When you’re 13 years old, the last thing you ever expected or needed was four days of unending tears. Add an equal amount of anger, and I can’t begin to fathom how far down the anguish must have been. I was never there to help him. And even if I had been, I doubt he could’ve reached my outstretched hand. I was simply too far away. The well of mourning is a dark and tiresome place to be.  It’s simply a matter of time before, eventually, you begin to see some light.

Nile Copeland found himself in that well the moment he returned home from school, and was greeted by three police officers in his living room. The news was not good.

His father, Ken Copeland, would not be coming home that night, or any night thereafter. He had just been killed in the line of duty while serving an arrest warrant for a violent crime.

Nile doesn’t remember what he picked up, but he does recall throwing it with everything he had. Anger and mourning are a fierce combination, and to even think that you can demagnetize them would be a foolish thought. Although destructive, it’s best to give them the right-of-way, and let them run their course

*           *           *

Three weeks ago, I crossed paths with Nile, his three brothers, and his mother.  They were on their way to a benefit concert to raise money for the family.  As his personal trainer, I had been wanting to touch base with Nile, but wasn’t sure when the time was right.   It had only been 18 days since his father’s passing, and they had been subjected to a number of formalities that are followed in observance of a fallen police officer.  The brotherhood among officers is tight.  No two cops ever need to know each other to form a fraternal bond. It exists upon first recognition of their professions.  And when one of their own is murdered, the fraternal bonds only becomes stronger.

The week after I saw them, I trained Nile for the first time since his father’s death. Due to his condition of spina bifida, he is restricted to a wheelchair.  My job is simply to keep him strong. His mother, Sheila, had brought him. From what I could tell, she was holding herself together fairly well, as she told me about the avalanche of donations that had spilled into their home, and mentioned several fundraising benefits that had been organized to raise money and ease the family’s financial burdens. I mentioned I had written a tribute to her husband that had run in the local newspaper. She said she had been so out of the loop regarding articles about Ken, and hadn’t read anything, but asked me to send her my story.

And that’s when I detected a slight pause in her speech—the recollection of her loss.  One of the many that would occur in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.  I shifted the conversation to Nile and his training, and suggested we get started.

As he entered the weight room ahead of me, I looked back at Sheila walking away. What she must have gone through the day she learned the news.  It’s beyond comprehension. We lose something so priceless from our lives, and its vacancy yields a far greater weight than we could have ever imagined possible.

*            *             *

Nile was born with a type of spina bifida called myelomeningocele.  It is when the backbone and spinal cord don’t come together properly during development in the womb. He’s confined to a wheelchair due to the severe weakness in his legs.  Despite that, he possesses a number of qualities that immediately steal your attention away from his physical condition:  his personality, his intelligence, his keen interest in the animal kingdom, his wit, and, never to forget, his smile.

Prior to meeting him, I knew very little about lizards, tarantulas, and snakes.  But if you spend enough time with a kid whose entire family has a strong interest in those animals, you start to appreciate the excitement and intrigue for their pets.  I have always had a big dislike for spiders.  Keep me a few hundred yards from them, and I begin to feel comfortable.  However, Nile has a way of easing my aversion toward arachnids.  He has a tarantula whose body has a hint of blue.  Right there I’m thinking, Okay, I love the color blue, so I’ll give this big spider some credit for being likeable.  And before you know it, Nile is educating me about their behaviors, their feeding habits, and their quickness.  The kid’s in 7th grade, but I swear he should be teaching college biology.  

So, this is how it goes when I strength train Nile:

With free weights and cables, he goes through a series of bicep curls, hammer curls, triceps kickbacks, high-pulls, front presses, lateral raises, pullovers, and close-grip cable pulls. To strengthen his legs, he is able to maneuver his body out of the wheelchair and situate himself onto the leg press and leg extension machines.

Then comes the part that doesn’t excite me, but thrills him to no end—he gets to throw the ten-pound medicine ball at me.  Good lord, the kid can throw.  He propels that ball as if we are the last two competitors left in a merciless game of dodgeball.  Each throw is accented with a cunning smile—one that is intent upon getting the best of me, or making the worst of me.  For all I know, it’s a game called “aNILEation!!”  The purpose of the game:  destroy your opponent.

It’s one of many exercises designed to help strengthen his core.  So, there I sit, shielding my face as he launches the ball from ten feet away.  We can’t help but laugh as he continues the onslaught.  And I can’t help but see how much enjoyment he’s having.  He loves the possibility of me missing the ball and getting blown off the bench that I sit on.  And if there’s one thing that Nile could use in his life right now, it’s exactly that—a hefty dose of fun.

For an hour I get the blood pumping in his arms and legs.  His heart rate climbs as the weight or repetitions increase.  A little bit of heavier breathing is a good thing for him.  I have no intentions of diverting his mind from anything. The loss of his dad is still very close in the past.  But if exercising gives his mind a reprieve, then so be it.

And though we laugh each time he fires the medicine ball at me, I can’t help but have sympathy for what must be running through his mind…

The memories of his dad.  The anger toward the man who took his life.  The understanding that his mom now needs every ounce of love that he could ever give her. And knowing that he must be there for his brothers when times are tough. Nile is in many places at one time.

His father is now gone—and forever untouchable—but Nile’s bond with him will never be broken.


Copyright Ros Hill 2018


The Very Last Time

As a parent, when it happens, you are completely unaware. And after it happens, you will never reflect on it, because the fact that the moment even occurred will never cross your mind. But once you realize that it did happen, you’ll sit there scratching your head, until you realize, perhaps, it’s just something that you’ll never figure out.

Sounds like a riddle, but it’s not.

There came a moment in all of our lives when it was the last time we were picked up by our parents. The day came when they stopped reaching down to grab us by our underarms, and lift us up to giggle, coo, and rub noses. They stopped sweeping us up from around our waists to hold us in an arm hammock. The day came when it simply stopped happening. It wasn’t planned, nor was there any awareness that it was to be the last time. It just happened without anyone knowing. And for many, if not all, it was never noticed or even discussed. It was a sort of silent rite of passage in our childhood development. We were a little heavier, a little taller, a little more vocal, and preferred to do things a little more on our own. Our arms no longer reached out for our parents. We walked on our own throughout the house. Instead of carrying us, they called us to come to them. And if they didn’t call us, it was because we were leading the way.

Whether it’s you the child, or you the parent, I’m intrigued by how nearly impossible it is to trace our footsteps back to that moment, where the first signs of independence and separation began.

Our lives are full of many “last” moments. Some we are well aware of, like our last day at high school or college, our last day at a job, or the last time we wore braces. They are milestones in the chronology of our lives.

And yet, as traceable as those dates may be, I find it interesting how unnoticeable it is when a parent picks up his or her child for the last time. But not being aware of that moment occurring or having occurred is probably a good thing. Otherwise, to be cognizant of it might be a complete soul crusher….

* * *

It’s early morning as a sliver of magenta creeps upon the horizon outside the mother’s bedroom window. It’s been a long, restless night. It happened with her two older children, and now, she could sense that the inevitable was about to occur with her third child. She gets out of bed, and lugs her heavy feet through the house and into the kitchen, where she makes a cup of coffee. But she can only manage a couple of sips. The memory of yesterday clogs her mind and triggers pangs in her gut. Why must it be this way? Time was moving at a nice slow pace.

She hears the soft footsteps approaching the kitchen. There is a teetering about them, a newness of sorts. Her youngest child enters through the doorway, knuckling the sleep out of his eyes.

“Sweetie,” she says, “Why are you up? It’s very early.”

“Smell Mommy’s coffee. It wake me up.”

“I’m sorry. Let’s get you back to bed, okay?” She stands up and approaches him. “Let Mommy carry you back to bed.”

“It ok, Mommy. I go myself.”

This has come to an end all too quickly. Why?

There is no way of restraining her tears. There is no way of escaping this moment. Her little boy….a bit heavier, a bit taller, and a bit more vocal, turns and leaves the kitchen, leaving nothing but the sound of his footsteps trailing off in the distance.

She sits back down, and peers into the dark abyss of a 4-inch mug of coffee. This morning….it is a confirmation. Gone are the days, when, like yesterday, she picked him up for the very last time.

* * *

So, maybe it’s a fortunate thing that we aren’t aware of the last time we picked up our child. There seems to be a mechanism of some kind within us that’s designed to soften that blow, or rather, bypass it altogether. And I’m good with that. Because the alternative would be forever painful recalling those footsteps walking away for the very first time.

Copyright Ros Hill 2018

70 Million Years

It’s midnight, and I’m alive. But feel free to bury me up to my neck in the sand, near where the surf rolls in.  I want to feel the pull of the tide as it recedes and tries to take me with it. I want to feel that initial tug that says, “Come with me.” There are a myriad of primeval forces around us, but it’s the moon-driven tide that impresses me most. We and the earth are comprised of so much water, that it’s no wonder the attraction exists.

Then, as I shift my body and break free, I stand covered in wet sand that sticks to me like a second skin. I’m not sure I want to shake it free, because I’m immersed in a connected and ethereal moment that I don’t want to end.

Stare at an ocean long enough, and you won’t want to leave it.  Travel far out to its deeper waters, or listen to the arrival of its tide and you’ll come to understand its ever-changing moods. It can rattle your comfort zone with a violent thunderous pounding, or it can sing you a lullaby with the soothing sound of its gentle, foamy surf, and put you to sleep like a baby.

I’ve stood before mountains that make my jaw drop. To say that they are magnificent only touches the surface. To say that they have stirred my emotions does far more justice to defining their presence. Yet, as spectacular as their size and formations are, given the choice between mountains and the ocean, it is the ocean that catches my attention most.

Its movement and sounds are ever-changing, as it ebbs and flows, and rises and falls. It is truly as if it is alive—an organism of its own kind—restless, and never sleeping. A Jekyll & Hyde. A monster and a best friend. It can support massive ships just as easily as it can sink them.   Its danger and beauty are equally enthralling.

And it loves to surprise us…

Just outside of Denver, Colorado, there is a lookout point that provides a spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains to the west. They consist of peaks climbing to over 12,000 feet. While the sight is impressive, there’s something else about it that completely challenges the imagination…

Prehistoric fish.

There was a time during the Oceanic era when the Rockies were underwater—when aquatic life was abundant. Aquatic fossils have been found thousands of feet high up in the mountainsides, confirming just how great the volume of water once was.

And so my imagination goes to work:

I’m standing at the lookout point. Well, I’m trying to stand, but I’m actually floating. After all, I’m in scuba gear, and it’s 70 million years into the past. I know, I know…as unrealistic as a hot air balloon ride to the moon, but bear with me…

The Rocky Mountains are about to enter a period of formation, but they’re obviously too far to swim to. The water is murky, and I have no idea how far up the surface is. I suddenly feel a turbulent current as my feet are swept from underneath me, but it is only momentary as I soon regain control of myself. However, in that moment of losing balance, I saw it pass by—obscured by the cloudy water, but close enough to partially make out: dark gray, scales along the ridge of its back, a large head, and at least ten feet in length. Was it carnivorous? Was it hungry and now on its return? Or was it docile and simply enjoying an afternoon swim?  Uncertain, I figure it’s as good a time as any to leave the lookout point, and swim upward.

I swim until the murky water gives way to the first signs of penetrating daylight. Soon, shafts of sun rays are beaming down around me, and before I know it, my head breaches the surface. I push my mask up to my forehead, take out my mouthpiece, and then look around. Water, water everywhere. Not a mountain peak to be seen. I taste the water’s salt, and feel its sting in my eyes. Bobbing up and down, it dawns on me that I’ve traveled 70 million years into the past, only to confirm that the ocean—for as long as it’s been around—never gets old.

                        *         *        *

If you drive 236 miles east of Denver, you’ll come to an outcropping of chalk formations called Monument Rocks in Oakley, Kansas. And what an unlikely place it would seem to be where an archaeologist discovered the 14-foot fossil of a carnivorous saltwater fish—Kansas, of all places. But the region shared the same seaway that extended from the Gulf of Mexico through the Rockies and north into Canada.

The locals in Oakley will tell you that after a rain, the chalk monuments will emit a smell like that of an ocean bay. Seventy million years later, and in flat lands of Kansas, you can see and smell the remnants of the ocean.

If you’re fortunate enough to make the trip to Oakley, do yourself a favor and look out at the surrounding prairies of tall buffalo grass, and even beyond, to the sprawling fields of wheat.  What you’ll notice is the sound and movement of the fields as they sway in the breeze.  And, like the ocean, it’ll captivate you.  It’ll put aside any concern you may have with time by simply drawing you into its near-hypnotic rhythms.

Funny how land can have a way of mimicking water. Perhaps those waves of grass are paying homage to prehistoric times when, after all, it was water that carved the landscapes of the continents and allowed life to exist.  The Monument Rocks are far more than just a place where a large fish skeleton was found encased in a tomb of Kansas chalk.  Instead, it’s a place that is alive with the history of the ocean.  A place where the sea once rocked hard on stormy nights, and rolled gently on lazy afternoons.

A place where the ocean receded, but really never left.


Copyright Ros Hill 2017

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


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

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.”


“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