Good Friends

I got to spend some time yesterday and today with my friends Jeff Jackson and Karl “KJ” Johnson (a guest-poster on my blog a while back). Those two men are great friends; kindred souls, really, despite the fact that we live nowhere near one another and have only met in person a handful of times. Sometimes, people bounce into your life that you least expect, and they end up becoming very important.

KJ and Jeff are those kinds of fellas.

I won’t torture you with some long-winded post on the nature and blessings of friendship; nor will I attempt to regale you with stories that you wouldn’t get anyway. Instead, I’m going to share a Calvin and Hobbes strip that pretty much says it all.


Wait. Wrong one. Here it is:


A Heart So Big

I had a curriculum meeting at Ella’s school tonight, so I stopped in at MawMaw and Pop’s in the middle of the afternoon. Pop was lying in bed, sleeping, and MawMaw was visiting with my cousin Chasity. Pop looked better, but only because he had his glasses on and his teeth in; apparently, he woke up this morning determined to feel normal, and MawMaw was happy to oblige.

The feeling didn’t last, however, and he quickly returned to his now-normal status of near-constant sleep. His breathing is constant, interrupted by the occasional snore or hand gesture, and every once in a while you can see his mouth move, as if he’s having conversations with people we can’t see.

MawMaw sat back in her recliner to rest for a bit, and I began to tell her about the pictures I’ve been scanning onto my hard drive. She had given me complete access to all of her pictures, and I’ve been trying to comb through the massive albums to find pictures that best represent Pop, or that reflect memories that are important to our entire family. Some have been funny; others, revelatory; and still others have been the bitterest pill – seeing my grandfather so full of life, so opposite of his current condition, swells the eyes with tears of all kinds: happiness, regret, sadness, joy, and on and on.

There was one picture in particular that caught my attention, because it was of my grandfather and the preacher who was his best friend for many, many years, Mr. Sonny Drummond. Here it is:

I knew there was a story here...I just didn't expect it to be so good.

I told MawMaw about the picture because I thought it was a perfect representation of Pop: his innate goofiness, his love of friends, and his long-time eschewance of sunscreen.

She knew exactly the picture I was talking about, and she smiled. “I remember that picture because I took it. Have you ever heard the story behind it?”

“No,” I said. “Didn’t really know there was one.”

“Well,” she began, “one night Preacher Sonny called Pop and said, ‘Harold, I can’t see.'”

Apparently something was wrong with Preacher Sonny’s eyes; he was having trouble focusing and none of the remedies he’d tried worked. Desperate, he called my grandfather and explained his plan: he wanted to drive down to Florida and get in the ocean.

“I just know if I can get in the water in Florida, everything will be fine.”

I stopped my grandmother here. “Was this something he felt that God had told him or something?”

I was thinking about the Bible story of Naaman the leper (see 2 Kings 5:1-15) who was told to dip in the river Jordan seven times, and when he obeyed, Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy. I’ve heard some cool stories, but this seemed like it had the potential to take the cake.

“No,” she said, “nothing like that. He just knew that if we went down to Pensacola and he got in the water, his eyes would clear up. So we went.”

My grandparents went to bed early after getting that call, and set the alarm for 2:00 AM. By three in the morning, they had their Ford Crown Victoria loaded up with Preacher Sonny and his wife, Miss Tessie, and they were on their way through the Georgia darkness towards the salt water shores of Florida. My grandfather drove, Preacher Sonny rode shotgun, and MawMaw and Miss Tessie sat in the back, worrying and praying non-stop.

They rocketed through the quiet Southern plains, barely speaking, the early morning stillness only upset by the hum of the Crown Vic’s tires. MawMaw didn’t say this, of course, but I know that she and Pop had to be worried sick about their friend; I knew Preacher Sonny, and he was a good man, a good preacher, and certainly one of the closest friends Pop ever had. They were buddies from the start, and Pop loved him as dearly as any man ever loved a friend.

And so, as they sped through the dawn, MawMaw and Miss Tessie fell asleep, and probably Preacher Sonny did too, leaving Pop alone behind the wheel, driving for his friend’s life.

They reached the beaches of Pensacola by 10:00 AM. As soon as they arrived, Pop found his way to a public beach access, parked the car, and while Miss Tessie and MawMaw watched, he and his best friend went racing into the ocean. After an hour in the salt water (an hour that cleared up Sonny’s vision), they joined their wives on a nearby bench and waited beneath the sun until their three o’clock check-in at a nearby hotel.


There’s another picture from that trip, taken by MawMaw shortly after they checked into the hotel. Pop is sitting on the edge of the hotel bed in his boxer shorts with dark dress socks pulled halfway up his calves. His thighs, knees, and lower legs are beet red from sunburn, and he’s grinning like a kid who just skipped school to spend the day at the beach with his best girl. There’s a matching shot of Sonny, too. Both are smiling, showing off the kind of war wounds you collect only for best friends. MawMaw laughed at the memory.

“We stayed three days,” MawMaw said, “just to make sure Sonny was okay. Then, he wanted to drive over to Daytona Beach for a little while, so we drove clear across to there and stayed.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, “you mean you guys just took an impromptu Florida vacation with no more than a few hours notice?”

“Yes,” she said, looking at Pop. “But that was back when we were strong. Pop was in good health; Sonny, with his bad knees, used to watch Harold climb ladders and do other things with ease and Sonny’d just say, ‘Boy! Look at ‘im go. I sure do wish I could do that.'”

She paused and looked away. “Those were good days.”

Pop’s breathing got loud, so the story ended there, but it’s stayed in my mind all night. It’s a simple story, really – nothing too grand about it, until you start to imagine what must have been going through their minds as they drove towards a beach, hoping for a miracle. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’m left staggered by the incredible selflessness of that kind of love; I mean, we’re not talking about making this drive for a family member or a grandchild. We’re talking about a friend.

What kind of person has that much love? Whose heart is really that big? It’s not just the fact that they packed up and left with little notice – it’s that they did it completely on faith. No one called the doctor to ask if the gamble would work. No one double-checked with WebMD.

My grandparents never even asked the most natural of questions: Are you sure about this?

They just said “Yes.”

They packed their clothes, got in their own car, and put their lives at risk for the life of a friend. Amazing. Mind-blowing. Inconceivable.

And yet, that’s who my grandparents are. As long as they have breath and strength and time and money, if you are in need, they are going to help you. I mean, why else would two retirees plant God-knows-how-many acres of corn, tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash, collards, turnips, peas, and other assorted vegetables? It might have been part of their Depression-era ethic, but the quantities that they gave away to friends and family and neighbors tells me otherwise. They were relentless on the dinner-for-the-bereaved circuit, the dinner-for-the-sick circuit, and the dinner-for-the-recently-pregnant circuit. They visited shut ins, hospice, hospital and all others who needed a smiling face.

They essentially gave away their lives to people who needed hope.


MawMaw and I talked about a lot more after that story. I asked her questions about her and Pop, about family history I’ve never been clear on, and we spent a good bit of time talking about the death of my uncle Terry. At one point, MawMaw teared up and said, “So many memories.”

She took a breath and continued, “We’ve been together 61 years, and have never really been apart. We’ve done everything together, and even these last years, when he couldn’t do like he used to, at least he was still able to talk to me.”

Pop shifted in his bed and we both turned to look at him. He took a moment, but finally got settled, and when I looked back at MawMaw, her eyes were still fixed on him.

“I just don’t know what I’ll do when he’s gone,” she said, as much to herself as to me.

The time passed quickly, so much so that my phone buzzed with a text from Rachel wondering if everything was OK. By that time my aunt Pat had walked in and I knew that MawMaw wouldn’t be alone. I gave her a kiss and promised to check in on her and Pop in the morning, since I wouldn’t be able to come back for an evening visit due to a work obligation.

“That’s alright hon,” she said, kissing me on the lips. “You come back when you can.”

I said I would, and as I walked through the door towards my car, I heard her call out, like always, “You come see MawMaw, now!”

Right now, every visit counts. One day soon, they’ll count all the more.

From One End To The Other

In my life, I've found myself at both ends of the church: in the pew and on the platform. Both perspectives have taught me a lot.

From time to time you get to reflect on life, usually because your life brings you a moment – an event – that forces you to stop and really consider what’s before you. The calendar holds two annual times for this sort of reflection: the graduation/wedding season (May-June) and the Christmas holidays.

This past weekend, I went attended the wedding of a former student of mine. It was beautiful.

Of course, it’s not just those moments on the calendar that count; there are other, unscheduled moments that offer us the same opportunity. Things like births, or birthday parties, or family reunions, or class reunions.

Or funerals.

I went to a funeral Mass today for the grandfather of my childhood best friend. It was beautiful.

As a minister, I’ve done my fair share of both services – weddings and funerals – and while it is always an honor to be the official, the kind of reflection offered is limited. You have a sacred duty to discharge when you’re a minister, to offer both hope and comfort, to provide constancy and peace. As such, you spend a lot of time thinking about other people, how they relate, how they connect, how they help one another cope with the immensity of these two very different, yet similar occasions. You spend a lot of time, as it were, being a detached observer and caregiver.

But when you’re merely part of the gallery, when you’re there as a friend, it’s a whole different experience.

I stood beside two families over the past three days, two families that are markedly different in their customs and traditions, but remarkably the same in their love and devotion to one another. One family celebrated the joining of a husband and wife til death do them part, while the other grieved a husband and wife being parted. There was music at both – the balm of the human soul must be music, because we sing it in good times and sad – and also much laughter. There were tears at each, as well as knowing looks, emotional hugs, and the sharing of wisdom between friends.

Each ceremony had tables lined with food, and friends and family seated to reminisce and review the common experience we’d just shared. People were dressed their best out of respect for those being honored, and though the final partings were ultimately opposite in both tone and finality, they were no less filled with the longing that we all feel when we watch someone beloved begin a new journey, a new chapter, one that we cannot really comprehend.

I watched the Sosebee family and the Newman families these past few days, and saw the love they had for their respective moms and dads, sons and daughters, grandkids and cousins and assorted friends. I saw my former student kiss his wife and lovingly take her by the hand to lead her to the dance floor. I saw my childhood friend hold his infant daughter in his arms and kiss her tiny little head as he greeted people sorry for his loss.

I got to be a part of the moment instead of being a part of the service, and the perspective that it afforded me was this:

There are some people, no matter how far the miles or the years may take you, who will always be in your heart, good times and bad. You meet them and love them and keep on loving them until, as the saying goes, death separates you. While the circumstances of your relationship will inevitably change, while you may not be as close to them as you once were, you will still do whatever it takes to stand with them in these moments, to be there when they need only just a friendly face to help them gain perspective.

There are some people with whom you are bonded and you will go with them through life, from one end to the other. Such is the power and privilege of being human.

Disciplining My Child Through “Criminal Minds”

This is a picture I found online. If it had been a picture of the actual incident, the kid would've been crying like Tammy Faye Bakker.

There are times when fatherhood really bites. Sure, most people want to hear about the glorious poetic moments that make people reach for the Kleenex or look back longingly at their child’s baby pictures, but those moments don’t tell the whole tale. If every part of fatherhood was sunshine and sundaes, men wouldn’t build massive basement rooms into which they escape.

I don’t have a basement, so I just blog about the things that drive me crazy. Like yesterday, when I picked Ella up from school and learned that she had told one of her good friends in class, “You need to shut your mouth.”

Now, my daughter is, by all accounts, quite spunky. I would say sassy, but that can be taken too negatively. She’s bright, highly energetic, and sometimes says things that she shouldn’t (and often she has no clue she’s said anything wrong). So when the teacher told me about the infraction, and about the context of it, I immediately felt my blood rise.

Apparently, Ella sensed it too. She immediately started crying.

I can’t remember who wrote the line, but someone once said that it’s easier to stop an out-of-control train than a woman’s tears. That’s certainly true of Ella – once she gets the water flowing, it takes forever and a day to get her to stop. She’s a sensitive little girl, and it just doesn’t take much to make her cry.

So when she started squalling, there was a part of me that felt bad. I knew she knew she was in trouble, and really, isn’t that what discipline is all about? Teaching your child to have a conscience? But I’m too easy on Ella sometimes, so, determined not to be fazed by the tears, I gave her my “disappointed” look, a gaze that, when trained upon my children can wither steel and crush the human soul, but, when trained upon my wife, earns me a “What? Do you have to fart?” Ella withered. The tears flowed harder.

Did I mention we’re still standing inside the church? We hadn’t even made it to the car yet. There I stand like an unfeeling statue and my daughter is weeping so hard she might choke. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and guided her down the hall.

“Would you like to tell me what happened today?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

Ask a stupid question… And, if I may have an aside for a moment, this is something I learned from my dad – asking the guilty child to provide their account of the crime – but it’s only been through watching Criminal Minds recently that I’ve learned just how effective this technique is, actually. You watch Hotch or Rossi in an interrogation, and they almost always nail the bad guy by leading him/her into telling their side of the story, and BINGO! – case solved.

And actually, there’s really something to that idea – part of parenthood is being able to profile your kid, to understand their likes and dislikes, to know their personalities so well that you can almost interpret an action without needing the child to do it for you. Maybe I’m just a nerd who likes that sort of thing, but I have to confess: knowing Ella the way I do (and knowing that I don’t know everything about her) helps me to be a better parent.

So, for all you new parents out there: you can learn much about parenthood by watching Criminal Minds. Just sayin’.

In this instance, I knew it was unlike her to say something so brutal to anyone, let alone a friend. It’s just not Ella’s style or personality; she tends to be more affirming than that, even when she’s being bossy. So, as we hopped in the car, I was pretty sure that if I pressed her for an explanation, I would uncover some extenuating circumstances.

Another aside – this doesn’t mean that I was looking for an excuse NOT to discipline her; I was looking for the answers to know how to discipline her correctly. There’s a big difference, in case you didn’t know. Any fool can punish a child – that takes no imagination and next to no skill; but it takes a honest parent to correct a child and teach them something that helps them learn. I’m not down with just punishing a kid (though, sometimes, I see the merits…) so I push to understand and then correct. It also gives me time to calm down so I don’t just beat a butt in my anger.

OK – where were we? Oh yeah – getting the story from Ella.

As it turns out, her friend had been the subject of some teasing all day (apparently Ella and her classmates have become enamored with the subject of pooping in non-bathroom locations) and Ella’s friend wasn’t saying anything to defend herself. And, if you know preschool kids, they don’t know when to back off. If a poop joke is funny the first time, it’s funny the next 312 times. So naturally they just kept pouring it on the poor girl. Finally, Ella had heard enough and, in an epic FAIL of an attempt to support and encourage her friend, she said, “You need to make so-and-so shut her mouth.”

My daughter, the life-coach.

Suffice it to say, after hearing this, I felt differently. First of all, what she said made more sense than what the teacher had reported. Let me pause for a second and say I support the teacher 100% in telling me what she heard and how she handled it. She did it the absolute right way and I got her back. Just because it didn’t sound like something Ella would say doesn’t mean Ella didn’t or wouldn’t say it; in point of fact, she said something pretty darned close, in both verbiage and meaning.

But I felt differently because I now understood that Ella didn’t mean to attack her friend, she meant to help her. And honestly, I see how she comes to this: it’s a bizarre and perfect mix of her mother’s and my personalities. I tend to be the more compassionate, side-with-the-victim person in our family, and Rachel tends to be the shut-up-and-fix-it person. Ella somehow meshed both into one statement and simultaneously encouraged and berated her friend.

That’s a little thing we like to call talent.

Anyway, long story short, I did what any good parent would do:

“Well, thank you for the explanation. We’ll have to see what your mother says when we get home.”

That’s right – I shifted the burden to Moms. Well, part of the burden. When we got home, I gave Rachel a quick rundown and then had Ella recount her crime for her mother. Rachel seemed satisfied with the mea culpa, and worked out a plea bargain for Ella: Ella would have play quietly in her room instead of being able to watch a movie, and she would have to apologize to her friend at church last night. Ella nodded and slinked away her room, halfway between relief and devastation. I watched approvingly.

If it had been an episode of Criminal Minds, we would’ve quoted some author everyone says they’ve read but no one really has. And we would have been on a private plane. But this is life, and real drama isn’t so tidy.

Postscript – Ella apologized to her friend last night before their Bible class. Her friend looked at her, said, “What are you talking about?”, and then skipped away to play with a puzzle. Again, not as tidy as a TV ending, but ultimately good for my kid.

To My Son On His Birthday

This is you, Jon, at your second birthday party. You're waiting to demolish some cake...

Dear Jon –

I know it’s more common for Daddy to write about your sister, Ella, than you, and I hope that you don’t take offense to that. I do it for any number of reasons, most of which probably wouldn’t satisfy you in the slightest (I think the main one is she’s quite often hysterical), but today is your day, so I’m going to write about you. Today you are officially two years old, and I simply cannot believe it. I can’t believe you’re growing up.

Well, that’s not true. I can believe it, but I guess I’m just not prepared for it. I don’t want to accept the fact that one day you won’t be my small snuggle friend, or won’t have the softest skin I’ve ever felt, or won’t be the quietest but most strikingly intelligent toddler I’ve ever come across. I struggle with the fact that the you you have been all of your life is changing, but it shouldn’t; I’ve learned so much in the last two years.

When Mommy and I first found out that you were coming our way, I was scared. In fact, I believe I looked at the ultrasound tech and said, “Oh, crap.” Or something close. I truly wasn’t prepared for a son and the moment freaked me out. I know now that the fear was irrational, based entirely in my own insecurity, and had nothing to do with you whatsoever.

And I know this because you’ve become my little best friend.

I can’t tell you how much it lights up my soul to hear you exclaim, “Dad-dee!” everyday when I come through the door. Or how special it makes me feel when you round the corner, your little feet going like Fred Flintstone’s (Sidebar: it’s a really old cartoon Daddy used to watch where people pushed cars with their feet. One day, I’ll take you to a museum and show you an example of the primitive culture your daddy grew up in). Or how unbelievable it is to swing you up into my arms and cradle your face into my neck and feel your tiny fingers reach for the back of my head and rub my hair.

Maybe it was this way with Ella, too, but I don’t think so. There’s something special about you, dude, and I love you to pieces. Even when you get short-tempered, or when I get short-tempered, it doesn’t take long for me to see something in you that stirs up all of the love I have within me. Maybe it’s the bond between father and son; I know from experience that it borders on mysticism (your Poppy is a really good dad to me), so I can buy into the idea that somehow, someway, there’s just a connection we share that can never be duplicated with anyone else.

For instance, we celebrated your second birthday this weekend and you were a pill. You whined, cried, moaned, and flat out pitched an all-out hissy-fit for the first 30 minutes of the party. Then, as if a timer had gone off inside your head, you were non-stop fun. Watching you tear around the house, or drive your Thomas the Tank Engine up and down the driveway, or show off for your great-grandparents by pushing your new lawnmower (Note: a bubble lawnmower, not an actual one – we’re not that redneck) made the some of the most hellish pain I’ve ever known melt into the distance. Seeing you enjoy life gave me back one more piece of mine.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that I love you. I want you to know that I cherish our relationship and want nothing more than for you to grow up and be a good man. I don’t care if you’re successful by current standards; I don’t care if you’re valedictorian or captain of the team or the single greatest trumpet player in modern American Jazz. If you turn out to be those things, great – it will mean all the more because they will have been your vision for your life, and not one that I superimposed onto you. My father granted me that freedom, and I want you to know it too.

Be a good man, Jon, because in a world full of sorry, mediocre and great men, the good ones stand out. It takes people a hella long time to realize it, but it’s good men that make the world work. It’s good men who provide good homes and create good families. Sorry men and great men alike tend to think only of themselves and thereby rob everyone they claim to love. Good men put others first and thereby bless generations.

You’re only two and will probably never read this (and if you do, it really does mean the Internet is forever) but I wanted to break my routine (Daddy typically doesn’t blog on weekends) and sing a song of celebration over you, my third child and only son. Your oldest sister, Ruthanne, whom you don’t yet know about, broke my heart but showed me that I was capable of giving my heart completely away to my children. Your big sister, Ella, taught me to embrace who my kids were innately and to not worry about making them into something they were not. The girls taught me a lot.

But you have taught me to not be afraid, to embrace a definition of manhood that has long defined me yet defied tradition, and to pass it on to you as a gift. I hope that when you are old enough, you will one day be able to look back and say, “My dad may have had his faults, but not letting me be myself wasn’t one of them.” I hope you will always know, no matter where life takes you, that you will always, always, be my son and the recipient of all of my love. You will never be able to lose that.

Even if you choose to attend Georgia Tech.

I love you, Jonathan. And happy birthday, my friend.

All the best,