The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done

There’s been so little good going on in the world lately, today I decided that was what I wanted to talk about–something good. Except what had I done that was good? What was the best thing I’d done? I knew I’d made a ton of mistakes.

What was the best thing I could think of? What was the best decision I’ve ever made? What that I have done has made my life better? For that, I go back to December of 2008.

Ken and Linda came to San Diego for a visit, and we went to Old Town to look at the sites and have some Mexican food. I decided that would be the day I said something to them about wanting to marry Jenny.

We did Old Town for a while, and we had lunch at some place whose name escapes me. I think that night, we also took in the Christmas program at Shadow Mountain Community Church, where David Jeremiah preaches. I remember when I attended there, the Christmas programs were quite extraordinary. I don’t remember the one we saw with Jenny’s parents, though, because I was kind of nervous, knowing what was coming later.

We stopped to get something to eat at Denny’s on the way back–it was the first place Jenny and I had eaten together–right before going to the zoo, and we had breakfast. So that night, it seemed like a good enough place to go with her folks for a late dinner. About halfway through, I decided that Jenny needed to take David to the restroom, and I would text her after I talked to her mom and dad.

After a minute or two, I mumbled something out–I don’t remember what I said. I do remember that Linda did one of those fist pumps people do. “Yes!” The only problem was that I forgot to text Jenny and tell her to come back. She must have waited five minutes in the Denny’s bathroom with her chicken sandwich getting cold.

Worked out for the best, though. At least I think so.

Now that the talking part was out of the way, we actually had to get engaged. I began formulating big plans for that. There would be a horse. An expensive dinner at Seaport Village. Clowns and balloons–Ok, maybe not that. But if you have a cliché in mind regarding a marriage proposal, I was going to do it.

It would be December 22, 2008.

Only one problem–I found out a couple days later, that was the annual Whitson family Christmas. There was nothing I could do–I couldn’t tell her that it was marriage proposal weekend. It would have ruined the surprise. So I drove to Yuma that Saturday, as I always did. It was around lunch time, and I knew everyone was already there, or would be soon.

I had to pick up the ring at the jewelers (it had been sized), and it wasn’t ready yet. So I walked over to the Walmart a couple of stores over to kill some time. I stood in the book aisle and read the ending of Marley & Me (see, I have a dark side. But I didn’t know what would happen to the darn dog at that point), and was soon puffy-eyed and teared up over the grave-digging scene. Big mistake.

Eventually, I secured the ring and went to Ken and Linda’s. The party was already on, and soon after it was time for gifts. The ring was in my pocket in a little ziplock baggie, wrapped in white tissue paper. Jenny and I were sitting on the blue and white “love seat,” and eventually, I figured “what the heck?” I went into the bathroom to fish the ring out of my pocket. I came back and gifts were just about done. David was across the room, and Jenny’s brother and wife were standing with their back to us. Her grandma was on the big couch, but wasn’t looking at us. I told her I had one gift left. I started to kneel, and said something stupid, like asking her what she was doing for the next 50 years or so. 4 year old David crashed into us right then–exactly then. I realized Grandma Marie HAD been looking after all. I slipped the ring on her finger, and that was the beginning of the best thing I’ve ever done. The smartest thing I’ve ever done.

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George Michael and 90 Seconds in Hell

Anyone who’s seen much of 2016 would have to acknowledge that quite a few celebrities have checked out this year–and there’s still almost a week to go, so there could be more. What I’m thinking about today, having just heard about Carrie Fisher, is not Princess Leia. It’s George Michael. Why, you might be wondering? I know little of his music, and that video with the “Choose Life” shirts? My goodness. Before I continue, watch/listen to this…and think of the portly doofus in that picture below.

My George Michael/Wham! memory is from an audition for a musical I did back in high school. I did OK on the acting part, and didn’t embarrass myself singing–as part of the chorus, anyway–I didn’t do a solo. The problem was the dancing.

Anyone who knows me knows I lack even the smallest gracefulness.

HS

Yes, I’m that guy. Many pounds and many years later. But dancing was part of the audition. One of the cheerleaders (Mona Nicholson) came up with a short, choreographed routine to the Wham! song Wake me up Before You Go-Go, which was a pretty big hit for George and his silent, guitar “playing” partner. I’m sure he had a name, but I don’t want to look it up.

So there we are–a handful of guys–on the tarmac outside the gym where the play would be performed. We’re standing there while Mona (yes, she was attractive) demonstrated the few steps for us. All I could think of at the time was to pray that no one saw me. The finger-snapping, “Jitterbug!” intro to the song came on and my humiliation began.

My hands/arms were held out from my sides like I was playing a drunken airplane running in a loose circle. I put the “boom-boom” into no hearts that day. I am tall. I am clumsy. And I demonstrated that fully on that 80’s afternoon. 85? 86? I can’t remember that part.

Maybe if any of my friends from those days read this, they can help me fill in some time gaps. I feel like it was springtime of 1986. Anyway, I’ll remember that time as long as I live, even if it isn’t the most masculine thing I’ve ever done.

I also remember there was this big number toward the end of the title song, “The Pajama Game.” We all had to wear pajamas for that last song. Someone (I have my suspicions) decided it would be funny to hide my pajama top. I searched frantically for it, but in the end had to “borrow” one from somebody that was about five sizes smaller than my own. Years later I would see Chris Farley crooning “Fat Guy in a Little Coat,” and it made me think of that. I had to raise my arms and do jazz hands at the end, looking like an obese genie that had just popped out of a bottle of Crisco.

I think my sisters came to the performance, but my mom didn’t, that I can remember. She was alive, but without much health or energy left. Probably a good thing–I put a hurtin’ on that pajama top.

So when I think about George Michael, I think it’s sad he’s gone–I think it’s sad when anyone shuffles off this mortal coil. But I don’t think of his hit songs from the early 90’s when his image comes to mind. I think of that white tee-shirt emblazoned with “Choose Life.” I think of stuffing my midriff into a third grader’s pajama top.

So “adios,” George. Thanks for making my 90 seconds of horror possible.

 

Life’s Too Short

There’s this video going around right now that’s making everyone feel all the feels. In it, a youngish African-American man comes home and his younger brother is in his house. He hasn’t seen him in 4 or 5 years, I think it is. They laugh, and hug, and it’s great. Then his mom enters the video, and he hasn’t seen her in ten years (I think both mom and brother had been in some African country). The older son completely devolves to his childhood, it looks like. He falls on the ground, cries, and hugs his mother.

The first thing I thought of was this one time I forgot my lunch when I was in high school. The bus stop was literally right across the street from my house, and I remember standing there with a big group of kids when my mom came onto the front porch with my brown bag in her hand and yelled “Tommy, you forgot your lunch!”

I must have rolled my eyes or something, because she set it on the porch and went back inside. Immediately, all the kids started mockingly calling out “Tommy, Tommy.”

I went and got my lunch, and it was more of that stuff the whole way to school. I don’t remember how the situation was resolved with my mom. It was true I’d been extremely embarrassed, but it wasn’t right to be rude to my mom.

Anyway, I saw that video of the kid breaking down when he saw his mom and it occurred to me that’s probably what I’d do, too. I’d give anything now for my mom to hold up my lunch and call out “Tommy!”

The point of this isn’t to have a pity party–my mom’s been gone many, many years. I just want to say that life is too short to be consumed with stupid things. If you’re a kid and you somehow read this, your parents are going to embarrass you sometimes. Maybe they’ll even do it on purpose (I remember taking the boys to the fair a couple years ago, and my older son brought a friend. They were playing this really loud fair music and my wife and I started dancing along behind my son and his buddy–he was horrified. And when we ran into one of the cool kids from school, he practically screamed “stop!!” Too bad, really, because my booty song came on…). Let it go when that happens. It’s making memories. Things you’ll look back on later and be glad they happened.

Be embarrassed, that’s fine. Just never forget that if your parents didn’t really love you, they wouldn’t take the time to act the fool in front of your friends. For my part, I love doing that stuff, and I am not above sacrificing my dignity for a laugh. I just wanted to say that, in the words of Bradley Nowell from Sublime, life’s too short, so love the ones you got.

RIPs in Advance

So the celebrities have really been checking out at an increasingly rapid rate, especially musicians and singers. The men and women who made the music of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are getting a little long in the tooth, and you never know what’s going to happen, or when. I enjoy a lot of that older music (real instruments, and real vocals–good and bad) because I have older sisters that introduced me to it when I was younger. I am really grateful for that.

When they pass, social networking goes bananas with tributes and RIPs. So I thought I would pay some respect to the bands I loved when I was younger, and love today.

Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath and solo. My friend had a Paranoid LP, and we played it a lot when I was younger. Then I got one of my own from my sisters, I think. Such a great and heavy record. Today, Ozzy speaks like a stroke victim in recovery, but he can still sing. Ozzfest 2002 was awesome.

Deep Purple. Amazing band. I only need two works to prove it. Highway Star.

Styx. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

Journey. They rock, and the ladies love them. What’s not to love?

Judas Priest. Oh, my gosh. Still one of my favorite bands from the 80’s. Rob Halford is in his 60’s, but he still has it.

Iron Maiden. A friend had a recording of Live After Death. So good. And Piece of Mind? Please…

Don’t let me forget Bruce Springsteen, either. Not metal, but Born in the USA and The River were like old friends during a really tough time. And then my sister gave me the live boxed set for my birthday, I think. Done–lifelong fan of his music. Never mind his politics.

That’s the beauty of recorded music. The performers will be gone, but we will have the music forever.

Remembering Ol’ Blue Eyes

I heard noises coming from my kitchen this morning, or at least I thought I did. They were not the kind of noises from someone breaking in, or stealing, because I know my otherwise worthless dogs would have barked up a storm, and they were not making any noise at all. It was not my wife, because she was sleeping next to me. It seemed more like the sound of someone moving about and getting ready for their day—the sound of small dishes clinking together, a radio coming on softly. I looked at my bedside clock and it was 0330 exactly (shortly before I normally get up).

I got out of bed and wandered down the hall in my boxers, because why not? I immediately saw a light on in the kitchen, and when I came around the corner, my mother was there in a bathrobe, frying something in a skillet. She turned to look at me and said my name, “Tommy.”

I haven’t been Tommy in a number of years, but this morning I was. I started to respond, but then I realized my bladder was really full, and I rolled over and looked at my clock, and it was exactly 0330.

Although I realized it was a dream right away, it also occurred to me that I hadn’t seen my mother since 1987, and the last time she’d been in a morphine coma. She looked pretty good today, all things considered.

So I sat on the couch, and I read a little. I had a couple microwave pancakes. I was restless, and I couldn’t concentrate, so I pulled up an episode of Hawaii Five-0 on Netflix. Kono was lost at sea on a catamaran trip she began in honor of her mother. There were a lot of flashbacks with Kono and her mom, where the mom would relay this…homespun Hawaiian wisdom to her that helped her survive. “For crying out loud,” I thought. What on earth kind of morning was this going to be?

I guess I was supposed to think about my mother. Which I do almost every day, anyway. So that is what I’ve been doing.

I don’t have a lot of stories of mom passing along wisdom—I don’t remember her that well, honestly.

But I remember she loved old-school country music. In San Diego, the station was called KSON. I don’t know if it still is.

I know she liked to dance—I remember seeing her cut a rug with her brothers when I was very small. We have a couple home movies as well.

I remember rainy picnics on the kitchen floor. Sitting cross-legged on the floor and eating PB & J as my mom sang “rain, rain, go away.”

Other times she taught me this snippet of a George MacDonald poem called Baby. “Where did you come from, baby dear?”

To which my response was “out of everywhere into here.” My sister tells me she had this old book, and it came from there.

I do have one of her old books, though, and I really treasure it. It’s an old and falling-apart Living Bible, featuring marks she made with a fading felt-tip. It was given to her by my aunt Cathy back in 1979. I don’t know how much she read it then—I don’t remember seeing her with it until the months before her death.

There was one psalm she underlined in several places, and I just found that a couple of weeks ago. 31 years after she died. Amazing. And very comforting. Here is Psalm 116, which she underlined in purple, at some point before the end.

“I love the Lord because he hears my voice  and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen,     I will pray as long as I have breath! Death wrapped its ropes around me;     the terrors of the grave[a] overtook me.     I saw only trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the Lord:     “Please, Lord, save me!” How kind the Lord is! How good he is!     So merciful, this God of ours! The Lord protects those of childlike faith;     I was facing death, and he saved me. Let my soul be at rest again,     for the Lord has been good to me. He has saved me from death,     my eyes from tears,     my feet from stumbling. And so I walk in the Lord’s presence     as I live here on earth! 10 I believed in you, so I said,     “I am deeply troubled, Lord.” 11 In my anxiety I cried out to you,     “These people are all liars!” 12 What can I offer the Lord     for all he has done for me? 13 I will lift up the cup of salvation     and praise the Lord’s name for saving me. 14 I will keep my promises to the Lord     in the presence of all his people.

15 The Lord cares deeply     when his loved ones die. 16 O Lord, I am your servant;     yes, I am your servant, born into your household;     you have freed me from my chains. 17 I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving     and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord     in the presence of all his people— 19 in the house of the Lord  in the heart of Jerusalem.”

So today I will remember my mom all I can. I will thank the Lord for the time I did have—18 years. Not all good, but good enough. There were struggles, but there were also a great many blessings. I’m grateful for them. If anyone I know reads this, I’ll show you that old bible next time you’re at the house. It’s awesome.

I just remembered my mom used to talk to people on a CB radio my dad put in the kitchen. Her handle was “Ol’ Blue Eyes” to my dad.

That’s awesome, too.

Not trying to be sad, or make anyone tear up. Just remembering Ol’ Blue Eyes.

A good thing to do.

Dysfunction, with a W

Today I read an article online about the TV show Six Feet Under. It was pretty much just a quick oral history of how the show came to be, but there was a small part of it where the actor Peter Krause, I think, was talking about how the Fisher family was dysfunctional on the show, but that cast as a family was very functional.

It got me thinking about my own family growing up. Not that we were terribly dysfunctional, really. I think we were like lots of families during that time period. My brother and sisters grew up in the 60’s and 70’s (I came along in 1968), and it was just a different time then.

My siblings dealt with the same things lots of people did during that time period—Viet Nam, drug issues (not necessarily their own), probably some politics, meeting (or not meeting) societal and parental expectation, and simply finding their own way.

And they had this baby brother come along, and they were really more like parents to me than anything else.

My mom dealt with health and alcoholism issues as long as I can remember. Then it was cancer issues, and it took her a really long and painful decade to succumb to them.

I got along with my sisters much better than my brother. They showed me the love and support my parents couldn’t, for whatever their reasons. My brother, not so much. If I had to name an individual responsible for most of my woundings and scars, it would be him. Both literally, and figuratively.

He single-handedly formed the self-image that almost completely undid me.

I didn’t get it before—not for years—but I think I understand why things played out like that a little better now.

He was a little different as a kid, from what I have been made to understand. Perhaps there could have been some mental or chemical issues, I don’t know. He wasn’t always easy to love. Still, the girls did what they could.

Then I come along, and for whatever the reason, I was treated and loved well by my sisters and was a total mama’s boy. I don’t think there was anything special about me, but the love I was shown shaped my personality as much as my brother’s hate did, I think. And I get that it upset him and probably caused a lot of his issues with me.

Plainly put, this new brother did not help his issues at all, and certainly stole a lot of the time that he used to get. It felt like he hated me for being more loved than he was. I don’t know if that’s true.

I suppose that is a dysfunction.

Yet there were also moments of kindness. He would give me things of his I wanted that he didn’t use or play with anymore. He would take me for rides on his motorcycle. One time I got sick in the middle of the night and puked all over the place. He cleaned me up and put me back to bed, and then cleaned up the mess all by himself without waking anyone else up.

Lots of things like that.

My dad seemed a little aloof, but I think that was a generational thing. Men of his time (the greatest generation) were not always the touchy-feely uber-dads you see so often these days (I try to be that kind of dad myself).

I think he did the best he could considering what he had to deal with himself. There were periods of unemployment, my mom’s alcoholism and cancer. Probably hopes and dreams he had of his own that never happened. I don’t ever remember him striking me or anything like that. But I also don’t remember encouragement coming from his direction. I don’t remember much in the way of physical affection, though I suppose he did love me after his own fashion.

He died when I was 16.

Still, I had my friends, and I had my mom and sisters. My brother was thankfully not home much that I remember, and that was good. He only seemed to come around when something bad happened, and he wanted me to feel like it was my fault.

Like when my friend shot himself about ½ mile from my house.

Like when my high school girlfriend broke up with me shortly after graduation.

Like when my mom died in 1987.

That was when my downward spiral started, and didn’t end for a really long time. There weren’t really drugs, unless you count binge-drinking. There was lots of that. There were also several empty relationships, the last of which ended in the early 2000’s. There was a short foray into occultism. Pornography. Despair.

More dysfunction, I guess. During most of those years, I was not a good brother, or probably friend. I preferred shadows, and I would walk in them.

Then God started to introduce people of faith into my life—slowly, so I didn’t notice it was happening.

And for the first time I can remember, I also had accountability.

I met a guy in college who introduced me to a Jesus I hadn’t heard much about, and he called me on it when I was doing dumb stuff. My self-image began to change. Slowly, and I didn’t notice it was happening. The Jesus he told me about loved people as they were—even in their imperfection and sin. He forgave. He changed them from the inside out.

He changed me, in the fullness of time, with many missteps along the way.

I think about all the dysfunction, and I think about the many valleys I’ve been through in my life. Lots of pain. Lots of bad things.

I would not change any of it, and I know how that sounds.

But had I not experienced that stuff, I would not be here today, literally.

There’s a line in the Pat Conroy (one of my very favorite authors) book, The Prince of Tides where the narrator says something like “There are lots of families who go their whole lives with nothing of interest happening to them—not a single thing. I’ve always envied those families.”

I like the book a lot, and used to feel that way myself.

Not anymore.

My family is interesting, and has overcome a lot. Everything I have and more.

I love them.

We are weird, and we have phobias, and predilections, and strange habits.

But strange and dysfunctional as we are, we are a family.

Wilkins in various forms, ideologies, shapes, and colors.

I have been shaped by my life experiences, and by the love I have been shown over my life. Not by the hate. Nothing good is.

I am not the person some of those experiences led me to think for so many years.

God showed me that.

So here I am today.

Arizona.

I work for the Army (indirectly), doing a job I like very much.

I have my own family, and though we might not be Wilkins-level dysfunctional, we try our best. We are loud, and crazy, and we fight, but not as much as we love.

My wife is literally the most extraordinary woman I have ever known, and I will love her until I look like this:

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All that dysfunction was for a reason. It got me here, by the Grace of Jesus, my abba.

The Wilkins family is here to stay. We’ve got branches all over the country, though my main concern is the San Diego Chapter.

I am grateful beyond measure.

I love show tunes, and I love metal, the language of my people.

My wife has introduced me to country, and I like that, too.

I like mince pie, even though I seem to be the only person in Arizona who does.

I love books, and my kids, and carne asada tacos.

Life is pretty good.

Bionic Dad

Father’s day is coming up once again, and I am understandably thinking about my own father. Every time you turn on the TV, there are Father’s Day commercials. People post them online, and tell you to grab Kleenex before you watch. Inevitably, I will watch, and often end up a little (or a lot) on the misty side. The commercials all show dads doing dad things, and what usually tears me up is that I don’t remember a lot of that with my own dad. This is not to say that it did not happen, only that I don’t remember it.

My father was from a different generation than a lot of my friends parents were, and he was much older. He was 39 when I was born, but he looked and acted much older. The irony there is that he was younger than I was when my little guy was born. Anyway, it seems to me that the generation he came out of was not so…nurturing and…”touchy-feely” as a lot of men–a lot of dads–later became. I don’t remember a single instance of him talking about his feelings, or anyone else’s. It wasn’t his fault–it was just how things were.

So most of the memories I have of feeling nurtured or loved on concern my older sisters. I suppose that is often the role of women in the lives of boys. It certainly was in mine. Consequently, I wanted to spend as much time as I could with my sisters. It made sense to me then, but I have no idea how it made my dad feel that I didn’t want to be around the house much. I never had the opportunity to ask him. Not when I was old enough to understand that my behavior toward him might have been hurtful in some way. He died in 1984, when I was 16. He died before I learned to drive. He didn’t see me graduate. He didn’t usher me off to college (nobody, did, actually. I didn’t start until I was in my 20’s, and I didn’t graduate until this year).

Recently, though, I have been actively trying to remember things, and looking at a lot of pictures, and little snippets of Dad have been coming to me. Rising up in my memory like little slips of paper with things written on them.

Dad sitting in the kitchen with a BB gun, waiting to shoot a mouse.

Dad driving through Jack in the Box to get me pancakes before we went out on his sailboat.

Dad making me rubber band guns in the garage.

Dad taking me and one of my friends to see the first Jaws movie.

Dad finding me when I got lost at the swap meet once.

Dad taking a washer or dryer in his arms and wrestling it out of the back of his pickup.

Dad seeing a swear word on a rock at the bay and draping a towel over it so my mom wouldn’t have to see it.

Dad teaching me how to pull the guts out of fish.

He didn’t often–possibly ever, that I can remember–tell me he loved me, but he sure showed me an awful lot.

I remember listening to him getting ready for work and drinking coffee and talking with my mom. I would go out to the kitchen and say goodbye. We would do that whole “see you later, alligator” thing, and I loved it.

So there was a lot of good there, I just needed to go looking for it. There’s much more than the things I shared above, but I’m keeping them just for me.

I wonder what I would say to him given the opportunity?

I think I would certainly tell him that I loved him. Part of me would have wanted him to be different, but an even bigger part would have wanted me to be different. I suppose I was just being a typical adolescent and teenager, but that doesn’t excuse anything. Of course, had I known he only had a few short years left, I would have perhaps tried to do things differently. I didn’t know, and consequently I wasn’t the person I would have wanted to be.

I can’t live in the past, though when days come around like Father’s Day and Mother’s day I think to regret a few things.

What I do know is that I don’t want my own kids to wonder about me later on in their own lives, so that means I need to be a better and more significant part of their lives now. My generation is touchy-feely, and I need to get off my ass and touch and feel (in a non-creeperish sort of way, of course).

So as you might have guessed, I’m feeling pretty sentimental right now. I haven’t seen my kids or my wife in almost two weeks, and it is weighing on me something terrible. I hope the conviction I’m feeling now does not leave me, but stays burning in my heart.

I want very badly to be a good dad.

To that end, I know that some things need to happen. I need to depend more deeply on God, and not on myself and my own understanding. I need to turn to God, and trust him more (I don’t think we can ever do that enough). I need to stop thinking so much about what was lost and think about what is–thanks to His provenient Grace–yet to come. I need to think about God’s promise, given in Joel 2:25 to “repay the years the locusts have eaten.”

Absolutely no credit to myself, but I feel like things are looking up in that regard. Over the past week, all of my siblings, finally, are in touch. Yes, it is via social networking, but that is a very big something for us, and I feel that more good is to come.

There are only a few weeks left in this program, and then I will be home. And I can begin to do things like seek his truth for my life in scripture–along with my kids. They need to see that is important to me, and I need to show them.

I can’t turn back any clocks, and I don’t think I would want to if I could. What I can do is my best to be different.

Better, stronger, faster (ok, no, I’m not bionic, but I’ve always wanted to be. I liked that noise it would make when he did bionic stuff on the show–sort of a ch-ch-ch-ch kind of thing).

So there I go again. Out of place humor.

bionic