Dealing With Loss

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We all face a time of grief. Nobody is immune from the human destiny of death and loss. We build deep and loving relationships with people even as we know that one day we may have to live without them. Death and the emotions that it engenders are a kind of curse from which we cannot escape. When a beloved dies we are deeply affected and must bear the cycle of sorrow that descends upon us. How well we cope may be quite different from one person to another. It is a very personal and private journey which truly cannot be judged. The hurt is real and tangible.

We often wonder if it is better to lose someone suddenly or after a long illness during which we have had time to prepare. The truth is that both scenarios are traumatic. Loss is loss no matter how it happens, and it is something that we never really get over. Instead we allow ourselves to express our sadness in our individual ways and then we find the means of coping and moving on with our lives. When our depression becomes chronic and paralyzes us we need to seek help, but often don’t even realize that our suffering has overwhelmed our ability to find a way to heal.

I am now an orphan. Both of my parents are dead. One was killed suddenly when I was a young child. It has been sixty two years since his accident, but the memories of that trauma are as vivid today as they were back in 1957. I am not obsessed with the death of my father, but I do indeed miss him. When I was eight years old I felt scarred by the loss, but even then I understood that I had to find a way not to be perennially sad and scared. I found the solace that I sought in my studies at school. I suppose that it was inevitable that I would turn to reading and learning as a means of coping with my hurt because these were things that I fondly associated with my dad. In my childlike way I made it out of the abyss of depression by attempting to become the kind of person that I believed he would have wanted me to be.

I rarely spoke of my struggles until I encountered my mother-in-law who also quite unexpectedly lost her father in a hunting accident. Her dad was only a bit older than my father had been when he died, and she while in her twenties was still quite young when the tragedy occurred. Over tea and cookies she often told me stories of how great her father had been, and how his life had inspired her to be better in her own. Ironically we both had dealt with our sorrows by focusing on improving ourselves in honor of the men that we so loved.

I was an old woman when my mother died, eligible to retire from my life’s work of teaching. My mom had been afflicted with bipolar disorder for decades and in her final years my brothers and I had become her caretakers as her health also began to decline. I saw that she was not as energetic as she had once been and she was coughing constantly. The tissues that she stuffed into the trash were often tinged with blood, and still I refused to accept that she was going to die even with so much evidence. When her time came she insisted that she was ready and made me and my brothers promise that we would not resort to extraordinary means to extend her life. She was prepared for her fate, and so at peace. At the time I suppose that I was very much in denial and I walked through the days after her death in a kind of fog devoid of any visible emotions. Inside I was a basket case and believed that I had to find something to fill the vacancy in my heart left by her departure. That’s when I turned to writing, and I suppose it is what fuels me to this very day.

I still miss both of my parents and often find myself wishing that they were still around, even as I know that all was as it was meant to be. I rely on beautiful memories of them to sustain my desire to be with them once again. I turn my focus to constructive activities that push me outside of myself whenever my reveries lead to dark places. It is what we humans do. We love even knowing that one day that special recipient of our care and concern may be gone. We work to make them proud of the ways in which we carry on their legacies, because they do live in our very souls. As long as we breathe they are never completely gone.

I suppose that I love The Lion King because it so poetically outlines the circles of life that define our days here on earth. We find joys, relationships, purposes in spite of our disappointments, feelings of loneliness and sense of being adrift. The way of the world is both to be joyful and to suffer. Mostly we are continually finding ways to carry on in the face of adversity. For some like me and my mother-in-law that may mean embracing the mantle of responsibilities. For others it may involve learning how to relax and have fun. It doesn’t really matter how we choose to cope as long as we find a way.

I would like to think that I am a strong person, but I know that there have been times when I have felt utterly defeated by the realities of being a human. I have remembered and grieved. I have begged God to have pity on my poor wretched soul. I have arisen from the ashes again and again like a phoenix, and yet I still don’t really know how to comfort someone who is struggling with the death of a loved one other than to express my condolences. I know all too well that each of us has to find our own ways of dealing with the ultimate test of our endurance, being left behind when someone we love dies. It is incredibly hard, but we will heal. A warm hug or an understanding word of encouragement always helps. Be that person who brings kindness and hope.

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“Adulting”

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The conversation was with a young man in his early twenties. He remarked that he was struggling with the act of “adulting.” I told him that if that was the case then he is rather normal. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for even a senior citizen to sometimes long to run away from adult responsibilities.

I just celebrated my fiftieth wedding anniversary. I was not quite twenty when I walked down the aisle on my brother’s arm. I made a number of pledges on that day that I soon enough found were easier to voice than to actually follow. Before my first anniversary my mother had a nervous breakdown. I attempted to lay all responsibility for her care at the feet of my aunts and uncles, but they were as befuddled by her illness as I was. They passed the torch back to me. I found that not even the pastor of my church was willing to assist me, so I took a deep breath and accepted the challenge of finding care for her. In the process I was transformed from a shy naive childlike young girl into someone able to argue for my mother’s cause and ultimately for my own. I found strength that I did not know was there, and I was all the better for my baptism by fire.

In the meantime my husband was struggling with being a full blown adult in his own right. He was not yet fully ready to become the hard working person that would ultimately emerge. He was in graduate school and often stayed out late with his buddies. He was unhappy with his classes and the arc of his future. He found himself feeling confused and wanting to just chuck it all. It was when he saw me struggling to accept and meet the challenge of my mother’s care that he rose up to support me, a habit that would become his forever crusade.

Often it is in meeting the trials and tribulations that befall us that we find our inner selves. All humans suffer in one way or another. We are beset with problems that force us to make choices about how we will live. That is when “adulting” often feels the most painful, but it is also the moment when we have the most potential to find out who we really are.

Throughout my life of almost seventy years I have encountered difficulties from which I wanted to flee. Most of the time running away was not an option. I sometimes initially reacted by screaming or crying in frustration. I literally begged God to take away the pain I was feeling.  I vented the anxiety that I was experiencing, but over and over again faced whatever demon was attempting to bring me to my knees. On most occasions I made I through with a sense that I had made all of the right choices. In others I knew that I had made terrible mistakes. Even then I learned that there are few decisions, no matter how poorly conceived, that cannot be corrected.

None of us are perfect or capable of always demonstrating maturity. We become tired or frightened and “lose it” as the saying goes. I’ve had moments as a mom, a wife., or a teacher when I’ve done or said things that later embarrassed me. Most of the time this resulted because I had simply had enough of stresses that seemed to pile up higher than I was able to stand. Our coping mechanisms are wired to only take so much before we blow a gasket. As long as our explosive moments don’t become habit, we are actually entitled to a loss of control now and again. Nonetheless, if our comments or actions have hurt someone, we are obligated to reach for our adult sides and fix the damage.

When I was in high school one of my teachers cautioned us to have as much fun as possible while we were still young. He advised us to sow our wild oats in our youth rather than waiting until we were middle aged. He pointed out that there was nothing quite as pathetic as a forty year old suddenly going through a second childhood. He spoke of individuals who eschewed their parental or marital responsibilities simply because they felt entitled to more “fun” than the day to day grind was allowing them. He painted a picture of how pathetic such people might be. We had visions of a balding guy riding around in a red convertible with a blonde woman young enough to be his daughter while his long suffering wife and kids were left behind. I have to admit that it was indeed a disgusting image.

I would not want anyone to have to deal with the difficulties that I faced at a very young age. There are other ways of slowly but surely becoming a responsible adult than having to face tragedies. My advice is to enjoy the freedom of youth as much as possible while also building a foundation that will ultimately support a strong sense of responsibility. The early twenties are a time for exploring and even making mistakes and learning from them. It’s when we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us, and when we develop the skills that will lead us through even the toughest trials. At the same time it can be one of the most enjoyable and liberating eras of our lives. In the end, if we have kept a balance between having a good time and building meaningful skills and relationships “adulting” will almost naturally come to pass.

Let’s Stop

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The idea of harassing another human being has always been repugnant to me. When I was in the fourth grade I had a teacher who should never been in the profession. Her method of managing the classroom was known for its terror and humiliation. I despised what I saw her do and heard her say even at the young age of nine.

In middle school I witnessed some of the boys making fun of one of my female classmates to the point that she literally broke one day and had an emotional meltdown. My all time favorite teacher came to her defense in a manner that inspired me. I would never forget the deft way in which she taught all of us that bullying behaviors are never acceptable. She literally stopped the practice in its tracks and restored the young woman’s self esteem and status in the process. I so admired the idea of speaking up for someone who is unfairly being targeted with ugliness.

As a teacher I made it my focus to watch for instances of students being emotionally or physically torn apart by the kind of mob rule that constitutes bullying. I was unwilling to look the other way, or to justify such behaviors even when the object of derision was not a particularly likable person. I fought many such battles again and again, sometimes even with my colleagues who took a general dislike to certain individuals. Something in my personality found constant harassment for any reason to be horrific.

I’ve made it well known that I do not care for President Donald Trump. He himself has the horrific habit of making exceedingly offensive remarks about anyone whom he perceives to be out of step with him. His boorish behavior is a turnoff and embarrassment to me. I cannot accept him as simply being someone who is using his bully pulpit to fight for certain causes. A leader can be strong like Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln without demeaning others in the process. Nonetheless, I believe that far too many in our society have reacted to our president with insults and anger that is as disturbing to me as any utterance that Trump has made.

I have been particularly concerned by the taunts hurled at Melania Trump and her son. I do not know the First Lady nor do I have any idea why she chose to marry Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, it is really none of my business or anyone else’s to concern ourselves with such things. What I do see is a stunningly beautiful woman who carries herself with great dignity and kindness. I also note that many of her efforts to be thoughtful are thrown in her face.

From the very beginning Melania Trump has been overly criticized at every turn. When she showed up for her husband’s inauguration wearing a modest and lovely blue suit it was suggested that she had copied another first lady. Her attempts at decorating the White House for Christmas were ridiculed as being weird and creepy. When she wore high heels to flood ravaged Houston there were those who wondered how she could have been so tone deaf. Her recent visit to Africa was covered not for the compassion that she displayed but for her choice of wardrobe. It seems that because she committed the sin of marrying Donald Trump she will forever be found inadequate and even repulsive.

I have to admit that I was a huge fan of Bill Clinton. After his liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky the luster wore off for me. What bothered me most was that his wife, Hillary, stood by his side. I argued that she should have left him like any honorable woman might have done. I spoke of this with my mother, and in her wisdom she argued that none of us will ever really understand the dynamics of a relationship between two people. She further insisted that it’s not our place to do so. She defended Hillary’s choice to stand by her man, and urged me to worry about my own household.

I think that my mother was absolutely right. It is not up to any of us to judge another because of the ways in which they choose to love. Such things are actually a kind of mystery to anyone on the outside looking in. So it has been with countless first ladies including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and now Melania Trump. Often their love for their husbands seems incredulous to us because of the unfaithfulness that they have had to endure, but they were in fact able to overlook seemingly insurmountable flaws in their spouses. They should not be insulted because they remain faithful to someone that seems to betray them. They have their reasons.

The latest travesty aimed at Melania Trump should be soundly criticized by anyone who is of good heart, and most especially by all women. A rapper named T.I. has made a video that features a Melania look alike wearing a raincoat like one for which the First Lady was shamed. The model enters what appears to be the Oval Office, climbs on a desk, takes off the coat, and dances in the nude. If all persons of  even moderate decency do not find this utterly offensive, then I worry about the future of this nation. If we do not demonstrate respect for all people regardless of their beliefs, then I fear that our children are learning lessons that will not bode well.

It’s well past time that we all speak out whenever we witness the unfair degradation of anyone. If we rationalize bullying of any form or just laugh as though it is a joke we are complicit in allowing harm to fester in our midst. If we might unite in one common cause it should be to insist that this sort of thing should never be allowed. It is not funny nor is it justified. Let’s stop! 

The Tragic Hero

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The tragic hero is a staple of literature. From the earliest Greek authors we learn of individuals whose feet of clay lead them down paths of destruction. Somehow we are taken by such characters, wanting to love them while hating their actions. Shakespeare mastered the art of creating sympathetic but flawed protagonists, like Hamlet. With a grave foreboding our stomachs clinch as we watch his descent into a hell of his own making. Thus it is with one story after another.

We know the literary formula, but even though we have seen it again and again we find ourselves hoping and praying that such tragic figures will somehow see the light before it’s too late. We pray for their redemption even as we helplessly watch them slide into a kind of evil that need not happen. There are no happy endings for them either in the realm of fiction or real life.

I’m addicted to Better Call Saul, a spinoff from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad series. It is the story of a likable soul named Jimmy McGill. Jimmy got into a scrape when he was a teenager, much to the chagrin of his older brother, Charles, a highly respected and successful lawyer. Over time Jimmy seemed to get his act together. He worked in the mailroom of his brother’s law firm while earning a law degree from a questionable but legitimate school in Samoa. He’s a cheerful and impish sort who seems to be naturally loved by the people he encounters including his girlfriend, Kim, so when he finally becomes a lawyer he fully expects to work in his brother’s law offices. When his bid for a position is denied because Charles does not trust him, we get our first hint of trouble. Our since of foreboding, well trained as it is from previous forays into tragedies, tells us that things may not work out as well for Jimmy as he and we may have initially thought.

Of course those of us who watched Breaking Bad already know that Jimmy McGill will somehow morph into Saul Goodman, a sleazy lawyer working for clients who represent the underbelly of society. Even as we enjoy seeing Jimmy as an affable fellow our stomachs clinch at the thought of what he will become. As the series progresses we want to warn him to beware, and he disappoints us with his slow decline, all the while blaming everyone but himself for his woes. It’s the kind of thing that all tragic heroes do.

We’ve all seen the same kind of individuals in real life which is what makes the artistic inventions of authors, screenwriters and movie directors seem so accurate. These tortured souls are people with so much potential who somehow believe that their bad behaviors are justified by the unfairness of their lives. Instead of taking the high road, they take shortcuts and bend laws and morality. The ultimate tragedy of their lives is the waste of what might have been a truly good person, and all too often they leave wreckage in the wake of all of their relationships. They don’t seem to realize the pain and suffering that they cause for those who truly love them. Often they don’t seem to realize how broken they actually are. They are the adulterers who won’t stop their philandering, the addicts who are unable or unwilling to fight their demons, the abusers who think everyone else is the problem. Sadly, not only are their lives miserable, but so is everyone else caught in their horrid world until they find the courage to make a clean break.

I have had students who were amazingly lovable, but totally irresponsible and dishonest. They disappointed again and again, even when they appeared to be headed for a change of heart. I’ve had friends who married people who were quite wonderful as long as things went their way, but as challenges entered their lives they wandered from the straight and narrow. It is emotionally crushing to be around people that we want so badly to trust, knowing that to do so would defy common sense. Walking away from our tragic heroes is even harder to experience than watching their downfalls. Our hearts tell us to give them one more chance, while our heads remind us that they have failed us so many times before.

I’m not certain what causes a seemingly wonderful person to lose his or her way. Often there is great tragedy in the background, but sometimes they have had what most of us would consider to be a good life. There are sociopaths among us and we have yet to understand how to help them to change. Few efforts in this regard have been entirely successful. The question becomes who most deserves our compassion, and the best answer is usually that we must help the innocents that they harm. We might still love them, but there comes a moment when we can’t accept their bad behavior. We have to push them out of our lives, lest we become unwilling collaborators in their deviant behaviors.

We find characters like Jimmy McGill AKA Saul Goodman all too realistic. We love and hate them all at once. Art is sometimes brilliant at imitating life. The truth is that they are not heroes at all.

I Found My Purpose

42678886_10217646777023389_6852434799655649280_nI recently had dinner with a group of former students and a teaching colleague. It was incredibly rewarding to see how well the young ladies who were once my pupils have done. One of them, Jennifer, is a teacher who recently earned an advanced degree in educational leadership. Another, Christine, works in the development department of the KIPP Charter Schools and she was recently rewarded with a promotion. The third, Joana, is working on a post graduate degree in Social Work. All three are articulate, hard working and filled with compassion. They have literally become more like peers than pupils. Our gathering was like a reunion of old friends and it was quite exciting to hear their stories of life and work.

While its tempting to take some credit for how well they have turned out, I know that they are fully responsible for their amazing accomplishments that came only with extraordinary dedication and much sacrifice. Talking with them tells me that they continue to work toward exciting goals and that they have fully become exemplary adults of whom I am so very proud.

I also learned at this meeting that my friend, Ann, is still working to educate high school students. She’s a phenomenal educator whose expertise has helped to launch the careers of a host of exceptional people. It’s reassuring to know that someone like her is still out there making a difference in people’s lives. That’s perhaps the most important aspect of being an educator and she is among the best.

There are times when I forget the real rewards of being a teacher. We rarely get paid as much as we should, and our retirement programs are far from being sufficient. I would have done far better financially if I’d had a pathway in business or even if I’d worked for the federal government which offers some of the best pension plans that there are. If I’d held office in Congress for even one term I’d be set for life. With all that said, when I talk with the individuals that I once taught and realize how remarkable they are, I know in my heart that I was actually blessed by being a teacher. There are very few professions that provide such satisfaction.

The frustrations of teachers are legend, but in the cacophony of complaining we sometimes forget to boast of the wonders of being an educator. Much like being a parent we can get caught up in the day to day routines and problems that sometime blind us from seeing the pure joys. It takes a bit of stepping back to gain the perspective that reveals our sense of purpose and meaning.

I know that I did not reach every heart and mind that I attempted to touch. There are probably even those who disliked me for one reason or another. As with anything I have fans and I have detractors, but on the whole I believe that I made some kind of difference in making this world of ours a bit better place to be. The value of that is priceless to me, and I would not be willing to give up even one day of my many years as a teacher for monetary profit.

Each kind of job and each person has value for our society. We really do need everyone and to rank the importance of work would be silly, but an argument might be made that teachers make it possible for the remarkable diversity of skills and talents that bring progress and innovation into our lives. We build the foundations from which all else springs. It is a breathtaking responsibility to consider.

I worry that we are somehow diminishing the importance of teaching these days. All too often I hear people arguing that they would never encourage a bright young individual to participate in such a terrible profession. I hear parents shudder when one of their children expresses an interest in being an educator. They worry that talents will be wasted in a job that lacks respect and a salary commensurate with intellect. They attempt to steer their sons and daughters into more prosperous and promising professions.

It saddens me that I so often find myself defending the occupation to which I devoted so much of my life. I am questioned as to why I didn’t pursue more stimulating and lucrative fields. I sense that some see my choice as a kind of failure to use my talents to their fullest.

Then I go out to dinner with a colleague and three phenomenal young women whom I once taught and I remember again how glorious it felt to go to work each and every day. I know in my heart that mine was a true vocation and that those of us lucky enough to find our true reason for  existence have something that no amount of money or even regard will ever buy. I am and always will be a teacher. I bear that designation proudly and without regret.