Sunday, August 24, 2014

Everything Changes


Much has occurred since the spring, the last time I blogged.

The kids and I vacationed in Glacier National Park in July in an RV. It was an eye-opening experience in several ways. Of course, the scenery was unbelievably breathtaking. God’s awesomeness was everywhere, as you can see.

When you get out of the house and spend a week in an RV with two teenagers, it’s a lot of quality time. Even though Dori wasn’t with us, she was there. Her physical absence was magnified on vacation, while her meaning to us was more apparent than ever.

During the trip and upon our return, waves of grief took turns hitting our shores. We’ve been dealing with deeper layers of emotion, what I call peeling back more of the onion. We’ve had some tough days, but the trip was well worth it. We have been presented with new opportunities to grow.

On the trip, I read Eleven Rings – a great book by basketball coach Phil Jackson, given by my friend Maureen. Jackson’s unorthodox techniques resulted in 11 NBA championships, 10 as coach of the Bulls and Lakers. Long story short, Jackson drew upon Lakota Sioux Indian ritual, Buddhism and Christianity to help shape thinking and focus to build united, high-achieving teams.

Jackson wrote about the Buddhist belief that you cannot be happy or live a purposeful life unless you recognize “everything changes.” I alluded to this in my last post, in fact, citing Father Jerry’s Easter homily.

Change seems to be a recurring theme. Last night, Maureen and I went to the Belcourt Theater to see the movie Calvary. Father James, an Irish widower and now priest, is the protagonist, a Christ-like figure. His parishioners are struggling, to say the least; most have no spiritual or moral compass and some are evil. In fact, one parishioner who was raped as a boy by another priest has pledged to kill Father James in seven days.

Father James is tormented and mocked by his entire congregation. Two men beat him. Adultery and debauchery are everywhere; hope isn’t. His church is burned to the ground and his dog’s throat is slit. His daughter, who recently attempted suicide, wonders aloud about her own meaning. Father James, knowing his death is likely imminent, seems to be on a journey to pay for all these sins.

At one point, Father James discusses the inevitability of change with his daughter. At another, he comforts a woman who has experienced tragic deaths in her immediate family. Father James opines that if your faith is rooted in the fear of death, it isn’t very deep. Faith isn’t a comforter so much as the knowledge you are forgiven and welcomed to His Kingdom, if you believe.

When called by parishioners to their homes, Father James asked if he was there to be tormented, tempted and ridiculed, or if they wanted to ask for the Lord’s forgiveness. Did they have true remorse? Were they seeking redemption?

Calvary is dark and graphic. I sensed many left the theater is disbelief, after Father James is murdered in cold blood, threat carried out. At the end of the movie, you could hear a pin drop. Where was the happy ending?

If everything changes, and it will, then what are we waiting for? Why is it so hard to ask forgiveness? Why are we so prideful and judgmental?

My wife taught me the living example of faith. Now, reminders are everywhere – in gifted books, in movies and on vacations. The Holy Spirit is speaking through others now, trying to connect me to righteousness and redemption, as I face my own ongoing challenges and shortcomings.

The only lasting happy ending, if we believe, is after this life. I’ll pray about this more, and ask that you pray with me, and for those who seek redemption and those who choose another course.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Promise of Easter

A few weeks ago while cleaning out a drawer, I found another journal that Dori kept when she was sick. While bearing her heavy cross, she called cancer her "opportunity" to get closer to Christ. That was Dorothy Ruth Sawyer Brown, the mother of my children.

Today, Easter Sunday, is a joyful day. The pain of Good Friday - the grief of Mary and Jesus' followers and the scourging and crucifixion of our Lord and Savior - has become His promise of redemption and renewal on this most holy day. This morning at Easter Mass, I thought about all of this, as well as Dori, as the trumpets and violins beckoned the congregation. Ebullient altar flowers stood at attention, seemingly aware of the meaning of the moment. Jesus is risen. We are saved.

Two years ago, once the tremendous shock of Dori's passing started to wane, life changed. At times, it was chaotic and unrecognizable. The silence in the home could be deafening, the pained voices of loved ones hard to hear. Peaceful moments were rare. I traded one cross for another. My role as caregiver was over. My role as a widower, raising two children, was underway. What were the answers? What should I do? Everyone I knew was talking, but I couldn't hear what anyone was saying. Are you kidding me, as my best friend often says?

Last fall, life started getting bumpier as teenagers grew. Kathryn started driving, and the thought of another loss was too much for this parent to bear. I was not ready. I didn't do well. It was time for a new direction, so I started making changes.

Dori's death created a vacuum that filled gradually. You cannot raise two children on your own, have a successful career and stay balanced, without some help from others. That support, however, sometimes had strings. Boundaries dropped, and a new dynamic existed before I knew it. New challenges emerged. A few said hurtful things. A crossroad was reached. Refocus and a new plan were needed. Boundaries needed to be redrawn. I needed to take care of me, and especially my children.

My new plan: I would keep unconditional love around our inner circle. There would be no strings. Family members saw this recalibration, some accepting and able to make the adjustment. Others I love unfortunately are incapable at this moment. I will always be open to working with anyone within these boundaries, but it will be through unconditional love.

Not to anyone's surprise, I still think of Dori every day, often. I call on her spirit and example for help. Her wisdom, patience and love are no longer of this earth, but if I stop, breathe and listen, she is there. Her smile and laugh, adorned in His Light, never fades. I cannot tell you how much this comforts and guides me to teach my incredible children and live the life I've been given.

In today's homily, Father Jerry simply said, "Jesus is the answer," whatever the question. We all have or will have a cross or crosses to bear. Life will change; ready or not, the moment will arrive.

My task, and perhaps yours, will be to stay in sight of the answer - Jesus, our Redeemer and Savior - who promises us hope and eternal life. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Wedding of All Weddings

Nineteen years ago this Tuesday, Dori and I exchanged our vows, cementing our commitment to love one another. I did that, without exception, until her death two years ago. I had my moments, of course. In any relationship, you always do. She also had her own, but not as many. She was the better half, and I knew it. What we did, through what I would call mostly mild infrequent turbulence, was provided balance, understanding and reassurance. Her strengths were my weaknesses, and vice versa.

Our wedding and reception were incredible. Dori beamed when she entered the church, and I struggled to keep my composure. I teared up immediately, then felt amazingly calm and warm. The ceremony went quickly. I learned later that Dori's sister Kathy lost the ring, and borrowed my Dad's at the altar. Kathy found my ring later.

The reception at Two Rivers Mansion, a restored home from the Civil War era, was one helluva party. Some have said it was the best reception ever. It was a cool crisp fall evening, Oct. 15, 1994. Vanderbilt had beaten Georgia in football, a rarity, and our Commodore friends were in good moods. We danced outside - the young, middle-aged and old. No one seemed to have a care in the world. They soaked up the energy, and so did we.

At milestones, I reflect on the moments, the people and the lessons. What's been on mind this week is that Dori taught me so much through her example. I am like her now, in some ways. When I deal with a teenager's issues, for example, I call on her example. Her words sometimes almost come through my lips. It's not like being two people, but it is feeling her presence and spirit. Dori was calm, a phenomenal listener, slow to judge but very intuitive and incredibly gifted understanding people and situations. Her physical absence is a huge void in our lives, but it's not a complete void. She already showed us what to do, how to handle situations and people. It's not being able to hug her, celebrate moments, see her smile and hear her laugh that sucks.

Dori emphasized that we - the kids and I - needed to live rich, full lives when she was gone. That's great advice, advice we are taking and realizing more each day. The first year, we survived, but we probably looked like Hans Solo, frozen and pained under the watchful eye of Jabba the Hut. Through support, faith, and hell probably the force, we managed to break free and begin rebuilding and reshaping our lives.

I know Dori would be proud of us. We will never forget that she was our rock and our earthly light, and I was one very lucky man to have her in my life. The kids know they're lucky they had a Hall of Fame Mom. Mark Faulkner called her Saint Mom in his eulogy. Well said, friend.

Dori and I honored our vows until the end. Through thick and thin, for better or worse, richer or poorer. We experienced a great deal, but our faith and trust in each other never wavered. How could it, with her unwavering example? It's now my obligation, passion and honor to try to match it.



Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mark's Homily

The two-year anniversary of Dori's death is almost here - this Friday. I found something yesterday that is helping me process it all.

My dear friend Mark Faulkner delivered one of the best homilies I ever heard at Cathedral of the Incarnation in November 2007, one month after Dori's bone marrow transplant. I will never forget his tribute to her and her example, which I think speaks to every man, woman and child who has experienced hardship.

I hope this helps explain who Dori was, to those who loved her and to those who never knew her greatness.

Deacon Mark Faulkner, November 18, 2007:

"Hardship … will lead to your giving testimony. Even if death … not a hair will be destroyed. PERSEVERANCE WILL SECURE YOUR LIFE.

"First of all, what is the LIFE that perseverance through hardship will lead to? As you might guess, it is NOT necessarily what many often value in this life. Just as the Temple was adorned with valuable stones and gilding and whitewash … all that superficial stuff amounted to nothing when the temple was crumbled and destroyed. The LIFE that comes from persevering through hardship is a more substantive life … a richer life … a deeper life … a grateful life that wells up in us.

"St. John of the Cross in his book “Dark Night of the Soul” talks about the dawning of new and transcendent life that comes after living through a very dark time. He reminds us that our God promises that in spite of any current darkness, if we just try to persevere, there will ALWAYS be new and greater life following.

"This has been a week of me witnessing dark nights almost everywhere I turned.

"Melanie Nelson, a friend of mine for over 20 years died on Wednesday after a five-year battle with brain tumors … and she battled with amazing, ever-buoyant hope. Melanie persevered.

"Wes Caldwell, a business associate and friend I’ve worked with for over 10 years succumbed to cancer Thursday night … but he did so with a peaceful, faithful candor about what was happening. Wes persevered.

"And then our dear Bishop Niedergeses died Friday but who, in spite of aging and a series of medical challenges, remained to the end, a shining light of joyful gratitude and service. Bishop Niedergeses persevered.

"Or a single mom with whom I was speaking, trying to deal with the anxieties of her kids, so badly effected by divorce, and the financial burdens that have ensued, and the frustrating lack of help for shouldering some of the most basic day to day tasks … tasks that are simply hard for a woman ... and yet, trudging forward with all the cheerfulness she can muster. She is persevering.

"And our own Dori Brown from here at the Cathedral who has faced acute leukemia and mortality, and she is doing so with courage and determination, persevering one day at a time … and savoring each moment of life … I’d like share just some brief notes Dori wrote as she continues to recover …….

"I didn't realize feeling good felt so good!

"Our news to report is that my cells are continuing to slowly increase. The really great news is that my platelets are now growing without the help of transfusions.

"After having been in the hospital over two months this summer, I have now been here again for another month … and this stay has the most difficult physically. Heavy medications that take their toll, high fever that saps you, Chemo-induced mouth sores and a throat too sore to swallow or talk, exhaustion and pain and nausea and rashes … but …

"I found a nice quote from the diary of Anne Frank: 'I don't think of all the misery, but of all the beauty that still remains.'

"I wish that I could say I've been fully living according to that inspirational message these past 30 days, but it’s been so tough. I do know that I finally see a light at the end of the tunnel and that is so welcome. I can't wait to walk back into our house, to be able to tuck the kids in bed, to sit on chairs that are not vinyl! To just be home.

"After a very dark period, I do sense a light at the end of the tunnel … Thank you for your support and prayers."

Love to all of you, Dori


"Dori’s sense of light is correct … that is what awaits us if we persevere, both in this world and in the next … a brighter life after hardship or the BRIGHTEST life of heaven after death … a brighter outlook, a brighter existence. A brighter appreciation … if we persevere through the hardships.

"I am very aware that some of you are facing challenges similar to a few of these I have referenced today … death, disease, broken relationships, financial burdens … . I know that all of us have our own challenges that are at varying levels of seriousness … I know that each of these challenges are important and significant to us, even if small compared to those of others.

Father Fleming, our former pastor would often say … NEVER give up, NEVER lose hope! NEVER. GET UP! We stumble, we are tripped, we doubt, we fear, we fall … just always get up … always persevere … always move forward … doing so makes our lives a testimony to faith, a testimony to hope.

"So, is how we are facing our own challenges “giving testimony”?

"Is how we are handling our burdens indicating faith that, whether in life or in death, nothing is lost, not a single hair?

"In our hardships, are we persevering, and thus, securing richer life?"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Dori's Birthday

Dori would have been 45 today. We miss her tremendously.

Dori basically ran the Christmas production in our house. I would buy the tree; she did almost everything else. Last year, I fled our house, taking the kids skiing with my helpful mom joining us. It was the right call. This year, we're staying here. It is still bizzarre and surreal not to have Dori in our lives.

Last night, I purchased a bigger tree than normal. We will decorate it later today, with my mother's help. It is a proud blue spruce, prickly like some family members and aromatic. Will loves the smell.

The kids and I are doing OK. It's almost like you have to start over, after such a loss. The shock doesn't wear off very easily. Then you get to deal with all the layers. Disbelief, anger, exhaustion ... It's a long list. Waves continue to pound the shore, to this day, 18 months after her passing.

I'm most proud that Kathryn and Will are doing so well in school. Kathryn's singing is a joy, and she turned into a good cross country runner this fall. She likes to run now, go figure. Will is playing two sports now, hockey and basketball. He scored two goals in last week's hockey game and made All Stars. He scored 13 points in yesterday's basketball game, helping keep his team in the game. They are joys to raise.

Dori left a tremendous legacy. She was the leader of our family, on so many fronts. Now she is remembered in special ways. Last month, I ran my 11th half marathon, raising more than $10,000 for Gilda's Club Nashville, the cancer support group she loved and that I still frequent. This week, I received a letter from Vanderbilt Ingram-Cancer Center, stating the $35,000 Dori Brown Discovery Grant is yielding promising results - researchers believe they understand how a mutated gene in AML attacks good suppressor genes. A second Discovery Grant in her name funded by friends will be used for targeted drug therapies that don't have the side effects of chemo. The Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation, a group we support, also continues to report good progress with their technology.

That's how I'm taking in a day in which I don't have my wife and the mother of our children. It doesn't take away the hurt or sadness, but it does provide some optimism for our journey here. I know she has to be smiling right now as I type these words. I love you, Dori, and I miss you still.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Progression

Hello, friends. It's been awhile.

I have a race to run. This time, for Gilda's Club Nashville, the folks who helped Dori every step of the way during her cancer fight. I started fundraising yesterday, and the response has been great. My race is in Nashville - the Hard Rock Cafe Half Marathon on Nov. 10. I hope you'll consider donating to Gilda's Club. They are the best at what they do.

I'm doing better than a year ago this time. Low days are infrequent, but waves of grief still come. But the waves are not as tall. The kids are moving along and recovering at a slower pace. But they are also recovering. Kathryn has started well at her new high school. She's enjoying cross country, and has shown a lot of improvement since the summer. Will also is running and about to start playing hockey. We love our church, and work is good.

We went to the North Carolina mountains in August, with a hike of the Appalachain Trail on bald Roan Mountain on the NC-TN border a highlight. We also had a fun tailgate before a Vanderbilt game. We stop to reflect often about Dori. We miss her very, very much.

My social life has returned. When you become a caregiver, as I was for four years, "fun times" almost disappear. I consider going to ballgames fun, but not much of a social life. Going to great restaurants, bars and music venues is a social life. I've been getting reaquainted with dining, dancing and laughing with a woman I like very much. My spirit is lighter, and I've been a better dad during this time of progression. The kids recognize I'm happier, but it is certainly a time of gradual adjustment. Life is not the same, and it takes a lot of time, and sometimes significant energy, to process it all. For the kids, and for me.

A friend shared yesterday, "Train for your race like someone's life is at stake." Amen. I thought of that when I was hurting on my training run this morning. Pain is temporary, quitting is forever. In running and in life.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Heat Is On

People look at me funny when I tell them I run in this heat. I used to despise running in this weather, but I've learned some tricks along the way to deal with it. Carrying frozen water bottles, pre-run hydration, slowing the pace, and running early or in shade all mitigate sweltering weather.

Experience and preparation are important, but so is attitude. If you think you can do something, you can. There is no try, only do, or so says Yoda. That said, I envision retiring some day, and I won't be spending many July's in Nashville!

On Independence Day in midday 99 degree heat, I ran six miles in hilly but shaded Percy Warner Park. When I hit a big hill in sun, I walked it. No need to prove anything ... I was just enjoying the journey.

This morning, I ran eight miles on my favorite rave run, the Grassland-Moran Road out and back. I ran four alone before meeting up with my friends Jim, Carey, Sammi, Laurie, Ted and others. Several are TNT alums, like me. Jim, a lymphoma survivor still battling complications, is trying to raise $100,000 for his NYC Marathon run this fall. If you know Jim, or even if you don't, I hope you consider clicking and donating. I did today. Jim embodies fight, courage, love and hope. He loved Dori, and she loved him. I was honored to run with him this morning.

Staying with running helps me stay connected to honoring Dori. When I run, I feel better about things. I've blogged about this before, but we're all still healing and healing is easier when there is routine, smart choices, reflection, discussion and prayer. Kathryn and I have had some wonderfully productive discussions the last few weeks about our situation. When stressed, listening and supporting my children can be difficult. Running greatly reduces that stress.

Entering this summer, I was concerned how we'd do, individually and collectively. Summer downtime has its pros and cons, but not having the routine of school can be challenging. Instead, the kids loved camp and have been active since returning, and our summer nanny is doing a good job. Phew.

The forecast calls for rain in a few days, then a break from the heat. The change will be welcome. Until then, I thought a little pop culture from the 80s might lighten up this joint.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Dori Featured

The good folks at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center have spotlighted Dori's journey with leukemia. You can read it here.

I am grateful to reporter Leigh MacMillan for capturing Dori's wonderful spirit. She read the whole blog, shed a few tears along the way and approached our family's situation with compassion and empathy.

Cheers to VICC, Leigh, my friends the Grandes (in the article) and especially to heavenly Dori.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jimmy Time

I could write a book about the last month, but I won't. I will tell you it's been the best month in some time, for several reasons.

Kathryn and Will spent two weeks at remote camps, and both had amazing experiences. Kathryn made many new friends, and immersed herself in mostly new activities like horseback riding, swimming, canoeing and guitar. Will loved camp, too. He likes fishing now, just like his dad! They will take these memories with them forever. I'm so happy for them.

Their time away allowed me to reclaim some of my identity, as I told my friend Warren. After five years of dealing with the impact of cancer, care-giving and gradual recovery, I realized I had some catching up to do. I embarked on a trail run, a four-hour bike ride, and ate out by myself several times. My sister Anne and mother sent me the nicest Father's Day cards, with the former telling me to enjoy some "Jimmy time." And that I did. I cooked, went to hear music, stayed out late one night, and just laughed more.

Before I picked up the kids Monday morning, I spent two days at Charit Creek, a remote, rustic lodge in the Big South Fork, to chill and hike with friends. I didn't hear an unnatural sound for two days! On the way to Hidden Passage Trail in Pickett State Forest, we surprised a healthy black bear, who bolted into the woods. We saw turkey, box turtles, snakes, lizards and other critters. At night, we heard a proud whipporwhill, wild boar and other animals outside our cabins. We gazed at the stars in the middle of nowhere. So wonderful.

I am reclaiming a social life, bit by bit. I am meeting and spending time with old friends and wonderful new people.

June wasn't easy, especially earlier this month, but it was a blessing in so many ways.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Graceland

And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you're blown apart
Everybody feels the wind blow

Paul Simon, Graceland

During a six-mile run yesterday afternoon, that classic song popped up in my iPod. When those words were sung, my heart raced faster than the 140 beats per minute they were producing. Is this how people see me now? Probably, because sometimes it's how I feel, when I really miss her. Sometimes I don't feel this way, as if she's nudging me on, encouraging me not to become a bitter, desolate shell of myself.

A few days ago, it stormed, much like my week was a storm. At dinner time, the weather cleared and I took Pepper for a short walk. Through the trees, I caught a glimpse of an unbelievable rainbow that would stop your heart. I wondered if it was a full rainbow, so I walked to a clearing. It was perfect, a brilliant half ring.

I'm blogging today because I know what's coming. One year ago this Thursday, I lost my wife to cancer. The children lost their mother. My sister-in-law lost her sisterly soulmate. Many wonderful people lost their best friend.

I seem to find some meaning at every church service. Sometimes, like this morning, it's like taking an ice-cold shower. The opening hymn was "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty," the gathering hymn I chose for Dori's funeral. When I sang the words "merciful and mighty," it shook me to the core. My faith has been rocked, no question. I'm hanging in there. I do not harbor ill will at God. Thy will be done, just like Dori told me and the kids. My time is coming. So is yours, and so is everyone else's. I have to accept that June 7, 2011, was Dori's time to meet the Father. Still not easy.

I watch my children, at church and elsewhere, struggling with their own faith. They are dealing with much more than me, I think, because they've had less time for growth of their faith. It is rotten that some children learn at an early age that life is terribly unfair. They also have it easier than me, in a way. They have their whole lives in front of them, Lord willing, to find some of the answers that are eluding them today. I pray they seek comfort and knowledge in their mother's wisdom, which they will find in the book she penned before she died. It is a gift from God, Miracle Grow for their souls.

Paul Simon ends Graceland with hope, that redemption will be forthcoming.

Maybe I've a reason to believe
We all will be received
In Graceland

Dori found hers in the loving arms of her God.