Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Unforgettable Untold Stories

The Untold Stories challenge in Rosaria Williams' blog intrigues me. She challenges fellow bloggers to share the tales of ordinary people living their lives without the pomp and glamour of celebrity culture, without the extravagant wealth of the 1% and without the dark drama of the criminals we hear about on the evening news.

What are some of the stories that have a wealth of courage and sadness and hardship and hope that will never make the news? All of us know such stories. Maybe we have lived them ourselves. Maybe in our work lives and our personal lives we have encountered people who will never be famous in the media and the world at large, but who are nevertheless unforgettable. I've met many such memorable people, but when Rosaria issued her challenge, there were three who immediately came to mind.

There is Angie, the world's greatest waitress, who came to me for therapy shortly before I retired. She is a lively, still pretty blonde woman who looks -- truly --30 years younger than her 79 years. She loved her job working at an upscale Los Angeles area steakhouse for 44 years. Her customers were like family to her and she was thrilled to serve customer families for generations, enjoying the grandchildren of the children she had once befriended.

Despite her modest pay, Angie was frugal, saving enough money to buy herself a small mobile home and a dependable car. Even uterine cancer, when she was in her fifites, didn't slow her down. She loved her work. She loved her customers. She couldn't imagine retiring, often saying that she hoped she would simply drop in her tracks one day -- after a shift. She marveled at her good fortune in finding a place where she could belong -- and work as long as she liked.

But her good fortune screeched to a halt when the restaurant owner died and no one in his family wanted to keep it going. It was sold to an investment group that changed it into a somewhat upscale version of Hooters, featuring lithesome young wait staff in skimpy costumes. And, despite her attractiveness and fitness for her age, Angie didn't fit the new profile. She was fired.

And though she has been contesting her firing and filing suit against the new owners, Angie is facing some tough new realities: despite her efforts to get a new job, she's finding that no one seems to want a 79-year-old waitress, no matter how experienced, efficient and delightful she is. And, because her Social Security payments -- even working past 70 -- are firmly in the mid-three figure range, Angie can't live solely on her benefits. She is doing what seems to be the best option: opening her second bedroom for rent to a disabled stranger for whom she will care. And the rent and caregiving fees will allow her to get by -- for now. But she worries about the future. She never married or had children. She was an only child. Her two closest friends have died. She wonders what will happen when she can't be a caregiver any more? What will happen when she needs care? But most days, Angie faces the day with a smile, an earthy sense of humor and hope -- that she will be able to get even a part-time waitressing job, that her health will hold up, that somehow life will go on with all its challenges and the joy of giving to others.

There is my friend Joe, who was a Catholic monk for many years. He left the religious life -- which he had entered when he was a 13-year-old aspirant -- when he was in his early 50's. For a while, life was good. He taught at Catholic high schools. He got a graduate degree in psychology and work as a school counselor. Then his mother, back on the East Coast, became ill and he went home to care for her during this last illness.

After her death several years later, he found himself depressed, rootless, unable to find another teaching job. He returned to California and, still applying for teaching positions, worked at Home Depot. But he was laid off when the company was cutting back in the height of the recession. And he now subsists on meager Social Security benefits from his 15 years as a lay teacher and counselor (since his many years of teaching as a member of his Catholic religious order were not counted or paid into Social Security).

This means that he sometimes stays with friends during cold, stormy nights and sleeps in parks or in his aging car during more clement weather. But he tells me that he is happy with his life most of the time. Yes, there are times of sadness when he thinks back on the great satisfaction he found in teaching and his disappointment at not being able to continue to work in that field. But he says that his life still feels meaningful because not a day goes by that he doesn't find an opportunity for a random act of kindness. Sometimes, this means talking with and listening to a depressed teenager slumped against a tree in the park where he spends most of his days. Sometimes it means sharing the wealth of a found coin or money given by a friend or stranger with another homeless person who may be as hungry as he. And he says he finds joy living in the moment -- feeling gratitude for sunshine, for life itself, for having had, in his own estimation, so many blessings all his life.

There is my sister Tai, who is 57 and a divorced single parent. Tai works as a nurse in the Seattle area, where she has lived for nearly 30 years. She yearns to move back to Los Angeles, but she is currently under water with her condo, which she purchased at the height of the housing bubble in 2005. So she continues to work 12-hour overnight shifts as a labor and delivery nurse at a public hospital. The work has been particularly tough this past year when she began to suffer back pain and gastro-intestinal distress. After extensive tests, doctors suggested that her symptoms might be stress-related. And that didn't seem unreasonable.

However, despite her efforts to meditate and to let go of a myriad of daily stresses, her symptoms grew worse. This past week, she wasn't able to keep food down. Her weight plummeted. When she was about to clock out of work on Friday morning, a co-worker who is also a close friend urged her to go to the Emergency Room. When she did, doctors found her potassium level dangerously low and her gallbladder filled with stones. After a day of IV's, she was rushed into surgery Friday night. Now she is recovering at home, amazed that all of her symptoms, including her back pain, have vanished with the removal of her gall bladder.

But there are worries: there is no light duty in her department. If she can't move a 300 pound patient onto a gurney to take her to the delivery room, she can't work, which means that she will have to be off work longer than someone with an office job. She lives in a state with no state disability benefits. She has only one day of sick leave left. Her daughter felt alone and distraught, suffering panic attacks, as her mother faced surgery. But then my sister's ex-husband, who is a nurse in the same hospital, rallied to their side, caring for their daughter and my sister in a way she said he never had when they were still married. She shrugged off my offers to fly up to Seattle and help. "I'll be fine," she said. "I'm eating. I'm not in terrible pain. I'm home. I have a job to go back to whenever the doctor releases me to work. I just have to take it easy and heal."

Tai's fighting spirit serves her well. I thought back to the rough times she experienced growing up in our dysfunctional home and the pain of marriages that didn't work, her education interrupted when survival had to be her top priority. There were the hard, unsatisfying jobs and then, when she was 37, a life-threatening aneurysm that required emergency brain surgery and a long recovery, during which time her second husband left her. Somehow she survived. Somehow she managed to care for her toddler, enroll in a community college and work as a nurse's aide, eventually being admitted to the college's registered nursing program. Those were incredibly tough years. I don't know how she managed. But she did it, becoming a dedicated and accomplished labor and delivery nurse. She loves her work. She is dedicated to her patients. Only her two closest friends on her shift last Thursday realized that anything was amiss. The rest -- other nurses, doctors and patients -- had no idea that she was ill and in pain. When challenges come up, she just deals with them and then goes on.

My sister Tai

These are just three people I know who are living real world lives with challenges and with little or no safety net. There are many other stories I could tell.

There are, to be sure, people who have had even harder lives. There are people who are having hard times financially AND have no insurance and who are also in poor health, people who have to choose between food and essential medications, people who were once middle class who have slipped into poverty. There are people who have always been poor and have never known a moment of life without hardship and struggle.

And yet, there are small triumphs of the spirit.

There was the man I used to see every day who slept and also spent his days on a certain street corner in West Los Angeles, who greeted all passersby with a smile and a "Have a blessed day!" while never asking for anything.

There was Diana, a bright and gentle soul who was a patient of mine some years ago. Despite a shocking and tragic personal history over which she agonized and shed many tears in our time together,  her warmth, humor and intelligence made her unforgettable.

And there is Phyllis, my friend and neighbor, who is getting chemotherapy for her advanced cancer and kidney dialysis due to kidney failure. She is frail and bruised. She has lost the use of most of her left arm because of dialysis and now her right arm is being surgically prepped for use in dialysis. There are times when she is in pain and scared and depressed. But her joy in living and fierce will to live prevail -- and she lives a very full life with her husband, her dogs, her children and grandchildren and her many friends. And she still keeps up on all the latest news of the neighborhood and is a formidable presence at Mah Jong.

Phyllis and my cat Hammie visiting

There are, in short, so many heroes among us: people who work hard, obey the law, find ways to survive without much money or connections or privilege. There are people who remain unbroken through crises and ordeals that may be the stuff of our personal nightmares.

The stories of these extraordinary ordinary people aren't neat or relentlessly uplifting. There are no sure-fire happy endings. There are ragged ups and downs and uncertainties marking their days. Angie the waitress is still unemployed as is my friend Joe who also is still largely homeless. My sister Tai is recovering well from her surgery, but I know she worries about the toll that her illness and recovery will take on her income. And what ails Phyllis isn't curable. She isn't going to get well. She will be getting chemotherapy and dialysis for the rest of her life. But she is alive and finding precious moments of joy in her life.

The Hollywood happy ending, indeed, will always be elusive for most of us.

Most people will never have the money or fame that the puzzlingly ubiquitous Kardashians enjoy. Most of us won't be headliners on The Evening News or the front of The New York Times. There are many people whose lifetime earnings may be less than a single year-end bonus of a Wall Street bankster.

But most of us don't dream of great wealth or power or fame as a life goal. For most of us, our homes and lives and dreams are modest.

But everyone has a story....and some of these untold stories are truly unforgettable.


  1. I love these heartening stories of great courage despite hardship. I love that you've highlighted them here. I think if we had more of these to read, people would understand they CAN do hard things, they CAN get through hard times, and they they are tougher and stronger than what they may think.

    My latest post is about a man who was a custodian at my school and had lost his life long job and home, yet he still learned to read, finally, in his 60's.

    I just can't say enough how I love stories like yours of human strength and dignity.

    I'm glad your sister is healing, and I hope her mend is faster and more complete than she ever imagined.

    1. Shelly, I love your story about the custodian! And I hope everyone who reads this -- and who hasn't read your blog post about him -- will hurry to your site. The story is so touching and inspiring!

  2. Kathy - I live 12 miles north of Seattle. Let me know if I can help your sister. It may be a ride, or a visit, or whatever.

    1. Thank you so much, Linda! I'll let my sister know. She's very independent and tough, but may welcome a friendly face. Thanks so much for your thoughtful offer!

  3. Oh Kathy, I feel honored. And the people you wrote about, and those we'll write about, will be honored, as we take a few minutes, to bear witness to their lives, honor their spirit.

    Thank you.

  4. That YOU, Rosaria! I hope your post and challenge inspires a lot of posts with untold stories that deserve to be heard!

  5. These are such beautiful stories. Thank you for telling them.

  6. I am constantly amazed at the strength people have to persevere through adversity. Thank you for sharing these stories with us.

  7. Those stories make me feel very very blessed and lucky in life. I have been worrying about my future and trying to manage the pain from very bad scoliosis, but these stories keep my pains in perspective. Thank you, as usual.

  8. Thank you for sharing these stories, Kathy. You remind us that true, heartbreaking, awe inspiring stories surround us every day. i have seen a lot myself and may well have to pull together a post that honors these folks. We ALL have stories and most aren't Hollywood happy. But they are real and they are triumphs.