Friday, February 24, 2012

Life Lessons From A Class Pariah

It's an interesting concept: my high school recently sent me a "Giving Forward" fundraising letter, inviting me to donate to the school's scholarship fund in honor of someone in the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy community-- past or present -- who has given a gift of themselves to me in some way over the years.

I immediately thought of my beloved Sister Ramona, who brought such joy to my senior year of high school and to my life thereafter, as an inspired teacher and, to this day, a treasured friend.

                                             Sister Ramona Bascom in 1963          

Of course, I'll make a donation in her honor.

And then I thought of someone else, someone less obvious, but no less important: my former classmate Janet Zieschang.

Janet was the pariah in my class of 44 girls.  She was a new sophomore -- joining our class a year after the rest of us had arrived and made friends. She was obese at a time when that was rare in an adolescent. She was shy and could be truculent when she anticipated rejection or ridicule. She had a November birthday and had also skipped a grade early in elementary school. So she was, at a time when this mattered, nearly two years younger than the rest of us. She was, inside, still a little girl, still wanting to hold a classmate's hand on the gym court, inspiring an avalanche of snarky comments about being a lesbian. No one wanted to be her friend.

I felt empathy for her situation early on because I had had a brief experience being a pariah only a few years before and knew it meant daily heartbreak. My own introduction to pariah-dom was in seventh grade. As far as I'm concerned, seventh grade -- indeed, all of middle school -- is the most powerful argument against reincarnation that I can imagine.

My particular seventh grade angst played out at my Catholic parish grade school and started when the principal, Mother Ronan, remarked to my class one day that my parents weren't properly married (e.g. in the Catholic Church) and suggested that people stay away from me.

It didn't take much urging for the "in" group -- a snotty bunch of girls from the parish's major Catholic family dynasties -- to excise me from all social circles. They planned a big party for our class and everyone was invited except me. I found out about it when there was a fracas on the playground: my friend Pat Hill told the "in group" ringleader that she would not attend the party because I was not invited. I was warmed by her loyalty, impressed by her courage and puzzled by my exclusion. My parents' marriage in a Protestant church didn't seem sufficient grounds for pariah status. But, for a time, it was. And purposely being left out of everything felt terrible.

That's why my heart went out to Janet immediately.  I saw the pain in her eyes, the sag of her shoulders as she passed by giggling or dismissive classmates. I weighed the consequences: if I befriended her, would I be a pariah again, too? Worse, if I stood by in silence, would I be just as culpable as those who more actively taunted her? I decided to reach out in friendship.

It wasn't always easy. We had few interests in common. She was reflexively testy. But we shared many values in common and that was enough.

We were both passionate in our interests. My passions were writing, acting and dance. Hers were music, photography and sewing. I respected her for the hours she spent at the piano in the music conservatory, for her appreciation of all kinds of good music and her eye for color and design in her fashion creations. She was heavy when the rest of us were not. But her clothes were lovely and original. And she had an unerring eye for beauty in her photographs.

I marveled at how calmly she accepted what I saw as a pretty grim life history. Her parents had divorced when she was a baby and her father subsequently showed little interest in her. She had been pretty and slim until she was 9 years old. After suffering serious injuries in a horseback riding accident, Janet's eyes didn't track well together and during her long convalescence, she began to put on weight. Her mother was a slim, attractive registered nurse who sacrificed to send Janet to boarding school -- both for a good education and to have a regular, supervised routine with no access to junk food. Janet loved the independence of being away from her mother -- albeit on a hilltop campus with a moat around it. She dreamed of being just another kid in our class, hanging out easily with others. But what seemed a very ordinary dream proved elusive for Janet.

But, to my surprise, she was happy much of the time. From Janet's perspective, the kindness of the nuns, the peace and beauty of the surroundings and a few friendly faces among her classmates all combined to make these the best years of her life. No one loved our school quite as intensely as Janet did.

And I had this dream for her back then: that she would morph into a great beauty with the grace of Loretta Young descending the staircase at the opening of her show. I dreamed that Janet would become a famous fashion designer and appear -- gorgeous and successful -- at, say, our 30th high school reunion and everyone would be sorry they were mean to her in high school.

Janet never became a fashion designer or famous or lithe and lovely like Loretta Young.

But she did become my friend.

She didn't become my best friend but Janet was a good person who was a loyal and caring friend for the rest of her life.

So when I urged her to attend our 30th reunion, she did. And the same people who mistreated her in our teens were quick to mistreat her again the minute she arrived, even more dangerously obese, using a walker at the age of 46. People didn't want to sit with her at lunch, turned their backs on her and giggled the old saying "Goodyear Blimp at 7 o'clock high!".  I sat and talked with her the whole afternoon as others melted away from us. As she was leaving, Janet embraced me "I came to see you anyway," she said. "I don't care about the others." But I was angry and heartbroken that some people, even in midlife, could be so cruel.

As her health worsened in her late fifties, and after her mother's death, Janet was confined to assisted living and, finally, a nursing home. She wrote plaintive letters about how she wanted her life back. And sometimes she  focused her anger on me, telling me that, with my blessed life, I couldn't ever truly understand what it meant to be deprived of everything, including her beloved cat and her treasured piano and, most of all, her freedom to come and go. She was past lamenting that she had never had a date, let alone been embraced and cherished by someone special.  She just wanted her normal life back. But, as her physical and mental health deteriorated, her freedom slipped further and further away.

"Promise me that you'll take me to our 50th reunion," she said one day. "I want to stand up and be recognized and get that golden diploma."

"We'll do it, Janet. The golden diploma will be yours," I said, quietly wondering how she -- how we -- would manage.

Soon afterwards, I discussed the situation with several of our former classmates -- my dear friend Pat Hill and several others who happened to be in town one weekend. We met at a McDonald's -- and stayed for hours, talking, laughing and making tentative plans for our 50th reunion several years hence. (No one there but me had attended the awful 30th reunion and they looked horrified during my recounting of the event.)

I handed Janet's latest plaintive letter to Pennie Eiban, who had been one of Janet's roommates and one of the other friendly faces for Janet among our classmates. Pennie's eyes filled with tears as she read the letter. "How can we help her?" she asked.  Pennie, Julie, Mary Agnes and Pat all agreed that we'd do everything we could to get Janet to that reunion and make it special and welcoming for her.

In the meantime, we all agreed to write to her, to shower her with cards and flowers for her birthday, to call her, to plan a visit. But even as we were planning, it was too late. Janet passed away a few days later  --  on February 26, 2009. Everyone on our class' Facebook page -- even those who had once made fun of her -- expressed sorrow and regret at her demise.

In the wake of her loss, I have looked back and been grateful that I had the chance to know her as a friend. Though our lives were very different, we touched each other's hearts repeatedly through the decades and I felt that I learned and grew in positive ways from knowing her well.

The lesson has endured.

Not long after we moved here to Arizona, we began hearing stories about a crazy lady who lived a few blocks away: how she was frightening all the neighbors by her erratic behavior, how she had threatened neighbors with a gun, how she could seem reasonable one day and would be raving the next. Her across the street neighbor -- a nasty blowhard as far as I could see -- taunted her in the gym one day and the resulting conflict brought several police cars screeching up to our community center. I shuddered when I heard the story, glad that we lived a safe distance away.

One day, Bob and I were among the last in the community to board a bus for a day trip to Jerome, a hilltop artists' colony and historic mining town about three hours from our home. Only one person was behind us -- and slid into the last seat of the three person seat we were occupying at the back of the bus.

She smiled and told us her name. She lived in our neighborhood. I asked which street. She told me and I caught my breath -- linking the first name and the street name with the notorious crazy lady. The shower music from Psycho played in my head. Bob looked similarly stunned.  But then we started talking and the three hour trip seemed incredibly short. We covered an incredible array of topics. We laughed. And I watched carefully between the congenial talk and laughter. Yes, her speech was pressured. Yes, she was anxious. Yes, she was intense. But she was bright and funny and kind.

After all the horrific tales that had circulated about her, she had nothing negative to say about anyone. She was lonely after a recent divorce. Her church meant everything to her. She was starting to join clubs and get acquainted after a year of hiding out and mourning her lost marriage. She was just looking for a chance to blend in, to be accepted.  And whenever we've seen her since, she has been friendly, optimistic and eager to share good news: she has met someone she likes a lot. She's getting in shape. She's feeling much better. And the neighbor who used to taunt her from across the street has moved away. Life is, at last, looking good for her -- and her neighbors.

It was yet another part of the life lesson I started learning so many years ago: that no matter how reviled the pariah, there is a worthwhile, loving person there underneath the label. And embracing someone burdened with pariah status can teach one many lessons.

Janet taught me that everyone has a story, has dreams and yearnings -- and, quite often, these are as simple as casual acceptance and a friendly smile.

Janet taught me that behind every taunt there is a cost -- not only to the object of the taunt, but also to the person who ridicules another.

Janet taught me that, even when things look unpromising, there are little joys to celebrate: a piece of exquisite music, peaceful surroundings, a good talk.

Janet taught me that enduring friendships are possible even when friends lead very different lives.

Janet taught me this -- and so much more. I am sad that she will not be standing with us a year from now to get that golden diploma she wanted so much. But she will be very much with us in memory and in life lessons learned.

And so I'll be "giving forward" to my high school for two very dear people  -- Sister Ramona Bascom and Janet Zieschang. Both have taught me so many life lessons and have been, each in her own way,  great gifts to my life for the past 50 years.

                                     Janet Marie Zieschang (1946-2009) in 1963

Friday, February 17, 2012

Sometimes Life Needs to Slow Down

We talk about smelling the roses.

We think about mindfulness.

But, all too often, we get swept along by the unyielding rhythm of modern life, even in retirement, and it takes a major change of routine or a shock to the system to make us stop on our tracks.

I've had both in the past few weeks.

During a visit to Los Angeles to see my dear friend Mary and her husband John, whose disability due to his traumatic brain injury is stealing him away little by little every day, I saw how they savored his increasingly rare moments of lucidity to express their love and devotion. Those brief times each day were a rare treasure not to be missed as both felt their time together, the life they have shared for 26 years, slipping away.

A few days later, during a visit with my brother and his family, I realized just how much time seems to go in slow motion when it comes to building and refreshing relationships. This visit, I had some long and lovely conversations with Mike. I got to know my sister-in-law Amp better, appreciating not only the sweet, peaceful Thai Buddhist soul I've come to know, but also the feisty, fiercely loyal and courageous woman I'm in the process of discovering as I spend more time with her. And Maggie, my niece, is only two years old. There is so much I want to share with her. But it's a relationship that can't be rushed. The bond with this smart, passionate, edgy little girl needs time and gentle nurturing. We made progress this time around. The first night, she approached me, threw a book in my direction and vanished. The second night, she handed me a book and hung around to hear the story. The day after, she stood on my feet and stared into my face intently as I read to her. The last night, she wiggled onto my lap to show me stories on her iPad. Trust and comfort and love take time.

So does healing, as I've learned this week. I returned from L.A. with a cold/flu and fever. These symptoms evolved into a ferverish tooth and jaw ache over last weekend. By Sunday, I desperately made the first dental appointment I could for Monday. Monday morning, I got up, took my blood pressure medication and got into a hot shower -- unwittingly unleashing the perfect storm on my system as my blood pressure dropped precipitously and I passed out, with no warning, in the shower.

I came to with the water running over me and total dental havoc: My mouth had slammed into a wrap-around marble seat/ledge in the shower as I fell, knocking out one of my front teeth and seriously damaging the other three teeth front and center in my mouth. My lower jaw still throbbed with the raging infection.

I spent more than three hours in the dental chair Monday. What was left of the knocked out tooth was extracted, the three others filed down and a four-tooth bridge installed. For the infection, the dentist referred me out to an experienced oral surgeon an hour away -- who couldn't see me until Tuesday. So Tuesday I spent another two hours in oral surgery -- with the difficult removal of the lower molar, the scraping of my jawbone and a bone graft inserted. Now I'm lying low and taking big doses of antibiotics and taking my time to heal.

There are so many posts I want to write -- and many more blogs I love I want to catch up on.

But, for now, it's time for healing.

And, in my healing, I've come to appreciate anew the blessing of a true partner: my husband Bob who can take charge when I can't, pick me up and hold me tight, let me know that -- however miserable and in pain and exceedingly non-stoic I'm being -- I am dearly loved.

Healing and partnerships and losses and knowing oneself and others well and love itself -- all take time.

                             First story with Maggie and last picture of my old smile

                                    Maggie snuggling -- at last -- February 5, 2012