Happy Birthday Carol

On Monday, October 10, we celebrate Carol’s 65th birthday.  This is the second birthday celebration since she left us in December, 2014.

“Celebrate” is the right word.  Carol had a wonderful life, and that is something to celebrate.  And she left us a wonderful gift—a treasure.

We spend our lives marking time—birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions that call for a special card or a gift.  We can’t do that for Carol, of course.  Like the hummingbird in her story, she is floating free of time.  But this is a great day to acknowledge the gift she has left for us.

In the last fifteen months, I have appeared at over 100 venues in 20 states to talk about Carol and her beautiful book.  The responses have been uniformly amazing.  People everywhere are embracing the story of her transformational friendship with Giles Owita, the gardener from Kenya who was described by Oprah.com as “… one of the most refined and gracious characters to ever hit the page (except that he is real)….”  Our journey with this story is just beginning.

As I have travelled and listened to people talk, I hear about the other themes that resonate widely and deeply.  Carol says that Giles taught her “what we do when the script we have written for our life does not work out…how do we graciously slip into Plan B.”  When I started this journey last summer, I said that I am a walking “Plan B”.  I’m not supposed to be talking about her and her work.  We had planned for her to do that.  I was the “manager”.  My jobs would be making the travel arrangements and managing the logistics of going from one place to the next.  It didn’t work out that way.

Instead, my life has changed.  It will never be the same again.  There is no “cure” for catastrophic personal loss.  We never get over things like this, but we can heal.  And her story is all about healing.  Her gift to me is the growing realization that, just because my life will never be the same again does not mean that it will be terrible every day.   Healing is real. 

As Giles said, “Every day brings something good.”  And Carol tells us that “the ground in winter…holds a thousand lovely secrets.”  Two lessons for living. 

So we pause today to acknowledge Carol and her gift to us.. 

WE LAUGHED

            If you’ve been close to someone who was really sick, and then died, you know this.   It is very difficult to remember what things were like before the illness dominated your lives.

            This is what’s happening with me right now.  Carol was so sick for so long that it’s hard for me to remember—really remember—the times when she wasn’t sick.  It’s like walking through a dense fog.  Where’s the light?

            I love our house.  It’s where we had great times and raised our children.  I counted it up—we had two apartments and four houses (in four cities) in 42 years of marriage.  Not a ton of variety there (some would say boring).

            But our life was anything but boring.  Why?  We had a special chemistry.  We were great friends.  Most of all, we laughed.

            She made me laugh and I made her laugh.  She was extremely funny. I remembered that this weekend.

Since her death in December, 2014, I have been changing a few things in our house.  It is time to get some of the old stuff out.  I’m going slowly, but things are changing a bit. 

            Today, I was moving some pictures and found a newspaper article about me when I was coaching high school basketball at Roanoke Catholic.  She and I had a great time with basketball.  She was a coach’s wife—took up for me with the parents and fans and gave me comfort when we lost.  That’s not easy.  She was good at it.

            The article made me remember how funny she was.  It was a feature on the sports page and focused on how much our team had improved in a short period of time.  When I took the job (with Carol’s approval, of course), we just weren’t very good.

  I remember coming home from the gym one night.

“Where have you been?” She asked.

 I said, “Practice, of course.”

 She responded—more insistent—maybe even with an accusatory tone, “What have you been up to?”

“Trying to win some games.  What are you talking about?” I asked. I was getting defensive about this.  I didn’t like where she was headed.

She smiled.  She had been waiting for this.  “I’ve seen a lot of basketball over the years and I saw your team play the other night.  I’m pretty sure those guys cannot have been practicing.” 

 That made me feel better. 

A few years later, we started winning and the reporter wrote the feature article. (“A Turnaround of Biblical Proportions”, he called it—capturing the Catholic school angle).  He led with a story about my return home after a summer camp late one evening.  High school basketball happens all year long, and the summer was full of camps, games and clinics.  Between the coaching and my law practice, there wasn’t much time for anything else.  She endured all of that, and we laughed through all of it.

The reporter described the scene that summer night.  It was late. I tiptoed into the house and noticed that she was asleep.  I was glad of that, thinking that I would slip into bed and we would have coffee in the morning.  It was dark in the bedroom.  As I got closer to the bed, I could see that something was out of place.  I pulled back the covers, and there it was—on the pillow—a basketball.  Funny.

This story made the reporter want to talk to her.  She told him, “I alternate between telling him he is the greatest and telling him I’m going to kill him.  It’s like Billy Graham’s wife used to say.  Not to compare Dick to Billy Graham, but his wife Ruth said that while she has never considered divorce, she has considered murder.”

Glad I found that article.  The fog parted for a while.
 

           

 

 

The Garden

It is a common experience as I travel with the book.

Someone comes up to me and says, “My friend’s a gardener. She’ll love this book.”

My knee-jerk reaction is always something like, “It’s not really a book about gardening. The garden is a metaphor, etc..”

In July, I spoke to the Virginia Tech Staff Diversity Development Group in Blacksburg. Robin Atkins, the organizer of the event, chose the beautiful Hahn Garden Pavilion and Horticultural Garden at Virginia Tech as the venue. In October, I spoke to the Snee Farm Garden Club in Mount Pleasant, SC—near Charleston. This week, while I was in Frankfort for the Kentucky Book Fair, I was honored to speak at the awards luncheon for the Garden Club of Frankfort. I’ve been driving a lot lately, and that’s good thinking time.   I’ve started to think about why a lot of people – all of them smarter than I—settled on Mister Owitas Guide to Gardening for a title.

Starting with Carol. It was her idea, of course. You know that she was far from a master gardener, but she was a master wordsmith. Surely she thought about the questions she might get from librarians and bookstores. Does this book belong in the garden section or in the memoir section? What about Marly Rusoff (superstar agent) and Amy Einhorn (rock-star editor)? Did they think about this? Of course they did. Several things now occur to me.

First, there’s Sarah, our good friend and neighbor. Sarah is a master gardener. Sarah introduced Giles and Carol. And much of the story does take place in the garden. Giles had his doctorate in horticulture, so that all makes sense. But there’s more to this.

I went back and reviewed an eloquent ”review” I received from Ruth Stevenson, emeritus professor of English literature at Union College in Schenectady, NY. Ruth is highly accomplished—a PhD from Duke, and widely published. She read the book and held forth on the garden theme.

Ruth pointed out that gardens are traditional to the South (and Virginia) and are celebrated in publications throughout the region. She wrote that Carol “takes something quintessentially part of her background as a Virginian and redefines it: she makes of the garden not simply a part of her neighborhood landscape (rivaling her neighbor Sarah’s), but a way to investigate who she is.”

Then Ruth hits at the heart of things. She says, Artistically, the garden through its conflicting activitiesaesthetic display and underground decayfills the story through its progression with tension and continual drama. My “re-education” continues. Carol, Marly, and Amy most certainly knew what they were doing.

I’m sitting in Carol’s study (now my office), and looking out at our birch tree and the creek that flows by our house. During the last year of Carol’s illness, the garden was neglected. It hadn’t quite reached its former state of disrepair, but it did not look good. This past spring, I hired a guy to do some work, and he cleaned it up. I thought we were headed in a good direction.   Then, before he could make any serious traction, he called and told me that he’d decided to sell his equipment and ride his motorcycle across Central America.

Time for “Plan B.” My friend Vickie introduced me to Kevin. Kevin is a master gardener and he has spent lots of time rearranging and planting. His approach to the garden—the care he takes with his planning and plantings—reminds me a little of Giles Owita. (Just last week, he told me that he was taking some “discards” from my yard to use on another project.) Kevin is finishing his winter work on the yard and garden today. What will the spring bring?

“The ground in winter holds a thousand lovely secrets.” Gardeners know that.  I’m no gardener, but I think I’m starting to get it.

 

All Souls Day

Carol’s book is not a book about death.

This is a book about living.

Last week was a great week for the book. We spread the word, and won new fans in Greenville SC, Spartanburg SC, and the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. Between Tuesday evening at 7 pm in Greenville and Saturday morning at 10:45 am at the Louisiana Book Festival, I delivered Carol’s message six times, and each time I said, “This is a book about living.”

In the Catholic Church, November 2 is All Souls Day—a day of death--the day set aside to remember and pray for family members and friends who’ve died. At our parish in Roanoke, Virginia, there’s a touching service on Sunday afternoon. Family members and friends carry candles to remember those who’ve died in the last year.

I was on the road Sunday, and I wasn’t able to be there for the service. Bienta (Giles’ widow) and our son Chad carried the candle for Carol.

I don’t have any trouble remembering that Carol is dead. I do notice, however, that lots of people have trouble with that word. She “passed away.” She “passed on.” She is “at peace.”

I know she died. Dead. That’s the word.

We are in the eleventh month since her death. Seems like yesterday and forever at the same time.

Day of the Dead.

Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.

Dia de Los Muertos.

I wrote the Afterword to the paperback of Carol’s book in September, 2014. By that time, we knew what was going to happen, but we didn’t know when it would happen. She’d been in hospice since August, and we were in “surrender” mode. In my Afterword, I talk about the Mexican-Aztec traditions surrounding “Dia de Los Muertos,” and the idea (described by writer Victor Landa) that a person has three deaths. The first death, when the space Carol occupied lost its meaning, had already occurred by September. She had slipped away. The second death, when she drew her last breath, was in the evening hours of Sunday, December 14, 2014. The third death in the legend comes when her name is no longer spoken on earth. After that, she is “on the other side of eternity.” Of course, because of the treasure of her writing, it will be many, many years before that third death occurs.

But there is more.

I think about her all the time, but I can’t quite get a grip on where she’s gone. I just know she is not here—anywhere. I have been on quite an unexpected journey since December 14. I had no idea what this would feel like, and it has been a tumble of unexpected emotions.

Her presence—or more accurately, her absence--dominates every day. It is constant. I don’t know where she is. I just know she is not here—anywhere. Not in the Teton Mountains of Montana or the Badlands of South Dakota, where I travelled this summer to talk about her and her book. Not in the endless ocean I could see from Charleston and Pawley’s Island. And, to paraphrase what C.S. Lewis said after the loss of his wife, Joy, if I could look behind every star in the heavens, she would not be there, either.

But a strange thing is happening to me. To say “I don’t know where she is” could be considered a doubting statement. Consider this—“I don’t know where she is—yet.” I think that is a faith-filled, faithful statement. My friend Martha likes to say there is “wonderment.” (I argue with her wording, pointing out that “wonder” is quite sufficient.) As I look at all the “wonder,” I try to embrace the fact that I am not the center of this universe, and that there is beauty and faith in uncertainty.

Paul Tillich, Christian existentialist theologian, says that the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is certainty. If that is true, then my faith is growing. To again lean on C.S. Lewis, I think that I am beginning to “misunderstand a little less completely.”

In Baton Rouge, I spent some time with Peter Golden, a very smart guy and a great writer. He has a new novel coming out Tuesday, November 3—Wherever There is Light. Buy it and read it. I told Peter part of my story, and he came to hear me talk in Baton Rouge on Saturday morning. I went to hear him on Saturday afternoon. He gave me a great quote from Hemingway. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes--

"There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave."

Wow—Ernest Hemingway, Paul Tillich, C.S. Lewis, and Dia de Los Muertos.

The wonder of it all.

A Book About Living

life.jpg

Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening is not a book about death.

It is not a book about cancer.

Last July, when I was in Bozeman, Montana for some book-related appearances, I picked up a copy of the Bozeman Magazine in a local supermarket. The magazine featured an article about Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening. Its headline grabbed me: “A Book About Living.”

That is what Carol and Giles have left us—lessons for living.

If you read about the book, or dial in to the “teaser” at www.misterowita.com, you’ll learn that, though Giles was Carol’s teacher and she his student, neither of them had set out to fill those roles. Giles was just living his life, one day at a time, while Carol received his wisdom with, as her book’s subtitle suggests, an “open heart.”

Will Godwin, a friend from Austin, Texas, wrote a Facebook posting on our page in June, shortly after the tragic shootings in Charleston. Will quoted President Obama speaking at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral. The President said that Reverend Pinckney had “an open heart,” what the writer Marilyn Robinson describes as “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that which we are able to do for each other in the ordinary cause of things.” That’s what Carol had, and that is rare indeed.

Two of Giles Owita’s “lessons,” reinforced by the experience of Carol’s life and death, resonate here. Carol said that Giles demonstrated a “gracious acceptance of the handicaps and afflictions life visits upon us.” She told me several times to be certain that her obituary did not say anything about “a courageous battle against cancer.” She said that there was nothing courageous about it. She admitted being scared to death. And she added that the word “battle” implied that she might have ever had a chance to win. “No one wins this,” she said.

Carol also taught me the difference between “healing” and “curing.” Just after we called in hospice in August, 2014, I took over Carol’s spot as the keynote speaker at a big Susan Komen event (before an audience of 450 people), including Dr. Judy Salerno, the president and CEO of the national Komen organization. Carol’s agent, Marly Rusoff, had asked me to read about “healing vs. curing,” and to try to apply that concept to Carol’s writings in my speech. I learned that “curing” refers to the elimination of disease, the restoration of good health. But for Carol, and for so many other cancer patients with metastatic disease, “cure” is no longer part of the vocabulary. However, in cases where “curing” isn’t possible, “healing” may still be. “Healing” is a spiritual concept. In whatever religious/spiritual context speaks to you, “healing” is being made whole.

So, as I travel now, spreading the message of this wonderful book, I think of “healing” myself. Anne Lamott says that it’s “the insidious palace lie” that we ever “get over” the crushing losses we experience.   I’ll never get over the loss of Carol. I’ll never be “cured” of the sadness, but I can still be healed. My life will never be the same, but that does not mean it will be terrible every day.

To my mind, there are (at least) two epic quotes in Carol’s book. Near its conclusion, as Giles is struggling against failing health, he tells Carol, “Every day brings something good.” That is a powerful message. Regretting yesterday is a huge waste of energy, as is worrying about tomorrow. There is so much to enjoy today: “Every day brings something good.”

If you go to our website (www.misterowita.com ) and click on the trailer, you’ll hear the other book’s other great quote. Carol says that Giles taught her, “The ground in winter…looks awful—it’s gray and yellow and hard as a brick, but it holds a thousand lovely secrets.”

Two special lessons—for living.

And Here I Am

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

That is a strange opening line, but it’s really why I have this blog. Carol Wall and I had a long love affair. We were married when I was 19 and she was 20—a very unlikely couple. We had grown up together in the same small town, but the idea that someone like me would end up with someone like her was a real reach. As my South Carolina fans say, I had to “outkick my coverage” to get into her league.

In 1969, Carol Fretwell was the golden girl in Radford, a small town in the southwestern part of Virginia. Captain of the cheerleading squad, best student, best-looking—you get the idea. I, on the other hand, was sort of a hippie-radical-Catholic outcast.   I was not a football player (a huge tactical mistake if you wanted a good date on the weekends), and I was generally in the “fringe element.” That all changed, however, on one cold winter night in February, 1970. We were in the finals of the New River District Basketball Tournament, and our small school had never won the title. We were down by one with seven seconds to go. I got the ball, drove to the basket, and put it up on the rim. It hung, and fell…in.

Suddenly, this hippie-radical-Catholic was not in the fringe element. I was merely eccentric—and maybe even a little cute.

In this photo, it looks like I was leading the charge.  Don’t be fooled, Carol was the real leader!

In this photo, it looks like I was leading the charge.  Don’t be fooled, Carol was the real leader!

I had my first date with the cheerleading captain two weeks later (to a basketball game), and we were married less than two years later on a winter afternoon in January,1972. They could have sold tickets to our wedding—the unlikely union of a shaggy-haired Catholic boy and an All-American Methodist girl in a Methodist church with a Catholic priest and a Methodist minister. It was over the top. It was perfect.

Even at our wedding, I found it hard to believe that this beautiful woman was marrying me.

Even at our wedding, I found it hard to believe that this beautiful woman was marrying me.

We were married for 43 magical years. Or almost 43 years. She died on December 14, 2014—our 43rd anniversary would have been January 8.

Carol Wall was a great wife, mother, and teacher. Her dream was to write. I have a copy of her first “book” on the mantle at home—A Puppy for Tommy and Sally—written when she was a fourth-grader. She had some writing successes over the years—what she laughingly called her “pretend-writing” career. Articles in Southern Living, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, three finished novels (two agented but not sold).

My wife, Carol Wall, looking as lovely as ever.

My wife, Carol Wall, looking as lovely as ever.

Then, when she started sending out proposals for Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening, all of that changed.

The glass slipper fit.

But that wasn’t all that fit. When cancer showed up for the third time with its knockout punch, Carol was living a dream that few writers realize. A superstar agent (Marly Rusoff), a rock-star editor (Amy Einhorn), a six-figure advance from a major publisher (for a first-time author—to be completely correct—a first-time author who was a 60-year old grandmother). Great publicity and reviews—People Magazine, Good Housekeeping, USA Today, New York Times Book Review, Oprah.com, Publishers Weekly.

She is gone now. And as for Breast Cancer Awareness Month… I am aware.

Her dream was interrupted. Our three children and I promised Carol that we would “take care of our book,” as she instructed our youngest, Phil, in July, 2014, just months before she died. So, that’s why I find myself writing a blog. We are all working hard to spread the message of this beautiful book. To be clear, it’s my honor to be here. And even though the circumstances sadden me and I desperately wish Carol, my beautiful wife, had been able to live her dream instead of me, her dream is really my dream, too. And not just because I loved her. It’s also my dream because I believe in this book and it’s message. Carol liked to say that, among the many lessons she learned from Giles Owita, possibly the most profound was that “the ground in winter holds a thousand lovely secrets.” Like Carol, I know that to be true. I know the mysteries of life to be many and that beauty often appears in the least likely places, and that we all have a path and a light to share.

If you’d like to listen to Carol talk, please visit her website (www.misterowita.com ). She says that Giles taught her “what to do when the script you have written for your life does not work out, how to graciously slip into Plan B.”

This blog is part of Plan B. Hope you’ll like it.