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.