Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Who Will Remember?

"I never wanted to be the eldest."
~ Ben Magestro

I haven't thought of this comment in years.  Many years.  Dad made it at the news of the death of his remaining older brother over 25 years ago.  Dad was just about the age I am today.  I didn't pursue the comment.  Maybe it was because I am the eldest child and grandchild and had never given it much thought at the point.  Maybe I feared I'd make both of us uncomfortable discussing why he felt that way. Maybe I arrogantly assumed I understood. Whatever - I just let it pass, one more comment to file away. 

Until recently, when I caught a video of my remaining uncle, now in his 80's, suddenly frail, undoubtedly old.  In the weeks that have followed, my dad's comment has popped up at the most unexpected moments.  Finally, I suspect I understand.  When this uncle dies, when I am the eldest in the clan, who will remember?

For, it's not only that this uncle is the last of his generation.  In many ways, he was more an older brother than an uncle.  We lived under the same roof at the end of World War II.  He consoled me and tried to protect me when the stress of that household at that time was too much for a little girl.  He took me trick or treating.  He fixed my plate at the buffet when we celebrated my great-grandmother's 100th birthday.  He was there when I was baptized, and when I received Holy Communion.  He remembers the day Grandma gave up her icebox for a refrigerator, what it took to keep the coal burning furnace going, the snowstorm that crippled the city in 1947.

He was the first male in the family to get a college degree; I was the first female.  He was the first to leave the city and his family to serve in Korea.  I was the first to leave the city and never return.

When he dies, there will be no one left who knows where I began, who can appreciate even remotely what it has taken to be who and where I am today. There will be no one else who remembers. I'm not sure this is what Dad meant when he made that comment so many years ago.  But I rather suspect I'm in the ballpark.

I know there are scientific reasons given for why we older folks begin to dwell on memories of our younger selves.  But what if it isn't also that we reach a point when we are the eldest and there is no one else who remembers?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Because He Listens

"The first duty of love is to listen."
~ Paul Tillich

I write this as we approach our 35th, and I fear our last, wedding anniversary.  We met 38 years ago, Aug. 18, 1980, to be exact.  In a bar in Kansas City, as the song goes.  Just 15 minutes before I had determined to leave.  I was there with a colleague, sharing with her the highlight of a long road trip I had taken alone, so proud of what I had done.

John walked in with a friend to celebrate a successful business transaction and sat at a nearby table.  His first trip to Kansas City, he asked a question of his friend that the man could not answer.  But I could, and without much thought, did.

We continued to talk - about the city, and then work, and backgrounds and interests - and he listened, at a level I had rarely experienced.

When we parted, we exchanged telephone numbers in case I ever got to Cleveland, his home base.  In case he ever visited Kansas City again.  Which I seriously doubted.  

The next day, I told my mother that I had met someone who, though I was sure I would never see again, gave me hope that there might be someone with whom I could build a lasting, supportive relationship.  In fact, I told her, were we to live in the same city I was sure we would end up married.

He called the following Sunday morning just to talk.  And he listened.  As he did every Sunday morning for weeks.  And eventually every Wednesday evening, and eventually every night.  As he did throughout the challenges of determining how to create a lasting relationship across miles and different careers, across different backgrounds and commitments, across significant hesitations and considerations.  Somehow, even when he became most fearful or I became most frustrated and angry, he strove to listen.

And I came to realize that for all the reasons I had come to love him, at the top of the list was that he always listened, no matter how difficult the conversation.  I moved to Cleveland, and we married in l983.

That foundation of talking and listening through the tough conversations has served us well.  Sustained us through several moves, career changes, presidential campaigns, caregiving for my elderly parents, and battles with cancer.  It continues to be a basic survival skill as we deal with this, the greatest challenge we have ever faced, the most difficult conversations we have ever had to have.  Still, he listens.  I have never loved him more.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Coming Full Circle

"We never know from one day to the next what surprise lurks around the corner."
  ~ Joy Loverde, Who Will Take Care of Me When I'm Old 

I know, heaven knows I know, what Joy is talking about.  From the major surprises like disease, death, or natural disasters to the minor surprises like a garage door that suddenly won't open or a burst water pipe or a flat tire, we never know.  But we also never know when we'll meet someone who will change the course of our lives or pick up a book that gives us the answer we've been looking for for months.  Or, as happened to me last week, the information that I made a difference in someone's life who continues to make a far greater difference than I ever could have made.

Joy is an old friend. We go back over 25 years.  More than a friend, more like a much younger sister or the daughter I never had or would have been proud to have had.  There was a day when she asked to come in for a coaching session as she wanted to talk about a career change.  A change from the marketing career at which she was skilled, experienced and successful.  A change to something that would use those skills for something that made a bigger difference than promoting someone else's product or business.

I remember that conversation as though it happened yesterday.  I've shared the experience of it many times in coachings and trainings in the years that followed.  I asked Joy only one question.  "What issues are you passionate about - in what arena would you like to make a difference?" She answered quickly - "The way children are treated and the way old people are treated."  I then suggested she go home and choose the one she would like to focus on and think about how she could apply her skills and talents to the problems she saw.

It was as simple as that.  She returned shortly saying she had chosen to approach the issue of eldercare and knew exactly how she might carve out a new career.  What followed was her first book, The Complete Elder Care Planner, speaking engagements, workshops,  consulting and ultimately recognition as a major contributor in the growing eldercare advisory industry.

Fast forward to a week ago.  I was searching for a book, any book that might address the overwhelm I was feeling about a future without my husband.  The perfect book appeared, at least the title suggested that it might be.  As though the author could read my mind - Who Will Take Care of Me When I'm Old.  And the author - Joy Loverde, my Joy.  

I downloaded it immediately and started to read it.  Exactly as I expected, it is well-written, well-researched, clear and compassionate.  But what I didn't expect was to find my name in her acknowledgments.  After all these years.  I didn't expect the tears, gratitude, and the profound sense of satisfaction and delight that almost overwhelmed me.  To know that I had influenced someone who now influences so many others and will continue to do so.  And that I am now a recipient of what was set in motion in that simple conversation long ago.  We have come full circle.  And that knowledge, in itself, may be more important to me than anything in the book.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness

"Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, most underrated agent of human change."
~ Bob Kerrey

I woke this morning to a damp and dreary day. A good day to rest, read, and reflect - especially since we are still recouping from our recent trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center.

This trip can take a lot out of us. It's not just that air travel has become more difficult. It's also the emotional stress of not knowing what we might hear from the hematologist, the physical stress of pushing John everywhere in a wheelchair, the physical stress for him of yet another bone marrow biopsy.  And when we're done, managing another day of travel and our morale for at least another week until we receive the biopsy report.

We've made this trip three times within 17 months. Each with a similar routine, yet each yielding radically different reactions. The first visit we met with the hematologist assigned to us, an austere Russian trained research physician, whose honesty bordered on bluntness, a shocking confrontation with reality while we were already shell-shocked. By our second visit, she was warmer, gentler, but the news she delivered still bleak and unpromising. Still no cure on the horizon. No appropriate clinical trials available. And her concern for John's appearance disconcerting. The biopsy took two attempts, and the results still were inconclusive. Overall, every bit as challenging a visit. Maybe even more so.

It was a surprise, therefore, when we both affirmed as we left our accommodations that this trip was a much more positive experience even though we couldn't pinpoint why at first. Yes, our doctor was even warmer, more personable, more patient with our questions, clearer with her answers.  But still no cure, no appropriate clinical trials. The biopsy went smoother. But still no results yet.

And then it hit us in the airport as someone offered to help with our luggage. This what was different. The constant stream of kindness that had enveloped us the entire trip. People who lifted luggage without being asked. People who held doors and offered help with the wheelchair. People who not only gave directions but walked with us to be sure we were headed the right way - and not because they were paid to do so. People who smiled first. People who genuinely seemed pleased to see us and willing to listen. People who reminded me with every gesture that there are wonderful, kind and decent people all around us.

Simple, unrequested, unexpected acts of kindness. I'd like to think I would always be aware of and grateful for them. But I suspect they have meant so much more because I am so much more aware of our fragility, so much more susceptible to cynicism and despair. Powerful, inexpensive but not underrated in this household.

*If you found this helpful or know someone who might, please share and like my page.


Monday, February 5, 2018

One Step at a Time

"Mountains cannot be surmounted except by winding paths."
~ Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

As much as I love a good quote and have notebooks and computer files filled with them, I have committed very few to memory.   This quote by Goethe is the most recent.

In reflecting on how few I have memorized, I realize there are three reasons a quote makes the cut - it conveys something I already believe but with fewer and more impactful words, it evokes a feeling or belief I wasn't aware I have, or most importantly, it challenges and impacts the way I am thinking.  This quote falls into the third category.

Prior to coming upon the quote, I was most influenced in the way I think about life and its challenges by a transaction with a friend in December l999.  We had just moved to Vegas with my mother, who was grieving the sudden death of my dad that October.  Determined to give her a decent Christmas and reassure her that this was now her home, exhausted and grieving myself, I nonetheless pulled out all the stops and decorated the house (with many boxes still unpacked in the garage) and invited friends for a holiday party.  

The evening hadn't progressed very long when my friend pulled me aside to paraphrase the Breda O'Connor quote and remind me that my future as my mother's caregiver was a marathon and not a sprint - a simple, immediate, and effective image for me.  So effective that I clung to that image for the next 18 years, through caregiving for mom, my battle with breast cancer and John's stem cell treatment for non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  And it served me well.

But today, soon to be 77, once again a caregiver, the metaphor or image of running a race, even if a marathon and not a sprint, is no longer helpful.  Not that I would have recognized this were it not for stumbling on this quote.  Somehow the image of walking a winding path feels more congruent with my experiences these past 18 months since John was diagnosed with a currently incurable form of MDS.  Plugging uphill, with unpredictable switchbacks, dips in the road, obstacles to be cleared or avoided, moments when I can barely breathe, the path ahead poorly marked - yes, a winding path up a mountainside.  The more I have reflected on this quote, the more validating it has become.  The more helpful it looms for the months ahead.

I don't know the shape of the mountain ahead of us or how far up the path we will make it together, but I do know, without a doubt, that it will be winding and circuitous, in spots even treacherous.  I do know that we can and will take it one step at a time.

*If you found this helpful or know someone who might, please share and like my page.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Rest and Re-creation

"Rested, we are ready for the world but not held hostage by it, rested we care again for the right things and the right people in the right way."
~ David Whyte, Consolations

It's been a long three weeks.  Coughing fits that left me exhausted, a tissue box a day head cold, aches, fitful sleeping.  Not the way I'd hoped to spend the holidays.  Not what I wanted, but perhaps, exactly what I needed.

Time to nap, to catch up on taped TV shows and movies, to listen to some favorite music, to read (and reread Consolations) without the usual demands and commitments that the holidays can present.  More important, time to reflect on the past year, a particularly difficult year at that, and to consider possibilities for the coming one, as I have done for the past 34 years.

In the past, I would sit down with pen in hand over a couple days and create an elaborate list of goals, with a detailed action plan of tasks and deadlines and resources.  Elaborate, detailed and even if not totally achieved, enough to keep me focused and feeling somewhat responsible and successful.  In retrospect, however, many of these goals were what I thought I should pursue, what my company or family or obligations required.  What the goal setting books advised.  What I advised others to do.  Responsible and successful, but also too often driven and stressful.  Regretting what I didn't get done as much as taking satisfaction in what I did.

This year, partly due to the debilitating nature of my cold, partly because of my reflections on the past year's challenges and stressors, and partly due to the uncertainty of John's prognosis, I decided to just let go and see what emerged more naturally.  To not be "held hostage" by external goals, by "shoulds" and "ought to's" over which I have little control anyway.  Rather, to commit to broad objectives that felt right for me as well as for the people I love and for my community.  Simple objectives - like spend quality time every day with John, take care of my health at a level equal to the demands of our lives, create something and learn something every day if possible, enjoy - really enjoy - our home and friends, listen to good music, read good literature, commit some time to an organization whose mission I believe in.  And equally important, to remember to rest at a level commensurate with these commitments. Objectives, not goals.  Commitments, not resolutions.  Direction, not destination.

For, whatever 2018 may hold, I aim to deal with it with grace and equanimity, to be content and satisfied with my choices, and to arrive next January with a grateful heart and a healthy body.  

And to all reading this, my best wishes for a happy and healthy new year.