There is no forgiveness, only acceptance.

We were in the car, on the way to Marco’s weekly golf lesson, and Marco was telling me about an incident that had happened at school.  It seems he and another boy had a dispute with two girls during recess.  The other boy and one of the girls got angry enough that the dispute got a little physical (I guess there were rocks involved), and other kids witnessed the conflict.  The teacher, in an attempt to dissolve the tension, encouraged the kids to laugh it off, and made some innocent enough remark like “well, you know what they say when boys and girls pick on each other….” This, of course, triggered snickers and finger pointing, followed by the sing-song “you like so-and-so”.  Marco was embarrassed and he didn’t know how to handle it.  I told Marco that people crave attention and status, and sometimes, picking on someone is a way to make oneself feel better.  If they can get someone else to feel bad just for a second, strangely, it makes them feel a little cooler, tougher, smarter, bigger, stronger.  The best thing you can do is demonstrate to them that their teasing had no effect on you.  Either ignore or play along.  So when someone says “you like so-and-so” just say “okay” and shrug your shoulders.  Usually, when they realize that what they are doing doesn’t really bother you, they’ll get bored and move on.  “See, here’s the thing, Marc – people only have as much power over you as you give them.  You get to choose how much you are going to let them affect you.”  Marco is very sensitive and wears his heart on his sleeve most of the time.   In some ways, he and my oldest are polar opposites.  It’s hard to get our very stoic Nacho to express his emotions, whereas Marco gives us a running commentary on everything he goes through.  Learning that he actually has some control over how people make him feel was like suddenly possessing a secret weapon and he was quick to tell me the first time he used his new power (that same day during his golf lesson!).

People only have as much power as you give them.  This has been such a difficult lesson for me to learn.  I gave so much power to my parents as I was growing up that at times my emotions depended completely on theirs.  Much like the little boy, Elliot, in the movie E.T., if their hearts were light, my world was happy, but if darkness fell upon them, I took on their pain as though it were mine.  It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began to understand how much power I had been giving to others.  I had to spend some time in therapy to get it, but I eventually absorbed it and made it my own.  “Maybe, perhaps” became my version of Marco’s “okay”.  It was my post-adolescent “whatever”.  Ironically, the single most dreaded attitude by adults, the one that they would just as soon eradicate from the entire adolescent population, is the one attitude that frequently saves my sanity in adulthood!   But while I’ve gotten pretty good at using “maybe” in most situations, I’m not yet an expert at figuring out when it’s appropriate.  If mastery is the goal, I’m still very much an apprentice.

My first husband, misguided though he was, tried to teach me the value of withholding others’ power.  I say he was misguided only because for him, if I could just change the way I reacted to things he said, then he would have carte blanche to say whatever he wanted.  I, of course, wanted him to change the way he said things so that I wouldn’t have to struggle with how to respond.  We were both a little misguided.  He did teach me one thing, though, and I have tried my best to live by it:  when you lose your shit, you lose your point.

Second marriages are amazing because they give you the opportunity to learn from the mistakes you made the first time around.   The second time in, we approach everything with the perspective that comes from having heard and done it before.  We’ve seen where it could go, and we learn quickly how to curb our actions and reactions to just about everything.  With finely developed filters, we can identify the real message beneath the layered sludge of sleeplessness, frustration, moodiness, anger and anything else that might work its way in.  We become experts at prioritizing, nurturing, and focusing.  My husband and I always say that everyone should have a practice marriage.  Our failed first marriages prepared us well for this one.  And while I sometimes joke that I like this husband better than my next one, neither of us have any interest in ever doing this again with anyone else.  And because we know where indifference, apathy and passivity can go, we are fully invested.  A huge part of that is entrusting one another to do no harm, at least not on purpose.

Recently, Marco was talking about what he’ll name his kids (apparently, he’ll have three).  I mentioned that he might want to consider what the woman (or man) he marries wants.  (I did actually say “or man” to which Marco adamantly responded “Mom, I’m going to marry a woman!”)  I told him “Marco, I don’t care who you marry so long as they love you for you who are, they never make you feel bad, and they make you a better person.”  To which my nine year old says with a smirk and the slightest hint of arrogance, “yeah, I don’t know about better.”  I explained that I’m super lucky because Dave loves me for all those things I’m good at, but also for all of the things I struggle with.  He gives me balance and makes me want to be better.  With him at my side, I never feel like I’m “just not very good” at something.  In fact, because of his faith in me, I feel like everything is possible.

I am blessed with the kind of love that sustains me through even the darkest of times.  Yet, I still find that my insecurities – the very same ones that led me to spend time and money just to learn the power of “maybe” – still creep out now and again.  People only have as much power as you give them.  And while I have learned to dole out that power carefully to others in general, I willingly and knowingly put myself into the hands of my significant other.  And with pervasive love in our hearts, even anger can occasionally move in to lead a conversation.  And when anger comes from someone who is not supposed to hurt you, it can make you question not only those things you want to do better, but also those things you thought you did well.  The Master of Maybe will remember to sift through the sludge and find the real meaning behind tone and words.  She will keep her perspective so as to avoid losing her point behind the proverbial caca.  But alas, I’m just an apprentice. And so in the face of losing face, I throw the mud back, hoping it will distract him from my own flaws.  How quickly I revert to the childish need for attention and status… I slept in the guest room last night.  I think I lost my point.

Sheepishly returning to Marco’s story, I must ask myself about the sequel.  People only have as much power as you give them.  If you are lucky enough to find someone who deserves your love and trust, then voluntarily giving them that power and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a gift.  That doesn’t mean that you give them the power to do whatever they want to you, including harm – with love, the intention will never be hurtful.  But trust and vulnerability has to be mutual.  Just as I trust that he will never harm me intentionally, he has to be able to trust that I will look past those moments of anger, when he himself has become vulnerable.  My mistake is to take his anger to heart, to receive it as a challenge to my character.  Instead of resolving a problem, a new one is created, and the only solution I can see through my narrowed pupils is for him to take it back.  TAKE IT BACK, I want to scream, standing at the edge of my imaginary playground.   In our early days, Dave told me “there is no forgiveness between us, only acceptance.”  If I am to trust him to do me no harm, then I have the responsibility to trust that harm is not his intention.  And when we make mistakes in our communication, instead of demanding that he validate me (effectively “taking it back”), I need to accept that he too has been vulnerable and that it is in no way a reflection of his feelings for me.

People only have as much power as we give them…

Posted in connectedness, love, marriage, parenthood | 2 Comments

Commencement speech given for a special young man in June 2013

Note:  This is a graduation speech that I was asked to give in June 2013 for a one-man graduating class.   I have realized that it’s actually harder to write for other people than it is to write for myself, but it’s infinitely more gratifying.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, parents, students, Louise, Dani, and guests.  It is truly an honor for me to have been invited to join you today in celebration of the Study Center Foundation’s 2013 commencement exercise.

Late spring is that time when stress or fatigue reaches its peak; having grown steadily over time until finally it breaks, revealing beneath it the bubbling elation of the coming summer.  It is a time when weddings, first communions, and of course, graduations take center stage as years of hard work and preparation bear their glorious fruits of success.  It is a time of finished chapters that, upon turning the page, divulge a brand new twist of the plot.  A time when, as we turn away from a gently (or perhaps not so gently) closed door, we find ourselves faced with an open window or two.

Graduation from high school is one of the first times, if not the first time, in our lives when we find ourselves playing an impressive game of emotional tug of war – on the one side is fear, on the other, hope.  It is without a doubt a time for rejoice.  It is also time for reflection, giving us the opportunity to sift through life’s tests and triumphs in an effort to purposefully embrace what has worked and decisively shed what hasn’t.  Graduation is a time when we look back in order to move forward.

When Louise phoned me to ask me to speak with you today, I had actually just been searching the internet for some motivational videos to show my students at the American School of Madrid.  I am the high school Dean of Students, and I also teach a class in Introduction to Sociology to students in grades 10 through 12.  As most parents and teachers know, June is a difficult time to inspire teenagers.  And although I had actually figured that one out all by myself after 17 years in education, one of my students recently thought it important to remind me.  When I asked about his exceptionally low score on a quiz he just took, his response, with a shrug of the shoulders, was simply, “…it’s almost June, Miss”.

So when Louise called, I had just watched the entire graduation speech given by J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, at Harvard University in 2008.  My head was still spinning with Ms. Rowling’s message of hope and courage when Louise called.   If I hesitated at all in answering Louise it was only out of that momentary self-doubt that comes from questioning whether I might actually have something meaningful to say that would resonate with a teenager on his graduation day.  While I’m still not sure I have the answer, I’m going to give it a try.

I have spent most of my life in Madrid, and most of my professional life at the American School of Madrid.  My parents moved to Spain from Dallas, Texas, when I was 9.  They determined to raise their family with the best that an international career had to offer, and before Dallas, my family had lived in Sao Paolo (where I was born), Barcelona, and San Juan de Puerto Rico.  Despite my being accustomed to living outside of the US, my five years in Texas came at a critical time, and I arrived in Madrid with a well-developed southern drawl and a bad attitude.  My two older brothers and I joined forces in our resentment of our parents’ decision to pull us away from the United States and we each found our own, age-appropriate ways to rebel.

Just three and a half years apart, my brother Mike and I decided our collective mutiny would be to reject everything Spanish, especially the language.  Initially, we were only going to live in Spain for two years so we were pretty determined to hold out. We did fairly well, despite our dad’s insistence that we go play with the other kids in our apartment complex.  One day, my dad put a small wooden paddle in one of my hands and a little plastic ball in the other and pushed me out the door saying “remember:  quieres jugar al pin pon?”  That was all the Spanish I knew after a year and a half.  But it got me a few friends, and I learned to play a mean game of ping pong.  And it was somehow just enough Spanish to make my parents realize that I could potentially learn more.

My dad decided to extend his contract one year and a year became a lifetime.  Today, I am finishing my 17th year of employment at the American School of Madrid where I have been the Dean of Students, Upper School Guidance Counselor, Head of Development and Alumni Coordinator.  My father was on the Board of Trustees at the school for many years, and my brothers and I are all graduates of the school.  To top it off, my three children, ages 9, 11 and 13, have all attended the school since they were 3.  The American School of Madrid is in many ways my home.

That said, the Study Center, and most especially, Louise, have a special place in my heart.  Over the years, the school has weaved its way through and around my life, imprinting itself on my existence.  As far back as 1985, when my brother attended the school as he worked his way through a difficult time, I have known the Study Center to be a source of hope and inspiration.  About ten years ago, when I was pursuing my Master’s Degree in Counseling, Louise was kind enough to spend time with me helping me understand the Study Center’s philosophy, accomplishments, and needs.  Little did I know at that time that my life would take a few turns through divorce and loss, that seven years later I would be remarried, and that my 16 year old autistic stepson would himself attend the Study Center for a year and a half.  The story has the interesting twist, though.  When my husband and I went to visit Louise and talk with her about how the Study Center could meet our son’s needs, she took us on a tour of the grounds.  We saw the classrooms upstairs, the library, the kitchen, and the art room in the basement.  We met a few of the teachers and a handful of students, and so far, we liked what we saw.

And then Louise took us into a classroom that had a piano in it.  There was young man sitting at the piano who must have been about 14 at the time.   When introduced to us, he stood and shook both of our hands.  He sat back down, and continued to play, and though neither of us knew the piece he was playing, my husband and I were struck by both his talent and his willingness to share that moment with us.  That young man was Dani.  It was then that we decided the Study Center was where we wanted our son to be.

Unintentionally and unknowingly, Dani, you inspired us that day.  You showed us commitment, courage and hope and we have thought of you often over the years.  That I have been asked to speak at your graduation is in a way poetic.  So, I beg your family’s forgiveness as I indulge in a two-part message to you alone.

The first message is this:  Be flexible and prepared.  Life is not linear.  When I was still a little girl, living in Texas, my dream was to own a ranch and marry a cowboy.  We would have horses and drive a pickup truck.  Once in Spain, it didn’t take long for me to shed the “howdy”s from my speech, although my children are quick to point out the occasional “ya’ll” that still escapes from my mouth.  As the dreams of young children do, mine underwent a kind of metamorphosis and around the age of 10, I became convinced that I wanted to be a doctor.

It wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that chemistry and I would never be good friends, and although I tried to hang on to the dream even into my graduate studies, I found myself having to redirect.  As I tried to figure things out, my education and work experience began to look like a piece of modern art, with smatterings of one goal here and splotches of another there.

Somewhere along the line, I found myself back at my alma mater – the American School of Madrid – working as an intern, and over time, my wide range of interests and experiences began to naturally narrow themselves into a logical path.  Along the way, I got married, had children, went back to university, got divorced, remarried, became a stepmom, studied some more, and well… I’ve come realize that the road that lies ahead is as exciting as it is unpredictable and that the best tactic is to be flexible and prepared.

I am not one of those who believe that higher education is the only key to opportunity and success.  You can have all the education in the world, but if you aren’t flexible, you may never get a job.  No, I truly believe that the secret lies in knowing how to work with the challenges rather than against them.

If you fall into a fast moving stream that seems to be carrying you away from your destination, you have a choice:  You can try to swim upstream; Or, you can move with the current, and slowly make your way to the edge. That’s being flexible.  Maybe you’ll have to walk a ways to get where you planned to go.  Or maybe, you’ll find that where you got out of the water is actually more appealing.  Either way, you need to know how to swim – that’s being prepared.

John Lennon tells us that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”.  Know that things don’t always happen the way you want them to and that’s okay.  With flexibility and preparedness, you’ll make it work for you, and therein lies your success.

My second message is: Take nothing for granted.  Throughout your life you will find yourself faced with a series of people, places, events, and challenges that may seem arbitrary.  At times, the choices you make may seem illogical.

One day long ago, my brother Mike, tired and angry at life, arrived home from school with a puppy in his arms.  He and a buddy were walking home from the Study Center when they passed by an elderly woman with a litter of pups.  She offered them to both boys, and while his friend didn’t accept, my brother, who had started to walk away, paused and turned back.  He took the smallest one out of the basket and picked him up to take a closer look.  He whispered, “que pasa, tio?” and the puppy licked his nose.  Tio, as he affectionately became known, lived with us for ten years, and even after Mike went off to college and got married, Tio was always Mike’s dog.  For our family, Tio became a symbol of tenacity and grit.  And for obvious reasons, Tio always reminded us of Mike’s time at the Study Center.

There is a game we sometimes play at home, you may have heard of it.  It’s called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”  You might have seen one of the TV advertisements in the UK.  Well, according to wikipedia (I actually looked this up), it’s a game that was fashioned after the concept that we are all connected to one another through six degrees of separation.  The idea is that within six independent thoughts, you can connect any two people or ideas (or, in this case, any idea to the actor Kevin Bacon).  For example, take the word “cloud”.  Clouds make rain.  Rain is water. Water mixes with dirt to make mud. Pigs love mud.  Bacon comes from pigs.  Kevin Bacon.  And you can do this with just about any word!

The point is that somehow, wherever I am in life, whatever I’m doing – it can always be traced back to the Study Center.  The Study Center is my Kevin Bacon. Six degrees of separation.  And as we’ve seen, Dani, you have now become a part of that spectacular web of connections. As much as possible, I encourage you to recognize that even the most seemingly random one offs can become integral pieces in the puzzle of your life.  Without knowing why things come your way, I urge you to have faith in the possibilities, to embrace the unknown, to take nothing for granted.

In closing, Dani, your life will bring you a fantastic jumble of opportunities, experiences and outcomes.  Sometimes you will plan it perfectly, and it will play out like a beautifully composed symphony.  But there will also be times when, despite the perfection of your planning, page 3 will somehow get lost right in the middle of the concert, and you’ll have to improvise.  When that happens, make sure you appreciate every glorious note.

I am delighted to have been with you today, and I wish you the very best.  Congratulations.

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Inspiration from others, 2

From The hand that first held mine, by Maggie O’Farrell

The women we become after children.

We change shape, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair.  We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll.  We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective.  Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies.  They breathe, they eat, they crawl and – look! – they walk, they begin to speak to us.  We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way.  We get used to not getting where we were going.  We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees.  We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us.  We live.  We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet.  We learn to look less in the mirror.  We put our dry-clean-only clothes to the back of the wardrobe.  Eventually, we throw them away.  We school ourselves to stop saying ‘shit’ and ‘damn’ and learn to say ‘my goodness’ and ‘heavens above’.  We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming pools, libraries, cafes for other of our kind.  We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gazes, the beakers we carry.  We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours.  We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold.  We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their makeup, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep pushing the pram up the hill.

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Inspiration from others, 1

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain:  it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.  – C.S. Lewis

Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.  – Fulton Oursler

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Ode to Nacho

As parents, we go through stages with our children that depend both on where they are in their development, and on where we stand with our own levels of patience, emotion, and energy.   How much we love our children is the unshakeable foundation that brings us back, even after we’ve already threatened to disown the lot. On a good day, I am in the zone, and I can listen to Nacho tell stories for hours.  On a bad day, I have to remind myself that “sweetheart, I really do want to listen to you but I’m just really distracted right now” is a much better answer than “oh, would you please just shut up?!”   Of course, a short while after asking for his patience as I try to get through the forty things I am juggling, I get frustrated with him for giving me one syllable answers to open-ended questions, complaining that he doesn’t talk to me.  It’s really no wonder kids at this age are so confused – they are not only working through their own hormonal, emotional, and intellectual imbalances, but they are managing their parents’ insanity as well.

Sometimes it feels like I am riding Nacho all the time; whether he has made a poor choice or he is fumbling the communication ball, there are days when it’s hard to remember whether I have said anything nice to him.  He’s an amazing kid – he is responsible, he works hard, he’s bright, polite, a good friend, and he has a terrific sense of humor.  But there is one thing that even Nacho can’t control right now, and it makes life a little frustrating:  he’s eleven.  With eleven comes the most amazing journeys into intellectual curiosity, and conversations with Nacho have moved to a whole new level of interesting.  He knows far more about many things than I do and it’s gratifying to be able to ask him a question and trust that he will probably be able to tell me at least part of the answer.  He’s getting pretty good at the B.S. too, but I imagine that’s part of his intellectual growth, and of course, my challenge is to learn to read through that.  On the other side of eleven, though, is the bumpy bit.  We are navigating through rough jaunts into independence, sometimes unsuccessful experiments with verbal assertion, and often excessive exertion of sibling authority.  There are moments of success when he’ll do something that works – an appropriate response instead of a precipitated retort, for example.  These are moments we take in and appreciate, but are afraid to celebrate out loud, because, well, it’s just wrong if your parents tell you “wow, you didn’t just say something stupid!”   It’s like riding a jet ski, and most of the time it’s smooth and fast and we’re having a ball, and then we hit a series of smaller waves that come one right after another so that we’re bouncing again and again and it feels like we’re either going to throw up or fall off.  And most of the time it’s hard to know who’s driving – him or us.

For some reason, these days, I am frequently reminded of the day Nacho fainted at school.  I will be doing something completely mundane like driving in the car or taking a shower and suddenly I will see his limp body slump to the floor.  As if in slow motion, I watch as his head hits the ground, not quite understanding as I hear for the hundredth time the dull thud of his temple against the the linoleum tile.  I fast forward to the point where he is beginning to tremble and, terrified, I look around frantically for a pencil or something to put in his mouth in case this is a convulsion. I find nothing, and resort to putting my finger in his mouth, knowing full well how dangerous that is, but not having any other recourse.  My flashback usually stops here, as I quickly force myself to remember that this was two and a half years ago, when Nacho was in fourth grade.

I am one of those fortunate moms who happens to work where my kids go to school. That has always meant that I could see the kids when I wanted to, visiting them at lunch when they were little, and attending their performances and award ceremonies in the middle of the day.  On occasion, I will need to get a message to one of them, and on that particular day, I had to tell Nacho that he was going to take the bus home.  I went up to his classroom and found the students were sitting at their desks reading quietly.  Nacho’s teacher made eye contact with me and nodded her head, indicating that it was okay for me to come in. Nacho’s back was to me, and as I approached him, his arm dropped to his side, his pencil slipped to the floor, and he went down right after it.  I remember saying “Nacho?” in disbelief as he fell to the floor, and in my mind, I relive the moment again and again, like it was yesterday.  In the end, the trembling was just that, and he didn’t convulse as I had feared he would.  As he came to, he looked around, taking in his surroundings.  He slowly understood that he was in his classroom, and with his friends looking down at him, the embarrassment set in.  Furthermore he was mortified that my finger was in his mouth.  I explained that one later, and a visit to the doctor revealed that his body was going through such a tremendous growth spurt that his brain couldn’t keep.  The solution was easy:  be sure he was hydrated at all times.

As parents, I think we live in perpetual fear that something will go wrong and that we will lose the creatures that we love the most.  I didn’t have to watch my parents lose their 42 year-old son to cancer to know that losing a child at any age is something that is inconscionable and devastating.  Even so, I have made an effort to not be the kind of mother that is continually protecting her children from imaginary ills.  I know that my children, in order to have a chance at the life that they have been blessed with, will have to face and overcome their own challenges.  Learning to cross the street alone, walk home from the bus stop, and navigate uncomfortable conversations with strangers – this is all part of growing up.  But I sometimes struggle to shake the thoughts that wake me up at night, the ones that suggest I am a half-crazed overprotective female.  Any parent who has seen a child standing on a sixth floor balcony or too close to the edge of the subway platform knows these visions.

The memory of Nacho fainting is so vivid that it can only be my conscience telling me that I need to keep things in perspective.  As we sat down to dinner last night, eating barbecued hamburgers despite the freezing winter temperatures – my husband Canadian to the core – I watched Nacho joke with Emma and Marco.  It wasn’t the first time that I found myself lured in by his laughter, and I watched his eyes sparkle as he smiled.  I try to be objective when I say that he is such a handsome boy, but I know that there’s probably a little more to it than that.  He really is a cool kid.  And whatever it is that he is going through, I know that if I handle it right, it will pass.  Every once in a while, I will write him a “love letter”; a tiny reminder from Mom that, as my firstborn, he is a central source of light in my life.  I don’t pretend to not have favorites – they are all my favorite on some level – but Nacho is the one who changed me, molded me, and nurtured me into motherhood, and I am forever grateful to him for having chosen me.  I think he knows that there is no end to my adulation, but I also recognize how hard it is to remember that when it seems like your every move is being watched through a microscope.  I intend to tell him again today just how awesome I think he is.

Posted in family, growing up, motherhood, parenthood | 4 Comments

Leaping

“Perdóneme señorita, pero le puedo hacer una pregunta?” Excuse me miss, but may I ask you a question? I was in line at a little bakery just around the corner from the church, waiting to pay for my coffee and croissant. It’s a tiny place, but it is the only one in the neighborhood that is open on a Sunday morning.  The church next door hosts the only Catholic mass in English in Madrid, so there is quite a bit of activity in this little shop at 10 a.m.  I had dropped Emma off at her catechism class about thirty minutes earlier, and went to the bakery to have some breakfast and flip through a magazine while I waited. It was one of those decoration magazines, the kind that is supposed to give you all of these wonderful ideas about how you can make your house look and feel spectacular, and really all it does is remind you how far you have to go.  I mean, yeah, we could do that with our house, well, if that was our house.

Sometimes I will take a book to read, or I will go over to the little kiosk that is right in front of the church and get a newspaper.  Or I will just sit in the car and watch the people on the street.  You can’t help but to imagine the stories behind people you see.  The old man who leans against the window sill of the bakery, smoking cigarettes and calling out at the young women who walk by is a perfect example.  He doesn’t saying anything crass, just “Buenos dias, guapa!” Good morning, pretty lady.  His clothes aren’t crisp and clean, but neither are they dirty or ratty.  He wears an olive fedora and a bright red wool scarf.  His face carries the weathered creases of experience and his smile reveals the kind of appreciation that only comes from having truly lived.  There is an old metal bike leaning up against the wall next to him, plain white plastic bags hang on both of the handle bars.  As I walk by him in the street, I can hear him singing the words to a song that sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite make it out.  There is another American family in the bakery and the woman tells me that they buy the old man a loaf of bread every Sunday.  I know nothing more about the man than this, yet I can’t help but think to myself that this man’s got a story, for sure.

My Sunday mornings with Emma have been interesting.  I stopped going to Church a long time ago, disillusioned with what was, in my mind, a greater focus on the intangibles of faith than on the actual things that make us human and responsible for one another.  It became harder and harder for me to honor a religion that on the one hand claimed to be for everyone and on the other hand vehemently denied the spirituality of those whose God didn’t look quite like its own.  I carry in me a faith that is undefined and is at the same time needy and rebellious.  Shortly after my dad died, Emma mentioned that she would like to start going to church.  She had been to mass on occasion with her dad or members of his family, and it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to her, and she was eloquent in her explanation:  she was curious about God and Jesus and wanted to learn more.   Whatever my own conflict with religion has been, I could not deny Emma the right to explore her own faith, so I agreed to take her to the English Catholic Church.  She was just in time to begin catechism classes, and the parish was kind enough to create a special class for Emma and a few others who were also slightly older than the traditional “beginners”.  Emma is committed; it will take a lot for her to miss either a class or a mass and she plans to do her first communion just over a year from now.

And so it is that this morning, I kill some time in the bakery while Emma is in class.  We’ll go to mass together afterward, and I look at my watch, realizing that it’s time for me to pick her up.  I quickly order a chocolate-filled pastry to go so that Emma can have a bite to eat just before mass starts, when an older man I have never met approaches me in line.  He is dressed in earth tones that are typical of Spanish elderly in the winter, and he is substantially shorter than I am.  The lines on his face deepen as he smiles, which he does when he turns to ask me:  “Perdóneme señorita, pero le puedo hacer una pregunta?” I respond with a smile in kind and answer “si, por supuesto.”  Yes, of course. “Usted se sienta a tomar un caldo calentito.  A la derecha tiene la cuchara, y a la izquierda el tenedor.  Cual utiliza?”  You sit down to eat a warm soup.  On the right is a spoon, and on the left a fork.  Which do you use?  I shake my a head a little and smile, amused by the question.  After considering it for a moment, I answer confidently, “la cuchara”.  The spoon.  He looks at me and shakes his head, at first seemingly disappointed, but then his facial expression quickly changes and he looks almost pleased.  He replies: “No.  Hay que utilizar el tenedor.  Pero usted esta todavía muy verde.” No.  You must use the fork.  But you are still green.  I stand there, stunned, as he turns away, his gait slightly victorious.  Truth be told, I am almost angry at the man, thinking that he asked me a question I couldn’t possibly have known the answer to, because it could have been answered either way. He never did tell me why the correct answers was the fork – it could have been that protocol dictates that you use the utensil on the left side of the plate; or perhaps it was that the fork will prolong the joyful experience of eating a warm soup on a cold winter day.  Either way, I admit that I considered the man’s audacity to be little more than obnoxious.  He was just trying to prove that he knew more than a spring chicken like myself – I, of course, in my maturity, yearn to call out “I am not a kid!” and slam the door behind him.  Fortunately, I do have a modicum of social grace and decide against that approach.  Nevertheless, I steam for a few minutes until I realize that it doesn’t matter which utensil I use to eat my soup.  In the end, unless you are dining with royalty, the important thing is whether you are absorbing the glory of that soup with all of your senses.  Obviously you don’t want to make a complete ass of yourself so you use a napkin and don’t slurp while you eat, but that’s beside the point.

As I consider this, I realize that my internal clash with the Catholic Church is of absolutely minimal importance.  What matters is not why I disagree with the Church on so many different levels; what matters is what I get from the whole experience of accompanying Emma.  You see, while I necessarily find ways to entertain myself when she is in class, I don’t actually resent having to get up extra early on a Sunday morning to drive the forty-minutes into the city.  I enjoy a unique quality time with my daughter that I think few parents get.  The commute gives us an excuse to talk about whatever comes up – from age-appropriate girl stuff to why Dad and I got divorced or why I don’t take communion.  She tells me what she thinks about friendships and God and being a sister.  And sometimes we just listen to music and say nothing.  And to be very honest, I actually enjoy mass.  The community is welcoming, the music is often uplifting, and the parish priest is kind and engaging.  There are times, I admit, when I feel like he is speaking directly to me.  If you look hard enough, you can find meaning in anything, but there are actually times when it is effortless – something in the homily, the church bulletin or the chosen music for the day will touch me personally.  On an intellectual level, my faith wants to remain defiant, but little by little my heart finds warmth in what would otherwise be just a cold, red, brick building.  And I realize that growing up is not about proving that you know as much as your elders; it’s about accepting what you don’t know and learning how to, once in a while, take that leap (of faith, dare I say?) that might land you somewhere unexpectedly worthwhile.

Posted in faith, getting older, growing up | 4 Comments

the phone call

I am not sure when it was exactly that my dad decided his time on earth was up, but long before his body grew tired, and even longer before his mind hinted at exhaustion, he made the decision that he had done enough.

Maybe it was when he turned 55.  His own father had died at 54, when my dad was still a young man, just recently married and with two small boys.   For many years, my dad viewed 54 as his personal benchmark.  If he could just make it there, he would be fine.  Something strange and unexpected happened, though.  My dad turned 55.  To celebrate, my mom took us all on a cruise – it was Disney cruise, an appropriate tribute to life and youth.  My brothers and their families, and I with my pregnant belly and husband, all surprised my dad in Orlando, and from there enjoyed a week of sun and fun together alongside Mickey, Goofy, and the rest of the gang.  I think Dad enjoyed himself – it’s hard to not smile at your grandchildren seeing their dreams come true as they walk through enchanted castles, and shake hands with their heroes. There were moments of laughter, and lots of good photos commemorating the event, but in a way, it was almost anticlimactic.  I’m not sure that reaching 55 was ever my dad’s goal; I think, to be honest, Dad was content having reached 54, and had he gone at that time, he probably would have died a very happy man.  After he turned 55, things just kind of fizzled.  Life got boring – he didn’t have the energy or the desire to travel or try new things and he grew increasingly attached to his tv and his vices.  His grandchildren continued to bring him joy, an appropriate compensation for the fact that his children, albeit unintentionally, sometimes seemed to bring him only sorrow.  We all suffered adult-sized growing pains (the kind that come with financial strain, marital distress and emotional trauma) and there were times when he took on that pain as though it were his own.   My dad was good at a lot of things, but he was not good at letting our problems be our own (really, what parent is?).  My brothers and I continued to bring the family home for holidays, but it became more and more taxing on all of us as my dad stopped finding reasons to be happy.

As adults, happiness is closely connected with our work.  As much as we like to complain about our jobs, and we all must admit to doing that now and then, having a job to complain about is a blessing.  I can remember when I was still living at home, and my dad, at the end of a long day, would spend hours rehashing the day’s events with my mom.  He would make notes, prepare the next day’s meetings, role play situations with people he was managing, and he would vent frustrations.  Whatever kind of day it was, the fact remained that my dad’s work was at the center of his life, the core of his being.  He would come home sometimes with his blood boiling, but it made him feel alive.  When Dad decided to retire early, he began to think through some alternate plans – the possibility of teaching at a Master’s program, or becoming a consultant/lecturer, investing in small businesses.  He would have been amazing at any one of those things.  But somehow he couldn’t ever take that next step.  Many people look forward to retiring, to living the life for which they have been saving their energy (not to mention money).   But for Dad, without the routine, the daily troubleshooting, the people to manage, the crises to resolve… life felt empty.  The money abounded, but the energy disappeared.  As a professional, my dad was a problem-solver.  He could take just about any seemingly hopeless situation and turn it around.  In retirement, things were too easy, and he began to crave conflict.  When he could find some, he intensified it, and if there was none, he would create it.   Without work, Dad was simply lost.

Little by little, the candles in my dad’s life that kept him inspired began to burn out.  Shortly after retirement, his own mother passed on.   Grandmother had been one of those people who could push my dad’s buttons with minimal effort, and much of his life was spent reacting to her.  Despite however conflictive their relationship was, Grandmother was the wind beneath my dad’s wings.  She chided him, scolded him, challenged him, and he continually strove to rise above.  He worked harder than any other person I have ever known because above all else, I think he wanted her to be proud of him.  He depended on her even more than he knew, and when things went really wrong, and he needed someone to talk to, it was always Grandmother he would phone in the middle of the night.  Their relationship was tumultuous at best, but when she died, he lost his compass.

It wasn’t long after Grandmother died that my dad and brother quarreled; it was a dispute that resulted in years of estrangement.   For all that he loved J, his firstborn, and me, his baby girl, all of Dad’s hopes and dreams were poured into Mike.  Mike had high ambition, just like our dad; he loved business and was good with people, and he had a need to prove himself.  But while Dad and Mike had a lot of things in common, they were not the same person.  This created confusion, conflict and resentment in both directions, and in the end, they seldom saw eye to eye.  Mike needed to drive his own ambition in his own ways, and it was difficult for our dad to understand that Mike just needed to be Mike.  So on the one hand, there was Dad – who, as we know, had a hard time letting us manage our own problems, and who began to seek conflict where there didn’t necessarily have to be any.  And on the other hand, there was Mike, who needed to make his own way, but couldn’t for the life of him make Dad see that, regardless of the different ways he tried, and what resulted was almost a decade of silence that spread like an oil spill to the farthest corners of our family causing irreparable damage.

Sometime in there, my marriage fell apart.  Dad’s vices had already begun to wreak havoc on his health, and I can remember walking down the street with him to the lawyer’s office, watching him pause in distress as he struggled to catch his breath, the emphysema slowly taking over.  Watching your daughter endure the trauma of divorce as she fights to stay afloat emotionally and financially has to be torture, and I am certain that it contributed significantly to my dad’s demise.  Remember, though, that Dad took on our problems as though they were his own… and conflict was something he was good at.  So strangely, my divorce gave him a renewed focus, and in it all, he seemed to rekindle his fight, his energy.  Having a renewed purpose pushed him in a lot of good ways.  But at the same time, it wore on him, as it would any parent, and he emerged drained.

By the time we found out that J had cancer, Dad was already tired.  He pulled from his reserves to fight for J – but with every battle he had already fought, his energy dwindled.  There was nothing anyone could do for J; by the time he was diagnosed, the cancer had already spread too far.  Dad offered all kinds of deals with gods and demons alike just to keep J alive, but the decision was already made.  It took just over a year, and then J was gone.  J predicted that our dad would go, too, shortly after his own death.   Dad gave himself over to fate the moment J died, but his destiny would have him go through the motions for another three years before he would finally be allowed to rest.

In the weeks leading up to his death, he deteriorated significantly.  My mom and I were in regular contact as he slept longer and longer, ate less and less, and his motor skills began to fail.  The day before he died, Mom called me asking Dave and me to come over because she was concerned that he kept dropping things.  By the time we got there, he could no longer hold a cup or a handkerchief, and the only way he could smoke a cigarette was for someone to hold it for him.   At some point in the early afternoon, my mom left a message for the doctor.  Dad became obsessed with the phone – the knowledge that Mom had put in that call made him acutely aware of the fact that his time was approaching.  With every sound, he picked up the nearest object and spoke into it, hoping to hear a voice at the other end.  It took over an hour for the doctor to call back; we waited, and in between puffs on the cigarette I held for him between my fingers, Dad told me he was done.  We talked at his pace, and I followed his lead, realizing that he understood more about what was happening than I did.  When the phone finally rang again, Dad, who had been incapable of controlling his muscles for the last several hours, sprang from his chair and went straight to the bathroom.  As my mom answered the phone, I raced after my dad, terrified I would find him in a heap on the floor.  Yet, there he was, steady on his own two feet, splashing water on his face, preparing to shave.  When I asked him what he was doing, he said “I’m getting ready”.  I told him he didn’t need to shave, that it wouldn’t matter.  So he went back into the other room, sat down, and waited patiently for the ambulance to take him to the hospital.  When the EMTs arrived, I frantically ran down the stairs with them so that I could make sure Dad got his oxygen back on once in the ambulance.  The EMTs seemed unconcerned.  Strangely, he didn’t need the oxygen anymore; it served no purpose.  The doctors at the hospital also seemed to understand this well before we did, and they simply gave him something to relax him into sleep.  Early the next morning, Dad took his last breath and then quietly went. It didn’t dawn on us until later that, while we were waiting for a call from the doctor, Dad was expecting a very different call.  And finally, after years of enduring life, Dad got to move on.

Posted in family, getting older, growing up, loss, parenthood | 2 Comments