My Biggest Influence

Jen and IOver the course of a lifetime, we come in contact with a great number of people.  Some people just pass right on thru without us even noticing, others make a brief yet still significant mark, and others impact our entire being.  They transform us.  Maybe for you the person who made the most difference was a spouse or a child.  Maybe it was a teacher or colleague.  For me, it was a friend, one so close I consider her more of a sister.  There is simply no aspect of my life that she did not influence.

I met Jen when I was only two or three years old and she was just a newborn.  We grew up living just two houses apart in a quiet suburban neighborhood.  As a kid, my family remembers me being an outgoing chatterbox, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I talked their ears off, yes, because they were my safe zone.  In reality, when they weren’t around, I was quite shy . . . except when I was with Jen.  She and her parents introduced me to things I never would have had access to or attempted to do without them.  I have no doubt that without the three of them I would have turned out very differently.

I got my sense of imagination from Jen and her mom, Becky.  Becky could be silly and would use words that even now I associate strictly with her.  She encouraged us to play dress up, have picnics on the porch, and hide away in Jen’s cardboard version of the Mickey Mouse Playhouse.  Jen had a lot of toys, but she didn’t really want to play with most of them.  Instead, she preferred for us to make up our own games and stories, and she was endlessly creative.

Though I may have helped Jen learn to ride a bike, she helped me learn to go off and explore, and that push to explore got more necessary the older I got. I can be reclusive and set in my ways.  I don’t go out of my way to meet new people or try new things.  Jen, however, never seemed to meet a stranger.  She would introduce me to her other friends and try to put me at ease.  Then again, she would embarrass me too!  Many a time, she would be driving us around town with the music blaring, and at stoplights, she would dance and make the car shake violently.  People would stare and I would slide down in the passenger seat not wanting to be noticed.  That was the difference.  Jen didn’t care who stared.  She made it her mission to get me to lighten up and live a little. She would take me to Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion and get me on every single ride.  She would even make me raise my hands over my head, laughing and screaming.  I’ve probably never felt so free as in those moments.

In our twenties, Jen regularly took me clubbing and tried desperately to teach me to dance.  Eventually, she declared it hopeless, saying I just had no rhythm, but she still made me go with her. She was determined that I not spend my evenings at home alone.  She got me to laugh at myself and she taught me that if you look hard enough you can find humor in most anything.  Afterall, sometimes life gets so shitty the only way to stay sane is to laugh it off. She taught me that it’s all about perspective. She could look at a problem and explain it in a way I never would have thought of.  She could calmly explain alternative viewpoints in a way that made you accept them even if you started out staunchly opposed.  She had a sense of logic and persuasion this world desperately needs.

Sadly, a year ago today Jen died, a mere three months after being diagnosed with cancer. She was 43 years old. No matter how afraid she might have been, she was still so brave. The last message she sent me was “my family (and extended family) is the shit! I have the most awesome support system imaginable.  Everyone has been so very kind. I plan to win this fight, the problem is that everyone plans to win and most don’t.  Scary stuff! This is why we have valium.A few weeks before her death, I went back to Virginia to say my goodbyes, and the only fear I saw was that she didn’t want to be left alone.  I spent the few nights I was there sporadically sleeping in a chair beside her hospital bed. Even then, she was much more worried about everyone else. Southern girl that she was, she wanted to make sure every visitor was comfortable and fed.  I don’t know how many times she offered me her Jello or her soup. She was suffering, yet still had a smile for every friend or family member who entered. Late at night, she told me how much she appreciated her parents being there with her every day, but she was concerned about the toll it was taking on them.  I know she worried about me too.  We reminisced about all the good times we had shared and she agreed wholeheartedly that my life certainly would have been dull without her in it.  We planned out all the things we would do and trips we would take when she recovered. I think that was her parting gift to me.  She knew that she wouldn’t leave the hospital, but she left me a “To Do” list.  She knew that I would feel obligated to do all the things we had talked about.  Even now, she is teaching me to face my fears and live courageously and every step I take I know that she is with me.

Daily Prompt: Neighbors

Man of Steel . . . Nerves, That Is!

We all want a hero, someone with super powers to sweep in and save the day.  The entertainment industry is well aware of the fact based on the number of Spiderman, Superman, and Iron Man movies, just to name a few.  But consider the everyday heroes.  Sure, we have police officers, firefighters, soldiers, teachers, etc.  They are all heroes in my book and deserve all the respect and praise we paltry folk can muster.  Still, they are not the only heroes discreetly aiding us in the challenges of life.  There is the friend who knows exactly when to call and what to say to bring us out of a funk.  There is the family member offering encouragement and pushing us to chase our dreams.  There is even the fast food worker or retail clerk who battles a disgruntled customer and then still turns to the next person in line with a smile.  Yes, the ability to let negative remarks roll off of you and remain friendly and positive is surely a super power.  There are countless more, but if I took the time to list them, then this blog might never end.

In my life, I have been impacted by heroes of all kinds, but one stands out more than all the others.  He is the “Man of Steel” for he certainly has steel nerves.  Nothing seems to shake him and he has always been my rock, my constant in life.  What makes him even more special is that he did not have to be such a huge part of my life, and yet he chose to be my “Father”.  When I was two or three years old, his daughter Jen became my best friend and the rest, as they say, is history.  He might not have been the fun dad who played with and became one of the kids, but I was drawn to his calm and logical demeanor.  I must have known from an early age how important those traits would be later on in my life.  He has certainly rescued me on more than one occasion and he never seems to break a sweat.

To demonstrate just how calm he is in stressful situations, I would like to tell you about my first driving lesson.  Yes, the dreaded driving lesson is something most parents will try to avoid.  Really, how many people willingly entrust their lives to a sixteen year old while trapped in the confines of a hunk of metal?  Why anyone would volunteer to teach a teenager to drive is beyond me.  More than that, why would you use your brand new sports car for the driving lesson?  That defies logic, yet that is exactly what my “Father” did.  He must have had a rare lapse of judgement.  I can only hope he has fully recovered.

As I got behind the wheel of his Toyota Supra, he got into the front passenger seat and Jen hopped into the back (sitting in the middle for a good view of the road).  We all buckled our seatbelts, and I, at least, took a deep breath before starting the engine.  With nervous anticipation, I placed my foot on the gas and we started slowly down the street.  I don’t remember the specific route we took; perhaps I blocked it out.  What I do remember is Father happily telling me to go faster.  It was evening and the roads were clear, so I guess he figured there was no harm in letting me really test out the car.  I remember asking if he was sure before putting more pressure on the gas.  It was exhilarating.  I was driving, and even better, I was driving this beautiful sports car.  I was getting more comfortable, but I was apparently still cautious when making turns.  Here is where the drama unfolds.  Father told me, “Don’t slow down when you make your turns”.  Barely seconds later, he told me to make a right turn at the next corner.  Wanting to please him, I maintained my speed and made the turn.  As I did so, Jen started screaming from the back seat.  Her life had seemingly passed in front of her eyes as she noticed the car coming towards us.  She hollered at me, “Didn’t you see the stop sign?” to which I replied, “No.”  All I knew was I had followed directions: Father told me not to slow when making my turns and then he told me to turn.  There was never any mention of a stop sign.  When Jen finished screaming and I ceased my explanation, Father calmly looked at me and said, “You are so lucky.  There is normally a cop sitting there.”  That was his only reaction.  He must have ice in his veins.

To this day, I have to admit breaking into a smile every time I make a right-hand turn.  I do try my best to adhere to the stop signs though.