The Little Things- A Brother’s Love

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“Mom, what if my brother doesn’t know how much I love him?”

After I came home from work last night, my son was uncharacteristically quiet for a long time until he somberly posed that question. “I think he knows, honey…tell me what’s going on.”

A little backstory here: After we divorced, Austin’s dad had another son; he and Nathan are five years apart. The family has had unimaginable losses over the past several years, losing both of Austin’s uncles on his dad’s side a few years ago and then his grandfather last month. Nathan leaves for boot-camp tomorrow and Austin is scared of losing him too.

“We all three went bowling today, and when Dad and I were in the car, he started talking about his brothers.” His voice began to falter. “I’ve told Nathan I love him but what if he doesn’t know? I’ve been a shitty brother.” The tears were welling up so he couldn’t say any more… but he still needed to talk, even if talking meant just hearing another’s voice.

“I’ll bet Nathan would have a different take on that.” I got a shrug. “You drove in the middle of the night to go pick him up when PawPaw was dying so he could say goodbye.” A slight nod. “And you helped him through it after… You’ve told me over and over again how much fun you guys have smack-talking and kidding around. And picking on your Dad!”

A real chuckle here… “Yeah, we do. He is pretty easy to pick on!”

“You show Nathan you love him by having fun together and letting him know you like being around him. And you’re smart to tell him you love him.” It was my turn to have a breaking voice. “Remember when Uncle Hank – (my brother) –  was so sick a few years ago? We didn’t know if he’d make it and I kept thinking about all the times I could have said ‘I love you’ but didn’t. When I finally got the chance to say it again, I told him I loved him and guess what? He already knew.”

There have been many times in my life I’ve been so weighted down with regrets that I couldn’t move forward. Two years and twelve days ago in my sister’s backyard, Hank said the following words to me and they changed my life: “Learn from them and move on. You’ve already lived the story. Stop opening the book and re-reading it.” I was able to share them with Austin last night.

This morning, Austin said “I called Nathan last night. We had the best talk ever!”

Thank God for brothers.

 

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A Good Life

For My Step-Dad, with Love

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When I was 13 years old, my Mom told me she was getting married and I was furious! Absolutely indignant, in the way that only 13 year old girls can be…closing myself up in my room, spending hours on the phone with my friends (the only people in the world I was convinced knew anything about life), and just generally trying hard to make others miserable.

Mom and I were supposed to be moving to England in a few weeks- that’s where she is from and where I was born- and I thought my life was over when those plans abruptly changed. Obviously I knew she had been dating my future step-dad for some time, but I didn’t think it was serious. He’d come over to pick her up for dinner a couple of nights a week and on the weekends too, and he was nice enough, but still. We were supposed to be moving to England for goodness sake, and we’d already been shopping and everything! I kept thinking, “How can she do this to me?!” (I am using the excuse of being 13 as to why I thought everything was about me…yeah, that’s it…)

I knew my step-dad’s three daughters. They had all been lifeguards at a local pool my parents took me to and I thought they were so sweet… that’s the only thing my teen-aged mind was right about because they are.  Knowing we would be a part of the same family lessened the blow of not moving. When I met his son, I thought, “He seems ok.” Typing that now makes me laugh as I love him with all my heart and know he loves me too!

In the weeks before the wedding, my Mom was so happy and my selfish heart softened… a little. The service was beautiful and I could see how much he loved her.

My step-dad has always been an animated storyteller. He’d come home from work telling tales of what had happened in the hospital or clinic that day, and I was fascinated. He was very patient with my many questions. The influence he has had in my life led me to eventually become a nurse. Days of being polite to each other turned into his kicking the soccer ball with me in the evenings and then into “Can I come too?” whenever he had to run errands. Two of his favorite places were Radio Shack and the hardware store, and soon I was his permanent tag-along. He didn’t seem to mind. He taught me how to drive a boat, jump-start a car battery (many times, thanks to the very old Chevy Vega he had), use a come-along for fence repair, and to pursue knowledge. He’d become a constant in my life, always there, and I’m forever grateful.  About a year ago, I was facing a professional dilemma and he was the only one I wanted to tell. I asked him, “Will you please listen to me as a doctor and then talk to me as my Dad?” That’s just what he did.

Fast forward through the decades…two days ago, we celebrated his 90th birthday. He loved telling stories as much as we loved hearing them, and it was glorious to see him so happy and laughing a lot! He shared with us, “I sometimes forget what a good life I’ve had!” Don’t forget, Dad, and please know how very much you are loved.

Dr M 90

 

 

November Memories

 

To my Carter family,

I think of you all often and especially at this time of year with Thanksgiving fast approaching. Memories from a very long time ago and those from more recent years, some silly and some not…they are all as vivid in my mind as if they happened yesterday. These are a few of the things I remember when I think of you.

Much love,

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Grandpa: tractor rides, “honey-bunch”, your big grin; sneaking into your office with you sitting in that old wooden desk chair- every time you heard me come in, you’d open your arms for a hug

 

 

Grandma: your endless patience! Teaching your grandchildren how to play the piano and to milk cows- more than once you were squirted in the face, but you’d just wipe off your glasses, smile, and let us try again

Dad: your sense of humor; hearing you laugh at your own jokes, snort, then snort some more…that’s what really made them funny; you hiding from your Dad when you went outside to smoke; hearing you tell stories from your childhood

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Uncle A.L.: the smell of your pipe; though neither of us were big ‘small-talkers’, you’d ask me what I thought about something and really listen to the answer; you didn’t shoot the bunny; you taught me how to throw a punch; Princess and the painted toenails

 

 

Aunt Maxine: the way you always know the right words at the right time; Hello-Dollies (thank you for making everyone’s favorite desserts each Thanksgiving); how quick you are to smile; the apple cake; Concho

Aunt Inez: your warmth; at the times when I needed it most, you let me know I mattered; long drives from Alabama to Negreet with a car full of teenagers; coffee and sewing

 

Uncle Gerry: you were always kind to my Mom, even after she and Dad divorced

Uncle Ike: the way your eyes crinkle up when you smile and laugh; your love of horses; watching rodeo VHS tapes with you for hours- we would have kept watching, but everyone else had other plans for us to be social! 14344945_10154447489281000_629348307474661689_n

Aunt Beth: your soft, sweet manner and gentle laugh; the way you’d always pat my knee when we were talking; you taught me how to forgive…not with words, but by example; yellow watermelon (the first one I ever saw was with you); you look for the good in others

 

Uncle Georg: the Store and HAM radios; your sense of humor too- it’s always hard to tell if you are pulling someone’s leg…until your eyes give it away

Anne Catherine: your love for Dad’s family; your beautiful accent; I had a huge crush on your handsome brothers all those years ago (Shhh, don’t tell!) 14390680_10154446801616000_5526713025807544775_n

Leigh Ann: the big bucket of hot chocolate mix; staying up very late to talk; your passion for nursing; the way you loved Ray and the courage you had to open your heart again with Corky- I’m glad you found happiness

Lawana: I love your laugh; the quiet way you show your tenderness- you were so sweet to Austin when he was a baby and you met him for the first time; your sincerity 14317450_10154447490846000_4427929467865153051_n

Gary: the way you make Lawana laugh; your baseball caps; you pretended (??) I was a pest (and I was), but were still the first to include me in anything fun; how much you love Aunt Maxine

Lana: so many memories…my partner in crime and forever staunch defender, no matter what and no matter when; the turnip greens; Hockaday and Bayside stories 14322453_10154447486546000_3918232671281643463_n

Jay M: meeting you for the first time, all of us in the kitchen drinking coffee with Aunt Inez, and seeing my dear cousin in love

Nita: your big beautiful blue eyes; you have your Mother’s way of making others feel special 14316935_10154447481151000_7021398830209113452_n

Jay W: your expressions- like it was with John, one single look from you can crack me up! Riding to Negreet with you and the boys when Austin was a baby and seeing how much you loved being a Dad; the night we all played Trivial Pursuit with your Mom tractor time

John: your heart, your laugh, your openness and generosity, your sense of humor; you were always barefoot when we were kids-you must’ve been a shoe rebel! Playing for hours in the hay loft; always hearing, “Hey pretty lady,” every time we spoke on the phone

 

Stacie: your doll, Mrs. Beasley! She went everywhere with you; going to Mr. Nathan’s store when there was still the old dirt road and sharing lik-m-stix on the way back img062

Georjann: the way you tell all of us “I love you”; your incredible memory! You recall details from years ago that the rest of us have forgotten, and I know if I don’t remember someone’s name, I can always ask you

 

Jennifer: seeing you with John when you were little, giggling every time he called you “Mennifer Jarie”; riding on the back of Grandpa’s tractor with you, laughing so hard every time he went over a bump and we nearly fell off; no matter how much time goes by, talking with you always feels like coming home

Joseph: your boots when you were a little kid; how you always took care of your sisters; you brought Dad to your parents’ house for Thanksgiving after he’d had a stroke; the way you made everyone feel comfortable and welcome

 

Anne: when you were very young, you would run full speed ahead and arms open wide to hug any of us that you hadn’t seen for a long time and I loved that about you; your sweet spirit

 

Daniel: as a young boy, you were always present, easy-going, and so very quiet, taking everything in;

Jordana: sometimes shy, sometimes talkative, yet always willing to join in; Dad adored you; seeing him carry you in his arms to look at the horses; I think you got your ‘deep thinker’ side from him

 

Mike: your flannel shirt matched the rest of us- somewhere there is a photo of almost every single Carter in flannel one Thanksgiving; your determination and work ethic; how you realized it would be futile to resist your obsessive, stalking, newly found sister when I phoned you

 

Cissy: your steadiness; one night, we all piled into a car to go see the Natchitoches Christmas lights and you were able to identify all the Bath & Bodyworks scents everyone was wearing! Just a small example of the way you find common ground with everyone and get them to talk, even the quiet ones

Tamara: your gentle voice; the ways you show that family is important- you’re like your Mom that way; your love for animals 14333163_10154447509631000_5788648884993851066_ndefault

Carter: as a very young boy, your inquisitive, adventurous nature and search for answers

Lindsey: I still picture you as a tiny girl with blue jeans and a button-down shirt playing on the steps outside Fort Jessup where we had a family reunion; I love seeing your photos of your beautiful family 14329903_10154446713141000_6378238242821869266_n

Chris: thank you for answering my endless email questions when I went through my crazy-middle-aged-fitness-phase! Watch out, there will be one coming again soon; you and Lindsey both make your parents so proud

Zach: you were always so polite and a joy to be with; in the car with your Dad on the way to Negreet, you forgave him for always promising a milkshake ‘just around the next corner’ and made sure to tell me he was joking so I wouldn’t get my hopes up

 

Tyler: you had me wrapped around your little finger when you were a young boy with your gorgeous smile; I loved seeing your Nanny’s face light up whenever you and Zach were around

Angie: your genuine happiness for your Dad as he was getting to know his family; you put others before yourself…not for recognition or thanks, but just because that’s who you are; every time I read Khalil Gibran’s piece in The Prophet “On Giving” I think of you 14344193_10154447450431000_5593204351961566444_n

Neil: as a teenager, you were surrounded by this newly found, flannel shirt wearing family and took it all in stride- thank you!

Catherine: watching you try valiantly to stay up late with your older cousins, seeing you crawl up on the couch saying you were only “gonna rest a little for a minute” then waking up covered with a blanket in the morning, genuinely surprised and disappointed you’d fallen asleep; seeing you and Jordana getting to know each other 14956467_1444776505540114_7940489661232069638_n

Austin: seeing you as a toddler in your overalls, looking at the horses with great wonder and feeding the deer; as a teenager, putting up with endless stories from your Mom-for hours- when we rode to Negreet together 14322493_1388547601160144_3649972821908517051_n

 

How I Met My Brother-for Mike

“Ashleigh! Ashleigh, I just…You need to sit down. I just…I have to tell you something!” Hearing my mother’s excited tone over the phone and her struggle to put words together made me know it was something big. I’d barely said,”Ok,” when she blurted out, “I just talked…a man called here…I just…you have a brother!”

“I’d heard Dad had a son named Michael.” Though she’s never said so, I think it drives my mother crazy that I’ve always spoken slowly.

“What? What do you mean you heard your Dad had a son?! How could you know and not tell me?”

“I dunno…” (Brilliant answer) “I know he was married a few times, so I figured there were probably other kids. I asked Aunt Inez one day and she told me there was a man in Mississippi named Mike Carter who was said to be Dad’s son.”

“How long have you known about this?” Poor Mom. I was in nursing school at this time- I think I found out about Dad having a son when I was still in high school. I’d never told anyone.

“I dunno.” (More brilliance) “A few years maybe?” As a child, I was painfully/abnormally shy and quiet (to the point it was almost debilitating) around anyone except family, and was sometimes very quiet even around them. This lasted well into young adulthood, and as a result I was pretty adept at keeping others’ secrets.

With a short exasperated sigh, Mom went on to tell me all about the phone call and her excitement soon revved up again. After calling a few wrong numbers and getting redirects, Mike had phoned my mother. He’d been told that my mother used to be married to my dad, was divorced and remarried, and someone gave him my stepdad’s name. This was an age way before Google and Internet Explorer, so it definitely took determination and a bit of luck on Mike’s part to reach her.

Mike shared with her that he was at a point in his life where he wanted some information on his biological father; Mom was happy to give him all the information he requested (and more!) After a lengthy conversation, she asked him, “Did you know you have a sister? She would like to know about you.” (He actually had two, as Dad had also remarried and had another daughter.) He politely thanked her, but said he really didn’t want the contact to go any further. After assuring him that she would respect his privacy and not tell anyone, they ended their conversation. She immediately dialed my number.

The next afternoon after class, I called his office- luckily he had given that number to Mom…or more likely she finagled it out of him. I left my name and number, and it wasn’t long before the phone rang. My heart was racing so fast when I answered the phone! Though I don’t remember how the conversation started or even what we talked about, I know we spoke for a long time that day and the following ones.

After spending hours on the phone and exchanging letters and photos, we had developed trust. Since both of us were convinced the other was not an axe murderer, we decided to meet in person and Mike drove to Alabama to spend the weekend with me. Knowing I was nervous, my college roommate waited with me, providing both emotional support and comic relief. She has a big heart and was just as excited as I was to finally meet him. If Mike was nervous at all, he certainly didn’t show it and his calmness helped to calm me. We had a wonderful weekend and went to my Mom’s and stepdad’s house for dinner one night so they could meet him too.

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“We didn’t plan the matching flannel shirts!”

It was probably a few months later when Mike and I went to Louisiana for him to meet our grandfather…both of us were nervous then and it showed. We got to town late that night and had to stop at three different motels, in the pouring rain, before finally finding one with an available room. We were both pretty tired and by then it didn’t matter (too much) that there was a flashing, partially broken hot pink and green neon sign outside shining through the broken window blinds, water was dripping from the shower head, or that we were kind of afraid to take our shoes off.

Mike waited until about 5:50am the next morning to wake me -Carter men like to get up early- and he did so with a giant cup of coffee in hand so we were able to remain friends. We decided the best strategy was for me to drive to the farm alone to tell Grandpa about Mike first since it was a surprise visit.

I sat with Grandpa, unsure how to begin, and finally said, “Dad has a son, Grandpa. His name is Mike, he’s here in town, and he wants to meet you.” Grandpa smiled, and then grinned. He got up and started pushing me toward the front door saying, “You go and get him, honey-bunch! Go get him right now. I want to meet him too!” I’ll never forget the smiles on the two men’s faces when they shook hands for the first time.

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A couple of years later, I got married. Before the wedding, I called Dad and told him that Mike would be there. I felt it was the fair thing to do. Dad didn’t say anything yet still made plans to be there to give me away and to bring my little sister, Jordana, who was one of my bridesmaids. Leaving their meeting each other in Divine Hands, I didn’t give it a second thought until I heard my name being called at the reception. I turned around, and saw Mike, his wife Cissy, their daughter Catherine, Dad, and Jordana grouped together summoning me for a family photo! That was awesome.

Over the next months and years, Mike got to know his extended family and his father, and Dad experienced true peace, probably for the first time in his adult life.

I admire my brother’s courage for making those phone calls years ago, and am grateful to Mom for being too excited not to tell.

To the Little Girl with the Curly Hair-for Jennifer

Sometimes just hearing the voice of someone we love who loves us back can take away all our sadness and bring us “home” even if we’re miles away. That is what talking with my cousin Jennifer did for me a few days ago, and I’m forever grateful to her.

Growing up, I was blessed to have many cousins on my father’s side of the family. We came together for a few days every Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ farm- usually during the summers too- and those are some of the happiest memories I have. There were rides on the tractor, horse rides with uncles, and countless hours spent playing hide and seek in the big green barn.

Though I have younger cousins, and she and I are separated in age by less than a decade, Jennifer was the one I always thought of as my “little” cousin. Maybe it was because she was big enough to do some of the things that the ones my age could do, or maybe it was just because I liked having her around… she was my little cousin whom I loved and wanted so much to protect. And still do.

When my dad died, my sister Jordana was only a teenager, too young to lose a father. Jennifer and her sister Anne cared for my sister as if she were theirs. I remember they enveloped her, one on each side, whispering quietly to her as she cried and comforting her in a way that I couldn’t. It was a few years later that sweet, vibrant, funny, loving and loveable Joseph died. They were way too young to lose a brother.

Jennifer carries a Light within her that shines brightly, serving as a beacon for our family; during the times I’ve felt the most alone, she is the one I’ve sought. She loves others with her whole being, selflessly and sincerely, and with compassion and understanding. She comforts others when they have sorrow, and genuinely shares their joy when they are happy. She ends every conversation with “Love you,” and she means it.

When she was a very little girl, she had an incredible sweetness and purity about her. I always thought time would take that from her- I was wrong. If anything, those traits have grown stronger. I remember years ago when her family came into town (I think for a wedding); she ran into my aunt’s home, a tiny girl with curls bouncing, and into everyone’s arms one by one to give great big hugs. My cousin John and I adored her.

Jen, my sweet little cousin…how did it happen that you became my rock, my protector? I am so thankful to you for being in my life. Love you.

The Reason-for Austin

For the past 18 years, my son has found a Hot Wheels car in his stocking every Christmas morning. I don’t think I ever told him why…until now.

As it does for many of us, decorating the Christmas tree and looking at all the ornaments collected through the years brings forth so much nostalgia; there are my favorite handmade ones from my son Austin, old ones from my grade school classmates, ones Austin and I bought on vacations we took together (Mom and I started that tradition many years ago when we’d go on trips), some from my childhood, and many given as gifts by cherished family. There’s one from the wife of a patient who died –she gave it to me as thanks for caring for her husband- and another from the first new nurse I mentored. One of the ornaments I treasure is a hand-blown glass angel from Copenhagen. Mom took me there when I was a teenager and we bought matching angels. Some years later, when I moved out on my own, my mother packed up all the ornaments she’d collected for me through the years so that I could have them for my own tree. Despite her careful and gentle packaging, I somehow managed to break off the tip of one wing. For years, I’d position her on the tree so that no one could see the flaw. As I got older, that changed. The beautiful angel now takes her place front and center on the tree and is a reminder that sometimes we are stronger because our wings are a little broken.

But back to the point- I’m always painfully slow getting to one… thinking about Christmas brought me back to the one when Austin had just turned four. We went to the mall to have his picture taken with Santa. It seemed as if we were in line forever, his warm little hand in mine, and I wondered if he’d be ok sitting on Santa’s knee by himself-historically, that had not been the case! He did it, photos were successfully snapped, and he ran back to me afterwards with a big proud grin.

As he gave me a huge hug, I asked him what he told Santa he wanted for Christmas. He said in the earnest way only small children do, “A hot wheels car, a blue cereal bowl…and earrings for you, Mommy.” The look of pure joy on his face when there were earrings for his Mom Christmas morning was unforgettable. The blue cereal bowl, too cracked by now for use, is carefully tucked away, there has been a Hot Wheels car in his stocking every year since, and he still has the same unselfish spirit he had when he was a young boy.broken-wings

The Eyes Have It-for Hank

Yesterday was my brother Hank’s birthday; driving to his home and looking forward to the celebration, I thought of some of the many things I love, admire, and respect about him…his love for his family, his integrity, his talent for great story-telling, his strong work ethic, his protectiveness (sometimes having to go so far as to privately tell us hard truths we don’t want to hear to protect us from ourselves- that takes a lot of courage). I want to be a better person because of him.

If someone were to ask me what my one very favorite thing is about Hank though, I’d have to say that it’s his eye rolls, and as his wife Claudia says, the degrees of those eye rolls!

The first is the story-telling eye roll. We love how it adds emphasis to an already funny tale! The second is the’ I’m-mildly-exasperated’ eye roll done with great exaggeration; the more irritated he is, the more pronounced it becomes. The third is the least common and rarely seen. It’s the ‘that’s-without-a-doubt-the-most-ridiculous-thing-I’ve-ever-heard’ eye roll and it’s to be taken seriously.

Hank is a kind man with a gentle spirit who has been married for years to the love of his life; they have two wonderful children. He grew up with three sisters and inherited another when his dad married my mom. He is quite patient with us all and we know he loves us. That being said, I think there’s not a one among us who hasn’t been the cause of an eye roll from time to time.

I love all the types of eye rolling, and this is why: his stories are so animated and his facial expressions make me laugh that much harder. The exasperated eye roll makes me turn my head away to smile (don’t tell him, but it’s really funny!) I always have to bite my lip hard to keep from giggling. The serious eye roll is the one I appreciate the most. As someone who tends to make things bigger and more dramatic in my mind than they really are, having a brother who loves me enough to let me know when I’m off track is just what I need most- I hope he knows that and keeps those eye rolls coming!