A Year of Loss, Love and Little Blessings
Whenever I write these annual collections of memories, I always draft the introductory paragraphs last. That’s because I really don’t appreciate what kind of year it was until I’ve thought about it awhile, and written stuff down.
Some years have themes. A few years back I was able to make four trips west, two of them in a short period of time. Janice has since called 2005 “The Year of Bill.” But she is mistaken. Every year is the year of Bill. In good times and bad, I know I am greatly blessed.
Before writing the first line of this post, I would have told you the theme for 2018 was grief and grey skies. Janice and I lost some dear people, and we’ve seen so much rain and heat that we’ve been unable to do things we enjoy most. We took very few hikes or bike rides. We had only one or two meals on the patio. I caught no fish in 2018. It seems our outdoor activities were limited pretty much to mowing grass and trimming shrubs.
But now, after collecting my thoughts, I see just how much the Lord has allowed us to do in this seemingly dismal year. We’ve seen beauty, experienced love, and enjoyed hundreds of little moments. Even in the grief we’ve seen reasons for joy.
Easter in California
We were able to make a spring break trip with our daughter’s family--Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie. We explored San Francisco and went to Easter services in the beautiful Davies Symphony Hall downtown. We saw the Warriors win a game at Oracle Arena, and then travelled down the coast to the Monterrey peninsula.
I have to admit that a personal highlight was an impromptu decision to play Pebble Beach Golf Links. With rented clubs and running shoes, Daniel and I enjoyed an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. While our scores were nothing to brag about, both of us can forever say that we made birdies at Pebble Beach.
Since then I have played less golf than any time in the past 15 years. In part it has been because of wet weather, but mostly it’s because one round at Pebble made my local muni seem pretty pale.
The best part, though, was watching Sam and Charlie exploring tide pools and sticking their fingers into the mouths of sea anemones as the Pacific crashed on distant rocks.
The California vacation included a pilgrimage to the greatest of all God’s cathedrals, the Yosemite Valley. Our time there was cut a bit short by a looming flood and a mandatory evacuation, but no matter. Two days in Yosemite renews the spirit like no other place.
Again, it was a joy to watch Charlie and Sam exploring streams, climbing rocks and being boys without the aid of digital devices. Kids need nature. They need to experience wild places. I want to have these sorts of adventures with all my grandchildren.
The quintessential experience was a snow-covered hike to find the Giant Sequoias in the Tuolumne Grove. The trail follows an old road that, at one point, went right through one of the massive trees, now dead and charred. As we walked, often sliding to be more precise, we would spot a large redwood tree and say, “is that one?” But when we finally spotted a genuine Sequoia, there was no doubt we found the land of giants.
The trek out featured several snowball ambushes. There is something magical about playing in the ocean and then throwing snowballs all in the same week.
I actually got to do that twice in 2018. February was the annual gathering of the Snowmen, this time at Colorado’s Copper Mountain. I love all those guys and love our annual ski trip. Ten to 12 guys crammed into a condo, eating chili around a table for eight, debating about who snores the loudest. Great times.
The calendar necessitated travel directly from Denver to Ponte Vedra, Florida to participate in a conference at an oceanfront resort. The afternoon walk on the beach was colder than anything I experienced the previous four days in the Rockies. They say it’s the humidity.
Losing Melba and Barry
Last June Janice’s mother, Melba Blount, passed away at 93. Her death was expected, but that does not mean the impact wasn’t hard. The loss of her mother has been especially difficult on Janice. For the past few years, caring for Melba has been a part of Janice’s daily routine. Then suddenly, it was over.
On Melba’s last day, Janice and her brother John, plus John’s wife Gale and I, gathered in Melba’s room at Dominion Senior Living. An attentive hospice nurse sat outside while the four of us huddled near Melba’s bed talking quietly.
At one point, I felt a very specific urge—really more of a command—to read scripture to Melba. I resisted it for a few minutes, but the urge grew stronger. I opened my phone Bible app to the 23rdPsalm and began to read aloud to Melba while holding her hand. Janice, John and Gale gathered close and placed hands on her. Somewhere around “I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” she took her last breath. I will never forget that.
Many don’t understand the work of the Holy Spirit in our human experiences. There is no doubt the Holy Spirit put in my head the urge to read, and also to read Psalm 23, precisely at that moment. It was a precious gift for Melba and for all of us.
Melba left us a gift as well. In her last years living at home, she wrote her life story in a spiral notebook. It’s a wonderful story of a young girl growing up in Depression-era east Tennessee, and then going to work in Washington for the FBI during World War II. She told stories of her early dates with Charles, Janice and John’s father, and their lives as a young couple, in love, experiencing a larger world.
That notebook was a source of laughter and joy during a time of sadness.
The following month my dear friend Barry Parker died. I’ve written before that I cannot remember when or where I first met Barry, but he became one of the most influential people in my life. At a time when I was really down and wondering how in the world I was going to provide for my family, Barry opened doors for me at Hamilton Health Care System in Dalton, Georgia. Then, long after, he remained my friend, confidant and encourager.
I will forever be indebted to Barry for the friendship, generosity and grace.
The Boys Are Back In Town
The perfect antidote to grief was the mid-summer arrival of Oliver and August, our two grandsons from Nashville. For the first time they spent the weekend sans parents, and we had a blast. Late night parties, candy and Cokes . . . just kidding! No children were harmed in the making of this memory.
Oliver and August love to go and do, so we went and did. The Discovery Museum, the Aquarium, the fountains and carousel and Coolidge Park. I set up a water slide in the front yard. Janice taught them how to shuck corn. The best part for August was exploring the deep bowels of our basement, which is half Home Alone and half Bat Cave. He asks about our basement every time we see him.
It was all fun and over too soon. Come back, guys, and bring your sister.
A Mountain Lion at Sundown
One of our newer favorite places is Grayson Highlands, Virginia, which is another times-two experience in 2018. Grayson Highlands is a state park that includes rocky pinnacles and rugged grassy pastures populated by herds of feral ponies. The Appalachian Trail wanders through it, and the views from the high places are spectacular.
In the spring we were able to watch one of the famous ponies foal. We were chased to a safe distance by the sire. In the fall we saw some of the foals peacefully grazing near their mothers.
Grayson Highlands is in southwest Virginia, and sits very close to the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines. Also nearby are the Virginia Creeper Trail and White Top Mountain, another place with spectacular views. One evening at dusk Janice and I watched a creature move stealthily across a bald on White Top. It was a cougar, an extremely rare sighting.
The official Virginia Wildlife Management website says there are no cougars in Virginia, though some have been spotted in North Carolina and Tennessee. I’m thinking the cat we saw lacked access to WIFI.
Once again, many thanks to Susan and Charlie Rollins for their friendship and for introducing us to this wonderful area.
Those native to Chattanooga know Jed Mescon as the long-term zany host of the morning show on our local NBC affiliate. He is a VP with one of my clients now, and he has become a good friend.
In late June, Jed asked me to road trip to Nashville with him to experience Paul Simon. I’ve loved Paul Simon almost as long as I’ve loved Janice. What a treat. Thanks again, Jed.
Oh, and Janice and I saw Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Robert Earle Keen, Della Mae and Mary Chapin Carpenter in 2018. Musically, it was a stellar year.
Jed and I got to work together on a special project organized by the Chabad of Chattanooga—a November visit from Eva Schloss, one of the world’s few remaining Holocaust survivors, and perhaps the most eloquent left standing. Her story is inspiring. Her talks to adults and children were mesmerizing. I am so grateful to Rabbi Shaul Pearlstein, Judy Spiegel, Joe Johnson and many others for allowing me to be a part of it all.
On Eva’s first night in Chattanooga, the Rabbi and his wife Rosie invited Janice and me to share the Shabbat dinner with her and a group of family and friends. For us it was a time of fun and discovery, both boisterous and reverent. We felt so welcome.
Thanksgiving at the Beach
The main focus of the fall was a much-anticipated family gathering at the beach for Thanksgiving. Janice and I planned and saved and rented a house big enough for she, me, Whit, Sarah, Oliver, August, Pen, Lesley, Daniel, Sam and Charlie. Everyone together at the beach is always a dream come true.
Headquarters for the week was Watersound West on Florida’s 30A stretch of South Walton County. If you have a few million bucks lying around, I recommend you buy a house at Watersound, and then, out of abounding gratitude for the advice, invite the Stiles family to use it twice a year.
We did all the beachy things. Whit, Sarah, Lesley and Janice cooked up a category four storm of food. At my son’s expert direction I learned how to make piecrusts. Janice taught me how to peel and prepare butternut squash. In 66 years, I’ve never done such things, so to me it was a big deal. I’m now thinking about a new career as a sous chef.
Janice said that, above all else, she wanted a family photograph. We got one. Enjoy.
Through a business trip I got to spend too little time in a city new to me, Boise Idaho. What a magnificent town! A trout river runs right through the middle of downtown, as does the Greenbelt, a wonderful bike and running trail. I stayed just long enough in Boise to crave a return trip, this time with Janice. Maybe in 2019.
There were many other things that happened last year, both good and bad. While in Boise I learned my brother had a heart attack. Thankfully some stenting appears to have him back on his feet. Then we learned my brother’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. Praying for her is one of my current priorities.
My son’s family is younger and not yet able for many big trips, but we enjoyed the birthdays, the visit to Oliver’s school, and the children’s Christmas program at their church. These moments are precious to us. Whit and Sarah are impressive in their thoughtful and intentional approach to parenting, and I admire them for it.
I had a chance for two short bike trips in 2018, one of them along my beloved Highway 64. My hope—and hope is not a plan—is to launch a website devoted to Highway 64 in the months ahead. I’ll let you know what happened next January 1.
There are many people not mentioned above who have touched my life this past year. To all the team at The Johnson Group, thank you. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. To all the clients who trust us to do the right thing, thank you as well. Some of you are more friends than clients.
To our church, Brainerd Baptist, thank you for your support surrounding the death of Janice’s mom. To every member of what was once the Homebuilders Class, Janice and I love you dearly. To Adam Major and Scott Walker, thank you for stepping up.
To Jo Nowell, your renewed smile and love of life is an answer to prayer.
To Avery Grace, Janice and I were so grateful that we could help celebrate your adoption into a wonderful new home. Michael and Karan, you are special parents. The world is brightened by people like you.
To Dr. Robert Bowers, Clark Taylor, Robby Holt, Rodger Piersant, Raymond and Jill Clark, Flossie Weill, Robin Hood, Jim Gilliland, Durie Andrews, and Raymond Schklar, Charlie and Cindy Hughes, and all the Pannis, thank you for your friendship.
To our neighbors, we love you. And to neighbor Les--we know it’s you rolling our empty garbage cans around to the garage. Thank you.
To Janice, you are the highlight of every year. Thank you for loving me in spite of it all.
To Janice, you are the highlight of every year. Thank you for loving me in spite of it all.
I know I am leaving someone important out. You know who you are. When your name comes to me later, I will thank God for you.
Blessings to all for 2019.