Today is Gram's birthday, and Ruthie's, and we are so lucky to have them both.
Twelve years ago on June 17th, we woke up in the Omni Hotel in Chicago. Room service delivered waffles with fresh strawberries and hot coffee. We were to be in the lobby at seven a.m. and we dressed quickly. I had been told to wear any color except white.
In the elevator we met a Mom and her teenage daughter. We made small talk and then stepped tentatively into the lobby where a limousine driver was waiting. We climbed into the long black car. Driving down the streets of Chicago, our youngest passenger asked if we could ride past Oprah's house, he said "No".
When we arrived at Harpo Studios we were taken to the "Green Room"... although as I recall it wasn't green at all. Couches and chairs and a table with finger foods. Everyone was very nice but very busy and very matter of fact. It is all sort of a blur but I remember several things clearly... Oprah came into the building wearing a hunter green sweat suit and matching baseball cap. We saw her in the hallway. If I had seen her on the street I would never have recognized her.
The make up woman was polite and insistent as she added eye liner and mascara and powder and blush and lipstick and redid my hair. I looked in the mirror and felt a wave of nausea wash over me. I told her that I couldn't go on television looking that way. She assured me that the lights would wash me out and I would look completely natural. I didn't believe a word of it.
I looked around the room at the larger than life photos of Oprah with a variety of celebrities... past guests. I looked at those of us being made up and given instructions. We weren't celebrities. We weren't famous. Mostly we were a little pitiful. The young girl who had shared the limousine ride had cancer. She and her Mom had come to talk about the impact Robert Urich had made on their lives. A young mother with breast cancer, and her family. Jules and me. There was a soft buzz of private conversations, but mostly we sat quietly, waiting.
A number of individuals with clipboards and headphones came in and hustled about. I kept seeing myself in the glass over the large photos and asked for the bathroom. I wet some of those hard brown paper towels and tried to wash enough of the make up off to look more like me but not enough to be chastised. I cried and tried not to be sick. I wondered what on earth I was thinking to agree to this. Then I thought about what an amazing Angel Shannon must be, to have arranged for me to meet Oprah only two weeks after arriving in Heaven. I thought about how my email had actually been read.... when all I wanted to do was thank Oprah for her part in making Shannon happy. I wanted her to know that Shannon took the Gratitude Journal seriously and that she had appeared in the five daily thank yous on more than one occasion. I remembered how kind and gentle the producer had been on the phone and how amazing a coincidence it was that they had planned a show on Gratitude right before they received my e mail.
I remember being "Mic'ed", little wires tucked inside my slip and down my back. I remember being led to our seats and being handed a blue four by six card with suggested text. I remember that my tiny microphone didn't work and they had to do it a second time and I was tickled because I knew it was Shannon letting me know she was there. I also thought that maybe Shannon's recipients had been flown in and were going to be introduced to us...that while they were leading me back behind the set, rewiring me, they were secretly placing the anonymous recipient in the seat beside mine and they were going to surprise me. I know, it was a foolish thought considering that those dear people had had major surgery only weeks before but the thought played in my head, none the less.
Then Oprah came onto the stage. She announced that the show was "Letters to Oprah". Jules and I looked at each other and that all too familiar wave of nausea flooded me once again. A Basketball player's wife whined about how Oprah had lumped her husband in with other professional "dead beat Dad" athletes. Jules was furious. I was simply in shock. After the commercial break, a slide show of Shannon's photos filled the screen and Oprah read my e mail to her about Shannon. I remember thinking that I had to make Shannon proud of me. I had to be articulate and calm. I must not cry. I looked at her precious smile and the reality of our life smacked me square between my black lined eyes. Only forty eight days earlier I had been another person. I had laughed and loved and trusted and hoped and ... now I was sitting in the audience of the Oprah Winfrey Show holding Shannon's journal in my lap. I was telling Oprah how we had purchased every Gratitude Journal in Waldenbooks for friends and how Shannon was grateful for Chapstick and Good Egg Salad. Oprah was wearing her hair in corn rows. She looked lovely. She was very gracious as she handed us the soft green eight by eleven journals so that we could continue expressing our gratitude. We were pitiful.
She also gave the mother with breast cancer a video camera so that she could record messages for the children she was going to leave behind, and a video message from Robert Urich, who was battling the same rare cancer as the sweet optimistic young girl who had wanted to see where Oprah lived.
When the taping was over Jules and I packed our overnight bag and the limousine took us back to the airport. We didn't say very much. What was there to say? It was all a blur, like a dream that just won't end. When we arrived in Richmond we were mentally and emotionally exhausted and no matter how many times we went over the experience we couldn't understand why Shannon had wanted us there. It would become clear two years later when we were once again visited by Oprah. The second visit resulted in friendships that would last forever...and thousands of people around the globe would meet and love Shannon for her open heart and innocent appreciation for life's simplest gifts.
All of the events of June 17, 1998 were playing in my head as I drove to meet my family to celebrate my Mom's birthday. I was driving the Jeep with the top back. The sun was warm and the breeze wonderful. I thought I knew exactly how to get to the Outback in Warrenton but I was wrong. Fortunately a kind gentleman walking his small terriers down a one way street, was able to point me in the right direction after he laughed a little at how lost I was. If he only knew.
It was nice for us all to be together. Almost. Jules was in Atlanta in school and Shannon was in Heaven and I tried not to notice that "my people" were missing. I had a delicious sweet potato and a blue cheese wedge salad. I smooched on Gavin and had cake. Thank goodness for cake ! We took a family photo on the porch of the Warrenton Outback and I felt "sappy"(... sad/happy). It's okay to feel sappy. I know what a blessing my family is, but there is someone absent that I will always and forever miss when we are all together and it's okay. It's okay for me to miss her. It doesn't take away from the joyous moments....the birthday celebrations, the weddings, the new babies... I feel the wonder of all of those... but I miss having Shannon to share them with. I don't want anyone else to be sad for me. Sometimes trying to keep the "happy face" in place is exhausting but I climbed into my Eeyore blue Jeep, felt the setting sun on my arms as the wind whipped my hair all about my face and once alone, I cried all the way back to Fredericksburg. And even that was okay.
I thought about Ruthie and her new babies. I remembered holding her under the big umbrella on the beach at Ft. Morgan, Alabama when she was only a month old. I marveled at how life just continues to unfold and bless us. The day lilies seemed a more brilliant orange as I pulled into the driveway. I think sometimes we need a really good cry to clear away the debris. I'm not who I was twelve years and six months ago, I'm not who I was twelve years and one month ago, I'm not who I was five years ago and I probably won't be tomorrow, who I was yesterday. Sometimes I fight with that inevitability...I resist the necessity of change, but resisting is a waste of energy... like trying to swim upstream, against the flow. You will end up in the same space regardless, only you can decide whether to arrive rested and hopeful or exhausted and hopeless. Perhaps tomorrow... I'll give simply floating another try !
"Thank you for Gram and Ruthie. Thank you for summer road trips and time to be alone. Thank you for knowing there is a big picture whether I can see it or not. Thank you for the friends that came into our lives as strangers. Thank you for Oprah showing them the way."