“Walking on Water” Published in “The Mill” 2014 (Baldwin Wallace University)

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“Walking on Water” Published in “The Mill” 2014 (Baldwin Wallace University)

Walking On Water

           In the summer of 2013, I was 44 years old. I feel like myself only in summer, the kind of person who is miserable for the long Cleveland months when the temperature is below, say, 64 degrees. Obviously, I live in an inhospitable climate. But during the summer months, I am alive. I carry spare shoes everywhere with me in my car to walk outside, I practice yoga in parks on tree stumps or bridges, and I don’t begrudge the ugly humidity that makes everyone look shiny and slimy, with dirty hair. I love and embrace it all. It’s easier for me, no doubt, because I am currently taking a break from employment to finally go to college full-time, so I don’t need to put on layers of spackle and hairspray, dress in a suit or Spanx, or worry about armpit stains on my blouse. I gladly parade my sweat as I walk with my ear-buds tightly placed, eating as many meals outside as possible and refusing to come indoors. These summer days, as hot and oppressive to some as the whoosh of air which accosts your face when you open an oven on Thanksgiving, are what I spend the rest of the year waiting for.

            This past summer, however, my Polish/Irish/Lebanese fair-in-winter, olive-in-summer skin had barely seen the outdoors. It was the summer of Hap—that’s my dad’s name—again. Two years prior, it was also a summer of Hap, when my dad took a final rapid slide down into a well of a dementia marked by hallucinations, violence, and delusions. Since then, my mom and sisters, along with our husbands and children, had visited him daily in his residential nursing home—a nursing home made necessary by his physical strength and that of the aggressive delusions which plagued him; hallucinations of people harming us, his family, which left him no choice but to try to take down the aggressors. Our dad, our defender.

            Over time, Hap grew weaker, physically and mentally, and then, the summer of Hap 2013 became about his final days. He had been hospitalized for a while with digestive issues which seem unresolvable at that point in his illness, and then he had been sent to hospice-care to transition through to death. My family members and I had seen nothing but the inside of his medical bedrooms for the better part of two months. In the end, we were grateful that his final time occurred in the summer, because his grandkids were home from school and around to visit him, and to spend time within the cocoon of the very last days we would all be together as a complete family, the finals weeks, days, hours, minutes with our beloved mentor and patriarch, our team captain.

            The time was rich; irreverent, fruitful, angry, dark, food-filled, and emotional. We ate fistfuls of Honey-baked ham and packaged cookies to pass the time. We talked, recalling old memories…we sang (John Denver, poorly), we mocked each other. We chastised my dad, who was mostly unconscious and certainly unaware by this point, for keeping us cooped up all summer. We made funeral arrangements. One day in July, I slipped out into the sunshine to a waiting bench near a statue of Jesus, and I wrote out my dad’s eulogy in longhand, a speech I had been giving in my head for years, knowing always that it was incumbent upon me to try to do this remarkable man justice in words. A nun saw me from the window of my dad’s room and assumed I was sunbathing. I did not correct her. There was something perversely funny to me about tanning in the back of a Catholic institution meant for the dying.

            After more than a week in hospice, I looked at my calendar one day at my dad’s bedside, and realized I had signed up for a stand-up paddleboard yoga experience on Lake Erie for the next day. I’m sure it had seemed like a grand idea at the time, a group decision with a couple of yoga friends. The daughter my dad had known would never have attempted this—I was not an athlete by any means, spending much of my life a little overweight and a lot under-exercised. I was not a strong swimmer, if you could call me a swimmer at all, and I don’t know if you could. I may or may not be able to keep my head above water and make some progress in a time of trouble on water, but I’m not certain the resulting action could accurately be labeled “swimming.” Yoga was the only exercise I did, and even that was the result of my recent search for peace during my dad’s illness, not any physical prowess. I also have a healthy fear of large bodies of water, and no confidence in my ability to perform this scheduled outing. It was decidedly out of my comfort zone.

            I texted my yoga-friend Jenny, because the excursion had already been paid for, and I hoped that she could find someone to take my place and enjoy the experience. But as the day went on, I felt a nagging pull at my consciousness to consider leaving my dying father’s bedside for a few hours to do something completely out of the ordinary. I was scared, not only of being able to navigate the actual physical activity, but that after all of these days and nights spent in this room, my dad might slip away during the one time I was absent. To be truthful, I also feared the impression it would leave with others: my family, the nurses, the general “people” who would undoubtedly ask, “what kind of daughter would leave her dying father’s bedside to go play watersports on a summer evening?”

            I think it was that final bit, though, that actually convinced me. My dad, a man of many unique and wonderful characteristics, was most known for walking his own path, no matter what anyone thought. He sold investments to wealthy clients wearing a Cleveland Indians tee-shirt (he was about to be buried in one, too). He drove goofy vehicles which had personality (most recently a cobalt-blue turbo-charged Subaru) no matter how luxurious a car he could actually afford, and he took his wife (our mother) on all of his business trips because he wanted her to see the world with him. If he knew that I was bailing out on something I’d committed to simply because I was afraid of how I would look to other people, he would shake his head at me. It began to occur to me that this activity could actually be a tribute to my dad, that he would get me through it and inspire me to appreciate the beauty and accomplishment and camaraderie of what I was about to undertake.

            I had a talk first with Paula, the wonderful hospice nurse who had been taking care of my dad every weekday of his hospice stay. She was a friend by then, it being such an intense time for sharing family stories and feelings with intimate strangers. She also knew my dad, his physical condition, very well. It had started to deteriorate more rapidly, and we knew the end was nearer than it had been. I asked, “Paula, what should I do? If I have a thing to do tonight, do you think it’s okay for me to leave to do it? Or is he close?”

            Paula (who by the way, my dad would have absolutely loved and would have probably nicknamed something like “Scrappy” because she was small but fierce), looked towards my dad’s bed, looked back at me, and repeated both actions. Then she said, “You know him. What would he tell you to do?” Well played, Paula. And right on. So, with the confidence born from the knowledge that nothing else can possibly even matter when you’re about to lose someone forever, I walked out of my dad’s room that evening, not knowing if I would see him again alive. Of course, as I grasped his hand and kissed him goodbye, I said (as I always did), “See ya tomorrow!” But I felt like something had changed. Something bigger was happening, and it almost felt as if my dad had already left that body.

            Incidentally, one of the most valuable things about hospice for us was the way that it gave us our dad back, restored to his old self in a way. The dementia had been so grueling, and his perceptions and statements so out of character, that once he was debilitated enough that he could no longer speak, we were left with his beautiful blue eyes (for the first day or two, until he became semi-conscious at best) and the feeling that he had been delivered from dementia, and instead lay dying here as his former self, in his right mind. The hospice caregivers changed his bedding every day before we even arrived, shaved him, brushed his teeth, washed his hair, made him look like he was in his own bed at home, no longer hooked up to IV’s or tubes. So when I leaned over him that day, he smelled of shaving cream, toothpaste, and soap, just the way I remembered him. I carried that smell with me as I drove away, recalling how it would come down the stairs ahead of him on Sundays, when he was the last one ready as the rest of us waited to leave for church. A man with a wife and three daughters is last in line for a shower.

            The day was one of the hottest that July, maybe in the nineties. Despite that, I drove to the lake with my windows and sunroof open, drinking in the moist heat and the dangerous feeling that I was somewhere I was not supposed to be. I felt fragile, and grateful that the friends I was about to meet for this excursion were not close friends yet. They were women around my age, with similar interests and problems, compassionate and supportive, but I knew they would not ask me questions, hug me too tightly or lingeringly, or ask if I was okay. They knew, probably better than I, what I was there for that day and the restorative power it might have over me. They had each already buried a parent. Their support was silent, but loud. The remaining participants were strangers. It was a welcome feeling to just be an anonymous body as we all schlepped the cumbersome paddleboards off of a trailer and toward the Great-Lake Erie. Only my two yoga friends knew that I was in a liminal space, “the one whose father is actively dying.” But we couldn’t concentrate on that: we had to worry about getting up, and then staying up, on the boards bobbing under us on the water inside the break wall of the lake.

            Once we were all assembled and following the leader, I noticed bystanders watching from shore. Looking through their eyes, I realized that we looked fierce, like models on a women’s magazine, unaware of our ages and instead feeling like lithe, strong teenagers. We had on an assortment of swimsuits, board shorts, yoga clothes. No cell phones, no watches, just sweaty hair up in ponytails because all of us still wear it long (I heard somewhere that if a woman can remember Gerald Ford being President, she is too old to wear a ponytail). We attentively listened to Deanna, our instructor, who seemed to embody light: blonde hair, bronzed skin, with a strong and casual manner, competent. We were in good hands. We had already developed some confidence in our strength through yoga, these friends and I, but we were all shy about our abilities on this giant, often angry lake. There was little conversation, only concentration, bodies held at attention, and deliberate motion.

            As we traveled up the shoreline, past indescribably unique and lovely homes and a bit away from the safety of the shore, Deanna led us through yoga poses. Yoga inherently employs “pratyahara,” the act of suspending the senses, of coming inside…so while there was a handful of us sprawled out some yards from each other, going through the same motions, we each practiced in isolation. I could feel my friends Jenny and Beth near me, all of us supporting each other with our presence, with our intention, and our breath, sending waves of friendship out from our hearts even as we were fighting hard to maintain various balances on a floating board. We generated immediate and copious sweat, which ran down not just our faces but our entire bodies, pooling in our bellies when we lay on our backs, making our hands slippery when we stood inverted in downward dog. We were ruddy, our ribcages heaving with exertion, slow, steady exertion. It was like being squeezed out, a sponge from a pail of water. Loose hairs frizzed around our faces or stuck to our temples. Any remnants of old mascara had long since smeared away.

            I opened my eyes and squinted around me, the glare of the fiery evening sun slapping the dark glassy water, the sky so bright my friends were rendered just silhouettes to me. My eyes burned from the salty brine of sweat, wind, and emotion. It occurred to me that my dad was just such a silhouette now, too. I suddenly felt positively impervious to any attack, ten feet tall and bulletproof. I was aware of my upper arms and shoulders rippling in smooth strength as my paddle dipped into the water, pushing my hips forward, potent. I was as strong as I had ever been, as beautiful as I would ever be, and as capable as any other person on the planet. Without warning, I sensed my dad’s presence so strongly around me that I said aloud to my friends, “I know now that there is absolutely no place else on earth that I should be at this moment then here on this lake with you.”

            I wondered if this sudden peace and feeling of connection with my dad meant that he was slipping away, even as I was gliding along in this moment of bliss. I contemplated what I would feel like if my dad took his last breath while I was on this lake, while my mom and sisters sat close and held his hands and spoke soft words to him. I knew in that moment that it would be perfectly correct if that’s the way it happened. My inner voice reminded me that I was the one who lived next door to my parents, I was the one who worked with them for fifteen years. Maybe it would be a wonderful gift to my sisters for them to finally have as much of a portion of my dad as I had always been so spoiled to have. If he passed away in my absence, I would not regret my decision to choose this spiritual experience of my dad on this lake.

            At the end of our practice, as we drifted, lying on our backs on the paddleboards with the cinnamon-hot July sun setting behind us, I closed my eyes and felt buoyant in mind and spirit. This body of mine, this body of water, and this body of friends and family was stable and certain. This mighty lake may as well have been the very palm of my dad’s hand, and the deep, wide well of his heart. I relaxed. I thought of my dad’s broad, brown hands and how they had held me up on countless summer vacations, held me by my ribs in oceans and hotel pools, tossing and playing with his kids like toys. We were never afraid. He always caught us, held us aloft. He always would. The palm of my dad’s hand, the palm of our Father’s hand. More gargantuan and mighty than this lake, but tender, both.

            Swirling, floating, feeling more accomplished than the accomplishment merited, I sensed rather than saw the sun melt low and hot into the horizon, and wondered without fear or anxiety if my dad’s light had just dipped below the surface of this life. I celebrated Savasana, the yoga pose of relaxation, drifting on a trembling sunset, feeling and tasting hot, wet salt on my face, sweat mixing with healing tears, as welcome as they were valuable, flowing unchecked. I never felt closer to my dad than at that moment; I’d never loved or appreciated him more.

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The Privilege of Exercise…

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Let me move that for you… 

These days, as I consider my designated intention for each morning’s yoga practice, my mind inevitably travels to those friends, family members, or acquaintances who are struggling with a challenge. Some of the first who come to mind are those experiencing physical illnesses like recurrent cancer, undiagnosed pain, systemic or autoimmune diseases, and other physical complications which, frankly, may exist completely without hope of resolution. While these are not necessarily more or less difficult to manage than other forms of dis-ease, unease, hardship or disability, the physical aspect reminds me: it is truly a privilege to be able to move our bodies in physical exercise.  

I happen to hate exercise. I am lazy by nature, and it is an effort just to get myself out of bed every morning, not because of depression, despair, or any valid reason at all—other than my preference for being as languid as my black cat for as much of my life as possible. I do not appreciate my own sweat, and in fact I am tremendously distracted by it, even during yoga. A competitive bone does not exist in my body—if you want to win, I assure you, I want you to win, because clearly it must be more important to you than it is to me. You may find me walking to music almost every single day that the temperature exceeds 60 degrees, but you will never find me running (as the joke goes, if you do see me running, you’d better run too!) I have weak knees, a family history of arthritic joint replacement, giant boobs, and a surly attitude when it comes to exertion. (Eyes up here, please.) I am not a strong swimmer, I cannot shoot a basketball, and I have gone to tennis “lessons” for the past four summers without every actually playing a match (don’t judge, it’s a social thing). Golf may be on the future agenda, but there’s a certain petite friend of mine named Vicki who hopes I borrow someone else’s driver next time I try. 

Even yoga and walking were activities I embarked upon for reasons outside of the physical. Yoga was for anxiety, when I had such a feeling of generalized unease about my life and family that I developed a constant eye tic. Dr. Google advised me to avoid caffeine and try yoga or meditation, and the rest is decaffeinated rock-n-roll history. Walking is, similarly, free therapy for me: almost everything I have committed to paper (including my dad’s eulogy) has been first written in my head on a long walk, past ducks and lakes and dog-walkers, often laughing or crying behind my sunglasses as a Billy Joel song in my ear buds takes me back to high school, or the Coal Miner’s Daughter soundtrack reminds me of the family vacation in Nashville when a boy gave me a peacock feather to put in my hat at Loretta Lynn’s ranch. The fact that my body is moving, breathing, and benefiting from yoga and walking is just a lucky, unintended consequence of something I would be doing anyway. 

But now, I can’t deny that both activities, and every other new experience I have had the confidence to attempt because of them (stand-up paddleboard, riding a mechanical bull) have been so strengthening and liberating that I now appreciate the fact that I am in a position to participate. I am able. My parts work. 

A friend of my husband could no longer walk the golf course comfortably because of congestive heart failure. A yoga pal enduring treatment for her fifth cancer doesn’t have the luxury of trying to practice standing on her head, because she is too weak from chemotherapy to even leave the couch to vomit. A relative can’t engage in her beloved gardening successfully anymore because some core abdominal muscles were re-appropriated in a post-cancer reconstruction surgery. Amusement parks and airports are no longer places a senior citizen can easily venture across without wheels. Countless people close to me want to do more than their bodies will allow them to do, but my long, boring history with HIPAA prevents me from providing further thumbnails. 

Every day that I wake up and can physically do what I desire to do, independently, I am gifted. One day, an accident may happen, or a phone call will bring a diagnosis, or a flu bug may render me too nauseated to move, and whether the roadblock is temporary or permanent, it will be unwelcome. Too many of us don’t exercise, but we should—because we can. My eyes can see where I am going, my legs hold me up, my stamina is plentiful enough…I can move my body, so I must. Whether or not I want to, I will do so for those who cannot move theirs. Exercise, like aging, is a privilege denied to many.

Now, come on, sixty degrees….

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Think You’re Too Fat, Ugly, and Stupid to do Yoga? Yeah, Me Too. Come join me!

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Jennie, Mark, MB at Wallace Lake - first try at SUP

Jennie, Mark, MB at Wallace Lake – first try at SUP

Every Body is Beautiful (Doing Yoga)

On social media recently, a big popular yoga studio in my city posted a picture of a woman in a headstand, with a caption something like, “Danielle, practicing in the sunlight wearing the new (insert big name controversial expensive-yoga-wear designer name here) scoop tank in lavender!”  Despite all of my attempts to keep any negativity at bay, I have to admit to being instantly annoyed that the woman and the sunlight and the asana all ended up being linked to an uber-expensive spandex garment. The reason for my angst wasn’t just the commercialism—who doesn’t love fashion and fun, even taking into consideration the yoga precept of non-attachment?  (Yoga is more than just poses or exercise, but that’s another story.) Instead, what bothered me about it was the exclusivity it portrayed. While I’m sure it was unintended, the post proliferated an illusion that certain people have about yoga, an illusion that it is for rich, skinny, attractive, in-shape, popular people. I myself used to hold that same mistaken idea in my head when I thought about yoga. That it was exclusive, elitist, mean-girl, cheerleader. You can’t just walk into a yoga studio!

Concurrently, the other week, NBC’s Today show coined the hashtag #LoveYourSelfie, and showed interview clips from the hosts about their own body imperfections. Hoda Kotb said, “I was heavy, and then I lost weight, but I don’t ever feel like the girl who lost weight.” I’ve been overweight as well, and I can corroborate Hoda’s sentiments—you never feel like you’re a thin girl, only the same old imperfect one who is somehow fooling everyone. It is this kind of mentality that keeps so many people away from yoga studios, when yoga is exactly what they need, for body, mind, and spirit. I want everyone to know that yoga is more than doing poses with beautiful people in a sun-filled room. You don’t have to own the gear; you don’t have to look the part; you don’t have to diet and exercise before you get there.

Because, truth be told, every body is beautiful doing yoga, wherever it is being done. I made that observation at my practice last weekend, when young and old, fat and thin, male and female showed up to practice together. Because of what had been on my mind, I looked around a little more that day than usual. That woman from the mini-van who doesn’t feel sexy in her “mom” jeans looks as graceful as Dorothy Hamill gliding along in the 1976 Olympics when she does a balancing half-moon (Arda Chandrasana). A 57-year old woman looks like a girl again, hearkening the pink ballerina twirling in a music jewelry box, during dancer pose (Natarajasana). The one who feels so soft and saddle-baggy in the hips looks perfectly put together with that famous “fearful symmetry,” the sun lighting up her passive upturned face while creating the beautiful right angles in triangle pose (Trikonasana). The sparkle of a wedding ring is magnified on chapped, wide-spread hands during a clumsy attempt at crow pose (Bakasana). Everyone can finally see the pointy front of their own hip bones in reverse plank (Purvottanasa). Teen girls look like Baby from Dirty Dancing in a simple toe stand (Padangustasana), arms overhead, calves flexed.  Husbands look vulnerable, their usual strength tested by the unusual patience required by asanas.  The scrawny and lanky eventually look like the most sinuous and stealthy python, breath and muscles churning through the planks of Surya Namaskara. A pedicure never looked better than on a foot in a d’orsay flex, leveraging Warrior III.  And hey, girl behind me? Your fresh haircut actually looks even better when your head hangs upside down in a forward fold!  In Balasana (child’s pose), every big old angry driver, every shrill-screaming mother, every bossy executive looks exactly the same as the grieving daughter or the unemployed college graduate or the triathlon trainee: humbled, buckled, almost fetal. And every single one beautiful.

Your shirt may come up in the back, and your lower back is sexy. Your sweat is a glow, not a damp stain. Your face, devoid of makeup for a change, is the translucent ruddy blush of a fresh peach. The tomboy becomes graceful, the frail attain gravitas. Skin that is stretched over muscle stretched over bones in extension becomes taut again during reaching poses. You, with the bandana around your head, you do look like a rock star. You are beside a guru with a hemp bracelet and an OM tattoo. You each look like a commercial on television, the perfect silhouette of a person who has climbed a mountain, a fierce warrior against a setting sun. You look exactly the way you dream of.  Fully you, fulfilling your potential, all in your own body.  Whether lithe, angular, Rubenesque…even the oldest and plumpest, seated peacefully, looks like serene Buddha. Every body is beautiful doing yoga.

So please, find a place to practice yoga that suits you, even if that’s at home with a video at first. You can wear an old concert t-shirt, and you can borrow a mat. But please try. You may think at your age, or your weight, or with your abilities, that the only way your kids will ever see you upside down is if they get a look at your mortgage statement. But believe me, and the friends who practice with me in a humble studio on Saturdays: one beautiful pose will lead to another, and you won’t even believe the things you can do. Yes, you!

On setting goals: my post on mindbodygreen.com

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A New Year without goal-setting?

http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-12207/why-i-started-rocking-at-life-when-i-stopped-setting-goals.html

 

Uh-oh. It’s a new year. A new year, with all of its bright, shining potential. We’ve all been bombarded with advice about resolutions, fresh starts, and how to make things achievable. Most gurus recommend goal-setting as an important part of making changes that stick.

I, for one, have some of the same goals that so many others do: getting into better shape, restoring good habits which have waned, and checking new things off of my aging bucket-list. I lost my dad this past summer after a few years of his illness, and the love and support (read: ham and cookie baskets) which my family received began a long downslide for me.

It was the fall and winter of gluttony, sloth, and laziness. Plus cocktails. While there is a time to mourn, there is also a time to dance. Kevin Bacon said so in the original Footloose, and I believe him.

So, like many, I approached this new year as an opportunity to set and achieve all sorts of goals. I’ve gained weight, taken a weeks-long break from yoga, the freezing cold temperatures have prevented me from outdoor walks, and finally finishing college took up my creative writing time. I set out my lined paper and pen and planner and began to formulate the hard-lined goals for success: dietary restrictions…yoga class times…scheduled writing commitments.

But part of planning the year ahead successfully is looking at the years gone by reflectively. What had I accomplished in 2013? For that matter, what have I accomplished since I last made actual, written down new-year’s resolutions? That’s been a few years.

Well, I graduated from college at age 44 with top honors. I did Stand-Up Paddleboard yoga on a little lake, then a Great Lake, and then the Gulf of Mexico (that one with my best friend of 30 years). I learned to stand on my head. I forged a few really valuable new friendships. A website published my essay. I “took up” tennis. I tried vegetarianism. I volunteered at an animal shelter. I went to church more. I wrote to a person in prison. I bonded with my mom and sisters.

The past few years have been the richest in my life, and today I realized that I made all of that progress without goals. Shhh, don’t tell the goal-oriented people that! Being goal-oriented leads to success—all the job descriptions say so. I’m not going to refute that logic, but I made the greatest progress in my own life when I specifically did not set goals.

And it all started with yoga.

I did not start yoga because I was interested in weight loss, strength, exercise, socialization, or self-improvement. I began yoga to help me relax for an hour from anxiety, because both of my parents had health issues at that time. I went in to each yoga class with zero expectations for myself as far as poses, not caring what I could or could not do, not watching what anyone else could or could not do. It just felt good to be there, to stretch, to hear humble positive words. It was only in hindsight that I could see that yoga made me lose weight.

Yoga gave me physical strength. Yoga gave me the confidence to have the courage to even try to stand on my head, or get out on a body of water on a paddleboard. (I am not a swimmer.) It made me more mindful of my eating, my friendships, my possessions, my thoughts. It gave me an hour’s escape and a day’s worth of peace. I learned patience and appreciation for transition, enabling me to process the ending of my dad’s life. Yoga introduced me to new ideas, new people, and through those, ample fodder for creative writing. I talk, write about, and attempt to share yoga all the time.

But it’s time for me to walk the talk and listen to what I say. I can’t go into yoga in 2014 to lose pounds, gain arm definition, or train for the next athletic endeavor or writing project. All that I have been taught by yoga and my mentor, Jane, is that yoga will find in each of us what we need, and help us to fill it ourselves. Yoga can tell us, we don’t need to tell it. That’s how we take yoga off the mat and into the world; not by setting the path, but by following it.

Photo Credit: Stocksy.com

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

Hap Harral Eulogy: “People Are More Important Than Things”

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hapcodeHap Harral
Our dad’s name is Hap, and what a wonderful place that is to start. He was nicknamed as a child for being happy…what better one-word description could there be for a person or his life? It makes you consider what you would be called if you were restricted to only one word.
Even as an adult, Hap refused to be anything but happy. He was happy with what God gave him. He was happy to share what God gave him.
He had and made a happy marriage with our mom, Dolores, starting with a blind date for the new year 1959. From nothing, these two created one fabulous-looking family (If I do say so myself!)
They began very deliberately with Coleen, for whom they had prayed so fervently for so many years. Then came Judy, named in gratitude for the intercession of St. Jude with achieving this growing family. And then there was me…and for some reason they stopped praying for more children.
This family grew up at St. Bartholomew Parish and school. We took $2 bets from the nuns to the Kentucky Derby each year, and once when Dolores couldn’t fulfill her playground duty, she sent Hap instead. As I recall, he broke up a fight on the boys’ side of the playground by telling the participants that they fought like girls.
This family, alongside our neighbors, laughed and cried and argued and loved through holidays, vacations, good times and bad…generic beer, CB radios, nicknames (he even nicknamed our Suburban the “yellow looney bin”, and I know one girl who will forever miss hearing herself called “Bag O’Lions.”)
Once we were grown, Hap really enjoyed his sons-in-law and finally having more male companionship. Some of us were generous in that regard, and provided more than one…
But he loved nothing and no one like he loved his grandkids:
Coleen and Neal started us off with Katie. I can still hear my dad’s voice calling out, “it’s a girl!!” at 4:30 that morning. He nicknamed her “Bird”, and carried her around on his shoulders, singing a painful rendition of “Here We Go Loop de Loo.” He taught her to say “Pooooor Happy” and “Albuquerque” and “Carlos Baerrrrrga!”
And Hap was Happy.
And speaking of baseball, Judy and Brian gave us Zack…and he, somehow, came out a whole lot like Hap. He talked incessantly about baseball: statistics, players, scores, and re-enacted exciting plays in the backyard. We pitched so many balls to that child that we put a lawn chair on the imaginary pitcher’s mound. The two of them had more intellectual conversations than the rest of us were equipped to participate in.
And Hap was Happy.
And then, Rachel Lemon was born. Our family was shocked and devastated to learn that she was terribly sick, and God took her back a few days later. And all Hap could say was “it should’ve been me. I would have taken her place.” And the thing is, he really would have. Now, he can see her again, and she can call him Happy. And yes, they will know each other.
So when we most needed to be picked up, Judy and Brian gave us Matthew. If Zack had come out thinking like Hap, Matthew certainly came out looking like him! No one who knows Hap can see Matt – his feet, his hands, his chest, his bulldog strength – and not see Hap. Our dad claimed Matthew as his baby, and was so pleased with this sweet, smiley child that he always said, “I just hope I live long enough to see how that kid turns out.”
And Hap was Happy.
But already he could see and was so proud of how each of you three kids has turned out. You all treat people the way he always did.
Which brings me to a story:
When I was about 14 or so, our dad had a Winnebago camper. And he LOVED it. Not unusual – many people have a Winnebago for summer vacations… Not our dad: he also drove his Winnebago to the office every day.
A friend of our family asked my dad if he could borrow the Winnebago for a day trip. They had company in from out of the country and wanted to visit a water park for the day. I was invited to go along, because it was my good friend’s family. We had a wonderful day.
Until the ride home when, stopping for gas, my friend’s dad plowed into the gas pump, ripping the side panel of the Winnebago.
I was distraught. My dad had very few possessions that mattered to him at all, but this weird vehicle was his baby. I was so scared about what his reaction would be. We rode the rest of the way home in total silence.
When we arrived, my friend’s dad went in first to break the news to Hap. Before I knew it, they were both coming outside to sit and open a beer together.
Later, alone with Hap, I said: “Dad, aren’t you mad”?
He answered, “listen, I knew something like this would happen. I had a feeling about it this morning, and I know how difficult an adjustment it can be to drive that vehicle.”
That irritated me, so I looked at him like he was an idiot, and said, “if you KNEW it would get damaged, WHY would you let anyone borrow it?”
He looked at ME like I was the idiot – and he said:
“Because people
are more important
than things.”
That was my dad’s philosophy of life in a nutshell.
And so, with that in mind, we have spent these past two weeks, and indeed these past two years realizing we have nothing to regret, thanks to our dad, who didn’t ever wait for the money, the time, or the weather to do the important things in life. He made us (and himself) a great life:
He loved our mother
He gave us our faith
He served his country
He traveled the world
He made a hole in one
He prayed at the Vatican
He bowled a 300 game
He golfed St. Andrews in Scotland
He saw his granddaughter graduate from college
How can we be anything but grateful?
I want to applaud our strong, beautiful mother who has literally not left Hap’s side, and my big sisters who have taken care of me, and each other, and their children throughout this challenging time.
My husband Jeff who has done everything my dad could have wanted him to, and more, to step in and be the man of the commune: I know my dad didn’t worry about me because of you.
And Brian…the original. You’ve always been here in our family, since we were the ages that your kids are now. The greatest dad in the world thought you were about the greatest dad in the world.
All of you have raised these kids as gifts to the world, and made dad so proud of you. They are his legacy.
Katie, Zack and Matt – May you someday know the same joy that you gave this man. He was simply never happier than when he was marveling at you.

It would be presumptuous to speak for my dad.

Luckily, I’m not above being presumptuous!
He would tell you all that he really enjoyed you: childhood friends like Al, clients, bowlers, Holy Name society guys, the old office gang, the Florida friends…
He’d tell us all, of course, to “Be Happy” –

To go on vacation; to take the dog with you.
To drive a trailer up the side of a mountain–and take the neighbors with you.
To get the electric blue Subaru or the old yellow Porsche 2-seater, not the beige Buick.
(My apologies to all of you beige Buick owners.)
To take your wife on your business convention trips if you want to, even if no one else does;
When you get there, wear shorts to the meetings!
Drive a gaggle of Catholic school cheerleaders to Florida in that same famous Winnebago, and manage to be passing a church just as Mass is starting.
Go ahead and tip the developmentally disabled girl who picks up your tray at Wendy’s. It will make her day.
Take the “country road,” as John Denver would say. You can get almost anywhere from Pearl Road or the Parkway, right?
Once, our dad was driving us home from somewhere in his used Chrysler LeBaron convertible, with the top down of course, through a REALLY bad neighborhood. We said, “dad, can’t we take the highway like normal people?”
He said, “You think these people who live here don’t love their kids too!?”
He loved veering off the beaten path.
He’d tell you:
To take care of each other
To say your prayers
To remember that God is a baseball fan, so if you want to get to Heaven, you better pay homage to the right sport!
And today, he wouldn’t say goodbye, would he? He never used that word.
He’d say,
“So long! Have fun!”
He approached every new experience with joyful expectation and wonder. If your car broke down, or you had to go to the ER, or your flight was diverted, he’d say something like “but LOOK at the people you got to meet!”
I know that’s how he’d approach this new experience as well. Because as the hymn says, from first Corinthians,

Eye has not seen
Ear has not heard
No human mind has conceived
What God has ready
For those who love him.

So long, dad…
Have fun.

**************************************************************************

Mary Beth Harral
July 26, 2013, St. Bartholomew Church

Hap, Hap, Happy.

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Hap, Hap, Happy.

Today, when I visited my dad (Hap) in his nursing home, I had a bit of an epiphany. For the longest time it was just torture to visit him in such a place, but now while it still makes me cry as I am leaving, it is a more bittersweet feeling and today I think I realized why. Now that he is more “gone,” when he does have a good day (as he did yesterday, a good day being one in which he is sitting upright, his eyes are open, he is speaking intelligibly) I cannot help but smile to see his laugh, his sparkling blue eyes, catch just a glimpse of the man who used to be in there. More specifically, as I delighted in a few of his actions and comments, I realized that the sweet half of the bittersweet is that I now get to see my dad as if he were a toddler. What he does and how I react to it reminds me of how it was to be with the kids as they were first experiencing the world. When a child hears some background conversation not meant for him at all, and then supplies a completely apt response, we as adults laugh and clap and his cleverness. So it is with Hap. When a child gets a particularly bulky forkful of food to his mouth successfully, if laboriously, and then his face clearly shows his triumph, we delight in his accomplishment. So it is with Hap. I could see things dawning on him, or see him coming back to things and slowly registering what they meant – “oh, that’s the spoon…I’m going to try THAT for the fruit instead of the fork.” In children, we watch in rapt appreciation, knowing that the world is opening up for them, that they will learn each of these things one at a time and become smarter, stronger, faster, lose their childlike wonder and amazement. For my dad, he will instead learn and re-learn, but then hang on to less… the world is instead closing up for him. But to see the man whom I only knew as omniscient, omnipotent, full of strength and wit and wisdom as if he were the child-Hap I never knew is still a beautiful opportunity to appreciate his frailty, the frailty which we all share as human beings. Before he was my dad, man of the house, ruler of our little kingdom, he was a tiny, helpless child, an athletic, stocky, stubborn, willful little boy-sponge soaking up all that life had to show him. And, lucky for all of us who knew him in adulthood, he really did soak it all in and celebrate it. So, I celebrate this time with him now, too. He has the attention span of an 18-month old, but that was cute on the kids and so it’s cute on him, too. He wears it well, because even though he spills food on his front and becomes frustrated like those children did, he also erupts into a chuckle when he thinks of something that he thinks is clever. Often he will say something nonsensical, although now it is interspersed with the familiar adult Hap-speak. His first comment to me yesterday was, “typical Florida real estate!” and then he went on to reasonably explain some transaction that he thought went wrong. In the next breath he mentioned the Carolinas, another favorite place of his, and then he pointed to the empty space in front of us and said, “didja see that guy? He almost kicked him in the nose!” and he smiled and shook his head. So, it looked like my smiling, joking daddy, but it was a child as well. That brings tears to my eyes, but they aren’t tears of agony anymore, they are tears of bittersweet joy. It’s bitter, yes, but it is so sweet to see him as this child. I snapped a photo of him with my iPhone and said, “I’m just gonna send this to mom…” he shook his head and chuckled, and said (in a typical Hap move, mocking in his tone, embodying his old philosophy of “old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill”) “wouldn’t it just be easier to take it down the hall and show her?” That comforted me, because it made me feel (right or wrong, I’ll take it) as if when we are not in the room with him, he still feels like we all still live together in this “home” and when we visit, it’s as if we just came into the room again. The television was on in the lunch room with the other residents, and “The Young and Restless” was playing. He thought soaps were ridiculous, of course. I said, referring to his next door neighbor of 45 years, “one of Eleanor’s stories is on.” He said, “I find them interesting.” If that’s not proof that he has lost his mind, I don’t know what is! Of course, I don’t believe he watches the soap, he barely glanced at it – and as I said, his attention span is no longer there for an entire storyline (even one that hasn’t changed in 25 years.) But what’s miraculous is that for a second, my real dad is there, choosing to be/speak/think positively about whatever subject is brought up. Later, in the hallway, his roommate Ed was trying to give us candy. Ed will take his dollar bills to the vending machine and buy gum and candy, walk around with it displayed on the table/seat of his walker, and try to share it. He’s very sweet. He leaves his money sitting there too, though, so it looks as if he is a walking candy counter. As he passed, and I declined his offer of chocolate, my dad reached toward him to get his attention, and out of the side of his mouth asked, “hey, do they sell cigarettes there?” My dad hasn’t smoked in 25 years, but he always said he missed it, and it is so very like his cocky, childish side to try and score smokes. How can that not be funny, sweet, and appreciated by me? Yeah, it sucks to see my brilliant dad this way. He is too young and strong and had way too much more to give to his grandchildren. No doubt about that. But now that I’ve realized how rare and beautiful this glimpse of Hap as a rambunctious child can be, I will drink in the bittersweet and be glad for every last minute of these visits, the worst best hour of my day.

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