Thursday, June 27, 2013

Of homecoming queens, boogers, and goodbyes said too soon

Laura Hardy, 1980 (thanks, Chris Chebuhar)
 When I was in high school, a pressing problem most days was deciding whether or not to match my knee socks to my blouse. (The rest of the ensemble was a uniform, so it was important to try to hang on to some shred of individualism, you see.) Try as I might, I never seemed to arrive at the look I wanted, and I marveled at the girls whose appearances seemed to have been achieved effortlessly.   

In our class of 507, a few girls did seem to have it all together all the time, pulling into the parking lot looking as if Cinderella's animated birds had carried their clothing to them that morning, trilling and leaving berries in their wake. Laura was one of those girls, completing whatever perfect ensemble she had chosen with blonde waves that Farrah Fawcett would have envied.

You know the type. She was a girl whom those of us less physically fortunate would have had countless reasons to envy. But she wasn’t a “mean girl” – although I didn’t know her nearly as well as others did, I knew it was impossible to feel anything negative about her because she was just so genuinely nice. I admired her, but if I had allowed myself to feel jealous, it just wouldn’t have seemed right.

Here's just one of the reasons I felt that way. This was the Laura I remember:

“Congratulations on making cheerleading, Laura!” I said one morning after results had been posted.

“Oh, thanks – I was really surprised!” she responded, wide-eyed and smiling. “I’m so happy that so many girls were able to make it, but it really makes me sad for the ones that didn’t. I’m going to talk to (so-and-so, the cheerleading moderator) to see if we can have a larger squad.” And she would, and lo and behold, a few other girls would have their days made … which of course made Laura even happier.

Or there was this. I won some minor writing contest once, and the school newspaper carried a little blurb. I had a class with Laura and she gave me a hug and congratulated me. I remember trying to downplay whatever award it was, as it really wasn’t a big deal; I think it may have involved a $25 prize.

Laura, whom everyone liked so much that she was voted homecoming queen, responded: “It IS a big deal. I’d give anything to have a talent like yours.”  And I remember thinking, “What?!” But her words stayed with me.  I guess they’re still with me.

Or this: I need to stress, again, how beautiful this girl was. But I walked into the girls’ restroom one day to see her peering into the mirror with her face smushed so close to it that she was leaving breath marks.  She turned and smiled apologetically.

“There’s a booger all the way up my nose, and when I breathe, I feel like it’s coming out,” she said.

The fact that Laura admitted to having boogers, in and of itself, made me like her even more.

I lost touch with Laura after high school, but as we grew older and settled in the same community, I’d run into her every now and again, usually at Target or the grocery store.  She still had that wide-eyed smile, and responded to everything I told her about my life or my kids as if those tidbits were the greatest pieces of information ever. And once, when I wrote a newspaper column that resonated with her, she took the time to send a personal, heartfelt note. 

Laura died this morning, and it feels almost disingenuous that I'm so broken-hearted at the news; so many of our classmates knew her far better than I did, sharing years upon years of experiences.  But I read not long ago that the people who impact our high-school selves are the ones whose imprints remain on us because they’re helping, during some emotionally driven years, to shape the people we ultimately become.

What a legacy it would be to have been poised enough as a teenager that to know that people never forget the way you make them feel. How fortunate I am that Laura left an imprint on me. I can only imagine that I am one of hundreds, thousands, whose days were made better because of her.   

Friday, June 14, 2013

He's never the squeaky wheel, but he deserves some grease. Happy Father's Day, Kevin.

Kevin and his kids, 2011
I didn't know my husband when he became a dad. But I'm grateful to watch him help raise his four kids and to benefit from the expertise he would never admit he possesses.

Kevin is a low-key individual; not only does he not toot his own horn, but he doesn't really share personal information in general. That's why I have to on his behalf; it's Father's Day weekend, and I'm obligated to give credit where credit is due.

And credit is certainly due.

When a couple divorces, it's hard to determine what a parent's "new" parental identity is going to be. The identity becomes a new one because a single parent functions differently from a married or partnered one; when you suddenly become both the mom and the dad in your home, you're forced to regroup.

As I came along after the transformation, I can't really speak to how it all worked out initially. But a few months into his new role, it was as if he was born to handle a houseful of kids on his own.

Even in those early days, Kevin had an almost uncanny ability to set aside his own hurt feelings and focus on his children. His degree of grace was one I certainly hadn't possessed in my own divorce, and I watched with a sense of wonder. Although he was sad, he drew strength from lasering in on his children and trying to ensure they were whole and happy.

Was the laundry always done? Not all of it, but the necessary clothing was clean and pressed, and the kids looked nice when they went out into the world.  Was the house clean, and was the refrigerator always stocked? No, but the necessities were taken care of.

To Kevin, household responsibilities were the incidental things. These things were not incidental: having time to play foursquare with his daughters, throw a ball with his younger son, or cuddle on the couch to watch movies with all of them.  And he didn't have to work at making time; he loved making time, and the laundry could pile up for days because he knew the other activities were the critical ones to the success of his family.

He was a fun dad, but not a Disneyland one; he policed the homework and never missed a conference; he modeled behaviors he knew the kids should emulate. He got up and went to work every morning, and he worked hard. He helped others whenever and wherever he was needed. He didn't gossip, and he didn't judge.

He stressed the old-fashioned but never-out-of-fashion things: respect. Family ties. Playing outdoors and eating balanced meals. He wasn't big on frills, but he turned mundane activities into memories.

As his kids grew, he remained consistent. Although it's never easy to incent teenagers to spend time with parents, he insisted on weekly trips to the miniature-golf course or bowling alley. Weekend activities he may have wanted to participate in took a back seat to watching TV while he waited for a daughter or son to call for a ride home, or as he chaperoned an impromptu party in the basement.

He never complained because he never minded. That holds true today; only one child is left at home, and that child's needs and activities come first.  Kevin's life is his kids, which is one of the many reasons I admire, love and respect him.

He often refers to himself as "boring," and when you're the boring parent, you don't get a lot of press. Accolades don't often come his way, but that's not what he's after.

His fulfillment comes in watching his older son travel the country as a filmmaker, earning money in a job he loves; it comes in watching his younger son excel on the ball field and in the classroom. It comes in the joy he feels when his younger daughter, who shares his knack for telling long and silly stories, shows up "just because," or when he gets to spend time with his older daughter and his granddaughter.

His fulfillment comes in the knowledge that consistently, he did the best he could. And to him, a private "I love you, Dad," is all the validation he needs of a job well done.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"S" is for significant. Her contributions certainly were. And she'd tell you yours could be, too.

I remember the instant I realized my friend Karen was a better person than I would ever be.

We were chatting on the phone about something -- I remember exactly what, and I'll get to that in a second -- and I asked her, offhandedly, what she was up to that day.  She responded, just as offhandedly, that she was shopping at Hy-Vee for a family she had met that morning.

She had visited them via an organization with which she was involved, one that welcomed refugee families to the community.  The family had young children, and Karen was concerned the kids didn't have enough to eat.  So, rather than leave the apartment with a breezy, "Let me know if you need anything," Karen knew they needed something, a lot of somethings, so she rolled up her sleeves and got started.

I started to tell her how incredible her act of generosity was, and she responded, "What kind of person would I be if I didn't get the kids some Cocoa Puffs?  Every kid in America should have Cocoa Puffs." I have a feeling she bought enough Cocoa Puffs that day that those kids still might be finding boxes of it in their pantry.

Karen and I met when she started attending Johnston School Board meetings. I was covering them for the Register, and she and I hit it off.  I loved her passion for the issues she believed in, and I loved her irreverent sense of humor. When she ran for school board and won, she was the director I knew could be counted on to give me a quote at midnight; she was up anyway.

Karen and I were usually on the same page, ideologically and politically, but in the time we were friends, we did disagree twice, and both times pained me. Once was about someone who was running for school board; I wasn't covering Johnston at the time, so I was involved with the election as a regular person, and I didn't like or trust one of the candidates. Karen, who saw the good in nearly everyone, told me I was being unfair, that I should give the person a chance. Karen gave everyone a chance.

The second issue was the one about which we were on the phone the day Karen had been shopping for the family at Hy-Vee. I was president of an organization at the high school that Karen felt was being exclusionary; although participation was open to all, she felt a fee for travel and costumes prohibited some students from becoming involved. I didn't quite see things her way at first, but of course she was right, and her pushing me to do the right thing resulted in the establishment of scholarships that remain in existence, as far as I know, today.

She was unfailingly tenacious; when she cared about someone or something, she simply didn't give up. When Karen was in her mid-40s, she turned that tenacity on herself. She'd gained a few pounds and was concerned about her health; she wanted to be around forever, she said, not only to raise her children, but to drive her grandchildren nuts. So she started running.

She was not a natural runner, so she started slowly, running from driveway to driveway in her cul-de-sac.  Months later -- I kid you not -- she was running marathons. I'd honk from my car as I'd see her lean, muscular form running all around Johnston. And she'd waive off the compliments I gave her about her newfound athleticism, too. "It's about time I got my fat ass off the couch," she'd say, although she was never fat. And I can't imagine she ever, ever sat on the couch.

I knew I'd never be like Karen, but I often thought, maybe she'll pass along some of that thing, that thing that made her who she was, via simple proximity. It didn't happen, but that didn't stop me from trying.

Five years ago, Karen died. She was 48. She hadn't been ill; she hadn't been hurt. On Easter Sunday, during a routine errand, she simply died.  And I know people say things like this all the time, in her case, it's true: When she died, part of a community died with her.

As is so often the case with exemplary people, part of her lives on, though -- in her sons, of course, one of whom looks exactly like his mother and possesses her uncanny perception and talent for empathy. But she also lives on in the community -- a community that, since her death, seems to have become more open to the fact that everyone who lives here isn't white and wealthy, that within the boundaries of Johnston exists a great deal of need.

That's why we're walking and running for Karen Coaldrake on Friday. Organizers of the annual 5K for Karen take each event's proceeds and divide them among the organizations Karen cared about so that even in death, she's still that tenacious spirit.

Join us, won't you? Believe me, if Karen were still here and the event were for someone else, she'd be bugging you to sign up. And she wouldn't stop until you did.

Friday, June 7, 2013

To a “broken family,” graduations represent more than just a diploma

Caroline and Scott with their dad, Ron Byrd, at Caroline's graduation party
When my first husband and I divorced, the stigma that fell upon our family that bothered me most was this one: that we were a “broken family,” and my kids were part of a “broken home.”

The term may be outdated, but it still was very much a part of the vernacular back in 1998. Nearly overnight, my kids had gone from being smart, high-functioning and whole to being “at risk.” (That wasn't an "official" label as much as one I knew would be placed on them by well-meaning teachers and administrators who, understandably, worried about the impact the divorce was having on the kids.) 

So my ex-husband and I set out to disprove the labelers.  And as the younger of our two children walked across the stage at the Knapp Center May 19 to receive her bachelor’s degree, a not-so-small part of me said, “Ha.”

The at-risk label isn’t without merit; when couples divorce, the sad reality is that children are often the pawns in stressful situations not of their making; arguing, legal wrangling and back-and-forth living arrangements become everyday parts of their lives. My kids were 9 and 6, and at times during the early part of the process, their dad and I fell victim to our anger and our own confusion, and the kids suffered emotionally.

One thing that never fell by the wayside, though, was our commitment to the kids’ academic performance. To his credit, their dad left the lion’s share of the management of that up to me; just as he taught them to bat and pitch, I taught them to read and write, and intellectual curiosity was alive and well in our little home.

In spite of the back-and-forth and the drama and the mom who cried a lot, we somehow managed to get the homework done. We read every night and talked about the world’s events; we watched the news and took our own field trips on weekends. Looking back, academics remained our haven in a swirl of change. Money was tight and stress was very much a part of our new lives, but we still had books, and we still had ideas.

We also were part of a school community that rallied around the kids to keep them anchored. When I received a cancer diagnosis months after the separation, the support was palpable; friends and neighbors joined our extended families in making sure the kids’ lives didn’t change any more than they already had. And school principals and counselors and a very special teacher named Mrs. Lynch kept my kids feeling and talking and processing.

Their dad and I never missed a conference. Even when we couldn’t say two civil words to one another, we somehow managed to sit in those little chairs and be part of our children’s academic worlds. We united in our commitment to not allow anyone – ourselves included – to use the divorce as an excuse to do less well. And as we became more functional as an ex-couple and added a supportive set of stepparents to the mix, our kids were able to relax, and things gradually fell into place.

Being part of a “broken home” made life more difficult for my children in countless ways; it’s hard to focus on multiplication tables when life as you knew it has disappeared, and you’re trying to figure out what you can and can’t hold onto. But if you make a decision to not allow a risk factor to define you, it doesn’t have to.

The practice of labeling is irritating to me in so many ways; I understand why such things as family upheaval need to be identified so children can receive the assistance they need, but at the same time, generalizations are disingenuous. Even when a family changes, elements that gave that family an identity in the first place don’t have to change. We were always an academically focused family, so when everything else blew up, that remained a constant.

My children are made of strong stuff, and they’re the ones who deserve the credit for maintaining the determination that resulted in academic achievement. But it took a village to get our kids through college, and not making it happen wasn’t ever an option. In a way, the degrees they earned represent our family’s collective assistance on fighting back. Bad things happen to all of us, but we can choose not to let them define us.