Monday, April 25, 2011

Quiet Milestones

Today I turned 66.

And I've been thinking of death.

Not my own death, not exactly.

Turning 65 was an exciting, public milestone.  I became eligible for Medicare, started collecting Social Security and Bob and I made our retirement dreams reality.

This year, the milestone is a quiet one not obvious to anyone who doesn't know me well: I've reached the age that my parents were when they died. How is that possible? Where did the time go?

Some reach that landmark birthday much earlier, of course.

Sharon Scace, who will be 43 next month,  lost her mother -- one of my dearest college friends -- when Lorraine was 42 and Sharon 19. And now Sharon is nearly a year older than her mother ever was. My heart aches when I think how young Lorraine was when she passed away -- and how much she missed: the graduations, weddings, the grandchildren and the successful careers of her two cherished daughters Sharon and Virginia. I had a birthday greeting from Sharon today, saying how much she enjoys the blog because she is already planning her own retirement. The tiny, sweet baby I held in my arms just as I was finishing graduate school is planning for retirement? Where did the time go?

I have always felt that, at 66, my parents died much too young, far too soon. But their lives at that point were quite different from the life I enjoy today.

My father described himself as "the man who has everything" -- including Parkinson's, diabetes, heart disease, depression, dementia, alcoholism, and prescription drug abuse.  Even before any major diseases struck him, he was always dying. When he got a bad cold or the flu, he would gather the family around his bed and announce that he was dying: "I see a choir of angels and there -- my sainted mother! I'll be going soon..." But he always recovered no matter how many death speeches he gave, no matter how much he abused his body.

Death caught him one hot July day as he circled fretfully around the front yard of his home in his motorized wheelchair, yelling at the UPS delivery man who, seeing him in the front yard and fearing an encounter, kicked a package off the moving truck at the end of the driveway instead of bringing it to the porch. His last words, according to a friend who was there, were not about angels or his sainted mother or loving messages for his family, but a string of curses at the UPS man before he collapsed with a heart attack.

Later, after I had arrived on the scene, police were going through items in his pockets. A policeman turned to me in surprise, extending my father's drivers license. "He was only 66?" he said. "Truly?"

"Truly," I said, blinking back tears, quietly agreeing with the policeman that the man lying on the ground, my father, looked many decades older.

My mother was exhausted at 66 from 38 years of being my father's wife and constant caregiver. She was diagnosed with a cardiac problem only a month after my father's death.  My parents did not get along and were chagrined when their lawyer told them firmly, when they were in their late fifties, that they didn't have enough money to get a divorce and live separately. So they lived on together in quiet desperation and constant stress. Then he died -- and I think she missed him more than she - or any of us- ever imagined.

Her doctor gave her heart medications, but her symptoms worsened. She began to have recurring dizziness and blackouts. One day, after a doctor's appointment, she called me to come get her at a shopping mall because she was feeling faint. Bob and I rushed to her, ready to take her to the emergency room. But, once we got there, she said she was probably just hungry and proposed lunch. When I put my arm around her, she felt very small, very stooped, suddenly elderly.

She brightened over lunch, talking about old boyfriends from her airline days, about how she was going to really work at losing weight, about how she had no interest in another marriage, but -- if she could get her weight down -- might welcome a torrid affair with the right person. She chuckled softly at the thought. Then she hugged us both and got into her car.  That was the last time I saw her alive. The next day, her next door neighbor of many years went into her unlocked house to check on her. He found her sitting in her favorite chair. Death had come so suddenly that she hadn't even had time to drop the newspaper she was holding.

Losing both of my parents, four months apart, feels like a lifetime ago and yesterday.

Life gives us no guarantees. But I'm hoping for many more birthdays. I'm working out and serious about losing weight.  I have an active social life and a lifestyle that includes many people and pursuits I love. More important, my husband Bob and I do get along and understand each other well and love each other in spite of or even because of such knowledge. 

Thinking about my parents at 66 makes me wistful. I wish my parents had known the love and joy Bob and I have known. I wish they had been able to slow the aging and onset of disease with good health habits. I wish they could have lived to be the proud grandparents of Nick and Maggie. I wish their lives had been longer and more satisfying. I wish so much that cannot be.

But what I wish for myself, Bob and all my friends of a certain age is just this: loving connections, peace within and the blessing of good health and happiness for many years to come.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Times and Seasons of Our Lives

It was an innocent question from a friend: "How was your summer?"

I stopped, aghast. What? MY? Summer? I had hardly noticed the summer pass, working my full-time job that required a horrible three hour daily commute and two part-time jobs that kept me frantically busy six days a week.  Summer really didn't happen for me. Not for a lot of years. And only rarely  during that time did I feel that any season or any day was mine. And suddenly I felt profound sadness and a sense that time  -- and life -- was passing me by.

And I thought of other seasons, other times in my life.

I thought about the seasons of life as a child, when fall meant new school shoes, the smell of new crayons and freshly sharpened pencils, the crunch of eucalyptus buds under my feet as I walked to school on a horse trail. And I looked forward to Halloween and changing leaves, so fun to roll around in, and the excitement of the holiday season and Aunt Molly arriving for Christmas and making our lives merry. Rainy winter days made me feel cozy, whether at school, when we did crafts and played games in the classroom instead of going outside to recess, and or at home in bed at night, lulled to sleep by the sound of rain on the roof. Spring meant flowers, warm days, my birthday, the school year winding down, the promise of summer. And, oh summer! It was so delicious and so mine when I was young! I loved the mornings of sleeping in, the endless possibilities of a day entirely mine, dashing into the ocean, holding hands with Aunt Molly and my brother Mike as we pulled each other into the surf, laughing as we fell and rolled with the waves, the velvety warmth of a midwestern evening as I lay on the porch swing of my grandparents'  Kansas farmhouse, watching fireflies dart through the night and hearing train whistles in the distance. Swinging languidly, listening to the voices of the adults, laughing and telling stories around me, I thought that there was no better place to be and no better time to be young.

My growing up started early -- the year-long science courses squeezed into tortuous summers when I was in high school, working multiple summer jobs when I was in college and then getting into the work rhythm of life. Despite the fact that summer vacation was now reduced to two weeks at most -- and was not always in the summer -- for most of my working life, I didn't dread Mondays. I looked forward to the week --an interesting article to research and write, someone to interview, later on, seeing patients I cared about and enjoyed seeing. But nevertheless, work became all encompassing. Neither writing nor therapy is necessarily a get-rich-quick endeavor and I found myself cobbling together full-time and part-time jobs to get by and build savings. And I began to fall out of rhythm with the earth and its seasons.

During the last five years of my working life, I experienced the sort of work rhythm that many people do every day of their working lives: longing for weekends, feeling depressed Sunday afternoons, counting the hours and days until the next weekend. It was a full-time job for which I was grateful -- paying more than I had ever made in a single job before, offering a small pension if I could last five years -- but the job wasn't something that utilized what I valued most about myself or any of my real talents or training. My boss was encouraging and supportive. But my spirit began to wilt every Sunday afternoon when I thought about another week of that job, that commute. I wasn't the only one. It was common to meet a co-worker at the elevator and hear a variation on "Well, it's Thursday. Almost Friday. We'll get there." At last, I understood the meaning of TGIF.  And I rushed from that job to my evening work at my private practice. And some weekends and evenings I did admissions work for Northwestern. I felt deep satisfaction in seeing patients. I genuinely enjoyed the admissions work. But I was totally preoccupied with work, three jobs, six days a week. How was my summer, indeed? None of my time was really mine.

I wondered sadly how it could be different. I tried to savor Sundays with partial success. I tried to notice seasonal changes. But it was dark when I left for work and dark when I came home. Rainy days weren't so cozy at the commuter bus stop. Holidays meant more traffic and an even worse commute. Vacations, however, were delicious. I would breathe deeply and savor the ocean breezes in Hawaii or the scent of the desert after a summer rain. I would treasure each free moment of a day off. But it still felt temporary. In the midst of the savoring was a longing for these wonderfully relaxing moments of feeling so in tune with nature to go on and on. I would end every vacation with tears in my eyes.

Retirement has changed everything. Each day is mine. I have my life back at long last. It's a daily wonder to me. I now have time to savor the seasons and rhythm of life.

I'm delighting in spring with the flowers and fruit trees in my yard coming back to life after an uncommonly harsh winter of sub-freezing temperatures. The days are longer and warming and the night breezes are turning velvet, so wonderful in the desert. I'm planting a garden, starting with tomatoes, for the first time in years. And my spirit soars as I watch the tomato plants growing and thriving.

I look forward to summer: its fresh early mornings, the heat of the day, the evening monsoon thunderstorms and the smell of creosote after the rains, the joy of spending long, languid afternoons in the pool with our neighbors, talking and laughing.

I look forward to fall and a hint of crispness in the evening air, to classes at our Arizona State University extension here .  I look forward to holidays with new anticipation because we celebrate everything here -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's. We decorate. We entertain ourselves and our neighbors. And we look forward to seeing family during this time and experiencing the excitement of the holidays through the eyes of my little niece Maggie.

And winter in Arizona can be wondrous -- lots of sunshine and clear blue skies, warm days, cool nights, and the coziness of being lulled to sleep by rain falling steadily on our tile roof.

I feel, after far too long, that I am living in and savoring the world once again. I have reconnected with the child within who delighted in each season. I feel in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and with my own life, taking pleasure in the moment, in a sunset, in eating healthy foods, in vigorous exercise, in breathing clean air, in enjoying the sunshine.

And each season, each day is truly mine.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life Competitions

The notice brought back memories of competitions endemic to the typical high school experience -- from Homecoming Queen to the senior class designations of "Most Popular" and "Most Likely to Succeed" that gave accolades to the already blessed and left many others feeling diminished.

It was a notice announcing that officials at my high school were thinking of giving a lifetime achievement award to an alum who had graduated between 1933-1970.

As kind as their intentions may be, it made me wonder how the committee would decide which alum had the most notable life? What, from this vantage point, is the epitome of a life well-lived? Does it make any sense to imagine a competition of lives?

I have sudden flashback to a daytime television competition of the 1950's I used to watch when I was home from school recovering from polio. "Queen for a Day" was a daily competition to see who had the worst, most pathetic life. Each contestant would tell her sad tale, weeping, sometimes needing physical support from host Jack Bailey. The winner would be determined by the Applause-O-Meter from the audience -- with the woman whose tale of woe garnered the loudest applause becoming "Queen for a Day." The winner would be gifted with Kelvinator home appliances and a limo ride to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where she would have a "dinner fit for a Queen". Then she would be tossed back into her miserable life, making way for the next Queen for a Day.

Does making judgements about the value of one life against another in terms of lifetime achievement make any more sense -- or is it any kinder?

In level playing fields, judging one aspect of endeavor -- like the Oscars or Tonys or Emmys -- is one thing.

But when it comes to judging lives well lived, does professional achievement count more than raising children to be good people?

Does achievement in a high profile, highly publicized career mean more than working just as hard (or harder) in relative anonymity as a special ed teacher or a dedicated elementary or high school or, for heavens sake, a middle school teacher?

Isn't a person who comes from a disadvantaged background and becomes the first person in his or her family ever to attend college or graduate from high school deserving of recognition?

Is someone who had a large number of biological children more notable than someone who adopted some special needs children or another person who had no children but dedicated herself to a variety of causes benefiting children?

And haven't women, in particular, suffered enough from competitive divisions -- from media-fueled Mommy Wars to negative perceptions of some endeavors performed primarily by women, from full-time motherhood to working in "pink collar" jobs?

Even in the Fifties, when our mothers were most likely homemakers and stay-at-home parents, some of us were not immune to such attitudes.

 I remember with shame announcing to my mother than my primary life ambition was not to be her.  And she had the good grace to encourage my ambitions, letting me know that she had faith in me. And, if I was good and did all my chores that day, I could sneak a peak at her scrapbook which detailed the exciting career that she gave up when I was born.  My mother, raised on a small Kansas farm, graduating from high school in 1931,  at the height of the Great Depression, couldn't afford to go to college but did go to nursing school because students were paid to attend. She excelled, getting special certification in psychiatric nursing at Menniger's and then joined American Airlines as a flight attendant in 1935, a time when flight attendants were required to be nurses and were considered to be pioneers on par with later female astronauts. There were clippings of her life story in pictures run in a national magazine, pictures of her giving an aviation pioneer award to Eleanor Roosevelt (who had autographed the picture), with movie stars Gene Autry and a very young Ann Miller, ads where she gave personal endorsements to products from shampoo to milk, stills from radio broadcasts, items from gossip columns.  I struggled to reconcile this beautiful, glamourous woman with the tired, frazzled, somewhat overweight mother I knew.  I remember remarking to her that leaving her career for her present life seemed an enormous sacrifice. She disagreed. "It's just another life phase," she always told me. "I loved flying. I love being a mother."  And she cheered me on as I endeavored not to be like her and encouraged my admiration for my father's younger sister, Aunt Molly, who was a single, childless career woman.  Looking back, I am overwhelmed by her love and generosity.

So who is to judge what achievements could prompt a high school's life achievement award? A highly visible career? A happy family life? A life dedicated to good works? Some combination? And how about people who aren't fortunate in some area of life  -- such as moms raising children alone following a divorce or death of a spouse who manage to support and teach their children well? Or people whose lives are challenged by a debilitating illness or disability and who continue to contribute to their families and to the world.

It seems to me that, rather than making recognition of one person the focal point of a school reunion, it is kinder and much more realistic to celebrate all alums for their lifetime achievements and for us to celebrate each other for all the challenges we've had and the choices we've made in our lives. All of our lives, after all, have had their triumphs and tragedies.

At this point, perhaps, we should be happy just to be living and to have a chance to celebrate each other for a rich variety of lives well-lived.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Stronger in the Broken Places

There are times in all our lives when sadness seems overwhelming, when hope is elusive. There are times when we can't believe that the sun could shine, flowers bloom and life go on when something so terrible has happened.

While some don't survive such emotional storms, most of us eventually come through the pain to a calmer place. Working through grief or recovering from a serious depression is not an orderly process. There are days of feeling better and times when feelings of grief, sadness and devastation return. We go back and forth over time, with steps forward, steps back, until we reclaim the daily functioning of our lives -- back to family and friends, back to work and purpose, back to laughter, back to seeing the flowers and the sun and feeling renewed gratitude for all life has to offer.

But we're transformed by the storms of life.

Although my childhood was not exactly typical -- with two life-threatening illnesses and an alcoholic father who was alternately abusive and nurturing -- it felt normal, if not always comfortable, at the time. I loved my family, especially my brother Mike and sister Tai. Because of them, I never felt alone.

The first emotional storms came with maturity and losses in love. The man I loved beyond all reason in college fell in love with and married someone else. And I thought I would die -- or never love again. So I kept my emotional distance from another very good man, stifling his love, hurting before I could be hurt. I was approaching thirty when I finally took the risk of loving once more. He was the man of my mother's dreams: a tall, handsome Catholic doctor. My mother was thrilled. I was so happy. He loved me back! We began to make plans for a lifetime together. Then life happened: an unplanned but not unwelcome pregnancy, the loss of our baby, his coming out of the closet shortly after he turned thirty, the tears, the anger, the devastation. None of this was anything people talked about openly back then. I felt terribly alone.

During a calm between storms, I met my husband Bob, who had been recently divorced, and we chose to love again despite the pain that had preceded our relationship. We struggled in those early days to trust, to fully commit and to take the risk of being vulnerable again. The loving relationship we have built over the years -- a rich mix of love, passion and tender friendship -- is a warm shelter in all the storms that life can bring.

But pain is still inevitable. There was a terrible year - 1980 -- when I lost both parents and my maternal grandmother to sudden death and, the next year, a much loved young cousin to cancer. And there was a time during that period of terrible losses when, despite the fact that I had a loving husband, I felt intensely alone in my pain. I thought it would never end.

But it did and it does. Life goes on. For all the anguish one has felt and will feel again, there are times of sweetness and joy. And the experience of coming through life's storms can make one stronger for the next and more appreciative of life's wonders. We become stronger in the broken places and more compassionate when we see others in pain.

I look back ruefully at a time when I was in my early twenties and was asked to write a magazine article on loneliness. Although I interviewed some mental health professionals and wrote a passable article, at heart, I didn't have a clue. Secretly, I saw loneliness as self-indulgence, as a lack of will and initiative, as a personal failing. What I thought -- though didn't say in the article -- was that people needed to stop feeling sorry for themselves and get busy with life. Would that it were so easy -- as I was soon to discover.

I saw the same attitude in some of the young psychology graduate students and interns when I went back to school and clinical training when I was in my late forties. When patients expressed feelings of hopelessness and despair that some inexperienced young interns were initially inclined to dismiss with a "Get over it!" sentiment, I found that -- having been blindsided by life more than a few times -- I could be with with them fully in their anguish, hoping, at the very least, to help decrease the loneliness of their pain.

My brother Mike, a Vietnam veteran who went to medical school after completing his military service, noted the same phenomenon: that medical students who were young and untested by life could be unintentionally cruel in their abrupt dismissal, perhaps masking fear, of another's pain. Having faced all manner of emotional storms in combat, Mike could relate to patients' pain and fear with warmth and compassion.

My sister Tai found her calling in life in the wake of two major medical emergencies. She had a singularly horrific experience giving birth to her only child. While her child was -- and is -- an incredible blessing, Tai suffered physical complications that led to surgeries a day after the birth and an eventual hysterectomy. She said that she had never felt so intensely vulnerable. Only a few years later, she suffered a cerebral aneurysm and was airlifted to a university medical center for emergency brain surgery. During her long and difficult recovery, she vowed to become a nurse in order to help others through similarly scary and challenging medical experiences.  Today, she is a labor and delivery nurse supervisor in a Seattle-area hospital.  She loves her work -- and is invariably supportive of her patients in their most pain-filled and vulnerable moments.

Sometimes I think that it's no accident that my brother, sister and I all ended up in the helping professions. Although our life experiences, even within our family of origin, have differed considerably, we've known pain from the beginning -- and have grown in strength and compassion in the process.

And there are instances where a painful experience becomes, over time, something quite different.

The man who broke my heart in college by loving and marrying another never wavered in his loving friendship, even during the stormy times, and is one of my closest, most treasured friends to this day.  The man I wouldn't allow myself to love has found love in a wonderful marriage nearly as long as my own. And he remains a steadfast and caring friend. The nice Catholic doctor who came out of the closet later collaborated with me on an award-winning book that has been in print 32 years, through six updated U.S. editions -- a book that has transformed both our professional lives. And while I'll never forget the anguished moment of existential aloneness when my mother's coffin was lowered into the ground and I felt the loss of two generations on either side of me -- my mother and the baby I had lost five years before -- I'm delighted that our family has, at last, a thriving younger generation -- my sister's Nick, my brother's Maggie -- who bring new energy, vitality and hope to our family.

I feel special joy and wonder when I watch my brother nurture his toddler daughter Maggie. The little boy who was beaten and ridiculed when he cried embraces his wailing daughter with incredible love and acceptance. There is safety in his arms  -- safety he never knew, safety that Maggie can always count on. His patience and love are unwavering.

What joy there is in holding another's hand, in helping another feel understood and less alone, less fearful, in giving your own child -- or other children in need -- the warm and safe parenting you would like to have had.

What a blessing it is to survive a life storm, to be stronger in those broken places, perhaps with some lingering sadness but with hope renewed and with a capacity to embrace life once again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Political Memories

My first political memory is of my father raging about vice-president Richard Nixon and using the cardboard from that day's laundry-starched dress shirt to draw a breakfast table political cartoon for me -- the same one every day -- of politicians (depicted as pigs) crowding around the public trough. I would giggle over the drawing, then listen with rapt attention as he ranted about Nixonian evils.

Although my father was a registered Republican, the only GOP candidate he ever supported was Eisenhower.  During the 1960 presidential race, he angrily called The Los Angeles Times circulation department to cancel his subscription whenever Nixon's picture appeared on page one. Finally, the paperwork became just too much. The LA Times cancelled his subscription permanently. Thereafter, my parents bought the newspaper at the supermarket.

As I grew up and my political beliefs became -- more or less -- my own, I was transported by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and John Kennedy's inaugural address where he exhorted us to "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country".  I was shocked and saddened by the triple assassinations -- JFK. MLK, RFK.  I applauded LBJ's Civil Rights, Medicare and other social programs while nurturing mixed feelings about the Vietnam war in which my beloved brother risked his life.

Despite the fact that dislike of Richard Nixon was practically in my DNA, I was heartened by his Title X legislation for federal funding of family planning and health-related services.  I was puzzled and frustrated by Jimmy Carter (whom I later admired as an ex-president), and absolutely appalled by Reagan and his voodoo economics.

 I was first optimistic about and then angry with Bill Clinton as he squandered much of his presidency by playing into the hands of rabid opponents with his sexual misconduct and, despite the more robust economy on his watch, he further set the stage for eventual economic disaster with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act in his second term.

I neared apoplexy during the era of George W. Bush. Loathing isn't a strong enough term to describe my feelings for the man and his policies, his admission that his base was "the haves and have mores", and his decisions that put us on the road to near financial ruin in 2008 and perpetual war.

I had such hope for Obama. I felt suddenly able to dream that an outsider with the wisdom and the strength of character and spirit to change the order of things in Washington could make a real difference. My feelings for President Obama have changed considerably in the light of pre-emptive concessions, Wall Street insider appointments, financial criminals unpunished, millions of Americans suffering,  GE paying no taxes and its CEO -- who has contributed immeasurably to the unemployment misery here by sending countless jobs overseas -- appointed to Obama's council on jobs.  I could go on.

What do you do when you're politically riled but you're older, not as affluent and not as mobile as you used to be?

I did a little protesting back in the day. In my active working years, I wrote letters to the newspaper editors, letters to my congressional representatives, wrote magazine articles and contributed to political causes and campaigns. But what now? I'm disgusted with both Republicans and Democrats. There's no likely Presidential candidate nor local who seems worth campaign efforts or funds. If I continue to write letters, emails, sign petitions, write articles and blogs and speak out, will it do any good?

Speaking one's mind can be cathartic. Through the years, I've enjoyed rant-fests with my siblings. Mike, Tai and I are all very different people, with quite diverse life paths, but we all passionately agree politically -- and can spend hours sharing our outrage, our hopes and our dreams. But are we reinforcing each other in difficult times? Or simply raising our collective blood pressure as we carry on?

Beyond self-expression, how do we make a difference?

My husband Bob is a bright, well-read man with political views a bit more moderate than mine. He is convinced that news -- particularly t.v. news -- has de-generated into partisan celebration of peripheral issues and people, cynically programmed to get maximum outrage with minimum effective action from citizens. He has a point.

I watched the Today Show at the gym this morning and had to shake my head at the major deal made of the media-fueled Donald Trump/Bill Cosby feud.  People are losing their homes and, in some instances, their lives in the present fiscal crisis. Our government is now embroiled in not two, but three wars and nearly shut down over partisan Budget disputes. Japan continues to be inundated with tragic events. And precious news minutes are wasted on a story that was lame the minute it happened. As a lunatic-come-lately on the Birther front, Donald Trump is a bore. And Bill Cosby could have more effectively countered his lunacy by confronting it directly instead of making the snarky comment that Trump was "running his mouth." And, in any event, none of this was news.

Bob also argues that stomping around cursing about politics is bad for the heart and the soul.  Once again, he has a point.

Perhaps I need to take a hiatus from most of what passes as news these days. Perhaps I need to focus on what I can do to make a difference with people who are suffering right here and now in small but vital ways. And while my writing skills can always be useful in advocacy and in expressing public outrage, perhaps I need to look to other skills as well -- other ways to care and to help facilitate change locally, here and now.

But it's hard to let go.

Maybe I'm just getting old and pining for the past that was -- at once -- both worse and better than I remember. There was McCarthy, after all. And the civil rights violations and gender bias that sparked protest movements and significant social change.

But there was also Eisenhower, warning against the Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell address to the nation. What president today, even when stepping down, would make such a warning?

There was John Kennedy, urging us to give of ourselves, and Lyndon Johnson managing to get legislation through Congress that would be unthinkable today.

And who would have thought Nixon would start to look less a villain and more a progressive? In the wake of the recent standoff over funding for Planned Parenthood, what Republican president (or Democratic president for that matter?) would sign a bill like Title X today?

Perhaps my sudden political nostalgia is not so much longing for good old days, but for the days when we were, as a nation, more concerned with the common good -- the days when, more often than not. we cared about and were good to each other.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reflections on a Rainy Day

It's a rare rainy day in rural Arizona as I mark a significant anniversary: a year ago today was my last day of work at UCLA and the beginning of a long-dreamed retirement and relocation from Los Angeles to Arizona.

And, as I watch the rainfall pool around the cactus in our front yard, I was just thinking about the whole subject of dreams and expectations -- how they propel us through life and how they complicate our lives. When we dream, we often forget to factor in the realities of daily life and the fact that, in achieving a dream, we lose that dream as a fantasy of the future.

Remember how, as a child, Christmas never seemed to come soon enough? And then, after all the presents were opened and the holiday meal savored, there was not just gratitude for yet another lovely holiday, but also a touch of sadness that all that anticipation, all the delight of holiday music, all the planned festivities were about to become the past.

I remember how, as a young ballet student, I -- along with my classmates -- yearned for the day when we would be strong enough and judged good enough to go en pointe. I fantasized that once I got my toe shoes, I would morph into a graceful ballerina, awkward with turns to the left no more. But when that time finally came, I was no better at turning to the left than ever. And I lost something in grace -- and my feet blistered -- as I struggled to adjust to these strange new dance shoes.  Though I eventually reached a stage of dancing reasonably well en pointe, I had to face the fact that I was never likely to be a professional ballet dancer -- as much as I loved dancing, as much as I could envision a fluid, ethereal style in my mind.

And even when a dream has a wonderful eventual outcome, the initial realization of the dream may depart considerably from misty fantasies.  During an interview for a book I wrote on single parenting some years ago, actress Reva Rose, the single adoptive mother of three children from India, recounted her first meeting with her first adopted child, a two-year-old girl she named Emily. "I had fantasized our meeting as a warm and loving Kodak moment, something like a Clairol commercial where we were running through fields of flowers towards each other with outstretched arms," she said. "The reality was that this was a two-year-old child in an Indian orphanage and I was a stranger.  She took one look at me, screamed and tried to struggle out of my arms.  Hoping to speed the bonding, I took her on an excursion to a local zoo and she screamed so loud, pushing away from me, that bystanders were ready to call the police. Obviously, our relationship improved immensely with time. We are truly mother and daughter now.  I can't imagine life without Emily and my two sons whom I adopted later.  But I learned to give up those unrealistic fantasies and, as I realized my dream of being a mother,  give love time to grow."

We pin so many hopes on the milestones of life -- telling ourselves that "I will be happy when..."
I'm independent, when I get married, when I have a child, when the kids are on their own, when I get a promotion, when I retire....

And we find that independence brings challenges as well as joys, that marriage is no magic shield against depression or illness or misunderstandings, that to have a child is a joy beyond all others, but also makes us vulnerable in ways we never imagined, that having the kids leave the nest can mean not just liberation, but also a very real sense of loss, that promotions mean more responsibilities and pressures in addition to satisfaction, that retirement can be wonderful, but the complications of daily life still abound.

I see and feel the unexpected amendments to long-time dreams all around me. There are the people who focused on retirement as an escape from the rat race, from the stresses of commuting and working, from an unhappy job situation -- without giving sufficient thought to what they would do in retirement, what would occupy their minds, give structure and meaning to their lives and stoke their passions. There are those who expected life to be perfect in a new setting -- only to find that wherever they go, there they are. Life can be pleasant, indeed, in a lovely new community where aging Boomers don't feel marginalized. But that doesn't mean one's collection of habits, proclivities and limitations -- and those of the people around us -- don't continue to be part of daily life.

Compared with a year ago, I'm lighter, more active, less stressed and feel happy more often. But I still struggle with my weight, still get migraines occasionally, still have times of sadness with the losses that life can bring -- from the loss of a beloved pet to the loss of physical prowess.  I always imagined that, with retirement and weight loss, I would dance my way through the years -- maybe not en pointe -- but certainly tap-dancing my way through the rest of my life. But my arthritic feet make dancing more difficult than I imagined -- but they're just fine for walking, for aerobic bicycling, for strength training, for getting me where I need to go.

From my vantage point of nearly 66 years old and one year into retirement, I can see growing limitations in the future, accept that reality and am determined to make the most of each day now.  For the first months of retirement, I was pinching myself daily to make sure this new freedom wasn't just a dream. Then it seemed like an extended vacation. Now it feels like my life -- a very blessed life, to be sure -- but a life that holds a measure of sadness to season the joy.

And my new dreams are more modest in scope than my old sweeping dreams of freedom in retirement.  I want to get in the best possible shape and live a healthy life for as long as possible.  I want to nurture friendships -- both old and new ones -- and be open to new people and possibilities on a daily basis.  I want to learn and grow, to become a better person as I age -- wiser, more generous, more forgiving to others and to myself.  And I'm learning to savor each moment instead of looking past it with dreams -- or dread -- of the future.

So I treasure this rare rainy day, watching the rain fall and smelling the unique and refreshing scent of desert creosote that is most fragrant during and after a rain .  And I tell myself there's no better place, no better time, than right here, right now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Special Loss

                                                   Vilula Colonello   1995-2011

 My delight turned to sadness when I opened an email from Dan and Lydie Colonello, our former next door neighbors in California, the other day.  They told me that their cat Vilula had developed cancer and that, as the disease progressed, they had to make the compassionate, but heart-rending decision to have her euthanized.  Vilula's death was not only was a great personal loss for Dan and Lydie, but was also the last chapter of a bittersweet feline life.

Vilula's bitter part of life came at the beginning.  She was adopted by a couple who lived on our street and we always wondered why. They didn't feed her. They didn't train her to use a litter box. They didn't love her. The only thing they ever gave her was her name.

 She was a wild, but sweet little kitten --hungry for food and for affection.  I first noticed her when she dashed into our open garage and fell on the food dish I kept there for our cat Freddie.  She was so tiny, so thin and ravenous.  At first I thought she was a stray. Then I heard that she actually had owners who thought that she should be able to sustain herself by catching birds and other small wildlife in the neighborhood. Those of us who knew better fed her and talked to that clueless couple many times. They simply shrugged and said she'd have to learn to fend for herself.  And, when Vilula was about a year old, they moved -- and left her behind with the rationale that "She's the neighborhood cat.  She'll survive."

And then the sweet part of Vilula's life began. The person who bought Vilula's first family's house -- Ruth Newhall, a wealthy matriarch of a famous local family, who was in need of a true one-story house due to her advancing age -- was pleased to welcome Vilula in a new way into her old home. She became a cherished companion, curled up on a plush towel covering Ruth's antique sofa.

And Dan and Lydie, who lived across the street, helped with Vilula's daily care and feeding.  When Ruth's health began a final decline and she moved into an assisted living facility,  Dan and Lydie welcomed Vilula, a cat they had loved since her hardscrabble kittenhood, into their home.  As the years passed, this sweet, wild, loving cat became very much a part of their family -- and a friend of ours.  Every day, she came over to greet us -- first thing in the morning and then in the evening when we returned from work. Through the years, her gait became slower, but her enthusiasm never wavered.  Even after we moved away last year, she continued her morning and evening vigils-- hopeful and a bit confused. But our former neighbors told us that she never missed a day.

Dan and Lydie treasured every day they had with Vilula, accepting her limitations -- she never was able to be litter trained -- and celebrating her uniqueness: her sweet and loving nature despite the hardships of her youth, her independent spirit and her loyalty to those she loved.  They were so thankful to be sharing their lives with such a wonderful cat -- a cat that some people thought was disposable.

While Bob and I used to say Vilula really got lucky when Dan and Lydie took her in, I'm sure they would argue that they were the lucky ones.

The number of throwaway animals in this country is astonishing -- and heartbreaking.  Visit any animal shelter, any Pet Smart, look at Petfinder,com and see all the beautiful, special animals who need forever homes. Each one has a uniquely painful backstory.

All of our own cats have been shelter or rescue animals.  My two much loved therapy cats -- Timmy and Marina -- had typically unpromising beginnings.

When he was only three weeks old, Timmy, along with his four littermates, was put in a a cardboard box and thrown into a junkyard.  A passing postal carrier heard their weak cries, picked up the box and rushed the kittens to Dr. Tracy McFarland aka "The Cat Doctor"  in Santa Clarita, CA.  Dr. Tracy spent a month nursing them back to health, then displayed them in her waiting room, offering them for adoption. When Bob and I went into Dr. Tracy's office to get medication for our aging, ailing Freddie, we saw  7-week-old Timmy curled up with his brother Gus. It was love at first sight and we adopted them both.  Timmy, who was wonderfully outgoing and affectionate became my first therapy cat, helping a select group of patients who were depressed or anxious and who requested animal-assisted therapy.  Timmy loved everyone he met. No one was a stranger to him. He was wonderfully complex, bright and communicative -- probably the most special of all the special cats with whom we've shared our lives.  Timmy, unfortunately, died of melamine poisoning from tainted cat food in 2007.  His loss is incredibly painful to this day.

                                                   Timmy the Therapy Cat  1998-2007                        

I first spotted Marina when I went to Pet Smart for cat grass. She was a beautiful flame-point Siamese, not quite two years old and had already been relinquished not once but twice. Her first family said their baby had allergies.  Her second family found her too emotionally needy. I looked into her bright blue eyes and saw so much love and longing, I couldn't leave her behind.  She turned out to be a wonderfully loving feline companion who slept on my pillow and showered me with kisses and face rubs morning and night. She also turned out to be a talented therapy cat with an uncanny ability to calm families and couples in conflict. She filled our home with joy and with her unique, happy little trills. Not long after I closed my practice and Bob and I -- with Gus, Maggie and Marina -- moved to Arizona, Marina died of leukemia which had been undetected until shortly before her death.  I will miss her forever.

                                                 Marina the Therapy Cat   2006-2010

What treasures some people so carelessly throw away! And, despite the sadness and hardship of their earlier lives, what unconditional love these wonderful animals bring to our lives.  My life is infinitely richer for having known and loved Timmy, Marina -- and Vilula. For those who knew them well, the warm memories and the love are forever.

I received another email from Dan Colonello this morning.  "We picked up Vilula's ashes last night," he told me. "Now she will always be at home."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unlikely Friends

She walked into my office, her face tight with fury, accompanied by her young adult daughter who explained to me that her mother was so angry that her orthopedic surgeon had referred her to me for a psychological consultation that she was refusing to speak anything but her native Romanian. Her daughter was there to translate.

There wasn't much to translate.

Every time I asked a question, the woman -- whose name was Marianna -- would scowl, stand up to her full 4'10" and spit, in heavily accented English, "Is stupid question!"

"Mama!" her daughter would say firmly. "Sit down! Listen to the doctor!"

Marianna, still glaring, her eyes never leaving mine, would sit down, waiting for the next question. This routine was repeated throughout the long and excruciating hour.

"Well," I thought as Marianna and her daughter Dorothy left. "I'm sure I won't be seeing her again. What could I have done? What could I have asked that made sense to her?" I couldn't think of a thing.

The next week, I was stunned to see the mother-daughter duo in the waiting room.  Marianna glared at me balefully. Her daughter pulled her into the treatment room.

Impulsively, wanting to know what made Marianna, an immigrant factory worker who had sustained a terrible injury to her arm and shoulder in a work-related accident, have the will to get up in the morning, I asked "What means the most to you in life besides your wonderful daughter?"

The anger went out of her eyes.  She smiled at me for the first time. "My doggie!" she said. I asked her about her dog -- and if she had a picture of him.  She beamed. "I bring!" she said.

The next week she appeared, not only with a large photo album with pictures of her dog Nanook and a recently deceased and much beloved cat Vladamir, but also with the dog.  After we admired the dog together, she asked her daughter to stay in the waiting room this time.  And we started the therapy that was to continue for several years as an emotional support through several grueling surgeries and prolonged, painful recoveries.

And after her treatment was completed, I would check with her from time to time, just to see how she was doing. As the years passed, what was once a professional relationship blossomed into a friendship.
I came to appreciate her robust sense of humor, her quiet strength as she told me about the long nightmare of trying to leave Romania during the Communist regime, the constant interrogations, the possessions of a lifetime left behind or confiscated at the border, the terror she felt at starting over with nothing, without speaking a word of English, in a new land.

We were, in some ways, peers -- born just a few months apart. But we came from very different worlds. A bright woman, she had been, nevertheless, denied a higher education and put to work in a factory at a young age. She took great pride in her daughter, a community college instructor, who spoke perfect English and who had been at the top of her high school graduating class only two years after coming to the U.S. I admired her generosity of spirit and her love and commitment to her daughter and to her aging mother, who had Alzheimer's, and who lived with her.

We shared, of course,  a love of animals  -- this was what had made that first, critical connection in therapy and, later, as friends. I delighted in her dog Nanook and she loved my cats Timmy and Gus.
She was particularly fond of Timmy, whom I used occasionally as a therapy cat.  He would run to greet her and curl up, purring loudly, on her lap when she came to visit.

And, as a friend, she was there to comfort me when I had thoracic surgery and when our beloved Timmy died of melamine poisoning from tainted cat food.  "The world feels more empty without him," she said softly, tears in her eyes as she grasped my hand.  As friends, we rejoiced at the arrival of her first and only grandchild, when Dorothy gave birth to a son named Darrian.  He grew to be a handsome boy, fluent in both English and Romanian, who would greet me at the door with warm hugs and shouts of "Aunty! Aunty Kathy!"

And then there was that last time when I knew she was leaving us, that her damaged heart could sustain her impassioned life no more, when the light and life went out of her expressive brown eyes.  She died soon after, at age 62, leaving family and friends who loved her dearly.

Marianna was on my mind today as I sent a birthday card and gift to her grandson Darrian, who will be 8 years old this Tuesday, I thought again of my unlikely friend -- and gave quiet thanks for the unexpected treasure of our friendship.

 And I wondered how often I -- how often all of us -- might have had the opportunity to make a wonderful new friend, but may have passed the person by because the possibility of friendship seemed just too unlikely.  Perhaps it was the circumstance of the meeting that seemed not quite right. Or perhaps there seemed too wide a gulf in age or lifestyle. Or perhaps it was simply a failure of imagination at a critical time.

Unlikely friends can bring such richness to our lives. Who have been your most unlikely -- nonetheless treasured -- friends?

 I have warm memories of Mac MacKenzie, who was a pioneer pilot, my father's Army Air Force flight instructor in World War II and who spent years traveling the world working for the U.N. After my parents' deaths in 1980,  which came just before the death of his beloved wife, Mac reached out to me in letters, phone calls and a memorable visit I made to his deathbed in Missouri in 1987. In our time together, he taught me so much about early aviation, my parents' youth and the wisdom of his years. Once, when he called, he asked how I was. I catalogued all my troubles. He listened patiently, responding with empathy to my list of complaints. Then, at last, he asked "But you haven't yet answered my question. How are YOU?"  I suddenly understood what he meant. I thought beyond all the superficial matters that were weighing on my mind, to my essence, and made a sudden realization.  "Oh," I replied. "I guess I'm fine." And I marveled at yet another lesson from this wise old man.

Another unlikely but treasured friend is a young Korean American man named George Sun, now just 22, whom I met when he was a 17-year-old high school senior. I was doing admissions interviews along with a group of Northwestern alums that day when an alum brought a young Asian-American applicant to me and asked if I had the time and inclination to interview this young man.  Inside, I was furious: too many alums balked at interviewing young Asian students in suits because they feared they would be brilliant and scary applicants for Northwestern's 7 Year Honors Medical program -- and everyone knew I loved interviewing these bright kids. But I had just done two back-to-back interviews. I was tired. I was chagrined that this alum was passing this student off quite obviously and, I thought, quite rudely. But I smiled at the applicant and said "Sure."

As our interview progressed, I felt one of those rare connections -- a true meeting of minds. We covered a variety of topics. I was enthralled with his intelligence and wit, his willingness to take risks in a positive way, his courage to take a chance. Later than evening, I got an email from him, thanking me for the interview and telling me that he knew this encounter was something he would remember all his life -- whatever the admissions decision might be.  And although I wrote a glowing report, he was not offered admission to Northwestern. Not missing a beat, he enrolled and excelled at NYU and then at USC.  All along the way, he has kept in touch -- writing an insightful sidebar for a chapter in the 2008 edition of "The Teenage Body Book", keeping me up on the details of his life as a college student, sharing his changing and enduring interests with me, and, most lately, as he completes his education in business and finance, he has offered me some very useful financial insights.  And I marvel at yet another lesson from this wise young man.

These experiences make me more determined than ever to be open to a wide variety of friendships with people of all ages -- people I might meet in the most unlikely places or the most unpromising circumstances. One never knows when a life-enriching experience or friendship is about to happen.

And I think how much I might have missed if Mac hadn't reached out, if George hadn't been handed off to me, if I hadn't  -- quite by accident -- asked the question that brought joy instead of rage to Marianna's eyes. I will always be grateful for the joy that she -- and my other unlikely friends -- have brought to my life.