Archive for September, 2013

“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.”
   — Pope Paul VI

I am not afraid of dying.

I used to be afraid; and when the subject would come up, I would speak the words of denial, “Don’t worry about that…it will be a long time before you have to think of dying.”

My great-aunt Essie became a permanent member of our household before I was born.  She had come to visit when my older brother was born and never was able to return to her family home.  The heart problems she suffered from would be easily repaired today; but nearly seventy years ago, medicine was limited.  She spent most of her time in bed; and we spent a significant amount of time visiting in her room, keeping her company and watching tv with her.  Essie often would talk about death.  She had lost her father when she was only eleven; and when her mother died ten years later, Essie took her place as head of their family, caring for her brothers.  Her brother, Clyde, was only fifteen when he died of tuberculosis.  They were sitting together under a tree in the yard when he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh!  How beautiful!” and breathed his last breath.  Essie wanted us to know that death was not an ugly thing.  She wanted us to know that she would not live forever and that she was looking forward to finding out what her brother had seen in his last moments.  From time to time, Essie would call us girls into her room and spread out all her old-lady jewelry on the foot of her bed.  “I want you to have this when I am gone,” she would tell us, and we would all cry.  “You’re not going to die, Essie…you will live forever.”  She told us that nobody lived forever; and she made me promise that I would not be sad when it was her turn to leave.  She extracted a promise from me when I was eleven — that I would not cry at her funeral and that I would sing her favorite hymn.

Essie died on my birthday in 1979.  I kept my promise and sang at her funeral.  Every year on my birthday, I think of my dear Aunt Essie and all the matter-of-fact lessons she taught us.  It seemed cruel that she would die on my birthday, but her timing was impeccable.  Thirteen months later, my boys went out to play with the neighborhood kids.  In the midst of all their fun, my son Brett ran into the path of a slow-moving car.  He died that day and turned my universe upside down.  In the days and months and years that followed, I  often thought of the stories Essie told about living and dying.  I thought of how unfair it seemed that I should outlive my little boy whose energy and love of life had just begun to blossom.  I thought about the happy times we had together and how the memories all triggered such deep sadness now that those times had ended.  I thought about Essie, bedridden a good bit of the time, but eager to do whatever she could to help during the good times when she had a bit of energy.  I thought about how she continued to live in spite of all her losses and in spite of her illness; and I realized that I had no choice but to live the life my son had not survived to live.

I used to be afraid of dying; but my great-aunt and my little son taught me there is something worse to fear than death.  I no longer fear death.  What I fear now is forgetting to live while I have the chance.  It took me nearly thirty years to really open my eyes to the precious gift of every new day; and the loss of the people I have loved has allowed me to find a truly full and abundant sense of gratitude for each new day.  Each morning, when my eyes open, I say to myself, “Yes!  Another day!  I get another day!”  Each new morning is a celebration; and I am grateful every time I see another sunrise.

Yes, we all are dying; but I hope more than anything else that we are living each day in ways that leave our mark on the lives of others we touch.  Because Essie was not afraid of dying, she offered me the gift of understanding what it means to be truly alive.  She often put it quite simply when she would say, “Eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re dry.  If the Devil don’t get you, you’ll live ’til you die.”  We thought it was a cute little ditty back then; but it carried a ton of wisdom.  Yes, we all are dying, but we have a chance to live in spite of our mortality.  So eat when you’re hungry and drink when you’re dry; and above all, don’t let the Devil — the doubt and fear — rob you of a single chance to live until you die.

“Love endures only when the lovers love many things together and not merely each other.”
    — Walter Lippmann

When I wrote about eating dessert first as it relates to falling in love, I concluded that as our taste matures and as our palate learns to appreciate greater depth and breadth of living, we no longer rely on the sweetness of first love to satisfy our appetites.  Now I’m here to say that what allows us to share the banquet with another person is taking the time to discover what passions we share and pursuing them with a mutual hunger.

There are times when each of us goes off alone to enjoy the adventures that grow us as individuals.  This is vital to any relationship, because it offers us exciting things to share with our partners and enriches us as members of the team.  What makes our individual pursuits even more fun is having someone to share our excitement when we return to our mutual life.

But the sweetest times are those when we join hearts in pursuit of the joys, the challenges, and the adventures where we choose to love together.  For my sweetheart and me, many of these times revolve around the family we have built together.  Just this weekend, we were privileged to host a birthday party for our five-year-old granddaughter.  Our daughter-in-law did all the work – all we did was throw a little food together and watch the fun happen.  Because of our shared love for family, such occasions are never a burden.  It’s kind of funny to hear our kids apologize for all the work when it doesn’t seem like work at all.

As we sat and watched our grandchildren repeat the same silly things their parents did more than twenty years ago, the glances we shared between us were the sort that carried a depth of meaning that nobody else could understand.  Loving things together does that to you.  It makes you deeper and stronger and multiplies your love by infinite numbers.  It is at those times of shared loving that I think I love my sweetheart the most.  After all, we have spent our life together learning how to love.

“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.”
   — Joseph Campbell

It has now been eighteen days since my sweetheart had his rotator cuff surgery.  For eighteen days he has tolerated taking narcotic medication to alleviate his discomfort and dealt with the different sort of discomfort that comes with feeling hazy.  For eighteen days he has worn a sling that has immobilized his dominant hand and arm.  For eighteen days he has been in the uncomfortable position of having to ask other people to do the things for him that this very independent man usually would do for himself, and for others.  As the other half of our team — the healthy and able-bodied half at this moment — I have made it my business to try the best I can to anticipate his needs, to offer before he has to ask, and to stay side-by-side sleeping on the sofa until he is ready to lie down flat in bed again.  That’s how it is when you’re part of a team; and through the ups and downs of our marriage, the shoe has been on the other foot more than once.

Several days ago, a friend who was worried about the extra workload I was carrying expressed sadness that I was having to sacrifice so much of my usual life in order to take care of my husband.  Sacrifice.  That word didn’t seem to fit; and I’ve been spending a few days walking with it and trying to decide what didn’t seem to work.  Today, as I was cleaning the kitchen for the third time since morning, it struck me.  This was no sacrifice at all.  This is dedication.

It has now been 6 1/2 years since my little granddaughter was born.  For 6 1/2 years she has persevered through surgeries and repairs and therapies and clinics that work with her to assure that she can live and thrive and grow up.  For 6 1/2 years she has been hooked up to a feeding pump each night to assure that she will have enough nutrients and calories to sustain her.  For 6 1/2 years she has gone to feeding clinics to practice using the swallowing and chewing muscles that did not become strong when she was an infant.  Recently, I came upon a recipe for high-fat yogurt that has miraculously allowed my little sweetie to gain weight.  Again, people think that I have sacrificed my time in order to make the yogurt that has brought her success.  This is no sacrifice at all.  This is dedication.

I could offer other examples, but you get the picture.  Dedication is such a great and easy alternative to sacrifice; and the difference really is only one of attitude.

When I sacrifice myself, I walk around picturing that I am being consumed by the flames at some vaguely unfamiliar altar, never to rise from the ashes again.  Martyrdom is flashy, but it’s short-lived; and it has been years since I decided to give up the martyr role.  Sacrifice steals from us and leaves us feeling empty, sullen, and angry.  If this time were a sacrifice, I would bemoan the fact that it has been a couple of weeks since I have made an entry in my blog.  The truth is, however, that whether I type my thoughts or not, my mind still is busy thinking.  There will be plenty of time to dedicate myself to daily writing; but the opportunity to be a part of healing the people I love will soon be done.

The difference between sacrifice and dedication is in our refusal to struggle against the work we are called to do.  For eighteen days, I have been deprived of a good night’s sleep,  so I take the time to nap when the opportunity arises.  For years to come, there will likely be a need for the magic yogurt, so I will build it into my schedule instead of trying to make it fit where no space has been created.  Dedication is good for us, because it stretches our limits and teaches us about both our reserves of energy and our need to maintain ourselves.

If you are feeling tired and close to used up, I offer you this advice:  Stop sacrificing and letting yourself be undone by the good deeds that demand your attention.  Find something special that you can provide and dedicate yourself to meeting a need.  Discover the energy that keeps renewing itself when we work joyfully, and discover the good sense in taking care of yourself so you can live to serve another day.

That’s the difference, you know.  Dedication challenges us to live like marathoners rather than sprinters.  The finish line may not be in view, but we run wisely, knowing that even when we hit the wall, we will find the renewed strength to go on.  What is it that stirs your passion?  Where can you dedicate yourself to something that takes you beyond yourself and shows you your own strength?  Find it, and you will work in joy.

“Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert.”      

    — Toulouse Lautrec

Nearly thirty-one years ago, a coworker of mine and neighbor of my sweetheart’s introduced us.  It was sweet.  Both of us were single parents who worked full-time, parented full-time, and had decided that there was little time left for romance.  Then our paths crossed.  It was sweet.  It was dessert.  It was the icing on the proverbial cake to discover that the sweetness of love still was part of our lives.  How fortunate it is that marriage and romance begin with dessert.  Without that sugar rush, I can’t imagine we could have found the energy to date, to cement our relationship, and to marry.  Add three kids to the mix, and we certainly needed all the energy we could get!

More than thirty years have passed since that first serving of dessert.  We watch our weight, we think about our diets, and my diabetic body does not tolerate dessert.  What is interesting, though, is the way that our tastes change.  Our palates improve.  As we taste life together and adjust to the different demands placed on us by age and responsibilities, we discover that sweetness exists far beyond dessert. When diabetes removed sugar from my diet, I discovered that carrots were incredibly sweet.  The same is true of a cool glass of milk.  And fresh fruits far outshine any pie I ever have eaten.  Pie.  I remember pie.  I remember cake and cookies and I remember the sweetness of the early days spent with the man I love.

As my sweetheart recovers from shoulder surgery and navigates with only one non-dominant arm, I have joked with him that this is sort of like renewing our vows.  We have dug into the distant past and finally fulfilled our long-ago wish to have more time to spend together.  I remember the young woman I was then and how happy I was to do any little thing for the sweet man I was learning to love.  I remember the young man who was tender and kind and thankful for any sweetness I brought to his life. I have heard our youthful times referred to as our “salad days,” probably because we are green and inexperienced at living; but as I embrace the opportunity to do some extra things for my very independent partner in life, I think our salad days are now.  These are the days when we need no dessert to understand that life is sweet.  What we share instead is the deep understanding that carrots and apples and peas and corn nourish the sweetness of the life we share in a far more lasting way than any icing on any cake. The icing on the cake is discovering sweetness, “in sickness and in health, for better or worse.”

There is a saying, “Life is short – eat dessert first.”   We need the dessert, I suppose, to encourage us to make that commitment; but once we have eaten dessert first, we can move on to savoring all the flavors of life.  And that is sweet.

“It’s a profound thought…. How everyone is a new door opening into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet.”

— Unknown

Isn’t it funny that we use the term, “six degrees of separation” to describe the connections we have with other people?  How about “six degrees of connectedness?”  Talk to just about anyone, and they will have a story of the way coincidental meetings led to unexpected introductions and compared notes revealed that they shared common experiences, friends, or even family with a total stranger.

Personally, I love these stories; and I have been known to share them from time to time.  The difference is that I usually omit the word, “coincidence,” from my tales.  I believe that our interconnected existence is no accident; and I believe that our surprising encounters simply serve to illustrate that we are sensitive to the shared experiences, needs, and energies of others.  I believe that when the time is right and necessary for us to meet other travelers, a new path is woven on the web of life so that we can encounter the people who share the need to engage with us.  What are your stories of the sixth degree?

One of my favorites is the way I met my sweetheart.  I suppose you might say that a coworker of mine introduced us; but this is not exactly true.  I had nothing in common with the woman who shared my office space except a job.  I would not take her advice about anything because our views were so very different and our tastes never seemed to overlap.  Still, she is responsible – simply by existing – for making one of the most important connections in my life.  She and I often exchanged barbs.  One of the topics was children.  I had two and she had none.  She often complained that she would like to have kids; but when it came to actually taking the plunge, she was not ready.  When her mother and I attended the same event, and I saw how she enjoyed playing grandma to an adorable little boy, I greeted my coworker with the observation, “Your mom seemed to be having a blast with that little boy last night — when are you going to get going and give her a grandchild?  “Oh,” replied my office mate, “that was my neighbor, Mark’s, son.  You two would like each other.  You’re both weird.”  She then began a campaign of nagging me to call the man I now have loved for 29 years.  The rest is history.  I was not someone who called strange men, but my coworker was; and meeting her built that new strand on the web of life that allowed me to cross into my own future.

About a month ago, I had a check-up with my doctor.  As we sat in the exam room, I could feel my cellphone buzzing in my pocket — One of my kids, no doubt; but it would have to wait until we were done.  As I got into my car, I checked for the missed call.  It was my son, Dan, calling to say that his middle child was on her way to the emergency room.  His wife wanted to know whether I could meet them there and help manage her other two kids.  I called her, only to discover that she already had arrived at her sister’s house and was leaving Chey and Noah with Rachel.  Since everything was under control, I headed for home and made a batch of high-fat yogurt for my little Cheyenne, hoping that the extra calories would boost her ability to gain some weight by eating and someday leave her feeding tube behind.  Only later did I find out that while Rachel helped her sister and I made the yogurt, my doctor’s wife — who I had no idea was a friend of hers — went out of her way to drive Rachel’s son to his camp program.

A month now has passed.  Cheyenne has eaten the yogurt and gained two pounds.  When I think of the story of that day of making the first batch, I have to pause in amazement at how many people, some who never met, were a part of its creation.

Today I made another batch of yogurt; and again I sit at the sixth degree.  For two years, I walked my grand-dog every morning with my neighbor, Michele.  To begin with, I never have wanted to be a dog owner; but when my youngest daughter returned home, a puppy was part of the bargain.  Michele, an art teacher at a local elementary school, found a new job last Spring and moved back to the place where she grew up.  We will skip the coincidence that my son bought her house, because that is not today’s story.  Through the magic of Facebook, Michele and I have kept track of each other’s lives.  This summer, she began posting pleas for people to vote with a radio station for one of her former students to attend a Taylor Swift concert.  Jillian was struggling with leukemia and friends hoped that seeing her favorite singer would lift her spirits.  I voted every day, hoping to help a faceless child realize her dream.  In mid-July, I was asked at the last minute to deliver my friend, Nan, to her knee surgery.  Her planned ride had fallen through, as had my trip out of town for sports with my granddaughter.  Nan was taken back to the prep room for outpatient surgery and I sat for a bit in the waiting room.  A young family came in – mother, father, and little girl in a wheelchair.  When they responded to the call for “Jillian,” I had to wonder whether she might be the same little girl.  Not wanting to intrude, I didn’t ask, instead making small talk about not being morning people.  Later, through a mutual friend, I discovered that indeed it was the same girl.  She is in treatment now and having difficulty eating.  Her religious educator, who is my friend, will be delivering dinner to the family this Thursday; and it will include some of the magic yogurt that helped another little girl who was having trouble eating enough calories to keep her healthy.

Did I mention that my friend who will share the yogurt already knew Cheyenne’s daddy when she and I met through our high-school students?

Six degrees.  Sometimes it seems like there are fewer than six.  What are the stories you have to share that remind us not to feel isolated?  What are the tales that show you again and again that we are all connected?  When we share the stories of our six degrees to connection, we are drawn ever closer to the others who share our planet.  The web is always being woven.  Don’t be surprised when a new path opens.  Simply enjoy the journey to the next shared spot where you will meet another member of the family of man.

“We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
   — E. E. Cummings

When I came upon e. e. cummings’ words today, I knew it was a perfect time to talk about encouragement.  Every one of us has people who are part of our lives now, or who were part of our past, who have offered us the encouragement we need to discover that we are capable, worthwhile, and valuable members of society.  Our parents, of course, should be on that list; but even when parents forget to tell us about the beauty that lives inside us, it is inevitable that one day – more, if we are lucky – someone will come along who has the vision to see what is valuable, lasting, and true.

At a very low point in my life, a place I try not to remember too vividly, I had reached out a hand to someone in need.  The service I provided seemed trivial at the time; and in the context of the messages I had been receiving about my own worth, it really seemed without significance.  The recipient of my good deed responded with gratitude, which I suppose we come to expect; but then she took it a step further:  “Thank you,” she said, “that was very generous.”

“Generous?”  Me?  That was generous.  I am generous!  Her words named something deep inside of me, and all the memories of generosity given and received flooded me in that moment.  ‘Yes!’ I thought.  ‘I am generous.’  I had forgotten that, and her kind word redefined me in that moment.  Since that day, I have tried to remember to name the goodness that comes my way.

“Your kindness is so very appreciated.”

“That was a compassionate thing that you did.”

“I feel such gratitude to have you as my friend.”

How remarkable it is to consider the way a well-chosen word might open our eyes to something hidden away deep inside us!  How empowering it is to consider that we, too, can choose to speak the true words of encouragement — those that name the best parts of another person so that they can hear who they are.

Let us be about unleashing the human spirit and letting it shine brightly, right in the light of day.  Let us encourage one another, because we are brothers and sisters.  Let us remember to call forth the very best from each person we meet.