Mind Blows

The hits just kept coming during a span of three weeks last November. First I got word that my oldest sister was being treated for beginning stages of Alzheimer’s. She is twelve years older than me. Then I got a call from my oldest brother, that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He is nine years older than me. Another brother happened to mention in passing that he had recently had a physical and there are some issues with his liver. And another sister, ten years older than me, was diagnosed with early signs of Alzheimer’s. There are eight of us siblings and half were dealt major health blows at nearly the same time. It was just days after our country’s tumultuous presidential election. Right before the onset of the holiday season. Smack dab in the middle of our family’s annual unspoken mourning period, when each of us quietly acknowledges the anniversaries of our parents’ deaths and what would have been their nth birthdays. It was all too much for me.

For years my husband has tried to persuade me that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s run in my father’s bloodline, not my mother’s. And my DNA comes from both of my parents, so I only have a fifty percent chance of getting one of those devastating diagnoses. Try as he did, I never bought into his logic. Thrusting four of my siblings into chaos with their physical health was a cruel reminder of dominant genes. I’m not going to escape the inevitable.

It’s natural to want to pull family close during tough times but when all this stuff went down, I was still reeling from hurt and anger after being slighted by another one of my brothers last August when his son got married and nearly all of my nieces and nephews showed up for the wedding and reception. However, none of my children had been invited. My siblings and their grown children asked where my daughters were. I didn’t lie. “They weren’t invited.” Oh, there had to have been a mistake. I must not have read the invitation correctly. Unfortunately, I had read the invitation exactly as it was addressed and when I had heard many of my nieces and nephews were going to be at the wedding I contacted my brother’s wife. She told me none of my children were invited. There was no slight, no mistake. My children were not invited. How was I supposed to respond to that? My daughters knew all about the wedding, had heard many in the family talking about it, knew there were bridal showers happening. They thought I wasn’t passing on the details. I finally had to tell them, they weren’t invited. Oh. Okay then. Except it wasn’t okay. And once the wedding day arrived and Facebook pages in our extended family lit up with fabulous photos showing all the fun, my daughters were furiously hurt. They had every right to be.

So when news traveled in November about all the different health issues, I tried to put on a good face and thought about gathering with my siblings for our Christmas celebration. Half-heartedly I asked each of my daughters if they were planning to go. Not one. As the day approached, I knew I couldn’t go either. One of my siblings understood why I was hurt. A few tried to tell me it was all a big mistake and I should just let it go. I couldn’t. And by that time I was too far down the rabbit hole, angry and hurt, mourning my parents, mourning the loss of family, of the deep and emotional family bonds that fell apart after my parents had died despite how much effort we had all put toward staying connected physically.

A week after my siblings gathered to celebrate Christmas, my brother (with the liver problems) called me. He and his wife were on the call together and they put down a quilt of guilt, telling me they loved me and I should have been at the family gathering. They couldn’t understand the hurt and anger I felt and they were convinced my children not being invited to the wedding had just been an overblown mistake. They told me I needed to put my feelings aside and be there for the next family get together. Ha! The next family gathering was another wedding, one of my daughters. And she had picked a venue that was limited to only 100 guests. She invited all of my siblings but not one of her cousins. Her mindset was, since she couldn’t invite all of her cousins then she wouldn’t invite any.

My brother and his wife who had intentionally not invited my daughters to their son’s wedding last August have never said a word about what happened even though I know the topic has spent some time on the family grapevine. And when they attended my daughter’s wedding in April, they were very cordial and joking about their daughter’s wedding happening in July, how stressful it is to plan two weddings within a year’s time. I wanted to ask if my daughters would be invited to their daughter’s wedding but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wanted to believe it had been a mistake, that it wasn’t an intentional slight. Surely they wouldn’t do it again.

They did.

Last night my husband and I attended my niece’s wedding. Many of my other nieces and nephews were there. And today, family Facebook pages are filled with fun photos. Again. My husband and I left right after the dinner was done. Not one of my siblings argued with me to try to get me to stay longer. They knew. Aside from an initial “hello” and “congratulations” spoken to my brother, the father of the bride, we had no other exchange of words. Those may have been the last words we’ll say to each other for a very long time.

Hurt and anger in the mind are as devastating as blows to the body. Everything hurts. People say time heals all wounds but the history with this particular brother is long and complicated. He’s logical, cold, calculating. I’m emotional, compassionate, creative. This may have been the final blow.

Challenge of the Ordinary

A few months ago I didn’t want to write. Everything that came to mind was a whine and I didn’t want to be that person. So I made a conscious effort to focus on living an ordinary life. It was an easy decision. Instead of fretting about how we would pay our bills that month, I walked in my backyard and took photos of my flowers. Rather than screaming in frustration from being overwhelmed, I sat on my deck and looked at the moon and stars. I thought my plan was working because life became a bore.

What I didn’t realize was that several issues were simmering and I was trying to ignore them by insisting on the ordinary, not the real. Instead of acknowledging my emotions and feelings, I was dismissing them. Had I known what I was doing (and I should have seen it), I would have changed course. Hindsight is perfect. Unfortunately, everything came crashing down this past weekend when something happened to cause hurt from nearly 40 years ago to rise to the surface. And when it did, it dragged a couple of my daughters along for the nasty ride. I’m still processing all that transpired so I’m not ready to write about the weekend’s events just yet. But I do need to acknowledge the overwhelming hurt so I can ease the pain in my heart and put myself back on my feet.

It’s always a surprise to me when something in the present day brutally tosses me back to the mid 1970s when both of my parents died. For as often as it has happened, you’d think it wouldn’t be a surprise anymore. But it is because it’s always unexpected. I’ve spent countless hours in therapy doing the “good work” all the experts told me I needed to do to live a normal life. Evidently there’s a difference between normal and ordinary.

So even though I thought I had done all the hard work, apparently there’s a lot of hidden baggage I carry around from the past. Those forty years seem a lifetime ago. So long ago that in fact I’ve forgotten what it was like to be a child, to have parents. I’ve forgotten their voices, their laughs. Without photos I would have forgotten their faces. But I haven’t forgotten the hurt from some of the decisions that were made at the time by others that impacted my life and hurt caused by the way a couple of siblings treated me then and off and on for the last 40 years.

So much time has passed that sometimes my brain plays tricks on me and I wonder if it’s created a revised version of my life. It’s as if I was plopped into this world at the age of 16, the youngest sibling in a dysfunctional family that didn’t want the burden of another member. No parents to guide us. No adult to show me the way. Yet, I had received enough teaching and training that subconsciously kept me standing tall, capable of supreme independence, driven to survive. No matter how often or how hard I fell, instinctively I found my way to getting back on my feet. And even though I thought I had conquered each dragon, the ashes of feelings and emotions still had some warm embers, albeit buried deep.

Events of this past weekend stirred the fire. I managed to stay calm and talk to my daughters so they feel a little better but this new hurt left marks on them too and it’s going to take a long time before they can put it behind them. I’m not sure I will ever be able to let it go, knowing that I’ve carried this for a lifetime already. An expert would correctly label this a core hurt, which means my current anger and hurt latch on to and dredge up every single moment of hurt I’ve felt since becoming an orphan. How is that even possible? I’m a finite being but these feelings are infinite! I’m past the middle of my life, and I truly thought I was done with all this old hurt. “Fat and Sassy” had become my new motto. So why in the world do I have to go through this again?

It was a painful way to learn there is indeed a difference between living a normal life and living an ordinary life. Ordinary is much more challenging than I thought. It requires balance. It requires that I keep an eye on the real. It requires that I feel and experience emotions. Maybe the best I can do is strive for “my normal” and put ordinary back on the shelf.

When the Pastor Dies

About a week ago the calls and Facebook messages went out: Pastor Andy had died. It was a shock to everyone and yet, it should not have been a surprise. Andy was only 64 but he didn’t watch what he ate, didn’t exercise, and had been dealing with a few health issues for several years. His face often turned beet red during his sermons or when he enthusiastically sang a hymn. He made light of his weight often and admitted frequently that his doctor (and his wife) wanted him to slow down. Yet, he was driven in a way few of us completely understood. I wonder now if he knew he had to make the most of every minute because there weren’t enough minutes left.

I first met Pastor Andy in the mid-1990s. Our church membership had grown and the load was too much for our pastor, so Andy was brought in to help out mostly with the youth. I like my religion on the traditional side and Pastor Andy was anything but ordinary. Life was not black and white to him. It was every color of the rainbow, and he loved it all. He was exuberant no matter the task, always on the go like an Energizer bunny, and always singing, laughing, or telling a joke. Andy was always trying to make a buck, always trying to sell something, always full of more ideas than any of us could keep up with. He thought outside the box many times a day, so it’s not incorrect to say he “flew by the seat of his pants.” And it was all too unconventional for me.

My oldest daughter was around 10 or so when Pastor Andy joined our church. He was too much for her, even though I tried hard not to let my bias show. My second daughter understood Pastor Andy’s humor and she admired his can-do and nonconformist attitude. My other two daughters never really “took” to Andy, but they didn’t dislike him either. Rather, they were indifferent about him. And yet, when I broke the news to my daughters that Pastor Andy had died, each one’s response was the same. “How sad.”

All those years ago, Pastor Andy hadn’t been at the church very long when he did something that stirred my anger. In fact, it was the only time I’ve ever formally complained to the church. It was Easter Sunday and Pastor Andy was giving the sermon. My four young children were listening as Pastor Andy read a children’s book about Easter and when he got to the end of the story he loudly and firmly declared there was no Easter Bunny! I was stunned. I didn’t feel it was his place to break that particular news to my children. I looked around the church to see if other parents were upset, but it didn’t look like it. To this day, I have no idea if I was the only one who complained but I suspect I probably was. It was a moment I never forgot, and it created a wall between Pastor Andy and I. Over the years we grew to respect each other, but there was never a lot of love between us.

As time went on, bits and pieces of Andy’s childhood made their way into his sermons and I came to understand more about the boy who grew to be a man who became a pastor. His childhood wasn’t easy. And he carried an enormous amount of emotional baggage every single day of his life. He spent his lifetime trying to do good, to make everyone around him happy. He always had a smile on the outside, but I suspect many times he was crying on the inside.

On that fateful day last week, Andy was struck down by a massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness, but he lived a couple more days, just long enough for his family to all gather at his side and for the congregation to deal with the shock of his loss.

It is absolutely striking to read the tributes posted to honor him on Facebook. This man, despite his emotional scars and unorthodox ways, touched hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He didn’t just walk in their lives as their pastor, he was involved in their daily struggles, often knocking on the front door unannounced at the moment when these people needed him the most. He brought groceries to young families in need. He gave rides to senior citizens who couldn’t find a way to see the doctor. He helped parents mend relationships with teenagers. He counseled couples struggling with their marriage. He was anywhere and everywhere all at the same time. And all those things he was selling to make a buck, were merely a means to money to give to others or help others in myriad ways.

Despite all the demands on his time, he still made time for his wife and four children and several grandchildren. His devotion to his wife could be the gold standard for all men to follow. His two sons were so influenced by him that they too became ministers. The greatest gift his family gave was in sharing Pastor Andy with the world.

Indeed, Pastor Andy lived life to the fullest. And over the last few days as I’ve read the stories others have shared, I’ve discovered I really didn’t know this man at all. While I preferred traditional religion and planning events ahead of time, Pastor Andy, flying by the seat of his pants, had untold determination and something much more powerful. Faith. He never doubted that God would be there for him, providing whatever was needed in any given moment for any of the countless members of his flock. And he also had not one tiny iota of doubt about whether he would be welcomed in heaven. Andy knew God would be waiting with open arms. And remarkably all members of the congregation, despite the enormous void that has just opened in their lives, are celebrating this man’s passing into eternal life. The only point for discussion they have is what song Pastor Andy was singing as he passed through the pearly gates.

I am blessed for having known Pastor Andy. It is my loss that I didn’t understand him and instead placed a wall between us. Even in death, he is still teaching.

“The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7

Behind Anger Is Loss

My bestest friends in the whole wide world are too kind. They listened to me whine and complain this past weekend (again) about how I’m so frustrated and angry with not having any money. They let me carry on and on when they should have told me to shut my mouth and get a grip.

The problem is, I can’t get past my anger. I’m still mad that I lost my job in 2008 and that we lost all our savings in the market crash. I’m furious that it took me three years to find another job that didn’t come anywhere near the salary I needed. Okay, I just nudged myself in the ribs. I need to shut up about it.

But it’s hard to be quiet when it seems the whole world is angry along with me. We’re in the throes of a nasty presidential election and candidates are struggling to appear poised and composed. Their followers prod them with chants of rage and the main networks run those scenes 24/7 to boost ratings. Protestors are breaking out in fights at campaign rallies, and others are blaming the candidates for it all. I can’t remember a time in my life when so many people were so angry.

Today I had an Aha! moment. I’ll bet many of those angry protestors are people just like me—working in a lower job, making less than we need (if we’re lucky enough to have a job), frustrated by the fact that eight years post-recession we are no better off. We just want all the bad stuff to stop!

Sure we can point fingers at the current president and the president before him. If we really want to, we can go all the way back to when Ronald Reagan was president and blame him. Assigning blame isn’t going to change the situation. It might make us feel better, but the fact is we’re angry because our dreams were shattered or even worse, they never even had a chance to come alive.

Therein lies loss. And knowing that just makes me all the angrier. I despise loss. It’s right up there with cleaning toilets and picking up dog poop. I don’t want to deal with loss anymore. I just want to leave it there in a pile and walk away from it. Let someone else clean up the mess because I’ve had my fill. Just like Howard Beale I want to yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

I’ve been swimming upstream for more than eight years trying to find the root of a small tree that I can grab hold of and secure myself. I’m tired. The water’s cold. And it’s crowded. There’s no room to move about because so many of us are treading water. How are we ever going to lift ourselves up out of this damn stream?

Visiting with my friends this weekend I learned they’re in the stream with me, furiously swimming along, trying to make ends meet, and trying to find that root to grasp. But they’re dealing with it so much better than I am. If they’re angry, they aren’t showing it. If they’re depressed, they’re hiding it much better than I can. I know they’re tired too. But what is their secret? How are they dealing so well with their anger and loss? They look composed and pulled together. I feel like a hot mess beside them, flapping my mouth, spewing words without thinking.

“Good morning, Mr. Beale. They tell me you’re a madman.”

Grief, the Uninvited Guest

In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross authored the groundbreaking book On Death and Dying. Someone gave a copy to my mother in 1973, when she was battling stage IV cancer at the age of 45. I have no idea where the book came from, only that it showed up one day. Was it a member of the clergy who gave the book to her, perhaps hoping to help her face her mortality? Maybe a friend or neighbor gave her the book, not knowing any words of comfort to help my mom deal with the vast emotions she must have had knowing she was leaving behind a husband and eight children and a half-lived life.

I never liked that book. The title alone scared me like nothing else. I was twelve when my mom got sick, and the thought of her dying was not anything I wanted to dwell on. To me, that book represents the cruelty of cancer because that’s what I was dealing with when the book came into my existence. In truth, I’ve never read the book. Although I have researched and experienced first-hand the theories that Kubler-Ross introduced on the five stages of dealing with grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And for some reason still unknown to me all these years later, I took that book when my mother died and hid it in my bedroom. I didn’t want anyone to have it. When I went away to college and our family home was sold, I packed that book up with the rest of my belongings. When I married and moved into a house and started a family, that book came with me. And many years later, when I was divorced and remarried and moved into a new home, that book followed. It is somewhere in the house where I live, sitting on a bookshelf or packed up in a box in the storage room. I have no idea where it is. I could probably locate it if my life depended on it, but it would take me a while. Funny thing is, I don’t want the book. But I can’t bring myself to throw it or give it away. Someday in the future when I move again or if someone is going through my belongings, the book will show up once again. Maybe I should ask a specific friend who is a therapist why I cannot bring myself to get rid of it. Maybe I don’t want to know.

For not ever having read that book, I know everything about it. Grief is a repeating process. And it strikes whenever you have a sense of loss in your life. You don’t have to be dying to feel grief. Children can experience grief when their parents get divorced. Teenagers go through it when they break up with their first crush. Adults go through grief during a job loss or financial hardship or divorce. Even those dealing with alcohol or other drug addiction experience loss and grief. There are many different ways we feel loss, and unfortunately for some of us, we experience loss many times in our lives. No matter how many times we process our emotions through the loss, we still have to deal with the grief. If we don’t, it festers under the surface and comes out in myriad unhealthy ways. It isn’t like the chicken pox in that it comes once in your life and you’re done with it. No, it’s a cruel and twisted thing that can happen many times, striking when you least expect it and often in a time of great stress.

And so it happens that Grief showed up this week while I was on vacation from work. In hindsight, I’m not surprised it showed up. I’ve been shoving down my emotions about my current job for months. This week off was a break from all that, allowing feelings of loss to sneak to the surface. An uninvited guest, I ignored Grief at first. Then I was pissed and tried to show it the door. Please go away, I begged it. But it wouldn’t go. And now I’m in a funk. It’s all because I so desperately want to find a new job and no matter how hard I try, I cannot land a different job. I had a really great series of interviews in the last month, and with each one I could imagine myself in that new role. I allowed myself to dream about the possibilities. But I haven’t been able to close the deal on any, and so I am experiencing the loss of those dreams. Now that my week off of work is coming to a close, I’m reaching the point of accepting the fact that I’m stuck where I am. Five stages of grief in the span of a week. No wonder I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.

One thing I do know—I must face that Grief. Head on. I must acknowledge it now that it’s surfaced. I must feel it. If I don’t, it will multiply and fester and fill every pore of my being. And then I truly will not be able to function in an interview, if I’m lucky enough to get another. The few ounces of confidence I’m hanging on to will dissolve. All the things that are right in my life will go wrong.

So I will face it. And I’ll be gentle to myself in these last three days of my time away from work. Whatever tasks are left on my to-do list will take low priority. Instead I will spend my energy consoling, nurturing, being patient, forgiving, honoring. Hopefully when I return to work, I’ll have the strength and the courage to face the madness without getting stung by its viciousness. Any maybe, just maybe, I’ll have some energy left over at the end of each day to keep looking for a different job.

November Thanks #22 | A Gift Grateful

A thirty-day exercise in pausing, reflecting, appreciating, and giving thanks for simple things.

There is one gift that I am grateful for every single day and to many it seems somewhat silly. It even causes some to roll their eyes, as if I am being melodramatic. But if you know my history, it makes perfect sense.

This past summer I turned 53 years old. If I live to my next birthday—and I have no knowledge of any reason why that should not happen—I will have outlived both of my parents. Their deaths came when I was a teenager and the loss of them caused repercussions for my entire life. The older I get, the more I understand the depth of the impact that loss had on who I became, on the path I followed, and on my morals and values and beliefs. And the older I get, the more I treasure each and every day.

I am grateful to be alive.

Simple. Silly? Perhaps. But to one who has first-hand experience with the adage “life is short”, this is a profound statement.

Consider Brittany Maynard, the woman who recently fought for death in dignity. Consider Tracy Morgan, the comedian who was severely injured in June of this year when hit by a truck and who now faces a lifetime of the aftereffects of severe brain injury. Consider the friend or family member in your own circle who was diagnosed in the last year with cancer or lupus or ALS or some other debilitating and likely fatal disease. Consider Gabby Giffords. Consider the children of Sandyhook, even the ones who survived. I could go on and on.

Life is short. Life turns on a dime. Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

Powerless in the Moment

I said good-bye to my boss today. He’s leaving. I’m staying.

I had no idea he was looking for another job. He says he wasn’t; that a recruiter called him out of the blue and asked if he’d consider leaving his current job. The timing was perfect because parts of our company are currently undergoing a re-org and my boss’s job is changing. He doesn’t like how it’s changing, so he talked to the recruiter and he negotiated with the recruiter, and got a really sweet deal. On one hand, I’m truly very happy for my boss. How many of us can say we got a call out of the blue and got a sweet deal that really isn’t too good to be true? But on the other hand, I’m really very sad.

I started my first “real” job when I was fifteen, selling ski apparel and accessories for a family-owned sports retailer. Before that, I had volunteered as a candy striper at a hospital. And before that, I babysat for neighbors and for my older siblings who had toddlers. I’ve been in the professional working world for more than thirty-five years, and it took this long before I finally had an opportunity to work with a decent manager.

“Joe” understands the need for work–life balance. He doesn’t feel the need to micromanage and forcing you to follow every step and rule that he does in getting a job done. Instead he can sit back and watch you make each job your own, letting you find the workflows and processes that fit your style. He doesn’t care about the means to the end. He only cares about the quality and the timeliness of a job well done. He believes in capitalizing on a person’s strengths, not trying to improve a person’s weaknesses. Not many managers can do that. And because I had to wait so long in my life before I worked for a “good” manager, I am sad because I don’t think I’ll get another.

With Joe’s departure I will now report to “Matt.” My new boss has a very dry sense of humor and he often makes sarcastic comments that leave you wondering if he is joking or if he is serious. He professes to have a “very hands off” management style, but at the same time he has extremely high standards, to the point of having unrealistic expectations. Matt once told one of my co-workers to cancel a vacation because Matt wanted a project finished earlier than scheduled. He does not have a balance with his work–life. He is not a good communicator, instead answering your questions with non-answers or with other questions.

Most of my co-workers have very little respect for Matt. Everyone held Joe in high regard, and now there is a serious void in our leadership. Joe quietly said, “Shame on the executives for letting me take on all that authority.” He’s right. He was allowed to wear too many hats because others were too lazy or unskilled or unmotivated. I was a rising star under Joe’s leadership. Now I feel as though I’ve just taken a chair on the deck of the Titanic.

Every expert will tell you change is difficult. It is the unknown, and with that comes fear and uncertainty. The trick is in learning to adapt and to find new opportunities within the new realm. An old adage comes to mind: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And another: You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am sad to see Joe leave. I am sad to find myself at a new starting point again, with little to show for all of my effort. I am afraid for my future, working for a poor communicator who is not respected and who doesn’t believe that home life is as important as work. And I am angry that I am once again powerless in the moment.