Friday, November 17, 2017

Sometimes The End Is Just As Special As The Beginning

When my parents were about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, I invited my four siblings to my house for a planning session. We knew we needed to do something to mark the occasion, but we weren’t quite sure what to do. My parents were adamant that they didn’t want a big party. They just wanted us to all be together as a family. We all lived near each other and family dinners and barbeques were not uncommon, so these activities did not seem celebratory enough.

When I reflected about the importance of the anniversary, I wondered if my parents were sad at all….to have had so many years go by so quickly. A wedding day is such a happy occasion, the start of a life journey and I thought maybe they might feel as if the best years of their marriage were behind them. I ached for them. Reaching this milestone meant a long span of memories and entrance into the golden years of their lives.  My desire was to use this opportunity to bring them back to those early moments and the joy and hope they experienced at the beginning of their marriage.

We as a family, were transplants to the Albany, New York area. My parents met and married in Brooklyn and because of my father’s career they had lived across three different states during the course of their marriage.

My oldest three siblings were born in Brooklyn and often reminisced about their earlier years there. I had never really been there other than to visit my grandmother once or twice at the holidays and again for her funeral when I was in the first grade. My parents had not been back, themselves, in some time.

As we sat around my dining room table brainstorming ideas, I blurted out my thoughts. Why don’t we take them to Brooklyn, to the church that they got married in – and then out to dinner? As the words were coming out of my mouth I thought maybe it was crazy. But then a look of delight came over my older siblings faces. They, too, hadn’t seen the old neighborhood in many years. They thought it was a great idea.

After discussing the logistics, ultimately, we rented two stretch limousines to accommodate our 20 person family (my parents, their five children, spouses and grandchildren). We told my parents to be ready early one Sunday morning and we all met at their house. When the limousines arrived we explained  their agenda for the day and they were equally as excited.  We traveled the few hours to Brooklyn as a family, laughing, drinking and snacking all the way to New York City. Our first stop was to attend mass at the church they were married in.

We had notified the church ahead of time and so the priest announced my parents to the congregation. Later, privately, he spent some time with us and told my parents that the priest who married them was still alive, at a nursing home down the road and often came by the church to visit. As I sat in the beautiful surroundings of this old church, I imagined my mother walking down the long aisle a young bride at 21- eager to share the adventure of life with my father.

After we left the church, we took a tour of the old neighborhood where my brothers and sister shared what they remembered.  And, back in those days it was common for people to have an iron grate on their front doors with their last initial scrolled in it. We were stunned to see that on my parents very first home the “C” (for Centi) was still there.

We ended the day with a fantastic dinner in Little Italy then began our journey home.

I remember so much about this trip. How happy my parents were, how much fun my kids had with their cousins and laughing at the stories their aunt and uncles would tell. And to be in that church picturing my parents saying their vows and seeing their very first home as a newlywed couple was very emotional. It was a day that I will never forget. It was a day when I learned where my history began.

It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.

I thought what we had given my parents was a tremendous gift, to relive this most significant day, the moment that it all began for them. However, my father would surprise me later by saying (and maintaining until his death) that the day we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary was the absolute BEST day of his life. Imagine that? 50 years of memories and this was the best day of his life! As I have grown older, having adult children and missing my father, I finally get it myself. My father, above all, valued most the family that he created. He said for him, to go back to the spot where it all began with my mother, his children and his grandchildren was the perfect culmination of the most important years of his life and overwhelmed him with the highest level of pride and joy.  I had originally thought that to relive his wedding memory would be what affected him the most- but, it was about his legacy. It wasn’t about the start.  All along, it was about the end.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We Can't Stop The Rain From Falling

This past May, I found myself very much looking forward to going on vacation. It had been a dark and gloomy Winter, and Spring was following the same path.

I had a bad case of cabin fever having been cooped up in the house for months. For every day of sun shine, it seemed as if there was six days of rain. The rain not only made me tired, it hampered any desires I had of partaking in the outdoor activities that I typically enjoyed.

I was certain that a few days in Mexico would cure my blahs.

So, imagine my dismay when lying at the beach on the very first day of vacation, I felt a rain drop.

As it began to steadily rain, my family and I packed up our belongings and begrudgingly headed back to our room. I was so irritated, hoping the rain would pass quickly. We decided to wait it out on the balcony of our room which overlooked the beach and the rest of the resort.

 My mood had grown as cloudy as the sky as I settled down into my chair, protected from the rain. But as I looked down over the beach I noticed something very strange. There were still people outside. People on the beach, people in the ocean and even people in the pool. They were going about their activities as if it wasn’t even raining. In fact, the rain was even coming down a little harder now, yet their fun never skipped a beat.

My initial reaction was that these people were crazy. But then it got me wondering…

Were they all just used to the tropical climate and the occasional rain that came with it? Or, did they know something I didn’t know?

I arrived at the conclusion that it was the latter.

These people were there to have fun and they were not going to let a rain shower hinder that. What a great attitude to have. As I contemplated their positive disposition, my mind began to refocus as well. I had previously judged the gray clouds to be ugly and dismal. But, now I began to see how beautiful my view was, even in the rain.

It made me question why I tend to put my life on hold just because of a little shower. After all, it’s just water and so what if I get a little wet. Rain may be a nuisance, but it’s certainly a necessity. Without rain, there would be no replenishment…no growth. Rain also purifies the air we breathe,  washing away pollutants as it falls.

I am reminded of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote “Into each life some rain must fall”.

There will always be a little dreary weather in life, but we can’t let it dampen our spirits. Sometimes the rain is exactly what we need…a little annoyance that is not always a set-back, but rather a set-up for our own future advancement and growth.

It rained one more time during my vacation in Mexico, but that time I wasn't in such a hurry to seek shelter. . I stayed right where I was on the beach.…not letting a little rain spoil my day.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Put Others First And The Blessings Will Surely Follow

As with most kids, birthdays were a huge deal for mine. Both their dad and I had large extended families and so their birthdays were like their own personal holidays. I loved lavishing the attention on them and making their days special. But at the same time, I wanted them to be aware that their sibling may feel left out and they needed to be considerate of that.

From when they were very young, I started the tradition of having them buy a gift for their brother/sister when it was their own birthday. They carefully chose something special and presented it to their sibling before any festivities could start in celebration of them.

They carried this tradition through many years, even into early adulthood. I believe that instilling this awareness in them at a young age played a huge role in their relationship today. At 23 and 21, they are able to enjoy the blessings of having a sibling and continue to have great love, respect and empathy for one another.

One Christmas a few years back, I wanted to gift something small to my co-workers. It was a small office, but I still needed something that wouldn’t break the bank. I decided on some homemade treats with a $1 scratch off lottery ticket attached.  The evening of our gift exchange, I got a call from one of my co-workers. She wanted to thank me for the ticket. It seemed she herself, in the true spirit of giving, had donated money that she really couldn’t afford to donate. When she scratched off the lottery ticket, though, she won the exact amount it would take to replace the funds.

My father often told a story about his brother who suffered from alcoholism. At one point in my uncle's struggles, he was on a retreat in a convent when he went to pray. He spotted several nuns saying their daily devotions. He decided that instead of petitioning for himself that day, he would ask God that the nuns' prayers be answered. As they were all walking out of church together they struck up a conversation. My uncle told the nuns that he had been praying for them…that he petitioned for their prayers to be answered. The nuns simply smiled and said to him, “we were praying for you”. Eventually, he was able to control his alcoholism and went on to counsel others with the same disease.

My kids learned empathy for others early on, starting with their relationship with one another. They were rewarded by sharing a bond and love that has transcended into their adult years.  My co-worker extended herself to someone in need creating a deficit for herself that she wasn’t quite sure she could manage. Her return came back to her in the exact amount needed to replenish her budget.  And, in the moment my uncle shifted the focus of his prayers onto others, he unknowingly deflected that grace right back unto himself.

Put others first and the blessings will surely follow.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Sometimes On The Other Side Of Fear, You Find Joy

One of my most stifling and all-consuming fears evolved early on in my childhood, and I still remember the event that triggered it vividly. My mother had brought me to pick up my older sister from her piano lesson- and there it was. To me, the dog seemed like a giant; it was at least twice my size. As it approached us, I became frightened, and asked my mom to pick me up. As she held me in her arms, the dog jumped on my mother and tore the sleeve completely out of her coat and in the process scratched my legs drawing blood.

And that was it. From that day on, I was terrified of dogs. Terrified.

That fear became very crippling.  I would avoid walking by dogs, entering houses with dogs, and dog situations in general. Looking back now, I also instilled a little of that fear in my children by not allowing them to go near dogs, either. My son always asked for a dog. But we were of course, strictly a cat family.

Even later, well into my adult years, I found myself avoiding friends' houses if they had dogs. Sometimes I would own up to my fear and they would keep them away from me out of courtesy. If that didn’t happen, though, I would just find excuses not to visit. I wanted very much to control the fear, but any time I was near a dog, I began to feel the anxiety kicking in. And of course, dogs would sense that and always make a bee line for me…causing my stress to elevate even further.

I was forced to confront this fear recently when I entered into a relationship with a man and his dog. They came as a package. I knew if I didn’t tackle it head on it would be a relationship deal breaker. So, that’s exactly what I reluctantly did.

Little by little this dog spent more time at my house. Sometimes even alone with me as his caretaker, while my boyfriend worked. As I would feed him, walk him, and play with him, we slowly began to bond. He grew to trust me, and I began to trust him.  As it turned out, he is the most gentle, loving, loyal dog a person could ask for.

Initially my best hope was that I could simply co-exist with him, but much to my surprise, he has brought me complete joy…. a joy that I never knew existed. Now, I look forward to walking in the door to his wagging tail, miss him when he is not around, and love having the extra heartbeat in the house.

I could never picture my life without him.

I am so appreciative as to how he has enriched my life. He has made me more at ease with other dogs too, and thus, I have experienced things and can be present in places that I never would have otherwise. It has so drastically changed my perspective that he now has a new little brother who we adopted six months ago.

It is hard to believe that someone who had such an overwhelming fear is now a dog owner and dog lover…OF TWO DOGS!  And had I not faced my fears, I would’ve missed out on this amazing experience….a happiness that was missing all along.

 Now when I look back at this adventure, I can apply the outcome to other areas of my life.  And, when I am faced with something that makes me scared, I try my best to power through and remind myself…that sometimes on the other side of fear, you find joy.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

You Never Know Who's Watching

During her senior year in college my daughter found herself on the painful side of a break up. They had been together for five years and it was an incredibly difficult experience for her. At 21 years old, five years is one-fourth of your life-- it's a long time to spend with one person. They were on the downward slide to college graduation and planning on attending graduate school near each other. As far as my daughter was concerned, they were going to begin their lives together.

There are ways to handle break ups with maturity, kindness, and respect. Yet unfortunately, this was not the case with the boy whom I had grown to love like a second son. He was incredibly mean and hurtful to my daughter, which was way out of the character that I knew. She was devastated and confused, to say the least, that someone she trusted could treat her in this way.

My daughter leaned on me quite a bit during this time. It was frustrating for me, since this was the first time in her life that I couldn’t fix something. However, she knew I’d been through a divorce and a recent breakup myself and would be able to share a lot of my own experiences with her. I tried to show her that in the times of my life that were difficult, I stayed strong, kept my head up and took the high road. And that ultimately, these actions, as hard as they can be, lead you to a better place.  I would be lying if I said that my strength never wavered, but for the most part, I tried to set an example for my kids. I was hoping that through my struggles they would learn how to maneuver through relationship problems of their own and know that you can come out of these troubles in a positive way- as a better person.

Through it all I was amazed at how tough and tenacious my daughter truly was -facing it on a daily basis, head-on. She, too, took the high road on many occasions when I knew that it would have been so much easier for her not to.

In his senior year of high school, my son was on the opposite side of a break up. He had spent a major part of his high school years dating her on and off- but decided to end the relationship.

Her mother came to see me shortly after the break up. She wanted to thank me. She said that my son had set the bar high for any future boys her daughter dated and went on to say that even in breaking up with her daughter, he treated her with dignity and respect and she wanted me to know how much she appreciated that. To date, my son and that girl are still friends.

These events in my children’s lives were not only learning experiences for them, but they taught me so much as well. Although it was challenging at times for me to stay strong in my own situations it was well worth the struggle because I had been an example for my kids on how to handle themselves at similar points in their lives. They both demonstrated to me that they were able to navigate these circumstances positively- and be better people for it.

I read somewhere that you should strive to handle the difficulties in life with strength and fortitude because you never know who is watching. I know now, my kids were watching.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

We Are Always Exactly Where We're Meant To Be, Even If We Get There Kicking And Screaming.

My daughter has always been a great student. She was not one I had to nag about homework or ask about grades. She is very ambitious, and has a hard time accepting anything less than an “A”.

As her senior year of high school approached, I reminded her that this was about to pay off. With a 97 average, highest honors and ranking in the top 10% of her class, I told her she would write her ticket. So, imagine my disbelief when she only got into one college.

At $100 a pop, we only sent four applications. I learned later from her advisor that this may have been our biggest mistake. However, this was my first child through the process and it was never communicated to me how steep the competition truly was...until it was too late.

On several occasions through the process I suggested that she should consider applying to Siena College. We had a strong family legacy with the school. My father was one of the school’s earliest graduates (in the 40’s) and spent a good portion of his career at Siena retiring in the late 80’s. Several members of my immediate family were also graduates. Siena played a big role in my father’s life- he was very proud of the school and it had a special place in his heart. When he passed away a few months before my daughter’s graduation, she witnessed how great the Siena community was to my family. But despite my urging, she still didn’t want to apply. She was convinced it was too close to home and she wanted more independence. So, in the true ‘never a quitter’ spirit she possesses, she moved forward with her four applications.

As each rejection letter arrived my daughter became more and more distraught. It was difficult to explain to her how this could even happen. I was dumbfounded myself. On a daily basis lunch table discussions with friends and Facebook posts were a glaring reminder to her that others were having greater success than she was. I could see the disappointment growing each day. I wanted her to be enjoying the last few months of high school, but it became a stressful time. We put a deposit down on the one school that accepted her, although she was not enthused. She was not able to enjoy the experience of choosing a school, as it was her only option.  At the Freshman orientation that summer, I could see the sadness in her eyes. They separated the parents and the students and as I looked across the campus I saw that she was not engaging herself in the activities and it pained me to watch. The thought of leaving her there on move in day was breaking my heart. I couldn’t stand that she felt so defeated when she should be celebrating her accomplishments.

But again, she is not a quitter and was focused on sticking with the cards she was dealt. I knew it was a mistake, but I also knew that she had to come to her own conclusions.

One day- less than a month before she was to leave for college- she came to me and asked if she could bring her car to school. When I asked her why, she said it was because she planned on coming home as much as she possibly could. I explained to her that this was not a good sign. I told her that being away from home would be a big adjustment under normal (Freshman) circumstances and that if she already felt she couldn’t stay there she needed to give that some serious thought.

Then the next morning, I got a text.

“Do you think it’s too late for me to apply to Siena?”

I felt both relief and panic at the same time. It was late in the summer and it was possible they wouldn’t look at her application. I feared yet another bumpy road ahead and didn’t know if she could take it. Even if they accepted her application there were other hurdles; getting her transcript and other needed documents together in AUGUST, was there any aid left, would they give her an equivalent financial package at this late date?  I explained all of this to her but told her I would make the call. Ultimately, Siena did agree to look at her application and the call from the admissions counselor was just what my daughter needed to hear. “When we looked at your grades it was a no-brainer. We definitely have a spot for you in our incoming class.” The package they offered also made it possible for her to attend.

Remarkably, once she made this change everything began to fall into place for her- like it was meant to be from the beginning. There was a new enthusiasm inside my daughter and she was finally excited about the prospect of starting college.

Her four years seemed to sail by, smoothly and easily, from day one. Her experience was rich with opportunities I don’t believe she would’ve otherwise had. She had a fantastic work study job. She somehow fell into the best housing. She made amazing friends. There were no hurdles in her path and she graduated  Magna Cum Laude. A reluctant graduate I might add, because she didn’t want to leave the school she had grown to love.

We came so close to sending her to college kicking and screaming and here she was kicking and screaming to stay! 

I'm convinced from the very beginning; she was meant to be at Siena. Maybe it was what we came to call her Siena Angel (my dad- who would’ve been over the moon that she was there) but I believe it was supposed to be her college experience all along. She was so fixated on what she thought her course should be that she fought the glaring signals- in the form of struggles- along the way.

And all the while she was meant to be somewhere else.

Sometimes we are too focused on the trip when we just need to relax and let the journey unfold before us.

And, trust that we are exactly where we are meant to be – even if we get there kicking and screaming.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Acts Of Kindness Are Never Wrong

When my first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, I didn’t think I’d ever recover. Signs of trouble early on resulted in an ultrasound displaying a heartbeat. This only amplified my devastation when at three months, just as I thought I was heading into the clear, I lost the baby.

It was difficult to return to work as I was surrounded by women at different stages of pregnancy. A few days later I was coming back from my lunch break when I found a card on my desk. Tucked inside was a guardian angel pin and a note from a co-worker. Barbra and I were only casual acquaintances. She worked down the hall from me and when we crossed paths, we would chat. Unbeknownst to me she had suffered the same loss I was now experiencing and wanted to offer me some encouragement.  Enclosed in the card was a guardian angel pin. “Now your little angel can be with you always”, she had written. This gesture had been a turning point in my grief and I could begin looking at things in a different way. Yes, I had lost a child. But I had made an angel; an angel that would be with me always.

My first Christmas divorced I was having a hard time motivating myself to decorate. I was not in a festive mood and the thought of sharing my kids for the holidays saddened me. I just didn’t have the energy to make the fuss, yet I knew that I should with two young children. Then a good friend called out of the blue. Having been through a divorce herself, she guessed that I would be having a difficult time. She remembered feeling overwhelmed her first Christmas alone and wanted to make things as painless for me as possible. She said that she and her boyfriend would pick the kids and me up that Friday with their truck and head to the lot. All we had to do was choose a tree and they would bring it back to our house…simple and easy. Her thoughtfulness brought a great sense of relief for me and as I decorated that tree with my kids, I thought of how miraculous her timing had been and how grateful I was.

My father’s first significant indication of dementia came suddenly one January evening. He had been irritated, argued with my mother, and stormed out of the house in a rage. It was the middle of the night, he was 87 years old, and there was a foot of snow on the ground.  By the time my mother caught up to him, he was a good distance away and walking directly in traffic on one of the busiest streets near their house. Just as she approached, my mother noticed that a young couple had pulled over. They were out of their car, one on either side of him, walking down the center of the road with my dad keeping him safe. They stayed with him until help arrived and then quickly disappeared. We never did find out who they were, but those kind souls showed up exactly when my father needed them to.

A few years ago, a friend unexpectedly lost her son.  After the funeral, I was out walking around a plaza meandering mindlessly in and out of shops. In one store, I was drawn to a huge display of rocks. Each had an inspirational word carved in it. From the pile, I pulled a rock that had the word “Strength” etched across. I immediately thought of my friend and a little voice inside urged me to buy it for her. In the moment, I felt silly, though. She had just lost her son- and this was a rock. How dumb an idea. So, I left the store. But the feeling plagued me, so much so,that I returned shortly after and purchased the rock. I sent it off to her in a little package and the day it arrived I received a text. “How could you know?” she said. “How could you know that every day I wake up, look in the mirror and tell the woman in the reflection- YOU ARE STRONG?"

I think sometimes when we want to do something for someone, we second guess ourselves. We are afraid of how our actions, even if heartfelt, may be received. We wonder if our gesture comes at the wrong time or if it may bring more pain. But whenever I hesitate, I remind myself of the many occasions when I was the beneficiary of another’s kindness at exactly the right time.  Barbra didn’t know me that well, but her small gesture helped me look at loss in a different way and begin the steps to heal. It was an assumption on my friend’s part about how I may be feeling about the holidays. That assumption was correct and led to my spirits being lifted. The couple just driving down the street had no idea who my father was, or anything about him. They just knew that in that moment he was someone who needed help and they acted.

And I could have never known that a small token I thought may be irrelevant would mean so much to a friend who was struggling to stay tough in the face of grief.

Whenever we choose to act in kindness, it is never the wrong thing to do.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

What I Learned From Writing My Father's Obituary

A decade or so ago, on a beautiful summer day, my parents arrived for one of their regular visits with my kids. My father handed me a thick, sealed manila envelope labeled ‘obituary’.  With a puzzled look on my face, I turned to him for explanation. He told me that as the other passionate writer in the family, he wanted me to have this information so that I could draft his obituary when the time came. At that moment, my father stood in front of me in good health and his mortality was not something I was prepared to consider - so I took the envelope, placed it in a safe place and we went on about our visit.

On a cold February night a few years back, it was time for me to woefully retrieve that envelope. I was overwhelmed with the task at hand. I had read hundreds of obituaries in my lifetime and was certainly capable of writing one. Surely I could tackle his. In my state of grief, I would never have imagined that writing my father’s obituary would become a teaching moment for me.

Overcome with the emotion of having just lost my dad, I felt such appreciation for having this information compactly at hand, information that I otherwise would never have remembered in my state of sadness. As I went through the pages, it became increasingly important for me to create a tribute to my father that would communicate what kind of man he was and what was important to him throughout his life. The things he was most proud of; his family, his career, his education, his service to his country. It was too much information to include and had to be condensed as much as possible. In the end, it became I think, a fantastic narrative of his life.

I am the youngest of five children. One of us was always up to antics and so it was not uncommon for my parents to jokingly (and maybe sometimes seriously) pose the question ‘how is our obituary going to read?’ If a situation arose that may embarrass them, we would laugh and make light. But reading through the final copy of my father’s tribute, I finally understood what that question truly meant to them.

When was the last time you read an obituary that describes the deceased’s jewelry collection or what vehicle was parked in their garage?  Obituaries don’t talk about square footage of homes or labels on clothes. They don’t mention balances left in bank accounts or the change left in someone’s pocket. What they do say is what legacy a person left behind in family, in work and in faith. My father lived an amazing life. At 87, he left behind a devoted wife of 59 years, five children and ten grandchildren. He had an extensive education that he had credited to serving his country and the GI bill. He built an amazing career that encompassed a lifetime of helping others. These are the things that a memorable life is built on….the things that obituaries are made of.

I once knew someone who measured self-worth with material items. I often teased him that when he was one day in the nursing home, he'd be lucky if they park his sports car outside the window where he can see or if they'd  place that expensive watch around his wrist.  To be clear I am not against the finer things in life and certainly appreciate that some people work very hard to achieve and deserve them. But in truth, none of that compares to having someone who loves you hold your hand as you take your final breath. My father passed with loving family by his side, holding his hand.

It took writing my father’s obituary to consider what my own obituary will one day say. The question has challenged me to make important changes in my life and every time I am not sure which direction to go, I ask myself “how will my obituary read?”

What will yours say?

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The $20 Bill

I placed the $20 bill on my lap as I sat in my car waiting for my friend to arrive. I was taking some things out of my purse and placing them directly in my pocket for quicker access.

I completely forgot that the money was there as I opened the door and stepped outside into a gust of wind. As soon as my foot hit the ground, I realized that the bill was missing. A quick glance around my car revealed that it was long gone… already blowing through the parking lot to land where it would later be found. The event was at a college campus, and the constant buzz of activity ensured that my $20 bill would eventually be in someone else’s pocket.

Normally, my reaction would not be good. I, like most people, am on a budget and something like this would’ve naturally caused me to obsess ALL DAY about what the money could’ve done (buy gas or groceries, etc). But lately, I am trying not to sweat the small stuff.

I have been reading the book “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero  (a great read BTW) and a passage that stuck with me was about just this; that when we happen across life’s little annoyances, we should try and put a positive spin on them. The author suggests taking the situation and completing the phrase “It’s a good thing this happened because if it didn’t then…….”. Putting this positive spin on the issue almost always changes your mentality. As I felt myself starting to obsess and stress, I tried to apply this approach.

Flash back to my high school years. I was 15 years old and not yet able to work other than earning a few bucks here or there babysitting. Baggy jeans were the fashion (yes- I’m an 80’s girl!),  but at the $20 price tag buying them was not within my reach. I tried on the perfect pair- they would complete my outfit for an upcoming dance that I so badly wanted to look amazing for. Confidence is not an easy thing to find at 15, and these pants would do the trick.

I left the store defeated and bummed.

The very next day, as I am walking down the street, I spot it: a folded up bill lying on the sidewalk. As I pick it up and take a closer look I am astonished to see that it is a $20 bill. What luck!! Could this really be happening to me?? At 15, the whole world seems to work against you…so I was stunned at this good fortune. I was ecstatic and immediately returned to the store for the baggy pants and wore them proudly to the dance. In fact, every time I wore those jeans I felt special because of the circumstances that they came to be. But someone HAD to have lost that money- and in the 80’s, $20 was not small change.

There is something about finding money. It makes you feel lucky, even if it's loose change. When my father would take his grandchildren on walks, the kids would be so excited to find various coins along the way. They thought that their grandfather was their good luck charm and always looked forward to those walks. It was years before they realized that he dropped those coins as they strolled, when they weren't looking- to add a little ‘special’ to their day.

Flash forward again…I am standing in the parking lot of the event remembering how wonderfully awesome it felt to find that money. I am thinking about my father, too, and how he made his grandkids feel lucky and suddenly my positive spin comes to me. “It’s a good thing I  lost that $20 bill because if I didn't, I wouldn't have made someone’s day a little more special."

Maybe that someone needed a little luck.....

For the rest of the day I was smiling.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Father's Flaw

He was always a very ethical person, my father. He was the type of person to drive back to the grocery store if he realized the cashier had shorted herself. He had high standards for himself and others. He was honest, straightforward and a very moral person. I had always put him on a pedestal in that regard. In my adult years I knew someone who did not have the perfect father growing up. My friend had great acceptance of that and told me that he had come to realize that parents are humans too. They are flawed not perfect. They come through life with baggage and issues just like everyone else and that this was what shaped who they were. I hadn’t given this much thought until my father’s health, at age 87, was beginning to fail.

The last few months were difficult ones. My father suffered with some sort of dementia thought to be vascular. His body was simply beginning to break down. It was painful to see. Up until that point he had been in exemplary health, and, anyone who experiences the dementia of someone close to them knows it’s agonizing to watch. With each declining degree, the person you know and love slips further and further away. I have four siblings. We read all we could about dementia and tried all of the suggestions to delay the progression….puzzles, labeled photo albums, notebooks, routine…everything. It was one Saturday of routine that brought me back to what my friend had taught me.

My son and I offered to go for a walk with my father. He was having a particularly good day and walks around the neighborhood were always something he enjoyed. We spent a lot of time talking. One place that my father always went to in his dementia was his time in World War II. He was in the army stationed in France. It was frightening at times and I often wondered if they were real memories or fantasy. This day, though, it was not frightening at all. On this Saturday walk, he talked with my son and me about being in France sharing many interesting stories with us.  When we arrived back home he took us to his study and to a big white binder on his desk. Inside the binder was page after page, yellowed with age- some handwritten some typed; poems. He just began reading from the pages.

My father had a knack for words, both verbal and written. One of the things that has been most missed since he passed are the birthday cards with the lengthy personalized narratives about how special we were. No one, from kids to grandkids threw them away. And it has been said by many that when we lost my Dad, we lost the family event speech giver. So when he began reading from these pages I was not necessarily surprised by what he wrote but I was certainly impressed about the depth and beauty that emerged from the pages. There, in this three- ring binder, were poem after poem written about Jacqueline, my father’s fiancée during the war. He had met her when he was stationed in France. She was from a little town called Epernay. My father was young when he was enlisted in the Army. He was sent overseas to France. While stationed there he met Jacqueline, a young translator for the French Army. Her family, like she, was warm and welcoming and took great care of him while he was there. He was lonely and homesick and they took him in. He fell in love and soon Jacqueline became his fiancée. He became great friends with her brother and her parents were elated at her marrying and returning to the states with my father. She was smart and educated and they felt the states would offer her much promise. She corresponded with his mother and got to know his family via cross continental letters. They planned that once the war had ended, they would come back to the states and start a family…and live happily ever after.

The war eventually did end and when it ended, so did their relationship. It was time for my father to return home. In preparing for this he came to the realization that even though he loved Jacqueline, he was not in love with her. He didn’t know how to tell her, so he did the unforgivable. He left France without saying goodbye. No explanation. No ending for her. He just left. He had kept in touch for a while with her brother who told him that Jacqueline had a bit of a breakdown after he left. She apparently, her brother reported, sank in to a depression. Growing up we all knew about Jacqueline. She profoundly affected most of his life after the war.  The mere mention of her name would always send him to a place of sadness and regret. It was obvious that he struggled with it even all those years later.

My father never forgave himself for the pain he caused her. For years, he would become visibly upset by the mention of her name. He imagined her devastated, broken and feeling unloved. He could not release himself from the guilt. I believe in many ways this molded who and what my father became. My father went on to have a successful career as a psychologist and helped many people get through dark times in their lives yet he could not forgive himself of the one dark time he created. He owned this as a great character flaw in himself and not the mistake of youth that it truly was. As he read these poems out loud I was awestruck at the love and sincerity that poured from the words. They were truly like something out of a romance novel; something I had never experienced with anyone myself. From the words that were etched on this paper it was clear that he was truly in love with Jacqueline. As he continued to read I wondered how this had all shaped his life, if this was what propelled him into his chosen career and devotion to consoling others.  I also wondered if she had truly known how deeply he cared for her, if she had in fact seen these poems and known that it was the sincerest form of young love. I felt sad to think that if she hadn’t heard these words she may have somehow thought their relationship was all a lie and spent needless time doubting her self-worth. We have all been there at some point in our lives, whether we are having our heart broken or being the one to break a heart.

In these words I found my father was not perfect. He was a beautiful person but flawed. He had hurt someone, someone he cared deeply about and he had carried that burden for most of his life. Things happen for a reason, though. He eventually met my mother and had the family he was meant to have. They would have been married 60 years a few months after his passing. I say that he carried that burden for the greater part of his life because in the 1990’s- some 45 years after my father had left Jacqueline behind he and my mother took a trip to France. They returned to that little place called Epernay and knocked on the door of what was Jacqueline’s family home. Her father who still lived there immediately recognized my father and opened his home to my parents. It was then much to my father’s relief he discovered that Jacqueline, too, had after all led a wonderful life. She was happily married with children. Her life did not end when he left. It had all worked out for her as it was meant to be. After 45 years my father finally received the closure he needed and was able to finally forgive himself for that mistake of youth so long ago.

Dementia patients often have flashbacks to significant times in their life. It isn’t the present they live in, but mostly the past. It is no surprise to me that at the end of his life my father spent a lot of time with the war and with Jacqueline. I pray, though, that my father’s death isn’t the end of this story. I am haunted by the thought that if someone had written such beautiful prose about me, I would want to know, to touch the pages. Especially if it was someone that I believed had never cared about me, unrequited love. I can’t be sure if Jacqueline is still alive but I am hopeful at least that her children and grandchildren are. If someone wrote those things about my mother, I would be elated to have them and awestruck to view my mother through a lover’s eyes. I hope that one day  through technology and God’s intervention I will somehow have the opportunity to place those beautiful words about Jacqueline in her family’s hands. Maybe somewhere, somehow they need that perspective on who their mother was and what baggage she carried through life.