Wednesday, November 30, 2005

ACC Football Regular Season Recap

In my latest Southern Pigskin column, I look back at my predictions for the ACC football season and tell you what I expected and what surprised me. Here's a hint--my predictions were very, very close to being exactly right. Why would I write a column and proclaim myself a moron? That's up to you, the reader, and I don't want to take that right away from you.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Early Impressions of ACC Hoops

In my latest Duke Basketball Column, I look at how each of the ACC teams has fared so far this season (overall, quite well) and make my picks for the upcoming ACC-Big 10 Challenge. I like the Big 10 to finally break through.

November 19--A New Start

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how my life changed due to the events of October 11, 2004 and mentioned the people who shared their strength with me when I needed it. Those closest to me, my friends Robin and Brian and their wives Laura and Renee, my brother Michael and my brother-in-law Mike came together to share another life changing event on November 19, 2005.

This time, we were joined by other friends, relatives, and church family at my home church, Believers Covenant Fellowship. Robin and I wore tuxedos and, as the hour of 6:00 PM approached, we stood at the front of the church awaiting the entrance of Brenda. It was her day, after all—we were getting married!

It had been one year, almost exactly to the moment, from the first time I had laid eyes on Brenda, and our wedding was the culmination of a fascinating journey my life took from October 11, 2004 thru November 19, 2005.

Sometimes the best things in life occur when you aren’t seeking them out, and that was never truer than when I met Brenda.

As you can imagine, the weeks immediately following my wife Bette’s passing (see my “October 11” post for that story) were the most difficult of my life. Tears were a big part of my life during those weeks, sometimes spurred by a special song Bette and I shared, other times by a flashing memory. Bette had taught me I could cry and still be a strong man, but she hadn’t shown me how to stop.

There had been a theme to my last few months with Bette. We had referred to changes in our life leading up to our “next chapter.” Indeed they had, but the story had taken a very unwelcome turn.

As I tried to chart the course for the next chapter of my life, the part without my beloved Bette, I gradually resigned myself to being alone. I felt like a star athlete who had retired, deciding that I had now lived the best years of my life. I was determined, however, that I would not turn into a pathetic widower. I would find purpose for my life and not waste all the love and belief that Bette had given me. The best way I could honor her was to keep going, continue putting one foot in front of the other, until I figured out what this new phase of my life was all about.

In late October, Robin and I followed through on plans to attend the Maryland-Florida State football game, my first major event since Bette’s memorial service. It helped getting back out in the world beyond the confines of my cubicle at work or the local sports bar and my nightly steak sub.

I quickly realized that all my close friends were married. They were making every effort to reach out and include me in things, making sure I didn’t withdraw from life, but I knew in the long run I needed to cultivate single friends since I was now single myself. I didn’t seek a romance, but I deeply missed the companionship of a woman.

I decided to take the plunge and register on several personals sites on the Internet, seeking a woman (preferably more than one) who I could meet for dinner, take to a movie, walk around a shopping mall with. When completing my profiles, I was very clear about the fact that I was a recent widower and was just seeking companionship and friendship.

I quickly hooked up with a wonderful lady named Karen. She is a passionate sports fan, so we swapped sports stories and arranged to meet for dinner. The day of that meeting, I stood in front of Bette’s remains and slowly slipped off my wedding ring for the first time—it just didn’t seem right to wear it anymore.

Karen and I really hit it off and time flew by that evening. I had been very nervous about meeting her earlier this day, torn with doubts and anxiety, but most of that had disappeared by the time dinner was served. We made plans to get together again, and I ended that evening emboldened by the feeling that, while I would never fall in love again, I wouldn’t have to be alone either.

I continued to make more contacts over the next few days, spending a lot of my free time in the evenings chatting with ladies over the Internet or exchanging e-mail. The plan was working better than I could have possibly hoped.

Then I ran across Brenda’s profile, and those plans changed forever.

I found Brenda’ profile in November 15 and left a message in her in-box to let her know I was interested in contacting her. Within minutes, that interest was reciprocated, and we began a series of lengthy, deep IM conversations. The next evening, I was chatting with her and another lady at the same time (that’s as adventurous as I ever got) and was struck with the difference in the level of conversation. I found myself already sharing some of my innermost feelings with Brenda, while the other lady was passionately describing her favorite color.

I quickly realized that any relationship with Brenda would not be a casual buddy-buddy one. That was confirmed on November 19, when I met her in front of a restaurant for our first date. We already knew so much about each other, it seemed like a fourth or firth date, and by the time our evening was over, I knew I could fall in love with her.

That weekend Robin and I attended the Ravens-Cowboys game in Baltimore, and while we hung out before kickoff, I told him about how I had spent my last week with Brenda. I asked him if I was crazy, only weeks after losing Bette, to be developing such feelings for another woman. To my relief, he did not indicate I was nuts, at least not for that reason. He encouraged caution, but at the same time urged me to explore the possibilities with Brenda.

The next week was Thanksgiving, and Brian and his family were kind enough to invite me over. I had the same conversation with him after dinner and was delighted to receive a very similar response. The day after Thanksgiving, Brenda and I spoke and professed our love for each other, only eight days after we met. I was overcome with the rush of feelings I never expected to enjoy again. The love and passion I felt for Bette were still close to the surface, which I believe made it easier to express those feelings toward Brenda.

A week later, our relationship passed what she later told me was the acid test—she took me to her church. Brenda had helped start Believers Covenant Fellowship ten years earlier but had taken a sabbatical in recent months. She was ready to end it and see if one of her dreams, being able to worship God with the man she loves, would finally come true. Brenda had been married before, a marriage that lasted 20 years, but her ex-husband had seldom shared the church activities that meant so much to her. She was determined that any man she would have a serious relationship with would be willing to attend church with her.

Over the years, I had drifted away from God. I always acknowledged his place and gave him credit for bringing Bette and me together, but at least subconsciously I blamed him for the struggles we had, the illness and pain Bette endured. We had tried to figure things out on our own and only turned to God when we were in trouble. During her last few months, Bette had discussed that with me and we were ready to find a church home where we could get reconnected with the Holy Spirit. We never did that, but when Brenda invited me to her church, I jumped at the opportunity.

I had never been to a gay-affirming church with a predominantly GLBT membership, which is what BCF is. On my first visit, I saw I was the only straight man there. What was much more important, however, was getting reintroduced to the Holy Spirit. It was a very charismatic congregation, very different from the Catholic masses I had attended in recent years. In a very brief time, I felt the Holy Spirit flow through me stronger than I had in a long, long, time. A lot of churches give lip service to hosting God’s presence, but He really was there, and I was happy to get reacquainted.

The folks at BCF were wonderful. They welcomed me (literally) with open arms, and the education of a straight man began. I quickly found that we could exchange jokes about gays and straights without hurt feelings, and that any question I asked would get answered, even if I really didn’t want to know the answer. Apostle Dale Jarrett, who had known Brenda for 17 years and was her best friend, spent a lot of time talking with me and getting me acclimated to how BCF conducted their worship. Other key members followed suit. Pastor Anita, Sharone, Erica, Ken, Paul, Peggy, Daphne, Linda, Nancy, and Kathy all accepted me and adopted me into the church family.

I proposed to Brenda in February and the wedding planning was begun. In March, I had my first crisis. I fell into a serious depression as the reality of Bette’s loss hit me hard and threatened to consume me. I spiraled downward during a particularly bad weekend and reached out to everyone I could think of to help pull me out of it. Cousin Connie in Illinois stepped up big-time, as she has ever since Bette’s passing. Apostle Dale was also wonderful, and my Brenda was absolutely amazing.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Brenda is how she managed to be a part of helping me grieve Bette while also building our relationship. Most people in that situation would be terribly threatened, or at least severely put off, by their fiancée crying about their late spouse. Brenda was always there to literally give me a shoulder to cry on and to talk through whatever I was feeling. I also began grief counseling with Tom Golden, who gave me the tools to effectively grieve while being able to move forward with my life.

I commemorated Bette’s birthday in April by visiting the family in Illinois for the first time since her passing. I was deeply touched by their acceptance and joy regarding my relationship and pending marriage to Brenda. I was concerned that they would feel some lessening of my love for Bette because I was able to get remarried so quickly. I needn’t have worried, though. They had seen Bette and me together enough over the years and heard her talk about us enough to never question how deep our love was. They were also happy that the devastated man overwhelmed with despair in October was now one who was embracing life and was full of hope for the future.

In May, I took out the video of mine and Bette’s wedding and watched it with Brenda on what would have been our 12th anniversary. Seeing Bette alive and healthy again was nothing short of traumatic. I wanted to jump through the television screen and be back in 1993 again, with her healthy and the future ahead of us. I wanted to do it all “right” this time and make our lives better than they turned out. It was a long weekend, but with Brenda by my side I got through it.

At this point I realized that it was okay to miss Bette—that I could do that and still love Brenda. I didn’t miss the intimacy I shared with Bette, I had plenty of that with Brenda. I just missed the person who knew me better then anyone ever had. I missed all the history we shared, all the cute things we would say to each other. I missed my best friend, and I realized I always will, but that doesn’t mean I want to go back and relive those days.

Brenda and I had a wonderful summer, taking trips to visit her family in Lynchburg, Virginia, having a vacation week in her favorite place, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I geared up my sportswriting and radio appearances after taking the previous season off and began my Straight, Not Narrow blog. Brenda has been extremely supportive and encouraging and celebrates any little success I have. We both worked to help our church move into our new facility and prepare to expand the ministry once that move is complete.

I counted down the days until October 11th, the one-year anniversary of Bette’s passing. I scheduled my last session with Tom Golden that day and, once I left his office, I felt a great sense of relief, somewhat like I had graduated a year-long course in survival. Not only had I survived, I was thriving.

It was difficult to say this, but my life was actually better in many ways on October 11, 2005 than it was a year earlier. My spirit and soul had been fed by the Holy Spirit like they never had before. My relationship with those closest to me, my brother and brother-in-law, Robin, Brian, had never been better, and I had this wonderful church family that I was now part of. I was in the process of moving into a new job and getting a fresh start in my accounting career, and I was writing more often about more topics than ever before.

The key difference, though, was Brenda. Over 11 years, Bette and I had allowed ourselves to get beat down by financial, career, and health issues. We had gradually withdrawn into our own personal black hole, where the only important thing in our lives was each other. Brenda brought a much different perspective into my life.

One of the first things she shared with me was her desire to help others, and she always demonstrated an instinct of thinking beyond herself. Rather than be jealous of sharing time together with our church family, I welcomed it. We had plenty of quality time to ourselves, but I also found sharing ourselves with others, be it having fun or doing work, only made us stronger as a couple.

With Brenda’s encouragement, I reached out to my old high school friend Steve, who I had a falling out with several years ago. He happily responded to my overture, and I was pleased he and his wife Janice were part of our wedding. Instead of viewing my relationship, and now marriage, as an escape from the world like Bette and I did, Brenda and I embrace the opportunity to be part of trying to make the world better, drawing strength from each other, our church, our friends, but most importantly from God.

As I stood at the altar with my arm outstretched on this November 19, all of this and much more flashed through my mind. My overriding feeling, one which, big surprise, nearly drove me to tears, was one of gratefulness. I had always felt very blessed to have Bette in my life, to have known true love once. To have it happen a second time, and after so short a time following Bette’s passing, well I just felt blessed well beyond anything I could ever deserve.

Besides feeling alone on October 11, 2004, I had lost hope. God reintroduced that into my life when he brought Brenda into it on November 19, to be quickly followed by love, fulfillment, and happiness at a new level. The “next chapter” had become a “sequel”, carrying forward some of the old characters but introducing plenty of new ones that helped it become a much better story than I would have ever written for myself.

As I write this, I am fully convinced I have NOT lived the best years of my life. No, the best is yet to come and will be shared with my wife Brenda. We both thank God for each other daily and look forward to how he will bless us next. Most of all, we have hope, and isn’t that what faith is all about?.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

ACC Hoops Predictions

In my latest column for Duke Basketball Report, I offer my predictions for how the ACC basketball standings will look at the end of the 2005-06 season.

I do have one mistake in there-I refer to the Miami coach as Stan Heath. The 'Canes coach is actually Frank Haith, Stan Heath is the Arkansas coach. I apologize for the error, but then again I finished this column during my honeymoon so I'm happy I was even that close.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

ACC Football Heading Toward the Stretch Run

In my latest Southern Pigskin column, I look at last week's upsets in ACC football (three ranked teams losing), handicap the bowl prospects for each team, and make my picks for the upcoming week's games.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Clues to Success in ACC Hoops, 2005-06

In part three of my exhausting yet exhillerating ACC basketball preview series for the Duke Basketball Report, I focus on what one clue for each team will give fans the best idea of how successful their season will be.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Upsets and Bowl Hopes in the ACC

In my latest Southern Pigskin column, I look at the upsets in the ACC last week and the bowl hopes that many conference teams still cling to going into this week.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The ACC's Most Indespensible Players 2005-06

I've done this before, where instead of picking a team's MVP, I tell you each team would miss the most if they were out of the lineup. My 2005-06 version for the ACC is up on the Duke Basketball Report

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

New Schools Control ACC Football

I discuss that and other topics in my latest Southern Pigskin column. I also rank the remaining original ACC football programs and look to make it two perfect weeks in a row with my picks, including the big Virginia Tech-Miami game.