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Observations: Paradise and perspective in the sky

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image On her birthday, my Mom holds a watercolor made by my sister Pam. In many ways, she is still that beautiful young woman. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Not believing there will be a tomorrow is no way to live.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

I said, “I love you, Mom”, then kissed her on the head and walked down the hallway on the way out the door. I didn’t look back, but then immediately began wondering why I didn’t. These days, each goodbye could be the last but maybe I’m not ready to fully accept that. But then, I really didn’t think it was the last goodbye. I’ll be back at some point soon. I’m certain she’ll still be there.

She will be, right?

Of course, I don’t know. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, or even if there will be a tomorrow.  But not believing there will be a tomorrow is no way to live.

I’ve been feeling Florida’d out lately. I’ve been wishing I could see this beautiful place with the same eyes filled with wonder when I first arrived here so many years ago. Florida can be a messed up place and in some of that is its charm, the color, if you will, of living here. But it seems that what once was charm now looks more like desperation. What was once bright color is becoming darker and more ominous.

The moment I saw the photo on the news of the woman who disappeared from her husband and two children in Pennsylvania 11 years ago, I knew Florida had to be involved. The 11-year-old photo of her showed a normal-looking woman, wading through a life of normal joys and problems. The current day photo of her, however, had a washed out, beaten up, and worn down look that is all too common in Florida. Just drive up U.S. 41 or to downtown Tampa and you’ll find that exact same look easily enough. There is little in the way of a social safety net here and the fall can be long and hard. It certainly showed on the face of Brenda Heist, the woman from Pennsylvania.

I am a supporter of a social safety net because I appreciate the economics and realities of capitalism. That said, I could understand why there isn’t much of one in Florida. If you were going to be homeless, would you prefer to be so on the beach or in Chicago in January? If Florida had the extensive safety net of some northern states, the Sunshine State would be completely overrun. It simply would not be possible.

And yet, for far too many people, it seems that Florida is the end of the road. They come here looking for better days and they end up living a numbed-up nightmare. It is a nightmare so enduring, so long lasting that they stop being afraid of the worst, because they see it day in and day out. They just give up and accept the blows that life delivers. Meanwhile, the tourist agencies show a happy state of bliss that most of the middle-class tourists hope to find but probably can’t quite reach. But, for them at least, it is close enough as they go home sunburned, already planning their next trip when that time, dammit, they really will live the dream. For them, hope springs eternal; for others, not so much.

I’m fully aware that I’m lucky to live here. I see the tourists just down the road at Little Harbor and I’m sure a good many of them would love to trade places with me, to live in paradise with a good job. But for a multitude of reasons, I stopped seeing the paradise and began to only see the problems. I needed to find the former, without the latter overly obscuring the view. A person can’t live focused only on problems, hope is necessary. The good people I work for at this newspaper understood when I asked if I could take off for a week to try to fall in love with Florida again.

The first night out, Michelle and I watched the sunset in the Everglades and I started falling back in love with Florida. Later that night in our motel room, we ordered a pizza and for some reason it was the best pizza I have ever had in my life. From there, every place we visited I thought, “I would love to live here.”

I started seeing places with eyes, if not filled with wonder, then at least with much less cynicism. The magic in this state has survived overdevelopment and a political system that would sometimes make a third-world dictatorship blush. Florida is beautiful, even in places where it sometimes isn’t.

Two weeks later, I flew to Minnesota.

I’ve come to believe that in death, it is a far easier thing for those leaving than it is for those left behind. But more often than not, in life it is just the opposite. It’s hard to leave. If I were a good son, wouldn’t I stay?

Several inches of snow fell in Minnesota on May 1, the day I had to say goodbye to my Mom. After I kissed her on the head, I heard her say, “I love you, too.” And then I walked down the hallway, out the door, and stepped out into the cold air and snow, zipping up my too-light jacket. I don’t know why I didn’t look back, but I will be back. My priorities will shift as needed, but at least I’m beginning to learn what they are. I’ll have another chance.

A few hours later, the plane touched down in Florida and Michelle and I watched the sunset from Bahia Beach. Around us, tourists and locals were enjoying life, perhaps forgetting about it for a while in two-for-one beers and margaritas, but enjoying it nonetheless. You could feel the happiness. At that moment, there were no problems that couldn’t be put into perspective in simply seeing the beautifully painted sky. It was magical. It was good to be home.

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