Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (18/19) — Chapter Eighteen, Sunflower (2/4)

IN THE MIDST OF THE PANDEMIC, this yellow black-eyed Susan and purple echinacea outside Levine Cancer Institute were just two of the colorful coneflowers in the beds near the front entrance in late May.


BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 5, 2020) – Three years ago today, on Aug. 5, 2017, Timberley and I drove from Charlotte to Morganton at the end of her third hospital stay in just over a month. We had set up three webcams around the house to keep an eye on the place—well, actually, on our trouble-making kitten, Scout—while we were gone. Her brother, Jem, always behaved and still does. Scout was aptly named.

The other day I was looking through the photos and videos on my phone, and I happened to run across all 12 of the 30-second clips that the webcams recorded that day. In a number of those clips, the motion sensors were simply tripped by flashes of light from the street that reflected in the window and bounced off the living room walls—at least, I hope those were headlights. I don’t know. Maybe they were haints.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — Some of our echinacea this summer with aster yellows disease; the pineapple we found in our yard; a rosary containing a St. Peregrine medal from a tree out front.

Stranger things have happened in that house, believe me. I’m talking about creaking stairs and odd orbs. Also, when we still had a dogwood in the yard out front, we’d find weird things hanging from its limbs, like pantyhose with potatoes in both feet, fancy earrings, a fishing line with weights and lures, and, not long before Timberley’s diagnosis, a rosary bearing a tiny medal for the patron saint of cancer patients.

About a month ago, we found a whole pineapple in the yard. I hope that means we’re going to Hawaii. Or maybe that was a sign that our new dahlia named Hawaii wasn’t going to bloom. It did land where Timberley had planted those bulbs. Instead, what I’m hoping is a Sun King sunflower (but that Google still says is a mulberry) grew in that very spot. Maybe the litterer was also spitting out sunflower seeds.

Anyway, back to the webcams, other than showing mysterious lights in the living room, there were two clips of our sweet neighbor coming over to feed Scout and Jem, as she had done all through July while we were at Charlotte’s Carolinas Medical Center. The last two clips showed a tired Timberley, with the two kittens on her heels, and a befuddled me when we finally got home to stay—in Morganton, at least.

What a way to spend our retirements from full-time teaching. When we decided to retire from Watauga High in July 2016, we had thought we would be able to take a trip now and then to our old home at the beach or to visit family and friends in other parts of the country. For the two previous years, we hadn’t been able to go anywhere or do anything that required advance planning, so we were ready for a break.

CLOCKWISE FROM LOWER LEFT — Purple coneflowers, or echinacea, in downtown Morganton near the old post office; in our front yard in Morganton; and in the back yard at the Walden Woods Project near Lincoln, Mass., where in 2012 I participated in the best professional development program of my teaching career.

And then about two months into our retirements, our bucket didn’t just have a hole in it; the bottom fell out entirely, with Timberley undergoing a serious outpatient procedure that led to her cancer diagnosis and with our extended family suffering two cancer deaths. There was a point when even Job wanted to know why God seemed to be picking on him. That’s how I’ve felt since I got hit by a car when I was 8.

Well, actually, I didn’t blame God for that. My father did, even though I was the one who hadn’t looked both ways before trying to cross the road during rush hour. As I’ve noted before, Dad thought God was punishing him, not necessarily me, the one who spent six weeks in traction in the care of a sadistic old Army doctor whose idea of pain management was saying, “Stop crying, kid. This doesn’t really hurt.”

Of course, why do bad things happen to good people? Why would God allow a boy who just wanted to retrieve his books from the bus stop where he’d left them that morning come close to being killed as he crossed the road? Why would God punish a lifelong preacher of the gospel with 15 years of suffering at the end of his life? And why would God choose to let the mind of a retired English teacher waste away and become wordless?

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — The Rev. William Barber speaks at a protest rally that we attended several years ago near the State Legislature in Raleigh; me listening to speakers at another Moral Monday protest in downtown Raleigh; and Timberley’s sign that she carried at another march for public education in the state capital.

As God asked Job, “Who are you to question me? Did you exist when I created the universe?” That was more than God said to Jesus when he asked from the cross why his heavenly father had forsaken him, a child of God, as are we all. Jesus himself had preached, as I’ve said before, that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45, NASB).

That’s the more or less positive way to look at life. Shit happens—to everybody, not just to good people or to bad people. To everyone. And that, that very truth is what convinces me that the “God is good, all the time” credo is only half of the good news. God is good and bad, all the time. Even at the same time. The sunshine that warms one person, burns another. The rain that nourishes one garden, floods another.

God is both fair weather and foul. Mountain breeze and coastal storm. Good fortune and bad. Wellness and illness. Living and dying. God is the beautiful black-eyed Susan that brightens the flowerbed, then spreads and spreads, choking out other, more beautiful flowers and covering the brick walkway through the garden. God is the purple coneflower, the healing echinacea, even the one with aster yellows disease.

Those are the flowers I remember best from that bad time three years ago—the black-eyed Susans that took over our front yard in Morganton and the few purple echinacea plants that struggled to grow along the stone wall next to our front porch. Having to hunker down in Morganton, we were missing the lilies growing here in Rutherwood. And the echinacea that once flourished here at this house were long gone.

COUNTERCLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — The brick walkway through our garden area; that same walkway overrun by black-eyed Susans three years ago; and one whose button bears several inchworms.

But was that really a bad time? Sure it was. Timberley and I were both fearful of what we were facing then and of the uncertainty of our lives going forward. All along the way since that summer, we’ve tried to make the best of what we still have, and we’ve certainly been lucky in many respects. Just over two weeks after Timberley got home from CMC that last time, she was teaching her college classes again.

She has been able to keep teaching part-time at ASU ever since then despite a few physical setbacks—both hers and mine—and despite an around-the-clock living routine and a regular testing schedule that have taxed our time, our strength and our finances. Two years ago, even I returned to teaching, first as a Burke County Literary Council volunteer, then as a consultant at App State’s University Writing Center.

Whether or not my students through the years would all agree, teaching—well, coaching, actually—is something I’ve done most of my life, thanks to my parents’ influences. Mom taught English, journalism and Spanish at Morganton area high schools including Salem, Oak Hill and Freedom, while Dad taught at Jonas Ridge School and Tabernacle Christian School before and after his 25-year ministerial career.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — Mom in her first year of teaching at Morganton’s Oak Hill High around 1967; Mom and Dad (at the center of the photo) in a crowd of county teachers at the start of my parents’ first year of teaching in Burke County in the early 1950s; Mom in the Oak Hill yearbook around 1970, a few years before the consolidation of Freedom High School.

My first pupil, my first charge, was my little brother, Ken. The last three years of his life, as an eight-, nine- and ten-year-old, he and I would begin training in early August for his participation in the local NFL Ford Punt, Pass & Kick competition that would be held each September at Hudson Optimist Park. After finishing third his first year, he won his last two local contests going away. He had a strong arm.

I also taught Ken how to play basketball and baseball. Our court and field of dreams were the rectangle of asphalt and adjacent field at Piney Grove Baptist Church. When we got tired of shooting hoops, we’d take up our gloves, bat and ball, and play catch or shag flies in the field. That last summer he was alive, I remember telling him that I’d soon help him switch from a one-hand push shot to an overhead jumper.

A couple of years later, I got a taste of teaching as a tutor in the Western Piedmont Community College writing lab. The few hours I worked there were part of my English Department scholarship. But I didn’t decide to pursue an official career as an English teacher—I wouldn’t have taught anything else—until I had worked too many hours as a reporter at three newspapers and a radio station for much too little pay.

Fittingly, I wouldn’t have gotten my first actual teaching job if I hadn’t been willing to coach basketball, first as a volunteer assistant to an embattled varsity coach in his last season, then as a paid assistant to a new coach who lasted only a year himself. The next head coach—the third and worst one that I assisted over those three seasons—was the fellow whose lack of discipline ended my basketball coaching career.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — My first paid coaching job was as assistant varsity and head JV coach for Charlie Stevens’s WBHS Trojans, pictured here in a 1993 holiday tournament at UNC Wilmington; ‘paying up’ after betting my WBHS girls team that they wouldn’t be conference champs that season; and my favorite coaching attire.

But by then I’d already served four seasons as varsity tennis coach for the high school’s boys and girls teams, and had earned three conference coach-of-the-year awards by virtue of my teams—our teams—winning conference championships. A few years later as Watauga High’s tennis coach, I won one more coach-of-the-year honor that conference coaches actually voted on. I deserved two or three others there.

The main difference between coaching tennis players at West Brunswick and at Watauga was that the WBHS kids were generally more cooperative and less corrupted by outside influences than the WHS boys, at least, were. The girls at both schools were much better team members than the Watauga boys and slightly better than a majority of my West Brunswick boys. But one WBHS boys team was special.

It was my only West Brunswick boys team to win the Waccamaw 2A/3A Conference championship. A hurricane the previous fall had displaced foreign exchange students from other high schools in the state, and WBHS ended up with more of those students than we usually got. For some reason, the boys tennis team that spring had four—count ’em, four—exchange students, which were almost half of our players.

Now, none of those four was a top tennis player as was the case the next year with a German exchange student, actually a German tennis pro, who played for our main rival—that is, until I found him on the early Internet and confronted the other coach with the eligibility issue. “Yes, Sven’s on a different level from all these boys,” the coach had said. I came back with, “Yeah, and that level is called professional.”

Speaking of Germans, or of speaking German, one of the players on that special boys team of mine was from Germany. Another team had two German players, who proceeded to coach each other during play. “They can’t do that,” I reminded the rival coach. He smirked, “How do you know they’re coaching each other? They’re speaking German. Do you speak German?” I replied, “No, but my German player does.”

My other foreign players that season were from Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic. On top of that, the Swedish student was Chinese. Still, he spoke the best English of the four foreign students and was so much nicer than his host-family brother, who was also on the team, that I wished we could send the local boy back to Sweden at the end of the school year and keep the Asian Swede here in America.

If that sounds like a mean thing to say, the next year I got my comeuppance. We had one—count him, one—foreign exchange student on the team. He was from Germany, but his heritage—on his mother’s side, at least—was Iranian. He called it Persian, not Iranian. He also told his opponents—I don’t know why—that he looked just like their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But you know what? He wasn’t lying.

He couldn’t exactly walk on water, but that boy was the best player of our five exchange students over those two seasons, and he was the reason for one of my biggest regrets—one of several, admittedly—as a coach. He wasn’t the best player on the team, but without a doubt he was the most competitive, and he had a knack for antagonizing opponents into submission. That was how he usually beat our best player.

So what was my big regret? Without going into all of the details, I learned that a coach—or a teacher—who shows favoritism or tries too hard to manufacture fairness on the court or in the classroom usually ends up regretting those times that he rewarded his charges when they should have reaped exactly what they’d sown. That is what’s good about competition—learning how to win fairly and to lose graciously.

But so much in the modern world and in American society shouldn’t be competitive, because too many of us are neither fair nor gracious. We shouldn’t have to compete for everything—for a good education, for a good job, for good pay, for acceptance in whatever circle we wish to be a part. It’s much too easy to glorify the “winners” and vilify the “losers,” especially when all the rules of the game favor one side.

In addition, I learned that all coaches teach their student-athletes in one way or another, in winning and in losing, for better or worse, but that all teachers don’t always coach their pupils in the various subjects that the youngsters study under their direction. I tried to teach as I had coached—through organized and purposeful practice with an emphasis on fundamentals—even though my kids didn’t always cooperate.

Certainly, I’m sure I was better liked by students when I was also one of the school’s coaches—and that observation has nothing at all to do with classroom teaching. For whatever reason, the average teenager is predisposed to like most coaches and to dislike most teachers. Once I was no longer a coach and was merely a teacher—with no apparent identity outside class—many students treated me with less respect.

Looking back on my nine years of coaching and 24 years of teaching, I don’t remember slowing down or easing up long enough to stop and smell the roses, as they say, because I was always too busy getting students ready for their next challenge, whether it was an athletic contest or a writing test of some sort. I don’t even remember seeing any roses or flowers of any type at either of the schools where I worked.

Maybe that was my problem all along—not truly appreciating the different worlds I lived in, with all of their goodness and badness, happiness and sorrow, wins and losses. But maybe our lives aren’t the zero-sum games that we’re led to believe they are. Maybe we should just be satisfied with degrees of virtue, passion and success. Maybe our goal should be to play each world to a draw—or at least pray for rain.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT — The coneflowers outside CMC in Charlotte; sitting outside wearing a mask before waiting in our van due to pandemic precautions.

This past May as schools across the state were bringing their pandemic-plagued semesters to a close, I sat on a bench outside Levine Cancer Institute at CMC in Charlotte as Timberley underwent her regular testing, and I noticed all the pretty coneflowers blooming in the beds out front. Masked, I took out my smartphone and photographed all the different colors before returning to our van in the parking garage.

Because of the mask, I couldn’t smell the flowers, though they don’t have a particular fragrance as most roses do, anyway. But as I study those photographs now and remember the good news—no, the great news—that Timberley shared with me later that day, I just can’t imagine smelling, seeing, hearing or even tasting anything better. The only sensation left is feeling, which, come to think of it, is the whole point of our all-or-nothing lives.