Over the (Hawk) Hill

Last Thursday I had some kind of unholy, unprecedented strain of PMS.  All five of the kids were ganging up on me by playing a rousing game of Who Can Get On Mommy’s Very Last Nerve?  So when Sheepdog came home from work and (uncharacteristically) asked, “What’s for dinner and when’ll it be ready?” before even saying hello, I felt totally justified in telling him that I wanted “to hit (him) very hard in the face with a(n effing) shovel.”  Obviously, I needed a break.  The very next morning I hopped on a plane to Philadelphia.  We were all very pleased that I got away for a bit.


When I was a senior in high school I did what almost everyone else was doing and I applied to get into college.  Three colleges, to be exact.  I was smart, involved and had yet to experience any hard slaps-in-the-face from life.  I was Miss Absecon 1987 and Holy Spirit’s homecoming queen, for goodness’ sake.  So I was in utter disbelief and completely devastated when I received thin envelopes from all three schools telling me no, no and wait.  It was April of my senior year and all I could say when asked where I was going in the fall was, “I honestly don’t know.”

I remember going in to see my school guidance counselor in a daze and asking what I was supposed to do at that point.  He mentioned a small school on City Line Avenue in Philadelphia called St. Joseph’s University.  I had not heard of it before, but my grades and SAT scores were on track to allow me admittance there.  I do not recall the administrative details that followed, but I do know that my parents moved me into a college dorm up on Hawk Hill as that summer drew to an end.

But even with my very own spot in the SJU Class of 1992, it turns out that I still was not sure of where I was going.  I spent the next two years floundering.  I went to parties and bars, but not many classes.  I changed my major and therefore my schedule countless times.  I made stupid and sometimes dangerous choices.  I got my heart broken more than once.  Looking back on my freshman and sophomore years at St. Joe’s, I recall a general sense of sadness and isolation, which was made even worse by my belief that I was surrounded by so many people who all seemed to be having the time of their lives.

My parents saw that I was not happy and they finally convinced me to come back home (a fate worse than death at the time!).  I would work and take classes at a local college in order to bring up my GPA.  Then I could reapply to another school or schools, and eventually earn a degree.  That is how I ended up at West Virginia University as a transfer student in the Fall of 1990.  I met Sheepdog there after just a few weeks.

Short Aside… Yes, WVU was a giant party school back then (and still officially is, according to Princeton Review), but I had thankfully gotten most of it out of my system by the time I moved to Morgantown.  Note that I said most, not all.  Now that’s a true story.

After years of ruminating (and some good, old-fashioned therapy), I look back on my first years of higher education with a smile.  It was the time when I walked on to the varsity cheerleading squad for the basketball team and I got to cheer on national television and travel all over the East Coast to other schools in the Atlantic 10.  It was when I learned that accounting was definitely not my thing, but english and eventually journalism were.  It was when I learned how I didn’t want to be treated by boys, and therefore what I did eventually want from a partner in life.  Most importantly, it was the time when I learned what I did and did not like about myself.  It was where I learned that having a rhinestone crown placed on your head doesn’t mean jack, so I needed to buckle down and start working for what I wanted.  It was where I made friends for life, because college years can be so intense that bonds are forged deeper and stronger than during any other experience.

This past weekend I traveled back to City Line Avenue for Hawktoberfest 2012 and to celebrate the passage of 20 years since the Class of 1992 had been handed their sheepskins.  Originally I booked my plane ticket and hotel room because it was an excuse to spend time with friends who now live scattered all over and I rarely get to see (save for the occasional wedding or funeral or milestone birthday celebration in the Dominican Republic), but it turned out to be so much more than that for me.

I saw people who I hadn’t seen in decades.  I listened to the stories of how their lives had played out, as well as their plans for the future.  I heard the classic tales again, but I also listened to new ones that I never knew about.  One girlfriend teased, saying that I was quite the social butterfly… talking to absolutely everyone, but that was the best part of the experience for me.  We went out to dinner and shared so many memories and bottles of wine.  We played softball on the incredible new field.  We posed for pictures in front of our old dorms.  We tailgated (I know, I know… how do you tailgate without a football team?) and gossiped and laughed.  I laughed until I was hoarse.  It was very, very good.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This was taken just before 2AM on 54th Street.

On Sunday, we roused our sad, over the hill selves out of bed with lots and lots of coffee.  After we checked out of the hotel, a few of us who had later flights walked around the campus.  It is so much bigger now, with all of the new buildings and dorms and fields, but it is still the same in so many ways.  It was awkward but comfortable at the same time.  I had to catch my breath several times as I walked through the old Fieldhouse (now Hagan Arena) and down past Finnesy Field.  I actually had tears in my eyes as I went from Lafarge to the Chapel and the old Newmann Hall and then crossed the foot bridge to McShane.  They fell silently down my cheeks as I walked down the tree-lined Lapsley Lane to the most magnificent view of Barbelin Tower.

What’s magis? It’s a Jesuit principle that underlies everything we do at Saint Joseph’s University. It inspires us to think a little broader, dig a little deeper, and work a little harder. More simply put, magis calls us to live greater.

The tears were few but they were powerful and cathartic.  I felt such peace and comfort in knowing that St. Joe’s was the first of many steps in bringing me to where I am in my life today.  It defined me, both good and bad.  And it feels so awesome to own that.

I left Hawk Hill feeling light and happy, albeit a little old.  I left with renewed friendships and some new Facebook friends.  I left with a memory card full of photographs.  But mostly I left with a palpable gratitude for the life I have now and the people who are in it.  It never ceases to amaze me how life twists and turns, takes us up and down the hills and sometimes even mountains, and lands us where we are right at this moment.

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Wish me luck for tomorrow…

Harp Therapy

I was talking with my grandfather (“Pop Pop Pop” or “Three Pops,” as he is often also called) the other day and he told me a great story.  It was so good that I thought I would share it with you.

Imagine that you are an old, old man.  Your body is betraying you in the ways that broken down, worn out things eventually do, but your mind remains sharp.  That is probably because you continue to challenge yourself each and every day with puzzles and crosswords and sudoku and interesting people who have interesting conversations.  And you have the occasional fist fight from your electric wheelchair with the a-hole who insisted on shooting off his stupid mouth about how the Marines are better than the Navy.  Wheelchair be damned, you kicked that punk to the curb.  Respect.

You get up and out every single day.  Your calendar is more full now than it was 20 years ago.  You sign up for every field trip they make available to you.  You go to the casinos to play poker and the race track to play the ponies.  You go see the Phillies and the Eagles play.  You visit with your daughters and sons-in-law and your grandchildren and their children too.  You run for leadership positions at the Veteran’s Home and you win (by a landslide), mainly because people know you know people who matter and you know how to get things done.  It is still about the respect.

When you were a young man you made some less-than-stellar choices.  You may have participated in some less-than-noble activities.  But you had fun.  You lived hard and fast.  You lived by a code and you earned the respect that you got.  Looking back you realize that you may have hurt some of the people who you loved the most.  Sometimes you were selfish.  Sometimes you got angry.  Sometimes you made justifications to get what you wanted.  But also you were generous.  You were a big man who lived a big life.  Understandably, some of your regrets are big too.  It brings tears to your eyes these days, something that rarely happened back in the day.

But that is what happens when you turn into an old, old man.  You have more time for reflection.  More time to think.  More time to try to make amends.  And more time for annoying doctor’s visits to deal with your traitorous, failing body.  Some of the things that are happening to you make you want to ask for forgiveness, both to clear the air and to allay your fears that all too often start to creep in.  Fear of lonely, fear of old, fear of dead.  Fear of The End.  Fear of where you might go… you know, after you die.  I mean how bad is too bad to still get into heaven?  And the fear gets more tangible as time passes, especially when the doctor tells you that you need another surgery.

So you go to the hospital and you hold your oldest daughter’s hand and you listen as she says she loves you (and you grumble “me too” back at her) and you get on the gurney and you count backwards “ten, nine, eight…” as you fall deep into the fog of anesthesia.  And for a while you exist in suspension, floating around yourself, watching what the doctors and nurses do to your broken body as they try to mend it.  It does not really matter if it is a dream or if it is really happening.  You are still pretty sharp in the mind.  Sharp enough to recognize that the fear is still lingering.  Sharp enough to realize that you are in a white room with a cloudy haze over everything, like you are observing through gauze.  And you hear music.  It is beautiful and light and graceful.  And through the anesthesia you see that a beautiful angel is playing a giant harp, and she is beautiful and light and graceful too.  And you feel peaceful and you think of church (…even though you haven’t been inside of many) and you think of heaven and you think of God.  And you are confused, but happy because you thought maybe you were so bad that you might not go to the Good Place.  You begin to think that you are dead and that this is the beginning of The End.

Is This Heaven? No, It's Iowa. - Field of Dreams (1989)

But as that possibility is registering, you are overpowered by exhaustion and you fall back to sleep.  It is a deep, dreamless sleep.  In a few minutes or hours or a day, you wake up again.  This time the room is still white, but there is no beautiful angel playing beautiful music with her harp.  There is only a nurse who has come to check your vitals and tell you that your surgery went extremely well.

“The doctor will be with you shortly,” she tells you.  You are now wondering if you made the whole thing up.  You decide to be vulnerable and say something to the nice nurse.

“I think I died.  I was in heaven and an angel was playing gentle music on a harp.”  She stifles a little chuckle.

“No, hon, that was just Dolores.  She volunteers here and she brings her harp from room to room to play for the surgery patients.  It is therapeutic.”

“Therapeutic, my ass!  That’s a damn good way to give an old man a heart attack,” you say.  Then you wink at the nurse and tell her she can make it up to you by taking you to the track so you can bet on some horses.  This old man’s still got a whole lot of living to do.


Wish me luck for tomorrow…