In 1975, Bob Dylan put out an album called Blood on the Tracks. It got mixed reviews at the time, but is now considered one of his finest efforts. I am not always in the mood for Dylan, but when I am, Blood on the Tracks is a go-to. There are a couple of songs on it that I tend to skip past, but the majority of this record that begins with Tangled Up in Blue and ends with Buckets of Rain rings true with me.

I was listening to Buckets of Rain as I drove to work in the dark this Friday morning that leads into Labor Day weekend. The song opens with:

Buckets of rain
Buckets of tears
Got all them buckets comin’ out of my ears
Buckets of moonbeams in my hand

I was listening to The Tragically Hip on the way home last night and they were jamming out singing “We live to survive our paradoxes.”

Buckets of Rain’s lyrics are paradoxical. Contradiction that is truth. I can relate.

2022 has not been a great year for us on a personal level.

People we knew and loved died or became gravely ill.

Our dog was put down in early February.

In April, I executed a huge dumb-ass move at work trying to lift a 93-lb printer from its resting place on the floor up onto the lower shelf of a cart. Distance? About 6 inches or less. Didn’t matter. That was enough. I felt the tug when I pulled my back and over the next several weeks, my chiropractor’s stock went through the roof.

I decided to change jobs in April right after I did the tractor pull, and by mid-May, I was in a new job after parking in my old space for almost 19 years. Still working in the same building. Still see a lot of people I’m familiar with. Nevertheless – full disclosure here – the switcheroo was a bit nerve-wracking. Went from something I knew like the back of my hand to an all new environment where everyone in the room is 100 times smarter than me. During the first month, I thought I might go blind watching weeks of online training videos. Things have settled down a bit, but I was nervous navigating the transition.

I teleworked during the second half of May. My first day at the new desk was the day after I’d gotten a call over Memorial Day weekend that my younger brother Burt had been found dead in North Carolina. He was 62 if my math is right.

Up until a week ago, I hadn’t written a creative sentence since I got the call from my sister Lisa. Not one. I recognized that was not good. And I knew if I wrote anything, my brother should be my first priority. That’s when I got stymied. I locked up. Froze. Deer in the headlights.

Burt and I had a rough start. We did not come into this life with a leg up. We grew up poor, wearing clothes that didn’t always fit. We had different fathers, who both eventually gave up on trying to get along with our raging alcoholic mother.

Eventually my sister Lisa would come along, but I was a teenager by that time, looking for a way to break free.

Burt got along with our mother better than I did. He once told me that of all mother’s children, he felt like he was the most like her. I remember when he told me that, I shook my head and said, “Don’t ever say that, man. Nobody needs to be like her.”

But he was right in his assessment.

Burt followed in my footsteps and joined the Air Force when he came of age. After the military, he worked in IT support. I visited him and his wife and his baby daughter in the Dallas area once.

There were issues at that time I won’t go into. Signs.

Burt lost his wife under awful circumstances when they were still a young couple. He never completely bounced back from that. I doubt I would either. He never married again. Or even dated, to my knowledge.

After his daughter grew up and left home, he went down a path of living alone for years. Decades. This was not good for him. It’s not good for anybody, but it was especially not good for him. In essence, he became a hermit.

It came on gradually, but there came a time when his small extended family had a collective realization that he wasn’t responding unless he wanted to. He wouldn’t answer the door. He’d ignore phone calls. Emails and letters. FaceBook messages.

In my particular case, I understand having the door closed in my face. I was not a good brother. Granted, we spent a lot of time together and did a lot of kid things during our time, but once I was able to enlist and leave home, I never looked back. If anything, I turned to him as I was leaving and said, “Good luck with this.” I doubt I even said that.

My mother was not kind to my sister Lisa, but she did seem to have a soft spot for Burt. Perhaps because she felt he was the one closest to her heart.

The tragedy of losing Burt was the loss of his kindness and his humor and his brilliance. He was a lot smarter than me about a lot of things. I remember him sitting in his kitchen with me in Dallas late one night and he took out a piece of paper and drew me the design for an autonomous car. I told him he was crazy – no one would ever let cars drive themselves. He told me I was wrong. Well, we see who turned out right.

My brother had a wry sense of humor. A comfortableness in his own skin that I struggled to attain. All who knew him back in the day would tell you what a kind individual he was. He was just a lovely guy. But he had demons. And it wasn’t just him. All of us kids have wrestled with our demons. It’s in our DNA. The difference was that my sister and I have always had others around us who loved and protected us.

I’d seen this train coming for 20 years or more. It didn’t have the immediate effect I thought it might. After getting the call, I went outside and mowed for a couple of hours, clearing my head. Yeah, I’d lose it for a second or just yell fuck over the lawnmower, but the bad news wasn’t the hammer I’d expected. When we put the dog down, there was a profound sense of sadness and loss. With my brother, I’m almost thankful that it’s ended.

I have a lot of moments where I question my worth as a human being. Maybe my reaction was subdued because I felt like he’d left us years ago and I’d already mourned.

July and August this year were wet. Thunderstorms sometimes every day for a week running. The heat and humidity coupled with excessive rain made everyone’s lawns explode into jungles. Mowing, or finding a good time to mow when the lawn had at least attempted to dry out, was next to impossible. For several weeks, I gambled on what days I could at least mow pieces of the lawn. I say it was next to impossible, but somehow it got done. Not saying I didn’t break a sweat, or border on heat stroke here and there, because I did.

I think I have troubles, but I have a dear friend who is going through chemo right now. While I am not a religious man, I have offered up prayers. Prayers asking for my friend’s delivery and prayers thanking God it’s not me.

In less than a couple of weeks, we’ll be going to southern Maine for the wedding of my niece Amelia and her beau Scott. There’ll be lots of familiar faces. A rare chance for relatives and friends to gather. I am sobered when Judy reminds me that we are now the patriarchal and matriarchal influences. All the peeps older than us are dead.

In the meantime, life goes on. During this past week, my two biggest ripples were caused by grape leaves and a kitten. Yeah. How does that manifest?

First, the grape leaves thing that I had difficulty getting past. This past Tuesday, Judy was invited to a dancing gig in Richmond that she attended with her girlfriends. They danced at a Lebanese restaurant called Natalie’s.

That same night was the kickoff soiree for the annual Virginia Film Festival. So I attended with a friend of mine. It was funny not having Judy with me. I went, I drank a glass of wine, and I shook hands for a couple of hours. Then I couldn’t wait to get home. They had hor d’oeuvres being offered throughout the evening, but I was saving myself.

You see, Judy had promised to bring home an appetizer tray for me from Natalie’s. Complete with grape leaves. I knew she was going to be late, but I was pretty sure I could hold out for the grape leaves. So I purposely didn’t eat.

When I got home, there were things I could have nibbled on or cooked up, but no. Grape leaves are coming. And I love me some grape leaves if you haven’t figured that out.

I thought Judy might be home around 9:30 PM. As each additional half hour passed, I continued to resist the gnawing in my stomach.

Judy walked in around 11:30 PM carrying a bag stacked up with hummus and eggplant dips and soft pita bread. When I got to the bottom of the bag, I realized there wasn’t a stuffed grape leaf in sight.

“Judy, where’s the grape leaves?’

“Oh, they didn’t have any.”

“How can they be a Lebanese restaurant and not have grape leaves?”

That was answered by Judy turning on and popping into the shower.

I was disappointed. And hungry. And I had to get up in 5 hours to go to work. So I folded up a piece of pita bread and dipped it in some hummus and went to bed.

The next morning I woke up still jonesing for grape leaves. When I got to work, I made a critical mistake. I fired up the internet and went out to Natalie’s website to look at the menu. Judy was right – the appetizer platter she bought did not come with grape leaves. HOWEVER – and you’ll notice that is a big however – right up above the appetizer platter, literally the third thing down on the menu, was grape leaves. A small portion for $5, a large portion for $9.

I tried to harp on this, but once you get to know Judy, you realize that if you don’t stop talking about grape leaves pretty quick, she’s going to go out and buy some grape leaves and then come home and stuff them down your throat. Or she simply chooses to disarm me. Case in point, years ago we went to a Men’s Wearhouse and in the process of getting a couple of new suits, I ended up walking out the door with 4 very nice dress shirts.

One of my favorite color shirts was worn once. After it was washed, I discovered bleach drop stains going down the front of it.

“Judy, what the hell happened to this shirt? This is a $50 shirt!”

She apologized. Wasn’t sure how it happened.

“Well, now it’s not good for anything except mowing the lawn!”

To which my bride replied, “I love you so much, Doug. You’re so wonderful. Don’t you think you deserve a $50 shirt to mow the lawn in?”

See, you can’t fight that shit. Plus the day after the grape leaves upheaval, she went shopping and when I got home, she was happy to point out the 4 containers of stuffed grape leaves she’d bought to calm my stupid ass down.

Then right on the heels of me losing my cool over grape leaves came the kitten. Don’t ask me where it came from or where its mother is. I have no idea. But a couple of days ago, I came out to get in the car and drive to work and I heard a strident rhythmic series of kitten meows. We get a cat on the property occasionally so I drove off to work and didn’t think anything of it.

Came home and heard the meows as soon as I got out of the car. Then I looked over and saw a kitten head poking out of some bushes. Then it came out of the bushes and approached warily. This kitten is small. Defenseless. Scared. Cute little gray tabby. And it was hungry.

Judy would tell me never feed a feral animal because then they keep coming back. I went inside and tried to ignore the situation, but before long, I was feeling guilty about this poor animal, so I took a bowl of milk out there. Some cat people cautioned me the next day that that wasn’t a good choice. Milk gives cats the runs. Didn’t matter. When I checked the next morning, the milk hadn’t been touched. I guess the cat knew better than me.

When I came home that day, I looked down and spied our dead dog’s water dish filled with fresh water. Apparently, Judy, the one who would normally tell me not to feed a feral creature had given in. When I went inside and mentioned the water set outside, Judy said, “Yeah, and I fed it, too.”

“You what?”

“I gave it some tuna.”

“Wait a second. Are you telling me you opened up our last can of Albacore tuna and fed some to the kitten?”

“No. We had some ahi tuna left in the fridge so I used that.”

“You’re kidding me. Ahi tuna? What the hell?”

“Cat seemed to like it.”

“Yeah, I guess so!”

By that night, the kitten was curled up on our doormat.

Yesterday I opened the Albacore. Cat liked that, too.

I am highly allergic to cats. There’s no way we can take it in. So we checked around the local SPCAs. The one in our county is a kill shelter, so that’s not a contender. But the others are not kill shelters. Only problem is you have to get the kitten to them which they guarantee will get adopted swiftly.

So now I gotta win over the cat’s trust because when it’s outside the door, the moment I ease the door open, the kitten scatters.

Judy asked me last night if I’d tried petting it yet. To win it over. So last night, five different times, I opened the door and the kitten bolted. The cat people at work told me this morning the cat is scared of the motion when I open the door. They say if I just sit out on the doorstep, the cat will come to me and I’ll be able to pick it up.

As I mentioned, when I sat down to finally write something about a week ago, it turned out to be the bio of Santa Claus I’m working on. I hadn’t gone to that world for a month or two. As soon as I sat down, it was like I’d never left. I was enjoying the process. Being able to slip into creativity freed my mind up to pen this which I’ve done in a stream of consciousness, so I apologize if it seems ragged.

After being resistant to an emotional response, I was struck by grief quite unexpectedly driving home a couple of days ago. Just kind of washed over me and I freely allowed tears to run down my face.

We don’t have much to do this Labor Day weekend. Some yard work. I’ll have to mow because it looks like rain for a week starting on Labor Day. Other than that, Judy and I will just be hanging out.

We live to survive our paradoxes.

And despite all these physical and emotional buckets of rain that have descended, it seems I still have some moonbeams left in my hand.

I’ll be thinking about that while I’m sitting on the front stoop waiting for the kitten.