On Acceptance

“All I’m saying is, kindness don’t have no boundaries.”

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

 

Dear Reader:

Yesterday I felt a memory. It hurt almost as much as it did seventeen years ago. I was discussing religion with a friend and it brought to mind something I’m sure I wanted to forget. How many words does it take to describe how horrible it feels to be judged? Not many.  And yet choosing the words is so difficult for me, even now.

I’ll start at the beginning. My father converted to Catholicism shortly after marrying my mother, and my siblings and I were raised Catholic. But when my brother, Matt, met his wife he joined the congregation at her non-denominational Christian church, and his new church family came to supplant his birth family. It was not difficult to understand why:  we were raised in the “classic” dysfunctional family. You know the kind; we looked so good from the outside that no one could believe it when we fell apart.

I understood my brother’s desire to believe and to belong. I had moved away with my husband and started a family and a life separate from the drama that was a painful part of my past. I was mothering a newborn as Matt was beginning his married life 300 miles away. We had always been close, but for three years we saw each other only occasionally. We exchanged birthday greetings and the obligatory holiday wishes through the mail.

Then my brother called to tell me he’d been diagnosed with cancer and had only a few months to live. My husband, young daughter and I arrived on his doorstep the next day.  We were met at the door by a man I did not know. He introduced himself as Bruce, a close friend and the pastor of Matt’s church. We stepped into the small living room of Matt’s ranch house to find him comfortably settled in his favorite chair with his dog in his lap. He looked great; he was smiling. After the three of us exchanged hugs, Bruce suggested that my husband and daughter take the dog into the yard for a romp. Matt grabbed a ball and joined them, and Bruce and I were left alone. That’s when I discovered that Bruce was serving as a sort of gatekeeper to determine who could spend time with my brother. He was applying a religious test to anyone who didn’t identify as an evangelical or born-again Christian.

He asked me to describe my relationship with God. I told him I was Catholic. He asked if I had acknowledged that I was a sinner and asked the Lord for forgiveness.

“Of course,  I’m a sinner. Aren’t we all?” I answered.

He pressed on:  Did I understand that my brother would be going “home” and could I support him in this journey? I felt like crying, but I was steel. I told him that Matt and I had always been close and that I loved him dearly. I assured him again that I considered myself a Christian. Bruce left shortly after our conversation and we enjoyed the day with Matt. My “Catholic credentials” had been deemed satisfactory.

I will never forget how it felt to be held in judgement. I thought I had, but yesterday the immensity of it came back to me with full force. There were people who felt they had the moral authority to decide whether I should be allowed to spend time with my own dying brother. Well, I confess, I judge them as well,  and I find them to be lacking in compassion and grace. My opinion of evangelical Christians was formed by that single heartbreaking experience.

Since then, I’ve been careful when I interact with people who I know to be Christians. But for some reason, this week, after all these years, I opened up to the wife of one of my husband’s closest friends, a woman with whom I’ve also grown close.  I’d been careful to avoid talk of religion with her knowing that she attends a Christian church, but when we found ourselves alone our conversation turned to things we hold dear, such as family. She mentioned her faith and I found the courage to share my memory with her. She disavowed the isolationist position of the members of my brother’s church. While she shared some of their beliefs, she could not exclude us as her friends. I was not steel; I felt tears come to my eyes.

Making judgements is part of being human, but it can be humbling to reflect on the moments you’ve been judged. It can be a reminder to work to consciously choose acceptance of others over rejection.

When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking of the waitress at a restaurant I frequent.  She’s Mexican, and one day she told me that since our president came along she’s been concerned about what people think of her. Are they wondering whether she’s  legal? Did they think she should go back to Mexico? I thought of the day I was discussing colleges with a friend and she said that she and her daughter were researching the rising incidence of anti-Semitism on campuses out of concern for her daughter’s safety. I reflected on a discussion I’d just had with a young man who lost Facebook friends when he announced his engagement to another man. Suddenly my mind was filled with the faces of those who had been judged and hurt.

Perhaps we should all regularly call to mind those times in our lives when we’ve been deemed unworthy so that we may  be less likely to inflict that kind of pain on our neighbors.

Michele

 

 

 

 

 

All You Need is Love (all together now)

“Accepting death doesn’t mean you won’t be devastated when someone you love dies. It means you will be able to focus on your grief, unburdened by bigger existential questions like, “Why do people die?” and “Why is this happening to me?” Death isn’t happening to you. Death is happening to us all.”

Caitlin Doughty

 

Dear Reader:

Death has come again and taken the life of another in my circle of friends. It was only a couple of weeks ago that I wrote to you about a friend who lost her father quite suddenly. Today I learned of the passing of another man. He was a husband, father and grandfather who took great joy in the companionship of his family. Indeed he spent the morning at the pool with his grandchildren and the afternoon with his wife and daughter before he passed quickly of an apparent heart attack.

The lives and deaths of these two men have raised questions among my friends. The questions are old and yet they seem new again when one is confronted with loss. Why do some live long lives and others die young? Why do some suffer? What is the meaning of life now that I know this will happen? When and how will my loved ones die? And, ultimately, when and how will I die?

I have friends of all ages and the youngest ones are just now facing loss as adults. It is quite a different matter when a young child loses a grandparent or great grandparent. I can still remember the Christmas morning when my then four-year-old daughter looked at her great-grandmother and commented: “You are very old; you will die soon.” The room fell silent until Gigi smiled and took her great-granddaughter into her arms for a hug.

My daughter does not remember making this bold statement nor does she remember her great-grandmother. It was in fact a year and a half later that Gigi passed at the age of 96. We were surprised the day we got the call as we had anticipated that the next death in the family would be that of my 36-year-old brother. I lost my brother two weeks later, a year after his cancer diagnosis. I was newly 40 and devastated.

My brother was never given any hope that he would live longer than a few months; he lived a full year. Friends and family offered to finance a trip for him and his wife as they’d never left the country. My brother chose instead to live the last months of his life simply. He devoted time to housekeeping,  sorting and gifting his possessions and putting papers in order. He spent time with family and friends. He shared his deep faith and complete confidence in God and an after-life with anyone who would listen. He created art and he enjoyed the companionship of his wife and dogs in his comfortable home and in the nearby mountains.

I watched my brother die…closely and attempted to make sense of it all. It made no sense and yet it informed me and inspired me. I can never explain why the youngest member of my family was the first to die. I still don’t think it was “fair.” I still believe he should be here with me to exchange a laugh or two about how hard it is to get older. But, he accepted his passage with such courage and calmness that I could not help but do the same.

His death gave me the opportunity to ponder life and all the old important questions. I concluded years ago that the Beatles said it best…”all you need is love.” I have loved and I have been loved and, in the end, that is the only thing I need.

Sincerely,

Michele

 

I’m Very Sorry…

Dear Reader:

It’s been a couple of weeks (longer than ever) since I last wrote to you. I’ve been immersed, deeply, in my own world (more on this in the days to come), but I’ve returned to “real life” where my friends have been living without me (mostly). We’ve been tethered to each other by the quick text here and there and the certainty that we are being remembered and wished the best.

Today I returned to the fold where I learned that a close friends’ father passed last week quite unexpectedly. He was a young man (about my age) and he died from a sudden heart attack. I can only imagine the shock and confusion my friend must feel. Death, it seems to me, is always unexpected and in some way unfathomable. The fact that it is inevitable does not change our ability to find it believable or acceptable.

How can it be that the person I called “father” is no longer here? When my brother was diagnosed with cancer at 35, he was given 3-4 months to live. When he died a year later, there was still part of me that could not comprehend that the world would go on without him. I can still remember the sign on the freeway as I drove into town after his funeral: Expansion made possible by your tax dollars. Completion 2013. Wow…I thought …he won’t be here to enjoy the improvements to the road. In the weeks to come my mind grappled with the realization that he would not be here, ever again, to meet me for a cup of coffee. I’d never hear his voice at the end of the line. He wouldn’t get to see his niece grow up.

In the days, weeks and months after my brother’s death, I remember wishing that there was some sort of sign I could quickly and easily give to others to tell them that, despite appearances, I wasn’t okay. In other times and places, mourners have been identifiable by their manner of dress and afforded special considerations. I knew my friends cared and yet they found it difficult to talk about the death of my brother. Most of them didn’t know where to start and what words to choose and they mistakenly believed it would do more harm to approach the subject rather than to ignore it.

There were a few people, though, who knew just what to say and I learned from their compassion and my loss that the only words one needs to hear are: “I am so sorry about the loss of your (fill in the blank).”  In the days that followed, I received a few letters from family and friends who knew my brother and shared special memories. Some of the stories they told, I’d heard, but others were new to me and they were all a joy to read. Friends who did not know my brother, made donations in his name to the American Cancer Society and local hospice care and I received notes recognizing their gifts. Any and all overtures to recognize my grief and loss were of comfort to me.

One of the things I gained from the loss of my brother is the language of empathy. It’s a simple, quiet language that holds immense power to bind us all. We will, each of us, experience loss. Do not be afraid to acknowledge it or touch it. It will find you in your time. Be ready to say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Be ready to look into the eyes of a grieving friend and offer what you can.

Sincerely,

Michele

 

 

 

Mean Mothers

Dear Reader:

As we drove home from Southern California yesterday, my husband asked me, “Does Mother’s Day upset you or make you sad in a way?”

I knew exactly what he meant, but the question still took me by surprise as I was quite happily surveying grape orchards and remembering the events of the weekend. If you know me from my blog, you know how proud I am of my daughter and the close relationship we share. If you are one of my dear friends, you begin every visit with the question, “How’s your daughter?” I love talking about my daughter. I simply adore her. She is my single greatest source of pride.

So, why should Mother’s Day in any way upset me? Well, the answer has to do with my mother. She died three years ago on the morning after my daughter had major surgery at Stanford Hospital. In life, my mom had loved being the center of attention and so the timing of her death seemed appropriate.

One of the nurses heard me take the call from my sister and she became immediately quite concerned about my state of mind. My daughter was scheduled to spend four days in the hospital, but she would need continuous home care for several weeks. The doctors and nurses, my husband and I soon realized, were training us to take care of her at home. Her release would be determined not only by her condition, but also by our ability to care for her. The hospital chaplain was alerted to our situation and within the hour began appearing at our door. My husband shooed her away several times while I snoozed, but she was determined to talk to me.

“Ah, good, you’re eating!” she exclaimed as she approached me late that night in the cafeteria. “I’m Dusty, the hospital’s multi-faith chaplain and I’m here to see if you’d like to talk.” Really I just wanted to eat, but I was polite. I thanked her for her concern and let her know that I was tired, but fine, and that I knew exactly what I needed to do:  take care of my daughter. “But,” she continued, “it’s hard to take care of someone else when you are suffering yourself.”

How could she know that was exactly what I’d told myself for years when I thought about my mother? She was simply unable to be kind or nurturing as she was in pain. The explanation served to protect me from completely absorbing the constant emotional assault she inflicted on everyone close to her. My mother died without having a relationship with me or knowing her only grandchild. “She’s no longer in pain,” I told Dusty and I left her to interpret the comment in any way she chose. I returned to my coffee and eggs as she left finally satisfied that she had done her job.

A week later I found myself speeding down the freeway to attend my mother’s funeral. I paid my last respects to the woman who had created me and who had, I think, helped determine the happy course of my life.

“You know we may not have Natalie if it weren’t for my mother,” I answered my husband.

I missed out on having a strong bond with my own mother; maybe that’s why I finally decided at 35 to throw away my birth control pills!   We all make choices and those choices are often based on needs we may not even consciously be aware of. Maybe I needed a strong mother/daughter bond. I did not have that with my own mom, so I set about to create it with my daughter.

It has been many many years since I felt anything for my mother, but it took time and counseling to resolve issues from my childhood. It seems to me that it is still taboo to speak about one’s mother in anything but appreciative terms, but for those readers who can relate to my story, I’m sorry… and I’d like to offer the following book recommendations: Mean Mothers by Peg Streep and Mothering Without a Map by Kathryn Black.

I’ll borrow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to perfectly describe my feelings about my life: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else…”

I am so fortunate to be able to celebrate Mother’s Day with my daughter. Happy ending!

Sincerely,

Michele 

A Kiss for You…and Me

Dear Reader:

My pink shed is filled with all manner of things that inspire me, inform me or simply please me. One of those things is this bird; you squeeze the sides and its beak opens to reveal a chocolate kiss. It’s been with me for 25 years now. The yellow has faded and it has been stained with coffee spills. It used to hang from a knob above my coffee maker in my old home.

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It was hand-made by an elderly woman who lived down the hall from Nonnie (my Italian grandmother) in her last residence:  an assisted living facility. I remember the day I acquired it quite vividly. I was visiting with the rest of my family and Nonnie was uncharacteristically demanding. She wanted “the bird with the kiss.”  We kept re-directing her back to the garden as it was a particularly pleasant day. But, she wanted the bird. She wanted the bird her neighbor made that gave kisses.

It took a while for us to consider her request seriously and decide to comply. We were, I remember, confused and impatient. But, she persisted, and led us down her hallway and into the room of a woman perched on her bed surrounded by skeins of bright yellow yarn. Indeed, she was making birds that offered chocolate. It was a cottage industry and she could barely keep up with the demand. We each purchased a bird and then retired to the garden where we enjoyed chocolate in the sunshine.

My grandmother died a week later.

I look at that bird and wonder:  is there a moral to this story? Is it a reminder to listen better and judge less or to stop and be patient? Or does its value simply come from the smile it produces on my face when I look at it and remember one of the most beautiful people who ever graced my life.

Tell me about your interesting mementos,

Michele

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Brother

Dear Reader:

He would be 53 years old  today, but instead he rests under a marker that reads: “Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not here—I do not sleep.”

Today,  I can not help but remember my brother. Perhaps, you, too, have a special birthday you remember but no longer celebrate in the conventional fashion. Or, maybe your mind turns to a loved one on the anniversary of his death. Loss will touch us all and I have found that it can be such a comfort to share the experience with others. I hope you will not mind if I share my experience of loss with you today on this day that can not help but move me.

During his 36 years of life,  my brother, Matt Lehman, occupied a large place in my heart and in the imaginations of family and friends. He was handsome, stylish and charming. (Think Matt Dillon, seriously!) He was a salesman and a collector. He’d been born with long eyelashes and affecting eyes. And bat his eyelashes, he did! The gesture was even more disarming when it was combined with his ready smile. He radiated enthusiasm, as if for him the entire world and everything in it was exciting. He was a joy to be around, and so everyone wanted to be his friend.

Matt was the youngest of three siblings. He was like the exclamation point after his two sisters. And, he certainly was not meant to be the first to die. But, as he told me one day after a visit to the cancer treatment center “how can I ask ‘why me’ when there’s a 12 year old child sitting next to me waiting for his chemo treatment?”

There was never any hope given other than the  possibility that treatment could extend his life a bit. It was in July 2000 that I received his phone call telling me it was cancer, “not a good kind,” and the doctors had estimated he had four months left. In the end, he lived a full year after his diagnosis. He made the most of that year generously sharing the time he had left with those who loved him.

I vividly remember an exchange with Matt during one of our last visits. His faith was unshakable; he was going “home.” I did not share his strong beliefs, but I found myself explaining that I couldn’t go with him just then. I needed to stay and raise my 4-year-old daughter. My baby brother was going somewhere and some part of me felt that I should go with him or instead of him. Or maybe, some part of me wondered how I could bear my grief.

For a long time after Matt’s death, I felt sure that every ring of the phone would bring news of illness or death. And, of course, just below the surface was the fear that came with being brutally reminded of my own mortality. But, I have celebrated the milestones of 40 and 50 remembering that my brother never did. I am grateful for the years I’ve been given to test my commitment to my husband (shaken but never destroyed!) and to watch my daughter grow into an adult I admire, respect and love.

And, so  with tears in my eyes and a big smile on my face, I remember my dear brother today but not beside the headstone that bears his name.  For he is not there. He lives with me in my heart and I know in the hearts of many others.

I welcome you to share your remembrances of those you have loved and lost.

Love,

Shell

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