Ani Tsalagi

When you have suffered a traumatic loss in life, grief can be stifling and all-consuming.  For me, I felt abandoned and totally alone.  There was nothing but darkness all around with no vision of light.  For seven months, it seemed like I moved through a fog.

During this time, I started the process of building my log cabin, but it was more of a project rather than realization of a dream.  It was a distraction but didn’t provide enjoyment or pleasure.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to move into the cabin, but I was determined to build it.  Little did I know at the time that the log cabin construction would provide purpose to live life again.

In the seventh month of existing in a dark hole, the foundation was poured for the cabin.  A few short weeks later, the construction crew was ready to start stacking the logs.  It took all morning for me to gather the courage to drive out and meet the crew on their first day, but I did.  I never took off my sunglasses, but I forced myself to meet each guy.

Every day, I showed up to watch each course of the cabin be stacked.  It didn’t take many days before the engineer in me began to awaken.  I asked a lot of questions about the building process.  The guys began to expect me every day.  The more I became involved, the more interest I took in the cabin.  While I never took off my sunglasses, I began to slowly interact with the crew.  Funny how six blue-collar – some crude – guys melted my cold, impersonal nature.

In the crew, one man caught my attention.  He was the hardest worker and most experienced but the least vocal.  He was tall, dark, handsome, and I was mesmerized watching him.  As he worked, I was drawn to his hands which were strong, rugged and touched every log that was stacked.  I observed him through my sunglasses and caught him looking in my direction throughout the day.  One afternoon while he was working on the front corner of the house, he actually spoke to me and smiled.  I smiled back, all the while hiding my eyes behind my sunglasses.

Days passed and it wasn’t long before the rest of the crew sensed the attraction between us, not through words but through glances and smiles.  I noticed a tattoo on his left arm, but he never stood close enough for me to read what I thought might be his last name.  Finally, one afternoon I managed to make out the words above the feathers below – Ani Tsalagi.  That night while sitting at home alone once again, I researched Ani Tsalagi.

By now, the crew had been working on the cabin for about four weeks.  The tattoo gave me a reason to start conversation to the man to whom I was drawn to who was building my cabin.  The day after my research, I gathered up enough courage to speak.  We found each other standing alone around the house plans, and I asked the question, “so, are you Cherokee Indian?”  To his surprise, he looked into my eyes, no longer hidden behind the sunglasses, and said yes, “I’m half Cherokee Indian.”

That one question broke the ice between us.  From that point on, we smiled at each other more often and spoke to each other every day.  On April 5, he had my phone number.  At 6:30 p.m., I received my first text to which I responded, “you made me smile.”  His reply which melted my heart was “I have smiled since I first saw you.”

The log cabin is a fulfillment of a dream, “something to call my own”, a beautiful start to a new chapter in my life.  But it’s the man with the Ani Tsalagi tattoo who has given me a reason to love life again, a reason to smile and laugh again, but most importantly, a reason to love fearlessly once more and not be alone.

“We Love You Guys” But . . .

My husband, John, was a master with people. His philosophy about people was “it doesn’t matter if they drive the truck or pick up the cans.” He motivated others by making them feel extraordinary thereby bringing out their best. He sincerely cared for others and had a giving spirit.

I especially enjoyed watching him “work his magic” with service people, people who would fill a need we had, people we would only meet one or two times. One important lesson that I learned from John is that “people love to hear their name.” No matter who crossed our path, he greeted each person asking their names. Whether it was a crew to help us move, paint our house, pave our patio, maintain our yard, he knew them by name. He always provided a cooler of water and Gatorade for the workers. For the guys who moved us to FL, we bought lunchmeat, bread and chips for a “take-out lunch” before they left. He never failed to thank them by name when they were done.

Two weeks ago, construction started on our dream home with an opportunity for me to put John’s lessons into action. On the first day, I drove out to meet the crew and watch the process of building a log cabin. I met Glen, the crew chief and head carpenter. When they took a much-needed break, I met the other three: Charlie, Ray and Roger. They are definitely a “motley crew”, and my initial thoughts were “I hope they don’t cut off an arm or leg or get stuck under a pile of logs!”

Throughout the afternoon, I sat on their trailer and observed. I couldn’t tell if they were amused or intimidated with my presence. They took breaks for Mountain Dew and water, but they never ate a bite. Around 4:00 p.m., they started cleaning up and packing their tools for the 2-hr drive home. Before they left, I asked, “don’t you guys eat lunch?” Glen said, “we grab breakfast at McDonald’s; we don’t have time for lunch.” Charlie could see the surprise on my face and said, “she doesn’t believe him!” Ray and Roger just smiled and kept packing up.

I walked to the car and grabbed some cash. I handed it to Glen and said “have breakfast tomorrow on me.” He shook his head and said, “no ma’am, that’s ok”, but I was insistent. All of them thanked me, and they drove off.

The next day, I grabbed four Cuban sandwiches from the Publix deli. When I got to the property, Charlie, Ray and a new guy were taking a break. I handed them the bag and said, “I brought you lunch.” They looked surprised but gladly ate the sandwiches. I watched the slow manual progress of stacking logs for the detached garage. When the new guy walked to the trailer, I introduced myself. He shook my hand and said, “I’m Jason, Glen’s son-in-law.”

Again, around 4:00 p.m., they packed up and headed home. I told Glen that I wouldn’t make it Thursday but would be back on Friday. Charlie thanked me again for lunch, and said “you’re the best.” It felt good to hear “thank you”, like I was appreciated. I drove home fighting back tears.

On Friday, I grabbed chicken tenders and a 12-pk of Mountain Dew. Luckily, I arrived before 2:00 p.m. because I learned something new. On Fridays, they leave earlier to give them time to stop by the shop office. The blue-collar construction world is new to me. It’s very humbling to watch these guys work in the hot sun, hauling logs with sweaty hands for an hourly wage. They left early so they could get paid.

Week two, a rainy Monday postponed construction. On Tuesday afternoon, I showed up with Mountain Dew and water. Now, there were six guys on the crew to build the house: Glen, Charlie, Ray, Roger, Jason and Glen’s son, Kyle. I was glad I didn’t bring food because I would have been two short!

But over the weekend, I had a brainstorm. I could achieve two important needs: clean out the freezer and pantry and provide lunch a couple of days a week. On Wednesday, I showed up with BBQ crockpot pork sandwiches. When they took a break, they couldn’t help but peek into the bag. They eagerly grabbed a sandwich as I walked around taking pictures of the work-in-progress. When I returned, one of the guys called out, “hey, you can cook for me any time you want!” I said, “I want to make sure our cabin is built right.” They were all smiling and said the sandwiches were fantastic. They went back to work, and I sat on the trailer fighting back more tears.

By Thursday, they had grown accustomed to my daily visits. They also know I’m the General Contractor and have figured out I ask a lot of questions. (John’s nickname for me was “Perry Mason” because of my never-ending barrage of questions.) And, they reluctantly try my suggestions for process improvement. Glen found out quickly that I can read a house-plan and will point out anything that doesn’t look right.

Snack crackers on Thursday and more sandwiches on Friday. Charlie, Jason, Ray and Kyle were taking a break together. Jason, was the first to peek into the bag, and say “what do we have today?” Charlie said, “you’re the best; you know how to motivate us through our stomachs.” After a couple of bites, Ray asked, “are these home-made?” to which I replied, “yes”. He smiled and said, “I can tell because they are made with love.” And then Jason said the most profound thing: “You know, the lady from the last job told us every day ‘we love you guys’.” And then came the BUT . . . “But she never once gave us something to drink let alone feed us. You bring us drinks and feed us. You wouldn’t believe how most people treat us.”

The guys worked until around 2:30 p.m. and packed up. I turned away to take more photos, and I heard Charlie say, “see you Monday.” I waved as they drove off wiping away tears.

They say “actions speak louder than words”. Greeting the crew by their names . . . providing water, Mountain Dew, and homemade sandwiches don’t seem like big “actions”. But to these guys, who typically aren’t recognized, let alone appreciated, they bring a smile to their faces and maybe a small bright spot for the day. For me, they give me a feeling of purpose, if only for a day.

I’m honored to share a couple of John’s simple but positively impactful life-lessons. I hope you will do the same . . . take a moment to speak someone’s name, share a drink or meal, put a smile on someone’s face.

The Station

I can’t take credit for the story I am sharing tonight except for a few examples of why we yearn for the station and the closing. I received this in an e-mail 27 years ago from a friend of mine and found it a few weeks ago. I kept it all these years and realize it still applies.  Bea Positive and don’t worry about the station up ahead.

“Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the continent. We are traveling by train. Out the windows, we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at a crossing, of cattle grazing on a distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.

But uppermost in our minds is the final destination. On a certain day at a certain hour, we will pull into the station. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there, so many wonderful dreams will come true, and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a completed jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering – waiting, waiting, waiting for the train station.

“When we reach the station, that will be it!” we cry.

When I graduate from college.

When I buy a new car.

When I make Vice President.

When I get married.

When I pay off the mortgage.

When I buy a bigger boat.

When I travel to Europe for a month.

When the kids move out of the house.

When I get well.

When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after.

Sooner or later, we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.

“Relish the moment” is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24: “this is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. It is the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles.”

Instead, cherish every moment you have with your friends, your pets, your family, your wife or your husband. The station will come soon enough, and not when expected.

“You Spoke To Me Through Mary”

Every day I talk to you. As hard as I try to listen, but I can’t hear you speaking to me. Today was different, because you spoke to me through Mary.

The first time I met Mary was when she, Brian and Zack and eight others came over to clean our yard on August 15.  Today, Mary, Brian and Zack came back to help paint a few rooms.

They stopped at Panera Bread before coming over, and Mary asked me if I wanted breakfast. I asked for a breakfast sandwich of some kind, not picky. They arrived around 9:30 a.m., and we ate in our kitchen. As I was eating my egg and bacon sandwich, she handed me another bag. She said, “we decided to get you something sweet, so we got you a cinnamon bun.” I choked back the tears and told her that was our favorite pastry when we used to go to Panera.  Brian said, “See, John told us to get the cinnamon roll for you.”

Mary and I took a little break mid-morning.  She mentioned that she tried to find my “beapositive” blog. I asked her how she knew; she remembered from Pastor Dan’s message last week. I also asked her to read our book that I’ve started.

As Brian was cleaning up the paint brushes, trays, etc., she and I sat in the kitchen and talked. As the morning passed, she must have sensed that she needed to share something with me. She had a dream a few weeks before she met me.  A dear friend of hers went to heaven sometime in July. This is how I know that you spoke to me this morning.

Mary says she has very vivid dreams. In this particular dream, her friend whispered in her ear, so close that Mary could feel her breath. She said for whatever reason, she smelled some kind of mint. I believe it was wintergreen, the flavor of the Altoids we have in our car that we’d eat to cover up coffee-breath. She told Mary, “you are not going to believe this place when you get here. It’s more beautiful than you can imagine.”  Then her friend beckoned her and said, “I want to show you this house. Follow me.”

At the house, the first thing she saw was a waterfall.  Where the water spilled into the stones were black pebble stones. She said when I turned on the waterfall on August 15, the first thing she saw were the black pebble stones.  I remember when  you wanted to add black stones where the water fall, and we bought them at a local nursery.  You placed them with your hands at the bottom of the waterfall.  She immediately called Brian over and said, “look at the waterfall and the black pebble stones. . . just like in my dream.”

Waterfall with Black Pebblestones

Waterfall with Black Pebblestones

The second thing she saw in the dream were little elephant statuettes standing around her. She said it took her breath away this morning while we ate breakfast. Over in the corner on our kitchen counter she saw three elephant statuettes just like in her dream.

Elephant Statuettes

Elephant Statuettes

The third thing that convinced me you were speaking to me was the phrase she used to describe our love story. She said the way I have weaved our memories and your poetry is like a “word dance”. At that point, I took her into our music room and showed her the pictures on the wall. The first one is a couple dancing in the rain on the beach that we bought together.  I am the lady in red dancing with my Prince Charming. The other picture was a Christmas present to you from me, “Dance Me To The End of Love”.  We used to dance in our living room.  Although we can’t physically dance together right now, our story is our “word dance”, a beautiful love story with your poetry and my stories about our memories.  I know you gave her the phrase “word dance” to share with me.

Dancing

Dancing

IMG_20150829_171433252

I thank God that Mary, Brian and Zack are in our lives. Mary said, “I am your connection to John right now. He is speaking through me so that you know how much he loves you.  He is waiting for you.”

My heart aches beyond words can describe every minute that I’m awake. I only have peace when I write about us, so I continue to write our beautiful life. I love you and miss you more every day. But today . . . you spoke to me through Mary.

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