Monday, February 23, 2015

An invitation to Black History

When I draw a pencil portrait, there’s often a connection with my client.  I hear precious stories about the portrait subject – love, pain, regret, joy.  Those stories are what this blog and my job are all about.

Yesterday, the history of a portrait became more meaningful, on more levels than I ever could have expected.

When Steven Small called to ask if I would draw the pastor of his church in time to surprise him for Christmas, I groaned inwardly.  I was already overbooked.  They wanted a BIG portrait – the largest I’d drawn of a single subject – and they wanted it fast, neither of which was welcome at that particular stressful time for me.  But there was something about Steven’s warm, friendly voice and the way he described the Apostolic Church of God and their beloved pastor. 
“We’ll be presenting Dr. Brazier with the portrait in two services of about 3,000 people each,” Steven told me, encouragingly, hopefully.  Charmers like Steven are what get me in trouble.  I wavered – partly because of the business sense of that kind of exposure (when have 6,000 people seen one of my portraits at once?) – and partly because it just felt right.

I gave in, and I was rewarded in so many ways. 

Dr. Byron Brazier
I often receive poor quality source photos, but Dr. Byron Brazier’s photograph was perfection… crystal clear and full of wonderful expression.  I loved drawing him and finished it promptly. Steven came to my home to pick it up and I hugged him when he left.  He was that kind of guy.  His team was thrilled with the portrait and later he sent a photo of the beautiful framing they chose. 

Knowing what I know now, how I wish I could have been there to see the Christmas presentation. 

A couple of weeks later, Steven told me that Dr. Brazier liked my work so much, he wanted me to draw the previous three pastors, including his adored predecessor who had led the church for fifty years.  That one would be a particularly important portrait, Steven explained to me, because not only was the previous pastor beloved to the church, he is also Dr. Brazier’s father. 

District Elder Walter M. Clemons
I began working on the portraits of ACOG’s first two pastors, emailing my progress.  Choosing the photograph of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier took a little longer as he was so very important to his congregation.   He’d passed away in 2010 at the age of 89, leading his church even through illness.  The quality of the photograph was a little dicey, and we needed to tweak the portrait to get it just right.  Steven was apologetic in asking for adjustments, explaining its importance.  “He was like a grandfather to me,” Steven told me, “and I wasn’t the only one.  It has to be just right.”  We were very happy with all the drawings in the end.  
These were large portraits of men whose dignity and integrity showed on their faces.  I did my very best to capture each man’s strength and wisdom.  When Steven picked up the portraits, I wondered again if that would be the end.

Elder Ahart F. Medders

Instead, it’s been the beginning.  I was welcomed into their history.

My family was invited to attend the presentation of the portraits. Again, there would be around 3,000 people at each of two services.  “You’ll be my guests,” Steven said with his usual warmth.

Unfortunately my husband and sons had sports and travel commitments.  I asked my mom to come with me instead.  I had a feeling that I needed a witness to what was about to happen.

The first service was at 9 am on the south side of Chicago.  My mother and I are NOT morning people.  One of the joys of being my own boss is sleeping until I wake up.  But we managed to pull ourselves together and drive an hour or so to the beautiful brick church on Dorchester.  Steven had assured us there would be plenty of parking, but it was PACKED.  An ocean of cars in every direction, parked in several lots, on side streets… and we were a half hour early.  We wedged ourselves into a hidden, skinny space and walked through the doors.

This lot was full.  And the one across the street.
And the one across the other street.

I have deep respect for faith.  My parents taught Sunday school when I was young.  Our Lutheran pastor infused his sermons with personal stories and laughter.  He came to our house for dinner.  When he left our church, his replacement was more stern, less engaging.  My father was working so hard at growing his small business, that Sunday became another full work day.  I lost touch.  My questioning, critical, skeptical mind never found a spiritual place to call home.  More than anything, I believe in love.  That’s how I think of God.

“Praise the Lord!”

Each and every member of the church enthusiastically greeted us with the church’s official hello, “Praise the Lord!” reaching out to clasp our hands in welcome.  It almost felt like a wedding, a celebration.  Everyone was resplendent in three piece suits, sparkling jewelry, high heels, beautiful dresses, fedoras, furs.  Steven hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited for him and watched the joyful parade of fashion.  This was an EVENT.  We watched as people embraced and kissed and laughed together like an enormous family. 

We were the only white faces in a sea of color.

All day, the face of each person who saw my mother and me brightened in welcome.  We were obviously different, but they were so happy to see us.  It was humbling.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to each “Praise the Lord!”  I said hello and good morning and squeezed the friendly hands extended to me.  I looked into each set of eyes and prayed my own prayer of hope that they’d know my heart was full of love, even if I didn’t know quite how to respond the same way.

Steven took us to meet Dr. Brazier and to see the framed portraits.  When I draw someone, I spend hours and hours examining every line and nuance of a face.  When I saw Dr. Brazier, I felt like I knew him and he treated me like an old friend.  My mom and I were seated on the feather soft couch in Dr. Brazier’s spacious office while the portraits were unwrapped… they’d been delivered from the framer just that morning.  The photo had not done them justice.  The beautiful silver carved frames with grey and red mats took the 19x24” portraits to an even grander size.  I’d never seen my work in such elegant framing.  I was speechless.  Just kidding, you know I never shut up, but it was dazzling.  Dr. Brazier sat down and chatted with my mom and me for a bit, then we were ushered to our seats like VIPs. 

Later, Steven wondered at how easily Dr. Brazier acted as if he had all the time in the world to visit with us, when he was actually incredibly busy.  The Apostolic Church of God has 20,000 members.  There’s a lot going on all the time and Sunday is big.

When we walked in the church, I gasped.  It was like a theater, with grace.  Soaring wood ceilings, impossibly high brick walls, enormous beautiful birds carved above words of praise.  This was worship on a level I’d never seen.  A huge main floor was overlooked by a balcony full of happily chatting people.  The congregants sparkled and hugged and the energy bounced around.  Mom and I kept looking at each other with our eyebrows raised.  I mean, wow. 

We had reserved seats right in front.  The praise began in song and on a professional level I’ve only bought tickets for in the past.  Singers, musicians, choirs, soloists… 3000 people swayed in worship and joy.  Dr. Brazier spoke with passion, reminding each and every soul present that they were never alone.  Worries and pain and loneliness may make them feel differently, but even if they were alone, returning to an empty room, Jesus was already there waiting to lift them up.  He spoke to all as if speaking to one.  I cried.  A young, lovely soloist sang as if she were borrowed from heaven, closing her eyes and letting her voice soar to a place of grace I’ve never witnessed in person.  I cried again.  We were welcomed into this beautiful world of history and culture and hope and redemption, when we’d normally just be at home watching TV.  An elderly woman wearing an ivory brocade suit, pearls and a pretty hat repeatedly got up to dance for most of both services.  Her joyful, rhythmic steps reminded me of dancing with my grandmother in her kitchen.  I had to restrain myself from jumping up to hug her.  During a piano and organ duet, one of the choir members leaned back in her seat, arching her back as she moved her arms high in the air, gracefully interpreting the music with gentle hands.  It was lovely, as if it was flowing through her. 

In Catholic and Lutheran services, we’ve said to our neighbors, “Peace be with you”.  At ACOG, the people turn to each other and say, “You’re important to me.” 

My portraits were brought out on large easels, each draped dramatically in red cloth.  The crowd hummed with interest.  Dr. Brazier asked me to stand to be recognized, and my heart pounded.  He told all of God’s people in the room, “This is black history month.  But black history does not have to be only about slavery or struggle.  It can be about our history right here; the history of our church.” 

Bishop Arthur M. Brazier

He went on to captivate everyone with the story of how the church began, when the first two pastors, Elder Clemons and Elder Medders, lived in the same six flat building in Washington Park.  Later, Dr. Brazier’s parents rented a room from Elder Medders, and Dr. Brazier and his sister were born there.  He unveiled each portrait as he spoke about the church’s history and the passion and integrity of each of its leaders.  When he removed the drape from the face of his dear father, 3000 people leapt to their feet and applauded.  Chills.  He modestly revealed his own portrait that had been presented at Christmas time. 
Gesturing to each of the men’s wonderful faces, he said, “So… all four leaders of our church once lived in the same building, at the same time.”  There was a palpable surge of delight – don’t you love a family story you haven’t heard before? 

As the unveiled portraits stood in a proud row in their regal frames, beaming toward all those eager faces, projected on the large video screen above our heads, in that beautiful place… I knew I’d never have another moment quite like it in my career. 


And that was the first service.

We have great taste.
Afterwards, many of the church members greeted my mother and me.  One told me my hands were anointed. Another told my mother she was a holy vessel.  Each wondered at the talent God had given me, thanked me for the portraits as if I’d offered them as a gift.  (I was paid well for them.)  We were embraced and our cheeks were kissed over and over.  One woman was wearing the exact same dress as me.  After giggling over it, we posed for photos together.  I told her she made me feel like I fit in.  She told me if she was wearing the same thing as me, she must be doing pretty good.  I mean… oh my. 

Never in my life, have I had a day of love like this, a day of welcome, a day of acceptance and invitation.  The closest thing would be a big family gathering, but never with this kind of power.  The energy was unlike anything else.  It didn’t ebb, but grew.

Between services, we were guided into a private formal meeting room with delicious fruit, pastries, coffee and juice served on a gleaming, polished table.  A beautiful room meant for important visitors.  And today, it was for mom and me.

“You know,” Steven confided over our pastries with a smile, “You might be sitting in the same seat where President or Michelle Obama once sat.” 

Did I mention that Steve found me online when he saw a portrait I’d drawn of Barack Obama?  Politics can be as personal and passionate a subject as religion.  People have different views for private reasons.  Personally, I love our president and believe in his hopeful heart with all of mine.  Like him or not, you have to admit that there was just a flow to all of this.

The second service was more passionate, more energetic than the first.  How???

When it was over, after we accepted nonstop invitations to come back and worship with them again, Steven took us to lunch at a favorite nearby Italian restaurant. I tried to grab the check – I mean, he’s my CLIENT, for Pete’s sake – but Steven said that the pastor would be mad if he hadn’t taken good care of us. 

It’s Black History Month.  I was invited to be a small part of what it means to one beautiful church.  

And as I write this, I’m crying again.

Apostolic Church of God, 1931
With love,

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Valentine Love Story

It has been such a long time since I wrote a portrait story, or blogged about losing my keys while sulking about something silly.  But now the timing is just right - I’ve been saving this story since September, and most of it is written on a napkin from a Wildberry girlfriend lunch. 

Valentine’s Day is about love for more reasons than one.

Joe's hair.  Come on.

Flashback, late 1997.  I had big hair, a tall husband, a giant dog and a baby with a surprisingly round Charlie Brown head.  For five years, I’d worked for my father’s business and it was time to move on.  My husband Joe worked for Hewitt Associates and kept suggesting that I apply.  I’d earn more money, get more benefits for us, we could commute together.  But I was going to break my dad’s heart in the process.  My son Joey came to my father’s office with me each morning.  The gentle beginning to our days was going to become brutal.  It was such an agonizing decision that I used a long spreadsheet to weigh the piles of pros and cons.   In the end, we knew it was time.

I started at Hewitt, staggered and delighted by the shocking change of working for a big company.  I LOVED IT.  I made new friends, including a tiny spitfire of a girl named Tracey.  We clicked immediately, laugh-talking as fast as possible, chirping each other with our Nextel walkie talkie phones, mostly to gossip about coworker drama, sometimes to get work done. I only worked at Hewitt for a year, just long enough to make bonds that lasted through the next six years working downtown, getting fired, and the last ten years of drawing full time.

Tracey and I meet for lunch when we can, especially around our birthdays (the same day, two years apart) so we can catch up about kids (two boys for us both), our siblings (we each have only one brother who each have one son and one daughter) and our parents (who have been married a very long time).  It doesn’t matter how much time goes by between visits, Tracey and I love each other, get each other, root for one another.

I’m always excited to draw for friends, especially dear ones, so I was happy when Tracey asked me to draw a portrait for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  We thought about doing a “then and now” with images of her parents when they first married, and now.  Instead, we settled on a family tree, including both sets of Tracey’s grandparents.  As the portrait unfolded, the future of Tracey’s family hung in the balance.  She looked through photos of beloved, dearly missed grandparents while facing the possible loss of both her own parents.  The portrait was more than just a celebration of 50 years of family love and marriage.  We were hoping against hope that it would be a celebration of life.

Tracey’s parents met at a bowling alley on a blind date set up by friends, both barely into their 20’s.  Her dad became a toy designer for cereal boxes; her mother - a loving homemaker.  We talk together about our parents, how they sometimes drive us nuts and always make us feel loved, how lucky we are to have had them so long, that they’ve stayed together, that they have their health – or what’s left of it. 

“My dad is completely devoted to my mom,” Tracey tells me.  “He’s the most important thing to her, and her to him.  He’s taken such good care of her through two bouts of cancer.  He sat through every chemo.”  Tracey’s mom had a cancerous kidney removed.  For ten years, the remaining kidney has hung on, working overtime.  Its time was up.

“My mom didn’t want to live on dialysis,” Tracey explained.  They went to the Mayo Clinic and began the long, difficult process of trying for a transplant. “She needed a kidney badly. We all got tested, but we weren’t a match. There was a very limited pool of candidates due to her blood type.  We needed more people.” 

They learned about something called “paired donation” that can speed up the process. 

Paired donation is kind of like giving an organ directly to your loved one.  Except you give it to someone else instead.  And someone else’s loved one gives one to someone else and so on until the chain is completed.  The ultimate pay it forward.

Tracey and her brother both jumped up waving their hands to donate a kidney for their mother.  But Tracey’s dad wouldn’t hear of it.  His children were still young, with children of their own to care for.  He was 71 and as always, he was ready to step up to the plate for his darling wife, whatever it took.

Meanwhile, Tracey had been researching online how to find a kidney, trying to speed up the process.  Like her parents, Tracey is a very private person.  But she went public, creating a Facebook page to search for a kidney, imploring friends to share the page with friends of friends.  This is where it comes in handy to be fabulous.  Most of Tracey’s friends responded right away, and those who didn’t got a personal plea from Tracey during her daily campaigning.  In the end, 99% shared, forwarded, cared. 

After waiting many months, a match was found by Mayo.  Everyone rejoiced!  The relief. But then the whole thing fell through.  The match wasn’t made in heaven after all.

Tracey closed her eyes, remembering for a moment. “Everyone was devastated.  Waiting for the kidney was torture; we were on pins and needles.”  Tracey’s mom was very sick.  Time was running out.

As a result of one of Tracey's repeated messages, a friend of a high school alum made a suggestion to contact the Living Kidney Donor Network,  Tracey spoke to the founder, Harvey Mysel, who offered to meet with her parents.  A kidney recipient himself, Harvey told them not to put all their eggs in the Mayo basket, urging them to widen the pool and explore other places, like Loyola. 

Within a month of getting established at Loyola, another kidney was found through the paired donor pool.  Tracey’s mom and dad were scheduled for surgery on the same day, within two weeks of their 50th anniversary.  There was a 20 person chain making up the final list of paired donors.  The logistics of scheduling all those surgeries in different parts of the country was an enormous challenge. The surgery for Tracey’s dad’s kidney recipient was pushed back a couple days. I asked Tracey if her dad could have changed his mind once his wife’s new kidney was snuggled in place.  “The donor can change his or her mind, even on the table up to the moment before anesthesia,” Tracey explained.  “But my dad said he would never back out.  He’d never put another family through the devastation we all felt when the first kidney fell through.”

Both surgeries were ultimately a success, though her mother spent some scary time in the ICU while her family held their breath.  Tracey’s parents ended up recovering on the same hospital floor.  They were each other’s incentive to get out of bed.  Dad painfully walked each day to see his bride and her healthy new kidney.  The nurses thought they were adorable.

Back when Tracey and I were piecing together her portrait, we didn’t yet know how the story would end during such a scary time for her family.  Choosing images of all those beloved faces was bittersweet and more emotional than for most of my portrait clients.  Tracey fretted over every picture being just right, especially those of her grandparents.  Only her father’s mother is still alive - in assisted living.  Tracey’s grandpa was her primary caretaker since she’d had a stroke in her 80’s. Like father like son.  Tracey’s dad took his father’s 2009 death very hard.  He passed with his loving family all around him. 

Tracey’s maternal grandfather, Papa, took Tracey’s brother Michael to his first Cubs game, and Michael took 12 year old Tracey to her first game in his memory – they are life-long, suffering fans.  Papa died when Tracey was four, taken by cancer in his 50’s. The loss devastated Tracey’s mom, who always called him a “gentle man”.  His wife, “Nana”, lived to be 86.  “Putting Papa and Nana together again for my mom will be the crown jewel of the portrait,” Tracey stressed to me.  After all Mom had been through, it would be a beautiful, emotional surprise. 

And then, a happy ending – mom’s kidney came from Pennsylvania, dad’s kidney went to Utah.  On their August 30, 2014 anniversary, Tracey and her brother presented the portrait to her parents: precious children, beautiful grandchildren, beloved parents.  One kidney found, one kidney given, one grateful family.  And now, six months later, everyone is doing beautifully.

Wadded up in my purse for months. 

In September, I scribbled the whole story down on a restaurant napkin at lunch, a month after the transplants.  I’d asked Tracey ahead of time if I could write about her story and then I forgot a damn notebook.  And a pen.  And then I forgot to write it. Some things never change.

“While my mom was recuperating in the ICU,” Tracey told me over our lunch salads, “I kept thinking, what if she doesn’t get to see her parents together in the portrait?  What if something happens?  I thought the portrait was going to be big.   But it was so much bigger than I thought.”

Today, Valentine’s Day, is also National Donor Day. 

It’s a good day for a love story.

With love,
Wendy Zumpano

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Laundry for Giants and other Domestic Fails

I consider myself a pretty great mom, but I stink to high heaven at most mom jobs. 

Despite the fact that I am a full time pencil portrait artist and you would think I'd have some sort of pride in the appearance of my home (or myself... apologies for anyone who has seen me at Jewel), I just don't.  I've never been into decorating my house unless it’s Christmas.  Hang onto your Santa hat, then.  Otherwise, not so much.

A neighbor helpfully pointed out that my walls were all boring white several years after we moved in and I sort of wanted to pinch her, but she had a point. I don’t have a knack for knick-knack whatnot.  I notice my friends’ lovely homes and I notice when mine is messy, but I just don’t care that much unless we’re having company.  Then I run around panicking over all the weird piles of stuff everywhere and wishing that things matched or had less stains. 

I also hate grocery shopping and making dinner because I’m the opposite of a multi-tasker.  I’m a one thing at a time-er until I get distracted by something else, then I’m all about that thing, whether or not dinner is or should be in the oven.  I postpone shopping until we are out of everything and I have to listen to the nonstop sad sighs of everyone standing in front of open cupboards and fridge searching for anything worth eating. 

When I can’t take the audible hunger pangs anymore, I stomp around in search of my coupon holder, wasting at least an hour going through three months worth of newspaper coupons so I can save us about $4.50.  My husband and sons enjoy my victim mentality and show their support by rolling their eyes at each other (I see them).  Sometimes I make a big show of going through all the sales flyers so that I can price match at Wal-Mart.  When I brag about how I scored a disinterested cashier who allowed me to name any outlandishly low competitor price I want, it hurts my feelings when Joe informs me this is really a form of stealing.  Wal-mart is an evil empire!  I am the good guy, Joe.  Living with a Libra is hard for a morally ambiguous Gemini.

 When I get around to making dinner, the following usually occur:

1.       I break something, spill something or burn myself
a.       I scream bloody murder
b.      Joe asks if I’m okay in a genuinely concerned manner. 
c.       I respond by refusing to answer while banging pans around and power-sulking.

2.       I forget to start cooking something or stop cooking something
a.     I holler-announce my mistake in an overly dramatic way with lots of swears, such as “SHIT!  I forgot to turn the OVEN ON” or “GREAT, the pork chops are cremated again.”
b.     Joe sweetly reminds me that he enjoys burnt food (he actually does), all is not lost and nobody else cares about the exact timing of dinner. 
c.     Nobody recognizes how close I come to not swearing and hollering for once, and how DISAPPOINTING that is.

I love cooking!

3.       I feed everyone else something different than what I eat
a.     By the time I’ve got the manly meal on the table, everyone else starts eating while I’m still microwaving my sad girl meal
b.     Everyone is done before I am
c.     I eat Max’s leftovers
d.     I am disgusted with myself

4.       I feed myself the same thing as the rest of the family
a.     I attempt to serve myself a somewhat more girly portion than my three over 6' tall men, which is probably still a generous man portion in most households.
b.     Joey and I begin an unofficial wolfing contest and finish in a tie, or I am a close second
c.     Repeat 3c
d.     Repeat 3d

Everyone around here wants dinner every damn day and I can't remember to take something out of the freezer at a reasonable time and/or BUY food that counts as dinner.  Plus all the burning and forgetting and injuries...  it's stressful. When Joe makes dinner, he has a real recipe and premeasures all of his ingredients in adorable little ceramic containers, keeping his work area neat and tidy.  When he's finished, it hardly ever looks like someone dropped an even messier kitchen on top of ours from a great height.  He is calm and happy as he accomplishes his successful cooking goals instructed by his beloved cooking shows. 

Joe's a project manager and I am a neurotic flibbertigibbet artist, so it all sort of makes sense, and yet it feels like the girl version of emasculation. 
It may not be very 2014, but I can’t help but feel this household stuff is supposed to be traditionally more in my lane, right?  If I could only remember to do stuff and swear less and stop demanding pronouncements of gratitude from everyone who lives here.

I shine in one glorious household chore; I can wash the bejeesus out of clothes for giants. 

I have at least 7 distinct hot/cold/light/dark categories, each containing at least one overflowing load on laundry day, because I procrastinate at least two weeks between laundry marathons.  Consequently, we all own an extraordinary amount of underpants.  After I've dumped hampers on the floor to sort, the pile is the size of a kitchen stove. 

Unlike my usual, cheap, half-ass efforts, I buy actual name brand detergent and use both fabric softener and multiple dryer sheets.  When the dryer stops, I lay every item in a basket carefully so that everything is nice and smooth when it comes time for my mom to do all my folding for me.  God bless my mommy.

Close, but not quite.
My husband is 6’8, Joey is 6’5 and Max is 6’1.  Joe and Joey have disproportionately long torsos and a passion for t-shirts and sweatshirts.  I try to find tall sizes when I can, but I cannot dry any of their shirts.  Ever.  Otherwise they will go right ahead and wear the resulting short shirts around the house with an inch or two of belly hanging out.  This is disturbing.  So I must take every shirt made out of any sort of jersey or stretchy cotton (t-shirt, sweatshirt, long sleeve, etc.) out of the washer and complete the following:

1.     Place arms into shirt and stretch wide-ways and then flap to shake out rumples.

2.      Fold the shirt in half long ways and roll the collar a few times so I don't stretch the head hole into a girly boat-neck effect.

3.     Step on the bottom of the damp shirt (preferably with bare or sock feet instead of dirty running shoes... lesson learned) and pull in an upward row fashion as far as shirt will allow to hopefully cover the entirety of Joe giganticness.

4.     Flap shirt to shake out up and down stretch rumples

5.     Hang shirt on hanger to dry on rod above washer and dryer.  We don't have a laundry room and steps 1-4 are performed on a step stool.

6.     Repeat for each of the 50 shirts that the Joes have fouled in a two week period. 

Honestly, it is a lengthy labor of love keeping my big boys clothed, fed and reasonably safe from tripping over my shoes in every room of our home.  I insisted that Joey start doing his own laundry this year, and when I saw him taking his clothes out of the dryer, one by one, laying them carefully into a basket, I could have cried. 

It’s all such a challenge for me, as I keep reminding everyone, but it’s worth it.  Especially when my three adorable, funny, sweet boys refuse to complain about the crunchy rice, the mushy green beans, the burnt chops.  "It's not my favorite," is the most brutal criticism Joe musters.

Despite my shitty household skills, I’m not afraid to take the cover off the furnace and start poking around to see why it isn’t turning on.  When there was a MASSIVE beehive outside Joey’s second floor window.  Joe said, “Damn, look at that thing! We’ll need to call someone.”  I marched upstairs with a towel around my arm and hit it with Max's hockey stick a bunch of times, and then shot it with bee killer juice after it fell on the ground.  Joe would prefer to write a check rather than risk bee stings or electrocution.  I hate paying for anything. 

I may stink at the girl stuff, but I can be just a little bit of a bad ass when I'm not sobbing somewhere because someone hurt my feelings. Hell, I'm pretty brave when it comes to fixing things, or killing things or other traditional male household jobs like being rude to salespeople. 

Except for lawn mowing and garbage toting… someone with a penis is definitely doing all that. 

Sunday, January 12, 2014

High School Hero...

When I was 12, I loved Donny Nelson.  I wasn't the only one.  He was funny, charismatic and ridiculously handsome in that sudden, surprising way that some boys were in junior high… manly and confident while the rest of us were flopping around in a confused pile of hormones. Donny strode through school hallways with his shoulders thrown back, booming voiced, never doubting that things would go his way. I didn’t know then what Don had gone through as a child with his alcoholic mother.  Later I heard through the grapevine what he endured as an adult. 

Hang in there, baby.
Curly hair products are
coming in 10 years.

With my bad glasses, hair that refused to feather like Farrah’s and my loud, hopeful laugh, I was star struck when this larger than life boy chose me for a friend.  Donny was an equal opportunity lightning bolt, striking up friendships with an interesting assortment of kids.

Didn't mind hanging out
with frizzy haired nerds.
We drifted apart in high school when Donny became Warren Township High School’s star quarterback, surrounded by athletes and prom queens.  We were still friendly and I cried on his shoulder when his father died our freshman year.  Our bond had been forged as kids, singing dopey old songs for hours – me on piano, Donny on guitar.  We sang “My Blue Heaven” at the top of our lungs while walking from my house to his grandparents.  We threw a rock through a neighborhood window and hid in the woods from the angry victim.  At 13, I got into some serious trouble with Donny involving alcohol, a beach and the hospital.  He always deflected any blame, regardless of it being all his idea.  He wasn’t interested in a quiet life; he wanted action.

Don’s college football career ended abruptly when a neck injury left his right arm numb.  When he recovered, he joined the Marines.  During boot camp, an accidental blow to the head left him with the same numbness and he was discharged.  Determined, he joined the police force. 

He married Sheryl Corder, one of the loveliest girls in school whose shiny hair was a feathered masterpiece. She planned our ten year high school reunion - a perfect three day extravaganza that cost us relatively little because of Sheryl’s tireless fund raising.  In the book of alumni bios that she compiled, hers was the longest… a small town Hollywood fairytale about marrying the football star turned police officer, a new baby boy, and happily ever afters.  I was a little jealous that she’d been chosen by the boy who had been a comet in my life, that she was so amazingly perfect. 

Just months after the reunion, when Sheryl and Don’s son, little Donny, was six months old, Sheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Shortly after, she underwent a double mastectomy, then ovarian surgery.   Just days after her surgery, Don pulled his squad car over to assist a fellow officer with a routine stop.  A passing driver dozing at the wheel veered, striking Don as he stood next to the stopped vehicle.  The impact broke both Don’s legs and six ribs, bruised his lung, separated his shoulder and sent him flying 55 feet into the middle of the road.  He was flown to a hospital in Milwaukee on a Flight for Life helicopter.  Don’s frightened sister, Kim, picked up his recovering wife and took her to the hospital to wait through his seven hour surgery.

After he was out of danger, Don’s doctor told him the difficult news that he wouldn’t walk for six months.  Within a year, he might be able to overcome a limp. 

Don told them he was leaving, that day, with crutches.  And did.

Neither of the recovering new parents could care for little Donny, so Sheryl’s mother took the baby home with her each night and brought him back in the morning, caring for all three of them.  Don worked relentlessly on his rehabilitation and walked without crutches within two months. 

As they were fighting their individual fights, Don and Sheryl traveled to California to visit friends.  Before the trip, Sheryl had shaved her remaining hair and was wearing a wig.  “In the land of fruits and nuts,” Don joked, “Sheryl could go ahead and walk around bald.”  Pausing, he added, with pride, “She had such a beautiful head.  She could pull it off.  She looked great.”

Don ignored the advice of his doctors, pushing limits, and returned to work as a dispatcher.  Unhappy on the sidelines at a desk, he insisted he was ready, and returned to active duty only four months and 12 days after he was told he wouldn’t even walk for six.  His legs were never right, but boredom was worse than pain.

Four years later, things were looking up.  Sheryl had been healthy and little Donny was growing like a weed, the spitting image of his mother.  Don had a mole removed from his chest that indicated melanoma.  The next day, Sheryl’s cancer was back.

“You always have to one-up me,” Don accused her.  “I get hit by a car, you get cancer.  I get cancer, you get it twice.  Knock it off.”

Don’s brush with cancer was over quickly after a minor operation.  Sheryl’s road was steeper and they prepared again for battle.

On the 4th of July, Don was golfing with a group of detectives.  He drove his golf cart down an incline approaching a tunnel and started to slide.  Trying to regain control, Don braked hard and when the golf cart hit dry ground, it flipped.  Don tried to bail out and the canopy of the cart struck him in the back of the neck. 

“That was The Crippler.”  Don told me, using his favorite term to distinguish between his accidents.  “The moment it happened, I told the guys I knew my neck was broken.  It hurt and I couldn’t move anything.  So that was my second Flight for Life helicopter ride.  I have Flight for Life frequent flier miles.” 

Between rounds of chemotherapy, Sheryl visited Don during his four months of hospitalization. 

He was paralyzed from the shoulders down. 

“After my legs were broken,” Don told me, grinning, “Donny would jump on me and Sheryl would freak out.  But I’d tell her, hey, it’s not like he can break them again.  There are steel pins in there.  After I broke my neck, there was a bracket in there.  Let him jump. It won’t break again.”

Don's buddy

Don gave motivational speeches for patients treated by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.  “It doesn't matter how you got here.  It may not feel fair, but pissing and moaning isn’t going to make anything better. You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself, or you can start thinking about what you’re going to do next,” he told his fellow patients.  Don was selected to give a private showing to Christopher Reeves of their new robotic therapy developed for spinal cord patients.  Don and his sister were able to meet Christopher and spend some time with him just days before he died.  Don’s tough love approach inspired spinal cord patients and his sessions were full of laughter.  He was paid multiple times to speak to therapists in training.

 Don and Sheryl fought their battles valiantly side by side.  Two years after Don’s crippling accident, Sheryl died, at 34 years old, leaving her quadriplegic husband to take care of seven year old Donny. 

Don felt that his son had been as well prepared as possible for the loss of his beautiful mother after so many years of hospitals.  Every word Don spoke about his son was with pride in his toughness.  And yet it is hard for any father, let alone a severely injured one, to replace a mother’s tender touch.  “Sometimes he wants his mom,” Don told me in a rare vulnerable moment. “And all he has is me.  We do the best we can do and most of the time it is enough.”

When little Donny began playing his father’s beloved football, Don considered coaching but figured he couldn’t until he saw a documentary of Knute Rockne coaching from a wheelchair. “So I figured, what the hell?” Don laughed.  He volunteered to coach his son’s football team.  For ten years, Don was the heart and soul of our home town youth football organization, serving as president and resident hard ass.  He asked me to draw a portrait of his son and himself in their Warren uniforms.

“I do feel that everything that happens is a necessary step to the next thing,” Don stressed, “but I don’t know why Sheryl’s death had to be a part of the mix.   As far as the shit I’ve gone through, now I’m a stay at home dad.  I don’t have to work anymore.  I’ve been to Vegas a bunch with good friends, traveled more than I ever did before I was injured.  I figure I owe it to Sheryl, to Donny and myself to live every day to the fullest.  I’ve always seen my brothers and sister saving, waiting to enjoy life in retirement.  You just don’t know how much time you have.  You shouldn’t be reckless, but you need to live for now.” 

As our 20 year high school reunion approached, I had heard bits and pieces of Don’s story, but I’d lost touch with him.  I had thought about trying to reach out.  But what would I say to my lost friend in his wheelchair?  What would I say about Sheryl after all these years? 

Beautiful Sheryl
In her honor, Don planned the reunion and we reconnected as if no time at all had passed.  He invited my family to his big parties, full of all the friends he’d kept from our childhood.  I was floored at how little he’d changed, despite everything he’d been through.  He held court as always, telling stories in his commanding voice peppered with loud guffaws.  Don suggested that I draw memorial portraits of Sheryl's yearbook photo and a few other classmates who we’d lost for the reunion book.  I had just lost my job and he wanted to give my brand new portrait business some exposure.  Over the following years, he was always promoting me, ordering portraits, recommending me.  He supported his friends fiercely.

Yet Don is an acquired taste. 

When my husband first met him, he found Don to be a bit of a know-it-all.  Don states his opinions as fact, loudly debating any disagreement.  It can be abrasive, but there is always an edge of affection and humor there.  I was touched that such a large group of high school guys would stay so close, like family, for more than 25 years - vacationing together, hanging out weekly.  The more time I spent with them, the tighter their bond seemed.   Don doesn’t let you in deep, but he shows you in many ways that he cares.  He’s heroic with a little devil thrown in… on the football field, in his commitment to his family, in his arguably courageous attitude to not let anything get him down.  I can’t imagine going through the shit storm that Don has and still wake up each day, eager to make it a great one.  He’s a smart ass, he’s arrogant, he’s bossy.  He’s also unwaveringly loyal and passionate about making the most out of life. 

Don believed, with all his heart, that he would walk again.  He believed that everything happens for a reason.  When the reason continually evaded him, when his body repeatedly betrayed him, his positive attitude began to flicker, to fade.  After such a long, long battle, wouldn’t you feel angry?  Wouldn’t you just get tired? 

He began to push family and friends away, lashing out in anger, then trying to joke it off.  He moved to Vegas with his son in late 2013, living the last days of his life in the place he loved with the boy who had become a young man, and who, like his father, has faced far, far too much adversity.

At Don’s memorial, he wore our high school’s Blue Devils jersey.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t, and it tore every one of us up.  It took us all back to those swaggering days when he was so very alive.  I was overcome with guilt for letting him push me away.  I loved him and I always had.  Why didn’t I understand that he was angry and lonely?  Why didn’t I reach out to him more?

I remember nagging Don about his biography for the 20th reunion book.  Stubborn as ever, he refused to write anything. 

“You’re planning the whole thing!” I argued with him.  “You need to put something.  Besides, who has more interesting stuff to say than you?”

“Okay,” he smiled, “just write, ’You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’”

So we did.