Monday, July 20, 2015

Making Peace with Siblings: Enhancing the Longest Relationships of Our Lives

Maggie, 6, and Henry, 3, engaged in sibling stuff

It's all so transparent in childhood as siblings pinch, fight and tattle on each other.

"MOM! He's looking at me!"

"He hit me first..."

"I didn't do it....she did it!"

I see traces of this in my young niece Maggie and her little brother Henry as, like little lion cubs, they cuddle and wrestle and fight both in play and for real. They also love each other fiercely and show dramatic differences in temperament. Ebullient Maggie loves to talk, play fantasy games and visit with both other children and adult friends. She loves the spotlight. Henry is quiet, thoughtful, introspective. He plays happily by himself and when he initiates a sibling tussle, it is quiet -- like the pinch above in one of Maggie's spotlight moments.

In adulthood, sibling troubles can take on many forms with rivalries and resentments carried from childhood forward.

My friend Lisa has been estranged for years from her older sister Dee whom she feels has always been bossy and judgmental, always making comparisons, with Lisa coming out the loser. Even though both are currently battling cancer, silence prevails. "I can't imagine us having a good conversation," Lisa insists. "Unless, of course, she changes."

Another friend, Denise, limits contact with her two older brothers because she finds herself regressing when she gets together with her sibs. "The teasing, which started when I was little, is just relentless," she says. "I feel sucked back into my less than ideal childhood when we get together. They treat me like they always did -- like a pesky little sister they'd rather not be with."

My neighbor Don hasn't seen his only brother in decades. "We tolerated each other growing up, helped by an eight year age difference which made our daily worlds quite separate," he says. "But once we were grown up and that age difference didn't matter so much, I realized that I really didn't like him much as a human being. I suspect that he feels the same way about me."

Indeed, there are some sibling relationships that are beyond repair. Others, however, are --or could be -- loving and supportive.

How do you minimize the troubles and maximize the love with your siblings?

* Forget the old roles and patterns of childhood. That was then. This is now. Being the eldest doesn't entitle one to be bossy or judgmental or prescriptive with younger siblings. Being the youngest doesn't mean that shirking responsibility is okay.  You're all adults and there are moments when you need to come together with love and commitment and maturity to handle serious family matters -- like aging and dying parents and estates to be settled.

These family crises are prime fodder for fights over which sibling does what or which one doesn't step up to the plate, who is more entitled, most supportive, least responsible. In so many of these scenarios, the subtext behind the family drama remains much the same as it was in the early years: someone was loved most, someone felt left out, someone did much without praise, someone was lauded just for being.

The challenge is to find an emotional path past the old hurts to a new understanding -- that we all handle crises and grief in our singular ways, that people do the best they can at the time, even if it feels woefully inadequate to others, that everyone wants to feel cherished. Reaching out to siblings, in times of calm as well as crisis, with love and understanding can help to begin to heal some of those old wounds.

*Be the first to reach out. This may mean being the first to apologize (even if you feel your sibling should be the one to apologize first!). It may mean being the first to say "I would like us to be closer."

We have no control over whether or when a sibling will reach out to us or change his or her behavior. So, rather than waiting until a sibling changes -- as my friend Lisa hopes that her judgmental, bossy older sister will -- try initiating change in your own way and your own time.

This can mean reacting to old behavior patterns in a new way, like refusing to react with outrage to teasing or revisiting and rehashing old arguments that lead to nothing but heartbreak. It can mean calling a truce, agreeing to disagree, letting go of old hurts. It can mean expressing a need for closeness and connection. Or it can mean overlooking the sibling trait that has led, in the past, to arguments and hurt feelings. It can mean speaking up for yourself or laughing along with stories of your childhood foibles or changing your way of being with your family of origin.

My husband Bob grew up in a family that was loving, but a bit distant and non-demonstrative. When he was thirty and in therapy for the first time, he realized his need to express his love in more physical ways. That Christmas, he stunned his family by greeting them with warm hugs and expressions of love. As he looked around, his entire family, even his brother -- who often kept others at a distance with barbed humor -- was smiling through tears. From then on, hugs and kisses added warmth to each family gathering.

So in looking to change the dynamics of a sibling relationship, be the first to speak up, reach out and express your desire to build new closeness.

* Respect each other's differences. Just as my niece and nephew Maggie and Henry differ so dramatically in temperament even at their young ages, you and your siblings may be very different people.

Even though you spent your childhoods together, your perspective of those years may be quite different from those of your siblings. Instead of arguing about which one is correct, it's important to understand that each one is correct. No one has quite the same experience -- whether it's in relationships with parents and other family members, or experiences in school or in the passage of adolescence.

My brother Mike, three years younger than I, was the frequent target of our father's rage and abuse which escalated to life-threatening intensity as Mike reached his teens. Our frightened mother put him on a train one night, sending him to live with her own widowed mother. He spent his high school and undergraduate college years with Grandma, then in her mid-seventies, helping her out on her Kansas farm and feeling his life evolve to a wonderful new normal. Away from the stress and abuse of his childhood home and with Grandma's unconditional love, he thrived, excelling academically, enjoying close friendships with classmates and with cousins and a very special bond with an amazing woman whose memory he still cherishes.

My sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am, is fiercely independent and, in her younger years, grew up largely as an only child of rapidly aging, ill and isolated parents (who had been in their mid-forties when she was born). She doesn't remember our father ever being employed. Her adolescent rebellion came in the form of angry confrontations. She felt invisible to teachers and classmates, though she excelled in her studies. And she was a truly gifted ballet dancer and found her dearest friends among her fellow dance students.

I shared Tai's love of ballet, though I was more enthusiastic than gifted. The parents I knew were a decade younger, my father successful in his work, both parents socializing with friends and neighbors on a regular basis. My adolescent rebellion took the form of aggressively pious religious observances, guaranteed to drive my parents (and everyone in the family) insane. Although my father's drinking and mental health issues were well in evidence when I was a child, he was still functional. I sought extra emotional support from a few close friends as well as two beloved teachers, both still lifelong friends, and our incomparable Aunt Molly, whom we all considered to be our third and best parent.

There are many memories that Mike, Tai and I do share, but I have also learned to understand that their memories are as real and valid as my own, whether they coincide with or whether they differ from mine.

Knowing your longtime, fundamental differences can also make understanding current differences better. You and a sibling may have very different ways of viewing the world, relating to others, handling money or raising children. Instead of judging, imagine life as they have seen and experienced it and find ways to admire them whatever their challenges may have been.

Respecting each other's differences in experience and perspective can go a long way toward forging stronger sibling bonds.

* Embrace the ways that you are similar.  Even though you and your siblings may lead very different lives, being aware of the traits and opinions and tastes you do share can enhance your times together. It may be favorite foods or old stories or family jokes. It may be shared values or beliefs.

When I think about my brother and sister, I smile as it occurs to me that while our differences in lifestyle are many, our fundamental beliefs are quite similar.  Tai, a Seattle-based hospital nurse specializing in labor and delivery, has spent many years as a divorced single parent of daughter Nick, now grown. I have no children, have been married to Bob for 38 years and now live in an active adult community in rural Arizona. Mike, still a busy M.D. and medical IT expert, didn't marry until he was 58 and his first child was born when he was 60. His wife Jinjuta is Thai and he lives with her and their children Maggie and Henry in the middle of bustling Bangkok, Thailand.

But when Mike, Tai and I get together and talk current affairs or politics, I'm always amazed at how similar our views are. We can spend hours discussing, sometimes ranting, about politics together with an abandon we wouldn't even try with others, however close and beloved. And that, as annoying as it might be to onlookers, is immensely reassuring. So is our shared belief that, as difficult as our childhoods might have been at times, we wouldn't change places with anyone.

* Celebrate this longest relationship of your life. While a strong and loving marriage is a special blessing and joy in one's life and the love for one's child is truly life-changing, the longest relationships one is likely to have in life will be with siblings.

This longest relationship can have its challenging times -- when you disagree over important family decisions or get on each other's nerves or will a reluctant sibling to make changes you see as potentially life-enhancing.

These longest relationships may or may not be the happiest or most intimate ones in your life. But, with care, with love and respect, they can be uniquely wonderful.

A brother or sister knows, unlike anyone else, exactly what life was like for you in your formative years. A sibling shares a history that predates by decades the life story you have built with your spouse and own children. Though your sibling relationships may have become less intense with time and distance, there still can be that wonderful sense of picking up where you left off, a feeling of safety, a unique camaraderie when you do get together. There may be those moments, reminiscent of childhood, with emotional pinching, tussling and teasing. But the times of understanding each other's lifelong challenges and celebrating each other's triumphs are truly priceless.

Hanging with my sister Tai and brother Mike in L.A.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Broadway Tribute and Celebration of Life

It began as a sweet whisp of memory for Jody Proetta, who grew up as a true Broadway baby in New York City, hanging around backstage at some legendary musicals with her beloved aunt and uncle who were Broadway dancers, teachers and choreographers. Her sweetest memory of those days was when they worked with the show "Oliver!".  She was eleven years old and had the chance to build a warm and lasting friendship with a talented British teenager named David Jones, who garnered a Tony nomination and nightly standing ovations for his performance as the Artful Dodger.


He was like a kind and protective older brother who listened to her hopes and dreams and who let her tag along when he went to Central Park some afternoons to relax in the shade of a beautiful tree and read poetry. Often, they would take turns reading favorite poems to each other.

Although Broadway and New York were always dear to his heart, David became Davy and left that part of his life behind for stardom as one of television's Monkees. But he always treasured the memory of his New York days.

So did Jody. Her memories of that sweet time with her special friend became especially poignant after his death in 2012. He was widely eulogized as a top teen idol and as a Monkee. But the prodigiously talented Broadway star and the gentle soul who helped at least one little girl feel so special seemed lost forever.

And so she began to plan an event that would celebrate Davy Jones as family, friends and co-workers remembered him. She imagined a celebration of his life on Broadway at one of his favorite restaurants -- Sardi's -- and the dedication of a tree -- that special tree that had shaded them more than half a century ago -- in his honor.


Davy's tree in Central Park

And that's how the idea began for A Tree Grows in Central Park, a Broadway Memorial for Davy Jones. It became reality last Sunday at Sardi's and then under that special tree at Central Park as a large, eclectic group gathered to pay tribute.

Speakers and performers included his friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead, who spoke of Davy's dream to convert an abandoned church in their town of Beaverton, Pa, to a community center and museum and how she and other friends are working to make that dream happen; Buffy Ford Stewart, the "Sleepy Jean" of "Daydream Believer" whose husband John Stewart wrote that signature song for him; singer-songwriter Chris Pick, who wrote and performed a beautiful song in his memory; Fred Velez, a writer who became a friend as he helped Davy with one of his books and who has written a book of his own "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You: The Monkees From a Fan's Perspective"; actress Valerie Kairys Venet, a frequent guest star on the Monkees; singer David Alexander who performed with Davy from time to time as his own busy career allowed and who remembered him as a singularly dear soul. The Monkees tribute band the Monkeephiles added to the festivities.

Valerie Kairys Venet and David Alexander
Photo by David Levin

David Alexander's musical tribute

Friend and neighbor Cathy Whitehead shares her memories and plans

Buffy Ford Stewart and Monkeephiles sing "Daydream Believer"

And I was included as a speaker because my first encounter with Davy Jones was during his time with "Oliver!" exactly 50 years ago, a time when he dried my tears and helped me through my very first interview as a college class assignment, an encounter I described in a blog post Dr. Kathy McCoy: Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond: Remembering Davy Jones.

When Jody and other friends spotted that blog post tribute to him as a kind young man who had helped me begin to lose my fear of interviewing, she was moved by the fact that I had seen his sweet essence during our brief time together. She called me and asked if I would come to New York to share that story with those who loved him at this special Broadway celebration.

I told celebrants how his kindness healed my fear
Photo by Amy Yost Pauling

Most moving moment: Chris Pick sings his memorial song
Video by Teri Holamon

The people crowding into the private dining room at Sardi's last Sunday were not just friends but also many fans from around the world. They had come from Europe and, in surprising numbers, from Japan. It was a day of sharing, singing and celebrating at Sardi's and under his favorite tree in Central Park.

Fans from Tokyo added special joy to the day

Jody Proetta and Kyoko Hosokawa
Photo by David Levin

Jody and other friends at the tree dedication ceremony

The recurring theme of the various tributes, musical and otherwise, was a celebration of Davy Jones for his kindness, genuine caring, and joy in living authentically.

I ended my talk with the thought that the measure of a person's character is not how they act when the spotlight is on them or when they're rubbing elbows with the rich and famous, but how they are when no one is looking, with someone who isn't rich or powerful, but young and scared. And by that measure, Davy Jones was a very special person.

Fred Velez, who had spent many hours working with Davy and got to know his family, offered the insight that another -- perhaps the ultimate -- measure of a person's character is how their children turn out -- and that Davy Jones' four beautiful, kind and caring daughters Talia, Sarah, Jessica and Annabel are his greatest legacy.

Fred Velez with Sarah, Talia and Jessica Jones

Fred Velez with Annabel Jones

It made perfect sense. When you think about it, the professional triumphs and standing ovations and world-wide fame matter less and less as time goes by.

It's true not just for Davy Jones but for all of us as everything fades but the love we leave behind.

What matters in the end is not how much money we made or didn't or how famous we were -- or not.

What matters is how kind we were, how considerate of others, how we followed our dreams and encouraged others to do the same, how we made others feel special and cherished. What matters is what we did when no one was looking and how we taught our children to be giving and kind and make the world a better place.

And that's what got Davy Jones his last standing ovation on Sunday.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Clearing Out Emotional Clutter

My friend Susan, who has been attending a cardiac support group after her heart valve surgery a few years ago, called recently to catch up. She began to tell me about her support group and then stopped, suddenly exasperated. "There is a woman in the group who is 84 years old and still complaining about how her parents limited her life and caused her so much pain," she said. "Can you imagine? Have you ever heard anything like that?"

Yes, actually, as a psychotherapist, I've heard stories like this many times. While we are all affected by a variety of life circumstances and events, there are some who find themselves haunted by past pain, by present toxic relationships and by negative thought patterns that prevent them from living life fully and joyfully.

It occurred to me that, even as we complete annual spring cleaning rituals, read best-selling books about the virtues of de-cluttering and think more seriously, as our birthdays fly by, about parting with cherished belongings, heirlooms and just plain junk, that we might also think about some emotional de-cluttering.

What is emotional clutter? It's the stuff you hold onto that makes living in the present less enjoyable.

Emotional clutter can be grudges and old hurts that weigh you down with remembered pain that stretches to the present and that separates you from those once loved. 

Think about it: as time goes by, does it really matter who offended whom? Does the apology you felt was due feel so urgent now? Would it feel worse to be the first to say "I'm sorry!" or to continue an emotional estrangement?

When you think of the energy it takes to hold onto righteous anger and, over time, the toll this takes on you, do you really want to continue to carry a grudge or nurse old wounds?

Or would it feel better to open your mind and your heart, to reach out with love -- whether or not the other person responds in kind -- and begin to release those old ghosts from the past?

Emotional clutter can be echoes from a distant, painful childhood where the remembered voices of those who caused you to suffer still resonate.

There are those, like the woman in my friend Susan's therapy group, who cling to pain from the past and preclude any possibilities of growth and change and joyous living. There are those whose lives become about victimhood, those whose lives become a string of excuses for not reaching their true potential because of what happened in the past.

 Clearing the hurt may mean looking at the situation a new way: your parents weren't experts on the person you were or the person you've grown to be. So their hurtful predictions or observations aren't valid anymore. It can help lighten a lifelong load of pain to tell yourself that your parents did the best they could, that they loved you as much as they were able and that any hurt that they inflicted, whether intentional or not, came from their own dark place of remembered pain.

Emotional clutter can be toxic relationships and the feelings of resentment and inadequacy these inspire. This may be a friendship that has always been problematic or one that has changed over time. 

While healing estrangements can be life-affirming, there are times when distance from someone who causes us pain makes perfect sense.

When I was in my twenties, I had a friend I admired and enjoyed, someone who was quite different from me but, for a time, we celebrated our differences. Then I began to notice that who I was and what I needed were beyond her consideration and, that as much as I wanted to talk this over, she would never listen. She would call me at 3 a.m. to cry over a broken relationship or simply to read me a poem she had just written, unmindful of my need to sleep because I had to get up and go to work in a few hours. As the financial gulf widened between us when her more highly compensated career took off, she made fun of my modest circumstances and asked if I'd like to live in her maid's room and jettison my career in journalism to become her secretary/maid. She was astounded when I turned her offer down and called me ungrateful. We drifted apart, both of us finding life perfectly fine without the other.

In all the years since, I have found freedom, not only in our distance, but also in getting to the point emotionally where I could wish her well and quietly cheer her continuing success without lingering anger or resentments.

Emotional clutter can be agitation over people and events over which you have little, if any, control.

Is it really worth your emotional energy to get upset over something that is unlikely to affect your life -- like who wins or doesn't win the Superbowl or "Dancing With the Stars" or, more recently, the transition of Bruce into Caitlin?

The fact that 10,000 people actually signed an online petition the other day to urge the IOC to rescind Bruce/Caitlin Jenner's Olympic medal is astounding. Most of these people may disapprove of this sports icon embarking on a gender change in the latter years of his life or find the concept and reality of transgender individuals bewildering. But the fact remains that he won his Olympic gold medal fairly, with incredible hard work, and as a man, back in 1976. Nothing will ever change that. And the gender switch, after all the publicity dies down, is her and her family's business, not ours. We can hope that Caitlin and the Kardashian clan will go live happily ever after off the media radar. But there isn't anything we can do about it. So why get upset? If you find yourself riled by the denizens of reality television or sports or, for that matter, by the evening news, stop watching.

Emotional clutter can be old prejudices and beliefs that color your attitudes in a rapidly changing world, weighing you down with anger and fear and resentment.

I've heard vitriol flying in our community clubhouse about gay marriage, all things Obama and racial resentments of all varieties. Tempers and blood pressures rise. But this is a very different world from the one in which we grew up. It is a world, albeit still imperfect and evolving, where one's sexual orientation or the color of one's skin doesn't automatically preclude the possibility of living a life with full rights as a citizen. And while one certainly can take issue with our current president over any number of policies, so much of what pulses through the Internet and impassioned community coffee klatches seems based on pure hatred with a sprinkling of fear because he is different.

This is a world where you can certainly hold religious, political and personal beliefs of value to you and that enhance your ability to live your life with love. There is room for constructive debate and a variety of opinions.

But standing firm with a stubborn "That's the way I was raised..." can be hazardous to your own health and well-being. Carrying so much fury as the world changes around you can hurt you most of all.

Perhaps a question about the free-floating anger and hostility online and otherwise is what purpose does it serve? Is there anything you can do to change a situation or actively embrace a cause? Does it increase your peace of mind? Your happiness? Presidents come and go. There are causes where we can make a difference - and ones that are truly futile and frustrating.

Knowing the difference between these and acting accordingly can be critical to one's emotional well-being.

Emotional clutter can also mean habits like negative thinking and self-talk that is hazardous to your emotional health. 

There is a lot of truth to the saying "Most of us are about as happy as we make up our minds to be." Whatever our external circumstances, we have a choice to greet each day or each challenge with hope and optimism or with grim self-pity.

My lifelong friend Sister Ramona, who will be 80 in October, was showing troubling signs of frailty when I visited her two weeks ago in Northern California for her 60th Jubilee -- the celebration of her 60th anniversary of taking her vows as a nun. I couldn't help but notice how thin she was, how her walk has slowed, how her voice -- as she renewed her vows at the altar -- was barely a whisper. And yet, her eyes lit up and she embraced me with joy when she spotted me in the crowd. And when I asked her how she was -- really -- she smiled and said "Oh, I'm okay. We'll talk. But I can do everything I was meant to do right now." She is still a healer of souls, counseling Stanford University students, and a formidable life force -- getting an award late last year from the Unitarian Universalist community in the Bay Area for her leadership in organizing women for peace. She has made the decision to live fully every day of her life.

That is in stark contrast with a woman in our community I'll call Luella. Luella has a loving husband, a beautiful home and a reasonable amount of financial security. She has raised three successful adult children. 

But, instead of counting her blessings, she ruminates on what isn't right in her life. Her arm hurts. She hates her son's latest girlfriend. Her cat died four years ago and the memory of that loss is too great to ever consider adopting another. And, most of all, she hates Arizona.

"It's ugly and hot and disgusting!" she complains to anyone who will listen. "I hate it here! It's so beige. It's so full of stupid people. We moved here to be closer to our kids and now, with their work and such, we're lucky to see them maybe once a week. And everyone here is so stuck-up. This just sucks big time!"

It's no accident that others in the community keep their contacts and conversations with Luella brief and only occasional. 

Stopping negative thinking and self-talk isn't necessarily easy. For many, it's a well-ingrained habit. But it can help to listen to yourself, to be aware, when it starts once again. Listen for patterns and old catch-phrases that speak of your disinclination to make positive changes. 

Using cognitive behavioral techniques with some of my patients, I used to recommend a rubber band around the wrist, to be snapped at the first sign of a negative thought to signal the need for a change of thoughts in order to stop the downward spiral. 

I remember one patient named Ron who laughed softly and looked at me in total disbelief when I suggested this method of thought-stopping. He didn't say he'd try it. But, over the next few weeks and months, his outlook began to shift. It was a slow change, but a steady one. He began to lose the fear, anxiety and lack of confidence that had stalled his life and career. As we talked one day, he unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt sleeve and showed me his wrist. He was wearing a rubber band.

"I thought this was a crazy idea when you first mentioned it," he said, smiling. "But I decided to try it and it has made me much more aware of my negative thoughts and increased my ability to stop getting into a spiral of pessimism, depression and despair. I can probably do all this without the rubber band now. But I still wear it to remind myself that I have power over my thoughts. I have a choice."

We all have choices. We can choose to keep our emotional lives cluttered with grudges, resentments, pain from the past and negative beliefs about ourselves and others.

Emotional de-cluttering isn't necessarily quick or easy. It can be a slow process. But choosing to do so can be critical to our life satisfaction.

Little by little, we can choose to let go of past hurts and to embrace growth. We can choose to limit our exposure to toxic people and ideas. We can choose to clear the air, let go of resentment and make peace. We can create more space in our emotional lives for loving experiences, for giving to others, for making a difference, for greeting each day with joy.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

What's Left Behind

An odd email showed up the other day announcing an auction of the worldly belongings of actor-singer Davy Jones, most noted for being one of the Monkees and, before that, a Tony-nominated star of Broadway and London's West End.

Puzzled, I browsed through the items to be sold at auction, guessing that I had ended up on this email list because I have been invited to speak at a Celebration of Life in New York City next month for the actor who died in 2012.

What amazed me as I scrolled through 16 online pages of items: how much we all accumulate over a lifetime; how some things one treasures -- awards, for example -- are marked for sale by family members for those with enough celebrity to attract buyers and for the trash bin for those of us who are not famous; how some things that are so critically important to us in life -- a passport, a driver's license -- become throwaways or objects of curiosity after we are gone. I was amazed at the hundreds of dollars being offered for his ordinary belongings -- shoes, nightshirts, credit cards -- and how, whether our belongings are sold at auction, given to charity or destined for the trash bin, what was once important in life becomes so meaningless once we are gone.


While it's great that this auction is raising money for Davy Jones' family or favorite charity and while it's nice that fans and collectors are happy to bid on items both ordinary and extraordinary from his life, this oh-so-final unraveling of a vibrant, very public life is a jarring reminder of our own mortality.  What was once treasured, what was once needed, what was once private is for sale to the highest bidder. This final ritual will come to all of us -- though undoubtedly in less public ways. Our spouses, our children, our siblings will sort through our suddenly useless items and decide what to keep and what to give or throw away.

It made me want to spare my family some decisions by cleaning out and organizing the keepsakes stashed in our garage and tucked away in closets. It made me wonder what I might already live without and what I might give away. It made me imagine what those I love might end up cherishing.

I thought about the curious relics from my parents, grandmother and Aunt Molly now in my home, my garage and my closets: the slinky black dress with sequined roses on the bodice that my father gave my mother in 1940 when they were dating and a box of the cards and letters they sent each other when their love was new and untested; my mother's scrapbook of her wonderful pre-marriage career; crystal dishes my grandmother used and treasured that have sat, gathering dust, in my china cabinet for more than 40 years; a plastic parrot alarm clock that made Aunt Molly laugh so heartily and that makes me smile at the memory.

It also reminds me that objects don't have nearly the power of warm memories: of my father's stories, my mother's loving embrace, my grandmother's unconditional love, Aunt Molly's laugh and sterling example of a life well lived. 

And then there are the memories of a wonderfully talented actor named Davy Jones whose unforgettable performances on stage and television thrilled a generation of young people now growing old..... and whose great kindness and compassion beyond the spotlight, when no one was looking, comprise his most enduring legacy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Celebrating Seventy

I had imagined that my birthday would be quiet and uneventful and, since this birthday was a major one, I was feeling a little sorry for myself -- sorry that my closest friends and extended family live so far away. I wanted to celebrate being only the second person for several generations on the McCoy side of the family to reach 70. (The first was Aunt Molly, whose 70th birthday we celebrated with great ceremony and joy in 1987.)

I was just finishing a blog post when Bob poked his head in the door of my writing casita. "Why don't we go to lunch at the Grille?" he asked. "To celebrate your birthday."

I was puzzled. "But my birthday is tomorrow."

"Well, let's spread the celebration out," he said with a smile. "Tomorrow maybe we'll have dinner out. Live dangerously. Eat out twice in one week!"

We laughed. I finished the post and, five minutes later, walked in the front door of our main house and there was the most fantastic birthday present: my dear friend Mary Breiner, who lives in California, leaping off the couch and into my arms.

Amid delighted squeals, tears, and hugs, Mary, my friend for 43 years, and Bob, my husband of 38 years, told me that they had been planning this surprise for months. Bob had told me that he had a business meeting that morning while he was really picking Mary up at the airport in Phoenix. They high-fived each other, thrilled that they had pulled this covert birthday plan off and we headed out for lunch.

I told Mary that I was especially surprised to see her because she had just spent the week in New York where there was a trial run of a play based on her father's popular novel "Mr. Blue." Mary had been asked to provide a prelude/commentary to the play at each performance that week, a task she carried off wonderfully. Audience members -- like the group of nuns pictured below -- sought her out after each show with praise and with questions about her father -- Myles Connolly -- and his life and work.

       Mary and a group of N.Y. admirers after a performance of "Mr. Blue"

After she flew back home to California, she had only had two days to spend with her husband John, who has health problems but a wonderful caregiver named Arthur, before she headed to Arizona. She smiled at my surprise. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world!" she said. "Your reaching 70 is a major cause for celebration!"

We had a great time showing Mary the sights of Florence, AZ: from a derelict tractor landmark called "Whispering Roy" to the incredibly eclectic hardware store on Main Street to the Prison Store offering cookies, crafts and artwork made by inmates of the nine adjacent maximum security prisons. Mary was enthusiastic and gracious and gave me the gift of seeing this area through her eyes -- seeing the beauty, humor and uniqueness of the surroundings rather than dwelling on the desolate.

                                          Whispering Roy: A Florence Landmark

We attended Mass on Sunday at a beautiful little church I hadn't noticed before and laughed heartily through a three way gift exchange -- since Bob's birthday is three days after and Mary's is exactly a week after mine. They were both turning 71.

Mary's gift to me was meant to be simply lovely and memorable. In the catalogue, it had been pictured as a beautiful sea shell lamp. (Mary had given Bob and me a real chambered nautilus shell as a wedding gift. We had treasured it, but it was destroyed in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.)

The seashell lamp emerging from the box that arrived on our doorstep was something quite different: it looked like a giant, scary sea creature with random spikes and when plugged in, it had a positively malevolent glow. We stared at it, silent, transfixed. Crestfallen, Mary finally broke the stunned silence. "It looked so pretty in the catalogue," she said sadly.

"Oh, Mary," I said. "It's the thought that counts. I really appreciate..." I looked at the glowering gift again and started laughing uncontrollably

"It's wonderful!" I gasped. "I've never seen anything like it."

Mary and Bob started laughing, too. We passed the lamp around, wiping our eyes and giggling. "It makes me laugh whenever I look at it," I told Mary. "It will be my happy place to go when I'm feeling down. Thank you so much! It will make me smile and laugh and think of you."

And it now has a place of honor in the living room. It is one of my all time favorite gifts: it makes me laugh and feel the love of a very dear friend.

                                           Mary's gift brings unexpected hilarity

                                          What is it? Oh, I know...what the hell IS it?

                                         It continues to make me smile whenever I see it!

It was a wonderful weekend filled with much laughter, good talks, songfests, lovely shared meals both out and at home, beautiful flowers from my wonderful friend Tim Schellhardt and phone calls and cards from a variety of people I love -- from my college roommate Ruth Woodling to four ex-boyfriends from decades ago and a variety of good friends from childhood, college and an assortment of workplaces through the years as well as newer Arizona friends.

There were more great surprises: a singing happy birthday greeting -- complete with Lego cake -- from my brother Mike and his children Maggie and Henry in Bangkok; a lovely card from my dear friend Dr. Chuck Wibbelsman and the news that he had bought tickets to the two Broadway shows I wanted most to see (An American in Paris and Fun Home) during my upcoming trip to New York in June. Our next door neighbors Carl and Judith brought over a beautiful little birthday cake.There was a loving text and birthday dance picture from my ailing sister Tai in Seattle, a Facetime visit with Mary's husband John and caregiver Arthur who sent warm wishes for the happiest of birthdays and a fun conversation with my cousin Caron in Kansas City, who will turn 75 this week and who laughed with wonder at the prospect of us both being seventy-somethings when it feels like just yesterday we were kids running through the fields of our grandparents' farm.

My brother Mike, Maggie and Henry, send birthday wishes from Bangkok

                  My sister Tai in Seattle: a birthday dance in hospital garb   

                                     Flowers from Tim, cards from variety of friends

Mary and Bob Songfest

                                                 Sweet Pea joins the celebration                                                            

The celebration lingers in my heart with a new understanding of what it means to mark a significant birthday memorably. It isn't about presents or lavish meals. It's about being remembered by people who matter so much, loved ones who are family or treasured, longtime friends as well as new friends here. It's about sharing the celebration with special people who took the time --  in Mary's case, four days out of her busy life -- to let me know they cared.

There is no greater birthday gift than that.

                                          Mary's presence: the greatest gift

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Stories That Define Our Lives

My sister Tai, who lives in Seattle, and I were relaxing in my kitchen the other day, winding down from a busy day of medical appointments at the Mayo Clinic Arizona for her life-threatening aneurysm of her abdominal aorta.

We were talking about our childhoods, only briefly shared, as she is ten years younger than I am and spent a large part of her growing up years as the only kid left at home. Still, there was much we did share: the terror and uncertainty of living with a mentally ill, sometimes violent, alcoholic, pill-popping father and a stressed-out, frightened mother. As we grew older, we understood just how damaged our father had been by his own nightmarish childhood. And we also found that, as much as the terror, we remember the laughter and the moments of love.

"He really did love us," Tai said quietly. "As much as he was able. There were times when I could really feel his love...."

And we talked about those times: times when his face would soften and he would tell us how much he loved us, times when illness or misfortune hit us and he was there, worrying over Tai and her broken arm, and gently reassuring her, weeping over me when I was diagnosed with polio at age six, times when he made us laugh with his stories or delighted us with fun adventures.

Later, my husband Bob told me that he was puzzled over our conversation. "He was a monster," he said. "He treated you kids horribly. I really have a hard time hearing you talk about his saintliness."

I saw his point, understanding his anger and outrage. My father was no saint. He could, indeed, be a monster. How does one begin to explain a life story with so many contradictions? For all the horror of our growing up years, we all came away with the feeling that we were dearly loved by both parents and with gratitude for the good times. We don't forget the terrible times, but, as we grow older, the positive moments resonate the most.

"I'm truly amazed," my brother Mike, now raising a five year old daughter and two year old son, both born when he was over 60, told me recently. "I'm amazed that, as damaged as he was, Father didn't kill us, given the stresses of raising small children. And he did make us laugh and we did feel loved..."

This made a critical difference in all our lives.

Not long ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend Sister Ramona, my favorite teacher from high school. As we were discussing a classmate of mine who has struggled for years with mental illness, Sister Ramona said "It always seemed to me that your family was, by far, more dysfunctional than hers. But then I realized the crucial difference: your parents loved you and your siblings so much. I saw it during parent-teacher conferences and when they came to see you in school plays and just during informal talks with them. As flawed or as crazy as they could be, they loved you so much. And what a difference that made!"

And what a difference, in my own life narrative, it has made to have other adults who loved me as well, especially my unforgettable Aunt Molly, Sister Ramona and a very special elementary school teacher, Sister Rita McCormack. Both Sister Ramona and Sister Rita became life-long friends of mine and it's interesting how their insights and memories add immeasurably to the stories I tell myself about my life.

My dear friend Mary recently attended a Catholic charity fundraiser and found herself sitting at a table beside Sister Rita, whom she had not met before, but she knew that I have loved her for more than 60 years. They traded pleasantries, then stories. Sister Rita told Mary about her first memories of me as a shy little girl who would walk around the playground at her side, tightly clinging to the sash of her nun's habit. This underscored my own memories of needing her love and attention so much as I struggled to fit in at school during my recovery from polio and how grateful I was that she was there at that time and place and that she was so loving with Mike and me.

During our kitchen table conversations during the past week, Tai and I talked about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the impact this can have on us and our current relationships.

We tell ourselves stories of a past remembered for its pain or its possibilities.

We can choose to remember primarily the pain, the feelings of powerlessness we had as small children with troubled parents. Or we can focus more on the ways that we were fortunate. We can choose to label ourselves throughout our lives as helpless victims or as survivors. We can be angry or bitter or we can forgive, if not forget, and go on, making our lives very much our own, taking responsibility for our own growth and happiness.

The early difficulties, undeniably, have had an impact on our lives. And sometimes these have been negative. There have been times of depression and devastation when love relationships have foundered. There have been moments of perfectionism as painful as Father's stern insistence that "An A-minus is NOT acceptable!" And there was Mike's long period of commitment-phobia that led him to postpone marriage until he was in his mid-fifties and met Amp, who brought to their loving bond her own understanding and unique insights born of a childhood filled, once again, with both love and pain.

We can be aware of the residual pain of the past while not surrendering to it.

We can tell ourselves stories of survival, of triumphs both large and small, of understanding that comes from hearing the stories of others' lives.

I remember seething, years ago, as I listened to Father talk about his tortured childhood -- his beloved father's death when he was only eight years old, his mother's lies (she told him for a year and his younger sister Molly for four years that their deceased father was on an extended business trip), his mother's alcoholism and her physical and emotional abuse of her son, his being forced to support the family from age nine on with an unwanted, but reasonably successful career as a child actor in silent films. "Your mother was so horrible!" I said at last. "I hate the way she treated you. I'm so sorry it was so hard for you. What a terrible person she was!"

"Oh, no," he replied softly. "She was a wonderful person in so many ways. I guess you had to have been there. She went through some very hard times. But that didn't mean that we weren't loved..."

And I began to understand more about the shades of gray in all our lives. To tell the stories of our lives in terms of absolutes limits the glorious complexities of the individuals we grow to become.

Even those of us growing up in the same family have life stories that are uniquely ours: Tai and Mike both have life stories that have some similarities to mine but with some themes that are all their own. And all of our stories are the truth for our own lives and contribute to a central life theme.

For all my stories of growing up fearful and joyous, excluded and embraced, anxious and hopeful, one theme stands out above all:  I have been dearly loved.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Fifth Anniversary: New Perspectives

Five years ago today, I left my office at UCLA Medical Center for the last time.

I thought I knew what was ahead. I thought I had an accurate picture of life after our jobs were only a memory, after we left Los Angeles for a new life in rural Arizona.

Five years later, life isn't exactly as I imagined then. There have been surprises, disappointments and delightful discoveries.

Five years ago, retirement life, vigor, money, fun and new friendships seemed unlimited. Now, though life is good, connections warm, health enduring and bank account solid, our limitations, both immediate and long-term, are more apparent. We've become more cautious, less expansive, more content with living simply day to day. Meals out, movies, plays, and travel are all rare treats rather than daily reality. And we're not feeling deprived. It doesn't take much to make us happy these days.

Five years ago, we were thrilled at the prospect of living in a resort community. Now I can see it as a mixed blessing -- with increasingly crowded facilities during the winter season when the population here nearly doubles due to the return of the snowbirds from the upper Midwest and Canada. I can also feel the small resentments and uneasy differences between the often more affluent residents who have multiple homes and those of us who live here year around - while realizing that the snowbirds pay dues here 12 months a year, helping to support the amenities that we get to enjoy full-time.

Five years ago, I had visions of reclaiming a bit of youth --  getting skinny and fit, dancing through my days. Now I realize that fitness at 70 doesn't mean reclaiming the weight and body shape of my 25-year-old self and that revisiting youth can mean, at times, reliving junior high with cliques and packs of aging mean girls. But good health, mobility and intellectual vigor are a joy -- even if I can't revisit my passions for ballet and tap, even if I'm lighter and firmer though still undeniably matronly.

Five years ago, I was thrilled at the prospect of  having time to fully re-ignite my neglected writing career. I wanted to publish at least one more book -- and I have. But the best part of getting back to writing has been something I couldn't have imagined five years ago:  this blog and some treasured blogging friends who are bringing so much unexpected joy to my life.

Five years ago, I worried about losing long-time friendships by moving away while also anticipating close new friendships in a new home town. Now, I'm delighted with the resilience of old friendships, relationships that have grown through the challenges of distance and time, and a bit disappointed with the difficulty in making new friends here.

Five years ago, I was excited about the prospect of small town living -- where people knew each other and one had a sense of belonging. And, indeed, that has been part of our new reality in many ways -- from Jasper and Barb at the Florence Library who know our reading tastes and set aside titles they know we would enjoy, the local pharmacist Michelle, who cheerfully greets us by name, the supermarket checkers Sandy and Arlene who ask about our kitten Ollie's recovery from his recent surgeries. But there is a darker side as well to small town life: learning more about people than perhaps you ever wanted to know and malicious gossip that can erode one's sense of belonging. There is, at times, a nagging feeling that, try as one might, one may never really fit in.

Five years ago, I anticipated life being quite different in a new home and a new place. The new house is great. But there is a lot of truth to that saying "Wherever you go, there you are!" We still enjoy the same pursuits, battle the same demons and live semi-reclusively here -- very much as we did in our previous home.

Five years ago, I looked forward to settling in happily with our animal companions Gus, Maggie and Marina for many years to come. I had no idea that five years later, only Maggie would still be alive. Despite the loss of young Marina and elderly Gus and fact that no animal ever replaces another, I treasure the additions to our feline family -- the truculent but loyal Sweet Pea who joined our family in the summer of 2010, gorgeous and loving Hamish who came two years later, and precious little Ollie, our three-legged kitten with a brave heart and magnificent purr, who won my heart last October at a book signing event in California.

Five years ago, I didn't realize how much pleasure I would feel in watching, savoring and, in a variety of ways, sharing in the lives of our younger friends -- Ryan, Mary Kate and Eliza, Carrie and Brian, Sharon and Virginia --  as they reach their prime years. It's wonderful to see them succeeding in their chosen fields, finding special people to love and, in Eliza's case, becoming the loving mother of two beautiful baby girls in a span of 15 months. But the greatest joy of all is in seeing these young people grow from being our dear friends'  babies (in Ryan's case, a bright, quirky nine-year-old Little Brother) into good, caring, responsible adults --  people we're proud to know.

Five years ago, time seemed infinite. Now there is a new sense of limits as I watch those close to me deal with life-threatening health issues. My sister Tai, ten years younger than I, is suddenly facing a dangerous medical crisis. My friends Pat and Joe, who are my age, both are facing unexpected medical challenges. I see warning signs in others: my neighbor Phyllis, my long-time literary agent Susan, my beloved cousin Caron -- all five to seven years older than I am, all previously vigorous, all suddenly fragile. I grieve their loss of health and vitality while anticipating my own decline. I hope that these challenges are some years off for me. But I know, with new clarity, that the blessing of good health is not forever.

There is an upside to bittersweet realizations: I treasure each moment more.

I am realizing that, as the song goes, the best of times is now. I have better health, more money, and more options today than I am likely to have later on. I want to make the most of the next five years because there are no guarantees. Five years ago, retirement fun seemed open-ended. Now I feel the limits more than ever as I live each treasured day with gratitude and love.