Retreat (n)-a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation and study.

Once a year I and some like minded friends gather deep in the woods of north Alabama for a Spiritual retreat. It takes place at a beautiful camp belonging to a religious denomination in possession of a great deal more certainty than we ragtag band of spiritual vagabonds. The woods and even the very walls of the buildings seem to radiate with the patina of decades of spiritual pursuit.

As we turn into the drive the world begins to fall away. Our worries, our hopes, our struggles get out of the car and step away. They will be waiting for us as we go out on Sunday, but they will seem smaller somehow and harder to see. But for now, we are lighter by the minute.

We drop our bags and head into the woods. Soon there are no man-made sounds save the crunch of leaves under our feet. We follow the music of the wind in the trees and the songs of birds. We descend into a canyon and stand for a time in silence surrounded by boulders left there by glaciers. It has been a dry summer and a small creek barely trickles into a pool made in the rock with a few minnows swimming lethargically.

We hike back out and the rest of our friends are there, some we saw last week, some not since last year. There are hugs, laughter and a dozen conversations at once. We eat, we laugh, we study, we meditate. There are moments of connection, big and small, as we walk the trails or rock on the porch.

I lay down for a nap on Saturday, but there is a serious card game going on in the other room. I am pulled back to consciousness by the sound of my friends’ laughter. I open my eyes in the twilight and inside I am perfectly still.

On Sunday we load our cars, hug our hugs, our minds already beginning to think of the things we left at the entrance. But we go back to our lives more peaceful versions of ourselves.

My mind goes back to the canyon. As we stood in that place as old as time, my friend bent down and gently brushed away a clump of leaves. And what had been a trickle of clear water became a gush and flowed over the rocks into the little pool. The minnows began to swim around, their tails moving faster and faster on the rising tide of hope.

Mix Tape

“Side B song #5-me and the major-belle and sebastian-it’s so poppy and fun. play it when you’re driving down the freeway. it’s amazing.”

I was clearing an old bookcase cabinet yesterday and found in it the cassette tape graveyard, where all such were relegated once technology moved on to the point that we no longer had a way to play them. And that is where I found it. A mix tape my sister Lil had made for me years ago, before cassettes went the way of the dinosaur. She had made a cover for it and entitled it

“a li’l sistah compilation”.

I don’t remember exactly why she made it or when she gave it to me. I’m sure I took it from her hand casually, certain that there were oceans of time left between us and untold number of things to receive from her hand. Before we knew how bad it was going to be, how we would watch horrified as the nose of the plane slowly turned toward the ground, and be helpless to do anything about it, the right thing, the wrong thing, something, anything, I don’t know. Until early one morning the phone rang, and when I saw the hour and that it was my Dad I knew what he was going to say before I lifted the phone. And then he said it and the long wait for that phone call was over.

The day after her funeral I stood under a winter night sky as one year turned into the next and beheld the first sky of the first day of the first year that she would never know. And I wondered how it came to this. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. I don’t know what I should’ve done, I only know that somehow I didn’t do it. Now she only visits me from time to time in my dreams. The first time she did we were walking on the street. She was ahead of me and the distance between us kept getting greater and greater. I called her name, louder and louder, but I couldn’t get her to turn around. Don’t need to bust Joseph out of Pharaoh’s prison to interpret that one for me.

I opened the mix tape box and a piece of paper fluttered to the ground. It was a carefully typed song list with notes explaining why the song was chosen, and what it meant to her. It was full of references to people and events in her life that I knew nothing about and now never would. I sat in the floor surrounded by obsolescence and pored over it as though it were runes that could help me understand a vanished world, while all around me dust swirled and a Greek chorus shrieked:

“Too late, too late, too late.”

And so I took the song list and made a new playlist for my phone. And I’m listening to it in honor of her and as one last chance to know something of who she was.

It is a gray fall day as I guide my car onto the interstate, gusts of wind shower my car in yellow leaves. I ease into traffic and imagine for a moment that I can see her out of the corner of my eye, a shade riding shotgun with a small smile on her face. I step on the gas and turn up the volume, and she’s right, it is amazing.

In loving memory of Lillian Plott

February 27, 1986-December 29, 2014.


“May the one who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us, and all Israel. To which we say amen.”

He is standing at the nurse’s desk shouting at the top of his voice. He is demanding more pain medicine for his wife down the hall, a la Shirley Maclean in Terms of Endearment. The nurse in front of him is so rattled that her hands shake as she lifts the phone to dial the on-call doctor.

When the order is received she asks me to go with her as she gives it, to help her turn and reposition the patient. She tells me the lady has end stage cancer and is very near death. When we get to the room I see she is a tiny thing, lost in the vastness of the bed, a wraith, a winter leaf about to crushed under foot. My colleague gives the pain medicine. And as we pull back the sheet to move her I see it, left forearm, upper part, a number. A number that can mean only one thing. I stand there like a stone as the full weight of what it means lands on me. After a moment I look up into her face and her eyes are on me, obsidian, giving away nothing. After a lifetime of absorbing the reactions of others she will not help me.

When we are done he comes back into the room and give her a kiss of such tenderness and a look of such love that I am ashamed to be present, so intimate is the moment. He says

“I’ll see you in the morning my love.”

and turns to go, his face a mask of anguish. Perhaps he thought she’d suffered enough. From the window I can see him walking to his car, his jacket around his shoulders. A gust of wind whips the sleeves up around him and I can’t decide if they are like fists raised to God or arms begging for mercy.

When I turn back to her, her eyes are closed. She is at peace. In a few days she is at peace for good. I tuck her, and him, away in the storeroom of my memory and move on to the next one. And the one after that.

All these years later I’ve forgotten so many of the patients that I’ve cared for, their names, their struggles. But I remember her. I’m happy to say that I can no longer remember a single digit of that terrible number, although the shock wave of seeing it echoes still. When I think of her I remember her dark eyes on me and I remember her name. The sands of time have rubbed away the number, but the name remains.

In Absentia

“I’m not going to live to see my baby get on a school bus am I?”

The patient said this from her chemo chair in the oncology unit I work in, with tears in her eyes. She was a young mother with a 2 year old son. I don’t remember what my colleague said or how she got past the moment, but I do remember that the patient was right…she didn’t. She was gone within a year.

When told that I’m an oncology nurse, most people exclaim that they don’t know how I can do it. Many times I’ve wondered the same thing myself, you see things so sad that you just want to scrub the memory from your mind. Some memories I’ve put in a mental drawer never to be opened again…or not very often. I’ve been in oncology long enough now to have taken care of friends and relatives and teachers and neighbors and now even co-workers.

But there is this, it has made me remember to live my life, to be present in the moment, to look around my table and be grateful, knowing that one day there would be empty chairs, and now, of course, there are. It has made me leave dishes in the sink and play with my kids, and not leave things unsaid and undone. It has made me appreciate all the joys of life, the great ones and most especially, the small ones. I try to live with the thought that I am also living it for those that can’t.

We have new neighbors across the way, and they have a son who rides the bus to school. I am an empty nester now, and haven’t thought of the bus for a long time. But when mine were small they rode it, and waited in the same spot he does. I would turn them out in the morning, tumbling over each other like puppies, while I rushed around doing various necessary and forgettable tasks. But when I would hear the school bus coming up the hill, I would stop what I was doing and go to the nearest window and watch my babies get on the bus. I did it for me because I knew it was a privilege, and I did it for her, because she never got to.


Gauntlet (n.)-a double file of men facing each other and armed with clubs or other weapons with which to strike at an individual who is made to pass between them.

Recently I read about a Baptist minister in Missouri who preached a sermon and in so doing sailed right off the cliff of his evangelical, male privilege, without ever realizing there was a cliff’s edge. He now lies stunned and battered below on the rocks of “on leave and seeking counseling”. A metaphor about a barn door and a horse and timing comes to mind.

I won’t link it here because I don’t want to give his words any more attention than they have already gotten, but a simple google search should summon more than you want to know for the interested. The substance of the message was to instruct the women of his congregation on the importance of maintaining attractiveness and sexual availability to husbands as these are things God has decreed that men are entitled to and what they agreed to when they married. That though you may not ever be able to achieve Trophy Wife status, with effort you might at least be a Participation Trophy. Yeah. I know.

Apparently neither he nor any other staff member saw a problem with his words and the sermon was posted to the church’s website. From there it was picked up and taken to the World Wide Web via Social Media, and the rest is history. Enter the digital mob, with their torches and pitchforks and their outrage and he has been well and thoroughly dragged. The general theme of said dragging being that his own appearance was somewhat lacking. And while it’s true that in taking such a stand on appearance one should be a near perfect physical specimen oneself (think young Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise), it’s hardly the point.

I thought about the women of his congregation there that day (61% of most churches if statistics are to be believed) and wondered how they felt. Did they sit there feeling stunned and exposed, eyes straight ahead, tight smiles at the “funny” parts, his words falling like drops of blood on their heads? Had they thought that they were sitting in the one place where they might not be judged, listening to the one person that might look on them with love? Agape love. And it made me sad, sad.

You see it starts with us at puberty, maybe earlier now, and there is hardly a day of a woman’s life where she is not evaluated, judged, dissected, approved or dismissed, based on how she looks. The constant measuring and sifting, sometimes from forces without and often forces within.

The first I realized that I wouldn’t do was in the early days of 7th grade. In halls teeming with hormones and the sociopathy of youth I received a quick education on the very narrow ideal for beauty and that that was all that matters. Not that you were smart, or funny or kind. Just how you looked.

Every day I rode to school on the bus. I waited with my friends and we were the last stop. The seats were full of boys, the alpha boys, and the only seats left were toward the back. We would walk down the center aisle, a gauntlet, and pass through the Greek chorus of body shaming, raked by eyes. Each body minutely and openly evaluated, commenting on the merits or lacks thereof. Their words fistfuls of glass to the tender flesh of adolescence, as we fell into our seats, bleeding from 1000 tiny cuts. Each coped in her own way, some with tears, some lashed out, and I, stone faced, chin up, shoulders back, pretended not to hear, pretended not to care. Indifference my costume for my teens and 20’s.

And so it has been for me almost every day since. In some form or fashion it comes, the evaluation, the valuation, the devaluation, for every woman I know. I’m of an age now where I largely go unnoticed, and it’s fine with me. An Invisibility Cloak the costume of my 50’s.

But for my younger friends it’s louder than ever. The impossible expectations, the cacophony of social media, swipe left, swipe right. Every day, every woman will walk the gauntlet, be it long or short, in her school, on her job, on the street, in her own mirror, and apparently even to her seat in church.


One blessing of this present madness is all the time I have spent out in nature. I’ve watched Spring unfold in the minutest detail. Snowdrops became Daffodils became Azaleas, became Wisteria, became Honeysuckle. The nest carefully built in my carport, filled first with moss, then eggs, z lolr red e now downy little creatures with beaks open to the sky. Their parents SS C zerx.r. Zzz sd:.:.2their business unconcerned about human beings andd D as sex erd;5:..:ie all their shenanigans. Comfortingd really. I’ve watched it all from my patio, unfolding zzzd.,4….44zd;;;.7. like a slow motion movie of the creation of the world.

And so every Saturday and Sunday I sit out there and “go” to my church online, in what has become my quarantine uniform, desperately saggy yoga pants and one of 3 tee shirts although I have dozens. I trail coffee, phone and earbuds, so thankful for technology. I am all in with hands raised and sing at the topic my voice, blessing everyone in the cul-de-sac with my Worship stylings. (You’re welcome.)

Today as we sang I opened my eyes, and saw all SS me a green Cathedral. All of nature cooperating as thoughszzdssszzzssszz ask. it knew the playlist. The words of the songs being proclaimed in front of me as .we sang, like we were ./:/: a Divine zeph zz zero mere as E’s Score.

“Holy, all creation cries Holy…”

I saw the trees, swaying, their arms ever lifted in worship, their leaves shimmering with His praise in the breeze.

I saw the birds calling to each other and one lone hawk doing lazy circles above me. A Cardinal flew by me with a flash of red, all like Cherubim in the Throne Room, their whole being crying out,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty…”

The last prayers for our world were said, the last notes of our last song were sung, and at that moment the sun came out from behind the clouds and shone down, turning everything to gold.

“The Lord bless you and keep you, make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn His face toward and give you peace.”



Before (prep.)- during the period of time preceding.

Heritage House Coffeeshop, medium latte with Pam.

Jim&Nick’s BBQ, dinner with Betsey.

Burch Formalwear, tux fitting for son’s senior prom.

Hair Cutters Inc., wash, cut, blowout.

Barnes&Noble, Books and coffee with Janet.

All things done the week before the first case of Covid-19 diagnosed in Alabama. Two weeks before the mandatory curfew. Three weeks before schools closed for the rest of the year, and before the first deaths in Alabama. Four weeks before the number of cases broke 1000, before Shelter-in-Place. Another life. Before.

Before life as we knew changed on a dime, for now and possibly for good. Before people went all Lord of the Flies in Dollar General and we discovered the lengths people would go to be sure they had toilet paper. Before it was normal to step way around others on the street, and to wear masks and gloves in the Grocery Store. Before Zoom. Before the best way to love your elderly relatives was to stay away. Before.

Did I enjoy myself that week, going about life, without realizing how much it was going to change? That everything I was doing would not even be on the table in a month? I did, but not the way I would have if I’d known there would never be another week like it. And though I think of myself as a person who lives in the day, I’ve been amazed to realize how much time and energy and planning I’ve put into things that aren’t even going to happen now.

I hear myself and others making reference to “when this will all be over”, but really, will it? Can we ever go back and be people that didn’t believe this could happen? Should we? When life gets back to normal, will it be that frantic merry-go-round of things that as it turns out don’t really matter that much? Do we want it to be?

Or will we have learned something in the quiet? Will we take up our lives recalibrated in ways large and small? Will it be a destroying fire or a refining one? Will we emerge scarred or better? Or both?

I think of my Depression era grandparents, how they never forgot what it was to be in want. They never wasted food and they never threw anything away, even aluminum foil and butter containers. But they worked hard, were easily satisfied, never failed to be grateful and never fooled with self-pity.

What will my version of that be? That I never again took up idle and worthless pursuits, that when I can hug my family again, that I will make sure I let them quit hugging first, that I never forget the goodness of people, the solace of nature and the joys of family, and simple pleasures? All of that I hope. And that I will never again touch a doorknob with my bare hand.

Full Circle

Full Circle (adv.)-through a series of developments that lead back to the original source, position or situation.

We stepped out onto the sidewalk into a light rain. Lifting our umbrellas, we set out and made our way to the coffee shop around the corner. He had just been fitted for a tuxedo for his Senior Prom. Great care was taken to make sure that his bow tie would perfectly match the dress of his chosen lady. He was full of plans and his eyes shone with excitement.

We ordered and then looked around for a seat. We passed a shelf with all manner of games. He said:

“Oh look, they have Battleship. Let’s play!”

And so we did, and I was reminded of another day, now a long time ago. A day when I started my day with a change of plans that I documented on Facebook. It was September 11, 2008

“Staying home with Jackson who is sick. I will take him to the doctor and then spend the day letting him beat me at Battleship.”

Oh if it had only been that simple. But life has a way of dealing you a blow when you least expect it, and when I stepped out into the blue sky of a fall day I could never have imagined where the day would lead me. By that night we would be at Children’s Hospital, and that 6 year-old boy would spend his first night away from home in the I.C.U., with a diagnosis of Leukemia. It would be 3 1/2 years of treatment before the Specter was removed from our lives.

And now I gazed across the table at him, brow furrowed as he considered his move. Six feet tall, with a first attempt at a mustache, honors student, football player. He is headed to college in the fall to be a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and wants to work at Children’s Hospital with kids with cancer. Full circle.

This year has been full of the sweetest of bittersweet moments. He’s my last so there’s that, a season, a role, almost completed. All the milestones the more poignant for that and for the fact that we did not know if he would be here to mark them.

This fall we stood at the edge of the football field ready to walk him out for the Senior Night football game. As we made our way across the field, it seemed a short walk considering all the miles we’d come to be there in that moment.

And so I spent an hour with him, my last born, the one that almost got away, and I could feel the time pouring through my fingers like water. An exquisite moment in time, everything behind him and everything before him. A moment routine to him and precious to me. No words could capture a moment of such sweetness or the mercy of a God that made it possible. Full circle.

He sank my Battleship and I didn’t even have to let him win. And then we finished our coffee, picked up our umbrellas and stepped back out into the rain.


Dying, like being born, is hard work. Even when all hope is gone of continuing in this earthly shell, the body refuses to believe it. Bravely it goes on trying to do what it has always done, to breathe, to continue, to remain.

And we keep watch, talking until there is no more talking, no more goodbyes to say, no more unfinished business. Then we sit in whispers, offering sips of water, bites of food, our eyes pleading to be able to offer something that is wanted, when nothing is wanted but release.

Then we sit in silence, sitting Shiva in advance, a vigil for what was. The last service we can ever provide. Sorrow and love moving in the room like a vapor.

By his last bed is a picture of a bridge into woods, in the fall, strewn with golden leaves. The path at the end leads into the woods. As the days go on, I picture him coming ever closer to that bridge. Closer to putting on his familiar red, fleece jacket and picking up his old, trusty Nikon camera. Closer to going over the bridge to capture what is next.

And I picture our old wonderful German Shepherd Waylon, our beloved dog emeritus, standing at the other end, tail waving, faster and faster as he approaches. Until they continue on together to where the path turns out of sight.

The Wrong Time

When I was in college I lived in an apartment in a series of red brick buildings, built just after WWII. They are gone now, swept away as though they were never there at all, in the Tornado of 2011, but that’s another story for another day.

There was an elderly couple that lived just across the way, their names lost to me now in the mist of time. They were alone in the world but for each other, and kind, and I would go and sit with them from time to time. Just inside the door, in their entryway, was a picture on the wall. I passed it every time I went in. It’s golden frame held the photograph of a beautiful little girl, with blue eyes and blond hair. Forever frozen at 3, swept away by a tornado of another kind, Leukemia.

I would sit with them in the stillness, surrounded by old things, listening to their stories and the ticking of the clock. I would glance at the picture of their little daughter as I left and think it was sad, knowing nothing yet of sorrow. And then one day, without either of us knowing it, it was the last time I came and went, and I consigned them to the drawer of memory.

I would remember them again many years later as I sat by the bed of another tiny patient, a boy this time, and 6 not 3, but the same mortal enemy. But for 3 years I would hold my boy, ghostly pale and limp, and wipe away vomit, and hope and pray and claw and fight our way to the cure she never had the chance to have.

One night after a long day at the Clinic my son fell asleep in my bed although he wasn’t supposed to. I was reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s masterful biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. I came to the chapter on VAMP, the first Clinical Trial that tested many of the drugs now used to treat childhood cancer. The name an acronym for the combination of drugs used. The year was 1961, and the regimen so toxic that many children died outright, and many died after a brief remission because they didn’t yet have the final piece of the puzzle, that you had to give radiation to the spinal fluid or it would come back. But for the first time there were remissions and for the first time there were survivors and it was the beginning of Leukemia becoming a curable childhood cancer.

I read, the words falling like drops of blood on my eyes, and I thought of those long ago nameless children, the hell they went through, and their desperate and courageous parents, and the incredible debt I owed them. And as I read, my hand kept slipping over to touch my beautiful boy, and be reassured by his warm flesh under my fingers.

And as it turned out, mine would live, and grow his hair back, and have birthdays and go to DisneyWorld, and hold his baby cousin on the day he was born, and play in the ocean, and go to camp, and kick a football and kiss a girl for the first time, and have it all before him.

And I thought of my long ago neighbors, and their long ago girl, who died years before the VAMP trial was ever thought of, when all there was of treatment was to take them home and make them comfortable as they faced their certain and miserable death. Guilty of nothing but being born in the wrong time. Consigned to be only a golden girl in a golden frame, in a room full of old things and the ticking of a clock.