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!

I Should Have Told You This A Long Time Ago

For my family: It has been said over and again that we are not promised tomorrow; with that mindset, I would like to share with you a few of my favorite memories and what makes me smile widely when I think of you:

Mom: That infamous day at Callaway Gardens when you ran into your only daughter with your bike because you couldn’t figure out how to use the pedal brakes- I can still see your face… laughing so hard you were crying and unable to say anything, including the helpful words, “Move out of the way!” That memory has made me laugh so many times!

You have sent me a Valentine’s Day card every year of my life. Thank you. You always know how to lift my spirits.

Trying to figure out how to work the card/key elevator in NYC… eleven!

Dr. M: When I was in high school, you would come home from work in the evenings and kick around the soccer ball with me. That was so awesome of you.

It takes a special man to love someone else’s child as if she were his own, and that’s what you have done.

Playing the word game, “Ghost,” on car rides, and “pocket repeat” from Radio Shack- I still have it after all these years.

April: Sitting on the floor with you at the Point Clear house listening to records; we looked at the Doobie Brother’s album jacket and you told me all of their names. We sang to each of the songs.

I love your sense of humor and hearing you talk makes me happy.

The night before I left for college, you gave me a popcorn maker; you covered my eyes with your hands as I opened it so I wouldn’t see the box and we laughed so hard while you gave me directions on getting the tape off.

Claudia: After I passed boards, I came home, pressed “play” on the answering machine, and heard your voice saying, “Woohoo! Is there an RN in the house? We are so happy for you!” That meant so much to me.

You make life fun.

We were all together in church one holiday years ago, and I spontaneously started crying snotty tears for no apparent reason. You didn’t try to ask what was wrong- you just handed me a tissue, smiled, nodded, and held my hand. That was perfect and made it all better.

Hank: Going with you and your Dad to the old auction building on a covert pigeon rescue/adoption/relocation mission in the dark of night- I think we may have rescued one or two. How did we get in there anyway?

The ways you show your love mean a lot; I never have to walk to my car alone after a family get-together because of you.

You let Austin ride in your boat as you pulled it back to your home. I don’t know whose grin was bigger that day as you both drove by and waved, yours or his! Thank you for doing that for him.

Missy: The Great Loon Rescue… you were so brave.

No one can make me laugh as hard as you do! I also love it when you open that tender heart of yours – talking with you replenishes my soul and releases buried tears turning them into laughter and snorts…well snorts for at least one of us…wait, I have heard you snort before! Shhh, I won’t tell anyone…

You taught me how to drive stick-shift. I’m not sure we were completely successful that day, but I do remember you saying it’s easier to feel the clutch bare-foot then warning me to always drive with shoes on.

Mary: Playing countless card games at Point Clear- MAMTG and AMCTG- many great memories of that summer.

You have such a sweet voice.

Walking with you at Gulf Shores, talking, dreaming, and collecting sea shells, then seeing a school of dolphins… we came close to deciding to swim out to them…until a fish bumped into my leg. Then it was over.

Mark: Seeing you at the grill every Easter with the lamb chops, and knowing you are doing it out of love.

I’m grateful for the special bond you forged with Austin that exists still. He would talk your ear off when he was little and you were always patient and listened.

The well-timed SEC football fan e-mail

For My Son

What I want you to know:

There are times I am disappointed for you yet I am never disappointed in you. I am so thankful that God chose me to be the vessel through which you came to be here; He is the One Who made you and He loved and knew you long before I did. You are a precious gift.

Even as I am happy being with you, it is not your responsibility to ensure my happiness. We choose to be happy or unhappy and any poor choices I have made are my own, not yours.

You inspire me. I am braver when I am with you. I see your love, your sincerity, your ability to make others smile, and I want to be more like you. I have never wanted for you to be like me; God made you who you are, and He knew what He was doing.

I want you to know, really know, that you are loved. You are loved not just by me, but by those who want to be a part of your life and to have you in theirs. My prayer is that you see yourself through God’s eyes- when that happens, you will have immeasurable joy and peace.

My wishes for you:

To love and be loved back.

To find your path doing what makes you happy. Please don’t waste your time with a job that you hate as a means to an end so that ‘one day’ you can be happy. ‘One day’ may never come and I don’t want you to ever look back with regret. It’s the little moments in life that bring smiles and they are easier to recognize when we do what we enjoy.

For you to laugh and to laugh often. Your laughter is a blessing to you and to those around you.

That you may know your worth, share the gifts God has given you, and see how much He loves you.

Put Me In Coach- For Beth

Those who impact others the most do so naturally with their souls; it is part of their being and it is beautiful.
This weekend was a big one- the opening weekend of softball season with my niece in her first position as head coach of a university’s softball team. All of the family is so excited for and proud of her and we loved being able to gather together in her honor. As an athlete and a coach, her accomplishments are impressive; even more impressive is her character and her integrity. As a very young girl, Beth worked hard to become the best she could be at everything she did and she succeeded. She did so quietly and humbly. As a young woman, she gives all of herself to help others become their best. She doesn’t take the credit for it- it’s just what she does.
Before the last game, her parents and I got to spend a little time with Beth who spoke about her most improved player, telling us, “She came from a town where no one expected her to be anything good, so she expected not to be anything good. She’s made such a turn-around.”
Listening to her gave me chills and I wanted to shout, “It’s because of YOU, Beth! Don’t you know? YOU are changing this girl’s life! I wish you were my coach!” But I didn’t. I listened. Her parents didn’t have to say it. They know.
The girls played hard but the score wasn’t in their favor this time. It’s early in the season- just the beginning- but it’s hard to find the right words to say to a disappointed coach after a loss. The team is already winning the big game. When I saw Beth afterwards to say goodbye, she said, “I’m sorry…” There was nothing I could do or say to help her feel better- just hug her and tell her, “Love you, baby.” I hope she felt what was in my heart: Sweet girl… beautiful lady…strong woman…you are affecting so many young lives and the world is a better place with you in it… But there’s a time for words and there’s a time when words need to be left unspoken.

My Sister’s Mother- for Miss Jody

Thirty five years ago, my mother accepted the marriage proposal made by my step-dad; it was her best decision of my life. At the time our families merged, I was 13 and my step-father’s four children were all young adults starting to carve their own paths. I’ve never asked any of them how they felt when their dad remarried; if there was pain over the breakup of their own parents’ marriage, and it’s certain there was, they were too gracious to show it. When I think of the many lives they have impacted- lives brought forth, lives nurtured, lives saved- I become overwhelmed, but those are stories for other days. This one is about their Mom.

I wish I remembered where we were the first time I met Miss Jody- it must have been someone’s birthday, or a holiday… what I do remember most is the way I felt before and after. I wonder what she’s like. It’s going to be weird meeting her. What if I don’t like her? And the last question, which was the only prophetic one- What if I do?

She hugged me when we met and got me past my shyness by asking about school… and horses; like a lot of young teen-aged girls, my passion then was horses. Over the past almost twenty years, I’ve watched this beautiful lady do the same thing with my own son at family gatherings.

Riding home in the back of my parents’ car that night, there were more thoughts that couldn’t be said out loud. She’s really nice. Did it feel strange to her being around my mother? I like her. Am I disloyal to Mom because I like her?

Everyone who knows Miss Jody can attest to her sweet, kind spirit. She didn’t have to accept me. She didn’t have to accept my son. She’s done way more than that… she has loved us, truly loved us- openly, genuinely, completely, and unconditionally. I always look forward to seeing her.

At my sister’s birthday lunch this past Sunday, I got a few minutes alone with her mother. As we talked, I couldn’t help blurting out, “Miss Jody, is it ok that I think of you as my step-mom?” The thought had been in my mind for several days and just had to come out- I struggle constantly between being awkwardly quiet at times and a blurter at others. “Oh, darlin’, of course! Of course it is!” was her sweet reply. She hugged me and told me she loved me as she pushed away strands of hair that had fallen into my eyes with her gentle fingers. I love it and it makes me smile when she does things like that- it’s her nurturing way. I love you too, Miss Jody.

Giving Thanks

There are many great memories of Thanksgivings past. For me, this one was the best ever, being spent with cherished family and friends who are family too. Gone at last were the selfish and self-imposed feelings of guilt and dark regret, leaving so much more room for light, love, happiness, joy, and gratitude. The beginning of this year was a scary time for our family as my brother Hank was really ill; his recovery has made the closing of this same year that much sweeter.

Sitting around the fire pit outside with everyone after our huge feast, we shared wine, stories, and lots of laughs. Being with nieces and nephews who are all grown now, learning more about them through their conversations with us and each other, hearing their laughter, and seeing the closeness they share was priceless. My niece Beth entertained the group both with her humor and her guitar, indulging all of us with our requests, leading us in sing-alongs, and best of all, occasionally going into a solo which allowed us to hear her beautiful voice- I don’t think she knows how good she is. Cliff and his sweet wife, Kara, radiate love and are always sure to include everyone in conversations- I love that about them. Oliver exudes warmth and makes everyone feel special; he has a quietly giving nature. Katie lights us up with her laughter and brings to the group her optimistic, positive energy.

As my sister-in-law, Claudia, periodically left her chair for only a moment at a time- we don’t know how she does this, but she takes photos in pure stealth-like fashion without us realizing she’s doing it; we only know later when we see the beautiful images of the ones we love, their personalities captured perfectly- I couldn’t help thinking about when these young adults were little… Beth as a toddler, walking around at a festival in Gulf Shores, a balloon tied to her wrist, a precious grin on her beautiful face, and arms outstretched to everyone… Oliver at the age of one, giving gentle pats on the back to whoever held him in their arms; God gave him the Spirit of a Comforter very early in life and he continues to share that gift with all of us…. Cliff when he was eight, meeting my two-week old son for the first time- such a kind soul then and now, he made sure to say goodbye to the baby before he returned home with his parents… Katie as a toddler too, standing on her daddy’s shoes, holding his hands, and ‘dancing’ at my wedding reception; she is the kind of young woman who makes others happier just because they are in her presence. It was with Divine timing that my own grown son phoned during these reflections. It was the first Thanksgiving I’ve been apart from him, and his phone call made it seem that he was with us all.

When it came time to leave, Hank said he’d walk me out (he’s always so polite) and the following conversation took place, making me smile widely as I type this:

Me: “You don’t have to do that.”

Hank: “I want to.” That’s just how he is, and we love him for it.

Me: “Ok.”

We stopped by the kitchen, and he insisted on carrying the casserole dish I’d brought. As we got closer to my car, walking out with my sister Mary and her husband, Mark, Hank asked, “Are you ok? You seem ok, but are you really ok?”

Me (perplexed at first, thinking physically? Mentally?- that’s sometimes up for debate! Emotionally?): “Ohhhh! You mean to drive?” (DUH!)

Hank: “Yes. Are you ok to drive?”

Me: “Oh yeah, I’m fine! I let people know if I’m impaired, huh Mark?”

Mark (my very patient brother-in-law): “She’d let you know.”

Me, to Hank:” I got really drunk Easter. Mark and Mary drove me home.” A little side-note here, Mark asked me the very same question Hank was asking now after the family Easter celebration at their home, to which my obnoxiously loud reply was, “Nope! Not even a little bit!” Yes, my parents were still waiting up for me that night when Mary and Mark drove me home, and yes, even though I’m in my 40’s, I felt like I was back in high school all over again…

Mark: “We didn’t mind.” So sweet.

As we reached the car, Hank asked me one more time gently and quietly, “Are you sure you’re ok? You’d tell me if you weren’t, right? Don’t lie to me.”

I really wouldn’t lie to him. There was only that one time, and that was over three decades ago! (https://awhitlow2.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/a-hank-story/)

Me: “I’m ok, I promise.”

Hank (seeming convinced): “Ok.”

Me: “I love you.”

Hank: “I love you too.”

Me: “I’m gonna cry now.”

Hank: “That’s ok.”

When I got in the car, the tears made it hard to see him standing behind, giving directions on how to back out of a tricky spot. It’s one of the Hank-like ways he shows us his love, and it feels so unimaginably good to have that.

Memories- for John

For my cousin who is bravely battling cancer. As I type this, I am crying. Life is so precious and we need to remember to tell those we love that we love them. There may not be a next time.

What I love about John:
Riding in the back of his parents’ old station wagon with the seats folded up, way before the era of seatbelts and car seats. We would slide around like crazy with every wild turn his dad made until one of us (me) would get stuck between the seats and start crying. He never made fun of me for it, no matter how big a baby I was.

He always shared his toys, and we would play with Lincoln logs, legos, pick- up sticks, tinker toys, and tiddly-winks for hours.
Going to the ballpark together to watch Jay, playing in the red dirt, and eating park food until we both got stomach aches.

Sparklers every Christmas Eve at Aunt Evonne’s and Uncle Charlie’s, and playing with the old spinning wheel.

Whenever his Mom baked a cake, she would make a line with a spatula down the middle of the bowl for us to lick the batter. John never put up a fuss that I always picked the biggest “half.”

Playing in the hay loft at Grandpa’s. John pushed all of us around on the cart so fast we felt like we were flying, occasionally crashing into the hay bales.

Going on horse rides, three to a saddle.

Eating dinner at his parents’ home when we were young. We’d sit on the bench together and manage to inhale the food quickly so that we could slide down, crawl under the table, and rush outside to play.

The tire swing.

He was always barefoot when he was little.

Sliding down a big grass hill in cardboard boxes.

We drove together very late one night on an eight hour trip, both really tired. He stayed awake with me while I drove the first part; when he took over, I fell asleep almost instantly leaving him to fight fatigue alone and take us safely home. He didn’t mind.

When his Mom had surgery and while I was engaged to my future ex-husband whom the family hadn’t yet met, John and I were in the waiting room together, both strung out and worried. He nudged me when we saw a fellow with a really bad toupee. I gave him a serious look, and said that the man’s hair was just like my fiancé’s. The horrified look on John’s face was priceless! He was absolutely speechless (which almost never happens)- until I started laughing. I can still picture his expression!

When I divorced, John told me “I want you to be happy, the guy’s a douche, and you can do a lot better.” All our lives, he’s always had my back.

Trivial Pursuit one Thanksgiving night at his Mom’s house.

Visiting with John and Jay at Jay’s house, drinking beer, and laughing so hard I was afraid I’d pee on myself. Those two always make me laugh.

His wonderful sense of humor and facial expressions- just one look can crack me up.

When John met my son, he made Austin feel like he’s known him his whole life. John has that way of making people so comfortable. I love it that he never meets a stranger.

Hearing John talk about how much he loves his wife and daughter, and knowing that he is loved.

Being greeted with “Hey pretty lady,” every time we talk in person or on the phone.

Getting to tell him I love him and hearing those precious words in return.