You should see her morning glories.

I walked in to the basement hall at All Saints Parish several years ago, to go to my son’s first Cub Scout meeting in a new pack. As I sat at one of the round tables, looking around and talking to the one or two people I knew there, There was a woman wearing a kerchief at the next table, wrangling three kids and obviously not having a good time of it.

“For god’s sake, Hayden, if you do not sit down and behave I am seriously going to lose it!”

I did not get to introduce myself that night, and did not know it then, but that was my introduction to Renee Costa. It also marked the first and only time I ever saw her that upset. I would later find out she had been having a bad day, running around all over the place, and her then seven-year-old son had been doing what any seven-year-old boy would have done in that situation, acted like a kid in a way that was akin to poking her with a sharp stick. I so clearly remember that day, because it was the beginning of my involvement with Pack 27, which marked my return to Scouting to be a part of it after many years away. I also clearly remember Renee’s presence because of her kerchief which marked her as a cancer patient, and I was wondering how she could herd three kids around in her state.

Over the next few weeks, I got to know Renee at the den meetings, as her son Aaron was in the same one my son Vic was in. While the kids were doing their Cub Scout things, we parents sat off to the side and chatted, mostly small talk, and on those rare occasions that Renee could stay for the whole meeting instead of rushing around doing a trillion things, we got talking about all sorts of things, ranging from the kids to family to things going on in the world. The first thing that struck me was how incredibly strong she was. Here she was, going through chemo, running all over the place with four kids, and while occasionally showing signs of frustration and weariness, never once an ounce of bitterness, and save that one time, any real anger.

Over the years we became friends. I was Aaron’s Cub Scout leader, and it was one weekend in particular that I fell utterly in love with Renee’s indomitable spirit. We were taking the eight boys on a big overnight weekend with tons of other scouts up at Camp Wah-Tuc-Ah, about 90 minutes north in New Hampshire. This was their first big real overnight camping experience, and they were all excited, while the parents, some of them new to any sort of in-the-woods camping, were…less than excited. As the trip approached, Renee had gone into the hospital and had to have some surgery. We leaders were a little worried, because the boys could only attend if they had a parent or guardian with them, and we knew Aaron really wanted to go.

We should not have worried.

That Friday afternoon arrived, and sure enough, Renee had made sure she was discharged from the hospital in time to be able to get her things together, and she was there at the campsite setting up the tent along with Aaron. She was not going to be denied this weekend with her son, doing something they had both been looking forward to. And don’t misunderstand, this was not a state park campground with facilities and rec rooms and cabins/RVs, this was out at the far end of a Boy Scout camp in the off-season, with the only “convenience” being a sink and toilet in a shared latrine. In fact, the campsite was quite literally a mile and a quarter into the campground, over a dirt road. Yet there she was, obviously exhausted, but fueled by the love for being there and sharing this trip with her son. I had a four-wheel-drive truck that weekend, and I got the rules suspended for us to have the truck kept near the site. Just in case. It was a bit of a hassle, in fact, one of the times I pulled out what my friends and I called a “scoutmaster glare” (my Irish family might call it the Clare Stare) at this one well-intentioned rule-enforcing young man who tried to tell me I couldn’t keep the truck there. Renee was mad at me, she didn’t want a big deal made, but I was damned if I was going to not have a vehicle there in case of emergency. I told her it was because of one of the other boys’ severe food allergies, too, but she saw right through my lie, and was doubly-determined to make the best of the weekend. And she did. She hiked around and participated as much as she could, although it exhausted her at times, she never once complained and often spoke of it being one of the best weekends of her life, even years later.

Over the past several years our families have become very close. Halloweens and New year’s Eves became a co-celebrated affair, with the kids out trick-or-treating while Sean and I manned the candy distribution station at the house (as well as the beer disposal station) and on New Year’s, well, the same thing except for the candy and trick-or-treating. She had her good days, and her bad days, but always had the most unflagging determination and spirit, and her only regret or bit of bitterness was strictly that being sick took away from her time with her kids. She worked so hard for her children and her family. New babies in the family,cousins, friends, neighbors, all were such a joy to her, and even when she could barely walk to the car sometimes, she made sure she got to see them and share her love with them.

One thing stands out so clearly to me as well. On New England Cable News, in the mornings, the traffic reporter, Scott Montminy, would sometimes take emails from viewers and read them on-air. My son Victor was a huge fan of this, and wrote in one time with jokes for Scott. Not only did he read them on the air, he attributed them to Vic by name, and even plugged Victor’s website. A couple of years later, we mentioned this to Renee, and she remembered that happening, and talked about how she was a fan of his as well. Then when Facebook started taking off, they both found out that Scott Montminy had a Facebook page, and both befriended him. She would often comment on his posts, and they became virtual friends as well. To my knowledge, Scott never actually got to meet Renee personally, but still counted her as a friend, such was her ability to make friends and bring joy into people’s lives.

Then over the past few months, the long battle began to finally take its toll on her body. But even as her physical form began to fail her, her spirit only grew. She still couldn’t wait to show me her clematis. Or talk about my plumber’s crack. This past Fourth Of July, she made sure she rested up and made it a goal to be ok enough to celebrate the day with her friends and family at the annual cookout, and kept enough energy to yell and Sean and I for various acts that risked life and limb, or so she said.

Since moving to Haverhill, almost 15 years ago, we have made many friends, but scant few as wonderful as Renee, Sean, and the kids. Such obvious sources of joy, love, and life, it was one of my life’s greatest honors to call her friend. When the mayor nominated her for an award presented by the governor, I got to be one of the ones informing her at the pack’s Blue & Gold Dinner, and one of my favorite pictures is standing there with her and the mayor, with her being somewhat overwhelmed and eminently humble attitude of “Why the heck would you nominate me?” She would go on to win the award, and be presented it at the State House.

This morning, Renee was finally granted rest from her long battle. She passed at her home, surrounded by her family, at peace with the world. Although she was very sad she was not going to be able to see her children grow up, she knew that she had done her job, and raised four wonderful children who now grieve, but will always carry the lessons, the strength, and the love their mother granted and showed them throughout their lives. As will all of us. So many people have been touched by Renee and Sean, as was evidenced by how many people are now reaching out, will be attending her services next week, and how many have made a special point to make whatever trip was necessary to go to her house, sit next to her and talk to her one last time. To say goodbye, to laugh with her one last time.

I did that last weekend. I went over and sat in the living room, talked about smartphones, watched some show on cable about people trying to decide what island to buy, and laughing over ridiculous things. When it came time for me to go, she couldn’t really get up to say goodbye, but pulled me in for a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, and told me that she loved me, and was so glad to be my friend. I said goodbye to her, to Sean, and went out to the car, and started to drive home. About halfway there, I pulled over and just watched the river for about five minutes, not really watching the river, but just trying to absorb and process what was going on.

Renee Pelletier Costa has left us this morning. She has run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Bell choir, of course. But those of us who knew her, and got to know her will always carry a part of her, whether it be her smile, her love, or her clematis. I feel very secure in joking at a time like this, because she would want this, she would want us to not cry, but smile and laugh and remember the good times. Of course I write this with tears in my eyes, but at the same time a feeling of gratitude that I was able to be her friend, a part of her life and have her and her family in mine. I will miss her terribly, as will so many others. I will always live in awe of her strength, her spirit, her sense of humor, and her unbridled love for her family, friends, and anyone who wanted it.

Good-bye, Renee. We will miss you, but will always have a piece of you in our hearts until we join you once again. And Sean and I will still be lighting off fireworks.


It isn’t really painless

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, and I have been seeing a lot of blog posts around the internet about it, seeing people talk about friends that have passed, and making people aware at how insidious and prevalent mental disorders are, and the suicides that result that are either surprises, or swept under the rug, stigmatized and forgotten. That’s the part that bothers me the most, the stigma that makes those left behind embarrassed to admit what happened. There’s more than a little guilt involved, I know, but the fact that people feel embarrassed about it in a way that makes them not admit that someone fell victim to a mental illness is in itself tragic. My grandfather passed away almost 13 years ago from cancer. My cousin died recently due to a mysterious reaction to jumping into really cold ocean water. Neither of those circumstances paint my family in any sort of negative light, why should the result of mental illness?

It’s also that stigma that prevents some people from admitting that someone might need some help, or is at risk. One statistic I saw says that one-in-five can have mental illnesses that can potentially lead to suicidal risk. So out of the people sitting on my side of the office, two or three people could be at risk. One of my friends has lost two people within the past year or so to suicide. Most times people don’t see it coming, in my experience most people become very adept in concealing the demons inside, as was made evident by another friend who lost someone that seemed outwardly very happy, gregarious, and doing a-ok.

In fact, one leading warning sign is often misunderstood. When someone is particularly depressed, and them seems to suddenly snap out of it, that can in itself be a warning sign, because that can be caused by someone having decided that they will end it all, and that can bring a sense of calm and finality.

So please take a little time and read about the warning signs, and maybe you can help prevent it from happening to someone you care about. You never really know…

In which I try to lose some weight

There's a saying the best diet aid is a full-length mirror. Well it's true. A couple of weeks ago I did some traveling, visiting my company's offices in DC and New York City. Both times I stayed in the company apartments, both of which have full-length mirrors. The one in NY was set up so as I got out of the shower and went to get dressed, I got to see myself in all my glory. Well maybe less glory and more horror.

During the weekend between trips I actually stepped on a scale and found out I had lost around twenty pounds over the past ten months or so, when I got weighed at a doctor's appointment. Without actually doing anything except watching what I ate and walking around a lot more.

So after talking to some people, and seeing how well it worked for my brother when he did it, I decided to start South Beach. I started on the evening of Aug 19th, and am in my second week of phase one, which is two weeks of zero carbs. This means no bread, no potatoes, no fruit, no starch, and no alcohol. Yes I know, it's the end of the summer, election season is heating up, and I can't drink. One of my employees found that hysterically funny.

Aaanyhow, for a while I was going without coffee too, but that's subsided now that I have learned to barely tolerate Splenda and almond milk in it. My original food list source had said even 1% was not allowed, so started the almond milk route, and I should at least finish the bottle. I've been tracking what I eat, eating more pistachios than I think I ever have, and suffering through going to my friends' gig at the Hard Rock Cafe and not drinking. But on the upside, I have apparently noticeably lost some weight, gone down at least one belt hole, maybe two. I have also developed an unholy addiction to Sprite Zero.

I do miss my bagels in the morning though…

Don't worry, I am not going to post my meals on FB or spam updates, but I am definitely feeling better, and wanted to give it a mention here. oh, there actually is one side-effect that seemed a little weird, I have had these occasional mood swings from goofy happy to feeling very pessimistic and not depressed, but maybe more just a grey mood.

Overall though, I think it's going well, although I haven't weighed myself yet. That I am sure will bum me out, but as long as its progress, and I try to get the next 50 or so pounds off, I'm ok with that.

Yes, I am an Eagle Scout

(This one is long, you may want to go make a sandwich or something before settling in to this)

In June of 1987, I received the highest rank in Boy Scouts, the Eagle. I worked very hard to get there, and it has always been one of the proudest moments of my life. Much of the person I am today is due to the experiences I had in Scouting, and my oldest and truest friend was a guy I met in Scouts. I went from a shy, nerdy kid to a more confident leader, one who became more aware of the world around him, and more sensitive to those who are less fortunate than I am. Between Scouting and my experiences in high school, I learned to live more as “a man for others”, the motto of my high school.

Lately, however, I have been bitterly disappointed in the direction Scouting has taken. Their reactionary stance against gays, lesbians, and atheists has caused me to question the benefits of the organization, and my son's involvement in it. I find the discriminatory stance that the national BSA organization has taken to be repugnant, and against everything I learned in Scouting. As a parent and an adult leader in Scouting, I teach the exact opposite, that to be a good citizen and decent man, a young boy needs to learn that each of us as individuals have strengths and values no matter who or what they are, and that it is the differences between us and tolerance of them that makes us a better society.

Recently there has been a movement amongst Eagle Scouts to return their Eagle badges, in protest of the policies adopted by the National organization. There is a Tumblr, in fact, featuring Eagles returning their badges in protest. I wholeheartedly support this movement, and the stand that these men are taking. It's a very brave, and meaningful act that I am not sure that non-Eagles truly appreciate. It's also a step I will not take. Not because I do not support the protest, but BECAUSE I do support it, because I want to make my protest and my statement as an Eagle Scout, and as a youth leader.

My friends and I worked very hard on our Eagles, and became thoughtful, careful leaders and participating in the community as tolerant, upstanding, patriotic men. Eagle is not an easy rank to achieve, it's a lot of hard work, you have to lead a community service project, and be recommended by others and accepted by a committee who believes you live up to the ideals of the Scout Law and Oath. Only about 2% of young men who join Scouting will ever earn the rank. It has actually gotten me in the door to jobs I might not have gotten, such is the meaningfulness of the rank.

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I would like to reach out my hand

Last week I went with some co-workers out to San Francisco for a conference.  I had a great time, learned a bunch of stuff, and met a lot of people from around the world all working in the same sorts of roles.  I’m still going through all the notes and pictures, so I will be writing about the trip soon, but while there I got a phone call from my cousin Eileen, Evan’s mom.  She and her husband asked me if I would be willing to read the post I made about Evan’s passing at a memorial service they were having.

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Monkeys In The Temple

In the early 90s a man contacted my grandfather about writing a book about the China/Burma/India Theater of World War II. It’s an often overlooked part of WWII, and it is where my grandfather served for most of his time in the war. It’s something I have always been immensely proud of, and why in fifth grade I did a big project about CBI in my history class.

There is a lot of interesting information about that theater, and there is even a section of the Smithsonian Air And Space Museum dedicated to it now.

The back patch in particular has a lot of meaning to me, as my grandfather’s was one of his prized possessions, and I even got to use it in the report in fifth grade.

Until the author called and interviewed my grandfather, though, I had never really heard the story of his time while MIA. He had to bail out of his plane with the rest of the flight crew, and ended up walking out from behind enemy lines in China. I had heard parts of it, some of it from my grandmother’s perspective of worry, but not like this interview.

My grandfather passed away in 1999, when I was 30. I had been very fortunate to have him for as long as I did, and to this day his absence is very painful. He made me much of the man I am today, and for that I will be forever grateful. I will also be forever grateful for the service that he and so many others in my family gave for the country. He retired in the 70s as a Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force, and instilled in me not just a love of country and countrymen, but also a love for what this country means and stands for. Freedom, tolerance, acceptance, and that out of many cultures, beliefs, lifestyles, and backgrounds, we are all Americans and deserve to be treated as such.

So now this Memorial Day I want to offer a little bit of insight into one man’s bit of World War II. It’s long, yes, but I think it’s worth it. It makes good podcast listening. A couple of other little trivia bits. During the interview he mentions John Blunt, a good buddy of his who walked out with him.. It was only well after my grandfather’s death we discovered that John Blunt was the father of author John Irving. I think Papa would have been very proud to have known that.

I know we were very proud of him.

The Walkout Club

The Interview

Note: this was captured off of a cassette tape, so is a little hissy and not well mixed. It builds character, so cope.

Fill to me the parting glass

Words fail to capture such moments. I think I swore a couple of times when I heard the news Sunday morning, that my my 19-year-old cousin had died after a reaction to jumping in the frigid North Atlantic in Scotland. My thoughts turned to his family, his parents, his twin brother. Such a good, loving family that had gone through a lot and come out with such joyful attitude towards life. His grandparents were the ones that gave me the name for this domain, true stalwarts against all the pain and bullshit that life could throw at them and yet still smile and appreciate both what they had, and what they had lost.

But to suddenly lose someone so young, happy, full of promise and potential, in such a capricious manner, where do you turn for comfort and logic to explain the one burning question. Why? Some turn to faith, some turn to philosophy, and others look inward for some sort of way to make some sort of sense to such terrible events.

That’s just the thing, though, there isn’t any sense to be found. Solace, sure. Comfort, yup. But there is no sense to be made. It’s been 23 years since someone close to me passed at 19, again of Random Medical Condition, and to this day I cannot make any sense of what happened.

Instead, I eventually took that experience, however, and learned from it. The lesson is that no matter what some guy in a Roman collar says, or what you read in a book, life is a gift, whether the gift of a creator or the most amazing cosmic accident. Thing is, it has an expiration date. It might be when you are 96 years old, surrounded by a horde of grandchildren and more. It might be tomorrow. You don’t know.

So realize that you get one shot, and it might end at any time, so live. Live the way you want to live, but also make that life worthwhile. In Scouting there is a rule about camping, leave the place better than you found it. That rule applies to life too. Do you make others happy in your life? Are you leaving the world in a better state than when you got here? While people will mourn your absence, will they think of you and smile and laugh? Did you make a difference?

If you can say yes to all of those questions, you win at life.

(If you can answer yes, you may also be a zombie or vampire, so best to get that checked.)

Speaking for myself, I think it is safe to declare Evan a winner at life, despite only being given a far too short time to rack up such an amazing score. My younger son said tonight that he was really sad because he was really going to miss playing games at the Family Reunion with Evan. I look at Evan’s Facebook wall and see all the people posting expressions of grief and gratitude for sharing what time he had with them. I know I will miss the call of “cousin Joe!” and damnit who am I going to win the egg toss this year with? I see on the tv news interviews with teachers and friends who are grieving mightily, not just at the senseless loss, but also a selfish sadness about the knowledge that they will never get to see his infectious smile, and his exuberance, which seems so cliche but is the only word I could think of that even came close to the energy and life Evan brought into the room, not unlike his grandparents in years past.

So no, I still cannot find logic or sense in this tragedy. I will probably never have an answer to why. But I do take some small comfort in knowing that despite it being a shortened game, Evan won at life. In fact it wasn’t even close. He kicked life’s ass. He will be missed, and while there will be a hole in the hearts of those who loved him that will never be filled, there is some small comfort in knowing that he won, and made our world so much better in doing so.

Goodbye, Evan. We miss you already.