How I am like a three year old.

Recently I visited some friends who have three children under the age of five.  Like most young children they don’t always respond to their parents’ requests when first asked.  At one point the three year old was lying on the kitchen floor while her mom prepared dinner. She ignored her mom’s calm request to get up so with just a bit of sarcasm in my voice I told the little girl it might be easier and she could avoid trouble if she just did what her mom wanted.  She looked at me like I was some strange but harmless creature speaking a language she didn’t understand.

I don’t know why I expect children to obey their parents without hesitation when I have a hard time doing the same.  My earthly mother doesn’t make many demands on me these days and I am happy to do anything I can for her.  Responding to God’s promptings is much harder.  Just listening and understanding what He wants is challenging for me.  I am that little girl staring at God blankly as if he were speaking Sanskrit.  At some level I understand what I must do but my rebellious will doesn’t want to hear and understand.  I can listen carefully and respond as best I can or I can do my own thing and decide to follow only after I’ve reaped the consequences of my earlier inaction.
Parents discipline their children so they learn right from wrong and so they can learn to behave and act appropriately.  God is a loving father and wants to teach us too.  He gives us freedom to choose right from wrong and to suffer the consequences when we make the wrong choice.  Following God’s will isn’t the easy path but it is the one that leads to true joy.

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Father’s Day

My dad and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was a teen and young adult.  We were both stubborn.  I was an ungrateful daughter who wanted a “cool” dad.  Boy, was I foolish.  When I started to take my faith seriously, about ten years ago, I finally understood that the commandment “honor thy mother and father” was directed toward me, not someone else.  I made a conscious effort to improve my relationship with my dad.  I had to love him in spite of his flaws.

I don’t want to give you the impression that our relationship was horrible or abusive in anyway.  It was probably like many relationships, a mix of good and bad.   There was plenty of room for improvement.

As my dad’s cognitive decline continued it made my goal more difficult to attain but also more  imperative that I do whatever I could.  His hearing loss and aphasia made having a conversation difficult.  I made a point of saying “I love you” to him every time we talked and whenever I saw him.  I had to make up for all the times I didn’t love him as I ought.

I’m glad I did what I did but I could have, should have, done more.  I didn’t thank him often enough for teaching me valuable skills such as how to change a bicycle tire, adjust the handlebars and seat height; or hold a hammer, how to operate a saber saw and numerous other practical tasks.  I didn’t thank him for raising me in the Catholic faith.

I think he knows how grateful I am for everything he taught me.  I love him for all those reasons and more.  I love him because he had a childlike curiosity (though I often saw it as nosiness).  Most of all I love my dad because he married my mom (who is a superwoman) and they gave me life.

Happy Father’s Day Dad!  I love you!
Requiscat in pace.


I’d like to thank all the father’s in the world for fulfilling this important God-given role.  I offer heartfelt prayers for all the biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, step fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and spiritual fathers; for fathers who have lost a child and for those who are expecting their first child. And for all the fathers that have passed before us, requiscant in pace.

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“If ice cream…

“If ice cream is not included in the first date, there probably won’t be a second.”

–PG

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Solitude in the Smokies

Finding Solitude in the Smokies

The drive down Interstate 75 through southern Kentucky and into northern Tennessee was breathtaking. It was a beautiful, sunny late April day, not too warm — perfect driving weather. I was astounded by the grandeur of the mountain vistas visible from the highway. Mountains folded into valleys that faded into the horizon. Mist clung to the valleys and the sides of the mountains like spun cotton snagged on splintered wood. Vibrant colors filled my field of vision. There is no scenery in Ohio to compare to the Southern Appalachians. I once thought the landscape of Ohio’s Hocking Hills was amazing with its streams, caves and rock formations, but it doesn’t compare to the Smokies.

This was my first trip ever to Tennessee. I was interviewing for a library job at Maryville College, a tiny liberal arts college in the foothills of the Smokies. It was a job that I didn’t plan to accept, even if offered. It was vacation with a practice interview, that’s all. Or so I thought.

I checked into the Alcoa Fairfield Inn on the busy highway that connects Maryville and Alcoa to Knoxville, 20 miles to the north. I settled in for the night, but the loud rumble of airplanes landing and taking off at McGee-Tyson Airport across from the hotel, the constant drone of automobile traffic, and a bit of nervous excitement made it difficult to sleep.

I awoke early the next morning and drove to Maryville College, just a few miles from my hotel. Founded in 1819 at a different location, the college now sits on a hilltop with views of the mountains from several places on campus. The directions that the library director gave me led me right to Fayerweather Hall, home of the library. Like most of the antebellum campus, it was grand, but tired looking. Tall, rotting wooden columns stood sentry over the large porch. Creaking wood floors covered with threadbare blue carpet greeted me as I entered. Fifteen-foot tall windows illuminated the interior with plenty of natural light.

The interview was a bit intimidating, but, since I considered it a practice interview, I wasn’t too nervous. First, I met individually with the library director and the other fulltime librarian. Later, I spoke informally with the rest of the staff and the person who held the position I would fill — ten people in all. We ate lunch, sandwiches ordered from a local sub shop, around a large work table in the center of the library’s office space.

The kindness and hospitality of everyone that I met impressed me. But the prospective job didn’t thrill me: it was essentially the same position as my previous job, and I wanted to do something different. Hiring, training, scheduling and supervising thirty student employees were stressful enough without the additional duties of managing the library’s closed reserve and circulation desks. Nevertheless, I was falling in love with the hills of East Tennessee and her people. By the end of the day, I knew that they wanted to hire me. The library director asked me to stay an extra day for further interviews. She suggested I visit Cades Cove while I had the time.

I originally planned to depart early the following morning, so when I returned to my hotel, I inquired about extending my reservation by one night. That was not possible, so I made a reservation at a motel in Townsend about twenty miles east of Maryville and closer to the nearest entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After calling my roommate to let her know I would be gone an extra day, I crawled into bed. I had an even harder time sleeping than I had the previous night.

I returned to the library the following morning and one of the library employees escorted me to the administration building. The dean of the college, a man of perhaps fifty years, met me with a handshake and a friendly smile, and welcomed me to his tidy corner office. He wore a suit and tie, the obligatory attire of college administrators, but he looked like he would be more comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt. He asked me about the drive down to Maryville and my impression of the college, but didn’t ask any tough interview questions. He just wanted to meet the person that the library director had selected.

Methodist Church, Cade’s Cove, TN

After the brief conversation, I returned to the hotel, changed out of my interview suit into shorts and a T-shirt. I checked out of my room and traveled toward the park and into Cades Cove. I made my way around the single lane loop road in the cove, stopping at all of the homesteads, churches and other structures that the park service maintains as historical sites, taking pictures of the buildings and the landscape along the way. I found one of the several hiking trails that begin, end, or cross the cove and started walking. I was hesitant at first since I was ill-prepared for hiking: my hiking boots were in Columbus, and I had no trail map. But following the trail was not difficult. Heavy tourist traffic on the path had created a wide, well-defined trail, unlike some of the trails in Ohio’s state parks that I had explored.

Before I left the park, I drove east along Little River Road, which closely follows its namesake. I parked my car along the side of the road, and walked along the roaring river. The sound of water crashing over boulders in the stream was all I could hear. Fly fishers wearing dark green waders stood calmly in the shallow river, casting their lines, waiting for a brook trout to swallow their bait. I was unaccustomed to the calm, quiet peacefulness.

The Little River

After spending most of the afternoon in the park, I checked into the Townsend Howard Johnson. The lodgings were a half step down from the Fairfield Inn, but it wasn’t bad —the bed was comfortable, and I felt safe. The motel was set up high on a hill, far away from the din of passing cars and trucks. I slept well for the first time since the start of my vacation-interview excursion.

I returned to Columbus the next morning and shared all the details of the trip with my friends and family. The following week I received a job offer. Much to the surprise of my friends, family — and myself — I accepted it.

The move to Maryville, Tennessee, in June 1997 was an adventure. My oldest sister, Kathy, and my friend, Ben, accompanied me. We departed much later than planned, and the old diesel rental truck slowed our progress as we inched our way up the steep inclines, making the trip take even longer. As we drove through the mountains, my brakes started making horrible grinding noises. Fortunately, I made it to my destination without brake failure.

Finally, around ten at night, we pulled into my new apartment complex, exhausted from the long, slow drive. I climbed the stairs to my second floor apartment and inserted my key into the lock. It wouldn’t turn. The management changed the lock since I signed the lease a few weeks earlier. Tired and frustrated, I called the resident manager from a payphone at a gas station across the street from my apartment. The woman at the answering service must have forgotten about Southern Hospitality when she took my call. She informed me that the number I had called was only for emergencies, and that I would have to call back in the morning. After being in a car for so long, I was impatient and a more than a little irritated. It took me several minutes to convince her that having no access to my apartment was in fact an emergency. The jolly resident manager met us at the door to my apartment when we returned from the gas station. He had expected me earlier in the day and apologized profusely for my difficulties. He renewed my faith in southerners.

Ben and Kathy stayed a few days and helped me unpack my belongings. I took Ben to the airport to fly back to Columbus, and the next day I saw my sister off. As I watched her plane take off from the gate, I cried. I felt all alone and wondered if I was making a big mistake. To add to my discouragement, I lost a filling in one of my teeth and burnt my arm when the oven door closed as I took a dish out of it. My new job didn’t start for a few more days, so I busied myself with arranging my apartment and getting to know the area.

My outlook improved quickly once I started my new job and began to make new friends. My coworkers were very welcoming and made me feel like I belonged there. My duties were similar to those of my previous position, and as I was already familiar with the library software that Maryville College used, I adapted quickly.

It wasn’t long before I made friends among the members of a Young Adults Group at a local Catholic church, many of whom were avid hikers. East Tennessee soon became home, and I became a hiking fanatic myself. Groups hikes were scheduled at least once a month from March or April until November and other trips were arranged informally, often at the last minute, in between the planned hikes.

One beautiful Sunday afternoon I wanted to go hiking, but could not find anyone to join me. The weather was perfect: sunny and warm, but not too hot or humid. I couldn’t not go hiking. So I went out on my own. I was a bit scared, but I chose a familiar trail I had hiked several times. Saying a little prayer for my safety, I set out and discovered a completely new world in the woods.

I can’t remember which trail I hiked. It might have been Rabbit Creek Trail or Rich Mountain Trail — both begin at the Abrams Creek ranger station. What I remember was the freedom of the hike, and the experience of walking through the woods silently, taking in all that my senses could perceive.

When I returned to my apartment, I called a good friend to tell him all the exciting details of my adventure. “David, guess what I just did?” I asked excitedly.

“Umm, I don’t know. What did you do?” he responded, not willing to guess at what crazy answer I might give him.

“I went hiking by myself in the Smokies.” I told him. “It was great — I only saw a few other people on the trail, I pretty much had it all to myself!”

He didn’t share my enthusiasm. “You did what? Are you crazy? You could’ve hurt yourself and no one would’ve found you for hours.”

My enthusiasm wasn’t dashed. “I know it’s not the safest thing in the world, but I was careful. It was so peaceful; I can’t wait to go again.”

“You’re not going to do this again, are you?” he asked, knowing that I would.

“Of course I am. You can’t stop me.” He knew me well enough to know it was true.

“You should at least let someone know where you’ll be hiking so we can call the rangers if you don’t return.” We agreed to a truce: I would notify him or another friend of my intended route, departure time and expected return time. In exchange, he would cease trying to convince me not to hike alone.

I wouldn’t give up the treasure I had discovered. It was just what I needed. On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (a commonly used personality scale), I am an “I” — an Introvert. I’m not particularly shy, but I need to spend time alone to relax and to “recharge the batteries,” so I can better cope with the demands of life. The physical exertion of hiking was a great stress reliever, and the time alone gave me the opportunity to analyze and process all the activity in my life.

Hiking alone was a completely different experience compared to hiking with a friend or in a group. When I was with friends, we talked and laughed the whole time we hiked, notifying any wildlife near us of our presence. We stopped to rest when the slowest person needed a break.

As much as I liked those hikes, the conversations distracted me from using my senses to their full capacity. When I was alone, I noticed things like the damp smell of the earth, the fresh air of a mountain stream, the sweet scent of wildflowers. I saw more shades of green and brown than I thought possible. Colorful red-spotted salamanders, yellow caterpillars, all sorts of creatures seemed to spring out of the woods. The chirping of tree frogs, the drilling of a woodpecker in search of its next meal, the rustle of leaves as an unseen critter scurried away, the cry of the hawk and the melodies of songbirds all sounded more real.

Spending time alone in the woods gave me the opportunity to take in all these details. I could stop and observe the peaceful beauty surrounding me whenever I felt like it. I didn’t have to keep pace with anyone — I set the pace. This was freedom.

I pondered the greatness of Creation and often prayed as I explored the woods on my own. I thanked God for this awe-inspiring landscape and for giving me the ability to enjoy it. I praised Him for everything I had, and asked Him for guidance regarding the decisions I had to make. Sometimes I would chant the Jesus Prayer silently to myself as I hiked: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” a prayer that has its origin in Eastern Christian monasticism.

Prayer came to me naturally as I explored the woods on my own. An unexpected obstacle once prompted me to pray for the nerve to over come it. Near the end of a long hike, I encountered a snake stretched across the width of the trail. Only two species of venomous snakes live in the Smokies: rattlesnakes and copperheads. Both have distinctive markings making them easy to identify. This was a common asp, solid black — not poisonous — about an inch thick and thirty inches long. While I was relieved it was not a viper, any snakebite could be painful and easily become infected.

The snake had found the one narrow swatch of sun peeking through the canopy of poplars. Going off trail to avoid this snake could entail encountering poisonous snakes or other unseen risks, and I would rather deal with what I could see. So I waited, watching from a distance, hoping it would move on. No such luck. By then I was pretty nervous; I was only few miles from the trailhead. Backtracking and taking an alternate route would take hours, and it was already late afternoon.

From a safe distance, I tossed sticks and rocks toward the snake. My arm was shaking, and I couldn’t aim. None landed closer than a foot to the snake. Since it didn’t react, I assumed it must be asleep. Cautiously, I approached the snake, and when only a few feet from it, I leapt as far across the snake as possible. I almost tumbled to the ground, but quickly regained my balance. Looking back, I expected to see the snake slither toward me to attack, but it was still there, motionless, sunning itself. I relaxed for a moment and continued on my way, relieved.

Close encounters with snakes and potentially dangerous wildlife were the exception rather than the rule on my solo excursions. Physical challenges brought most of the drama into my hikes. My favorite route, a challenging eight mile loop, was no exception. The first of seven-and-a-half miles was on Cooper Road Trail, which was once the main road into Cades Cove for settlers and loggers. After crossing Abrams Creek on a footbridge, a log hewn flat on one side, the trail was easy to follow, and the elevation gain was gradual. The next 2.3 miles were anything but easy: Little Bottoms Trail gripped the edge of rugged Abrams Creek. The lack of significant elevation change was deceiving; if I wasn’t scrambling over large rocks and boulders, I was walking on a narrow path with a cliff above me on one side and the creek several feet below on the other. It’s not a hike for the faint of heart.

The biggest challenge of the loop was at its midpoint: crossing Abrams creek again — this time, a wet crossing of the rocky creek. The cold, clear water was well above my knees most of the time, waist deep after heavy rain. The rocks protruding from it were spread too far apart to rock-hop across the twenty-foot wide creek. Some people brought running shoes to change into for wet crossings. I kept my boots on — the rocks in the creek bed were covered with algae, and too slippery to navigate barefooted. The crossing was nerve-wracking, but exhilarating. The rest of the hike was relatively easy, slightly uphill on Hatcher Mountain Trail for two miles, then two and a half miles downhill on Rabbit Creek Tail to the trailhead.

I had hiked this loop several times when the local news carried the story of a death at the same crossing. Another woman hiking alone, an experienced hiker, had slipped, hit her head, and drowned. Even with the precautions that I took, the same thing could have easily happened to me. I never made that crossing alone again.

My adventures in the woods continued, but in the real world, I struggled. The novelty of living in the South had worn off, and I was deep in debt. Work was increasingly frustrating. The same situations that stressed me at my previous workplace bothered me now. Hoping to gain enough skills to land a job in the then-booming information technology field, I took classes at the local community college and sent out dozens of resumes to no avail. It was time to move on.

I emailed my former supervisor at the library where I had worked as a student. She surprised me by responding within minutes, telling me to fax my resume to her as soon as possible. They had a position that they were having difficulty filling, and she knew I could fill it. The job involved minimal supervisory duties, and the pay was much better than I was making in Tennessee. A few weeks later, I drove back to Ohio for an interview. The job was mine — I knew it almost as soon as the interview began.

The human resources director called me the next week and offered the position, and, after negotiating for higher wages, I accepted it. My last day of work was on a Friday. The next morning, I packed up the truck with the help of some friends, and headed north, through the now-familiar hills of Tennessee and Kentucky. We arrived at a friend’s apartment, my home for the next two months, in the early evening. Monday morning, I started my new job, still exhausted from the move.

Leaving the mountains of East Tennessee and the friends I had made there was bittersweet. I vowed to return regularly and dreamed of retiring there. But I also looked forward to being spending more time with my family in northeast Ohio and my friends in Columbus.

It’s been more than six* years since I moved back to central Ohio — six years since I last hiked alone in the Smokies. An occasional solo jaunt at Sharon Woods or Highbanks Metropark is nice, but it doesn’t have the same effect on me as the mountains of East Tennessee did.

* Originally written in 2006

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Despise Not Our Petitions

“Despise not our petitions, but in thy mercy, hear and answer them, amen.”

I sat on the edge of the bed praying the Memorare, asking the Blessed Virgin to intercede on my behalf, on behalf of my father.  I felt helpless. I could hear him sobbing between the words of indecipherable prayers down the hall through closed doors.  I had seen him in various states of confusion before but never as out of control as this day.

“Damnit!”  “You ruined my Christmas!”  “How could you be so stupid?”

Tears streamed down my father’s face as he yelled at me.  In his anger he pulled the hearing aids from his ears and threw them to the floor.  He begged me to let him use my car.  He begged me to take him to the church so he would not miss Midnight Mass.  He threatened to walk to the church.

Mom had to leave the house at five to unlock the church and to play the organ for the children’s mass at six on Christmas Eve.  The pastor would be saying mass at another church and wouldn’t be able to open this church in time.  She thought Dad understood that she would be playing for two masses; he would stay at home with me during the first one.  She would come home afterward and the rest of the family would join her for the Midnight Mass.

He tried to get dressed quickly so he could join her but I urged my mom to go ahead and leave without him.  She was already running late and in such a state of confusion Dad might be disruptive during mass.

I tried as best I could to explain to him that he wasn’t missing Midnight Mass.  He wouldn’t or couldn’t believe me.  I was a bad daughter who was mean to her father.  He had raised me better.

I was frightened but I remained calm as best I could.  I knew he wasn’t culpable for what he was saying.  I called my sister and asked her to come over as soon as possible.  She and her boyfriend made it as soon as they could but I was still alone with him for almost an hour, an hour that seemed  much longer.

When she arrived my dad was in the bedroom but he had been quiet for some time.  After a while he came out but didn’t make any mention of his earlier outburst though he still seemed very confused.

My sister started our Christmas Eve dinner and I tried to calm down.  I felt better with other people in the house.  Mom hurried home as soon as possible after mass.  Dad asked to talk to her in the bedroom.  He told her that he had said some bad things to me but did not elaborate.

I wonder if when he talked to my mom he remembered what originally made him upset.  His short term memory had deteriorated noticeably in recent months.   Alzheimer’s disease is brutal.  The patient suffers horribly but the loved ones suffer too.

This is one of the last memories I have of my father before he died.  Two weeks later he was hospitalized with the flu.  He passed away on January 16th, 2008.

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine;

et lux perpetua luceat ei.

Requiscat in pace.

My Dad

Dad pretending to sleep

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Art and Wanita

What’s left of Art’s silver gray hair is disheveled; he wears old gray dress pants, a flannel shirt and a cardigan sweater as he works outside trying unsuccessfully to fix the Christmas lights.   He skipped a button when putting on the cardigan; a loop of fabric sticks out near his waist.

Back inside, he heats some Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and carefully makes a sandwich.  This is his noontime ritual: he trims the lunchmeat so it fits on the bread and arranges the trimmed pieces on top of the larger piece of meat.  Later he will heat his tea and milk in the microwave and leave it there until he remembers it or, more likely, until it is cooled.  By the end of the day, he will reheat the milky concoction several times.  Slimy crumbs from his sandwich and cookies cling to the inside of the mug.  If you suggest he use a clean cup, he will protest.

He washes the dishes after lunch, a task he assumed years ago when Wanita returned to full time work.  Later she rewashes most of the dishes as he sits in front of the TV.  Grease and food still cling to the pots and pans.

The diagnosis came just a week earlier.  It was no surprise to his family; Alzheimer’s disease seemed like the only logical explanation for his odd behavior and deteriorating memory.

Later Art asks when he should take a shower; Wanita wants him to wait until after supper.  He asks the same question repeatedly until she finally tells him to take a shower.  By eight o’clock he is showered and dressed for Midnight Mass.  He tied his necktie wrong; the wide end is too short.  He tucked the skinny end into his shirt to hide it.  He is frustrated but he will not allow anyone to fix it.  He keeps his jacket buttoned to hide it.

While watching the evening news he works the word puzzles in the newspaper, handing them to Wanita when he is stuck.  They both enjoyed this activity before the Alzheimer’s; she would answer the questions in the crossword that he could not figure out.  Now it is frustrating for both of them; the answers he writes down are nonsense leaving her to rework the puzzles by herself or abandon them altogether.  She chooses the latter.

The family plays Chinese Checkers on Christmas day.  Art is confused about the rules and does not understand why he cannot move his marbles the way he wants to.  When his youngest daughter playfully chides her mother after making a good move, he accuses them of conspiring against him.  In spite of the Art’s confusion, the game is close.

Wanita will not be able to care for him at home indefinitely.  He will eventually forget everything he knows, even basic hygiene.  The disease interferes with the body’s vital functions – other heath problems are likely.

Wanita struggles to keep her own sanity while caring for her husband of forty-three years and keeping him safe.  The stress of living with a man whose memory is fading takes a toll on her.  Resilience is her best asset; cancer and other health problems only slowed her down temporarily.  However, nothing can prepare her for the challenge she now faces.

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I am an Ass

I am an ass. I am an ass. I am an ass.

There. Done. I feel better now. 🙂

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