannot believe that it’s God’s will to take UD so soon. A third time within a year that we have lost such a kindhearted, original, and clever man, and as we are left with even more to adjust to and process, we wonder how we will go on and who will remember the family stories of old and the fundamentals of the English language. The only way that I can understand this is that we live in a broken world and sometimes bad things happen; it doesn’t necessarily mean that it IS God’s will; however, God WILL work good from it and already is.
I am reminded of what UD used to tell me when I asked what path I should take when I faced a choice. He would say, “Wherever you go, there God is.” So, whether or not people want to view it at God’s will (and I don’t), God IS here and will bring good out of this loss. This I believe.
Now that it’s the next week and back to regular programing, it feels like the funeral ceremony was rushed. It’s over, and we’re supposed to be okay now and supposed to “move on,” but I’m not ready.
Joan Didion also wrote, ““We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy…”
Still, we are eviscerated.
I feel like the world is muted, dimmed, and I am weighted down with sadness, sick to my stomach that such a sweet soul, gifted mind, and creative man is gone, and constantly on the verge of breaking down. My head aches, and my chest is heavy. And the thought of facing the future hurts my heart and all I can do is mindlessly play Candy Crush, clicking on colored blocks to demolish them until I reach a prescribed goal, nothing that I have to choose or care about.
Joan Didion wrote, “Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation. ‘A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,’ Philippe Ariès wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death. ‘But one no longer has the right to say so aloud’.” 
Now it’s time, society tells us, to resume “normal life,” except our normal life is gone because that life included the ability to pick up the phone at any time and call UD. It included uploading photos to Facebook that I knew my uncle would love and that he would save on his computer for our yearly family calendar. It included family events like our annual Crawford Camp where UD would join us as well as the possibility that he would publish his plays, that he would see Lexi dance professionally, that he would celebrate with me when I find a full-time job. It included my daughters and nieces able to look forward to UD arranging the flowers for their weddings one day. It included hour-long phone conversations about lesson plans or life and movie marathons of Broadway musicals or old movies like Bringing Up Baby or Court Jester. It included Bridge tournaments with UD always rushing straight to three no trump and Scrabble games where he played all seven letters for a Bingo. It included David having a chance to read a new book and watch the recent movie, The Last Five Years. It included a future with UD in it.
I perceive all the things he left undone, and I am paralyzed.
So many things in the course of a day remind us of UD. Every time we glance at the family calendars around the house. Whenever I take a photo that I know he would have loved. Every time we reach for the phone to tell him about something or to ask for his advice. Whenever we plan the upcoming family gatherings, even ones like my nephew’s graduation from high school this weekend. Every time I start to send him an email to share my writing. Whenever we look at our parents who have lost their younger brother and can’t imagine how they endure it.
Ultimately, we all appreciated David, but I don’t think we realized what a huge part of our lives he was.
So “moving on” includes more than picking up where we left off when we got the phone call that shattered our world last Tuesday. It means picking up the pieces of our broken world and being strong enough to reshape them into something new. Yes, it can be good, but it will be different and it will be without him. And that hurts. And that will take time to process and reconcile. It will take time to heal.
In the meantime, we need to be there for each other like he was for us. This heartbreak is a reminder to enjoy our moments and each other, to tell our loved ones how much they matter and how glad we are to share our lives with them. It is a reminder to laugh and love more, to put down the screens and connect.
The past two days with family and friends have been full.
And maybe it seems like I'm being repetitive, belaboring the point, but the fact is that I am still in shock and disbelief. I am still mourning. I don't want it to be true, and I have to process this. To make matters worse, UD IS the one who I would normally turn to when processing something of this magnitude in my life.
I have, perhaps, been guilty in the past of lack of compassion and empathy towards a grief-stricken person, if only to wonder how and why. Now I know. I am reminded of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Kindness”:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

I know that I have to “move on” and that good will come from this and that I WILL be okay. I know that UD would want that for us. I know in my head and heart that UD would want us to "move on" and to “live and love as hard as you know how and make this moment last," but it still FEELS wrong. He won’t hear about this hurt or that birth. We are making new memories, which is good, but we are making new memories without him, and this hurts. It feels wrong. Like I should feel remorse for laughing so hard when playing Spades with Sonny, Sarah, Lexi, and Laina during the past two days. Guilt for enjoying the sunshine with my family, the long country drive with my mom, and the BBQ dinner that Jill, Sarah, and Christin prepared for us Sunday night. Repentance for posting photos on Facebook that UD can no longer see. 
I know it doesn't make sense, and I know he wouldn't want me to feel that way and that he would help me through it. But, it doesn't change HOW it feels.
At the same time, those moments with my family, friends, and loved ones over the past two days have brought some healing with the laughter. Lucky has a new home with Jill’s family, and it was bittersweet to snap photos of Lucky with his new pack. I still feel ill. I still want to weep. My heart still hurts. But I am loving and living. The Broadway song “Seasons of Love” from Rent discusses measuring our “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes” each year by moments of love, and UD mastered that. We will “remember the love,” always.
Grandpa Crawford, Dad, and Uncle David all taught us so much. Part of our healing will come by carrying on their lessons, love, values, and traditions. Part of it will come with time, and another part through our connection to each other. However, we need to be allowed to get there in our own way and time. Finally, Joan Didion wrote about the death of her spouse that “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.” It’s okay that we are not yet ready to let go, that we are still devastated, inconsolable. There are seasons of loss that shape us. In the end, we choose how, though to build something meaningful takes work, and to do something well, which is what UD taught us, we must give all that we are and not settle for less. However, in the midst of loss and after, we can remember to see and embrace love. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A LIFE WELL LIVED: David Lee Cunningham

I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you.
…So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart….
Because I knew you...
I have been changed for good.
(From “For Good” in Wicked)

          In 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. America was experiencing economic growth as well as unrest. The American public enjoyed the first color broadcast of the World Series and the first episode of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” It was the year of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, White Christmas, Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Flies, Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Joe DiMaggio, and Elvis Presley. That year also saw the first mass vaccination of children against polio as well as Brown v Board of Education, which made segregation in US public schools unconstitutional. Along with the boom came the scare of communism and the threat of nuclear war. In the midst of the chaos and prosperity, David Lee Cunningham was born on March 15 in El Dorado, Kansas, to Robert Bruce Cunningham and Bonnie Jean Volesky. David grew up on the family farm with two siblings, Barbara Ann who was the oldest and Robert the II aka Bob, but David was the baby of the family. 
His mother was part Bohemian and part German. Her ancestors migrated to Kansas in the latter part of the seventeenth-century for land and opportunities unavailable in the Old Country. First and second generation homesteaders, they bought land cheaply when America expanded in the “go West” mentality. His father’s clan originated from Scotland and fought in the American Revolution, starting a longstanding family trend of military service. Grandma Bonnie often joked that the difference between her family, the Volesky’s, and her husband’s, the Cunninghams, was that if it looked like rain, the Cunninghams would pull the farm equipment into the barn to oil the gears and sharpen the blades, while the Voleskys would jump into the wagon and hurry to town for the Friday night dance before the roads muddied. But in truth, both families had a devotion to hard work, learning, farming, and the importance of serving one's family, community, church, country, and they passed all of these down to David and his siblings.
The family later moved to Missouri, and David graduated from Clinton High School as valedictorian of his class. He went on to study theater at UMKC and received reviews via letters from his mother who referenced herself by signing Bea A. Critic. When he returned home to the Midwest to visit and stage manage at a local dinner theater, she wrote reviews that the Kansas City Star published. After graduation, David decided to follow his dreams of being on Broadway and gravitated to New York City where he found acceptance and community. His stage name was David Cane, and he acted in plays like Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.
Eventually, David became a stage manager on Broadway and worked at Palace Theater on Crimes of the Heart as well as with Linda Haverman on La Cage Aux Folles Musical. Furthermore, he often worked behind the scenes, helping actors and actresses as well as his own nieces and nephews interpret and understand scripts and songs or helping them search for and find the perfect audition piece. For instance, he coached Bradley Whitford who later starred in the TV hit series West Wing.
David went on to earn a Masters of Clinical Psychology at Columbia College in New York City, and he even completed the required courses for his doctorate degree in clinical psychology at Syracuse University. For a short time, he was a counselor, but he decided to move in another direction. He was vice president of Pearson Communications in New York City as well as Communications Director of Information Systems Technology.
During that time, he rented an apartment on 85th street in West Manhattan near Central Park where he walked his big, loveable dogs every day.
After living away from the family for twenty-five years, David retired from his job and moved back to Missouri. With him, he brought his German Shepherd-Chow Lola and some pressed autumn leaves from Central Park. His varied professions, adventures, and education served him well for the last phase of his life, the time where he was available for everyone in the family. He bought a house on a plot of land fertile with tall cedars and scenic meadows and on Highway 13, almost halfway between Bob’s family farm in Higginsville and the city of Warrensburg, rescued some mix breed dogs, and began hosting family events. He could have won the best host of the year award, and everyone took advantage of his pampering to eat the delicious ham, tomato, and green pepper omelets that he made to order for breakfast and to enjoy pasta parties or grilled dinners. Often, the celebrations lasted all
weekend with plenty of time for playing bridge tournaments, Scrabble, or various games such as the Broadway board and Dragon Joust card games he created. Through it all, laughter and squeals echoed throughout the walls of his home. His place was where we congregated after the fun and work of Apple Butter Day, for birthday parties, and just because.
In the introduction to my thesis for my MFA program, I wrote, “Special thanks to my Uncle David for inviting me to his home, sacrificing his time and reading through the manuscript with me on numerous occasions. Those hours spent at his country house amidst the backdrop of the tall, old cedar grove away from my daily life and duties allowed me to focus on this thesis. From our conversations, my exhaustive notes, and the valuable input and guidance of my writing instructors, I added and cut scenes, reworked passages, revised exposition and organized the essays. The entire process gave me further insight into my own life; it was like collecting quilt squares of differing textures, colors, and sizes and weaving them into a beautiful tapestry. Thank you, Uncle David.” I am positive that each individual in our enormous family has a similar story of appreciation and love for this special person.
In March, he once again hosted his 61st birthday party, and we stayed up late on the 14th, playing bridge and laughing until after midnight to bring in his new year. Although his year was tragically cut short, I’m grateful for that memory together and for all the others like it.
A tall man with an infectious, hearty chuckle, David was not only educated, intelligent, insightful, artistic, and talented, but he was also tremendously creative, highly knowledgeable, and extremely generous. Over the years, he drew plans for houses, bookshelves, and jungle gyms that he also often helped build. Several years ago, my daughter was a budding gymnast, so he constructed and helped build uneven bars in our backyard for her tenth birthday. Every December, he put together a family calendar for the Crawfords and Cunninghams and later also for the Johnson, Gaines, and Adams families. He collected, typed, and printed recipes so we could each have a family cookbook. He played online video games with his nephews. He wrote plays and critiqued our writing.
He created the flower arrangements for all of our weddings. Daily, he fed the birds and hummingbirds on his land. He was even active in the Johnson County Adult Literacy Program. So many things, so many times, he helped his 17 nieces and nephews, 30 great-nieces and nephews, his community, and even many animals. 
And he was there, every day, every time, when we needed someone to talk to on the phone. He was loving and good at listening, and he facilitated us with processing all the trials and mysteries that life threw at us. Now, I don’t know how we are going to process a world without him in it.
Thich Nhat Than said, “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” So I will look to see Uncle David in the wit of one relative and the heart of another. 
UD, you are literally one of the best people I have ever known. We love you. We cherish you. We will miss you. You will be in our hearts and memories forever.
David Lee Cunningham has left the world a better place because he was here, because he shared so much with so many, and because he knew how to live and love. In the words of one of his favorite Broadway musicals, La Cage Aux Folles:
Because the best of times is now,
Is now, is now.
Now, not some forgotten yesterday.
Now, tomorrow is too far away.
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love
As hard as you know how.
And make this moment last,
Because the best of times is now,
Is now, is now. 
David is a beloved brother, a treasured uncle, and a unique and gifted man. We are so blessed to have known him.
Steve Maraboli said, “I am always saddened by the death of a good person. It is from this sadness that a feeling of gratitude emerges. I feel honored to have known them and blessed that their passing serves as a reminder to me that my time on this beautiful earth is limited and that I should seize the opportunity I have to forgive, share, explore, and love. I can think of no greater way to honor the deceased than to live this way.” 
I encourage each person who hears or reads this to be kind, to use your gifts, and “live and love as hard as you know how and make this moment last.” We honor David and all that he did and all that he taught us by passing it along. Goodbye, our much-loved Uncle David. 

We want to celebrate David, his life, and the ways that he moved us, so if friends or family have a memory and/or photo that you want to share, feel free to email it to me to add to this blog or any of you can add your memory in the comments below. 

Remembering UD

Amanda: I am so glad that we were able to visit UD last weekend. When he found out we were coming, he emailed me ahead of time and asked what snacks, drinks, and food we would like to eat while at his house. When we arrived he showed us the new game he created: Dragon Quest. Both Brett and Cale loved it, but particularly Cale who declared it his new favorite game and played the entire time we were there. I know the boys will always remember this last weekend with UD. As we were leaving, he said he was so glad we were able to come and wished we could stay longer. As we walked out the door, we all said "I love you" and hugged him. I am so thankful that we had this last visit, and I will not forget it or the many others that we shared. I will never play Scrabble, eat an omelet, or look at a family calendar without thinking of UD. We all loved him very much and will miss him always.

Jill: So many memories of such an amazing man. After his knee surgery, I stayed with him for a few days to help out. He sent me on a grocery trip with a list of what he needed, and when I arrived at the store, I realized that the list was in perfect order of where the items were located. He even had notes that told me to turn down this aisle or that to find what I needed. His memory astounded me. I helped him with the calendar every single year as well as spent hours editing the cookbook. We always had great laughs in our delirious state of tiredness in the wee hours of the night. At the end of our projects, we always had to bind them with a spiral plastic that you twist through the holes in the paper. We “never raced,” but he always ended up furiously twisting, finishing first, and then stating, "It wasn't a race!" with a little bit of gloat in his smile. I remember spending hours on the phone discussing the wonderful world of Harry Potter, planning my wedding, or just getting advice for this or that. His omelettes were the best, his hospitality was incomparable, and his counsel was irreplaceable. I have learned so much from this amazing man who always seemed to have expertise in every area. His wisdom, wit, and servant's heart are things that I will treasure in my memory forever.

Rachel: At Crawford Camp one hot summer day, we were all preparing lunch, but we couldn’t open the huge jar of artichokes. We had already opened the jar of dill pickles (in our family, you’ve got to have pickles) and everyone had tried to open the stubborn jar of artichokes. I tried. Sarah tried. Jill tried. Sarah and Jill tried together. Adam tried. Jill and Adam tried together. Uncle Bob tried. Sarah, Jill, Adam, and Uncle Bob all tried at the same time, but nothing worked! It wouldn’t open! Frustrated, we all walked away. A few moments later, UD walked up and popped open the lid on his first try! Uncle Bob said that we’d loosened it up for him, and we all laughed for days.