RIP, PDQ

With apologies to the Terminator, Peter Schickele won’t be Bach. Not anymore, anyway.

The name might not ring a bell – but it should at least play a kazoo or two. You see, Schickele was better known to the world as P.D.Q. Bach, a “forgotten” final son of Bach whose existence was mostly an excuse to turn classical music into uproarious comedy.

If you’ve not discovered Bach the Extremely Lesser yet, you have an interesting musical journey ahead of you. This was, after all, the man whose classical pieces included parts for the bagpipe, the slide whistle and  the “tromboon” (trombone with a bassoon reed). In a given performance, you might catch dozens of musical references, ranging from The William Tell Overture to Shave and a Haircut. Trying to perform pieces like “Oedipus Tex” or “The Seasonings” with a straight face is difficult in the extreme; hearing them without cracking up is downright impossible.

And the best part? It’s a laughter that opens doors instead of drawing weapons.

Perhaps I should explain.

A lot of comedy calls for a victim – a deserving target who has earned absurd retribution. And the more deserving, the better. When John Cleese co-created “Fawlty Towers,” he made hotel manager Basil Fawlty utterly despicable … because if he were at all sympathetic, Cleese said, the series would become a tragedy.

At times, that can be priceless. Well-crafted humor can deflate the pompous, expose the cruel, or even depose the tyrannical. The concept is an ancient one; Thomas Moore once wrote that “the devil … cannot endure to be mocked.”

But too often, people shoot lower.

When that happens,  it makes comedy about the pain instead of the target. Someone gets hurt and it’s funny because it’s not happening to you. Any empathy involved is on the level of “Oooh, I felt that!” but mostly we just laugh at how the universe has it in for someone. (“America’s Funniest Home Videos,” anyone?)

And as we laugh at someone else’s pain, it coarsens us a little.

And that’s where I think PDQ was a downright genius.

His main target was the reverential aura that often surrounds classical music and makes it seem unapproachable. By injecting a heavy dose of silliness, Schickele not only made it approachable but fun. Anyone could laugh and enjoy … and better yet, if you had any experience with classical music, you’d laugh even harder from all the inside jokes he smuggled in. The more you knew, the funnier it got.

In short, he welcomed everyone. Entertained them. And maybe even educated them a little.

How much better can you get?

Schickele has left the stage now, gone at the age of 88. But the laughs live on. And whenever someone replays one of his off-kilter arias or ridiculous concert pieces, the doors will reopen and the wonderful insanity will resume.

That’s a heck of a legacy. And a great example to follow. Not just to laugh, but to laugh well in a way that brings us together.

All you have to do is sit Bach and enjoy.

Down to Human

A halfpipe skier had fallen on the Olympic course. And Missy made sure we knew all about it.

“No!” she shouted at the TV screen as the action shifted to other skiers competing and celebrating.

“Right here!” she informed me and Heather firmly, rubbing her shoulder hard to be absolutely clear about where the impact happened.

“Missy, we get it. But she’s OK now, she got up …”

“NO!!!”

Injuries and stress make a big impression on Missy, the developmentally disabled relative that we’ve been caring for since (has it really been?) 2011. When people cry, she gets upset. When people fall, she remembers. Heck, when fictional characters get hurt, she takes it seriously – a mention of Frodo Baggins getting his finger bitten by Gollum had Missy pointing at and checking out my ring finger for weeks afterward.

It’s a reaction without filters. Raw and undeniable.

And there’s a lot of opportunity for that when Olympic season comes.

Most of us don’t think of that much, outside the moment. After all, the Olympics celebrate the best, right? These are the ones who move faster, go farther and reach higher. It’s about triumph and success, passion and achievement.

Until, abruptly, it isn’t.

We’ve seen it for years. No, for decades, in summer and winter alike. The speed skater with too much on his heart who tumbles to the ice. The ski racer who sprains both knees at a crucial moment. The young athletes – some still young teens – who find themselves at a storm center and no longer have what brought them there.

Even leaving injuries and accidents aside, there are only so many medals. Someone has to fall short. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot, always with the world watching.

And in those moments, something reaches out to us. Maybe in a way that no other Olympic moment can.

I’m no Olympian. You probably aren’t either. Most of us, however skilled and accomplished we may be, don’t have the sort of talent that tears up ice rinks and grassy fields on a global scale. It’s been joked online that every Olympic event should have an ordinary person competing as well, to bring home just how good these teens and men and women really are.

But in the moments where everything falls short, where the awesome becomes merely human … we know that one. We’ve been there. We can feel it.

Missy’s right. It hurts.

And when our hearts break with it, we reaffirm our humanity.

Most of the time, in most of our lives, it’s easy to not see the pain. To assume that normal is … well, normal. We’re doing OK, so things must not be too bad, right?

When we see the vulnerable, the hurting, the chronically ill, it’s often uncomfortable. It’s a reminder of how quickly life can change without our permission. How easily we could be there.

And if we let that open us up instead of close us off, it means something better for all of us.

I’m not saying each of us has to jump to every alarm and bandage every wound. That way lies exhaustion. But we can’t shut it out either. When we make our decisions – as individuals or as a society – with an eye to those who need us and a determination to share the pain of others, something happens.

We start seeing people. Not strangers. Not others.

And in reaching for them, we reach to ourselves as well.

Don’t turn away from the falls. Let your heart be broken. See the hurt and respond to it.

That’s the real medal moment.

Happy Humblebrag?

I love collecting words. And a long time ago (though not in a galaxy far, far away), I came across a prize specimen: humblebrag.

You probably know the term. I’m sure you’ve met the reality. It’s the boast disguised as modesty, or the “aw, shucks” that checks itself in the mirror. An old pastor of mine used to call it the competition of “I’m the most humble man in the room.” It never really rings true, yet people keep trying it, whether it’s to look good to others or feel better about themselves.

So why the language lesson? Because it’s that time of year again.

Too often, we let Thanksgiving become a humblebrag holiday.

At its essence, it’s a great idea … a holiday that whispers where others shout. Instead of filling the skies with fireworks or the airwaves with music (aside from 18 minutes of “Alice’s Restaurant”), we’re encouraged to turn inward, reflect and appreciate.

It sounds good. Heck, it is good.

But there’s a danger in counting blessings. It’s easy to stop taking stock and start taking inventory.

“I’m so thankful that I have them … and those … and that … ooh, and the other stuff … and especially that …” All too soon, it becomes a celebration of abundance, where the important thing is to have. After all, a long list means you’re a really appreciative person, right? It’s the sign of someone who knows how to celebrate the good things!

But what happens in a year when the good things are hard to see?

There’s a lot of stress and strain hemming everyone in right now. It might be tight times. Or a family that’s divided, or scattered, or has someone missing that should have been present. It might even be too many days with too much darkness, in a world where stories of pandemic, injustice and hate seem to shout everything else down.

When you’re in the middle of that storm, Thanksgiving can sound kind of hollow. Thankful? For what? Where?

 It’s an old story. One as old as the holiday itself.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears reminding: the first national Thanksgiving was born in war. In 1863, the country remained torn by a civil war that was far from over. Far from a time of peace and prosperity, it was a time when even national survival remained in doubt.

So when President Lincoln declared the holiday, humblebragging was notably absent. Read today, his proclamation seems to hold a note of astonishment. Despite everything, he noted, the nation was still carrying on: still growing, building, trading, interacting with the world. In the midst of pain, and with much yet to do, there still was much to be grateful for.

That’s the real heart of the holiday. Not a feast of abundance, but hope amidst hardship. Even when it’s a hard light to kindle.

Maybe especially then.

There’s no need to throw out the turkey and the stuffing if you’re fortunate enough to have them. But if this is a hurting time, then don’t forget that this is your holiday too. You don’t need to have a mile-long self-satisfied list, or be a model for Norman Rockwell. If you’re here, somehow, against all the odds … then that may just be enough.

Hold on. Hold hope. And when better times return, remember the ones that were less comfortable. Both as a source of gratitude and as a reminder to reach for those still struggling. To be thankful and a cause of thankfulness in others.

I hope you find some of that thankfulness this season. I know I’ll try.

You have my word.

Beyond Memory

A whole generation has grown up with no direct memory of Sept. 11.

It’s odd that that sounds odd. After all, that’s what happens.  Time moves on. If I pointed out the huge mass of Americans with no memory of the moon landing, or the Kennedy assassination, or World War II, no one would be shocked.

But when it comes to that early fall day of clear skies and screaming headlines 20 years ago, we stumble.

Never forget, we ritually cry. Remember, remember, like some Guy Fawkes rhyme re-cast for a new time and place.

But we can’t hold on to “never.” Brains don’t work that way. And a growing number of us have nothing to remember except the lessons and examples that the rest of us choose to pass on.

What will those be?

This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in this place. Seven years ago, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I observed how the day was becoming more ordinary. How some of us actually had to be reminded instead of having the date leap to mind automatically. And how we weren’t horrible human beings because of that.

From that past column:

No one’s passing is ever truly “gotten over” or should be, all the less so when the passing is the violent end of a few thousand people.

But it’s OK for the pain to dull, too.

It’s OK to not feel every anniversary as though it were the first one.

It’s OK to be able to look at those memories from a distance and maybe, in a way, see them for the first time with clear eyes.

Most of us have experienced the passing of someone close to us. Some of us have had the ill fortune to have it come out of nowhere, a total surprise that rocks the world. Too sudden or too young or too … well, too many “too’s” to count.

For the longest time afterward, it seems like life can never be about anything else. The pain is fresh and the disjointment real. The wound gapes and resists every effort to stitch it.

But something happens.

It never really gets better. But it gets farther.

And with that time and distance come different memories. The ones that comfort. That remind. That lift the day for a moment instead of crushing it down.

The pain is still there. But it’s no longer alone.

Twenty years since a single day in New York and Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, will the memories we pass on still be of fire and chaos? Or will there be something more?

Will there be the memory of those who reached out to help and comfort from across the country, moved by the needs of people they had never met?

Will there be lessons drawn from the actions we took in its aftermath, good, bad and ugly? The choices that brought us together and the ones that had us squinting in suspicion?

Every crisis shapes us. Some remake the world, like the current pandemic. Some are much more local, like the St. Vrain flood that’s now eight years in the past. Each time, we find ourselves making choices.  What do we carry forward? What do we leave behind?

Memory is important. But memory fades and changes. Its grip loosens a bit with each new heir that it’s passed to.

Build something with it, and memory becomes experience. Build something worthy with it, and it won’t matter that future generations weren’t there. They’ll be here, with a foundation to stand on, an example to learn from, maybe even a goal that they can be part of shaping.

Long after memories of the day have passed, that’s where we’ll find our re-generation.

A Blake-Shaped Hole

There’d been a wonderful run in the mountains. As fast as a 15-year-old dog can run, anyway. He’d taken off on an impulse, just like the old days, keeping ahead of my wife Heather until she finally caught up with him near the road.

“Blake, you goof.”

Big Blake panted and grinned as only an English Lab can. All was right.

And then, back home, over the next few days, all began to go wrong.

For a long time, Blake had been slowing down. He’d always rally, sometimes from a change in medicine, sometimes from a laser therapy, sometimes from his own strong heart and a blessing from the Angel of Dogs. But each rally got a little shorter, each miracle a little less enduring than the one before.

Now what rallies there were seemed to come and go like summer lightning. A brief moment of courage to handle the stairs. Twenty minutes of ease while listening to someone read. Some excitement as Missy entered the room, stiffly heaving himself up to greet his developmentally disabled friend. And then, more pain and confusion.

The conversation that had ebbed and flowed for weeks began to accelerate in earnest as Heather and I tried to figure out how much time there really was.  Maybe two weeks? Next weekend? This weekend? Tomorrow?

Each time we looked at his hurting body and worried mind, each time we asked ourselves the question, the true answer got a little clearer.

Today.

And on July 29, after a hamburger of his own and half of Missy’s (this is still Blake we’re talking about), way too many french fries, and all the hugs and tears that a family’s hearts could hold – we let Blake go.

It hurts to write those words.

If it didn’t, something would be terribly wrong.

Because even when you’re ready, you’re never ready.

We touch so many lives, collecting heartprints from each one that embraces ours. We build a well of memories that refreshes our soul, we weave their story into our own for a richer, fuller tapestry.

And then the fabric tears away. And it leaves a hole behind.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. This is the bargain we make, every time we hold someone close in love – that loss will come, but that the having will somehow be worth the losing. We know it. But we let ourselves forget the day will come. We have to, in order to live.

Sometimes, it really seems like it won’t ever end. Big dogs don’t always last long, but Big Blake had an amazing gift of life. At 12, he had all the energy and athleticism he’d possessed at 6. Even into his truly old and slow years, he still had to be watched for acts of food burglary, still stuck to Heather like a second shadow, still often greeted Missy’s arrival with a loud THUMP, THUMP, THUMP on the floor from his muscular tail.

It fools you. Lets you think that maybe you won the lottery, maybe you finally discovered the one that’s truly immortal.

In a way, maybe we did.

Maybe we all have.

Every memory, every story, every past moment of love and exasperation, brings a bit of them back for a moment. It’s never enough. It never can be. And it hurts with the sting of salt water on an open wound.

But that’s part of the bargain, too. That if you give enough to each other, a piece of them stays on in you.

And so a little of me will be forever Blake. A bit of all our family is forever tied to that wonderful blockheaded klutz, with the voracious stomach and the mighty heart.

Once more, Blake is running ahead of us. Someday, we’ll catch up. Near the road, ready to smile as only an English Lab can.

We love you, Blake, you goof.

Wait for us, big buddy.

Carry That Wait

In “The Princess Bride,” there’s a moment where the beyond-master fencer Inigo Montoya stands at the top of a cliff, watching his opponent-to-be slowly climb the rock toward him. The cliff is steep. The climb is slow. And Inigo just wants the fight to begin.

“I hate waiting,” he mutters.

Lately, Heather and I have felt a certain kinship with Señor Montoya. Because waiting, it seems, is the most difficult battle of all.

Sometimes it’s the Parent/Guardian Standby, waiting for a Missy tantrum to blow out so that we can get back to what we’re supposed to be doing.

Sometimes it’s the Chronic Illness Blitz, where Heather is trying to outlast the pain of a sudden surge in her chronic conditions (lately the MS) and both of us have nothing to do but wait in anguish.

And of course, sometimes it’s waiting on a larger reality. Like the pandemic. Or the wildfires. Or the other thousand unnatural shocks that 2020 is heir to.

Which means, right now, we’re all Inigo. We want something visible to fight, something to do. But any progress made is almost invisible. And waiting – whether in pain, in endurance, in impatience or desperation – is exhausting business.

Sometimes it’s necessary. Sometimes there’s literally nothing you can do but bide your time and wait for a better change of season. All of us hate acknowledging that – we want to be not just the protagonist of our story, but the author – but it is a lesson that needs to be learned, over and over.

Sometimes … well, sometimes there is something to do. It may not be much. It may be completely ineffective. But if it doesn’t hurt someone else – or better yet HELPS someone else – then it may also be worth trying.

The small bit of comfort offered in a time of pain.

The attempt to redirect a tantrum-generator onto something else.

The basic courtesies and protections that make it possible to live life at all when viruses fly and the skies turn orange.

Here, too, we’ve got a role model. Inigo hates waiting … so he offers to throw his opponent a rope and swears on the soul of his father he will reach the top alive. In the short term, that leads to his defeat. (To be fair, he was the only one not wearing a mask). But in the long run – and after a VERY long period of waiting – he finds a new partnership and a greater goal, one that allows him to rise above being a petty clock-punching henchman and become the hero he was meant to be.

Consideration for others. Keeping commitments. Becoming aware of the bigger picture. No, those aren’t bad lessons to learn at all.

I still hate waiting. I still want something to draw my sword on, even if I know I’ll lose. But with an eye for kindness and a drive for compassion, it doesn’t have to be empty waiting. `We can be there for each other. And in being there, we make ourselves better.

Maybe that’s enough. I suppose it has to be.

If nothing else, it makes the wait of the world a little lighter.

Colors of the Heart

When Heather sent me the Fourth of July picture, it shone brighter than any firework.

Heather had gone to her sister’s to enjoy a holiday get-together, while I stayed home with a headache. That meant that our Unwritten Family Protocol #23 was in effect: when one half of the couple is absent from a family event, the other shall send photos whenever possible. It keeps us both there in spirit. And it gives us endless opportunities to crack each other up.

Like now.

I looked at my phone – and burst helplessly into admiring laughter. Heather looked like she had been mugged by a Hawaiian edition of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Around her neck were a solid curtain of rainbow-colored leis, setting off the dazzle of her tie-dye shirt perfectly. Another array of multicolored hair decorations completed the ensemble, along with an over-the-top “Don’t you wish you had all this?” expression on her face.

She looked absolutely beautiful.

Heather’s colors were back. And nothing on earth could have been better medicine.

***

We’re an interesting pair. We have been for almost 21 years. (The big day comes later this month.) Of the two of us, I’m the “social introvert” – the one who makes phone calls, acts in plays, and generally knows how to break the ice without falling in. But I’m also the somewhat conventional one, the guy in slacks and a button-down who reminds our ward Missy not to keep the radio cranked too high.

Heather … well, she may be the quieter of the two of us when it comes to setting up a vet appointment or having to order pizza. But she’s also the more fearless – curious, challenging expectations, and completely unafraid of looking silly. (Does it surprise anyone that she was originally going to be a teacher someday?)

And when she’s on, she wants color. It might be a brilliantly patterned skirt, a tie-dye with Bob Ross on it … she even once carried a book bag that had butterfly patches from corner to corner. She can be more restrained when the event calls for it, and every bit as lovely, but she’s at her best when she can truly enjoy herself.

Which makes it really unfair that those moments can be so rare.

** *

Heather has MS. And Crohn’s disease. And ankylosing spondylitis (which sends my spellcheck into a coma). And a host of allergies to a long list of foods and medicines. And … well, you get the idea.

We’re not sure whether to blame aliens, Rocky Flats, or a script writer who got addicted to movies-of-the-week. But the net result is that Heather’s batteries only allow so much, while her pain sensors allow much too much.

There are good days. Or hours. Or minutes. But she has to measure herself, conserve energy, rest often, pick her times.

In short, she often has to mute her colors.

And I know it drives her crazy.

It’s been an ongoing lesson for both of us – the kind that makes you grit your teeth and wish for the end of the school year, but a lesson all the same. One about endurance and patience and going through a lot of gray to get back to the colors again.

And especially, that it’s OK not to be OK with it.

Most of us are going through something we don’t want. You don’t need the list. You know the list, and which item belongs to you. And most of the time we find a way to deal as best we can.

But it’s OK to not like it. It’s OK to know it’s not fair. It’s OK to let yourself go sometimes and get upset about it, to refuse to be a passive piece on the board.

It’s OK to feel and not just be a shade of forgotten gray.

And when the better times come, it’s OK to enjoy it. To be a little wacky. To let your colors shine at last.

Rare things are precious. So treasure a rare joy when you can seize it. Maybe even take a silly picture or two.

The smile it creates just might be your own.

Another’s Story

This week, I wanted to be teasing the royal family about their new arrival, Archie, and ask if Prince Jughead was next.

Didn’t get to.

Or maybe I could be celebrating and lamenting the Colorado Avalanche season gone by, with so much accomplished on the ice and so much left to do.

Uh-uh.

Heck, at any other time, falling back on Mother’s Day would be a valid plan.

But not this week.

This week, we had it all shatter again. Death in a place that’s supposed to be safe. Violence where it shouldn’t be. A lost child celebrated for heroism when his family only wanted a graduate.

School shootings are my least favorite topic. But it’s one that keeps coming back. And it has a way of erasing everything else that crosses its path, leaving no one sure what to say.

So this time, I’m going to start by saying nothing.

***

It sounds unnatural, I know. When someone is grieving, we want to help. We’ve all seen it – or done it – so many times: this friend helps a hurting neighbor clean things up, that one helps get them where they need to go, and everyone brings them dinner.

It’s one of our best traits. It’s what makes us a community instead of a bunch of people that just happen to live together.

And like any good trait, it can be taken a step too far.

Because what we also try to do, so often, is tell our story.

“I had a cousin who went through the same thing …”

“Oh, my gosh, I remember when that happened to me …”

“I bet I know exactly what you’re feeling right now …”

It’s natural. It’s human.

And unless it’s invited, it’s also taking over. All of a sudden, if we’re not careful, we’re making someone a spectator to their own grief while we make it all about us.

The best help starts by listening.

It’s hard. We don’t like silences. Or unanswered questions. Or pain.

But the pain of grief lives in a sacred space, a time and a place set apart. A time and a place for the one who’s living it.

It’s a space they can fill with their memories of what happened, their need to examine the details again and find their place in it.

It’s a space they can fill with their memories of who they’ve lost, reminding themselves and the world around them of the treasure that was here.

It’s a space they can fill with their anger. With their hurt. With their uncertainty. With their need. And (with time) their hope.

And yes, it’s a space they can fill with silence when they need it.

When we enter that space, we’re not the author. We’re the audience.

That’s challenging enough when the pain is a private, local one. It becomes even more so when it’s something so public that re-opens so many of our national wounds. There are issues that have to be dealt with, alternatives that need to be discussed, policies that need to be addressed – if only because it seems like we can never get anyone talking about them at any other time.

Those are conversations we need to have as a nation. They shouldn’t be delayed.

But we still need to respect the space.

Those who are at the center of all this have their own stories, their own priorities and needs. They’ll join that conversation if and when they choose to do so. If it’s forced on them – from any side – they have every right to say “not here, not now,” just as they did at a recent vigil.

Our hearts may break at their grief. But it is their grief. We don’t own it, any more than we own the new royal baby just because Harry and Meghan let us share a piece of their joy.

“A time to keep silence and a time to speak,” the old verse goes. We have our time to speak, in abundance. And I don’t doubt we’ll fill it.

But remember the silence. Remember to listen. Remember whose story this is.

If we don’t have the words – maybe they were never ours to begin with.

Making the Jump

At age seven, I had no doubt about it. Han Solo was the coolest guy in the universe.

OK, Luke Skywalker was the one I wanted to be – I mean, Jedi powers and a lightsaber, right? But Han didn’t need them. He was the guy who could do anything. Fly through asteroid fields. Talk to Wookiees. Ride into savage blizzards just to save a friend. Heck, he even tried to gun down Darth Vader himself. Sure, it didn’t work, but the man knew an opportunity, right?

But even cool guys have their moments. And one of Han’s has stuck with me down the years.

If you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back (so, most of you), you know exactly what I’m talking about. It was the film’s major running gag. Han and his friends are in a tight spot in the Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy. Han’s gained a little distance, and is ready to jump to light speed and leave trouble behind … and the hyperdrive fails.

Once. Twice. Even a third time, with a friend at the controls.

“It’s not my fault!”

I may have never had to fast-talk space gangsters, or outshoot stormtroopers, or snatch a princess from the Death Star. But I could surely empathize with that one.

You try. You try. And you try again. And it seems like absolutely nothing happens.

My wife Heather is the master of this. Over the years, she’s endured more chronic illnesses than Jabba the Hutt has bounty hunters. Crohn’s disease. Ankylosing spondylitis. Multiple sclerosis. A host of situations and medications that send my spell-checker screaming for help, or at least extra vowels.

Once in a while, we beat one, like the endometriosis that finally submitted to surgery. And sometimes, we get long quiet spells where life is almost normal. But then there are the other nights.

The ones where the current medicines don’t work. And the alternatives are all on the “allergy list.”

The ones where the “MS fog” is too thick to read a book. Or where the pain and fatigue make even ordinary task into Olympian ones.

The ones where you’re doing everything the doctors have said, everything your friends have suggested, everything you can think of yourself – and nothing seems to change.

Oh, yes. We’ve been there.

Most of us have.

Not necessarily with chronic illness. But we’ve all had the situation that refused to yield. Professional frustration. Personal grief. A family situation that seems implacable. Whatever it is, it leaves you running in place, wondering if progress is possible. Wondering if progress even exists. As Shel Silverstein put it, in his dark take on The Little Engine That Could, “If the track is tough and the hill is rough, THINKING you can just ain’t enough!”

Funny enough, George Lucas himself had his own story there. He described his first six years in the film business as “hopeless.” His father had wanted him to go into office supplies instead, and for a little while, George may have been wondering if he was right.

“There are a lot of times where you sit and say ‘Why am I doing this? I’ll never make it,’” he said in an interview. “I’d borrowed money from my parents. I’d borrowed money from friends. It didn’t look like I was going to be able to pay anyone back.”

Then came American Graffiti. And a few years later, Star Wars – a film that almost everyone believed would bomb, including Lucas himself, until it spectacularly didn’t.

Stories change. Without warning.

Not without effort. Not without help – even Han needed a hand fixing the hyperdrive. And not with any guarantee.

But surprising things can happen if you give them the chance.

Heather and I have seen it. Not the magic “happy ever after” that leaves you with a gold medal, a space princess, and a three-picture deal. But victories that have let us grab back pieces of normality, and even become caregivers ourselves.

We dared to hope.

And hope, it turns out, can be a pretty impressive Force.

Holding On

Pets have a way of making the holidays unforgettable.

There was our long-ago cat Twinkle, for example, who discovered the joys of Christmas-tree tinsel. She not only lived, she shared the results in glorious Technicolor behind the television for all the family to see.

There’s our mighty Big Blake, the English Labrador who has spun entire trees like a propeller in his eagerness to charge past them and greet a guest.

And of course, any time Duchess the Wonder Dog has met a new-fallen snow, the result has been somewhere between the Dance of Joy and a high-powered Indy 500 winner.

Well, this time around, Duchess is at the center of another holiday memory – this one a little less high-adrenaline and a little more painful.

This Christmas, Duchess appears to have cancer.

We discovered it by accident. Having the genius of a border collie and the curiosity of a Lab, Duch had figured out long ago how to break into our pedal trash can.  She hadn’t been looking too well after her latest garbage raid, so we brought her into the vet to be looked at.

The tummy upset proved to be none too serious. But while looking at her gut, the doctor happened to notice some nodules in Duchess’s chest. That glance and a follow-up soon brought the M-word – metastasis.

This wasn’t necessarily the end of the road, the first vet hastened to explain. Depending on what an oncologist saw or didn’t see, it could be possible to drive things back, to beat this. Still, the shadow of the word had entered the conversation. And it’s a hard one to evict.

Cancer.

I hate the word. I hate even typing it, like pressing the keys might somehow make it more real. Cancer has already made too many marks on people I love. My Mom survived it. One of my grandmothers didn’t. Nor did Heather’s grandma, or her 40-year-old uncle, or … well, the list is too long. At one name, it would be too long.

I hate the thought that, with one bad turn, every Christmas memory of Duchess might become final.

Even before this, we’d been trying to steel ourselves against that possibility. At 13 years and almost eight months, Duchess has been slowing down. Her step is a little more careful, her hearing not quite so sharp – though all bets are still off when food is involved. Her heart is still as big as ever, but the body that houses it has some miles on it.

But she keeps going. And we get used to that. The mind doesn’t like to acknowledge change and especially painful change. Not until it’s forced to.

Even now, I don’t know if we’re there yet.

It’s not the most comfortable thought for the holidays. But then, none of us is assured a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Sometimes “the most wonderful time of the year” carries pain, or anxiety, or uncertainty. Much as we might wish otherwise, the bad stuff doesn’t take a vacation for the holidays.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t hold on to something more.

I refuse to let fear for Duchess’s future poison her present. Whatever the doctors finally say, she’s still our dog, well-loved and cherished by us for over 10 years. Those chances for love aren’t going away yet. And we are going to continue to seize every one of them, whether it’s for one year, or three, or enough to make a canine Methuselah.

We will not let fear drive out joy.

Duchess has amazed us many times over the years. Maybe the Wonder Dog has another miracle left.

But whatever lies ahead, her love is here now.

Powerful.

Unmistakable.

Unforgettable.