The Dragonfly

Dragonfly

I have a friend who lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. It was an incredibly sad and gut wrenching time for her and her family, but she somehow managed to find great courage and a noble spirit from deep inside her soul during the frightening time when her child fought to stay alive. Her acts of love in the little boy’s final moments were touching, inspirational and heart breaking to all of us who know her. In a beautiful act of remembrance this devoted mother has never forgotten her baby boy who would have been six years old had he lived, a child who might have been entering first grade and embarking on educational and athletic adventures. With each passing year the family holds a celebration of his brief life with a visit to his gravesite and a birthday cake marking the passing of time during which they have never forgotten the blessings that he brought them with his very condensed life. This year was no exception, and my darling friend recorded the tradition with photos on Facebook and a lovely story that seemed to make the occasion even more special than ever.

This woman is a school administrator, and this is a very busy time of year for her thus she had waited until the last minute to purchase a little birthday cake to commemorate her angel son. When she went to the bakery at the grocery store that she frequents the cake decorators had all gone home for the day. The only available cakes were generic and she wanted so much to have her little boy’s name written on the confection. When she told her story to the employees they went into action determined to grant her request, even though none of them had ever written with icing before. They scurried around until they had found the frosting and the tools that they needed, and practiced scribing before finally feeling confident enough to place the baby’s name on the cake of remembrance. It was a moment of shared love and respect between strangers who had come to understand one another all because of a little boy whose life, however brief, had somehow transformed his family and friends.

Life can be glorious if we open ourselves to it, and my friend has certainly done that. She understands perhaps a bit better than many of us that we have to embrace and experience every possible second of the beauty of our existence. She has turned her hurt and pain into a model of compassion for everyone that she encounters. Her caring spirit is so apparent that she impacts people wherever she goes. She has learned through tragedy how truly important people and relationships are. She cherishes each precious second of every day, and turns her world into a moveable feast of joy.

We humans sometimes have a tendency to lose faith and bathe ourselves in anger and jealousy. We compare our lot to others and often find ourselves lacking, so we brood over our desire for things that we believe that we too should have. Rather than finding ways to enjoy what is present, we seek more and more. Sometimes that quest actually binds us to a never ending search for satisfaction that makes us anxious and unfulfilled. We somehow never stop long enough to take stock of the most wondrous aspects of our lives, and so we fret and worry and become convinced that we have somehow been battered by unfairness.

Our real riches are always found in those profound moments when we are able to connect in an almost spiritual manner with the people around us. The Sunday afternoon visit of a grandchild delighting us with her uncomplicated curiosity and discovery is worth more than a bag of gold. Hearing her laugh and observing her openness to the world reminds us of how we too should live. We feel the innocence and love that she radiates so unconditionally and we know that there is still great hope for the world, even in the darkest hours.

I suspect that those employees who went out of their way to help a mom who had experienced one of the most difficult losses that anyone must endure left work on that day feeling as though they had been given a special gift. They understood that somehow they had made a difference to my friend and her family, and that kind of feeling is the stuff of which our greatest joys are made. At the end of any day each of us needs to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, so we should always be open to the possibilities that are always there. The way we choose to react from moment to moment provides us with the opportunity to truly embrace life and the people that we encounter. If we smile rather than frown, strive to help rather than hinder, love rather than hate we make the changes that will ultimately bring us the happiness that we seek.

My dear friend has taken great sadness and disappointment and turned it into an act of supreme love. She has shown us all how to value and remember even the briefest moments of joy. She might have been bitter and enraged over the loss of her beautiful child, but she has instead transformed her hurt and pain into a beautiful lesson for all of us. the dragon fly has become her personal symbol of her angel child. Like that graceful and delicate insect, little Jhett was not long for this world, but in his brief time on earth he gave so much joy to those who loved him. Because of the realizations that came to my friend as she held that tiny baby in her arms she has gone beyond the superficialities of life and understands its deeper meanings. With elegance and grace she dazzles all of us with the clarity with which she has learned to view life by living so fully in the moment and appreciating every second of every day. We might all learn from her and begin to treasure what has always been all around us without our ever noticing. 

   

They Dance Alone

IMG_1914-e1373088974248For days now They Dance Alone, a song from Sting, has been playing in my head. It begins with the words, Why are these women dancing on their own? Why is there sadness in their eyes? It refers to those who were widowed by the war of revolution, but it might apply to anyone who has lost a spouse.

I’ve always imagined that I have enough empathy to truly understand what it is like to lose that person who has been one’s best friend, soulmate, lover. I thought I had the concept down pat until my own husband had a stroke. Just seeing him become so vulnerable nearly brought me to my knees, and even though he is still with me I find myself constantly looking for him and listening to him breathe at night. Having him gone forever is unimaginable. I now know that I did not ever truly understand what it has been like for friends and relatives whose spouses or partners are already gone. I now feel the raggedness of the hole that punctures the heart. I think of those who dance alone constantly.

I remember the devastation that my mother endured after my father died. Only now do I think that I am moving closer to understanding the extent of her emotional breakdown. I find myself wondering how she found the strength to pull herself together. I suspect that it was only her love for her children that pushed her to rise up from the despair that she must surely have felt.

Not long ago I attended the funeral of a young man who once lived next door to me. I still think of him as a cute and friendly teenager who was always eager to help. He was far too young to die and his widow was bereft. I have since followed her on Facebook and she struggles every single day to continue without him. Now more than ever I somewhat comprehend what she is experiencing.

And so it goes. There is the young widow whose husband left on a business trip and never returned, the neighbor whose husband was sick for years but somehow overcame each challenge to his health, our dear friend whose wife died of cancer. There is my cousin whose husband passed just before Thanksgiving after years of fighting to survive heart failure, the colleague whose spouse finally fell victim to heart disease. I suddenly have a far deeper kinship with them. I feel the visceral attack that such an incident engenders.

I’ve also been thinking of the people that I know who are caring for spouses who are very very sick. A long time friend literally devotes every hour of every day to her husband who had a major stroke that left him unable to do anything for himself and attacked his brain so violently that he suffers from early onset of dementia. I have been watching the courage and grace of my son-in-law’s mom who has spent months visiting one doctor after another with her husband. Her life has been upended and yet she keeps a smile on her face and demonstrates a level of optimism that inspires everyone. Still another friend has been caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s for many years now. She literally has to plan for someone to be with him each time she leaves home. I also have a cousin who has been watching over her husband who has Parkinson’s disease for longer than I can remember. These women are so remarkable and before now I underestimated the love and devotion that they so generously share with their husbands.  It’s so difficult to think of the fear that they have somehow managed to subdue as they watch their loved ones suffer through their illnesses.

The old saw that we sometimes see our lives flash in front of us is all too real. During the days since my husband’s stroke I have literally thought back on the first time that I met him when he was so handsome and enchanting and I got that tingle of love each time I saw him. I’ve had flashbacks of him holding our girls when they were babies. I’ve remembered the times when he helped me hold it together when my mother was very sick. I’ve relived every single trip that we ever took. It is as though the chronicles of our time together have played in my mind like a biographical movie. In my heart I have laughed and cried and always in the end I worry, which is sadly so much a part of my nature. I once again have been feeling that little tingle of unadulterated love just at the sight of him. I also find myself thinking of all of those people who dance alone.

I just attended a wedding in Cancun where two people began their lives together. They celebrated their love and I thought even then of how happy I was to be there with the love of my life. In just a little over a year we will have been married for fifty years. He has been the most important person in my world for so long now that it feels impossible to ever be without him.

I have great faith that his stroke was only a warning of what might be if we are not more careful. We will change our ways and do everything possible to help him to heal and become stronger. It will be a partnership as we work our way back to a healthy lifestyle. Our friends and family will be with us. Of this I am certain. We are surrounded by prayers and positive thoughts and love. Still I feel guilty that I never fully appreciated the gravity of loss until this moment. I was cavalier in believing that I was somehow so sensitive that I might comprehend what they were feeling. Now I know that I wasn’t even close. I need to send lots of love to the people whose hearts have been rent in two. I have to congratulate them on being so strong, often without the level of compassion that they really needed. Now I know why there has been sadness in their eyes. I feel how awful it must be to dance alone. I promise to remember them.

It’s All Good

Newsslett_COP2If ever there was someone who had every right to complain about the cards that life dealt her it would have been my mom. At thirty she was a happily married woman with three children who were the center of her universe. Overnight her entire world changed. She woke up to a shocking phone call informing her that her husband of eleven years had died in a car accident. She had little money in the bank, no car, no job and was so consumed with grief that she struggled just to wake up and face each day. From somewhere deep inside her soul she found the grit that she needed to move forward, coping with the challenging lifestyle of a single parent with so much aplomb that she managed to earn a college degree and become a highly respected figure in the community.

It would have been fine if her story had ended on such a high note but it was not to be her destiny to lead an uncomplicated life. Instead she was eventually afflicted with the debilitating symptoms of bipolar disorder and that illness would stalk her for the remainder of her life. She would struggle to keep her health and to balance her checkbook. From the outside looking in, hers appeared to be a dreary battle just to stay afloat in a sea of health and financial troubles. The cycle of debilitating challenges might have defeated most ordinary people, but my mom was not so inclined. In fact, I can’t think of a single time when she became so low that she was willing to just give up. In fact, even in her darkest states of depression she cried not for herself but for the pain that she saw others enduring. In regard to her own situation she remained ever optimistic, convinced that she was a special child of God and that He would provide for her.

I was often angry that my mother seemed to be the target of the fates. It bothered me that her very existence was so difficult. I raged over the facts of her life and its unfairness. Oddly she would smile and console me, assuring me that she was quite content. She would recount her blessings, which seemed so meager to me, as though she had been the recipient of great wealth. It took so little to make her happy, and everyone who ever knew her was infected by her laughter and almost childlike generosity. I never quite understood how she was able to maintain such a positive outlook on life given the relentless pounding that she received. Her faith that all was exactly as it was supposed to be was unending.

I was watching a bit of Joel Osteen’s weekly sermon at Lakewood Church a few weekends ago entitled, “It’s All Good.” He spoke of the premise that it is only when we are able to see the totality of our lives that we begin to realize that there is a beautiful plan for each of us that makes perfect sense. When we are focused only on a particular moment we may be unable to understand the reasons for the events that have happened. We instead harbor anger about those instances when the trajectory of our existence appears to be rushing downward. We forget the good times and somehow feel as though we will never again be able to see the light of our lives. We become discouraged, sometimes even shouting at God about our discontent. We don’t notice what we have, only what we lack. He argued that if we were able to step back just a bit we might see that in truth “it’s all good.”

I find the idea of every situation being part of an “all good’ totality to be a somewhat simplistic idea that I personally struggle to embrace, but I know for a fact that it defines the way my mother chose to live. She did not believe it was up to her to question the events that conspired to bring her down. Instead she always accepted her realities and then dealt with them as best she could, confident that her God was always right behind her, ready to catch her if she started to fall. Again and again she rallied against forces that might have defeated most of us. I can’t help but believe that her willingness to trust in God without reservation was the main reason that hers was ultimately an extraordinary life. She had somehow taken to heart the idea that “it’s all good.”

I am not as faithful in my religious fervor as she was. I am as doubting as Thomas the apostle. I see the pain of the world and seriously wonder why a higher power would allow it to even exist. It seems a bit ludicrous to suggest that we should all strive to find the good even in our darkest moments, and yet I have seen the power of such willingness to surrender in the saintly glow of my mother’s eyes as she was drawing her last breaths. It is a vision that haunts my thoughts because it tells me that she somehow found the very secret of how to live well that we all seek.

It doesn’t stop with my mother. I saw it in my mother-in-law as well. I have found it in some of my former students like Danny, Jezael, Shaun and Martin. Such people possess an intangible aura of positivity that literally radiates from their very beings. They approach the world not with worries about themselves but continual concern for others. They have found the golden ring that allows them to seize each day with a sense that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

I have to admit that I would so love to become like them. Most of us really do fight battles with ourselves that cannot be won. We lose sight of the endgame and get caught up in the babble and strife of daily living. We forget to be truly thankful for whatever we have, even if it is only the fact that we woke up for one more day.

Perhaps those who face the greatest challenges life are better able to appreciate the small moments of beauty. My mother-in-law had a heart condition that was supposed to shorten her life by decades. She felt an imperative to pack as much into every single minute as possible, and so she did. She did not have time to become mired in the pettiness that so often distracts us. Like my mother she saw her troubles as a gift that allowed her to see her destiny and purpose more clearly. She drew every single breath with profound appreciation.

Life is filled with both wonder and ugliness. How we choose to deal with each aspect is up to us. Perhaps we can learn from those who emerge again and again from the ashes with unwavering hope. I suspect that they have somehow learned that when all is said and done “it’s all good.”

The Angels We Call Mother

Baby-touching-mothers-hand.jpgWe each begin our lives inside our mothers’ wombs. We hear their heartbeats and share the nutrients they consume. We give them heartburn and send them scurrying to the ladies room so often that those jaunts become a form of exercise. Sometimes their hormones change so quickly and dramatically that they wake up feeling lightheaded and nauseous. Their bodies change with each passing week. They think that they look like beached whales, but everyone sees them as the beautiful women that they are. Their faces glow with the loveliness of anticipation. They laugh and stroke their bellies each time we kick or stretch our legs. We love them already because they keep us safe in the quiet little world inside their wombs. When it is time to leave our comfortable havens they must endure pain, but they don’t really mind. They are anxious to see us and to begin our lifelong relationships in earnest.

We depend on our mothers. They feed us and keep us clean and dry. They watch over us with love and deep affection. They are our first teachers and entertainers. They laugh at our antics and smile when they see our faces. They spend sleepless nights as we attempt to adjust to our new environment. We seem to be constantly hungry and in need of comfort, and they are ready to provide us with whatever we require. They do not complain. They are more than happy to spend so much of their time just loving us. They are our biggest fans. They enjoy our every move and think that we are remarkable simply for existing. They photograph us and record our milestones. They are our biographers and best friends.

Eventually we mature enough to walk away from our mothers. We go to school and interact with friends our age. We want to be independent, on our own. We think that we don’t need our mothers anymore. We assert ourselves and insist that we want to be left to fend for ourselves. Our mothers’ step back just a bit. They allow us to explore, but they are never really far away. They watch from a distance, ready to save us if we get into a precarious position. They still come into our rooms to check on us in the still of night. They provide us with the guidance that we need in spite of our objections. They love us more and more with each passing moment.

The day comes when we leave our mothers’ homes for good. We launch our careers and maybe even find someone to love in a romantic way. Perhaps we will have our own children and begin to comprehend better than ever just how much our mothers did for us. We see them in a different light as we realize the sacrifices that they made just so we might be comfortable and happy. We now share some of the feelings that they had. We understand their worry, their pride and their unrelenting love.

As we grow older, so do our mothers, but we remain their beloved children. Even as their strength and energy fails they fret over us. They need to know that we are doing fine. Their final thoughts are about us, and they pray that they have taught us well enough that we will carry on without them. Mothers give us the gift of themselves and provide us with both roots and wings.

One day a year is never enough to show our gratitude for our mothers. Somehow our efforts to honor them are never quite equal to the thousands of wonderfully selfless moments that they have given us, but we try nonetheless to show them how we feel if we are lucky enough to still have them here on earth.

I think of my mother often and miss her so. She had a smile and a laugh that lit up a room. She devoted most of her adult life to me and my brothers, serving as both mother and father after our dad died. Virtually every decision that she made was based on consideration of our welfare. She did a remarkable job of parenting and I doubt that we ever thanked her enough. I hope she knew that we thought that she had hung the moon.

I look at old black and white photos of my mother and I am stunned by how young she was when she became pregnant with me. In every picture she is a beautiful twenty year old beaming from ear to ear expressing her joy for all the world to see. Once I was born she carefully kept a record of my first teeth, my beginning steps, my report cards, my visits to the doctor for checkups. She wrote anecdotes about my personality and talents. Her pride jumps out from the pages of the lovely baby books that she so carefully created and preserved. That careful attention to me and later to my brothers would never wane. When she was taking her last breaths she made certain that we knew of her love. She asked my husband to watch over us in her absence, a job that he has taken quite seriously. She was as wonderful a mom as ever there was and she lives on in us and in our children and grandchildren. I see glimpses of her in each of them.

Perhaps there is no more important role that a woman performs than caring for a child and guiding him/her to becoming an adult. Our mothers form the bedrock of civilization. They do their jobs with little or no fanfare, not because they must, but because it is a pleasure for them. They love us from those very first moments when they learn that we are on the way and all the way into eternity. There truly are angels and they are the ones that we call, “Mother.”

Letting Go

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“Leave your worries for awhile. They’ll still be there when you get back.” –Unknown

We admittedly have many things about which to worry in today’s world. Much to our displeasure, Russia appears to be as big a problem as Mitt Romney predicted that it would be. The entire Middle East is a hot mess. North Korea is being run by a spoiled psychopath who thinks nothing of executing uncles, brothers and generals on a whim. China is a mysterious nation whose leaders probably should not be thoroughly trusted. Venezuela is on the verge of total collapse. Terrorists are afoot and we have little idea when the next attack will occur. It seems that we can’t even enjoy a plane ride without fear of being accosted by security guards wanting to forcefully take back our seats. It’s enough to drive those of us who have a natural propensity for overthinking to throw up our hands and just surrender to to our sometimes outrageous concerns.

I come from a long line of worrywarts. My grandfather often complained that my grandmother never quite knew how to relax. She was almost always concerned that some bad thing or another might happen. She wondered if a drought would ruin the crops that they had grown or if a deluge would drown them. She fretted over whether  they would have enough money to stay afloat in their old age or how someone she loved might get hurt. She had already lost her first husband and two children to disease. When her only son, my dad, was killed in a car accident it convinced her that we all live on a dangerous precipice filled with harmful possibilities. Instead of simply enjoying her days on her farm in Arkansas she stewed virtually all of the time. I suppose that in some ways it was a habit that was part of her DNA as a woman. We ladies tend to be sometimes overly anxious about those that we love.

I remember watching my sick children in the middle of the night and staying up until my teenage girls came home from their dates. They chided me and complained that I didn’t trust them, but it was the big bad world that gave me pause, not them. I knew that there were hundreds of different dangers that they might encounter. I was never able to rest until they were safely at home in my care. Of course every mom must eventually give her babies wings to leave the nest. It is the way things must be, but it is never a comfortable thought, especially when they are far away from home. Over time I learned how to let them go and maintain a faith that all would be well, but even to this very day they are never far from my mind. Over time I’ve added thoughts of my grandchildren to the daily list of my concerns, along with former students, friends and the members of my extended family. Obviously I would be unable to operate in a normal world if I were to become too engrossed in dire predictions about all of these souls. Instead I have learned how to let go of obsessive concerns about people and situations over which I have no real control.

The only person over whom I have total power is myself. I can be the same or I can change. I am free to make choices all day long and mostly I choose to be optimistic and happy. When I am in situations over which I have no influence, the only thing that I might do is decide how I will react. I have learned the art of allowing adequate time for venting anger and for grieving over loss, but not so much that it overwhelms me. Eventually I purposely leave my worries for awhile. Even if they are still around when I return I find that I am better equipped to deal with them.

Sometimes work is the best tonic for anxiety. Other times the situation calls for a vacation from routine. We can’t really run away from our troubles but taking a break from them provides us with an opportunity to clear our heads of the cobwebs of negativity that often coexist with worry. Once we are feeling better it is amazing how much sharper our problem solving skills become. We find ways to deal with whatever has been bothering us and take the needed steps to rehabilitate ourselves.

I have found that a small amount of worry keeps us safe and on track. It is in habitual overthinking that we become lost and confused. It steals our happiness and deprives us of sleep and laughter, both necessary components of a healthy life. We need to learn what works best to chase away the noisy thoughts that crowd into our brains, keeping us from feeling joy.

I have found that exercise is one of the best medicines going. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just a walk in the neighborhood is often enough to clear the head. Sometimes silence is just what the doctor ordered, becoming so relaxed that we are literally as one with our breathing and the beating of our hearts. If we practice we can reach a state of total tranquility.

I rely on my faith in times of trouble and find comfort in reading scripture and devotionals. Silent prayers bring me much needed peace as well, but I understand that many do not have religious beliefs. There are still lovely books with reflections that teach us how to find our own inner strengths. Many of them help guide us out of our preoccupation with a crazy world that seems intent on driving us to distraction.

Having dealt with my mother’s mental illness I understand that sometimes worry becomes so all consuming that nothing seems to chase it away. There are indeed times when seeking the help of professionals is the wisest thing to do. There is nothing wrong with admitting that we need medical assistance now and again. There are therapies and drugs that are sometimes the best answer for unrelenting anxieties and obsessions.

If I have learned nothing else in almost seventy decades, it is to be very good to myself and to do whatever I need to keep myself feeling happy. Then and only then will I be of any worth to everyone else. I try to mostly surround myself with positive people and thoughts. I walk away from negative situations and individuals that I cannot change. Of course I still worry just as we all do, but I try not to allow my troublesome thoughts to overtake me. When I realize that they are becoming the central focus of my days and nights I do what I can to fix the situations from whence they came and then I do my best to move on.

Yes, the world is filled with worrisome situations but most of the time we never encounter them, so why needlessly expend our energy stewing over what might be or what is already past? Instead of listening to the voices that cause us to fret, we need to make room for the sounds that make us smile, like the laughter of children, the rain on our windows or the voices of the people that we love.