Miracle At The Post Office

My absolutely least favorite chore is a trip to the post office. I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than be subjected to the long lines, milquetoast service, and the crumbling, embarrassing building that used to represent one of America’s greatest achievements.

Situated between a bowling alley and an auto body shop, the low flat-roofed brick building has turned nearly black from lack of cleaning over the years. On the front are tall windows held in place by steel frames that look like bars on a prison cell. The parking lot is a pock-marked minefield.

No matter what time of the day, there are always about ten people in line and only one clerk on duty– who is the slowest postal clerk in the history of postal clerks. The countertops, windows, and shelves are piled high with envelopes, packages, and boxes waiting to be processed.

It’s dusty and dirty, and the big screen TV on the wall that should be providing valuable information to customers instead displays a message that seems appropriate: no connection. The space looks for all the world like a scene out of a dystopian film. Think of Sam Lowry’s office space in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.  

As I stood in that perpetual line the other day, I my Aries impatience began to bubble, and I took a deep calming breath. There’s nothing you can do about it, I told myself, there’s nothing you can do about it.

In front of me was a young Navy guy with a huge package that needed to be weighed, labeled, poked, and prodded by the young female clerk with long gorgeous silver dreads, three-inch long fingernails painted the same color silver, and the perfect confident, nonchalant approach to her work that said, “Look I know you’re frustrated. I’m frustrated, too. So, Ima try to get you out of here as quickly as I can. But don’t test me because I ain’t playing.”

She was new here, and true to form she was the only one here.

Behind me were five people, all with the same blank expression that telegraphed the fact that they, too, hate the post office.

Suddenly the door to the lobby swung open, and in scurried a young boy about three in dinosaur pajamas. He was blond and blue, and he bore a huge toothy grin as he giggled his way into the service lobby. 

Behind him was his mother: tall, attractive, with graying hair and sweet look in her eyes. In her left hand, she held what look like a green nylon dog’s leash, and as I followed the course of that leash, I realized her boy was strapped into a harness at the end of it.

I have no problems with parents that feel the need to have this product available to them. But as I kept watching the boy squirm and attempt to flee—all the time laughing his head off—I understood. He was invigorated by being around people, and he was in continuous motion as he reached out to touch everyone around him, only to be gently reined in.

At one point he released a delightful laugh that actually made me chuckle. His mother saw me watching, and I said, “You deserve mother of the year. He’s a handful.”

“Yeah, he wants to hug everyone,” she replied. “Plus he’s on the spectrum, so that makes it even more interesting.“

The boy was staring directly at me during the exchange, that big grin on still on his face, then suddenly spread his arms wide over his head and made a move towards me. His mother pulled him back with a gentle “No.” 

“Oh that’s OK. I like hugs.”

“OK,” she said with a shrug which meant be careful what you pray for.

She unfurled the leash, and he barreled toward me, almost knocking me off my feet as he grabbed my left leg, wrapped his arms around it, and squeezed tight. He rocked back and forth, delighted yelps emanating from him. I rubbed his back and said, “Thank you buddy, that makes my day.”

His mother and I smiled at each other as she gently pulled him back to her side. I glanced at the other patrons, and some were smiling, too. Like the Grinch, I felt my heart grow three sizes bigger. 

It was then my turn with the clerk. I purchased my stamps and thanked her. 

“Have a blessed day,” she said. Why yes. Yes I think I WILL have a blessed day. 

I stopped in the lobby to stamp my envelopes, a chore which no longer seemed like a burden. A few minutes later, the boy and his mother walked out and towards and the exit. 

As they passed me, I said, “He’s a beautiful boy.” She paused at the half-opened exit door and turned towards me. 

“He is so lovable and loving, but it’s a lot of energy and work. He’s nonverbal, and when his mother found that out when he was three months old, she abandoned him.”

“That’s horrible,” I replied in disbelief. 

“I took him in, knowing all that,” she said. “I had already raised three kids, but I couldn’t let him go into the system.”

“Kids like him don’t survive the system,” I replied, “Bless you for saving him.” 

“Thank you,” she said with a tight, slightly sad smile. “I needed to hear that today.”

“And I needed that hug today,” I replied. 

The boy was staring right at me during the exchange, then suddenly spread his arms wide over his head and made a move towards me. His mother pulled him back with a gentle “No.” 

“Oh that’s OK. I like hugs.”

“OK,” she said, meaning, “Be careful what you pray for.”

She unfurled the leash, and he came barreling towards me. He nearly knocked me off my balance when he grabbed my left leg, wrapped his arms around it, and squeezed tight as he rocked back and forth, delighted yelps emanating from him. As he hugged me, I rubbed his back and said, “Thank you buddy, that makes my day.”

His mother and I smiled at each other as she gently reeled him back to her side. I glanced at the other patrons, and some of them were smiling, too. Then it was my turn with the clerk, and like the Grinch, I felt my heart growing three sizes bigger. 

I purchased my stamps and said thank you. 

“Have a blessed day,” she said. I thought, why yes. Yes I think I WILL have a blessed day. 

I stopped in the lobby to stamp my envelopes, a chore which no longer seemed like a burden. A few minutes later, the boy and his mother walked out and towards and the exit. 

As they passed me, I said, “He’s a beautiful boy.” She paused at the half-opened exit door and turned. 

“He is so lovable and loving, but it’s a lot of energy and work. He’s nonverbal, and when his mother found that out when he was three months old, she abandoned him.”

“That’s horrible,” I replied in disbelief. 

“I took him in, knowing all that,” she said. “I had already raised three kids, but I couldn’t let him go into the system.”

“Kids like him don’t survive the system,” I replied, “so god bless you for saving him.” 

“Thank you,” she said with a tight, slightly sad smile. “I needed to hear that today.”

“And I needed that hug today,” I replied. 

Then she was gone, dragged out the door by a three-year old boy on a green leash who was on his way to make someone else’s day.


Jackson Square was deserted on this oppressive Labor Day Monday night. The only inhabitants were the fortune tellers and tarot card readers who floated like spirits between candlelit tables. 

I was there because I had chased a guy to New Orleans for Southern Decadence. He and I had struck up an online relationship that I guess we both hoped would grow stronger when we met in person, Alas, that didn’t happen. The spark wasn’t there, so he spent the weekend at a table in Harrah’s all weekend while I discovered the pleasures of the Big Easy’s annual gayfest 

As the latest number in Eric’s Big Gay Failed Relationship Tour, he had flown back to Texas earlier that day without a goodbye. All the other revelers had headed home as well, and tonight, I had the city all to myself.

I climbed the steps of Saint Louis Cathedral and sat on the cool marble porch in the darkness. Thunder rumbled in the distance. 

I thought about the sequence of events over the past year that had led me to this moment, beginning with my tenure as marketing manager at an internet startup in Norfolk. The company, Great Bridge, was one of Landmark Communications “new ventures.” I had already worked in two previous new ventures that had failed miserably after only a few months, and I guess I should have known better because now it was certain that Great Bridge was going to meet the same fate.

I had been in San Francisco in the days prior to my New Orleans junket to help convince Sun Microsystems to buy the company. All I remember about those few days was standing in the middle of the bar at the top of the Marriott Marquis in downtown San Fran, some douchebag marketing person from Sun in my face talking about “the big idea.”

I was so sick of that jargon and those inane conversations. I tuned him out, walked over to the magnificent floor to ceiling windows and watched an amazing sun burn out as it sank into the Pacific.

My career had wobbled wildly since moving to Norfolk in 1997. Now it looked as if I was about to be unemployed for the first time since I started working at 14. 

On top of that, Laurie, my best friend since high school, was  battling ovarian cancer in Atlanta, and she was losing. Two months earlier, I traveled to see her for what would be the last time. She was emaciated, and her eyes were sad. Her husband took her daughter—my goddaughter—out for a few hours so she and I could spend some time alone.

We sat on a swing in the backyard, and I held her hand. We had been through so much together since we were teenagers: growing up in dysfunctional families, the pain and joy of high school, a failed marriage, a new marriage, and finally, giving birth to and raising a wonderful little girl. 

Now, at 40, she was dying. 

We sat in a comfortable silence for a while. She was the only person in my life with whom silences didn’t feel awkward. 

Finally, I said, “What do you want me to do?”

She looked right into my eyes and said, “Make sure my family is ok.”

I sat on the steps of the cathedral as the thunderstorm grew closer, recalling that promise to her. Just as I was contemplating heading back to the hotel, the low soulful baritone of a Black man singing an old hymn floated out from the darkness under the porch archways behind me.

“Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That cold black cloud is comin’ down
Feels like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”

I listened for a moment, entranced. The message was loud and clear: big changes were coming. 

A close clap of thunder then sent me scurrying for cover.

Back in Norfolk the next day, at a companywide meeting, the president made it official: Great Bridge was closing on Friday, September 4. All employees would receive a severance based on their salary level, and I was happy with mine. What made me happier, though, was to be out of the internet business. It had been a terribly nasty and stressful journey full of greedy, boastful people whom I didn’t really care for.

Closing day was a gorgeous late summer day: sunny, cool, bright blue skies. I collected my check before lunch, literally skipped to the parking lot, and drove home to my condo by the Bay. Tom Petty’s Free Falling came on the radio, and I sang it louder and with more joy than Jerry McGuire. My plan was to do nothing but sleep, sit on the beach, and deal with the PTSD that had characterized the past two years. 

The following Tuesday morning, my cell rang at 9:30. It was my brother. He never called this early, and I knew something was up. 

“Turn on the TV!” he yelled. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!”

The rest of that day was a slow-motion nightmare. Like everyone, I watched the horror in Manhattan unfold. At one point, I contemplated packing a bag and evacuating. The fact that I lived right next door to the world’s largest Navy base did not escape me. Along with the rest of world, I had no idea what was next. I somehow got a grip and opted for a calming walk on the beach.

The day was another stellar one, except there was no one in sight. I mean, no one. The Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel had been closed. All shipping coming in and out of the harbor had ceased. All air traffic had been grounded. The only sound was the gentle breeze, then the sound of two jet fighters departing Langley, headed north. 

It felt as if I was the last person on earth.

The next few days were a blur. I watched from the beach as the USS Enterprise departed for the middle east, draped in American flag bunting mimicked by the throngs of people watching from shore. I talked to Laurie later that week, and I could tell she was failing. I stayed up almost all night every night and slept late into the next day. I drank way too much.

I passed many of those days writing things like this in my journal:

“I know I will survive all that’s happened lately. I know it will ultimately make me a better person. But tonight, grief has me in its grip and is shaking me to the core. Death is all around, and that long black cloud is coming down.”

The world had changed, and I was beginning to understand that I had changed with it.

Ten days later, I got the call I had been dreading. 

It was Matt. “Eric, she’s gone,” he said.

“I knew that’s why you were calling,” I said, my breath catching in my throat. “Was she at peace?”

“She was, and she had no pain,” he said. “And you’ll appreciate this: her last words were, ‘I can’t fight this anymore, and I want to go home’.”

I smiled at the thought. She and I had always shared a similar spirituality, and we both knew that we have been on this planet many times before and would be here again. I also knew that she’d be waiting for me when I went it was my turn to head home.

I told Matt that I would rent a car in the morning and drive down. I certainly wasn’t going to fly. 

“Would you like to speak at the service?”

It’s Joan, Laurie’s mom, asking me this six hours before the service. She is a small, diminutive woman, from all outward appearances meek and unassuming. And yet, she is the one who stood by her daughter’s side for over a year. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her–to watch her oldest child die.

I have always had mad respect for Joan. Back in the Seventies she took both her daughters and herself out of an abusive marriage and started all over again. That was no easy feat in those days–especially for a woman who had no formal education or work experience. 

She had practically raised me as a teenager. I spent more time at her small duplex than I did at my own house, and that tiny dwelling became my refuge. Laurie and I gathered there with our friends on Friday nights to watch “Dallas” or play cards. We skipped school and sat on her bed, smoking and listening to Foreigner or Styx records. 

Joan knew but didn’t really care. She had seen worse.

When I was with Joan, I was always reminded that your real family often wasn’t necessarily your immediate one. Over the years, I had taken to calling her mom. She was a sight better than my own mother who at that time was battling alcoholism.

I thought about speaking at the service. I knew that it would be tough for Matt to get up and speak. And I knew Joan was asking me because she was aware of that. 

I had stood up at every pivotal event in Laurie’s life. I was in her first wedding in 1983, although I knew then that she was making a mistake. Five years later, I drove home in the middle of the night from Greensboro after she called me in hysterics to tell me that she had uncovered her husband’s infidelity. I found her curled in the bathroom floor, crying unmercifully. 

I was at her pinning ceremony when she became a nurse. When she married Matt, I was there, lighting candles and toasting. I was in the waiting room the night my goddaughter, Sarah, was born in Raleigh, and I was on the altar at her Christening, proudly accepting the role as her godfather. I remember her joking with me that if she went before I did, I would have to grow up and be a father figure.

I told Joan that I had no idea what I would say, but I would be honored to speak at the service.

Matt, Joan, Sarah, Laurie’s sister Barbara and I piled into Joan’s Park Avenue. On the seat between Joan and me was the wooden box containing Laurie’s ashes. The sky was gray and drizzling. 

We stopped by Barnes & Nobles to buy Sarah a “Bob the Builder” book, a mundane chore in the course of this exceptional day. While we were there, I discovered what I was going to say. I bought a single red rose and the small paperback, which would serve as the foundation of my eulogy. 

We passed a cemetery on the way to the funeral home. I turned to see gaggle of geese fly low over the mute, gray headstones. Matt steered the car into the lot of Lutz Funeral Home, put it in park, and we sat silent for a moment, all of us close to tears. 

“OK, we can do this,” he said. Joan was crying softly. Somehow, we got out and went inside, Matt bearing the box. The moment had come to say goodbye.

Here’s what I remember from the service:

I walked past the funeral director’s office and overheard Matt talking to him about the untested vocalist who was to perform “Ave Maria” at the service. It was Laurie’s favorite song, and Matt was concerned. The last time they had hired a vocalist on someone else’s recommendation had been at their wedding, seven years earlier. She had mutilated “Ave Maria”.

“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment,” I heard him say. “I just don’t want my wife coming back to get me because this girl screwed up the song.”

Before the service, I walked into the chapel with Sarah by the hand. We were alone. It had taken her a few hours to get used to me last night, but now she didn’t leave my side. We walked up to the altar where a family portrait of the three of them stood next to the box of ashes amid a sea of flowers. I laid the single red rose next to the box while Sarah wandered up on the stage. The tears came, and then Sarah tugged my hand. 

“I know where mommy is,” she said.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“Right here,” she said, pointing to the chair next to her. “And up there,” she said, pointing up.

I smiled and wished we could all remember what it was like to be a child, in touch with the forces on the other side, in tune with the fundamentals. As we get older, life dulls the signal.

People, some familiar, most not, began flooding into the Chapel. I never have been at ease in situations like this, regardless of the occasion: weddings, graduations, and funerals. I always wanted to laugh or fidget. But today, I felt this heat radiating from somewhere within, and it calmed me.

The holy man–the same man who married Matt and Laurie–got up to speak, and before I knew it, he was calling my name. I pulled my heavy body out of the pew and walked to the altar. When I looked up, into the faces of those mourning, I knew the time had come for the final testament. 

I told those people how Laurie was the best friend I have ever had. Ever will have. I told them how she was the first and only person up to that point who accepted me as I was from day one and loved me unconditionally for it. I told them that she was not only that way with her friends, but with her husband, and her daughter, and her sister, and her mother.

And then I pulled out the small paperback with the blue feather on the cover. “Illusions” by Richard Bach. I read the very same passages that she and I adopted as our mantras so many years ago, back in the woods of eastern North Carolina.

“The mark of your ignorance is your belief in tragedy. What the caterpillar calls a tragedy, the master calls a butterfly.”

“Do not be dismayed at goodbyes. For a goodbye is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again is certain for those who are friends.”

And finally: “Your true family is measured not by bonds of blood but of respect and joy in each other’s lives. Rarely do members of the same family grow up under the same roof.”

Then I sat. And that’s when the sorrow came, horrible, overwhelming, inundating. Sure enough, she was gone. An unknown hand passed me a Kleenex from behind. As comforting as those words from Richard Bach were 25 years ago, today was an utter loss. And it hurt so badly. 

It was the first of a long, continuously unraveling realization that Laurie was dead. That so many people were dead. And that I was going to die, too.

Back at Laurie and Matt’s house, I wander through the sea of unfamiliar faces, working the PR face I had become so adept at wearing in stressful situations. The acute sadness that poured out of me at the service had dulled into a gentle ache in my heart, and I found some comfort among the people that loved Laurie.

Matt is in the kitchen with Sarah and his parents. Joan and Barbara are sitting in the living room with their Aunt Bett, a 75-year-old nun. Laurie’s father sits alone, quietly, in the den, watching the coverage of the destruction at Ground Zero. That’s pretty much the same thing he had done for the past 30 years. 

So strange here, in Laurie’s house. It’s as if we were at one of the many parties we had over the years, and these are all our friends, come to have a good time, to drink, to laugh, to share stories.

Laurie is upstairs, late as always, in the “Lab” as we used to call it, putting on makeup, curling her hair, getting beautiful. Typical Leo. It was about now that  I would go upstairs and burst into the bathroom.

“What in the hell are you doing up here, incubating?” I’d say, feigning impatience.

Without looking away from the mirror, she’d glance up at me and raise her eyebrows. “Perfection cannot be rushed,” she’d warn. “Go away.”

I’d laugh, knowing it was all part of our shtick. Then I’d go back downstairs, killing time, anticipating her entrance, which was usually a gentle drift down the stairs, nonchalant and casual, somewhat removed.

Instead, I find myself sitting next to her Aunt Bett. This is one grand old dame. A bit overweight, possibly a lesbian, very Midwestern. This woman had traveled all over the world in her life, learning four languages and visiting places most of us would never even read about. 

I sit in the uncomfortable dining room chair next to her. She gently places her hand on my arm and gives me a mysterious Mona Lisaesque smile.

“You’re quite the poet,” she says. “Your words at the service today revealed that.”

I thank her for the compliment.

“You know, Laurie talked about you often. She told me a few years ago that you were her best friend.”

The tears were suddenly close and threatening. Somehow I managed to shelve them for the moment. “She was my best friend, too,” I gurgled. 

“But I bet a lot of people don’t really know what that means to you,” she said. I gave her a small nod. No, they really didn’t. 

She leaned in close. “I think I know what it means,” she whispered. “I think it means that you are a very independent, reserved loner, despite your gregarious nature. And she was the only person who truly understood the real you.” I looked directly into her eyes. “And I bet you don’t think you’ll never meet another person who knows you like she knew you.”

I felt my shoulders slump. She had pegged me, and that was too close for comfort.

“You’re a very insightful person,” I said with a feeble smile.

She sensed that I was tottering on the edge of despair and gripped my arm for a brief second, smiled, then turned her attention elsewhere. 

Just as a woman of God should do.

September 26, 2001, from my journal:

Tonight, I’m sitting in her house at a desk surrounded by pictures of her. Across the hall, Matt sleeps in their bed, alone. Everyone else is asleep as well. We’ve stayed up late the past few nights, reminiscing, laughing, crying, grieving, remembering. 

Earlier tonight, Matt suddenly said, “You know what, we’re all here now. Why don’t we drive up to Asheville and scatter her ashes this weekend?”

We’re leaving in the morning to head up to Laurie’s favorite spot, Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where we’ll throw her ashes into the wind. Meanwhile, 900 miles away, New York City continues to sift through ashes of another kind.

We all must become intimately acquainted with grief. But what we do with that is contingent upon our ability to allow it to lift us up or succumb to it dragging us down.

November 27, 2001 journal entry:

Two months since Laurie’s death, the attacks on New York and DC, and the failure of Great Bridge. I feel like I dived into a deep, cold, black lake. After absorbing the shock, I am just now regaining the surface.

I am changed. I don’t understand the complete picture yet, but I know the events of September have fundamentally altered my perception of life on this planet. And just in time—I was no doubt headed for a breakdown of some kind.

And as sad as I am over losing my best friend—as distraught as I am over the sorry state of humanity—as anxious as I am about being unemployed—there is this bright, calm center in my heart and mind where none existed before. Gratitude for all that I do have? Gratitude for the experiences of the last two months?

I often speak to Laurie, and in that mental spot, she meets me and tells me how beautiful it is over there, where there is no anger or hatred, nor want or desire.

Only love.

And I am closer to that place in my heart than I have ever been in my life.

There’s so much of the story yet to be written, but right now, I don’t have anything else to say.

For now, I’m just floating, waiting for whatever is next.

Free At Last

December 2011

It wasn’t until about a year after my father died that I finally exhaled.

It was one long gargantuan release that began in the depths of my soul and crept through my bone-tired body. I couldn’t stop until every bit of it was expelled into the universe like a huge black cloud of poison.

At that point, it had been six years out of a total of 10 that would ultimately be characterized by sickness and death, anger and fear, and stress so unrelenting that at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive it.  

I refer to that time as the Tipsy Teapot. That was the name of a quaint little café in my North Carolina hometown that that my parents loved. It was also a spot-on metaphor for my family’s chaotic and often violent history. 

Let me short hand it for you. The Prince of Tides meets The Royal Tenenbaums. Dysfunction meets genius.

Now, with my father dead and my mother in a nursing home, not far behind him, the teapot had stopped tipping so violently, and my brothers and I could relax our grip. A little bit.

But it brought me to the realization that I was damaged goods, a product of a highly dysfunctional upbringing. And that damn teapot would always be tipping to some degree for the rest of my life.

My brother called me the other night. He had experienced the worst of it. He was molested by a family acquaintance. That, coupled with the fact that he inherited our family’s long-running alcoholic gene had resulted in a miserable sentence of substance abuse that nearly killed him. He had recently sobered up, and we were now able to explore our mutual experiences.

This night, we simply picked up where we left off, which was right in the middle of our marathon 40-year long therapy session. I had consumed a couple of martoonis, and he had probably smoked a fatty (sober was always a suggested guideline in our family). Our conversation was long and uninhibited, and I went outside so as not to infringe on Andrew’s peace.

“I love mom, and I want what’s best for her,” I said, “but I can’t help it, I still resent how she neglected us when we were kids.”

“I know, Eric, she has always just taken and taken, and here we are at the end, still giving her everything,” Jon said. “I know she can’t help where she is now, and she needs our help, but I’m still pissed over everything that came before.”

We continued along this path until I grew weary of hating on her. You have to invoke a lot of bad mojo to maintain that negativity.

We hung up after a quick “later,” and I went inside to my husband-whom-I-cannot-marry.

“So how’s Jon?” he asked.

“Oh you know, same conversation different day,” I replied.

“I don’t know why you two keep going through that same procedure and digging up all that stuff,” he said. “I guess you’re just programmed that way.” He turned back to his cooking show.

I let it go as best I could, but I wondered if I would ever feel anything other than a tumultuous jumble of guilt, resentment, and sadness when it came to my family.

Andrew and I watched the rest of America’s Test Kitchen. Bridget made some delicious-looking chicken and slicks, and Adam tested meat grinders in the Equipment Corner. This is what normal is, I thought. Andrew had demonstrated that love did not have to walk in the room with drama in its hand.

Late that night, I awoke in tears. The last vestiges of my dream were slipping into the abyss, but I still saw my father’s face. He was grinning at me, that same easy, goofy grin brought on by a dirty joke or too much booze.

He had been here, I was sure of it.

I thought about him, and I sank deeper into the realization that he was really gone. My tears began to spring from some deep well of sadness that I had not allowed myself to tap into after his death.

I didn’t want to wake Andrew, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed to my office. The house was dead quiet and cold. Outside, the oppressive mid-winter’s night pressed against the windows. I sat at my desk, head in my hands, and let the huge lumbering wave suck me under. I cried for my father. I cried for my mother. I cried for a world full of the neglected children. I cried for the abused animals in the Sarah MacLachlan SPCA commercial. I made myself cry over anything so I could begin to get it all out.

My sadness began to come from another place, from a vision of the little boy who never had the chance to be that kid without worries; that kid who never experienced unconditional love from his parents without the expectation of something in return; that kid who was never free from the burden of the awful family secrets of homosexuality, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction; and that kid who always struggled to get through the goddamn day by keeping the peace and not upsetting anyone.

I had never grieved for that boy. Sure, I had thrown my share of woe-is-me pity parties. But I had never been able to pull back to 60,000 feet and truly feel what he went through. It was comforting to finally acknowledge him, to see his early life through the telescope of years for what it was. He was a mess in so many ways. But to be fair, many times his life was really fun, exciting, and full of lots of cool adventures and incredible people that many kids would never experience.

There’s a scene with Meryl Streep and Gene Hackman in “Postcards from the Edge,” Carrie Fisher’s hysterical and touching 1994 autobiographical film. Streep plays a recovering drug addict who’s tortured by the memories of her dysfunctional childhood. Her relationship with her mother, an alcoholic played by Shirley MacLaine, is at the root of her self-loathing. Hackman’s character gives her a piece of advice that has stuck with me for decades.

I recite it silently: “She did it to you, her mother did it to her, and on and on, all the way back to Eve. And at some point, you have to say, fuck it. It stops here. It ends with me.”

Without really thinking, I picked up my trusty old Tarot cards, wrapped in the teal bandana I bought in Tortola 15 years ago. I spread them out in a fan on my desk, closed my eyes, and pulled one. I opened my eyes, turned it up, and there, like the baby Jesus had heard my questions, was the two of Wands.

I contemplated the intricate and colorful portrait. A regal man in red flowing robes is holding a small globe and stands on the roof of a castle. He’s looking out over a vast terrain to his right and the ocean on his left. The globe represents a world that is his oyster with huge potential. He understands his ambition, and he knows what must be done–if he can make the choice to release the past and embrace broader life experiences.

He was me.

I smiled, the last of tears drying on my face. I silently thanked my father for waking me up with the message, made my choice, and went back to bed.

Spring At The Hermitage: Chris + Thomas

I’ve known Chris for almost as long as I’ve lived in Hampton Roads, and when Thomas came on the scene, I knew….I just knew…what would soon follow. These two are crazy in love. After they became engaged and started planning their April nuptials at The Hermitage Museum in Norfolk, I also knew that I had to photograph my friends in that spectacular setting.

The Fate of Theodosia Burr

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

Legends and myths pervade the coast of North Carolina. From the disappearance of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony to the mystery of Blackbeard’s buried treasure, tales with a basis in historical fact abound. Perhaps one of the most fascinating and ironic tales involves the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers.

On a cold stormy night in 1812, Theodosia Burr Alston vanished along with the schooner Patriot somewhere off the Outer Banks. To this day, her fate remains shrouded in mystery, hidden beneath the shifting sands and shoals of the barrier islands.

Theodosia was the daughter of Aaron Burr, former vice president to Thomas Jefferson, who claimed a notorious place in history as the man who killed political rival Alexander Hamilton in America’s most famous duel in 1804. And although this is a tale of the Burr family, it begins with Hamilton.

Alexander Hamilton was born by the sea in the West Indies and grew up with a healthy admiration for its power. When he was 15, he wrote such a vivid description of a hurricane that ravaged his St. Croix home that local merchants sponsored his schooling in New York.

In 1773, while on one of his frequent journeys between New York and the Virgin Islands, young Hamilton’s ship, the Thunderbolt, was caught in a terrific gale of Hatteras. As the captain hove to in an effort to ride out the storm off the Cape, the galley caught fire, and for 12 terrifying hours, the crew and Hamilton fought the blaze. Once under control, the heavily damaged ship limped northward to Boston.

Hamilton would never forget that night off Cape Hatteras. He swore an oath that should he ever be in a position to do so, he would erect a lighthouse on the treacherous cape as a warning to all other mariners.

Hamilton went on to become on the leaders of the Revolution and eventually a member of President George Washington’s cabinet. True to his word, in 1790, he passed a bill through Congress calling for the construction of the first lighthouse at Cape Hatteras. Nine years later, it was completed, and although it has long fallen into the sea, ‘‘Mr. Hamilton’s Light’‘ served its purpose well.

During his rise to political power, Hamilton befriended a young New York lawyer named Aaron Burr. They had initially met while serving under Washington during the Revolution. After the war, Hamilton found Burr’s political ambitions matched his own and together they worked to forge a new nation.

Burr married in 1781 and two years later his wife gave birth to their only child –a daughter they named Theodosia. From the start, father and daughter were connected in ways very few are. Theo’s love for and devotion to her father were rivaled only by Burr’s nearly obsessive parenting. Burr spent many of Theo’s formative years in Washington, and when she was 10, they began a 20-year legacy of correspondence that remains to this day as a record of their strong relationship.

When her mother died of cancer in 1794, Theo easily stepped into the role of mistress of Richmond Hill, the family home in Albany. She supported her father’s rising political career by hosting grand parties at the estate. Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton were all regular visitors, and Theo was charming and gracious to them all, all the while remaining close by her father’s side.

Theo had many suitors, but she did not meet her husband until a dashing young southern aristocrat by the name of Joseph Alston visited Albany in 1800. Theo soon after confided to her father that she was falling in love with Alston, and in February 1801 they were married.

Theo left Richmond Hill to make her new home in South Carolina, where she would spend her days supervising two plantations and the Alston family home. She loved her husband, but often missed her New York home –and especially her father. She wrote to him that the hot, humid climate and swampy Lowcountry was no match for the beauty of Hudson River Valley.

In May 1802, after a very difficult labor, Theo gave birth to a son, named Aaron Burr Alston. She never completely recovered from the birth. When her husband was elected Governor of South Carolina, her weakness coupled with her new demands as First Lady of South Carolina began to take their toll. She made several visits to health resorts with no lasting effect. But her dedication to her family never wavered.

In 1804, Aaron Burr’s political career disintegrated. The heated political climate of the day had found Burr and Hamilton on opposite ends of the spectrum. Their rivalry descended into a war of personal insults waged in the northern newspapers until Burr, outraged beyond apology, challenged Hamilton to the duel that would kill the former vice-president.

Burr was charged with murder. Throughout the ordeal, Theo stood by her father. She traveled to New York several times during the long trial and was elated when he was finally acquitted. But Burr became a bitter man. He longed for political power and allegedly planned his resurrection with a scheme to convince several western states to seceded and place him at the head of the new government.

In 1807, he was again arrested for conspiracy. And again, Theo decried his innocence. ‘‘The knowledge of my father’s innocence, my ineffable contempt for his enemies, and the elevation of his mind have kept me above any sensations bordering on depression,’‘ she wrote to her husband from New York.

After an arduous yearlong trial, Burr was once again acquitted, and he left the country, a once-powerful leader in voluntary exile. Theo returned to South Carolina, the ordeal adding to her increasingly frail health. The final blow came in June 1812, when her son died of tropical fever.

Theo, Burr, and Alston were all inconsolable over the loss. ‘‘You talk of consolation,’‘ she wrote to her father. ‘‘Ah! You know not what you have lost. I think omnipotence could give me no equivalent for my boy.’‘

Burr returned to New York, and in December, he convinced Theo to come home for the holidays. It would be their first visit in five years. Alston, however, was reluctant to allow Theo to make the ocean voyage north. The country was at war with Britain, Theo’s health was still fragile, and there were rumors of pirates along the Carolina Outer Banks.

Theo’s insistence won, and Alston wrote a letter to the British Navy, which was blockading the coast, requesting safe passage for his wife. Aaron sent a trusted physician and friend, Timothy Green south to accompany his daughter. On December 30, Theo, Dr. Green, and a maid boarded the schooner The Patriot in Charleston harbor.

The Patriot was in from several months of privateering in the West Indies. The American government had hired The Patriot to harass British shipping during the War of 1812, and her hold was filled with loot from these raids. In order to disguise the ship’s true identity, the captain stowed the guns below and painted over the ship’s name on the bow. They lifted anchor late in the afternoon and set sail for the open sea. It was the last time Alston would ever see his wife.

The journey to New York normally took five or six days. After two weeks had passed with no sign of the Patriot, Burr and Alston became frantic. Alston wrote, ‘‘Another mail and still no letter! I hear too rumors of a gale off Cape Hatteras at the beginning of the month. The state of my mind is dreadful!’‘

In New York, Burr had already reached the inevitable conclusion. When a friend offered hope that Theo was still alive, Burr replied, ‘‘No, no, she is indeed dead. Were she still alive, all the prisons in the world could not keep her from her father.’‘

The Patriot had disappeared without a trace. Later it was learned that the British fleet had stopped her off Hatteras on January 2. Governor Alston’s letter worked, and the schooner was allowed to pass. Later that night, a gale arose and scattered the British fleet.

Beyond that clue, no more was known. Burr sent searchers to Nassau and Bermuda with no success. Why he neglected to send them to the Outer Banks remains a mystery for it is there that Theo met her fate.

The evidence is compelling and first surfaced in 1833. That year, an Alabama newspaper reported that a local resident, a confessed pirate admitted to participating in the plunder of the Patriot at Nags Head and the murder of all on board.

Fifteen years later, another former pirate, ‘‘Old Frank’‘ Burdick, confessed a similar story on his deathbed. He told a horrifying story of holding the plank for Mrs. Alston, who walked calmly over the side, dressed completely in white. He said she begged for word of her fate to be sent to her father and husband. He went on to say that once the crew and passengers had been murdered, they plundered the ship and abandoned her under full sail. He also mentioned seeing a portrait of Theodosia in the main cabin.

Perhaps the most intriguing evidence to support this theory revolves around that painting. In 1869, a Dr. Poole from Elizabeth City was called to the bedside of an ailing old Banker woman in Nags Head. The woman was related by marriage to families who had once made their living by plundering vessels wrecked along the beaches.

The doctor noticed a stunning portrait of a young woman dressed in white hanging on the wall of the woman’s shack. When he commented on the beauty of the subject, the old woman offered an astonishing explanation.

She told Dr. Poole that one night ‘‘during the English war’‘ a pilot boat had drifted ashore at Nags Head at the height of a winter’s gale. The boat was abandoned with all sails set, and the name on the bow had been painted over. In the main cabin, the Bankers had found several trunks and women’s belonging’s scattered everywhere. They also found the portrait, which one of the looters took as a gift for the old woman.

The ailing woman had no money with which to pay Dr. Poole, so she offered him the 12-by-18 painting instead. The portrait generated much publicity when Dr. Poole returned to Elizabeth City, and several years later, a descendant of the Burrs came to see it. She immediately identified it as Theo because of the subject’s resemblance to other members of the Burr family.

There is no record today of what Theo carried aboard the Patriot that fateful day. It certainly would be in keeping with her devotion to her father to have such a fine portrait in her possession as a gift to him. Yet through such inconsequential details are myths made, and for now, the truth lies buried beneath the shifting sands of Nags Head.

The irony, however, is inescapable. Somewhere along this shore, where her father’s nemesis had erected a lighthouse to save her, Theodosia Burr Alston lost her life on a stormy January night. And although we may never know exactly how that happened, a suicidal poet may have touched on why.

In 1894, a very young Robert Frost came to Kitty Hawk. Suffering from acute depression, he felt the need to get away from the pressure of life, and as many similar people do, he came to the Outer Banks. One night, he crossed over the Kitty Hawk beach and walked with a member of the local lifesaving crew on patrol. The patrolman told him Theo’s story, and it moved him deeply. Years later, he would recount the experience and her tale in one of his lesser-known but moving poem, Kitty Hawk:

‘‘Did I recollect
how the wreckers wrecked
Theodosia Burr off this very shore?
‘‘’Twas to punish her
but her father more.’‘

Do We Still Need “Gay Weddings?”

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of same-sex marriage represents the LGBTQ rights movement’s biggest leap forward. At long last, the one fundamental right denied our community for so long is a reality. And now we celebrate.

But as America’s checkered past with equality illustrates, acceptance is slow to follow the letter of the law. If we look at the American experience of African-Americans, Latino, women’s, and other minority communities, there is no doubt that while legal protections are in place, forms of discrimination are still in practice.

Similarly, the LGBTQ community’s fight for equality is in some ways just beginning. Religious objection initiatives and lawsuits are popping up across the country as those who object to our rights make one last attempt to abridge them.

One example is the current lack of federal legislation defining sexual orientation as a protected class under Title IX. Technically, this means people can still be legally fired for their sexual orientation. While 22 states have passed legislation that prohibits workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, most states do not have such a provision. So while homosexual couples can now get married in all fifty states, they can also get fired for simply being gay

LGBTQ fair housing laws are another protection lacking from the law books. While 21 states and a patchwork of municipalities ban anti-LGBTQ housing discrimination, the Federal Fair Housing Act does not address the issue. The Supreme Court may very well find that there is a constitutional right to marry, but such a ruling would do nothing to prevent landlords from denying newlyweds housing in the 29 states where this type of discrimination remains entirely legal.

Last week, the Equality Act that addresses these issues was introduced in Congress. But even if the Equality Act passes, it will not do away with what former Attorney General Eric Holder referred to as subtle discrimination. “The greatest threats,” he said, “do not announce themselves in screaming headlines. They are more subtle. They cut deeper.”

We in the LGBTQ community are all too familiar with subtle discrimination. It’s the rare but hurtful unspoken look of disapproval, the curious lack of service, or an unexplainable “no” from individuals, organizations, and businesses that quietly refuse to accommodate our community.

The good news is that in the wedding industry, the overwhelming majority of wedding vendors I work with fully embrace marriage equality. Still, we’ve all read the recent stories of those who aren’t so welcoming.

As LGBTQ couples navigate the already-stressful new frontier of wedding planning, the last thing they want is to encounter the quiet “no”. Fortunately, we’ve discovered that LGBTQ couples are aware of that possibility and approaching the task as savvy consumers.

At Weddings with Pride, we’re currently asking LGBTQ couples about their wedding planning needs. One of the most surprising findings is that a vast majority of them—84%—replied that when researching wedding professionals, they look for LGBTQ-positive language in the business’s marketing language, photos, and reviews. In addition, 72% indicate that their first preference when hiring a vendor is one that is gay-owned or operated, or one with same-sex wedding experience.

Until the new definition of marriage has time to permeate the American psyche—which may take years—LGBTQ couples will seek out equality-minded wedding professionals first. Providing them with the resources to do so is the next step in moving marriage equality forward to the point where the “gay” distinction is dropped, and our society simply celebrates weddings.

This op-ed appeared into AltDaily.com, Hampton Road’s alternative blog. I republish it here for your consideration.

The Wreck of the Home

By Eric Hause | Copyright by the author

It was Alexander Hamilton who coined the nickname that has stayed with the seas off North Carolina for 200 years: Graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1773, a 15 year-old Hamilton was caught off Cape Hatteras in a furious storm which nearly sent his ship to the bottom of the Atlantic.

When the steamship Home left New York Harbor for Charleston 65 years later, none of the 135 passengers and crew had any inkling of Hamilton’s experience–or that they were headed directly into the teeth of a similar storm that would have a much more tragic result. The illustrious passenger list read like a Who’s Who of the day, and the only thing on most of their minds was that they would hopefully be a part of a record-breaking ocean passage between the two cities.

The Home had done it twice before. The sleek steamship was the pride of a growing fleet of steam packets that plied the waters off the East Coast in the days prior to the Civil War. Steam-powered side wheelers were rapidly becoming the most popular form of transportation in the country, and the Home was the creme de la creme of these newfangled vessels.

Originally constructed for river trade, the 220-foot ship was converted to a passenger liner by James Allaire, a wealthy New York businessman. The ship’s interior was paneled in deep mahogany and cherry wood with breathtaking skylights, saloons and luxurious passenger quarters. Allaire spared no expense in making the Home the most plush vessel of its type. But in an oversight that would prove fatal, he equipped the ship with only three lifeboats and two life preservers.

At peak performance, the Home could easily make 16 knots, unheard of in the days of sail. She embarked on her maiden voyage in the spring of 1837. On her second trip that year, she made it from New York to Charleston in a record-breaking 64 hours. The steam packet immediately became the hot ticket for the wealthy and prominent citizens of the day. When a third voyage was announced in October, 1837, the Home’s ticket office was swamped with reservations.

The Home pulled away from the New York docks on October 7 at full capacity, with 90 passengers and 45 crew. Some of the most prominent names of the day were on board: Senator Olive Prince of Georgia; James B. Allaire, nephew of the owner of the Home; and William Tileston, a wealthy Charleston entrepreneur who carried more than $100,000 in notes with him. A majority of the passengers were women and children.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Jamaica, a hurricane was gaining in intensity. Dubbed ”Racer’s Storm,” the cyclone would cross the Yucatan Peninsula, slam into Texas, then curve east over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before emerging in the Atlantic off the Carolina coast.

In the annals of hurricane history, Racer’s Storm wasn’t a particularly violent storm. But steamships like the home were not built for ocean travel. The long, sleek packets were originally designed for calm river trade routes and were dependent solely on steam for power. They rode low in the water, and the slightest ocean chop sent water sloshing into the boiler room.

So when the Home encountered the fringes of Racer’s Storm off the Virginia Capes, Captain Carleton White became concerned. A boiler pipe had burst earlier in the day, and the ship was difficult to control under reduced power. As the storm grew in intensity, the steamship drifted ever closer to the northern Outer Banks shoreline, and Captain White had just decided to beach the vessel when word came from below that the pipe was repaired. Captain White ordered full-steam ahead, not knowing that he was taking his ship and passengers directly into the teeth of the storm.

Several hours later, a huge wave broadsided the Home, sweeping everything above deck and sheering off part of the bulkhead, leaving all the cabins on the port side exposed. Water cascaded into the boiler room. Captain White ordered the passengers and crew to form a bucket brigade to prevent the rising waters from extinguishing the boiler fires. Barely under power, the ship limped around Cape Hatteras on the early evening of October 9.

Finally, at 8 PM, the boiler fires went out and the ship was drifting helplessly. Captain White had no alternative but to beach the ship. He raised the small auxiliary sails, tacked to the west, and headed straight for the beach on Ocracoke Island. He had the three lifeboats readied and assembled the 135 passengers and crew.

The situation was desperate. Confusion reigned on the once-proud liner as men, women and children scrambled to carry what they could to the decks. Finally, the breakers along the shore were spotted in the distance.

In his published account of the disaster, Captain White described the grounding: ”I ordered Trost, the man at the wheel, to port his helm; I then said to Trost, ‘Mind yourself, stand clear of that wheel when she strikes, or she will be breaking your bones.’ He answered, ‘Yes sir, I will keep clear.’ The boat immediately struck on the outer bar, slewed her head northward, the square sails caught aback, she heeled offshore, exposing the deck and upper houses to the full force of the sea.”

USS Huron 3It was about 10 PM when the Home grounded about seven miles east of Ocracoke Village. The towering breakers raked the ship in terrifying succession, and within minutes, most of the people gathered on deck had been swept into the raging surf. One of the three lifeboats was smashed when the ship struck, and panic ensued as the passengers made for the remaining two boats. Two able-bodied men commandeered the two life preservers and jumped into the sea. They made it to shore alive.

One lifeboat filled with women and children as launched but capsized as it hit the boiling surf. The last boat landed upright but also sank with a few seconds. The sea was filled with screaming women and children. One witness later said he doubted that anyone in those two boats survived.

As midnight approached, the Home began breaking up. Each wave carried away more passengers. Others took their chances. One female passenger lashed herself to a settee and floated to shore, waterlogged but alive. Another woman tied herself to a wooden spar and jumped into the surf. She too made it to shore.

In one ironic instance, two brothers, Philip and Isaac Cohen jumped into the surf. The brothers had been wrecked off the Carolina coast on another ship only a year before. Now they were faced with a much more critical situation. Isaac made it to shore safely, but his brother drowned.

Captain White and seven others had taken refuge of the forecastle deck, and as the ship disintegrated, the forecastle broke free and carried them safely to shore. By 11 PM, all that was left of the Home was its boiler, which rose above the waves like a monument to the 90 people who lost their lives that night.

Dawn broke over a hellish scene. The Ocracoke beaches were littered with debris and bodies. The villagers, accustomed to wrecks on their shores, took in the survivors and buried the dead anywhere they could. The survivors–mostly men–were ferried across the inlet to Portsmouth where they gained berth on outgoing ships. White remained on the island for three days to supervise burials of the victims. He then returned to New York only to face charges of negligence and drunkenness.

For years after the disaster, the Captain answered these charges. He wrote his account of the disaster, but the wreck of the Home was the most deadly sea disaster on American shores at the time, and his reputation was ruined. The long-lasting effects of the disaster were more positive. As soon as the news became widespread, ship owners voluntarily equipped their vessels with adequate numbers of life preservers. The next year, Congress passed The Steamboat Act, which required all passenger ships to carry one life preserver for each person on board.