December 31, 2010

Eulogy for My Father …

Dennis Sweat died on September 14, 2010 at the age of 65 – he was my father. He had Stage IV Small Cell Lung Cancer – he’d smoked since he was a teenaged boy. I remember everything about May 19, 2010 – it is the day that I received the call from his social worker explaining that he was at a local hospital in Maryland and with a prognosis of less than six months to live. Everything in my life came to a grinding halt and I am forever changed.  I’m the oldest of three daughters and I knew when I was in hospice with my father day after day that I would speak at his funeral. The words didn’t come until the night before the funeral. They floated around above me, just out of reach, taunting me but I didn’t worry. I knew they would settle around me when I needed them most and they did.

Here are my words:

Good afternoon and welcome. Today, my sisters: Joy and Terri, my nieces: Octavia, Brianna, Emmy and baby Vivian, my daughter: Bryton, and my dear mother: Mary Sweat – would like to thank each of you for coming to celebrate the life a man who meant so much to us – Dennis Sweat. We called him many things in our family – Dennis, Grandpa, Pop-Pop, Den … it was ALL LOVE.

Invariably when I talk about Dennis people interrupt and ask me ‘is he your REAL dad?’ because it wasn’t the norm to go around calling your REAL father by his first name. I explain that MY father said that my sisters and I shouldn’t respect anyone because of their title rather that respect is earned as a result of your actions – PERIOD. My father told us we could call him whatever we wanted – within reason of course – we didn’t have license to go get crazy with it – he wasn’t stuck on a name. I saw that opening and I went with it – Dennis it was and we ALL called him that. Unbeknownst to each of us, my father was teaching us one of the most valuable lessons that I carry with me to this day. We are all, each of us, only as respectable as our actions and can not hide behind our titles, degrees, or ‘place in life’. He was our father – through and through. 100%. It didn’t matter what we called him.

I spent a lot of time with Dennis in his last months. It is a merciful irony that his short term memory was so affected by the strokes it did not allow him to truly understand the magnitude of his illness. I did not feel it necessary to keep explaining it to him. He was happy to have the company of his brothers and sisters and the rest of his family. His face lit up like it was Christmas day every time he saw my Uncle Lynn – ‘Pancho and Sisco’ they called themselves. This went back to their childhood and if one brother called out ‘Pancho’ you can be sure the ‘Cisco’ was not far behind. In watching my father with his brothers and sisters all summer I learned a great deal about the love of the Sweat clan. My sisters and mother have always been part of this crazy close group of people that wrap you up and sweep you along with laughter, prayer, song and love – always love, but the love between my Aunt Geraldine, Aunt Pat, Uncle Lynn, Uncle Chucky and my father is something that was so precious to see I sometimes felt I should not be watching. This is what ‘all for one’ looks like. On the last visit they had with my father before he stopped being able to really talk, I was taking him back to his room and he said to me ‘It sure is good to have all your family around you.’ That said it all. Please know how very much your love, prayers, hugs, singing, and care meant to Dennis, Aunt Geraldine, Aunt Pat, Uncle Lynn, and Uncle Chucky. You brought him tremendous joy with every visit.

It is easy to allow the most prevalent memories of someone to be the most recent ones, but I would ask those of you that knew Dennis to go back farther than the body that lies before us in repose today. This is the Dennis of NOW. Remember the Dennis of YORE. Remember the Dennis who could move his feet and legs as swiftly as James Brown when ‘Get Up Off of That Thing’ came on any day of the week. Remember the Dennis who cooked up that batch of peanut butter soup, Joy and Terri and we refused to eat it (it’s on the menu of a pretty prominent bed and breakfast in Williamsburg! He was ahead of his time!). Remember the Dennis you drove across the country to Alaska with when you were pregnant with me, Mom. Remember the brother who took each of you under his wing and loved you all. Remember ‘Chris Star’ – the singer, the drummer, the music lover – the man who knew every word to every Stevie Wonder song ever written.

Dennis lived life fully. He lived life hard. He was funny. He cared deeply about his family. He was tough, but he was vulnerable. He wondered whether he had been a good father, a good husband, a good brother, a good son. I told him he’d been a good everything and he could take that to the bank. Remember him in kindness and with love – he loved all of you.

It was my privilege to take this final journey with him and so I’d like to leave you all with a poem by Canon Henry Scott-Holland written on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII. Dennis would have loved this poem and would have especially liked to have known I am reading a poem at his funeral that was commissioned for a king. It is fitting – in many ways, he was ours.



Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

Canon Henry Scott-Holland
1847-1918, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral

December 30, 2010

Four Days - One Pair of Hands, How New Orleans Stole My Heart ... Again

When Freddie Mac announced that there would be a unique volunteer opportunity offered that would allow 100 employees to travel to New Orleans for four days of working onsite at one of three selected homes that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina – I was interested. As the days went by, I could not get the images and more importantly the feelings that I’d had when the levees broke and people were faced with the loss of their families and memories out of my mind. I applied and several weeks later received my ‘Golden Ticket’ as we would later come to refer to them that put me in a very special group of people whose lives would each be changed in some way by this once in a lifetime experience. As a single parent, the biggest driver for me in wanting to participate in this volunteer effort was my overarching desire to have my daughter understand the obligation that I believe each of us has to serve others in need. I personally derive a deeper meaning from hand-on work versus writing a check – though I certainly provide financial support to a number of organizations with whom I also have a hands-on relationship and understand how needed economic support is as well. New Orleans needs money, but at this time, New Orleans needs PEOPLE – and I wanted to be part of this effort, if only for four days. I also wanted to go back to New Orleans because I’d spent a week there when I was in college at a leadership summit and it was the most incredible week of my life. I fell in love with New Orleans as if she were my long lost best friend. I lost myself for a week in the city’s cemeteries, wandering through bookstores that smelled like time itself, drinking chickory-laced coffee at midnight with steaming hot beignets from the Café du monde, taking in the random jazz quartet in the French Quarter and heaven help me, feasting on bread pudding and seafood like nowhere else on the planet. If there was anything that I could do personally to help to put any part of this city that I fell so in love with over twenty yeas ago back right, I wanted to be part of it.

My four days were spend working on the home of a gentleman, Mr. Lazard, who is related to and whose home has ties to the late Mahalia Jackson. The whole of Mr. Lazard’s home had to be completely gutted due to water damage. There were twenty-six of us assigned to his house and when we arrived on the first day, we all crowded into what had been his living and dining rooms (not difficult, since it was gutted). Our Site Captain, Rob, explained what our tasks would be for the week. There was a collective intake of all our breaths when Rob showed us where the waterline was in Mr. Lazard’s house and used me as a living measuring stick – I’m five feet tall … the waterline was four and a half feet. I had difficulty breathing at the thought of being in that house filled with water to within a half inch of the top of my head. I volunteered to be part of the six-person demolition team. Our assignment: pull down two structures off the back of the house and rebuild siding on the exposed walls. My experience level going in … zero!! It was a humbling experience and also one that I am so proud of because at the end of the week, we’d pulled down those sheds and installed new cedar siding on both sides of the back of Mr. Lazard’s house that will last at least thirty years – barring another natural disaster.

Our work was done in the Broadmoor neighborhood in the Lower Ninth in New Orleans. We were housed at the Marriott only steps away from the famed Bourbon Street, so we were bused out to the houses we worked on every morning. While there were still many lingering signs of Katrina's visit, it was obvious that this part of the city – the tourist part – was on the economic rebound. However, within blocks of this pulsing tourist trap, the poverty and devastation lurked only blocks away and we would see it up close and personal in due time.
Literally two city blocks to the west, an entire tent city of homeless residents had established itself under a bridge adjacent to one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful cemeteries and ironically … City Hall. Our bus driver explained to us on our first day out to the houses when we were at a stop light that positioned us right in front of this tent city, that these were diplaced residents from Katrina. This was the final stop for those whose homes were destroyed with no place to live. I saw a woman with a broom sweeping the small slab of concrete right in front of her lawn chair that was flanked by two shopping carts filled to the brim with all of her belongings and realized with great sadness that was her ‘front porch’. For all of us, the mood changed in that moment as we realized that the work we were going to do would ensure that the people whose houses we workd on would not find their way to this or any other tent city in New Orleans. We became even more determined to work as efficiently as possible and to get as much done as we could in a quality manner so these people could return to the comfort of their homes.

As we moved further and further into the neighborhood, I was struck by the lack of societal infrastructure that you would expect to see and that we are so accustomed to - the things that make a neighborhood livable. I did not see one grocery store anywhere within miles of the neighborhood we were working in – they have not come back. There also were no pharmacies, restaurants or other convenience stores. However, the staple liquor stores were on practically every other corner. We were especially careful about injuries not only because we didn’t want to be hurt, but because though there are officially 14 hospitals in New Orleans, they are terribly understaffed and the average Emergency Room wait is upwards of 20 hours.

It is obvious that the difference between people who were able to rebuild their lives and neighborhoods and those who could not was money, pure and simple. The steep distinction that determines quality of life in the rebuilding of New Orleans comes down to cold, hard cash. Yet, in the neighborhood where we were working, people came over to talk to us. They thanked us for not forgetting about them. They offered us food and cold tea and water. They asked us to tell our friends and family about what we’d seen and to remind people that they were still out there and still needed our help and our HANDS. I cried everyday at the generosity and the stories people shared about neighbors who could not get out of their homes or who just disappeared – ostensibly washed away.

When the week was over and we returned home, I went through a bit of a culture shock that I had not expected. Upon walking into my two-bedroom condo that I share with my daughter, all I could think about was how tall the ceiling was (it’s a standard eight-foot ceiling), how white the walls are and how luxurious it looks to me with the contrasting crown molding and granite countertops. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very nice place to live – I’d just stopped seeing it that way because it is where I live everyday. I came home with ‘New Orleans’ eyes and by those standards, this condo looked positively palatial. It shamed and saddened me to think of the new friends I’d made and left in New Orleans who were living in double wide trailers and who had been for at least two years. Of note, about seven months after our return, FEMA began moving families out of these trailers because there has now been documented proof that there are toxic levels of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) inside these trailers that were almost unbearably small and toxic – to add insult to injury. I noticed for the first time how many grocery stores are in my neighborhood – within five minutes of my home I have a Harris Teeter, a Giant and a Shoppers Food Warehouse. The nearest liquor store is not a stroll away for me as it was for so many of the families in New Orleans - this is a good thing.

My time in New Orleans provided me with a keener awareness of the insidious nature of how poverty inflicts itself as part of societal infrastructure or lack thereof. The ability to purchase food, medicine, and fuel close to where you live and to have choice in those selections is a critical part of creating a stable neighborhood framework. I can only hope that in the next waves of revitalization, these things will come back so these residents can truly rebuild their lives.

My life was changed in ways I never would have expected in the four days that I lent my hands and heart to the effort to bring one man’s house back to a livable state.

I am better for the experience.

December 29, 2010


The holiday season always filled with hope. Year after year there seems to be a window of time where people are willing to extend themselves in ways they are not any other time of the year. We think about people who don't have enough to eat, who don't have clothing or shelter and we do something outside ourselves to help our fellow man. That is not to say that there are not those of us who don't do these things all year round, but the kindness seems to creep and spread among us during the holiday season. What would happen if we were able to continue this spirit of kindness and giving to one another throughout the year? I know it sounds so simplistic and silly - but what kind of change in the world would happen if we could practice little acts of kindness towards one another 'just because'?

There is a consciousness that is swelling among human beings right now makes this an exciting time to be on the planet. We are starting to understand our fundamental interconnectedness - the fact that we have to connect our own well being with that of others or our happiness is temporary and artificial. There are a number of websites out there encouraging communities of people to practice gratitude and kindness as a daily act. I'm going to explore a few and report back on the best of these (in my opinion). 
My overarching intention for the coming year is to practice more thoughtful kindness - lovingkindness, if you will.

December 28, 2010

... with a little help from my friends

If the truth is that we would do anything to help a friend truly in need – why in the world do we hesitate to ask our friends to help US when we need it the most? I’m intrigued by this question and all that underlies it because I have not only been the friend who didn’t reach out for help but also the friend wasn’t called by another in their time of need.
I suffer migraines – not tension headaches, not ‘hangover headaches’ … ridiculously painful, no joke, I can hardly blink head pain that stops me dead in my tracks. So when I went to bed with a migraine one evening last year, I wasn’t particularly alarmed.  I took my pain medicine and went to bed hoping to wake up to a clear head – not so much. I woke up the next morning to the same pain I’d fallen asleep with … times ten, but it was what my daughter said when she came across the condo that changed the day.
Bryton: “Mom, why is your eye drooping down like that?”
Me: “What are you talking about? …”
Bryton: “Uhm yeah, your mouth is droopy too. I something wrong?”
NOT the conversation that you want to have with your daughter at 6:10 a.m. and definitely a conversation that scared the bejeezus out of me considering that my father had a series of massive strokes that left him paralyzed several years ago. I went to the mirror and what I saw alarmed me to my core.  Absolutely, positively my right eye was not only droopy – it was half closed and the right corner of my mouth was bent down in a frown, but I was NOT doing it purposefully. I thought I must have had a stroke and started chanting in my head to stay calm.
Now here is where the story goes from really interesting to certified crazy in an I-must-have-been-out-of-my-damn-mind kind of way. Instead of calling an ambulance, instead of calling a friend to ask for help – I decided to handle everything all by myself. Even as I type this, I know how unreal this decision was, but the funny thing is that it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Why did I think I should take care of it myself with no help? I didn't want to 'bother' anybody so early in the morning, I kept running through the logistics, I wasn’t sure what was actually happening – what if it was nothing?, etc. etc. So, I drove my daughter to the bus stop and waited until she was on the bus then I drove myself to the Emergency Room. 
Upon arriving at the Emergency Room, they took one look at me (holding the side of my head, squinting, one eye half-closed and the side of my mouth in an exaggerated downward droop), put me in a wheelchair and fast-tracked me to a room. They thought I might be having a stroke). They asked if someone was parking the car and I told them I'd driven myself - a blind person could not have missed the dismayed looks that passed between the nurse and ER doctor when I gave that answer. The good news is that I did NOT have a stroke - I suffer migraines and this is a type of migraine that I've never experienced before. I don't know if it was when I was having the CT-scan of my brain, or when they were drawing yet another vial of blood ... but at some point something clicked and I realized that I needed to call someone to tell them that I was in the ER.  My friend Andra was absolutely livid (with a huge dose of love and concern) that I was in the ER alone, that I'd driven myself there, that I didn't call anybody for help and she said "Hang up the phone now, Felicia. I’m sending someone there NOW."
The 'someone' who came is my friend Sonya, who is now my business partner. The minute I saw Sonya, I started crying. I'd been just fine the entire time I was there alone, but when the familiar and caring face of a friend appeared, I realized how scared I'd been and how much I needed someone to be at my side.
I learned a valuable lesson that day.
I am not alone in the world. I have two sisters, a mother, and countless friends who would come to be at my side in a moment if I reached out and called them for help. My challenge to that point was going beyond my ego and belief that I can do everything all the time with no help from anybody. The truth of the matter is that I would honestly have dropped everything and driven to the ER to be with any of my friends or family who needed me, yet, when faced with my own crisis, I didn't want to 'bother' anybody.
I'd not thought about this until a good friend of mine ended up in the ER on Christmas Day and she pulled a Felicia ... she told nobody she was there, but directed us to her blog where she'd recounted the entire episode that evening when she got home. You'd better believe I called her to have a livid (but loving and concerned) conversation about not needing to go it alone and never going it alone to the ER. Her protests were much the same as the ones I made to my friend, Andra, when I'd called her from the ER that morning. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
My lesson that day was that we all get by with a little help from our friends (and family) - but they can only help us when we allow them to.

And no, I’ve not been to the ER alone again since that day.

December 23, 2010

Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off ...

It didn't feel good to be told in a text message that "I'm enjoying being alone at the moment" after returning from a week long trip to Paris. The fact that it came from a man whom I've loved more than any other and was in a relationship with for seven months made it sting all the more. It took my breath away when I realized that I was being... dumped. Making him the bad guy would be easy but it would also be dishonest. The truth is I had as much to do with it as he did. I kept myself very protected and guarded for a very long time and we both came into the relationship with some fear - he even more than I. By his own admission he 'doesn't know how to be in a relationship'. That should have been my shining, flashing, red light but I ignored it and chose to believe that loving him unconditionally would be enough. The irony, of course, is that all my loving only made it worse. Somewhere in my core I knew this, I just forgot to remember.

As I wander through these days before Christmas I am dazed. Ending a relationship is a really tough thing to do. It is hard to know when to step away. I could feel things shifting in the relationship but even as I watched it happen there was nothing I could do to either slow it or stop it. When it is over, it is done.

My heart is sorely bruised, but my ego is devastated. One will definitely heal faster than the other.

I know I will be okay.

Coming out of this experience, I will be kinder and more understanding when someone tells me about their relationship troubles. We tell kids that they are too dramatic. We act like their heartache isn't real when it is just as hard for them as it is for us to rebound from rejection and failure. I won't be so quick to call it "puppy love" or to not acknowledge that pain is pain - regardless of how young or old you are - no matter how long or short the relationship. A lifetime of falling down and getting back up assures me that I will come through it.

For now I'm both humbled and reflective. I won't give up on love ... just on him.

December 22, 2010

The Heart Heals ...

This has been a tough year for me, by an metric, any measurement, any way that any person could choose to gauge how much one heart can withstand and for how long. There are moments when I am still paralyzed by the thought that my father is really gone - he is really gone. I was there when he died and I wasn't ready for that moment. The up and down, steady ebb and flow of his breath, and taking care of him in his last weeks had so firmly taken hold of my life I could barely even think about what was happening. As I think about it now, I realized that this is perhaps the greatest gift of the mind ~ its ability to block out that which is so painful we don't know how to wrap our conscious thoughts around it.

I knew every day that he was getting more distant with the delta between life and death growing more and more small forhim and yet I could not see that final breath. I wonder if I'd known exactly when it would happen if I would have done anything differently? I have to think that I wouldn't have, that I would have still been there day and night by his side - wanting to be with him through every step of the passage.
I'm changed. Just need to breathe - somebody please, slow me down.

It is funny how I allowed myself to so fully feel all of it during the time it was all happening and now I can barely feel anything. I remember scenes. When he taught me to ride the bicycle and I looked behind me thinking that he was there, but he'd let go. I was doing it on my own and I had no idea that I'd done so well and was flying free on my own.

I cry in public places now. I used to not do that. I didn't want anybody to ever see that I was sad about anything. Always had to be the happy one, the funny one, the kind one. Now I am the sad one. People don't know what to do with tears really - they see you crying and want to figure out how to avoid direct eye contact. I no longer care. The flow is not something that I can control - I've learned that now. There was definitely a time when I could keep the tears from rolling past my eyelids, but that time is past now. When it comes, it is usually in a torrent and I have no control over it. This has been a profound lesson for me in all of the things that I actually control.

I control nothing and you know what?, that might not be a bad thing after all.

December 18, 2010

A New Blog

I am going to take a new approach to my writing and I'm not going to wait until January 1, 2011 to do it. Welcome to my blog. I'm determined to write in earnest this coming year and this is where I'm going to do it. It will be a tremendous challenge for me not to make this blog private - I'm the writer who doesn't think anything I write is really 'good enough' to let other people read. The truth is - I have no chance in the world of writing a book that will be published if I can't get past keeping everything that I write to myself.

So ... here's to publishing what I write, staying honest, and blogging often.

There are a million blogs out here about a billion things - why should you read mine? ~ I'm not sure that you should and I'm definitely not going to try to sell you on it. Let me know what you think and if something strikes a chord or resonates - join in the conversation. It will be a journey, I promise.