Saturday, January 19, 2013


I've often thought how strange it is that we never get tired of our own company.

I suppose some slightly screwed-up people might hate themselves but if we're reasonably well-adjusted and strive to be good we can pretty much live comfortably with ourselves for every minute of our lives. It's really amazing when you think about it. And it's nearly impossible to honestly say that about anybody else. Even the closest husbands and wives need a bit of separation now and then.

As Kahlil Gibran so perfectly instructed, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.”

If you're really lucky, maybe once or twice in a lifetime you'll meet somebody who makes you feel valid, love-worthy and whole; somebody who is as comfortable to be with as you are in your own skin.

I was really lucky. I met Sharmayne.

The funny thing about our friendship is I can't remember when or how it began. I'm sure we met at Stagedoor Comedy Playhouse and I know it was more than thirty-five years ago but the specifics just don't exist in my memory. Over time I've learned to shrug it off and just accept the fact that Sharmayne and I have always been together.

And, I'll tell you something else: we always will.

Sharmayne and I were always able to talk about everything without shame or discomfort. Often we didn't talk at all. We could, and did, sit together in a car for many miles comfortably lost in our own thoughts together. And when we did talk the natural understanding we shared always had us peppering our conversation with knowing nods and exclamations of, “Yes, exactly!”

We talked a lot in her final year of life and we held nothing back. There was no need because sharing our thoughts was as natural to us as having them in the first place.

Some months ago, before Carolann and I moved to Texas, I sat with Sharmayne just after she had stopped working and was fully involved in her cancer treatments. I asked her if she was in pain and she said, no, not usually but that every little ache or the slightest cough scared her. At the time the finality of her illness wasn't a foregone conclusion. She was still fighting hard to win and live. I asked her if she was afraid to die and she said she didn't know. It's actually a very difficult question to answer, having never died before. We agreed on that and thought it was kind of funny.

Talking about the cancer and the unknown path of her immediate future – whatever may remain of it – didn't upset her. When she did cry it was when we talked of Olivia and Lorelei. Sharmayne had lived more than 62 years and didn't regret a thing but the idea of not watching her daughter's daily journey through life and motherhood or her granddaughter's full blossom pissed her off. It wasn't fair, she said. She told me that giving life to her daughter and watching her grow, sometimes by the minute, was the miracle that had given her life all its meaning.

“Yes, exactly,” I agreed.

But as much as that hurt her heart, Sharmayne's only fear was that her granddaughter wouldn't remember her. I tried to assure her that she would but frankly, I remember darn little about the people in my life when I was five and of course that was the first thing Sharmayne pointed out in response.

Those days on Tom and Sharmayne's couch led to many long phone calls between California and Texas. And, I don't want to give the impression that our conversations were all sad ones. Quite the opposite. Our time together gave us wonderful shared memories and we relived them often.

In early December Sharmayne and Tom decided I needed to come for a final visit. I wanted desperately to do so but couldn't afford it. They made it possible and for that I will always be grateful.

Ridiculous as it sounds given our natural bond I was nervous as I approached Sharmayne's bedroom for that final goodbye. I had spent four days on the road wondering what I could say that would be loving and warm without being maudlin or reeking of false bravado. Would she cry? Would I? I expected we would and I knew it would be okay but still, I was nervous as I entered the room.

Sharmayne was lying in her hospital bed, a bit groggy from her meds and having just awakened. I admit to being a little shocked at her appearance because she seemed older and more frail than I had ever seen her. It was to be expected, I guess, but I hadn't thought about it before that moment. And, she was bald, of course. That didn't bother me in the least but it was a dose of the reality I was only now beginning to see. But then she looked at me and smiled and all was right with the world again.
This was Sharmayne as I had always known and loved her.

“David,” she said simply, “I like your hair.”

“I like yours,” I replied with a grin.

“Liar,” she shot back. And fear left the room.

Over the course of the next few days we did our usual reminiscing. We talked about how our kids had grown up together and how astonishingly perfect they had both become despite our serious flaws. We remembered road trips and theater parties and jazz festivals and the people we had known back to a time that seemed to promise forever. We didn't talk much about her illness at that point. We weren't avoiding it, it just seemed unnecessary. She was resigned to the truth and we were both making peace with it.

A small tear did trickle down her cheek when I hugged her goodbye. Mine too, of course. But as I turned back at the door to give her a little wave before I walked away the truth of what little we had just told each other draped me like a warm blanket on a cold and dreary day.

This isn't goodbye, we said. We could no more lose or leave each other than if we had never existed.

I asked her to be there for me when I arrive and she promised she will.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Beautiful Existence

This morning on my Dallas radio show I shared the story of a woman in Seattle who has gotten some minor national attention for her resolve to eat every single meal of her life this year at Starbucks. Eleven days into the year she's apparently on track.

The source story doesn't say why she wants to do this. She says she's not employed by Starbucks and isn't making any money for the stunt but I suspect that's her plan. We all remember the young guy named Jared who became a spokesman for Subway sandwich shops by losing a boatload of weight eating there. If this is what this Starbucks woman has in mind, I kind of feel bad for her. For one thing, it has already been done. And really, Starbucks doesn't need any help. They're so successful they're opening new stores on both sides of every McDonalds in the world. The other problem is that for every fru-fru croissant and muffin they put in the display case leading to the cash register Starbucks is still basically a purveyor of coffee. Jared didn't get the best-balanced diet in the world at Subway but at least he got a reasonable portion of veggies and some protein with his carbs. Ms. Existence may find her health flagging by the end of February.

Wait, I didn't tell you her name, did I? It's Beautiful Existence.

Apparently that is her legal name and if you're boringly normal like me your first thought is that she's a nutball. That's what I thought but after a few seconds of reflection it occurred to me that this woman, for whatever reasons related to her life experience, lives on a different plane than most of us. She travels to the beat of a different drummer. A drummer with a banjo.

My good friend Chuck Woodbury spent many years of his young adult life traveling around the western United States in a motorhome gathering and reporting the stories of such people in an wonderful monthly publication called Out West.  One story was about a young man Chuck met in some small town in Utah or Wyoming. The details escape me but I think this guy's name was David. He earned a living as a dishwasher in a local cafe. He spent all of his spare time at home, alone, with one of those adding machines from the 80s that kept running tabulations on a long roll of paper. He started with 1+1=2 and proceeded from there to add 1 over and over and over and over and over again. This guy had his house filled with carefully cataloged rolls of used adding machine tapes.

Before I left work this morning I wrote and recorded a radio report about Ms. Existence at Starbucks for use later in the day and I can't stop thinking about her. She might be a nutball or she might be just a Jared copycat.

David, the adding machine dishwasher, might be a genuine looney from where I sit.

On the other hand, "crazy" is a slippery word and though I don't know any of the trials and tribulations of the lives experienced by Beautiful Existence or David the dishwasher, part of me greatly envies them.

They wake up every morning with a plan, they follow through and go to bed each night with a sense of fulfillment.

They serve nobody's expectations except their own.

If that isn't life well-lived, what is?
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