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. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

That Moment

          When your foundation is shaken and nothing will ever be the same. When grief reaches in and stretches you, tears you up both inside and out, and all you can see is heartbreak. When you hurt for yourself and just as much for the rest of your family. When you see how frail and precious each person in your life is. When all you can write are fragments, bits and pieces of thought, strung together, half incoherent because all you can do is wail. When you shout NO, NO, NO! It can’t be true. But no matter what you do, what you pray, what you wish, the fact cannot be unheard. Forever, it will reside in the deepest parts of your soul and you will never be the same.
          He’s my person. And now he’s gone. I can’t. I just can’t.

Never again. All of the small details that you can never do again. Never again call and talk to the person who has always been there for you, the person who has known you since you were growing inside a womb, the person who gets you and loves you unconditionally. Never again stay the night at his house and play games, Scrabble or bridge or the Broadway game he created, until late in the night, laughing so hard at nothing at all, and then wake up to the smell of UD’s cooking. Omelets, made to perfection and prepared specially for each person. Never again brainstorm life, writing, lesson plans, anything and everything. Never again take a photo of him. And the new camera, bought during spring break, will never snap a picture of Uncle David. Never again ask for his advice or give him a hug. Never again talk music and movies to the person who always knew what you meant, even if no one else understood.
I don’t even… I don’t know how to do this.

He was my person. And he was that person to so many of us.
Someday, maybe, all the tears, shakes, screams will be gone. For now, we are left with raw throats, puffy eyes, and so many questions. For now, we are in shock, numb.
Today, we planted a tree for Grandpa Crawford, lost last May, and one for Dad, lost in January. Tomorrow, or soon, we will plant a tree for Uncle David. Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day or the next year, we will breathe again.

~Written in loving memory of Uncle David who was so much to so many. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

God's Country

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m breathless with awe at the springtime beauty of the Missouri Ozarks as I drive along the winding country roads. Every time, the visual feast startles me, shakes the foundation of my life, digs deep. I am rooted.

I glimpse golden fields against the fresh green of the rolling hills, the flash of sunlight hitting the pond, and brown or black cows meander, stopping for a bite of the spring bounty or a sip of water. I wonder if we should envy their simple lives with nothing to do but “drink the wild air” and commune with each other, with nature. 

I drive over a rippling river that is fed by a crystal cold spring. Below, a child searches for skipping rocks, flat and smooth enough to make all the way across the river. A box turtle, just up from its hibernation hole and covered in mud, approaches the road, and a fox nurses her newborn cubs in their den.

100-year-old Evergreens line the road, but in the woods, a man hunts for morel mushrooms. Look under the Ash trees. Starting at the riverbed, he climbs a hill that is covered with Oak, Walnut, and Elm trees, old and young, just budding. He steps over fallen limbs, slides on moss-covered rocks, passes between Tarzan-vines, and pushes through thickets. Sticker bushes grab his clothes and skin, leaving scratches, and a brief shock of fear slams into him as a black snake slithers by; however, as he spies the spongy brown top of the morel, he forgets every pain and knows only the joy of the present moment.

A farmer steers his John Deer tractor through the open gate. Every evening, he fishes for perch and catfish with huge nightcrawlers he digs out of the ground. In a hidden corner of the red barn that is filled with bales of alfalfa hay, a cat delivers her kittens safe from the barking dogs.

Behind a farmhouse, a woman hangs clothes on the line to dry while she plants the garden. The freshly tilled dirt tamed by a hoe, shovel, and strong will. Two rows of new potatoes, corn, and onions. A row of carrots, radishes, kohlrabi, peas, lettuce, and spinach. She wipes the sweat from her brow, leaving steaks of dirt. Any morning now, the asparagus will be up. She can already taste it. Children run, coatless and barefoot, on the freshly mown green grass. One climbs the fence to chase wild turkeys and tumbles over the dogs lapping at his feet. Another picks young “helicopters” off of the Maple tree and throws them in the air. The woman hollers at the teens jumping on the trampoline: Gather the eggs. Pick up the yard.

On the side of the road, an armadillo lies on its back, feet in the air, playing dead next to some roadkill. All along the road, huge buzzards peck at squirrels, opossum, an occasional deer as hawks, eagles, and owls soar over the hills and around the church steeples.

A splash of color catches my eye. The purples, reds, and yellows of the wildflowers and the pink of the redbuds as well as white of the cherry blossoms bring promise of happiness.

I drive to the top of a steep hill where I can see for miles. Hills and forests meet white-silver clouds, the blue of the sky so clear that tears run down my cheeks, unbidden. Here in the Missouri Ozarks, earth touches heaven and is reborn. 

          The earth sings, Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! And as I drive, I find that I am weeping with perpetual astonishment at this thing called life.