I have decided to discontinue this blog. Before I do, here is one final post to tie all the seemingly disparate posts together. I hope that in it, you will find inspiration for your own life’s journey. I hope it inspires you to seek out your own joy.
The last time I posted on this blog was August 12th, the anniversary of my first day and my mother’s last day on this earth. Today is her birthday. Happy birthday mom.
This entire blog was inspired by the events I relayed here about a huckleberry falling from the sky and changing the course of my life. In that ambiguous initial post, I said that one day I might tell the full story. It is a complicated one to tell, and it is tied to most of the other posts contained on this blog. I will try to link to each as the full story unfolds, so when you see an underlined colored term, click on it to jump to the corresponding blog post. Then you can opine for yourselves the presence in our lives of serendipity and grace, which this blog has been all about all along:
“This blog is dedicated to those moments we all have, when you see beyond–or is it through?–your present circumstances. When your soul whispers to your mind and you hear, however faintly, your own personal truth, that is a huckleberry moment.”
Part One – Huck
We met under unusual circumstances on the elementary school bus when we were 8 or 9. I’ll call him Huck. In the moments before our meeting, I had a disagreement with the school bully that resulted in a surprising black eye. Mine, not his unfortunately. He had just ordered a girl in the seat ahead of me to sit down. Cowering in fear, she obeyed. This infuriated me, so I met the bully’s gaze and purposefully stood up.
“Sit down,” he ordered me.
“No,” I refused.
Hence, my black eye and the ensuing tears of shock and anger that streamed down my face. As I walked up the bus aisle to exit at my stop, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, this boy I would later come to know as Huck. He was laughing at me.
Without conscious thought I reeled into his seat and grabbed a fistful of his shirt, pushing it against his chest. Glaring into his shocked blue-gray eyes, I spat through gritted teeth, “Don’t. You. Laugh. At. Me!”
In later years, the school bus incident would become our private joke. As it turned out, this was not our only connection. Huck had a twin brother who was in my elementary class at school. I had twin brothers, one of whom was also named ‘Huck.’ Moreover, Huck and his twin shared the same birthday as my twin brothers, though separated by some years. An odd coincidence in our small rural town. Huck and I shared secrets.
In high school we dated on and off. Mostly off. Toward the end of our senior year, however, our friendship faltered, and by the summer after graduation, we were not talking at all, avoiding each other as best we could.
And then, on the August night I turned 18, my mom died. Huck came to the funeral. When we were at the same gathering in the weeks afterwards, I thanked him, and we talked for the first time in months. We arranged to get together one last time before we both left for college, to say goodbye. I don’t remember the evening, probably not surprising given that I was still in shock over my mother’s death. But I wrote about the night in my journal. When he dropped me off at home, he kissed me and said he loved me.
For the next year, Huck and I had an on and off relationship. And for several years after that, we had an on and off friendship. Mostly off. This was in the days of paper letters mailed to street addresses and calls from landline phones to numbers that were disconnected with every move. I lost track of him countless times. When I was feeling lost in the world, I’d call his mom for his new number and the conversations with her and then with Huck would ground me. Huck went to grad school. I went to Europe. He got a PhD. I got a law degree. After email made communication easier, we’d meet up most Christmases while home visiting family and we’d go to the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls, catching each other up on our lives. Christmas of 1994 was our last Festival visit.
By 1996 we were both married, and by 1998 we stopped communicating completely. We lost touch and didn’t try to find each other. My husband entered into active military service after 9/11, and we began a relentless progression that followed his rising Army career. I longed to return home to the place I grew up and root my girls in the soil of their ancestors among grandparents and great-grandparents. The Army and my husband had other priorities.
When Huck occasionally crossed my mind during these years, the memories stung with a tinge of regret at how our relationship had ended. I hoped he had found happiness and was doing well, until a routine phone call with my step-mother. After the usual pleasantries, she remembered some news she had meant to pass along.
“Do you remember those twins you knew in high school? One of them passed away.” My heart stopped. “Not the one you dated. His brother.” My heart broke. I knew from terrible experience what my old friend and his family must be experiencing. I felt like I should reach out. But I didn’t know where, and I suspected my contact would be unwelcome anyway.
A few years and two more military moves later, I startled awake after one of those vivid dreams that seem more like visions. Huck. I sensed he was in trouble. I could feel it. I had a powerful urge to reach out to him. But I didn’t know where, and I had no reason to think he would want me to anyway.
More time passed. For me, my marriage felt like nothing more than its paper incarnation and corresponding obligations. I contemplated staying behind when my husband got new orders to another state. Maybe moving home with the girls to be near my dad. But as we were making the decision whether my husband would move on to his next duty station alone, the phone rang again. My father had died, leaving my severely Alzheimer’s-stricken grandmother completely alone in a desolate nursing home. He had been her only constant, and now he was gone. I was guilt-ridden. I had not been there to help. In my absence from home, most everyone I had loved had died. Now, there seemed little point to moving back home. My long-time desire to raise my children alongside my extended family could now never be fulfilled. Against this backdrop, aching daughter and loving mother, I chose not to separate my girls from their dad. We moved to the new duty station together. My life was a drudgery of role playing the patriotic military wife and dutiful mother. I was dying inside, ever so slowly, one day at a time. And I was resigned to it.
Sitting among strangers in the parent viewing area at gymnastics in yet another new town, I got a LinkedIn notification of a new connection request on my smart phone. It was from Huck. Shock does not begin to describe the feeling. Surely he could not have intentionally sent the invitation. The inner workings of LinkedIn are baffling. Big Brother seems to have an eerie way of suggesting connections you actually do sort of know, but how in the world does LinkedIn know that? Anyway, I thought Huck’s mouse must have inadvertently clicked on my name, suggested by LinkedIn, and now that the invitation was sent, there was nothing he could do about it. After a few days, I clicked, “Accept.”
That’s it. No message of long lost greeting. No catch up. None of the “Where are you now?” and “How have you been?” chit chat that characterizes social media reunions. Just another year of silence, but now Huck and I were 1st level LinkedIn connections, however silent we might have been.
Another military move. Another year of slowly dying inside. Brand new neighbors and my oldest daughter noticed. Another military wife whose husband had served with mine 4 duty stations ago in Arizona and who was now assigned to our same post, noticed that something was wrong. I was not the same person I had been when she last knew me. I was no longer doing a very good job at role playing. It felt like I was just waiting to be 80 so that it would all be over soon. After 7 states and 6 moves in 10 years, I felt homeless, disconnected, and alone, a stranger in my own life.
Part 2 – Grandma
My grandma was an Orphan Train rider, and being a foster child left her with a deep lack of self-worth, something she would recover only late in life. After years of genealogical research revealed her past to her, she would comment with exuberance, “I found out that I am somebody!” But when she was a young woman, she did not yet feel it. When a young doctor she met at nursing school expressed long-term interest in her, she turned him away. I remember her telling me about him, saying that she didn’t think she was good enough to be a doctor’s wife. She returned home and married her high school sweetheart, my grandpa. They had two children, a girl and a boy. They named their son after my grandfather’s father, who had died of the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 when my grandfather was just 15 weeks old. That son, my father, would go on to give the name to one of his twin sons—the name shared by Huck.
My grandmother and I were always close. She used to take me swimming at her pool club, and I remember one day conquering the length of the pool without touching the side or bottom. My grandmother rewarded me with a new pair of shoes. Grit was something she understood well.
After my mother and I became estranged and more so after she died, my grandmother filled that void for me, as best she could. Consequently, as she lay dying of Alzheimer’s in the fall of 2013, my sense of loss was profound. Both my parents were gone, my grandpa had died while we were stationed in Arizona, and now grandma. Moreover, the family cottage my grandparents had hoped would be in the family for generations, and which I had considered the only stable home I had ever known, was being sold by my aunt. I had loved that place truly and saying goodbye to it had filled me with as much grief as my parents’ funerals.
In late September or early October 2013, a nurse called to say we might need to consider ‘comfort care’ for my grandma soon. The doctors were trying a new drug to get her to eat, but they didn’t know if it would work. I needed to get to New York to see her.
A crazy set of circumstances involving a rescheduled military school for my husband that conflicted with a reserved family vacation in Wisconsin, a federal government shut-down, my Arizona military spouse friend backing out of the trip at the last minute, and my husband’s gracious offer to make a trip to see grandma possible, had me plugging addresses into Google maps to find the best route from Wisconsin to Western New York. I would be making the trip alone.
The drive took me across Michigan, where I now knew from LinkedIn that Huck worked. I told my husband that I would like to stop and see him on my way through, and he agreed, not even questioning why I would want to visit an old friend I had not seen in nearly 19 years, nor even communicated with in more than 15. I don’t know that I understood it myself. Perhaps something in me sensed he would ground me again.
On the road to Michigan, I prayed. Well, I guess that’s what you would call it. I am not a religious person, but I believe there are forces of grace at work in the universe. Without getting too hokey, let me simply acknowledge that I have experienced signs from my mom and my dad to let me know they are around still. Had it been possible, I would definitely have sought their counsel directly rather than prayed for guidance. Oh, how very many times over the last quarter century I have wished I could just talk to my mom. But, you work with what you have, and I didn’t have any older, wiser relatives to ask in person. I have heard that we all have spirit guides, and I believe in some higher power that many people call God. And so, it was to any and all of these spiritual folks that I directed my heartfelt plea.
“Please, help me. I am lost, and I do not know what to do. Please, help me.” I had never prayed before for anything specific. Not once. Honestly, I had not prayed much at all about anything. But on occasion, like after passing a horrific car accident, I would ask vaguely in my head for comfort to those impacted. Or, I’d ask for peace for a friend who had lost a parent. My prayers were limited to that sort of general grace, directed at a nonspecific power.
This time, however, the consequences were too great for vague prayer. I was contemplating what to do about my marriage. I recognized that I was not doing well, and I began to wonder whether staying in the marriage was doing more harm to my girls than leaving would do. Since my own parents’ divorce and the devastating distance that caused from my family of origin, it had been a sacred personal rule of mine to never ever divorce the father of my children unless my life was in danger. I would often say that my husband had to be beating me before I would even consider divorce. And my husband wasn’t beating me. On the contrary, he was a very good man, whom I respected and admired. More importantly, he was a fantastic father.
So, for me to consider leaving, I thought I needed a clear sign. Like my grandmother, but for different reasons, I also had an appalling lack of self-worth, and I did not trust my own judgment. To leave my marriage, I wanted someone else to tell me it was the right thing to do. And so, foolishly, I prayed to hear a specific song during a specific time.
To understand why I prayed for what I did requires explanation. There were many private reasons for the trouble in my marriage, which I will not go into here. One of them, however, was a tension between my past and my present. In marrying my husband, I was rejecting everything I had once been and known. His was a foreign world, and I a tourist. As much as I wanted to be a part of that world, and as much as I wanted to be his wife, from the very first moments of our union, I yearned to return home to my roots. I wanted him to come with me. He didn’t. I wondered whether I had made a mistake. That nagging sense had sucked at our marriage for years. And here I was, about to see a man who symbolized everything I had left behind. If I had married a boy from home, it would have been Huck. Unlike my grandma who rejected the foreign doctor in favor of the hometown boy, I had done the opposite. My choice agonized me. Had it been the right one?
While on that vacation in Wisconsin a few days before this prayer, a song happened upon the local radio station that caught my attention. It was by a Buffalo band, oddly enough, and called Come to Me. The lyrics made me think of Huck. It’s a song about friends who apparently split, reunite to start again, and in the third verse, get married. Because of the specificity of this last verse, I chose it as my requested sign regarding my own marriage. I asked the Divine to show me what to do. If my path should take me out of my marriage, then please play me this song while I was with Huck. Some abstract love song open to interpretation would be insufficient. I wanted to hear the reference to marriage. I could not leave my marriage for anything less specific because too many lives would be affected by my decision. I needed a specific external validation of what I sensed in my soul to be true but which I lacked the courage to acknowledge.
Seeing Huck again was a breath of fresh air. It was as if the shell of my life cracked and I remembered I had once been a girl who conquered a pool and challenged a bully. Reflected in Huck’s blue-gray eyes, I glimpsed myself as he saw me on the school bus all those long years ago, raw and full of grit, with tears streaming down my face, standing up for myself. I did not hear Come to Me.
Driving away from Michigan on my way to see my grandma, I was relieved. Thankfully, I had not heard that song, because leaving my marriage would be nearly unthinkable. I didn’t want to have to think about it. I didn’t want to make my kids and husband unhappy. In retrospect, I see that what I didn’t want was to be responsible for my own life.
But as I drove to New York in a rainstorm on my 17th wedding anniversary, this self-awareness had not yet arrived. I was blissfully ignorant, actively giving thanks to the universe for not playing that song. Thank God. And at the same moment these thoughts sprang forth from my consciousness into the great unknown, a fat round blue balloon fell out of the sky and hit my car while Toby Keith’s Huckleberry played through my car’s speakers. (For those who don’t know, a huckleberry looks like a blueberry.) These three things occurred simultaneously–the relief, the Huckleberry song, and the blue balloon falling from the sky.
Apparently the universe has a sense of irony. Do you know the Toby Keith song? It’s about a boy and a girl who ride the elementary school bus together and date in high school. Sound familiar? Guess what happens in the third verse. Yep. They get married.
The universe doesn’t tell you what to do. It tells you to look within your own heart for the answers you seek.
I arrived at the nursing home a couple hours later to find my grandma seated in the dining hall for lunch. Gone were the days of her trying to eat the colorful packages of sweeteners at the table, paper and all. Those were the mid-stages of the disease when my dad could still take her out to restaurants. Now she never left this sorrowful building. She needed to be spoon fed her mush and encouraged to drink the fortified Ensure. For years her conversation had been limited to a few repetitive phrases. “Should we go downstairs now? I think my family is waiting for me.” And because her hearing was gone, she’d often just look at my mouth moving uncomprehendingly, shrug her shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” I had not heard her utter anything other than a variation of these few phrases in years. But this day, as I sat down beside her, smiled, and gave her a hug, she looked directly at me and uttered this surprising new statement without preamble, “He likes you. I don’t know if you like him, but he likes you.” Her head nodded wisely as I looked at her with surprise. Was she referring to Huck? No, how could she be? And then I proceeded to spoon feed her the mush on her tray, my heart overflowing with love and gratitude and sorrow for this beautiful woman, full of grit, who had once been my grandma.
Leaving the home a while later, a flock of starlings took flight from the side of the road, but rather than swoop away from me, they enveloped my car, causing me to hit the brakes for fear of smashing them. My dad. The last person my grandma recognized, even when she didn’t remember that he was her son. The man who would force a smile for his mother and then sit in his truck afterwards with tears soaking his beard. Sending me birds to let me know he had been with grandma and me in the dining hall. Just like he sent the robins when I decided to embrace the writing life.
Part 3 – The Family Curse
A few weeks later, I was back at the nursing home with the women of the family. My aunt, her daughter, and I had gathered by my grandma’s bedside so that she would not die alone. But for endless agonizing days, she simply would not die at all, this woman whose physical strength clung fiercely to the world. This is how we women had some time to catch up. While my aunt took smoking breaks outside, I slowly told my cousin about what was going on in my marriage. And of course we all reminisced about grandma and grandpa quite a lot. They had been happily married for over 60 years. Two peas in a pod. Betting each other quarters on the outcome of the Sunday football games. They are the ones who had built the cottage. I suppose like most grandparents, they were the bedrock of our family. It seems that grandma’s choice of her high school sweetheart had been a good one.
My aunt had not been privy to the smoking break conversations with my cousin, so it seemed oddly coincidental when she mentioned that my grandma had always wondered whether the women in our family were cursed to choose between two loves. There had been that doctor for her in nursing school, and my aunt had faced a similar choice. Like her mother, my aunt rejected her serious university boyfriend to marry her childhood sweetheart. The summer at the cottage when the college boy was sent home brokenhearted is a family legend.
I had heard these stories before, of course, but I had not heard that my grandma wondered whether my cousin or I would be plagued with this same choice. Pondering things like curses did not sound at all like something my grandma would do, but given my predicament at that very moment, upon hearing about it in the lobby of the nursing home, I swallowed hard. My cousin shot me an incredulous glance. At the next smoking break, she encouraged me to talk to my aunt. She had been suggesting I do this all along, but it had seemed callous to burden my aunt with my troubles as she watched her mother die. Now, it seemed like I should talk to her.
Grandma, meantime, was clinging valiantly. The nurses encouraged us to go out to lunch. Some people prefer to die alone. An aid agreed to sit with her, and we left. Over lunch, my aunt listened attentively as I told her about my life and my marriage. When I was done, she asked a few pointed questions and then proclaimed unequivocally, “You cannot stay.”
When we arrived back in my grandma’s room, the end was near. Tears spilled from closed eyes over smiling cheeks onto our clasped hands. I felt a wave of such profound love surrounding us all that it was hard to breathe. It lasted a few moments, and then grandma took her last breath. She was gone. Afterwards, my cousin commented that it was as if she hung on until after I had sought my aunt’s counsel. My aunt and I are not very close, as she lives in Canada, and so this was likely to be the only time I would ever speak to her about such personal matters. She was the only older woman in my life whose advice I could seek, and I needed it. After all, I had been reduced to praying for songs. My aunt’s concrete opinion was a godsend.
Part 4 – Joy be to you all
Sitting in a counselor’s chair some months later, I reluctantly spoke about most of the serendipitous events discussed here on this blog, including how I stood at the front of a church when I was 19 years, 8 months, and 10 days old and uttered sacred words my mother was meant to say, words that made me godmother to her namesake when I was exactly the age–to the day–that she was when she became mother to me. I was reluctant to do this. For one thing, even I am suspicious of these moments, despite the fact that I have experienced them. For another, I thought this professionally trained woman would think me a fool. Rational people do not accept such stories. I explained my reservations and then proceeded for the next hour to talk about the inexplicable coincidences in my life. In the middle of my session, she interrupted me, explaining with worry that her clock had stopped and if she didn’t get another one, she knew she would be distracted by thoughts of the time and her next client. Afterwards, as I was putting on my jacket, she explained that today was the anniversary of her former husband’s death and that the clock had stopped at the exact time he passed–to the minute. She smiled and said, “These things happen. And I am a rational, intelligent, professional person. They happen.”
Ultimately, after much professional counseling, talking with friends, and soul searching, my marriage did end. Not because a huckleberry fell from the sky. Not because of an adolescent love. Not because of my aunt’s advice. It didn’t even end for all of the reasons my marriage was unhappy. Plenty of unhappy marriages last until death after all. My marriage ended because I finally found the courage to hack my own path through life’s brambles. I am still on that path, and not much is clear. Precious little actually. The road ahead is fraught with uncertainty and not a little amount of loneliness. But that’s okay. I know uncertainty and loneliness already. They have been my longtime companions. Now, they are tempered by hope, and that makes all the difference.
How did I arrive at this decision? I decided that waiting to be 80 wasn’t doing my kids any good. By staying in an unhappy marriage so that I could always be physically present for them, I was actually depriving them of a good mom—because I wasn’t really there for them. They deserved better than the shell I had become. I decided that waiting to be 80 was dangerous, because the depression and despair would take its toll. When my father prematurely died of a heart attack at 64, brought on I suspect by depression and stress, I shivered to see my own fate. His death, my conversation with Huck, the huckleberry, my grandma, all of it kicked me in the gut. It changed my perspective. Consider this question. Which of us would not die for our children? We all would, without question and without hesitation. But you know what? Dying is the easy way out. And dying is exquisitely hard on those you leave behind. I know.
So, the question should not be whether you would die for your children. The question should be, will you live for them? Will you take responsibility for your own life and show them what the pursuit of joy looks like? Will you teach them by your example how to strive for it and how to pick yourself up off the ground when you fail–because you surely will fail–and strive again?
I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know if God or astrophysics is the reason. Here is what I do know. I am here. Right now. And for however long I get to experience this human presence, it would be a shame to squander it. I can honor my parents and grandparents by living the life they wished for me. Although I can’t know exactly what they hoped, I have a pretty good idea that it was the same hope we all have for our children—for them to choose paths that lead them to joy and love. It’s what I am trying to do now with the hope that my own children will learn from my example.
Why end today? Well, this blog is about serendipity, is it not? I already mentioned that today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 64—the same age as my dad when he died. And today is more. Today is the day Huck lost his twin brother, the twins who share a birthday with my own twin brothers, born to the mom whose birthday is today.
Make of all these circular connections what you will, dear readers. They are indeed my Huckleberry Moments. Go listen for yours.
In keeping with the Scotch-Irish heritage that my grandma’s genealogical research uncovered and my love of history, I leave you with a 17th century Celtic verse. May joy be to you all.
Of all the money that e’er I had
I spent it in good company
And all the harm that e’er I’ve done
Alas, it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink to health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all
And all the comrades that e’er I’ve had
Are sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e’er I’ve had
Would wish me one more day to stay
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all
So fill to me the parting glass
And drink to health whate’er befalls
Then gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be to you all