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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All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

Throw Out the Lettuce

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During the great romaine lettuce scare there were a number of hilarious memes hitting social media circles. I loved the one that boasted that finally lettuce was dangerous to eat, but pie was a healthy option. Another spoke of how everyone immediately fell in line with the CDC warnings by tossing their romaine, but many of the same folks thought that vaccines were the work of the Illuminati. I actually posted that one because it struck me as being funny. I was somewhat surprised when I got comments that vaccines are indeed evil.

I am a baby boomer and as such my generation was the trial run for all sorts of vaccines. I remember standing in long lines at school to get the first polio vaccines. I was quite young and not exactly enamored with the idea of enduring the pain of a shot in my arm, but I knew of at least three people who had been afflicted with polio and I really did not want to end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like they were. I girded my courage and gritted my teeth in a bid to never contract that then dreaded disease.

I wasn’t as lucky with things like chickenpox and measles and mumps. There were not vaccines back then and I became ill with all three. The chickenpox were irritating beyond description and I appeared to receive a super duper dose of the sores that come from that disease. My mom gave me a bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls to ease the itching sensation but such measures actually did little to help. She eventually made me wear socks on my hands lest I scratch permanent scars into my face.

I’m a bit fuzzy about the mumps, but I do recall feeling as though I was swallowing razor blades each time that I attempted to eat or drink. I mostly slept a great deal rather than trying to deal with the pain and feverish symptoms that I had. I remember that many of the children, especially the boys, in my neighborhood came to our house so that they would purposely catch the mumps as children rather than risking to become ill with that disease when they were adults.

The worst of all of them was the measles. I came down with those when I was in the fourth grade during a very cold winter. I can’t recall a single time in all of my life when I felt as sick as I did then. I mostly slept day and night in a kind of feverish stupor. My mom kept the room dark because she had read that bright lights might cause me to go blind. When it snowed during my illness she wouldn’t even allow me to peek through the blinds to see a wonder that only comes to Houston once in a blue moon. I heard the neighborhood kids shouting and laughing with glee while I lay on my sick bed certain that I was going to die. While my mother and brothers were outside frolicking in the snow I cheated and glanced outside. Then I spent the rest of my two week sickness fearing that I was going to lose my sight because of my transgression.

My grandfather often told of his family’s experience with smallpox. He described the event in such vivid detail that I was ecstatically happy that I lived in a time when that horrific disease had been generally eradicated by immunizations. The injection for smallpox was the creepiest of all that I ever received. My left arm soon scabbed over with an oozing sore that I protected with a plastic guard. When it finally healed I had a scar that eventually faded away, but in the beginning it made me fully understand what my grandfather meant when he noted that the people who survived smallpox often had marks all over their faces that told of their battle with the disease. He said that his own father had appeared to be in danger of losing his nose in the height of his sickness, and was even told that death was near for him. Somehow he miraculously survived, but the terror of the illness stuck with my grandfather for all of his life.

There is a growing trend among people to decline vaccinations in fear of secondary complications. While I suppose that such things are possible, I also worry that if enough people follow this way of thinking we may begin to witness outbreaks of some of the diseases from the past more often. In most cases the immunizations’ problems far outweigh the results.

My own daughters have been fortunate to never have to deal with the pain of mumps or measles. Now even chickenpox is covered. It is rare to see anyone with polio, but in my day we saw many children and adults whose lives were changed by that disease. I would never want to go back to a time when we just took our chances with the possibility of contracting terrible illnesses that sometimes indeed lead to a lifetime of suffering or even death.

I know that there are numerous arguments against having so many different immunizations, and I suspect that nature may even find a way to overcome the preventive measures that we have set in motion. Still, it is imperative that we be wary of risking a return to days when children in particular were less likely to survive childhood intact because of diseases that were almost certain to affect them. I’m just old enough to understand that our ability to control the spread of so many illnesses is a rather recent phenomenon.

We are living in a time during which predictions indicate that more and more of us may live past one hundred years. Medicine has done wondrous things to make our existences less uncertain. I’m already well past the median life expectancy of the year in which I was born. Miracles are indeed happening that were unheard of back then. So throw out the romaine lettuce and keep getting the immunizations that doctors recommend. It’s an easy decision.

Confessions To Santa

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Santa has come to town. I saw it with my own eyes when I watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I learned long ago that I better not lie or he just might leave me lumps of coal on Christmas Day. Since I have absolutely no use for lumps of coal I suppose that the time has come for me to be totally honest about a few things.

I keep talking about my new healthy lifestyle and how great it makes me feel, but if I am one hundred percent honest I have to admit that I still miss a number of foods and lifestyles that I have attempted to forego. I haven’t prepared mashed potatoes or gravy for well over a year and I am known for making the yummiest versions on the planet. I long for a big heaping plate of butter filled potatoes with a well of gravy that is so full that it drizzles down the sides. There is no better comfort food on planet earth other than maybe macaroni and cheese. Not that I mention it I might note that I’ve given up all forms of pasta with cheesy sauces even though I do love such delights so much. My mouth is watering at the mere thought of how yummy cheesy dishes are.

I have to look away whenever I pass a donut shop, or see the long line of cars going through a drive through at Popeye’s Chicken on Tuesday bargain days. In the Hill Country of Texas I pretend that I am not the least bit interested in having a kolache, even though my mouth waters at the very sight of one filled with cherries or apples. I sometimes dream of enjoying a gigantic cinnamon roll with a cup of steaming hot tea. I don’t really know what a sugar plum is, but visions of butter pecan ice cream dance through my head even in the winter. I truly wonder if I will have the fortitude to avoid Borden’s egg nog over the holidays. The list of transgressions that I would like to make goes on and on, and I start pouting which is also a big no no when it comes to Santa Claus.

Everyone who is even minimally familiar with me recalls that I truly delight in an ice cold Diet Coke. I became habitually addicted to that drink when I first began having migraine headaches. I found it to be a quick fix for the nauseating symptoms that would overtake me without warning. Before long I was “medicating” myself with a Diet Coke first thing in the morning, at lunch time, and in the afternoon. After spending two years rebuilding bone by injecting myself with Forteo each day it seemed a bit ridiculous to potentially undo all of my hard work by drinking sodas, so at the beginning of February last year I went cold turkey on Diet Coke. I haven’t had one in all of that time, but my mind still longs for the way it calmed my headaches and felt so right with certain foods. I keep wondering when or even if I will ever be able to attend a party, enjoy some TexMex or watch a movie in a theater without longing for my one time favorite drink. Water is good and good for me, but sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.

I cheat with my eating mostly when I take a trip or go out with other people. I can’t enforce the strict rules that I usually apply to myself when I’m at home. Sadly I find that my body totally rebels when I do so, and I have to begin anew to cleanse myself of the offending foods. I gain three or five pounds in a single day and turning back is always difficult. I try to be steadfast in my determination to be healthy, but it can be a battle when everyone is ordering coconut cream pie or berry cobbler. Fasting from such luxuries is almost impossible in those cases and I cave in to group pressure. It then takes me two weeks to get back into the program.

The holiday season is coming. I know that the temptations will be overwhelming. I’ll try to offset my transgressions with more exercise. I’ll work a little harder at the gym, another activity that I have to admit is sometimes annoying to have to do. I always feel very good after I go, but it’s so easy to procrastinate and make excuses for skipping a day here and there. I whine that it’s unfair that I can’t eat whatever I wish, sit on my tush reading or watching movies all day, and still say fit and trim. I don’t like how I feel when I am bad, but I am so tempted to just throw in my hat and to be that way. After all, I’m seventy years old. Why should I have to be so fastidious with my diet and exercise?

Then I know that I must stay determined to keep to my regimen going as much as possible, so that when I have opportunities to fudge just a bit, it won’t be a disaster. I know that I can’t live like a monk all of the time. It is okay to take one cookie as long as I follow up with a walk. A wedge of pumpkin pie won’t kill me if I cut back on the sugar and carbs the rest of the time. The one thing that I will not do is take even a sip of Diet Coke because my craving for it is still so strong that I fear what will happen if I do. I now get my caffeine from nice warm mugs of Earl Grey or some Lusianne tea over ice now and again. Most of the time I now crave water instead. It’s my new habit, and one that is far better than any I have had in the past.

I feel much better now that I have admitted my weaknesses. I suppose that in confessing to Santa I have also realized that I am somehow managing to control my imperfections, while also indulging my cravings only once in awhile rather than as a routine. I do want to be strong, so I will push myself even when I truly don’t want to do so. I’m not so much worried about finding coal under my tree on Christmas day as learning that my bad habits have affected my health. It feels too good to feel good.

Happy Birthday To Me

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By the end of this weekend I will have turned seventy years old. It’s a bit of a milestone. Most of the classmates with whom I attended school have already crossed that bridge. It’s far older than the average lifespan of people determined by actuarial science in the year that I was born. It’s a rather sobering sounding number by anyone’s standards, and for the first time in my life it actually seems to indicate that I am growing old.

I suppose that it would be best to accept my fate since it is the most natural of events. In fact, being able to add another year, another decade to my history is cause for celebration. In a time not that far past being seventy was not that common. It would have landed me among a blessed few. Still, I have to admit that reaching that age is a bit unnerving, not so much for superficial reasons, but because the unknown becomes a bit more murky after the age of seventy. It is indeed a very good idea for me to hold tight to every single day that remains in the rest of my life, for it is uncertain how many they will be, and certain that they are growing fewer with each passing year.

Save for accidents, wars, or natural disasters I have two possible scenarios for living out my days. One side of my family tends to enjoy good health until about the age of eighty when things fall apart. Most of the people in that group either suffered from heart disease, which I do not have, or they became afflicted with cancer like my mother, and both of my grandmothers. The other branch of my family lives very long lives, well into their nineties and beyond, and mostly in relatively good health with the ability to read and think and discuss clearly. My grandfather was literally in almost perfect condition until he celebrated his one hundred eighth birthday. I now have three aunts, siblings of my mother, who are living well past their mid nineties and slowly but surely approaching the one hundred mark. It remains to be seen which group I am most like, but given my present condition it appears that I more closely resemble the latter.

That realization gets me to a point of concern, for I vividly recall my grandfather quietly noting that growing as old as he did has the capacity of bringing sadness into an otherwise optimistic life. By the time of his death all of my grandfather’s children save one had died. His beloved spouse had been gone for thirty years. He had depleted his savings and lived from one month to the next on a ridiculously low government check. While he admitted to being fortunate because he was able to live independently until the final few months of his life, he still felt more and more alone as each passing year brought a new one. He missed the friends and family members who had one by one gone before him. In particular the death of his children was a sobering blow. He was blessed to be able to rent a room from a dear woman who became such a friend that he called her daughter, and rightly so. Still, he admitted that he had grown weary and was ready to get to heaven.

Long life is surely a blessing and I intend to enjoy mine and pray for good health in the coming years, but I’ve actually reached an age at which I am beginning to comprehend my grandfather more and more. He was a joyfully optimistic man, but I understood the worries that he hid so gallantly behind a curtain of courage. His conversations in the later years centered on nostalgia, and a kind of folksy wisdom that he wished to impart to us. As he continued to be with us year after year he became almost immortal and saintly in our minds. It was just as shocking when he died as it might have been at a far earlier age. We mourned the loss of a truly great man, but also understood how selfish it would have been to keep him with us any longer.

I suppose that these are somewhat dreary thoughts on a birthday weekend, and this is truly the first time that a new year of life has brought me such musings. There is something about the number seventy that tells me that I must enjoy each day with far more gusto than ever before. I must embrace my friends and my family and somehow let them know how much they mean to me with every single encounter.

Today the world is brilliantly beautiful to me with its vibrance and possibilities. There has never been a time in my life when technology, medicine, science and creative arts promised so much to even the most common human. Like my grandfather before me I see the past, present and future with new eyes. I understand that even as we quibble with one another and face problems that never seem to end, these truly are “the good old days.”

Mankind is without question a magnificent piece of work. I can see clearly beyond the ugliness and my view from this point in my life is glorious. I suppose that I realize that life itself is my most precious gift, and though my joints ache on most days, I am still filled with an inner energy that takes me to glorious places in my mind. I have learned like my grandfather that the world has a way of righting itself in spite of the quarrels that we create. The young take our places and lead us into a future that will no doubt only get better, without walls or artificial divisions. That sounds very nice, and I intend to go joyfully forward and push my concerns aside for another day. Happy Birthday to me!