It’s Christmas Eve, After All

It’s Christmas Eve. 5:24, to be exact. I am sitting on my little red chair beside the organ at Zion Lutheran Church. A break in the service as a sermon is about to begin.

No worries. I have two more services tonight to catch up with the Pastor’s message. Already, I have almost missed the third verse of our Hymn of the Day. This is my first service back after a week of miserable covid isolation and stress. To have been nearly absent-minded over a few lyrics is, I feel, a passable offense … considering.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

The church is full. For once this year, our pews are relatively packed. Normally on a Saturday service, Santa and his reindeer could comfortably slide to rest in between any two people. Families I’ve never seen are happily filling in the spaces between beautiful stained glass windows. I cannot see empty diagonal lines from front to back.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

I don’t know what our Pastor is talking about right now. If his message has anything to do with the gospel lesson, John is involved. There’s an ocean of red pedals in my line of sight, but no magnificent colors being painted by the sun through those wonderful stained glass windows. They are dark. The sun sets early these days.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

Bitter cold embraces everyone’s outside breath. A cold spell came through yesterday which I thought would have dampened attendance this evening. The once-a-year faithful still crunched their way in, however, to see the decorated altar … and, possibly, to be seen by their peers. I recognize so very few from my perch up front. This is not to cast judgement upon anyone. Perhaps if I wasn’t providing a needed musical service, I would be the same on a very cold, bitter Saturday evening … 5 hours before this most celebrated Christian holiday of the year.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

Of all the candles lit, only one solitary taper can be seen from my corner settlement. It’s a view so familiar to many a generation of organists who have graced this ornamented chair upon which I sit.

The Pastor’s message is leaning into a lonely shepherd. I am listening now – the second service of three this evening. I see one candle, yet there are many I know on the altar I cannot see, but are there. I see less friends here than before, but I know other friends are, possibly, holding their candles brightly at other places of worship. They are being shepherded in different ways.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

It’s not just this moment. Many times I’ve heard, “… the presents are wrapped and trees are glistening with bulbs and tapestries of all shapes and colors.” Joy and merriment, as expected, has been seen in the eyes of children. Adults have been about meeting at coffee shops and restaurants – exchanging holiday smiles and hugs – discussing family plans and holiday hams. Packages have arrived from around the globe. Air tubes carrying passengers have flown millions of miles to destinations where anxious travelers finally embrace loved ones in crowded airports.

It’s almost Christmas, after all.

… and does any of this really matter?

I have no presents wrapped. No trees are decorated. Very few, if any, relatives are around anymore. The few I have here – daily – struggle with life in their own way. Distances, not measured by miles, separate us. Life is, well, life.

… and does this matter? YES! It’s almost Christmas, after all, and to what extent this holiday presents itself to any of us … it STILL matters.

It’s a reason to recognize what we DO have. Maybe not necessarily what we want or need, but simply what we have. Seems simple enough.

Strip away all the glitter and wrapping of the season. And yes, I dare say the “Reason for the Season”, platitudes so evident all over digital media these days. All the sappy gospel songs need to be shelved for a small period of time to sit and think. Reflect. Admire all we have. If it’s only a breath to get from one moment to another – that’s a thing.

Life seems more real this way … at least for now: an almost Christmas, 2022.

I have a third service to play. Tomorrow is, yes, Christmas. I will go out to eat with some friends and family. That’ll be a thing to celebrate.

There are always nuggets like these to have in our pockets. Memories to gather. Experiences to share with friends and family. Wrapping paper fades and trees are stored 11 months out of the year. “Wham!” will, of course, continue to torture us with, “Last Christmas”, until our collective ears bleed … this is unavoidable. What shouldn’t be missed are all the little, fun, memorable times we can tuck away to remember all year ’round.

So, tonight IS a time to remember, reflect, and recall all the special moments we have in our lives.

It’s almost Christmas, after all. Let’s unwrap tomorrow with all it’s present magic.

For now, Pastor Dave just started his third version of that same sermon. I am here, again, for one last time. Ornaments, the Christmas tree, … I’m finally listening to the whole message. The ugly tree ornaments. The shepherds, marginalized, were like those ugly ornaments hidden on the back of the Christmas tree. The gospel writer Luke, however, writes positively about shepherds. They are lifted up. Hope among the lowly, as it were. This is the message for this Christmas eve.

Thank you for being here. Today and tomorrow matter. Always. Christmas or not, days are special, after all.

Because every moment matters, look for the unseen candles in your life.

…and Merry Christmas, anyway.

Franco, Mom, and Me

When the news came, I was shocked – just as you most likely were. He was a legend in Western Pennsylvania. Still is. His unexpected death has not changed anyone’s opinion of this man’s accomplishments on, and off, fields of play and business. He is Franco … the only black and gold #32 most of us ever knew. The one we will never carve out of our childhood memories, or forget meeting during a chance encounter.

I never met him. Since his passing, though, I have become aware some of my friends met him in the past. Pictures of happy embraces grace my feed. In some instances, proud autographs are displayed. Just through those secondary seconds in time, I can imagine wonderful conversations. He must have been a gentleman.

There may be no other way for me to hug the moment – that is, to eulogize a man I only knew through little pieces of 2-dimensional cardboard – than to say: He must have been a gentle man.

This. From a musician far removed from any gridiron grit … who spent his time watching the sport mainly through colorful picture cards with posing players who never opposed anyone while in their inanimate state. This was my Franco, Terry, Lynn, and Rocky experience. Nolan, Roberto, and Mr. Yount became frequent visitors to my afternoon bungalows as time whisked away in imaginary playfields with my sister … and possibly a few friends who happened to stop by.

The real magic happened if a sickness (especially on a school day) happened to march into my sinus dugout. Up to bat came Mom to pinch hit with fresh wax packs of marvelous cards to open. Yah, know – to assist me in the “healing process” … I’m not sure if this was ever Dr. approved, but Mom always knew how to lift my spirits. Of course she did. Mom’s know. She was a gentle lady.

Yes, she was.

This Christmas will be the 10th without her. This is a hard holiday. Hard – not because she’s not in the kitchen baking cookies, or we’re not playing piano duets. Hard – not because the pinochle deck isn’t spread out all over the table beside a few unfinished puzzles of hers. Hard – not because we can’t talk and be goofy together.

Hard because of that gentleman, Franco Harris. Hard because I can’t ever give Mom anything back in return for what she gave me: love, respect, kindness, compassion, caring, and humor.

You see, the card above is the very last present I opened from Mom. It was randomly inserted in a pack of cards she bought, unopened, from a local hobby shop. She knew I love sports cards. Of course, she knew.

She was so sick. With only a few months to live, this was her gift. This pack – containing no guarantee of anything – was purchased and wrapped. Weeks later, opened by a very grateful son.

Decades earlier, I was sick. Fast forward. There I was feeling equally grateful to receive a pack of cards from my Mom – now, she was sick. Difference being, I would get better in a few days.

She died a few months later.

I’ve looked at this card every Christmas. The weird thing about all this is the serial number:

“It’s a Christmas miracle, Mom”, I whisper to myself every time this card appears before my teared up eyes. #12/25 could not have happened without the love and respect Mom and I had for each other throughout our lives.

Things like that happen because they have to. The piano connection was, almost, too easy. She needed a more clever way to stay in touch with me.

Yesterday was a Franco, Mom, and me day for sure.

Sunday will be a day to remember Mom, again, as her Christmas absence will be felt. That 2011 Certified Fabric of the Game relic card sits in a special place to be pulled out and cherished for a few minutes as usual. This year, I will pause an extra minute or so to honor Franco Harris as well.

He is the man I never met, but feel I’ve known my whole life. Through it all … he’s been with me in 2-dimensional form, however, has made a 3-dimensional difference in my life thanks to Mom.

She is hard to miss now, but was easy to love.

Merry Christmas, once again, Mom. Franco sends his best your way.

31 Flags

I don’t know most of their stories. Every day, for a few minutes, I stood on warm concrete slabs as individual flags folded into summer breezes. Quiet imaginations filled my head while honoring local heroes. They made an impression on a digital camera phone and a daily memory for me.

Their names etched in black on a pole placard… and each individual story supported by a family member who reached out to the Rotary Club.

For one of the thirty-one days, each hero earned a place of recognition on my Facebook page. It was, truly, my honor to do so.

As a tribute to those who served and are currently active, here are the thirty-one who gave me pause:

Alex H. Drummond – Air Force, John Paul Dibert – US Army, Robert S. Cramer – Sergeant First Class US Army Reserve 1957-1995 , Richard Gildea US Navy Radarman 2/C WW2, Adolph Goldstein – US Army WW2, Samuel Calvin McLanahan – US Navy 1863-1869, Robert D. Williams – Trooper PA State Police, Andrew C. Williams RN, BSN Clinical Supervisor Cardiology Services, Valentine Ranck – Lancaster Militia Revolutionary War, Colonel Terry Wagner – US Army, Gerald Grubb US Army Air Corp KIA 3/30/43, Cloyd P. Grubb US Army Infantry Purple Heart Recipient, Dennis E. McCready – US Army Korea, JW Straesser – US Army Air Corp WW2.

Colonel Paul Roscher – Decorated Pilot POW WW2, Louis J. Lusk USAF “Halo” Senior Master Sergeant Special Warfare, Thomas Tidd – US Navy WW2 Pacific Theatre, Colonel Craig L. Carlson – US Army, Dr. Bridget O. Corey – Blair Foot & Ankle podiatric medicine, Mike J. Corey US Army , Elle W. McConnell – Nurse Practitioner Blair Foot & Ankle, Carl C. Werner – Staff Sergeant E-6, Allegheny Lutheran Social Services Healthcare, Residents of the Lutheran Home of Hollidaysburg who served our Nation, William R. Collins Jr. – US Army, Gary A. Davis – US Marine Corps, Richard Burnett – US Army, John S. Sigrist – US Army Reserve, Tony Drummond – US Army Healthcare worker, Desmond T. Lutz – Air Force Staff Sergeant, and Edward Kopanski – Vietnam veteran.

Quite the list. Revolutionary War through present day. I knew Colonel Wagner and am personally familiar with a few others; however, I am still fascinated by the stories those flags told.

They are no longer there.

Gone are the early morning stops for me. I miss the moments. So much so that a late night pull over this evening – after a tiring food truck event – was necessary. I needed time. Time to pull life over from its busy lane just enough to remember other folks who do much more – give so much more – to allow all of us a life of work and leisure.

At the very end of an invisible 31st flag, the permanent digital display gave me this:

Another flag. Yes, it is always in the rotation between, now, 80+ degree temperature readings and the time. This was no miracle sent from the heavens. For me, simply a final image to capture, to bookend if you will, a marvelous experience.

My story is simple. Five minutes every morning, I was fortunate enough to stand in front of an American flag while honoring an individual who deserved my time.

On July 13th, thirty-one invisible flags – for thirty-one seconds during a quiet, dark evening – were settled into their repose until next year. I stood there, peacefully.

I figure a second for each one of their stories is worth a lifetime for us.

The Fabric of Life

A dusting of snow. On the other side of those beautiful blue stained glass windows lies white late-March flakes. It was a cold, short trip to church this morning. Dad and I made the second of three car rides an hour ago. Last night, during Saturday service, we had an inkling today was bringing the snow-stuff. Next service at 10:45? More of the same.

Dad will, dutifully, attend. I must, as the organist on staff, sit on the keyboard benches as well. “Must” is too harsh. I so thoroughly enjoy my keyboard acts of paid generosity at Zion Lutheran. This time is a fold-into world where I can live without judgement of myself and share a talent with others. Prelude, hymns, liturgy, preludes, kyrie, and sanctus … all are part of sharing a belief so important to the faith life in the hearts of members.

We arrived early – as is custom. Nobody other than the Pastor and us grace this space prior to ten minutes ’til. The air was, predictably, still. Silence prevailed save a few rustling papers at the end of Pastor Dave’s fingers in the pulpit as he organized his thoughts. I organized the organ while whispering among the wisp of music sitting on the rack. All is prepared worship.

After all was done, dad found his way forward to the front pew. Something unique caught my morning, still awakening, eyes. Unknowingly, he and I nicely connected our attired tastes. Matching black dress pants and decorative gray blazers adorned our generationally partitioned selves.

We chuckled. It was nice to laugh with dad. A connection that held together the fabric that is a relationship between a son and father was wonderful to experience. Additionally, he agreed to a picture. Special.

We separated soon after the picture was taken.

A few dozen parishoners came in, the silence was broken with shuffling bulletin bending, and service life began. Dad didn’t light the alter candles as I began the prelude. Another held that responsibility tightly and tapered it nicely into her life. He didn’t seen to mind as the last pew accepted him into his normal, comfortable spot.

I will remember the photo for a while. These are moments a father and son don’t get too often. He agreed, which is, normally, outside his capacity of comfort. When I said, “Check it out, dad. We’re looking good together. Black and gray … both of us!”. He happily replied, “Yeah, this is interesting”.

“I want to take a picture, what do you think?”


In the effort to take the picture, he was careful to help me get it right. Now, taking a “selfie” one-handed to make sure the pants AND blazers appear is a pretty difficult task. Dad and I laughed our way through the process.

We finally decided, “What they see is what they get…”.

… and I wholeheartily agreed.

What I got was a wonderful few moments with my dad. We may not be alike in a lot of ways, but in the overall fabric of our lives together now, we are alike. We share humor when we can, frustrations when available, friends and family when they are around. As of this post, ninety-five Facebook friends have responded in love and friendship to the above picture.

There may not be too many snowy days ahead for us … or, we could have a decade plus. Who knows? For today, a day to celebrate what would have been a birthday of a special person in our life together, I will take a few minutes with dad.

Family truly is the fabric of life.

Flowers That Remember

I walked into our local florist today. Exactly ten years after one sad day, a month and five days since my last post, and ten minutes after sitting alone in a restaurant eating breakfast … I entered into an array of color. Expecting to buy a small spray of forget-me-nots, they had none. My vase of expectation remained empty as I left, but hope is never defeated.

It will take a few hours to re-visit the small blue flowers because I must attend to my business. It is a difficult day. Ten years ago, mom died from cancer. She is one of two small – never to be forgotten – flowers I expected to have close to me now. The other? A recognition of the shrinking brain known as dementia. Forget-me-nots are the symbol of this slow moving disease that slowly peels away reason and sense from those we love.

Within the beautiful arrangement that is my life now, I have a recognition of a life gone from cancer and a life present with dementia. Two wonderful flowers in a vase on my mantle today.

There’s no denying a reality. What is … is. Conversations repeated, forgotten sentences, anger over recognized loss – yet a small understanding, still, of a diagnosis in the early stage … all of this in a bouquet known as dementia. A reality so many experience daily. I am understanding this path with every inhaled scent and sensibility I can gather as two of us walk together. We are pals. We are stemmed together, yet trying to maintain our independence at the same time.

It is difficult. Especially today, it is hard.

Does he remember that day ten years ago? Is it meaningful? Is a forget-her-not in there somewhere? I believe it is … and he should water that memory as best he can.

I have my sad – and wonderful memories – of that day. I always say, “When mom died, it was the best day of my life. I started a new journey, … a new me. She was exceptional. A fantastic mom. That said, I had to grow up. My biggest supporter (and crutch) was gone.” I began anew. The past ten years would not have been what they were had mom not died.

Do I miss her? ABSOLUTELY!! Do I miss the “old” me? No.

So, here life is. Two forget-me-nots – not in a physical vase yet. No picture to show here … just words. Words one will never hear again and another may hear, but not fully understand.

I am ok with both.

I’m not ok having over a month go by without writing a blog entry, however. It is life, though, and quite acceptable when gaps in a shrinking brain require my attention.

Dementia sucks. Cancer sucks. That said, I do intend on keeping hope alive later today. Forget me not as I press on toward finding small blue flowers of hope.

Flowers that Speak

It’s two days before Christmas, yet months removed from Halloween – the favorite holiday of one whose life was taken from us three months ago. A body failed her, but energy, strength, and courage did not. She endured. All the while, she fought through until the forces of “too much” overtook a seemingly impenetrable will. She left us holding her energy. It did not die.

This is Greta. A life force continuing on to this day … two days before Christmas.

… It is day when I have the chance to relax a bit and think through the past 90 days. Ninety days since a final exhale. It was the end of a spectacular life full of, yes, challenges … but exhaustive with extraordinary musical and artistic talent. She had those gifts to share. In the time given, I am glad to have accompanied her along the journey.

After all, it is the time to celebrate gifts.

Christmas poinsettias are strewn about in almost every church. Floral wreaths hang outside on doors brightly lit with festive greens and reds. I hear carolers gifting their music inside local restaurants while patrons drink seasonal, hot beverages through familial conversation. Neighborhoods are bustling with holiday lawn deer and crisp, winter grass reflects yesterday’s winter solstice.

All of this happening outside the very home in which I sit. There will be no tree or presents this year. By choice, the two occupants who reside here – myself among them – have decided to rest. We are a simple holiday event by ourselves. A father and son.

Over to my right are Greta’s flowers from Sunday, October 31st … Halloween. They are resting comfortably on four multi-level round stands. Noonday brilliance always comes in the sun porch windows to glance over the once colorful bouquets. At the insistence of the energy present, we can’t find our way, yet, to discard the stems and memories attached. We see the faded colors and cloudy water. These flowers were for Greta. Three months past her passing and two months since they were placed in her memory, they are hers … still.

It is her gift that keeps on giving. To the two occupants here, a daily chance to remember someone who made a huge difference. Those life-changing moments with her will accompany my experiences going forward … as these flowers eventually fade into a memory. For now, however, my personal season of loss and grieving is holding hands with a season of celebrating. Daily, I look upon four vases holding imperfect, flawed, aging … yes, dead flowers.

This is real energy. Real life. Real, deeply-felt pain with hope attached is the swirl of the grief season. Lifeless flowers speaking words in silence. They gift words to me.

Words from music rehearsals, lunches, and late-night discussions about the stars. Words about food choices, attire wear-abouts, and popular music. IQ arguments, career choices, and Hot Dawg toppings weren’t too far off topic if she wanted to discuss them. Talk show hosts, and certainly game shows, were at the top of the list.

I don’t think we pick what speaks to us after someone passes through our hands to the infinite universe. Stardust has its own plan once that happens. My crystal ball would not have said, “Greta’s flowers on the screened in back porch”, if I had one and pleaded with it soon after her death. Energy finds a way through.

I suppose we can find meaning in anything, if I was to stand on a sceptical soapbox here. Honestly, Greta loved daisies, anyway. I think any memory of her, by any means, is spectacular. On that I stand. Her gift to me was a different way of thinking. An openness to newness, as I like to say.

In light of her and the season, she will never be “too much” or not enough. I will always want one more moment that shall never be. Her colors will never fade and the water in which her spirit rests is eternally clear. For now, frail flowers continue to gift quiet words to me. At the time when these are to be discarded, Greta will give me rest in my words … and peace beyond the holiday.

Until then, I will sit here. Quiet words bounce across from my right. Strange? Perhaps.. No more odd than two occupants with nothing to do during a simple holiday. A father and son.

We miss her. Dad in his way. I look over to my right to miss her my way. Two days before Christmas. What a wonderful gift to remember and open every day.

Thank you, Greta.

Universal Elegance

Her words are soft and metronomically soothing. I found them only a few months ago while rhythmically scrolling through many pleasant social media symphony scores. An orchestra of players, not unlike myself, tune in frequently to hear her directions from the positive podium on which she stands. She wields a gentile three-minute baton held between words carefully chosen for us. Many watch … anticipating a helpful, calming, pre-dawn urge to help us move forward.

Among them, I sit. A player in this openly orchestral life full of challenges, I now exist. Embedded with an out-of-tune mental attitude at times and distracted by standmates who, possibly, are tired and strung-out as well, I sit every day waiting for her words. Mezzo-pianistic phraseology I so appreciate … facilitating body, mind, and spirit healing.

Enter stage left Maestro Michelle Walker, a conductor of energy. She represents what is right in the world by helping us center ourselves when all curtains want to fall awkwardly and untimely on our well practiced, planned performances. We thought we had the lighting correct. Maybe this day, shadows of doubt and unease hover about? Our experiences and training ushered us into the very seat in which we nudgefully nestle, but life had other plans. Alas, the moment, right?

… I sit. Another opus begins. I, along with my unknown instru-mentalists, wait for the downbeat – a hearty, intuitive “Good Morning, everyone!”. It begins. Waves of words waft across an invisible space between my phone and ears. Music for my soul. I know the enjoyment must be shared as well among my peers. For I am aware of energy when it occurs …

…and there’s nothing I know other than what I do know. Most of the gray globule matter floating around inside my skull contains energy committed to the connection between music dots on the staff and piano keys. I do, however, venture into the fascinating world of quantum mechanics at times. General relativity finds a black hole for my interest as well. Currently, I am reading, “The Elegant Universe” -authored by Brian Greene – which puts me smack in the company of quarks, electrons, atoms, string theory, and a quest for the Ultimate Theory. Einstein has a presence throughout, as does a continual nagging at my lesser intelligent conscious state of being. (Geesh, there are some really bright folk out there.)

Why am I on a quest to learn about the “Theory of Everything?”. I feel empowered to do so.

The “Theory of Everything” is an attempt to bridge the gap between the hugeness of space and the teeniness of the microworld. As Einstein would understand it to be (as mentioned in the Preface of Brian’s book): “a theory capable of describing nature’s forces within a single, all-encompassing, coherent framework.

So many scientists, et al, are on this path. They are edging closer to finding an answer. I will join them, marginally of course. Not wanting to give up pizza eating time, or moments watching football, will trump any dig-deep time-space continuum, gravity-bending, search throughs. Beethoven and Chopin require energy of mine before snarky quarks and pesky protons.

This is why Michelle is important. She takes the infinitely confusing space in our lives and says, “Hey, you are running around a lot these days, focusing on all those large life issues. Maybe stop and look at some smaller, wholesome, really good things going on today. Energy is good. Breathe. Take in your problems, perhaps, but don’t let them weigh you down…”

There is balance in the universe. An elegant lesson is to understand every problem can be broken down and pass through us like a little neutrino if we look at it that way. Is it easy to do? Absolutely not!

The balance is in how we think about it, not in how it actually comes to pass. This is the beauty of her words. They are words. Controlled, energetic words meant to inspire thought and action going forward – empowering us to move, to engage the energy if we so choose.

It truly IS an elegant universe; not only beyond the stars, but also inside ourselves. We have a fascinating body, mind, and spirit that has a limited time here – on a home planet that will spin us off into unknown space and eternal time once the final dispatch is sent for us.

Until then, we must do the best we can. Sitting where we are on this stage while reading what we must, loving those who we fold into our lives, eyeing up that which is pleasing and accepting our losses along the way, we look for guidance. In this ever-altering world of out-of-tune players, few stand out ahead to guide us with truth, peaceful energy, and three minutes of day-starting inspiration.

Brian Greene and Einstein may have a head start on string theory and an answer to what is at the core of “everything”, but I doubt they know how valuable Michelle Walker is to the Universe. Well, at least to the universe as I know it to be – a wonderful stage full of performers struggling with life’s problems, but still holding on to their inspired instruments and dreams.

A place where those few words tapping lightly on the conductor’s stand, to start a day’s symphony of beautiful music, mean the world to all listening.

Piecing Life Together

Thirty-two pasted up on seven walls. Vertical paneled partitions holding up thousands of glued pieces – each a part of individual displays. Pictures attached not only to wood paneling, but also to memories a mother left for her family.

She enjoyed this hobby. “Puzzle assembly”, simply stated. Somewhat simply understood from my viewpoint; however, I couldn’t put together hours with the shifting around of little pieces of cardboard – while figuring out which nub goes into which notch. If involved, once the straight-edge borders and four corners were set, I could very easy call the puzzle, “done”, and walk away.

Anyone who is an enigmatologist – as you may be – is certainly welcome to engage in puzzling. My mom did. Crosswords, word games, Trivial Pursuit, Pinochle, Games Magazines, etc … all of those (+) were, … err, fair game in her world. I could join in with her – except these oodles of pieces, boxed-up picture puzzle games aren’t my thing at all. And, yes, picture puzzles are games. Dump, sort, and sit for hours games.

I didn’t care for the huge, hand-sized, biggie, six-piece alphabet puzzles in first grade. The plastic, round, straight, or oblong “learn your shapes” jam into holes matching games didn’t impress me, either. Anything early in my life that suggested, “fit this into that”, I kinda told to hit the road.

So, Thirty-two puzzles. There were more, but they fell off. Mom’s interest never fell off, however. I can see her sitting in her dining room chair, hours at a time, during times when her mind needed to focus on a thousand little things other than one, or two, bigger problems. Diversionary, of sorts. Those thousand little pieces – working toward one large picture – was better than starting with the one large problem then breaking it down into smaller pieces. Her process, I guess.

It worked for her. During a five year cancer journey, this worked. She never complained that I saw. Privately, probably. Tears never flowed that I saw. Privately? Again, probably. These puzzles represent her life before, and during, cancer. Of all, the Mozart one is my favorite. Most are Charles Wysocki prints, as she was enamored by his style and class.

I don’t spend a lot of my time wandering through this room looking around this familial gallery. I should, though. One per day would give me a month of reflection upon a mom who would still be here if cancer wouldn’t have ended her life too early. It did, and that’s the way all her pieces finally came together.

At some point, these puzzles will need to be removed. Just when, is anyone’s guess. Mom used industrial strength glue on the backing and the double-stick tape to the wall is ridiculously tight. It’s gonna take some mighty panel-bending and puzzle fandangery to get these unfastened.

Seems like mom left us the biggest puzzler of all. For now, there’s no need to rush.

I never liked to do puzzles in the first place. I did, and do, love my mom. So, I’ll enjoy these while I still can. They’re pieced together and just as beautiful as she was. Memories and all.

Rex and Murphy

They stay very loyal. Of course, they do. Today, Rex and Murphy weave in and out between bags and boxes of medical supplies, legs and arms of strangers, and words coming out of mouths so unfamiliar to them. The past four weeks as well, they always found their way to Mommy. She is their rock, their comfort … their place to nestle two wet noses under a comfortable, familiar blanket.

Rex is about six years Murphy’s junior. He is Mommy’s little boy. The protector of all that is wrong with Greta, he is. These days, his job is overwhelming as Mommy’s appendiceal cancer has taken control over her remaining few weeks. Rex knows something isn’t right. He scampers about wondering where to be within eyesight … out of the way, but thankfully in the way of his Mommy’s over-extending heart. Close to her he dearly wants to be all the time. Sometimes, this isn’t possible.

Normal isn’t normal anymore. Every two hours, attention needs to be paid elsewhere. Rex must step aside. Elsewhere is Greta. I believe he understands. There’s a big picture window from which he looks out to gather his puppy thoughts. Rex will do what is necessary for Mommy. He’s anxious and unsure about a lot of things right now. Sure he is. We are, too.

Murphy is a fluffy tow-along. At an older age, his health isn’t a good as Rex. Just recently, a diagnosis of tracheal cancer put him behind the 8-ball a bit. He’s a steroid machine because of it. That medicine put him on an eating binge including a pair of glasses and pretty much any food – wrapped or otherwise – that isn’t at least 5-feet off the floor and 4-feet back off the front edge of any counter. He is laser focused on stuffing his snout.

Now, his love for Mommy is no less than Rex. A very comfortable little bed, at the foot of a larger Mommy bed, provides him a resting place almost every night. A low center of gravity, combined with nearly ninety-one human years muscled around his weary bones, makes jumping up on furniture for an ear scratch a bit difficult. He has the same window for reflection, but uses a lower bunked doggie bed, not the love seat. Granted, Rex has the same opportunity to it – and does. They are brothers through and through.

Rex and Murphy. Two canine companions trying their best to make a difficult situation make sense. In the furry brains as worried as all the human ones, their lives have been turned upside-down. Cancer – especially rare appendecial that strikes approximately 3 out of 1,000,000 people world-wide who are diagnosed with any cancer – changes everyone who cares for the loved one.

It’s never the obvious changes: bills, groceries, things-to-do that have to be altered. Those are (sometimes) the easy workarounds … short-term, anyway. Certainly, there’s no easy answer to any of this. I sit here not claiming a magic crystal ball. Yesterday, friends stopped by offering many open hands – as friend do.

The change is at a heart-centered level. Love digs deeper, care cores down, and tears are torrential during silent, solitary moments in the middle of the night.

Greta’s two boys aren’t immune from experiencing any of this. They sense the pain. Mommy isn’t well. Rex and Murphy are keenly aware of her missing their normal, daily connection through feeding, head-scratch, and hug set-aside times.

With this, however, hearts don’t miss a beat between a Mom and her two doggies. Eyes don’t miss every few moments available to catch a glimpse of each other between all the busy medical steps now woven in all our lives. Rex, Murphy, and Mom … a blanket of love with some snags now, but never to be torn apart by cancer.

That’s loyalty earned through years of patient petting and nurturing. Devotion in the midst of sterile equipment and impersonal, neutral medicine flowing past open valves and tubes into a body so tired of fighting … a loving soul still very much aware that two kind, devoted, four-pawed creatures still love her so much and feel every twinge of pain and also every smile.

This is a day for them, now. Rex and Murphy. I suppose, in a few hours, their wet noses will find warm spots somewhere. Wherever those may be, Greta will know. Of course, she will.

15 Stones

We had a few minutes. Greta and I weaved our way through the maze that is Shadyside hospital in Pittsburgh. Outside, across from a large slowly rotating door, in “The Garden of Distinction”, we sat comfortably on a weathered wooden bench. Finally, after 48 hours of hospital air, a fresh August breeze filled our lungs.

It is a meditative rock garden. Greta spent little time reflecting upon her past two days, of course. Any thoughts of IV drips, nurses, needles, or pain most assuredly was there but didn’t require her attention. The focus was her art … Needing to express herself by creating something out of nothing.

And that she did.

I watched the process unfold. With no fancy pens or expensive supplies available at her patient, artistic insistence, stones warmed by a late August sun were just enough to give her all she needed.

Specifically chosen by shade, stones were placed in rows and columns – darker to lighter – 3×5 to finish. 15 stones. On the top rests, perhaps even now, a pebble man on a chair as this artistic piece was not dismantled upon our departure. As we left, she stopped a few paces down a pebbled path to pick up that pine cone to return and place it gently on the corner. “Now, it’s complete!”, may have been the phrase so happily smiling in her head at that moment? I can’t recall what she said then, but I’m aware she knew those 15 stones, a pebbled man, and a pine cone brought closure to a wonderful time in a garden.

Yesterday was hard. A day that was supposed to be full of smiles and music presented an empty stage and lots of tears instead. When the day nurse wrote 8/22 on the daily board, it was difficult to see in the context of medicines and dose schedules. August 22nd was not going to be wasted, however.

I asked Abbey, her very kind day nurse, if it was possible to go outside after Greta requested a meeting with sunshine and nature. She pleasantly agreed and made arrangements for us to begin our trek through the labyrinth that is Shadyside. (Full disclosure here, I wanted to head out the nearest exit with Greta and not come back …). Slowly we headed out of the room, down 7 floors, past the cafeteria, then the gift shop, a few short steps until reaching a long, majestic entrance/exit to the rotating door …

… Out to a small driveway – then to a very peaceful rock garden.

Something out of nothing. 15 stones. Art is there for us to interpret. She is an artist who created a small work of art – a man in a chair on top of 15 stones … with a pine cone. It remains there as evidence of her presence during a very difficult time. I have my private ideas about what this means to me and would encourage you to look at that picture to consider how a terminal cancer diagnosis would change your perspective.

Music is art as well. We lost yesterday’s chance. As an accompanist, I lost the opportunity to perform with one of the best vocalists ever. What I have, however, is something much better. Time in that garden.

During an afternoon when we should have been on stage in front of many friends, we sat alone among many stones in a meditative garden. I watched as she worked her artistry … I was accompanying her once again – just not how we planned.

All in all, I figure the day was a success after all. My ideas and thoughts about her little creation, again, will remain mostly private. What I can share, though, is this:

Appendix cancer took the concert away from her yesterday – 72 hours short of our goal. 15 stones may seem small and insignificant to many, however, to me they represent the rock star Greta will always be to me.