Monday, June 9, 2014

June Blessings (Wisconsin)

This past weekend I was up in rural Wisconsin for a wedding.  For the first time in almost 25 years I served as the best man.  The day after the wedding, yesterday, I turned 51. Today I am taking a minute to reflect on the blessings I have in my life.

It is very interesting where you meet your friends.

I have many friends that I have known for most of my life, since I was young and in school, who I still try to stay close to.  They give me great joy.  The other day my friend, Joanna, who I have known since the third grade, contacted me because NPR was doing a program on advances in Parkinson’s Disease.  We both streamed it on our computers and messaged each other during the program.  I thought that was an amazingly gesture.  I am coming to understand that it is rare that so many people who knew each other in grade school and high school can still remain friends.   I guess the ties that come from the shared experience of growing up together are very powerful.  I am very grateful that we all still communicate with each other and am thankful for the support they give me. 

I have college friends who were together in the crucible of when we became fully functioning adults.  The ones that are closest to me are the ones that introduced me to my future wife, Karen.  Considering how crazy we were in those days it is a wonder we all had good grades and went on to successful careers.  After we graduated and entered the world we all attended or participated in each others’ weddings.  Now we are attending graduation parties for our children from high school and even college. I imagine there will soon come a time when we will be attending those same children’s weddings.  Every year my wife goes on a trip with some of the girls she is closest to from those days, and even earlier.  I love seeing the photos they take when they are away, because it reminds me of the good times we had when we were just starting out.  Every now and again I will get a call from my friend, Lenny and it is like we were still living next door to each other in the dorms of Illinois.  I also like that each of them shared with me the person they chose to spend their life with and that increased my circle of friends.

I used to travel a lot on business when I was with a national consulting firm and as such there became a joke in our neighborhood that I was the “unknown” husband.  Aside from the people who lived on either side of us nobody knew who I was. After I left the firm and was able to be at home more, participate in church, school and social activities, I made a lot friends in our neighborhood.  I am very close to many of them now.  Ben  made a special trip home from the city. Julie (my 26-year gal pal) and Neil and their kids came for dinner. Jim, Jan and their daughter, Natalie, came by to wish me happy birthday. Jim and I share a love of music and know how to talk to each other. It meant I lot to me they walked over. Some of the college kids that are friends with my kids also stopped by for a beer or glass of wine.  It’s very nice that they all thought of me. My wife gave me things I needed and wanted...a really cool bird feeder and a lantern. She knows me.

I am very proud of the fact that just about everyone I have worked with still considers me not only a former boss or peer but a friend.  We all had a lot of good times working and traveling together. I don’t work with any of them (I don’t really work full-time at what I used to do anymore) but they all still send me pictures of their families and what they are doing.  They call me sometimes for advice.  They connect me with people who might gain some benefit from my experience and again that increases my circle of friends.  The people I used to spend 60 hours a week with are special.  I love that they remain in my life. I must’ve done something right.

I am somewhat obsessive and habitual about making friends.  I’m not exactly sure why. Maybe it is because when I was very young we moved around a lot, and it was hard to make friends, until we finally settled down.   I make friends in very strange places.  There is a bar in Cincinnati near the hotel I always stayed in when I was there meeting with my boss.  I used to go there once or twice a month.  I went there so frequently that I got to know all of the employees and regulars.  I would sidle up to the bar and to watch some sports and have a beer and they would say, “Where you been, Chicago? We missed you.”   A lot of the people I consider friends I met in barber salons, groceries, coffee shops, hardware stores, shoeshine stands and bars.  I think the strangest place I made a friend was on the commuter train out of Chicago to the town where I live.  That person became one of my best friends.

The first time I met Loughern I think we both sized up each other and thought to ourselves, “What the hell is wrong with this guy?” Loughern is a rough and tumble, aggressive kind of person, prone to obscene comments, who has no problem confronting someone who is being offensive or has crossed a certain line with people.  I tend to fade into the background in those confrontations.  I’m the one who ushers innocent people into another car. No one ever thought he and I would hit it off.  But as these things sometimes go, we started talking and soon realized while we were very different we had a lot in common.  We both lived at some point of life south of the city; we were both committed to our families; both were married to our jobs, and we both were stressed out of our minds and unhappy.  As we got to know each other we started meeting in the Union Station bar every day before we caught the train home together.  Our relationship grew into invitations to poker parties, visits to each others’ houses for Bears games or driveway bags, and helping each other on projects we were working on when a hand was needed.

 One year, when I was a Vice President of Marketing and PR for a large organization, I was part of leading a huge conference in Orlando and I was comped a suite at the Hard Rock Hotel.  One of the perks I received was that you could stay over the weekend after the conference was done.  Loughern learned of this and invited himself to come down and stay with me.  Most of that weekend when he came is sort of a blur.  I do remember being in a Cuban bar at 4:00 in the morning, chasing squirrels in a park, and having to take a shuttle bus back to our hotel that was 300 yards from where we were standing because we couldn’t figure out how to get home.

On a sunny Florida morning I slept in and then went to meet Loughern by the pool where he was drinking coffee and doing the newspaper crossword puzzle.  He said to me, “Let’s go into the water.” I said, “I don’t really swim.”  He said, “We’ll just go in chest deep. I want to talk to you.”  We stood up took off our shirts and went in.  After we had dunked ourselves he said, “T.S., it’s time.” I asked “Time for what?”  He lowered his head and started shaking it. “Tom, I know you are trying to ignore this but I have been watching you.  It’s time for you to go to the doctor. It’s real. “I started to cry.  He put his arm around me and said, “I know this hard and you don’t this happen, but it is there. “ I asked, “How will I take care of my family?”   He hugged me. “It’s  going to be OK, T.S. This is not the end; it’s just a different chapter.  I’ll be with you every step of the way.   You have one more day to pretend that this is not happening and then when we get home we’re going to get you whatever you need. I promise”

Loughern kept his promise. He called me every day, we rode trains, he made sure I kept my head up and didn’t trip, that I remembered my medicine, took me to appointments, and he came often to my house to do things that once were quite simple for me but now were suddenly hard. When Loughern’s company was bought out, he moved to Wisconsin to be closer to his parents. I thought I lost my best friend, but I was wrong. I still every day get a call or a text from him asking, “How are you doing, jackass?”  When he comes down to work near us, or to see his boys who live near me, he sometimes stays at our house.  

After awhile of being up north he met a girl who he fell in love with.  He called me one night and said, “I’m getting married again.” “Well, good for you.”  He laughed. “Listen, you’re my best friend. I want you to be the best man in my wedding.”   I asked, “What about your brother?” He said, “I don’t like him as much as I like you.”  And so that is how I found myself on my birthday weekend in a beige tuxedo at a wedding in rural Wisconsin handing a man, I care very much for, a ring, and giving a speech.

A lot of people take New Year’s to reflect and make resolutions. I don’t. The day after my birthday I always set aside time to count blessings.  My blessings are these:  All of the people I know and call friends; the good neighbors I have; the fine people in my church who empower me to do good works for others;  the kind young people who come to the garage studio and inspire me as I watch them grow into adulthood and exploit their talents; my wife and children and my siblings who love me unconditionally, and a man in Wisconsin who lets me watch over him the best I can and who certainly watches over me. 

On his honeymoon, Loughern called me last night. "Happy birthday. How you doing, jackass?" Blessed.