Watch Over You

It was the day after Christmas, and my car was the only one in the parking lot. Morning light was just arriving as I sat on a curb to tie my running shoes. I had my iPod playing “Watch Over You” by Alter Bridge. The song moves you in so many ways, and I have listened to it more than any other song in my collection of over a thousand. My intent was to run four easy miles with nothing but Alter Bridge turned up. I think I ran ten strides before I stopped, turned around, and walked back to the car to put my iPod away. I have no idea why I did that. Though later, I did wonder.

*       *       *

I took the trail along the river that cuts through town. I was not just the lone runner, but was the only person to be seen. Three sounds could be heard: the crunch of the gravel beneath my feet, birds chirping in the trees, and my breathing. Eventually, the trail turned and took me away from the river, leading to a long straightaway that ran adjacent to a street. On my left was a baseball complex, and on my right was a neighborhood. It was there that I heard the fourth sound: a woman’s voice.

“Excuse me….excuse me,” she said from across the street. Her voice was weak and sounded desperate. She was in her mid-30s, forty or so pounds overweight, and was pushing a two-seat baby stroller. As I crossed the street, I watched her wipe some tears off her cheeks.

“You okay?” I asked. The stroller was occupied with an infant and a child no more than two-years-old.

“I need to get to Siesta Mobile Home Park. Do you know where that is?”

I used to be a UPS driver in my town. There’s not a street I don’t know. “That’s over on Uhland road,” I said. “Kinda far from here.”

“How far?”

“At least two miles.”

Her face dropped. She was exhausted. She might have come from the nearby bus station, or had left a domestic dispute from within the neighborhood. Perhaps she hadn’t slept much all night with two restless children. I could speculate for hours, creating endless scenarios that would’ve led her to this moment. But I had no idea, nor did I know how long she had been walking that morning. Though I was curious as to why a mother of two was out at dawn, crying, and not knowing which direction she should travel, I didn’t ask. I was simply concerned with her current situation. But my options for finding help were few. Neither of us had a phone. I knew no one in this neighborhood, and the streets were silent. To give her directions to the mobile home park would entail many street names and turns. In her condition, it was very unlikely she was going to retain the information.

“Look,” I said. “If you see a police car, wave it down. That’s your best bet. I’m sure they can help.” And that was all I had to offer. I felt empty. Here was a woman in a helpless situation, shuffling through town with no idea where to go. I pointed her in the general direction. She thanked me for stopping before we parted ways. In an hour I would be home, taking a hot shower, while she would be…well, there was no telling.

I continued my run on the trail that led around the baseball complex. The fields, dugouts, and concessions building looked as dormant as the bare trees around them. Winter was here. Just what exactly was her story? Why the tears? How lost was she? I could only assume her Christmas was not much to talk about. When was the last time someone had given her reason to smile?

As I contemplated those questions, and rounded one of the baseball fields leading to a small parking lot, I found my own reason to smile. I came upon a police car. What were the chances?

On this quiet morning, as criminals and mischievous people were sound asleep, the cop was taking a break. As I approached his car, he rolled down his window.

“Excuse me, officer. I have a question.”

“Well,” he said, “I’ve got an answer. What’s up?”

I told him about my encounter with the woman. I said that she appeared legit—that she wasn’t putting on an act or fronting some kind of scam. She truly seemed lost and in need of assistance.

“Well then,” he said. “I’ll check her out.”

As he drove away, I resumed running, reconnecting with the trail that, again, continued along the river. This portion of the trail gave me an open view of the cop. I slowed my pace as I tracked his car approaching the woman and the stroller. Stopping alongside her, he rolled his passenger side window down. She leaned over and spoke while pointing in the direction I had told her to go. Moments later, he got out, walked around to her side, and opened the back door.

This was when I came to a stop, as emotion knotted in my throat. I watched him take the stroller as the mother situated the two children into the car. I thought about my iPod—about those first ten strides I had taken before making the decision to put it away. The only times I have ever returned to the car to not use it has been due to threatening rain. Other than that, I continue on. And what song did I last play that stayed in my head until I met the woman?

“Watch Over You”. How fitting was that?

I had come to a “Y” in the trail. If I went right, it would take me further along the river. I chose left to go past the cop car. The mother was bent over, adjusting her children in the backseat. She would never see me again. Whether or not the cop had mentioned me in their discussion was insignificant. All that mattered was the last sight I caught of him as I ran by: a reassuring smile. Even if a day late, it’s a beautiful thing witnessing the spirit of Christmas.

The song, putting away the iPod that later allowed me to hear the woman, the suggestion for her to wave down a cop, and then the cop. Sometimes a sequence of events can leave you speechless, but wondering. And because it’s greater than you can comprehend, you just have to stop and marvel at the unexplainable.

Copyright Ros Hill 2016

Twig

Lauren was 20 years old when she woke up on a bed of hay in the landscaping trailer.  She was the rear passenger on a motorcycle that had collided with the pickup truck towing it.  You would think that when you’re catapulted from traveling at a high rate of speed, your flight would be nearly as fast, and your trajectory would lead to no happy ending.

For Lauren that was not the case. She recalls it was as if something had gently guided her into that trailer. As if something were looking after her. To this day though, she has no idea what that something was.

But what she does know is that had it not been for the trailer being in the right place at the right time, chances are she would not be here today. Nor would she have had the chance many years later to read the name tag of a 91-year-old grocery store employee. After all, it was the name tag that made all the difference.

Strange coincidences are always the best. Even if they take nineteen years to occur.

*          *          *

It all began in 1997, in a high school English class taught by her mother, when the name caught Lauren’s attention: Terwilliger. Such a different name. But a fun name. A name whose syllables playfully skip off the tongue. It could be a character from a book of fables…Prince Terwilliger raised his golden sword atop his winged stallion. It could be a hobbit….Terwilliger was the greatest carpenter of all Middle-earth. Or it could even be a gift shop…All bracelets are 50% off at Terwilliger’s!

It could also be the name of a professional baseball player.

Wayne Terwilliger is his name. He played in the major leagues from 1949-1960. He was a second baseman, drafted first by the Chicago Cubs before going on to play for four other teams. His most notable experience was with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he played alongside the great Jackie Robinson.

From the moment Lauren came across his name, it became a part of her life—infiltrating her in such a way that she felt committed to it. She used it for computer pass codes. She said Terwilliger was worthy of being the name of her first-born.  Though said in jest, the statement had a sincere undertone—a way of acknowledging that no other word rivaled it.  What was the highlight of her English class? Reading a short essay by Annie Dillard entitled “Terwilliger Bunts One”. Just saying that title made her smile. An audible alignment of words that sounded perfect.  As if better off with no spaces: Terwilligerbuntsone. It became a catch-phrase that she would never forget.

*          *          *

Nineteen years have passed since her high school English class. Lauren has spent time broadening her horizons by travelling to Korea to stay with a friend and explore a culture literally foreign to her. She visited Hawaii to learn about the healing powers of herbal medicine.  But it is her love of music that guides her to an occupation suiting her perfectly. She acquires a degree in music therapy that channels her passion to improve the lives of people with autism. The non-threatening medium of music reaches far into their psyches where other methods of treatment have not.  The music taps into the tight crevices of the brain that struggle to make sense of things most people take for granted.  It’s a masterful style of therapy that opens up the mind, instead of confusing it.

Lauren’s life has been well-travelled and not wasted amongst the bane of typical everyday living. She’s favored taking the paths that explore her curiosities. It has been a productive life that has also encountered the miraculous….

*          *          *

It is summer 2016, and Lauren is driving on I-20 with her 2-week-old daughter, Dorothy, to a pediatrician appointment in Ft. Worth, Texas. Halfway into the thirty-minute trip from her home in Weatherford, Lauren realizes she is out of baby formula. The small town of Aledo is just ahead, so she exits the highway for a Brookshire Brothers grocery store.  Grab the formula off the shelf, put a few other items in the basket, pay the cashier, and off you go.  What could possibly interrupt such a simple errand?  Perhaps a name tag.

What happened next came with no warnings.  No signs indicated something magical was about to occur.  There was no strange feeling like the time she went airborne from the motorcycle and felt as if some kind of guardian had steered her safely into that bed of hay. There was nothing like that.  There was only a 91-year-old man watching her struggle with her bag of purchases while trying to maneuver Dorothy back into her car seat. He was an employee of the store who often helped customers with their groceries.  He offered his help, which she accepted, and when he finished she noticed his name tag.

“‘Twig’,” she said. “Now that’s an interesting name.”

“Oh, that,” he said, smiling. “That’s actually my nickname.”

“It’s a great nickname,” she replied. “It’s unusual.  In fact, I have an unusual one myself.  For the longest time, people have called me ‘Linky’.”

“Well, Linky, my real name is Terwilliger.”

Lauren did a double take, uncertain if she’d actually heard him correctly. “Did you say…Terwilliger?”

“Yes I did.”

“This is so strange, because I’ve always loved that name.  Came across it in an English class.  There was a baseball player named Terwilliger.”

Caught in a moment of disbelief, he paused, reciprocating the double take, then said, “That’s me. I’m Wayne ‘Twig’ Terwilliger.”

Two people. Neither knows the other, but they are immediately connected through the magic of a wonderful coincidence.  It is a moment rich with immeasurable value.

When you’re 91 years old, you can pretty much say that you’ve seen and heard it all.  You’ve got more memories than there is time left on the earth to tell of them.  But each day that you awaken leaves an opening for something new, and perhaps something unlikely.  The marvel of an improbability will always be welcome.  After all, having the soul stirred with amazement simply never gets old.

Lauren told him of the essay she had read that introduced her to “Terwilliger” and went on to explain how much she liked his name.  The coincidence of her crossing paths with him was something they both found unbelievable. Unable to wait till he got home to tell his wife the news, he called her from the store.

It took nineteen years for Lauren to finally find a person whom she had never been looking for.  For nineteen years she had never forgotten about the allure of Terwilliger.  But what were the chances of meeting him without any premeditated plan? Her nickname, Linky—was there any possibility that it was in some way a clue or premonition of things to be linked by some unexplainable cause?  And was it at all possible that whatever had guided her into that soft bed of hay had somehow been involved, directing Lauren’s path to Aledo, Texas? It’s anyone’s guess.

At the time that Wayne Terwilliger called his wife, Lauren took out her cell phone and dialed her mother. “Mom,” she said.  “Remember my English class you taught back in 1997?  Well, have I got a story for you…”

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2016

Thank You, Sammy Hagar

If someone were to have offered me $100 to not have a two-minute conversation with a woman  I’d never met before, I would’ve turned it down in a heartbeat.  A $500 offer? Getting up there, but I would’ve turned it down as well.  Though chances are I’ll never see her again, you can still keep your money.

She was a stocky woman behind me in a grocery store check-out line.  Next to her was a girl about 13 years old.  The woman, in her mid-50s, was hunched over the handle of her grocery cart in such a manner that looked as though she might have been giving her back a break. It was 9:30PM, and she had that end-of-a-long-day look—her face drab and expressionless.  Her entire body just waiting to get home, heat up a frozen pizza, then collapse on the sofa. No need to prepare for bed.  Just drift off to sleep. In a moment of wrongful judgment, I actually thought: Has her life always been this way?

A couple in front of me paid for their groceries, then left.  As I took the position in front of the credit card terminal, and the cashier began to scan my items, something happened that completely changed the scene.

A song began to play.

And as it played, a delay with the cashier occurred—a malfunction with his register. The delay took about a minute for him to fix.   When I look back at this moment, I wonder if it’s even remotely possible that this malfunction was more than just a coincidence.  That it happened for a reason. Because without that extra one minute, I’m confident the ensuing magic would not have happened…

As the cashier tinkered with his register, the song could be heard throughout the store’s sound system.  I noticed the woman and the young girl began tapping their feet.  Moments later they both began to quietly sing the song’s chorus:

How do I know when it’s love?

I can’t tell you, but it lasts forever.

How do you know when it’s love?

It’s just something you feel together.

When it’s love

“Good ol’ Sammy Hagar,” said the woman to the girl. “Or was this Van Halen?”

“It’s Sammy Hagar with Van Halen,” I interjected. “This is from their OU812 album.”

This woman with the presumed aching back, and long, tiresome day, and who lacked enthusiasm—she lit up a smile too big to be measured. “Of course it is!” she said, energetically. “You’re right! This is OU812, and it was recorded at Studio 5150.”

“You know about 5150?” I said, completely surprised.

The woman throws her head back, laughing with astounding joy.  She is an absolute bundle of happy warmth.  When was the last time I saw a smile this exuberant? When was the last time I missed the mark by so much, judging someone’s state of being?

“Who do you take me for?” she laughs. “I grew up with this music. Big Sammy Hagar fan. My daughter here—she had no choice…it’s all I listen to.”

I asked her if she was aware of the group Montrose that preceded Van Halen. I think her laugh doubled in volume.

Montrose!? You are too much!” she said.  “Of course I am! Sammy Hagar sang for them. Songs like “Space Station #5” and “Bad Motor Scooter”.  She was now laughing uproariously. “This is way too much!”

We are both caught in the moment.  Smiling and laughing as we stumble over a shared interest that, in itself, had miraculously and invitingly arrived with open arms.

Her daughter continues to tap her feet.  Her hand slaps gently against her hip in sync with the song’s beat.  Her genetic coding is imprinted with an obvious character trait passed down from her mother:  a priceless smile that snatches your attention and elevates you to a higher place. Her eyes are nearly shut as she continues to sing:

You look at every face in a crowd

Some shine and some keep you guessin’

Waiting for someone to come into focus

Teach you your final love lesson

I’ll never forget that night. All two minutes of it. Meeting a woman whom I had pegged as tiresomely mundane. A woman who couldn’t possibly have anything to offer—to change me, to wow me.  In truth, I wanted that cash register to be a difficult and time-consuming fix. I didn’t want to leave that moment.  I wanted to bask in the surprise of what this woman had given me:  a simple but remarkable conversation from out of the blue.  In fact, it wasn’t so much what was being said that filled my spirit, but more so bearing witness to her energy.

The cash register repaired, I paid for my groceries, then turned to her. “You have a great, great evening.” I said.

“And you,” she said, laughing one last time. “You have an even greater one!”

*              *              *

At first she was a face in the crowd. Then she kept me guessin’ until I watched her shine. And that’s when everything came into focus.

Thank you, Sammy Hagar.

 

 Copyright Ros Hill 2016

 

The Smile of Connie Cabello

You could write a laundry list of all the things my Uncle Ike was associated with pertaining to the medical industry.  He was Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at Vanderbilt University, had been the CEO of Duke Hospital at Duke University, and was president of the International Society of Nephrology.  He lived a very comfortable life that allowed him to travel the world.  He was one of the privileged few who flew at 1,334 mph in the supersonic Concorde jet from New York City to Paris in 3 1/2 hours.

He would eventually buy a nice boat for him and his wife to enjoy the waters of Naples, Florida. Time to simply get away.  Of course, it was dwarfed by his friend’s yacht.  The same friend who would donate millions of dollars to Vanderbilt.  Uncle Ike knew a lot of people whose financial holdings were very well off, and he too was fortunate to enjoy an affluent lifestyle.  All of these people, including himself, worked hard for what they earned. Nothing had been handed to them.  But if I had to tell you what his greatest success was, I wouldn’t hesitate to say it had nothing to do with money, but rather it was his ability to stay humble.

It was near the end of his life when I found myself sitting with him in his living room in Nashville. He had taken on a stubborn and rare form of lung disease. His house was loaded with massive oxygen tanks. He mentioned how he’d been wined and dined all over the planet.  He talked about many of his travels and the various dignitaries he had met.   Yet amongst all the wealth and important people that he had encountered, he came to find there was one group of people that he was particularly fond of. And that was the custodians.  He said, “They are real people. They tell it like it is. They aren’t ashamed of their jobs, and they’re proud of themselves.”

Uncle Ike paused for just a moment, then smiled as he shifted into his classic dry humor tone, “But the real reason I’ve gotten to know the custodians is because they have the keys to open every door on campus.”

As I laughed, I couldn’t stop thinking about a similar admiration I had experienced some fifteen years earlier—that of a short, bubbly Hispanic woman in Seguin, Texas.

*          *          *

Connie Cabello was a custodian. She worked at the radio station where I produced commercials and was a disc jockey. I wasn’t the most skilled DJ, as I can recall numerous times I would leave the studio to go chat in the lobby with a 45 record playing, only to forget that the record was playing. It didn’t take but the duration of the song until I heard over the in-house speakers the sound of the turntable needle playing nothing but unrecorded vinyl.

Seguin is a small town where many of the citizens had names of German and Czech descent. I, of course, did a brilliant job of butchering their pronunciations—managing to screw up during the most opportune times.  Like obituaries.  I mean, seriously, here I was announcing their last great farewell on the airwaves and what do I do, but pronounce their names like a preschooler being asked to say “antidisestablishmentarianism”.  The phones rang off the wall as if I had butchered an American eagle.  Reading the daily obituaries became a mind-shuddering experience.  Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up! Don’t screw up! That was the mantra that incessantly played throughout my mind as I waited for my microphone to go “On Air”.  And, of course, I’d screw up.

It seemed that every time I stumbled across a vocal blunder, Connie Cabello was there to throw me a smile.  And it was that first smile I caught that I forever put in my pocket.  Like the first dollar exchanged in a new business’s first sale—mounted on the wall in a framed display.  To this day, her smile beaming through that studio window is as new as the first time I saw it.

She quickly became that one person who I looked forward to seeing when I went to work.  When I did the midnight shift, she’d stop by after having had a little too much to drink while dancing the night away at the local Hispanic dance hall.  I was basically running the FM country station on auto-pilot as all the songs were taped.  No more vinyl that I had to cue up and screw up.  Everything ran through a computer playlist.  All I had to do was watch the monitor, and pull wired news copy to read at the top of the hour.

It was a sort of babysitter job that allowed me one great luxury:  to hang out with Connie.

If we weren’t laughing, we were digging up anything to laugh about.  She introduced me to all the latest Tejano music and, of course, Mexican food.  We began cooking for each other, sharing recipes on Saturday nights.  I, being the white boy, would bring her spaghetti.  She’d cook me her homemade pork-stuffed tamales warmly wrapped in corn husks that basically blew my socks off.  Soon I said to hell with spaghetti, and became addicted to her Mexican treats.

One night Connie stopped by the station with just a few tamales, and told me she was going to stop eating them, that she needed to lose weight.  She noticed that I ate a lot of salads, and asked if they would help her shed the pounds.  We had a long talk that night about weight and healthy eating.  Her excess weight was (to coin a phrase) getting under her skin.  She had had enough, and wanted a change.  Connie realized I was someone she could confide in, someone she could trust to share her frustrations with.

A few years later, I stopped working at the radio station.  I had caught the travel bug.  I was single with no ties, and so I boarded a plane and went backpacking throughout South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.  I was half the globe away from Connie, but she would still pop into my head, even at the oddest times: going for a run in a safari base camp, fishing on the Zambezi River, awestruck at Victoria Falls, or standing at the very tip of Good Hope to watch the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide.

As the years passed, Connie was always someone who I would call periodically.  She wanted to know all the details of my family.  She was highly inquisitive.  If you didn’t have a question for her, she’d endlessly fire them at you.  I wrote her Christmas holiday letters, about anything and everything, often enclosed with family photos.  Unable to read English, she had her daughter read them to her.  She made a few trips to my house where she’d stay well into the night, laughing the majority of the time.  She was approaching her seventies, but her energy level didn’t indicate any such aging.  She came over for a couple of Thanksgivings, always arriving with plenty of her prized homemade tamales.

Life got busier, especially with our kids being highly involved in youth sports. Everything exponentially   exploded into back-to-back full days and weeks, and for that matter years.  But Connie was still merely a phone call away. The excitement in her voice rose skyward when she heard me on the other end. Half of it was in Spanish, which meant I didn’t understand half of what she was saying, but I fully felt all that she was saying.  Her sincere voice—it had a way of settling softly into your heart.

The day arrived when we received a call from one of her daughters.  Connie had passed away.  The warm and ebullient gift named Connie had expired, but only in its human form.  I’m pretty certain the magic of Connie is still circling this planet in some form or fashion.

The entire drive to the funeral home in Seguin, I kept telling myself:  I can handle this.  The parking lot was crowded.  A lot of people had come to offer their condolences.  I can handle this.

 As I entered the funeral home, one thing was immediately evident: I was the only white person.  And at 6’4, I probably appeared even whiter.   The looks on their faces said: Certainly you have the wrong place.  A woman approached me and said, “Excuse me, may I help you?”

“Yes, I’m here for—” I looked at her, and stopped mid-sentence. I could see it…her eyes.  In fact, her voice…remnants of Connie were addressing me.  This Hispanic woman had a familiar friendliness about her as well.  And how familiar it felt. “Yes,” I said, “I’m here for Connie Cabello.”

“And you are?”

“Ros.”

I’m not sure I could have measured the fragment of time that passed from when I said my name to the time I saw the first tear fall from her eyes.  And in that sudden wave of emotion, she was already holding my hand.  Her chin quivered just before she released a trail of tears.  We were both in a place neither of us had anticipated.  She was one of Connie’s daughters.  “You’re…Ros?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ros,” she said, ”You—“  She was struggling to talk, her throat gripped tightly with emotion.  She took a deep breath, collected herself, then continued… “Ros, you were all my mother talked about. I mean she couldn’t stop talking about Ros.  You were her magic.”

She guided me towards the main gathering of people. “Look,” she said to them, “It’s Ros!”

My name quickly circled the room.  Hands extended towards me from all directions.  Hugs from people I had never met.  A reverent blanket of warmth filled the air.  But I was a bit taken aback by all the attention.  Sure, I knew Connie, but we all knew Connie.

I met the entire family and Connie’s closest friends.  And each time I made an attempt to talk, the words just never made it out.  I knew I had impacted Connie’s life, but never to such a degree that I would be rendered unable to speak.  I had no idea how much I had influenced her life.  Her daughter told me that after I would call her, she’d go to her collection of family Christmas photos that I’d sent over the years, and just smile.  She couldn’t read a lick of English, but when her daughter read her my letters, she shut out the world and permanently tucked my words inside her heart.

I’ll never forget being in that room.  I’ll never forget the sudden and unexpected pang of regret that pierced my heart.  What I would have given to have one last minute with Connie—to thank her for allowing me into her life.  I wanted to give Connie all the credit in the world for bringing those warm tamales to the radio station.  She didn’t have to do it, but she did because she was a giver.  I wanted to thank her for being the greatest audience of one on the other side of that studio window as I comically danced for her to cheesy country songs.  Give me one more minute and I’d tell her how magnificent a sight it is to see two oceans clash at the very tip of Africa—a moment where I held her safe in my memory.

Referring to my Uncle Ike as he would say of the custodians of the world:  In addition to having all the keys to the radio station, Connie never relied on wealth to give her value, and she was not ashamed of her job.  She did, however, rely on one thing that never failed to succeed: her smile.

Connie…wherever you are…I’ve still got that first smile you gave me, tucked away in my pocket.  I take it out now and then to remind me of what a difference you made in my life.  And you know what?

I can handle this.

 

Copyright Ros Hill 2016