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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Natalie Calls

Natalie woke just as she had every day. She sat up and smiled at Alex, her friend and
husband of 25 years. Then her breath caught in her throat and she died.

Natalie’s son was to graduate from Duke in a few months, and she had so wanted to
attend the ceremony. She knew she had a heart valve in need of repair, but feared post-surgical recuperation would prevent a trip from Marin County, California to North Carolina. Besides, her doctors felt it wasn’t an emergency. It was.

This is not a story about maladroit medical professionals, however, even though it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that the doctors should have advised Natalie to schedule herself earlier. But, she was still in her 40’s. There was no reason for her – or us – to fear or suspect sudden death. She had plenty of time. That we were all wrong is the real lesson to be learned.

A few weeks shy of AARP qualification, Natalie always seemed to be smiling. Unusual for a real estate agent in a cutthroat market, she was loved by her colleagues. At her funeral services, many mourners stood outside in the late December rain, for lack of room in the pews.

Natalie and Alex had purchased an identical, adjoining house, 18 months before she died. My wife and I had lived in ours for 7 years, and the renovations were long completed. Barbara worked as a real estate appraiser, and the two of them hit it off immediately. Both of them viewed several houses each week, and their remodeling urges were constantly stimulated. While our makeover budget was mostly spent, Natalie was just tapping into hers. Frequently she’d call to report a new idea, or she came calling with her contractor in tow.

Although my interest in remodeling had disappeared when the two-week upgrade of our master bedroom turned into a two-month disaster, I loved it when Natalie called. She was so energetic and enthusiastic and optimistic. More importantly, it wasn’t our money at work, and both of us enjoyed her company.

We saw a lot of Natalie and Alex. Only once, however, did we actually sit down in a semi-formal situation. Early on, we simultaneously extended dinner invitations, and we settled on a movable feast, including some other neighbors as well. In the succeeding year, we attempted many times to get together again. It never worked out. We were both always too busy with other things. We never sat down again for an evening devoted to just being friends. Of course, we would see each other and chat. It was always a pleasure to see them, especially Natalie, with her smiles and effervescence. We always left those encounters with the promise to “get together soon.” Well, “soon” never happened. And then she died.

On the morning of Natalie’s death, I’d said to Barbara, “That’s it. We’re getting together with Alex and Natalie tonight. No excuses. If they’re busy, we’ll take the wine next door.” I even wrote myself a note - ALEX & NATALIE!!!! – and taped it to my computer monitor, so I’d remember to call them as soon as I got home from work. I didn’t see any reason to call at 6:00 AM, so I let it go for later.

I learned that “later” wouldn’t be soon enough. Our neighborhood gossip ran across the street when I pulled into the driveway to yell that “Natalie died this morning”, before I could get out of the car. My first reaction was disbelief. He told me what little he knew. I walked away without excusing myself. Sadness and emptiness overcame my sense of manners.

By the time I was in the house, I recalled my morning plans. In case I’d forgotten, the note on the monitor shouted out a reminder. Sadness gave way to anger and regret. We’d waited too long. We’d wasted our opportunities. We’d thought we had all the time in the world, and we didn’t even have tonight.

I promised myself to never let this happen again.

I’ve memorialized Natalie in a very personal manner. I vowed to never let friendship slide, to never let love go unspoken, not for a day, not even for an hour. Life today is filled with means of instant communication – cell phones, the Internet, faxes – excuses need not apply.

Soon after Natalie’s death, I found the perfect way to act on my promise to myself. Talking to a friend about a cousin in Wisconsin who’d made a huge difference in my life, I realized I was telling the wrong person. I immediately called my cousin and told her how important she was to me, how much I loved her and how she’d contributed to my happiness. It was wonderful on both ends of the call. She had things to tell me as well. Had it not been for Natalie, the call might never have been made.

Since, I have made hundreds of such connections. Sometimes it’s to old friends. Often, it’s to people currently in my life, living at a distance. Occasionally, it’s a famous person I want to acknowledge.

I’ve written sports heroes and actors. I’ve connected with high school classmates. A few years ago, I contacted Ken, my algebra teacher and basketball coach at age 14. “I’m a better person for knowing you”, I said. He was thrilled to hear from me.

That’s the best part of what I’ve come to refer to as my “Natalie Calls.” The people that I’ve connected with are all happy I did so. Many times, they’ve been in distress. The contact with someone who appreciates them is the perfect medicine. Often, the person I’ve called tells me they were just thinking about me. Funny how that works. Nearly every celebrity I’ve written has responded with humility and gratitude.

Ken and I have maintained our initial re-connection, and we were recently able to spend time together, after nearly 40 years of separation. It was a simple day, just lunch and conversation. It was also an extraordinary day, one of the best in my experience. We are in regular communication now. We share our lives. What a gift.

My most important Natalie Calls are the ones I make every day, to friends and relatives. Maybe I saw them only yesterday, or spoke to them last week. But, if I miss someone, I tell them. If I love someone, I let them know. Now.

Natalie taught me we only have this moment. We don’t even have tonight.

Thank you, Natalie.

Monday, March 26, 2012


They’re older now,
really old,
no one to lean on,
sticks will have to do.
What might have been,
what they could have seen,
what they should have known.
All gone now,
wasted opportunities,
missed moments.
They might have dared,
they could have cared,
they should have known,
all gone now.
Friendship forsaken,
lost love lingering,
the scent of never was.
If only, if only,
but neither took that step,
each waiting for the other,
so alone they kept.
They’re older now,
really old,
so old they no longer see
who they used to be,
not even shadows come before,
simply ghosts who never were.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I'd rather
be kind
than be right.

I'd rather
love peace
than hate war.

I'd rather
than hear regrets.

I'd rather
tan need.

I'd rather
find good
than resist evil.

I'd rather
than need loving.

Things I Love About You

I love your laugh.
It's like a shot
of really fresh
orange juice.

I love hanging
around on
the edges of
your curiosity.

I love
you love
living things

I love you
sense of style.
It lifts me up
from blandness.

I love that
we can
be together
and not talk.

Small Kindnesses

Park your shopping cart
where it belongs,
someone else's as well.

Wait patiently
and laugh
at a
bad joke.

Say hello to clerks.
Ask after their day.
Use their name
if you know it.

Compliment parents
the beauty
of their children.

Write to authors
that you like.
It takes so little
and means so much.

Get on your knees
wou talk with
a child.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Writing to myself from the future

Future Perfect

Never really a conscious choice,
how nice it was to find a voice,
rough edges rounded, made more smooth
by words which heal, thoughts that sooth.
“This – or better” was my creed,
simple tools all I’d need,
writing of grief and love and joy,
like a child with a toy.
Who could know what lay before,
beyond the walls, the open door.
First one chapbook, then some others,
enjoyed by poets, sisters, brothers.
A blog which gained more fans, more eyes,
some laurels too, to my surprise.
What fun it was to turn each page,
as decades brought me to this age.
My heart against all pain defends,
grateful for poetic friends.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ekphrastic Poetry (using art as a prompt)

Bedroom In Arles

And what do people have?
Vincent, people have too much.
So you’d say, he spat,
possessor of so many things.
It would not, could not, occur
to one like me
to think like you,
your pitiful, plaintive pouting,
your wish for the simple.
Give me your fine, stuffed chairs,
I will gladly trade you mine.
Let me help.
I can assist with that gout as well.
Take my loaf of bread,
my tart wine, hard cheese.
I’ll try your elegant dishes,
perhaps sprawled across your bed.
The pictures on the wall?
Nothing at all.
Yours for a glass half full.