Thursday, May 27, 2010

Patriots and Demigods

I am a writer. I interview people. I write down what they say, throw in some twenty-five-dollar adjectives, and a magazine prints it. It can be a yeoman-like way to make a dollar, I admit, but every once in a while it provides a benefit beyond measure—I get to be in the presence of heroes.

There have been three times in my life that I have been around people when it dawned on me during the conversation that I had no right to be in the same room or breathe the same air.

The first time was when I interviewed Charles Murray, a WWII veteran and recipient of the United States of America’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. The second was when I spoke with Dr. Everett Dargan, an African-American cardiologist. Dr. Dargan is smarter than half the people in all of South Carolina, yet when he finished his medical training in the 60s, he couldn’t even walk in the back door of the “white hospital.” But he persevered, and despite an oppressive environment and monumental sacrifices, he established one of the finest cardiology practices in the state and has become a sought out mentor and medical school professor.

The third time occurred this past Saturday evening.

I attended the Palmetto Patriots Ball sponsored by the Midlands Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers; patriotic, upstanding, forthright women who also bear the unfathomable burden of having children in the military deployed on foreign soil. These soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are the bravest South Carolina has to offer. Surrounded by their mothers who are rightfully proud of their children, but who, at the same time tread upon a precipice of fear for their safety, I quickly surmised where these men and women in uniform inherited their bravery. I’m a mama’s boy of the first magnitude. I can sense these things.

At the dinner I was flanked by Gold Star Mothers as well. These are members of the Blue Star group whose children have died in the service of our country, who, as Abraham Lincoln put it, gave “their last full measure of devotion” to make you and me free. The emcee, the gracious and classy local news anchor Hannah Horne, recognized the families and read aloud the names of their fallen loved ones. A staff sergeant at my table and a Marine captain at the table next to me, both in full, formal dress uniforms, broke down in tears. So did I.

I did not deserve to be in the company of these distinguished men and women—these heroes.

I’m often told that, because I have taken on the mantle of a writer of “young adult” fiction, my blog should reflect topics that address and capture issues meaningful to them. Not so much on the flip side of that coin, but perhaps on the periphery is a piece of advice my good friend and fellow author Shannon Greenland gave me once when I asked her about writing for young adults: Never underestimate the intelligence or sophistication of your audience.

I have taken Shannon’s advice, and each time I speak to a group of young people, I try my best to respect that advice and talk to them like fellow adults. So here it goes boys and girls, some hard lessons—my glass slipper—that I took from my night at the ball…my night among patriots and demigods.

• These fighting men and women don’t endure 105 degree heat so that we can drop out of school, lie around on our butts and let our parents or the government take care of us. They fight so we have economic justice, an opportunity to succeed.

• These men and women don’t live in the sand so that we can trade or use drugs, get high and not give a damn about ourselves or the lives we impact by stupid behavior. They volunteer to be away from home so that we have the freedom to pursue our American dreams. The average time of deployment, by the way, for WWII fighters was eight months out of four years of enlistment. For Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it’s 45 months out of 48.

• These Gold Star Mothers didn’t sacrifice a child they raised from infancy so that we could feel free to engage in politically polarized infighting, to smear our opponents, to accuse another of being unpatriotic simply because we disagree with their ideology. Their children died in the desperate hope that their deaths would mean something, that we would come together as one nation of people with disparate beliefs and customs and cultures, but one nation whose people are, again quoting Lincoln, “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” As I recall, someone once summed the concept up as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

• With so many in the world who despise the freedom of expression and economic opportunity that Western culture represents, our military service men and women have taken the fight to our enemies rather than having our enemies visit us here. In return, don’t you believe we should quit spilling each others’ blood in gang fights and drug wars, or because our egos won’t let us walk away from a meaningless fight?

• Our service members didn’t leave home in hopes that we would honor them. They left to fulfill a duty, to answer a higher calling, to defend our liberties. Saying thank you is not enough recompense, but I realize that there is no way in the world to repay the debt we owe these courageous men and women…and above all the mothers who unselfishly lent them to our service so that we might be free. Perhaps the best way to try to repay them is to live our lives in a way that honors, rather than defies, their sacrifice.

Beside my plate at the banquet table lay a medallion that read, “If you can’t stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them.”

I stand behind them not only out of gratitude, but because to stand in front of them would require their kind of courage, a brand I’m not sure I have; and especially not the brand their mothers, who have given the best of themselves, possess.

So to my Citadel family Russ Mease, Allen Blume, Dave Eubanks, Marc Gould, Ken and Alison Sigmon, Ken Riddle, Dean Costas, Mike Sammons, Verne Prosser; to Stuart Epting and Andy Nesbit; to my brother Mike Morton; to all of you who have put on a uniform and served so valiantly so that I can live my life in peace…thank you. And especially to your mothers, thank you. God bless you. I do not deserve to breathe the same air.

Monday, May 24, 2010


The place of my eternal bliss is The Citadel campus. It may sound strange that I have chosen this piece of ground as a place of refuge, a place of contentment, a place to re-charge my batteries when life has sapped me of all my strength. This was the place where lean and tall young men—whose shoes were spit-shined and whose brass belt buckles could blind you if you stared straight at them—screamed at me, the “fat load” as I ran or did pushups. They swore I’d never finish, but I earned the ring.

I chose her because she chose me as one of her sons. Ghosts of thousands of my footsteps litter the parade ground. My sweat and tears watered its blades of grass. And in the end, I graduated a Citadel man.

I go there now and listen to the echoes of my past, the cadence called by our commanders, the cannons as they fired at Friday afternoon parades. I drink in the smell of the freshly mown grass on the parade ground crisp with the scent of wild onion. I even breathe in deeply the musky scent of the pluff mud off the marsh. It is here, in this place, that an overweight mama’s boy became a man, and it’s here I reaffirm my manhood every time I visit.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Mother's Love

Ekaterina braced her frail body against the gusting flurry of wind and snow, holding her baby close to her bosom. Her head wrapped in a woolen scarf and bowed low, she stepped with caution, bracing her footfalls against the cragged, crumbling walks that lined either side of Malnikov Street in downtown Novosibirsk.

The sky was leaden and the clouds full, bursting with flakes that drifted earthward like goose feathers falling from a burst pillow. It was the first snowfall of the season.

The temperature, a freezing 26 degrees and made colder by the wind’s arctic fingers, penetrated all the layers of her clothes and gripped and shook her bones. Frozen droplets of snow pelted Ekaterina’s face but melted quickly, for her heart pounded and her cheeks burned with nervousness at what she knew she must do.

Baby Alexey snuffled and whimpered against her breast. She had wrapped him in napkins, the only insulation she could offer him against the icy chill.

She had no work. But they had survived the summer on tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and cabbage stolen on moonlight raids in gardens of the old government collectives. Nursing provided the baby his sustenance. Now the Siberian winter was settling in and still she had no work. Soon Alexey would need nourishment she could not give. Men and women were starving. A baby stood no chance. She knew what she must do.

She stepped quickly off the sidewalk into a bustling department store. The tile floors were slick, streaked with soupy gray slush tracked in from the street. Powerful, roaring blowers pumped heated air into the dimly lit store. The dry heat combined with that of a hundred bodies wrapped in thick winter coats made the building stuffy and hot. It was Russia, the place of extremes. Ekaterina felt light-headed and constricted. Her breath came in labored puffs, her hands damp and pasty.

Her eyes focused on a dark-haired woman standing by the perfume counter. Lips pursed, the lady studied the gallon-sized containers of henna colored, fragrant liquid. She wore an expensive dress and a gray woolen overcoat with a black fur collar.

She seems kind, Ekaterina dared tell herself. So she stepped forward, approaching her.

“Hold my baby a moment, please?” she asked in a plaintive voice, her eyes downcast.

“Da,” was the polite, if somewhat bewildered reply.

Ekaterina gently laid the baby in the woman’s arms. She gave a sad smile and a solitary blink of her long eyelashes taking a loving look at the child she would never see again. Walking in quick steps around the perfume counter toward the back door of the department store, she dashed into the street, never turning to look behind her. She stumbled toward home wracked with indescribable anguish, her sobs echoing off the ice covered pavement in a wasteland of grief and sorrow.


I have been a mama’s boy since the beginning of time, my time anyway.

Love is too weak a word to describe my feeling for the woman who nurtured me from a prenatal recombination of genes and raised me to adulthood. Worship is closer, but lacking still the full measure of emotion.

I come from that peculiar brand of Southern boys who believe their mothers are saintly goddesses descended from on high. We convince ourselves that our mama’s exist untainted by the impurity of carnal passion. We do not pretend to have been conceived without benefit of original sin. Our births are not mysterious, but the realization that the secrets of our existence lay in the primal act of sex and involve the women who sang us sweet lullabies by the crib casts upon our psyche a pallor of numbing incredulity. We simply choose to believe that life begins for us at the innermost reaches of our memories of Mama, home, and family.

My mama was beautiful, always smiling and genuinely happy. I inherited her large, ruby cheeks, and all of us—my brother, my sister, and I—all share her sense of humor and her gift of compassion. Mama had brown hair and soft, silky skin. How I loved her tender hugs in arms that I knew would keep me safe and warm forever.

When I was fourteen and my father died, Mama held our family together. My sister was a new mother herself, establishing her own family. My brother was a U.S. Marine. So Mama had only me at home to raise, and I was a sheltered young man finding out for the first time the complexities and heartbreaks of being an adult.

In a time when dysfunction became the standard, I exulted in my family’s ordinariness. We went to school; we got jobs; we suffered failed romances; we dealt with them and we got married to those who loved us best. We were normal people living in a commonplace world. Heartache and ecstasy visited us with the same regularity. Life was good.

Then life kicked me hard in the stomach. Mama developed terminal cancer.

I’m not convinced that our brains are equipped to process such information. My stomach turned sour and the spit in my mouth tasted like vinegar. The cells of my skin ached and rational thought became impossible. I wanted to kill her doctor for his prognostic accuracy and, at the same time, beg him to save her.

For weeks I tried to balance the scales of cosmic justice. I voiced how unfair it was that a woman who not only had done no harm, but also who loved without measure or bias or judgment should have to die so young. I found not one apologist for fate or God. I found no one who could tell me why she must die, this woman who, reveling in vitality, danced each day with the angels of mirth and mercy.

We had many moments to say the things we always knew there would be time to say. In secret, my wife and I decided to adopt after many years of trying to start a family. For us the road to parenthood began in the same place it does for many couples the lonely abyss of infertility. That road was strewn with every pothole, sinkhole, and rut imaginable. But the obstacles only strengthened our resolve. God made me to be a father, of that I was certain.

Infertility is a thief that robs its victims of any joy. It is the unholiest of conditions bringing on a perpetual sadnessthe challenge being not just avoiding a frown, but trying to evade a permanent look of despair.

The medical tests, shots, and infusions are cold and sterile and belie the devastation behind every failed attempt. Every month when we realized my wife wasn’t pregnant, it felt as if someone died. The feelings of inadequacy and failure overwhelmed us, and the weight of their impact tested the endurance of our marriage.

After trying for so many years to conceive a child, I cannot comprehend the emotion behind giving one up for adoption. But thankfully two women, whose names I will never know, whose faces I will never see, had the courage to give up their children for better lives than they could have given them.

In 1998, the effort seemed hardly worth it any longer. Financially drained and our nerves frayed and, we knew only that we still desperately wanted a family.

Time, we felt, was running short for us.

First we chose adoption. Then we chose Russia.

We had told no one. One day at Mama’s bedside, to give her a glimmer of hope, to cause her to hold on, I told her our news. She smiled and told me we would make remarkable parents.

Eyes blurred with tears, my chest heaving sobs, I cried, “Not as good as you. You can’t die. I’m too much of a Mama’s boy for you to leave me alone.”

She reached out and touched my hand. Her grip was weak, but reassuring; her skin soft and cold. “You’ll have to be strong,” she said. “I don’t think I can hold on much longer.” She closed her eyes and fell asleep, gently slipping away toward the inevitability of her condition.

I loved her more than anything, but love alone couldn’t fight the happenstance of nature. Mama died ten weeks after her diagnosis. I was devastated.

I was not there for her at the end. While my brother wiped her face clean of the black bile she vomited and stroked her hair, I stayed away. While my sister lovingly held her hand and whispered words of sweet comfort to soothe her fears in her final moments, I chose to be gone. I, the 6’4” ex-cop emotionally affected by little, lay shivering in my bed, covers pulled over my face, weeping because I could not bear to watch the woman I loved so much die.

In the weeks before her death, Mama told everyone who visited her about the grandchild she would never get to see. She gave me parenting advice and she told me to love my child with every breath in my body as she had done me. She told me that she “left me a little something” and maybe it would help with the adoption.

We only knew our child would come from Russia and only then after we completed mountains of paperwork and passed a myriad of background checks. We did not know if our baby had been born or if it would be a boy or girl, healthy or frail. Only God knew.

If I had ever lacked faith in a living God, that faith would have been renewed, oddly enough, at my mother’s passing. I expected to feel anger. But I somehow felt comforted, a strange, inexplicable calmness.

Three weeks after my mother’s death, the “little something” arrived, a check from her life insurance company for the exact amount of the cost of our adoption, though the policy had been taken out years ago.

Three months later, we waited breathlessly for the videotape of the baby selected for us. We plugged in the tape and waited wide-eyed until the images appeared. And then there he was. A beautiful blond baby boy named Alexey. I felt shivers creep from my back to the top of my head when I read from the form his birth date—Mother’s Day 1998. Somehow Mama was there guiding this process. Somehow she knew. God had brought us full circle and completed our family.

I do not know who Ekaterina is, nothing of her age or history. I know only that she is a courageous woman who gave up the most precious part of herself so her baby would have a life more abundant than she could provide.

I pray each day that my mother’s heart is glad and that the same angels who watch over her now reach out to Ekaterina. I pray that they touch her, embrace her with tender, encircling arms and give her peace in knowing that out of incredible sadness, goodness and mercy have overcome. Two sons lost their mothers, but in the loss, the sons found each other and live in peace and love and harmony.

But that’s not the end of the story. For more than two years we felt truly blessed by the addition of Alexey to our family. Today, he is a sensitive, caring little boy with a generous hug, a joy for life, and a laugh that melts my heart. So positive was our experience with him that we decided in 2002 to add to our family with another child.

Again we filled out reams of paperwork.

Again we waited anxiously.

Again we were rewarded.

In 2002, we traveled to Russia to meet our daughter. Siberia was everything one might imagine in the winter—below zero temperatures, several inches of permafrost covered by another foot or more of snow.

We drove up to “our” orphanage. The smells, the sights, the sounds—none of it different than it had been three years ago. In a room called the “Winter Garden” painted with scenes from Russian fairy tales, we met a little red-haired, rambunctious toddler who in fewer than four weeks would become our daughter, Nikki.

She hugged us. She played with the toys we brought. She bossed around the other toddlers in the room and redistributed their toys. She gave us no choice: we fell in love immediately. She has been in charge since that first meeting.

We have felt the hand of the Almighty in each of our adoptions. But we literally felt the chills run down our spines when we discovered that Nikki had been sleeping in the same room and crib as Alexey had been three years earlier. For all of us, her adoption was, without question, meant to be.

Today we are a family—my wife, a little boy, a little girl, and me. Yes, we have a house with a fence and a dog, and Alexey is pushing hard for a kitten. But the joy does not lie in being a typical American family. With two Russian children, that we certainly are not. No, joy comes from giving and receiving unconditional love, from feeling whole and content, and from finding each other across the miles.

At bath time in my house, amidst the trickle and splash of water, I sometimes kneel by the lip of the tub and reach into the water for a wash rag and bar of soap. As I scrub away the day’s dust, errant colored pen marks, and watercolor self-decoration from their tender skin, I look deeply into my children’s eyes.

Peering back at me I see the face of God.

I am awestruck by the faith and trust he has placed in me. Through their eyes, their soulful, soulful eyes, He seems to say, “These are my gifts to you. Love them well.”

Silently I answer, “I will.”