Saturday, December 31, 2011

Musing on New Year's Eve

As other people party on New Year's Eve, I reflect and remember.

And right now, for some reason, my thoughts keep returning to a New Year's Eve 55 years ago.

New Year's Eve 1956 was like so many other New Years Eves of my childhood: my father, usually a night owl, would retire to his bed at 7 p.m., growling about the sad state of the world, the dreadful fate of mankind and the inherent foolishness of anyone who even thought about celebrating the passage from one year to the next. His grumblings were interrupted only by his occasional calls for snacks or for another rum and Coke, sipped as he lay abed bemoaning the year past and the year to come.

And we knew the scenario for New Year's Day as well: he would rise in time to watch the Rose Parade on television, still clad in his favorite thermal ski pajamas, and make caustic comments about every marching band, every float, and, especially, every equestrian unit in the lineup with the ornate, bejeweled costumes of the riders and silver trimmed saddles further weighing down the horses.

And there was a certain comfort in such predictability.

We sat quietly with Aunt Molly that evening. My mother occasionally joined us in between ferrying food and drink to my father's lair.

Suddenly, Aunt Molly announced that she felt some poems coming on. I ran for pen and paper to transcribe her latest inspirations.

And, as I wrote her words down, memorizing them as I went along, I realized something suddenly: that facing each day and each year with a family member who saw the world in a dark and completely different way offered Aunt Molly -- and us -- a unique opportunity. We could make his dark moods our own. Or we could offer him love and understanding despite our differences and bring laughter to a usually difficult night in our house.

I was struck by the affection and gentle humor in Aunt Molly's simple, spontaneous poems to and about her brother, my father. For all their differences, differences that ran deep and angry and as long as they both lived, there was much love between them. I felt it as I transcribed her words.

                                                           New Year's Eve - 1956

Oh Father on thy bed of pain
The New Year now rolls round again.
What words of joy you bring us all
Every time we hear you call.

Oh Father keep our spirits light
With tales of plague and death and blight.
Blithe spirit let us not forget
The present's black. Our doom is set.

But if thou wilt not rise, sweet pere,
Ring out wild bells! Let every hair
Stand upright as in earth and heaven
Fools of the world greet '57.

                                The Day Father Rode in the Rose Parade

The Rose Parade was at its height
The horses pranced, the floats rolled by
When suddenly an awesome sight
Appeared against the drizzly sky.

The crowd let out a mighty roar
And rose to cheer, each man and boy,
For larroping by on an old screen door
Was the one, the only James McCoy.

His ski pajamas blazed with jewels,
His legs were beautiful to see
He rode among the cheering fools
A king of eccentricity.

He passed the stand and there unfurled
A banner scrolled in plastic foam
That read for all the waiting world:
"Okay, you've had it! Fools go home!"

We laughed heartily and together over her efforts. Even Father, languishing in bed, laughed as he read the two poems. And then Aunt Molly, my mother, Mike and I celebrated the coming of midnight and the New Year 1957 by grabbing pots and pans and wooden spoons, running around the front yard banging on the pots and yelling "Happy New Year!" to our neighbors who were also running around their yards, setting off firecrackers and yelling with joy. But the four of us had even more to celebrate that night: we were united in our loving acceptance of what was and hopeful for what might be in the New Year.

What is to be in 2012?

I hope for love despite differences, shared laugher and much joy and gratitude as we greet yet another New Year.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Life According to Christmas Cards

As I take one last look at this year's Christmas cards from friends far away -- relatives, high school and college friends, friends from my careers in publishing, in acting and in psychotherapy -- I'm suddenly struck with the thought that these have changed with the passage of time -- as have we.

From the heady reports of careers on the rise when we were in our twenties and thirties to the sweet letters of the parenting years: cute sayings and even cuter pictures of children. I've kept these holiday pictures of the children of dear friends in a special album, watching many grow up from across the miles in these annual Christmas photos. Now, in some instances, I am pasting the pictures of their children in my album.

As time went on, the cards and letters began to reflect the first losses -- the deaths of parents and the slowing of careers.

And now, as we ease into older age, the character of the holiday messages is changing yet again.

There are fewer cards now. Every year I cross the name of a deceased friend off my Christmas card list. Half of my most cherished female friends from college have passed away -- including two of my three college roommates. It's hard to realize how many years have gone by until I get a note from my deceased former roommate Lorri's daughter Sharon, now, at 43, older than her mother ever lived to be -- and starting to talk about her retirement planning strategies. How is that possible?

And the addresses are changing -- from long-time homes in the Midwest and Northeast to sunnier locations in Florida or Nevada or even here in Arizona. There are messages of happiness, of adjustment struggles, of life regrets, of new passions as the friends of my generation begin to retire.

And, along with the passage of time and the challenges of our changing world, there are messages of distress -- of illness, heightened sense of mortality and fear and of aspects of life and each other previously unknown.

A friend in his fifties, struggling to establish his own business after losing his job a few years ago, is now facing an expensive divorce. He is stressed, worried and heartbroken.

A recently retired college classmate wonders if her thirtysomething children will be able to keep their jobs, support their families and, essentially, stay launched in this troubling economy.

And some struggle a bit to reconcile what they once knew with what they're hearing now. My first lover, a very kind and gentle man whom I have not seen in nearly 40 years, sent a Christmas card as he always does, adding a note to let me know that he reads my blog enthusiastically, though finding himself puzzled and a bit distressed at times to learn of the abuse of my childhood. This is an aspect of my life that, in my youth, I was unable to share with most people, especially men I was trying to impress with a facade of cool sophistication. This man, now 70, remembers my father as a amiable, funny and charming person who used to tease him about the rivalries of their college football teams. My father once played varsity football for UCLA while this boyfriend was a proud graduate of USC. Their good-natured sports talk, when my father was in his reasonably healthy mid-fifties, led to the only positive relationship my father ever had with any of the men in my life. And his memories remind me of the complexity of my father's nature and the truth of all perceptions. And  somehow it pleases me that, through the years, he has held good memories of my father.

Another college friend wonders if he will ever be able to retire as his talented, hard-working and ambitious children struggle, with varying degrees of success, to get a foothold in their chosen professions.

And a dear friend from my acting days calls to talk instead of sending a Christmas card this year. He needs a listening ear. I smile when I hear his voice on the phone.

My most vivid memories of him are as a dashing thirty and fortysomething actor fluent in nine languages, with an ethnic look that made him a shoo-in for a great variety of foreign character roles -- featured in movies here and in Europe and in many popular television shows. He also sang and danced in major stage musicals in Los Angeles. I greatly admired his talent and abundant energy as well as his warm friendship through the years.  He is still a busy working actor doing regular film and television roles. In his early eighties, he has just had a banner year due to a frequently shown national television commercial that has earned him an outrageous sum of money so far -- more money than he has ever made for a single day's work -- and he doesn't speak a word in it, simply reacts with lovely authenticity.

But now, over the phone, I can hear both sadness and fear in his voice. His mother, whom he cared for during the many years since his father's death, recently died at 104. He misses her more than he ever imagined he would. Despite relationships with a number of wonderful women -- the best relationship of all spanning 18 years --he has never married or had children. And now his health is a worry: he recently had a recurrence of the colon cancer he thought he had conquered twenty years ago. He had a quadruple coronary bypass three years ago. He is diabetic. And recently, he has been having episodes of "brain fog" along with loss of balance that is causing him to turn down roles lest people in the industry begin to suspect that he can't handle his work anymore. Most of all, he is feeling very mortal, very sad and very alone.

I linger on the phone with him, promise to call and encourage him to call more often. And, having known him in his prime, I ache for the heartbreak and physical toll that the passage of time, life choices and chance have exacted. And I ache for the losses that we all share, to varying degrees, as we age.

And as I look over all the cards, I envision their senders in a series of snapshots in my mind -- as college kids, as young adults establishing their careers, as parents proudly holding babies, as a sweet first lover, as a busy actor filled with energy and big dreams. Wasn't that just last Christmas or a few holiday seasons ago? How could so many years fly by so fast?

There is a different rhythm to all our lives these days. And to this day, I love these long-time friends and savor their cards and their messages.

My favorite part of this season, indeed, any season -- is to share feelings with dear friends whether these feelings are joy in new passions and discoveries, in the delights of grandchildren and in the adventure of retirement or feelings of pain and fear and uncertainty as our bodies and our lives change with aging.

Whether the messages of this year's Christmas cards are hopeful or sad or somewhere in between, I feel blessed by the lives that have intersected with mine and the chance we have, yet again this year, to offer each other words of comfort and hope and love across the miles.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Memories

As Christmas Eve dawns, I'm surrounded and warmed by Christmas memories.

And not just the memories of childhood Christmases with the eager anticipation of Santa, the warm presence of Aunt Molly with her gifts always chosen with such loving care or the beauty of the Latin Mass on Christmas morning and singing carols along with the liturgy.

But also tangible memories that are with us still.

Our Christmas tree is festive with the ornaments Bob's parents made with such care during the first decade of our marriage.

                                                    Our Christmas Tree - 2011

Each of the ornaments, handmade by Bob's parents, now gone many years, come in many varieties.


                                           Some are tiny stuffed animals and dolls


                                    Some are tiny and beautiful needlepoint creations.

                                      Some were made to add sparkle to the tree

                                 And one, made by Bob's mother the last Christmas of
                                 her life, says a poignant "Goodbye"

And out in the casita, my writing office, that sits in front of our house, Aunt Molly's little fiber-optic Christmas tree that decorated her living room during the last decade of her life is ready to sparkle for all to see once again.

                                                    Molly's Little Christmas Tree

Our lives are filled with traditions and memories from our Christmas photo album:

                                    Gus always inspects the tree, this picture from 1998

                                   There is fun and laughter - in this picture, from 1999,
                                  Aunt Molly, Timmy and I enjoy the holiday together

                                    Friends come to carol - Christmas Eve 2010

                                 Warmth. love and togetherness fill our happy home
                                 Gus (l) with his late brother Timmy, Christmas 1998

May your holiday season be filled with warm memories, joy, friends, family and beloved pets and may your hearts be filled with love and peace!     

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sex, Politics and Religion: Navigating Holiday Table Minefields

Some of the most vivid holiday memories of my childhood revolve around fights about politics and social issues that Aunt Molly and her brother/my father used to have in the kitchen before and after holiday meals.

He was an Eisenhower Republican (though his loathing for Nixon would cause him to cast votes for Democratic presidential candidates for the next two decades). She was a liberal Democrat. He made scathing remarks about every ethnic group on earth --even the Irish ("incredibly stupid, shiftless, drunken, Church-hobbled people") -- but excluded the Chinese and Native Americans from his rancorous comments because his beloved late father, a lawyer, had worked with and befriended them. Aunt Molly called him on his unrepentant racism at every opportunity.

One of their most memorable battles began with a half-hearted skirmish about Adlai Stevenson and then began to heat up when Aunt Molly urged Father to stop drinking in the kitchen and come relax and watch televison with the family. We were mid-way through an episode of "Have Gun, Will Travel." Father sat down grumbling, just as a fight scene started onscreen.  He snorted in disgust. "Goddam Hollywood judo!" he muttered.

In an instant, Aunt Molly was on her feet. "Can't you leave the Jews out of anything?" she yelled. "Do you always have to make horrible comments about such fine people?" And she stormed out of the living room, out the back door and to the workshop/guest room in the back yard, tossing her lit cigarette aside and slamming and locking the door of the workshop behind her.

"Judo! I said 'Judo!'" my father yelled after her, leaning out the back door.

Suddenly, he realized that a small dry bush under the kitchen window had been ignited by Aunt Molly's discarded cigarette. Frantic, he ran to the workshop to get his fire extinguisher and found the door locked. "Molly,' he screamed. "Let me in! The house is on fire! I need the fire extinguisher!"

"Go away!" she yelled back.

And, as they continued to yell at each other through the locked door,  my mother extinguished the small blaze with the garden hose.

Most of their fights weren't quite so dramatic. Some seemed positively recreational. Still, they tended have their most impressive ones on major holidays. It was as predictable as cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

And after Father died in 1980, Molly seemed wistful but resigned on all holidays thereafter to forgo the fighting drama. It was impossible: we all agreed with her and each other on all the sensitive issues. Harmony was nice, but there were times, I think, when she longed for a good, screaming holiday fight.

There are many families for whom lively holiday table debates and family skirmishes are an integral and enjoyable part of the holiday. For many, nothing can beat a good recreational family battle. If the conflicts were taken away, the holidays would pale.

But not everyone thrives on holiday controversy.

For some families, less inclined to high drama, the comments can be quiet, but cutting: differences in religious beliefs or politics or sexual proclivities or lifestyles can take tense center stage.

And for some, family fights and hurtful comments can drive emotional wedges between family members that can last years, causing painful and unnecessary estrangements.

How can you dodge such minefields at your holiday table?

Make a decision to avoid touchy subjects. Just because you disagree on certain key topics, you don't have to air these differences when you're together. There are so many other things to talk about, laugh about and and share. Bob and I recently had a delightful two-hour dinner out with our neighbors Carl and Judith. We differ with each other, to varying degrees, on politics and religion. But that doesn't mean we can't be friends or have a wonderful evening together. Our evening was filled with lively conversation and much laughter. We had a terrific time.

Don't take the bait. If you've made a decision to avoid touchy subjects, but another family member or friend zeros in, don't bite. Deflect the conversation to something else. Say you're trying to be on good behavior and love everybody today. Joke in a cautionary way: "Let's not go there. You know how I get." And then change the subject. If you know that you and your mother-in-law will never agree on religious matters, don't get into the usual exchange. It isn't worth it. You won't change her mind. You'll get your blood pressure up. And your arguing could end up annoying everyone. Just for today, you can take a deep breath and stop the conflict before it starts.

Know the difference between recreational and serious fighting.  Fighting is recreational only if both parties agree that it is. If one person starts a conflict just for the fun and excitement that ends up seriously upsetting another, that's a fight not worth starting or continuing. Play bickering, if part of a family/sibling tradition is one thing. But a fight that ends up with tears or with someone stomping away from the holiday table, this quite something else. You know from past experience how much teasing or play fighting another can take or whether it's appropriate at all. Take a cue from holidays past -- and aim to make this one happier for all.

If your skirmishes upset other family members, establish a conflict turf away from the holiday table. There are times when even a recreational fight can ruin a family holiday meal if others are bothered by bickering, barbs and conflict. If the holidays would be lame without a good recreational fight with a long-time opponent, indulge yourselves in a more private setting. Go to the den, to the patio in warmer climes, for a drive if you're so inclined -- anywhere you can argue to your hearts' content without upsetting anyone else.

Avoid or call out deliberate cruelty.  Whatever the family dynamics, there is no excuse -- ever -- for deliberate cruelty. My husband Bob's younger brother Miles had grown up determined to make his way in the world by marrying a rich woman. And he hit the jackpot with Cyndi. Not only was she rich, coming from gracious Old Money, but also she was beautiful and kind. Both Bob and I liked her immensely. Miles became a stockbroker and increased their wealth. When they were 24, they were living in a gorgeous house overlooking the ocean in Corona del Mar/Newport Beach in Southern California. At the same time, Bob and I were in our early married lean years, slowly building toward the affluent life we were later to enjoy, living in an apartment and counting our pennies. We never begrudged them their lifestyle. However, Miles never missed an opportunity to humiliate us, especially during holiday gift-giving. He made fun of us the Christmas we had requested a low-key gift exchange and actually rejected our home made gifts while giving me a dime-store pair of outrageously over-sized panties at a time I was just starting to put on some weight, roaring with laughter as I opened the package. But he exceeded himself one Christmas not long after I had lost both my parents. Not only was I grieving my parents but I was also in my mid-thirties grieving Bob's and my involuntary childlessness even as Miles and Cyndi were having and nurturing their two sons. At the holiday table, Miles suddenly started making fun of me as the only "non-mother" at the table, saying that it was a joy I would never experience. I was stunned and stung by his cruelty -- and cried with anger, outrage and grief all the way home. Obviously, even today -- nearly 30 years after the fact -- I still feel a surge of anger thinking about it -- and it has been many years since Bob and I have shared a holiday meal -- or any time at all -- with his brother's family. The seeds of this estrangement were sown, at least in part, in the hurt of those long-ago holidays.

Give a holiday gift of flexibility and understanding. This can mean calling a truce, changing a stance, volunteering to be the one who makes peace. For example, it may mean going to church services without grumbling or complaining if it would mean a lot to someone you love, even if you no longer believe (or never did). Or make it easier for loved ones to attend services by offering to babysit or to prepare a post-services meal. Or give a family member or friend the gift of a listening ear without negative feedback. Or suggest doing something that you know would be meaningful for them even if it's something you wouldn't dream of doing on your own.

More than 50 years after the fact, I still smile when I think of Aunt Molly's suggestion one day during Christmas vacation that she drive me all the way into Hollywood (a 60 mile roundtrip with horrible traffic even then) to see "The Nun's Story." I was in the midst of the sanctimonious-religious phase of my adolescence, which she found more than a little trying. Yet she knew that I wanted more than anything to see that movie. And she volunteered to take me and sit through it without any caustic comments (of which she was quite capable) about the Catholic Church. I've never forgotten the love behind this holiday gift to me.

Perhaps the best way to navigate holiday conversational minefields is to remember the love that brings us together for the holidays.  As a holiday gift to those you love, hold your tongue. Suspend judgement. Deflect inflammatory comments. Do something that may be inconvenient or hard or boring to you -- but is a joy to someone else.

If you do any or all of these things, you may make a major difference for someone you love this holiday season: a memory of kindness to be treasured for years to come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beating the Holiday Blues

The melancholy may overwhelm you when you hear a certain Christmas song over the sound system at the gym, an elevator or a crowded store.

Your mood may change from joy to the doldrums of resentment and depression when you struggle to cover your growing holiday gift list on a shrinking budget.

Or sadness may make you want to close your eyes and ears to the holiday cheer as you cope with the loss of a loved one -- a first holiday without him or her.

The memories, the flashbacks, the turns your life has taken can all exacerbate feelings of loss, the yearning for warm connections and the loneliness of being emotionally stranded during a season devoted to the realities and fantasies of family togetherness.

It may seem that the best you can do is to simply endure the holiday season. But there are alternatives to grim endurance.

If music is flashback to the past -- and brings on the blues: Instead of dwelling on the sadness of holidays that will never be the same, let yourself return to that moment and feel the joy and excitement.

Religious Christmas music reminds me of the holidays of childhood and adolescence when I sang in our parish choir, so enjoying the religious traditions and rituals that have ceased, over time, to be part of my life. I feel the peace that was part of the faith that once came so easily, that was such a comfort in my bittersweet youth.  And when I hear Gene Autry singing "Here Comes Santa Claus", I'm suddenly five years old again, excited about Santa and the promise of a surprise under the Christmas tree.

If a certain Christmas song brings back memories of a lost love, let yourself experience the joy of that love. Focus on the love you've experienced in your life, skipping for at least a moment any sad comparisons between then and now.

Each phase of life, each holiday season of our lives, can be joyous in different ways. Let yourself feel the gratitude for the blessings of Christmases past. And then look to the present. Sharing Christmas with an excited child or adding to a child's hope and happiness this year can help you to experience the holidays in a new and wonderful way. Reconnecting with your faith or with special people can bring peace and joy to this season. Celebrating with new friends can bring special pleasure to these days as wel.

If your family isn't co-operating with your holiday scenario. Maybe you want a big family celebration but your siblings are opting for smaller scale holidays with their own nuclear families or with in-laws. Or maybe you want the peace of your own holiday plans -- a getaway for two or simply cocooning with your significant other in the comfort of your own home, eating take-out and celebrating quietly -- and the rest of your extended family wants a blow-out traditional family Christmas and is guilting you into a full-fledged depression. What to do? Look for a timely compromise. Participate in a celebration with all or part of your family before or after your travel (or cocooning) plans or around their official holiday plans. The point is reaffirming love and enjoying time together -- whether you do this on December 24 or 25 or after.

I'll have to admit, I had a fantasy of hosting my brother and his family (and maybe my sister, too, though she prefers to work major holidays for the extra pay) here in Arizona for Christmas. So when my brother announced that he, Amp and Maggie were going to spend the holidays in Thailand with Amp's family instead, I felt a wave of disappointment. Even though I know my brother isn't into holidays the way I am, even though I know that Amp -- who is in her difficult first trimester of her second pregnancy -- was longing for time with her mother, even though I know that Maggie blossoms with happiness the minute she sets foot in Thailand, I pouted for few hours. Then I decided to reframe this new development as an opportunity. We will have a quiet Christmas with friends. I will revel in a lesser level of responsibility for the holiday meal: I'm bringing the dressing while my neighbor Louise cooks the turkey and another neighbor Padma brings her special gingered vegetables. Bob and I will come home to peace and an uncluttered house. And I'm happily anticipating a visit with my brother and his family in early February. Hearing the excitement in his voice about our February visit helped raise my spirits, too. We're spreading the holiday cheer of togetherness into an otherwise dull winter month.

Anytime there is love and family -- there is a special holiday whatever the date on the calendar!

If depression is a holiday habit. Change your behavior and your feelings may change as well. If you've spent years hating the holidays, saying "No" to every invitation and spending the time in dark brooding, now is the time to change. Start saying "Yes" to some invitations to celebrate with friends. If no one invites you anymore because you've always declined, throw a holiday open house. That may be less daunting than a sit-down meal. Schedule it for a before or just after the major holidays. Order sandwiches on trays, salads, shrimp cocktail and small desserts from your local deli and invite friends over for a couple of hours. Once they recover from their shock, they'll be happy to help you celebrate the season anew.

If you hate holiday music, find pleasure in music you do like. See people you enjoy. Spend time reflecting, meditating and giving thanks fot all the blessings of your life. Focus on what's going right for you instead of dwelling on what's going wrong. As the world around you pauses to enjoy the holidays, give yourself a break from the concerns and anxieties you feel and let yourself enjoy today. Just today. And then take it day by day, rejoicing in the blessings of your life each day, throughout the holiday season.

Obviously, you can't go from a Scrooge to a holiday Pollyanna in a day. But you can begin to make changes that bring you pleasure, lightening your mood and brightening your holiday season little by little.

If you are marking your first Christmas without a loved one -- that empty chair, that void left in your heart -- can be overwhelming. Let yourself feel the sadness and loss. Take time for yourself -- to cry, to grieve anew, to think with longing about past holidays enjoyed with this loved one. Then plan ways to reinvent the holiday rituals -- with some familiar traditions for comfort and new rituals as well.

The holidays will always accentuate that loss. You'll never not miss that special person during these times. But shared grief and celebration of this person can help make this first holiday season bearable.

One of the best Thanksgiving celebrations I've ever had was in the immediate wake of a terrible family loss: my cousin Jack lost his 35-year-old wife Tanzy to breast cancer just before Thanksgiving 1982. Her family and Jack's parents -- my Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Elmer -- were in town for the funeral. I invited them for Thanksgiving -- and, after a little hesitation, they decided to come. It was one of the sweetest, most loving holidays in my memory. We talked and cried about Tanzy, remembering her with humor, warmth and love. We cherished each other's company. I loved meeting Tanzy's mother and sister and kept in touch with her mom for the rest of her life. The pleasure of spending a holiday with my beloved Aunt Evelyn and watching her make some of her holiday favorites added very special joy to our quiet celebration. I enjoyed Uncle Elmer's unique humor and treasured the time with Jack. We missed Tanzy very much -- but we missed her together, with loving shared memories and the comfort of carrying on with the holiday as a family.

While your pain may not be quite as raw in subsequent years, you will always feel that pang of loss. It's important to acknowledge it, be with your feelings for a time and then look for ways to keep the joy in your holiday season.

We've spent 8 Christmas seasons now without Aunt Molly. It's hard to imagine. From my earliest childhood, she absolutely made our holidays merry. From hunting for the perfect Christmas tree, to giving us presents that we still cherish years later, from leading Christmas carols to savoring the holiday feast, she was the most joyous one of us. Since she passed away a few days into the New Year of 2004, Christmas has never been the same. But we have our memories, our stories, our rituals and some new traditions as well. We consider keeping the holidays joyous as a way to honor this wonderful woman who brought immeasurable joy to our lives, whatever the season.

If you're feeling resentful of commercialism and the expense of so many presents. Scale down. Draw names. Or agree with loved ones that there will be few or no presents -- just the joy you feel in being together, in special times shared. Bob and I haven't given each other Christmas gifts for more than 30 years. We have everything we need and consider each day we have together as a special gift. At holiday time, we rejoice in contributing to our favorite charities and buy gift cards for a few needy families we know. But most of all, we enjoy the gift of another year, another holiday season, together.

If you find yourself alone -- after a move, a divorce, the death of a spouse, a romantic breakup, or a family dispute, you can still have a happy holiday. Make your own Merry Christmas: sign up with a local church or charity group to serve a holiday meal for the homeless. Take gifts and holiday treats to a person or family you know who are worse off than you. Pamper yourself in the best way you know: with a day devoted to exactly what you want to do, listening to your favorite music, getting caught up on reading, taking a hot bath or shower and spending the day in a soft robe or fresh pajamas. Attend a family celebration virtually: via Skype or iChat or Facetime.  Or gather a family of friends together for a special holiday feast. There are so many ways to be happy.

One of the most challenging holidays of my life was the one I spent in Chicago while in graduate school at Northwestern. I was living in a run-down, fourth floor walkup apartment with a bullet hole in the living room window and the only roommate I had ever had with whom I did not get along. I had just been dumped by the love of my life, was working my way through school and couldn't afford to go home for Christmas. After some time spent weeping whenever I heard the song "I'll Be Home for Christmas", I decided to take Aunt Molly's directive to "Get down off your cross and get your sense of humor back."

After my roommate left to spend the holidays with her family, I invited my dear friend Jeanne Nishida, who was a senior still living in the dorm, working her way through school and couldn't afford to go home to Hawaii for Christmas, to spend the holidays with me. We found the perfect tree at a lot in downtown Evanston and, since neither of us had a car, we carried and dragged our prize through the snow the mile-and-a-half home, laughing and planning our decoration theme. We transformed the dumpy apartment to a holiday wonderland, thanks to Jeanne's creativity with cut-out paper snowflakes and the sparkling lights of our festive tree. We baked cookies, talked story Hawaiian style and sang Christmas carols. We visited our friends Lorri and Bruce on Christmas Eve for much laughter and egg nog, then made a sumptuous Christmas day feast for us and our friends. My former roommate Ruth, who was in law school, and her friend Richard drove from Cleveland to spend the New Year's holiday with us.  We sat on the living room floor -- Ruth, Richard, Jeanne and I -- eating take-out Chinese food, talking, laughing and watching the celebration in Times Square on television. And 44 years later, I still smile when I remember holiday season 1967 and the dear friends who shared it with me.

A major way to beat holiday blues is to stop expecting perfection and celebrate what is.

 I was reading a newspaper story recently about family holiday minefields. One family has converted an annual argument between husband and wife over the consistency of the gravy for the turkey into a recreational event: the whole family gathers in the kitchen to witness and enjoy the annual "Gravy Fight" and now, laughing, the parents oblige them in a token battle.

Some of the holiday memories that make me smile are ones where something wasn't perfect -- like Christmas 1981 when Bob and I had just bought our first house and agreed to host three -- count them, three! - holiday meals at our house. On the 23rd, we hosted Aunt Molly and my brother Mike, who -- as a medical intern -- had to work on Christmas. On the 24th, we hosted Bob's family -- his parents, grandmother, brother and sister-in-law. On Christmas Day, we hosted my sister Tai and her then husband Larry and my cousins Jack and George and their families. By that third day, I was totally frazzled. And I forgot to put a cookie sheet under the turkey baking pan. Midway through roasting, the pan split, sending turkey drippings all over the oven. As a thick cloud of smoke roiled out of the oven, I went into a frenzy -- insisting everyone go out on the patio with a tray of cookies while I cleaned the oven and Bob rushed to turn off all the screeching smoke alarms in the house. We ended up having a lovely dinner, some time later, and many laughs about my self-imposed holiday ordeal and my wild-eyed admonition to my guests to "Take these cookies and go! Go out to the patio -- now!"

The holidays, after all, aren't about expensive presents or exotic trips or non-stop revelry. They're about us -- with our imperfections, quirks and good will. They're about those we love. They're about happy memories, counting our blessings, allowing pleasure into our lives and cherishing sweet moments and warm connections with family and friends. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Life Changes in An Instant

It happened in an instant: carrying bags of groceries in both hands, John had started up the stairs to the townhouse when his left knee buckled and he fell backward so quickly he had no time to drop the groceries and grab the railing to stop his fall. The back of his head smacked the pavement and he lost consciousness.

What followed was a frantic attempt to save his life: the screaming siren of the ambulance, immediate brain surgery, a prayer vigil as his wife Mary and their three children Matt, Liz and Katie waited. He survived the night and the subsequent weeks, finally regaining consciousness and, little by little, the ability to recognize loved ones, to speak and to read.

But some aspects of the life of this smart and sophisticated man who once headed the international division of a major food corporation and traveled the world are gone forever. He can no longer drive. He walks with great difficulty. He has major cognitive deficits: he can no longer multi-task nor does he always process what is said to him. He has no reflexes that prompt him to notice or catch something falling from his lap nor does he realize that anything is the matter with him. He can't understand why Mary won't let him drive or buy a bicycle. He scoffs at his physical therapist's alternative suggestion of a three-wheeler. He alternately tells Mary, a gifted psychotherapist who retired from her practice to care for him full-time, how much he loves her and how angry he is with her, saying that he doesn't understand why she won't let him drive.

And their days together flow on, determined by the rhythm of his life: getting up mid-day, fixing his favorite meals, caring for their two devoted little dogs, sitting together in the sun on their ocean-view balcony, performing tasks of daily living once easy, now hard. Neither complains. They're united in love and in faith.

                                                    John and Mary Breiner

Having just spent several days visiting with Mary, one of my closest friends over the past 40 years, and John, her husband of 26 years, I have come away with a sense of awe of the difficulty and devotion of their shared lives.

And being with them has reminded me both of the blessings of long friendships and of how life can change so profoundly in a minute. A stumble, a missed step, an unstable knee. That's all it takes to change life forever.

And sometimes that life-changing moment can even be an exuberant moment gone wrong or an impulsive, if disastrous, gesture of love.

I just got a call tonight from my cousin Caron Roudebush, who lives in suburban Kansas City. She told me that a grandchild's loving and exuberant leap into her arms has led to a life-limiting back injury and then, additionally, life-changing respiratory distress, requiring oxygen, became part of Caron's daily life. She has suffered greatly and her life has changed from that of an eternally young, gently aging woman who loved to care for her family to a woman who now needs the constant daily care of her husband and family. Her husband Bud, her sweetheart since they were 14 years old and her spouse for nearly 53 years, retired to take care of her and even learned to cook all their favorite foods. "He has saved my life. Everything has changed with this injury," she said without a trace of bitterness. "But I am surrounded with so much love. How can I complain? Besides, I still feel incredibly young inside."

                                  Bud and Caron Roudebush       

And I wonder: would I be so loving, so accepting, so optimistic, so embracing of life were I the one injured or if I were a full-time caregiver? Watching the love and devotion of Mary and John and Caron and Bud, I'm both incredibly sad that bad things have happened to such good people and deeply moved by their mutual devotion.

It also reminds me that we have no guarantees in life. Each healthy moment, each opportunity to do for others, each day of independence is a blessing. Every day that we can walk or run or breathe easily is to be treasured. And every moment with a loved one is very special.

So let's embrace these moments and these loved ones today, this minute.

In just a moment, so much can change.