Mr. Rogers used to share something his mother told him when he was a boy: “If you are ever in a situation where you’re lost, or in danger, look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”
If he were a boy in need of help, he would be looking for me. I am a helper.
The interesting thing about helpers is, their first instinct is to step up; to take care of things. They jump in, exhibit calm, do what needs to be done, and try to make sure everyone is taken care of.
In seminary, we had a course about the different types of people. I learned that these people are, in a way, saviors. They don’t do it for themselves, or for praise; they are naturally service-oriented.
And the downside of that is, “nobody saves the savior.”
When I went to the emergency room earlier this year, I was on my last thread of a nerve. My pain tolerance is almost dangerously high. There are several reason for that, which is a different essay entirely. But that Wednesday, I was in tremendous pain. My left abdomen was bulging, and the pain was so intense I could barely breathe.
My son called that morning … his sister had called him. — apparently with a “check on Mom” alert; I’d told her I might need to head to the ER. He insisted he come and take me. “Mom, you are NOT taking an Uber to the hospital! I’ll be there in about an hour.”
Yes. I would have taken an Uber. But was so happy to have my big, strapping son coming to go with me.
We arrived at Saint Thomas Rutherford and I was quickly admitted. [Ed note: this was before the Covid. No masks were required]
I received the standard issue hospital bracelets and was shown to a room. My nurse, Sam, was a beautiful young girl. She clucked over me, took my vitals, we joked around a bit … when I’m nervous my first go-to is to try and make others laugh. I had Sam laughing.
Lying on that bed in that room in that hospital, I was not the helper. Everyone else was a helper. I was the one being helped. The gravity of that reverse was so ‘opposite,’ I could barely handle it. My eyes teared up several times. The kindness of my son, of Sam, of Dr. Steinberg, of Don the guy who wheeled me down the hall for the CT scan … was almost too much to take. In spite of the pain I was in, the helper in me felt like I should be fixing them all dinner, giving them a haircut, making them an outfit.
I got my CT pictures taken, got my belly poked and prodded, and the diagnosis was, once again, “undetermined.” But that’s good, right? They’d have seen the bad stuff, if there was any. That’s what I’m thinking, anyway.
And I wasn’t there very long, maybe a couple of hours. Chris brought me home, and urged me to come stay with them in Franklin. I declined. I was perfectly fine, except for the undiagnosed pain. And as we continued to rule out the scary possibilities, I was more and more inclined to just roll with it.
But after my son left, and as I looked through the file of papers they sent me home with, I couldn’t help it. I cried. I was feeling pretty fragile, and deeply humbled; so overwhelmed by the kindness everyone had shown me. A helper is not used to being helped and, quite frankly, is not altogether comfortable with it. But I knew God’s hand was in all of it. I could see it.
And I heard one of the messages being given to me: “Let others attend to you.”
It’s been months since then, and the problem seems to have gone away on its own. I’m back to climbing on ladders and taking on projects that are generally bigger than I am.
But I’ll never forget that Wednesday in January, when my daughter, my son, the hospital attendants … they were my helpers.
When I was very young, maybe three or four, I remember waking up each day a little breathless. I was so excited to be here. Thinking back, I wonder how I knew. What was that excitement about?
Going a little deeper, it’s almost like I’d been here before. I’m not sure about any of that, but I remember I had a “knowing” that life here could be terrific, and who wouldn’t want to be in it?
As I grew older, I started discovering that there was a thing called perfection. It was defined as something different than what I saw.
Perfection, I was told, could be found in the hospital corners on a freshly made bed. Everything on square. Pristine. Unsullied. Untouched.
I spent a lot of years trying to live up – or down – to whatever that was. But then, in the later years of adult life, I had an epiphany. Really, it was a sort of ‘going back’ to what I knew at three or four. I began to see perfection everywhere. In the torn edges of an old photograph; the way the table cloth was just slightly askew; The lipstick on Mrs. Flanagan’s teeth when she smiled.
Isn’t there a bit of heartbreaking perfection in all of it? It just seems like we all try so hard to be the perfect thing. And yet, when we step back and look, the perfection is always right there, at the center of our authenticity.
There’s a sweetness in the toddler’s bed head. There’s nostalgia in the old man’s dropping suspender. And a beautiful humanness in the failed loaf of bread.
It’s all good. The good stuff of us. We’ve only to live it, and not judge it. Our loving Father is looking down, and — in human terms — he likely gets a bit misty as He watches us try so hard to correct that which needs no correction at all.
The perfect is already here.
Common new phrases: ‘shelter in place’; ‘isolate together’; ‘curbside dining room’; ‘together separately’ … and the list will, no doubt, grow as days go by. I’m always happy to expand my vocabulary. Now is no exception.
It’s interesting, the way people are responding to the current unrest. On the one hand, there are guys who bought up all the TP with plans to sell it at premium prices.
I can’t knock free enterprise, but in the midst of a declared national disaster, ‘this’ is not ‘that’. It’s called price gouging, and it’s illegal.
On the other hand, there are those who – when they get an inkling that you might have a need, will throw open their trunk and ask, “How many can I give you? No problem, ma’am, I’m on my way to the church with this stuff and if you need any, I”m happy to share.”
These people … angels on earth. The hands, feet and heart of Jesus. That’s what they are.
They are the ones who help lift our gaze to the road before us, and the higher ground ahead.
I’m a grown woman. Really grown. I mean, I’ve been here awhile. I rarely remember that, and when I get the message to “check on the elderly in your neighborhood,” I start thinking of the ladies down the street. Then I start laughing, when I realize: I’m older than they are. WHAT?! Yes. Yes, I am. But I’ll check on them anyway. Because that’s what neighbors do.
In the main, I’m a hermit. I love being, living, creating alone. I cowrite weekly, via Skype. But I rarely come face to face in person. Rarely in the energy field of other people, rarely experience their scent or the texture of their sweater when I hug them.
Those things I do miss from time to time. But what I realize is, my lifestyle has prepared me for *this*. The need-and-the-call for everyone to, basically, live as I have lived for the past twenty years.
But we are a creative people. We Skype, and Zoom, and Facetime, and text, and call … we will always find a way.
The connective tissue between those who love each other cannot be destroyed.
About a year ago, I finally pounded out the last pages of the first draft. A project that began in 1995. The early chapters are covered with the splatters of someone in the midst of an attack. The blood was boiling as the words hit the page. Twenty-plus years later, I can tell you this much: distance gives perspective. And through the years, as the story continues to write itself, the narrative shifts, changes. It — if you’re doing it right — becomes reflective and wise. I am reflective now, and wiser than I was then. So it’s stunning and a little uncomfortable to look back at the initial writing and see how unwise, how in pain, ‘the writer’ was.
I thought I wanted people to know the truth, as I knew it. Writing it down was a form of therapy; I wrote during the divorce process, sometimes all day through the night and into the next morning. I still have those pages, written on an old IBM Selectric. I haven’t read them in awhile, largely because I can’t bear it. That young woman was so broken, and — because she had no place else to put it — she poured her brokenness onto those pages. Maybe that’s how she was able to keep breathing. To put one foot in front of the other. To get from there to here.
It’s been twenty-four years since I started the book. The woman writing this now is not the same woman who wrote the first one hundred sixty five pages. Yes, all those things happened. But wasn’t it another lifetime? The scars are there, they show that wars were braved, but that’s okay. Everybody has their tragedies, losses, betrayals. Love is the ticket to all of them. There is no love with out them.
Think about that for a minute.
Loving someone is the bravest thing a person can do. To truly love means you’ve cracked your heart open and said “yes” to the utter bliss of it, and to the deepest emotional pain possible-while-still-breathing. A surrender to that depth of caring, of vulnerability, invites it. Invites it all.
My parents were the first example of what a marriage, and love, looks like. Theirs was filled with laughter, and dancing, and alcohol, and drama. It all swilled in the chalice of the Holy Catholic church. Daddy was an usher, Mama was fragile and beautiful. Our family, which topped out at six kids, sat in the front row every Sunday, “those stair step Myers kids.” In our chaotic house Mass, and the prayers we prayed there, were the two things that I could always count on. They became my lifeline.
When I say Mama was fragile, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t strong. It means she was different after she had the breakdown. I don’t remember much about it, but I remember the priest coming to the house. I was young, and confused. My brother Bob was about two, and we were farmed out to family members each day. I went to Uncle John and Aunt Mabel’s. Bobby went to Nanny’s. Daddy dropped us off every morning on his way to work. When I got to Uncle John’s house, it was still dark. But the front door was unlocked. I climbed out of the car, shut the car door, walked up the driveway to the porch, opened the front door, went inside, shut the door, sat on the couch in the dark, and waited for someone to wake up. I was five years old.
Now, sitting here knowing that in March I’ll hit seventy one years of age, it’s a strange feeling; I think back on that little girl. I am she. She is I. We are us.
In a way, it’s like looking at an old movie of someone else.
But I guess if I had to do it again, and was delivered to my aunt and uncle’s home in the dark, I’d still open the door, go inside, shut the door, sit on the couch in the dark, wait for somebody to wake up and turn on a light.
That was a long time ago. Now, I have five beautiful grandchildren, each one a gift from my son Chris and his wife Shanna. On days when I’m not sure what I’m doing still here, I tell myself that they’re the reason I’m upright and taking nourishment. I know that’s a bit dramatic, but I really am determined to keep myself healthy so I can dance at their weddings. And I’ll foster their creative energy, their sense of humor, and their musical prowess till the day I die.
My mother has ten grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. Daddy passed away in 2014, and mother lives in the moment, from day to day. She’s sweeter than she’s ever been, partly because she doesn’t have a clue who anyone is, other than Karen. Karen, the youngest of her children, watches over her and makes sure she’s well cared for.
Last time I saw my mother was when I went home to bury my Daddy. We visited, and I probably told her who I was ten times in fifteen minutes. Her response was always, “Well, I’d love to get to know you.” I looked into her eyes, and thought to myself, Mother, you’ve never known me. And for so many years, I couldn’t find you in there. Now, you’re gone completely. I’m trying to learn to be okay with that.
It’s awkward. I’ve worked hard to make peace with the fractures in my family, and with the ones who caused them. I know I’ve built an invisible wall of protection around myself, a sort of PTSD response to family drama and the heartbreak it caused. I wish I didn’t need it, but I do. And so, there it is. But I no longer have the time, the energy for, or the interest in keeping track of who, how, and how often family members have done me wrong. Seriously. Let’s stop.
It’s funny what life does to a person. You start out as a little squirt, being exactly who you are. You can’t really be anyone else, because you haven’t discovered there’s a choice, so you’re just you. Then, with all its pre-conceived judgments, life gets in. You start questioning everything about you. Maybe you were wrong. Maybe you aren’t who you thought you were. So, for the next several decades, you start jumping and adjusting in time to everything that’s said to you about who you are. It’s exhausting; just when you think you’re making progress, just when you think you’ve left that original, ‘unacceptable’ you behind, the bottom falls out. And you’re back to square one … face to face with yourself. But the truth is, that’s the best gift of all. If the world didn’t need ‘you,’ you wouldn’t have shown up in the first place.
I’m still who I thought I was, way back at the beginning of things, and while I’m a little more careful as I navigate, I have not really slowed down. On the scale of “women types,” I’d say I’m a square shouldered work horse with a great attitude. I can clean myself up and be in groups with the best of them, but given the choice I’ll hit the drive through in my pajamas.
As far as what the future holds, I’m planning to write … songs, essays, articles, books of any sort, fiction or non-fiction. My grandson wants me to write children’s books — a “NannyBoo” series which, I must admit, sounds fun and funny. NannyBoo’s their name for me, once I was christened by three-year-old Chloe’. But whether or not I write the “NannyBoo” series, I plan to write whatever comes out; I’ll write it all down as long as I can. And I’ll finish that book. If it doesn’t get published, at least I’ll be able to leave it for my children to read when I’m gone. They can gain a deeper understanding, if they’re interested, of who their mother really was, and why she was that way. They’ll get to know me better and, by extension, themselves. That’s the best gift I can give them, after all.
Knowing the “me-of-me” is, I believe, the lesson at the center of all the lessons we can ever be faced with. I’m here as me, you’re here as you, and we’ve got us. Let’s give authenticity a shot.
Sometimes it’s hard to know how to help someone. Or to know if what you’re doing is helping, and you should do more … or should you do less? Maybe a little bit quieter … or louder. Maybe do it from way over here. Or not at all. Then again, maybe just shut up and get to it.
My brother’s wife died in January. She was mid sixties, a vivacious woman who finally collapsed into the Parkinsons that took over her body, and her mind. Bob was at work when the call came from Kathy, Lyn’s caretaker:
“You need to get home. Now.” He hung up the phone and rushed to the house.
I don’t know the particulars; I do know the doctor was there. And that it was, sadly, time. Lyn could not have weighed a hundred pounds. She deserved to finally be at peace. So, that January day, she let go.
My brother texted me: “Lyn’s gone.” When I saw the text, I called. He was his typical stoic self, but I thought I could hear past Bob’s weary “take care of business” voice. He was drifting, and putting together what needed to be done now, and next, and next, and then … it was a sort of roadmap that kept him tethered to the ground, kept him from collapsing in an exhausted, heartbroken heap.
I’m his big sister. He’s my little brother. We grew up in the family foxhole together. We dodged many of the same alcohol-fueled, rage-filled bullets. We are the only two of the six of us kids who share that childhood. Our parents changed as parents do, with successive children. But we were the first: Thing one and Thing two.
So I felt a sort of desperate need to help hold his pieces together. I went to him in Memphis.
Through the past six years, when Lyn was dealing with, then coping with, then had no clue about, what was happening to her, Bob had enlisted my help a few times. I was glad to give it. We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.
When I got to Memphis after Lyn’s death, I walked into the house. I was a bit startled; by the looks of things. The house itself was heartbroken.
Lyn didn’t want a funeral, and she’d asked to be cremated. Bob honored her wishes, and instead threw a party in April, on her Birthday. By now we’d chosen paint colors and freshened up all the public areas of the house. The party was a great success, and a weight was lifted from my bother’s shoulders.
Now, he’s learning how to live a life where he can go, and do, whatever he wants. It’s both a blessing and a curse; full of stops, starts, and those moments when the ache of missing her takes his breath. But he’s got this. And I’m here for him, always, ready to help in whatever way he needs.
I had an interesting conversation with my business partner this afternoon. We were discussing how to handle a somewhat delicate situation with a person we both love and respect. This person unknowingly violated business protocol, in a way that left us very concerned. We needed to do two things: clean up the mess, and establish professional boundaries with this colleague. And we want to do it without losing the relationship.
At one point in our talk I mentioned “hard lines.” After we ended the call I got to thinking, how does a person learn to develop “hard lines?” You know, life’s guard rails — what we use to keep our principles, values, and relationships on track.
I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Growing up I just knew they drank a lot, and did it every day. I didn’t say ‘alcoholic’ until I was grown and in therapy. I didn’t call them that because I hadn’t really thought about it. Every family has their own brand of “normal,” and drinking parents was part of our family brand.
But what happens when the parents drink, and drink a lot, is that boundaries don’t exist. As a kid, I didn’t know. Anything. My goal was survival. Because at any given moment, what once was the “rule” suddenly became the “violation.” So — other than what I learned through the nuns at school, or through the Church, there were no guard rails, no consistent “hard lines.”
In my early adult life, I had no clue what pieces of me were missing. As a result I did what most of us do: I partnered with a lovable boy whose missing pieces matched my own. Our dysfunctions fit together perfectly. We became enmeshed, our lines blurred, but it all felt normal to both of us; neither one of us had a clue what lay ahead.
As the years passed, we each continued to grow and change; our sharp edges began to cut deep into each other, and started to sever who we were as a couple. Eventually we divorced. By that time I had been in therapy and was learning about developing healthy boundaries. Week after week I sat there in my therapist’s office, holding my broken heart, and seeing clearly, for the first time, what we had been; I shed tears over what we could never be.
Establishing boundaries is not always easy. But it’s always healthy. Boundaries keep relationships clean, and honest. With everything on the table, with no truths left twisted or untold, there is nothing to fear. The coast is clear for real connection.
The best thing a parent can do for their kiddos is model healthy boundaries early on. It has to be a consistent lesson of “Choice, meet consequence.” But parents who have no established boundaries, or “hard lines,” in their own lives, don’t even know it’s a thing to nurture in their children. Consequently, when the children become adults, they’re out in the world, operating without their own fully established guard rails.
This is a recipe for messy relationships. It can leave young adults floundering, trying to figure out how they keep getting it wrong. But often it’s as simple — and as complicated — as knowing they need to find their own boundaries; that it’s important to stick to them, even when it’s tough to do so.
So here’s to the freedom to say “No,” or “Stop,” or “Here’s the whole, ugly truth,” without having to fear that we’re getting it wrong. If we’re staying true to our own principles, and respecting our own “hard lines,” no matter how tough things get, we’ll always come out whole. And we’ll end up in relationships with people whose boundaries we respect, and who respect what drives us.
So I trust my business partner and I will not only keep the relationship with our colleague. I’m thinking the bond will grow even stronger through our being honest, kind, and maintaining our ‘hard lines.’
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s January 12, 2019. My last post was on returning home after my mother’s funeral. She died on Halloween Day. My Daddy died three years ago. So I am now, in my dotage, an orphan. An old woman orphan.
These days, life stretches out behind me, like it stretched out before me when I was young. I’ve been here awhile, and sometimes I wish I’d handled things differently, made different choices, seen different outcomes. But that’s a tight, smoking circle that always leads me back to this truth: the lessons learned were worth the price of the trip. I am who I am thanks to every little thing. And yet …
Days come and go, the sun rises and sets. I make choices every morning, change my mind mid-coffee, reevaluate over lunch, set out to accomplish “at least one material thing” mid afternoon, resign myself to the day I’ve spent over dinner, and start looking at the clock around six thirty, wondering if it’s too soon for pajamas. Do you do that? I don’t know, maybe I’m an island of internal conflict, arm wrestling with procrastination … winner gets ice cream.
But in the grand scheme of life, there are some things that I can feel good about checking off.
- I’ve come through decades of counseling, most of it good, in my quest to unpack all the baggage, and to unearth who I was put here to be.
- I’ve painted houses, and portraits, written articles, and songs, designed homes, developed media projects … each activity a response to the creative pool that undulates inside me. I never reached for fame. I was and am always on a mission to follow that creative urge, whatever it was or is, to its completion.
- Loving, more than being loved, has been my modus. “Spill love everywhere” is a motto I embrace. Even if it seems invisible; even if it appears, in the immediate instant, to make no difference at all. Keep it up. Keep going. And when I spill love on others, I can’t help but get some on myself. Love is messy. It gets all over everything.
A favorite quote:
“Her finely touched spirit still had its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – George Eliot, “Middlemarch”
In this huge world, with all these people, it’s easy to want to be relevant. Publicly relevant. To make a difference, and be recognized for it. But I’m consciously choosing, in this little life, to focus on the doing rather than on the being. It matters not who knows it, other than I. I know. I know the truth; the beautiful, ugly, magnificent, broken truth about who I am, what I’ve done/not done, for better or worse, throughout these years.
When I lay my head down on the pillow at night, in the sober darkness, I am fully present for that truth. I beg God’s forgiveness, His mercy, and His grace. Broken people do broken things, every single day. We’re all broken. But we can — in our brokenness — aspire. Aspire to wholeness. And it’s love — of self, of others, of this life we live — that will get us there.
Beginnings are sometimes hard to wrap our brains around.
A baby’s last push into this world, that would be seen as an ending — of life inside her mother’s womb — and yet, that first gulp of air is the breath of Spirit; a beginning infusion which, repeated throughout her life, will sustain her, until she draws her last.
What happens then? Some say they know; have crossed over and come back. Who am I to question them? I can only wonder, hope, and believe.
I’m wondering this morning if life itself isn’t one long, dramatic birth canal that carries us to places we’ve only read about, dreamt of, and imagined.
My mother is 96. She lies in her bed … old, frail, a mere shadow of the woman she’s been. She’s unresponsive, for the most part, and time is growing short. Soon, she will be gone.
But on that other side I see her emerging, young and beautiful, running into the arms of my Daddy, who passed four years ago. Truth is, I believe that, in many ways, she is with him now.
Beginnings — endings. The circle of life. All of it a painful, and wondrous, and a miraculous journey.
What the caterpillar knows as an ending, is the beginning to the butterfly.
The depth and breadth of the things in this building suck the oxygen out of the room.
- First exhibit, childhood. Promises to hold, support, love … to encourage and protect. They lie in pieces on the ground, dusty and forgotten. Forgotten to everyone but me. Check check check. Check check.
- Up the escalator to the mezzanine, is high school, and teenage years. Potential recognized and undermined. The remnants of hope’s fire, a burnt offering of the dreams held there. A young girl with no one to reflect back to her the truth of who she was, gifts she brought, or the light she shined.
- Shattered glass on the second floor, shards of a dark and betrayed relationship. Two beams glow bright, the children born, and a third, the tender flame of one who left too soon.
- Top floor, on golden shelves sit baskets, overflowed with bit and pieces, half-made promises of friends and family. Those whose only real crime was that they failed themselves before they ever could fail me.
- The ceiling above is open to the sky, dark and starry. Constellations weave a spiderweb, a language all their own. They tell of secrets yet revealed, and assure me that … no matter how it seems, I am not alone.
I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.