The Scorpion and Cinderella

It wasn’t until I noticed my daughter using a rag to clean up the carrot juice that I realized just how quickly my rage could be subdued by merely one selfless gesture.  I knew that I’d forcefully thrown the bag of large carrots, but had no idea that I’d pulverized them.  In retrospect, had I not thrown them in my boiling rage, then I suppose it would have been just another day.

We have a refrigerator at my house that wasn’t behaving properly. It’d been leaking water beneath the fruit and vegetable crisper drawers. The water eventually pooled to such a level that it ran outside the fridge and puddled onto the kitchen floor.  A full inspection of the fridge was required, so I transferred all of the contents to a second fridge that we keep in the garage. Eight trips, back and forth through the laundry room, is what it took. Eight trips barefoot. The last trip, I had only one item…the bag of carrots.

I was one step away from the door to the garage when, little did I know, I was also one second away from spontaneous combustion. A scorpion nailed me in the bottom of my foot.

It was a sharp piercing needle of fire—quick and full of malicious intent. Of course, the scorpion was only trying to preserve its life as 190 pounds descended upon it. But a scorpion is always on alert, and was not going to let a size 13 do anything without first putting up a fight. The moment my foot came within an inch of it, was the moment it sent its stinger into my skin, and, I’m sure, hoping the venomous toxins would travel as far into my nervous system as possible.

I recognized the heat of the sting immediately. I’d been stung before by scorpions, but never in an area this sensitive.  Anger unleashed itself as I violently threw the bag of carrots onto the adjacent kitchen tile floor, and shouted a few hundred expletives.  Understandably, I startled my daughter, Brookney.

“What the!?….Dad??”

I’m not even sure I heard her. I was too preoccupied with cussing like a sailor and trying to slaughter a predatory arthropod, whose existence I wanted to end.

I scanned the floor of the laundry room, knowing that if the scorpion made it beneath the washer or dryer, then there’d be a good chance it’d be hard to find.  However, scorpions have one deficit that was in my favor: they’re relatively slow creatures.  They don’t run, they scurry. As if lugging that big, venom-filled tail of theirs is such a burdensome chore that it inhibits any possibility of real running.

But the scorpion didn’t even choose to scurry.  Rather, it opted to be motionless in the middle of the floor, as if it knew the nearest place to hide was too far away.  Any attempt to move would put it at high-risk of being noticed, so it contracted its legs and pincers in an effort to conceal itself.  I can only presume that its decision to stay still must have been influenced by the vibrations of my maddening oscillations.

Within seconds I located it, then grabbed a nearby shoe.  I raised it high above my head, fully knowing there was no stopping me.  The piercing needle of fire in the bottom of my swelling foot was clearly telling me, “DO NOT LET THIS CREATURE ESCAPE!!”  Given the opportunity, it would strike over and over again.  To capture it, and then set it free somewhere far away outside, was not an option, nor even a thought.  I was locked in a primal and territorial state of mind, with only one objective: termination.

I did my best to hammer the shoe through the concrete foundation. One hit sealed the deal.

All that anger—all that pent up fury—how quickly it had arrived, and how quickly it had departed.

My foot was still screaming as the swelling increased.  I hobbled across the kitchen floor and took out a bag of frozen peas from the freezer and set them on the floor.  Standing, I gently lowered my foot onto the soft, icy bag and let its cold therapy begin.  I expected shock, but discovered an immediate sensation of comfort. And there, in a transition between my rage and relief, something unusual caught my attention:  my daughter was on her hands and knees, cleaning up pulverized carrot debris and juice.  What had once been a bag of large, healthy carrots, was now a catastrophe of hemorrhaged orange guts.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Uh…well, Dad…you made a mess.”

I say “unusual” because Brookney is not exactly the type of person to voluntarily clean up a mess. Particularly if it belongs to someone else.  Of course, if you were to poll all the households in the country, I suppose the findings would indicate that’s expected behavior.  “Nice job, Dad,” she’d say, “Mop’s in the garage.”

But there she was, working that elbow grease into the rag, because she knew it was the right thing to do.  She knew that a little bit of relief can go a long way. And if you’re lucky enough to recognize such an act, you might find yourself in an entirely better state of mind than the one you were in moments before.  The frozen peas gave me physical relief.  But Brookney’s unsolicited offer to clean the floor gave me an unexpected comfort—soulful in a way—and widened the gap beyond my fit of anger.  It was a Cinderella story of sorts, as she labored on all fours with her hair dangling like a drapery of tangled vines. Of all people…my daughter?  My mess?  The difference though was there were no oppressive step-sisters ordering her to do so.  Attacking this domestic chore was strictly under her own volition. “Dad,” she said, “I got this one.”

And if that’s not enough to comfort you—to help take the sting out of your foot—to remind you that some of the simplest moments in life are, in fact, some of the most touching, then you might want to have the blur in your vision checked out before you go completely blind.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

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October Christmas

There’s something unsettling about walking into my local Lowe’s Home Improvement store to buy a chainsaw in mid-October.  You quickly discover that the only path to that chainsaw is to pass by a display of massive inflatable snowmen, Santa Clauses, sleighs, and a holiday-dressed Mickey Mouse, as well as enough Christmas decorations to outnumber all the drills, hammers, screwdrivers, clamps, batteries, and bags of concrete in the store.

There are a few mannequin-style vampires, zombies, and skeletons dressed in tattered clothing. In addition to some plastic pumpkins, spooky-themed door mats and boxed inflatable Despicable Me yard decorations, that’s about it for Halloween.

And Thanksgiving? Well, good luck, Thanksgiving. Of course, ceramic turkeys will be on the way, but for now, not much of anything is there. It is Christmas which has come to town, infiltrating store after store like a plague of unwelcome eye sores.

It’s interesting how we’ve evolved to become consumers of gargantuan yard decorations. Yet, I don’t recall anybody asking for them.  But, perhaps we did…

Dear Christmas Decorations Manufacturer:

 Is there any way you can push the envelope a little, and knock out some inflatable yard abominations large enough to hide our homes? You know…BIG inflatables that’ll make it look as if we’re putting on a grounded hot air balloon festival.  And slap a price tag on them for a couple hundred dollars, because you know us…we’ll buy whatever you put out there!

 Happy Holidays,

We The People 

Perhaps there were protesters outside Lowe’s whom I never saw, pumping their “OCTOBER CHRISTMAS!!  OCTOBER CHRISTMAS!!” picket signs into the air, while shouting, “WE WANT REINDEER!! EIGHT-FOOT INFLATABLE REINDEER!!”

Did a protester stand on top of one of Lowe’s riding lawn mowers, and speak into a megaphone to a gathering crowd of head-nodding followers?… “UNTIL LOWE’S SELLS US INFLATABLE GINGER BREAD HOUSES, ELVES, IGLOOS, AND COCA-COLA-DRINKING POLAR BEARS, WE SHALL REFUSE TO BUY THEIR CHAINSAWS, BIRD SEED, AND FIRE ANT KILLER!!!”

However these massive yard decorations came to be, one thing is certain:  a need to display them two-and-a-half months prior to Christmas has become the new norm.  And that goes for every Christmas tree ornament, string of lights, package of tinsel, artificial poinsettia, and mistletoe decoration as well.

There was a time when Christmas decorations weren’t sold until Thanksgiving.  There was something that just felt right about it—as if the month of December was meant to be festive.  Had massive, inflatable yard decorations been a part of that past, it’s quite possible they wouldn’t be so over-the-top as they are in mid-October.

Mid-October…really?

Until there’s enough public outcry to persuade retailers to at least keep Christmas out of October, then chances are that—and you guessed it—the greedy hands of September won’t be too far away.

But it is what it is.  Christmas, with its mass consumer grandeur, has been a multi-billion dollar generator for many, many years.  And it has no plan of stopping.  Without Christmas, the success of our national economy would never reach its celebrated numbers. And to that, as Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Lowe’s watch the increasing sales of gargantuan yard ornaments, they have really only one thing to say…

“Thank you, Jesus!”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

C6

My plan was to run him until he dropped.  No breaks.  Just gradually increase his pace until his tank ran out.  I wanted to see how much endurance strength he had.  Unfortunately for me, I never discovered it.  There was one slight glitch in my plan that I hadn’t foreseen…the kid just kept on running.

*                    *                    *

I often thought that Lee Bryant’s energy should’ve been harnessed as an alternative fuel source.  He simply had no stop button.  Rest was a four-letter word he preferred not to hear.

We would meet two to three times a week at a college intramural field.  There, beneath the lights on warm Texas summer nights, Lee let loose, clipping along at speeds that didn’t slow down.  He was 15 years old, and my job was to prepare him for his upcoming high school basketball season.  To build up his aerobic conditioning required on the court.

For two years I ran Lee.

Until I couldn’t.

*                    *                    *

September 18, 2010.

The light pole stood tall and solid in the Target parking lot.  Its sole purpose was to illuminate.  Beyond that, it was completely unforgiving.

Lee was 19 years old.  He had just exited the store with a couple of items, and was getting into his car, preparing to drive away.  Fifteen minutes was all it would take for him to walk through the front door, before going directly into the kitchen to raid the fridge for a quick snack.  In seventeen minutes he’d be chilling in his room, watching ESPN.  In twenty minutes, he’d be back at the fridge, rummaging for anything to appease his high metabolic rate.

Unfortunately, not only did his car not travel more than thirty seconds from the moment he left the parking space, but he also never made it home that night.  And one light pole had changed everything.

While one hand was trying to call his mother with a cell phone, the other was attempting to secure his seatbelt.  His eyes were anywhere except paying attention to where the car was going, which was being steered with his knee.  Inadvertently, Lee had put himself in a very vulnerable and precarious situation.

At 15 mph, his car aimlessly ran nose-first into the concrete base of the light pole.  At the moment of impact, Lee’s head was turned to the right as he dealt with the seatbelt.  This would be the last time in the foreseeable future—and possibly his life—that he would ever be able to grab something, and one airbag had made certain of that.

He was completely caught off-guard when the airbag deployed, forcing his neck to bend at a bad angle.  Less than a second later, much of his body was paralyzed.  It comes with the territory when the sixth cervical vertebrae shatters into small fragments, resulting in a damaged spinal cord.

But there was a moment after the impact when Lee had no idea that paralysis had even occurred.  For all he knew, this was nothing more than a little one-vehicle accident, and he might as well get out of the car to assess the damage.  He shifted his torso to the left and tried to unlock his door.

Tried.  It’s fair to say he didn’t even make that much progress. It was bad enough that he couldn’t move his arms, but the real horror was the fact that neither could he move his fingers, legs, and feet.  They were completely limp.

He had felt nothing as C6 shattered.  No pain of any kind, just an unwelcome numbness.  There would be no unlocking the door at the request of the person outside his car—the same person who was calling 9-1-1.  As Lee sat there, waiting for the paramedics and police to arrive, he had but one thought:  “Shit! Shit! Shit!  This can’t be good…this can’t be good.”

Soon he would hear the sirens of the emergency vehicles.  And soon a police officer would be telling Lee to remain calm—they would be getting him out.  That’s when he heard the sound of breaking glass as his rear windshield was being smashed open.

*                    *                    *

A few hours later, in the ER at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Lee was wearing a cervical neck brace as he laid prone on a gurney.  He was waiting for a doctor to give him the results from his MRI.  “Basically, your sixth vertebrae is missing.  It’s shattered, and highly unlikely that you’ll ever walk again.”

In Lee’s words: ”That’s when the waterworks hit.”

At this point, authorities were attempting to contact Lee’s parents and sister. He was alone, and some of the worst news possible had just been delivered to him.  It’s a tough situation when you’re a teenager and you learn that three-quarters of your body has basically been permanently anesthetized.  Your entire life has evolved around sports.  There’s no telling how many tens of thousands of miles your legs have run.  And you always hated the word “rest” because it meant being idle, and idle just sucks.  Long before your youth Little League Baseball days, you thrived on high-energy movement.  And now…

An airbag knocked C6 clear out of the line-up.

“We’re prepping for surgery,” said the doctor. “You’ve got vertebrae fragments scattered around that need to be cleaned up.  We’re also going to fuse C5 and C7 together with a titanium piece. It’s critical we do this now so that the spinal cord isn’t subjected to any more damage.”

Through his watery eyes, Lee nodded in agreement.  Soon after, he was wheeled into the OR.

*                    *                  *

Life is what it is, and sometimes you’re a lot better off joining it, rather than lamenting over it, or fighting it.  That’s how Lee saw it, anyway.  And this became immediately clear as soon as he came to from the surgery, when a sense of hope encompassed him. The road ahead wasn’t going to be easy, but at least he had a road.  And if the only means of getting around is in a wheelchair, then so be it.  It’s a highly admirable attitude, given the range of his disabilities: paralyzed chest down, partial upper arm muscle deficits, unable to move fingers, no abdominal contractions, unable to yell because his diaphragm can’t contract, inability to maintain body temperature, and an inability to sweat.

Much of his acceptance of his “new normal” came from spending a month at TIRR in Houston, which is one of the world’s most respected and aggressive spinal cord injury rehab centers. There, he saw just how alone he wasn’t.  He met numerous 20-year-olds who had been in vehicle or water-related accidents, such as diving head-first into dark, shallow rivers.  The higher up on the spine the injury is, the more severe the limitations.  C1 and C2 injuries were the worst: complete paralysis of arms and legs, limited head and neck movement, trouble breathing without assistance, and ability to speak sometimes impaired. There, in his wheelchair, as a therapist tied his shoes, how fortunate Lee felt to be able to freely move his arms.  How lucky he felt to be able to drop his limp fingers onto a computer keyboard and type a college essay or search the web.

“It’s the putting on the socks that sucks,” he says. ‘I can’t do it.  With those, I need help.  And jeans…well, I can put them on, but they just take fiveever.”

Fiveever.  It’s his own little neologism that describes the act of doing something taking longer than forever.  Or, as we might hear phonetically…fourever.

“I’m good,” he says. “I’ve accepted this life and do what I can do. I’m attending classes at Texas State University, working on a degree in Therapeutic Recreation, and that’s a big deal to me. I hope for two things:  to work in a spinal rehab center, and that my disability will improve.  You have to have hope.  I mean, why not?  Look at technology. It’s way on my side as there are cars out there that are designed so I can drive. So, yeah, as a whole, I’m good.”

And that’s where I come in…into his room.  For the past six years, I’ve been training him there, doing whatever I can to build strength in whatever areas possible.  He has a pair of special gloves that allow him to hold onto barbells and dumbbells.  I also have him pull on elastic cords in all directions, as well as have him work with a medicine ball that he catches and throws with the heels of his hands.

No, we’re not running sprints on the intramural field anymore.  To train Lee for aerobic conditioning is certainly out of the question.  And as for basketball…will Lee ever shoot one again?  What are the chances? Many would say slim to none.  But never say never, as his workouts are not just to build and maintain strength, but to hopefully wake up a nerve somewhere—to fire up a neuron that’ll send a long-awaited signal to the brain that says, “Hey, remember me?  I’m alive!”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

Twelve Bags Of Ice

The cashier was laughing to such a degree it seemed to magnify her state of happiness.  Seismic soundwaves of jolliness reverberated through the air, allowing me to feel the full effect of her laughter. Her cheeks jiggled with each successive giggle.  What was there not to like about this woman?

So she made a mistake.  Big deal.  It obviously didn’t bother her too much.  It had only confirmed the fact that it was sometimes better to laugh at one’s self, rather than take things too seriously.  She had charged a woman for twelve bags of ice instead of one.  In the process, she was laughing the entire time as she called for a manager to correct the mistake.

And there I stood, next in line, unloading my groceries onto the belt, and completely captivated by her infectious laughter.  I had no choice but to smile and marvel at the abundance of happiness which the cashier was displaying.  No doubt, she had been a “laugher” her entire life. Merriment was her prime mover.   We all laugh, but she had been born to laugh…often.

Not a sentence slipped by without her voice veering from the sound of its lively amusement.  “Oh, my!” she said. “I just charged you for twelve bags of ice!  Not two, not six, not eight, but twelve!  Looks like we’re gonna make a killing off you today!”

The woman wasn’t sure what to make of the situation as she played the part of concerned customer, rather than entertained audience member. Her eyes grew larger as the cashier’s laughter traveled throughout the shopping aisles with the apparent potential to rattle jars of spaghetti sauce off the shelves.

“O manager! O manager!” The cashier sang in a tune akin to O Christmas Tree.  “I need an override at cash register four!  Ma’am, I do apologize for this delay. It’s one of those days, you know.  Just a nutty day!” Her cheeks were rosy, and had become rosier with each laugh, as if the color was a barometer of her good mood.

Her customer, though, still hadn’t smiled. She was eagerly waiting for a manager to fix the mistake so that she could be on her way. “Ma’am,” she said. “Is this going to take long?”

“We won’t keep you here anymore than three hours, tops,” the cashier giggled.  “Just messin’…Oh, here he comes now.”

The manager swept in, did some rapid-fire taps on the cashier’s check-out screen, and then gave a thumbs up, “All taken care of ma’am.  One bag of ice. Sorry for the mishap.”

“You’re the best,” said the cashier. “The world needs more angels like you.”

The manager smiled, chuckling as he walked away.

As I stood there, watching the interaction between the two, I couldn’t help but notice a sort of amicable chemistry at hand.  Like the mutual understanding that life is too short, and it’s a hell of a lot better being in a harmonious state, rather than an agitated one.  So, when in doubt, laugh.

“Ma’am,” the cashier said, smiling at the woman, “Thank you for shopping with us. Do you need any assistance with the ice?”

“No, I’m fine. I can manage, but thank you.”

The cashier nodded and smiled, then looked at me, “Sir, please don’t tell me you want twelve bags of ice.  ‘Cause if you do, get ready for me to charge you for twenty-four.”

And that’s when I saw it:  the woman who had just checked out…she turned and smiled.

*                    *                    *

Nine hours later, I was sitting in an aisle seat at a college football game in my town.  As the second quarter had just ended, people were making their way up the stairs to the concessions stands and restrooms. It was a warm and muggy mid-September Texas evening.  I was cracking peanut shells and dropping them between my feet, when I noticed a woman further down the stairs, talking to some friends.  Her head was turned to the side, so I wasn’t catching her full view.  But in that moment, I found myself wondering just where had I seen her before?  Who was she?

She then turned, and began walking up the stairs. What was it about her? My surroundings became muted, including the marching band making their way onto the field.  I squinted my eyes and pressed my mind to recall just who this woman was.

And that’s when I saw it:  again…the smile…it was the woman from the grocery store. But was I sure?  Was I for certain?

Two steps from passing by me, I said, “Excuse me…ma’am.”

She stopped and gave me a blank look, as I was nothing more than a stranger. “Yes?” she said.

“This morning…you were at the grocery store, right?”

“Uh, yes. Yes I was.”

“Twelve bags of ice, right?”

It was immediate, as her face lit up with a smile almost too grand to be true.  “Oh my God!” she said. “Twelve bags of ice!  Yes, twelve bags of ice!”  And then she laughed—laughed with an abundance of happiness that sounded all too familiar.  The people on the crowded stairs had paused briefly for her, but then began inching forward, encouraging her to move along.  Like a raft caught in the brisk flow of a river, she was swept forward, then was soon out of sight.

But her laughter continued—so reminiscent of the cashier’s. Beyond the top of the stairs I could still hear her: “Yes! Not two, not six, not eight, but twelve bags of ice!”  Like a gift—like something that had been passed onto her—she had found good reason to share it with the world.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

The Remedy

It’s not often that I come along and steal your attention, but I felt compelled. So I stole it in such a manner that whatever it was you were doing, was temporarily forgotten.

And there you were, on your little blue marble, with an ability to predict down to the second when, where, and how long I will occur at varying locations. The evolution of your science leading to such predictions is highly impressive.

I hope you saw something different as you looked through your viewing glasses. I hope you saw evidence that it’s the simplest things that give you pleasure, such as being caught in wonderment of the apparent live chemistry of my shadows. And while you cautiously stayed clear of letting your naked eyes view the intensity of my dangerous light, you were completely drawn to my primal and short-lived beauty.  So many laborers around your country shared their welding masks for others to safely stare upward into the darkening daylight sky. Some things just can’t be passed up.

But I’m curious about something—your large corporations. Please tell me they stopped production to let your workers witness my presence. Please tell me they pulled the plug on their robots, conveyor belts, and assembly lines. For just a few minutes, is it possible they cared a little more about the alignment of two magnificent spheres in the sky and the lasting memories they would generate, and less about units sold per minute, and the revenue they would generate? Wishful thinking, I’m afraid.

I saw employees of small companies stepping outside.  All of them exhibited the excitement of anticipation.   There was clearly a difference in community between small and big businesses. Relationships in your smaller companies demonstrated a more cohesive atmosphere, whereas the larger a company’s workforce, then, exponentially, the greater was the disconnect between employees.

From my perspective, it was truly the relationships between your people that caught my attention.  As you were looking at me, I was looking at you.  And, oh, the wonderful things I saw.  There was sharing, smiling, and, for many, the giddiness of witnessing something new.  All it took was a darkened lens to look through, and millions of your people were suddenly united.

And to think that I had the ability to make an impact on people—that my infrequent occurrence touched lives.  In particular, two people stood out most:  A therapist and his client.  It was a dire situation in which the client was suffering.  His bloodshot eyes welled with despair.  His life burdened with depression.

“Take hold of yourself, John,” said the therapist. “This will all pass.  You just have to accept that, and let time do its healing.”

“But, I had no idea the fallout.  I had no idea the repercussions,”  John replied with his hands trembling as he then buried his face within them.

The therapist was without words.  He had counseled as best he could.  John’s rebound truly was at the mercy of time.  But time did not always comply fast enough.  Pain and suffering lingered in the tedium of time’s relentlessly slow pace. Especially in the dark insomniac hours of sleeplessness.

Dark, thought the therapist. Dark!

“John,” he said, looking at his watch.   “We’re not too late!”

“For what?”

He stood up and helped John out of his seat.  “Come with me. You need to see this.”

“See what?”

“Your remedy, John.  Your remedy.”

As they made their way outside, the therapist grabbed two pairs of viewing glasses from a nearby table. “Here,” he said, handing one to John. “Put these on, then look up at the sun. I’ll do the same.”

Less than a minute later they were standing in a parking lot, looking at me in awe. And for the first time in who knows how long, a smile widened across John’s face. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Absolutely beautiful.”

“Keep looking at it, John,” said the therapist. “Take it all in. Total eclipses are not only rare, but pass quickly.”

“It’s stunning,” said John. “This is just incredible. I’ve been so locked up inside my head lately…well, for quite some time, that I’ve lost touch with my surroundings. I had no idea the eclipse was coming. I’ve been buried in the dark.”

The therapist smiled. “It’s funny…the potential of darkness, and the effect it can have on us. Here we stand in its shadow as it steals our light, and we welcome it with unanimous approval.”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” said John, “But I do suddenly feel better. I feel lifted, if that makes any sense.  Like I’ve gained some sort of clarity.”

“It makes all the sense in the world, John. Perfect sense.”

It wasn’t long after, as daylight returned and darkness faded, that my time came to an end. And in my parting minutes I had the privilege to watch John do something that I’m sure he never saw coming…

Holding onto that smile, he continued to look up at me.  And in a moment of newfound clarity, he took a deep breath, and then silently mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

A First Taste Of Metal

It took her nearly 95 years to hear it.  When she finally did, you could see the look in her eyes as she sat in the car, staring hypnotically at nothing in particular as her vision seemed to fall just short of the dashboard.

I had come to train Rouye Rush on a Saturday morning at The Wellington—her senior apartment complex that had a small, but adequate fitness center.  As I pulled into the main parking lot, I saw Rouye standing under a tall shade tree.  I had been listening to music in the car when the thought occurred to share a couple of songs with her.

I rolled down my window and pointed to the passenger’s seat.  “Why don’t you get out of the heat and have a seat.  I want you to hear something.”

For six years I’ve been training Rouye, who’s hardly your typical almost-centenarian.   There is a durableness about her physiology.  Though her skin is thinning, it is the musculature beneath that refuses to weaken.  A year ago she was sidelined from working out due to an outbreak of the shingles virus, leaving her legs aching and itching for weeks on end.  But when she did return to the gym, it was as if she had never skipped a beat. Pushing 130 pounds on the leg press wasn’t much of a challenge.  Perhaps the secret lies within her motivation.  Ask her to throw a 20-pound medicine ball five times against a wall, and she’ll give you ten.  Ask her to dribble a basketball in a figure eight pattern around her legs and, for the first time in nine decades, she’ll get it right by the third try without any sign of hesitation.  While she knows her limits, and easily recognizes when something is beyond her abilities, Rouye has an open mind that welcomes trying something new. Even if it’s, well…a bit shocking.

Enter: Heavy metal music.

Sitting in the passenger’s seat next to me, I turned to her and said, “Rouye, before we hit the weights, I want to play some music for you.”

“Okay,” she said, “Let’s hear it.”

I had my iPod hooked up to my car’s auxiliary outlet.

“How many songs do you have on that thing?” she asked.

“Over two-thousand.”

“Good lord,” she said shaking her head. “When does anyone find the time to listen to two-thousand songs?”

“I know it’s a lot,” I said chuckling at her surprise. “But I love my music.”

“Well, that’s pretty obvious.  Okay, so what do you want me to listen to?”

“Metal. Heavy metal.”

“Metal? Of course it’s heavy.”

“Metal, Rouye, is a type of music. Like rock, but harder.  It has an edge to it.  It’s not uncommon for the singing to be full of rage.”

How could I have not lost Rouye?  I might have been better off describing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel painting in pig Latin.

Classic get-to-the-point Rouye stepped up. “You’re not making a lick of sense.  Just play the song.”

“Okay, okay…but there’s a reason I want you to hear metal.”

“Which is?”

“To show you just how talented these guys are—just how gifted their voices are.  Trust me, you’re not going to like this first song.  But bear with me, and let me surprise you with something.”

And that’s when I cued up my iPod to the song Down With The Sickness by the group Disturbed.  All it took was the song’s opening tribal drum beat making way to David Draiman’s corrosive and guttural voice, to elicit a lifted eyebrow of uncertainty from Rouye.  Approaching 95 years old, and I had invited her into my car to get a shattering head full of heavy metal.  Could her morning start any worse?  What nightmares might she potentially have had as she settled into sleep that evening?  Gargoyles hovering above her, playing 12-string bass guitars? Or her freefalling into the molten caverns of inner-earth, while weighted down in a suit of medieval armor?

I made sure to cut those possibilities off at the pass, by playing just enough of Sickness to give her a taste of heavy metal music. There was no way I was going to inflict the entire song upon her.  “What do you think?” I asked.

“What do I think? What’s he saying? Why’s he barking like a dog?”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  “A dog… ha! But, I know…I hear ya.”

“And this is what you wanted to share with me?”

“Actually, yes. But there’s more to it. You know…don’t ever judge a book by its cover.”  I scrolled through my playlist of Disturbed songs until I found their version of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound Of Silence. “This is what I want you to hear.  It’s David Draiman—the same guy you just heard sing.  But this is his other side that not only illustrates his passion, but just how gifted he is.”

All it took were the first nine seconds of a piano leading to Draiman’s tender and beautiful voice.  So rich and captivating, you have no choice but to stop what you’re doing and listen. And if you’re Rouye Rush, you have no choice but to experience a reverent silence of admiration that slips you into a hypnotic trance just short of the dashboard.

Hello, darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again

Because a vision softly creeping

Left its seeds while I was sleeping

It’s hard to find a song that evokes as much emotion as this version.  I’ll never forget the sight of Rouye Rush.  Four months away from 95 years of age, and caught in the soaring notes of a heavy metal singer. At first impression, she’s not quite sure if the distorted style of his voice is, in fact, singing.  But make way for her open mind, and moments later she can’t believe that The Sound Of Silence is performed by the same person.

“He needs to do more songs like that one,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Really beautiful.  That song was meant to be sung that way.”

And that’s where I turned off the music, and we left the car to go work out in the gym.  As we walked, I couldn’t help but look at her and think about how different she was compared to the ten thousand people mentioned in the song…

And in the naked light I saw

Ten thousand people, maybe more

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening

David Draiman’s voice had delivered the song’s message like no one had done before.  And Rouye had not only heard it, she had truly listened.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017

 

The Culvert

Frances McNair was not the problem.  Her reasons for speaking her mind were valid.  On the contrary, whatever it was that made me interpret her as being a complainer, meant only one thing…

The problem was in my head.

While I knew that what I did had hit a nerve in Frances, I had also convinced myself that it was not going to be easily rectified.  Funny how the mind can travel to such great lengths to put you in a state of avoiding someone.  For two years in my town’s Activity Center, I occasionally saw her, and each time my eyes drifted away.  While my degree of avoidance was neither created by hatred nor vile discontent, there was certainly the smell of something just not right with my thinking.

Then, one Saturday morning while running through a quiet neighborhood, I spotted her standing in a concrete culvert. For just the briefest moment, we caught sight of each other.  But it was merely fleeting as I continued down the street.  And as I ran, my pace quickened. What I saw—what I surmised was taking place in the culvert—had me unexpectedly smiling.   For it was then that I realized all of my suspicions were unfounded, and, without a doubt, that Frances McNair was a very admirable and giving person.  And, as I would later find out, highly approachable.  Funny—again—how you want to kick yourself for making a mountain out of mole hill.  But even funnier if you were to attempt that kick while running.  So, I didn’t.

*                    *                    *

My working life is comprised of writing, selling art, and personal training. Two years ago I was instructing a client during an early morning swimming workout at the Activity Center’s pool. Typically, she swam in the afternoons, but due to scheduling conflicts we agreed to train at 6:00AM, when the facility opened.

We were the newbies that morning amongst a crowded pool of regulars. So regular, it appeared the group understood which lane each person used, as if there was an established order. We managed to share half a lane with an older gentlemen who obligingly waved us in. After a few warm-up laps, I briefed my client about what her workout would entail. She went through a series of stretches, then began her first set of intervals.

And there I stood—my stop watch in hand, as I monitored her swimming mechanics. I made note of her split times and swung my arm in big circles when I needed her to push the pace.  I was a new sight to the regulars, and, to most, my coaching was inconsequential.

Frances McNair thought otherwise.

She had been sitting on a bench, waiting for a lane to become available.  Normally, it was no big deal, as there was nothing you can do when the lanes are full.  Just swallow a tablespoon of patience, then wait your turn.

But patience had been running thin that morning as Frances watched a swimmer and her coach occupy part of a lane. In Frances’ mind, my coaching was stepping across the boundaries of proper decorum, as I had chosen a time when the pool was busy.  The lifeguard was about to get an earful of how I was lacking tact—an earful that didn’t take long to get passed onto me.

“Way to go, Ros…way to go.” The lifeguard said as I was later leaving the pool. “McNair’s not happy with you.”

“McWho?”

“Frances McNair.”

“You mean, Tom’s wife?”

“Yep. You were coaching a swimmer in the pool.”

“That’s an issue?”

“Well,” she continued. “She says you were intruding on people’s swim time without paying for the lane.”

“But I’m a member.”

“Look, all I’m saying is McNair’s not happy.”

And though that was the extent of our conversation, I couldn’t keep it from looping in my head for weeks to come—a period of time where I never saw Frances. I had known her merely by association as being Tom’s wife. And I had known Tom only on a “Hi” and “Hello” basis from encounters at running club meetings from years past. It’s safe to say that I really never knew Frances, but rather, recognized her.

As often as I frequented the Activity Center, it was inevitable that our paths would cross.  And the morning that they did, was the morning we approached each other walking on opposite sides of the hallway.  The lifeguard’s words echoed in my head: McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy, McNair’s not happy…  A few strides before we passed, I glanced at her hoping that I might see some sort of truce—perhaps a smile to indicate that her unhappiness had been washed under the bridge. But there was no such luck.  Eyes forward, her tall, narrow frame moved on, leaving me wondering if this was just normal Frances, or if this was the Frances you saw when someone got under her skin?

As it turns out, Frances wasn’t avoiding me.  True, there had been one negative interaction between us, but her silence had nothing to do with it. Time had moved on.  There was no grudge.  In fact, there was no grudge to begin with. There was no animosity of any kind.   All that was happening was that she simply didn’t know me. She was nothing more than a woman walking down the hallway, minding her own business. The pool incident was of minor concern to her now.  I had blown it way out of proportion, by amplifying the duration of her frustration.

The problem was in my head.

The incident was nothing more than a blip on the radar of life’s bad experiences.  And if this were to be ranked as something bad, then I figured I needed to get my head together, change my perspective on what was really worth worrying about, and get over it.  I had taken Frances as being unwilling to forgive.  But who was I to talk?  After all, I had been doing the same to her. I needed to clear the air, and felt compelled to speak to her.

However, it wasn’t going to happen soon, as it would be months until I’d see her again. And when I finally did see her, I caught sight of a Frances McNair that I had no idea existed.

And it all started during an early Saturday morning run.

*                    *                   *

The long straightaway down Dartmouth Street was part of a five-mile course I ran weekly.  One of the common sights were the stray cats.  I would spot them walking or crouching along the grassy shoulder.  As I neared, they would dart into a large drain pipe located in a concrete culvert to seek safety from whatever danger I might have posed.  There were several places around town where groups of strays had made their homes.  Often, culverts played an integral part in providing shelter for the cats.  Run after run, the cats were as much a part of the scenery as the houses along the street.

Then came the morning when I spotted Frances standing in the culvert. And as I neared her, I saw that familiar, expressionless glance shared between us.  But this time, things were different.  This time as I ran beyond her, I smiled.  Though I wasn’t certain, it appeared that she was feeding the cats. Frances McNair? You feed the cats??

 But there was no denying what was going on when, two weeks later, I saw Frances at the Activity Center, and my suspicions were confirmed.  She had been walking laps around the perimeter hallways.  For two years, I hadn’t uttered a single word to her.  I hadn’t made any effort to break the ice. However, on this day, there was an eagerness to not only say hello, but to learn about the commendable Frances.

“Excuse me, Mrs. McNair,” I said approaching her from behind. “Do you have a minute or two?”

Sometimes all it takes is just one smile to convince yourself of the size of a person’s heart. One smile can extinguish unsettled and harbored feelings that have incubated for far too long, and then bring to life the unexpected surprise of a warm welcome.

Frances McNair had that smile.

“Hey, Ros!” she said with effervescent delight. “What’s up?”

 “A couple of weeks ago I was running down Dartmouth Street.  That was you in the culvert, right?”

“Yes, I remember seeing you.”

“You were feeding those stray cats, right?”

“Every day, yes.”

I paused as we walked. “Every day? For how long?”

“Twenty-five years.”

Twenty-five years.  That rolls the calendars back to 1992.  It was a time when I was working for UPS, delivering the dusty backroads of the Texas Hill Country.  I was getting chased by Rottweilers in Wimberley, feeding giraffes on an exotic ranch in Dripping Springs, getting frisked by the Secret Service at LBJ’s ranch in Stonewall, talking to a TV actor-converted-monk in the hills of Blanco, and learning to hate Christmas during the 15-hour workdays during peak season.

And where was Frances McNair?  She was embarking on a decision to band with a small group of dedicated dog and cat enthusiasts who would specialize in making good out of the vulnerable and meager lives of stray cats.  The non-profit group would eventually call their organization Pet Prevent a Litter of Central Texas (known as PALS).  From the beginning, Frances helped create programs that allowed for the neutering of the strays, as well as the adoptions of kittens and tame cats.  To this day, feral strays are trapped, neutered, and then returned to their colonies.  Older cats like Mother, Stripes, Socks, and White Whiskers may live in a culvert, but do so with the caring heart of Frances looking over them.  Tending to five different locations around town, she’s named them all.

Our discussion lasted a few minutes more before Frances said she had to be getting home.  It was time for me to go as well.  Walking to our cars in the parking lot, I had one remaining question on my mind…

“Frances, do you remember the incident at the pool two years ago?”

She smiled. “Yes, I do.”

“I didn’t mean to take up the lane the way I did.”

“Oh, it wasn’t you I was upset at,” she said.  “The Center had allowed for a private club to practice without paying during a popular swim time, and I just saw it all happening again.”

“Well—now, hear me out, please—I took you as kind of a complainer.  Of course, we all complain, but I kind of pinned it on you. And I blew it out of proportion for a long time, and it’s something I regret.  Then came that morning I was running down Dartmouth, and I saw you in the culvert feeding the cats, and I was like…you have a side I had no idea even existed.  Frances McNair has a story.  And it’s a story I want to write.  You okay with that?”

“Write about me?”

“Yes.  I have a writing blog.  I especially like to write about people—everyday life stuff.”

“Well, as long as you don’t make me out to be the horrible, evil Frances McNair, sure.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I’m beyond that.”

*                    *                    *

And here I now find myself—with the problem out of my head—writing at the end of Frances’ story. It’s been a long journey since the time of the pool incident.  And, admittedly, it’s been a lesson learned about how easily we can mischaracterize someone.  Frances had no ill will toward me.  She merely had a concern.

The end of her story is now the beginning of mine—having a clear mind to understand a Frances McNair I’ve never known.

I’m curious about her personal experience in dealing with the strays.  I want to know about the days of inclement weather when, despite the driving rain, freezing temperatures, or searing heat, she still took care of the cats. I want to know about conversations with people in the neighborhoods who might disagree with what she does.  There’s plenty to ask, but most important, I want to know what drives Frances McNair to be as dedicated as she is.

And I know exactly where to start…1992.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2017