Tag Archives: life lessons

THE DUCKS: “Make Way for Ducklings” with a Sadder Ending

Last week my sister and I drove home to Michigan. A lot happened on the trip, mostly good stuff, and even the bad stuff ended well.

There was one sad thing that broke my heart.

We were zipping along the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way), the major highway that connects Niagara Falls (where we entered Canada) and Hamilton. It’s always frenetic, full of traffic, with one of those solid concrete barricades down the median. We were going 75 mph, five miles above the posted speed limit, and people passed us like we were standing still.

We were talking and laughing, and all of a sudden, we saw a mother duck and two baby ducks at the median, right next to the fast lane. (AKA “even faster lane”…)

It was heartbreaking. They were in a panic. There was absolutely no way we could stop. Even if we could, there was absolutely no way we could have rescued them without endangering ourselves, other travelers, even the ducks.

Our hearts sank as we flew past them.

We could have called “someone” about them. But who? I have no idea who to call in Canada about highway-stranded ducks. And I’m sure there are limited resources to deal with such things.

I’ve been thinking of them ever since, imagining their terror, and empathizing with their helplessness. I know I won’t forget that image of them easily. Why are there solid medians in expressways? Why aren’t there ways to prevent so many animals from being run over on highways?

And yet…..

From what I’ve read about animal brains, they were, indeed frantic and confused. But one of two things definitely happened.

They were probably killed within minutes of us seeing them.

Or they somehow made it back across the highway.

Either way, their agony is over.

Animals, it’s said, don’t dwell on the drama. If they made it safely across, then they immediately focused on the next task in front of them–getting to water, finding food, finding a place to rest for the night.

They didn’t carry that agony and that terror with them any longer than was necessary for their survival.

People, however, tend to fret, to “ruminate” over things that upset us, sometimes endlessly. I know I do! I go over and over the event. I hold my tongue for fear of saying something awful, then regret not speaking up. I make up stories about the people who hurt me, sometimes demonizing their intentions to justify my own indignation and anger.

I’m tired of it.

I know good things can come out of sad experiences. I know this incident helped me connect strongly to an article in our town newspaper, of a local project–high school kids taking record of how many animals are killed on local highways, and thinking up ways to cut down on the daily slaughter. And I know that animals die every day in the wild, if not from a racing car, then from predators and other natural causes.

I’m just saying that I’ve fretted far longer from that image in my heart than the ducks did.

This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to have a compassionate heart.

But I also realize that I should either do something about it or put it in perspective and let it go. Endless remorse serves no one, and nothing.

And so today, I’m telling you–and myself–a different story:

Even an “ordinary” duck and her babies crossing the road have a story to tell.

And I can learn from it.

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EXCUSES, EXCUSES: A Lesson From Frank

I’ve been thinking about guilt and shame. Two states of mind that can really rack us up. Especially if we’re not clear on what they are. Especially if we’re not clear on what their purpose is.

I read that guilt is when we do something we shouldn’t. Or don’t do something we should. It’s not right, or fair, or kind. It doesn’t fit our idea of who we are, or who we want to be.

Guilt, in a good context, is an alarm, an “intruder alert”, that our lizard brain is running the show.

Shame, on the other hand, is feeling there is something wrong with ourselves. It’s the feeling that we are a bad person, not worthy of anything good. We don’t deserve forgiveness, success, respect or love.

Shame has no good context. It is truly destructive, because we feel incapable of making better choices.

I’m not going there with shame today. Too big!

But I’ve learned a big lesson about guilt.

I injured my back awhile back. In desperation, I sought out all kinds of alternative therapies, including the services of a local chiropractor, Frank Abbate.

Frank and I talked as he worked. He’s a martial artist so we often talked about principles and personal integrity. One memorable discussion centered on excuses.

One of his pet peeves is when people are late. Not the “late” thing itself. But the excuses people offer up.

I cringed a little, because I’m often running late. I know that being late can imply I don’t respect the wait-ee’s time. Or that I’m being unprofessional. Both are not who I want to be.

I was also curious. Why did the excuses bother him? Sometimes the things that make us late are beyond our control. (Though I’ll admit here, on the record, that I often fall victim to the creative person’s sense of time as fluid and elastic, stretchy enough to accommodate my belief I can really squish an hour’s worth of tasks into 27 minutes….)

Frank said, “If you’re late, you’re late. I’ll take the next person in line, that’s all. Or whatever….”

But, he added, “When you offer me your excuses, you’re really trying to put the load on me. And I refuse to pick that up.

Frank is saying an excuse is a justification for what we’ve done. When we try to justify our actions, we are actually trying to avoid guilt. And since we’re trying to avoid our responsibility–to show up on time–we are ever-so-gently sort of resting it on Frank.

“Nothin’ doing'”, he said. “Just apologize, and try not to do it again.”

It was such a new concept to me, we spent the entire session talking about it.

And of course, I realized he was right. Whether I had a good reason or not, I’m responsible. Not him.

When we mess up, and create a problem for someone else, the honorable thing is to own that.

Maybe the traffic was terrible. (Could I have left a few minutes earlier, just to be safe?)

Maybe someone else kept ME waiting. (Could I have phoned Frank and given him the option of rescheduling me?)

Maybe my car wouldn’t start. (Could I have noticed the battery was problematic, and been proactive about replacing it?)

Even with a good reason (an emergency situation, a last-minute deadline, bad weather), it’s not Frank’s problem. It’s mine.

And by offering excuses, I’m subtly trying to involve him in my problem. To let myself off the hook.

And he wants no part of it.

“I’m not mad, I’m not resentful,” he said. “Stuff happens. I just don’t want it on my plate.”

Now, at first glance, this seems like small potatoes. Late to an appointment? Pfhhht! Big deal!

But carried to an extreme, we find people who habitually blame others for their own shortcomings.

If I don’t put the effort into doing my marketing, if I don’t set aside enough time to clean my workspace for an open studio, if I don’t take the time to add new work to my online shop, who’s to blame for that? Not some mythical set of circumstances. Me.

Maybe it was a bad year. Maybe there wasn’t enough time. But the reality is, I made a choice. I set up other things as a priority–and rightly so.

But that decision was mine.

It gets worse. And you’ve seen it for yourself, among your peers, in the news.

Sent that fair application in a month late? Then blame the producer, saying they’re money-grubbing for charging the late fee? Yeah, right.

You overcharged a client, or cheated them out of money? Then say it’s because society doesn’t respect your line of work enough to allow you to make more money? Yeah, right.

You cheated on your spouse, and then say it’s because they aren’t fun to be around anymore? Yeah, right.

I’ve been making a better effort not to offer excuses anymore. (And boy, do I have really, really, really good excuses this past year.) It’s just not who I want to be.

It’s hard, but it’s…rewarding.

It feels a little bit like being a grown-up.

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HOW TO VISIT SOMEONE IN A NURSING HOME Part 2

I told you I’d forgotten something! More tips on how to make your visits richer.

TALK STRONGER, NOT LOUDER

If the person you’re visiting is hard-of-hearing, try this simple trick: Get closer! Move so you can speak directly into their ear. Often this is all they need, and you may not need to speak any louder.

If you do have to speak louder, go up in increments. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen visitors and staff go from normal voice to YELLING. It always startles the client (and me!) so much, they nearly jump out of bed.

SING

Or hum, or bring a CD of their favorite music. This is especially nice if someone is non-verbal. Our brains are hardwired for music (and art, by the way.) If you don’t believe in miracles, test yourself by watching this short clip of an elderly man restored to himself through the power of music.

Don’t be afraid to be silly. One client was only conscious a few minutes each day, and spent most of her time semi-conscious or asleep. I’m not good with remembering lyrics, so I sang the only song I could think of: Come Away With Me, Lucille, in My Merry Oldsmobile. In my defense, I was in a lot of gay ’90’s (that’s 1890’s!) musical revues in high school, and I love the word “automo-bubbling”….

Janey (not her real name) roused, opened one eye and glared at me. “Just how old do you think I am?!” she asked indignantly.

TURN OFF THE TV

I don’t think I need to explain this one. You think the electronic babysitter is just used on kids?!

It’s especially heartbreaking to see how deeply affected clients are by having non-stop soap operas blasting all day. Some of the actually incorporate the dialogue into their dreams and memories. One day a poor gentlemen told me that people were angry at him, and yelling. He’d confused the the evil plots and cruel machinations of a daytime soap with real life.

PICTURES ARE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS

If you have pictures of you and your friend together, bring ‘em! Or ask them about the photographs they have on display. Usually these are ones they cherish and brought with them, or they are important photos their other friends and family have brought. Photos can be powerfully evocative.

NO GUESSING GAMES

Even people with plenty of cognitive aptitude can get confused. Poor eyesight, compromised hearing, being roused from sleep….Have mercy! Good Lord, no one likes it when a stranger turns up at a party and says, “Do you know who I am?” or “Do you remember me?”

Don’t ask them to guess who you are–tell them! “Hello, Frannie, my name is Luann. I’m Mary’s oldest daughter, the one who lives in New Hampshire.” Or, “Hello, Mrs. Brown, I’m Bill Meyers. I was your student when you taught second grade at Houghton Elementary School. I’m the boy who brought a snake for show-and-tell, and it got loose in the classroom!” Trust me, she’ll remember you.

For more great suggestions, visit JazznJewelry’s excellent comment to my previous post.

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HOW TO HAVE A PERFECT WEDDING AND A GREAT MARRIAGE

I’m reading TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS by Chery Strayed, aka Sugar, the anonymous online advice columnist at The Rumpus website.

I read about it in OPRAH Magazine, and something about the article resonated. I bought a copy. When it arrived, I started reading it.

Well, dear readers, it’s such an amazingly wonderful book, I was up til 3 a.m. reading it.

Okay, okay, truth in advertising–I couldn’t sleep last night, and it’s the book I reached for to read myself back to sleep.

There are many lovely life lessons in there, including a few to help me through the situation that kept me up til 3 a.m. But the one I’m thinking about today is the column she wrote to an anxious, anguished, angry bride-to-be.

The last few days I’ve been feeling like I’m not “handling things right”. There’s been a lot of anger and confusion, there is resentment at being manipulated by someone I’m trying to help, there is the thing I fall into from time to time about trying to keep everybody happy, made worse by me operating on my idea of what will make people happy. (You think I’d know by now….!!)

But as I read Sugar’s advice to the bride, I realized I’ve done at least one thing absolutely right in my life.

My wedding.

My mom, with only one daughter’s wedding planning under her belt (she and my dad now have staged six weddings at last count), offered to host and pay for the wedding, if it were a modestly-priced one. “That’s what I want!” I exclaimed. I’d moved away from home twelve years before, but we decided Gladwin, my hometown, was the perfect location.

My dad went into lawn management overdrive. He always has beautiful flowerbeds and a lovely yard, but he went to great lengths to make everything perfect for our outdoor wedding.

The minister at my childhood church refused to marry us, and refused to let us use the church my sister was married in. (I’d moved away long before he came to preside there, so I didn’t “belong there” anymore.) “No worries,” I said. Instead, we would get married in my parent’s back yard. My mom found out we could be married by the mayor of Gladwin. “That’s so cool!” I exclaimed. We asked, and he said yes, he’d do it. It was the first marriage ceremony he’d ever performed. He was elated, especially when we invited his wife, too.

When my mom asked me who we should invite of all my relatives and hometown friends, I thought for a moment and then said, “Anyone who would be happy to come to my wedding.” That actually worked out really well.

When asked about the flowers, I chose the flowers I found in Jon’s apartment the first time I visited him there. He’d picked orange daylilies from someone’s garden. (He didn’t know at the time that people do not plant flowers so other people could pick them. I kid you not.) I’d picked my own bunch, from a ditch by the roadside out in the country, while on a drive with friends. We marveled that we’d both picked the same flowers on the same day. I thought it was sweet he’d picked (admittedly illegally) flowers for me. So we decided that’s what we’d have for my bouquet, corsages and boutonnieres. Most florists don’t stock daylilies, so I picked Stargazer lilies instead.

When asked about the food, I said, “Let’s keep it simple.” Mom ordered hors d’ oeuvres, and fresh strawberries, and a wonderful wedding cake. I was so busy mingling and talking with our guests, I never got to eat anything. Except yummy wedding cake, so I was happy. (I LOVE wedding cake.)

When asked about the colors, I named my (at the time) favorite color, pink. When Mom found out there were no pink linens to be rented, I said, “What colors DO they have?” Well, there was white, and…..well, just white. (My hometown was very small, with one caterer and one rental source.) “Okay,” I said. “White it is.” When overwhelmed with the wedding cake choices, I chose white cake with white frosting, and fresh flowers for the cake’s decoration.

Flowers for the reception tables? I went out into the fields surrounding my old home and gathered wildflowers. They only lasted the day, but that’s all we needed. They were beautiful.

The weather had been cold and rainy right up to the day of the wedding. One hour before the ceremony, the clouds dispersed and the sun broke through. It was a bearable 68 degrees and sunny right up to the end of the whole shebang. Then the clouds regathered, the warm sun disappeared again, and the drizzle resumed.

We splurged and ordered a case of champagne, which in the end provided most of the wedding entertainment. My two youngest sibs were in charge of opening the bottles. They took turns exuberantly popping the corks and watching them fly right over the roof of the house. Several men in the family “went to see the new tractor mower” in the garage, (which to this day is man-code for “Let’s go drink some champagne!”) right before the ceremony. Jon’s memories after this point are rather hazy.

My dress was an off-the-rack white summery prairie dress (in my defense, it was trendy at the time) I’d bought on sale at a regular clothing store. And a white hat.

I had no bridesmaids, no maid-of-honor, no grooms or best man. It was impossible to choose among so many candidates without hurting someone’s feelings, and I also didn’t want to put anyone through that expense. (Let me tell you about my bridesmaid’s dress collection. The dresses I bought, when times were hard, that every bride assured me could be worn again as “an ordinary dress-up dress.” HAH! I’m just going to say two little words: Hoop. Skirt.) Instead, we had two of our best friends be the legal witnesses on the paperwork.

I lost my wedding license the day before the wedding. One sister and I were very much on the outs at the time, and (I can hardly believe I’m writing this) I suspected her of hiding it. By some tiny miracle of self-restraint, I managed to keep my mouth shut and not voice this opinion. A dear friend who was attending from the same far-off city Jon and I lived in, managed to get a legal copy and brought it up the day of the event. A few days later, I found the lost license right where I’d put it–on top of a file box. It had fallen in and “filed” itself. And a wedding or two later, that same sister extended the hand of reconciliation to me, and I took it, and we have not had an “out” ever since. And I am so grateful that something in my heart, on that day before my wedding, overrode my pitiful lizard brain and I kept my mouth SHUT.

I was very nice to my new mother-in-law, even though she was behaving very oddly throughout the marriage ceremony. She was not a fan, let’s leave it at that. But again, something stomped my lizard brain long enough for me to realize I was surrounded by love, more than enough love, to overlook and forgive anything and everything that day.

We hired the son of a family friend to play guitar for the ceremony and reception. He got sick right after the wedding and left. We were having too much fun by then to miss him much.

My favorite teacher from high school read a poem for us.

My only regret is that we have very few nice photographs from the wedding, which were taken by someone who offered to take pictures for free–a sister, I think. But I’m also glad we were spared the endless line-ups and staged assemblies that usually hold up the reception for hours. And to be fair, there WAS no local professional photographer available. If there had been someone like my good friend Roma Dee to photograph my wedding, I know there would be more amazing, intimate yet unstaged moments captured. (If I have have to go through a nerve-wracking, soul-strapping event that needs to be photographed, I pray I have Roma at my side. She is so warm and chill–the good kind of chill–at the same time. She is intuitive, grounded, sane.) But I have enough images to spark many good memories.

I do know that an hour after the ceremony, Jon decided to go for a swim in my parents’ pool, which we all still laugh about. He doesn’t remember much about the rest of the day. Too overwhelmed, and too many visits to the tractor mower. He remembers thinking it might have been a little too chilly for a swim… I remember thinking how buff he looked in his swimsuit.

I do know that the casual, stress-free, easy-going wedding we had, set the tone for the next four weddings in our family. The rest of us all were married in my parents’ backyard, too, and they were all delightful, low-key events. My all-time favorite photo from those is one of Jon, after visiting the mower in the garage a few too many times, sitting in front of a doghouse with my folks’ dog Cammie, offering her a sip from his glass of champagne.

I laughed all the way through Sugar’s response to the racked-up, anguished bride-to-be about her own mishap-laden, chaotic, wonderful wedding full of what’s really important about a wedding–friends, family, your community watching you and your partner promise to make a go of this complicated, amazing, scary and joyful thing called “marriage”.

I cherish her last words:

….We all get lost in the minutiae, but don’t lose this day…..Let your wedding be a wonder. Let it be one hell of a good time. Let it be what you can’t yet imagine and wouldn’t orchestrate even if you could. Remember why it is you’ve gone to so much trouble…. You’re getting married. There’s a day ahead that’s a shimmering slice of your mysterious destiny. All you’ve got to do is show up.

Okay, I know there’s more than “one thing” I’ve done right in my life (there I still wish there were many, many more.) But I know that one thing I did right, for sure, was our wedding.

Oh, and June 26 was our 30th anniversary.

So what’s the secret to a good marriage?

1) Marrying the right man for the right reasons.
2) Through thick and thin, and through the very, very thin, realizing I would marry him all over again in a heartbeat.
3) There’s a lot of luck involved.
4) Know that it’s not a “thing”, it’s always, always a work in progress.
5) When you need help to keep the work-in-progress working, get help.
6) Remember the wisest thing my husband ever said about our relationship: One day, after listening to a friend share how she and her husband were trying to save their marriage by taking up tennis so there was one thing they could do together, and working myself into a fever pitch about how little he and I had in common, and how few things we did together, and worrying that it meant our marriage was shaky, he commented, “But we’ve never actually done lots of things together. We just like to be together.”

Recognize the times when being is more important than doing.

Years later, my dad still rues the fact that our special day fell during a late, cold, rainy spring. “None of the flower beds I planted were blooming yet!” he says.

“I don’t remember that,” I tell him. “The only flowers I remember are my pink lilies in my wedding bouquet, and the wildflowers I picked that morning. All I remember is how perfect everything was that day…..”

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ANGELS IN ODD PLACES

Yesterday I met the family who may have saved my son’s life.

The daughter heard the car crash late that night. She roused her mother. They ran outside in their pajamas to his car.

Everyone who saw the car said the same thing. They all thought no one could have survived that crash.

The woman and her daughter sat with him while the dad called 911.

The mom stayed with son til the police and ambulance came. She couldn’t reach him–he was too entangled in the dashboard. The car was so badly crushed, he couldn’t move.

It was cold that night, in the teens. She gave him her coat to staunch the bleeding from his head wounds. She kept talking to him, trying to keep him from passing out or falling asleep. He was obviously in shock, and suffering from a concussion.

The first police officer on the scene waited with him til the ambulance came. “He was gentle and supportive,” the mom said.

If the daughter had not heard the crash, my son could have lain there for hours before someone found him. No one else heard it–all the other houses in the area remained dark and silent.

I know he is a man, all grown up, with a deep voice, a scowl for his out-of-it parents, with a job and an apartment, a whole life we know so little about.

In my mind’s eye, I still see that small child, solemn one moment, giggling with laughter and joy the next. In his purple snowsuit, wearing the purple hat I knit for him, pulling his beloved wagon and carrying his stuffed dog.

I asked him if he remembered her. He said no. He’s too embarrassed to meet her. Someday, he may feel differently.

In the following weeks, the mom and daughter gathered up the detritus from the crash–broken mirrors, pieces of metal–that the clean-up crew overlooked. They didn’t want anyone else to be injured by sharp glass and metal. They also found some CDs, some computer games, a hacky-sack or two. They gathered these in a box, and called our home a few days ago to let us know we could pick them up.

“We’re in the big house right across the street from where it happened,” she said on the phone. “You can’t miss us.”

My husband had been to the site, taking pictures of the skid marks, the road, later the car at the tow garage. I hadn’t been to the site. It was hard to look at that deep drop-off from the road, the gash in the tree, the scrape on the telephone pole.

I remembered the photos my husband had taken of the car. I remember not being able to take my eyes off those images. They were horrible.

The mom and dad came to the door to greet us. I thanked her. It was nothing, she said. She simply did what anybody would have done–taken care of a stranger, a young man in need.

She’d been in a bad accident once. She’d fallen asleep on her way home, and woke up to confusion and pain. But she was not as fortunate. No one heard her car crash. She’d made her way, slowly and painfully, to a nearby house. They wouldn’t let her in. They made her wait in the driveway while they phoned the police. She remembers how that felt–in the dark, in the cold, in pain, waiting. She said she couldn’t let that happen to someone else.

I was thinking, so it’s NOT what anyone else would have done.

I took them some of my jewelry as a small token of gratitude. I told her how grateful we were, that she had been kind to my son. We hugged, and went back home.

I had a chance to meet the police officer, too, at the emergency room. He was gentle and kind. We met again at the police station a few weeks later. He did his job, but without the need to heap further humiliation on top of my son. I shook his hand. I told him it had been a very difficult night, and he had made it a little easier with his kindness.

It was nothing, he said.

It was everything, I said.

I thought of the police lieutenant in Ann Arbor, the one who listened to me when I called asking for help, for guidance when we found out our daughter’s fiance was a potentially dangerous person. She couldn’t offer much as a police officer, she said. But as a mother, she had a lot to give.

We spoke to her many times over the next few weeks. In our trips out to Michigan to be with our daughter, we got to meet her. A wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful woman, she was one of countless remarkable souls who were with us in our hour(s) of need.

Her email address said “Angela”, and as I got up to leave after our visit, I called her that.

She laughed. “It’s ‘Angela’ here in the department,” she said.

“But my real name is Angel.”

Of course it is, I thought.

Of course it is.

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THE YEAR OF (PAINFUL) GROWTH

We’re still in February and it’s been a rough year already.

We thought 2011 was bad. My best friend/lover/husband/sounding board and I hit one of those places in our marriage–you know what I’m talking about–where we’d look at each other and think (or even worse, say), “Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my husband/wife??!!”

Oh, we’ve gone to couples therapy before, for short-term help. And I mean really short-term. Sometimes we’d only need to meet with a referee counselor two or three times to get clear on our stuff. We jokingly referred to those interludes as ‘tune-ups’–just like a regular oil change to keep our partnership running smoothly.

This time, like our Subaru Forester, we went in for what we thought was an oil change, and ended up having to pull the engine. (No, we are no longer happy with Subaru.)

The repair process was simple, but not easy. If you want a year’s worth of couples counseling reduced down to a few suggestions, here are mine: Don’t assume–ask. Then listen to the answers. And don’t eat those restaurant leftovers unless you ask their owner first. (It’s one of those situations where preferring to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission will backfire. Just trust me on this one.) Oh, and the biggie: Value the relationship over having to be right.

It was a tough process, but we’re on the home stretch. We can now afford to look back and say, “I almost lost you” and be amazed. A good thing.

So what could be worse than almost losing your marriage?

Almost losing your kids.

Last fall was the time of extreme anxiety. Finding out your kid is in an abusive relationship? It’s the worst (or so we thought.) We had to tread carefully, keeping doors open, staying grounded, trusting in….well, trust. Putting our faith in the love and trust we’d built over the years.

We were rewarded with a happy outcome. Our child is safe. Life is good. We’re moving on. We breathed a grateful prayer. 2012 was going to be so much better!

Then, a few weeks ago, we got ‘the phone call.’

It’s the one in the middle of the night, the one you never want to get.

The police telling us there had been an accident.

Before my heart could stop, the caller rushed to assure us, “He’s okay! He’s okay!”

We nearly lost our other kid. To a car accident so fierce, our aforementioned Subaru Forester would now probably fit inside a large refrigerator. I still can’t look at the pictures without choking up.

He’s okay. Or rather, he’ll be okay. Miraculously, though his injuries are numerous, he will recover fully. It will be a long, hard journey, but someday he will be able to put this behind him. And I am very aware that this is not always the case, for so many people or the families they leave behind… My heart breaks for them.

Of course, there are blessings in all of this. I learn from everything, even the bad stuff. But sometimes it’s just too….too. As one of my sisters said years ago, delirious with pain after burning her hand badly while dealing with a small kitchen fire, and listening to us all tell her how lucky for her it was her left hand, not her right, just her hand, not her life, just the kitchen and not the house, etc., “Well, I don’t feel so damned lucky!!”

I just spoke with my beloved hospice supervisor, Lorraine, who struggled to find the right words today. I finally said, “Oh, yeah, there are are blessings here…..DAMN IT!!! And we both burst out laughing.

But…there are blessings.

I am grateful we both believed our marriage was worth fighting for.
I am grateful that my kids know for sure how much we love them. Or, if one of them isn’t sure, we’re getting another chance to prove it to him.
I am grateful for the people who listened. Really, truly listened
I am grateful for the small courtesies received from friends, and family, and complete strangers.
I am so, so grateful for the people who do not judge.

I’ve learned a lot, too.

I know now that a good day doesn’t depend on the weather, or how much I got done, or what didn’t go wrong. Sometimes a good day is simply a day where nobody dies.

Some people think we are ‘bearing up’ well. It’s simple. I know now that there are times when you know the worst has already happened, and times where you know the worst might yet happen. The first is a piece of cake, compared to the latter. I know now that the latter is much, much scarier, and harder to bear.

I know now that no matter what you’re going through, there are other people who understand. Those powerful words of Rosanne Cash, from her book Composed: A Memoir, still resonate in my heart:

You begin to realize that everyone has a tragedy, and that if he doesn’t, he will. You realize how much is hidden beneath the small courtesies and civilities of everyday existence. Deep sorrows and traces of great loss run through everyone’s lives, and yet they let others step into the elevators first, wave them ahead in a line of traffic, smile and greet their children and inquire about their lives, and never let on for a second that they, too, have lain awake at night in longing and regret, that they, too, have cried until it seemed impossible that one person could hold so many tears, that they, too, keep a picture of someone locked in their heart and bring it out in quiet, solitary moments to caress and remember…

I’ve learned that people will judge. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I want to say to them, “Look, if the universe slapped us down or tried to KILL US whenever we did something careless, there wouldn’t be too many of us still walking around…” But I know it’s just human nature. It’s how we convince ourselves that something like that would never happen to us, a way to distance ourselves, a way to protect ourselves. “Well, my kid/husband/daughter would never do that!” Really? Huh…..

Today, my wish for you is what I would wish for myself.

Today, may your blessings be small ones. Simple ones. Easy ones.
May they involve a hug or two, and perhaps a good laugh, and someone to share it with.
May you get a chance to learn something the easy way. Not the hard way.
And may you always get a second chance, another chance to say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” To say, “Thank you.”

To say, “I love you.”

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MY ART IS WHO I AM: Another Lesson From Hospice

Every hospice experience teaches me something. And my latest hospice client has already taught me something big.

The first client visit can be tricky. Each situation is very different, and I never know what to expect. So I come prepared for almost anything.

My visiting bag usually holds several books. One is something for me to read if the client is sleeping or not conscious. Another is a book of poetry, or a prayer book, or perhaps a favorite story to read aloud. (One of my favorite memories is reading Dodie Smith’s bittersweet “I Capture the Castle” to an elderly gentleman, who was as enthralled by the story as I was.)

I also carry a good supply of crossword puzzles, a notebook or journal to write in, and sometimes, my latest knitting project.

On my first visit with this client, she spied my knitting needles and asked me about my project. I pulled it out and soon we were talking about knitting. Turns out she was an avid–and extremely talented–knitter. And though her yarn stash does not rival mine, it’s still impressive.

Sadly, she’s losing the ability to knit. “But we can still look!” I said cheerfully. So we spend our time looking at knitting magazines, exclaiming over the pretty pictures of sweaters, hats and scarves, commenting on the yarns and the patterns. Last week, she turned to me and said in a fierce whisper, “I just LOVE looking at knitting patterns!” “So do I!” I whispered back.

Today she spoke sadly (and metaphorically, which is common at this stage) about not being able to knit anymore, and about “an event” that’s coming, something that cannot be stopped, something that comes for everyone.

It’s hard to talk about, she said. And people sometimes pretend it’s not coming, but it is. “It is hard,” I tell her. “People don’t know what to say. So they say nothing.” She nods fiercely.

I ask her how she feels about it. She thinks for a moment.

There are things that have defined her, all her life, that are now slipping away softly but surely, into a growing gray mist. “I can’t remember what it is, but it’s all going away,” she says sadly.

My heart goes out to her. It reminded me of my very first day in hospice training.

One of the hospice chaplains ran the exercise. It sounds laughably simple.

But it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

She gave each of us ten little slips of paper. We were each told to write down ten things that were important to us.

They could be people (family, friends), they could be experiences (marriage, traveling, work), skills (arts, gardening, dancing, martial arts), character traits (intelligence, humor).

We spent quite a bit of time getting our lists just right.

Then the chaplain said, “I’m going to come around and take one of your slips. Decide which one you can give up.” It was hard, but it went quickly.

Then she said, “Now I’m going to take three things. Here I come!” Those three things were much harder to choose. We all breathed a sigh of relief when she was done.

Then she said, “Hold up your remaining slips. This time, I get to choose!” I guess I thought she would read each ‘hand’ and make a decision. Nope. She strode purposely around our circle, grabbing randomly at the slips in our hands.

It was really really hard.

What we lost was hard.

What was even harder, was knowing it was coming.

And not knowing what we would lose.

Some people tried to fight it. They held on tightly, refusing to let go. (But they had to, in the end..)

Some people–okay, all of us!–cried out in dismay when a precious slip was taken.

Many of us just cried. I did.

It wasn’t fair! Some people got to keep a few precious slips. Others lost all of them.

I cannot describe how it felt. Anger, fear, resentment, sorrow…. None of us were unscathed.

The power of those little slips of paper was palpable. Losing them was devastating.

“This is what it’s like,” said the chaplain softly. “This is what it’s like, at the end. Everything–everything–is lost.”

Such a simple exercise. Such a powerful lesson.

I looked at this amazing little woman, who was looking at me, wordlessly asking me….something.

I couldn’t remember the rest of that training day. I couldn’t remember what the chaplain said next.

I could only remember a little story this woman’s daughter had told me an hour earlier.

“Remember the sweater you made for your daughter?” I said. “How beautiful it was, and how beautiful it made her feel?”

She nodded.

“That is what will never go away. You did that. You made something beautiful. It made her feel beautiful. It made her feel loved. That is what will last.”

She nodded fiercely again.

I think I saw a little smile on her face.

My friend Kerin Rose once tried to tell me this, a few years ago when I was in a bad place. I felt apart from my art for awhile, and was frightened of who I would–or wouldn’t be–without it.

“You would still be you,” she insisted. I wasn’t sure….

But now I understand.

Yes, my art is who I am.

Not because of what I can or can’t do. Nor because of what I could do.

But because of what I’ve already done.

Because of what it’s already meant to me.

And because of what it’s already meant to others.

And that is what will last.

Dishclothes

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Filed under art, craft, creativity, gratitude, hospice, knitting, lessons from hospice, life lessons