Good Knight

Robin Williams died this week. When I saw the news, I started to cry.

Three days ago, I sat sniffling in front of my computer, wiping my eyes, trying to absorb what I was reading — that he was dead, and how it was that he had died. I was in shock and deep sadness for this man that I’d never met, and in the last couple of days I have been trying to understand why. We’ve all been witness to the passing of other significant people. Why does this feel different? I’ve never cried for anyone else.

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The Beans

She came from very humble beginnings.  Born in the deep South. Very close to where Texas meets Mexico.  She had four sisters and a brother – Blasita, Neche, Angie, Tenche, and Tommy.  She came from a home with both a mother and father, and depending on your definition of poor, they were poor — or they at least lived a very modest lifestyle.  Being a girl, of Mexican heritage, in a culture and at a time when society had prescribed and well-defined notions of the role of women, I’m not sure anyone really had any expectations of her at all.  Choices were for other people.  No, she’d find a man to take care of her financially, keep a clean house, look pretty, and have babies.

In 1935 she was 13, and was no longer attending school.  By 18 she’d given birth to the first of her six children, a girl named Antonia Annacelia, who would later become my mom.  Her name was Eva, she was my grandmother.

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Keep It Simple

I like to cook.  My wife likes to bake.  She and I have often discussed, that if we were ever to run away and start over somewhere, we would open a diner.  Jen would make breads, pies, cookies, and cakes – and she would also run the front of the house (sorry dear – you are much nicer than me).  I would be in the kitchen.  We would focus on well-executed comfort foods.  Everything would be made from scratch.   We would be a destination diner.  That Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives guy would come to see us with his film crew.  I am certain of this.

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We Shall

I started going to Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in the spring of 2000. My wife suggested it, using a manner of persuasion that is familiar to anyone in a long-term relationship. I wasn’t against going. I was just skeptical. How would this place be any different than anywhere else?

Yes, we were church shopping, for reasons I’ll tell in another story. I was beginning to believe that we would not find a place that fit us. I’m not even sure I knew what that would be if we were to stumble into it, but I knew we would just know. We Would Just Know. And we did. That is how it happened. We came. We ate. We stayed.

In December of 2000 the pastor asked me, incredibly, if I would be willing to deliver The Message in a service. To Preach. The Sermon. This was a bit overwhelming to a boy who grew up Catholic and saw nothing but that particular authoritarian regime when it came to matters of church. I learned later that such a thing can only occur at a small church. She would be on vacation, of course, and needed some poor schlump to fill in. Ignorant as I was, I said Yes.

I found that I like doing it, only if done occasionally. I’ve done it now maybe 15-20 times over these 13 years. I’ve preached about personal stuff. I’ve preached community things. I preached right after 9/11, at a Thanksgiving service held in a nearby public school. That particular service was something, I will tell you.

I realized tonight that almost every time, I’ve ended the service with the same hymn. I have a certain connection to this song. Maybe it is because I’m an optimistic guy. There is always something to hope for, something deep in our hearts, something we want to believe.

I heard this song on one of my playlists tonight. I moves me every time I hear it.. As it turns out, on this particular day The Boss closed his show with this song too. I feel like I am in good company.

The Long Goodbye

The Sampson clan drove to Eau Claire today, to deliver Ryan to his freshman year of college. Our dropoff window was from noon to 2:00. We had a lot of very nice upperclassmen help us carry his things up to his room (4th floor!). As moving events go, it all went very well. We hooked up his tv, assembled his futon, and assessed the logistics of closet space, desk arrangement, and fan placement (no air conditioning!). We found a good spot for his coffee pot, made sure his internet connection was working, and ensured that he was in possession of important artifacts such as his student ID, debit card (so we can send him money!), and driver’s license. Most importantly, we made sure he knew where to go to ask questions, to connect him with people that would be able to help him figure out the rest of it.

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And That Was That

Back in the winter of 1987-88, I was working at Perkins in in Maple Grove Minnesota. I had been there for a couple, maybe three years, working as a waiter, host, assistant manager, and occasional cook. I was in college, having stopped and restarted several times as I figured out how to get serious about my education, and what I wanted to do with my life. I was dirt poor, going from living with my parents, into a dorm, sharing an apartment, and then back to my parents. I was 21, and in hindsight, I think I was finally starting to get a clue.

I was at work one day – a dinner shift – and in walks a pretty girl whose car had broken down up the road from the restaurant. She came in to use the payphone to call her boyfriend to come and get her, and sat at the counter waiting for him to arrive. By chance, she knew the manager-on-duty that evening, having worked with him previously at a different Perkins. They struck up a conversation, which turned to the topic of her busted car parked outside, and the second job she would require to fix it. She was hired shortly thereafter.

Restaurant work is hard, especially at a Perkins. You work long hours and spend a lot of time with the same people, together dealing with screaming kids, teenage troublemakers, drunken buffoons, and assorted weirdoes. You’re wearing a polyester uniform, and everything is coated with maple syrup. In this environment, New Girl and I wind up working together a lot.

Jennifer was her name, which I learned later from her is Swahili for “One of Many”. She is 19, very cute, with a great smile, and big brown eyes. She’s smart, quick on her feet, and lots of fun to be around. She is also very easy to talk to, an important thing when working 10-12 hour shifts together. Over the weeks to come, we smile, talk a lot, and make each other laugh. We flirt a lot too, but still keep our distance, because after all, she is with another guy.

This routine goes on for a long time, maybe months. I enjoy her company immensely, and look forward to working the shifts where I know she will be there. It is clear to me that she enjoys my company too. Despite our little connection, it’s hard to forget the fact that she is off-limits. She is with someone else, so it is really hard to see this going anywhere. After a little reflection, in an act of self-preservation, I decide I need to step back.

I saw her at work and told her I couldn’t do This anymore, whatever ‘This’ was, that it was getting to be too hard on me, had no chance of going anywhere, and for my own personal health and sanity, I needed to stop. I went home, and that was that.

I came into work the next morning and there she was. It was going to be a hard shift. I try to avoid her, but it’s difficult to do in such a small work environment. At some point in the shift, she cornered me, took me aside and quietly informed me that last night after our little chat she went home and broke up with her boyfriend. I stood there dumbfounded and slack-jawed, and she said, “Now what?”

So, later that day we went out on our first date. This was 25 years ago, today. And that was that.

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And Then There Were Four

My boy Evan turned 10 today, and I thought I mark the occasion with a note.

Jen and I always thought that maybe we’d have two kids, maybe three. After our older son Ryan was born and we acclimated to being three instead of two, we began to think about maybe another. There was no specific plan – we don’t roll that way – but just a desire. We’re the kind of people that kind of let things happen, because we generally think things are going to work out for the best. So Ryan grew older, and we kept on thinking that maybe we’d have another.

I remember when we found out that Jen was pregnant. It was maybe three years after Ryan. I remember having the same feeling we had when we found out that we were going to have Ryan — utter shock. After all, when you don’t plan for things, everything is a big surprise. But we were thrilled, and scared, wondering if we’d have the space in our lives and in our hearts to take on another. Would we have the financial resources? And more than anything, we’d grown accustomed to being Three.

We were very cautious about Number Two. We did not let anyone know right away. We wanted to get twelve weeks in to feel more comfortable that this was going to stick. Finally we shared the news with family and I let the cat out of the bag with our friends. And we began to imagine ourselves as Four.

I remember the moment vividly. I was on a business trip to Boston. I’d just left Logan in my rental car. I’d just entered a tunnel directly from Logan, and my phone rang. It was Jen and something was obviously wrong. She told me that she thought she was having a miscarriage. I asked if I should turn around and get back on a plane. She told me No, there was nothing I could do. I remember being on the phone for a long period of time, trapped in my rental car, with long periods of silence and sadness. There was nothing much to say.

So we continued on, as Three, thinking that maybe this was ok. Maybe this was not going to happen. Maybe Three was what we were supposed to be. We are blessed and fortunate. We have a lot, more than many others. Our son is beautiful and smart. Our marriage is strong and resilient. Maybe Three is who we are. Maybe we just need to be ok with this.

So, Three we were, and that was just fine. Ryan started growing up and began kindergarten. Jen went back to school. I changed jobs and finished my Master’s degree. Life went on, and it went on like this for a long time. Three was comfortable, and ok.

Just about 8 years after we learned we were pregnant with the-thing-that-would-become-Ryan, and after having lost a pregnancy along the way, after accepting that we were just going to be Three, we were shocked anew. (After all, when you don’t plan for things, everything is a big surprise.) Pregnant.

This pregnancy was a rollercoaster – ups and downs and not always such a thrill ride. An atypical pregnancy — medical questions, for both the baby and Mom. Lots of extra visits to the doctors. Lots of ‘keeping a close eye on things’. Lots of concern that maybe things would not turn out well, like they hadn’t with pregnancy #2. All of the old concerns – time, money, love – would there be enough to go around?

And then he was there, by C-section of course, because my boy always does things his own way. He was pink and perfect and screaming and beautiful. I’m not sure we believed it would happen, even right up until that moment, but suddenly we became Four, just like we always hoped we might be.

Evan is now 10, so it seems fitting to mark the occasion, and to commemorate him for who he is, and also for who he is in our lives. His big brother Ryan gets a lot of attention from Mom and Dad. He’s handsome, 18 and about to graduate from high school, and beginning to think about the next phase of in his life in college. He’s kind, smart, and has a lot of friends who like him tremendously. Evan is 10, still a ‘little kid’ and in many ways is on the outside watching all of the commotion. Evan will have his time too, but I think he sees his brother and maybe does not fully understand the role or place he fills in our lives right now. So this is the primary purpose for my note today.

I’ve never met another soul who is as kind, loving, and compassionate as Evan. He fills our hearts with joy and humor and love. He consistently thinks about and is concerned about the feelings of others (both humans and animals). He is the nicest person I know, which is saying a lot, because his mom and brother are both Extremely Nice People. He is funny and inquisitive and imaginative, and sometimes a little eccentric, frankly, for a linear thinker like me. But I see all of these as creative gifts, ones that I don’t have, but wish I did.

He is also strong, and intelligent. He sees past the obvious. He has convictions. He sees injustice. He is not willing to be a pushover or doormat, or accept bullies or shallow friends. He asks hard questions, and demands sincerity. He is his own man, even at 10. Because of all of these things, I can say that not only do I deeply love him, I also admire him.

I’m writing this not only to commemorate my son, but also because you never know what will happen in life. None of us promised a full life. I could get knocked off by a falling safe or anvil any day now. We need to take time to say the things we need to say when we have an opportunity to say them. I’m not sure Evan will understand all of this now, but I’m writing it for later, not today.

I’ve tried to explain over the years the differences between Ryan and Evan. I have confused people with my explanation so I thought I’d try again. Ryan is the person we always wanted, that we tried desperately to have, who came into our lives when we most wanted and hoped he would come. Evan is the person we always wanted, who we hoped for but didn’t think would ever come, and who after he arrived, reminded us of how desperately we needed him. Three is great. Four is who we are.

Happy 10 years, my boy. I can’t wait to see who you become in 10 more.

Love, Dad.