How do you say goodbye to someone you’ve known almost your whole life? He’s not family (at least not by blood relation) but he’s absolutely family. I met Larry Morton when I was 12 years old and he was 31. He was married to a sweet, pretty young woman named Ruth Ann. Our families become instant, lifelong friends. They had moved to the Atlanta area from Canada and my Southern family provided endless hours of entertainment for Mort as he observed our quirky sayings, behaviors, and food choices. He loved to practice his southern drawl on my name, calling me “Daaaaawwwwwwn” then flashing his Santa Claus smile. Mort lived with wild abandon, drove a corvette, rode a motorcycle, water skied, snow skied, and (fill in the blank with every other adventurous outing imaginable). I played the piano and it was not unusual for Mort to buy me a new piece of sheet music and bring it over to our house. One of his favorites was “The Entertainer”, a tricky little ragtime piece that I worked hard to master. When Mort and Ruth Ann had their first (and only) child, Nicole, I was convinced she was mine.
Mort taught my brother and me how to water ski at Lake Lanier on a warm Saturday morning in early summer when I was in high school. He showed me how to put my feet in the skis, hold the rope correctly, and lean back. Keeping my knees together and pulling hard when he hit the throttle on the boat, I came up out of the water on my first try! For many years after, my brother and I could not get enough of those early mornings and long days at the lake. Mort, my Dad, my brother, and I would go very early, meeting Ruth Ann and my mom later in the day to eat and hang out at a little cove we discovered. My confidence grew and it wasn’t long before I tried to slalom. That’s when the fun really began! Many a boyfriend tried to survive a day on the lake with my Dad, my brother, and Mort. Very few made it back for a second one.
Mort and Ruth Ann took me to my first professional hockey game – the Atlanta Flames. I was hooked from the first drop of the puck. Going to the games with them was the only time my parents ever let me stay out late on a school night. The highlight of those games came one night after a tough win and a few broken hockey sticks. I managed to wrangle a stick from one of the crew and Ruth Ann and I walked down to the locker room, waiting patiently for those enormous athletes to start leaving. Ruth Ann stood there with me as I sheepishly asked them to sign the stick, which they all graciously did – every last one of them. With my stick covered in Atlanta Flames autographs, I sneaked it in the house later that night and gave it to my brother for his birthday. I thought Mort and Ruth Ann were the coolest people on the planet.
We introduced Mort to my Mom’s hot buttered biscuits and my Dad’s famous ham. He introduced us to Verner’s ginger ale. It has just the right mix of sweet and burn; I love it to this day. Some of my family’s favorite meals come straight out of Ruth Ann’s kitchen. She had been a school teacher in Canada and I was fascinated by her stories of how they did things ‘up North’. Mort and Ruth Ann were easy and comfortable to be with and Mort was the kind of man who always made you feel better after you had been around him, even if only for a few minutes.
I recently heard a Bible study teacher sharing about I Corinthians 13:13, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” He asked what our thoughts were on why love is the greatest. A few people offered up the canned answers: because God is love; because love is a choice; because you can’t have faith and hope without it; because …” And then he explained it in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. He said that faith is something we have here and now that the Bible promises will become sight. Hope is something we have here and now that the Bible promises will be made complete. But love? Love is eternal. Love is past, present, and future. Love will remain love for all eternity. Amazing, isn’t it? How a simple, different way of looking at something – even a word – can open up a whole new concept of what it really means. I can’t help but believe that God gave me the opportunity to hear these truths just a week before we learned that my dear friend, one of my heroes, is on his way Home.
Mort, even now your faith is being made sight. Your hope is being made complete. The love you gave your family and the love they gave you will go on forever. Rest, my friend. I love you.
I cleaned out our attic this week. It’s only June – not even Summer yet according to the calendar – but the Atlanta area is already enduring temperatures way up in the 90s. My goal was to work in the mornings before the heat soared past unbearable. However, anyone who knows me knows that once I get started on a ‘project’, it’s hard for me to stop. I’m like a freight train on crack.
So I climbed the stairs, took a few steps onto the plywood flooring and looked around. Wow. I think there must be something about insulation, duct-taped boxes, and intense heat that promotes reproduction. Where did all this stuff come from? I found suitcases, Christmas decorations, papers from previous school years, air filters, clothes, and toys. It seemed easy enough to begin editing. I started with broken toys (how did they end up in the attic and not the trash can?) I then moved on to parts and pieces of incomplete Christmas decorations (repeat previous question). Clothes that no one in my family will ever wear again, luggage long past its prime, and a collection of stuffed animals that would rival FAO Schwartz brought back great memories, despite the fact that I was beginning to look and feel like I was at boot camp in the desert.
Going through each box with just enough detail to make sure I wouldn’t regret our Friday morning visit from the trash man, I was quickly filling the bags beside me. Then I found it. The box with Rachel’s costume from her dance recital six years ago. It was an adorable bright yellow top and skirt that felt something like a cross between vinyl and plastic with black taffeta everywhere (literally). Her group danced to Rascall Flatt’s Life is a Highway. I remember her practically floating down the stairs to show her Daddy after we had the whole outfit perfectly in place, complete with slicked back her hair and makeup. She was beaming and her Daddy was speechless.
Next, I came across a collection of sports cars that Alex collected when he was much younger. I remember the various Christmas and birthday celebrations when he received them and how he studied them, learned about the make and model, discovered all the parts that would open and close, and proudly displayed them in his room. His favorite by far was the truck his Granddaddy gave him, a replica of his own. Alex kept a very special place reserved just for that truck and it was very often the first one he showcased when anyone else admired his collection.
With the heat sweltering and my eyes stinging from sweat running down my face, I was about ready to call it a day. My stomach told me it was well past lunchtime but I decided to go through one more stack before descending into the comfort of the air conditioned hallway. I moved a small blue blanket that a family friend had made for Stephen’s crib and opened the box underneath where I saw a stack of cards and some computer-printed sheets of paper.
And I started reading. “Dawn, we are praying for you and your family every day”; “Please know that Heaven is being bombarded with your name!”; “Our children pray for you and Baby Hood every morning before breakfast”; “So sorry to hear that you must undergo another surgery”; “Praying for you as you begin your chemotherapy treatments”; “Please let us know if we can do anything for you”; “You and Richard are a testimony of God’s strength and grace”; “I love your short hair!”; “The Lord brings you to mind several times each day and I am asking Him to give you strength and courage”; “Thank you for your updates by email…it helps me pray specifically for everyone in your family”; “You look fabulous with a bald head!” More cards. More Scripture passages. More prayers. Countless emails and notes of encouragement.
I have no idea how long I sat on the floor of our attic reading those precious notes of encouragement, remembering like it was yesterday. But what really made my heart swell was the realization that nearly ten years later I remain close to almost everyone who sent those cards, notes, and letters. How it blessed me to realize that these friends and family have shared the good, the bad, the ugly, and the miracles of life with us!
I was drenched when I slowly, carefully, came down those rickety stairs and closed the ‘trap door’. But my spirit felt uplifted. Encouraged. Strong.
Eight years in the attic. And still so very close to my heart.
This past Friday evening I had the privilege to walk the Survivor’s Lap during the opening ceremonies of the Cherokee County Relay for Life. My daughter’s best friend, Meghan, had joined a team from her middle school to raise funds for the American Cancer Society – the “Official Sponsor of Birthdays”. When we arrived at the high school hosting the event, it looked somewhat like the inner circle of the Daytona 500. Brightly colored tents everywhere, loud celebratory music blasting from the speakers on the stage, and a huge inflatable birthday cake covered in blow-up candles. It was a long drive to the school, the traffic was terrible (go figure – Friday afternoon at 5pm), and it was one of the first really hot days we’ve had here in the area.
I was wearing my “The Chemo Made Me Do It” t-shirt with a pink breast cancer ribbon on it. The kids and I walked around from tent to tent admiring all the creative ways people show their support and raise funds for cancer research. Rachel and Stephen excitedly pulled me in the direction of the Survivor Wall of Fame and helped me sign it, adding their own personal touch to my autograph.
To say that I attend these events with mixed emotions is an understatement of epic proportions. It is with a deeply grateful heart and tremendous pride that I call myself a ‘survivor’ and I have gained laser precision accuracy at spotting others in the same camp. There’s something a little different about us and unless you are one, there’s no way to explain it. We simply know each other. But I have to admit, there is an indescribable pit in my stomach that rears its ugly head when I see a man, woman, or child walking around with the telltale ill-fitting baseball cap. It forces me to remember. It smacks me in the face and screams, “I almost had you, too”. And as proud as I am to be a survivor – as strong as I feel every day – it is my ghost whisperer. An unexpected ache or pain or an unusual lack of energy always provokes the inevitable “what if it’s back?” in the deep recesses of my mind.
Thankfully, my kids were with me and Meghan was happy to introduce me to her classmates/team members. The emcee for the event called all the survivors to gather around the stage and after a beautifully patriotic national anthem, we all sang Happy Birthday to each other. Rachel and Stephen were on either side of me and before we started the first lap we heard a couple of stories from other survivors who had joined the celebration. One young man was diagnosed with colon cancer barely a year ago and shared about his treatments and prognosis. His young wife and son were sitting on the grass as close as they could get to the front of the stage, obviously proud of their warrior husband and dad who was fighting hard and winning his battle.
Then we heard from a young lady (barely 19 years of age) who is preparing for surgery this week. She has had FOUR cancer diagnoses in the last few years. Four! She is a beautiful young lady, full of energy and a positive spirit. She talked about her cancer as if she were sharing with us her volleyball schedule. I felt some very familiar emotions start to rise as she shared about the support of her family and friends, and the daily conflict of emotions. She even made a statement that I remember jokingly sharing upon my initial diagnosis, “I’m too stubborn to let cancer beat me.”
As I was standing there I met two other ladies, Donna and Laurie, who less than a year ago were photographed at the lake together enjoying each other’s friendship, their families, and life in general. And here they stood this night, both diagnosed within weeks of each other, currently in treatment, and bald. I briefly shared my story with them and introduced them to my little hero (Stephen) and my private nurse (Rachel). We chatted as only survivor sisters can and then Laurie looked at me and said, “can I ask you a question?” “Sure. Anything.” She looked at me for a few long seconds and asked, “Is that your real hair?” I smiled. “Yes, every single strand of it.” Smiles. Hugs. Hope.
We walked the survivor lap, my children and I, arm in arm. To see several hundred people standing on the inside track clapping, cheering, and waving was incredibly moving. Tears. I couldn’t speak, and my kids don’t see me like that very often. Rachel held my hand a little tighter. Stephen put his arm around my waist. And then I rounded that last curve and looked up. Meghan was standing there with her team, clapping and cheering like crazy. It got the best of all of us and as I started to run to meet her, she and the others broke away and ran right towards us. We met in a huge circle of hugs and cheers and smiles. And we walked that final stretch together. I turned around and looked back through the crowd of other survivors. A few paces back, Donna and Laurie were walking arm in arm surrounded by their circle of friends. Our eyes met and we exchanged a ‘thumbs up’. New friends. New heroes. And a fresh reminder that beauty is often found in the most unexpected places.