Sunday, January 16, 2022

Happily Ever Before

In a lovely column recently, E.J. Montini of The Arizona Republic, recounted his first Christmas with his beloved wife many years ago when they were just starting out in life, too poor to buy lights or ornaments for their little Christmas tree. So they decorated it with popcorn strings and ornaments cut out of construction paper. And his wife, who passed away last year, always said that it was the best Christmas ever. 

As he braced himself for his first holiday without her, a reader who was also a recent widower sent him a comforting note. The reader told him that he had remarked to family members that, in his grief, he was convinced that there could be no "happily ever after." His young granddaughter piped up with "What about 'happily ever before'?" The concept resonated with him and with Mr. Montini, too, who found comfort in warm holiday memories of that long ago tiny apartment, the popcorn decorated tree and the love and hope that made his first married holiday so special.

The idea of focusing on our "happily ever before" in dark moments or as we age and lose so many beloved friends and family members as well as certain aspects of ourselves isn't a matter of living in the past. It is more like savoring moments from the past -- moments that may not have seemed quite so positive at the time -- to complete a warm and largely positive life summary that is comforting in the present.

Looking back, what were the events, the people, the situations that were challenging at the time that now spark joy as you look back? In the past, what made you feel comfort? Who brought love to your life? What and who made you laugh? What have you learned from adversity? When you view the long narrative of your life -- the pleasures, the disappointments, the devastating moments and the learning experiences -- what is your overall feeling?

Tapping into our "happily ever before" moments may be especially useful now as we head into our third pandemic year, perhaps impatient with restrictions, perhaps yearning for that time before that seems increasingly distant. We have a choice between comparing then and now and finding the present wanting or letting the lovely memories and perspectives of life before give balance to our lives at a challenging time. We have a choice, too, if our "before" times were rough, between clinging to the sorrow that was and allowing it to overshadow the joy that could be or focusing on the positive aspects of life in the past.

For many of us, our lives have been bittersweet, with an abundance of ups and downs. If we can look back and find the joy between the pain, the humor that can bring light to some dark times, we may find more sweet than bitter in both past and present.

I know.

Growing up with a mentally ill, abusive, alcoholic father was not easy nor was it fun having a mother who was too frightened and passive to protect my brother, sister and me from abuse and too focused on my external imperfections ever to know me well. But for all the stress and tears and frightening times, I remember my father's humor, charm and genuine caring during his sober moments and my mother's enthusiasm for my dreams and her encouragement of my close relationship with Aunt Molly, my father's bright, career-oriented sister who never married or had children but whose life was incredibly full. My brother Michael, sister Tai and I never knew which version of our father we would encounter when walking in the door, but we agree that we would not have wanted to grow up without each other or without our sometimes caring, sometimes distressing family of origin. We remember laughter as well as pain, intellectual curiosity and impassioned discussions as well as moments of despair and a sense of being loved amidst the chaos and terror of our shared childhoods.

There is baggage, to be sure, but there is so much else, too: an appreciation for nuances and the complexity of human beings and an inclination to keep moving ahead. None of us were tempted to extend our adolescence as some do, living with parents into young adulthood, putting off learning to drive, not focusing on the future. We were out into the world and on our different life paths early on. We worked our various ways through school. And eventually we all found ourselves in helping professions: my brother as a physician, my sister as a nurse and myself as a psychotherapist and writer of self-help books and articles. We look back on an increasingly distant past as a time filled will humor and horror, valuable life lessons, and guerrilla training in resilience and in compassion.

As I contend with the isolation and intermittent loneliness of the pandemic, I am comforted by both present realities and warm memories of loving relationships. I treasure family relationships and those of friends, especially those relationships stretching back in time to a shared youth. My loved ones all live at a distance, all in different states. The visits we once enjoyed have been precluded by pandemic realities, but we're warmed by the memories we've made together: long talks with my treasured friend Mary; celebrating some holidays and life in general with my beloved friend Tim; laughing with and enjoying the support of my college friends Georgie and Jeanne and their wonderful husbands; sharing so many feelings and experiences with Pat, my friend since kindergarten; savoring the Maui surf with my sister Tai, who remembers our time together there as "the absolute happiest week of my life!"; delightful discussions with my brother Mike, fun times with his wife Jan and his children Maggie, 12 and Henry, 9, who are growing up to be truly good people.

I also enjoy happily ever before memories of relationships lost: my cousin Caron, whom I loved and admired all her life; my first serious boyfriend Mike, a wonderfully kind and gentle man whom I took for granted fifty years ago and whose upbeat letters and quiet emotional support I have missed greatly since his death in 2018; the caring and enduring relationships with three college roommates Cheryl, Lorraine and Lorene who all died way too soon; the joy of singing with my friend Marie, who taught me to open my throat and my heart in song, and who, tragically, was murdered while still in her twenties; and Elizabeth Swayne Yamashita, my most demanding college journalism professor who became a lifelong mentor and beloved friend.

Especially now, as I face the losses and limitations of aging, I find comfort in my long marriage with Bob and in our memories of our younger selves -- memories of getting up before dawn to run several miles together, of discovering each other's favorite music together, of adopting our first cat Freddie who was a great life companion for seventeen years, of making a home together. It is immensely comforting to be with someone who remembers my young, vigorous self who could run for miles and who danced into young middle age. And he can laugh ruefully with me at the present surprise of our age-related limitations.

I find new pleasure in remembering challenges of the past. My first post-college job as a writer and editor at 'TEEN Magazine felt like a distinctly mixed bag at the time. I loved my co-workers -- the best ever -- and the readers. I loved the writing, the travel and the people I met along the way. But, at the time, the pay was painfully low and I was mortified to be working for a teenage girls' magazine when so many of my journalism classmates from Northwestern were working for more respected publications -- like my friend Tim who spent some years early in his career as White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. However, I've come to realize over the  years that 'TEEN was exactly the right place for me to start a career that has focused on psychology and health. Some of my most treasured relationships are those that began at 'TEEN. My first book -- The Teenage Body Book -- which was a best seller in 1979 and has endured through updates including the 2016 edition -- came directly from my work at 'TEEN. Robert MacLeod, 'TEEN's publisher whom I found strange and a bit chauvinistic in my short-sighted youth, has taken his rightful place in my heart now as a generous mentor in my career.

And I think "What a blessed life I have had and have to this day!" 

The comfort and wisdom gleaned from our "happily ever before" times can help us through the uncertainties of the present. This is a time of political and philosophical divisiveness. It is a time of a pandemic that threatens our health and our lives. It is a time, for many of us, when most of our lives are in the past with less time left in the future to continue to savor life and new discoveries and to watch with wonder as new generations come of age.

And yet...add up the blessings of the happily ever before times and our imperfect present: we have lived more joyously than not, more fully than we once imagined possible. And we have loved, enjoying so many complex and wonderful variations of love in our lives!

Sunday, March 21, 2021

A Year Ago This Month -- Was It Only a Year Ago?

A year ago this month, the world shut down. It felt unprecedented but very temporary at the time. "By summer," we told ourselves. "By summer this will be over." We had no idea.

 By March 8, 2020, there had been 539 officially diagnosed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and 22 deaths. On March 8, 2021, there have been 28,771,749 officially diagnosed cases of Covid-19 in the U.S. and 540,973 of us have died. 

 We have lived a year of fear and isolation, of uncertainty and virtual connections. We have seen rampant political cynicism, heightened political polarization and a violent challenge to a smooth transition of power in Washington. We've seen racism exposed in all its ugliness and we've seen it challenged with new resolve and a flicker of cautious optimism that so many wrongs can be corrected at last. We've also salvaged hope in the form of vaccines that will, at the very least, sharply curtail the death toll from Covid-19. 

We're looking to summer and then on to fall for some return of normal. And yet, what will the new normal look like? What parts of pandemic cautions and customs will we keep? What have you learned from this memorable year?

 Here's what I've learned: 

 I've learned that technology can bring us together as well as keep us apart. We've all complained in the past how our smart phones and tablets have kept us apart, diverting our attention as we avert our eyes from each other to text or surf the internet. But sometimes technology can keep us connected -- in our work, in school and for doctor's appointments -- when it's too scary to leave home. 

A year ago this month, I saw my last in-office client for what we thought would be a few months and a year later, I have no immediate plans to resume in-person, in-office therapy. In addition to my private practice, I had been working three days a week for two telehealth companies since October 2019, so felt at ease with the technology of virtual therapy sessions as I transferred most of my private practice clients to a special online platform. 

 A few chose to halt therapy sessions for a time rather than go online "because this is just temporary and I'm not comfortable with technical things." We're still waiting, of course. And in the meantime, some previously in-office clients can't imagine going back. The last client I saw in person a year ago recently told me that "I was skeptical at first but now I LOVE online therapy. No dressing up, driving 20 minutes and hunting for a parking place! And you've had a chance to get to know my new kitten!" 

 Yes, I've found it as easy to bond and communicate with clients online as it was in the room with them -- and I do get a chance from time to time to have a sense of their homes, meet their pets and an occasional child or spouse who drops in briefly to say "hello." It is a different, but generally positive, sense of intimacy. 

 As life has unfolded in the past year, I've found new comfort and joy in having a partner. 

 Several months before the pandemic shutdown, in January 2020, my left foot was crushed in a freak accident. I had surgery to reconstruct the foot with metal plates and clamps in February last year. Then in March 2020, I visited the doctor's office to have my temporary cast, post-surgical dressings and stitches removed from my foot and a new, more permanent cast applied. In pain from the stitches and the swelling, I had both anticipated and dreaded this appointment. But, as with the pandemic, I had no idea, on a smaller scale of course, just how bad this could be.

 I took a deep breath as the doctor began to upwrap the bandages, increasingly bloody as the layers were peeled away. I looked over at my husband Bob and saw his eyes widen as my foot emerged from the bandages. My heart began to race. 

 Bob had been at my side throughout the long ordeal since my injury and surgery -- helping me with the most basic daily rituals from using the bathroom to bathing in the early days after my injury and surgery to lifting me and my wheelchair out of the house and into my office twice a day, taking over all household tasks, organizing grocery shopping expeditions and offering comfort during times of pain, sleeplessness and frustration. He never complained or ignored the faintest sign of my distress, sometimes just sensing my pain from a quiet intake of breath. He never saw himself as a hero. "I'm just doing what a good spouse is supposed to do," he would tell me. "I love being able to help you. I know you'd do the same for me." Still, I remained grateful on a daily basis. 

 Now, in the doctor's office, he left his chair in a corner of the small examining room and came over to me as I reclined on the table. "Close your eyes," he said, taking my hand. 

 The doctor had been shaking his head. "Get a surgical packet," he told his assistant quietly. Then he turned to us. "I'm going to remove the stitches now," he said. "But I'm also going to have to do a little more surgery here. You have a large area of necrotic tissue on the top of your foot. I'm going to have to remove that layer of skin before we can put the new cast on. I'm so sorry. But it's absolutely necessary." 

Bob tightened his grip on my hand. "Take a deep breath," he told me quietly. "Let's go to Maui together. It's morning and we've just finished breakfast at the Sea House on Napili Bay. We're walking on the beach. Look how the sun is sparkling on the water and those beautiful blue, translucent waves. Smell the scent of flowers in the air -- jasmine? Plumeria? Breathe deeply and just savor that scent. Feel how warm the water is as the waves wash over our feet..."

 I imagined and hung on as I focused on Bob's words, the images and the memories that helped to block out my pain and fear. And I was immensely grateful to have a partner who knew just how to help me through this latest challenge. 

 The procedure finished, the doctor's assistant was building the cast on my foot and leg. I opened my eyes and looked at Bob. "You did so well," he said quietly. "You were so brave." 

 Tears filled my eyes as I struggled not to cry. Bob knew my fears of medical procedures and pain that are rooted deeply in a sickly childhood of battling polio and another life-threatening illness. And he knew just what a comfort this guided imagery escape would be. It felt so good to be known so well and comforted so sensitively and expertly. 

 A year later, I am largely healed from my ordeal -- walking, back to sharing household tasks, back to our old life in so many ways. But I am immensely grateful and still especially moved as I remember that day -- was it only a year ago -- when I realized anew the blessing of being known and loved so well. 

 Now, in our post-vaccine euphoria, the new "firsts" feel strange and tentative. I got my first haircut in many months today. As I sat in the waiting area, an older man, socially distanced from me, reached over and touched my shoulder. He smiled through his face shield. "It feels so nice to touch someone," he said. "I hope you don't mind." I didn't. 

 I look forward to hugging friends and family. How will that feel? Will it be safe for them? Will we be so accustomed to elbow bumps that a hug will feel incredibly awkward? I look forward to rediscovering the joy of reaching out to and hugging those I love. 

 We've all gained new insights in this year of solitude and adversity -- whether from the fallout of a global pandemic or from personal challenges. 

 We've learned what's important -- and what's not -- in our lives. 

 In the time before the pandemic, Bob and I enjoyed a number of meals out each week. It has been a year since we've eaten in a restaurant and we're fine with that. While it might be nice to have a weekend breakfast out or a special dinner at our community golf course view restaurant from time to time this year, we're mostly content with simple, healthy meals at home. 

 In the time before, we felt pressure to be more social. Now we're more at ease with solitude. It will be wonderful to see good friends again after all this time, but we treasure quiet time as well to pursue our various interests. 

 In the time before, we tended to take good health for granted and the spectre of mortality was dark but distant. Now we know, with new clarity, how fragile life can be. We've lost neighbors to Covid and other health crises in the past year. Family members have become frail and my dearest cousin recently died. We've felt newly vulnerable. Even though we now have the comfort of being fully vaccinated against Covid-19, we're not making any asssumptions. We are embracing good health and the habits that make this possible with new fervor. 

 There are some joyful possibilities on the horizon -- going back to the library, the gym and the community pool, the chance to travel to see family and dear friends once again and maybe even to go to Maui once more to smell that perfumed air and feel the warmth of the waves for real. 

 But now, more than ever, there is gratitude for what is and for the blessing of love -- being known and loved well -- expressed by family and dear friends remotely or, in Bob's case, at close range through this painful, unprecented year.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Joy of the Dance

 There are many stories within a life story. When I reflect on the life of my beloved cousin Caron Hill Roudebush, I remember so many stories of her dance through life with humor, strength of spirit, unconditional love for family and friends and joy in each day.

There is the story of her birth on May 7, 1940, in the sunny front bedroom of a house in Burlington, Kansas. She was the first child of Evelyn Curtis Hill and Elmer Hill. Their landlady had welcomed them as a couple but said she didn't like to rent to families with young children. Caron's birth changed her mind: she fell hopelessly in love with the winsome dark-eyed baby girl and happily helped to care for her. The family would eventually move to Kansas City, however, where Elmer was hired as a mechanic for TWA. Her mother, who had a brief career as a teacher before her marriage, was a loving stay at home mom to Caron and her younger brother Jack.

Caron spent many happy days of her childhood visiting our grandparents' farm in Toronto, a small eastern Kansas town that was still thriving in her childhood. Caron had so many memories from those days, far more than the rest of the grandchildren who were born after World War II. She was the only grandchild to know and love her Uncle George. They played together on the farm and he adored her, writing to my mother that she was "the cutest, most beautiful little girl ever." Caron went to the train station with our grandparents to see him off to war in July 1944. She and Grandma burst into tears as he boarded the train. They held each other on the drive back to the farm, weeping together as Grandma moaned "I'll never see him again."  Four months later, George was shot down over Germany, dead at the age of 24. Decades later, the memory of Uncle George waving and blowing her kisses through the train window as she cried would still bring tears to Caron's eyes. 

As we played and danced, sharing secrets, stories and dreams throughout our childhoods, Caron was so much more than a cousin to me. She was like a wise and affectionate older sister who told me she loved me every time we talked and, throughout my life from childhood to my ungainly teens and all the decades beyond, she told me that I was beautiful.


                                                      Caron, Jack and me with our grandparents


                                                   Caron, newly in love, and me in 1955

She was the beautiful one, though, even winning a local beauty contest. And she was popular in high school with a great group of friends who called themselves The Divas and vowed to be friends for life. (They kept that promise!) But the most beautiful aspect of her life -- a wonderful love story -- began at the end of their freshman year when she and Bud Roudebush discovered each other.

She was giddy in love when she came to spend the summer of 1955 with us in California, to help out after my sister Tai was born. She wrote to Bud every day as I hung over her shoulder. Sometimes, but not always, she would let me read his replies. Once she wrote him a note with all the words for "Unchained Melody", a hit song that summer: "Oh, my love, my darling...I hunger for your touch." We eagerly awaited his reply and laughed when it arrived: 'Caron! What happened to you? Did you fall on your head or something?" Even though the memory of that unique mail exchange faded for them, "Unchained Melody" became their special song for decades to come.


                                               Caron and Bud as high school sweethearts

Caron's high school days were a blur of parties and dances and just hanging out with Bud and The Divas. She begged her parents to let her drop out of school and get married. They insisted that she finish high school and attend a secretarial course first. She and Bud were married on February 15, 1959. After a tour of duty with the Air Force, Bud worked as a surveyor while Caron was a stay at home mom to their children Cescilie, Aaron and Jason. She returned to work as a school secretary to help pay for their college expenses. Even with the inevitable challenges of life -- raising three bright, lively and resourceful children, then watching the nest empty -- their love only grew.


                                             "You and Me": Their Favorite Picture Together

As Caron and Bud danced and loved and grew through all the transitions of their lives together, Caron never stopped exploring, learning and triumphing over obstacles along the way. After her kids finished college, Caron began taking classes at a local community college, finding herself drawn to a scientific curriculum. She had a perfect 4.0 gpa and was surprised when her advisor told her that she had earned enough credits for her Associate's degree. That graduation was very special to her.

"Imagine!" she told me. "I'm smart! In high school, I was too focused on being in love and getting married to care about academics. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but it's nice to know officially that I'm smart!"

 She was also graceful and strong, studying Hawaiian dance, exercising daily and giving her eldest grandsons a run for their money in basketball sessions. When I visited in 2007, Caron, 67 by then, was nursing a broken arm, suffered when she leapt into the air to make a successful jump shot and then fell during a fiercely competitive basketball practice with her teenage grandsons. She had just as fiercely fought  and won a battle against breast cancer some years earlier and now she glowed with good health. She was dedicated to healthy eating, exercise and lifestyle changes, having given up her longtime smoking habit as she entered midlife.

Bud, in the meantime, focused on his long-time interest and talents as a photographer, particularly enjoying capturing Caron's growth from teenager to grandmother with special love. He also took some breathtaking photos during their travels -- to see hot air balloons in New Mexico, ride a train through the Rockies, explore the Egyptian pyramids on the backs of camels and the beauty of the countrysides and capitals of Europe during several trips abroad. Winning a small state lottery in midlife had enabled them to plan for both financial security and fun. We all rejoiced in their good fortune, happy that they had a chance to travel the world together while still healthy and active.

By 2010, Caron began to experience unmistakable symptoms of COPD. As her condition worsened, Bud finally retired to take care of her. 

As her dependence on him grew, he was careful to honor her independent spirit. One morning when I was visiting in 2013, Bud, Caron, her brother Jack and I were sitting around having coffee, talking and laughing. Bud finally looked at Caron and said "You know, Caron, I'm enjoying our conversation so much that I'd like to go into the bathroom with you when you take your shower so we can continue our talk. Would that be all right with you?"

She smiled. "Why yes," she said.. "I would like that very much!"

We all knew that Caron couldn't shower without Bud's assistance. Yet, he always made it her choice to have him accompany her. 

We talked a lot about the past -- our past, our mothers' pasts -- during that visit. I teased Caron gently about the many artifacts from the old farm that had landed in her home: our grandparents' bed in the guest room, the small children's chairs on the hearth that had once belonged to our mothers and then later to Caron and Jack when they were small.

We had made many trips back to the tiny town of Toronto by then. Our last trip there together, in 2013, brought up wistful memories: the ice cream parlor where grandma would take us for special treats and the small town library where our Great Aunt Floss held forth as librarian, story teller and town news conduit, the hardware store initially owned by Uncle Elmer's family. The hardware store, the library and the ice cream parlor were all shuttered by 2013. In fact, all of the town's storefronts were empty. Toronto School, a magnificent brick building, stood gleaming in the late spring sun -- but it had been empty for years. Caron, Jack and I looked at each other and sighed.

On our journey to Toronto that year, we drove through Burlington and parked in front of the house where Caron was born. It had held up well and sported a new coat of paint. Caron looked at that house, at the windows of the front bedroom where her life began and she sighed once more. "So many memories," she said quietly.


                                              A joyous life together even in their later years

In these later years, Bud has taken over the housework and cooking as well as caregiving. But Caron's mind was sharp and she was fully engaged with family and friends. Reading my memoir, "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later", shortly after its November 2020 publication, Caron told me that she wasn't shocked to read about the terror and chaos caused by my father's mental illness and alcoholism, but she found it immensely sad that my brother, sister and I had lived through so much pain. "I hope you know that you had no part in your father's unhappiness no matter what he told you," she said. "We're all responsible for ourselves. We decide what kind of life we're going to have, what kind of day we're going to have each morning when we get up. And I hope you know, too, that I love you very, very, very much!"

I told her that I loved her, too, and was so proud of her for making it to 80 -- something she had not been sure she could manage. It was an age landmark that had eluded our mothers and their sister Ruth. My mother died at 67. Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Ruth had passed away at 79. I told Caron that she was an inspiration.

Being an inspiration took a toll: Caron was in and out of the hospital four times in the past year with a variety of health crises, including a coronavirus infection that was not Covid-19, but that proved a grueling ordeal nonetheless. "You kicked the coronavirus' butt!" her son Jason told her as she left the hospital. Caron laughed ruefully and replied "But I think it took a big bite out of mine!"

Through it all, Bud has been by her side, holding her as they listened to their favorite music and danced in their hearts with a lifetime of warm memories. Bud never complained, only expressed his joy and good fortune in spending so many years with the love of his life. 

During the challenges of the past year, the Garth Brooks song "The Dance", especially the last two lines, held special meaning for him:

My life is better left to chance.

I could have missed the pain, but I'd have had to miss the dance.

They danced an imaginary dance as they held each other, quietly celebrating their 62nd wedding anniversary on February 15.

Time moves on steadily, relentlessly. And there are so many losses along the way.

Jack recently returned alone to Toronto to walk the deserted streets we ran through joyously as children, fully immersed in the delights of a town where everyone felt like -- and often was -- family. Now the small family farms have been gobbled up by sprawling factory farms. A dam project 60 years ago that was supposed to make Toronto a water wonderland and tourist destination simply devoured more farmland and devastated the local economy. Now the town's demise is nearly complete. Jack walked past houses and stores that were not only shuttered but were also collapsing. He was astonished to see that Toronto School is being demolished and its bricks sold as souvenirs of a past we'll never see again.

Caron's joyous dance through life, ended on February 26. She took her last breath, gently, quietly, with Bud holding her hand.

The pain of her loss is great. We will miss her forever. But there is music in warm memories and warm memories in music. Oh, what a dance of joy, love, laughter and courage Caron's life turned out to be!


                                                      Bud's photographic tribute to Caron

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Letting Go

 Amidst the headlines announcing the deaths of legendary actors during the past week -- Cicely Tyson, Christopher Plummer, Cloris Leachman -- there was a smaller news item noting the death of yet another actor: Mike Henry.

Mike Henry was a former football star at USC and with the Los Angeles Rams before turning to acting. He starred in three Tarzan movies, was Junior in the "Smokey and the Bandit" films and appeared in a number of other films, television shows and plays onstage in Los Angeles. Our paths crossed in 1972 when we both were cast in a revival of the Broadway musical "High Button Shoes", a production starring Gavin MacLeod, during his tenure with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and before he became the captain of "Love Boat."


In the 1972 revival of "High Button Shoes", Gavin MacLeod is in the foreground,
Mike Henry is in the back row, second from left. I'm in the back, third from right, with only
my right eye and a portion of my hat visible in this photo taken during a performance.


A backstage photo of me during "High Button Shoes"

It has been decades since I let go of my acting career and aspirations, but the announcement of Mike Henry's death took me back to another time and place when I was a twenty-something actress known professionally as Kaylin McCoy because there was a "Cathy McCoy" already in the union and I wasn't allowed to use a name -- such as my full name "Kathleen" -- where anyone might be tempted to call me Kathy. So I combined my first and middle names Kathleen Lynne to be Kaylin, though no one ever called me that except Gavin MacLeod. It was a painful time for him,  long before he discovered the comfort of religion. He was dealing with the end of his first marriage and, while appearing in "High Button Shoes", he had fallen in love with Patti Steele, the choreographer for the show, who would become his second wife. Gavin would occasionally sit beside me at cast parties and sigh "What does all this mean, Kaylin? What do our lives mean, really?"

And I would look at him, at bit embarrassed, shake my head and say I didn't know. 

I was in my own cocoon of pain -- in the process of making the decision to let go of my passion and my dream for an ongoing career as an actress. I was beginning to realize that, while I liked acting, I didn't like the business. I knew that, as a young character actress, my chances were slim in L.A. for a sustained career. I didn't have the looks, perhaps not the talent nor the drive to carve an ongoing niche for myself in acting. I had seen enough highly talented, middle-aged actors hanging onto their dreams well past the time when there seemed to be any chance of success. I didn't want to be one of them and was equally passionate about writing. In fact, I  was making a steady, if modest, living primarily as a writer. The rationale for my choice to quit was clear, but still it hurt to think of letting go of a dream I had nurtured since childhood.

It would be another year before I actually quit -- and during that time I did a few voiceovers and another play "Dylan" in the role of the one woman even Dylan Thomas, serial womanizer that he was, didn't find attractive. That show was a great way to end my brief career: I loved the play and everyone in it and even got a nice review in Variety ("a delightful young character actress"). I walked away without regret and have rarely looked back.

But Mike Henry's death this week took me back to that time as I remembered his gentleness, his kindness and his generosity when we worked together. He hosted several cast and crew parties during the run of the show at his lovely Valley pool home. And one night toward the end of the show's run, he was my hero. 

Someone had knocked a fire extinguisher off the wall backstage and it had sprayed a small spot of foam that no one, including me, had noticed. Getting ready to dance onto the stage for the curtain call, I had slipped in it, dislocating my left knee and falling hard on my right hip. I slid onto the stage area and, in my shock, got up, took a bow and exited, only then starting to feel the full brunt of my pain. In a moment, Mike was in the dressing room with a bag of ice and a first aid kit. Patti helped me remove my tights and put her arm around me as Mike sat beside me, my left leg in his lap. He popped my knee back in place, iced it with one hand, wiped my tears with a tissue in the other hand, and then taped my knee so expertly that I never missed a show. "You're going to be okay," he said, looking into my eyes with such gentle reassurance that I believed him at once. 

Sadly, life didn't turn out quite as okay for Mike. In 1988, he retired from acting due to neurological symptoms that stemmed from repeated concussions during his football days and from Parkinsons disease that doctors thought might also be due brain trauma caused by football. He suffered for 32 years of neurological decline, a fate made bearable in large part by the presence of his devoted wife Cheryl, who was by his side for 36 years and who described him in an interview after his death as "a lovely, lovely man."

Yes, he was. Although I never saw him again after "High Button Shoes" closed, I have always been grateful for his kindness. And I quietly said "Goodbye" in my heart to this lovely man, a sweet memory from a past I let go nearly 50 years ago.

Traveling back in my memory to that time has made me think once again of Gavin's question "What does this all mean?"

From the vantage point of age, life means so many things -- and letting go is a prominent part of this meaning. 

It means letting go of the dreams that no longer serve to advance one's growth as a loving, giving person and finding new and better dreams. 

It means making a habit of forgiveness, not holding onto grudges and even political divisions, giving others the benefit of the doubt and remembering to forgive yourself, too, for being hopelessly human.

It means paring down your life, as time goes by, to the essence: what soothes your soul, what brings joy and fulfillment, what enables you to contribute in significant ways to the lives of others. 

It means rejoicing in the successes and the happiness of others as well as your own blessings.

It means embracing failures, disappointments and setbacks as learning opportunities. 

It means living with gratitude for what is and what was, for friends and family who have been fellow travelers through all the phases and transitions of your life.

It means treasuring all the love in our lives -- including love that didn't last and love that has been constant, love that we've received and love that we've given, love expressed with gentleness and kindness that endures in our warm memories and brings joy to our lives in this moment.

Monday, November 9, 2020

A Long Time Dream -- and a New One!



 I was a frightened young girl -- dreaming of escaping my childhood home and the dysfunction within -- when I first thought about writing a memoir about my crazy family. 

Starting when I was six, I would write stories scrawled in my father's discarded day planners, usually tales of happy orphans making their way in the world. I begged my father to tell me stories of his own childhood because I was determined to write a book about him. In his better moments, he laughed and complied with some stories that were fun and some that were harrowing: about his early life in Arizona in the arms of his loving Navajo nanny, about his mother's abuse and his father's kindness, his traumatic discovery of his father's untimely death nearly a year after he had died (his mother claimed he was on a business trip) and then his adventures as a child actor in silent films and in vaudeville as he struggled to support the family from the time he was nine years old. 

By the time I was sixteen, I even had a title in mind for my memoir: "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later." 

The inspiration for that came from two different sources. My father, who suffered from schizophrenia and alcoholism, called his depressions and delusions "crocodiles", envisioning them stalking and devouring him in an endless cycle of fear and hopelessness. 

At his best, Father was charming, fun and loving. At his worst, he was abusive and threatened our lives on a daily basis. My brother Mike, sister Tai and I never knew which Father we would find when we walked in the door. And we feared that even if Father didn't manage to kill us during one of his rages, the crocodiles of his mental illness might consume us, too, as they had not only our father but also his mother before him. Mentally ill and alcoholic, she died when our father and his sister, our beloved Aunt Molly, were in their teens, leaving them orphaned. 

But they put themselves through UCLA and did well: Father became an Army Air Force pilot and test pilot and Vice President of Engineering for national aerospace company. Aunt Molly became an award-winning poet,  television writer and a civilian speechwriter for the Strategic Air Command. Our mother was a registered nurse who became a pioneer flight attendant for American Airlines from 1935-1943 (a time when flight attendants had to be RN's and no taller than 5'4"). She did a lot of PR appearances for American, including hosting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a tour of airline facilities in Los Angeles. 

But though Aunt Molly continued to thrive throughout her life, my parents lived lives of not so quiet desperation that became worse -- sometimes horrifying -- as the years went on.


My Parents in Better Days 

                                                        As a World War II Pilot


                                              As a test pilot, greeting Howard Hughes.


                                                     Mother was a pioneer American Airlines flight attendant


                                                Mother and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt        

I was determined to write about our lives -- and how love and fear,   deep pain and laughter could co-exist and how learning to laugh between the pain could soothe one's soul. I was always thinking and dreaming of writing that memoir.                                                            

 I discovered the exact title for it when I was sixteen. It was a phrase embedded in a letter to parents of students at my sister's ballet school.  The letter was discussing strategic arrival times for an upcoming recital featuring dancers from age two through six. This production was, on paper, a dance version of "Peter Pan." In reality, it was something of a fever dream: all 10 of the six year olds in my sister's ballet class played Peter Pan simultaneously. The five year olds were Wendys, the four year olds Lost Children, the three year olds Tinker Bells and the two year olds were crocodiles, tasked with holding their arms in front of them to form imaginary snouts and rocking back and forth with as much menace as they could summon in their one minute stage debut.

The instructions for the arrival times were firm: The Peter Pans would arrive at 1:30 for the 2 p.m. performance and so on in 15 minute increments until instructions for the Crocodiles. There was just a terse directive: "THE CROCODILES WILL ARRIVE LATER." The plan was to have them arrive just before their number and be picked up immediately after before any backstage mishaps occurred.

I waved the letter at Aunt Molly, my idol and mentor. "This will be the title of the book I write about our family!" I told her.

She smiled. "That's perfect," she said. "But please remember, when you write it, that as well as crocodiles, there was love and laughter."

Yes, indeed.

                                                             Our Third and Best Parent


                                                        Aunt Molly, my hero and inspiration

                                                                        The Three of Us

                                              We Three: Kathy, Tai and Mike in 1958


                                              We Three: Tai, Kathy and Mike in 2015

So years and decades passed and my dream was always there.  I wrote a number of other books -- self-help books for teenagers, for parents, for those suffering estrangement. Through my adventures as a journalist and author and a psychotherapist, the dream of "The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later" lived on in my imagination. But it took years to make sense of my childhood of horror and humor, cruelty and love and what came after.

My literary agent Stephany Evans wondered if a memoir would be the best use of my experiences and insights. She suggested, with good reason, that a self-help book for those suffering the aftermath of troubled and painful childhoods might be the way to go. I trust her judgement. And I'm working on the proposal for the book she suggested, looking forward with hope and enthusiasm to writing it. And if anyone reading this has experiences to share or suggestions about what must be included in such a book, I'd love to hear from you. (Feel free to contact me at That's my NEW dream for the future!

But in the meantime, I couldn't get that long-time dream of a memoir out of my head. My brother and sister encouraged me to write it as did a very special nun -- Sister Rita McCormack -- my brother's first grade teacher who intervened to stop our father's abuse for a time and who has been a treasured lifelong friend. My husband urged me to write it on a daily basis. Blogging friends like Jeanie Croope, Rosaria Williams, Dee Ready and Sally Wessely also urged me to give it a try after reading some autobiographical blog posts. 

So I did -- at long last: The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later is being published today!

My memoir tells the story of my family's tumultuous experiences with a mentally ill, alcoholic parent and how my siblings and I fought to create new, very different lives for ourselves in adulthood. It talks about what and who helped along the way -- two courageous nun teachers who intervened at different times, our beloved Aunt Molly who brought joy and imagination to our lives and even a couple of celebrities whose kindness helped me to keep hope alive. Some places of refuge that may be familiar to some -- like St. Bede School, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, Northwestern University, 'TEEN Magazine and Vroman's bookstore in Pasadena-- figure prominently in my story

My long-time dream is finally reality: The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later is now on Amazon,,, Walmart and Vroman's. It is available as a trade paperback or as an e-book. 


Now I'm getting busy with that new dream: to write a self-help book for those whose painful childhoods continue to haunt them in adulthood. In the meantime, I'm hoping that my memoir will give others who have grown up with fear and pain the inspiration to look back and begin to let go of what was and to imagine what might be.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Longest, Strangest Year: The Foot Saga, Etc.

Who knew what a truly strange year 2020 would turn out to be? 

Besides nasty politics and an even scarier, nastier pandemic. this has been darkly memorable for me.

It began for me in mid-January when a new patient came for a session so ill she had to lie down on the couch, coughing and moaning through her session. Though I urged her to go home, stay in bed and take care of herself, she insisted on staying for the full session. I cringed inwardly but reassured myself that I hadn't been ill for years and had had a high intensity flu shot.

A few days later, I woke up with a scratchy throat, a severe cough and a high fever. I had an ear infection and bright red eyes from a concurrent eye infection. I went to the local hospital ER, tested negative for both strains of flu and also for strep, got a prescription for the ear infection. There was no testing for Covid-19 then, which still seemed a world away. So I came home and crawled under the covers, leaving it to Bob to entertain our weekend guests: his former Little Brother Ryan Grady and his husband Michael Collum who had come for the long Martin Luther King weekend.

I was awakened from a feverish sleep (103 degree fever) that night by Bob's screams from the bathroom. He was coming out of a grand mal epileptic seizure. I jumped out of bed, raced to his side and promptly fainted. When I fell, my left foot twisted behind me at an angle and then I fell on it, shattering all the bones in my mid and fore foot.

Michael stayed to watch over Bob, who simply needed rest, and Ryan took me to the Emergency Room where the doctor said my foot might be fractured and put an orthopedic boot on it. After visits to my primary physician, a podiatrist and a surgeon, the news got progressively worse: I had a severe crush injury, a lis franc fracture to my foot that would require surgical reconstruction with metal plates and clamps. The recovery period would be at least a year. And the surgery itself was delayed for four weeks because of my severe cough (which would have precluded me from having a general anesthetic). The surgery finally took place on February 18 with an extremely painful, extended period of immobility, two different casts and a variety of orthopedic boots, and eight months wheelchair bound.

Back from the ER with Ryan and Michael
January 19, 2020

                                               One Week Post- Injury: January 27, 2020


                                                        Going to Surgery: February 18, 2020


                                              Recovering attended by felines: February 22, 2020


                                                     With Georgie's painting: March 1, 2020


                                                        Empathy from Ollie: March 23, 2020


                                                       Out of cast: April 27, 2020


                                                        The Boot: May 4, 2020


                                                        First stand: September 16, 2020


                                                      Bike ride on a windy November 1, 2020                                                     


Then the small miracles began: being able to use the bathroom by myself, being able to take a sit-down shower without assistance, being able to stand briefly, taking my first tentative steps in late September. Taking my  first bike  ride in late October.                                                   

Now I'm walking: sometimes with a cane and more often very carefully on my own. I can wear regular shoes for at least some of the day and am beginning to exercise again -- very carefully -- riding our three-wheeled bicycle two miles a day. The doctor says I will continue to improve over the next year -- perhaps able to take long walks sometime next year, able to walk barefoot long enough to get in the community pool for some lap swimming in a few months. Every step along the way feels wonderful and miraculous. 

I'm immensely grateful that any of this is possible and humbled by how much help I've needed and received along the way. My husband Bob has been quite literally supportive and immensely patient through this ordeal. Friends and neighbors Marsha Morello, Vicki O'Hara, Kelly Hartwig and Sherri Brown brought food and comfort in those early, very painful days. And friends nationwide have offered support in so many ways: Georgia Bohlen painted a cheerful cat picture and sent it to brighten my days; Jeanie Croope sent a gift card for Panera Bread and Kathy Bernath, the daughter of our former neighbor Wally Skurda, sent flowers and visited. I got many messages of love from friends Mary Breiner, Tim and Mary Kate Schellhardt, Pat Hill, Robert Luppi, Pat Cosentino and Sister Rita McCormack. I have also been grateful for the patients in my practice who hung in there through all the cancellations and uncertainty of those winter months. All of this has meant so much to me.

Now in healing mode with my foot, I look around at the fears and divisions we're all having around the pandemic, Election day (whatever our political affiliations) and how incredibly our daily lives have changed this year.  

Dealing with the dramatic changes 2020 has brought isn't easy to be sure. But trying times are so much more bearable when we support each other with kindness and compassion.

I was reminded of this during a recent phone conversation with my friend Bob Luppi, whom I have known since grade school and who renewed our friendship a few years ago after his retirement. I mentioned that these are turbulent, uncertain times. "They are," he replied. "I don't want to know your political affiliation and I won't tell you mine. I just want there to be peace and love and kindness between all of us. That's what matters most."    

That is everything.

Monday, March 30, 2020

An Emotional Survival Guide to Covid-19: Caring and Calm Amidst the Chaos

As the toll of Corvid-19 climbs alarmingly around the world, there are sights that can't be unseen and words that can't be unheard such as:

  • Crowds of shoppers battling in the aisles of big box stores for dwindling supplies of toilet paper and bottled water, oblivious to store managers calling for peace and civility 
  • Bare shelves stripped of sanitizers, cleaning supplies, paper products and bottled water.
  • Crowds of young people, feeling invulnerable to the virus or simply not caring, packing bars, pubs and restaurants in cities across the nation, offering an unparalleled opportunity for the virus to spread among these healthy young people to be carried on to the elderly and otherwise vulnerable.
  • Political and generational divisions spawning verbal ugliness -- from contentions that the virus is simply a media hoax to the belief that the virus' penchant for killing more older people is just punishment for those loathsome Boomers 
  • Wealthy people retreating to their doomsday shelters in old missile silos or to remote vacation homes
  • People buying guns in record protect themselves from each other.

It's time to calm down and accept one central fact: we're all in this together.

People of all ages, ethnicities, professions and social standings have become ill from Covid-19. While the elderly and those with underlying health issues are most at risk for serious illness and death in this pandemic, Covid-19 affects us all in terms of health and loss, disruption of work, income and lifestyle. These are scary, trying, uncertain times.

It all makes me think of an earlier time when panic reigned: the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war and those of us in our teens feared we would never live to see young adulthood. People were hunkering down in backyard bomb shelters, hoarding canned goods and threatening to shoot anyone who intruded. It was my introduction to a very real sense of mortality and to the worst of humanity.

My Aunt Molly, a professional writer and award winning poet, wrote a poem back then about that "I've got mine, screw you!" bunker mentality that crisis inspired over half a century ago. Her poem was originally published in The Antioch Review.

You Can't Take It with You But You Can Always Bury It Alive


Elizabeth C. McCoy

Native rock and chemical toilet,
Air intake wary as a crone counting change
In an alien currency.

Dehydrated food and canned water
Sufficient for one for seven days.
$6.98 on special.

And you needn't expect...
Well...see! You've smudged
That page I like to read over and over
All about Walden.

How can it be just a gopher?
Nothing can get through to you now
Except the faintest taste and smell of fear
If you hadn't forgotten the Air Wick.

If he comes,
If anyone comes,

All these years later, we can do better.

These are different times to be sure. The menace is a viral pandemic, unsparing and unstoppable. How can we begin to get a grip and to realize that, while life must change at least for now, we can find ways to be okay, to be happy, to be kind to each other despite our concerns?

1. Don't let your panic get in the way of compassion and reason. Those feral shoppers stripping shelves of necessities we all need have let panic and selfishness cloud their judgment. For all of our well-being, hand sanitizer should be available to all, not just a few who are hoarding a 20 year supply or have enough toilet paper to bequeath to great grandchildren. When Bob and I were making a regular supermarket trip the other day, finding that food supplies were still quite abundant though paper goods and bottled water shelves were bare, we saw a woman at the checkout counter with SIX shopping carts overflowing with everything imaginable --from cleaning supplies to cookies. She looked like she was headed for a 10-year hibernation. Cultivate a spirit of enough. What you have will be enough. Make supplies last. Stretch meals. Improvise. You'll be fine. Faced with the coronavirus, running low on toilet paper will be the least of your problems.

2. See lifestyle changes through a positive lens -- as an opportunity to learn and to grow. Most of us live hectic lives built around routines that keep us away from loved ones, hobbies and relaxation. Working from home and losing the commute, having more time with family and with pets can be a welcome change in your daily routine. If you're off work as a result of business shut downs, this time off can be worrisome indeed. However, this pause in your work life can also be an opportunity. One friend, who worked as a bartender, says that losing her job has been a blessing of sorts. "I hated my job so much!" she told me. "But I wouldn't have left anytime soon. The money was too good and I wasn't sure what I would do next. Now I have more time and incentive to consider what I really want to do with  my life and plan a way forward." 

3. Limit your anxiety time.  Switching off the constant drone of dire news, taking a break, is good for your mental health. Yes, the crisis is very real. But, as long as you have good and accurate information and are doing the best you can to protect yourself and your family, obsessing about the pandemic and binge watching 24 hour news isn't useful or healthy. Lose yourself in a novel or in some of your favorite music. Short meditations, deep breathing, exercise, thought stopping can all help to keep a balanced view of the situation and to review your alternatives with a clear mind. 

4. Embrace gratitude. Consider what you have rather than what you've lost. Be grateful for a home in which to cocoon and for the people you love -- those who are with you at home and those who keep in touch from a distance. Be grateful for the embrace of a partner when you're in the grip of fear and uncertainty. Be grateful for the warmth of your animal friends. My three-legged black cat Ollie has started lying on my chest, his front paws around my neck, purring loudly. It's an incredible comfort. Be grateful for your interests and passion that you now may have more time to pursue. And be grateful for your good health so far. Being healthy overall may help to protect you against the worst ravages of this pandemic. 

5. Strengthen community and familial ties. Offer to help, keep in touch, check up on others, tap your inner kindness and compassion. You may realize how much nearby others mean. I've come to appreciate that in advance of the pandemic through my disability in the wake of my January accident when neighbors like Marsha, Vicki and Kelly brought meals over, when my neighbor Sherry dropped by with warm encouragement and just now, when Kelly appeared at our front door, keeping a safe distance, and handing us a bag of chocolate chip cookies warm from the oven. And I recently got a call from the wife of a young client of mine asking if she could do grocery shopping, pick up prescriptions for us or do anything else that would help to keep us safe. My brother Mike sends funny, insightful and loving messages from afar. My friend Georgie in Tennessee sent me a painting she imagined (correctly!) would cheer me up and keeps in touch with frequent messages. My friend Tim keeps me smiling with sweet emails, pictures, jokes and warm reassurance. His daughter Mary Kate calls with words of encouragement and love. My friend Mary, sidelined with her own disabling injuries and in a care facility for at least another month, sends me messages that are often as simple as "I love you!" Think about your own circles of family and friends. Whose day could you brighten with a call or text? What would you like to say to those you love most right now? Reach out now. Say what you would like to say...maybe something you've never said before.

6. Rediscover old pleasures.  Bring out the board games and jigsaw puzzles. Try song fests in the living room, the shower or out the window(see Italy!). Write letters to those you love. Take time to journal. Rediscover the joy of gardening or the simple pleasure of tidying up. Get creative and make some meals from scratch, enjoying the deliciousness of old recipes.

7. Express love fully -- and often. Tell others how you feel in writing, online, over the phone, with warm hugs. I've had the joy in the past few days to hear from a variety of people in my life -- from my brother Mike who speculates that the Tooth Fairy let his daughter down the other night -- possibly due to self-isolating or due to needing a federal bailout. And he added "I love you" to his text; from my lifelong friend Sister Rita McCormack, who befriended my brother and me when we were young, scared and abused, and who called to say she loved us still and always; fun and loving emails from my friends Tim and Mary; and a call from Tim's wonderful daughter Mary Kate, full of warm encouragement, affirmation of life's wonders and loving admonitions to be careful.

Think about the people who matter to you. This crisis is an opportunity to say what you've always wanted to say to those you love, to remember the important people from your life whom you may not see or hear from regularly, to reach out over the chasm of social distancing to touch another's heart.