The Final Entry

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I regularly watch the first thirty minutes of Sunday Morning on CBS while I prepare for church each week. It’s generally an informative and upbeat program  with interesting human interest stories that make me think or laugh or even cry. This past Sunday featured a segment on a young girl named Alexandra who had committed suicide by throwing herself off of an overpass bridge. After her body was found her parents also became aware of journals that she had kept that were filled with vivid descriptions of the angst that drove her to kill herself.

Up until the moment of the gruesome discovery of Alexandra and her diaries nobody, not even her parents or her closest friends, had any idea that she was so troubled. She appeared to be a happy successful high school junior with a sweet smile and a joyful laugh that filled her parent’s world with a feeling of being especially blessed. She was an A student who was so well liked by her classmates that they had elected her to one of the class offices. She wanted to major in engineering in college and to that end she belonged to the school robotics team that had only recently qualified for the international finals. She was a favorite of her teachers, one of whom indicated that she was possibly the number one or number two student that he had ever taught in his twenty years in the classroom. What nobody seemed to know was how desperate and worthless Alexandra actually felt.

She had a checklist of things she needed to accomplish to get in M.I.T., her dream school. She was striving to be the valedictorian of her class and to score high on entrance exams. In her journals she confessed that she felt as though she was a failure, valueless, unmotivated and unhappy. She hid her worries and her depression from her parents even though she spent time lots with them and talked openly with them about her life and her aspirations and her feelings, only what she told them was far different from what she recorded on paper. Everyone saw her as one of those extraordinary teenagers that every parent and educator hopes to have, while she saw herself  as a hopeless loser.

Alexandra’s English teacher, like her parents, was stunned by her death. He still wonders what signs he might have missed that would have allowed him to help his beloved student. So also was the school counselor who had never sensed the depths of Alexandra’s desperation. Her best friends were also left wondering how their pal had managed to hide her feelings from everyone. She was a golden girl in everyone’s eyes the lines in the notebooks described how overwhelmed she actually was.

I have spent the majority of my life advocating for care for those afflicted with mental illness and for the students that I have taught.  I have often uncovered problems with my pupils before they escalated to a point from which there might have been no return. I used my observational skills to ascertain that one of my students was self harming herself. I saw another student’s outbursts not as disregard for authority, but a cry for help. I was particularly good at ferreting out the truth behind student behaviors of all sorts, but there were still moments when I missed all of the signs. Those times were particularly difficult because I truly cared for all of kids, even those who gave me grief. They were like my children and I wanted to be a person of understanding and compassion for them, but sometimes my they were hiding the truth of their feelings from me and everyone else. They put on Academy Award level performances designed to hide the pain that they were feeling.

I suppose that the key to really knowing a person comes in keeping the lines of communication wide open. Teens and young adults need to know without reservation that it is safe to ask for help, admit mistakes, discuss worries. Adults need to ask themselves if even the students who appear to be handling challenges are pushing themselves too much. As parents and teachers we must continually have discussions regarding how much work/life balance our youngsters have. As a team we can indeed work to alleviate some of the pressures and fears that plague their journeys to becoming adults. We can start with very frank discussions and a willingness to really listen between the lines to what our kids are telling us. They need to know that we do not expect perfection and that erring is not failure but an opportunity to learn, We must be certain that we are not making them feel trapped in a whirlwind of unreasonably high expectations.

Years ago Rice University, sometimes known as the Harvard of the south, was the suicide capitol of universities. The numbers of students killing themselves was so dramatically high as to cause the board of directors to ask what the reasons might be. They found that the university in general focused almost exclusively on competition and grades with little or no regard for social skills and psychological health. Brilliant students were continually made to feel inadequate as they were quantified and ranked and pushed beyond their endurance. It was only after dramatic efforts were made to help students to achieve a realistic balance of work and pleasure that the rate of self inflicted deaths began to drop. Not long ago the university was even named as one of the happiest  campuses in the country, an honor that spoke to the hard work of truly concerned educators who had worked together to find ways of developing the whole individual.

Alexandra’s parents have made their daughter’s writing public. They lecture at high schools  and parent meetings. Their advice is that we must be watchful of every young person for signs that our systems are devouring them. They believe that if their daughter’s tragic story saves even one more life her words will not have been in vain.

Alexandra’s final entry was addressed to her parents. She insisted that they not blame themselves. Of course as loving parents they do, as is also true of everyone who loved this precious girl.

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May the Road Rise Up To Meet You

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This weekend there will be grand St. Patrick Day celebrations in Boston, New York City, Chicago,  New Orleans and all across the United States. There will be many a river died green and folks will don their emerald colored clothing lest they be pinched. Lots of corned beef and cabbage will be the dish of the day along with beer and soda bread. It’s a fun occasion and everybody gets into the act even if they don’t have an Irish bone in their bodies.

It was not until a few years back that I discovered that I am a descendant of the real article. My great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a true Irish name if ever there was one. I know little more than that she existed, married my great grandfather James Mack, had a baby boy that she named William, and died only a few days after giving birth. That baby boy was my paternal grandfather, a man who like me would often think of his mother and wish that he had known her. She is a kind of mystery in that she doesn’t show up on census records or death certificates of the time. Nobody knows for certain why she died, but my grandfather would never forget her, one day naming his daughter “Marion” in her honor.

I’ve searched record after record hoping to know her better. A general discussion of her name mentions that Roarks are probably descendants of a Viking  named Ruaric who found his way to the Emerald Isle and stayed to build a life and a legacy in a territory known as Breffny, now Cavan and West Leitrim located in Northeastern Ireland. The Roark family was at one time quite powerful in Ireland and their motto was “I govern by serving.” Over time famine and poverty drove many of them to seek new possibilities in places like the United States. I suppose that I will never really know how Marion got here and where she met James Mack. Somehow though I suspect that through her DNA her spirit and maybe even her physical characteristics live on in members of our family.

It makes me sad to know that she died before ever getting to know her son. I think that she would have been quite proud of the man that he ultimately became. She might have enjoyed knowing that she had a granddaughter and a grandson. Surely my father with his intellect and impish sense of humor would have brought her the same kind of joy that I derive from my own grandchildren. I wonder if it is possible that the twinkle in my youngest grandson William’s eyes is part of his Irish heritage. Is the quick wit of my brother Patrick right in keeping with Marion’s ethnicity? Surely he has the perfect name for the great grandson of an Irish lass, as do his own sons Ryan and Shawn.

When I gave birth to my first daughter I had a long labor of over eighteen hours that was complicated by the fact that my baby weighed more than nine pounds and was determined to arrive in a breech position. My doctors eventually got her facing in the right direction, but he told me that in the days of yore I might not have made it. When the same thing happened with my second child he asked if I knew of anyone in my family who had experienced a similar situation. I never thought of my great grandmother Marion but now I wonder if her labor and been similar to mine. Without a hospital, nurses, and a highly trained doctor the delivery may have been so difficult as to render her weak and unable to rebound.

I try not to get too sad thinking about Great Grandmother Marion. Instead I prefer to celebrate the ancestry that she gave me. I like to think of how she must have loved her baby boy William if only for a very short time. I suspect that her life was always a bit difficult but she had found some joy with James and hope for the future with William. Her son was a very handsome and articulate man, a storyteller and gifted craftsman. Did some of those traits come from her?

Now I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a new feeling that I am very much entitled to this annual fest by birth right. This year I have bangers from Ireland that I will try along with some cabbage and potatoes. I may make a trip to Central Market for some Irish soda bread like my dear friend Marita Doyle used to bake. She would get a kick out of knowing that the two of us now share a link to Ireland because she was an Irish girl from Chicago through and through.

In a touch of irony my grandfather William ended up being raised by his grandmother Sarah Reynolds. I find that interesting because when I was teaching at a local Catholic school I worked with a fine woman named Therese Reynolds who spoke with a lovely  brogue and had the same kind of humor that runs from my grandfather down to my youngest grandson. Like my grandfather she was a teller of tales that were filled with blarney and fun. She once gave me a beautiful copy of the Irish Blessing that hangs in the entryway to my home. I’ve always been taken by it’s words and now I know that it is part of my heritage. So on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day I pray:

May the roads rise to meet you,

May the winds be always at your back,

May sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.

A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.