Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Adult Children and Emotional Blackmail

"If you don't give me the money I want, you'll never see your grandchildren again..."

"If you don't pay for me to have my own apartment and car, I'll kill myself..."

"If you don't do this for me, I'll never speak to you again..."

These are just three threats -- sent to me recently via email from distraught parents of adult children. There are many variations. But the message in each is that if you don't give an adult child what he or she wants, the consequences will be dire.

It's easy to say "Don't let yourself be manipulated into giving money you can't afford!" or "Don't enable your adult child in his or her dependence on you well into adulthood."

But saying "No" when the threat is suicide, estrangement or never seeing your grandkids again makes it even more difficult.

So what can you do when you're faced with emotional blackmail?

Don't do anything right away. Avoid knee jerk compliance and proffering cash as the panacea for all that is ailing your adult child or your relationship with your adult child. Suggest that you talk about this further when both of you have had time to cool down, think about options and consequences. It's important to let your adult child know that you've heard his or her demand. Ignoring it can only serve to escalate the threats.

Try to understand what feelings are behind the threats. An adult child who is making unreasonable demands and threatening painful consequences if these demands aren't met may be in deep pain and desperate for help and support. You can offer emotional support, love and understanding without bankrupting yourself to meet what may be an unrealistic, impossible demand.

Discuss the situation and alternatives. One daughter of a reader who is 25 years old, still living at home, never employed and attending community college only sporadically, decided that she could get a job if she had a permanent address. So she demanded that her widowed mother pay for an apartment and a car for her so that she could job hunt.

The mother, who was just getting by on her secretarial salary, pointed out that this wasn't financially feasible, that the daughter presently had a permanent address at home, and that true independence had to wait until the daughter was employed and had an income. The daughter threatened to kill herself if her demands weren't met. Her mother made an appointment with a therapist for both of them initially, then insisted that her daughter keep going to therapy, telling her that she was taking the suicidal threat seriously and wanted to help her feel able to get on with her life -- even if her living conditions at the moment weren't her first choice.

Not all unreasonable demands are financial. One reader recently wrote to me to ask how to handle a situation with her daughter -- with whom she has a difficult relationship. She has jumped to her daughter's aid at the first sign of distress for years now, being a full-time baby-sitter for the grandchildren while also working full-time and relocating when her daughter and son-in-law decided to move out of state -- a move that resulted in her being away from her loving husband most of the time for more than three years. After she returned home, her daughter needed her again and she rushed to help. Through it all, her daughter has been surly, ungrateful and critical.

The mother is now wondering how to set boundaries, live her own life and yet be there for her beloved grandchildren. She is mulling the option of occasional visits to her daughter's home, keeping up the the grandkids via Skype, and resuming her life with her husband and her career.

Enlist the aid of a third party to keep your discussion productive. This might be a therapist. Or it might be another family member who has a good relationship with both of you and who can offer support and insight as you review what might be possible. Explore the undesirable consequences of the threat: that grandchildren suffer, too, when separated from grandparents, that by cutting you off for lack of financial support, the adult child is cutting himself or herself off from your emotional support, which may help him get his life together. Your adult child may be more willing to hear such observations from someone who isn't his parent.

Understand that the issues behind the threat will not be solved by throwing money your adult child's way or otherwise caving in to his or her demands. Sometimes the need is a bottomless pit -- like being bailed out of credit card debt yet again, only to have the balances creep up and the crisis repeat itself or paying apartment rent for an adult child who still doesn't actively look for work or return to school and expects that you will continue to bankroll his or her pseudo-independence indefinitely. It may be more helpful ultimately for your adult child if he or she seeks help from a credit counseling organization to set up a reasonable payment plan or for him or her to continue to live at home for a limited time -- utilizing his or her desire for independence as motivation to finish school and get a job to make that goal possible.

Consider the possibility that someone else may be behind your adult child's threats. If your son or daughter has a significant other who is fanning the fires and deciding the threat level, this can be an additional challenge.

Your adult child may feel caught between a partner and you and may be making demands that really come from the partner.

 If this appears to be the case, avoid criticizing the partner. You might observe that "I can understand how she feels that the solution is that we give you the family business right now. However,  from our point of view, that isn't realistic. We're ten years away from being able to retire. And that's time that you have to thoroughly learn the business."

Make your own well-being a priority.  Mothers, in particular, often put others first for a lifetime. But sometimes others ask too much.

Consider that you deserve to have your own time, reasonable financial security and the space to nurture yourself, your marriage and your own dreams. Taking care of yourself may even help you to better help your adult child.

Safeguarding your own financial security and your own health and well-being may spare him or her the burden, down the road, of taking full-time care of you in your later years.

Having the time to spend with your spouse and with your other children as well as with treasured friends can add immeasurable joy to your life. Think for a minute about the uncertainties of life as we age: who knows how long you and your husband may have to enjoy your life together? How long you have to savor a long-time friendships? Do you really want to relinquish these times to repeatedly come to the rescue of an adult child who doesn't value your help or the sacrifices you are making?

Be prepared to live with an imperfect outcome.  Obviously, if your adult child is threatening to commit suicide, this is best dealt with by seeking professional help rather than giving him or her money you can't afford to give in the desperate hope that it will strengthen his or her will to live. If someone is suicidal, it's a sign of much deeper problems requiring professional help.

In instances where your adult child threatens estrangement from himself and/or your grandchildren, you can express your hope that this will not happen -- considering the pain it would bring all concerned -- but keep firm in your statement of what you're willing and able to give -- or not.

This may mean some discomfort, even some estrangement for a time.

But what if you cave in to the request? Life could be worse. You could end up with estrangement anyway and a financial crisis of your own.

Jody emptied her retirement savings to bail her son and his wife out of credit card debt and make a down payment on a house for them because they threatened to keep her away from the grandchildren if she didn't. Now that they're in their house, they are effectively estranged -- never calling, never inviting her over, avoiding all contact as she follows their birthday and holiday celebrations on Facebook. "They don't want to know me until their next financial crisis," she says sadly. "And then I don't know what I'll do because I've given them all I have. I'll be working -- if I'm lucky and can keep my job and my health -- until I drop."

Dealing with emotional blackmail takes courage and insight. Some studies have shown that the more dependent adult children feel on you, the more conflicted and problematic your relationship may be with them.

Stepping back with a firm concept of what you're willing and able to do for your adult child and what you are not, expressing support and love without enabling his or her dependence, lack of motivation and initiative or simply bad behavior, is not always comfortable and easy. But it can be the best antidote there is for emotional blackmail -- and, possibly, the beginning of a new and better relationship with your adult child.


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Meaningful Silences

Enjoying an early dinner at a seaside restaurant recently, I looked around and saw a full array of silences among the couples at tables surrounding mine.

The silences spoke of a myriad of life experiences and relationship dynamics. For a moment, I thought about the hours I had spent as a psychotherapist, trying to help couples re-discover the joy and hope that had brought them together and the love they once shared now overwhelmed by pain and challenging life events.

There are so many types of silences.

There are cold silences that signal loss of hope and buried anger. A couple at a table near mine spent their whole meal not speaking and not looking at each other, depression and sad resignation etched on their faces.

This would be the most difficult couple to reconnect in therapy since distance has become a habit and chronic bitterness and hopelessness part of their shared emotional routine. Maybe helping them to remember, encouraging them to find their way back to earlier, happier, more hopeful days and to rediscover what used to delight them about each other can help to dispel some of the bitterness -- if both are willing to try. It's also important to understand what's happening now. Perhaps a series of small hurts and betrayals are adding up to emotional estrangement. Or their current hopelessness may have come from a major event, still unresolved.

 If they have the courage and the strength to look back and examine what is pulling them apart and what originally brought them together, they may have a chance to resolve their pain and rediscover their love for each other. But for some couples, it's simply too late. Love and hope both vanished long ago.

There are angry silences signaling hurt and rage that is raw and oppressive. A hot silence may look worse than it is. While the tempestuous feelings underneath this silence should never be minimized, they speak of connection. By reassuring each other of a commitment to stay and get through the pain and anger, by soothing and compromising, by imagining a future together, by being the first to apologize and to seek peace, this silence often can be overcome.

There are uneasy silences with two people who have little to say to each other. Some have spun from  a loving twosome to separate roles -- perhaps she is pre-occupied with the demands of parenting young children (often combined with working and commuting),  perhaps he is feeling the stress of being the primary breadwinner and/or is feeling pushed aside. Some couples are just past the first excitement of love and now are realizing how little they may have in common or how little they really know each other.  And some couples are simply talked out: all the stories have been told, all the major experiences shared.

What couples in this situation often need is time alone together, time to simply be two again, time to nurture a love overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life. Maybe the first step to new intimacy is a regular date night out. Maybe it is a specific time for each other carved out of a busy day.

One couple I know, who were part of a blended family with six children between them, designated half an hour after dinner to sit on the patio alone together, sip coffee and talk, undisturbed by any other family member. The children quickly learned that this time was sacred for the parents and that, barring a life-threatening emergency, they needed to be left alone. The couple reported that this time together was essential in putting their marriage back on track and had led to them falling in love all over again.

And there's a lot to be said for listening to the same stories and opinions with patience and affection. These often-told tales can become like the special songs of your relationship: wonderfully familiar, intimate and the source of many couple in-jokes and fond memories.

There are distracted silences brought by electronic devices -- everywhere! Mobile phones and tablets and computers can all monopolize family members' attention. Some families have solved this by declaring certain times and/or settings electronics-free. Perhaps all cell phones need to be turned off at meal times. Perhaps an additional designated family time will be phone, computer and tablet-free. While our devices can connect us in ways we never imagined via texting, selfies and social media, we need to take care that they don't come between us when a conversation shared, eye contact and undivided attention can mean so much.

Then there are the comfortable silences. These silences stem from comfort and contentment, from the joy of knowing each other well. These silences mean love and connection. These are moments, quite simply, to be treasured.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Settling in to Retirement: Six Years and Counting

Once the excitement of transitioning from the working world to retirement has become an altered version of real life -- complete with dental appointments, tire rotations, bad habits and challenging friendships -- there are some settling in realizations.

It has been six years since Bob and I left our jobs in Los Angeles and headed for a new home in rural Arizona. Thinking back from the early days of our transition to the present, these are the realizations that have dawned as we've settled in.

1. Life is more expensive than we imagined.  In past year, we have had to replace several appliances as well as the entire air conditioning/heating system in our six year old house. We thought by buying a new house, we would escape major repairs and replacements, at least for a long time. Surprise. And then there are unreimbursed medical expenses. Did you know that hearing aids can cost thousands of dollars and aren't covered by insurance? We didn't either.

2. We're realizing, with new clarity, that good eating and fitness habits may postpone health problems, but don't prevent them indefinitely. In the past year, we've seen a number of friends and neighbors suffer health catastrophes and several have died.

Perhaps the most jarring event was the our friend Theo's stroke. It was a total shock. Theo was the community superman. He rode his bicycle 30 miles a day through the desert, swam laps like a champ, danced wonderfully and tirelessly (tap and ballroom were his specialties) and was Bob's star pupil in learning to play the guitar.

After his stroke a few months ago, Theo was initially partially paralyzed, spoke with slurred speech and lost his hearing on one side. When Bob visited him at the hospital, however, Theo was already astounding nurses by walking slowly but steadily down the hall, holding his walker over his head. Within a few weeks, his speech became clear again. Now he takes daily walks through the community.

But life will never be the same. His hearing loss has persisted and has ended his bike riding (because he can't hear cars coming up behind him). He walks cautiously instead of dashing through his days. He feels newly vulnerable and has agreed to his family's pleas to move to Florida to be closer to his sisters. He says he realizes that he can no longer live alone. Bob and I listen with sadness, with empathy and with a sense of foreboding. If this can happen to Theo, it could happen to anyone.

3. New pleasures have replaced the old dreams. We smile thinking of those pre-retirement dreams: the non-stop socializing, participating in community activities, exercising the freedom to stay up half the night reading a good novel and sleeping well into the next morning. Settling in here, we've realized that we're not as social as we thought, that most community activities aren't of great interest, and that our bodies don't do well these days with all nighters or fluctuating sleep patterns. We do the best with routines -- and having four cats who want breakfast by 5 a.m. keeps us in our "early to rise" mode. We've found that extending the day by getting up early feels better than being night owls. And our greatest pleasures these days come from small treats, good conversations and times shared, like our twice a month trips to three local libraries, occasionally stopping for an ice cream cone in rustic downtown Florence.

4. There are fewer expectations of others. We no longer expect to make a bunch of close friends. We're also less likely to extend the promise of friendship based on proximity and little else. We keep saying "Life is too short" and stepping back. When we do encounter a kindred spirit, it's a lovely surprise.

5. We're learning to take growing limitations in stride. Aging gathers momentum in one's seventies and beyond. There are so many things can no longer do. Arthritis precludes my dreams of resuming classes in tap and ballet, but I've rediscovered great joy in swimming. Bob can no longer run as he used to only a few years ago, but he takes a three mile walk to and from the local Starbucks every morning.

The extreme heat of Arizona summers no longer has quite the allure for Bob that it did when we first arrived. He tires more easily. But we have no plans to move. We love our house and will simply spend more time inside or in the community pool this summer.

So far, for us, the limitations of age are minor if fairly relentless. We're seeing those around us having serious, life-changing and life-threatening conditions. While we're definitely feeling much more mortal than we did six years ago, we're very grateful to still be in reasonably good health.

6. We are thinning our "Must Do" lists. We no longer have the desire to do the traveling we once imagined. Part of this is lagging energy and part is the hassle that travel has become. We used to dream about taking a "Band of Brothers" tour of Europe, but we recently tossed the brochures as the allure of this waned due to the expense, the changing nature of Europe and the fact that the World War II veterans and those with first hand experience of the major events -- people who made these tours so fascinating -- are quickly disappearing. It's harder these days to leave our cherished cats for too long -- and we find incredible pleasure just hanging out with them at home.

7. We're also looking to lighten the weight of our possessions instead of continuing to acquire. Having already experienced the stress of cleaning out my parents' home and Aunt Molly's home after their deaths, we've vowed to leave less behind. That means thinning the closet with trips to Goodwill and Vietnam Veterans of America and donating books to local libraries. It means giving family heirlooms to younger family members now instead of later.

8. We live more in the present since the future is increasingly unknowable and uncertain. We are not planning pleasures too far into the future, but looking to either let go of them or experience them sooner rather than later. We realize, with new clarity, that there may be a time when we're not able to drive long distances to see friends or to take road trips. There will certainly be a time when I can no longer run into the surf with family and swim for hours. So we have a new mantra: "Do it now!" It can apply to a trip to the beach or to calling a friend or to writing a letter to someone dear. We no longer feel we have the luxury of procrastination.

9. We're realizing that retirement is very individual experience. Some people live to golf and then come home to watch golf for hours on t.v. Some find their days seeming longer and play cards "just to kill the time." And even when both people in a relationship value their time and experiences, both individually and together, their needs may be quite different as the retirement years progress.

Bob embraces and enjoys every moment of these days and months and years -- learning, growing, savoring this blessed free time. He plays music on his guitar, does crosswords, reads a wide variety of books, takes online courses, watches at least one movie daily, takes a long walk each morning and socializes briefly but with great pleasure at our local Starbucks.

On the other hand, I'm finding, somewhat to my surprise, that traditional retirement doesn't agree with me -- at least at the moment. Instead, I'm mixing work in with my newfound leisure, and am back to writing full-time. I have a new agent, new website, have a book coming out this August and just sold another one to a publisher who plans to bring it out next year.

But my peak earning years as a writer are just memories. Publishing has changed dramatically in recent years regarding the ways authors are compensated. I may never again have the earning power I had at 35 or 40. But I'm finding more pleasure, less stress, in a writing career that isn't my sole source of income. And I know that there will come a time when I want and actively choose to let go, step back and relax. But not yet. Not just yet.

10. We've never stopped being grateful. Now that the frantic work life that we left behind is so far in the past, we have the distance to grieve what we valued about it and celebrate what we were able to escape.

Bob doesn't miss his old office, in a grimy industrial area of downtown L.A. for a minute, but he does get wistful when he remembers the pleasure of helping a customer with a complicated pumping systems problem and the joy of living up to his title of "The Pump God."

I think of my former psychotherapy patients with affection and wonder how they're doing, remembering what a pleasure it was to work with them. But I don't miss the stress of those last 20 years in Los Angeles when I juggled three jobs and drove thousands of miles on traffic-jammed L.A. freeways. From this vantage point, I wonder how I ever did it for so long.

We will never forget what it meant to be jolted awake by an alarm clock at 4 a.m. to hit the freeway in pre-dawn bumper to bumper Los Angeles traffic for our daily commutes to work. We also remember vividly that Sunday evening depression as we faced yet another frantic work week, and times of frustrating office politics and work challenges that were less than rewarding.

Settling in to our life now means it all isn't quite so new. Despite realizing the dream of retirement, life happens in a variety of familiar ways -- like dental emergencies, appliances breaking, beloved pets dying. health crises -- in these so-called golden years.

Nevertheless, the freedom to wake up with the sun, to structure one's days, to learn new skills, to pursue dreams, both old and new, make these years incredibly blessed. We're grateful for every day.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Going Out for Cheerleading

Going out for cheerleading was only a dream in my awkward, ugly duckling adolescence. Only the cute, cool and effervescent girls even tried out. I was none of the above.

But even as I fantasized about what it must be like to be cute, cool and a cheerleader, I realized that the best cheerleaders in my life came in a variety of shapes and sizes and ages. They were not singing school songs or cheering on teams. They were cheering me -- and others like me -- on to become the best that we could be. Sister Rita. Sister Ramona. Dr. Elizabeth Swayne. Aunt Molly.

They cheered on my dreams and possibilities. They soothed my fears and insecurities and helped me to believe that I could make my dreams come true. So many of the joys and successes of my life came because they cared.

We all have opportunities to be cheerleaders. There's no better time than now to go out for cheerleading the young people in our lives, to step back from seeking the spotlight ourselves and encourage someone else to shine. This is the stage of life when we have more time to reach out, more reason to nurture, so much to share.

It can be wonderfully rewarding to cheer on younger people  as they face life challenges.

Close up, with our own children and grandchildren, how often do we encourage instead of criticize? Celebrate instead of minimizing? Notice instead of ignore? What a difference it can make to notice the little triumphs, celebrate ordinary as well as extraordinary accomplishments, encourage a younger person to try and then try again, even when the path is not easy, even when success is far from assured.

It takes so little to make a difference: taking time to notice another's struggles and small successes, taking time to listen, giving advice when it is requested, offering warm but silent support when it is not.

What memories warm your heart when you think of the cheerleaders of your past?

I remember Sister Rita telling me I was wonderful when I felt so awkward and alone. I remember Sister Ramona squeezing my hand and urging me to take the risk of attending my dream college, even if I ended up with student loan debt "because no one can take the education you will get there away from you." I remember my most demanding professor at Northwestern, Elizabeth Swayne, who became a life long friend, writing to me during a professional crisis "I wish I could be there to hug you and hold you and tell you that you were -- and are -- one of the very best!" I remember Aunt Molly telling me that, even more than wanting me to become a good writer, she wanted to encourage me to be a good and loving person. All of these wonderful cheerleaders -- except for Sister Rita -- are gone now. But their caring, their inspiration and kindness live on in my heart and in all I do.

We can't live forever, but we can live on in the young lives we inspire. The opportunities are all around us.

We can volunteer at local schools, helping children to learn to read and to socialize. We can comfort children at hospitals. I had polio when I was six and still have warm memories of the special people who made life easier for me then -- the sweet volunteer who read me stories, the physical therapist who sang songs about "Myrtle the Purple Turtle" as she covered me with steaming wet towels and massaged my arms and legs. A story. A song. A smile. It takes so little to create sweet memories for a needy child.

At a time of life when our own dreams have been realized or let go, or even if we're still pursuing them, we can get over ourselves enough to encourage and mentor a young person's dreams. Giving hope to another generation takes nothing away from us and can mean so much.

My niece Maggie, who is just finishing the first grade, wants me to teach her how to write a book because she has decided -- poor soul -- that she wants to write books like I do. When I see her this summer, I'll sit down with her -- as Aunt Molly did with me -- and help her find her own way, her own style, as a writer -- encouraging but not overwhelming her.

In all our lives, there are so many young people who would love to have some encouragement.

We can cheer on the children of special friends, adult children who are just beginning or totally immersed in their independent adult lives, giving them an emotional high-five for getting that first job, that first apartment, being such loving parents to their own small children, as we watch their adult lives coming together.

And there are some young people whose lives and futures haven't quite come together yet, but who might like to hear some words of support and encouragement. Letting a young person know that you believe in him or her can make a real difference.

Showing that you care can mean so much to a young person.

Many years ago, my husband Bob spent more than twenty years as a volunteer for Big Brothers. He mentored two adolescent Little Brothers -- Paco and David -- with great enthusiasm. But it was the third Little Brother with whom he -- and we -- have had the longest relationship. Ryan was a funny, quirky nine-year-old when he first came into our lives. Surrounded by a largely female family of origin, he watched Bob to see what it meant to be a man. They hiked. They played sports. They argued over film rentals. They hung out and explored, talked and sang together for hours and days and years. Ryan watched me go back to school in my forties to become a psychotherapist and he and Bob took turns practicing with me for my oral licensing exam. He was a part of our family, in time becoming like a son to us.

Now about to turn 33 and a psychotherapist himself, Ryan calls several times a week to talk about his challenges and triumphs, sometimes to seek advice, sometimes to soothe our uncertainties as we age. We get together whenever possible. It was a special pleasure to cheer him on through his licensing exams, to encourage him to take the risk of committing himself to a new love relationship and to watch with such joy as he has grown into such a good and caring person.

But what went into building love between us was years of spending time -- particularly Bob, who was his official Big Brother for nine years and lifelong friend thereafter -- and noticing, encouraging, occasionally giving him hell, and celebrating each step along the way. We were, without thinking about it, going out whole heartedly for cheerleading Ryan through life.

I got a note from Ryan the other day telling me how sorry he was to hear about the death of my beloved Sister Ramona, my lifelong friend and cheerleader. "I know she was so important and so dear to you," he wrote. "And I think I can understand how hard it must be to lose her....because you are my Sister Ramona!"

Life can, indeed, be wonderfully circular as we cheer each other on.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Remembering Sister Ramona With Love and Gratitude

                                                                     

A day never passed without my thinking of her. So when the message flashed on my cell phone this morning from my high school's alumnae office, it was a shock, but not a surprise.

The message stated simply that Sister Ramona, class of 1952, and long time teacher and principal at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy had passed away this morning.

She had looked frail at my 50th high school reunion three years ago but, when I asked her quietly about her health, she shrugged and smiled. "I'm just getting on in years, that's all," she said.

When I flew to the Dominican Sisters' Motherhouse in San Jose, CA last May for her 60th Jubilee -- the anniversary of her first vows as a nun -- she looked ill. I could feel every bone in her back when we hugged. But she shrugged again when I asked "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, fine enough," she said. "You know, I'd love it if you'd come back when there are no crowds, just us. A couple of days together. You could stay here at the convent. How often do you get such an offer?" She smiled.

"I'd love that, too, and I'll just plan on it," I said.

Her reply was unusually sharp: "WHEN???" she asked.

I mentally paged through my work calendar and other commitments and came up with sometime in the Fall.

She nodded, satisfied. I stood there smiling at her, but worried. Was there unusual urgency in her voice? Was she going to be leaving this life sooner rather than later?

My mind rebelled at the thought, unable to imagine the world and my life without her.

Sister Ramona Bascom was a legend -- as a teacher, a principal and, later on, a counselor. She touched and changed the lives of generations of adolescent girls, college students and, really, anyone she happened to meet.

                                     
Delighting current students - April 2013


                                                       
Everyone who knew and loved her has a story about how she made a difference in their lives.

This is mine.

                                                     

She came joyously into my life -- and back to her alma mater for the first time as a teacher -- in the Fall of 1962. She taught, among other things, journalism. I was a senior, the editor of the school newspaper and planning a college major in journalism. But it wasn't really journalism that brought us together. It was my need for a confidante and her wonderful ability to listen without judgment.

I'll never forget a day that fall when I finally told her the tightly held secrets of my troubled home life. Just as the words -- and my tears -- were spilling, the bell rang for the nuns' afternoon prayers. She didn't move. Her eyes met mine. "Go ahead," she said. "I'm listening..." And when I had finished telling her my story, feeling anew the shame and fear, she embraced me. "I know it hurts," she said. "But what you've just told me is painful but not unusual. A lot of people experience similar things..."

My heart suddenly lightened. I looked up at her, relieved that she wasn't shocked, disgusted, judging.

"Really???" I said. "You mean other families are like this, too? That's such a relief to hear!"

And we talked into the early evening, my shame vanishing in her warm acceptance, my spirit brightened by the fact that she cared so much, cared enough to skip prayers to stay with me.

Some months later, when, to my great dismay, my parents forgot my 18th birthday, Sister Ramona didn't. I arrived at school to find a treasure hunt map stuck in the door of my locker -- and spent the whole day between classes hunting up funny little cards, drawings, holy cards and candy. How did she know how much I needed someone to remember and celebrate with me?

                                             
Every day was a celebration

Sister Ramona always put people, treasured relationships, first over prayers or dogma or her own cherished beliefs.

I felt loved and accepted at every point in my life.

On my graduation day, she gave me a letter telling me how much I meant to her and outlining all of my positive qualities that she particularly noticed and valued. I have treasured that letter for 53 years -- bringing it out to read again when faced with self-doubt or disappointment, depression or simple nostalgia. The last time I read it, Sister Ramona and I sat quietly and read it together during my 50th high school reunion. She handed it back to me, tears in her eyes. "I'd say exactly the same things today," she said, embracing me.

                                                   
At my 50th Reunion in April 2013

But there were times when I must have been harder to accept than others.

When I was a junior at Northwestern University -- having enjoyed a lively correspondence with her throughout my college years -- I began to have the crisis of faith that would lead to my stepping away from the Catholic Church. I sent her long, angry, introspective letters about it. She finally sent me a letter that said "I understand that this is all difficult and quite life-changing for you and I'm glad you feel you can write to me about it. But I miss hearing about the rest of your life. What's the scoop on your love life? Are you dating anyone special? Tell me more about your new roommate...Oh, and are you taking any more writing classes with the incredible Elizabeth Swayne?" I smiled, relieved, knowing that wherever my crisis of faith took me, Sister Ramona would be there.

                                                       
Dinner in our "den of sin" in 1976

When I was "living in sin" with Bob, whom I would marry a year later, she came to our apartment for dinner, shocking and delighting Bob, a non-Catholic who had never met a nun before, with her non-chalance and her salty sense of humor.

And even though we were not married in the Catholic Church, she was there at the wedding, happy for us, and cheering up my mother who was not, at that time, particularly jubilant about the marriage.

                                         
Cheering up my mom - May 1977

When my parents died four months apart in 1980, she suddenly, as if by magic, appeared at both funerals and graveside services, knowing better than anyone there except for my siblings how complicated and deep our journey through grief would be.

She was there to cheer me on, encourage me and celebrate my successes as a writer and there to comfort me in times of doubt and disappointment. She was supportive of my decision to return to graduate school in my forties to train as a psychotherapist -- something she had also done.

She accomplished so much in her professional life -- as a teacher, a principal and a savior of troubled schools.

After teaming with her dear friend and colleague, Sister Katherine Jean, another 1950's era graduate, to literally save our high school when it faltered financially in the early 1970's, she was instrumental in turning it around, making it an academic powerhouse and the continuing success it is today. After years of saving other schools on the brink of closing -- from affluent prep schools like Flintridge to troubled, cash-strapped inner city schools -- she moved north and spent the last decade of her life working happily in two positions at Stanford University: as a counselor for students and as a member of the Human Subjects Committee, supporting research at Stanford Medical Center. To the end, she was happy, engaged, making a difference.

                                                         
A joyous spirit, radiating love

One of the greatest accolades I ever heard about Sister Ramona came from my fervently atheist husband Bob.

Asked at a social gathering to name the most successful person he had ever met, he answered immediately: "Sister Ramona! She's smart, successful at her work, and so compassionate, so kind, and really, really funny! She is the finest human being I have ever known. There is no one like her!"

No one. She's irreplaceable. Inimitable. Incredibly precious to so many who had a good fortune to know her. She was direct, sometimes blunt, tough when she needed to be. But, more often, she would laugh -- when things were going well and even when they weren't. She never lost perspective and had some interesting insights.

A few years ago, I was having dinner with her and we were discussing a classmate of mine whose childhood was troubled, but whose adult life has been even more difficult and sad. "When I think of your backgrounds, I think yours was so much worse," she said. "But then it hit me: as crazy as your home life was, your parents really loved you. Every school play you were in, every parent-teacher conference, they were there, so proud of you, loving you so much..."

And I felt such gratitude for this wonderful gift of insight into my past so many years later.

                                                               
Blowing kisses at her Jubilee - May 2015

There were so many special gifts of love and grace, so many valuable lessons in living she taught me  through the years. When I heard of her passing, I was filled with gratitude that I was blessed to know this wonderful, one-of-a-kind woman. And I felt a rush of sudden regret that I didn't always follow her example of putting people first.

We never did get to enjoy that convent sleepover. When Fall came, I was busy working on a difficult update of "The Teenage Body Book" slated for publication this summer.

 "Sometime in the winter, perhaps," I said, making a plane reservation for late March, then canceling when it sounded like the timing was inconvenient for her. I had no idea, until today, how inconvenient it was.

Why did I think that, against all visual evidence, she would go on forever?

Even in death, Sister Ramona continues to teach me valuable lessons.


Monday, April 4, 2016

When Paths Cross With Love

The picture was attached to a brief email last night from my dear friend Mary. I opened it and sat back, astounded, delighted and filled with a sudden rush of love.

It was a picture Mary had asked someone to take on her smart phone during a weekend charity tea when she encountered Sister Rita McCormack, someone very dear to me -- and a relative stranger to her.

I was filled with wonder that two people with whom I have had such long and loving friendships -- Sister Rita for 63 years, Mary for 44 years -- but whose paths have not crossed in all that time would meet and talk and, knowing the place each holds in my heart, would think to have a picture taken together -- just for me!

                                             
Sister Rita McCormack (l) and Mary Connolly Breiner

There is so much history in their embrace!

Sister Rita was a very young teaching nun -- just arrived from Ireland -- when we first met. And I was a shy, struggling eight-year-old, recovering from bulbar polio, troubled by my father's mental illness and his horrific abuse, particularly of my younger brother Michael. 

Sister Rita would be Michael's first grade teacher and would reach out to us in so many ways to comfort, support and encourage both of us. She was quick with hugs and reassuring words. When I stood at the edge of the playground, friendless and feeling so alone, she would come embrace me, let me walk beside her, holding the cord of her habit, feeling safe and increasingly confident as we made the rounds of the playground and I got better acquainted with the kinder and gentler members of my class. She spent hours after school, helping me to regain clear speech by acting out poems and plays. It sparked my initial interest in acting and brightened my days. Teaching me to play the piano was a less successful venture. I had little interest in making music then. All I wanted to do was to talk with her. And I loved to hear her sing and, when she encouraged me to join her, I would quietly, shyly sing along. Our favorite songs together were the comic Irish folk tune "Kitty of Colraine" and the hymn "Oh, God of Loveliness."

When I would describe her to others in later years, I would say that she was like Julie Andrews in "The Sound of Music." But the truth is, Julie Andrews was like Sister Rita -- which was why I enjoyed her so much in that movie.

Sister Rita is bright and talented with boundless energy and commitment to making a difference. She is still an activist for a number of causes. At 85 and suffering from two different kinds of cancer, she is, nevertheless, unstoppable. She shows up. She moves ahead. She is fully engaged with the world and with others. She truly lives her faith. 

The latter is also true of Mary Connolly Breiner. 

I first met Mary when we were in our late twenties. The daughter of novelist and screenwriter Myles Connolly (whose "Mr. Blue" was and is a Catholic classic), Mary grew up amid the movie stars of the beachfront Malibu Colony but left that all behind to enter the convent right after high school. 

After ten years as a nun, she made the painful decision to leave -- and her first job post-convent was at 'TEEN Magazine where I had been working for several years. 

We bonded immediately. I loved her sense of humor and her wicked insights. I admired her compassion and kindness. Our Irish Catholic origins gave us much in common. And we shared a secret ambition to go back to school and become psychotherapists. Only Mary did it first -- 20 years before I finally returned to school.  (I had declined to attend weekend grad school classes with her when we were young because I thought it would interfere with my social life).

She had a thriving practice for many years. She also met and married a widower with three children who quickly became very much her own. Her days were busy as a wife, mother and dedicated therapist. It was only when her beloved husband John had a life-changing accident and became ill that she decided to stop seeing clients in order to devote herself full-time to John's care.

Despite the fact that my husband Bob and I moved from California to Arizona six years ago,  Mary and I have stayed close. I travel to their home in Camarillo, CA every two months to visit with both Mary and John and with John's live-in caregiver Arthur, who is a wonderful new friend. And, conspiring with Bob to keep it a surprise, Mary came to Arizona last year to make my 70th birthday special and memorable.

Despite their long history with me, Mary and Sister Rita never met until about a year ago, meeting by chance at this same annual charity event. This year, they sought each other out, and decided to pose for a picture together as a gift of love from them to me.

It's a gift that not only warms my heart, but also is bringing some unexpected blessings. When I posted it on my Facebook page, I got "Likes" and some comments from elementary school classmates who have their own reasons to remember Sister Rita with love -- though we all knew her then by her pre-Vatican II religious name of Sister Mary Virginia before she reverted to her birth name in the mid-Sixties. 

After sharing this picture, I've enjoyed a delightful online conversation today with my friend Pat Hill, a classmate from kindergarten through high school. And I got a message from another grade school classmate I haven't seen or spoken with since we graduated in 1959: this male classmate, now an attorney, sent me a message that he'd love to get in touch with Sister Rita and would also enjoy visiting with me on the phone. I smiled at his request. I remember him and his twin brother as the most civilized and kind of the 13-year-old boys in our class. I'm happily anticipating our conversation.

And then there are shared snippets of the conversation between my two beloved friends, revisiting a long and cherished history.

"Sister Rita is such a dear person," Mary wrote with the email accompanying the photo. "She told me how you would walk around with her when you were little, holding onto the cord of her habit. She beamed as she talked about you. She just loves you dearly...as you know..."

What a joy it is when the paths of those you love unexpectedly cross, bringing such a rich variety of wonderful, life-affirming surprises, expanding like a gentle ripple on a wind-swept pond, to warm me and others who know one or both of these very special women with so many sweet memories and enduring love. 


Saturday, March 26, 2016

On an Easter Sunday Long, Long Ago....

The memories came flooding back yesterday when, by chance, I pulled an old book from the shelf of our home library and a yellowed envelope fell out from between the pages.

I picked it up, examining the lovely, legible handwriting that so many learned in the early decades of the last century. It was from a beloved aunt, my mother's youngest sister, who had been my grandmother's caregiver in the last years of her life. It was postmarked June, 1981 -- six months after Grandma's death and eight months after my mother's unexpected passing.

"I found these pictures in your grandmother's attic," she wrote. "I don't know whether this was a dance recital or just temporary insanity but I thought you might like to have these back..."

Carefully, I pulled the photos out of the envelope and stared...and suddenly, memories of Easter, 1966 were there, sweet and so immediate. It was the Easter of my junior year at Northwestern University and I have never celebrated that holiday in quite the same way -- before or since.

I wonder if I ever told my aunt that this was, indeed, an instance of temporary insanity?

I had returned to the dorm the night before Easter, after a rare -- exceedingly rare -- date, to find my roommate Ruth sitting on the floor of our room, busily constructing...something...out of crumpled newspapers, wire coat hangers and old white towels.

"Here," she said, tossing me a pair of scissors and the raw materials. "We need bunny ears. We're going to be Easter bunnies in a student film that a friend of Betty's is doing tomorrow bright and early. In the crocus patch..."

I sat down slowly. "You volunteered us?"

Ruth didn't look up from her task. "Sure," she said. "Why not? Do you have better plans for Easter?"

I didn't. This was the first Easter I wasn't planning to attend Mass, having become disenchanted with the religion of my upbringing. It was too early in the quarter to get super compulsive about midterms and class projects. I sat down and got to work on my bunny ears.

The next morning, four of us assembled in Betty's room to review the plans for our film debut. Betty, in a bright yellow caftan, a craft paper beak nearly obscuring her face, would be "The Great Chicken". Karen, in a black pajamas with a lambskin rug tied to her back and a paper lamb's mask resting on top of her head would be "The Spring Lamb." And Ruth and I, resplendent in our matching pink leotards and terrycloth ears, would be bunnies.

We were joined by our wonderfully loyal Hawaiian friend Jeanne, an enthusiastic photographer, who not only agreed to be seen with us but also to hold our coats when we were on camera (it was a very chilly Easter morning) and to take photos of this event.
                                     
                       Easter 1966: from left, Karen, Betty, me and Ruth

Betty clucked. Karen cried "Baaaaa!" And Ruth and I romped through the crocus patch as the student filmmaker, perhaps a bit taken aback by us and our makeshift costumes, perhaps underwhelmed by our collective film acting talent, completed a brief segment and fled.

People on the way to services at the University Chapel across the street took scant notice. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy on whom I had a major crush pass by en route to church. Suddenly mortified, I prayed -- my only prayers on this first secular Easter Sunday -- that he hadn't seen me.

But a man walking to church with his family spotted us immediately and turned with delight to his five year old son. "See, I told you that we might run into the Easter Bunny!" he laughed. As the son clutched his father's leg and tried to hide behind him, Ruth and I rushed forward to give him candy eggs from our baskets. The little boy smiled shyly and thanked us.

The moment was an inspiration to Betty. "Let's go surprise some professors!" she said. "Wish them Happy Easter! Give their kids candy! Oh, come on! It'll be fun..."

We surprised only one professor -- one of Betty's favorites -- who greeted us with incredible kindness and grace, inviting us into his home for an Easter brunch with his family. He pulled up extra chairs and we enjoyed delicious Eggs Benedict and great company that morning.

Later, when we got back to the dorm, removed our rudimentary costumes and settled in for some serious studying, I thought back on the day.

I thought about how liberating it felt to make a total fool of myself...and not have it be a personal disaster.

I thought about how fun it was to do something a little crazy and impulsive with a group of good friends.

I thought about how most people that day didn't see us or ignored us, but that some special adults greeted us with humor and amazing generosity of spirit that I hoped to emulate in my own later years.

I thought about how strange it felt to be celebrating Easter as a secular rather than religious holiday and wondered if it would always feel that way.

I thought about how soon we would be adults, out in the world and too grown up for such revelry.                

                                         Youthful revelry 50 years ago!

And, indeed, we grew up so very fast. Betty became a psychiatric social worker, Karen a college professor, Ruth a highly successful attorney. We've lived lifetimes of challenges, disappointments, achievements and joys since that Easter 50 years ago.

And yet that day remains vivid, with or without the memory prompt of those long-lost photographs that Jeanne took of us that Easter morning so long ago.

It marked the waning of a certain phase of youth, before adult responsibilities intervened to quiet and calm our spirits.

It was an important lesson for me in taking a chance, risking looking foolish, and realizing that my life would remain the same, that most people didn't notice or didn't care, and that some people, with an extra bit of kindness and imagination, were absolutely splendid.

It taught me anew that some friends are incredibly precious-- as Jeanne stood by us, holding our coats as we cavorted, not embarrassed in the least to be seen with us. I thought that at least some of my companions that day were likely to be friends for life and I was right: Jeanne and Ruth have been close and treasured friends for more than 50 years.

Easter 1966 was a moment of frivolity at a time when we were all working incredibly hard at our studies and at campus jobs to build bright futures. None of us came from affluent families. We had to work as well as study hard to make our dreams come true.

During those years, I used to worry as I lay in bed in my dorm room each night:

"Will this all be worth it?"

 "Will I get a job doing work I love?"

 "Will I find someone special to love who actually loves me back?"

And, well into what was once my unknown future, I smile as I study the old photographs. Looking back to that chilly morning 50 years ago, I quietly give my younger self the answers to her questions: "Yes! Yes! And yes!"