Saturday, March 26, 2016

On an Easter Sunday Long, Long Ago....

The memories came flooding back yesterday when, by chance, I pulled an old book from the shelf of our home library and a yellowed envelope fell out from between the pages.

I picked it up, examining the lovely, legible handwriting that so many learned in the early decades of the last century. It was from a beloved aunt, my mother's youngest sister, who had been my grandmother's caregiver in the last years of her life. It was postmarked June, 1981 -- six months after Grandma's death and eight months after my mother's unexpected passing.

"I found these pictures in your grandmother's attic," she wrote. "I don't know whether this was a dance recital or just temporary insanity but I thought you might like to have these back..."

Carefully, I pulled the photos out of the envelope and stared...and suddenly, memories of Easter, 1966 were there, sweet and so immediate. It was the Easter of my junior year at Northwestern University and I have never celebrated that holiday in quite the same way -- before or since.

I wonder if I ever told my aunt that this was, indeed, an instance of temporary insanity?

I had returned to the dorm the night before Easter, after a rare -- exceedingly rare -- date, to find my roommate Ruth sitting on the floor of our room, busily constructing...something...out of crumpled newspapers, wire coat hangers and old white towels.

"Here," she said, tossing me a pair of scissors and the raw materials. "We need bunny ears. We're going to be Easter bunnies in a student film that a friend of Betty's is doing tomorrow bright and early. In the crocus patch..."

I sat down slowly. "You volunteered us?"

Ruth didn't look up from her task. "Sure," she said. "Why not? Do you have better plans for Easter?"

I didn't. This was the first Easter I wasn't planning to attend Mass, having become disenchanted with the religion of my upbringing. It was too early in the quarter to get super compulsive about midterms and class projects. I sat down and got to work on my bunny ears.

The next morning, four of us assembled in Betty's room to review the plans for our film debut. Betty, in a bright yellow caftan, a craft paper beak nearly obscuring her face, would be "The Great Chicken". Karen, in a black pajamas with a lambskin rug tied to her back and a paper lamb's mask resting on top of her head would be "The Spring Lamb." And Ruth and I, resplendent in our matching pink leotards and terrycloth ears, would be bunnies.

We were joined by our wonderfully loyal Hawaiian friend Jeanne, an enthusiastic photographer, who not only agreed to be seen with us but also to hold our coats when we were on camera (it was a very chilly Easter morning) and to take photos of this event.
                       Easter 1966: from left, Karen, Betty, me and Ruth

Betty clucked. Karen cried "Baaaaa!" And Ruth and I romped through the crocus patch as the student filmmaker, perhaps a bit taken aback by us and our makeshift costumes, perhaps underwhelmed by our collective film acting talent, completed a brief segment and fled.

People on the way to services at the University Chapel across the street took scant notice. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy on whom I had a major crush pass by en route to church. Suddenly mortified, I prayed -- my only prayers on this first secular Easter Sunday -- that he hadn't seen me.

But a man walking to church with his family spotted us immediately and turned with delight to his five year old son. "See, I told you that we might run into the Easter Bunny!" he laughed. As the son clutched his father's leg and tried to hide behind him, Ruth and I rushed forward to give him candy eggs from our baskets. The little boy smiled shyly and thanked us.

The moment was an inspiration to Betty. "Let's go surprise some professors!" she said. "Wish them Happy Easter! Give their kids candy! Oh, come on! It'll be fun..."

We surprised only one professor -- one of Betty's favorites -- who greeted us with incredible kindness and grace, inviting us into his home for an Easter brunch with his family. He pulled up extra chairs and we enjoyed delicious Eggs Benedict and great company that morning.

Later, when we got back to the dorm, removed our rudimentary costumes and settled in for some serious studying, I thought back on the day.

I thought about how liberating it felt to make a total fool of myself...and not have it be a personal disaster.

I thought about how fun it was to do something a little crazy and impulsive with a group of good friends.

I thought about how most people that day didn't see us or ignored us, but that some special adults greeted us with humor and amazing generosity of spirit that I hoped to emulate in my own later years.

I thought about how strange it felt to be celebrating Easter as a secular rather than religious holiday and wondered if it would always feel that way.

I thought about how soon we would be adults, out in the world and too grown up for such revelry.                

                                         Youthful revelry 50 years ago!

And, indeed, we grew up so very fast. Betty became a psychiatric social worker, Karen a college professor, Ruth a highly successful attorney. We've lived lifetimes of challenges, disappointments, achievements and joys since that Easter 50 years ago.

And yet that day remains vivid, with or without the memory prompt of those long-lost photographs that Jeanne took of us that Easter morning so long ago.

It marked the waning of a certain phase of youth, before adult responsibilities intervened to quiet and calm our spirits.

It was an important lesson for me in taking a chance, risking looking foolish, and realizing that my life would remain the same, that most people didn't notice or didn't care, and that some people, with an extra bit of kindness and imagination, were absolutely splendid.

It taught me anew that some friends are incredibly precious-- as Jeanne stood by us, holding our coats as we cavorted, not embarrassed in the least to be seen with us. I thought that at least some of my companions that day were likely to be friends for life and I was right: Jeanne and Ruth have been close and treasured friends for more than 50 years.

Easter 1966 was a moment of frivolity at a time when we were all working incredibly hard at our studies and at campus jobs to build bright futures. None of us came from affluent families. We had to work as well as study hard to make our dreams come true.

During those years, I used to worry as I lay in bed in my dorm room each night:

"Will this all be worth it?"

 "Will I get a job doing work I love?"

 "Will I find someone special to love who actually loves me back?"

And, well into what was once my unknown future, I smile as I study the old photographs. Looking back to that chilly morning 50 years ago, I quietly give my younger self the answers to her questions: "Yes! Yes! And yes!"

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Letting Tears Flow

This has been a tough week for my friend Marsha: four months ago last Sunday, her beloved husband of 33 years passed away unexpectedly. Joe's death seemed sudden, but they had always known that he would probably die first: there was a 20 year age difference between them. Marsha is 65 and Joe was 85. He had been getting increasingly frail in the past year, but his mind, his wit, was still as sharp as ever. It was so tempting for all of us to believe that he would go on, full of life and mischief, wonderful insights and ideas, for a long time to come. But one day last November, he fell and broke his hip. His second day in the hospital, he had a massive stroke. And only a few days later, he was gone.

Marsha is an independent, highly competent woman who gets along well on her own. But her heart hurts. She misses Joe in so many ways. In between all her fitness activities and times with friends, there are moments of deep loneliness and longing, sadness over losing Joe, devastation that she will never kiss him again, never joke with him, never fall asleep with her head on his chest, never again feel so deeply loved and cherished.

It is that tough time in the grieving process when the shock has worn off and the many tasks that come up after the death of a loved one have been finished and what's left is...the rest of her life without him.

She was out in her front yard the other day, trying to keep busy, pruning some sage bushes when a neighbor walked by and asked her how she was doing.

"The truth?" Marsha said, shielding her tear-filled eyes from the morning sun. "I'm having a rough time this week. It has been exactly four months..."

The neighbor looked concerned. "Are you seeing someone?" she asked. "A therapist? Are you taking an anti-depressant? Maybe that would help."

When Marsha told me about her encounter with her well-meaning neighbor, I shook my head. There are times when we simply need to feel our grief as part of the process of loss. It isn't something that a pill can do for us.

While therapy and psychotropic medications can be useful in certain circumstances, particularly with mental illnesses, there are times, during painful transitions in life, when one has to walk through the fire, endure the pain, grow through the process in order to heal. And the healing isn't complete. Life goes on, but it's never quite the same. The loss of a loved one leaves a scar on the soul, heartbreak that may become less intense over time, but that will always linger in moments of loneliness and longing.

When we see a relative or friend or neighbor experiencing a life-changing loss, how can we best help?

Just being there for the person is a good start. It has been fascinating to see people whom Marsha befriended in the past shy away from her now for a variety of reasons. Some explain that "I just don't know what to say..."

There is nothing you can say to make a person's pain go away, no magic words that will make everything okay. There is no advice you can give that is likely to help even if you have experienced loss as well. Each relationship lost, each grieving process, is unique. But getting past your own discomfort with grief and loss, showing up, letting the grieving person know you care by cooking dinner, extending a lunch or a movie invitation, including him or her in your social plans, writing a handwritten, snail mail note (email doesn't have the same impact) expressing your support, simply calling to ask how he or she is doing, sitting and listening instead of planning the perfect response: all of these things can help.

The process of grief can have times of profound loneliness. No friend, however dear, no therapist however skillful and, certainly, no pill can take these feelings away. But being there for a person experiencing a life-changing loss is important. Your being there lets her know that she has your support during the lonely and anguished times as well as during the moments in between when good times and good talks with friends help the person to create a new normal in her life.

If one avoids the pain and discomfort of grieving with pills or alcohol or frantic activity, this merely postpones the process. That is not optimal. Grief can go underground to increase one's pain with other problems.  I avoided the pain of losing both of my parents suddenly within a four month period when I was only 35 by busying myself with the details of their funerals and estates. And to keep the pain tamped down, I overate comfort foods. By the time I could no longer avoid my grief, it was a year later. I had gained over 100 pounds and people around me, besides expressing shock over my physical transformation, wondered "Why isn't she over this yet?" I was just starting the process of creating life anew without my parents when others in the family were well along toward accepting the losses and moving forward in their lives.

There are some instances, however, when postponing the full impact of grief makes sense.

I'll never forget a letter I received from a Glamour reader after I wrote an article in that magazine about delayed grief. She told me that her beloved father had died when she was fourteen and that the loss was totally overwhelming at that time in her life. She felt numb. She compartmentalized her pain and went on to finish high school and college. She got married and had a daughter of her own. A few months after her baby was born, watching her husband hold and kiss their child, she suddenly began to sob. When her husband asked what was wrong, she cried "My Daddy's dead! My Daddy died and I miss him so much..." Her husband embraced both mother and child as they sat in a circle of love and grief and new beginnings. "It was only when I felt strong enough, safe enough in my life and surrounded by love that I could allow my feelings of grief to happen," she wrote.

But. more commonly, the grief process goes on in real time, with times of terrible pain and times of life feeling almost normal alternating in endless combinations. Part of the process is allowing oneself to feel the full impact of loss, to let the tears flow. There are no short-cuts, no painless ways around this.

Part of the process, too, is to live fully, to care for oneself, to allow friends to be there and to embrace all the feelings that life can bring: crying when one must, enduring the moments of profound loneliness, and then allowing oneself to laugh and to feel joy once again during those lovely, lengthening times in between the pain.