Bumble B

jerry and bEvery workplace has one. 

I’m talking about the co-worker who can cut through the darkness with a smile, a friend who can dissolve stress with a light hearted greeting, a partner in crime who will celebrate the end of the week with a Friday dance-off.

For more than three decades, the ray of sunshine in an often stressful newsroom on Monroe Place went by the name of Birnur Richardson.

We called her “B.” Just B. She immigrated from Turkey, finding her way to WXIA-TV where she began work as an intern in that often stressful newsroom that, in those days, was located on West Peachtree Street. Without complaint, B eagerly tackled each and every task the bosses sent charging toward her. Eventually, WXIA-TV had to offer her full-time work. It was either that, or lose our version of Muhammad Ali– smart, spry, able to punch out tasks with an entertaining bounce.

She could float like a butterfly, but this B had no sting.

I met Birnur in the summer of 1981. We were both interns, both tasked with working the WXIA assignment desk during the weekends. I arrived in the mornings, she took over in the afternoons. We were naive and nervous, and I took the job quite seriously, probably way too seriously. In her good natured style, B would often poke fun of my overstressed attitude and urge me to relax. She became a big sister. Seven years later, I would work my way back to the WXIA newsroom, and there was B, still trying to keep me at ease with her polite ribbing and her big, captivating smile.

Years passed. B drifted to the morning shift, and eventually, so did I. A newsroom can be a solemn, grumpy place at 3 a.m., unless you employ Birnur Richardson. Nothing could faze her. Editing glitches, computer problems, system breakdowns. She handled it all with polite professionalism. And if you had an issue, somehow she would break away from her job of editing two-and-a-half hours of videotape to help. Never, not once, did I ever hear B speak a cross word to anyone. Ever.

Last year, after 35 years at WXIA, Birnur Richardson retired. She went home to spend time with her husband and two children. She seemed quite happy, at peace. Her work family missed her terribly, so when word filtered back that she was sick, we worried. But it seemed she was going to be ok. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. Part of it is that B didn’t let a whole lot of people know just how sick she really was. Part of it, I’m sure, is my fault. Perhaps I wouldn’t let my mind accept the possibility that cancer was about to claim yet another loved one.

When Birnur Richardson passed away, it was like Interstate 85 had collapsed all over again, only this time, it dropped right on top of my head.

I can’t stop seeing the smile that could cut right through the stress. I can’t stop hearing the song that our morning co-worker Jojo Johnson would sing to Birnur every Friday:

Bumble Bee

Don’t you dare sting me…

And I can’t stop hearing B’s exuberant “Whoo hoo” at the end of each Friday performance.

Since her passing, I’ve heard from people who are long gone from WXIA, but continue to cherish their time working with the effervescent Birnur. Everyone is in total shock. Generations of former co-workers remember her tough but gentle nature, and her joyful approach to each and every situation. We are trying to comfort each other with the the stories of how B treated us all like family.

She was tough. She was smart. She was hard working, but most of all, Birnur Richardson was happy. She lived and worked in a joyful manner that bubbled over, infecting everyone around her.

Once again, cancer leaves its sting.

It won’t erase our joyful memories of the Bumble B who brought a smile instead of a sting.

Four funerals and a wedding

march 5Reaching the 57th floor of my existence hasn’t been the smoothest elevator ride. Sure, there have been plenty of floors that have passed without a worry. Then, there are those rides where I’ve ascended too fast, dropped a few floors, stalled, rumbled, rattled, and limped toward my destination. On recent rides, one particular date seems to bring a either a dramatic rise, or a heart stopping fall.

March 5th.

On March 5, 2011, my father passed away after a lengthy fight with prostate cancer.

March 5, 2016, is the day my middle child married the man of her dreams.

Now comes March 5, 2017. Another ear piercing drop.

Gary Rothwell and I became best buddies when we were 5-years-old. My father accepted a new job at the University of Florida midway through the school year, so I was a late arrival at P.Y. Yonge, a rather eye opening and tolerant institution just a pebble’s throw from the famous graffiti covered wall on Highway 441 in Gainesville, Florida. On my first day of kindergarten, the teacher introduced me to the class.

“Children, this is Jerry.”

Gary Rothwell was one of the first to greet me.

“Hey,” exclaimed one of our classmates. “Jerry and Gary. That rhymes.”

After that, Gary and I were inseparable. I say that, but there were plenty of teachers over the years who did their best to separate us. I was a rambunctious child, and Gary was my go-to partner in mischief. We were constantly scheming to keep the school entertained, or at the very least, keep ourselves entertained. We were class clowns, the self-appointed merry pranksters. We never broke the law, but I imagine we caused more than a few teachers to regret their career choice.

It’s a friendship that has transcended graduation and adulthood. So, when March 5, 2011, arrived, Gary went out of his way to attend my father’s funeral. Likewise, when Gary’s mother passed away on March 5, 2017, I planned a trip back home to my beloved Gainesville, Florida.

To make the journey, I would need a day off of work. We, meaning WXIA-TV, were already shorthanded,  so I would need to labor beyond my normal hours to accommodate my absence. No one gave me that directive. I came up with it all on my own. I mentioned something to that effect to Gary, who clearly noticed my hurried, anxious tone. He responded with a statement as wise as King Solomon.

“Do what you need to do,” Gary quipped. “But it’s not like they can’t do without you.”

There are moments when I am actually arrogant enough to think the world of television news just can’t possibly survive a moment without me. My priorities run amuck, leading to long days and long absences from home that end with my brain still pounding with the call of unfinished tasks. My loved ones patiently wait their turn as I’m consumed with the self-imposed demands of a world that only cares for me when I give mile after extra mile.

Gary’s message was clear. He wanted and needed my company and my comfort. There’s no way to measure the accomplishment of simply being at his side for a few hours in his time of mourning. No one waiting on my “to do” list was upset when I informed them why their issue would have to wait until the following week. It’s not like Atlanta isn’t filled with capable news reporters ready and willing to fill my void, and quite adequately. No one’s television screen went dark during my absence. No one yearned for my increasingly gray locks. No one complained that their morning passed without the sound of my familiar yet mediocre voice.

Also waiting for me in my hometown was my mother. The loss of my father six years ago has left quite a void on NW 24th Way. She recently endured hip replacement surgery, and isn’t getting around quite as easily as she once did. I can’t fill the hole left by the departure of my well accomplished dad, but two days spent by my mom’s side, reminiscing, watching basketball, treating each other to dinner and a movie, are more valuable than any breaking news coverage, more treasured than twenty Emmy awards.

It’s a lesson I need to remember every single day. My hand can do more good holding  my wife in prayer than it can writing a million news stories. My voice is more valuable telling my children, “I love you,” than it is reminding Atlanta of its most serious traffic issues.

It’s not that my job is unimportant. I don’t plan to stop giving my all at work. I’m far too obsessive. But as funerals and weddings (I got an invitation to another today, the daughter of a friend) appear at the elevator door more frequently, I need to be more aware of the value of my attention. No tweeting when my wife wants to talk. No sneaking around to text when I’m supposed to be helping her with her Bible study. No drifting off to plan the rest of my week when friends, loved ones, or neighbors need my ear.

You never know when it might be someone else’s March 5th.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to take this call from my daughter. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, it’s because I’m on the phone with my mom.

Forgive me.

The elevator is rising toward the 58th floor.

I’d love it to be a smooth ride, but it’s not likely. So, may the doors open to ways I can make that ride a little easier for someone else.

 

The heart of darkness

Twitter is giving 2016 a harsh goodbye. Facebook, too. Everywhere I look, the brokenhearted are eager to rip December out of their virtual calendar and start anew.

I understand2017. This will not go down as one of my favorite years. 2016 is the multi-car pile up that ruins a trip to the beach. I survived with a badly damaged hood, scrapes along the front panel, dragging my back bumper toward 2017. At least I have insurance that come in the form of loving friends and family. I’m going to have to change four flat tires and rebuild my engine before I can finish that trip to the beach, but I’ll make it. There is sunlight at the edge of darkness.

It’s not really 2016’s fault. The year itself didn’t participate in vitriolic political debates, didn’t end the life of a single celebrity, nor did it take part in any of the mass shootings around the world. 2016 arrived like a fresh set of downs for a struggling offense. It offered optimism, hope, another chance. It’s crazy to think an altered number on our daily planner will erase our problems, but there’s a feeling that comes with the segue from December to January. It’s almost like the champagne and fireworks are delivered with a reset button. Push it, and life is good again.

I had that kind of optimism when 2016 awoke.

The first part of the year was pure bliss. My daughter was married in March. I danced on clouds, breathing thin air, as lightheaded as a circus balloon. Unfortunately, when the clouds began to dissipate, I didn’t have the legs to provide a solid landing.

Heartbreak came in waves.

There was the car wreck that ended a young life, a member of our church youth group, a friend of our daughter, the child of my own friends.

There is the tragedy and confusion that descended on other dear friends as harmful influences imbedded its toxic fangs in their son.

The brother of a young girl I’d mentored at church died in a motorcycle accident.

More recently, we received news that my sister’s latest cancer treatment has failed, dragging her back to the cruelty of chemotherapy as the tumors on her liver spread.

With all of that hanging over me, I wasn’t prepared for the sucker punch, delivered beneath my appendix scar, that sparked a series of confusing events that are too personal and painful to detail here. It sent me spiraling into the depths of uncertainty and depression. For days, I walked around in an Alaska winter, with moments of light covered by immense darkness.

I’m doing my best to focus on that light.

It would be foolish of me to sit in a dark corner and sulk. That would mean ignoring all of the bright, beautiful blessings that rained down upon me in 2016. It would mean turning my back on a God who is always there, holding a lantern to guide me away from gloom and misery. It would mean licking my wounds while friends and family who have faced far greater challenges over the past year stand strong. For my sister Nancy, 2016 was the pitbull that grabbed her in its powerful jaws and shook her like a stuffed toy. The cancer marches through her body, leaving painful footprints. The treatments leave her weak and disappointed. And yet, she finds the strength to smile. The harder cancer works to extinguish her light, the more Nancy shines.

How can I let my stupid little pitiful problems drag me down when I see perseverance like that?

Nothing grows well in darkness except anger and resentment. With the help of God’s light, I can see my way toward forgiveness. If I can’t heal and forgive, then I can’t expect others to forgive me for my indiscretions.

If I can’t move on from my own petty problems, I can’t be there for the people who need my love and support through their more significant struggles.

Rather than looking upon the negatives of 2016, perhaps I should be thankful for the opportunities to love, comfort, forgive, to mature and grow closer to a God who dearly wants me strong and happy.

2016, you are forgiven.

In fact, thank you. Thank you for shining a bright light on the many blessings that trump any of my difficulties, for encouraging me to tend to the needs of others, and for forcing me to realize God must come first, ahead of my own selfish desires. I can’t thank you for the difficulties you imposed on my friends and family, for they continue to struggle. But I can thank you for opening my eyes to the absolute need to focus on them, not me.

The calendar isn’t all that needs to change.

I need to change, too.

 

I believe

Screenshot 2016-06-16 at 4.30.11 PMI know it’s there.

Like the warm good-bye hug from a child when they leave for camp. You can still feel it even when they’re gone. You know the love is still there. It’s a part of you, even as it moves miles and miles from home.

Unity. Compassion. It’s there. I can feel it, even when it’s hidden behind a cloud of anger and blame.

Remember 911, when we were all New Yorkers? Sandy Hook? Boston strong? Do you remember how our hearts broke for Paris, and just like that, we were one with France?

I remember.

Now, in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, there has been enough finger pointing that it seems our country could use one giant manicure. Political debate has, too often, pushed caring and unity into the backseat.

And then, as mourners gathered in Atlanta to honor the victims in Orlando, I heard them sing:

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in this country, even when we’re divided. So often, I’ve seen us come together, united in our hurt, in our resolve, in our purpose. When others lash out at us, we put party affiliations and petty differences aside to bond. I’ve seen it happen.

I believe.

We are the United States of America, not the Fractured States of America.

Giving up would cost me everything

So, I’ll stand in the pain and silence

And I’ll speak to the dark night.

I remember when it was my city under attack by a crazy man who marred what was an otherwise magical Olympic games. It was Atlanta’s time in the world spotlight, and Eric Rudolph brought his darkness. I remember taking it personally. It hurt, deep down, every time he placed one of his bombs in a different spot around our town. In those days, we weren’t subject to the long-time listeners, first-time callers with opinions of who failed to do what to prevent the madness. The world stood with us, denouncing the terror, urging Atlanta to heal.

It’s only logical that we want to understand the motivations behind these savage acts of terrorism. But comprehending the act means unraveling a tightly twisted mind. I was close enough to one of Eric Rudolph’s bombs that the FBI regarded me as a victim. I sat just an arm’s length from him inside a Birmingham courtroom. So close, and yet a billion miles away. I read the letters from his fictional Army of God. He justified his actions to the court by speaking of the British crown, the Pharisaical sect, by calling the Olympics a celebration of global socialism, and revealing that his goal was to “drag this monstrosity of a government down into the dust.” Read it all a thousand times. It will make sense to Eric Rudolph, and Eric Rudolph alone. Given the opportunity to question the Orlando killer, I suspect the explanation would be equally baffling. We won’t get that chance. He’s answering to a higher power.

No dark can consume light,

No death greater than this life,

We are not forgotten.

I believe in the compassion of this country, even as it waits its turn behind the heat of a political season. There is a time and place to discuss the difficult issues swirling around the latest act of incomprehensible violence. We can have those talks remembering that WE are not the enemy. We are the UNITED States of America. Together we stand. Divided, we fall to those who wish to harm us.

I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining,

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it,

And I believe in God even when He is silent.

Maybe it’s time we are silent for a moment, silent as a country, so that God can speak. Let’s be silent for a moment and breathe, giving the families and friends of the lost room to cry. Perhaps if our hands weren’t shaped around our opinions like bullhorns, it would free us to wrap our arms around one another, and unite.

Though I can’t see my stories ending,

That doesn’t mean the dark night has no end.

It’s only here that I find faith,

And learn to trust the one who writes my days.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 4.49.48 PM

 

The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.