Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sometimes Love Takes Precedence

Mom absolutely loves dogs.
I had some ideas for what to write about today, but none of them seemed worthy of my time. You see, my mother is coming home from the rehab hospital today. She had a stroke about a month ago and she hasn't been home since. She spent about a week in the hospital followed by three weeks or so in a rehab facility, relearning how to talk and walk and use her hand. Some of that has come along very nicely, other parts not so much.

What I can't get past, though I know I have no choice but to get used to it, is the fact that, even if her hand, which is lagging behind everything else in terms of coming back, gets better, Mom is 81 and has what appears to be pretty rapidly advancing Alzheimer's. So even if she gets completely well physically, her mind will continue to deteriorate until one day she'll not recognize her family. And there's not one thing I can do about it.

We all knew this was a possibility. Her sister died of the disease several years ago. So it was always a spectre that seemed to follow us around. Early in 2016, though, I started to realize that she was asking the same questions over and over and not remembering conversations we had just had. I wasn't sure if anyone else noticed, so I asked my dad. At first, he chalked it up to the fact that she's 81 and, to be fair, has always been pretty absentminded. I definitely inherited that. Just ask my students, who are constantly having to point out my glasses or my coffee cup when I can't find them. But then it got so pronounced that there was no denying it any longer; she was losing her short term memory. Well, there was denying it for her and she was none too happy if anyone mentioned it. Mom and Dad had a number of arguments, all borne, I'm certain, of Mom's fear that the spectre had finally arrived and wasn't going to leave until it was done with her. I can imagine I'd be the same way: deny it and it's not real.

Mom and Dad at a
family beach trip
from a couple
summers ago
Dad finally bit the bullet and kind of tricked Mom into letting the doctor do some tests. She didn't do so well, so the doctor put her on medication that, at best may slow the progression of the disease. We don't know if it's helping because we don't know how much worse she would be without it. It certainly hasn't made her any better.

Then the stroke happened. It was what's called an ischemic stroke, which means that a clot formed in her heart and moved up to block the blood flowing to her brain. The good news was that Dad was right there and got her to the hospital quickly and the clot-busting drug started working immediately. Her speech came back within a couple of hours and her leg is almost as strong as before. I was wondering, but didn't want to ask, if maybe there had been a partial blockage all along that could account for her memory issues. The neurologist said as much, so we all got our hopes up for a bit. But then the radiologist, an old friend of mine, told us that the MRI did indeed show the telltale plaques that denote Alzheimer's. There is still the possibility that a blockage had been exacerbating it and she's not as advanced as we thought, but the reality is that, at least as it stand at the moment, she has shown no improvement. The doctors say it still could happen, but we shouldn't assume it will.

And even if she's not as advanced as we thought, that just kicks the can a little farther down the road. The can is still there. So what do we do? We do what I constantly tell my students to do: live intentionally. Make memories. Treasure every minute we have with her so that there will be no what-ifs or I'm sorrys after we've lost her. That may mean bypassing some writing time, or at least rearranging so that I do it when she's asleep or busy at doctor's appointments or such. And it may mean not spending as much time with friends or at my kids' activities, or even deciding that the hours
Mom and my sister Barb on a different family trip
I often spend grading papers in the evenings is just not as important as being with my mom while I can be.

Why am I telling you this? Because deny it as much as we will, we're all terminal and we don't know how much longer we have. So treasure your loved ones. Hug them. Tell them you love them. Maybe decide that ball game or work you brought home isn't so important after all. It's overused, but only because it's true--you don't know when the last chance you had to say I love you to someone will really have been your last chance. Don't look back and realize you didn't take advantage of it.




Saturday, January 7, 2017

My Writing Process--Writing With Abandon

Lola doing what she does best: being
a bit odd.
This week, to be honest, I haven't gotten much writing done. For those of you who don't know me personally, my mother had a stroke a few weeks back. I live with my parents and so, in addition to my regular work chores, which were pretty crazy until Wednesday when grades were finally finished, I'm kind of in charge of our house now. I do all the cooking and what cleaning gets done while I'm at home. I'm also the main caretaker of my folks' dog, Lola. In between all that, I spend as much time as I can at the rehabilitation facility where my mom is working toward recovery. When I'm not doing all that, I spend some time thinking about silly things like mortality and the reality of someday having to live in a world without my parents, the two most important human beings in my life. So, frankly, writing hasn't been high on my list of priorities.
film strip photos photography images vintage oldschool That being said, I am finding at least a little bit of time to add to EJ's life story. And I find that I'm telling the whole darn thing, in surprising detail. Knowing full well that, just like movie directors shoot hours of footage that will ultimately end up on the cutting room floor, I will probably end up cutting out several of the pages I'm writing right now. And that's okay. Many of those pages are more for me than the reading audience, or at least they're for me more directly. What I mean is that I'm creating an entire world and life for this young lady that will be more meaningful to my readers if I am telling a story I know in great detail, even if I don't end up sharing all those details with the public. By writing with abandon, without worrying about whether this particular anecdote will end up in the finished product, I'm getting to know these characters so well that every detail I do share will be more real, more important, more impactful. 

road rural country trees afternoon travel roadtrip For instance, right now I'm telling about the time when EJ and her mother are stuck on the side of the road, having just bought what they thought was a reliable used car. Out of cell range, they are hoping someone they know will stop so they don't have to hike several miles home. Someone does stop, but it's not who they're hoping for. It's a man with whom they had a run-in just a couple of days after they moved to Bramblewood and pretty much the last person they would want to see. I don't know if the whole scene will make it into the final cut of the book, but their conversation as he gives them a ride is filling in more details about EJ's mother's life. And that's important because EJ is coming into a town that her mother Charlene grew up in but that she, EJ, knows little of. 
The trick with editing is what to leave in and what to take out. It's a balancing act between giving the reader too much detail, which can make for a ponderous, boring read, and too little, which can leave the readers feeling like they missed something. But the beauty of where I am in the writing process is that I don't need to worry about that right now. I can just tell the story in all the minute detail I want and leave that other stuff for the editor to worry about. I know I'm the editor, but I'm not the editor right now. I'm the writer and I don't care that in a few months when I start the editing process I'll be calling down the wrath of God on that crazy writer who just couldn't keep his mouth shut. That editor guy is a merciless hack who wants to kill my babies, so he deserves the angst I'm causing him. 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

It's Not About Losing Weight

Yes, it's New Year's Eve. Well, it's New Year's Eve day. Is that a thing? I have no idea. Let's just say it will soon be New Year's Eve and move on before this gets even sillier. I have a resolution to share with you. Mine has nothing to do with health, though I do plan to lose this spare tire and get in shape. But that's a plan rather than a resolutions because I'm getting to the age where I can get in shape or commence to dying. And it's not about prioritizing my life or trying to be kinder. Frankly, I work on that every day anyway. I don't always succeed, but I always try. Jesus taught me that. 

My resolution has to do with my current work-in-progress. It's to finish it completely, find an agent and publisher, and get it published traditionally. I'll continue to write and sell independently my Shalan series. I actually plan to do at least one more prequel novella and then embark on a spinoff series for Harry and Dee's daughter Jenn, who is going to be an amateur sleuth in college. 

sparkler fire fireworsk candle new years celebrate party birthday spark bright
Hope your new year sparkles. Get
it? Sparkles? Anyway...
But back to my current work. It's entitled EJ, at least for now. EJ is short for Elizabeth Janeway. She has nothing to do with one of my favorite scifi characters, Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager fame other than that I got the name from her because I like it. The character is loosely inspired by a young woman from The Mayor of Casterbridge, a 19th century British novel, named Elizabeth-Jane, so Janeway worked. She is highly intelligent, hard-working, and independent, much like the captain of the Voyager, but that's about where the resemblance ends. My book takes place in present day West Virginia and doesn't involve in any way the use of warp engines or photon torpedoes. 

people man exercise fitness health gym dumbbell workout
How I plan to look by 12/31/17--
actual results may vary.
I'm about 34,000 words into what I see being a novel of 120k-150k words. It covers EJ's life from age six to her late teens. It's a drama with some humor interspersed and a touch of intrigue as EJ tries to figure out in the second half of the story if the man who claims to be her father really is and, if so, if he's the one who has been her mother's and her benefactor since a terrible accident that nearly killed EJ when she was quite young. But it's a serious departure from the Shalan Adventures. I'm fully aware that Harry and Dee's escapades are, for the most part, what I like to call beach books. As a teacher and lover of literature, I think it's incumbent upon me to try, at least once, to write something of a little more substance. After all, I encourage my students to forsake their Nicholas Sparks and Stephanie Meyers books sometimes to read something more, something that asks more of them than to simply follow the plot. It seems fair that I try to encourage that as a writer as well. 
typing working macbook laptop computer technology business office desk coffee cup mug keep calm black and white
Two things I'll be doing a lot of
this year--clacking on my
keyboard and drinking coffee.
And so my resolution. My goal is to finish the first draft by the end of spring, with summer set aside for rewrites and revisions and fall for shopping it to agents and/or publishers. What if it takes longer? Then it does, but the one thing I won't do is stop making progress. I'm aware that another possibly hundred thousand words in four six months is an ambitious schedule, but hey, I need an ambitious goal to keep life interesting, right? As time goes on, I'll keep you up on my progress. In the meantime, I'm not getting anything done on it while I gab with you guys, so I better finish this and get to work. 

Happy New Year everyone! Hope you're deeply blessed and a profound blessing to others in 2017. And, if you're the praying type, I ask for your prayers for my mother, who had a stroke a couple of weeks back. She is recovering, but it will be a long road. Thanks!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas With The Shalans, Week 4

Merry Christmas Eve! It's been a very interesting week, to say the least. So interesting that I forgot that today was Saturday and almost neglected to post my final Shalan holiday excerpt. Before I do so, though, I ask that you keep my family in your prayers. We're going through a tough time right now, but we do have much for which to be thankful.

So without further ado, here's the final excerpt, which doesn't technically take place at Christmas. It's Thanksgiving dinner, but Dee gives Harry one of the greatest gifts he's ever received. This is from Dawn of Grace.

I took my brother Will’s spot on the couch as he was called to the kitchen for carving duty. A half hour later, my sister and brother-in-law back from a successful mission to locate whipped topping and the turkey carved and on the table, Mom called everyone around. Dad turned off the TV and my oldest brother and my two sisters-in-law came down the stairs, preceded by four rambunctious children, ranging in age from three to nine. “I forgot something,” Dee whispered in my ear. “Be right back.” I looked after her, concerned that she had gotten ill. But by the time everyone was gathered around the table, she was back with what looked like a Christmas gift bag in her hand. She waved it at Jenn, who smiled. She moved to my side and took my hand. Jenn wrapped her arms around Dee’s other arm and put her head on her shoulder. 
Mom moved to my other side, putting her arm around my waist. I put my arm over her shoulder. “Harry, you want to say the prayer?”
“Sure. But first, I’d like to say thanks to everyone for working so hard to arrange your schedules so we could all be here together for Thanksgiving. Especially Otis and Anita. I want to say one more time, congratulations on your engagement. We’re all so happy for you two. Although, Anita, you might want to be careful. How your future husband could afford such a rock on a cop’s salary is beyond me.”
Otis laughed. “It’s amazing what good prices you can get at the evidence lockup.”
“Let’s see the ring one more time!” Jenn shouted. Anita shyly held out her hand.
Dee reached toward Anita. “It really is beautiful, Anita.”
I squeezed Dee’s hand. “Not as beautiful as its owner, though.”
“Watch it bud.”
“Otis, you’ve been flirting with my wife since high school. This is payback.”
“Okay, then.”
 Okay, let’s pray.”
Pumpkin Pie, Dessert, Food, Baked, Holiday
Dee raised her hand. “Umm, I’m sorry to interrupt, but before we pray, I have a little something to say.” She let go of my hand and Jenn disengaged from her other arm. “Harry, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve been keeping something from you and I just can’t keep up this charade anymore. You’ve known for a while probably that something is different.” She lifted up the bag. “I was hoping to tell you this at Christmas time, but Miss Punkin here figured out my secret, so I feared you would soon, too.” She held up the package. “So, now that I have you all completely perplexed, here, Harry. Hopefully this will explain what I’m talking about. Before you open it, I want you to know I love you very much.”
She handed me the bag. I smiled at her and pulled the tissue paper out revealing something small in the bottom. As soon as my fingers touched it, I knew what it was—a Christmas ornament shaped like a baby rattle. It was inscribed with “Baby’s First Christmas.”
Mom leaned in. “Is that…?”
I smiled through tears. “Yes. I got this for you last Christmas. And I forgot.”
“And I opened it. On Christmas morning.”
“After we lost Emma Grace.”
“And I was so horrible, I drove you away and almost lost you. I’m so sorry.”
“Does it mean what I hope it means?”
“Yes. Everyone, we’re going to have a baby. I’m pregnant.”
I engulfed her in my arms, kissing her forehead. “I love you so much, Babydoll.”
“I love you too, Mister Man.”
Literally every other person in the house hugged her before Mom reminded us that Thanksgiving dinner was getting cold, so I said the prayer and we all sat down to the feast. We laughed and ate and had a perfect meal. Eddie spent the whole time circling the table, receiving enough bites that I was afraid he was going to get sick. But he never stopped.
After dinner was eaten and all the cleanup complete, Dee came and sat on my lap as I watched football with the menfolk. I was uncomfortably full, but it was worth it. I nestled my head in her bosom, put my hand on her belly, and sighed, eyes closed. It was obviously rounded, now that I was paying attention. Some detective I am. She lifted my chin, kissed me lightly, and then whispered to me. “Oh, and Harry, Dr. Mathur and I did the math. Based on how far along I am, guess when Emma Grace was conceived.”
pregnant baby child mother mom woman people family “It’s Emma Grace?”
“You had the dream too, didn’t you?”
“Yes.”

“That’s the night. Our special night. That’s when she came back to us.”

So there you go. I hope you have a blessed Christmas and an amazing 2017. God bless us, everyone!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas With The Shalans, Week 3

Here's week 3 of my series of holiday moments with the Shalans. In it we meet Harry's mentor in the gumshoe business, who gives them an extremely surprising gift. This is from "Harry and the Redheaded Angel", my Shalan prequel novella. 

The promised snow had indeed come, snarling traffic for two days, but life was back to normal just in time for the last few days of Christmas shopping. I was relieved because I hadn’t had a chance to shop for Lucas or my family at all yet. It was decided that I’d spent enough money without going to Six-Ten Magnolia, so I was to take the money I had earmarked to spend there and spend it on the last presents I needed to get. And by it was decided, I mean Dee decided. I was not happy about it, but finally gave in. We had just finished our shopping and were on our way to Lucas’ house for Christmas with him before we both left for our respective family Christmases. We’d talked about it and decided that, since we were going to have to alternate between Parkersburg and Nashville in future years that we’d spend this last holiday as pseudo-single people with our own families. Another choice about which I wasn’t wild, but the alternative was to spend Christmas with her family since we’d spent Thanksgiving with mine.
“To be fair, your family was in the middle of the Caribbean over Thanksgiving,” I said, pulling up to Lucas’ house.
“This is family, honey bunch. Fair has nothing to do with it.” She got out and pulled her hat down over her ears against the cutting wind.
“Can’t you come to my folks’ for a couple days and then fly to your parents? I’ll come down and spend New Year’s in Nashville with you.” I was out and gathering presents for Lucas as well as Loretta, who had started spending a good bit of time with Lucas in the last month or so.
“I don’t have money for the ticket.”
“Ask your folks?”
“Ask them to pay for a plane ticket so I can miss Christmas with them?”
“Well, when you put it that way, it sounds unreasonable.”
“It sounds unreasonable any way you put it.”
“You win.” I rang the bell.
“Lucas’ decorations are beautiful.”
“You mean Loretta’s. Lucas’ idea of decorating for Christmas is to wear a red tie to church.”
“They really like each other, don’t they?”
Related imageI didn’t get a chance to respond because Lucas opened the door, inundating us with the lovely warmth of a fire in the fireplace, the ravishing aroma of turkey, and joyful noise of Nat King Cole wishing us a merry little Christmas now.
“Come in, you two,” said Lucas. “Merry Christmas!” He shook my hand, hugged Dee, took our gifts from us, and placed them under the tree while we took off our coats.
“Merry Christmas, Mr. and Mrs. Sugar,” said Loretta, coming from the kitchen. She was wearing a lovely red sweater over a wool skirt and tall brown boots. The ensemble was completed with a festive apron decorated with Santa and Mrs. Claus kissing under the mistletoe. She hugged us both and took our coats. Lucas offered us drinks.
“Egg nog for me, please,” said Dee.
“Decaf for me,” I said, sitting beside Dee on the couch in the living room. Lucas’ house was older, and had never been renovated to have the great room feel. It had a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen, all in a row from front to back.
“Your tree is gorgeous!” shouted Dee. “It’s so big!”
“First time I’ve had a tree in I don’t know how long,” said Lucas, coming in from the kitchen with our drinks. He sat down in the loveseat across from us. “I guess since Claire died, so what, twenty years?”
“You’ve been widowed for twenty years?” I asked. “Why so long?”
“Never found anybody to come up to her standard. Until now.”
“What are you all talking about so quietly in here?” asked Loretta. She sat next to Lucas.
“You, if you must know.”
“Mrs. Sugar, let me see that rock on your finger.”
Dee jumped up and held out her hand to let Lucas and Loretta admire the ring. “Wait a second, Loretta, what’s that you’re wearing?”
Loretta’s skin was too dark to tell, but I think she may have blushed as she held out her left hand for Dee to inspect her ring finger.”
“Lucas, is this your doing?” I asked.
“Asked her the same night you proposed to your lovely here,” he said, taking Dee’s hand in his.
“Well, congratulations!” I said, rising to shake his hand again. “I’m so happy for you both. You guys both deserve some happiness.”
“We found it,” said Loretta, kissing Lucas on the cheek. He smiled contentedly.
The timer went off signaling that dinner was ready, so we went to the kitchen to help bring everything in to the dining room. The dinner in place, we sat down and Lucas led us in prayer. After grace, I opened my eyes to find an envelope on my plate.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Your Christmas present,” said Lucas. “And your wedding present. Dee, sorry, but this is for both of you.”
“It’s not their wedding present, you old skinflint!” said Loretta. “Well, Sugar, open it before this food gets cold.”
I looked at Lucas, puzzled, and handed the envelope to Dee. She tried to protest, but I held my ground. She slid her slender finger under the flap of the red envelope and pulled out a Christmas card with a manger scene on the front. She was to my right, so when she opened the card, I couldn’t see what was inside. I assumed it was a gift certificate of some kind, but Dee’s eyes grew wide when she pulled the small slip of paper out and studied it.
“Is this—what is this?” She asked. Her voice was trembling. “I don’t understand.”
“What is it, honey?” I asked, holding out my hand. She stared at me a second, her face a mask of shock. She finally handed me the paper. It was a check.
“Pay to the order of Harry Shalan, One-Hundred-Thousand and 00/100 Dollars.” I read it over and over but couldn’t make sense of it. Why would they play such a joke and call it a present? But the more I read it, the more I realized it was real. This was an actual check for an actual hundred grand. I looked at Lucas and Loretta and then at Dee, my mouth moving, but no sounds coming out.
“I told you we shoulda waited until after dinner,” said Loretta. “He’s not gonna have an appetite now.”
I looked at Dee again. She just shook her head, bewildered. “What is this?” I finally asked.
“Loretta’s late husband left her rather well off,” said Lucas.
“Well off my foot,” said Loretta. “I’m stinkin’ rich.”
“Okay, but what’s that got to do with this?”
“Like I told you that day, when, well, you know.” He instinctively touched the scar on his head. “You remember what I said?”
“You said you’re getting too old for this stuff.”
“And I am, so I’m closing up shop. Loretta and I are going to see the world after we get married.”
“Good for you,” said Dee, her voice shaken by emotion. “But this is a hundred thousand dollars.”
“And it’s yours,” said Lucas. “And we won’t take no for an answer. No strings attached, but, if I might suggest, I’d seriously consider a new car as your first purchase.”
“This—this is too much,” I said.
“Like I said, Sugar, we’re rich. Hundred thousand dollars is pocket money for us now.”
“I figure the rest you could use to move home,” said Lucas, “and for seed money to start your own agency. I know how homesick you are.”
I looked at Dee, the question in my eyes. She sniffed and nodded as she wiped a tear from her face with a napkin.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said. “Thank you seems so inadequate. But thank you.”
“No need for thanks,” said Lucas, taking Loretta’s hand in his kissing it. “You two mean the world to the two of us. Harry, you came along at just the right time and brought youth and excitement to my life. And who knows if I would’ve lived if you hadn’t been there when I tangled with Yamamoto. And Dee, you might just be the angel that Harry says you are, because you have made him and us so happy since you came into our lives. So it’s we who want to thank you. Merry Christmas to you both.”
“There’s a problem, though, Lucas,” I said.
“What’s that?”
“All we got you was a membership in the cheese of the month club.”
Lucas and Loretta looked at each other and burst into raucous laughter. I was starting to feel kind of defensive when they finally calmed down to speak.
“Oh honey,” said Loretta between gasps of laughter. “I’m lactose intolerant.”

Next week, Dee re-gifts something, but Harry doesn't mind at all. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christmas With The Shalans, Week 2

It's week 2 in my retrospective of holidays with the Shalans. This week's entry goes all the way back to before Harry and Dee are married. In fact, it's Harry's infamous White Castle proposal. Enjoy!

 “So where do we eat? I can’t afford another nice meal tonight and then to come back here again next week.”
“You can’t afford it? You have thousands in savings. You scrape and scrimp for every penny.”
“I, uh, I just mean it’s more money than I should spend. I still haven’t gotten all my  Christmas shopping done.”
“Well, I don’t mind buying dinner.”
“No! Not tonight!”
“But our real Christmas date can be next week.”
“I don’t think I can wait until next week.”
“We have no choice. We don’t have a table.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“What do you mean, then?”
“Nothing. It’s okay.”
She squinted at me, obviously confused. Even that was adorable. “Okay, let’s go to our place.”
“Really? Tonight? Dressed like this?”
“You think we’re not dressed well enough for White Castle?”
“Hey,” said the young cashier who’d waited on us countless time. “They change the dress code and not tell me?”
“Hi Pedro,” said Dee. “We missed our reservations at Six-Ten Magnolia and this was the next best thing.”
“This place ain’t the next best by like a million. I saw a rat in the back eat a burger somebody dropped. He was dead inside of five minutes.”
“Oh, Pedro, stop it.”
“Okay, your funeral.”
“Pedro!” shouted a voice from inside the kitchen. “Shut up!”
Pedro grimaced satirically and mouthed, “Uh oh,” to us while rolling his eyes. Dee’s eyes sparkled and she laughed quietly. “Yes boss! What can I get you lovely folks tonight? The usual?”
 Our order filled, we went to our table in the back left corner. As we sat eating our sliders, she could tell something was up. I’m invariably a clown, especially at the Castle, where we both knew everyone who worked and ate there. But this night, I ate quietly as I stared into her chocolate eyes, which shone with concern that something was wrong as she watched me fidget through my meal. Pedro even stopped by to banter with us as he swept and wiped tables, but I just couldn’t bring myself to join him. All I could think about was how was I going to wait another whole week with this ring burning a hole in my pocket? But how could I propose here? In a greasy spoon like this. She deserved a perfect location. But a whole week? I’d end up in a padded room. I just needed to ask her. But here?
“Are you okay, honey? Please don’t worry about dinner. You know I don’t care about that. I’m happy anywhere as long as I’m with you.”
I smiled at her and knew I couldn’t wait. I decided to plow on, the somewhat-less-than-romantic location be damned. And besides, this place was more ours than any fancy downtown restaurant. We’d been here two or three times a week for two-and-a-half months and the closest we’d come to going to Six-Ten Magnolia was standing at the front desk being told someone else was eating at our table. So, in a way, I hoped I could eventually convince myself, this was even more romantic. The only question was how she would react. Would this place be just too seedy? Does an angel deserve to be proposed to in a slider joint? But these were all my issues. She had told me repeatedly that she didn’t see herself as an angel and was puzzled by the fact that I did. She was just a woman in love with a guy who was kind of crazy in an amusing way. So I hoped she would see this as just another instance of me being a fun wacko. I took a sip of my water and decided to just go for it.    
“Dee, I know we haven’t been together for that long, but I pretty much knew the minute I heard your angelic voice that I wanted to be with you for the rest of my life. I always told people that I hoped you were beautiful when I heard you singing, because I knew I was going to marry you someday.”
I don’t know if it actually did or it was only in my head, but the whole restaurant seemed to go silent. Even the passing traffic noises faded. As realization dawned, she put her dainty right hand, tipped with perfectly manicured fingernails that were painted soft pink, over her mouth. Her eyes started to glisten with tears as I slid out of my seat and onto one knee on the floor beside her, reaching into my pocket for the box.
“Babydoll,” I said, opening the box to reveal the ring. It sparkled in the bright light of the restaurant. Her hands dropped to the table, revealing her tiny bow of a mouth, which was now a perfect circle. Her eyes grew wide and a tear spilled out of each, running down her soft, white cheeks. “I’m sorry about doing this here, but I just can’t wait. Is this okay?”
She tried to speak but words wouldn’t come, so she nodded silently. I took her right hand in my left. “I’ve never known or been known by anyone like you before, and I know that will never change. The air has more oxygen when I’m with you and the sun shines more brilliantly. I want never to stop feeling that. I love you more than I ever would have guessed I was capable of loving anyone. You make me want to be the hero you think I am. Will you please marry me?”

still items things jewelry ring engagement diamond bokeh gradient pink orange She was shaken with sobs, so she just kept nodding as she held out her left hand for me to put the ring on. I struggled, not because the ring didn’t fit, but because I’d started bawling too and could barely see to do it. The ring finally in its place of honor, I started to rise, but before I could, she dropped to her knees in front of me and crushed me with a hug. I honestly couldn’t say how long we stayed there, but I held her, whispering I-love-yous in her ear until our crying subsided, and when we finally came to our senses and started to rise, it was to the enthusiastic cheers of all the employees and patrons of the restaurant. She laughed and covered her face for a moment, but then had to pull her hand away to look adoringly at the diamond on her ring finger as Pedro came from the back to shake my hand. She kissed me tenderly as we walked out the door and to the car.

Next week: Harry and Dee receive a special gift from Harry's mentor.  

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Christmas With The Shalans

In keeping with the holiday season, I thought it might be fun to share some Christmas scenes from the Shalan Adventures. Harry and Dee have had some very happy Christmases, as well as one very sad one. I think I'll start with the sad and end right before Christmas with the happiest one. So be prepared. This is a hard one. Dee has just lost her baby and life in the Shalan household is pretty dark on Christmas morning. This is from the third book in the series, In the Shadow.

I gave up and lay on the couch looking at the still-lit tree. In the half-darkness, I could just make out the ornaments that adorned the artificial tree. When we first got married, we'd agreed to always have live trees, but she developed allergies, so we opted for a nice fake one. One thing, though, that had been true from year one: although we opened all our other presents on Christmas morning, every year we exchanged one gift the night before--a new ornament. We alternated, each giving the other an ornament that was appropriate to some milestone from the previous year. She started the tradition the December after our summer wedding with a "First Christmas" ornament from a local gift shop. The next year, I gave her one from the same store honoring our first year in the house we had just bought. She gave me a perfect replica of Eddie the year we adopted him. I could see each one, remember exactly the year it was given and by whom. The most recent had a place of honor high on a front limb. It was a clear ball filled with sand and tiny seashells she had picked out on the sly during our trip with my family to the Outer Banks.  A part of me, way back in the back of my heart, a part I didn't want to admit even existed, worried that it would be the last ornament we would exchange. The thought nauseated me, but after both of us being shot and me nearly dying--twice--this felt like the one thing we may not be able to get past. Our pain was so great that it wasn't allowing us to do the one thing that made us such a bullet-proof couple--lean on each other. Or, more accurately, she couldn't lean on me and I, who draw nearly all of my meaning in life from having her lean on me, felt utterly vacuous, as if all that made me me had been sucked out and discarded. And, worst of all, I couldn't say any of this to her. Partly I couldn't because I am male. Though I'm more in touch with my sensitive side than some gun-toting thugs, I still have male pride that keeps me from wanting to seem vulnerable--even when the choice is between vulnerability and being without my she. And when I finally broke down and tried, it came out all wrong; she took it as an attack, locked herself in her room again. Her room. Which had, just a few weeks ago, been our room.
I was snapped from my dark contemplation by movement in my line of sight. Eddie had basically become the fur baby of the Hillmans, so it wasn't him. She stood in front of me, a blanket wrapped around her, but still dressed in her church clothes from the night before. Her makeup was smeared.
christmas ball tree lights red blue green white holiday season blur "It's Christmas," she said in a flat voice with no tone of joy. No tone at all.
"Yes." I didn't know what else to say.
"We have to open presents so we can go to your parents' house."
"Are you up to that?"
"It's Christmas."
"Yes."
"Make coffee. I'll get cleaned up." And with that, she was in the bathroom. I automatically got up to follow her orders. I heard the shower come on as I scooped out the beans. I ground them, put a filter in the basket, filled it with the coffee, added water to the carafe from the filter pitcher in the refrigerator, put the water into the reservoir, closed the lid, and hit the brew button. I heard the shower shut off and knew I wouldn't scald her, so I went to the sink with the water filter and filled it twice before putting it back in the refrigerator. I did all this from sense memory and expended no thought in the act, but it took every ounce of energy I had left in me. As I collapsed back onto the couch, the bathroom door opened. She came out, her hair wet and face washed. She had worked quickly, but the part that took me aback was the fact that she had the towel wrapped around her. It wasn't because it was cold. Between the furnace I had neglected to turn down the previous night and the heat coming from the tree lights, it was almost uncomfortably hot. And hot or cold, she'd never left the shower and walked to the bedroom with so much as pair of panties on in all the years we'd been married. We spent whole days in the apartment in which she never put on a single piece of clothing without even a second's thought. I could only conclude that she didn't want me to see her naked.
She sat in beside me on the couch, up on the edge, her feet together and her back straight. For perhaps thirty seconds, she said nothing. Finally, I couldn't stand the silence.
"Dee--"
"I'm sorry," she said before I could continue. "I love you."
"I love you too," I said, a catch in my throat. I tried to reach out to her, but she got up before I could. As she passed the tree, she paused, knelt down for a second, got up, paused again, and went on into the room, shutting the door behind her. I couldn't see what she had been doing.
She still loved me! For the first time in two weeks, I felt a tiny flicker of hope. With renewed energy, I got undressed and showered as the coffee finished brewing. I had no clothes to change into, but my robe hung on the back of the bathroom door, so I put that on and went out to get some coffee. But when I opened the door, I was startled to find her standing just outside it, a wild-eyed look on her tear-streaked face. She was panting as if she'd just been running. She had something in her hand that I couldn't make out at first, but slowly it dawned on me what she had picked up from under the tree. It had been my turn to get the ornament. My heart stopped. Or at least I would have preferred that it had stopped.
"I'm so sorry--I forgot--I got that two months ago--"
"A baby rattle? You got a baby rattle?! What is wrong with you?"
"I told you, I--"
“Just get out! I can't even look at you right now!"
"But I--"
"Get out!'
"Can I at least get dressed?"
"Fine!" She threw the rattle ornament at me. I had found it in a gift shop way back in early November. It was pink and said, "Baby's First Christmas" on one side and I had had them paint, "Emma Grace" on the other side. But so much had happened since that, even after looking at all of the previous years' ornaments overnight, I hadn't remembered that I'd gotten it. I had the gift shop wrap it and I put it under the tree way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving, right after we'd finished decorating. Dee had insisted we put up the tree despite our getting ready to move into the house. We would put it back up when we got there, she said, but she refused to have no tree until the week before Christmas, our favorite time of year. How ironic that we may look back on it in the future as the beginning of our end. I honestly wanted to just curl up on the couch and die. It had to be such a soul-crushing blow for her, because it definitely was for me. And the guilt of having done what I'd done, even if unintentionally, compounded the pain exponentially. I had to leave, I knew and wasn't going to argue, but I couldn't go out in my bathrobe. I didn't know what else to do, so I put on the clothes I'd had on the night before. In my distracted state, I forgot to take a cup of coffee or even put on a coat. It was probably cold as I staggered in a sleep-deprived stupor to the car, but I took no note. Ellie fired up and I pulled out. It being 7:00am on Christmas day, there was no traffic, which was lucky for me because I didn't even check.
winding hairpin road rural countryside trees nature outdoors Paying no attention to where I was going, I just drove. I suppose I could have gone to my parents' house. In fact that would have been the logical thing to do, since we were expected there in a couple hours anyway. But logic didn't enter into it. Pure instinct is all that kept me on the road. As the heater slowly kicked in, I was aware of becoming warm, which told me I must have been cold. The rising temperature seemed to thaw my brain, if only slightly, as I became cognizant for the first time of exactly where I was--Route 47, well past WVU-Parkersburg. Having little to no higher mental functions, my body must have put me on course for my old college, Glenville State.
 It also eventually registered that it was snowing pretty hard. Actually pretty hard may be a bit of an understatement. It was the big-flaked sideways snow that was wet and promised to accumulate massively in a short time. These were all facts that registered, but their ramifications were absolutely lost on me. I kept driving, barely aware that I was barreling at over 60 miles an hour over a snow-covered road that would have been unsafe to travel at 60 on a clear, sunny day. The good news is that the danger did become apparent. The bad news is that this happened as I lost control on a sharp curve. Ellie's rear end lost traction halfway through the turn, causing me to start running off the road and into a sheer limestone wall. I mashed on the brake and clutch and turned away from the skid--all the exact things I shouldn't have done. Somehow, the skid corrected just enough that I didn't hit the wall head on, but instead, with the screaming crunch of metal on stone, she caromed off it like a giant red pinball. It was enough of a head-on that the airbag deployed, knocking me even sillier. I thought for a split second that I had averted complete disaster, but an instant later the news got worse. I wasn't slowing down no matter how hard I hit the brakes and was hurtling toward the empty space of a sheer-sided and deep gulley at the bottom of which was the Hughes River. The space was interrupted only by several trees of varying sizes, but almost all of which could prove fatal if I hit one head on, especially since the airbag was a one off.

snow winter branch tree plant nature cold weather The next several seconds are a blur of shattering glass, crashing into trees, pirouetting in mid-air, and a spine-crushing impact with the side of the hill, followed by I don't know how many full rolls before Ellie came to a creaking halt on her now smashed convertible top. I was confused by the fact that I was hanging from my seatbelt looking down at the roof, which was way closer to me than it should have been. At a pace close to glacial, my head wrapped itself around what I had just done and exactly how big a predicament I had put myself into. Then another thing confused me. As I looked down at the roof, I could see my reflection, just barely, as if I were looking at myself in a highly polished crimson surface. I thought maybe my mind, shocked by the trauma, was playing tricks on me. Then it dawned on me. Blood. My blood. So much of my blood that it was pooling on the inside of the roof and making a reflective surface. I touched my head; the gash was pretty deep. I had been thrown forward to the limit of the seat belt at the same time the windshield had bowed inward on impact with the first tree at the top of the hill, and we must have met in the middle. 

So there you go. Harry and Dee's worst Christmas. Stay tuned next week for another episode in Christmas With The Shalans.