Saturday, July 12, 2014

So Long to a Loyal Friend

I hate writing these types of posts.   And yet I can't seem to move on until I do.   Because even though they're not human, even though they'd drink out of the toilet if you'd let them, our dogs are part of our family and when you lose a member of the family, no matter how uncivilized a member, it hurts a whole heck of a lot.

Charlie (named for Charlie Brown) joined the Beck clan nearly 15 years ago, our first foray into the world of dog ownership.  We had just two children then--a 5 year old and 3 year old.  Those kids are now 20 and nearly 18.

Do not let this picture fool you, that sweet-looking animal was a nightmare of a puppy.  As evidence, let me present just a small sampling of the things he chewed and destroyed: my checkbook, Adam's t-ball cap, a kitchen cabinet, vertical blinds, shoe after shoe after shoe, and perhaps the most ironic, our Labrador Retriever Training Manual.  I used to lay awake at night, thinking of ways I could get rid of this puppy who'd ruined my life.....take him for a walk and somehow the leash might detach and oops.....he's lost?  (I'd have to take off his ID tags first of course.) Maybe poison?  I could fake a dog allergy?  But the thing was, everyone adored him.  Yes, he was destructive, but he was also loving and loyal.  If I let him off the leash, I knew he'd follow me home.   For better or worse, he was staying.

And how thankful I am that I stuck it out through that first year of puppyhood.  He became one of the kindest, strongest dogs ever to walk the planet.  He was a tireless hiker and simply adored being outside with his family.

When he saw the truck getting loaded with gear, he hopped up and down like a rabbit and couldn't wait to hit the trails.

He loved everyone, but he had a special relationship with our kids.  His kids, he'd insist, if he were telling the story.

But really, any kids would do.  All of these scouts are now men.  Several are returned missionaries, some married, some (including Charlie's boy) are currently serving missions.   At least one of them is now bald.  The scouts loved having Charlie along and argued over who got to sleep with him in their tent.

When a new baby joined our family, he dutifully stayed by her side.  I never worried about Charlie hurting anyone.

He was endlessly patient and tender.  

Kids could sit on him, use him as a pillow,

 poke and prod him, and he just happily thumped his metronome tail.

He cured countless kids of dog-a-phobia.  Once, friends from dental school visited our home.  Their severely autistic son picked up a ball and threw it for Charlie.  Charlie, a devotee of fetch, gleefully ran to get it and gently placed it back at the boy's feet.  The boy's face lit up and he threw that ball over and over and over again.  When they were done, the boy sat down and Charlie curled up next to him and laid his head on his lap.  Our friends asked, "How much can we pay you for that dog?"

Charlie appreciated table scraps, but unlike another dog we know well, he was no food thief.    He was a very smart, obedient dog.  Once, during his puppyhood, we were backing out of our driveway and saw his face in an upstairs window.  We knew that to see out the window, he had to be standing on a bed.  Lyle went inside and scolded him and he never, ever set paw on furniture again.  UNTIL, the night when our son was struggling with bad dreams and we patted the foot of the bed and told Charlie to jump up.  He did and somehow he knew that was now his spot.  He slept there every night for years, until our son grew too tall to accommodate bedmates.

When I say Charlie was tender and loving, I should mention one notable exception.  It happened when Charlie was a young dog, maybe 2 years old, and we were doing some yard work.  A friend of ours, a local orthodontist, was helping out front and Lyle sent him in unaccompanied to get a drink of water.   Charlie's reaction was unlike anything I'd ever seen.   Every hair stood up on his back and he flattened himself to the ground in a menacing stance, baring his teeth and growling.  The kind-hearted orthodontist spoke soothingly to our friendly-lab-turned-attack-dog and tried walk around him, but Charlie would not, under any circumstances, let this stranger get past him to where the rest of the family was gathered in the kitchen.  Lyle, hearing the commotion, came inside and literally tackled Charlie to keep him from ripping our friend limb from limb.  As much as that was a scary moment, I was so proud of Charlie.  Here was a stranger, walking into his house unaccompanied, trying to get to his family?  No way.  From then on, I knew if the chips were ever down, Charlie would protect us with his life.

When we moved to our house on acreage, it was heaven on earth for Charlie.  Five unfenced acres and friendly, dog-loving neighbors.  He had his little routes that he'd take on daily walks.   Lyle trained for numerous marathons, heading down our dusty dirt road with Charlie by his side.  Charlie was actually one of the primary reasons he started running marathons in the first place--just trying to burn off some of his excess canine energy!  Lyle always said that Charlie ran at least twice as far as he did, because he'd run up ahead, then circle back to check on Lyle, and then sprint up ahead again, and then go back to check on Lyle......  Charlie literally ran hundreds of miles with Lyle.  Whenever he saw Lyle tying up his running shoes, he excitedly bunny-hopped to the door.

Charlie also had a hero moment.  He was young, maybe 3 or 4, and we were hiking on Green Mountain.  We'd stopped to eat lunch and the kids were exploring nearby.  As we gathered our things to continue the hike, we couldn't find our son.  We yelled his name, Lyle ran down trails, but there was no trace of him.  Numerous trails ran in different directions and we envisioned search and rescue teams and possibly a blurb on the evening news.  We realized that Charlie was with him and that gave us some degree of comfort.   We knew he wouldn't leave him.  I can't remember how much time went by, probably not as long as it seemed, but finally we saw Charlie, in the distance, running toward us alone.  He was barking and he ran in a circle around us and then headed back the way he'd come.  Of course, we followed him and eventually found Adam, a good distance away from us.  There was a woman there with him and she said that when she realized that this boy's parents were nowhere nearby, she hit Charlie on the rump and said, "Go find your family!"  And he did.

Charlie adored the beach and was the consummate water dog.  Once, when he was a puppy, I had him on a retractable leash, and when he saw the water, he started to run.  I couldn't get the leash to unlock and he dragged me behind him like a water skier, right into Puget Sound.

Charlie was one of the strongest dogs I've ever known.    The vet commented on it all the time.  He was so stoic, so tough.   In these pictures at the beach, he was already 10 years old, but had the strength and energy level of a dog in his prime.

By this point in his life, he'd had ACL surgery, numerous bumps and bruises, been kicked in the head by a horse, but none of it appreciably slowed him down.

He was so dedicated to finding the sticks we threw in the water, we sometimes worried he'd drown rather than face the shame of returning stick-less.

He pulled our kids in a cart, 

a cart that we'd bought for our giant breed dog, our Berner, Olaf.  

But Olaf, sweet as he was, didn't really like to exert himself.  Charlie on the other hand, loved having a job to do.

But all dogs, even the strongest of the bunch, eventually do get old.  And this is where the story gets hard.

At about age 11,  he started to slow down.  He tried to go on runs, but it was getting too much for him. He whimpered when Lyle put on his running shoes and refused to let him go.  He still went for walks, but he was slower, less steady on his feet.

His muzzle turned gray and he spent more time sleeping in the sun.  At age 12, he one day seemed to completely lose his sense of balance.  We took him to the vet who diagnosed "Old Dog Vestibular Disease", which he said would mostly go away.  Charlie's balance would never be what it used to be, but he could function.  What was more worrisome was that they found a large growth in his spleen.  The vet said that it shouldn't be hurting him, so we could take him home, but that he could die at any time.  We might get as long as 6 more months.  That was 29 months ago.

He grew more gray, more withered.  When our son said goodbye to him as he left on his 2 year-mission,  we all knew he wouldn't be seeing him again.  I'd kept myself composed the whole day, but behind the lens of my camera, I teared up taking this picture.

In the past 7 months since Adam's been gone, there have been many moments when we thought we were at the end......when Charlie inexplicably began eating rocks one day, when he could no longer manage the stairs, when he continually barked all night for no apparent reason......but each time, he seemed to rally and get over whatever was ailing him.  But try as we did, we couldn't keep weight on him.  He had a good appetite and he ate as much as our overweight dog, Franklin, but you could still see every one of his ribs.  Even when we thought he had no more weight to lose, somehow he'd get thinner.  He was a walking skeleton.  We knew that sooner rather than later we'd have to decide when the time had come.

On Friday morning Charlie cut his leg.  It was bleeding badly, but he was walking on it and it could have been stitched and repaired.  Somehow though, that didn't seem right.   This was the answer we'd been looking for and the time had come.  The children hugged him and said goodbye, and at the vet's office, he silently and peacefully passed away.  We took him home, Lyle built a sturdy box, and we all decorated it with Sharpie markers.  

I love little Cholita's comment, at the bottom:

"I liked you better than Franklin."   She's nothing if not honest.

 On one end of the box, she drew a picture and wrote, "You lived a long life."  He certainly did.  On the other side she wrote, "You will always be in my heart."

Ditto for the rest of us.  We loved you Charlie dog.  You were a true gem. 

Day 2: Devil's Gate and the Stinging Sands

We started our day very early, much earlier than any of us would have liked. Most families shivered from the rain that soaked them during the night, but only our bookend kids got wet--our oldest boy on one side of the family tarp and our youngest daughter on the other side. We staggered to the port-a-potties, looking significantly less put-together than when we’d started. With the morning light, we realized we weren’t just messy, we were FILTHY. The hairline, eyebrows, and nostrils seemed to have borne the brunt of the previous day’s sand storms and sweat lines cut through our dust-covered skin, covering our faces like a map of country backroads.

We ate oatmeal for breakfast and then one of our sons offered a concise but fitting morning devotional scripture, “Oh, be wise. What can I say more?”, and we were off. First stop, Devil’s Gate. We’d been up and down plenty of hills already--some descents so steep that our kids on the back looked like they were water-skiing through the dust as they planted their feet and hung on to the tail end of the cart--but this Devil’s Gate business was beyond anything we’d attempted. 

We all cheered when the first cart rolled into place at the foot of the hill. A runner laboriously made their way to the top, grabbed a rope with carabiners on the end, and walked gingerly back down, sometimes bracing their hand behind them to keep from sliding. The runner hooked the carabiners to the cart, two boys stayed behind for a later assignment, and the rest of the family huffed and puffed their way up. When they’d reached the top and were no longer visible, the boys who’d stayed behind each took hold of one end of the handle and steered as a mysterious power from above heaved the handcart to the top. 

From our vantage point, we couldn’t see what that power was, but I honestly thought it was a mechanical wench of some kind. Or maybe the rope was hooked to a pick-up truck. When it was our turn, I’d hardly caught my breath from the climb when I realized that the power at the top didn’t come from a truck or a wench, but teenagers in gloves, lined up along the rope, looking like they were involved in a tug of war match. As a ma, I was to stand about mid-way down the rope and as soon as a teen got to me, I’d send them running back down to the front of the line, and so it went until our handcart peeked its wooden self over the top. Truck indeed. 

With that accomplished, we had some down-time while the rest of the carts made the climb. To escape from the hot wind, several families pooled their resources of tarps and ropes to construct shelters, some more effective than others. We were dozing when a young man poked his head under our tarp and asked if we wanted to join in a game of missionary tag. As adults and youth ran and laughed on the hilltop, I was struck by the beauty of the girls. Yes, they were covered in dirt, but they looked so healthy and joyful, bonnets blowing in the wind. No make up. No designer clothing. No electronic games in their pockets. Our ancestors had none of those things and in that moment, I envied them.

From tag, we moved on to Indian wrestling. It started innocently enough with all of us good-naturedly, almost apologetically, trying to shove our opponent off balance. Our captain caught sight of us and confidently strode over. He took his place in front of me and BAM! He not only threw me off balance, he almost knocked me on my pantalooned keister. “Umm, hello! I’m the MA!” To defend my honor, Pa Beck stepped forward. He tried valiantly, I’ll give him that, but he was schooled. Seriously schooled. With the old man vanquished, the captain waved our youngest trek son over to demonstrate some techniques. They jostled around for a bit and then in a moment none of us will soon forget, the captain completely flipped our son--straw hat over hiking boots. Our boy landed hard in the dust, jumped up, and rubbed his hip where he’d just crushed the metal cup hanging from his waist. All of us, including the captain who looked as surprised as anyone, just stood there, mouths hanging open. Our son limped a little but waved it off as a mere flesh wound. The captain apologized profusely and tried to squeeze the now-flattened cup back into shape, but it wouldn’t budge. Later, in a family letter to our captain, our son wrote, “Thanks for making my cup so much easier to grip.” We had the best kids.

The next stretch of trail I will call “the stinging sands”. We walked head-long into the wind, with dust continuously thrown into our eyes and mouths. Most of us tied bandanas around our faces, looking like bandits-of-the-prairie. I couldn’t raise my head at all, but just stared at my boots as they plodded through the deep sand. It was so hypnotizing, I worried I’d fall asleep and keel right over onto the trail. For the first time on trek, I wished I was pushing, hanging on to the solid wood of the handcart. From our whole company, I heard no singing. No conversation. Just wind and footsteps. Wind and footsteps. When the path finally turned and I looked up, I saw ahead of us the colorful tents of the Walla Walla stake. It was early evening and they were done trekking for the day. We could smell their dinner cooking. I thought of the last lines of the Robert Frost poem: “And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” Silverdale stake is nothing if not hardcore.

Pioneer Trek: Day One

We began trekking that first day sometime in the afternoon. Without a watch or phone, I can’t really be more specific than that. We all ate our sack lunches on the busses. One of our daughters (who’d had older siblings go on trek) brought a lunch that included 2 footlong hoagies and enough munchies to feed a small village. Clearly she knew something. But lest we think leftovers could be taken to-go, that idea was quashed by our company captain who said we had to eat it or throw it away. Binge or bust.

So off the bus and onto the trail. When you first push a handcart, you think, “hmm, not so bad....almost fun really....” and if the ground were well-packed and entirely flat, you would probably continue to roll merrily along for a good while. Instead, on our journey, the wheels frequently sink into deep stretches of sand causing us to fish-tail and sometimes stop altogether. To get going again, it requires everyone (except Ma and Pa of course) to lower their heads, dig in, and give a mighty heave. There are enough hills to make your legs and arms burn, and almost worst of all, surprisingly soon after your first push (like 5 minutes maybe?) you come to the realization that this isn't terribly diverting.


Oldies but goodies from the all-American family road trip don’t serve you well on the trail. No road signs, no license plates (“I just got Delaware!”), no significant change in the scenery, no animal-spotting, no radio, no books, “I-Spy” would prove rather lame.......“Let's see, I spy with my little eye something......brown.....”, and you can’t even fall asleep and let the siblings on either side of you play ping pong with your head. But I did try a variation on the theme of “I’m going to Grandma’s house and I’m going to bring.....” So our “I’m going on pioneer trek” game lasted a few minutes, but it’s challenging for the people on the rear to be heard by the backs of the heads up front and sometimes we’d have to pause for geographic conditions that required a little more concentration, and it’s never been that great of a game anyway.

To keep their kids talking, the parents in one handcart in our company kept up a steady stream of this or that questions......“Books or movies?" "Cold weather or hot weather?" "Band or choir?" "Superman or Batman?” There were a few singing handcarts behind us, some who sang with great gusto, and occasionally we’d half-heartedly join in, but that wasn’t our strong suit (along with family cheers). We found our talents lie in the pushing department. From the handcart in front of us, we heard frequent encouragement from the Pa: “Push, guys! You gotta’ PUSH!” I don’t think we ever, not once during the whole trek, told our kids to push. If anything, we held them back. “Slow down a bit....give the other cart room.....let’s wait and let them get ahead...” This stop-and-go was irritating, especially for our power forwards who knew, "we could have been in Zion, like, yesterday.” As a non-pushing Ma, I often had to lift up my skirt and jog just to stay with our cart, that’s how fast they wanted to move-along.

I’ve never been much of a group joiner, but I do like one-on-one conversations, so I slowly got to know each of our kids. While they pushed, I jogged along next to them and asked annoying questions. And really, when you’re sweating and tired, isn’t it great to have someone who’s putting forth maybe a tenth of your effort ask about your future aspirations? I’m sure they loved it. Some of our kids knew each other from school or ward, but none of them were bosom buddies, so everyone had to stick their neck out at least a little bit.

We did find that one of our daughters, who was on the back, had a good friend pushing on the front of the cart behind us. At water breaks they’d talk. Then suddenly the friend was gone and that handcart was down a person. Our company captain told us there’d been an accident and they were taking her to a hospital for X-rays. Our mouths all dropped open and he explained that she’d had her foot run-over by a wheel and her trekking was done. I wondered if this was one of the “vignettes” I knew the trek director had planned for out on the trail, but no, this was a jolt of reality that we hadn’t expected. Trekking was not without its dangers, something our ancestors could have, and actually DID, tell us in their journals.

As night fell, the conversation in our family and from the sound of it, in the other families, turned to food. The this-or-that cart was asking, “Lasagna or Enchilada?" "McDonalds or Burger King?” Everything sounded good. Once the cart behind us hit on the food conversation, they never, through the whole rest of the trek, departed from it.

Trekking at night is not as hot as trekking in the day. That’s all I can come up with in the “advantages-of-night-trekking department”. It was so dark we weren’t always sure we were exactly on the trail. Rocks tripped us up. The wind whipped sand in our faces. I overheard a girl on another cart say loudly, “O.K.! I get it! Trekking is hard! Let’s get some food and go to sleep!” No one disagreed with her. But we kept trekking, hours after the sun went down.

When we finally stopped for the night, a light rain began to fall. We all retrieved our tin pie plates and spoons from our buckets and joined the dinner line. Salty broth and a roll. That was it. But it did taste good. We said a family prayer, laid out a tarp on the ground, and made camp for the night. Pa Beck pulled another tarp over us, securing it to our handcart with ropes, and turned out the lantern. The turning off of the lantern struck me as so old-fashioned and wholesome I wanted to say, "good night, John Boy," but knew our kids wouldn't understand a Waltons reference. Instead, I fell asleep to the enthusiastic voice of Ma This-or-That asking, "sleeping bag or hammock?" Day one was mercifully over

Monday, July 7, 2014

Contraband and the Shame Method of Parenting

At our Ma/Pa training, we role-played the shake down we were to do with our new children. Put a hand on each shoulder, look meaningfully into their eyes, and ask with great sincerity, using their name, “Johnny, is there anything in your bucket that should NOT be in your bucket?” Smile, wait silently. “Johnny, is there anything taped to your body or hidden in secret pockets?” When they begin to sweat and twitch, you break the shoulder hold, thus ending the Vulcan mind-meld, spread out your apron, and collect the Speed Stick, Juicy Fruit, and electronic devices that would come pouring forth. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much of a touchy-feely person and staring games make me uncomfortable, so just to initiate conversation, early-on in our trek, I asked, “If any of you could bring an item of contraband, which I’m SURE you wouldn’t, but IF you could, what would it be?”

After trek finished, one of my daughters said that that single question shamed her into not using the deodorant she’d hidden away in her sleeping bag. One morning, after a soggy night, Pa Beck hung a certain other daughter’s damp sleeping bag out to dry. From the bag, rained down contraband items enough to secure her a warm welcome at the next Walla Walla young women’s night. We’ll never know if my shame-them-into-submission question worked on all of our contraband-toting children or if the owner of this sleeping bag actually used her deodorant, but I will say that I never detected an unpleasant aroma coming from her direction. Pa Beck just laughed and re-deposited the contraband back into the bottom of her sleeping bag. I wonder if reading this, every single one of our daughters will wonder if I'm talking about her. To each one of them, the answer is yes, it’s you.

Doing the Ancestors Proud

An LDS church youth group from Walla Walla pulled and pushed handcarts through Bing Canyon in Eastern Washington. They wore some semblance of pioneer clothing--long skirts, bonnets, suspenders, straw hats, but there were also a few baseball caps, t-shirts, modern-looking sunglasses. They ate pulled pork sandwiches, snacked on trail mix full of M&Ms and gummy bears, pitched their REI tents in the early evening, laid their sleeping bags on memory foam pads, and fluffed their pillows. They probably even wore deodorant. We are so not from Walla Walla.

Silverdale Stake Pioneer Trek 2014 was all about authenticity. The girls wore not only dresses, bonnets, and aprons, but pantaloons and even petticoats that no one else would ever see. The boys were in buttoned suspenders, old-fashioned hats and collar-less shirts. Pioneers in the 1800’s wore no deodorant, so 160-ish years later, we’d stink together in solidarity with our ancestors. Colgate wasn’t a huge presence on the plains, but you could sprinkle some baking soda on your toothbrush. Make up? Nope. Snacks for the long journey? Not part of the program. Each trekker had only the essentials--sleeping bag (no pad, no pillow, certainly no tent), extra socks, tarp, and the all-important cup that most people hung from their waist. Thankfully we did include some maybe not-so-authentic items--Chapstick, bug spray, sunscreen--but for the most-part, we were trekking it Brigham Young style.

Most Americans think of Washington as a green, misty wilderness from one end of the state to the other. While green and misty is true in the west, when I unhappily find myself in the east, I always feel I’ve been transported to the Star Wars land of Tatooine. I expect to be ambushed by sand people. This is the wasteland where our busses dropped us, our handcarts standing together in an ominous group on the hill. At the Ma/Pa training we’d attended, we were told that our primary job as parents was to love and encourage. We were NOT to pack the handcart, as a matter of fact, we couldn’t even help MOVE the handcart. This was a bit of a trial for hiking, camping guru Pa Beck, but I shrugged my shoulders, said, “rules are rules” and offered my daughters some lip balm. The aunts and uncles could help, which was fine by me too.

At our overnight training session, we had gotten a taste of what the kids would be experiencing. The handcarts, very close to what our ancestors used, were surprisingly ergonomic and efficient in moving gear from one place to another. The large wheels could go over rocks and even small logs without too much trouble. Four people was the ideal number on the front, with 2 between the shafts (yes, I looked that up), and 2 outside of the shafts, all pushing on the handle. Three would have been perfect on the back, but because each handcart had a required water jug strapped onto a little shelf on the end, 2 people pushed the cart and 1 person pushed the water jug (as it turned out, ours wasn’t initially secured as well as could be hoped and our daughter on the jug got a good dousing). That left an aunt or an uncle to avoid the wheels and help wherever they could.

Our teenagers loaded our gear into our cart, covered it with tarps, and strapped it all down with ropes. We named our handcart Bob. Bob was to later sustain our family’s only serious injury and would not make it to Zion, but he did serve us well while he was able. Heave-ho, we were off.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Peculiar People

After the families were formed, they gathered in little groups around the parking lot. Each Ma had been given a bag containing a flag of a certain nation and green rubber bracelets for each family member with the trek theme, “Lift up your hearts and rejoice” printed on one side, and a real pioneer’s name printed on the other. I’d already done the pre-trek research into our real-life pioneer family. The Rees family had joined the church in Wales and began saving for the trip to Zion as soon as they walked their dripping bodies out of the waters of baptism. In 10 years, and with help from the Perpetual Emigration Fund in Utah (which they’d have to pay back later), they finally had enough to bring their 3 boys and 4 girls to the United States. One son had an accident on the ocean crossing and his eye popped out. It was dangling on his cheek, giving him what had to be a most interesting view of his own chin, when his mother picked it up, gently pushed it back into place, and then prayed that he’d be able to keep his sight. He would forever-after sport a prominent scar and his left eye crossed inward, but his eyesight never troubled him. For the rest of his long life he was known as “The cross-eyed Welshman”. But the fate of all of these people wasn’t revealed to our kids quite yet. They’d learn later if their pioneer made it to Zion.

Five handcarts made up our trek company and we were introduced to our captain, a strong-looking 19 year-old wearing a homemade backpack of burlap and sticks that added a certain panache and authenticity to our troop. We liked him and he seemed to like us. In real life, things weren't so rosy. The Rees's captain wasn't exactly thrilled to have cast his lot with "the Welsh company", as we were known. None of us spoke much English and he spoke no Welsh. To make things worse, he wrote in his journal that we had no pioneering skills (can't really blame us, we were coal miners). But seriously, he said, we couldn't tell oxen from bison and he was supposed to somehow lead us on foot 1300 miles? In our defense, man, could we sing. If he wanted a Mormon Tabernacle Choir someday, it was in his best interest to get us to Zion. We sang so well, non-members walked great distances to find our camp in the evenings and settle in for a concert. Our cross-eyed son was so amazing, people begged him to stay and not finish the trek to Zion, lest anything else of importance pop out of or fall off of his body. He had talent; he should head back east and sing in concert halls. Forget that wasteland out west. But nothing could change his mind or his heart. He was headed to Zion, with at least one eye firmly pointed in the right direction.

So in our little reenactment, we waved our various flags and walked from the Bainbridge Island church building to the ferry terminal for our ocean crossing. Cars going by slowed down and looked at us quizzically. Someone overheard an onlooker say, “Must be a quaker convention.” Our 2 children who are actually from Bainbridge Island shielded their faces with their respective bonnet and straw hat. One of our girls waved her Welsh flag higher and yelled, "Save the Wales". Our uncle said, "This IS Bainbridge Island you know. Keep yelling that and I'm sure you can make quite a collection." Have I mentioned that we liked our uncle?

The assortment of flags forming the other companies was impressive. Many British flags fluttered in the breeze, along with flags from Switzerland, Sweden, and even some from countries I didn’t even know had Mormon pioneers. I thought of Lyle’s real-life ancestors who crossed the ocean to join the saints. One left a home in England that looked to be straight out of a Jane Austen movie. I wonder if he was disappointed when he got to Utah? The captain of the boat that carried our real-life Rees family to the U.S. was impressed with not only our songs, but with our devotion and with our faith. He said, "It pleased me much to see 700 saints on their way to Zion, pent up in so small a space, all bow the knee." Praying on the boat, now that's a great idea. Why didn't we do that instead of family cheers?

They went to Boston. We went to Seattle. They boarded trains. We boarded chartered busses. People bellowed at them from the train tracks. We became an attraction on the "Ride the Ducks Tour". Next stop, the lone and dreary world.

Aretha Franklin I am Not

Why is it that NOW, several days post-trek, I keep coming up with great family cheers? I'm almost obsessed with it. Is it perhaps because we had the lamest cheer in all of pioneer trek history? This is what I wrote to our missionary son:

In the parking lot, each family was to make up a cheer. What we lacked in creative courage, we did compensate for later out on the trail with pure pushing prowess, but still, our nervous, newly-formed family was coming up dry in the idea department. Someone suggested that maybe we could combine our pioneer name, Rees, with our actual name, Beck, and do Rees-Beck, which sounded a whole lot like “respect”, which brought to mind the 1960’s Aretha Franklin number. Rees-Beck (just a little bit), Rees-Beck (just a little bit). We thought the girls could put their hands in their apron pockets and sway back and forth singing “Rees-Beck” and then the boys could kind of shimmy their suspenders with the “just a little bit”. As bad as that already was, unfortunately, Lyle kind of fixated on the pocket and suspender idea and decided that maybe before we start the song we should preface it with the girls saying in unison, “We’ve got POCKETS!” and the boys could say, “We’ve got SUSPENDERS!” and then we’d go from there. Oh my. Just writing that, I’m embarrassed to be part of the Rees-Beck family. I can only imagine the mortification of our new children. And we hadn’t even performed it yet.

That came on the ferry boat. For some reason I thought we'd have more time. To say that we had the worst cheer is an understatement. To pull off something like this, you need buy-in. We had none. We awkwardly mumbled something about pockets and suspenders and earned a “better luck next time” from our stake president, the trail boss. Our new children looked longingly at other families. I caught sight of our real-life daughter watching our cheer from afar. Her mouth dropped open and she shook her head and shielded her face. Her life-long suspicions were confirmed---without her guidance, her parents descended into complete and total nerdiness. Pioneer trek could only improve from here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gotcha' Day Times 7

Lyle and I have twice experienced that most terrifying of moments when a total stranger is pushed in your direction and told to call you MaMa or PaPa. Early on Wednesday morning, in a church parking lot on Bainbridge Island, we would now experience that not with a crying baby or screaming young child, but with 7 teenagers. SEVEN. TEENAGERS. And as if that weren’t awkward enough, the adolescents came with a bonus adult aunt or uncle thrown into the mix.

Twenty-five or so married couples had volunteered or been coerced into this Ma/Pa experience and we all gathered in a large anxious group at one end of the parking lot with the nearly 200 youth in lines on either side--girls on the left, boys on the right. The trek director yelled out Ma and Pa names by handcart number and they raced down the gauntlet, turning their heads to see which aunt or uncle’s name had been called and who was now running behind them. As they reached the end, the trek director yelled kid’s names and the young people who would be their children for the next few grueling days ran to meet their parents. Lyle and I were handcart number 12, so we relaxed a bit and watched the process take shape. Big, strapping young men joined families (we prayed for one of those), tiny, timid-looking girls ran down the line, their pristine white pantaloons showing at the ankles as their dresses flared out behind them (maybe they’re stronger than they look?), some eye-rolling teens shook their heads and reluctantly jogged over to their new Ma and Pa (please, let’s not get one of those...or 2 or 3 or possibly 7 of those), and then in what proved to be an oddly emotional moment, we watched our real-life daughter adopted into a new family. I envied them and wondered if they’d appreciate the gem they’d been given.

I was just thinking on this--that most of the real-life parents probably felt the same way, or on the other hand, maybe they were just happy to have their kids out of the house for a few days, when handcart number 12 was called. Down the line we ran, with a complete stranger of an uncle running behind us. I hoped to hear a few familiar kid’s names. Maybe someone we already know from our ward? Maybe one of my daughter’s friends? The trek director who’d put together the families was hoping to avoid that, but we could still hope. Luckily for us, we did get a young man from our ward, someone Lyle has taken on 50 milers and sat with around the campfire. We knew endurance-wise, he’d be completely fine. We knew him to be an exceptionally good boy with a great attitude, but we also knew the weight of the handcart was nothing compared to an emotional load he was already carrying. I loved him dearly. Next, we heard a name that filled us with joy--a darling girl who is as close to being family to us as any non-Beck child could possibly be. We’ve known her parents for over 20 years. Lyle sat next to this girl's dad in pre-dentistry classes at BYU, both of them made the same long drive with their young families to dental school in Iowa City, and now are partners who work, laugh, drill and fill together 4 days a week. Our respective children had called the other couple “aunt and uncle” for so long that they were shocked to learn during their childhood that they weren’t actually related. That’s how well we already knew our new trek daughter. And knowing her, we knew we’d just struck gold in the daughter department. My worries that anyone in our family might feel left-out of the sibling group were gone.

Our other 2 sons and 3 daughters were strangers to us. One son’s name was so manly-sounding that I almost wanted to turn around and see a little 90 pounder running our way, just for the pure irony of it all. But no, our new 17 year-old was bigger than his Pa and looked like a young man who could (and would love to) single-handedly pull our handcart to Zion. Our other boy looked equally fit and ready, so as far as pure brawn was concerned, we were set. Our girls (2 of them actually younger than the cut-off age of 14, but since they were turning 14 later in the summer, they could squeeze in) didn't remotely look like the female German weightlifters that I'd hoped for in trek daughters, but we were to learn on the trail that they were scrappy as all get out. Yep, these were kids we could work with......and as an added bonus over our previous Gotcha' days, they even spoke English.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Spirit That Never Says Quit

How I wish this little one's birth parents could have been at her elementary school today. I feel quite sure that they would have teared up, just as I did, to see her presented with the "Pride of Pearson Award", given to just one child in each class who exemplifies hard work, scholastic excellence, and kindness to all. 

I couldn't help but think back years ago, to our second day together in China. She was attempting to pull herself up on a chair, but her hand slipped and she hit her head. Hit it hard. Hard enough that any baby would cry, but she didn't. Not even a whimper. She sat down, put her thumb in her mouth, and slowly rocked herself back and forth. We'd learned about institutional behavior before we started this journey, but to see it firsthand, to see it in the child we'd just promised to love and nurture forever and always, it scared us and filled us with doubt. 

Could this girl ever be O.K.?  Could she learn to trust?  Could she overcome?  Could those sad, vacant eyes ever look at the world as a place of love and kindness?  Time and again, to every challenge in her life, this diminutive fighter has answered with a resounding YES! What a blessing that we get to be part of this tag-team effort with her birth parents. If I could talk to them right now, I'd show them these pictures and say, "That's YOUR girl, and MY girl, OUR beautiful, talented daughter! Can you believe it? Eight years ago, looking into those eyes, I could hardly have believed it either. But she's taught me something. When Heavenly Father combines forces with a spirit that never says quit........miracles happen."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Girl Can Run

We watched our middle schooler run in her very first track meet yesterday. I truly had no idea if she was fast or slow or middle of the pack. 

From the time she could toddle, she'd run laps around our house (or I guess toddle quickly)....usually singing as she went.....or telling herself a story. 

We'd be sitting at the computer or on the couch and through the window we'd see her--going around and around and around--a total girly run with flippy hair and happy arms.

This has happened numerous times a day for YEARS. She runs for fun and relaxation but has never run to keep up with other people or get timed or go any set distance. 

So as she lined up yesterday against 3 other schools of 7th and 8th graders, I was curious. Is she fast? Can she run without singing or are the singing and running a package deal? Does she have any competitive spirit? 

It was a half mile and the whole first lap she stayed in the second lane, not knowing that she could have moved in. A coach in the infield caught her attention as she went by and motioned for her to take the inside lane. Once she did, she gained ground and moved into third place. Midway through the second lap she moved into second place with two girls from Kingston hot on her heels. I wondered if she had anything left, but my happy girly runner SPRINTED around the final corner and down the stretch and left the Kingston girls in the dust. Second place finish in her very first track meet! And she didn't even sing. How we love that spirited girl.