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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God Knows Where I Am

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I have had two passionate causes in my life. One was made by my own choice. The other was forced upon me by circumstance. Both of them have been major forces that weaved through every single day of my adulthood and seemingly defined my purpose here on this earth. One is a popular political football of sorts, often discussed but rarely resolved. The other is almost taboo, the sort of topic carefully whispered about, and almost always entirely misunderstood. Of course I am speaking of both the education of our young people and the almost haphazard way in which we deal with those among us who are mentally ill.

Those who know me well and those who read my posts understand that I have devoted myself to helping students and their teachers to find quality classrooms and educational standards that include learning how to think critically and how to lead meaningful lives. While there are still great problems with schools and universities that include both methodologies and financial considerations, I am far from alone is voicing both my concerns and my ideas for approaching them. Teachers, professors, parents, and the students themselves are quite vocal about their expectations for preparing each generation for the future. As such education is a subject that quite often finds its way into political discourse. There is much debate over financing and structuring of our public school system, and such discussions while slow to cause actual changes still manage to keep a modicum of attention on one of the most important issues in our country.

On the other hand, mental illness and how we deal with it is a kind of orphan. It is one of those exceedingly uncomfortable subjects that make us squirm even at the mere mention. Furthermore it is maddeningly misunderstood by those who have been fortunate enough not to experience its crushing effects. It is a disease with physical origins that are not as easy to see as a case of diabetes or a heart attack. The science around it is still in its infancy compared to other medical issues. There are few massive institutions like the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that are dedicated to unlocking the secrets to combating mental illness. The funding for those who choose to enter the world of psychology or psychiatry is generally well below that of other medical fields, and, speaking of fields, we never see athletes donning a color to promote support and awareness of those individuals and their family members who fight relentlessly and alone to care for loved ones ravaged by mental illness. It is all too easy to believe that nobody is particularly concerned about those who endure diseases like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and other forms of mind numbing illness. Instead we look away from those that we all too often blithely categorize as “crazy.” In fact, I am certain that I lost many of my potential readers in the first paragraph of this blog as soon as I mentioned mental illness.

I have not secreted the fact that my dear mother had bipolar disorder nor that me and my brothers became her lifelong caretakers in an odyssey that lasted from 1969 until her death in 2011. It was often a frustrating journey punctuated by a seeming lack of concern by a society that all too many times shunned our mother when she was most in need of support. A lack of doctors, hospitals, finances and most of all understanding complicated our search for a kind and compassionate resolution to her needs and ours. Along the way we encountered dedicated professionals who were as troubled as we were like Dr. Thomas Brandon and Dr. Jary Lesser, but we also found many who had been so chewed up alive by the laws and the lack of funding that they had become far too cynical to be of help. We learned who the people were that we could trust, and realized that their numbers were far fewer than we had hoped.

On this past Sunday I received a text from my youngest daughter insisting that I watch a documentary on Netflix called, God Knows Where I Am. Without revealing any spoilers she simply said that it was sad but quite good, so I decided to end what had been a glorious day spent with my grandsons by viewing the film. I soon learned that it was the story of a woman who was found dead inside a vacant farmhouse, seemingly the victim of starvation. Amazingly she had filled several spiral notebooks with daily descriptions of her strange saga including a final declaration that included her name, Social Security number, and designation of where she wished to be buried. What investigators ultimately found is that the victim, Linda Bishop, was from a middle class family that had been filled with love and delightful experiences. Linda was well educated and possessed a personality that garnered her many friends. She married, had a daughter whom she adored, and eventually divorced. The rest of the tale devolves into a brutally heartbreaking saga of her crushing fall into mental illness and the ways in which our current system of dealing with cases such as hers totally failed both Linda and her family.

As I watched the film I found myself feeling as though it was my own mother’s story and that of me and my brothers. I was able to relate to every segment of the unfolding tragedy. My stomach clinched into the old familiar knot that often plagued me whenever my mom was particularly sick. I have been to all of the same dark places that Linda Bishop’s loved ones have been. I know from my own experiences how much truth lies in this documentary, and I hope beyond hope that enough people will watch it and embrace it so that a kind of revolution will begin aimed at fixing a very broken system that too often leaves everyone concerned in a state of abject fear and dejection.

My brothers and I were lucky enough to keep my mother from the kind of harm that overcame Linda Bishop, but it was a battle that we waged virtually every single day, and mostly alone. It was a fight not just for her life but our own. I know that we made many mistakes, but ultimately we slew the dragon of ignorance and lack of concern that made every step of the way more difficult that it need have been. I will speak out for those who have mental illnesses and for their families until I draw my last breath. I will never quite understand why it is not yet one of the most important causes in our world, but I will not let the lack of interest stand in my way of bringing awareness. For now I simply implore everyone to watch God Knows Where I Am. Surely it will tear at your heart.

Promote Love

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I have only recently returned from a ten day camping trip with dear friends. For most of the time I had spotty phone service and little access to the Internet. It forced me to forego my addiction to receiving instant news alerts and to reading political comments and commentaries during this election cycle. I found that my vacation from the noise and chaos of the world allowed me to quiet the anxieties that I sometimes feel about the state of the world. It also helped me to slow down my responses to events that might otherwise have angered me. By listening to the wind, the birds, and the beating of my own heart rather than the chaos that has become so commonplace I found a kind of wisdom and ability to calm my emotions. It made me realize that the world really is too much with us. We have in many ways become as raucous and disturbing to the peace as the flock of crows who sometimes babbled overhead as I sat near a beautiful lake eating my meals.

If I were to only be exposed to my friends and the members of my family I would never see or hear hate. The people in my sphere are good and kind, just as I found the individuals that I encountered in my travels to be. Most of us only desire to live our lives with as little drama and ugliness as possible, but we are all too often reminded again and again that there are indeed tortured souls who are filled with murderous anger and venom. I often wonder what has made them this way. Surely they were at one time innocent children. Were they abused, taught to be hard hearted? Did their minds become infected with illnesses that were ignored and left untreated? Were they abandoned by society in some way, alone and afraid? What led to their evil acts of violence? Why did they feel compelled to hurt innocents who had nothing whatsoever to do with causing them to have so much anger seething inside of them? How did their minds become so tortured?

I have come to believe that much of the murderous rage that we witness is caused by the twenty four seven barrage of information and talk that is suffocating us. Headlines are created to garner our attention. The more salacious they are the more likely we are to be curious about them. Yes, we have a president who stokes the fires, but the news outlets are more than happy to constantly give him the attention that he so voraciously seeks rather than learning how to ignore his rudeness. Perhaps if they took away his audience he might change his ways.

We can’t watch an awards show without hearing unwanted political commentaries from people who somehow believe that their opinions should matter to us. There is to much talk, talk, talk, most of which resembles a disagreement among kids in middle school. Seemingly all of us are guilty in one way or another of judging people by the ways in which they vote. We are at war with those with whom we disagree in ways that are destructive to our society, our friendships and our families. Instead of seeking common ground our words are used mostly to insult and push away anyone who differs from our own ways of thinking. Sadly, the level of self righteous indignation is fueling the violent responses of those whose minds have somehow become twisted, incomprehensible and filled with hate.

So what can we do to help the situation? Simply turning our backs on the problems will do little. We cannot ignore the reality that something must be done, but we also need to approach the matter in a way that demonstrates our willingness to value the differences that we have. We can indeed reshape the environment, but it will not be easy nor will we rid ourselves of all evil. The one thing that we can control is the way in which we choose to react to people who appear to be so aggrieved that they are shouting in true pain. Rather than insulting them, perhaps it is time that we ask them what they really need.

On a recent Sunday the Gospel story told of Jesus traveling to Jericho where He encountered a blind man named Bartimaeus  who begged the Lord to pity him and help him to see. The crowd yelled at Bartimaeus and told him to be quiet. They wanted nothing to do with the wretched man, but Jesus stopped, listened to his pleas and healed him.

We need to follow that example. It is so easy to just write someone off because we do not like what that person does or says. We meet their anger with our own and often hurl insults at them or even turn our backs on them, leaving them to grow more and more isolated and desirous of vengeance. We tell ourselves that helping people who are overwrought is none of our business, sometimes even when they are members of our own families.

I read an ironic description of the man who sent pipe bombs to democrats. It was from one of the members of his family. The man told of how sweet the his cousin had always been. He then went on to note that things had changed in the last three to five years. The world fell apart for the man now charged with attempted murder. He lost his business and had to file for bankruptcy. He was living inside of his van which was plastered with outrageous political messages. He worked as a pizza delivery man, a job usually populated by younger individuals. He had frequent run ins with the law and made unrealistic boasts about his talents. Those who knew him realized that something was very wrong and yet they did little more than shake their heads. He had not seen many of his relatives in over five years. Still, nobody seemed willing to reach out to him and ask what they might do to help him. He turned to a strangers in a twisted political world for the comfort that he sought. What if instead, someone who truly loved him had been willing to ask him what he needed? Might the direction of his life turned just by being noticed? 

We will never know. Indeed he may have pushed everyone away in spite of their efforts. Sometimes evil cannot be persuaded to change. That is when we must punish violent acts. Still I think that it would benefit all of us to begin to approach the sound and fury that surrounds us with more compassion and less anger. I think of an episode of the famous literary detective Hercule Poirot that I watched not long ago. In it he solves a murder before it even takes place, saving an unfortunate friend whose life was falling apart from total ruination. It’s time that we return to love, even for those that we do not understand,. We must notice the suffering people among us even when they appear to be ugly and unhinged. Let the crows be raucous. We should be kind. Promote love even for those we do not understand. Maybe in the process we will prevent evil from taking root in a misguided and tortured mind.

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! 

Our Angel

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My youngest daughter had little idea how difficult it would become for her to have children. The women in our family tended to be hardy souls who were models of the old frontier stock who laid down next to a covered wagon to birth a child and then continued on the journey. I had joked with both of my girls to be careful because we seemed to have DNA that led to pregnancy if we did little more than glance sideways at a man. I came from a family of women who without birth control might have mothered ten or more children. It seemed inevitable that having children would be one of the certainties of my girls’ realities.

When boasting about our seemingly genetic fertility I didn’t take all of the members of our family tree into account. I knew little or nothing about my paternal great grandmother who died from childbirth. I didn’t really consider the large number of only children in my husband’s family. Because having a successful pregnancy had been a walk in the park for me I never thought that either of my children would find the task to be daunting, but I was wrong. 

Just a few months before my youngest had been married for a year, she announced that she was pregnant. There were few visible signs of the child growing inside of her, but as with all women she had felt the subtle changes in her body, and a doctor had confirmed her suspicions to her utter glee. Her celebrating ended unexpectedly and abruptly when she miscarried shortly after she had so happily told us of her joy.

I had never had such an experience and I fumbled to comfort her in a meaningful way. It was my dear friend, Pat, who came to the rescue. She had been in my daughter’s shoes, and she knew exactly what to say to her. She wrote a long letter of support to my girl, accompanied by a care package filled with goodies that were meant to bring succor and understanding. A bond grew between those two women that only mothers of little angels who don’t quite make it into this world ever truly understand. I was so grateful for the love and counseling that Pat so willingly gave to my own child. I knew that my girls was hurting beyond my capacity to speak the words that she needed.

Sadly my daughter’s saga was to be filled with one disappointment after another. She learned soon enough that getting pregnant and keeping that condition was almost impossible for her. One terrible loss after another occurred until she was seeking help in a fertility clinic in Chicago. The doctor was renowned for his ability to help women to bear children, but he was honest about my daughter’s chances and they were not particularly good.

Over time she endured hormone shots, and multiple treatments that threw her body into a continuous cycle of hope and loss. Finally she and her husband and her physician agreed to try in vitro fertilization. It was risky and there were no guarantees, but nothing else had come even close to working so she endured yet another treatment. Not long after, on a cold February day she got the news that she was pregnant with two children. The tulip bulbs that her husband had given her for Valentine’s day had bloomed at that very moment with two perfect flowers. She took that as a sign that the spirit of her first angel baby was reaching out to her, assuring her that this time things would be okay.

It was a difficult pregnancy, made worse by the worry that stalked her. She and her husband had worked so hard to get to this point, and they prayed as each month passed that their babies would make it to become healthy enough to enter the world. It seemed as though their entreaties had been answered until my girl went into early labor, so early that the probability of her children having grievous health problems was almost certain.

My daughter lay in the hospital hearing dire predictions from her doctors. Her children might be born without the ability to breathe properly. They might endure brain damage, become blind. It was a terrifying time but in a miraculous moment that not even the doctors were able to explain her labor suddenly stopped. She spent the remaining many weeks on full bed rest emotionally willing her children to grow healthy and strong. They would ultimately be premature and tiny at their births, but they were mostly healthy in spite of some lingering problems. Today those same babies are in high school. They are brilliant and beautiful and loving. They have a little brother who surprised everyone as a miracle who wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

My daughter still speaks of her four children. She knows that there is a baby in heaven watching over her, a child who may have even been the angel who guarded her through all of those difficult times. Now that little one has been joined by Pat, the woman who gave her the courage to soldier through her difficult journey toward motherhood. My baby girl who is fully a woman and devoted mother herself knows how blessed she has been, and she understands in the deepest way the women who like her lose the little children that they so much want to bring into the world.

I never before knew that there is actually a day in October set aside to remember all of those tiny ones who were so wanted and loved by their mothers, but were not quite able to make it into our lives. Somehow it seems fitting that my sweet daughter’s twins were born in October. I find myself believing that I have had eight grandchildren, not seven, and one of them is truly our angel who has gone ahead of us into heaven.