Thursday, March 27, 2014

The first call of a sweet season

We meandered our way over to Bishop Hill last Sunday after church in search of a sandwich and a quick cup of soup at my buddy the baker's place. While still quite a bit cooler than one would hope for on a late-March day, it was sunny, bright and beautiful outside. I found myself feeling a good bit better that morning, and it was just the kind of day made for a slow drive down a country road with something good to eat at the end of it. We got to the colony and pulled in just across from the old park, then sat for a minute to prepare ourselves for the plunge into the cold, windy day.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee."
"Did you hear that?" I asked.
"The birds," I said. “Listen.”
She paused. She listened.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee."
"I hear them," she smiled.
There are certain signs we all look for as spring takes its gentle hold and we anticipate the slow move into early summer and the warm, wonderful days that follow.  For some, it’s the sighting of the first robin, while others wait for tulips and daffodils to make their appearance. The sight of newborn calves in nearby fields is a true sign of what's coming next, as are the new bursts of tiny color along the sunwarmed beds by the foundation of my house. But for me, a first, most reliable harbinger of the sweet season will always be the same.
Peewees, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “any of eight species of birds of the genus Contopus named for its call, which is monotonously repeated from an open perch.”
Monotonous or not, my mother loved the sound they made as they joined into the celebratory songfest that returns to our neck of the woods each year.
“Listen, I hear a peewee,” she’d say.
“Pee-wee, pee-wee,” she’d call back in a high, clear voice that always made me imagine the girl she always seemed to be.
Sometimes, they would even seem to answer her, or, at least, that’s what she thought. And the back-and-forth cry would continue on and on into the day and the season.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee,"
I can hear them.
I can still hear her, as well.
Spring is on the wing.
It must be coming soon.

Two day later, I awoke to a fresh blanket of snow. The morning sun dazzled off the roof outside my bedroom as the winter wind rattled the windows.
That's the thing about spring in Illinois.
It comes when it wants to. And not a moment sooner.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ain't so bad

"How are you feeling?"
It's a question I hear fairly often nowadays, and I understand why.
After all, the potent chemotherapy I'm undergoing to fight the super-duper mystery-cancer that is rattling around in my body has got me looking both ghastly and ghostly, a fact that becomes more than clear to me every time I accidently glance into a mirror and see a pale, bald specter who looks--in my opinion--like the unfortunate love child of Tooter Turtle and that scary Lord Voldemort guy from the Harry Potter movies.  Now that I approach the six-months-of-chemotherapy mark, I realize that what they told me about it back in the beginning is probably true, as steadily and inexorably the cumulative effect of dumping powerful, cell-killing poisons into an already battling body takes its toll and leaves me feeling like I've either got a really nasty case of the flu or the kind of cataclysmic hangover that occurred the morning after the first time someone back in my college days convinced me that mixing grape juice and Everclear grain alcohol was a good, fun way to spend a Saturday night. I mean, here's what I can tell you about being sick from chemo.
It's unique.
There's nothing I can say to someone who hasn't experienced it to compare it to any other kind of sickness. Queasy. Nauseous. Achy. Weak. BLAH.
But here's something else I can tell you.
It ain't so bad, after all.
Back before I got into this pickle, if you had asked me what the worse thing would be about taking on cancer, I would have said chemotherapy. I would have said that the thing I feared more than anything else would be having to go through the whole bald/sick/pale/puny experience that is so often part of the medical treatment cancer patients face. Now, thanks to advances in medicine, many of the side effects have been greatly reduced, but frankly, it's still no trip to Disneyland.  But here's what I've got to say about that.
It's worth it.
"Chemo makes you sick, but cancer kills you," is the to-the-point comment I read in one online forum dedicated to the pros and cons of cancer treatment. And, hey, if there's one thing I've learned during this whole life-threatening experience, it's that life is entirely worth living.
It's worth it every time I talk to my sons and share a story, a joke or learn the latest about their jobs and families. It's worthwhile whenever I hear the newest adventures of my older grandchildren, or see the smiling faces of my youngest ones at breakfast or when they come home from their happy, rewarding days at Visitation School.  And it's especially fulfilling whenever she and I laugh and dream and remember and plan for a future we are absolutely determined to spend together.
Meanwhile, I'm feeling kind of yucky today. And I guess there's a pretty good chance I will feel that way again tomorrow, though I think I'm starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
But it ain't so bad.
Ain't so bad, after all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Giving it up for all the right reasons

"I think I'll give up the X-Box."
For those of you lucky enough to not know, "X-Box" refers to an electronic game system my grandsons possess and squabble over whenever they play with it. For eight-year-old  Cyrus to offer to forego gaming for the season of Lent seemed tantamount to sacrificing life-giving essentials like air, water and peanut butter. This special spring season and the sacrifice it commemorates have already been steady topics around our mealtime table and, I suspect, the happy-blessed little Catholic school both Cyrus and young John Patrick have attended since their arrival in the Land of Lincoln.  And while it's obvious that none of us can come near to matching the kind of supreme sacrifice offered by the Son of God, it doesn't do any of us a bit of harm to give it our best shot. For my spouse, that has meant--for the past million years or so--giving up every single snack food beginning with the letter 'c,' including cookies, chocolate, cake, crackers and chips.
I, on the other hand, have made a major sacrifice by eliminating both beets and turnips from my diet.
Well, actually, I'm gonna try to do my usual no-chocolate thing.  But after losing over 40 pounds due to the effect of both super-mystery cancer and the chemotherapy thingee that has followed, I am commanded to eat whatever sounds even remotely good by both my concerned spouse and the pesky nutritionist assigned to pack a few pounds on me.  This, of course, is not the worse thing that could happen, especially when there is still chocolate chip ice cream in the world.
But really, why do so many folks take the trouble to give things up this time of year?
According to one source that I found both interesting and convincing, Lent has its origin in the early days of the Church. Converts seeking to become Christian spent several years in study and preparation. Because of the threat of Roman persecution, becoming a Christian was serious business, so the process of preparation was intensive and included a final period of “purification and enlightenment” for the 40 days before baptism at Easter. The rest of the Church began to observe the season of Lent in solidarity with these newest Christians, and eventually it became an opportunity for all Christians to recall and renew the commitment of their baptism.
Giving up something for Lent is really just a form of fasting. We can deprive ourselves of some small pleasure or indulgence and offer that sacrifice up to God. Or we might “give up” a bad habit such as smoking or overeating as a way of positively turning our life back towards what God wants for us.
So maybe your mom was on to something when she had you give up Oreos or your favorite TV show as a child. Even an itty-bitty experience of want, however temporary, can help us to appreciate just how much stuff we really have in our lives. And a small positive change can have a big impact that lasts way beyond the 40 days of Lent.
And hey, just in case it seems like it's all too much, remember Cyrus, who had a solution well at hand when the grandma-lady and I asked him if 40 days without X-Box might be a little more sacrifice than he could manage.
"I've always got the Wii!" he said with a grin.
Kinda sounds like turnips and beets.

Friday, March 7, 2014

My wife, the teenager

There's something strange going on around here.
No, the cat didn't run away to join the circus. My grandsons have not suddenly chosen to like broccoli more than brownies. Nor has my wife decided it's time I had a car of my own.
No, the thing that has transpired in our happy home is much more weird and unexpected than any of the aforementioned list of possibilities.
She got a smartphone.
An iPhone, to be exact.
Her "old" phone died quickly and completely, leaving her feeling a little panicky and cut off from the rest of the world. Fear not, though, as I was able to pledge my continued loyalty to our cell phone company in order to procure her a new communications devise that is smarter than ever.
Now, all she's got to do is learn how to use it.
I confess, I was a little concerned when she chose a phone with enough brain-power to send men to the moon and beyond. Her prior track record in terms of learning her way through the ins and outs of cell phone technology has been less than sterling. But surprisingly, she who could not be convinced to learn and remember how to actually turn her former phone on and off, has begun to talk about things like apps and other features far, far above my pay grade.  As far as I can tell so far, the darn thing can search the internet, find directions from point "a" to point "b", forecast the weather, receive and send emails, send and receive many, many text messages, take pictures and shoot videos. There's even a rumor going around that her new phone can also make and receive calls, but this is yet to be confirmed.
But thanks to this sudden advance in technology, it's a sure thing that both she and her phone are now definitely smarter than me and the vintage flip-phone I insist on carrying. And while that's actually no big hairy deal to me, it has been interesting to see how quickly she has adapted to life as a quasi-teenager, connected full-time to both the world wide web and her bevy of gal pals. As far as I can tell, the biggest difference between her mid-life posse and the teenage set she used to hang with is the type of topic they talk about. Instead of football players, algebra tests and shoes, they now text mostly about something that's far more important and influential in  their lives and the lives of others.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Out of the darkness

It can't last forever, you know.
The endless winter we've experienced this year only seems eternal.
I think.
I hope.
Because, now it's March.
Inexorably, the world swings towards a new kind of tilt. Deep within the earth, something happens.
Something special.
Something magic.
Shoots of light, dainty green uncurl and unfurl, appearing like tiny dots of hope through crusted snow and the sodden leaves and cold rains of last autumn. Soft, fuzzy buds appear on skinny tree-limb branches, faintly quivering in sweet southern breezes that have gently begun to flow through the yard and across my cheek.
I can feel the welcome warmth on my back as I stand and sway and breath deep in the late afternoon sunlight. I hear the steady drip from the eaves; the crack and tumble of new-fallen ice-broke branches and boughs, and the sudden silence that follows.
I can feel it. I can hear it.
It's coming now.
The squirrels are cocky again, replacing their sad January gazes with demanding chirr and chatter.
"Give with the corn, old man. We know you're in there."
The newly arrived robins flutter through a whirling love dance, while winter-long cardinals duck and smile, and gangs of sparrows crowd their advantage as snowpack melts to reveal new bounty.
I swear I can hear geese flying over my house late at night.
Sleds, boots and mittens will soon be entirely replaced by soccer balls, sneakers and baseball fever, as my grandsons fill our home and lives with their busy days and nights. I doze and dream of tents and other outdoor trappings. Of road maps and roadtrips and backroads and bonfires after dark.
We plan. We pause. We smile. We simply imagine.
Dawn grows brighter, day after day, while the orange-gold glow of long afternoons begins to change the rhythm and spin of our fine lives.
And we like it.
We like the first glimpses of new life and springtime hope.
We like the change in light, in color, and in temperature, as those first balmy breezes battle against the last cold blasts of stubborn wintertime.
We view the oh-so-subtle changes in the rolling fields around us.
We gently ooh and aah as blooms begin to sprout; as the tulips begin to awake from a long winter's sleep and bluebells, violets and scilla spatter yards and garden plots with bright bits of happy color.
We listen and ask questions of our farmer friends as they prepare for another year spent feeding the world.
We watch the children in the park as they shout and run and play and play some more in a warm new world of fun and sunshine.
We even like the work we do, as we rake and pile and haul and burn last year's leftovers, making way for the bright new days to come.
There are no guarantees, we know, as an early spring can disappear quickly when winter decides it's not quite done with us.
But we know, in the end, it's gotta come.
Gotta come soon.
Because out of the darkness of winter comes the great light of springtime. And in that light comes wondrous hope and the onrushing joy of a sweet new season.