This was written to Sharon Van Etten’s cover of Bruce’s “Drive All Night” on repeat for hours and hours.
September 14th, 2015
FTX (French Toast & Hugs) Motor City – FTX #19 Wrap Up
What a strange concept we humans have made up.
We use it to track our minutes and our days and the minutia of what seems to matter at the moment.
But how often do we stand back and view it for what it really is?
For me time is an ocean we all float in.
It ebbs and flows and we have no choice but to move with it.
Sometimes it is calm and the sky is the softest of blues and the sun is warm on our faces as we rest on its surface.
And sometimes it rages with silver tipped waves and the sky is as black as the water below as we scream air in and out of our lungs.
September 14th, 2014
One year ago today I was living in Michigan for work.
On this day my temporary home was filled with loving people who among many others were preparing to descend on Hart Plaza in Detroit as we emptied out our hearts and pantries to the people of the Motor City.
French Toast & Hugs was in full effect!
That was one year ago today but for me the time between then and now has been lost in that raging black sea of memories and emotions.
For on the evening of September 8th, 2014 my wife Brandy and I had to say goodbye to our soul mate, our love, our friend, FTX Gang Member #59 – Audrey The Good Dane.
More than anything else, for me, she was and is my daughter.
Audrey, a sweet and funny Great Dane, was diagnosed with stomach cancer not long after I left our home to work in Michigan. Brandy, as always when I am away, had to take on the brunt of the work. The medications and the comforting. The physical and emotional heavy lifting.
But I was away from them. I was stuck in time. Because I couldn’t physically be there I was trapped in the last peaceful memory I had of us all before leaving.
I have a deep love and respect for all living things.
I have the stubborn belief that we are all the same.
I refuse to accept that one person is better than another or one species is above another.
To accept that you are better or worse than another creature limits you from seeing the value of all life, including yours.
For are we all not out here swimming?
Losing Audrey was not losing a dog.
It was losing an invisible limb that I will always feel tingling and wondering where it went.
You get what you give in this life and when I love I give everything I have.
One year ago today was the culmination of almost four and a half months of work to prepare FTX Motor City.
Happy work. Joyous work.
For I never truly feel as close to perfect as I do on the day, the moment of an FTX.
Here is my journey.
I arrived in Detroit on April 28th, 2014 to wintery skies and grey sleet lined roads.
Chris O’Hara, a Michigan friend I met in 2012 while we were working in Africa of all places, recommended I connect with his close friend Gary Sibley who made low budget films as well as taught autistic kids how to make their own. Chris told me Gary was just the guy to help me plan FTX Motor City and Chris was right.
I met Gary at Dino’s Lounge on May 24th. I had never met Gary before and had no idea what he would look like. As I sat at the bar, weather beaten cowboy hat in hand, I scanned the room looking each person in the eye to see if there was a spark of recognition. But no one stood out as the voice I had heard on the phone.
And then he walked in.
A beaming smile of joy filled his face. Gary, a 51 (at the time) year old African American with a pronounced limp, a bit of a belly and at least to me (a New Jersey kid who doesn’t know much about much) a shorter version of Kid from Kid ‘n’ Play’s vertical hairdo.
In other words he looked like a big happy kid.
It is fair to say I liked him right off the bat.
Over the next three months I met Gary weekend after weekend as we prepared for FTX Motor City. He gave me moral support, insider Detroit wisdom of where and how to hold the event, his dedication that he would bring as many of his students to the event as he could but most importantly he gave me his time.
Yes time. Or what we make of it. In truth what is time but life? Gary gave generously of his life. And it seems to me he did this with everyone.
My mom, FTX #70, and my younger sister FTX #55 (don’t think I’m not getting a kick by calling them by their numbers and not their names!) came to visit me for a weekend in late August before FTX.
FTX #55 has Down’s Syndrome and also difficulty walking. August 16th, 2014 was something of a special day in Detroit. It was the day of their annual Woodward Dream Cruise where muscle cars and other classics drive up and down Woodward Avenue showing off some of the best art Detroit or any other city ever gave to this world.
Gary, as was his way, offered to share the day with us and show mom and sis around. As the gorgeous steel girls of Detroit rumbled past us I was captivated for I have a deep deep love of Detroit muscle. Gary offered to sit with my mom and sis as I wandered around to see this once in a lifetime event. I was grateful.
It wasn’t until that evening that I found out from the internet that that day was Gary’s birthday. His 52nd.
He never said a word. He just shared his day with us with a quiet grace.
May 28th, 2014
Brandy & my third wedding anniversary.
Brandy woke that day to Audrey vomiting and refusing to eat.
Scared to take her to the vet and something horrible be discovered on such a special day my brave wife still took our Aud in.
Less than a week later we learned that she had cancer in her stomach.
June 5th, 2014
The biggest ball of cancer the surgeon had ever seen was removed from our good girl. The surgeon tells us we caught it just in time.
June 19th, 2014
As with our last FTX, FTX Namibia in 2012, I wanted to dedicate this FTX to kids. More specifically, kids without parents.
In Africa they are called orphans and there are more than I could ever imagine – on the outskirts of the small town I was living in at the time there were thousands.
In America they are called foster kids. We have state run programs to make sure they have homes and food and clothes and schooling. But they still are missing what the African kids were, what matters most – a stable family.
My goals were to invite as many of the kids that could go to FTX Motor City – a family in its own right, and to raise donations for them as well. Whether a kid needed a new backpack or sneakers I believed that first and foremost what they would get is that someone out there cared about them. That they weren’t alone.
I contacted one of the oldest and highest regarded foster care agencies of Detroit – The Ennis Center For Children.
I was plenty nervous calling them as I was concerned I would appear as the stranger I truly was asking them to take me at my word that I only had the best intentions.
I find that in the west we have a suspicious nature.
It must be something taught just as I find often in the east it is not.
When I told the locals in Namibia that I wanted to hand out free French Toast and Hugs to local boys and girls their reply was “Well of course you do.” It just made sense to them that someone would want to help someone else.
That isn’t always the reaction I get over here.
I rehearsed and rehearsed what I wanted to say to whoever answered their phone. I would tell them that I had done this eighteen times before all over the world and even though I would have no permits that I could be relied on. That I was accountable. That all I wanted was just this one moment – to give to this special city and to these brave kids.
And so it was with a desperate heart that I called.
My call was directed to Jennifer King and in that moment I forgot everything I had rehearsed!
I stuttered as I am apt to do and I rambled as I am also apt to do in a winding road of thoughts and emotions.
When I finally came up for air she paused and her heart said:
“Well of course you do.”
Sight unseen, she leapt completely and fully into my dream!
She told me she would talk to the President of The Ennis Center, Bob Ennis, and see what he thought.
I immediately wrote my new brother Gary to which he immediately replied:
“Keep me in the loop! I can reach out to more organizations. Let’s blow the roof off this event!”
And even now, one year to the day, I find tears in my eyes to think of their love.
Turns out Bob Ennis loved the idea and Jennifer King and Erin Covert of The Ennis Center put the word out to all the various foster agencies in the Detroit area about FTX Motor City.
Days and weeks passed as I locked in the location (where could be better to share our hearts than in Hart Plaza?) and found the local bakery, farm and gelateria that we would purchase our challah bred, eggs and gelato from.
I put the word out to people who could or couldn’t make it that day that we were raising donations for these kids. And boy did those donations ever come in!
The people in my office had to start storing them in another room as they began to reach to the ceiling.
And Audrey, my good girl, weeks past her surgery began to eat once more, growing happy and strong and my heart grew with her.
Jennifer & Erin told me they weren’t sure how many foster kids would actually be at FTX as it was up to their foster parents to take a Sunday off to bring them down. There was no judgment. The foster parents were doing their best and lives always get busy. “No matter” I told them, each FTX turns out exactly as it needs to be.
August 8th, 2014
The previous year, 2013, I had the rare fortune to actually be home on my birthday. Brandy, knowing how much I love being with our family, planned for Audrey, our coonhound Greta and us to stay at a small inn along the Pacific ocean. We took walks on the beach with them and ran and played and laughed.
It was the greatest birthday I have ever had.
But August 8th, 2014 arrived and this time I found myself working. It was a long, hot and tiring day and I told my friends that I’d prefer to go home and rest rather than celebrate. I called Brandy as I was leaving work and couldn’t help but hear the silence in her voice.
“Audrey’s cancer is back.”
And just like that the sky went dim and I found myself alone in a raging sea.
Salt water choking me and mixing with my tears.
It was the worst birthday I have ever had.
Audrey got progressively sicker as her cancer caused her to starve herself.
Brandy, my poor lady, had been thru this before you see as her mother passed from stomach cancer in 2012 in our home months after we married.
She too starved to death.
August 30th, 2014 to September 2nd, 2014
I flew home for one last visit with our girl.
Oh dear God how thin she was but her eyes were still a puppy’s.
We did everything she loved to do.
Frolics on the beach.
And my favorite – lying down on the floor with her and holding her close.
As I did I fell asleep with Audrey, my arms draped around her chest.
Softly I felt a touch and woke to see Brandy wrapped around Audrey’s back.
We held her in a circle of love.
I promised Audrey I would be back soon as I closed the front door.
September 8th, 2014
I will never forget that Monday.
It was a hard night of work.
Due to the nature of where we were working I had to be the only one from my department out there for most of the night. I spent it running back and forth down a muddy road carrying equipment.
Once Audrey got sick Brandy & I made a deal. While I was working if anything important came up that she had to email me about she would put what it was in the subject line. This was because my internet would often go down and if I saw a subject line about our girl and was unable to open the message I would go into a state of panic.
I finished work the morning of September 9th alone except for my co-worker and friend James. I was covered in mud and exhausted as I checked my email before leaving for home.
There was an email from Brandy.
Subject: I’m sorry to have to do this via email
It had been sent at 4:54pm the previous day.
Audrey was done. She was telling Brandy it was time for her to go.
I didn’t get the message till 6:24am the next day.
I had worked thru the last moments of her life.
I looked up at James and told him my girl was gone.
While Audrey was struggling for life Brandy and I decided it would be best if Brandy stayed home in California to nurse her while I did FTX in Detroit on September 14th.
Now that Audrey was gone it was undecided if Brandy should come out.
How do you give when you feel so empty?
September 9th, 2014
Another email from Brandy.
Subject: Heidi and I are coming. :O)
How do you give when you feel so empty?
The answer is simple.
You get what you give. And you give what you get.
September 14th, 2014
And so here we are.
A long journey thru a very specific time.
The sun is full and the sky is blue. The air is crisp but not cold as we arrive at Hart Plaza. The perfect weather for grilling!
Hart Plaza – home to many Detroit concerts and events. I purposefully chose this day as there was nothing listed on the official Hart Plaza schedule. Since I didn’t have a permit I didn’t want to interfere with anyone that did.
I pulled our van near the iconic Joe Lewis sculpture (as seen on our FTX Motor City flyers) and got out. Gary was there along with some of his students – ready to go.
I made a mental note to myself that I would have to induct Gary into the FTX Gang with his own gang number one day soon.
The crew started to unload and carry the enormous amount of food we had across the street to the empty plaza.
I stood alone for a brief moment and looked around.
Here I was, so very aware of time. And the life it actually stood for.
Here I was knowing that Audrey would not die for me until I returned home three months later.
Here I was and I took the deepest breath I could.
Because I knew, somehow I knew, that I would be trying to stay afloat in that raging sea of grief and that each and every breath counts.
Turning I saw my friend Kurt, aptly numbered for his irreverent nature as FTX #69 and we laughed because what could we do but laugh?
Together we crossed into Hart Plaza.
I hung up a picture of Audrey in front of my grill and read my speech to the small crew that were assembled.
FTX Motor City was a slow burn. People came and went and even the cops came (and went thanks to FTX #5!) and all was well. That is until 10:30am!
Just as I was talking about packing it up early the entire Detroit Salvation Army showed up!
Unknown to me they had booked the plaza and were celebrating their organization along with a full marching band!!
I think they thought we were part of the Salvation Army and we fed every last one of them. The line stretched on for hours and at one point I looked up and saw that their marching band was facing us as they blasted into a full concert!
With the punctuated drum rhythms and the deep brassy horns I found myself grilling to even greater heights and speeds as the music took me over.
Bees swarmed us and danced around us as we picked them out of pools of syrup and whipped cream. Leaving us *mostly* unstung.
It was a true celebration of life as I battled each moment with the grief that tried to hold me under.
I could and can still feel the love in the faces of my gang.
Chris and Daisy with the gelato and Robin cutting the fruit.
Kyle in his chef uniform and Heidi staying near and close to Brandy.
And James, who was with me on that dreadful September 8th was there holding up pictures of my car Grace.
And Sandy and Paul and Amy and Eric and Jami and Carmine and Tricia and Kurt. Lovely Kurt walking up to complete strangers and telling them “So glad you could make it! We’ve been waiting for you!” and leading those poor confused people into our joyful celebration.
I looked and saw Brandy and she was smiling and laughing, loving and giving.
My dear wife who had lost the greatest love of her life less than a week before was filled with joy!!!!
She confided to me in later days that the love of that FTX got her thru those first few weeks without Audrey.
No greater miracle has FTX ever accomplished.
By the end of it all I was spent.
I had emptied out fully and was grateful for the privilege to do so.
And as we drove out of Hart Plaza I was aware that we were already becoming a memory.
But what a wonderful memory.
October 26th, 2014
Jennifer and Erin come to my Michigan home and pick up a wall of donations.
Days later I receive this letter from their founder – Bob Ennis
December 5th, 2014
But it didn’t quite feel like home.
Since September 8th, 2014 I find it hard to look people in the eye.
And so as I walk Greta around town I do so with my cowboy hat low on my eyes.
I look down and smile as I pass people hoping that will be enough.
Enough for them and enough for me.
April 23rd, 2015
Gary Sibley, my friend, my brother, passed away in the night from heart failure.
He was only 52.
He spent his last birthday with me and my mom and sis.
Gary, who never got his FTX number but will forever be in the gang.
Gary posted an image online the night before his death.
It is a clock face over which is written “The Clock Is Ticking”.
September 14th, 2015
It’s been a year and I still find it hard to look people in the eye.
The sea is calmer now but not entirely so.
But I feel something in myself stirring. A need, a calling to do it all over again.
One day I will look up again and I hope that on that day as I’m setting up my grill and music is in the air (hopefully a marching band) that on that day as I lift my head that I’m looking at you and that you are looking at me.
Because time is life and life is all we have and I want to share mine with you.