Becoming One

My sweetheart speaks often of “being one” or “becoming one” and I don’t really get it. I love him, I want to make a life with him, I am happy when we are together and I think about him and us all the time. But I am my own fiercely independent person with 6 decades and three marriages already under my belt. My individual identity has been hard won and I treasure it. The whole “becomingone” thing strikes me as the stuff of Hallmark Valentines—-hokey, cheesy, impossible and undesirable.

But he is away right now, trying a month in Florida as a baby step to transitioning out of his job and into a life that includes being warm in the winter. And during his absence we have talked more rather than less. I am not a phone person, but when the man you love is hundreds of miles away you gotta suck it up and stay in touch. He has a wonderful voice, a rich warm baritone that I am always happy to have in my ear. And sharing the minutiae of our lives in daily phone calls has brought us closer. It makes me realize how important that is in a relationship and how much I have missed it.

My first husband was a sharer and we were young together, building our lives and careers. We talked a lot and helped each other with career advice and suggestions. But there were deeper things that went unsaid; the fact that I didn’t really love him, should not have married him and that he was trying to fill the gaping love hole left by his abusive father and disconnected wife in the arms of a string of other women.

My second husband preferred me silent or in another room, or city or state. We liked each other best when he was traveling. We talked in the early days when figuring out where the land mines lay in each of our histories, but there was never anything approaching emotional intimacy.

Tom was a calm and quiet man who thought and processed for a long time before coming to dead-on conclusions. He would listen to me chatter endlessly and then say exactly what I needed to hear to feel better or take the right action. We shared everything in our lives, daily travails and triumphs, plans and hopes for the future, spontaneous desires to go here or do that. So I was brought up short by how little he wanted to speak of the biggest life event of all—dying. I badly wanted to get inside his head and assess how he was processing all of it—the shocking diagnosis, the treatment plan, the failure of same, the inevitability of an abbreviated life span. But he went silent. We faced each day, each chemo appointment, with resignation if not good humor. When told his best outcome would be 2-3 years, he dismissed that as not enough and said he would settle for 10, feeling he was being pretty reasonable to accept even that much being shaved off our years together. He seemed so sure and looked so strong that I bought into the plan and we just shelved the whole topic of dying.

I look at pictures from our last Christmas together and cannot believe I did not take in the strange cast to his skin, the look of weary knowing in his eyes, the clear signs that he was leaving me very soon. We were both determined to make our planned New Year’s trip to New York to see the country house of dear friends. Right up until a day or two before, we kept thinking we could do it. Finally his pain became so great that he said he could not sit in a car that long, that if it was a shorter trip he would make it for sure. As it turns out we went to the ER on New Year’s Day when he could no longer tolerate the pain. He stayed there for two weeks, we had one more trip to the oncologist to start yet another chemo cocktail, but she said he was too weak and sent us home to call hospice, assuring us that some people get stronger in hospice care and can start chemo again. You know you are at the end of the road when the brightest picture of the future is a chance for more horrible chemo. He died Feb. 13.

Our time together was mostly so sweet and good that I try very hard not to live on Regrets Street. But I never imagined that he would slip away into the ether without one final big talk. THE talk. The “I know you are going to be fine, sweetheart. My mom will be waiting for you as will lots of others who love you and you can join the Carpenters Club headed by one Jesus H. Christ who is sure to make you Vice President. And Alyssa and I will miss you terribly, but we will be ok. We will go on living and loving in your memory. We will hike and bike and kayak because you can’t and we will think of you and love you every single time.” And his lines would be “I know it must be wonderful where I’m going and I’m not afraid. I am so very sad to leave you, but you are strong and that lets me know you will be ok so I can leave with no worries.” And we would agree that we had been the love of each other’s lives and that we were so immeasurably grateful to God for bringing us together while also pissed at him for giving us such a short, delicious taste of human love at its finest. We would reminisce about the special times and trips and family events we’d shared and maybe linger over pictures on our phones. He would slip away on a cloud of morphine and I would hold his hand and be the last thing he saw on Earth.

But none of that happened. He went quiet months before he died and when I would gently ask if he wanted to talk he would not really even answer. He had already left me. He was doing the work of the terminally ill to separate. Also, he was afraid and determined to cling to life instead of going gently. This surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. Even before he got sick he had said “I believe we make our heaven right here on earth, by treating others well every day.” That is how he lived. How many of us can say that? No wonder he didn’t want to go.

So, with Tom I had true intimacy. He knew me to the core and loved me anyway. He accepted me exactly as I was so it was safe to show him all the warts and watch him turn them into beauty marks. I gave him all the love I had, but it was probably not as much as I received. I think he just had a bigger tank. But he taught me how to love, what it meant to open yourself completely to another human being and see only love reflected back.

John says no one has ever looked at him the way I do. I believe him. No one had ever looked at me the way Tom did—with pure love, acceptance and understanding. That is a gift I can pay forward. John deserves to be loved like that. We ALL deserve to be loved like that and now that I know how, now that my tank has been filled and refilled and topped off endlessly by my sweet departed husband, I think my mission, for however many years I might be granted on this planet, is to spread it like a blanket. OR, as Tom’s brother said at his funeral, like mulch. He encouraged all who had known Tom and basked in his love and goodness to go out and spread it like mulch. (Once a nursery owner, always a nursery owner.)

Meeting John does not feel accidental. It feels purposeful. He too has a huge love tank, but has been running on fumes for a very long time. He is so unaccustomed to having someone truly care that when I asked him how his round of golf went it took me several tries to tease out that he shot a dazzling 77. If I had shot 77 I would have posted a picture of the score card on Facebook! That’s what Facebook is FOR—unabashed bragging. But he is not a social media participant and was raised never to brag. I like being the one who gets to show him that when you share your triumphs with someone who loves you and cares about your daily interactions with the world it isn’t bragging. And as he does more of this sharing so do I and the tight little buds we are start to open into flowers and our bond grows deeper. This is all quite beautiful and breathtaking to discover anew in one’s 7th decade. I guess we just are never really done growing up. It seems there is always something new to explore or deepen or understand more fully.

I don’t really have the intention to merge my identity with his or to truly “become one.” I’ll be satisfied with becoming two who love and care for each other to our very cores. But I do like the idea that we are never done learning how to love and that as each layer is exposed and peeled back there is something even more precious underneath. What a privilege to witness another’s life and try to create a safe space for them to become their own true and best self. Even in the midst of dirty laundry and back aches and tax returns and the train wreck that is our government, this is something wonderful to hold fast to and celebrate.

A Walk in the Woods

We spent a lovely, peaceful New Year’s at the cottage in the Leelanau peninsula, for my money one of the prettiest places on earth. Alyssa and I had arrived first and taken a hike of the Leelanau Conservancy Clay Cliffs trail. It was slippery in places, but the walk through the meadow and the view of Lake Michigan from the cliffs were spectacular. Tom and I had made the same trek when the trail first opened and had little or no signage. We somehow completely missed the viewing platform at the actual cliffs and laughed like crazy later thinking we had been so dense. We went back another time and basked in the view.

He and I had also long ago taken another Conservancy trail, Houdek Dunes, that I remembered as kind of nothing burger, but the book I just bought about hikes along M-22 said some nice things so I was determined to give it another chance. I knew it did not go to the lake, but the book spoke of nice elevated views and lovely birches and pines. I extracted commitments from Alyssa and my sister to make the trek with me, but on the day after New Year’s when the sun was out, John had headed home and Franny was still sleeping, the group enthusiasm waned. I was not in my usual uber bossy/guilt-inducing mood so I decided to set out alone. I took my phone and two old walking sticks we’ve had in a closet forever but hardly used.

There were no other cars in the parking lot which gave me a moment’s pause, but I remembered that I had my phone and could always call if disaster befell me. I was properly bundled, had on the Sorrel boots that Tom had bought me and I was determined to do the entire 2.9 miles if things went well.

The trail was as advertised, peaceful with lovely trees and a path that was navigable despite lots of ups and downs. It was only icy in a few spots. I walked carefully and was glad to have my walking sticks for support on a few descents, but in general the trek was uneventful. The sun was out for quite a while and I finally had to unzip my coat as my layers were doing too good a job of holding heat in. There were several crossover points where I could’ve shortened the route and I was tempted at the last one as the sign warned that the loop ahead was “difficult”, but the stubborn Scot in me said “In for a penny, in for a pound” so on I went. It was a little longer and more arduous than I had expected, but by the end I was very glad I had seen it through.

The entire time I walked I never felt alone. There was not another soul on the path, but I had the strangest sense that Tom was right beside me. I took the opportunity to talk to him a little. To remind him how much I loved him. To thank him for introducing me to hiking and a love of the outdoors in all seasons. I’m sure he already knew I would never ever have made such a hike before I met him, but I reminded him of that also and thanked him for the sunshine, which he was famous for carrying with him like a pocket knife.

I also talked to him a little about John. I already know he would not want me to be alone and that he would recognize the good heart that John possesses and be glad of the kindness and love he shows me. Still, it is a little strange to continue to love someone so powerfully, to long for their daily presence while simultaneously forging a loving relationship with someone new. I know there is nothing unusual about this and that people who lose loved ones do it all the time—or don’t, choosing instead to live alone with the happy memories of life with their beloved. I thought I might do that, but it’s just not who I am. For better or worse (and I have definitely experienced worse) I believe I am built to pair up. I am happier being part of a couple. I like having a significant other. I like knowing someone has my back and that I have his. I like sharing experiences of all ilks and building a memory bank together.

I do wonder a bit about the whole heaven thing. I am a believer. I visited a psychic who trotted out a number of my dead relatives and said things to me on their behalf that she could not possibly have known. So I believe they are all “up there” someplace waiting for me. John is older than I am and the chances are he will get to heaven first. I have always believed Tom would be waiting for me. I am a little worried about who I will sit by! But then I keep remembering the book I read by a very learned woman who had a near-death experience and said all the questions you have, all the stuff you are so worried about finding out about just fades away. Either the answers become immediately obvious or the questions themselves become needless in the presence of all that love. I can’t really wrap my brain around that, but it sounds incredibly cool. I’m sure not in any hurry to leave this beautiful (albeit a little fucked up right now) planet and all the people here I love, but I like knowing that there is NOTHING to fear about the next chapter and I will look forward to swimming in that sea of love with all my loved ones and yours and everybody else’s. I hope it is Tommy who’s assigned the job of greeting me at the end of the white light. I’ve missed him so.

Precepts of Right Speech

 

In this season of careless, mean and harmful speech, I have been thinking a lot about words. I have been accused at various times in my life of having a sharp tongue, of not thinking before I speak, of being an occasional blurter. I have watched the faces of loved ones crumple when my words were unintentionally cutting and I have had my children complain about the harshness of my tone. During the 5 day silent retreat I attended in June, I laughed when we broke silence for a small group session and people seemed to be telling our teacher why they had come. I wasn’t sure what I would say until my turn came and then surprised myself by saying I was there to work on practicing mindful speech, which, I quickly added was pretty funny considering it was a SILENT retreat. But tears sprang to my eyes as I realized how little care I had often taken with my words and the powerful impact that our speech can have on others.

I should know better because I have suffered on the receiving end. Ken referred to my extremely poor housekeeping as “a Mary mess” but then began to use that phrase to describe anything that might go wrong with or around me. “Ah, yes another Mary mess”. These words not only stung but started to be internalized. If someone says you are something often enough it will start to seep its way into your self image. There are many stories of super models being called ugly as children, (too tall, too skinny, to unusual of features) and taking years to erase that thought from their own minds, if they ever could.

My minister interrupted the long-planned stewardship service yesterday with his take on a deeply troubling post-election incident of bullying at a local middle school. A group of 7th graders surrounded a table of Hispanic kids in the school cafeteria and began chanting “Build the Wall!” while their victims wept. As Peter pointed out, we can tell ourselves that 7th graders are wired for cruelty and not be overly alarmed, but we know better. We know the atmosphere of hate, of divisiveness that has been fostered during this election. We remember word for word the reckless, impulsive and deeply damaging speech and actions of the person the electoral college will likely choose to be the President of what is still one of the greatest nations in the world—a land of freedom and opportunity. A land where it is legal to say almost anything except “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is none. We treasure this freedom above all others for we have witnessed the very many societies where it does not exist. But it comes with a price.

The first of The Four Agreements in the brilliant book of the same name by the Toltec philosopher Don Miguel Ruiz is  “Be Impeccable with your word”. I originally interpreted this as never tell a lie and was squirming thinking of a few white ones I had told along the way, the omissions here and there, the tax returns that might contain a few inaccuracies. But that is not really what he meant. The message is to take great care with the words you choose to utter for they are powerful and can work for both good and evil. He is advocating for words chosen to uplift, to support, to comfort and to encourage both ourselves and others. He is asking that we use our words to spread love.

That is so very much harder than it seems. Many of us believe that the truth is all that is required for right speech. The truth is its own defense. If it is uncomfortable for someone to hear it—oh well, it still needs to be said because it is TRUE. This topic always reminds me of the scene in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Canada that my dad had booked for a family reunion. All family members were on their own to arrange transportation to the fairly remote site, but once there my dad was generously footing the bill for his kids and their spouses and kids. It was no small expense for a retired minister and an act of great kindness and generosity. Ken and I had experienced a number of inconveniences along our very long route and when we finally arrived in the lobby and were greeted by my very excited dad who said “How was your trip?”,  Ken replied “Perfectly dreadful.” This was true, I suppose, but in my opinion was absolutely unnecessary to share. A small white lie response of “Fine” or even” A little long, but we’re so happy to be here” would’ve been a far better choice in my opinion. Why make your host feel bad about something that is over and out of his control? There is no defense for such a response except truth and I don’t think that’s enough.

So what is right speech, anyway? Well, according to a yoga teacher of long ago, it is something that passes a three point check list, with two out of three affirmative answers required to justify speaking up:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it necessary?

If you think about applying this in daily life it makes some real sense. Maybe you are already careful and measured with your speech. If so, I truly envy you. But if you are not, this formula may prove to be helpful. Think of all the times you have had to say something hard. Your roommate is a slob and you are on the verge of moving out. Should you confront her? Is it true-yes. Is it kind-no. Is it necessary—absolutely as she will soon be paying rent alone. Maybe a friend drinks too much and is worrying all her friends. True?-check. Kind?-maybe not. Necessary-for her health and well-being-yes. Maybe the person you love is leaving the house in an outfit you don’t like. They ask does this look ok? Saying no may be true, but it is not kind (unless they might actually embarrass themselves in something scary) and not necessary. There are better examples that escape me right now, but you get the idea.

The point is really just that we must take more care with what comes out of our mouths. People are listening. People who can be hurt by our words. People who may quote us in ways we never anticipated. I am pretty sure even crazy, orange Donald would not want his ridiculous, shoot-from-the-hip “We’ll build a wall” comment to be chanted by 7th graders to torture classmates. At least I hope not. At least I PRAY not.

Our speech has the power to destroy, but also to uplift. How many times have Americans listened to their eloquent leaders (or at least the powerfully delivered words of gifted speech writers) and found comfort and inspiration? FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and other fireside chats got an entire nation through the ravages of depression and world war. Or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” which motivated a whole generation to take on public service.

Words can prompt action, give solace, change hearts and minds. They move us for good and evil. They help us figure out who we are and when we lack our own we can borrow those used by others. Let’s commit to making our words work to build people up, to encourage them, to make them feel good about themselves and spur them on to even greater goodness and accomplishment. So when I make a small step toward a cleaner house I hope people in my world will say “Looks great! Good for you. Can I help you keep it that way?” Instead of “Hmmm. We’ll see if it lasts.” When a student makes a step toward better grades or study habits, may we respond with “That’s wonderful! How did you do it? Can I help you keep going? I believe in you”. And when a political opponent extends an olive branch and says, “I honestly think we want at least some of the same things” try listening hard, looking for the thin spit of common ground and see if you can dredge up even more land you can both stand on. It seems the only way.

I would like to make those Active Listening exercises they make you do in relationship counseling mandatory right now. The super slow-moving, often tedious kind where you listen very hard to the other person list their grievances and then parrot back to them what you heard with “I think I heard you say that….” And then they can correct anything you didn’t hear correctly with “No what I actually said was….” I HATED this shit. It took FOREVER to cover one single topic, but when it was my turn to talk and be truly listened to, it was a powerful experience. It is really something when someone invests the time to hear you and try to understand and fully take in not just your words, but the feelings and emotions behind them. It can bring genuine healing, but it is very hard work.

I wish for all of us in the months ahead, the fortitude to have those kinds of conversations. To move past the blather and rhetoric and flat-out hate speech to try to really utter our truth as we know it and allow people we disagree with, are appalled by, are shocked to know even exist in numbers that make them nearly our statistical equals, to do the same. If you’re blue, ask a red person to lunch and vice versa. No way out except through and that means dialogue. Lots and lots of exhausting dialogue. Take your vitamins!

A Beautiful Day to be Born

 

Tom would have turned 66 today. It is an incredibly, atypically beautiful day here and Tom would’ve loved it. I bet we would’ve headed to the Huron river for some kayaking. He was famous for his ability to carry good weather on his shoulder. I am positive that heaven is way sunnier now than it used to be before he arrived. Both he and his brother claimed that good weather went with them on vacation almost without exception. One guy who usually vacationed with Rick, went without him one year and had two weeks of solid rain. He vowed to NEVER leave town without his buddy again.

Tom and I took a lot of trips in our short time together. We went to France, Florida several times, hiked the Grand Canyon in April and drove the coast of California in February. For the latter we were warned of the perils of our plan to visit my brother near San Diego and then book straight north through the interior, shoot over to the coast and make a leisurely drive south to our starting point. Everyone said there was a good chance that snowy passes in the interior would foil our plans and that the roads might even be impassable that time of year. We did it anyway and saw not a drop of snow and had glorious weather except for one day in Carmel and even that resulted in an amazing post-rain shoreline photo by Tom that could win a contest.

My sister took a picture of me in Ireland on the beach next to the sign we had carved in the sand saying “Thank you, Tommy” because having 6 days of solid sun in October on the Emerald Isle is unheard of. We were positive Tommy was watching over us and lending us his good weather ju-ju.

My friend’s daughter is due to deliver her second baby any day now and I was thinking how cool it would be if today were the day. I have twin piano students who were born on this date and we sang to them in class today. Alyssa was sad that she hadn’t remembered it was Tom’s birthday but I told her the only reason I did was because every single doctor’s appointment or hospital procedure or chemo treatment involved someone asking Tom his birthday. I heard him say 11/7/50 about 500 times. He wasn’t somebody who cared too much about birthdays. I don’t really remember doing anything particularly special on any of his, although I’m sure we got him presents and fed him a good meal. He was a simple man who loved his family, nature, music and us. He didn’t need much else. He liked to be outdoors with people he loved. And to make beautiful things with his hands. That’s what made him happy.

Last week we were remembering the time before Tom and I were married when he lived in a little house in Southfield. He invited us over to carve pumpkins and had bought all the fancy patterns and the carving tools and helped us create some flat-out amazing jack-o-lanterns. I know he had a picture of them on his computer and I think his brother included it in the slide show at his funeral. When Alyssa and I talked about it she said, “He was someone who just took full advantage of getting to be a dad.” Never were truer words spoken. The coming together of the (for all intents and purposes) fatherless child and the childless man was one of the most beautiful serendipities I have ever witnessed. They loved each other. She talked to him more than to any other person. He listened and doled out sound advice in measured  teaspoons. They laughed and joked and did Southern accents. He went to every football game, every band concert. He wrote her a check for getting good grades. He was so very very proud of her and loved her so dearly. And she him.

The world brought forth a rare and wonderful person 66 years ago today. And then took him back too soon in a really bad case of Indian giving. There really should be some sort of penalty, like when you renege in Euchre. But there isn’t. The only consequence is the broken hearts of those left behind, to remember and smile and cry.

Tonight Alyssa and I lit a little candle and just watched the flame as we talked about Tom and how much we miss him still. Some of the last of his garage things are going to the curb tomorrow. Someone in my neighborhood needs a place to store a car this winter so I let them clear space and bag up remaining odds and ends that no one seems to want. I recently did the same with a few remaining clothing items. But Alyssa still wears several of his shirts and sweaters and I cannot give up the forest green sweater I gave him, the one that brought out the green of his eyes. The one he had only one short season to wear.

It would be beautiful if Grace had her baby today, if a new soul weighed in on my sweetheart’s birthday,  one who could carry on Tom’s loving, patient and gentle spirit. That would be something worth celebrating.

Thomas Rue Hamill 11/7/50-2/13/15 A kind, loving carpenter who will be missed forever.

Hopes and Dreams

Every year my dad had a Christmas ritual. After all the hoopla was over, presents opened, dinner consumed, he would go around the circle of assembled family members and ask each one to share their hopes and dreams for the coming year. At least I THINK that’s how it went. I only remember going once, hating the forced intimacy of sharing my fondest wishes with family members—some of whom I did not know well, others of whom I did not like much—and vowing never to return. And I didn’t. My husband and I would go to my parents on Christmas Eve instead, which worked well because otherwise they would’ve been alone. Then we would wake up Christmas morning and drive to my in-laws for Christmas Day. Perfect. No more public display of hopes and dreams for me!

But I was in the minority. In fact, I think I was a lone wolf. Everybody else LOVED the Hopes and Dreams segment of the program and the grandkids especially cherished their tiny slice of the spotlight in an otherwise adult dominated gathering. Some of them still wax sentimental about it today, as middle-aged adults. My dad was a goal-oriented guy. He set them for himself and if you didn’t grab the bull by the horns and make your own list he would make one for you. I would often find a folded newspaper around the house with columns of numbers in the margins. He was always calculating something with his black Bic ballpoint—what the income versus outflow was for the month, how the church budget was progressing, how many weddings he would have to perform to send us all to college. I am like him in so very many ways, including this. Whenever I feel jittery, my self-soothing go-to is to work up a list of numbers—how many students I teach, what their tuition will generate, what my current expenses are, how long it will take to pay off my Visa card, how long my 401k will last, etc. If numbers don’t do the trick I can always fall back on a good old-fashioned TO-DO list which always makes me happy. My youngest refuses to ever write down anything– her own personal antidote to all the list-making going on around here. More’s the pity because the girl could benefit from a few lists!

But it turns out I do have hopes and dreams and today on my bike ride I started making my list. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. I hope I will always live someplace that has leaves changing color in the fall. The splendor of our very late leaf changes in Michigan this fall has been breathtaking. I hope to always be able to experience wonder and marvel at that annual extravaganza.
  2. I hope my kids will remember to say at my funeral that I was genuinely grateful to each of my three husbands for the gifts they gave me. From Bill: the borrowed courage to take risks, especially to go into debt to buy a little piece of Lake Michigan property when we were just starting out and had not a pot to pee in. It changed my life and that of my family in wonderful multi-generational ways. From Ken: two beautiful, smart, funny, talented daughters who have enriched my life and given me the great good fortune to get to be a mom. From Tom: the bliss of finally understanding what love between a man and woman was all about. He taught me by example, by loving me so deeply and so well.
  3. I hope in my old age I will live someplace like the senior center where my piano students played today—airy and bright, full of smiling seniors who are either very active and fit or grateful just to still be moving with the help of a walker. I hope there will be a piano I can play and maybe some young kids like my students to come and give concerts. I hope there will be games galore—Bingo and Euchre and Cribbage and Scrabble and maybe Bridge. I want to play them all. And I will look forward to bitching about the food with my table mates as that seems to be an obligatory pastime. I will not be the goody two shoes who says “Oh it’s not so bad. At least we don’t have to cook.” No-I will complain at the top of my lungs! I hope I’m not one of the old women chasing after the 1 man per 50 females, but I’m not ruling it out.
  4. I hope I get to be a grandma, but if not I hope I will go to a school and read to kids or take them in the hall and help them with school work that confounds them. I hope it will be easy enough that it doesn’t confound me too! I hope there will be somebody in my family or neighborhood that will happily relinquish their kids for an afternoon so I can take them to the circus or the beach or a cheesy kid movie.
  5. I hope I will always want to try new things because I think that’s what keeps you young and interested in life. Also interesting.
  6. When I am old I hope I still want to write. I hope I can learn to paint. I hope I can be in a choir. And do yoga. Even if it’s from a chair.
  7. I hope both my body and mind stay fit. I hope I have the discipline to facilitate that with exercise and healthy eating.
  8. I hope I get to see some more of the world. I have Asia and Africa in my sights and Australia and another trip around the Greek Isles and maybe Iceland with Alyssa and Rome with Franny and Cuba with John and a return to Italy with Annie.
  9. I hope I will teach only as long as it is still a joy and then find a different way to be useful. Teach English in Africa, offer free piano lessons in the inner city, help in a school, help the hungry and the homeless with more than a check. We are on this planet together. I have had a blessed life. I want to share what I can.
  10. I hope my kids will still like me when I’m old and want to spend some time with me, but even more I hope that my life is so rich and full and happy that I am not sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring or pestering them to visit. I hope I am the cool kind of old lady that people actually want to be around.
  11. I hope when the end comes it is fast and painless. Surely everybody hopes that. If not, I hope somebody gives me a whole lot of drugs in a big hurry! I hope Tommy will be the one waiting for me when I get there. I hope the vision I had so long ago, during meditation, back when he was dying, comes true—the two of us dancing through eternity. That would be worth missing Fall Colors for.

Maybe you like to make lists. Maybe you want to write down your Hopes and Dreams. Maybe you want to take on my dad’s annual tradition of letting the whole family weigh in. I think it’s good to dream, helpful to hope. It keeps us looking forward instead of back. It makes us want to hop out of bed instead of drag ourselves into the light of a new day.

However you do it, I hope you keep dreaming.

In Defense of the Much Married

I’ve noticed that when people are talking about why someone is a mess they often cite their number of marriages. As in “What do you expect? I think he’s on, like, his fourth wife!” In a biography of Clementine Churchill, the author supports her claim that both the Roosevelts and Churchills were bad parents by totaling the marriages of their offspring –impressively large in both cases.

Lately I’ve started speaking up. When someone made a disparaging remark about a relative who was now on her THIRD marriage I said, “Careful now! Some VERY nice people have been married three times.” The speaker had the good graces to look chagrinned.

Not that I can throw any stones. I used to be the biggest judgey-pants on the block about divorce—right up until I GOT one! In my youth pretty much nobody I knew was divorced and I thought it was a truly terrible thing. Just the way the folks on Mad Men felt about the divorcee down the street.  A few neighbors felt pity, most were convinced she was after their husbands and all thought she and her status were deeply troubling, very odd and mostly to be avoided with eyes averted, like something distasteful on the sidewalk. Such was the tenor of 1950s America. It seemed completely natural to assume that there was something wrong with someone who was divorced—they were lazy, didn’t try hard enough, didn’t value long-term commitments or, worse still, had a fatal flaw like infidelity or substance abuse.

Walking down the aisle for my first wedding I clearly remember thinking I was making a mistake. But marriage still seemed de rigueur to me in 1977 and I had not received any better offers. No shock then to the thinking person (not me!) when the marriage ended 10 years later. But still I drove to my parents’ house with actual fear and trepidation at the prospect of telling my long-married mom and dad that I was about to have the first divorce in our family—possibly even in our extended family.  I’m not really sure when it was that a far-away and little-known first cousin got divorced but I do remember it was attributed entirely to being raised in the no-rules, free-wheeling atmosphere of that bastion of sex, love and rock and roll—-CALIFORNIA!!

In order to continue getting up in the morning following this colossal life failure, I had to temper my judgment of divorced people. I now said things like: Things happen. People grow apart. Problems ensue and only one half of the duo may want to work on them. I then quickly shifted all my anti-divorce feelings to people who did it when they had CHILDREN. I believe I even spoke the words on more than one occasion that once you had children the divorce option was simply off the table. It was so morally reprehensible to shatter a child’s in-tact family that no matter how miserable you might think you were with your spouse, you were obligated to suck it up. I remember a friend’s shock when she decided to leave her husband when their only child was 12 and her mother said, “Couldn’t you just hang in there for 6 more years until she goes to college?” Uh, no mom. Not really possible. But in truth I was kind of thinking the same thing and pretty much stopped speaking to this woman in favor of siding with her “abandoned” husband.

Of course, this judgment also had to be suspended when after 16 years, 2 kids and 5 years of therapy I finally mustered the courage to leave a toxic marriage. My self-loathing was immeasurable. Leaving had seemed utterly impossible right up until the day when I could not stop crying or get out of bed. I realized I could not go on living if I stayed in that marriage and that, no matter what pain might ensue, my children would be better off with a living mother than a dead one. That is literally what it took for me to leave because I was so convinced that people who divorced when they had children were lower than pond scum.

My years in scum-ville were the darkest of my life. I hated myself and what I had done to my children.  Leaving was horrible in every way except that suddenly I could breathe and no longer felt my heart sink every time I pulled into the driveway and saw his car there. Even in the midst of wracking guilt there was this tiny whiff of lightness and freedom and ………joy at having found the get out of jail card and used it.  And I was, of course, forced to alter my opinion of people who divorced with children, given that I was now a member of their club. I had to accept that sometimes wanting a family and actually being able to make it work were not the same thing. Divorce was still wrenchingly sad, but it was sometimes necessary for the survival of one or more of the parties. And the constitution does guarantee each of us a right to life.

It was four long years before I even contemplated trying again, but I eventually tired of being alone and went on line. The result was a giant gift from God called Tom. We have already covered that all-too-short, exceedingly sweet chapter and its tragic end. Just promise me that you will never say to someone who had a wonderful short marriage any of the following: “Well, at least you were together such a short time that you know you can live without him.” OR “Really you never had a chance to see if you would get sick of each other.” OR “Still in the honeymoon phase. Who knows how it might have played out.” As another widow recently wrote in response to such idiotic comments “Right! Thank God I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life with my beloved soul mate. Really dodged that bullet!”

Losing Tom was the greatest loss of my life. It made me doubt everything. God, the universe, the possibility of lasting happiness, redemption, the fucked-up health care system—EVERYTHING. Except love. He taught me how to love. He taught me how to BE loved. And those were lasting lessons that haven’t gone away.

I know I am still a super judgey person in many other arenas. But on the topic of multiple marriages I now get it. Shit really does happen and often it is not in your control. And sometimes the only way to keep living is to end a relationship. And sometimes the best way to keep living is to stay hopeful and have the courage to start another one, knowing full well that there are no happily ever after guarantees outside the Disney franchise.

I don’t know if John and I will ever get married. But we might. And he will no doubt have to explain away the fact that he is marrying someone who has had THREE previous husbands. Am I proud of that? No. Am I happy my life has gone that way? Uh-uh. Do I now accept that some basically well-meaning, not horrible people have multiple marriages? Yup. The right number used to be one. Now it seems to be pretty acceptable to have had two. I’m going to argue for a little more latitude since my third was a love match ended by cancer. But I also think there might even be something admirable about Liz Taylor’s eight for she always said, “At least I MARRY them!”.

So here is what I’ve decided. In almost all cases people are just doing the best they can in life. At least at that particular moment in that particular circumstance. Some people get lucky and are able to create and sustain a 1950s-style family that eats dinner together and stays in one piece. God love them. I truly wish that had been me. But it wasn’t. I tried pretty hard but apparently what the universe thought my soul most needed in this life was quite a few different tries at love.  I’ve learned a lot. At least enough to caution you about drawing too many conclusions about Aunt Susie or the lady down the street based solely on how many husbands she’s had. Some pretty nice people have taken a few tries to get it right. At least they didn’t decide to give up on love and sit home being bitter. That’s something.

So if one day there is a #4, let the tongues wag away. I’ve learned the hard way about the perils of throwing stones when your house turns out to have a LOT more windows than you realized!

 

Lost Weekend

There is nothing like a bad bug to get your priorities straight. I teach small children. I have done this for 20 years and you might think some immunity would have developed by now but not the case. I seem to fall victim to every weird, icky germ that blows through my house/classroom and in what is surely a big joke from God, usually wind up voiceless. Yes, ha ha. Very funny. I get that I talk too much, that I need to process every waking thought by speaking it out loud, that I tell people things repeatedly and issue annoying and often useless reminders to my loved ones on what they should be doing (this would not of course be NECESSARY if they would just do what I said the first time!) but still it seems a little harsh that every sniffle goes right to laryngitis given that I make my living by singing and talking.

Today Facebook reminded me that the voice doctor I saw years ago is having a birthday. I sent greetings and my thanks for having saved me from a vocal tear that developed when I sang right through/over a bad cold. I wound up losing my voice completely and he insisted on three days of complete vocal rest in order to undo the damage. This was a bigger problem than normal as I was scheduled to be the entertainment at a kid’s birthday party the next day. I emailed the mom and offered to come anyway and hold up signs and use recorded music and cut my fee in half. She didn’t have a lot of options so she agreed. I also taught piano by writing notes and using lots of gestures and facial expressions—kind of like communicating in a foreign country when you don’t speak the language. It worked better than I would’ve imagined but I really missed talking and could not sing for weeks which almost killed me.

I come from verbal stock. This was driven home when John spent a weekend with my two siblings and me. He said, “You guys can REALLY talk!” Our parents were both pretty verbal and my mom was a grammar snob and in her later years could talk you comatose about the minutiae of life. But it was more the contrast of me being one of 4 kids and John being an only child that hit home. When you live alone with adults (as I did for quite a while after my older sibs went off to college) things are just quieter. I was always a little envious of those big loud Greek or Italian families you see in movies where meal times are utter chaos. The only memory I have of big boisterous gatherings was vacations at Silver Lake in Wisconsin and occasionally holiday meals. The rest of the time it was my mom and dad and me eating on TV trays so my dad wouldn’t miss a second of Walter Cronkite. I made up for quiet at home by being that obnoxious smarty pants kid at school who always knew the right answer and made sure everybody knew it. Teachers usually liked me a lot. Kids not so much.

A friend’s daughter just posted about germs having ruined their weekend plans but the silver lining of having some fun in her own yard with her own kids. I did not get to go to the movie I’d wanted to see with John, or take my girls to the Rhapsody in Blue performance at the symphony, but I did have a nice long wide-ranging talk with my youngest (from a safe enough distance to spare her my germs) which ended in her telling me she liked spending time with me. We agreed we could safely have a big hug if we both held our breath!

I wound up cancelling a couple weekend lessons and spending 2 solid days in bed. There was some sleeping, but mostly carb loading (that feed a cold thing is not just a wives’ tale!) and binge watching—in my case one and half seasons of Transparent. I do not really think this is a good thing—even in a sick bed. I am all for guilty pleasures but I think the old days of network TV were safer and in some weird way kept us slightly more connected as our fellow humans were watching the same thing at the same time. I remember calling my BFF Betsy Stover at every commercial of Gidget or The Patty Duke show to discuss what had just gone on. It was fun to live vicariously through these slightly older teen characters and have a friend to process it with. Binge watching alone is just a way to burn time and fight boredom. OK when you’re sick (I guess) but possibly a symptom of the great divide that now exists between humans using technology.

Alyssa and I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books together. Every single one. I was talking to her about how much I liked them and learned from them and she confessed that the content was completely immaterial to her and not really memorable. She just liked the time with me. Having her head in my lap as I read. Listening to the cadence of my voice, regardless of what the words were. I know life was very hard for people in earlier eras. All that foraging for food, chopping wood for fuel, baking bread out of scant ingredients. But there was also reading aloud by candlelight and playing a fiddle and singing by the fire. I long at a deep level for simpler times that I know will never come again. At least I think not. The best seller Station Eleven recounts the tales of a traveling acting troupe that formed to spread culture in the aftermath of a flu-like pandemic that killed millions and brought the U.S. back to pre-technology, survival basics. I don’t wish that upon us for a minute, but I do wish we could all unplug.

Without my phone and laptop I might’ve read and written more this weekend. I might’ve gotten more sleep. I thought I was doing a good thing, maybe even an important thing when I canceled cable and even moved the TV and DVD player to the chilly, sparsely furnished basement. But, as always, I was a step behind the times. My daughter has trouble getting school work done because she can just watch entertainment on her phone. (Does anyone else remember when personal computers first came out and experts cautioned that children must only use them in common areas where parents could have full view of the screen? HA! That ship left the harbor pretty darn fast, huh?) I have talked to many parents lately who have to strongly encourage their children to get out of their rooms and actually see friends!

I felt isolated this weekend. I did not want anyone to get my germs and it was appropriate to stay away. But now I crave some human contact. It will feel good to teach again, to go to a couple up-coming social gatherings, to have 4 hours in the car with Alyssa on her first college visit. I pooh-poohed Facebook for years but have lately been finding it a reasonable way to stay in touch with people—a birthday greeting or a quick “like” of a good post. It still has the ability to instantly cause me to find fault with my pretty nice life when people post pictures of their fabulous vacations, perfect children and fun nights out. But I constantly remind myself that nobody ever posts “just dropped my son at rehab—again” and yet surely somebody is living that life too.

I am either getting older or wiser. Maybe both. In younger years I would never have acknowledged illness. I worked through every single cold/flu/virus for years telling myself they just weren’t there and if they were, too bad and BUCK UP! I definitely never cancelled ANYTHING and certainly not anything I was being paid to do. It felt kind of good to just say SCREW IT —I’m sick and my body is saying “stay in bed you foolish old woman and pound a couple thousand calories of carbs while you’re at it”.

Was it a lost weekend? Yes—-and no.