Say the Words

Twice this week I’ve found myself in conversation with people who have recently and unexpectedly lost a parent, a woman whose father died and a man whose mother died, both from a stroke.

Last night as I listened to my friend describe the events surrounding his mother’s last days, he said, “Tell the people you love that you love them, over and over, as often as you can. I’d do anything for her to have regained consciousness one more time so that I could tell her again that I love her…”

This morning I awoke from vivid dreams with an uncomfortable heaviness in my chest. I realized my dad had come to me, wearing a nice coat that must have been his Pan American Airlines uniform. As hale and hearty as he had been when I was a child, he greeted me with a big bear hug. I turned to see Q13, looking exactly as he does today except that he was dressed up, too, wearing a suit jacket and slacks. I introduced my son to his grandfather. They embraced, and I woke up.

It didn’t take more than a moment to address the ruminations of my unconscious brain.

This weekend we will celebrate Q13’s fourteenth birthday. Also, the thirteenth anniversary of my dad’s passing on the morning of my son’s first birthday. It’s a weird day, always.

Thankfully, we had time to say the words. In fact, while I have regularly been a gushing fountain of emotion, Dad got better at expressing his love as he recognized the end of his life drawing near. Still, what I wouldn’t do to say it again, and to hear again that he loved me. What I wouldn’t do to watch my son enjoy his own relationship with the grandpa he didn’t have time to know.

Say the words, people. We don’t know how many breaths have been allotted to any of us. Use all the breath you have to share love.

Hush.

It’s been a quiet week. While C19 has been away at college, Guy has been leading a house-building trip in Mexico for 250 high school students and adults, and Q13 has been travelling England and France, I have been at home, working and walking dogs.

I don’t mind. I had been looking forward to this week of quiet with an almost physical longing. I planned to deep dive in quiet, to enter into projects I never seem to get to or, if I do, have more than 20 minutes to devote at a time.

Not long ago, I reread that passage from Luke 1 where the angel strikes Zechariah mute because of his disbelief that he and Elizabeth would finally have the baby for which they’d longed for too many years. I can’t imagine being physically unable to speak for nine months. I’ve had the occasional bout of laryngitis for a few days, but even then I managed to whisper or squeak my point across.

Still, this week wasn’t as quiet as I’d anticipated. Twice a day (until the weather turned) I took the dogs to the park where I chatted with church acquaintances and park ‘regulars,’ most of whom I know by “Robin’s dad” or “Maya’s mom,” the names of their dogs carrying different weight than their own in this setting. I met friends at a movie, a comedy show, and a concert, an unusual amount of activity for this homebody. I talked on the phone with my mom and my mother-in-law. I ran a few errands.

I took the quiet to a different level by not trying to fill it with noise. I watched only the TV shows I’d decided to watch in advance (Jesus Christ Superstar and the last several episodes of This is Us, both excellent). I left the car stereo off. It was a discipline, for sure, but I resisted the urge. Somehow, it felt important.

As always, my To Do list was overly ambitious and I cannot cross off everything. But I got some things done and, most importantly, moved forward a project that required from me a stringent focus.

In the quiet, I noticed a few things:

The words I shared with others felt to me differently significant, breaking silence like breaking bread.

I like the hubbub of family life and neighborhood. Some quiet is good, and balance is necessary.

I am grateful for nurtured relationships with friends, neighbor friends and park friends and friends with whom to share different types of events.

This experience of quiet will help me appreciate the gift of spoken word, of shared daily life, of relationships. What a gift!

More!

I am my mother’s daughter. In some ways, I look like her. In so many others, I think like her or act like her. Even some of the ways I am not like her have been influenced by my relationship with her. I learned from her to share her vision for what is good and meaningful and worthy in life.

Recently, I introduced Q13 to a friend. As we stood side-by-side, she remarked, “Oh, I see the resemblance…”

His response didn’t miss a beat: “Yah, but she’s not a natural blonde!” (I am so!)

He may look like me, but his quick and quirky sense of humor is all his own.

Still, he is my child and bears more than physical characteristics from our relationship: our homebody-contentment, our appreciation for good music, our joy in helping others. Just as my relationship with my mom molded my life, my relationship with my son shapes who he is and how he lives.

I am also God’s child, and I sure hope there are some solid family resemblances: I hope I love big like He does, serve like He does, create like He does, share joy like He does.

This week I saw a video that resonates deep in my being. You can’t help but laugh at the sweetness! Dad and baby are both clearly into not just the beatboxing but also each other. Each time Dad stops Baby asks for “More!” More beatboxing, sure, and more togetherness, more fun and laughter, more joy and love.

This video makes me wonder: Do I enjoy my relationship with my Daddy God? Do I take time to notice–and revel in–the fun and wonder and laughter and love He wants to share with me? To exclaim, “More! More!”?

Walk in Love
Week 6: Children of God
1 John 2:28-3:10

Connect
In what ways do you resemble your parents?

Study
Read aloud 1 John 2:28-3:10.
What response should God’s children have when Jesus returns (v28)?
Why does “the world” not recognize God’s children (3:1)?
Why did Jesus “appear” (vv5, 8)? What does that mean for His children?
How does John contrast those who sin with those who do right (vv4-10)?
Does John mean that God’s children cannot/will not ever sin again? Explain.

Live
What have you done this week to “continue in Him”?
How do you feel when you think of Jesus’ return, and why?
What does being God’s child mean to you? How is that title evidence of God’s love?How do you resemble your Father God? How would you like to grow in resemblance?
Do you think others recognize you as a child of God? How so?
How can being God’s child motivate you to right living?
What is God saying to you through this passage, and what will you do about it?

Pray
Pray that God’s love will overflow your lives and keep you from sin.

Thankful Thursday – Gentleness

I slapped off my alarm Monday morning, the one I set so I could have coffee before yoga. Eh, maybe the later class.

I missed the later class. Eh, I’ll go to the gym.

I had no energy for the gym. Not even for a run around the neighborhood.

So I used the dog as an excuse and took her for a slow and ambling walk around the block.

Thoughts spinning in no discernible direction, I felt crazy. One week, exactly one week, and I will not have time to slap off the alarm. I’ll hop out of bed, wake the kids, take a quick shower, and rush everyone out the door into a fully loaded out-of-state-college-bound car.

Walking helped. Just some gentle movement and I felt my mind and body reconnecting in synch. As if body and mind had had an argument, followed by a long wrestling match, and an eventual compromising decision—without bothering to tell me—that this week I need to go slow, to be gentle with myself.

This week, I’m rejecting all the shoulds. I’m eating healthy when it also sounds good, and what sounds good even if it’s not the healthiest choice. I’m sleeping when I want to sleep, reading what entertains, saying no as necessary.

I’d like to be more productive than I have been, but bare minimum feels like what I’m capable of for now. I’m sure I have more and other things to do; I can’t for my life think what they are. [I’ve been waking regularly from stress dreams: former employers have left me binders of task lists that I should have memorized (but don’t), scattered over a large and crowded room. I have to find and integrate the lists in some comprehensible form to know how to proceed…]

I turn on the computer and get lost down the social media rabbit holes because I can’t recall why I turned on the computer. Maybe habit. Or that most of my work lives on my computer. Either way.

Teen seems to have settled into acceptance that he is leaving, and soon. He is slowly finishing up his details, slow being better than the complete denial he devoted himself to so far this summer. Mainly, he’s spending every minute with friends. That’s good, too.

Tween must be growing for the number of hours he spends in bed. I could wake him, but considering next week we will drive states away to drop off his brother and return the night before he starts school, why? He should rest, and when he wakes, he should play—the point of summer when you’re thirteen years old.

A college professor once told me that her creative husband could only tackle one creative activity at a time. When he wrote or edited, he couldn’t paint. When he painted, he traded dabbling in words for dabbling in color. His creativity faucet could only handle one temperature at a time. His total being became engaged in one form of creation.

And I think that’s the key: this week is a creative transition in our lives. Teen is on to a new and exciting phase of life. We are so over-the-top excited for him. But it means a transition for all of us. We are recreating the reality of our family: who we are together and separately.

I need to stop fighting, trying to force myself to do something else, and instead gently go with the flow of this new creation. Like transition in childbirth: for now, it is all about this baby…

The rest—productivity in working and writing, yoga, healthy eating, the (for me) ever-illusive organized home, all the things—will be waiting on the other side.

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Carried Away

Today our middle school will hold the 6th grade dance, the one-and-only dance of the year for 6th grade students. Which reminded me of this story I wrote a year ago, when Tween played an unexpected center stage role in tween-age drama. It felt too raw to post then, and too likely to cause offense among the already carried away adults. Today I am grateful we have a lot less drama (of this sort, anyway) in our lives.

I got a call today from the school counselor regarding an issue with my 6th grade son. She said there had been rumors, and he had admitted to being the source. Allegedly, he and another boy had planned to get a girl to ask a boy to the 6th grade dance this Friday, all as a joke. The boy has special needs…

No one should be the butt of a girl-likes-boy-NOT joke, especially not a child who has other issues. That’s bullying, obviously unacceptable. It’s also completely out of character with who I know my son to be. Could it be a bad judgment call on a new-to-him awkward social situation? Perhaps.

Except it never happened, at least not like that.

Concerned that my son would hatch such a plan, I promised the counselor I would talk with him. So I did. But he didn’t want to talk about it. Not At All. Siding with the adults, I took that as a sign of guilt. I continued to push, and he burst into tears. I took that as a sign of shame. He kept saying, “But Mom, we were joking!” and couldn’t understand why that upset me.

I explained again (and again–cue Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice: “Wa wa wa wa wa…”) what I had heard from the counselor, and how that didn’t seem to line up with what he was saying. I asked my son if he was lying, to the counselor or to me. He begged to just get back to his homework, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Minutes later I received a call from another mom. It seems the 6th graders had inflated in their minds this once-only 6th grade dance into something akin to a prom. They thought they needed dates. What about the slow dances? Boys were asking girls to the dance. Girls were asking boys to the dance. Everyone was talking about who was going with whom, and who should ask whom, and what if so-and-so asked so-and-so.

Parents were calling parents: do I need to volunteer to drive my son and his date to the dance? (No one drives to an after-school dance). Should we have a conversation with our daughter and your son to set expectations? Obviously they’re too young to date so we want to be clear she can dance with whomever she wants.

Egads, people, it’s a 6th grade after-school dance! We all need to take a deep breath.

This is the drama surrounding the rumors attributed to my son.

On Monday, only four days yet eons ago to the pre-teen brain, back when he truly believed he must have a date to the dance, my son and a friend had a quiet conversation in math class. They said something like, “What if Girl A asked Boy B?” They weren’t going to talk to Girl A; she wasn’t going to ask Boy B to the dance; neither child was in their math class, just random names that popped to mind. The whole conversation was conjecture, something to talk about during a few spare minutes. Let’s consider: why do 6th grade boys talk about anything? Sheesh, who knows?

Apparently an adult overheard them and told another adult who told the counselor. What the adult didn’t overhear was, “What if Boy C asked Girl D, or Girl E/F/G asked Boy H/I/J…?” You get the picture. The adults didn’t.

Rather, the adults thought a) the students were hatching a plan and b) that the plan specifically included Girl A because she is cute and Boy B because he has special needs. The counselor then invited kids from the math class into her office, two by two, asking about the rumor, until two someones copped to the conversation.

Mind you, it was only a rumor because the adults talked to one another. The kids had been oblivious.

My son had NO idea Boy B had special needs. In fact, when I asked if he knew the boy had special needs, he didn’t even understand the term. He has no classes with the boy, he doesn’t know him well, and his impression is that “he’s nice.”

Another miscommunication: my son had told the counselor he and the other boy “were joking.” To his 6th grade mind that meant, “We were having a meaningless conversation.” Joking as in, light-hearted, of no consequence; NOT joking as in to poke fun at, to prank.

But the well-meaning, overly-conscientious adults interpreted the situation as a mean-spirited prank. Which is why everyone was surprised that my son was at the center—this doesn’t sound like something he’d do at all.

Because he didn’t.

What IS in character is to make and keep peace at any cost. When pushed, he will accept even undeserved blame. He admitted he had spoken “the rumor.” He thought he had explained himself by saying we were joking. He didn’t understand and didn’t ask why everyone was so upset. In his old-soul way, he sees that adults get all bent out of shape over things that don’t warrant it, and he wrote the situation off to that. He didn’t tell me about it not because of guilt, or shame, or lies, but because to him it was truly No Big Deal.

Yet a few stirred-up adults spent a whole lot of time stirring up a whole lot of students trying to get to the bottom of a situation that never was.

On the one hand, I get it. In the too recent past, the school dealt with a fairly serious bullying issue. In the more distant past, the school had a serious abuse issue. They have to act on suspicion to prevent harm and protect students.

But there could have been a simpler solution. The administration must have been aware that the 6th graders had misunderstood the dance. A counselor or administrator could have taken a few minutes in the math class under suspicion or, better yet, in each of the required 6th grade Core classes, to explain the dance: No dates, all group fun. No suggesting or speculating or joking that anyone ask anyone, and we certainly don’t want anyone humiliating anyone by pretending to ask someone, because that would be bullying, and not in character with our iKind school, and would carry consequences. Any questions? That could have solved the problem, minus the student interrogation and accusations.

I am bothered that an overly suspicious adult in a petri dish culture of fear put into motion a chain of events that led to me accusing my son of being both mean and a liar. Neither is true (and my heart knew it), and I have asked my son’s forgiveness.

The real irony? He’s not even going to the dance. He has other plans.

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ReBuild: Mexico 2017

One of the best things our church does fills one week with life-changing experience and takes the rest of the year to plan, then debrief, before planning the next trip: our spring break house building trip to Mexico with Amor Ministries. This year, as in most years, about 250 high school students and adults built hope, twelve new homes, and a classroom for a church in the community. In one week.

In addition to thirteen build teams the trip includes a tool team, a camp crew, a medical team, a camp therapist, and a media team. Layered throughout are the Catalyst student leaders, all seniors, who lead the build teams, and the adult coaches who play a supporting role to their Catalysts. It takes a lot of people putting in a lot of work to pull it all together, and that’s not stating it strongly enough.

Each trip has a theme, and this year’s theme was ReBuild. Guy chose the theme at the end of 2016 and, when he told me, I had to laugh: without consulting one another, he chose a “re” theme for this trip into which he invests so much love, energy, and leadership, while I chose a “re” theme (re:create) as my word of the year, the word that has and will motivate me to new investments of love, energy, and leadership.

The group returned last night, and today in worship we celebrated what God has done. In Mexico, through the buildings, the memories that will last a lifetime, and the hope for a new and better future as people have a safe, dry place to nurture their families. In participants, as so many spoke of new or renewed faith commitments, fresh insights into themselves and their place in the world, and deeper relationships across all the ‘usual’ social boundaries–adults and teens, kids in different grades and from different schools.

We also celebrate what God will do. In families, as this year more than ever I was struck by how many families or family groups participated together–siblings, parent-child, married couples, and whole families; and in families where some or most did not go on the trip, they, too, will be affected by the overflow of experience from those who did. In schools and workplaces, in our church and community, as participants continue to live out their experience over weeks and months and years to come, and as God’s love shines brightly, bringing glory to His name.

As story after story was shared, participants built for the listening congregation a vision of God at work through this week in Mexico. I’m no contractor, but clearly God is our foundation. He created us. He knew our names, He had good plans for us, all before we were yet born. This year, for perhaps the first time in the 27 years of this trip, all teams had solid concrete foundations poured by the end of the first build day. I hope they remember: a strong foundation is essential to a strong structure, and God is our firm foundation.

One after another spoke about the strength of relationships developed in such a short time. And as I reflected on the theme, ReBuild, it occurred to me that we have the power to build supporting walls in each other’s lives. Someone said, “As the walls of the houses went up, the walls in our hearts and lives came down.” That’s true: we build metaphorical walls to protect ourselves from judgment, from criticism, from rejection. And it’s also true that when we find safe people, we can dismantle our walls of protection even as we together build stronger walls of community and encouragement.

Life can be hard, and people can be mean. Too often we throw verbal stones or, for whatever reason (sometimes for no reason, at least no good reason), we tear each other down. No surprise we wall off our hearts! But encouragement and community, they rebuild us and make us stronger.

One young man said he had been seeking community for years. Something clicked this week and he found it, evidenced by a friend’s embrace as he returned to his seat. My Teen has been fortunate to know that community. A twice-monthly before-school boys’ Bible study started with a group of motivated 8th grade guys and has continued through their senior year. They were adult-led until they took up their own leadership, and they have carried it forward in ways that pleasantly surprised their parents and other adult leaders.

Teen got to be a Catalyst this year (achieving one more life goal!), as did many of the Bible study boys. Along with their female peers, they have forged a tight-knit group; their community had a “ripple effect” throughout camp, fostering community with each gentle wave. Teen stood up to thank his fellow Catalysts, and to thank his team. He said, “We became a family. By the end of the week our team was a family building a home for another family.”

I watched with awe as my son–surrounded by community–stood, arms raised, singing:

I’ll stand
With arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all
I’ll stand
My soul Lord to you surrendered
All I am is yours

Safe to say they are returning home having been rebuilt by God and His gift of community.

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From Letters with Candy: An Excerpt

Several years ago on a trip to DC I had the privilege of reconnecting with a childhood friend. We talked for hours, and he was even funnier than I remembered. In so many ways, our stories are the same: we grew up in the same neighborhoods, walked the same school hallways, we shared friends and teachers; we both went away to school and found our way to marriage and family and fulfilling work. And in so many ways our stories are different. To know someone you have to listen to their stories, and I’m grateful to still be listening to Brett as he weaves together the strands of this story about family.

re:create recess #4: Brett West

I was nearly 30 years old when I learned I was part Mexican. For years, I was the tan kid with the sun-bleached hair elbowing my parents in the ribs about being switched at birth. You see, the first photos of me portrayed a chubby infant with dark hair and eyes. “I’m so clearly a Mexican baby. Unless …unless these pictures are of some other baby,” I’d tease.

But here I was nearing 30, having accomplished next to nothing of all the things someone in their 20’s is supposed to own in the realm of experience. I hadn’t reached upper management, nor even middle management. I’d not yet scratched the surface on world domination. The foundation of a rock star career was built, but had no wheels or wings – had never even left the hangar. I’d spent years reading and writing material so other people could look wiser and more confident than they already were.

But I’d at least accomplished Mexican-ness.

How? Well, that’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked. I’m adopted. My sister is adopted. There was always the possibility that we might be something other than the White Anglo Saxon Protestant progeny we were raised to be. And with my proficiency in wild emotion, which was – and often still is – so foreign to my parents and the way we were raised, certainly it made better sense that perhaps I was the apple from a tree in another orchard.

My birthmother’s name was Candy. She’d spent years and years trying to find me. And she made contact during the spring of 1999. It was a time when I’d spent the three previous years not speaking much with my parents, and not seeing them at all, resulting from my coming out as gay. Now the mythical creature from the past we’d always known of, but had never known, was in our present.

She assured me she wasn’t looking for her long-lost son, or even a spare kidney. Ah, we share a sense of humor. Her reason for finding me came from a sense of responsibility. She yearned to be convinced without a shadow of doubt that the advice had been sound that she’d received and had taken as an unwed teenaged girl with a biscuit in the oven in the early months of 1969. In her words, she’d lived her life wondering everyday if she’d done the right thing.

Being reached out of the blue had a profound effect on my sense of anonymity, and even incited a little paranoia. Had I met her before? Was the woman I’d recently met at the dog park who insisted on talking with me actually this person from another world trying for face time with me? Was a reality TV production crew suddenly going to ambush me on my way home from work to ask how it feels to be found?

And it also had a profound effect on my parents who felt betrayed that my genealogical past could somehow break the steel door on vaulted information.

But I could not imagine having to live with such a question, such a heaviness in my soul without more than a prayer for the answer. So, I accepted her invitation, and we began writing letters.

After assuring her that she’d made an excellent life decision for me worthy of no regrets, we waded slowly into a friendship. The mythical biomom – birth mother for the politically correct – was perfectly lovely. And not unlike me, her relationship with her parents had its challenges. We talked about her false starts in life, that it had taken her a long time to grow comfortable in her own skin to make wise decisions. After being a mediocre student, and failing at relationships, she’d taken root back in her home town, had become a teacher and school administrator of some acclaim at the school where she’d merely been a passing student. She had even fallen in love, was married and had kids. She’d learned to love her parents and overlook their expectations in contrast with her perceived shortcomings. In fact, she simply loved and accepted her parents in a manner that suggested to me she understood the fault may never have been with her, but with them. She loved them like one loves one’s child – without conditions. And it was a love she was capable of, that perhaps they were not.

And yes, she is where I get my Mexican heritage, which stretches back to when California was a Spanish colony. There are fascinating epics telling of the Duckworth’s who fled the Old World, and the Figueroa’s who settled in and defended places like Monterey and Sonoma. There are tales of orphans who were taken in by aunts and uncles, and even a famous governor of the State of California under Mexico.

And as we tip-toed into a friendship, we decided to meet face-to-face. Popular culture leads many to believe there is an instant bond between a child and his birth parents. Not true. The moment Candy walked off the plane, I recognized her from photos we’d traded. But there was nothing familiar about her. Don’t misread me – she was completely lovely. But we didn’t have much shared history aside from gestation. Bonds are created by shared moments. And before meeting, we didn’t share much – didn’t look much alike, either.

On the heels of my first meeting with Candy, I had dinner with my then-partner and our friends. It was a nice opportunity to sit down outside over a bottle of wine and recap all that I had experienced. I remember with clarity like it happened five minutes ago when my friend Mary Beth offering a sage insight. “The thing to remember is: family is not made up of where we come from or from big events, but all the bits and pieces of minutiae that are usually as inane as they are mundane. That’s where you find family.”

In the following months, I began taking on the responsibility of reaching my parents more frequently. I made plans to travel across the country to see them. And we, too, tip-toed back into familiar territory with one another. We needed to. There was much ground work to lay if there was to be a future for us that was as meaningful as the past.

Conversations in our journey back to familiarity started with big occasions or monumental road trips. “Remember the 1984 Olympics when we road tripped out to Minnesota instead of to LA in a cramped car where the air conditioning worked only when we were going uphill, and we watched each night from motel rooms along the way? And how about making the snowmen in Tehran? The heartache when Nannie passed away? Granddad rolling silver dollars down the hill for us to find?”

Once back on common ground, we found ourselves able to tackle the friction points between us. “Yes, I’m getting married and yes we’re both men. But we want you there, only if you want to be there. And if you choose not to be there, that’s a choice we must all respect and live with forever.” And “Yes, we’re going to be to fathers. And your granddaughter is going to love to bits without ever wondering why, but she might also think you’re weird if you’re not okay with us …and that’s something I’m not okay with.”

And in time, joy came back to our relationship and stiff formality disappeared. In a mysterious way, all the little dots of activity – these teeny-tiny pixels of color – started to assemble, illustrating the big picture of our life together.

With tremendous pride, I look back at how these conversations set the table for expectations, much in the same way my parents set the table for their expectations of me. My parents showed up to our church wedding and were the toast of all our friends. They were part of our daughter’s Baptism. We vacation together. But most importantly, we are woven tightly.

There is a joke in our family about how no one can change my father from the ways in which he is so deeply set. I disagree. I’ve seen both of my parents travel light years from their comfortable groove to where they stand today – right at my side.

Most of us go through life growing up in a family defined to us by law if not by tradition. I’m not saying that because I was adopted, I encountered fissures in my sense of belonging. But there have been a series of events surrounding my adoption that sewed shut any potential fissure. I experienced the perfect storm. When I felt my sense of family was threatened by the possibility that I may end up shunned for life or that I may somehow become disowned by my parents, my mythical biomom entered my life. And that threw my parents off balance, while also opening my eyes to what an adult relationship can be between child and parents. From letters with Candy, I learned to increase my capacity for loving my parents. And what resulted is that I recognize now that my family belongs to me as much as I belong to my family. Our experiences together can never be taken away – not by law, not by stroke of pen, not by anything else in the world. They are worth loving, and they are worth fighting for. And I am so glad I learned to.

 

With 22 years inside the corporate communications machine, Brett West created a career of rewriting the future of his clients through influence and persuasion. Domestic and international issues required breaking down into bits and pieces more easily digestible by news media and the American public. Throughout his career path, he began applying principles that guided him to professional success to bring about personal success and fulfillment. He has written largely unpublished works including And I Laugh a Little Too Much, Short Tall Tales of a Last Grandparent, and From Letters with Candy. In 2007, West made a mid-life career change aimed at creating a larger impact on the personal lives of his clients as a Realtor with McEnearney Associates. He lives in Washington, DC with his husband, daughter and two collies.