Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Life of Brian

Tending bar at the Boka Bear Den
Brian would have been 34 today.  I have no question about what we'd be doing for his birthday if he were still alive -- getting together with friends for the Bears/Packers game.  He was the biggest Chicago Bears fan you'd ever meet.  The only question is whether he'd want to go out to a sports bar or have people over to watch in our living room and the "Boka Bear Den"  Bears bar we had in the basement.  Probably the latter, so we could share victory boots of keg beer from the Bears keg-o-rater, and possibly make up some kind of blue or orange shots.   

Shots, anyone?  (Mexico, 2008)
That was Brian.  He was the life of any party, and particularly enjoyed getting quiet people out of their shells.  He was big, loud, funny and smart.  He had a soft side, though, and would cuddle our kitties and speak baby-talk to them.  I'll never forget the day he was petting Ellie on his lap and said, "Oh, you're Daddy's little purr factory."  By the same token, there was a time he referred to someone (not to their face) as a "monkey sack of shit."  He had a knack for stringing together obscenities and insults into hilarious and oft-repeated catch phrases.  He was very smart and had a large vocabulary.  More than anything, his intelligence came in the form of common sense.  He could look at any problem or situation and analyze it quickly, and simply, in a way that would make you think, "Wow, it really is that simple."  He would tell you what he thought whether you liked it or not, and whether it was what you wanted to hear or not.

Life was always more fun with Brian around
At a fundraising gala

Brian was honest, sometimes almost to a fault.  He didn't pull any punches when it came to speaking his mind, and one of his less endearing traits was that he didn't care who he offended with what he said; he valued honesty over feelings.  Still, he had a great way to use his strengths to bring out the best in people and situations.  He fared quite well in business and quickly moved into positions of leadership and authority.  He was a wonderful manager -- he had the ability to improve an organization at its lower levels by bringing out the most in his employees, while he also had a talent for thinking big-picture and improving a company by making sure departments worked together and sharing ideas for change and development in planning meetings with higher-ups.  He took great pride in helping poor performers on his team turn things around, in mentoring team members to prepare them for promotions and career growth, and in being a leader at the office. 

The college days
He was a rock star at ING, where he took on more special projects than any other manager and managed to excel at each one.  He had been identified as a top talent there, becoming a part of a very small group (consisting of 1-3% of employees) who were being groomed for higher management and who would be sent to training and leadership camps around the country.  I would have loved to have seen what he could have done for that company and for himself.  He was savvy enough to convert his bosses' praises into compensation, and always fared well at review time.  He was, simply, a business genius.  He wasn't afraid to ask why things were or weren't done a certain way, wasn't afraid to suggest new things, wasn't afraid to address any elephant in any room, and wasn't afraid to negotiate for the biggest raises and bonuses possible.  After he died, people who had worked for him at other places, many years ago, came to pay tribute and so many people said wonderful things about him.  In a world where many people dislike their bosses, he had raving fans in his employees.

My best friend
Brian had a unique voice.  He didn't like it, but I loved it.  I miss hearing it, though it's in my memories clear as day.  He did some radio work in college, where he was a communications major.  He had a radio show for a semester or two on the campus radio station, and he and his freshman year roommate (who went on to spend a few years in radio for a career) did play-by-play announcing of basketball games for the Simpson Storm.  He also did an internship at the Muscatine radio station, impressing everyone he worked with there.  He loved sports and also did an internship with a sports newspaper in central Iowa.  This came easily to him, as he had written for the Simpsonian, the college newspaper of our liberal arts school.

Brian loved friends, family, food, fun, and life.  Yet he was picky, and had funny tastes.  He disliked fruit in general, and despised berries.  I remember a big fight we had once when he wouldn't take even one bite of a strawberry-rhubarb cake I'd made (that was a labor-intensive dessert, I might add).  He was stubborn; what can I say?  He hated topiaries, barn quilts, and doilies.  He never shied away from telling me if he didn't like an article of clothing or accessory I picked out, either.  He liked my hair best when it was long and I didn't have bangs.

With Picaboo Whiskers Boka, our firstborn :)
Brian loved animals.  He doted on Princess, the dog his family had when I met him, and cried when she died.  Then, he doted on Murphy, the dog his parents never planned to have but couldn't resist when he showed up one day.  He was a wonderful "pet parent" to Picaboo and Ellie, and loved having a kitty on his lap.  He was on the board of directors of a no-kill animal shelter and enjoyed volunteering there as well, with events (dog washing and silent auction fundraisers, for example) and with animal socialization, such as when he worked with a puppy to get him through obedience classes to make him more adoptable.

With our neices, Lily and Lauren
I wonder if we would have had children...if so, I wouldn't be surprised if they had names that harkened back to the Bears -- he always wanted a cat named Walter, but we ended up only having girls.  He was great with kids, a gentle giant, though a bit unsure with babies.  He was afraid of "breaking" them and felt awkward being such a big guy holding someone so tiny.  He didn't know much about babies, either.  When our first niece, Lily, was born, we went to see her in the hospital the day after she was born.  He was holding her and commented, "Look - she already has fingernails!"  I guess he thought those sometimes grew in later, like hair or teeth.  I laughed until I cried....something Brian did a lot.  Once they were kids, he did much better and could relate to them in a special way.  I always was amazed at how well he could connect to my sister and cousins -- he did that with kids and adults, with ease.

Brian could read people like a book.  He had an uncanny gut feeling about people that would prove, time and time again, to be spot on.  If he warned me that someone was sleazy, they usually proved to be just that.  He also had an ability to talk to anyone, to get people to open up, and to get people to leave their comfort zones and grow.

He was never afraid to jump in and sing along...
Brian was passionate about music.  He was not a great musician, though he played trombone in the high school band and started playing guitar in college.  I loved when he would play guitar and sing, even if he wasn't the most advanced player or the best singer out there.  If he was looking at music online, I'd sit on the floor of the home office while he played.  Sometimes, he'd sit on the corner of the bed while I laid there and listened.  He had a three-ring binder and dozens of pages of loose music in his guitar case.  Sometimes, he'd take his guitar and a bottle of red wine to the basement to relax.  Other times, it was a book and a bottle, and he'd play his records down there.

With his good friends at a Reckless Kelly show (Kansas City)
Brian had a great collection of vinyl.  It all started when my boss offered me a stereo system that he was going to get rid of -- we needed a sound system for the basement bar, so I took him up on it.  One of the components of the 1990 Onkyo setup was a record player that had never even been out of the box.  I declined that, but took the rest home.  Once home, Brian and I were unloaded components and getting the system set up when I told him of the LP player that also went with the setup.  He said, "Why didn't you take that?!"  I said, "Because we don't own any records."  ...."So?"  I had to call my boss that night to make sure he didn't throw away the record player, and thus began a record collection.  It was mostly old rock and folk style music that he liked -- Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Alabama, CSNY, etc.  I thank him for introducing me to the likes of James Taylor, Bob Schneider, Jakob Dylan, and the Avett Brothers.  But he hated Anne Murray.  He loved watching music DVDs, just hanging out with friends and acting like there was a concert in our living room.  He spent hundreds of hours with his best friend, Mike Hart, doing this.  They would watch Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, The Band, and Crash Test Dummies.  He could tell you all about what the songs meant, why they were written, and how the musicians got their starts.  He dug deep into music, too -- he knew the real talents and had found the real gems produced by one-hit pop bands like the Dummies or Marcy Playground.  When he loved a song or an artist, he would play a CD or just one song on repeat over and over again.  I didn't mind that when he discovered Mason Jennings, but I never really liked Warron Zevon.  Funny how I don't mind Zevon now...

With his brother, in Jamaica
Brian loved to travel, and always picked beach locations.  He loved snorkeling and was a good swimmer, having spent many years as a lifeguard (and eventually manager) at the Weed Park pool in Muscatine.  I spent one summer baby-sitting while he was a guard and I'd bring the kids to the pool as often as possible.  When it was his break time, he'd jump in and swim and play with me and the kids, teaching the little boys wrestling moves (I remember especially the "European upper-cut").  He loved MMA fighting, and I loved being his guinea pig while he learned and practiced moves -- he could really get me with a figure-four leglock if I didn't pull off a triangle choke first (usually he'd have to sort of let me have that).  Another summer, when he was managing the pool and I was working at Applebee's, I would bring him Taco Bell after my shift was over.  I'd eat Long John Silver's myself.

Post-tequila-shot picture!
Brian loved having parties, and our house in Iowa was perfect for that.  It had a big kitchen overlooking the living room.  There was a formal dining room that was most often used for board game nights and Wine Club gatherings.  Downstairs from the living room was the sports bar, complete with a keg and shelf upon shelf of liquor.  There was a bar and stools, as well as a high-top bar table that converted to a poker table.  We had a tv mounted in the corner and the walls were covered in Bears memorabilia -- banners, flags, signed photographs, mounted cards (the Walter Payton rookie card being the prize among them), and posters.  We had a nicely sized fenced-in yard, perfect for bags and bocce.  We never did get the hot tub running though -- something that I predicted when we took it (one of those "free" but broken situations).  All we did was spend a few hundred dollars for a new cover, and never did get the broken parts replaced.  Sometimes home projects slipped to the bottom of the list, behind a 50-60 workweek and at least twice-weekly socializing.  We had a great social life -- parties and nights out all the time.  Even our wedding was planned around one idea -- it had to be the biggest party reception we could arrange, with late-night snacks to stem the tide of alcohol, and a DJ that played til 2:00 am (including some last-minute "Chug-A-Lug" karaoke performed by the groom himself...and no, the DJ did not even have a karaoke machine; Brian just asked him for the mic).  We loved hosting the "Boka and Friends" fantasy football draft at our dining room table every year.  He was commissioner of the league, which has been going strong for 10 years now, always with a waiting list of guys wanting to join.  
The League
I'm proud to say this one-time Vanna-esque sticker girl/beer bitch is now the champion of the league and that the Brian Boka trophy is on my mantel.  A fantasy championship in this league is something he never attained, though he would usually have more points than anyone else -- it's just that every week, his opponent would pull off a miracle win by having players with career and season-high stats against Brian.  He loved the frustration of it, though, and all the trash-talk among the league.  I try to keep that tradition alive as well, even though this year I crashed and burned fantastically (thanks, Cam Newton).

With his best friend Mike
It's no surprise that people stayed in his fantasy football league -- if you were a friend of Brian Boka, you would stay that.  He was fiercly loyal to his friends, and that sentiment went both ways.  When he made a friend, it stuck.  He had the same best friend for 25 years -- he and Hart became buds in first grade, and I have no doubt they would have been best friends for 50 years if fate had allowed it.  They were more like brothers.  He was also very close with other childhood and high school friends, as well as college and work friends.  He had many close friends from every phase of his life.  Many people would name him as their best friend, and it was not uncommon for him to be a sort of big brother and friend to anyone who needed an ear to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to have a beer with.  As fun-loving as he was, he was there for the serious stuff too, and was often the one people would turn to in times of crisis or struggle.  I miss his advice, his insights, his wisdom.
Hart's 30th birthday -- sometimes they'd kind of dress alike unwittingly
Words that describe Brian are funny, loud, big, lovable, honest, fun-loving, stubborn, smart, intuitive, tender, perverted, extroverted, indulgent, insecure, crass, leader, pragmatic, inspirational, goofy, and true to himself.  He was someone who would push boundaries and was boisterous and provocative enough to almost get in trouble, but instead would always get away with it.  He was a rambunctious little boy, always getting into fights with his brother (that continued into high school, when he worked for his brother for a while) and finding ways to avoid trouble while doing things that should have gotten him some with his friends.

I can't sum up a person and his entire life with one blog entry, and I'm sure I'm leaving out hundreds of words and anecdotes that would more fully paint the picture of Brian Boka.  He was true to himself and sought to bring out the best in everyone around him.  He forever changed me, made me a better person, and shaped me into the football-loving, music-appreciating, dirty-joke-telling woman I am today.

I miss you, Brian Steven Boka.  I love you.  Thank you for sharing your life with me.

Our wedding day -- 06.19.04

Our 5 year anniversary party at our home in Iowa



Thursday, December 13, 2012

What's In a Name?

I have never slipped and called Sheldon "Brian," though lately, I've done it in my head a few times.  I'll go to say something to him and I have to mentally make sure that "Brian" doesn't come out of my mouth.  I'm sure part of that is that we have a friend named Brian who spends a lot of time at our house and, indeed, I find I'm more likely to feel the potential for a slip of the tongue when he is around.  It's weird -- I don't think Sheldon would get mad if that came out, and I would say it's actually a complement.  I think I feel the possibility of this happening because the comfort level between us is so great, and because our life together is so "old hat."  Our year-plus of living together has gotten to the point that it feels totally natural, and like something that has just always been the case.  He is very different from Brian, and our relationship is quite different too, but the familiar feeling is the same.  I think feeling that way has caused my brain to circuit into its habits from when I used to feel that way.  Much as Brian and I used to have our routines, so do Sheldon and I.  Just as Brian and I used to have inside jokes, and could communicate our thoughts with a split-second glance, so do Sheldon and I.  We are best friends, we share our thoughts and fears, our judgments and opinions. 

There is a level of comfort, a level of love, a level of "home" that you feel with a partner, and that's where we are.  It's something that takes time to develop, to unfold.  It happens while you brush your teeth together, while you fall asleep intertwined with someone over and over, while you start sharing the same language and meals, while you let your guard down more and more until you don't care if that person catches you picking your nose or hears you singing in the shower.  It is when you stop feeling like people who live together (with cats) and start feeling like one family unit.  This is where we are, and in some ways it takes me back to when I had that before with Brian.  The details of our lives are different, but the feeling is the same.  And sometimes it makes me go on "autopilot" and almost makes me say the old familiar name I spent so many years saying in that context.

I also worry that when I'm older, if I end up suffering from some affliction that confuses my senses, that I will resort back to that name, or that it will come out from time to time.  What if I'm an old woman asking for my husband, Brian?  How will that make Sheldon feel?  I know this -- it wouldn't mean I love him any less, just as my close calls now don't mean that.  In a way, it's like a mother who calls her children by the wrong names (we've all heard some version of this), running through them until she reaches the appropriate name.  It doesn't speak at all to who she loves more (as though there is any competition of the sort!) -- it means she view them similarly, and that talking to one is like talking to another.  She gets the same warm, loving feeling from all her kids, and sometimes the brain and tongue don't work well together to get the correct names and words out.  I feel the same way about Brian and Sheldon.

The name "Brian" is wrapped in love and comfort for me, and stands for a partner and friend.  Sheldon makes me feel all those things, too, and that's where my brain and tongue sometimes get tied up.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Holiday Road

"It's the best of times, and the worst of times." -- My therapist, today

Today was a tearful session.  My therapist told me that she's very busy this time of year, and that it's the "best of times" for her because it was the "worst of times" for everyone else.  That sounds sick, but I swear the comment was funny because it was delivered with an awareness of how dark it sounded.  Okay, so I'm struggling right now, but I'm not alone.

These months, and this year, brings a lot to the table.  Last month, the day went by that marked 10 years from when Brian proposed to me.  I never would have imagined that my life would have taken a full circle of a detour and put me back into the same place -- cohabitating with a boyfriend, childless, and working on a path to my intended legal career.  But alas, what I thought was a path to one destination was really a much longer and more winding road to somewhere else entirely.  (I'm happy to say that, while it wasn't where I thought I'd be, I quite like where I've landed.)

There are the holidays themselves, of course, too.  Christmas, New Year's Eve.  There are the normal feelings of wanting to see everyone and balance time between immediate and extended families, though my situation is somewhat unique in that "family" includes three sets -- mine, my late husband's, and my boyfriend's.  Sheldon will be meeting Brian's extended family -- grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc. this year.  I have no worries about families blending, though, and we are fortunate enough to be able to take off enough time to see everyone, so while things may be hectic, at least we will be able to join all the celebrations and enjoy the company of so many that we love.  The only downside is that I'm already having anxiety about gift-giving, packing and shipping.  I'm going to have to face this soon, and just start making lists and tackling tasks.

Again, not so bad.  Brian and I used to spend weeks criss-crossing Iowa to see everyone and attend every family celebration, company party, and friendly holiday cocktail parties; it could be exhausting, but I always tried to remind him that, if our biggest complaint was that we had too many holiday events, it was simply a reflection of how much love we had in our lives.  I can't imagine what he'd think of me adding another family and another entire state to the equation, and doing it all from a distance to boot!

No, there's more.  Brian would have been 34 this month.  I will be turning 32, one year older than he ever got to be.  This will be the first time I have a birthday that he didn't get. 

January doesn't get too much easier.  We started dating in early January (1996).  He died in mid-January.  It will be three years this year.  It was two years ago this month that I said good-bye to our home in Iowa and packed up to move to Texas.

This is a lot to get through in the next five or six weeks.  It's going to be a long holiday road.  Of course, I guess there's more scenery to enjoy on the longer roads, and the destination can be unexpectedly fantastic.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Good Shtuff

Read the most recent couple of posts.  Good stuff.  I have wise and wonderful friends.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Am I Losing My Mind? Am I Going Backwards in Time?

I had a tough day yesterday.  It all started when Brian died.  Let me explain...

I have been trying to get licensed to practice law in Texas.  The ultimate plan is for me to do some freelance legal work (writing appeal briefs -- something I relish and most lawyers loath) and continue doing real estate as a paying hobby, working with family, friends, and referrals.  I love real estate, but I'm not crazy about the prospecting aspect of it -- calling FSBOs (For Sale By Owners) to try to convince them to list with me, hosting open houses for other agents to try to scoop up unrepresented buyers, setting up booths at trade shows, managing email databases of prospects, etc.  Some agents do cold calls, door knocking, and even go to malls to approach strangers with business cards.  Not my cup of tea.  I love helping people find the right home, helping them negotiate a fair price, helping them through all the steps of the transaction, explaining all the contracts and documents, etc.  I don't love competing with other agents for listings, trying to convince people why I'm the best agent to use, soliciting business from strangers, etc.  It is hard to make a living as an agent without doing all those things, but it's not hard to be a great agent who is fully dedicated to a small number of clients and who makes a little bit of money doing something she loves.

My plan, then, is to be a "boutique agent" who focuses on quality, not quantity and target numbers for number of appointments I can set in a given week or month.  I can do this by also doing some freelance legal work.  The beauty is that I can do the legal work from home, as well as a good deal of the real estate work (the searching, setting up appointments, phone calls, document preparation).  Being able to work from home and being able to largely control which days and hours I work would be ideal for raising a family, something that is on the horizon for us (though not the immediate horizon -- no big announcements yet!).

Yesterday, I put together a couple more documents that the Texas Board of Law Examiners needed to process my application.  One was my 2010 tax return and one was an order from the Arizona Supreme Court accepting my resignation of membership in that state's bar (I am not planning to practice there, so there is no point in paying the dues required to maintain membership...but I needed to follow a certain process to have that treated as resignation and not suspension.  Now that has been taken care of in a satisfactory manner).  What I didn't have was my 2006 tax return.  When I was putting together my (rather large) package of materials for the Board, I realized this was missing.  I submitted the spare copy of my W-2 for that year, which I did have for some reason, and explained that I had filed taxes in 2006 but could not locate the return, and that the W-2 and my employment references would be able to verify my full-time employment as an attorney for that year.  After placing a follow-up call to the Board yesterday, I was told that I would have to request the tax return from the IRS.  The woman I spoke to couldn't tell me why the return itself was necessary (they have copies of all the other years from 2005-2010), given the other proof of income and employment I furnished, but did at least tell me that my application *might* be considered without the tax return if I submitted proof that I've requested it.  One hundred fourteen dollars and two IRS forms later, the return has been requested and I've sent proof of that to the Board.  The tax return might take 60 days to receive.  I was also told that the Board of Law Examiners has 150 days to consider my application before it has to make a decision.  That puts us in February before I expect to know anything.  I submitted my application (the first time) in September, after spending months completing the application, tracking down and collecting documents (which included my high school cheer coach mailing me the only copy of my old business card anyone seemed to have), and ensuring I had up-to-date phone numbers and addresses for all my dozens of references.

It has been a long, drawn-out process, and I expected to have some answers or resolution by now.  Instead, there will be more waiting.  And it's out of my hands.

I don't like the fact that this is out of my control.  I don't like that the IRS is involved -- I inherently distrust and dislike them, and even having to fill out forms requesting old returns and having to copy my 2010 return (the one with the word "DECEASED" in all-caps prominently next to Brian's name) made me cry, tears of frustration and sadness and rage at the process and the red tape.  Why does this all have to be so difficult?!  Why is it taking so long for all these things in my life to come together?  I have had this idea and plan of what I want for so long, and now I'm just waiting -- waiting for the IRS to send me copies of a tax return that's more than a half-centry old. waiting for the Texas Board of Law Examiners to decide my fate, waiting to know if I'll have to take another bar exam, waiting to get my professional life to where I want it, waiting to get married and have kids, waiting....

And then I started thinking about what I've done with the last year of my life.  Today, I see it more clearly and can appreciate some of the non-Christmas-card items I've done, like writing this blog and having heart-to-hearts with hurting, grieving people.  But yesterday, I broke down, upset that I've only sold a few houses and haven't put all the pieces together like I thought I would have by now.  I'm getting impatient.

Then, I started thinking about the "what if"s that I usually avoid....Where would I be if Brian hadn't died?  Would I be a partner at my old firm?  Would we have two kids?  Would they be redheads?  Would my social life be better, full of all my friends that are now 1,000 miles away?  Would we have upgraded to a four-bedroom house with granite countertops?  Would we be able to spend vacation days at tropical resorts instead of returning home to see family?

I know all of these things make it sound like I'm miserable and unhappy with my life now, but I'm not.  That's the thing.  I just had a lousy day and I let it get the best of me.  I just could not stem the tide of tears yesterday.  It wasn't because I am unhappy with my life -- it was because I was frustrated and upset with a few things, and then some other issues came spilling out.  I don't grieve too much for what "could have been" anymore, but it happens every now and then.  Yesterday was one of those days.  They are few and far between, and get to be fewer and farther between as time goes on, but they still happen.  The good thing is that I was able to share all of this with Sheldon and just having an ear to talk to and a shoulder to cry on, and arms to hold me tight, made me feel better.  It can be a tough walk, to acknowledge these feelings and be honest about them, but also to make sure I don't offend Sheldon by making him feel that I don't love him and our life together.  I explained that, and somehow he handles it all well and keeps it in perspective.  A bad day here and there is nothing compared to our usual routine of happiness, kisses, and counting our blessings.  He knows I am happy, even if I have those "widow days" now and again.  We also know we can and will get through them.

Yesterday was a bad today.  Today is better.  Life goes on.  I will go on, and I will do so with a smile on my face, appreciating the wonderful things and people I have in my life.  As for the IRS and red tape I have to deal with....well, I hope to learn a thing or two about patience and persistence from all this.  There are lessons to be learned from everything, and goodness can come out of anything.