Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Importance of Place

We all need a place; somewhere we can call our own; somewhere we can call our home.  My wife and I recently traveled from our home in North Carolina to 5 western states; South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Utah. As a child I had dreamed of traveling to the places that Lewis and Clark had actually stood, or walking on the Custer Battlefield trying to envision the battle; standing on the Oregon Trail where over a half million people either found or lost their dreams; seeing Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument; being close to a buffalo herd in Yellowstone and standing beside Old Faithful as it erupted right on time; seeing the Grand Teton Mountains.  I got to see and do all of these things this summer.

But the entire time I was traveling I never reset my watch to reflect the two hour time difference.  I wanted to be able to look at my wrist and know what time it was in my home state, the place I am from, where the people who know me and love me live. When we met new people on our tour, the first thing we would ask was "Where are you from?"  And they would tell us.  And then we would tell them where we are from.

Everyone needs a place.  A place provides a person with a sense of belonging and a connection with people. It reminds us of a way of life; who we are.

When I travel from my home in Charlotte to my hometown of Rocky Mount, several hours across the state of North Carolina, I return, not to a small town in Eastern NC, but to my childhood where everything has changed but remains familiar.

Over there is a Nursing Home that used to be a vacant lot where we played all-day sandlot football games.  And over there, in the building used to store furniture, is where I went to first grade.  In that field over there is where Rocky Mount Municipal Stadium stood and I would go at night to watch the single A baseball team play.  At one game, the announcer called my name for the wining ticket of 20 dollars worth of free dry cleaning.  But I was only 10 years old at the time, so it was quite a let down.  They tore down the stadium about 20 years ago and replaced it with a practice field for the high school team.

Across the way is the town Library where I checked out my first book. I still remember the smell of the books, and the excitement I felt when I opened the drawers of the card catalogue to find a book. This library is now closed and not far from it is the new, high tech library with computers and an on-line catalogue.

Near the Tar River was the best barbecue restaurant that ever existed.  It not only had a sit down restaurant but it had a drive up where you could sit in your car and eat your pork barbecue sandwich while you heard the sound of pigs being killed in the slaughterhouse.  It was a magical experience. This fine restaurant washed away in the flood of 1999.

But, the best part of going home is actually going home- to the street I lived on growing up and to the house where I was raised.  My mom still lives there and when she sees me drive up, she does not see me as a 62 year old man, but she sees me as her child; still drooling as he gets out of the car.   I am a child once more.

I get to see my brothers while I am there and we talk and we laugh about our days at home.  All of us are story tellers and we accuse the others of embellishing the truth, which we do, and the tales grow taller as the night grows longer.

So, while traveling this summer, when someone asked me where I was from, I wanted to say, "I am from a place that is strange but familiar, a place where people remember me and know me, really know me, who love me and accept me, a place where once I sat on my bicycle as the day ended and the sun began to set over the top of the pines on the first day of summer and felt the thrill of being young and alive."



Monday, August 10, 2015

Let Me Tell You About My Sister



Wanda Lanier Higson died on July 24, 2015.  Her life will never be defined by her death, but by the way she lived.

So, let me tell you about my sister.

Wanda was my older sister, although she would deny being older.  Nothing made her happier than to be mistaken for the younger child.  And in many ways she was younger.  Her positive attitude toward life and her desire to squeeze all the fun into every smidgen of life that she could get were the traits of a much younger person.

Wanda and I grew up together.  I remember when she was given her first Tiny Tears Doll; a doll that cried real tears and wet its diaper.  And  I could not understand why anyone would want one.  

I remember when Wanda won the grand prize in a coloring contest when she was in the third or fourth grade.  She won a small roll top desk that is still in her home today.  

I was there when she was given her first turn table record player and her first records.  From that day forward music poured forth from her room in one continuous stream until she left home; from her record player, from the radio or from the ukulele and guitar that she taught herself to play.

I watched as she left through the front door on her first date.  I watched as her first prom date gave her a corsage. 

Most of what I remember of Wanda during those years was how free she seemed to be.  Her life was filled with music and laughter and friends; dancing and parties.  She did not seem to be afraid to step out and try new things.

I was not like her, but I wanted to be.  She tried to encourage me to do things like dance and go out but I never had the self confidence that she had. 

I remember driving her to work at Belk’s and noticed her looking at me with a disgusted look.  I asked her what was wrong.  She said, “You drive like an old man.  Step on the gas.”  Throughout our young lives together she was constantly trying to get me to step on the gas. 

In fact, I never would have gone on my first date had it not been for Wanda arranging a double date with her and her boyfriend and me and a girl that I knew.  At the end of the date, when I was getting out of the car to walk the girl to her front door, I could see Wanda mouthing the words, “Kiss her.  Kiss her.”

Wanda was a wife and mother.  I was there when a guy who had just returned from Vietnam with a dark tan wearing a white suit showed up at our door.  She had met Bill Higson at the Pizza Inn.  Bill said that he knew the first time he saw her in the Pizza Inn that he was going to marry her. In fact he told one of his friends who was with him this very thing.

Several months later, I was in the car with Wanda and we were listening to her favorite radio station, when the song “Make It With You” by Bread was played, requested, the DJ said, by Bill Higson and dedicated to Wanda Lanier.  There are a couple of lines in the song that say, “Life can be short or long, and love can be right or wrong. And if I chose the one to help me through, I’d like to make it with you.   Dreams… they are for those who sleep.  And Life is for us to keep.  If I chose the one to help me through, I’d like to make it with you.”

Not long after that Wanda and Bill were engaged.  I was a groomsman at her wedding and watched her as she and Bill drove away to begin a new life.

The product of this new life include three children, one, named Chad, whose life was cut too short, and two who are with us today, Ashley and Brandon.

Wanda was a good mother, gentle in bearing but fiercely protective of her children.  “Don’t mess with my kids,” is what she used to say.  She encouraged her children to be themselves and to step forward with their ideas and opinions (to step on the gas, so to speak).

She was always her children’s biggest supporter and encourager in everything they did in life, supporting them in their educational and their spiritual endeavors.  Wanda was the person her children turned to for advice and wisdom, the first person who was by their side when they needed anything, and their best friend.

Wanda and Bill’s life also included a house near the Rocky Mount reservoir; a house that they planned and built together, a house where they lived for 37 years and raised their children, a house that they cherished. Wanda said she felt peace and love when she first saw the lot they were to build on and knew that was the place that would build their home. And at that home Wanda loved being outside and working with her flowers and plants in her beautiful yard.  Whenever I think of  Wanda, I   think of her bright, happy home.

Wanda was a friend to many people.  And, if Wanda was your friend, she was, more than likely, your friend for life.  She had 4 special friends who, with Wanda, called themselves the Ya Ya’s, after a movie entitled “The Divine Order of the Ya Ya Sisterhood”, although I do not think this group was divine.

The Ya Ya's traveled together, laughed together, raised their children together, cried together, and shared crazy moments together.  Like the time they called the fire department when they thought they saw a fire.  As it turned out, it wasn't a fire; just a streetlight that looked like a fire.  "Well, at least we got to see some good looking firemen," said one of the Ya Ya's.

Wanda was a positive, cheerful, funny person who loved to laugh.  And her laughter was contagious.  She did not like to be around negative people, and when she was she did her best to brighten the atmosphere.  “Life is too short,” she would tell me, “to be negative.”  And she was right.

Wanda was a survivor.  Her struggle with cancer spanned over a 15 year period.  She went through many ups and downs, many courses of treatment.  She was knocked down repeatedly but each time she got up, to face another blow.  And through all of this she remained an example of an unbroken spirit, and an example of compassion and unconditional love.

Wanda told me after one of her many visits to the doctor, “I am not going to die with cancer.  I am going to live with cancer.”  That was her mindset.  That was her courage and that was her strength.

But such struggles have to come to an end.  

Wanda’s struggle is over.  And she is in a peaceful place.  I know this because this is what I believe. 
Wanda is in a place where there is no more pain.  No more tears. No more suffering.  No more disease.  No more tests.  No more chemo.  No more radiation.

I will miss Wanda.  We all will miss Wanda.  
This will be a different world without Wanda.  
But, I am a better person because of Wanda's life and what she meant to me.
Wanda's spirit will always live, with me and all who were close to her.   

(The above is an abbreviated, slightly altered version of Wanda's eulogy)