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 We designed his outdated, barely functioning kitchen, cleaned out closets, dealt with piles that grow when the only thing attended to is your desperately ill life mate.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.
The text from my brother was there when I woke up. “Mother’s gone.” I rolled over in bed and laid there for a minute.
Gone. Mother was gone. The space she never really seemed to fill up completely, or well, was officially empty.
I texted my children. “Grandmother’s gone. I’ll keep you posted on details. Love you madly.” Heart heart.
I got up, peed, and called Bob.
“She passed quietly, when Karen was out of the room. It happened early this morning … about 2:30.”
“Any idea what the plan is?”
“No plan yet. The funeral home has been there, and Karen has gone to breakfast with Cornelius.” Cornelius is Karen’s grown son.
“Okay. Just keep me posted.”
Bob. My brother. I was the oldest, he was next in line. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. We grew up, drifted apart, then back together. He and I, in our separate lives, had sought all the good counsel we could find, determined — each of us — to land on our feet as the people we were put here to be. And for the most part we succeeded. Our lives had been shaped by our childhoods, as most lives are; we were determined that our choices as adults were not defined by them. We’re now in our senior years, and we’ve never been closer.
The funeral arrangements lunged and looped like a Chinese fire drill. Ten grandchildren were all over the world, we six children were spread across the country … and schedules were impossible to coordinate.
“Karen said the funeral director told her he could oil mother down if we need to wait a few weeks till everyone could be there.” My stomach turned, but before I could respond, he continued … “and she said no, she’s not going to leave mother in an icebox that long. We’ll schedule around when we siblings can be there, and hopefully the grandchildren can make it. But we gotta move on this.”
So we gathered, we hugged, we rosaried, we viewed mother’s body in a box. We attended the funeral Mass where the young priest talked, in personal terms, about life, and death, and the fact that the circle of life, while it can be painful, is also beautiful.
We drove to the cemetery and sat facing the box. The deacon read a passage, we all bowed our heads. We watched in silence as the swarthy worker removed his hat, adjusted the pulleys, and lowered the box into the ground. When he was done, he gave a quick nod, put on his hat, and walked away.
After a couple of minutes we began to rise and drift into small groups; we chatted in hushed tones, and headed to our cars. It was a sizable group, I guess. Mother’s six children, some of her grandchildren, a couple of great grandchildren, nieces and nephews … each person knew a ‘piece’ of Ruth. And now, she was gone. Her story is gone with her, except for those pieces she left with each of us.
No two pieces were exactly the same, and I couldn’t help wondering … if we put them all together, would they make the whole of who she was? There was no way to know. And maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, after all.
My daughter Michelle was heartbroken that her schedule prevented her from coming.
“I can’t be there then.”
“Go, my darling, and live your life. Grandmother is not in that box. She’s up above the clouds, young and healthy, dancing the jitterbug with Granddad.”
The weather’s finally turning cool. A fall nip is in the air, the one that tells me, “cozy nights by the fire” are not far off! I smile as I sip my coffee, and am happy that I’ve once again turned my attention to shoeboxes. I mean the shoeboxes filled with gifts that Samaritan’s Purse gathers. They spend their Holiday carrying them to children across the world who might otherwise not have a Christmas at all.
My boxes for this year are just about ready. A couple more things to tuck into them, and I’ll be done.
A couple of years ago, I was in a very tight space financially. In my life, money has ebbed and flowed, and I’ve always been pretty good at rolling with it. But that year the money was especially thin.
I was watching TV one morning that autumn, and heard Franklin Graham talking about Operation Christmas Child. He was saying that people could fill shoeboxes with items for children in third world countries. He explained how the process worked, talked about what to put in the boxes, shared video footage of children exploding with excitement over these shoeboxes, and … while he was still talking …
I went upstairs. I went to my closet and opened the door. Almost like a robot, I dumped shoes out of two large shoe boxes, turned, and carried them downstairs. How will I afford this, I thought. But even before that thought was finished, the answer came: you’ll figure it out.
I pulled out wrapping paper, and went to work. These shoe boxes were the big ones with hinged lids, so the wrapping took its own time. I’ll tell you with no pride whatever that I’m a perfectionist. It is a curse more often than not. The results are usually worth it, but when it came to these boxes I’d call it a draw. I re-did them. Twice.
Once the boxes were ready, I had to find things to put in them. I poured the loose change out of the money canister in the kitchen, counted it … it came to about 12.37, I think. I put the money in a baggie, put the baggie in my purse. I grabbed my coat, got my keys, went to the car, and drove to the Dollar Store.
What was I looking for? I wasn’t sure. Tooth brushes, maybe? tablets, crayons, combs, stickers, a stuffed animal. Two.
I spent more time than anyone should in that store, parsing pennies and figuring out how to get the most with what little money I had. I was able, with my meager sum, to get everything I needed. Yay, Dollar Store!!
I then went to Kohls. My Kohls credit card had a little room left on it, and I knew they had stuffed animals for $5.00 each. I went in and selected a monkey (Curious George) and a bear (Classic Teddy). I found a cute girl’s jewelry set on clearance, and a boy’s shirt.
I went home, and tucked everything inside the boxes. They were looking so cute! My heart was soaring, even though my pockets were empty. EMPTY.
There were only a couple of days left to deliver the boxes to the drop off location. I looked up the address for Lighthouse Baptist Church, put the boxes in the car, and headed out.
When I walked into the church, there were several ladies waiting there.
“Welcome,” they chorused. One woman — whom I learned was “Miss Rita” — came toward me to take the boxes.
“You’ve brought shoe boxes! God bless you!” I had a grip on my two boxes. Strange sensation; I didn’t want to let them go. But I let her take them with only a slight tug; we walked to a long table where she placed them and began labelling them for gender, age, etc. I looked along one wall and there were filled boxes, several deep, stacked about twelve feet high.
Miss Rita finished up and snapped a rubber band around each of my boxes. “I had to do this,” I croaked lamely. My throat was tightening up. Why am I so emotional? My heart was racing.
“You had to do this?”
“Yes. Because I’m broke. I’m flat broke.” She looked confused, so I continued.
“This for me is an act of faith. God will take care of me. He sees me helping these children. And yes. He will.” My eyes welled up. “He will. He’ll see me through this. And Lord, it feels good to give! Doesn’t it?” My speech brightened and I smiled, but there was a tear rolling down my cheek.
“Baby, God sees you, He KNOWS you, and He knows your heart.” She reached up and wiped my cheek, wrapped her arms around me. “Would you like some hot cider?” I nodded, blinking fast so I wouldn’t cry. What in the world is wrong with me, I thought.
She handed me the cider, and said,
“We always pray over the boxes, and we would also like to pray over you today. Would that be alright?”
“Oh, my … yes, I would be so humbled. Thank you.” Eyes welling again. I looked down, swallowed hard, and took a sip of cider.
The ladies gathered in a circle around me, hands linked. Miss Rita prayed. She prayed loud, and proud. She asked God to bless my shoe boxes, and to bless me. She prayed me so big, and so full, that when she ended it and all the ladies shouted, “Amen,” I could hardly breathe.
I hugged Miss Rita. “Thank you. So much.”
“No,” she said, “thank YOU. Baby, you are the blessing. And God uses you to bless others. He’s got His eye on you.”
We said our goodbyes and I went to my car. The woman I was climbing into the car was different from the woman who had climbed out. I’d been changed. I was lifted. Lightened.
I turned on Christmas carols; I sang, and cried, and laughed along with them all the way home.
A few days later, I was watching a morning show and there was a handsome young man who was talking about the scarf he had around his neck. It was a muffler like we wear in the winter. But his story was incredible:
When he was a little boy, he’d received that muffler in a shoe box of gifts at Christmas. He said that shoe box was all he got for Christmas, and he chuckled when he talked about taking out that scarf. He said,
“Where we lived it was never cold. Ever. I had no idea what that scarf was for. But I knew it was something important. So I kept it. I used the toothbrushes, and the crayons, and the toys … but that scarf I kept with me.
“And now, here I am, a grown man in New York City. It’s winter time here, and look:” He held up the tail of the scarf around his neck. “This scarf. This is my shoe box scarf. I’ve always kept it with me. And I always will. It’s more than just a piece of cloth. It’s a message that I’m not alone, that the world is bigger than I know, and it’s filled with good people.”
That man’s message stopped me in my tracks. I pray that the shoeboxes I pack will help fill the hearts of those little children with hope, and the knowledge that God sees them. God loves them. They are never alone.
That’s also true for me.
And for you.
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.
When I was five or six I was drawn to the microphone at the Knights of Columbus spaghetti dinners. My Uncle John would step up on that stage and use it when he introduced Monsignor Fletcher to say the blessing. And when he announced the three piece band, made up of parishioners. Ladies with blue hair played the stand up bass, the accordion, and the saxophone. Their pearls and ear bobs swayed or bounced to the rhythms while the grownups danced.
But it was when they took their break, and the microphone stood up there all alone that I felt the pull. I wandered up. I sat on that stage, just a low riser from the floor. I pivoted and suddenly, I was there. I wandered over. I looked out at the people seated at long tables, talking and laughing. The microphone was about a head and a half taller than I was. No way could I reach it. So I stood.
Years later I would actually use microphones, in the studio and on stage. For years I worked in an industry where people think if you haven’t “sold” a song or gotten famous, you’re just a wannabe who didn’t quite have the stuff.
But the truth is, the fame part was never an issue. Never a goal. It was always about the music. And music is its own thing. Fame is about politics, and strategy, and not just a little bit about the dark side of our nature. There are those who squeak through to the main keylight unscathed, but it’s not a huge percentage.
Looking back on my years in the “microphone” business, I know that every prayer I ever prayed about it was answered. But the picture looked quite different than I had imagined. The clarity I have, and the perspective given by years of experience, make me grateful for being blessed to do what I’ve done, and am doing, without ever having sold or being driven by anything but the music.