Make a Promise – Pass it On

“We are not taught to be thinkers, but reflectors of our culture. Let’s teach our children to be thinkers.” ~Fresco

My friend, Brenda, showed up in my dreams last night seriously concerned about the state of the World and the disease of divisiveness infecting our youth.  I agreed with her but argued that I alone cannot change the world. Her response: Nonsense. She’s a force to be reckoned with, even in spirit. 

There is a tremendous call right now for adults across the globe to step up and teach the children that they do not need to continue the legacy of hate and division that today’s leaders perpetuate.

This is a story about a promise I made and my memory of Brenda and all she held dear. It seems especially important to share it again as one example of how each of us can start where we are and do what we can. The book I’ve chosen again this year for the “older” kids on my list is Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons in Peace from a Lifetime at War. Copies of the book can be purchased at all the normal places, but signed copies are available through http://www.powerfulpeace.net. Also visit http://www.sealofpeace.com and help us make a dent in the world toward Peace.

lovely bookTwelve hours before Brenda died she called to tell me she was in Heaven.

“You’re there now?” I asked, slightly distracted with scissors in one hand, tape in the other. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder thinking I’d continue to wrap Christmas presents while we bantered about the gorgeous male nurses who administered Chemotherapy in Colorado Springs Medical Center. The young men were a favorite subject for Brenda and the tales she weaved were hysterical.

A weak, throaty laugh echoed through the phone, “I do believe I am.”

The words, although breathless, hung in the air like a solemn, heavy mist. I dropped the wrapping paraphernalia, held the phone tight against my ear and walked outside to our deck. For just a moment, I tilted my head and looked into the cloudless aqua blue sky – a mirrored reflection of the water – expecting to see my dear friend waving. “Hey…” I began, stumbling over my thoughts, “everything okay today?”

“Picture this,” she began, “I’m tucked into an over-sized arm chair by a big picture window watching fat white snowflakes silently fall from the sky. Next to me is a fire blazing in a huge stone fireplace and I’m holding a steaming mug of that jasmine tea you sent me and…” she paused, took a short breath, “I’m surrounded by books and books and books.”

“Oh, it really is heaven, Bren,” I closed my eyes against the wheezy softness of her voice. Just last week her voice had been robust and full of laughter. The tropical paradise before me disappeared and I imagined I was right there with her.

“I’m choosing books for my kids,” she sighed, “well…the proprietor is choosing books; I’m just describing the children. I can’t seem to find my strength today. But I called… I called now because I need to ask you to promise…” The words faded between us.

Brenda’s kids were not actually her kids. Rather, they were her friends’ kids, at last count –18 in all — including mine, from ages 2 to 17. Each year at Christmas and on respective birthdays and graduations, each child would receive an age appropriate, award-winning book with Brenda’s personalized inscription. It was in my kitchen that she’d thought up this tradition. “Books,” she beamed, “are the doorways to the world!” I could picture her, eight years earlier, her smile lighting the room. Now, the enormity of her courage – laced with Chemo, fighting cancer, yet still concerned about her kids – it bruised my soul.

I cleared the sob from my throat, “Brenda, whatever favor you need, consider it done.”

“Lynn, I can’t tell you what the favor is just now. There are too many parts, but I’ll have Michael send it to you in an email.”

“Okay…” I could hear the whine in my voice and willed it away, “but how will I know what….”

“You’ll know,” she interrupted, a slip in comportment so foreign for Brenda that it stunned me.

A fear of imminent loss closed around me like a dark tunnel blocking the sun. I wanted to fight with her, chase the seriousness from her voice and words. Hadn’t we talked endless hours over the last eight months about her strength, her will to live, her young age of 60 and the importance, or lack thereof, of breasts? What about the pros and cons of shopping for new breasts and the fun she’d have interviewing men on the perfect size and shape? Our weekly phone conversations always included the future, her pending visit to our home on Sunset Beach in Oahu as soon as she had the strength to travel. I wanted to scream at her, “Buy the ticket now, Brenda!” but the words stuck in my throat.

“Hey beach broad… you there?” This was her new tag name for me and hearing the wheezy voice attempt humor made me laugh.

“I’m here. I’m here… just rolling over to tan the other side,” I choked out, “So… what are you reading?” This was always the absolute second question of every conversation.

“Reading?” she sighed audibly, “Everything I possibly can.” A long, silent pause filled the phone line and seemed to stop the breeze. “I have to go now,” she continued, breathless, with just a slight laugh that felt like a kiss against my ear, “I’m on someone else’s phone, and the angels are restless. Plus,” she coughed, “God invited me to dinner and I have to decide what I’m going to wear.”

“Funny. Sticking with the theme of the day, I see. I love you, Bren. Hey…I’ll call you tomorrow morning… see how that dinner date went.”

“Yeah,” she laughed, sweet, full, hearty; the sound of Brenda, “Love you too.”

beach-sunsetI held the phone close to my chest and let the dial tone drone into a maddening beep. Even then, I was reluctant to disconnect, to give in to the sense that I would never speak with my lovely friend again. Instead, I sat down on the steps with my memories.

On the day we met, I was busy corralling and cajoling four young children and a baby at a fast-food restaurant. Brenda was at the table next to us reading Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays. The fourth or fifth time I apologized for the noise level, Brenda got up from her table and sat down with us. She spoke very quietly until one by one; each child – even the baby – stopped chattering, and sat captivated as she recited a Hans Christian Anderson story.

Days later our home became her second home and she visited often at odd hours. We talked books, analyzed the work of the masters, laughed over love scenes. Her weakness was a good romance novel, but she grew serious when she talked about the importance of children knowing the magic of sitting still with a story and letting their imaginations soar. She loved all of our children, but paid special attention to our foster kids and spent endless hours engaging them in conversations about books or organizing special reading days where she would sit with them in a circle and read with all the gusto of a skilled actress. When those children left our home, Brenda made sure each of them had their very own book to take on their journeys.

We were unlikely friends, Brenda and I. I was a military wife, a young mother, a struggling author, full of creative energy and love and not much else. Brenda was nineteen years my senior, held a PhD in Philosophy and Education and Masters’ Degrees in Computer Technology, Theology and Mathematics. She was also the mother of a grown son and the widow of a Navy pilot who took his own life.

I was fascinated with Brenda, but I often felt inadequate as a friend. In quiet moments, usually over wine, I would allude to our differences. What did she see in me? The first time I broached the subject she waved her hand through the air and referred to her varied degrees as an addictive hobby. She was philosophical with the sorrow aspect, stating simply that our lives are pre-planned and this was her lot. “You teach me about being real and how to hurt and how to love. Everything else is pointless,” she announced. After that one speech, the subject was off limits. Then she stared at me, straight on, with serious, thoughtful eyes and asked me what book I was reading.

This was our glue then and now: books, words, and children.

I sat on the porch step until the orange ball of sun set and the ocean glittered into the night.

When the phone rang at 4:00 AM the next morning, Michael, Brenda’s son, apologized for the early hour and went on to explain that his mother insisted I be the first one he called. Through my tears, I told him how sorry I was and asked if he needed anything, but the conversation was blurry and surreal. Just before he hung up he said, “Check your email.”

This is what it said:
My dearest friend, the promise I asked of you has to do with the long document attached to this email. Here it is: please continue sending books to my kids. I’ve written a little something for each year, for each child, with all the pertinent birth date information and addresses, but please find more children to add each year. Everyone at age 18 or upon graduation from high school should receive Dr. Seuss’, “Oh! The Places You Will Go!” Thank you, forever.
P.S. my dinner date was heavenly. God says hi. All my love, Bren.

Most of the original kids are grown now, but I continue to keep my promise and send books to a growing special list of children each year.

In loving memory, pass it on. children-reading-1940

by Lynnette Bukowski
© 2000 (revised 2013)

Neptune’s Child ~ Thoughts on Life

In honor of the Month of the Military Child, I present an essay written for a Reader’s Digest Contest in 1991 by our daughter, Sheri Lynn. Children were asked to address their feelings about family values, thoughts on life, what their mom and dad did at work and what they wanted to be when they were grown. Sheri did not win the contest, but she certainly melted our hearts. Steve carried a copy of this with him wherever he went. I found it yellowed and creased in his wallet when his personal items were returned to me the day after he died.  Love Dad

About my Bukowski Family 

By Sheri Lynn Bukowski – Age 7

My mommy can do almost everything except throw a mouse away when it’s on a sticky thing and except when daddy’s home, because then she pretends she can’t do everything so he can.  My daddy knows this secret.

My mommy and daddy probably know as much as God does, but mommy says they don’t because they’re just a mom and dad and we all, even mommies, learn something new every day. Also, we’re not supposed to put people on pedestals because we are all equal.  I don’t know about that because I don’t think anybody is equal to my daddy.  Mommy says pedestals are “thinking” things, and we should all try to be nice and say we’re sorry when we’re not nice. I suppose it’s like when she goes crazy and yells at everybody, even the dogs, and then says, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I think a pedestal is a wooden box.  I think it must hurt really bad to fall off so I will never put myself on a pedestal.  My brother says mommy and daddy don’t know anything about nothing.  He’s 10.  I think he should fall off a pedestal.

My mommy tells us we should talk to and listen to people every day if we can because every person and every day is important.  Mommy says this includes my three year old foster brother, even if he is a pain.

My daddy always says, “Never give up!”  And my mommy always says, “How do you know if you don’t try?”  Sometimes I really, really hate my parents because they make me do stupid things like wash my face and wear dresses.  Daddy says it’s okay because he will always love me anyway.  Mommy says it’s not nice to hate but I can not like her if I want.  I hate Philip, the boy who sits next to me at school, but I’m trying not to like him.

My daddy works in the Navy SEAL Team and does things that only special daddies like him can do.  He knows how to jump out of airplanes and shoot loud guns and dive under ships and crab-crawl through jungles and climb rock walls.  When he’s home we crab-crawl through the back yard and climb rocks and jump on the trampoline and he lets me wear green makeup on my cheeks, but mostly he’s gone and he writes us letters.

I think you have to know how to be lonely for your family and to write letters to be a Navy SEAL.  I love my daddy more because I think he needs it.

My mommy used to work at a place writing things for attorneys because attorneys don’t know how to write like she does. We had a nanny from Denmark named Hella, like hello except with an A.  Now mommy stays at home and gets her story money from the mailbox.  She works as a mommy for free because she loves us and because she takes care of us and sick babies and helps mommies and daddies of foster children to know how to love when they have sad hearts or angry feelings.  Mommy says she has enough love and I believe her, so it’s okay that I love daddy a little more since he’s alone a lot.

When I grow up I will probably be a Navy SEAL and a dancer.  I will try to be a nice person and watch out for pedestals.  I will also probably be a gymnastics girl in the Olympics because I’m pretty good so far.

If I win, will you please send this to my daddy.  Mommy knows the address.

Our Family

Sheri Lynn Bukowski © 1991

The Color of Courage

Excerpt from Love is Born in Giant Fields of Crazy: Lessons in Love

“Our faith itself is a potent force. When faith in love and its miraculous authority becomes a thought form that guides our thinking, it turns into an extraordinary power that transforms our lives.” ~Marianne Williamson

This is what it feels like to waREDtch someone I love fall out of the sky:  I tilt my head back, shield my eyes from sun glow, and watch tiny specks drop from a plane so high, I cannot actually see it in the cerulean blue sky.  I only hear a distant drone.  Big Red, our 120 pound Golden Retriever, begins to pace around my legs in a tight circle.  The behavior is so unusual for this markedly obedient dog that I sense something’s off, but I keep my eyes skyward, fascinated now by a long, colorful cloth spiraling up from one of the floating dots. The silk flaps around like a rag doll, whips at the sky, but does not catch the wind.  Red stops pacing and emits a long, fretful sound somewhere between a moan and a bark. The Platoon Chief beside me angles his binoculars just so and shouts “Buk!” my husband’s nickname.

My throat closes, my breath stops and the chatter around me turns heavy and distorted.  I lock my knees because standing seems impossible and blessedly, Red is solid against my left side.  I lean into him.  The spiraling cloth crumbles away and it is agonizing moments before a small chute mushrooms out, catches the wind and snaps dangling legs to attention.  Still, Steve is dropping far too fast. I do not even have time to make an entire “deal” with God before Red bolts from my side and runs flat out toward the drop zone.  This is against all rules and some small part of my brain thinks of calling him back, but I don’t.  Instead, I watch, as if in slow motion, Red skids sideways into two black boots a microsecond before they hit ground.  Legs fold like a dance movement and two bodies (large dog and man) drop into a long controlled roll, tumbling over and over before they both pop upright, tangled in line and parachute. I glimpse Steve hunched over, hands on his knees with Red beside him, panting.  The men around me cheer, curse, run.  I drop to my knees, then to all fours as the air leaves my lungs and the world turns black.

This is where they find me.  I half-wake to a mixture of dust and dog breath.  Red laps his long wet tongue up the middle of my face.  From a distance I hear, “Happy Anniversary, honey.”  Both Steve and Red are smiling (I’m sure) as though this impromptu anniversary gift, indeed, the world tilting on its edge, is hysterical.

That was my third anniversary gift and now – 31 years later and after living through his death – I’m sure Big Red saved my husband’s life that day.  Of course, the law of physics might not support my certainty, but believe me, it was just the beginning of this courageous dog’s gift.

We adopted Big Red shortly after our first son was born.  Every kid needs a dog and we fell in love with his sparkling brown eyes and deep red coat of fur.  We were told Red was bred to win top prizes in dog shows. But his head was too big according to some ridiculous rule, and at just over a year old, he was dumped with a Retriever Rescue Group.  None of us – the rescue group – or our naïve young family – realized the extent of Red’s training until years later, but looking back, it was glaringly obvious.

From the first night in our home, Red adopted our baby son.  He politely watched me place his new dog bed in a corner of the kitchen and after a quick drink, curled up and lay down.  He watched as we ate dinner, during baby bath-time and story reading, but as we tucked our little one into his crib, Red left the room and returned dragging his dog bed by his mouth.  He carefully placed it at the end of the crib and Red’s bed (or new versions of it) remained in that spot through 16 babies (two homemade, 1 adopted and 13 foster babies) and seven different homes across the country.  On his own, Red taught each of our children how to walk him before they were big enough to see over his back.  No kidding, he would retrieve his leash from a basket and heal to their little steps around the back yard.

With an uncanny sense, Red always knew to be gentle with children and outright frightening to unwelcome strangers.  Often, when Steve was deployed, I would watch Red’s reaction before opening the front door to someone unknown.  He was right one hundred percent of the time.

On one occasion, I was distracted and opened the door to our new foster daughter’s boyfriend. Before I had a chance to say hello, Red sped past me, jumped at the boy and had his jaw locked around the young man’s right arm, then twisted until the kid fell to his knees, screaming.  I froze in horror for a brief moment – until I saw the weapon – and then, with far more bravado then I felt, I lifted the gun out of his useless hand and called the police. Terrified, he admitted that our foster daughter had stolen his “black book”, thinking it was a list of girls. It was really a list of his drug deal connections. Red held the boy down the entire time, and released only when the police arrived.

But the most memorable save happened during Red’s last year of life.  Our youngest son was only an infant and barely two month’s old – attached 24 hours a day to a heart and apnea monitor, which alerted with loud beeps when his heart or breathing stopped.  Most of the time, the alerts would require only minimal stimulation for Aaron to respond and the family (including Red) was well used to the sound.  In 1991, Red suffered from arthritis and was partially blind, so he stayed on his bed a good portion of each day.  That particular morning, during nap time, I decided to vacuum and was nearly done with the upstairs when Red ran from the bedroom and grabbed my hand with his jaw. He growled and whined and pulled and the instant I turned off the vacuum I heard the alarm of Aaron’s monitor.  Aaron was nearly blue. I administered CPR and simultaneously phoned for help.  Red stayed by my side the entire time.  Aaron is now a 21 year old, 6’3” handsome young man.  Red passed away 11 months later, one week after Aaron was well enough to be without his heart and Apnea monitor. I think he planned it that way.

Steve and Aaron1
Home from Deployment ~ Aaron and Steve

Never underestimate the power of faith or the lessons Grace brings through experience in life. Even that which hurts the most.

I know this much is true: Steve, along with his Brothers ~~ Warrior Angels all ~~ are busy holding babies now and Big Red is keeping an eye on all.  They will live on in me and with me forever. Such Grace.

By Lynnette Bukowski
© 2012