The Seven September Truths

Since I have raised five children, and worked for almost two decades in a public school, I have lived through some ridiculous number of September back-to-school seasons and, I confess, I have always really loved the whole ritual of going back-to-school. Even when I didn’t want summer to end, I still loved the tradition of back-to-school. The newness of it all was always exciting to me: new beginnings, new clothes, the fresh haircuts, new pens, pencils, post-its, seeing all the people, grown-ups and kids alike, that I didn’t even know I missed. It was always a special time of year. And, as you can imagine, I learned a few things along the way that I call The Seven September Truths. I am offering them today as something for you to consider as you begin this New Year.

1.    The child who left school in June is often not the same child who returns in September.  Even though summer may seem like a quick ten weeks, children learn a lot of executive functioning skills in the summer that they do not learn in the classroom, they grow and change physically, mentally, emotionally and they can be very different when they go back-to-school. I don’t care what the previous teacher wrote, what your experience is as the returning teacher, or as the parent who knows the child better than anyone, look for what is different about the child. It’s there. I promise. 

2.    Likewise, by September, you are probably not the same parent, teacher, or professional that you were back in June. At a minimum, you have had a change in schedule, different things to plan for, time to think, time to review, time to recover, time to grow, time to be frustrated over completely different things from the previous school year. That break has likely brought you a host of new ideas and new ways to approach the school year. 

3.    If you do not look carefully, you may miss the growth a child has made over the summer break. Children do not typically notice their own growth and development, so you might have to notice it for them and point it out. For instance, you might have to point out that you are not having that “same old argument” because you are having a whole new argument.  I know this may not be a popular view, but I think when a child gives up a long help position for a new position, it can be progress, especially in kids who can be rigid and resistant to change. It may be useful to point out that you love that the child is picking a new and better argument for the school year. Sometimes this point of view gives children a safe space to consider their own behavior in a unique way.

4.    A new start to the school year gives you a whole new opportunity to establish “team” with children. I really think language defines so much of how we operate and, if you set up a context of team, you are minimizing the division that occurs between teachers and students, parents and children, administrators and the rules. Especially when I am on opposite sides of an issue with a child, parent or professional, I say “I am on your team. We are on the same team.” as often as is appropriate. Verbalizing this is a good reminder to everyone, myself included. 

5.    You are doing your best. The kids are doing their best. I have a friend who has always said, “We make a million decisions a day, most of them are good decisions, so give yourself a break when you make one that is wrong.”  I have heard over and over again that “one oh crap” takes away “ten atta girls” and I vehemently disagree. You are doing your best and I propose that is actually enough. Raising kids is not easy. Teaching is not easy. Working in a school system is not easy. 

6.    Celebrate the small victories along the way. In fact, celebrate every small victory you can, even if you keep score by making hash marks on a post-it. Who cares? Keep track of all the small victories. The small victories are how we make any real progress towards our goals anyway. And be bold about celebrating them!!! Be proud!!! No one can take away your victories!!! 

7.    Stay hydrated and try to see to it that the children stay hydrated. I know, I know. This is so not in line with the rest of what I have written, but I am convinced, absolutely convinced, that much of what we experience as mood disruption, frustration, lack of focus, and so forth, is often related to nutrition in general, specifically not drinking enough water. 

So, there you have it! My Seven September Truths!!! I hope they leave you with ideas to think about, with the clear message of how great you are, and with one more resource for your school year!!!  

Happy New Year!!!

Gone And Now Forgotten

My friends Rhonda and Steve lost their son, David, nine years ago. He died suddenly of cardiac arrest. It was a tragic loss that shook the community much the way an unexpected earth quake does. We were all - David’s friends and peers, Rhonda and Steve’s friends, and every parent who knew them and who ever uttered that fervent prayer, please God, don’t let it be my kid - engulfed in the aftershocks of disbelief. We struggled to get our heads around how this could possibly have happened. David was a great kid, a gifted baseball player, a likely professional baseball draft, and would have been, in a week or so, on his way to a full ride at Seton Hall University. To say that his death was the reversal of everyone’s expectations, is an understatement, to say the least.  

Almost immediately, family and friends did whatever they could to memorialize this kid. David’s friends organized a baseball game in his honor. All the players wore shirts that had Bachner with his jersey number printed on the back. It was a surreal experience walking up to the field, seeing nine players, all dressed in black shirts with David’s name on the back, as though his spirit had returned from the dead and was now masquerading as nine grim reapers who had come to finish this last baseball game. This was the first of many memorial games that would happen over the years. 

David’s sister, Kelly, posted a Facebook collage with pictures of the two of them. That heart wrenching collage featured photo after photo of David through the years, playful as a kid, blond with a huge smile that would melt your heart, but then also the incredible young man he had grown up to be. David’s older step-brother, Rhett, gave the eulogy and there was not a dry eye in the place.  As I said, his death was a horrifying shock, a cruel reminder to all who had children that Death could always show up unexpectedly, none of us were safe. That whole first year was surreal. It was this strange juxtaposition where we all went on with our “normal” lives, until someone remembered or mentioned David, at which point we all slipped back into this weird paralyzing and disorienting fog.

Early on I can remember Rhonda saying that her biggest fear was that people would forget David. Honestly, when she first said that to me, I couldn’t get it. I remember thinking that it was a silly fear. Silly was the adjective that came immediately to my mind. Thank God I had the presence of mind not to actually say that I thought it was a silly fear. I mean, you don’t exactly tell the grieving mother that anything she says or thinks is silly, but, really, I thought it was a silly fear. After all, the kid had an apparel line (Unhittable) created in his memory, a memorial fund to finance little league baseball teams in less affluent areas, a scholarship in his memory, a Facebook page where people would post pictures of themselves in various places across the globe wearing their Unhittable apparel, and there was standing room only at both the one year and two-year remembrance ceremonies. 

As it turns out, Rhonda’s fear was not silly. A year or so ago, I received a hysterical call from Rhonda over the very issue of David being forgotten. As I said, it is nine years since David passed away.  Nine years of holidays without David, nine years of birthdays he wasn’t here to celebrate, nine years of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day that were never quite right because no matter what the other children do, there is one child missing and the missing is what shows up. But this is just the beginning. David’s friends are all now graduating from college, getting engaged and finding jobs and moving to new and exciting areas of the country. They are pursuing their dreams. The number of people who reach out to the Bachners has dropped dramatically.  The people who were like family to them have gone on to have lives that are not available to Rhonda and Steve. They have been busy celebrating graduations and engagements, weddings and the births of their first grandchildren, all things that Rhonda and Steve will never celebrate. In some senses, those people who knew David from the time he was in grade school to the day he died are now, much like David himself, just a beloved memory, collateral damage accrued in the wake of David’s death. 

And it isn’t just David’s friends or the people who were like family to the Bachners that have drifted away, but the rest of the Bachner family has changed since David’s death. Many of the family have created lives that now leave David out, as though in his death his life became invisible. For instance, about a year ago, David’s step-brother, Rhett, and his fiancé were planning their wedding. It was a destination wedding in Mexico and, like many engaged couples, they were attending to every detail, both large and small, to have their wedding be a total reflection of who they are and the future they wanted to create together. In relaying their plans to Rhonda and Steve, they made it clear that that David’s name should not be mentioned at the wedding.  Now, to be fair, Rhett’s mother, who had passed away, was also not being remembered in any way at their wedding, so excluding David was not personal.  Except, that’s the thing. The not including him IS personal to Rhonda and Steve.  They know the boys were close. Rhonda and Steve have no way of pretending that the boys were not close.  They imagine that David might have even been Rhett’s Best Man, and the vision of both boys standing together on such a special day haunts them. They can see how it might have been had David not died, and they can’t un-see it. How it cannot be personal makes no sense to Rhonda and Steve. What’s personal about it is that David has now been relegated to a sort of limbo where there is no defined place in the family for him, so he is left out. 

If I were a betting girl, I would bet that the reason Rhett and his fiancé did not include those who have predeceased them is because, like many people, they felt that including family members who have passed would be sad or would bring a sadness to the event. I think it is typical that we want those days, those precious days that mark milestones in our lives to be filled with happiness and joy. It is a pretty common belief that including the family members who have passed casts a gloomy shadow over what should be an otherwise happy day. I would assert that the exact opposite is true. By including the dead, we create an environment that is a much more accurate representation of who we are, more inclusive, honoring that we are who we are becauseof the relationships we had with those who have gone before us. I can imagine that Rhett’s mother would be thrilled to see him so happy on this day. I can imagine David would be the biggest goof-ball on the planet at his brother’s wedding.  

Somewhere along the way, as a culture, we began to tell ourselves the lie that when we lose someone close to us that we are first sad, then we grieve and then we get over the loss and get on with our lives. There are books and articles written about the Stages of Grief and how we are supposed to pass through those stages on our way to “healing”. Well, here is a heads-up. We never get over the loss of someone we love. We may move beyond the initial shock and numbness and disbelief that tears through us and leaves us raw, but we never get over the loss. In fact, I am not sure why we would even want to “get over” the loss. Why would we want to have lives where we don’t remember people we loved and lost? Is there some benefit to that? Are we less sad if we don’t talk about and include those who have passed away? I have seen no evidence that this is true and, in fact, I would argue that whatever moving on or healing that happens is a direct result of remembering and honoring those we have lost.

Why is it that we frequently honor people we define as heroes, people we never knew, authors, activists, artists, athletes, yet we do not include those we knew and loved intimately in our day-to-day lives? Perhaps it is because we are impacted by the lives of famous heroes, but we are not devasted by their deaths.  Of course, that may be the case only because we have not practiced honoring and including those whose deaths devastated us. We could just as easily celebrate and include our own beloved and have the sadness and devastation give way to their spirit and soul. I also assert that when we seek to “get over”, to not include our loved ones that have passed, that we lose not only what was precious about them, but we lose a piece of ourselves. We are who we are because we have loved, because we have had those relationships, because of all that we experienced before Death comes to claim them. We are who we are because of their deaths and the enormous loss we feel. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.

The memories of those we love are precious and sharing them is a way to stay connected not only to the person but to all who knew the person.  This would take a contextual shift in our view of how we treat our dead, for sure, but it is one worth making. It is a shift that might ultimately serve to apply a salve to relieve some of the pain of a wound that will never heal. Including them allows us to be who we are – our past, our present and our future all woven together like a unique quilt.  Contemporary dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham says “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” When we not only bury the dead, but then also cut them out of our lives, we block their unique expression that cannot exist through any other medium. We lose them, we lose the piece of ourselves that is unique because we loved them. Both those who we have lost, along with precious pieces of ourselves that loved them, are no longer accessible - forgotten, put away, like the good silver and fine china to be brought out once or twice a year, but not to be included in who we are today.  

And, as for people like my friends, Rhonda and Steve, my heart breaks. I imagine that their experience of life is as though a wide net was cast and that net includes a lot of people, places and things, but it does not include them. They are on the outside of the net looking in, smiling, chatting with the people inside the net, attending weddings and showers and parties with people inside the net, but they will never be inside the net again. They are the parents of a dead child. That’s the net they now really belong in, and people not in that particular net, hold them at an arm’s distance. They would rather exchange pleasantries and pretend that that one little defining factor – being a parent to a dead kid - didn’t exist, which is exactly why David is both gone and forgotten. It is also why it is very personal.

The Art of Lying

My mother is not my mother anymore.  It happened shortly after her 90thbirthday, which we celebrated by throwing her a huge party. She was the belle of the ball at that party, and we have pictures of her surrounded by family and friends. Looking back, it was like that scene from Alice in Wonderland, where one moment, Alice is at an engagement party being thrown in her honor and, in the next moment, she has followed a rabbit down the rabbit hole. Like Alice, my mother slipped down a rabbit hole and now remembers her real life only in her dreams. The rest of us, her family and friends, can’t reach really reach her. We are still at the party on the other side.

As a result of having fallen down the rabbit hole, my mom has become one of those elderly people who asks the same question over and over again. In the beginning, my brother and I used to try to get her to see that she was repeating herself, but eventually we came to understand that, as the Alzheimer’s had progressed, she had become a prisoner trapped in some alternate reality.  Her repeated questions may be her only way of reaching out, her way of staying connected to us. We are the only remaining evidence of the life she created for herself.

Eventually, we learned two essential communication skills that helped us reach through to my mother: Improvisational conversation and lying.  We had never thought of lying as a communication skill.  Once we were adults, my brother and I never kept things from my mom. No matter what happened in the family, we told her the truth. It was one of the things on which we used to pride ourselves. I’ll never forget the day we were discussing how to tell her about a change we were making to her estate, when the attorney stopped us dead in our tracks. 

“Why on earth are you even considering telling your mother about the changes in her estate? That is not the kind of conversation your mother needs right now.” She was looking at us in a way that commanded attention, the experience thrusting us back to our childhood when we would occasionally be reprimanded by Sister Superior, the principal in the Catholic grade school my brother and I had attended. 

We were shocked. “Look, we always tell her the truth. We really don’t keep information from her. She was always really worried that she would get cut out of what is going on in the family, so we promised to always tell her the truth.”  I am silently reviewing the Ten Commandments trying to remember which one is “Thou shalt not lie” so I can offer it up as divine evidence if needed.

“Okay, look,” she said, and I could tell already that whatever number it was, “Thou shalt not lie” was not going to hold any weight with our attorney, “I appreciate that your family has this huge commitment to the truth. It’s admirable. Very virtuous. AND, you need to cut that out right now. Those days are gone. The truth works for you two, but it doesn’t work for your mom. She is unlikely to correctly remember what you tell her. If she becomes upset and confused, it may be hard for her to explain what is going on to her caregivers. It’s a set up for her. From now on, you lie to her and tell her only happy things.”

Honestly, we didn’t believe her. We questioned her credibility as an attorney and wondered how on earth she could practice law while advising people to lie.  We had previously thought of our attorney as being above reproach, the most ethical person we know, a warrior for all kinds of people in vulnerable life situations, our family’s consigliere for years, and yet here she was advising us, in fact insisting, that we lie to our mother. It turns out that was really solid advice. Shortly after that conversation, my brother and I began to get what we now refer to as “dead relative” calls. 

“Donna? It’s me.” 

“Hi, Mom. What’s going on?”

“Listen, your brother said that Barry died and I cannot believe you didn’t tell me. How did he die? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, mom,” I say as gently as I can, “We did tell you. In fact, we were all at the funeral.  He had been sick for a few years and he eventually passed away. It was just last month.”

“Are YOU telling ME that he’s been dead a month and you didn’t tell me?”

“We DID tell you, Mom. We all went to the funeral together.” 

“Don’t you lie to me!!!!” she screamed into the phone, furious at being kept in the dark.  “You didn’t tell me he died. You think I wouldn’t remember going to that funeral? You think I don’t know you’re lying? I know!!!! I know what you are doing.” And with that, she hung up the phone. I was left staring at the empty receiver haunted by the last thing our beloved attorney said to us, “From now on you lie and tell her only happy things.” 

My brother and I had to actually practice lying to her. Something would happen, some relative or friend of hers would die, or someone would be sick, and we would have to call each other up, come up with the story we were going to tell her and then tell that story over and over again until we had the facts right. My mother could no longer process new information. She was often confused and as a result upset. We had been hoodwinked by this vicious disease. Eventually we became masterful liars. These days we do almost nothing but lie to her. Lying, as it turns out, is access to the rabbit hole. 

The improvisational conversation was a much easier pill to swallow. Since my mother asks the same two or three predictable questions, we decided to make a game out of it. We would answer each time as though it was the first time the question was being asked and as though it were the most important question of the day. The game had one rule - we could not duplicate an answer. 

“Is it going to rain?” This is her most reliable question.

“I don’t think so, Mom.” We always go for the easy answers as a warm up exercise.

Ten minutes later, “Is it going to rain?” 

“You know, it looked like it earlier today, but it seems to have cleared up.” 

Another ten minutes goes by. “Is it going to rain?” 

“Do you know that they are reporting that this has been the wettest NJ winter in about 25 years, but it doesn’t seem like it is going to rain today.”

Once again, “Is it going to rain?”

“Mom, cats and dogs!!!! It is going to rain cats and dogs all night long!!! I am just praying for thunder and lightening. I love a good thunder storm. Do you?”

We sometimes do this for hours and hours at a time. These days my brother and I pray for the rain conversation because it is easier than answering questions about relatives that have long since passed, but who my mother wants to visit. She worries that my Uncle Pete, who passed away seven years ago, hasn’t been to visit her. She gets upset that she hasn’t seen him, she thinks he is sick and we are keeping the sickness from her. We gently remind her that he passed away. She thinks she missed the funeral and begins to cry. We tell her, no, she didn’t miss it, she was there, that she sent flowers that said “Bella de Sorella.” Then she wants to know why my Uncle Pete died and left her here “all alone.” One of the many unanswerable questions that comes along with “dead relative” conversations. You can see why we pray for rain conversations, even though they are conversations that go nowhere.

Other lies included behaviors on our part that were specifically designed to protect my mother’s dignity.  I remember days when my mother would come to visit and we would have dinner and then, 30 minutes later, she would ask when we would be eating dinner. We would, in the name of protecting her dignity, re-set the table, drag leftovers out of the fridge, and eat dinner all over again. One time we did that three times in an afternoon, all in order to preserve her dignity. Had we told her the truth, she wouldn’t have believed it. But, even more than that, I could not bear the heartache of actually saying the truth out loud. 

I would do anything to have spared my mother this life. I want her to be remembered for the countless lives she touched, for being a trail blazer in so many areas of her life, living through the heartbreak of divorce in the early 70’s and not letting that divorce define her. I want her to be remembered for making the best eggplant parmesan, for teaching us all how to make Italian Christmas cookies, and for desserts that almost always had Jello, coconut and cool whip.

I hope that, when I am older, I am spared having to walk down this path. I don’t want my children and grandchildren to have to lie to me and worry about preserving my dignity. I want them to remember me as the second generation of women in their family who created magic and miracles. I want them to say that I traveled and I wrote and made things beautiful. I hope they say that I was a strong influence because my mother who raised me was also a strong influence, as was her mother before her. I want to be remembered as the person who threw the party, not someone who ended up watching the garden party from the rabbit hole. 

July 4th - What It Means To Belong

Today is July 4th, Independence Day here in America.  I am one of the lucky people that doesn’t have to work today, but I did get up and go to my 5am exercise class. Mostly when people discover that I work out at 5AM, they have some comment about how early that is to work out. They point out that, in order to go to a 5am class, you have to get up when the first number on the clock is a 4. I nod. It’s true. You do have to get up when the first number is a 4 in order to have time to pry open your eyes, roll out of bed, put on your clothes, fill your water bottle, get in the car and drive to class. And, just to be crystal clear about it, never, not even one time in my whole entire life, has that alarm gone off and I have had the thought “Hurray! Time to work out!” Never. 

Nonetheless, there I was at 5am, really tired but ready to work out. The question is why? Why get up on my day off to work out? Why work out at 5am when I almost never actually need to be up that early to do the rest of my life. The answer is simple. My tribe is the 5am tribe. I work out with the other lunatics that somehow decided that they are 5am people. Almost all of us could work out at one of the evening classes, but we don’t; we work out in the mornings at 5 am when the rest of our tribe works out. We belong together. We are the 5am Max Fitness tribe. 

The 5am tribe is not the 20-something crew. Heck, by and large, we are not 30-something either. While some may be the 40-something crew, truth be told, many of us are 50-something. I would also say that the 5 am tribe are not the most likely group to be photographed for fitness apparel ads. We are the t-shirt and shorts crew. There is little chance that we will be sought after by choreographers because of our amazing coordination. And, while there is the occasional class member who kills it in class, doing all the moves, and keeping up with the instructor, most of us are the need-for-modification group. But there is something about this group that belongs together. We show up, work out and do our best – every day, Monday through Friday. And I love that so much. 

I am grateful to be part of a Tribe where the message is “You are okay. Just keep showing up. Do your best. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does, you do your best.” The message is one of belonging. Our instructor is clear. He gives the same message every day, over and over. You are okay. Just do your best. You belong here. I wonder what it would be like if each and every child came into the world given the message that they are okay, that it doesn’t matter what anyone else does, to just do their best, that they belong. And then I wonder what it would be like if, instead of listening to the voice of the inner critic that so many of us have in our own heads, we had a replacement voice that said that it’s okay not to be perfect, we are all doing our best, to keep showing up. And I have to wonder, given it is Independence Day and all, how very different our country would be if that was the message we got from the leaders in our country. “You are okay. Just keep showing up. Do your best. You belong here.” 

A Look At, A Look Back, A Look Ahead

My mother is in an “Assisted Living” facility. In case you didn’t know, that is the new term for nursing homes. Well, they do still have actual facilities that they call nursing homes, but the criteria to be in a nursing home is now closer to the criteria to be in hospice. In assisted living facilities, the level of care is on the upswing, while the degree of independent functioning for the residents is on the downswing. Even among the various assisted living facilities, there are amany of levels of functioning, but, largely speaking, they are places where you go when you need more care than your family feels comfortable providing. My mother is in a memory care assisted living facility which means that all of the residents in her facility have Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.   

For all intents and purposes, my mother is hardly my mother anymore. She now spends most of her days in a wheelchair; even small amounts of walking can be hard for her. She can sometimes not get her left leg to take even the smallest step and her body moves as though she were one of those old-fashioned dolls whose legs bend only at the hip. Her hair, which was always meticulously styled, professionally done each week and held in place by a half of can of hairspray, is now mostly limp and combed out. She herself combs it out because, when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t like how her hair looks, but she also doesn’t realize that combing it out is what makes it look that way. My mother’s clothes, once ironed before she even thought about wearing them, are now clean, but often rumpled looking. Obviously, she doesn’t cook or do any of the things she used to do when she was more independent and living alone. She is like a ghost of the person she used to be.

It’s really hard for me to visit with her. I am not much for small talk and I don’t have stories with which to entertain her and the other nearby residents. My brother, on the other hand, is a one-man stand-up comedian. He is the life of the Assisted Living party. He tells them all stories from when he worked as a postal worker in downtown Trenton. He delivered mail to all of the big law firms and higher-end restaurants and took really good care of the people on his route. As a result, they took good care of him as well, often giving him VIP treatment at their establishments, including him in their social events and so forth. Even now, if we are out with my brother, it is like being out with the mayor. He always knows someone or someone always knows him. He has a million stories to tell and I can’t seem to come up with even one.

When my brother has been there, the staff all tell me how great he is and how entertaining he was during his visit. He must not see what I see or he must be better at operating on top of how disturbing it is. Almost all of the residents are only half awake, some actually dozing off and snoring quite loudly before the Activities Director wakes them up. Some follow along with her with watchful eyes, unable, I guess, to interact but still wanting to be a part of what is happening. The last time I was there, the resident sitting next to me was awake and her middle-aged son sat in the chair next to her sound asleep. When she needed help getting to the ladies’ room, I got an aid for her; no use disturbing the sleeping visitor. 

I was there on Sunday this week and the residents were all gathered in one room, in something of a circle. There was the Activities Director that, on the weekends, doubles as the administrator, aid to residents who have to use the bathroom, assistant to those who need help eating, and anything else just short chief cook and bottle washer. She is very sweet and very young, but she is also very skilled. She leads the residents in singing old-time folk songs and songs that they all know by heart. She wakes them up if they are sleeping, encouraging them to join in the sing-a-long. Sometimes one of the residents is grouchy with her, but she pretends that the grouchy comment is a positive interaction, and just continues on as though the comment was all part of the plan. It’s impressive, a cross between circle-time for the elderly and improv at old-folks-home. 

When I go I am torn between bringing my laptop and getting some work done while my mom naps next to me, or the continuous task of waking her up during an activity in which I am participating more than she is. It depends a little bit on the activity; I like some better than others. I am not that big on the sing-a-longs, although I try to get my mother to participate in them because she was a big sing-a-long person and has a beautiful voice. If they are playing trivia, it is much harder for me  to be quiet because I know all the answers and I want to call them out before the residents. My competitive edge has very little empathy for anyone, the elderly and memory challenged included. If there is BINGO, I am all in because I love BINGO. In the end, however, any way you look at it, it is torture. 

I cannot believe that this is now my mother’s life. It wasn’t that long ago that she was making soup with me in my kitchen. Even long after she was living in an assisted living setting, she could help me cook and fold clothes and could have some conversation. It is all so sad now and I am not sure what to do with the sadness. And there is the sadness that is expected, the loss of memory and mobility and overall functioning, but there are also so many unexpected losses that I cannot reconcile, and those are the ones that most haunt me. For instance, for years we would have my mother to our house on Sunday and I can remember feeling like I myself never had a free weekend. I worked Monday through Saturday and then spent all day Sunday with my mom at my house. The problem was I never really had a day to do something special, or a day to do just nothing at all. I didn’t appreciate then that these Sundays would someday not be at my house where we could cook and talk and do “regular stuff,” but that they would transition to being at a facility where my mother struggles to remember not only how to do the simplest tasks, but to remember who I am and how I am related to her. I also didn’t appreciate how many years my mother was really struggling to be “normal.” If I had, I would have been, I don’t know, softer, less harried, perhaps having done more with her. I don’t know. As you can see, it is a haunting feeling to now be Monday morning quarterbacking all of this.  

Her friend group which consisted of a large number of women who all worshipped together, volunteered together, and did other social things together, are now all absent from her life. I cannot believe that all of her so-called-friends were, in the end, fair weather friends.  Not even one of them comes to visit her. Not. Even. One. And she did so much for so many of them for years and years. She drove so many of them to appointments, or did light shopping for them, or brought them communion, or just sat with them. She was a caretaker for sure. One of the women in the group sends out these emails that list the activities that they can all do each week and they go about their lives, having fun, bowling, volunteering and all of that. I want to weep. Well, I want to scream and THEN I want to weep. I guess they stay busy and they do not take care of each other in the way that my mother used to take care of people. I guess they are a good-time-friend group, meaning that they are there to share the good times and if you happen to run among bad times, that you then become the custody of your family. I asked the emailer about it once and she said, “I wish we were better at visiting when people are sick but we are just not good at that.” I resisted the temptation to say “What the fuck?” because it was a rhetorical question for which I didn’t really want an answer. I thought about pointing out that it would take nothing more than for her to list “visit Annie” on her long list of weekly activities for them to “be better at it,” but I was hesitant to say anything. I think their hearts are two sizes too small. Or maybe, on the subject of my mother’s so-called-friends, MY heart is two sizes too small. I wish them all friends like themselves when they are older and find themselves alone. 

I am most angry at her church. Her church where she was a “pillar in the community” couldn’t care less about her because she has nothing to give to them. I really thought that someone from the church would be there when my mom needed them. My mother was a Eucharistic minister, a member of the Rosary Alter Society, a member of the Prayer Group, the leader of the parish Prayer circle and attended both the reciting of the rosary and mass every day, and sometimes twice a day. She had a key to lock and unlock the church and, if I had a nickel for every time some bullshit, con-artist priest told me that my mother was a “pillar” in the parish community, I could pay next month’s rent. Now I am not sure why I am so surprised that a church that denied and covered up the sexual abuse and exploitation of children for the past century would be somehow different to an elderly member with failing health, but I did think it would be different. A few months ago, my mother was on this kick of asking me why no one from her church came to visit her.  For weeks and weeks, I skirted the issue the best I could and then, finally, when I was out of all the generous comments I could think of, I called the church and asked THEM what I should tell my mother. 

“Hi, this is Donna Ritz, Anne’s daughter. I am looking for guidance.”

“What can I do?” the response from an unsuspecting secretary.

“Well, my mother was a member of the parish for 65 years and she is now in an Assisted Living facility and she keeps asking me why no one from the parish comes to visit her and I am not sure what I should tell her.” 

Crickets.

“Well, you know, the priests are very busy here and they do their best.” 

I take big deep breaths. I think about what I want to say. I go slowly because I don’t want to give them even one negative thing to say, but I am not much of a back-down kind of girl either.

“Oh, of course. I am sure they are. Just tell me what to tell my mom. I think that because she raised her family at the parish, was a Eucharistic minister, brought communion to the sick, served on the Alter Rosary Society, was a member of the prayer group and the person who coordinated the prayer circle, she is confused about why no one from St. Raphael’s has had time for the past three years. I just want to know what you would like me to say. I will tell her anything you want, but I am just not sure what you want me to tell her.” 

“Would you like me to put in a request for a priest to visit?” 

“Why, yes. That would be lovely. Perhaps then the priest could explain to her why no one comes to visit her.”

“I’ll put in a request for Father Gene.”

“Thanks. That’s great. I appreciate it so much.” 

So, sure enough, Father Gene came to visit exactly one time. One time. And, rookie that I am, I was still shocked about it. Man, these Catholics. As much as they are about morality and shame, you cannot even shame them into doing the right thing! After all, they are busy. By the way, I also called another church that my mother frequented and asked them if someone from the church might come out and pray with my mom.

“Of course,” the response from St. Greg’s secretary.

“It doesn’t even have to be an adult,” I hasten to add, feeling desperate and conscious that I am asking for a favor from a church that has an enormous number of parishioners, “maybe there is a student who needs community service hours. My mother will pray with anyone.” 

“Don’t be silly! I am sending clergy! It’s their job to minister to the sick.” 

Crickets. This time on my end because I cannot manage to speak past the tears that are lodged in my throat. 

“Thank you,” I finally get out, “You have no idea what this means to us.”

“It’s why we are here! No problem at all.” 

Happy Father's Day

Father’s Day is the day each year that people generally celebrate, honor, ignore or otherwise think about their relationship with their father. I think about my dad all the time, but, honestly, for the majority of my life, he was not a contender for Father of the Year. He was a chameleon, telling whomever he was with whatever they needed to hear. You can imagine this caused no small amount of difficulty with his relationships, especially the one between his new wife and his children.  With no apparent warning, my father left home one cold January day and never returned. He and my mother’s best friend decided that they were so in love that they couldn’t stand to be without each other, so they packed up, left their families and moved to Florida. For the next 42 years, my father lived with that decision and the best way he could deal with it was to live like a chameleon. He would tell my brother and I whatever would make us happy and, once our visit ended, he would tell his new wife whatever made her happy. It was, for all intents and purposes, crazy making for everyone.

And, yet, before he and the new wife took off, there were eleven years where he really was the best father ever. There are fourteen years between my brother and me, so to say that I was a surprise is an understatement. I was very wanted, but, frankly, they had given up all hope of a second child. Enter moi!!! My parents were over the hill excited about having another child and, as my mother tells the story, she didn’t think they could ever be lucky enough to have a girl. All this to say, I was the most exciting thing that happened to my parents in the 1950’s. 

And, breaking all stereotypes of fathers during that era, my father was very involved in having and raising children. My brother was a musician and he and his band were picked to audition for American Bandstand, which was a pretty big rock and roll show out of Philadelphia. It was a huge deal for these small-town boys. My father went to pick my brother up at the Catholic school that my brother attended, and the reigning monsignor informed my father that leaving school to audition for American Bandstand was not an excusable absence and that he, my dad that is, was not allowed to take my brother.  God bless my father. As politely as possible, Dad told the monsignor that he could not care less what was or was not an excusable absence in the eyes of God because my brother was going to leave the school, get in the car and go to Philly to audition for American Bandstand. 

I remember another time when my dad did a really adorable-dad-thing. It was the late 60’s, when pony holder hair ties had just hit the market, and I was very eager to get a pack. Prior to this, we all used rubber bands to hold up our pony tails, so the invention of the pony holder hair tie was a big deal. Plus, my friends and I went to Catholic school where we wore uniforms which meant that anything we could wear that was an allowed accessory to the uniform was rare. The pony holder hair tie, with those two plastic beads on each end was an allowable exception.  My dad had worked all night and when he came home I was telling him about the pony holder hair ties and how much I wanted them. Pony holder hair ties are a common item these days, but you have to remember, this is back in the day when we had three choices for hold up our hair: rubber bands, barrettes and bobby pins. Pony holders were the brand-new thing on the market. 

I did my best to describe them. “It’s like a rubber band, but not a rubber band, and it is shaped like a long figure 8, and it has a piece of metal in the middle to clasp it closed, and a bead on each end.”

My father just looked back at me as though I were speaking Greek. “Where do you get them?” he asked, hoping for a hint that might provide clarity. 

What did I know? I was a kid. And it was not like today where every corner has a CVS, Rite-Aid and Walgreens, followed by big box stores within ten miles of each other. We had two local shopping choices – the small food market down the road and the Two-guys Department Store in the next town. On the topic of these pony holders, my dad and I were the blind leading the blind.

Sure enough, school dismissed and my dad picked me up in his old beat up Ford Falcon so I didn’t have to take the bus and walk home in the freezing cold. When I got in the car, I had forgotten about the confusing conversation from that morning, but then I saw my dad reach up to the visor and pull out a pack of the coveted pony holders. 

“You got them!!! You found them!!!! You got them!!!” 

I was so excited. I couldn’t believe it. It was the best day ever. It turns out that after I left for school, my dad slept just long enough to be sure he had time to go to Two-Guys where he found some lady who worked there and described our conversation to her. Of course, she knew exactly what I wanted and directed him to the correct department. He really was my hero. 

There are many examples of his being Father of the Year before he left home. Any time the ice was solid and safe enough, he would take me to the lake by our house to ice skate. He taught me to skate, to do figure 8’s, to skate on one foot, to cross one foot over the other. He taught me to swim and to dive. He taught me to ride a bike. He was my brother’s biggest fan, always supporting his music career, providing a car for him to get to performances, teaching him to fish and hunt, how to use tools and fix things around the house. My brother was in Viet Nam for 13 months and my father wrote to him every single day that he was there. Every single day. And that is to say nothing of the packages of pepperoni and other dry goods he mailed frequently. My dad was a blue-collar worker who really created a life that was the envy of many of our relatives – the living, breathing example of hard work paying off. 

And then, as my mother likes to say, he went crazy and left home. He always said it was the worst decision he ever made and that he regretted it forever. He said he wanted to change his mind at the last minute, but the new wife threatened to tell everything and the shame and humiliation was too much for him to bear. Who knows if any of that is true? And, at this point, it hardly matters. What does matter is that he was here, he left us with a lot of good years, with a lot of good memories, with an excellent example of what love looks like and what it doesn’t look like. 

Happy Father’s Day, Pop! You are finally free. I love you. Rest in peace. 

The Loss of Not Knowing

“I just want to know what happened. I want to know what we did that was so wrong.” I have heard these words over and over again. I am a social worker and I have a private practice and I often work with people who have experienced grief and loss. These particular clients, a really lovely Puerto Rican couple who have lived in New Jersey for the past thirty years or so, are tortured by the relationship between them and their eldest son. Their eldest son, Roberto, Bert for short, is one of three children in their family. He is 37 years old, his younger sister is 34 and their baby brother is 30. According to my clients, Rick and Natalie, they had at one time been very close with all three of their children, but over the past five years the relationship with Bert has gotten more and more distant, until, late last year, there was a misunderstanding that made Bert really angry. Natalie and Rick attempted to talk it through with him, but Bert declined saying that, as far as he was concerned, the relationship between them had been a “shit show” for years. Natalie was stunned to hear this and she has been replaying this phrase over and over ever since. 

Bert and his wife, Lois, have been married almost a decade now.  They have two small children, a boy, Ricardo, 7 years old and a daughter, Julia, almost five years old. According to Rick, after Bert and Lois were married, Lois’ family became the primary family, although Bert did still make time to see his parents. Once they had children, however, Bert and Lois were so busy, so overwhelmed, that they had time for themselves only and, when they had any spare time, they went to Lois’ family. Rick said they made every effort to see Bert and Lois and the kids, but Bert always said the same thing, “I am so busy at work and if I had any spare time I would spend it with my wife, not my parents.” It was a slap in the face every time Bert said it to Rick; but it didn’t stop Rick from inviting Bert, Bert and Lois, Bert and his family to visit. Lois, who works as a Yoga teacher and runs a meditation and wellness studio, remains cool and aloof, offering nothing in the relationship. Natalie hypothesizes that, if asked, Lois would say that it is Bert’s family and “talk stupid talk like boundary issues, whatever that means when it is your son!”

“Why should Lois care?” Natalie asks through her tears, “She HAS her family, they go to her family, she’s lost nothing. We’ve lost our son, our grandchildren!” 

I work with a lot of people who have experienced losses and who are grieving their loss. I have a particular interest in what I call ambivalent loss, which is a loss that is discounted by society and often not widely recognized as loss. For instance, I have had no small number of pet owners who have said that their pet was like a child to them and that they cannot get over the loss. Now, you would never say that to a parent who has lost a child, but that is sometimes the experience for people who have lost a pet. There are other examples as well. For instance, I know a man who is a personal trainer and owns his own gym facility. He was in an accident and has limited ability to raise one of his arms over his head; yet, people look at him, his enviable body, his good looks, his obvious business success and encourage him to count his blessings. For him, that restriction is a huge loss and he lives with it every day. Ambivalent losses are most identifiable whenever people are encouraged to look at the bright side, eg: you can always get another dog, thank goodness things weren’t worse, at least you walked away alive, you have your health, and other phrases that are experienced as invalidating and insensitive. 

For Rick and Natalie, I confess, I have nothing. Really nothing. They have been, for all intents and purposes, ghosted by their son. They have been written out of his life, allowed in only when absolutely necessary and, as Rick and Natalie point out, when it would be odd for them to not be in attendance or when the explanation of why they are not included would be too difficult. They get invited to anything involving the children where Lois’ parents would be there and it would be odd for Rick and Natalie to not be in attendance: the children’s birthday parties, Julia’s dance recitals, Riccardo’s violin concerts. Bert and his family will attend two family get-togethers per year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other than that, Rick and Natalie have been are largely erased from their son’s life, “put out like the trash,” as Natalie likes to say.  

I have asked them to tell me if they can imagine what might have happened. They have no idea what happened to have gotten them so marginalized when Bert’s children were born and for all of those years between then and the most recent upset, but they do have a sense of what happened most recently that made Bert so angry. Apparently, Rick has a brother who is fairly disabled and has been for a number of years. Rick and his sister are their brother’s caregivers, although the brother does live in a nursing home, so they are not responsible for the day to day daily living needs. This past holiday season, Rick’s brother suffered a series of mini strokes which required Rick and his sister to be more involved in some hands-on details of the brother’s life. Also, during this time, Natalie’s and her family were moving their mother from her house where they had all grown up, to a senior living facility, so Natalie was busy flying back and forth to Texas, where her mother and her siblings all live. Bert and Lois open their house for Bert’s family to celebrate Christmas a few days before the holiday, but the understanding is that they provide the house, not the food.  Rick and Natalie had been invited to the pot luck Christmas gathering that Bert and Lois were hosting and, exhausted from the care of both family members, they did not bring a dish to share. According to Natalie, she and Rick had hosted all family gatherings for all of the children for years and years and only recently are the children now beginning to host holidays. She felt that it would not be a big deal if they didn’t bring a dish to share. They had not RSVP’d that they would be bringing something, so they figured that Bert and Lois understood that they would arrive empty handed. Bert was furious that they arrived empty handed and pulled his mother into a quiet place to let her know just how mad he was. Natalie was shocked. She was shocked that their arriving empty handed was that big an issue, she was shocked at the lack of compassion that their son had for the situation that had them arrive empty handed, and shocked that Bert would pull her aside in the middle of a get together to reprimand her as though she were one of his workplace subordinates. 

Natalie has been crying about this ever since. Wondering if there were financial issues in Bert’s family, I asked if the event was a pot luck to relieve the pressure of Bert’s family having to shoulder all the expenses. Rick said that it was a pot luck because all of the family are foodies and they all love to cook. “Besides”, he went on, “my son has enough money to buy Miami. The problem is that his heart is two sizes too small! He had depended on people bringing food and what happened was that he had his family, my daughter and her family of five, and us all there with no appetizers and no main course. He was embarrassed. He had a house full of people and no food. My other son, who was bringing a rice and chicken dish, hadn’t arrived, so we were all standing around looking at each other.”

“We would never entertain that way,” Natalie piped in, “We taught him better than that! Even if we were having a pot luck, we would be sure to put out appetizers or something to hold people over before the main course arrived. We always have more food than we need. We are Puerto Rican. That’s how we are. We make too much food and we feed people. Rick is right. My son’s heart is two sizes too small. How dare he host and provide nothing but his house!” 

I am at a loss for what to offer these kind people.  I can sit with them and witness their pain, but I have no explanation that will soothe their hurt. According to Rick, their son has declined to talk about any of this, claiming “it isn’t worth it.” When I ask what the other children have to say on the topic, Natalie says that, when she told her daughter about it, that her daughter just laughed and said, “Mom, join the crowd. He wrote the rest of us off years ago. You are just the last ones to go. It sucks. Get over it.” And, even though I do not have much to offer, I do understand the dynamic. I really do. My mother used to say “A son is a son ‘til he takes a wife; a daughter is a daughter all of your life.” I don’t tell Rick and Natalie this little tid-bit, but instead we start to build the next stage of their family from scratch. Starting with the children they do see, and the grandchildren they adore, they begin to plan for a cookout to celebrate the fourth of July. 

“It won’t be the same…” Natalie says, kind of like the last nod to the old as we create the new.

“It won’t,” I reply.

“It never will.” 

“Never is a long time. Maybe just plan this one event.” 

Turning to Rick, Natalie askes, “Papi, you think Rosalie’s children are old enough to help make the mofongo? Maybe they can come early and we can do that with them. Just us, without the parents.” 

“Ah!” Rick exclaims putting his hand on his forehead. “Again with the mofongo! You know your mother’s recipe is not the best. They can come only if we use my mother’s recipe!!!” 

“Your mother’s recipe is too heavy!!! I’ll invite them. It will be fun.” 

Something has shifted for them. Natalie smiles at me, not like the grief is over, not like this won’t always be sad, but that the sadness can exist alongside of the next chapter. 

The Addiction of Comparison

I am a huge Brene Brown fan. If you do not know who Brene Brown is, she is a Social Worker who is also a researcher and storyteller. Her research has had the issues of shame and vulnerability become a much-needed public conversation. I highly recommend any of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness, The Power of Vulnerability, along with her many workshops have provide us with important and valuable work. I have read everything she has ever written and I follow her on all of her social media platforms. And while she has said many, many brilliant and noteworthy things, one of the things she says that stands out most to me is that “comparison kills creativity and joy.” And, for whatever reason, I am seeing comparison all over the place these days and it is nowhere as rampant as it is with mothers raising young children.

I am a social worker and I have a private practice where I see a lot of mothers of young children. Additionally, I have friends who are mothers, my daughter and daughter-in-law are both mothers, not to mention that you can find media images portraying what mothers and children look like all over. The demands on these women are enormous. Now, as a caveat, I am not suggesting that there are not high demands on fathers, just that this piece is about mothers. All of the women I know who are raising children are working mothers. They are all very invested in their careers, meaning that they take pride in their work, and want to do the best job they can do. They also care very deeply about raising children who learn what is important in life. They want their children to have a strong relationship to personal and systemic integrity, they want them to value family and friends, to know right from wrong, to play nicely in the sandbox and all of that. They are also invested in their houses, so they like them to be clean, at least some of the time, with the laundry done, again, at least now and again. They also cook or have some plan to put something on the table or otherwise feed their kids three times a day. And, by the way, those careers, that house cleaning, the cooking, the teaching of values all happens amid things like dancing, gymnastics, scouting, religious education, braiding hair, tying shoes, calling the plumber, dropping off dry cleaning, seeing other family members, birthday parties, just to name a few extra-curricular parenting activities. 

Pick one. Any ONE of those things is a full-time job and, while I think we would all say that we know that, we say it in passing. Or we say it dismissively, but I am proposing that we stop and look at the insane demands we put on working mothers who are raising children. Said another way, the demands that we have on working mothers are the demands they have inherited and are largely fueled by comparison. I think women of my generation integrated the demands of our mothers’ generation, then added to it the social-political demands of our own generation, including both working and parenting full time, and then passed those demands on to our daughter, the next generation of mothers. And it may be that they are not even comparing themselves to other mothers but the ideal of mothering that they have in their heads. The idea of what a house with two (or more) kids should look like. What a healthy meal for a family should look like and so forth. I hear it all the time. 

One young mother I know is surrounded by other mothers whose children are several years older than her newborn. She is breast feeding and has returned to work, which requires her to take time out of her day to pump and then refrigerate the milk. She has had to justify this commitment over and over again. Her co-workers have had multiple conversations with her about how much easier her life would be if she would “just switch to formula” because, after all, “formula has been around for years” and it is “just as good as breast feeding.” She has fallen victim to the comparison of the breast-versus-bottle-feeding conversation, but honestly, I cannot imagine why anyone would care how someone else decides to feed their infant. And I do not think they are bad people. I think they are people who view life through the context of comparison. This versus that. Good enough, not good enough. 

Comparison is a national addiction in the United States. It starts innocently enough. The road to the addition of comparing starts, I think, under the umbrella of learning. I am one of those people who likes hand lettering and I have an artistic style to writing letters. Letters I send, almost exclusively written by hand, also involve the use of different color pens and markers, little squiggly circles and so forth. My grandchildren and every child I have ever known under 10 years old, loves to get letters from me because they are so whimsical. Each child who writes back typically mimics my style when they write back. They copy it as a way of finding their own self-expression. And we learn lots of things that way, by finding someone who does it better, and copying their style until we find our own expression of the thing we want to learn. Innocent enough. But I assert that, at some point in the learning, we combine other messages that we pick up along the way, and we go from learning and growing to comparing and being critical of our achievement. And it takes almost no time at all before children are comparing themselves to each other, deciding how they are measuring up, or not. I recently heard that some insanely high number of fourth grade girls are dieting because they don’t like how they look. 

In another instance, I called a friend who, again, is a working mother, has a career and all the above-mentioned things in her life. I wanted to know if her son could check our mail while we were away for a weekend. She didn’t return my call. Almost a month or so later, I ran into her at the super market and she was mortified that she didn’t return my call. I reassured her that it was really no big thing for me. Really. I understood when I made the call that her life is really busy and, had I really wanted to get her, I could have a) called back, b) texted, c) emailed her or d) dropped over to her house. She lives within walking distance. Also, I reminded her that she had answered three other questions I needed answered when we had just moved to the area, but she was having none of it. She insisted that not calling back was a “shitty thing to do.” I love that she cared about how I might have felt that she didn’t call me back. I love that she has those values. I hate that she has turned them on herself. The addiction of comparison. Unstated but implied, good people return calls promptly and it is “a shitty thing” to not return a friend’s call. 

I have example after example of how young mothers hold themselves to a higher standard than is even humanly possible to achieve. I think it is an addiction that, as far as I can see, has not skipped a generation in many, many generations. It is this compulsive thing we as woman have that is like a hungry beast that keeps eating its way through our lives. It is fueled by the generations that have come before us, every time we turn on a TV, radio, podcast or drive by a billboard. It is fueled in conversations we have with each other. It is fueled by unreasonable expectations in the workplace. It is fueled by punitive measures that are imposed if we are not perfect in our jobs. It is fueled by the friends we lose when we do not meet perfect-friend criteria. 

A lot of the women I see in my practice long for a better life because they think the one they have is too painful. In many cases, these women are trauma survivors or have otherwise experienced great loss. But it isn’t just that, as if “just that” isn’t enough, it is that there is an expectation imposed as well. They should be different. They should be better mothers. They should be functioning better in the world. They should feel better, eat better, exercise more, read more and so on and so forth. It is insane. The addictive quality of comparison is just insane- and insidious. 

Comparison kills creativity and joy. Brene Brown couldn’t have been clearer about this. So, this piece is for all the women I know who are raising children. In fact, it is for every woman I know, raising children or not. You are enough. There really is no perfect out there. It is a lie. It was always a lie. It was meant to serve us as a standard, but it turned into a lie. You are enough. If you want to improve some quality in your life or about your life, please do it because it makes you happy, really makes YOU happy, not that it makes you happy to have reached the inherited gold standard. You already have a gold star for being you. Let’s have being you, unadulterated, unapologetic, unfiltered you be the standard. 

 

The Crisis of School Shootings

According to CNN, in the United States there has been an average of one school shooting per week since January 2018. One. School. Shooting. Per. Week. I want to scream!!! And as horrible as that is, what I think is so much worse is that, as far as I can tell, we, the citizens of the US, have become immune to it. We are accepting this as a way of life now, making Oh-how-horrible comments and then moving on to what’s next in our lives?

Let me ask you something. Humor me for a moment. If I said to you, I am going to put a gun to your child’s head, to your grandchild’s head, to the head of some child you know, would you just ignore me? If I showed up at your house, a place where you believe your child is safe, gun in hand, would you ignore me? What if it were your child that was shot? The outrage of these shootings is being lost on the citizens of the United States, and I am not sure why. Are we so distracted by the insanity of the United States politics that we are not dialed in that children are being shot? Are we busy with entertainment TV that we think someone else will handle it? Are we, the masses who have not had a child shot, able to casually shake our heads and ignore the crisis that is our refusal to address these killings? 

And I know there are tons of people who want no part of the Second Amendment altered, but what they do not answer is that they DO want. Okay, you want to have free access to any and all guns. Fine. Now, what do you propose? What do you think we should do about children being shot? I cannot help but wonder if it were your child shot, lying on the floor of the cafeteria, bleeding all over the place, other children running for their lives, falling and tripping on the pool of blood seeping from your child, if you would think that the current gun laws are appropriate. 

And, just in case you are wondering, yes, I am fully aware that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. I know. I read the meme. But, at the risk of being completely moronic here, I believe that the people who kill people often do so with GUNS. They have access to guns, so they use them. I cannot imagine how much more obvious this could be.  People who want to be manicurists have to have a high school diploma, attend classes at a certified cosmetology school, work 300 hours under the supervision of someone who is already certified, then take and pass a test, all so they can paint people’s nails. Yet, the gun laws wink at requirements. Barely wink. 

And, yes I am aware that there are mental health issues to be addressed, but I am not sure why this issue is collapsed with school shootings and gun control. I am guessing that the pro-gun people want us to believe that the issue is a mental health issue not a gun control issue; but excuse me, I believe we have very aptly demonstrated that people with mental health issues can easily access guns, often from the homes of their family members who do not have diagnosed mental health issues. And, if you just do the logic of that, it rolls right back to the need for gun control. 

I wonder what would happen if every person who wants the Second Amendment upheld spent a year walking side-by-side with a family who has lost a child to a school shooting or with a family who has had a family member killed by someone with a gun. A year of sitting a breakfasts where the absence of that family member is felt, where the seat where the beloved used to sit remains empty.  A year of watching parents try to pull their lives back together, fruitlessly because they will never recover from their loss. A year of watching siblings flail through their lives, grief impossible to even put into words.  A year of sitting in classrooms, with teachers trying to teach children who are grieving the loss of classmates, scared to death that they are next. 

You think we don’t need gun control? I think you need your head examined! 

The Circle of Life

My 93-year-old mother lives in an assisted living facility that is around the corner from where my daughter and her family live. Because they are in such close proximity, my daughter and her family walk over to visit Gran fairly often.  My four- year-old granddaughter, Loretta, is both smart and observant; however, she hasn’t been told much about my mother’s declining health. My daughter is smart about how she interacts with her children and she fosters curiosity and independence in them, which carries over to how they see the world. Regarding my mom’s aging, we have answered the questions Loretta has had along the way and have explained things that are age related. For instance, we have said that sometimes when people get older, they have trouble hearing so it is important to look at Gran when you ask her a question and talk a little louder.  But, over the past three years, Loretta has watched while my mother went from being able to walk without aid, to having a walker, to spending most of the day in a wheel chair.

Recently my mother was found on the floor during the evening bed check. Concerned that she might be hurt, the nurse called the ambulance and we took her to the hospital. Miraculously, she was not hurt. She is tiny, maybe 4’8” tall, weighing 98 pounds, with a prosthetic hip that is not secure in place anymore, and severe osteoporosis. How she didn’t break anything in the fall is beyond any of us. We were in the ER all night long while she slept and we waited for the results of tests, but in the end, she was sent home. Miraculous.

Today Hubby and I took Loretta and her little brother to visit my mother and Loretta had a lot of questions about the fall.

“D” Loretta and her brother call me D and they call my husband Pop—“How did Granny fall?”

“You know, Loretta, we just don’t know.”

“Well, who found her??

“The nurse found her. She went in the room to check on her and she found her.”

“She just went in the room? Why?”

“Well, I think the nurses go in every night to check on all the people who live where Gran lives.”

“Did the nurse knock?”

“ Yes, I am sure she knocked, but she also probably went in after she knocked.”

We had the conversation a whole bunch of times, probably at least six different times, and it was essentially the same conversation each time. I could tell there was something she needed for the story to make sense to her but I wasn’t sure what. I am convinced that little kids experience a lot more than we realize, that they process a lot of loss in their lives, but that most grown ups just don’t pay enough attention to get it. 

When we visit my mom with the kids in tow, we don’t visit in her room, but in a common area that is called the Country Kitchen. We bring a sheet and put in on the ground and we have a picnic lunch. Part of the “lunch” is made of play food that Loretta packs from home. This day it included pasta made from a felt material and plastic broccoli. To supplement what Loretta brought, I packed apple slices and hummus. So there we were, my mother, my husband, the kids and me picnicking while Loretta was trying to gather the details of my mother’s fall.  At one point, I decided that maybe what was needed was a replay of what might have happened, so I took Loretta to my mom’s room and I asked her if she wanted to see how I think it might have gone. She eagerly nodded yes.

“Okay,” I said. “You wait in the room and I will go outside and I will be the nurse.”

I closed the door and then a moment later I knocked, and then entered as though I were the nurse checking on my mother.

“Hello, Anne, I just wanted to……oh my goodness, Anne!!! What are you doing on the floor!!! Oh, no!!!”

Then I turned to Loretta and said, “I am sure that what the nurse did after that was call the other nurse to come and wait with Gran while she called the ambulance. Like this, “Bea!!! Bea!!! Come quickly and stay with Anne! I am going to call the ambulance.”

I watched to see if this scenario was helping Loretta process the incident.

“Why didn’t she pick Gran up herself?” she asked after pondering the skit.

“Well, that’s a good question. The nurse didn’t pick Gran up herself because she wasn’t sure if Gran was hurt or not. If someone falls and gets hurt, you need to have special training to pick them up. The ambulance people have the special training, so she called them.”

“Oh. Was she hurt?” Loretta asked.

“No. It is hard to believe, but she wasn’t hurt.”

“But HOW did she fall?”

“We don’t know.”

“Was she trying to get to her walker and she fell?”

“Maybe, we just don’t really know for sure.”

This seemed to answer all of the questions for the time being. We visited with my mom for quite a while, making her pretend pasta for lunch. We served the pretend pasta with a side of real sliced apples and, in between culinary courses, we blew bubbles and danced and played. I was pretty sure that the conversation had run its course when all of a sudden Bea, one of the heroines in my skit, showed up. I took the opportunity to co-opt Bea into our conversation.

“Bea” I said, “Loretta and I were talking about the other night and we were just wondering if the nurses check on people every night.”

Bea, who caught on immediately, assured us, “Every night. We do what is called bed check every night. We check every room so that we know everyone is okay.” Bea is a dark woman, maybe 40 years old, with a smile that beams like sunshine. Her spirit is calm and welcoming, so talking to her is always reassuring to me.

Our family is at a pretty critical point in the circle of life. We are watching my mother, the last of her seven siblings; approach the end of her life, while my children are bringing new babies into the world. These new babies keep us on our toes. If you are not paying attention, you can miss the magic in conversations like the one Loretta and I had today. You’ll catch those typical milestones, the rolling over, the walking, the talking and all of that, but you will miss the magic of a child giving you a glimpse into the window of their world. And there is so much for us to learn if we pay attention and look at the world through a child’s eyes.

“But, D!!! ” I hear her little voice call me between eating slices of apple dipped in hummus.  “Where do the ambulance people live?”

Sigh. 

A Thank You and Good-Bye to 2017

I have attempted this blog more than a few times, all without much success. The end of 2017 leaves me feeling blessed, but also very reflective and introspective. Although, I am a firm believer in saying thank-you and good-bye to each year, this thank-you-and-good-bye blog has been a challenge. It turns out that 2017 was a big year for me: I changed jobs, gained and lost friends, my habits and hobbies are new or re-designed, and my family has grown.  It seems that I am now a completely different person than I was last year at this time.  And, as predictable as all those changes might have been, almost all of them took me by surprise.  I guess that is the way life goes sometimes.

 

So many of the changes made it easy to say farewell to 2017. For instance, I worked under so many different people in the past few years that saying good-bye to my previous job was a walk in the park. The people I love from that job are still in my life, so there were no bitter separations.   Saying so-long to a routine that included working two jobs with almost zero time to smell the roses, was easy. Instead, I now meander to my office two or three days a week, stopping first to see what the vegan deli has for lunch, then picking up flowers at the local grocery store, getting coffee at my favorite coffee shop and finally arriving at work just in time at 10AM. Since I leave somewhere around 3PM, I miss much of the traffic on the ride home. I love this new routine and it was pure bliss leaving that old craziness.

 

But there were difficult partings in 2017 as well. There was the sad good-bye of my mother’s ability to navigate her life. In the past year, she has lost so much of her memory and ability to function independently, and her health care now requires more from my brother and me. She sometimes doesn’t recognize me, doesn’t know where she is, or why she can’t go “home”.  This has been a sorrowful and heart-breaking process to watch.  

 

I lost a good friend this year and that was distressing. I am not sure of what happened between us, but whatever happened was carefully left unspoken. I have my completely reasonable and justified explanation and I am sure she has hers.  My description leaves me in the best possible light and I am sure hers does the same for her, but none of that matters. What matters, at least to me, is that the friendship was precious for the time it lasted and that I am grateful to have had the grace it afforded me at the time. As I said, I am not the same person I was last year this time. What all of these good-byes have in common are the thank-yous, and that is the part that buoys me through the difficult good-byes.  I have learned to practice gratitude and, having cried the tears I’ve cried, and felt the anxiety of all of those changes, I am left with gratitude and thanks. I am grateful to have worked at my previous job for almost two decades. I am thankful to have met so many wonderful kids and their families. The challenging students and families were a gift in disguise because I learned so much about myself..

 

I am so grateful to the people who are helping me navigate my mother’s new-normal. I have learned so much from her caregivers, they are my allies in caring for her. I am grateful to my cousins who give me that “we’ve-been-there-and-it-sucks” nod and have seen me through the tears of her forgetting. I am so indebted to my brother who has been our valiant protector and hero for years.  I now know how to be there for other people as they walk this journey and that is something I didn’t know at this time last year.

 

And although I am heart-broken from my lost friendship, I am grateful to have had that friend in my life for all these years.  I shall always remember every laugh, every embarrassing moment, the joys, the sorrows, the ups and downs, and everything in between.  I learned a lot about life from that friendship. That loss taught me that I need to both give and receive a certain level of loyalty with friends. For me that loyalty is bound to honor and respect and is not negotiable.  I am pretty proud about this and grateful for the chance to have had this discovery. As my mentor says  “it would be better to have no friends than to dummy yourself down with friends who do not deserve your loyal friendship.” I am a better person for having learned this lesson this year.

 

There was so much more to 2017, but these are the things for which I am -grateful and to which I am saying good-bye. This was not the kind of year that I would have designed, but it is the year I had. I am grateful to you, 2017, and, at the start of 2018, good-bye!

The Epidemic of Suicide

I have always hated Munch’s picture “The Scream”. I just cannot stand the feeling it provokes in me. It’s sad and disturbing and not-shake-off-able.  Last night the news reported that another young man from our local community was found dead. The prevailing thought is that this young man took his own life. This makes four suicide-deaths in our area in almost as many weeks – three of these young people were 18 years old or younger, one was a mere 25 years-old. The vision of Munch’s  The Scream came immediately to mind. I just wanted to scream when I heard the news. I wanted to hold my face and just scream “Noooooooooooooo” until I had no more breath to utter sound.

In our area, suicides are a growing epidemic and I cannot help but think there is a connection between these deaths, the day-to-day stress that families are feeling and the current political distress in our country. My experience is that both my democratic and republican friends are all feeling a collective sense of depression and hopelessness, even if it is for different reasons. I am not sure how we can tell kids that suicide is not an option when we don’t really have a lot options to offer ourselves, either personally or as a body of Americans.  Think about it. Today’s youth are bombarded with news of violence, incidences like the Neo-Nazi’s rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, of the Black-Lives-Matter movement and the backlash of that movement, of three-in-a-row destructive hurricanes, of overall increased concerns for the economy, or increased concerns about people losing access to health care to name just a few.

And none of this accounts for the additional high school specific issues that kids are dealing with every day – growing expectations of academic success, the competitive stress of positioning to get into a “good college”, fitting in, standing up to bullying, saying no to drugs, wearing the right outfits, playing the right sport, or the best instrument in band and so forth. The stress levels that kids experience is astronomical and we are doing precious little to reduce or even mitigate this stress. Instead we say, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Really? I have not heard one person- not one news commentator, not one podcaster, not one politician, not one financial expert sending out a message that says anything like, “Oh, don’t worry. This is just a temporary moment of distress for our country. It’s all going to be really great any minute now.” That is not the message being sent. The messages being sent are the kind that highlight the divisions and fractions, they highlight who’s right and who’s wrong, they name call, character assassinate and, in some cases, condone and justify violence and unrest. Do we think that because human beings are between the ages of 13-20 that they are not impacted by these messages? Are we crafting the message that the future is actually worth living?

I want us all to stop the mindless busyness that is the newest addiction in our country. I want us to take a day to create peace - close the schools and stores and businesses, have people gather so we can be together and comfort each other. I want us to breathe, practice mindfulness and for us to remember that every word we say to each other counts. I want us to re-learn the language of kindness and love.  I want to start a national campaign for young people knowing they are loved and valued, that they belong and where they see us living a future of peace and of hope. Where they look at what is possible and they want to contribute, versus looking ahead and permanently stepping off of the ride.  No one wants to hear of another death, another young person who took their life and wonder if they could have done anything to stop it. 

Walking Each Other Home

Walking Each Other Home

I think it was Ram Dass who said that we are all here just walking each other home.  This thought comes to me over and over these days as I struggle with my mother’s declining health. My mother, now 92 years old, has enjoyed really good health until recently. Slowly over the past two years, but more rapidly over the past three months, she has begun to experience increased memory loss and decreased mobility. It is heartbreaking to watch.

My brother and I are largely clueless about how to manage these issues with my mom. We’ve not walked this road before and the experience is like being two teenagers who decide to take road trip in the middle of the night. We have a car that works, we know the general direction we are headed, but we are missing the exact route, the car has no GPS, but we do have a paper map and are using that to plot the route. We can see as far as we can see out of the windshield, but that is nowhere near far enough for us to really and truly see the road ahead. Still, as long as we keep moving, we can see the road and that is something.

My cousins, whose mother was my favorite aunt and the person who taught me a lot of the important things in life, walked this path before me. My aunt passed away a number of years ago, but not without a slow and (at least for us) painful demise.  I can remember feeling furious at God over my aunt’s health. I felt so betrayed. She served him with, as the Catholic’s say, a glad heart; yet He didn’t take her peacefully in her sleep like He should have if He had been the all-powerful, all knowing Oz as I was taught in grammar school. And, even if He truly wasn’t all knowing and all-powerful, He could have just followed my advice. Goodness knows I offer it often enough to anyone who is listening.

These days when I get a concerned call from my mother’s assisted living nurse, one of the first things I do is call my cousins. They have nothing to say in terms of advice, and nothing to offer in terms of things we should do, but they have walked this path before me and that, in and of itself, is a pretty big gift. They have felt these feelings, have watched this similar demise, have felt the injustice of it all and, perhaps the best part, they love my mother like I loved their mother. There is some synchronicity in this circle of love that is soothing to me.

I think we cannot underestimate the value of having people in our lives who have walked the same road before us.  In fact, I think it is part of our obligation to be there for people who are experiencing what we have experienced before them pay-it-forward and all of that. I cannot think of anything that contributes more to people who are struggling, than knowing they are not alone in the struggle. I vividly remember people who have held my hand when I was struggling, and I remember vividly those who walked away. I also remember the feeling of belonging when someone held my hand through the struggle, as well as the feelings of loss and hopelessness when people who could have reached out walked away instead.  I am sure my brother and I will be pay-it-forward people.

So, here’s to a life where we all reach out whenever we can, and take a hand.  We are all here to just walk each other home, to be there for the people who we may not even have met yet, and for people who might not even know they will need to be walked home.  

In Remembrance of David Fischer       

In Remembrance of David Fischer                                                May 8, 2017

 

I found out last night that a former student, David Fischer, passed away three days ago. He is the fifth or sixth student from that graduating year that has passed away, just 8 years after they received their diploma. He was 27 years old. I cannot stand the thought of the loss of another student. Each time I hear of another death, it is surreal. It seems like it can’t really be happening, except there would be no reason for anyone to call and say that someone had died if they hadn’t, so I always know it is real.

As I think back on David, I realize that there is something sacred about remembering the deceased. There is something to thinking back to the last time you saw the person, what you knew to be true of that person, what you knew the person would do, or would never do, which people loved him and which people hated him  It all comes back in a heartbeat, all at one time, the memories flooding in like a wave.

I was one of the people who loved David dearly. I can remember him vividly. I would venture to guess that anyone who ever met David remembers him vividly.  One of my all time favorite kids describes him as “unapologetically himself”, which was so true. He was tall and slender, frequently wearing a bright pink sweatshirt from Victoria’s Secret. When he was in high school he stripped the color from his hair and then re-dyed it pink, which then washed out so it was white-pink. He used a lot of product, so his hair stood out as though it had a life of its own, refusing to listen to anyone, not unlike David himself, by the way.

David was also fairly talented with a curling iron and wore sparkly blue eye shadow, which he applied in a particular way, creating what we called his “signature eye.” One time he created his signature eye on a female classmate and it was so not her style that it looked really weird on her. She told him she hated it. He told her it didn’t look good because she was ugly. As you can imagine, the girl did not react well to this and drama ensued. David was not unkind, but he was unfiltered.  Those of us who loved him best suffer from that same affliction – unfiltered comments. Sometimes inappropriate, poorly timed, unfiltered comments. It takes one to know one.

Despite and maybe even because of this lack of filter, David had a way of getting into people’s hearts and they couldn’t help but love him.   One time a teacher sent David to the Assistant Principal’s office because he had plugged in his curling iron and,  

while waiting for it to heat up, he started re-applying his make up during an afternoon Study Skills class. The teacher thought he was off task and disruptive, while David argued that he had no work to do, his assignments were all completed and handed in to the teachers. Sending David to the office for being disruptive seemed like the biggest joke ever. He was six feet tall with white-pink hair, plus the pink sweatshirt, and the signature eye shadow, so his mere walking into the classroom was disruptive!!  The assistant principal changed his class so that he sat with another teacher who adored him and who, to this day says that he was one of her favorite kids of all time. When he graduated he gave her a portrait of himself as a drag queen as a parting gift, a gift she has to this day.

I don’t know what to say to David’s mother, but I am searching for words that bring her some comfort. She is an amazing mother. When we found out that David passed away, almost everyone commented on how lucky he was to have had a mother who not only loved him, but who also “really got him.” It took us a really long time to figure out that she was a big shot attorney. You couldn’t ever tell that from talking to her or from our interactions. With us, she was always just an involved mom who loved her son and who accepted him for who he was in the world. I feel like we all became better parents for having walked that journey with them, and for having had her as a role model who taught us radical acceptance.

We tell our students, “Once you are ours, you are ours forever”, and it may be the most important thing we ever tell them. It is so true. We mean it for each and every one of them. It’s personal for us that way. I haven’t seen David in a number of years now, which I regret. We’ve had so many students come and go in the almost twenty years that our team has worked at the school, that it is impossible to keep up with all of them. We hate that. We hate when we don’t see the alumni and when they don’t keep in touch, although we also understand that they have lives and that we were a part of their lives a long, long time ago now. Still, we worry about them like it was yesterday. I am not sure if that is the impact of working in a high school, if it is the impact of being middle aged, or being an Italian Catholic or a combination of all of it. I just know that I miss seeing them, and I fear that they might forget how much we love them.

So David, here’s to your white-pink hair, your signature eye shadow, your curling iron, your artistic style of weaving in and out of life. Here’s to our having walked along the same path as you, for the privilege it was to have known and loved you. I hope that you rest in peace and that you know that you are ours and will be ours forever.