Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Challenge and Joy of Seeing Each Other Every, Every Minute

There is a poignant, memorable moment in Thorton Wilder's "Our Town",  when the recently deceased Emily is given a chance to relive her 12th birthday and travels back in spirit, unseen and unheard by her family. Instead of joy, there is anguish as she watches family members treating each other so casually, not really looking at each other, unaware of the toll that time would take.

Through tears, she pleads "Let's look at each other...It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at each other...all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Do human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?"

This lesson resonated for me in a new way last week when I flew to Chicago to attend and participate in the Celebration of Life for my friend and former Northwestern classmate Maria Kulczycky.

                                                             
Maria Kulczycky - 1945-2018

When we were young, I saw Maria every school day for our five years as undergraduate, then graduate, magazine majors at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism. I saw her as an awesome mix of intelligence, fierce ambition, amazing strength, assertiveness and confidence combined with intriguing earthiness and European elegance.  I admired her, resented her and envied her as we competed relentlessly with each other on a daily basis -- in the classroom and in our shared affection for a certain male classmate Tim Schellhardt. Tim was blissfully unaware of the silent psychodrama swirling around him. He simply considered the two of us good friends and eventually resolved our situation by falling in love with and marrying someone else entirely while maintaining lifelong friendships with both Maria and me.

There were times in our years as classmates when I caught a glimpse of Maria's capacity to care, even if it meant doing or saying something hard -- like the time, sitting across a lunch table from me during our graduate year, she forced me to face the truth about something I hadn't wanted to imagine. In my feigned nonchalance, followed by tears, I was blinded by anger and embarrassment to the genuine caring in her eyes, though in memory, I see that flicker...

While Maria and I did not keep in touch for many years after graduation, our mutual friend Tim kept us posted on each other. I found myself rejoicing, in time, over Maria's success as a financial journalist, over the happiness she found in her marriage to Lamar Brantley, over her love for his three children by his previous marriage and over her joy when they were blessed with their daughter Nina, who grew up to be accomplished, adventurous and lovely, very much in the spirit of her mother. And so many times over the years, I wished we had been friends. We should have been friends. I had always felt a strong bond with her, given our shared ambitions and interests. But I never reached out to her until the year before our 50th college reunion.

Two things happened to make me reach out: the alumni office at Northwestern sent me a list of classmates to contact for the reunion and I was thrilled to see Maria's name and email address on that list. And looking through my small box of college mementos, I found a photograph that took me back years. It was a picture I had taken on assignment for my photography class, one I had churlishly discarded into my outtake file, somehow the only photo file that survived through the years. I had been taking a picture of Tim walking on campus when, suddenly, out of nowhere, Maria ran up and linked her arm in his just as the shutter clicked.  But now, more than 50 years later, I took a picture of the picture and sent the digital copy, along with an email, to Maria.

                                                       
Tim and Maria, November 1966
She responded immediately and warmly and it was the beginning of our year long heartfelt correspondence leading up to the reunion. And in this year of building a friendship -- one that should have happened half a century before -- I began to see Maria in a new way: I saw her tenderness, her kindness, her emotional generosity. And I came to treasure her as a new old friend.

She changed travel plans in order to attend the reunion, where we fell into each other's arms in front of our smiling, if somewhat surprised, friend Tim. The three of us spent a glorious day together -- talking, laughing, delighting in each other's stories, lingering over a three hour lunch. It was then that I heard the details of Maria's back story. She had been born in the Ukraine in the waning days of World War II and her family then fled to a refugee camp in postwar Germany where they spent the next seven years, where her sister Daria was born and where the family's lifelong friendships with other refugees were formed before they all started their new lives in Chicago's Ukrainian community. Hearing about her early life, I understood, with new clarity, why she was so strong, so assertive, so fiercely ambitious at such a young age. She had to be.
                           
                                           
Tim and Maria, October 2017

                                       
Maria and me, October 2017

When Maria was leaving the reunion at the end of the day, she kissed both Tim and me and hugged us tightly for a long time. I marveled at her warmth and her joy in sharing the day with us. Turning to Tim after she left, I said with wonder -- as if this were something quite new -- "Maria's such a wonderful person."

Tim look surprised for a moment, then smiled. "She always was," he said quietly.

We had no way of knowing that we had just said "Goodbye" to Maria in person for the last time, though many months of delighted emails would follow as she rejoiced in our good news and shared her own -- a wonderful trip with her husband to Patagonia and, a month later, her "best birthday ever!" and finally, an eagerly anticipated trip to Phoenix in May to see Lamar's youngest grandchild graduate from high school that would also bring a chance for us to get together again. They canceled the trip at the last minute because Maria was experiencing bouts of vertigo. She told me that it was probably nothing and that we would have our visit -- perhaps when Arizona cooled down a bit in the fall.

But that was not to be. Three weeks after our last email exchange, only eight months after our joyous 50th reunion, cancer claimed Maria's life. She had battled it, off and on, for some years -- something she had never told us because she didn't want to be defined by her disease or to be seen as an invalid when she was so very much alive, right up to the end.

And she came gloriously alive for us once more at her Celebration of Life on August 26 in Chicago. Tim and I attended and, at Lamar's request, we both spoke of our college experiences with Maria.

                                                                     
Me Speaking at Maria's Memorial, August 2018

Tim speaking at Maria's memorial, August 2018



 But we both quickly understood that our perspective was limited and that this celebration was a wonderful chance to see and know Maria with new clarity...

...Through the eyes of her beloved husband Lamar, who started his tribute with "Maria wasn't everyone's cup of tea..." but made it clear that she was the love of his life.

                                                       

....Through the eyes of her daughter Nina who remembered her love, her sense of adventure and her quiet courage and who is living these splendid qualities of her mother's in her own amazing life.

                                           

....Through the eyes of her sister Daria who asked us to imagine what it must have been like to be the younger sister of this true force of nature, but who sadly noted in ending that she had missed having Maria there to tell her exactly what to wear for this occasion.

                                         

...Through the eyes of Nicholas, the grandson from Arizona, who expressed his love and gratitude for Maria, remembering how she always accepted and embraced him and took him to his first Gay Pride parade shortly after he came out to the family.

....Through the eyes of friends who had known her forever, since their days in the refugee camp in Germany and through decades of multigenerational friendships since, as their families became each other's extended families and who could look back in time to see her in her Chicago childhood as a Ukrainian Scout, then as a scout leader and a mentor to other young women growing up in Chicago's Ukrainian community. She never forgot where she came from and gave back, in so many ways, to those who came after her, time and time again.

We tend to see others through the prism of our own experiences with them. What a revelation and a blessing it is to get a chance to see someone we loved and thought we knew well through other, more knowing eyes. It was a special privilege to see Maria through the memories of those she loved most -- and to realize, with wonder, how much more there was to know and admire and love.
                                                                     
My brother Michael, who lives in Bangkok, Thailand, wrote a warm email in response to my glowing account of Maria's Celebration of Life: "I'm so glad that you were finally able to really see Maria after all these years before it was too late....in the way that Emily in 'Our Town' wished her family could stop and see each with time going by so fast."

Yes. It was a joy to see past those early rivalries to glimpse the inimitable Maria and to know her even better as I listened to the stories of those who knew and loved her best.

And what a life lesson, Tim and I agreed, as we stepped out into the steaminess of an August day in Chicago. It was a lesson in looking at and truly seeing a family member or treasured friend -- the pain and courage and strength of another, the concern, the care, the love in the eyes of another. It was a lesson in savoring each moment of life with those we love and of looking beyond the surface to the truth of another. It was a lesson in saying what is true and necessary and urgent before time moves on,

I looked at Tim and saw, at once, the lovable young classmate and the loving grandfather, and, consistent through the decades, his brilliance and talent, his warmth, his unique sense of humor, his goodness, his kindness, his generosity of spirit. I smiled as I saw him in all his familiarity and complexity and his innate talent for being, at once, dignified and wonderfully funny.

"I love you, dearest friend, unconditionally and forever."

And we embraced, united in our celebration of Maria, and of the time, the years, we've been blessed to share as very special friends -- suddenly cherishing every, every minute.


                                                                       
Tim and me in a photo taken by Maria, October 2017

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Reality of Life in an Active Adult Community

When a reader recently wrote to ask what life is like in an "active adult community" and how she might begin to make a decision about whether or not to move to one, I couldn't help but think back on two real life scenarios -- one eight years back, one a few months ago.

When Bob and I moved from Los Angeles to Sun City Anthem Merrill Ranch, a new (still some years from build-out) Del Webb community designed for Baby Boomers and located in rural Arizona halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, the possibilities seemed endless. That first summer we lived here -- the summer of 2010 -- everyone else on our small street was new and excited, too. We were in and out of each other's homes, having parties and open houses, taking day trips together, spending long, languid afternoons in the community resort pool, talking, laughing and giving quiet thanks for our good fortune in finding this place and each other. 

The changes were minor at first. We saw a little less of each other as new, perhaps more compatible, friendships evolved. In some instances, a misunderstanding or dispute cooled our enthusiasm for getting together.

Then the big changes started happening: one neighbor died of cancer, another of a stroke. Yet another is suffering from untreatable cancer. And one, with heart failure and severe arthritis, has become house-bound. Not long ago, he called Bob to come help him get off the toilet. And another neighbor is sinking into dementia. It's beyond sobering.

When our next door neighbors Larry and Louise recently decided to sell their home and move back to Seattle, the contrast between the two healthy people they were just a few years ago and their growing disabilities was striking. Larry is going blind from macular degeneration and Louise is afflicted with a devastating neurological disorder.  Getting Louise up and out of the house when there was a showing of the house was a task Larry found overwhelming. So they stayed. As the months dragged on without an offer, their realtor sat down with them for some hard truths: first, staying at the house when he was showing it to prospective buyers was never a good idea, even under the best of circumstances. But, second, it was a particularly bad idea when Louise -- sitting in in the living room near the front door, surrounded by the accoutrements of her infirmity -- was the first sight prospective buyers saw.

 "The thing is," the realtor told Larry. "These prospects have a dream of an endless, active vacation here. They're buying this dream of active late adulthood just as you did eight years ago. They're buying a dream of being healthy and happy and functional for the rest of their lives. They don't need to see this."

Yes, the evolution from vigor to infirmity, from active adulthood to crippled old age, is hard to see. 

It is, to be sure, a reality wherever one lives. It seems magnified, however, when it is happening all around one.

This isn't a reason not to consider moving to an active adult community. But it is something to think about when weighing the decision.

Looking at pros and cons of active adult communities, it depends so much on what you expect, on your perceptions of aging and where that community happens to be.

For example, some active adult communities -- like the Del Webb communities in Illinois and Indiana -- are mostly populated by full-time residents and may be more cohesive. In the Sunbelt active adult communities, there may be a definitive split between full-time residents and part-timers (called Snowbirds). In our community, for example, about half the residents are here only three to six months a year. They are largely from the Midwest, Washington-Oregon and Canada. They tend to be more affluent than the rest of us and to hang together when they're here. Many are truly delightful people with whom we enjoy reconnecting when they arrive each fall. But with so many part-timers, our community has a very a different feel, something that we did not anticipate when we were  looking for a more cohesive community than the one we left in suburban Los Angeles.

Another thing to ask yourself as you fantasize about life in an active adult community: how much does the dream coincide -- or not -- with your current lifestyle? While you may find yourself becoming more physically active when you lose the harrowing commute and the full-time job, you may not change your ways quite as much as you imagine. I've found, by looking around and within, that as you age, you tend to become more of whatever you were before. While Bob and I envisioned ourselves being more socially active (we told ourselves that we weren't that social in L.A. because we were spending such long hours working and commuting), we really aren't especially social here either. He hates parties, dances, most social events. I sometimes go alone or with a friend. But more often, we're home. We read a lot, exercise, enjoy music. I have continued to work most days writing books, blog posts, etc. I've made some good friends here, though my closest friends are in L.A. and Chicago. We visit back and forth. But, day to day, our life here isn't all that different. We've lost the commute. Bob is retired. I'm still working long hours. And we've remained fairly solitary, even as social events and opportunities surround us.

Also, the concept of large, age-restricted active adult communities is beginning to change.

Our particular community is a hybrid active adult community: there is a Sun City part with its own rec center and two pools and then we have access to the all ages rec center that is part of the larger all ages community of Parkside at Anthem Merrill Ranch. When our neighbors' grandchildren visit, they go to the all ages rec center and pool. Other active adult communities have rules about the hours that children under 18 can use the pools. (Usually, adult children 18 and over can freely use any of the facilities.) Some of our neighbors have children and grandchildren living in the all ages section of our community. This may well be a trend for the future -- a move away from large age-segregated communities to smaller, blended ones.


An active aduIt community may be for you if:

  • You would enjoy having great fitness and recreational amenities close at hand.
  • You would like taking all kinds of different classes (from fitness to languages, local history, etc.) and learning new skills (from line dancing to quilting).
  • You and your spouse are social and would enjoy informal get-togethers, dances, parties, day trips and occasional overnight excursions.
  • If you have an interest in/are open to activities like all manner of card games, MahJong, trivia games, etc.
  • You enjoy socializing with people your age as well as entertaining visiting friends and family who are younger.
  • Your family is scattered geographically (or emotionally) or you have no children and are looking for a caring community of peers


An active adult community might not be for you if:

  • It would mean moving farther from children and grandchildren than you would like.
  • Your primary joy is being with kids and grandkids and old friends and you're not especially interested in making new same-age friends.
  • The idea of being surrounded by older people gives you the creeps.
  • You're not a joiner, would be unlikely to use the facilities and don't like the idea of a planned community with rules (like what color you can paint your house) or HOA fees. (Ours are $125 a month -- a real bargain for all the amenities we have and the beauty of the community.)
  • You find the possibility of two moves -- one to an active adult community and another to a retirement facility or back close to your kids when your health begins to falter -- overwhelming.
  • You're already old or infirm enough not to be especially active. In this instance, a facility offering independent and assisted living might be a better choice.

As Larry and Louise's real estate agent pointed out, the whole concept of active adult living is based, in part, on the fantasy that after retirement (or even before if you're fortunate enough to live and work close to such a community now), you will be active, doing all the things you love to do for the foreseeable future.

And that fantasy can become reality -- for a while. Some of us have a longer run of good times and good health than others. As we get into our seventies, we're beginning to see the stark reality that active adulthood doesn't go on forever. Of the original full-time residents who moved onto this street eight years ago, Bob and I are the only ones left. We feel very blessed to still be healthy and active. But we know, with new clarity, that it is all very fragile.

Now Bob and I, at 74 and 73 respectively, are the elders on the block while our new next door neighbors are in their fifties and early sixties, with three of the four still working full-time. So life goes on....

Would we make the choice to live in an active adult community again?

Yes.

Would we choose to live in this particular active adult community?

Perhaps -- though, knowing what we know now, we might choose a community a little less rural. For all the joys of living in wide open spaces with a wonderful small-town feel and lack of traffic, the remoteness of our community can be a serious, life limiting problem for those who become unable to drive. A place closer to public transportation, medical centers, a variety of restaurants and stores might be more enticing.

Making the choice to move or to stay put, to grow older among extended family and long-time friends or to strike out for new adventures and some new friends, to live life as you have known it or to live an active adult resort fantasy -- at least for awhile -- is not an easy one.

 It's so much a matter of looking within and determining what makes sense for you, what would please you most, what would feel most congruent with your own cherished goals and dreams.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Six Life Lessons from Mr. Rogers


                                                                 
Fred Rogers (PBS #thanksmisterrogers)
                                                                       

Earlier this month, my brother Mike and his family flew from Bangkok and I drove from Arizona to meet in Los Angeles for our annual summer reunion. One day, with his kids visiting friends in Malibu and his wife out shopping, Mike suggested that we go to the movies. The movie he most wanted to see also topped my "Must See" list: the Fred Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" which follows the life and the lessons of this extraordinary minister/television host who delighted and inspired several generations of children in his four decades on the air.

We weren't among those children nor were our children. Mike was in college and I was just finishing graduate school when the Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood show first aired. My brother's two children -- Maggie, 9, and Henry, 6 -- were born years after Mr. Rogers died and have been growing up in Southeast Asia, far removed from the possibility of reruns. But somehow, on the periphery of our consciousness, Mr. Rogers had made an impression on Mike and me. From afar, we admired his authenticity, his goodness. And somehow a movie celebrating goodness seemed just the thing on this hot summer day.

We were transfixed by the film and found ourselves occasionally tearful as his life and his message of radical kindness unfolded onscreen. We watched a clip from the late sixties, a time when swimming pools were all too often still segregated, when Mr. Rogers soaked his feet in a small wading pool with black actor Francois Clemmons who played a policeman on his show. They wiggled their toes in the water and then Mr. Rogers dried Clemmons' feet with a shared towel. We watched as, in a later clip, Clemmons, who was also a celebrated opera singer and playwright, sang a song to Mr. Rogers, describing the many forms of love that can bless our lives. And we watched, eyes brimming, as Mr. Rogers asked a severely disabled child for details about his medical condition, discussed happy and sad feelings with him and then they sang a song about liking and accepting each other. It was all so simple, yet profound, and typical of Mr. Rogers both onscreen and off -- living with deep respect and love for others.

Why our tears? Some might have been wistful tears, watching the gentleness we had never known as children from a man we had also never known. But it's more likely that these were tears of longing -- for times when people were more inclined to look past religious or political differences to embrace one another's humanity. We remember, of course, that differences, irrational hatreds and prejudice -- especially racism -- permeated our society both in our youth and in our present. But there was a time when people, overall, didn't seem quite so sharply divided. Mr. Rogers, a lifelong Republican, expressed sentiments that we liberal Democrats also hold dear. Watching him, we realized anew the importance of looking past or, better yet, discarding labels to embrace the essence of others.

We left the theater feeling that Mr. Rogers had so much to teach us. Fred Rogers may have passed away in 2003, but his lessons are timeless

1. Feelings are normal and natural and happy times and sad times are part of all our lives. So often we feel cheated and angry when good times stop, to be replaced by more challenging moments. We pursue happiness and see sadness and setbacks as failures of the spirit. We admonish our children and grandchildren not to cry. We fight our own tears and express embarrassment over getting emotional and showing our feelings. Maybe we should celebrate, instead, our ability to feel deeply and to experience these feelings in so many combinations -- feeling warmed by sweet memories in the midst of grief or wistfulness or a flash of melancholy during times of joy.

2. Listen with your heart when others speak. This is an especially important lesson in this electronically distracted age. Couples sit together in restaurants, both glued to their smart phones, busily texting, not making eye contact, not speaking. Children are mesmerized by their iPads, parents distracted by their phones and conversation comes only sporadically in between. When Mr. Rogers was speaking with a child -- with anyone -- his eyes and attention never wandered. For that time, the other person was his world. He listened intently. He noticed body language and cleverness and pain. How could we be satisfied with less? Focusing completely on another as he or she speaks is a great way to enhance communication and build closeness. And feeling another's caring through his or her attentiveness is a unique pleasure. No one was more important to Mr. Rogers than the person he was with. Turning off our phones and tablets and really seeing and speaking and connecting with each other can mean so much.

3. Don't demean another even or especially with humor. Mr. Rogers said that was the thing that bothered him most when he saw people treating each other badly in the name of humor -- with pie-throwing antics and worse on early television shows. So much that passes for humor is hostile and demeaning. How many times have you heard -- or expressed -- barbed humor followed by "Just kidding....!" There is a difference between gentle teasing and diminishing another to make a joke. There is a difference between laughing together over a funny story and poking fun at another in a way that makes him cringe. Humor can be healing. As a therapist, I found that many clients responded well to humor woven gently into our conversation -- often an observation hinting at the absurdities we face at times. But it never served to diminish the challenges at hand or the courage and resourcefulness of the person facing these challenges. Keeping a sense of humor about oneself and about life can go a long way toward easing pain. It's all in the intent: whether humor puts a person down or helps him rise above his current situation.

4. Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex. Mr. Roger's memorable lessons were as simple as a wading pool or a song and or attentive listening. But in these moments of simple authenticity, he tackled the issues of racism or our marginalization of the disabled or our avoidance of troubling issues. The images are indelible. In our own lives, in the many shadings of what is real, the subtleties and absurdities of life in our times may tend to make us shy away from the simple. But there is an essential simplicity when you go deep. I remember my best ever writing teacher -- the wonderful Australian journalist Elizabeth Swayne -- telling our class that small, simple words -- like love -- meant great things and that if we didn't know what we were talking about, we should use big words -- because big words often fool little people. Going deep allows us to tune out distractions, conflicts, divisiveness and the urge to win others over to a particular cause or point of view. Going deep allows us, instead, to ask the essential questions: What is just? What is ethical? What is kind? What is loving?

5. Look beyond the surface to the "essential invisible" of one another. A quote from "The Little Prince" hung on Mr. Rogers' office wall for years: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." Looking past the obvious to the essential can be a revelation.

When my friend Maria Kulczycky and I were young and in college, more than 50 years ago, we should have been close friends. We had so much in common: we were fiercely ambitious, both majoring in magazine journalism; we both had graduated from Catholic girls' high schools; we both liked the same guy. Wait! That was a deal-breaker, besides the fact that when I looked at Maria, all I could see was someone whose personal style -- assertive, confident, passionate, earthy -- was so different from mine. And she was foreign-born -- in the Ukraine -- and had this worldly, sophisticated air, a European elegance about her that I found intimidating.

I didn't come to know the real Maria until, decades later, as a member of the reunion organizing committee, I sent her an email, urging her to attend our 50th college reunion. She responded with a warmth that surprised me. And through a delightful series of emails over the next year -- as well as a glorious day spent together at our 50th reunion -- I began to discover -- at long last -- the essential Maria: an immensely tender, kind, funny, generous and loving woman whose friendship I came to treasure. After our reunion day together last October, I turned with wonder to my dear, lifelong friend Tim -- the man Maria and I had both adored when we were young  -- and said,"Wow! Maria turned out to be such a wonderful person." He looked startled for a moment, then smiled and said quietly:"She always was." And I understood the truth in his words, a truth that had eluded me for so long.

When Maria died suddenly and unexpectedly last month, I cried for my new old friend for so many reasons: for the devastating loss to her family and others who loved her, for her own dreams for the future that will go forever unrealized, in gratitude for our belated friendship and in sadness for the years that we lost together because I had been unable, until it was almost too late, to see and appreciate her marvelous essential invisible. Seeing and knowing and loving another's essence is a singular joy.

6. Respect and love one another. This lesson has never been more important than in this time of divisiveness and identity politics. While we can't truly walk in the shoes of someone whose race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or life experiences differ from ours, we can listen with love and make a real effort to understand another's world view. We can respect our differences and learn from each other. People who are different from us have much to teach us -- and there is so much we all need to learn.

We may find in time, that our differences are less important than we once thought. This was a lesson reinforced for me by my friend John Breiner whose wife Mary is one of my dearest, lifelong friends. John and I were wary of each other when he first came into Mary's life 35 years ago. All we could see initially were our differences: he was a conservative Republican and I a liberal Democrat. The distance between us began to change when John fell ill, battling Parkinson's disease and dementia for the past decade. I started spending more time with Mary at home, with John, instead of meeting her alone at restaurants to catch up. John and I came to see and appreciate each other in new ways. Politics faded to the background. Then, just before Christmas 2016, John looked up from a gift catalogue and smiled at me. "I just found the perfect gift for you," he said, his eyes twinkling. And he handed me a page with a description of a Hillary Clinton nutcracker, with her pant-suited thighs as the working mechanism. I laughed. "Oh, John," I said. "I thought you had forgotten that I'm a wild-eyed liberal!" He smiled back. "I didn't forget," he said softly. "It just doesn't matter anymore." The joy of getting to know, love and respect each other, a lingering warm memory since John's death this past December, made anything else insignificant.

Looking past differences to what we share and value and cherish can add incredible richness to our relationships and to our lives.

Mr. Rogers showed us, in ways both simple and profound, how we can make a difference in the lives of others, in the world and in our own hearts. We need to take every opportunity to be present with and attentive to others, to be kind and, most of all, to reach out with love beyond labels and barriers and superficial impressions to embrace the true essence of others.

                                                             
                                                     

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Mystery and Tragedy of Suicide

No one can see completely into the heart, the mind and the pain of another, no matter how close one is to a person.

Sadly, too many people shock those they love by ending their own lives. In 2016, more than 45,000 Americans committed suicide. Behind each one of those statistics, there is a tragic end to a life with ripples of grief, anguish and guilt impacting family members and friends for years to come.

The recent deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have heightened public awareness of a problem that has been increasing in recent years, with suicides up 25 percent since the turn of the century.

Some experts attribute this rise in deaths to a variety of factors: the decline of the middle class and diminishing prospects of attaining the American Dream, the opioid crisis, and people more likely than before to view suicide as an alternative to living with painful life events.

But suicide is more complicated and mysterious than that. There can be tremendous pain even in the absence of deprivation or drug-altered reality. Professional success, wealth and fame obviously offer little, if any, protection from the despair that can cause a person to end his or her life.

However, many of those who attempt or who commit suicide, have a diagnosed or diagnosable mental illness. This may be a major depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. It may be the result of living with the pain of a chronic condition like Borderline Personality Disorder. Being in treatment with a mental health professional can decrease the risk of suicide. Being in a loving, supportive marriage can also be a protective factor. But neither is an absolute guarantee that a loved one won't end his or her life.

What can you do if someone you love appears to be deeply depressed and/or suicidal?


  • Be aware of common signs and symptoms: If a person is increasingly isolated from friends and family, is immobilized by depression, starts giving away prized possessions or talking of hopelessness or even mentioning ending it all, be alert. There is no truth to the saying that those who talk about suicide never do it. Mentioning suicide, even supposedly in gest, is a reason for concern. It can be a cry for help.
  • Listen to instead of disputing their feelings. Hopelessness can seem irrational when you look at the reality of a person's life. But it's important to listen to their point of view and let him or her know that you understand that, right now, he or she is feeling overwhelmed. Focus on helping this person feel heard and loved and not so alone. A loving touch, a willingness to sit with the pain and to listen, is a much better deterrent than arguing that this person has a great life that is well worth living. That may be so. But at the moment, he or she can't see that. If you can help him to feel less alone in the world, it may be easier for him to take the first step away from self-destruction.
  • If a loved one has been deeply depressed but is starting to seem better, be hopeful but stay vigilant. Someone in the depths of depression may not have the energy to complete a suicide. But as the depression begins to lift, they may have a lethal combination of renewed energy with continuing feelings of hopelessness.
  • When a loved one talks of depression and despair, gently ask about suicidal thoughts. Bringing this up is not likely to trigger action on their part, but may give you some clue about risk. Someone who has thought of suicide, particularly if he or she has a method in mind, may be at increased risk of suicide.
  • Urge your loved one to get immediate help: from a mental health professional, from the family doctor or, in a crisis, from a suicide prevention hotline. If he or she declines help and appears to be at risk, take matters into your own hands. Call 911 and ask for a crisis intervention unit. Take him or her to a hospital emergency room. If this depression and suicidal ideation is new and doesn't appear to be happening for any discernible reason, enlist the help of your family doctor in testing for a variety of physical conditions that can trigger depression. Make an emergency appointment with a mental health professional. If your loved one is already in therapy, encourage him or her to call his therapist immediately. If the person refuses, notify the therapist yourself so that he or she can contact the depressed person. Or call or encourage your loved one to call: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
In some instances, however, there is no warning and no chance to intervene. You're blindsided by a loved one's suicide -- and your life changes forever.

You're likely to have a bewildering array of feelings: guilt that you weren't able to prevent it, anger at your loved one for giving up on life, loneliness in your profound and ongoing grief and, sometimes, feeling judged by others who make thoughtless comments or otherwise indicate that the suicide of a family member must mean that something was the matter with your family, with your parenting, with your marriage.

How do you begin to deal with this?

  • Know that as strong as your love has been, the feelings and circumstances that led to a loved one's suicide can overwhelm all that.  When someone is in the grip of a major depression or a depressive cycle of bi-polar disorder, your love for him and his love for you may not be enough to save him. When a person is feeling so hopeless or his thinking is so affected by substance use or abuse, and he or she has a plan or immediate means to follow through with a suicide, there may be nothing you can do to prevent it.
  • Realize that this death may always be a tragic mystery.  You may never know or understand why this happened. Some people go to great lengths both to plan a suicide and to keep those they love most, those most likely to interfere with their plans, unaware of their intentions. Some suicides are impulsive and come without any warning. In the wake of a loved one's suicide, you may find yourself desperately looking back: Were there clues you missed? Something you could have done? It's quite possible that there were none. Not knowing why is a part of the ongoing anguish of a loved one's suicide.
  • Don't fall into a pattern of blaming yourself. Even if the suicide victim left a trail of blame or others in the family are quick to point to you, don't accept the blame. This is much easier said than done, of course. Seek counseling or crisis group help in the wake of this tragedy. Living with the reality of a loved one's untimely death is painful enough. Don't pile further punishment on yourself. The person who committed suicide did this to himself for reasons that you may never know or understand. You did the best you could at the time for and with this person. 
  • Seek out a therapy group for bereaved family members. Or perhaps someone you know who has also lost a loved one to suicide. The special understanding that these others may have of your feelings and situation can help you feel less alone in your grief.
  • Know that healing is a relative term.  With time, the grief may be less intense, but it will always be with you. And you may find that it comes and goes in waves -- perhaps heightened at certain times like birthdays, holidays, or the anniversary of the death or simply triggered by a memory. With time and with help from those you love and, perhaps, from a mental health professional, you can live and function with your pain, knowing that, to varying degrees, it will always be there.
  • Reach out to help others in the wake of your tragedy.  Try to increase understanding of mental illness and/or suicide by participation in support groups, presentations through your church or community centers or volunteering with local organizations focused on suicide prevention. This isn't for everyone. But some people find new meaning and purpose in such activities, particularly if these can help to prevent other families from losing loved ones to suicide or comfort those who have experienced such a terrible loss.
  • Celebrate the person as well as grieving his or her death.  An important way to integrate this tragedy into your life and go on is to remember the person you've lost with love, with sweet memories, funny stories, tender comments. It's important that the person you've lost doesn't become a taboo topic or that thinking of him or her invariably brings up feelings of grief or anger. Let love back into your life. Allow all of the wonderful memories to return to you. Remember with others not how she died, but how she lived. Talk about what, in life, made him so special. Sometimes these moments will bring tears. But, in time, there will be smiles, even laughter, as you look back on this person with love, remembering someone who brought not only pain but also so many blessings to your life.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

From Summer to Autumn, Sunrise, Sunset

I'll never forget my introduction to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was a lovely, crisp autumn night in the early summer of my adulthood.

I was in Washington on an assignment for a national magazine. I had just had a wonderful dinner at the Alexandria, VA home of Tim Schellhardt, my best friend from college, his gracious wife Barbe and their beautiful baby daughter Laura. Tim was White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, the job of his dreams. Life was incredibly good.

As he drove me back to my hotel, Tim said "Oh, wait! I want to show you something!" We stopped at the Kennedy Center and walked around the place, marveling at its beauty and at the artistic wonders offered on its fall schedule. We talked and laughed and Tim exuberantly raced a total stranger up the down escalator there. Life was filled with youthful energy and promise that lovely night when we were barely 30 years old.

Those were heady times -- with our careers on the ascent, so much of our lives ahead.

Tim and Barbe would have more children -- with Mary Kate, Eliza and Stephen arriving in the next seven years.

I would marry Bob Stover two years after our Kennedy Center adventure and write my first book -- an award winning best seller -- two years after that.

Bob would become a Big Brothers volunteer for 22 years and his third Little Brother, 9-year-old Ryan Grady, who called himself our "surrogate son", would become a pivotal part of our lives. He and Bob spent many hours together -- exploring, arguing, laughing, teaching each other so many things. As a teenager, Ryan helped me to study for my oral licensing exam to become a psychotherapist and, in the process, declared that he wanted to do this, too, one day.

                                                                 
Tim back in the day with (clockwise) Laura, Mary Kate, Eliza and baby Stephen

Bob and I never had children, thus no grandchildren, though my brother Mike's late-in-life kids with his wife Jinjuta -- Maggie, 8, and Henry, 5 -- are a wonderful substitute. It's fascinating to see them grow and develop into quite distinct individuals. I look at Maggie's face and catch fleeting glimpses of the strong, socially adept, beautiful woman she will be someday. I see fierce intelligence and wry humor in Henry that are far beyond his chronological years and a fascinating look at the man he will grow up to be.

                                                               
Henry and Maggie near their home in Bangkok, Thailand

For a long time, with all of the younger generation, we would seek such glimpses into the future. But now, increasingly, the future is here. Oh, Tim and I are still writing. We did a lot of talking and laughing as we visited during our 50th college reunion last fall. Bob still enjoys long talks and recreational arguments with Ryan. He was Ryan's Best Man at his wedding last summer.

                                                 
Bob, far right, as Best Man at Ryan's wedding

But something has changed.

The babies of our youth are in the sweet summer of their own adult lives, with careers on the ascent and growing families and strong shoulders and patient listening ears for....us?

When did that happen? When did we start depending emotionally on them? When did we first seek out their advice? When did we start stepping back to admire their career and life accomplishments which have slowly, but steadily, begun to eclipse our own? And how could we have guessed what a joy that would be?

It's fascinating to watch another person grow from helpless infancy to competent adulthood. One can always remember the full life span -- seeing a glimpse of the dimpled toddler in the woman, the loquacious child in the man. And, even while still basking in the sunshine of one's own life, the chill of autumn is unmistakable. Our steps are slower, more cautious. Our futures don't stretch endlessly, luxuriously, through decades. We entertain less engaging "What if's" as we plan the rest of our lives with Power of Attorney documents and Living Wills and trusts. We deal with the nagging physical limitations of time. We watch dear friends die and become a bit more reconciled to our own mortality. And so much of the focus has turned away from ourselves and onto the triumphs and wisdom of the young people we love.

My friend Mary Breiner, whose husband John passed away recently, enjoys the company, comfort and counsel of their three adult children Matt, Liz and Katie, their loving spouses Patti, Nigel and Josh and the grandchildren who are growing up so quickly and wonderfully. Two days after John's death, just before Christmas, Mary's beloved niece Monica Fulton appeared at her door with a little Christmas tree, hugs and words of love. Mary's children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews love and worry and advise and reach out to her, to support her through the grief and her transition to a new and very different life.
   
                                                               
Mary Breiner and her niece Monica Fulton, who brought her love and Christmas cheer.

And when we faced an unsettling family crisis not long ago, Bob turned to me and said "We need to call Ryan and get his advice. He'll know what to do...."

And it was true: Ryan did fulfill that long ago dream to become a psychotherapist, too. He is a licensed clinical social worker in L.A. and is director of a social service agency. Was it only a few years ago that he and Bob would argue about job interview logistics and management practices? Now Bob marvels at his competence and vision. And, after an hour on the phone with him, discussing our distress over my sister's medical and financial crises, he gave wise, practical and spot-on advice -- and once again, expressed his love and support.

                                                           
Ryan Grady, all grown up and source of  comfort and wisdom
                                                             
And I marvel, too, at my friendship with Tim's daughter Mary Kate, a film and television actress in Los Angeles. Whenever I'm in town, we have long lunches and delightful visits together, talking about our lives, advising each other, laughing like old friends.  She talks about her joy in being able to help her parents in little ways -- assisting her mother after knee surgery, taking her father to the beach for some serious de-stressing. And we talk about her love for her very special siblings -- Eliza, a gifted musician who is happily married and the mother of two lovely and thriving little daughters with a third on the way; Stephen, who has a wonderful marriage and a busy career as an actor/singer/director/choreographer in Chicago and who also teaches musical theatre at Northwestern University where Tim and I met and became lifelong friends more than 50 years ago. And Stephen is not the only Schellhardt on the NU faculty. Laura, an award-winning playwright, heads the undergraduate playwriting department at Northwestern, is happily married and the mother of a delightful four-year-old son. She and her husband just bought their first home in suburban Chicago.

                                                                 
Mary Kate Schellhardt, a treasured friend
Stephen Schellhardt with dad Tim, all grown up and excelling

Life is incredibly good.

Tim recently returned to the Kennedy Center. He no longer lives and works in the Washington area. He is a public relations executive in Chicago and just beginning, at age 73, to imagine retirement. But something special drew him back to Washington recently: the debut of one of Laura's plays, the first of two that will be produced this year  -- at the Kennedy Center.

                                                   
Tim at Kennedy Center between posters for two of his daughter Laura's plays                                                                                        

Summer into autumn...feeling the aches and pains of age, the limitations of time...but who knew how warmed we would feel against that chill as we marvel at the talent and love and wisdom of those who follow us.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Saying Goodbye to Someone Special

"This isn't an easy time of life, is it?" wrote my friend Roxanne Camron, former editor of 'TEEN Magazine, where we worked together for nearly a decade in our youth. She was writing in the wake of two recent deaths -- that of our 'TEEN colleague Jay Cole, so eternally active and youthful until his recent medical decline, who had died three weeks ago and that of my former long-time literary agent Susan Ann Protter, a genuine force of nature, who passed away on April 26.

No, it isn't an easy time. It's hard enough to say "Goodbye" to our parents, aunts, uncles and older friends. But there is something particularly poignant about the loss of a peer -- something that is happening with increasing frequency these days. And there are times when the death of a special peer takes not only a beloved friend but also a piece of one's own history.


                                                         
Susan Ann Protter 1939-2018

That's very much the case with the death of Susan Ann Protter. She was my literary agent for more than 30 years and, not so incidentally, a dear friend with an amazing array of talents, strengths, quirks and eccentricities that made time with her so special -- and for great stories as well. All of her friends and clients had tales of her fits over the small stuff (a bad hair day, a botched manicure that, as one friend said recently, "could send her into a tizzy"). But there was so much more. She could be blunt with her feedback on proposals and manuscripts, a trait I came to appreciate greatly. She was tender in her support of a client in crisis and fierce in her defense of a client and/or treasured friend. There were times, over the decades, when we had impassioned differences -- to the extent that I left her agency twice for brief periods only to return to a warm welcome each time. Susan's clients were like family to her. With the passage of time and with greater wisdom, I realized that whenever we disagreed, Susan was almost always right. And she had the grace never to say "I told you so!"

Our history together dates back to late 1976. I was a young editor at 'TEEN Magazine, eager to break into writing books. I had been asked by a New York psychologist/author, whom I had met the year before while he was in L.A. promoting a book he had done with another writer, to be his co-author on a book of advice for teenagers. Our long-distance work with each other on the book proposal was fraught. We didn't agree on some core issues and made some uneasy compromises in our proposal. And he kept losing literary agents, about one a month, but kept writing me letters putting a positive spin on it, insisting that THIS new agent would be the one to make our proposed book a big hit. The sixth agent in as many months was someone I had never heard of: Susan Ann Protter. I was outraged. I sat down and wrote the psychologist an angry letter telling him how tired I was of the high agent turnover, how I wanted this agent's feedback on our proposal and wanted more information on her professional credentials. He had the presence of mind to show this letter, meant for his eyes only, to Susan.

She called me immediately. I asked what she thought of our proposal.

"Your proposal?" she bellowed. "It sucks! Bury it! Burn it! And while you're at it, forget about this partnership. The good doctor is bad news. Would you believe that he offered to get me dates with five eligible New York bachelors if I sold your proposal? So insulting! I was ready to wash my hands of both of you, but he just brought me your angry letter and it's a revelation: you really CAN write! So do you have any ideas for another book, either alone or with someone else?"

Actually, I did. But it wasn't as easy as just saying "Yes!"

For several years, Dr. Charles Wibbelsman, 'TEEN's "Dear Doctor" columnist (as well as a pediatrician with a specialty in adolescent medicine), and I had talked about collaborating on a health and sexuality book for teens. We envisioned a kind of adolescent "Our Bodies Ourselves." But now there was a problem. In the course of our work together at 'TEEN, Chuck and I had fallen in love. We had talked of marriage, a family and a lifetime of writing books together. Then, at age thirty, he came to the painful conclusion that he was gay. He had met a special man and they moved to San Francisco to begin a new life together. Our parting had been devastating for me, heart-breaking and tempestuous for both of us. We were barely speaking at that point. Yet here was a chance to make at least one of our shared dreams come true. I called him. 

We wrote the proposal within a few weeks and sent it to Susan. She took it directly to Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books where it sold immediately. We had a year to write it. It wasn't an easy year for either of us or for Bob Stover, the book's illustrator, whom I married during that memorable time. But the result was "The Teenage Body Book",  an award-winning, critically acclaimed best seller when it came out in 1979. It has been continuously in print with seven U.S. editions, the latest in 2016, and five foreign editions. It established my career as an author, gave a boost to Chuck's career as a medical expert on adolescents, rescued our loving friendship and started us on our journey of hard work, friendship and laughter through the years with our agent Susan. Chuck and I wrote three other books together as well as the seven editions of "The Teenage Body Book." I also wrote a number of books on my own. And Susan was a huge part of all of that history.

She visited us in California. We saw her often in New York. She offered me a place to stay at her apartment on Central Park West when, in the early days, I would come to New York to meet with magazine editors for assignments and publishers to discuss new book projects. We would talk for hours into the night in those years and I loved getting to know her history. She was the only child of devoted but unusual parents. They had been committed Communists when Susan was growing up. Her father was a highly successful labor lawyer, her mother a political activist. She sometimes bemoaned growing up in a house filled with secrets due to her parents' political leanings, but she treasured who they were. And they loved her unconditionally -- in all her outrageousness.

Once, I joined Susan and her parents at the parents' home in Long Island for a Passover dinner. As was her wont, Susan criticized everything about the food -- from the brisket to the gefilte fish. Her mother rolled her eyes and turned to her father. "Ah, Marcy," she said. "How did we spawn this...?" And all three threw back their heads and brayed with laughter. It was a wonderful evening. 

Political activism was in Susan's blood and she honored that to the end -- attending a student-led demonstration against guns a little over a month before her death. She was in a wheelchair and with her live-in medical aide, but she was there. She was fully engaged with her life passions -- from opera and classical music to travel and sampling exotic cuisines -- to the end of her life, attending a New York Philharmonic performance only a few days before her death. She had majored in French at Syracuse, earning a Master's degree and teaching briefly before heading into a career in publishing. She was one of the first independent agents in New York and it was the perfect niche for her. She was a terrific agent: nurturing, assertive, and fearless.


Susan at dinner in Scottsdale, AZ in 2011

I always admired her singular courage -- so evident in her traveling to Cuba through Canada back in the day or taking on a problematic publisher. Friends observed that while she was the queen of kvetching about the small stuff -- from tables at restaurants (she would change tables 3 or 4 times typically) to food (which she always always sent back) to small annoyances, she was incredibly brave as she faced her snowballing health problems during the last decade of her life. She had a rare blood cancer, cardiac issues and back problems requiring many surgeries and grueling medical procedures. By 2011, ill health forced her into retirement and she closed her agency. That same year, she visited Bob and me at our new home in Arizona when she came to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale for consultations about her blood cancer.

                                                               
Susan and I at the Mayo Clinic in 2011

A few years later, she had a stroke that left her legally blind. She had increasing trouble walking and was confined to a wheelchair during the past few years. I never admired Susan's courage more than I did during this time of declining health. She was always amazingly nonchalant about the big challenges in her life and lived with gusto through all of it, even while continuing to complain only about the small stuff.

I talked with her on the phone regularly, but the last time I saw her was in June 2015. I was in New York for a speaking engagement and to meet with my wonderful new agent, Stephany Evans, to whom Susan had introduced me. Chuck joined me in New York just for fun, in celebration of my 70th birthday. He bought tickets for us to several Broadway shows I had been eager to see. He arranged for Susan to join us for dinner one of those nights and to go with us to see "Fun Home." The three of us had a wonderful time that night -- talking, arguing, kvetching, laughing. For old times sake, I teased her about her distinctive New York accent, imitating some of its more salient features, and she did the same with my California accent. We reveled in our silliness. And we talked seriously of new realities. Susan was frail. She was legally blind and carried a white, red-tipped cane. She was close to needing a wheelchair and leaned heavily on both of us for support as we walked to the theater. But she was as fun, outspoken and exuberant as ever. Chuck and I both treasure the memory of that lovely summer evening.

                                                           
Susan, Chuck and I in New York, June 2015

We reminisced about that evening and about our long history with Susan on the phone yesterday as we consoled each other. "Susan was such a bright, sophisticated, cosmopolitan lady who always told it like it was," he said. "I will miss her so much -- that deep chortle of hers, that great New York accent -- just...her. There was such caring...a special kind of love..."

We talked of our gratitude for and to Susan -- for her role in making our books possible, for giving boosts to both our careers, for her caring friendship, for her part in bringing us back together, out of heartbreak and into a loving, lifelong friendship.

Chuck sighed. "This is the end of another chapter of our lives," he said at last. "And it's a reminder to live our lives as fully and joyously as Susan did, every day we have left...."

Susan Ann Protter was so much more than a terrific agent or even a dear friend: she was a vital part of our shared history -- and of our hearts.


                                         

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Convent Mysteries and Memories

For Catholic girls growing up in the 50's, nuns were mysterious and oddly glamorous -- with the long flowing habits, wimples and veils that hid all traces of womanhood and set them apart as special spiritual beings.

From early childhood, some of us dreamed of joining their ranks. When we were in grade school, my friend Pat and I would play for hours, dressed in our makeshift nun's habits. (My brother borrowed mine one Halloween to wear trick or treating and got a candy bonanza and lots of hugs when he showed up at the door of the local convent. The nuns had no idea who was wearing that habit! But that's another story...)

In my early teens, in singular style of teenage rebellion against my non-believing parents, I used to attend daily Mass, pray in the back yard at sunset with my arms outstretched to the heavens and terrorize my parents by sending away for literature about entering a faraway monastery at 14, garnering enthusiastic replies like "Our next entrance date is September 8. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could join us on that day?" While other parents stressed about keeping their daughters chaste, in school and off drugs, mine strove to keep me from running away to a monastery.

Those attending Catholic high schools got the clear and frequent message that there was no higher calling than dedicating one's life to Christ. Many of us admired our nun teachers greatly and wanted to be like them. And when a schoolmate would enter the convent, it was a major event. When my classmate Sue prepared to become a Dominican sister, I went with her to buy her required orthopedic oxfords, something as exciting in its own way as trying on bridal gowns or a ballet student getting her first pair of pointe shoes.

It all seems to very long ago, lost in the mists of changing times and traditions. But for those of us who lived through the pre-Vatican II era in Catholic schools, there are lingering memories of the mysterious wonder of nuns' lives.

In her new memoir Prayer Wasn't Enough: A Convent Memoir, Dee Ready dispels some of these mysteries, exploring the motivations, the process and the challenges of becoming a nun in the late 1950's and answering some lingering questions.

Why does a young woman, fresh from college and with a lifetime of choices and possibilities ahead, decide to enter the convent?

What process transforms an idealistic young woman into a nun?

What is life like in a religious community?

And what of those who make the painful choice to leave after months or years of striving for spiritual growth and perfection? How does faith continue to grow and thrive after a young woman realizes that the religious life is not her calling after all?

Unlike some of us, entering the convent had not been Dee Ready's dream while growing up in the Midwest. The yearning for perfection evolved during her college years and a transcendent spiritual moment sparked her desire to pursue a path to love and oneness with God and the universe and led to her becoming a Benedictine nun after graduation.

                                             

It's a fascinating story of faith and hope, the transformation of youthful idealism and the loss of self taking her down a frightening path of  doubt, indecision, anguish and, eventually, mental illness. She doesn't blame the Church or her fellow Sisters. From the perspective of time, healing and emotional growth, the author pinpoints her own crippling hunger for perfection, her flawed misconception of sanctity and her emotional immaturity as primary factors in her struggles.

In many ways, this is a story with which all can identify -- youthful idealism and a search for meaning that collides with the realities of life, whatever path we might have chosen in our lives. But this excellent memoir also offers a glimpse into the mysteries of convent life -- the expectations, the rituals, the daily experiences -- of nuns in those bygone times.

Prayer Wasn't Enough is a compelling, harrowing, ultimately triumphant tale of hope and despair, pivotal, sometimes wrenching, decisions and unexpected new beginnings. It's impossible to put down -- or to forget.


Prayer Wasn't Enough: A Convent Memoir by Dee Ready is available as an e-book or as a print book at Amazon.com.