Mountains of sadness, valleys of light

•January 29, 2011 • 14 Comments

My friend Sandy died this week.

Being a writer and all, I was going to craft some grand opening line about it.

But there is no way to couch it in anything softer or more eloquent.

So there it is.

I hired Sandy in 1990 at the San Antonio Business Journal. And through these last 21 years we’ve been friends and colleagues — weaving in and out of each other’s lives as journalists, moms, wives, friends. I left the Business Journal for a long time and returned  in 2007 when Sandy had her second bout with cancer and needed a double mastectomy.

“Could you come and do my job while I have surgery and recover?” she asked.

I did. And she recovered. And I never left.

For the first time in years, we worked side-by-side. I’m not going to lie. This created some conflict. We had very different working styles. But we loved nothing more than finding a good story to tell and envisioning how that would look and feel on the printed page.

And we were extremely honest with one another. I’d say: “You are my friend. I love you. I don’t want you to have cancer. But you’re driving me crazy.”

And she’d say: “You’re hurting my feelings.”

And we’d talk. And work it out. And we’d meet in the lunch room and talk and laugh about our kids.

So when the breast cancer metastasized in her liver. We both knew it wasn’t good. On many of the drives into work she’d say things like: “I’m only going to last until February.” or “Here’s what I want at my memorial. I need to tell you.”

She fought like a special forces soldier — enduring hair loss, chemotherapy, nausea, ridiculous edema, mouth sores. We told her not to worry about work. She worried about work. She loved her job and it helped keep her going.

Sandy’s body started shutting down about two weeks ago. And during these past 14 days, I’ve experienced such incredible support.

People say it takes a village to raise a child.

Well then, it takes a tribe to bury a friend.

For months, Debi Pfitzenmaier had been organizing Sandy’s need for meals, rides, medicines and more through an online site called LotsaHelpingHands. Jeanne Janes cleaned Sandy’s house. On top of that, our management at the San Antonio Business Journal always said to Sandy and those who helped her: “Do what you have to do. No questions asked.”

And this week, Sanchez family friend Kathy Elkins sat at the hospital and quietly helped Sandy deal with all of the awful stuff in a way that was beautiful and dignified. And Debi and friend Andi Rodriguez and I traded texts about Sandy’s kids and husband, meals, tissues, financial papers signed, lawyers consulted, house cleaning, dog food and more.

And as Sandy slowly slipped away, people all over San Antonio — Sandy’s friends and family, my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, social media peeps all pitched in with some form of sympathy and condolence.I can’t name them all because there are far too many. But you know who you are. And we love you all for it.

Our own families picked up the burden in our homes, driving children to school, cleaning the house, coordinating after-school activities so that we could help the Sanchez family

Emails, Facebook messages, voicemails, phone calls. They were all beautiful. Nan Palmero met me at Starbucks one day to load the operating system on Sandy’s BlackBerry so that she could talk to her mother (Sandy had dropped the phone in the hospital). At work, Sandy’s colleagues crafted anecdotes about what it was like to work with her. The graphic designers in our office created gorgeous programs for Sandy’s memorial and our business manager and publisher worked overtime to make sure her paperwork was all in order.

In between, I received heartfelt direct messages and voicemails from my BMPR team: Brenda Munoz, Brett Baker, Nan Palmero, Joe Ruiz, Sean Wood — who all stepped in to take execute Thursday’s event without me. Messages from the kindhearted Dale Blasingame and the most wonderful Dawn Cole, Victor Landa, Nancy Espey, Susan Price. Friend and freelancer Shari Biediger wrote a poignant blogpost about Sandy. Alison Beshur just showed up at the Sanchez house with plates, cups, napkins, and tissues. Kim Hernandez let me sob in her office. Lisa Owens offered to donate to a journalism scholarship. Danny Charbel, who doesn’t do well with sadness, kept trying to make me smile by creating new puns — one of my favorite pasttimes. Express News reporter Elaine Ayala wrote a beautiful story about Sandy.

And the night before the memorial, Debi, Andi and I were in the back laundry room of the house — as family and friends all congregated in the kitchen and living room —  hanging with Sandy’s daughter Alicia and her boyfriend and Sandy’s husband Jose — trying to move forward with the worldly responsibilities of writing an obituary, creating a memorial program and sorting through bank paperwork, trying to secure a place for a reception and finding a caterer or food.

Thursday morning, the obit appeared in the paper, Andi secured the VFW for the reception for THAT DAY, Debi sent out the clarion call to volunteers to bring food. And food appeared. Lots of it. Friends and family wrote last minute tributes. Twenty minutes before the memorial, we realized there was a photo montage on the computer, but no projector or projector screen. Nan Palmero again dropped everything and drove down a projector and hooked it up. Shelley Rae Cook scurried around and found a projector screen in the ceramics room of Southwest School of Art. And Melinda Hart delivered 250 pink roses and hand separated them up until 10:15 a.m. — when the memorial finally started. The Reeds took half of my reflections and delivered them as though they’d been practicing for weeks.

Somehow it all came together. And I think all would agree that the most beautiful part of the ceremony was when Sandy’s husband Jose and her daughter Alicia sang The Wedding Ring, a song Jose had written about Sandy. It was sweet and quiet and it made my heart weep.

Today, Saturday, I woke up. In my inbox was an email from an address I didn’t recognize. It was a note from @icybluequest, a woman named Elizabeth in Austin who I never have met in person, but with whom I felt a connection instantly on Twitter this past year.

And she said something to the effect of:

I’m sorry you’re sad.

I’m sorry your friend died.

And it’s weird because I don’t really know you.

But I drew you a picture.

“So while I cannot speak to the beauty of this image, I can attest to the fact that it was a gorgeous afternoon outside sitting on a blanket drawing this for you and honoring your loss,” she said.

That picture is the art for this blog. And it blows me away because it is such a stunning gesture. And it looks like how my heart feels: all scarred with sadness, but smoothed out with bright, happy memories and shadowed with nooks and crannies of dusty feelings of guilt and lots more.

So thank you to the village, the tribe and the people who have helped ease the pain.

Please know that every word of condolence, every kind gesture matters.

Because my friend Sandy died. But life goes on because of all of you.


Talk amongst yourselves. I’m feeling a little verklempt.

•August 10, 2010 • 34 Comments

Nathan and me - photo by Catherine Dominguez

“While they were in there, I told them to go ahead and yank out those tear ducts. Wasn’t using them.”

~ Sue Sylvester, GLEE

I’m not a crier.

It’s not that I’m not empathetic or sympathetic or that I think crying is a bad thing. (You big baby.)

It just doesn’t happen very often for me.

The reason, in part, is that as the mother of four children, the wife of a wonderful husband and the daughter of two amazing parents — I live a life that is, by luck only, fabulously fulfilling and happy. And I have good friends who have endured the ravages of cancer, the heartbreak of losing a child, and the bitterness of adultery — so, honestly, I don’t believe I have earned the right to cry that much.

So imagine my surprise last night when it got “a little dusty in the room.”

It was the end of the night, and my 7-year-old daughter was tired. And she laid her head on the shoulder of her oldest brother, Nathan, who is 18 and leaving for college on Friday.  And she began bawling. “I don’t want you to go to college. Who will I listen to rock n’ roll music with?” she wailed.

I watched as they clung to each other. That big, 6-foot-1 handsome young man with the broad shoulders and that tiny rumpled, blond ball of sweetness.

And after I wiped away their tears and shuffled everyone off to bed, I laid my head on my pillow.

And wept.

Big fat tears of absolute sadness — the kind that left a hole in my heart.

Because I remember exactly how I felt that night of Friday, Dec. 13th, 1991, when the nurses finally placed that soft bundle into my arms, and I met Nathan, whose name means “Gift of God.”

Nathan, age 3, standing behind his brother Aaron in 1994

Suddenly, the deadlines at the newspaper seemed strangely not so urgent. I reveled in the angelic baby softness, soaked up the smiles and coos and understood for the first time how much *my* parents loved me.

I laughed when Nathan started lining up toy figurines on the kitchen floor with brain surgeon precision. I chuckled as his dad glided Nathan’s chubby cheeks through the air in slow motion, declaring him a giant baby in the Macy’s Day Parade.

There was the time — at age 2 — when Nathan thought the name of our golden retriever, Boerne, was “Goodgoodgirl.” And I got a kick out of Nathan calling milk “Ten” because that’s the number we entered into the microwave to warm it up. And the time the teacher asked shy Nathan what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he declared firmly: A lion tamer.

Like most first-time moms, I made my mistakes on Nathan. Like the day I tied the dog’s leash to the stroller and she took off until he toppled over into a ditch in New Paltz, N.Y.. (I’m blonde, what can I say.) Or the time I thought I’d ease his cold with a few drops of peppermint in the bath and quickly learned that essential oils with burning sensations are not soothing **everywhere ** Or the morning I kept driving when he said his tummy was sick, but forgotten he had just eaten GREEN eggs and ham at school for Dr. Seuss week.

Nathan's figurines lined up on the kitchen floor in 1993.

Mostly, though, I’ve marveled at how this once-quiet boy has grown into a remarkable, confident young man. Sure Nathan has had wonderful academic and extracurricular accomplishments, but that is not what makes me most proud.

What makes me swell with pride are the handful of times he’s refused to join the crowd because he disagreed with the action and believed strongly in sticking to his guns. That takes a lot of guts at an all-boys school.

What makes me most proud are the times he’s handed over his hard-earned dollars to the homeless who have approached him. Because, regardless of whether you think this is right or wrong, this much is clear: When my son looks into another human being’s eyes and sees hurt, he is filled with compassion.

What makes me most proud is how he earned an internship at the Bexar County Economic Development Department this summer and soaked up every case study and initiative, took out library books on social entrepreneurship and talked about public policy until My. Eyes. Glazed. Over. He found mentors in the staff and found satisfaction in hanging around and picking their brains.

You start out as a parent *wanting* your child to be perfect. You end up *knowing* that what really matters is that they are people of integrity, passion and compassion — the kind of person other people can count on. Grades, popularity, peer pressure, sports achievements, looks, material goods  — well, they’re just the lions our kids tame along the way.

And, so, forgive me if I seem a little weepy.

These tears are sadness for the empty room Nathan will leave behind on Friday and for the joy in knowing he is a good man.

Nathan and Aaron 1995

The Mystery of the Antique Sandwich

•March 17, 2010 • 12 Comments

My two-decades-old sandwich

I have a 21-year-old sandwich in my jewelry box.

Well, full disclosure, it’s actually a half a sandwich, cocooned in Saran Wrap.

It’s hard-as-a-rock, flat-as-a-pancake, and wrapped-tighter -than Aunt Gertrude’s support hose.

And I can’t bring myself to throw it out.

You see, my paternal grandmother (aka Nana Kenny) sent it to me as part of a gift for my wedding shower in 1989.

Before I had even  a chance to raise an eyebrow, my mother warned: “Do *NOT throw that out. Ever.”

“But what *is* it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. But Nana Kenny gave me one at my bridal shower. She told me to keep it in my cupboard and never get rid of it ,” Mom said.

Being a reporter, you’d think I would have chased down that story like Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate. But Nana Kenny lived in Maine, and I usually only saw her once every other year on Thanksgiving — when I was enlisted to spread the  olive-infused cream cheese in celery boats and then spent the rest of the day with my giddy cousins trying on expired Avon samples of classic scents (Topaze, anyone?) from Nana Kenny’s sales totes.

Nana Kenny wasn’t a soft, cookie-baking kind of grandma. Her husband died in the late 1950s, leaving her with eight children and a lot of laundry. By the time we grandchildren came around, I suspect Nana Kenny was exhausted. Single mothers back then didn’t have the luxury of drop-in daycare, Starbucks and Mommy Chat Rooms on the Internet. But she was always impeccably dressed and held herself with a self-assurance that I feel sure was handed down genetically.

So, time marched on. I moved to Texas. Then to New York. Then back to Texas. Nana Kenny passed away in the early 1990s. And I had a career and family. But every time I’ve opened my jewelry box over the years, the flat sandwich peers out at me like those eyes in the Geico ads. So I called my mom (who — by the way —  is awesome) and was Nana Kenny’s daughter-in-law, and pelted her with questions. Did she still have her sandwich?

“I’ve kept it for 45 years. It sits on the top shelf in the kitchen cabinet in one of Nana Kenny’s favorite casserole dishes. It has moved with us 6 times,” she said.

Did Nana Kenny have a sandwich?

“I only remember that she showed me the one in her cupboard that was given to her when she was married,” my mother said.

What do you think it is?

“Well, there was a handwritten note that said: ‘May you never want for anything,” she said. “If that was a blessing or prophecy. It came true. Nana Kenny was very superstitious so I never dared throw it out.”

I’ve done a little digging and found small crumbs of answers. There is a Polish wedding tradition that involves parents presenting the couple with bread and salt and a glass of wine. The parents sprinkle the bread with salt and give it to both of the newlyweds to eat. The bread represents the parents hope that their children will never experience hunger or need, the salt reminds the couple that their life may be difficult at times and they must learn together to cope with life’s struggles.

But Nana Kenny was French, not Polish. And I feel certain Saran Wrap wasn’t part of the ancient tradition. Still, I suspect there is a common thread there — a message of sustainability in life, love and family. And I’d like to think it’s a symbol of strength from a woman who persevered – a knowing nod, if you will, through the ages that we wives and mothers can hold together families through good times and bad.

I mean, it’s a little weird. Some granddaughters have heirloom jewelry. Others get exquisite china sets. I have an antique sandwich — which doesn’t translate well into a necklace nor a coffee table bauble.

But I have a great 21-year-old marriage.

I think I got the best deal ever.

Loco for Local

•December 30, 2009 • 5 Comments

Photo by Wendi Dunlap, Flickr username litlnemo

My name is Donna Tuttle, and I have a confession to make.

I was once a mall rat, circa 1983.

Location of crime: Lincoln Mall in Woonsocket, R.I., where V-neck velour-sweatered adolescent boys could check their hair in the nearly blinding  reflection of the Maybelline Roll-On Kissing Potion-slathered lips of teenaged girls.

Nowadays, I’d rather poke my eyes out with large knitting needles than go to the mall, or even the grocery store. With every passing year, I find a growing appreciation for the small shops and vendors, who offer quality local products and genuine, personal service.

This year, I’ve found some new San Antonio favorites to share along with some old standbys. This isn’t a commercial endorsement, but a list of some of the Alamo City faces and places that make me smile instead of reach for my supersize bottle of Ibuprofen.

* Get Nailed on Broadway: I’ve been going here for more than 10 years, but I couldn’t start a list like this without a special nod to my hairdresser, Johna. She’s a sole proprietor of her own hair business out of a little nail salon, located in a funky yellow house on Broadway. She is an awesome highlight artist, reasonably priced, makes my appointments months in advance, never makes me wait and, more importantly, isn’t a big yakker.

* Brown Coffee Co. on W. Kings Highway: Owner Aaron Blanco is kind of like Bill Nye the Science Guy for coffee lovers. He buys his beans seasonally from around the world and roasts them in his little facility tucked away in the Deco District of San Antonio. He teaches customers about the art of coffee, whips up poetic espressos, and has taken my taste buds to new heights. I order two pounds of the Kenya online, he emails me when it’s ready and I drop by to pick up the coffee, sealed in sleek silver bags.

Kings Court Frankfurter Express: You don’t have to worry about crazy, multilevel menus. Kings Court only offers one food genre — hotdogs. So on a nice day,  I can walk to this little neighborhood gem and pick up a Chicago-style hotdog, with neon-green relish, a pickle and tomatoes.  I take along my newspapers and magazines and eat at the outside counter built into the front porch and watch the neighbors walk by.

Bric Brac N Brass: Wedding? Shower? Retirement? I almost always head to this tiny shop located near the Quarry Market. The selection is manageable, not overwhelming, the items are beautiful and the gift wrapping is gorgeous. No waiting in line. No parking lot gymnastics.

Bolner’s Meat Market: My friend Tanji Patton turned me on to this nearly 100-year-old family meat market in San Antonio. The best filet mignons and diablos ever. And the butchers there really help when you’re stumped. They will season and vacuum-pack your purchases. Hint: Buy a little cup of homemade banana pudding while you shop.

The Filling Station: You can smell this sandwich shop before you see it in Southtown because the owners bake their own sandwich rolls, which are warm and fluffy, and awesome pies. The shop is located, in — you guessed it — an old gas station, giving the place lots of character.

Let’s go local. Tell me some of your favorite spaces and places…..

Embracing Gravity

•December 6, 2009 • 6 Comments

Pink Christmas by D Sharon Pruitt


Don’t interrupt me… I’m in training.

I’m practicing the art of sitting still.

This is not easy. My should-be, could-be list is growing exponentially as we speak. It starts out fairly normally: I should exercise, empty the dishwasher, grocery shop and purge my email — then spirals out of control: create a new flow chart for work, bake cookies for all the kids’ teachers, solve world peace, end hunger.

You get the picture.

But here’s the thing: When I park myself on the living room couch with a cup of coffee and a soft blanket, it creates a strange, magnetic force.

The 6-foot, 195-pound individual who lives in the basement appears, parks himself on the couch next to me, eating Cheerios. The 3-foot, 40-pound pixie sits at the piano and plays the “Nothing Chipmunk” song she created (“It’s called nothing because you can play whatever keys you want, and it’s called chipmunk because it’s only the high notes.”) The almost-18-year-old lumbers through, detailing his plans to visit a different church today with friends. And the Golden Retriever, rawdhide bone in mouth, has lapped the room twice, crumpling to the floor in a fur pile on my left.

Honestly, they could care less if my email was color-coded, my Tweetdeck updated with the latest software, or my presentations completed. And, actually, they would prefer I didn’t say too much.

All kids really want from their parents is for them to BE there. With open ears and hearts.

This Christmas, my gift to myself and my family is working on being present.

I am not a sissy: Or why journalists should use recorders and notebooks.

•November 25, 2009 • 4 Comments

White House Reporter Using Shorthand

We journalists like to think of ourselves as scrappy purists. Give us a reporter’s tablet and a Bic pen, and we craft prose that makes readers smell the waffly-goodness of a corn dog at the state fair, hear the grating nasal tone of the politician’s condescension, and see the glistening sheath of ice the winter storm slipped on the birch tree’s limb.

All this from scribbled notes and a photographic memory.

For as long as I can remember, my print journalism teachers in high school and college, as well as some wonderful editors,  looked down their noses at audio tape recorders. Relying on electronics was not considered real journalism. After all, Woodward and Bernstein didn’t need a tape recorder to break Watergate. It was, in fact, admitting some reporting deficiency to need an electronic device — like  we were Hell’s Angels bikers with training wheels.

Ironically, however,  journalism students in the United States —for the most part — are not required to take shorthand. (In the United Kingdom and Australia, most journalism students must perfect shorthand before graduating from college.) Most of us U.S. reporters rely on some self-taught skill of eliminating vowels or using stick-man symbols. It is, indeed, not perfect — especially when time has lapsed between note-taking and filing the story or when, say, your pen is low on on ink and you miss a few sentences reaching for your fresh one.

After 22 years of reporting, editing and mentoring interns, I have become very opinionated about this practice: Journalists should use all the technology afforded them to ensure accuracy. Young journalists should be taught shorthand in college and modern journalists should use both a notebook and a digital recorder when conducting interviews.

Holding firm to some silly tough-guy rule helps neither the writer nor the reader. To wit: When I was stringing for Bloomberg back in the mid-90s, I interviewed one of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors, and she gave me an important quote about the possible rise in the fed funds rate. In my notes, I had written the quote with an up arrow — so my first read of the scribble implied that she said the rates were likely to climb. Listening to the tape, I realized I had missed the key words “not likely” — completely changing the quote. On the flip side, when I was crafting the profile of Under Secretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker, my mini cassette tape (pre-digital recorders) got mangled at the end — and I had to rely on my notes for some crucial information.

In an age when telling apart a trained journalist from a community blogger is difficult, journalists should do everything in their power to use best practices… to deliver to our readers the *most* accurate quotes, warts and all. And, more importantly, as journalists, we must always put ourselves in our subjects’ shoes. Would I want a reporter taping my interview to ensure statement accuracy? You bet your press pass.

Me? I use a digital recorder and a notebook. And I record my telephone interviews, always with permission from the source at the other end.

Go ahead and call me a wimpy journalist. But remember, I’ve got it all on tape.

Boys will be…. Men

•September 27, 2009 • 11 Comments



Let’s face it. No one knows quite what to do with an adolescent boy. 

Like bears in a zoo, they’re large and awkward, short on words. They’re rowdy and unpredictable — making spectators relieved for the distance between them — and mothers sometimes wish they could simply toss peanuts, rather than endure strained dinner conversation.

And yet, deep inside each of those young men is a tender heart, a kind soul… a budding leader.

I just picked up my oldest son from a Kairos retreat, an intense four-day personal discovery where retreatants examine their personal relationship with God. 

This was a group of Central Catholic High School seniors. Central Catholic is San Antonio’s oldest all-male high school, and while it has a wonderful reputation for graduating tomorrow’s leaders, you can practically smell the sweaty socks from outside the front door. The testosterone is off-the-charts.

But it was here in the heart of Central’s musty old gym where I witnessed a thing of real beauty.

These boys ….these unshowered, unshaven, mismatched raggamuffins… one by one stood up to say how this retreat changed their lives. During these last four days, they had shared difficult stories, their worst fears, their doubts about religion, worries about the future and found that, well, they weren’t alone. They spoke up in front of a gym full of grown ups and, with great eloquence, revealed….  That it’s OK to share your feelings. It’s OK to cry. To love. 

They learned that the Central brotherhood was more than a marketing phrase. That being a man has nothing to do with drinking beer, hazing others and demeaning women. Being a man means having the courage to show you care, to admit your weaknesses to embrace your feelings. That real friends are the boulders left behind in the sieve when all the other pebbles wash away.

As these boys departed with warm abrazos, I saw a glimpse of the future. They were armed with all they needed to be men. No AP class, no football touchdown, no ROTC award will matter as much as the knowledge that they can rely on each other.

These boys will be…. good men.