When Nectarines Appear

By Mark E. Smith

The way John drove his power chair still amazes me. It was as if he was merely an occupant as the power chair raced around by itself. Maybe it was the way his body jostled as a result of a lack of muscle strength due to quadriplegia? Or, maybe it was the way his curled hand didn’t appear to fully grasp the joystick. Whatever the case, John, in his power chair, flew down Portland’s sidewalks at 6 MPH with a careless whimsy I’ve never seen elsewhere, where one would think, Man, that power chair is going to kill that guy! And, it did toss him out a time or two – no harm done.

I’ve stopped believing in the finality of death, not in the sense of the departed, but for the living. This has come up for me most recently due to being reminded of John’s life and death, as a bio-pic of his life has made headlines. Another part of it is my own age and disability, having to face my own mortality. It’s all causing me to deeply ponder what death really means for the surviving loved ones? What remains of us when we pass?

The answer I’ve realized is, most of us remains, especially in the lives of those we impacted the most. My mother, father, and stepfather remain in my thoughts and dreams years after their deaths – some fond, some difficult. I’ve been inclined lately toward the fond. My wife and I were grocery shopping and she showed me the most perfect nectarine. I don’t recall seeing one since I was a child, my mother often feeding them to me. For a moment, my mother was there. My father and I didn’t speak much over my life, but we did for a span in my 20s, and he’d say the same words whenever I answered his calls: “Hey, what are ya doing?” I inexplicably find myself saying that to my oldest daughter when I call, and catch myself, for a moment flashing back to my father calling me. Every once in a while, I enter our empty kitchen in the morning and imagine my stepfather happily making coffee as among the reasons that I was onboard with buying our farmhouse is that he would have loved it. And, as for my disability contemporaries who’ve passed, I occasionally pull up YouTube or Facebook, and there they are, the same. John is alive, eight years after his passing, singing, playing the harmonica.

When we were children, we were most likely taught the finality of death. When someone died, we were told that they were gone forever, never coming back. Sometimes we were told that bluntly; other times, more softly, that they went to Heaven, watching over us. Yet, as one who’s experienced loss, I now know that what we were taught was wrong. There’s little finality to death for the living. Those passed remain with us, alive in so many ways. This realization, based on my experience, has brought me tremendous comfort, both toward those I’ve had pass and toward those who will one day experience my passing.

If you’ve had others pass in your life, I’m sure that you can relate to this paradox: They’re physically not present, but remain in our lives in so many ways, appearing often, as simply as via a nectarine.

This isn’t to say that grief, loss, and sadness – all debilitating at times – don’t exist. Of course they do. The loss of anyone close in our lives is devastating. Yet, again, so much still exists, not just via memories and remembrances, but in the seemingly tangible – a nectarine. In this way, the physicality of body is gone, but the person always remains with us.

My wife and I saw the trailer for the John Callahan bio-pic. There’s a clip of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays John, driving down the sidewalk in a power chair. My wife noted that every movement appeared exactly as john. And, I thought, It is John.

At the Heart of Special Needs

By Mark E. Smith

Annabelle was five when she came into my life. It was among my truest blessings, not just because of my own yearning to continue being a round-the-clock parent since my oldest daughter was finishing high school and going off to college, but because of the beautiful child Annabelle was. She exuded a joy and carefree zest for life that simply isn’t found in most people, even children.

Any time that we marry someone with children, it’s often said to be a “package deal,” but this union was far beyond such simple words. This was the universe bestowing me among the most precious gifts in my life – a wife and a second daughter.
We often hear of “special needs children.” In raising my oldest daughter, Emily, I always took issue with that term because every child has “special needs,” where our role as parents is to identify and meet each of our children’s needs, unique to that child. In raising Emily from birth through now graduate school, I’ve been aware of the many “special needs” she’s had along the way.

Annabelle, likewise has special needs. But, again, like all children, hers are unique. Annabelle has spina bifida and autism. She’s wicked smart and has a sense of humor that has those of us around her laughing most of the time, but she doesn’t have “typical” interpersonal interactions. There’s no I-love-you, which makes her hugging her mother or occasionally holding my hand so powerful within our hearts.

As a parent, my primary role is in working with my wife to ensure that Annabelle has everything she needs, from skilled nursing care, to a special bed, to her own play room that’s everything. Annabelle, her haven.

I didn’t realize how much Annabelle recognized me and my dedication to meeting her needs until one night in our van. Among her favorite items of engagement is her tablet, on which she watches children’s YouTube videos. She was on her tablet in our van while my wife was putting groceries in our house before we were going out again. Suddenly, Annabelle dropped her tablet in such a spot on the van floor that neither of us could seemingly get it. She was buckled in her car seat and my power chair was situated in such a way that when I backed up to get the tablet, it was under my power chair.

Annabelle became more and more upset, to a panicked degree. I realized that if I reclined my seat back, I may be able to grab the tablet. As I did so, it put me in proximity to Annabelle, and she begin patting my shoulder, repeating, “Mark! Mark! Mark!”

This moment was profound because she doesn’t address anyone by name, so her addressing me directly in her moment of desperation was both heartbreaking, as she was so upset, and breathtaking because she was reaching out to me for help.

Fortunately, I scooped up the tablet and handed it to her, crisis ended.

Annabelle’s father will rightfully always be such. However, being acknowledged as her “Mark” in her time of need was among the most heartfelt moments of my life. Indeed, there’s nothing more poignant as a parent than being there to meet our child’s “special need.”

Windless and Still

By Mark E. Smith

Life can be brutal – dehumanizing at its worst, where some of us lose so much at points, we feel that all we are is flesh and bones.

Yet, we push through it – most of us, anyway. Not all. We scrape the depths of our souls for whatever is left, and that marrow revitalizes us enough to start a comeback, following some path, yet to be totally revealed, that we hope will lead us out. It’s never linear, though, is it? We still find glimpses of hope veiled by dark patches. But, we reach and claw, and keep finding our way out.

How long does it take, we ask. Each of our journeys is different, in scale and in time. Months for some. Years for others. A lifetime for a few of us.

I think about this in bed on an August morning at the shore. My wife and youngest daughter are still asleep. I guess it’s around 7:30 am based on the last time I rolled over to check the alarm clock. No shower today. I have no desire for one.

Our daughter stirs, chirping, as we call it when she sings herself awake. I both revel in her adorable character and envy her. I often awake happy, with a tune in my head, but we adults are conditioned not to let it out. Kids are the fortunate ones – free of so many smothering social norms that would bring so much joy if we, too, could just let it out.

We all eventually get up and my wife asks me what shirt I want to wear? We banter about my insistence of a white, spread collar button down. She notes that it’s too wrinkled. I explain that it’s fine for my plans. I’m just going to park myself on the beach. Other events may transpire before or after, but I’m not concerned. A wrinkled, white button down will do. I slip it on, buttoned, over my head. As it slides down my torso, it feels crisp, cool, flowing, perfect.

I roll into the bathroom and turn on the sink’s faucet. I wet my hair with my hands, noting the grey. I run a brush through it several times and I’m good to go for the day.

A white shirt and combed hair were my only concerns, and they’re behind me. I roll over and look out our window to the beach, windless and still. And, I, too, am at total peace starting this day.

“Who’s ready for the beach?” I ask my wife and daughter.

The room is silent. We all know it’s a rhetorical question.

Recognizing Who’s Perfect

By Mark E. Smith

I truly believe that those I love are absolutely perfect. And, I tell them so, from the depth of my heart.

See, when I say that those I love are absolutely perfect to me, it doesn’t mean “perfection;” rather, it means their being true to oneself and others. Those I love aren’t without flaws or character idiosyncrasies. However, in my eyes, there’s nothing that they need to change or that I want to change about them. They’re perfect.

So often – and I’ve fallen into this trap in my past– we see all of the traits we want to change in our loved ones. At our worst, we may overlook 97% of the amazing qualities in our loved ones and fixate on the 3% that we disagree with. Even worse is when we vocalize our dislikes, especially to our loved ones, themselves. There’s few worse blows than criticism from a loved one.

I’ve also heard friends complain about their amazing spouses and children, all because they’re overlooking the greater good in them. Why bring this negativity into our lives and those we love?

The alternative is to see how perfect our loved ones truly are. Again, my wife and daughters don’t embody literal perfection – none of us do. However, there’s nothing about them that I want to change. They are… well… perfect.

This isn’t to say that we should view all by such a way. It truly must be earned. I loved my mother, but I rightfully disagreed with the life she lived as an alcoholic. I never saw her as “perfect” and I would have been insane not to have wished much of her to change. But, if we have those in our life who are remarkable individuals, what’s to change? And, why look for aspects to change?

The answer is, there’s no good reason. It’s petty and self-defeating. Our loved ones deserve better, just as we don’t need to create problems where there are no problems. Seeing those we love as rightfully “perfect” is the ultimate form of acceptance and love, and extending it to those who matter most to us elevates our relationships.

Therefore, the next time your spouse or children irk you a bit, maybe take a moment and ask yourself if it’s truly a problem or are they just earning their way into your heart as perfect?

When There are no Words

By Mark E. Smith

As a formally-trained, working writer of 25 years, I’m not going to put on any airs – this writing stuff is insanely easy. Sure, it takes heart and time. But, it’s truly just a matter of stringing words together.
However, I’ve long found that when I’m not writing, but living, I’m sometimes frustrated by the lack of words in existence that express our deepest feelings.

I often have experiences with my wife and daughters that are so deep and profound that there are no words to express them. Sure, I’ve tried, but such deep feelings escape the English vocabulary and dictionary. You’ve likely been at that point, where your feelings transcend words, where it’s like following the ocean and sky out, onto a pier, but you reach the end of the pier and the ocean and sky keep going. Maybe you’ve been in love so deeply that I love you hasn’t nearly conveyed the depth of your love. Maybe you’ve watched your child sleep and as much as you try to find words, there are none for the emotions you feel welled up inside you toward the love that you have for your child. Or, maybe you’ve had a loved one with an illness and your empathy for him or her was so deep that words couldn’t express the pain that you felt in your heart.

As a husband, father, brother, and friend, I’ve been in all of those circumstances. I am a person before I am a writer and while I could muster up swirls of sincere words, they don’t scratch the surface of the depth of love I feel in those moments. I want my wife, daughters, siblings, and friends to know the depths of my feelings for them. However, the words – there are none of such depth.

For me, the only solution I’ve found is to reach out. In those moments when words don’t exist to express the depth of my love, I keep the shortcoming to myself and cuddle up to my wife, play with our 10-year-old, or call our 21-year-old on the phone. And, it works, my depth of love conveyed in gestures, without the limitations of words.

I was on the receiving end of this process not too long ago. I have a dear friend who’s a doctor. When I was in the hospital, he came to visit and he was shocked by my grave condition. He, who is never at a loss for words, was speechless. However, he sat by my bed quietly and held my hand. I felt how deep his love was for me. Words weren’t needed.

What I’ve learned by being a person before a writer is that words aren’t the only way to express the depth of our love for others – and it’s ultimately good that language is more limited than our hearts.

Stop, Drop, and Roll

By Mark E. Smith

The major arguments that my wife and I have had, fortunately, have been few and far between. Neither of us is emotionally cut out for the type of drag-out fights that some couples routinely engage in. What we’ve learned from the major arguments we’ve had is that they left us both feeling sad and emotionally bruised – not a dynamic we wish in our marriage.

Among the reasons why our arguments were so emotionally bruising was much because of my behavior. I always ended up storming out the door with such a comment as, “You clearly married the wrong guy….”

My wife finally expressed during a nonconfrontational time that my “going to the end” during arguments scared and hurt her.

I laid on the couch one eve and questioned my own poor behavior. I did “go to the end” in hurtful ways. But, I didn’t mean to – it just happened. So, why did I do it?

I realized that rather than be in control of my emotions during those types of arguments, I was operating on emotional autopilot. See, when I was growing up, my parents routinely fought and the arguments always ended in one of them leaving, either temporarily, for long periods, or divorce (three marriages, in my mother’s case). It was scary and unsettling to me as a child, but worst of all, it ingrained in me that that’s how arguments work – that is, they go to the end.

I shared this realization with my wife and expressed that while I couldn’t promise perfection, should an argument arise, I would try my best to be aware of my response and not “go to the end.”

Fortunately for both of us and our marriage, I have stopped going to the end. What I’ve learned in this process, as I’ve done at several points throughout my adulthood, is that no matter our scars, we don’t have to live and operate on emotional autopilot. If our behavior is hurting ourselves and others, we can stop, assess, and grow. It’s really hard to do – I know, especially when behaviors, reactions, and emotions are so engrained in us. But, the rewards of having the introspection – and dare I say, courage – to question our own actions can be profoundly life changing.

When we were children, many of us were taught the key to fire safety: stop, drop, and roll. As adults, for our emotional health, maybe we need to establish a similar reaction: stop, assess, and grow.

Bullies, Critics, and Haters

By Mark E. Smith

I’m very fortunate to publish both this written blog and a YouTube video Vlog every week. The content has never overlapped until now, so I saw it fitting this week to post a video as both my blog and Vlog – on a poignant topic that, unfortunately, many of us can relate to….