Sunday, December 24, 2006

Life and Death, Angels’ Wings, and Everything in Between

My Grown Up Christmas List

song performed by Kelly Clarkson

"One man's life touches so many others, when he's not there it leaves an awfully big hole" Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

Last night, as I slowly began to settle in for this Christmas Eve night, I was, for the very first time breaking with tradition, a Christmas Eve tradition which I have kept for the past twenty-five years. This year, I made the decision to forego my annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the Frank Capra classic, a movie like no other and a movie which I have loved for more than those twenty-five years, each year, more than the last. And so, addiction being addiction, albeit it one to a warm fuzzy ending, after twenty-five years, I couldn’t just quit this habit cold turkey; truth be told, I did have the television on in the next room and my husband grew tired of yelling at me over the audio-only version. How do you completely toss out a time-honored tradition when it is one that just feels so darned good? Well, I couldn’t, and so, as in every year before, my ears were finely tuned to the next line, every line of the movie and I know them so well, but this year, as I said the lines nearly as perfectly as Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did, the video portion of the evening’s entertainment was not the black and white film starring two Hollywood icons. No, the video portion this year, and it was in high-definition and in living color too, the video portion of It’s a Wonderful Life was the year-long reel-to-reel playing in my head....the movie? It’s a Wonderful Life, of course! It is a wonderful life, only, it’s my wonderful life.

If you have seen this holiday classic once, or if you have watched it over and over and over again like me, then surely you must know why it is so beloved. But, if you haven’t, I will tell you that the movie, at its very core, drives home the message that each one of us matters to the world around us, regardless of whether or not we know it. Because each one of us influences the lives of others, and often in ways that we will never know, our own life’s success, any honorable and “good” man’s life success, is ultimately measured by all the lives we enrich, others’ lives, and not by the dollars which we collect in our bank accounts. Money, it turned out in the movie, really couldn’t bring Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, happiness, nevertheless, it was George’s wealth that did eventually change his perspective...his wealth of friendships. It is after years of living honorably and seemingly getting nowhere, that George finally questions his own existence, a question which many of us have grappled with at some point in our own lives, and only with the assistance of an angel, Clarence, does George come to realize that his really was a wonderful life. In his darkest hour, as he contemplates his life and possible death if he doesn’t screw that up too, he commits one more selfless act when he saves a man from drowning. Little did he know that the man he saved was really Clarence, sent to show George just why it is that his life matters so much. And of course, good triumphs and Clarence is able to earn his wings when George realizes that no matter what the future holds for him, he wants that future, he wants his life, for he has indeed had a wonderful life. If I live to be a hundred, I will always get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, I will always get goose-bumps on my skin, and I will always wipe away more than one tear, when as George’s life crisis is nearing a resolution, his brother Harry offers a toast to, “the richest man in town”.......George may not have amassed a fortune, instead he acquired a lifetime of friends because of how he effected their lives. It’s corny, It’s sappy, and it’s a happy ending; it’s the way life is meant to be and I must have always known that somehow, after all, I have seen the movie a few times. But, it’s this new version, my version of It’s a Wonderful Life that holds my interest this Christmas Eve.....who did I make a difference for this past year? Did I miss the little opportunities that don’t always announce themselves with bells and whistles? Did I fail miserably having made no difference at all, to anyone, this past year? Although it was never my intention to share any of the three following stories that are central to my version, as I keep hitting the rewind button of this past year, these are the three stories, the three people who are the only ones who can tell this version of Life and Death, Angels’ Wings and Everything in Between, because these are the three people that play on the screen of my mind of my wonderful life.

Tony, I like to think, is someone who I made a difference for this past year, albeit a very small difference, a difference nevertheless

It was last spring, nearly eight months into the long-term animal rescue efforts of which I was still taking part in, that I came across a scruffy man and his beagle. He was standing near an intersection, holding a sign, a sign I couldn’t bring myself to read because I was sure of what his message was: this man was homeless and I will not deny that the extra tug at my heart that day came because the homeless man shared his begging space with a small dog, a beagle. I have always believed that any homeless person who is traveling with or caring for an animal, has just got to have the biggest heart if he or she is willing to share such a meager life with another creature. So yes, I will admit that my U-turn that day was guaranteed by the sight of that beagle huddled up against that man. But, what unfolded that day was more than that, for the man I returned to offer money to, and for me as well.

By the time I was able to complete the u-turn and return to the spot in which I had spotted the pair, both the man and his dog were gone. Fortunately, I saw them traveling along the highway and was able to catch up to them both as they turned into a parking lot of a small convenience store and headed toward the back. Tony, as it turned out, is a fifty-four year old Vietnam Veteran who has been homeless for twenty years. The beagle, obviously much younger, was a dog he came across, and rescued, following Katrina. I listened to his story about saving the dog and upon closer examination of the beagle, I was certain that this dog had no prior family and that the very best place for him was in fact with Tony, a man who so clearly loved him. Tony and I talked for some time that afternoon and although he never lifted his head completely enough to look me in the eyes, I think I saw him smile a time or two, and I am positive that I saw tears when I was able to give him the one thing he told me he was saving up his cash to buy: a tent. The bridge under which he and his pup slept at night was a great spot, he told me, but when it rained, the walls did leak and so he was going to buy a tent someday but he could only save a dollar or two at a time. I didn’t need any sign from up above, I didn’t need any bell to go off, I knew in an instant just why it was that I had come across Tony that day, a very unusual day for me because I was driving my husband’s truck instead of my own. So as I walked around the back of the truck and lifted the hatch, I’m not exactly sure what Tony expected when I told him that I had something for him, but I swear he nearly fainted on the spot when I pulled out and handed to him a brand new Coleman tent, my husband’s newest camping gear. After a few moments of wiping his face, he slowly walked over to me and told me that if he wasn’t so filthy, he would shake my hand and give me a proper thank you. It was my turn to fight back the tears and to fight back the enormous lump in my throat when I held out my hand and told him that I would be honored to shake his hand but no thanks were needed for the tent.........Tony took my hand and told me that the proper thanks he needed to give me were not for the tent. Although the tent was the best thing he could have ever imagined being given, he told me that the proper thanks he needed to give, the thanks that he felt a duty to give, were for my conversation, it had been so long since Tony had enjoyed a conversation.

Bryan, I hope and pray, is a young man who will one day, someday, remember me and the time we spent together, but only for a brief second of time it will take for him to make the right call about a stranger he meets, a stranger who is different than he is

It was sometime near the end of summer, maybe around Labor Day, that I became aware of people, real live people, who had moved onto, or back onto S. Miro Street. S. Miro Street, as you may recall, is a street on which I spend much of my time trapping and feeding and trapping some more, but it is a deserted street, a lonely street, near the Charity Hospital off of Tulane Avenue in New Orleans. It had been so many months of time on S. Miro Street and then one day, a family appeared, an older black woman, a young black woman, and two children.
Bryan was only twelve but already as tall as any adult and after noticing that he was the one watching me every evening, with an obvious look of “what the heck is she doing on my street?” I decided to just tell him, tell his mother and aunt and sister, and so I did. I introduced myself, told them what I was doing, why I was doing it and sure enough, it was Bryan who threw out question after question. “What do you do with the cats after you trap them?” “Why can’t you release the babies?” “What if you catch a dog or a racoon?”

And so it went, for nearly six weeks. Bryan would meet me every night it seemed to help lay out traps, to take some packs of wet food on the nights we spotted baby kittens but were not quick enough to catch, to talk about his sixth grade class at Sophie B. Wright, to talk about Katrina and his friends he missed. Bryan and I never once talked about black or white, young or old, rich or poor, we just talked and his mom would wave to me every now and then and then one day they were gone. I pulled up one evening and a man was almost finished loading a U-Haul trailer with items he carried from the house in which I knew Bryan and his family lived. Finally, I got to meet Bryan’s father, a man who drove an 18 wheeler for a living and wasn’t home as much as he would like, but he was moving his family closer to him so that would change. I would miss Bryan but I knew that this was a good thing for him and for his family. I wondered if Bryan would miss his trapping adventures and it wasn’t long before I got my answer.

It was nearly a month after Bryan and his family moved away, a sunny Saturday morning, during a solitary trapping session on S. Miro Street, I got word from Bryan, sort of. I was hunkered down on the side of a vacant glass factory warehouse, waiting silently for that tabby cat to make his appearance right into my trap, when a pickup truck driven by a middle-aged black man pulled up and ruined that trapping session, for the morning anyway. As I got up and walked over, ready to yet again explain who I was, just what I was doing there, and finally offer my rear bumper as all the credentials one would need (my Animal Rescue New Orleans bumper sticker, of course) I was slightly taken aback when this man, a man I had never met before, never seen before, rolled down his window and yelled out that he had something for me. This is going to be good, I thought, or really bad. When it became clear to the man that I intended to walk no further, he stepped out of his truck and completed the distance between us. “Hold out your hand” he commanded and what else could I do? As I held out my hand, determined that it would not shake, he held out his, and in my hand he placed 3 small sealed packets of Meow Mix, wet cat food. I looked at him, half expecting him to say that he saw them fall out of my truck, but instead, he told me that they were from Bryan, and he pointed to the house where Bryan used to live. He told me that Bryan told him to keep an eye out for that “crazy white lady” but then he leaned in toward me and told me that Bryan told him that he had a secret, he said Bryan told him I really wasn’t crazy at all, I was a hero. As I looked down at my hand, through the tears that I didn’t even try to hold back, the man told me that Bryan wanted him to be sure to get these packets to me and that I would know exactly what to do with them. I sure do know what to do with them Bryan, I’m going to save them for the next person who gives me a chance, the next person who doesn’t care that I am different, the next person who, like you did, judges me by my insides instead of the color of my outside. If the day ever comes that Bryan questions his own existence, if his Angel is determined to earn his own wings, he had better allow Bryan to revisit our time together, because Bryan made a difference for me, and I can only hope that ultimately, I made a difference for him.

I am a person, still making every effort to keep this newly found heart open to the world and all, and who it has to offer, but I know that I have made a difference to me, the person I am, different than who I was

The third person of my replayed movie of my mind, is me. And while Tony and Bryan required background information so that you might fully understand why they appear in my version of It’s a Wonderful Life, I will not. You already know me through my writings here and you know to an extent, who I am. But, you never knew who I was, as I didn’t begin sharing my thoughts with the rest of the world until I made that decision last Christmas that my heart was different and different it would stay. So, instead of background information, I will share with you a very brief but oh so significant exchange that recently took place between myself and someone who knows me well, my husband.

On a recent evening, my husband and I were talking about another individual, someone who we both know through one of our employment situations. We were speaking about this individual when my husband suddenly made a comment about this person that caused me to have flashbacks and feelings of deja vu: my husband commented upon this person’s negativity and that he is just a negative person. I immediately lost all train of thought regarding our conversation and instead had all these memories come flooding see, my husband has always told me how negative a person I am, but in that instant, I realized I hadn’t heard him say that recently. So, I stopped him mid sentence and I asked him for the reason....why didn’t he say that anymore to me? I asked him why he stopped telling me that I was one of the most negative people he knew........he laughed before he answered. My husband, my husband of seven years, a person who does know me well, better than most you would think, laughed and then looked at me and said “Because you’re not like that anymore, that’s not who you are anymore.”

So this Christmas Eve, I will not be looking for Clarence to show me just how wonderful life really is, but I suspect he will have every opportunity to earn his wings right here in New Orleans, so many are still hurting so much.... I lost a friend this year who needed Clarence badly. Please God, send an army of Clarences to this city, only not to me. You see God, this year, after nearly forty of them, I no longer question my existence, in fact, it is one of the very few things that I am certain of and although it is difficult to define in concrete terms the answer to that question that many of us eventually face, for me, I do in fact have my answer and no longer question why I am here.

I know why I am here and because of that, I face the world so differently than I did a year ago. Whereas I have always had a strength of my convictions to change the world, what I lacked in the past was the clarity of vision as to why to change that world, and as I have learned this past year, that clarity can only be obtained as part of an on-the-job training. It was my own conscious decision this time last year, when I resolved to open my heart to others, when I traded my tunnel vision for a pair of rose-colored glasses, it was that decision that, although unbeknownst to me at the time, was my fork in the road, and as I look back at the path, I can clearly see that I didn’t change direction, rather, the direction I took changed me. Shakespeare himself decided the world was his oyster, and I have never doubted that the world is in fact, my oyster. However, I also never counted on the strength of the heart being the strength that would dwarf all my convictions: to paraphrase Ghandi, Why change the world when I can be the change in the world? Until I opened my heart, I didn’t understand that the world is not here for me, I am here for the world, and that is the answer which Clarence might have helped me see with my eyes, but this Christmas I feel it with my heart. Why accept the world as my oyster, if instead, I can be its pearl? Clarence, if you are watching, keep going buddy, someone else earned his wings on me, and if you see him, tell him I said Thank You, and oh yes, Merry Christmas.