One of my new work cohorts encouraged me to take an Enneagram test to see where my personality fits on the spectrum of such things. I signed up on Truity and paid $19.99 to get the full results. The outcomes were interesting, with all my best qualities and flaws laid out in black and white.
Somewhere late in the PDF, which is replete with graphs and charts about personality and life traits, I noticed a quote highlighted in the headline of this article. “True strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” I sat there a minute and thought: “That’s exactly what I meant by calling my book “The Right Kind of Pride.”
The Right Kind of Pride is precisely that: the consistent action of taking pride in the willingness and courage to be vulnerable.
As for that book, I’m pretty sure that some people are scared or uncomfortable about reading a book about cancer survivorship. But it’s not JUST about that. The eighty-plus blogs I compiled speak to the the value of authenticity in all situations.
Here’s the basic fact: All of us must be survivors of one kind or another. Plus, none of us gets out of this world alive. All I can say is that when it comes to getting through the tough things in life, vulnerability is truly powerful.
Over eight years of caregiving that was the principal way that I found hope and support.
Originally, I oversaw my mother’s journey through lymphoma and pancreatic cancer, followed by a stroke and finally hospice. Her passage left me in charge of caregiving for my father Stewart Cudworth, a stroke victim from 2002. I would remain his caregiver through his passing in 2015 at 89 years of age.
That all began in 2005, the same year that my wife was diagnosed with Stage IIC ovarian cancer. Immediately I was graced by an offer of support from the preschool director and her team of teachers at the school where my late wife Linda taught. For the next eight years, those people and many others (thank God) were willing to help us through the ups and downs of cancer treatments, including surgeries and recovery, chemotherapy, prodigious drugs and side effects, and emotional challenges deeper than we’d ever imagined possible. We’d make it through one segment of treatment to remission only to have the cancer return. That progressed with rapidity like the sound of a ping-pong ball as it taps out from its original dropped height.
During all that time I blogged to our caregiving support group about the blessings and challenges we experienced, and things we learned along the way. Those blogs formed the bulk of the book I wrote titled The Right Kind of Pride. Then I wrote a prologue and epilogue, including A Goofball’s Guide to Grief. Because I am. A goofball.
But I also kept a personal journal for thoughts that were not ready for public consumption at the time. I’d actually forgotten about those words until recently when I opened up a thick journal given to me by my mother-in-law for my July birthday in 2012.
I’d been thrown out of work earlier that year by an employer who fired me the day after they learned my wife had cancer. So I was freelancing and trying to cover everything from COBRA insurance costs to the daily costs of living. Fortunately, I was able to find bits and pieces of work to tide us through, all while dealing with the difficult fact that Linda’s health was decreasing in quality. She started having seizures in the fall of 2012, and then we discovered a brain tumor that required surgery, radiation and steroids to treat, and after that, things got really tough.
At that point in February of 2013, I landed a new job and was trying to do my best at it. But the daily challenges of helping her through were significant. By February 11, it was even tough for her to get around. “Linda sleeping on the couch upstairs,” I wrote in the journal. “Chuck is on the Ottoman, leaning on my leg until a few minutes ago. Following me around all day. Linda improved a bit, for a while anyway. Big day tomorrow. Meeting Dr. Ferris and Dr. Dolan.”
We made it to the appointment with the medical oncologist Dr. Ferris. But things didn’t go all that well. She could barely stand to lie on the table, and the doctor pulled me aside and made a calm recommendation of palliative care going forward. I knew what that meant. And besides, Linda was too exhausted from gut swelling and fatigue to make the trip from Warrenville to Advocate Lutheran General to see the physician that treated her so well from the outset. I could barely get her home.
I wrote in the journal on February 14, Valentine’s Day 2013, “Well, my objective with this journal is to focus on constructive thoughts rather than destructive, which so many other journals in this house seem to have been. In a constructive fashion, therefore, it is still important, most important, to acknowledge that Linda Mues Cudworth––or Linda Ann––is in the process of dying. She has been a most wonderful wife all these 28 years, and wants to continue if only she could. But her cancer is catching up with our dreams of going places together and doing things. We had both promised to get to Glacier this year––together, if her health would allow it. Now it seems more likely she will be gone, the earthly part of her that I so love anyway. Our relationship has gotten richer these past 8 years. Richer than money and wealth combined. Our mutual failings and weaknesses have fallen away. She has told me that she loves me and I believe her now. I have told her that I love her and she knows it now. Our wedding vows have been fulfilled; for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
Reading those words again nine years after she passed away on March 26, 2013, gives me both sadness and satisfaction. We did the best we could all through those years. “Sunrises and sunsets still await,” I continued writing in the journal that February. “And spring as well. Hurts so much to know that she may not be with me. So soon. So sudden. Yet we have lived well together, the best we know how. I love you Linda. I always will. God Bless your kind and spirited heart. Forever.”
The promise of vulnerability
It would still be weeks before the end of her life came. But we opened our lives at that point, trying to bring our children and family, friends, and associates into the sphere of vulnerability. If you absorb nothing else from these words, please embrace the truth that “true strength comes from the courage to be vulnerable.” We lived that reality and I can promise you that while things don’t always happen or end how you’d like or expect, the courage to be vulnerable is one of the most valuable human traits of all. It expands all the good things that life has to give.
It’s fascinating to study yourself objectively through a test like Enneagram. It’s a valuable thing to learn what emotions and character traits drive you from within, and how that translates to life and relationships. And it’s the core of who we are that matters. Letting others see that in you can be a wonderfully empowering force in life.
Linda Cudworth passed away on March 26, 2013. While appreciating her life, I am grateful for the things life and love continues to bring.
The day after Christmas in 2012, my wife Linda and I were scheduled to meet with a neurologist at the Central Dupage Cancer Treatment Center. We managed to have Christmas together with her family that year even though her father passed away that winter. He’d had a heart attack while sawing up a giant oak in his own backyard, Following that incident, he developed dangerous swelling in his legs that ultimately led to kidney failure.
All that fall, we teetered back and forth between hope and reality for my father-n-law. He did kidney dialysis, and it seemed to work, but swelling kept coming back.
Meanwhile, Linda was experiencing an series of seizures. We thought they were a side effect from yet another set of chemotherapy treatments. In any case, it was scary stuff. We’d be out for a gentle walk and her body would start to tremor and shake, but she refused to give up her love of movement and being out in the sunshine.
A combined team of oncologists from Central-Dupage hospital and our longtime gynecological oncologist Dr. James Dolan conferred on her condition. Finally a test was ordered to check the condition of her brain. On December 26, we found out the disturbing news. The ovarian cancer that had afflicted her since 2005 had reached her brain.
“It’s not supposed to be able to breach the blood-brain border,” an oncologist told us. “But here we are.”
We sat together facing yet another shock on December 26, 2012.
It had been a long and difficult year. Back in March, I’d been fired from my job the day after the company learned that she had cancer. We’d kept her cancer a private matter when I started the job, but I finally had to tell them when it came roaring back late that winter. I knew that she’d require more attention with driving her to appointments, staying with her through chemotherapy and taking care of her in between treatments.
Granted, we had a wonderful caregiving team built up around us, but there are always some things that only the immediate family can handle, especially in a life-threatening situation. So I explained our situation in simple terms to the company where I worked, and they promised us support. That was on a Monday, but by Tuesday morning they came forward with an accusation that I’d breached company policy by posting an image of the work I’d done for a client on my personal website. When I walked into work that day, I came face to face the owner, an HR director and a lawyer equipped with all kinds of documents telling me that I’d somehow put the company’s reputation at risk.
No consideration was offered for the stress I might have been under, or how that situation might have affected my judgment. I was out the door and soon forced to pay $2000 a month in COBRA premiums to hang onto medical insurance. All because the owner was frightened that my wife’s condition might increase the company’s insurance premiums.
I appealed the case to the Unemployment system and was blown out of the water by the judge holding the teleconference. He introduced all the evidence the company presented and disallowed everything that I’d provided in relation to the case. I was railroaded, in other words, by a labor-sympathetic judge. Even my best friend, a labor law attorney, was disgusted by the outcome.
But rather than dwell in that space forever, I chose to reach out to that owner in subsequent years and we talked about all that had happened. Forgiveness took place.
But that didn’t help us in the near term.
That summer we struggled to make bills, and sat together praying one night that I’d find a freelance job to cover the $3500 we needed to make ends meet. That next morning an envelope arrived through our front door. It was stuffed with $3700. We hadn’t spoken to anyone about our situation. Other money from our church came our way as well. We hung on, kept her treatments going, but the cancer was relentless. By fall, a tumor was discovered next to her colon. If it could not be removed, the whole colon would need to come out. Then she’d need a colostomy operation. I admit that I was not looking forward to that outcome.
The gynecological oncologist did miracles in the surgery room and my selfish prayers were answered. And then, the day my wife got out of the hospital after surgery, we drove straight to the hospital where her father lay dying.
As if that had not been enough challenges to face in 2012, I was still recovering from a bike accident that happened earlier that fall. In September I was cycling in a rare weekend getaway with friends while my wife staye back home to spendtime with her family. During the ride, I was cruising down a long hill at 40 mph when a case of bike wobble set in. I crashed in dramatic fashion, flying off the bike and tumbling down and embankment where I lay in shock with a broken collar bone. My friends didn’t know where I’d gone. One of them was ahead of me by fifty yards and the other had not yet crested the hill when I crashed. So I got help from a band of other cyclists who called for an ambulance. I wound up in a tiny Wisconsin hospital in Dodgeville. They pumped me full of Vicodin until someone finally reached the wife of one of my friends. She’s a nurse, and she came to gather me up for the trip back to our campsite.
All that time, my wife was at her parent’s house having yet another seizure. My daughter begged her to go to the hospital, but in typical fashion, wife refused. When the call came that I’d been in a bad bike crash my daughter was in the center of all sorts of trauma. A dying grandfather, a mother shaking to death from cancer, and a father now injured badly after a bike accident.
The effects of trauma
We tend to take these traumas too much for granted in our lives, but they do have long-term effects. We grieve, but perhaps we do not fully process what’s gone on. We move out of that emotional space, but probably not all the way. We deal with what we can in the moment, but life has its demands. So we trundle on. Not fully healed, yet not terminally damaged. If we’re lucky.
During the late stages of my wife’s life, my son was working in New York City. He had to deal with all this strange news from afar. “Do I need to come home?” he asked. It was hard to tell him everything that was going on. It was even harder to figure out what expect of him. My wife said, “Tell Evan I’m fine. I don’t want him to worry.”
My daughter was finally off at college after two+ years of coursework at a community college. She was doing amazing things in her communications studies, even doing live spots on public radio that summer. Her mother was so proud and amazed. We’d sit close to my Mac listening to the live stream and she’d turn to me and go, “That’s Emily!?” Hearing our daughter work professionally on the radio was a welcome joy.
Dealing with the options
But the events of that year kept overwhelming us. And that brings us back to that moment in the cancer treatment center when we found out that my wife’s cancer had moved into her brain. “Here’s what we can do,” the neurologist told us. “We can go in through the top of the head and excise it. Then we’ll apply radiation.”
We sat there thinking about those options. My wife did not have to think long. “Yes,” she said with resolve. And she smiled, “I mean, why not?”
Why not, indeed. We’d been through multiple surgeries, countless rounds of chemotherapy and many times, we got back to some form of ‘new normal.’ But this felt different to me. I looked over at her and smiled. She gave a thumbs up sign when she was ready to go.
So we came back for the treatment. They didn’t even have to shave her head. She’d lost her hair several times over through treatments, and this time her hair had not come back at all. She stripped off her wig and they began the process of affixing a stabilizing unit to her skull. It consisted of a circular metal band with screws that would be used to hold her head completely still. She posed for a couple quick selfies using the Photo Booth application in my little black Mac Laptop, and off she went.
The treatment worked. They captured and killed the cancer in her brain. The seizures stopped. They gave her a steroid prescription to deal with the swelling caused by the surgery and radiation. From there it was off to the races. Those steroids turned her into a Survival Machine. Her personality became magnified. She cleaned and cooked and sat up writing lesson plans for the preschool classes she taught. But as the steroids added up in her system, her sense of judgment disappeared. She spent money we didn’t have. One night she researched a new car, and that next day, we drove to the Subaru dealership and bought it. I wasn’t sure if she was getting money from her parents or what, but I sensed that something final was happening, and decided to go with the flow.
The steroid effect
Toward the end of February, she could no longer handle teaching at the preschool she loved. Her spaciness increased, and it frankly put the children at risk. I collaborated with her director to ease her out of the position. That was absolutely necessary. Yet despite our efforts to be kind, something in her broke the day that she learned she could no longer teach.
Once the steroid prescription was eased, her body and mind fell slowly back to a normal state. That was when I knew that she would not live much longer. The stress and fatigue of eight years of cancer survivorhood wore her out. During one of our last visits with the oncologist before bringing her home for palliative care, she was too damned tired to even get off the treatment room table. I spoke quietly with the oncologist that day. She was kind. And honest. And earnest. “Take care of her,” she told me.
Linda Mues Cudworth passed away peacefully in our home in March of 2013. My son and daughter were together with me that night. It is both a blessing and a strange truth to be present when someone you love that much passes into eternity.
We’ve all gone through gyrations in the wake of her passing. My son suffered through depression and a period of addiction. He’s emerged with a will not just to survive, but to help others process their mental health in constructive ways.
My daughter was just coming into her own as a young woman when my wife passed way. In many ways, that left a void in her that is hard, if not impossible, to completely heal. Every year, she recognizes more of her mother in herself, and the pain of losing her mom keeps turning over. Those are legitimate feelings. I know other women that have lost their mothers. I wish at times they could all talk with my daughter.
As for me, I’m not sure that I fully processed all that happened that year, or perhaps the many years before. During my wife’s eight years of cancer survivorship, I was also the primary caregiver for my father after my mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005. That was the same year that my wife Linda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
My father lived another four years after Linda died, and I did my best to take care of him. After my wife’s passing, I admit that what I wanted most was to be free of the constant pain and fear involved in caregiving. But there was still a job to do.
During the eight years of caring for her, I’d been on and off supportive medications such as Lorazepam to help me deal with the anxiety of caregiving. It did its trick as needed, but some of that stress sinks deep into your soul.
I recall trying to ride my bike with friends during that period. I’d be out on a fifty or sixty mile ride with them, but when it came time to ride hard or compete, as cyclists love to do, I often did not have the will to keep up. I’m pretty sure that what I experienced was an active sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. Not the kind that comes from being in a war, or witnessing a murder, but the kind that comes from not being able to deal with personal shocks over and over.
As a form of therapy, I started blogging to our caregiving group to communicate some of the feelings I had about the things we were going through. Much of that was quite positive, and I’m proud that we found ways to find blessings and hope in all that trauma. That’s the right kind of pride. This blog is an echo of all that.
But this year, when December 26 rolled around, I realized it’s been ten years since that strange day when we found out that the cancer had moved into her brain. Once we knew the cause of her seizures, it explained quite a bit about what was going on with her body
But it also brought on conflicted feelings in my mind. Should I hope for her to continue going through the stress and pain of cancer survivorship? At that point, I began to grieve in real time. I understood that I no longer wanted to see her go through the awful stuff. The sickness. The numb feet and hands. The fear. The trauma of surgeries. The loss of life quality. Giving up the things she loved to do. None of that is ever what I wanted for her. It certainly wasn’t what she wanted. Some part of me was relieved when the pain was over. Through faith and reason and love of life, I began to move on.
For these reasons, I got ahead of most of the people in my life by recognizing that she was not going to make it through the year in 2013. I didn’t know how long it would be before she died, but I knew for certain that it would happen. Even her doctors were astounded at the job she’d done for so long in staying alive.
That’s not the kind of news that people want to hear from the primary caregiver, so I kept it to myself. Perhaps that was a mistake of some sort. But my wife had plowed through so many obstacles during her years as a cancer survivor that none of us could imagine it coming to an end. She was so tough about staying alive it did not make sense to question her. She surely showed us all what it means to love life. She loved her children fiercely, almost to a fault at times.
So we didn’t make end-of-life elaborate plans. We were so occupied with keeping her alive that we never discussed what to do when she died. But earlier in life, we’d talked about cremation, so that’s what we did. Her ashes rest under a grave marker next to her father in the Lutheran cemetery in Addison where she grew up. That town was the place where she attended the church gradeschool, then moved on to Addision High School. She graduated Magna cum laude from Northern Illinois University.
We met in October of 1981 and she lived until March of 2013. In all, we had a great life together; full of family, friends and most of all, our children.
She also loved her garden so much that it’s hard to describe the satisfaction she got from her green craft. She’d sit in our LL Bean Adirondack chairs staring at her garden with a glass of wine, or a margarita, or one of her strong gin and tonics in her hand, and just enjoy.
Perhaps that’s why I moved on quickly from the trauma of her last year of life. That’s not how I wanted to remember her.
I chose to remember her cherishing the work she loved. She also told a close friend, the preschool director who served as our close caregiver for all those eight years, that she knew I’d date if she ever passed on. But that friend waited a full year to share that quiet bit of insight with me. I thanked her for waiting. We all need to make decisions on our own terms. I’m grateful to have had a wonderful life with my late wife.
I’m also enormously grateful to have found love again.
Life is often complicated, and even the people closest to you have a hard time understanding the reasoning or motives behind some of the decisions we make or the changes and impacts that come with them.
Ten years on from December 26, I hope that people gain from reading this and find ways to embrace life even in the face of trauma, and even if life turns out different from what they expected.
It’s indeed a strange thing to go from the traditional joys of a December 25th to facing moments when the world itself seems to shift underneath your feet. Sometimes the best thing to do is to keep those feet moving, to find traction in the things we do and love every day. And please, let’s forgive ourselves for wishing the world would just stand still now and then. Take some time. Look at your garden, whatever that means in your life. It is the work of your life.
At six years old, most of us don’t have a great grasp of the world around us. Life revolves around parents and family. The rest of life is a mystery until we experience it.
During the summer after my second grade year in school, my favorite aunt and uncle traveled from their farm in Upstate New York to visit our family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. When the time came for them to leave, I begged my parents to allow me to go with them back to the farm. To my surprise, my parents agreed.
A half hour later a bag was packed and I was plopped in the back seat of their car for the trip north to Bainbridge and the farm that I loved.
But the next morning, I woke up with a horrid feeling in my gut. I was homesick. If you’ve never experienced that feeling for yourself, it can be best described as a deep combination of longing and loss that penetrates your whole being. All you want to do is go home.
Confession: I was always an anxious kid. Already at that age, I chewed my nails. Looking back through a life of dealing with aspects of anxiety and depression, I realize that homesickness was a product of who I am. Learning to cope with anxiety is a lifelong job. I don’t blame myself for it, and these days I know myself well enough to function healthily. It wasn’t always that way.
The morning of my homesickness, I recall my aunt making a phone call to my parents, who drove up from Lancaster that day to fetch their anxious, homesick son. Apparently all involved had pity on me. Perhaps they knew those feelings well enough to realize there was no cure except to send me back home. Sometimes good caregiving is a matter of listening to the people involved.
Keeping me on the farm a couple days might have cured the homesickness, but I must have been a sorry sight with all those aching tears. I guess I can be grateful that adults had compassion for my condition.
I looked up homesickness on the Psychology Today website. It had interesting things to say about homesick feelings. “A number of studies have suggested that homesickness can be associated with psychological difficulties such as loneliness, depression, anxiety, difficulty adjusting to new situations, and psychosomatic health problems. Given that being away from home can be accompanied by the sadness of missing it, one wonders why we form such powerful emotional bonds to our home. Surely, attachment is at least partly the product of all the wonderful experiences we enjoyed during our childhood.”
It goes on to say, “As poet Robert Frost famously explained, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Our bond extends beyond enjoyable experiences. It encompasses unconditional love, commitment, loyalty and enduring connectedness.”
Still, no specific mention of fear as a cause of homesickness. Perhaps there’s no reason. That emotion is woven into the DNA of anxiety and depression. It is both the cause and a symptom of those conditions.
The PT article continues,” Efforts to prevent homesickness must contend with a paradox. Although research findings have been inconsistent, homesickness seems to be more likely when children have had prior experiences with separation from home as well as when they had had little or no prior periods away. If homesickness is the price we pay for attachment to a strong loving home, would anyone want to diminish the quality of a child’s home to prevent the possibility of future homesickness?”
Like many children in that day and age, I lived in a home that was both loving and at times, a conflicted place. My father lost his mother to complications of cancer treatment when he was just seven years old. He went to live with an uncle and two aunts because his own father experienced profound depression at the loss of his wife and also brought on in some ways by The Depression.
So my father’s upbringing was at times gruff. His pain at losing his mother at such a young age was probably never adequately addressed. No doubt there were feelings of homesickness after being shuttled from his family home to a life with a tough old uncle and two unmarried aunts. The sense of loss must have been profound. Thus despite his largely caring character, he bore an anger within him that spilled out at times. His four sons tried to meet his approval but there was an exasperating and sometimes frightening tone to certain aspects of our upbringing.
So that feeling of separation from home as a place of safety and comfort is both a physical and emotional reality for all of us. Yet to this day, I still view our Lancaster house and yard as “home” in many ways. We moved away when I was twelve years old. A type of homesickness has traveled with me all these years. We’d have never left that place if I’d had my way.
Yet that would have denied me all the experiences that were to come and those were good. So while homesickness is real, it is also not permanent and is no way to define or limit one’s time in this world. We have to rip off the bandage at certain times in life, and move on.
All of us have some sense of home that lives within our souls. Sometimes it’s just the smell of a room when the windows are open… or the curl of a pillow as you roll over to face that person whom you love. It can be heard in the song of a bird calling in the trees, or the sound of a car pulling into a driveway.
Take in those sensations and indeed, you’re home again. That’s the right kind of pride.
Note: I’ve shared impressions about homesickness before on this blog because they symbolize so many other aspects of life. May you find that sense of home wherever you are.
I’m driving out to Iowa today to share in the visitation and funeral for a longtime friend, Keith Ellingson. He was a freshman year roommate at Luther College where we were also cross country teammates.
After that, we worked together in college admissions, then parted ways as we got married, raised children and engaged in our careers.
He built a legacy as an excellent coach in track and field and cross country. His worked earned him a place in the Simpson College (IA) Hall of Fame. Dozens of his athletes earned All-American status, and one of his decathletes made the United States Olympic trials, no small accomplishment for a Division III collegiate athlete.
His achievements were many, but he was perhaps proudest of his three daughters, Jessica, Bailey and Catie, all of whom I’ve followed in their careers and family life as well.
Back in 2010, Keith lost his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer. Then in 2013, I lost my wife Linda to the same disease. That was a strange convergence for two longtime friends. Our wives met several times at our college reunions where they quietly shared the challenges of chemotherapy, surgeries and survivorship.
As if that weren’t enough of a rough outcome for my friend Keith, he was later beset by Parkinson’s disease, a condition that muted his physical and social affect. Despite that challenge, he never lost his wry sense of humor or his love of storytelling. Sometimes I had to lean in to hear what he was saying, but it was always worth it. Every. Single. Word.
Then he was diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease as well. None of this was what I ever expected for him. Throughout his life he was an active athlete and vividly social being. Many times in his presence I was reduced to absolute laughter by his incredibly quick wit. He had a laugh that seemed to say so much as well. It was a welcoming and yet objective sort of laugh. As in, “Can you believe this?”
Over the last year Keith had become more animated, the result perhaps of some medications that worked well. A large group of his friends and former athletes conducted Zoom calls with him, swapping stories… and asking Keith to tell a few of his own. Those calls were akin to the Knights of the Roundtable, sharing old “war stories” of track and field triumphs and failures. We laughed at ourselves some, and Keith laughed along with us.
Along the way his daughters got to know some of us a bit better as well. We exchanged some direct messages, and I was in the process of gathering information to nominate him for Luther College Hall of Fame status when I learned of his passing. He deserves that HOF honor for his work as an athlete, as a coach, and as a longtime supporter of the institution. Even through his struggles with Parkinson’s, he led our class reunions several times, and I did as well. His classmates revered his perseverance, I can assure you.
The time that has passed does indeed make me think about what it means to lose a longtime friend. I think of all those college reunions and can count the years, but it would require more than a few hands these days. Yet I don’t feel old, because having lifelong friends keeps you young in many respects. Those shared experiences are sustaining in the long run. It means something to work together through thick and thin. To offer that call of commiseration when needed. To extend condolences when appropriate.
Then we get back to the business of living.
That’s not always easy. But that’s what it means to lose a longtime friend. It means you can have gratitude for the time shared and even the time apart. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, with longtime friends it is often the case that once you touch base again, it is like you never left.
The physical Keith is gone. That needs to be said. I’ve been with my mother when she passed away, and my father too. I was by the bedside when my wife died in the company of her two children, and not long before that, her father as well. A few years ago, I lost a longtime friend that had been my baseball coach when I was thirteen years old. He was my running coach in high school and a longtime friend thereafter.
These bonds are important to all of us. One of the interesting products of social media is that people who knew each other from “back then” reconnect and find out they’re friends in new ways. That has redefined how some of our social networks exist and flourish. I consider it a blessing to have met some of my longtime friend’s daughters through Facebook. Now we’ll meet in person today.
The loss of a longtime friend is hard. If I know anything about Keith Ellingson, he would like it if his passing led to emotional support for his daughters and their families. I think of my own daughter Emily and my son Evan, and how much they’ve missed their mom since she passed. In so many ways we are all family, and through that hope we might all find healing. That is the right kind of pride.
And that is what it means to lose a longtime friend.
After our fifty-mile bike ride in the hills of Galena, Illinois, this past Saturday, we awoke Sunday morning to do a long run back home in Illinois.
It turned warm and the long run turned out to be, in my wife’s words, “A lot of ouch.” When we got home she proclaimed that she was going to take a relaxing bath.
She does not do that often. More typically she takes a shower “on the fly” after her morning and afternoon workouts. That’s why her plan for a late-morning bath seemed like a good idea.
Knowing that my wife wanted to slow down and indulge herself a bit inspired me to move into the background. She did request that I bring her favorite shampoo, conditioner, and deep conditioner to her in the tub. I delivered those and flopped back on our bed to rest my own tired body after an earlier shower.
From my reclined position in bed I could see her head as she ran the whirlpool. She called out: “I’m flexing my toes…They’re really tight.”
I flex my toes that whirlpool tub as well. It feels good to let the jets work out the stiffness in joints. Finally the jets turned off and she took to washing her hair. Her blonde mane darkened as it got wet. Watching her ply her hair with product made me smile. She was due for a stylist appointment before the weekend but it didn’t work out. “So, much, hair,” she observed.
Like many couples, we’ve shared the bath and shower a few times over the years. Those moments of intimacy are blessed connections when the time is right. There are also times when the best thing a husband can do is be the “support crew” for her relaxing bath.
I went downstairs to make breakfast. The vision of her bare body in the tub made me feel a tremendous intimacy that had less to do with sex and more to do with bathing her in my love and respect. A woman deserves that and more.
When I published a memoir titled The Right Kind of Pride in 2014, my goal was twofold: to write about the journey that my late wife and I shared through cancer survivorship, and to share some of the things we learned along the way.
Eight years of dealing with the physical and psychological effects of medical treatments, surgeries, chemotherapy and its side effects is enough to test the mettle of anyone. Toss in the emotional components of dealing with medical scheduling and recovery, insurance premiums and bills, financial changes and losses, and the whole thing gets overwhelming in a hurry.
During those years of dealing with cancer and remission, work and family challenges, I kept sensing that there was a message in it all.
That’s the other reason I wrote The Right Kind of Pride. I learned that taking care of business in the face of a crisis comes down to three critical components. These are:
Character: the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
Caregiving: the activity or profession of regularly looking after a child or a sick, elderly, or disabled person.
Community: a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
To address how understanding these three factors helps one through a crisis, we’ll begin with the subject of character, and what that means to each individual.
Character is not a fixed trait
We often view “character” as a fixed quality in a person. But people respond to crisis in different ways. Some grow resolute, facing whatever comes their way with what seems like determination and courage. Others appear frightened or worried at the onset of bad news. There is no real predicting how someone will react to a crisis. Sometimes a seemingly strong person reacts with fear. At other times a seemingly timid person responds with great strength.
Character can even shift with age. Many character traits are subject to change over the years, especially as stress or life changes affect the emotional bottom line. Character can even radically shift within minutes if shocking new arrives. The death of a parent, a spouse or a friend. The birth of a child. All sorts of events, good and bad, affect how character is held or expressed in a given person.
That’s why it is important to understand the nature of “character,” and how to support it in yourself or the people around you.
We might like to assume that character is the foundation that carries us through all kinds of tests. We speak of a person with “solid character” almost like they’re a piece of granite able to withstand all sorts of conditions. Yet if you’re in a position of helping another person get through a test of some sort, it is vital not to assume how they’re feeling, or even trust what they’re telling you at times. Most people don’t like to show or share their fears.
That is why it is important to be patient when it comes to placing expectations on others during times of crisis. Some want to avoid attention or engage in denial, wishing it would all go away. Others want to tell the world what’s going on in their lives, as if that alone could cure the problem. Most of us fall somewhere in between or run from one end of the spectrum to another.
Out of character
If someone responds in a way that seems “out of character” for them, it is clear they are trying to process whatever news or stress they are experiencing. Even good news can be a source of stress to a cancer or heart patient used to hearing nothing but frightening words about their condition. It is hard to trust good news because we don’t like to let our guard down in case something bad is about to happen again.
That puts us into a state of mind where character, “the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual,” needs to be considered a tool for monitoring the emotional health of anyone facing a crisis. There really is no such thing as behaving “out of character” when we think about it. No one on this earth possesses a permanently rigid nature. Nor should we.
It is what it is
Obviously it’s desirable to stand strong and deal with necessary actions as they arrive. My late wife and I treated medical regimens with a brand of objectivity. We compartmentalized the cancer and its treatments by saying, “It is what it is.” In other words, let’s not fool ourselves or try to avoid medical advice that might be hard to hear, much less endure. But if you put that practical activity in its place, it is much easier to support the character or the person or person’s involved.
Being able to say “It is what it is” provides a clear focus on the most difficult aspect of life in the moment. That’s at least a degree of control, and knowing the truth and having a plan to follow takes pressure off the character of a person. Then the mental and emotional aspects can be addressed on their own terms.
Character on the line
The same holds true for many circumstances in life. A business or other venture has a “character” of its own. Applying these same principles; identifying the central challenge, categorizing the necessary response, and setting aside conflicting emotional, competitive or selfish aims to address problems is vital in facing life or business challenges. That is how to manage character as a rule.
Despite all our best efforts, there are often selfish aims at work behind the scenes of everyone involved in a crisis. Our primal instincts are to protect our own instincts. Fatigue and stress, fear and self-doubt all work to undermine our character when facing our own crisis or helping someone else face get through difficulties.
The important thing in understanding character is that it is the cumulative experience in a person’s life their character is built upon, including weak moments and strong. The key to supporting the character of an individual, a team or an organization is to identify common traits of belief, hope, determination and goals, then relate those back to the character of those involved.
Asking questions to gain answers
That means asking questions in order to gain answers about how people feel about their own character. These don’t need to be probing psychological ventures. A simple question such as “How are you feeling about this?” defines the person’s character in the moment. That’s what you need to know first. In what mental or emotional state are the people involved?
When I first found out that my wife had cancer all those years ago, a longtime friend and coach called me on the phone with a message of encouragement. “Your whole life is a preparation for this,” he told me.
That was his way of saying that I’d faced adversity before. Dealing with stress. Managing emotions. Setting near-term objectives. Reaching goals, however fluid they may be.
Every person on this planet has a foundation of their own from which to build and maintain character. Helping others do the same in times of crisis is one of the highest levels of compassionate behavior in the human sphere.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF ABOUT CHARACTER.
What are some of the most formative events in my life?
When were some of the times I was required to respond to crisis?
What do I consider some of my most important character traits?
How do I measure ‘character’ in others?
Why do I value character in myself and other people?
I’d be interested in hearing some of your responses to these questions and would like to post some (named anonymous, your choice) to this blog.
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your answers if you choose will posted anonymously. We can all learn from each other if we share.
Our neighborhood is diverse in almost every manner of description. Race and ethnicity. Sexual orientation. Nationality. Occupation. The list goes on.
Everyone gets along great because we’ve all gotten to know each other. Even when turnover takes place, and people move on to other places, new residents are welcomed.
Humanity on the block
We’ve held block parties every other year or so. These are informal occasions. Yet one year, a woman on our block who is one of the leading Latina marketers in the country brought a Mexican Senator to visit with us in our ring of lawn chairs at the end of the street. The Senator was in town to speak at a Mexican Independence Day event, the first woman to ever do so. Yet she confided in us that it was nice to be able to relax in a less pressured-filled situation, and just talk.
Someone suggested that we go around the circle that day and share a personal insight about gratitude. It was fascinating to hear the diversity in scope of those telling their stories. Then one of the families in attendance shared that they were glad to be alive. Only a few months before they had been in a dangerous car accident resulting in profound personal and emotional injuries. None of us had heard about that.
We all have challenges
That testimony illustrates that while we can all know each other casually and as neighbors, many times there are events and issues that we don’t necessarily share on a day-to-day basis. Yet the challenges we don’t share are often the most compelling parts of our existence.
We all sat stunned upon hearing the seriousness of the accident. Then someone quietly said, “We’re so glad you’re okay.” Yet the physical therapy continued, and the emotional strain too.
These are the feelings that connect us as human beings. While some shared quiet joys or happy accomplishments, others mentioned gratitude for having a trusted companion, or children, or a job that supports their household.
I don’t recall what I actually said about gratitude. But one of the feelings I had during that session was gratefulness for being around such an interesting and obviously compassionate group of other human beings.
Ethnicities are only the beginning of humanity
That brings us to the socially fabricated aspect of our neighborhood. Our ethnicities. According to traditional categorizations, there are four black families, three Latino families, an Asian household, several white or Caucasian families, a home with two women in a relationship, some elderly retirees and, of course, several dogs and cats that live in our cul de sac.
One of those families embraces several generation within the household. The head of that household is a leading law enforcement officer and former police chief of a Chicago suburb. But there are many variegations within the family, and attending one of their family parties means being introduced to visiting sisters, cousins, matriarchs and more.
One of the pre-teens who lives up the block loves to stop and talk with me now and then on our sidewalk. He’s got a curious mind and loves to test me with questions and topics of many kinds. Likewise, I like to ask him what he thinks about while riding his bike around, which he does all the time. Then one day he asked me, “Do you like nachos?”
For some reason that caught me off guard. “Yes, I do.”
He looked off in the distance for a moment and replied, “I love nachos.” So that became a bit of a joke between us. I’d drive by when they were out playing basketball in the neighbor’s drive and yell out, “Do you like nachos?”
I conspired with one of the same-aged neighbor girls to organize a “Nacho Day” when all the kids on the block were hanging around. She counted up ten children from the age of five through thirteen, and I called a local fast-food Mexican takeout and pre-ordered enough nachos for the whole group, who were waiting in the yard when I returned. Within minutes the entire stash was gone. I teased my friend again. “Did you even get any nachos?” I asked.
“Ohhhh, yeaaahhh,” he laughed while smacking his hands together on a basketball. Then it was back to playing pickup for him and the other kids.
Just let it happen
The kids on our block are a living example that friendship and trust and conviviality are all possible when people just let it happen. The same goes for the adults of all these different backgrounds who live in our neighborhood. It’s only when people are pushed apart by selfish interests and traditional fears that people don’t naturally get along.
The desire for control that stems from fear is the source of all racism. Yet it also drives other forms of prejudice as well. These lead to bigotry and authoritarian discrimination. Nothing splits up a society––or a neighborhood––or a country––like allowing selfish fears to depict people as “the other.”
Because rather than forming relationships around gratitude, compassion and shared aspects of humanity, such bigotry invests only in the “I’ve got mine and you can’t have it” aspect of existence. When that happens for reasons of tribal priorities, and these range from religious beliefs to racial identity to political or economic platitudes––civil society is at risk. Those priorities only lead to hate and division while the “live and let live” philosophy of a neighborhood sharing in commonality and humanity succeeds far better. That’s the right kind of pride.
People can generally learn to get along great, if you let them
I believe that everyone gets along great, if you let them. That may seem naive to say, but it’s proven so often and in so many parts of the world that despite all the conflict it is still true that people can learn to get along together when they aren’t told that other people are a threat.
Those that refuse to get along on those terms need to be held accountable for their selfish ways, and made to understand why that isn’t acceptable. They will often resist and brand themselves the “victims” of reverse discrimination or claim to be “persecuted” for being exposed for their bigotry. Those habits go all the way to the top in this world.
The self-inflicted will even attempt to turn around and call the compassionate among us inhumane, as if caring for other people and standing up for the meek or disadvantaged in this world was an act of oppression.
That is the gaslighting defense of those possessed of anger and fear who are eager to avoid facing their own inhumanity and the flaws it so often reveals. They refuse to accept vulnerability as a legitimate condition of human existence. These are the people that love to claim higher ground and preach unity while playing people against each other to create opportunities for control.
We should not let this happen. Not in our neighborhoods. Nor in our nations. People can generally get along great, if we let them.
I first purchased a James Taylor album as a freshman in high school along with works by Paul Simon, Neil Young, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Elton John, to name a few. Among those, there were a few mentions of God in the lyrics, a subject of consequence since I’d recently chosen on my own to get confirmed along with friends at the church whose pastor lived right next door to me.
And while I’d gotten confirmed at the age of thirteen, already I was asking questions about traditional religion and its role in our lives. Something about the confessional language of orthodoxy never satisfied my vision of what it meant to believe in something larger (or as large) as what we see around us.
And later in life, when religious leaders that I met began picking on the subject of evolution and showing bigotry toward various kinds of people, I’d had enough, and parted ways for a while with conventional Christianity.
Then I met a girl in college whose academic interest in the Jewish religion led me back to thinking about what the whole story of Jesus was about. And as a quasi-English major, I was interested as much in the story aspect of scripture as the supposed literal truth it conveyed. At the same time, I was aware of the need to write my own version of that story.
The woman that I later married was raised in the Missouri Synod Lutheran tradition. So we joined that church and for twenty-plus years raised our children there. I sang in the choirs, taught Sunday School to middle school and high school kids, and served on the Church board. Meanwhile, our congregation enlisted a successive line of pastors who preached an increasingly harsh and conservative line of doctrine. The theory of evolution was just one of their favorite targets, as were gay people and even women who dared think they could ever be pastors.
Thus toward the end of my wife’s life after six years of cancer treatment, we bid a solemn goodbye to that church and moved upriver to a more welcoming Lutheran congregation that cared for us during the final years of her existence on earth. For that and all service before I am eternally grateful.
During that whole journey, I drew on a ton of faith to get through. The practical issues of her illness we addressed through medicine and following doctor’s orders. I kept working at the jobs I held between severe challenges on many fronts. Her treatments had profound emotional effects on us both. That’s when we looked to faith for support.
In my case, it had never really disappeared. All those mentions of God in my running journals during those self-focused years training almost full-time and racing twenty-four times a year were testimony to that desire to understand it all. Every day was a trial of sorts, I knew that much. And when my former track and cross country coach heard that my wife had cancer, he intoned: “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”
Sustaining hope in the face of adversity
He was right. But you can’t be prepared for everything. And when hope drains away it is comforting to turn fear over to something other than a piece of paper on which you write down your problems, somewhat in order, in hope of tackling them the next day.
That’s when some of the lyrics from the James Taylor song “Fire and Rain” came back to me:
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus You’ve got to help me make a stand You’ve just got to see me through another day My body’s aching and my time is at hand And I won’t make it any other way
Frankly, I’ve never been a big Jesus worshipper. When asked long ago by a pastor what my faith is most based upon, I told him that knowing God was my first priority. Of course, that received the standard confessional response that Jesus is the portal to God, is one with God, and so on. But I persisted in seeking what I know of the spirit outside the lines. And nature is often the source of that insight.
Recently while out doing bird photography I waved to two women out walking through the forest preserve where a pair of wood thrush was singing loudly in the brisk spring sunshine. We met back in the parking and I struck up a conversation with them by shared how long I’d been visiting that preserve both as a runner and a birder. That led to a discussion of our respective families. One of the women had been an Olympic Trials swimmer and her sons and daughter were both college athletes. So was her husband. I found that fascinating and offered to write a story about their clan. She seemed game to the idea but there was something else going on in the conversation, and I didn’t feel right to press it.
But I shared some recent facts about learning to swim after meeting my present wife on a website called FitnessSingles.com. Then I explained to them both, “I lost my first wife to cancer seven years ago.”
The two women exchanged quick but earnest glances. Then two minutes later in the conversation one of them turned to me and said, “You were put here by God to talk with us, because she just lost her husband to cancer last Saturday.” It was a Tuesday morning.
We cried together, the three of us. But no one exchanged hugs in the age of the Coronavirus. Even her husband’s funeral the next morning would be a private affair, limited to ten people due to the pandemic.
A walk in the wilds
They both shared that their walks in the woods were a way of coping with problems and talking them through together. But now their walks had taken on the role of processing the immediate grief of having lost a loving spouse. As most of us know, grief has both mental and physical effects on us. In its most difficult stages, grief can make you want to cease living and at the same time put your body through aches and pains that you never see coming. That is fire. And that is rain.
There are also many points in between, where sudden bursts of recollection and joy mix together in a combination of fire and rain. How is that possible?How can two seemingly opposite substances mix together in our minds?
Our spiritual selves
To me, that is the mystery of our spiritual selves. If emotional pain is real––we can certainly feel it––then love must be just as real. And if love is real, then to me, some sort of spirit is a reality too. And as the saying goes, God is Love.
So in that sense, I truly believe in God. It is both within and apart from us to love in this world. If anything, that is the meaning of that passage in the Lord’s Prayer; “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I wrote in my first book The Genesis Fix, I call that call of gratitude and active love grace appreciated. When we are attentive to appreciating love a grateful sense, we are appreciating it. Yet when we extend love to others in an active sense, we are appreciating grace on behalf of God. Then our lives take on a different and richer meaning. We commence to live from a foundation of our spiritual selves. That is what I think scripture is all about, that perpetual discovery of purpose, principle, and life fully lived.
Connections to spirit and life
That is why I talk to people. I consider it a connection to the spirit and life of others. One might call it a ministry of sorts, to talk to people, find their mutual humanity, and learn interesting things about them along the way. Even during this Coronavirus pandemic, I find ways to speak with people even under the call of social distancing.
There are times when that is not welcome, and I respect that. Not everyone is coming through this crisis with an attitude of appreciation. Some engage on their own terms and hold to their spirit in the best way they know how. And I say God Bless them. And if they don’t believe in God, I say bless that too. Just as in nature, there is diversity in the human condition as well. We should honor that, and sadly too many supposed Christians take certain passages of scripture literally and dishonor the spirit and love they could otherwise find in others.
I know there are also passages in scripture that demand absolute fealty to Jesus in order to be saved, as in: “No one comes to the Father but through me.” Well, that passage is the product of a patriarchal society, isn’t it? We’ve discovered a bit more about the significance of the feminine in this universe, and science too. So I don’t place limits on the points between fire and rain. Instead, I choose to celebrate them.
And if we meet, I hope to celebrate you too. For that, if anything, is the Kingdom of God.
10 important things you can learn about life and business by walking a dog
The lessons we can learn from the simplest acts in life are often the most valuable of all. I’ve been walking our family dogs since 2007 and along the way have learned quite a few lessons applicable to life and business that can be learned from walking a dog.
Shit almost always happens. Like all great lessons in life, we often set our minds on the processes that we most enjoy (like the beauty of a nice day outside.. or that pending great business deal) while conveniently forgetting that expected and unexpected shit always happens along the way. Being present and ready for these eventualities is far better than getting out there with no poop bag and being forced to flick a stick or hide that shit under a leaf or snow. There’s a lesson there for business and life, for sure. Be ready for that shit.
Motivation comes from affirmation. Dogs pay a ton of attention to their surroundings, but typically like to lead by their nose. That means it is important to maintain their attention and confirm who is in charge all during a dog walk. It’s great to affirm the character of the dog and understand them, but a good owner learns to lead by communication and connection. The dogs like it better because they’re actually wired that way. There’s an element of truth to that with people too, because everyone works better when they are affirmed in their efforts.
Set expectations and give directions. Typically this involves instruction given to a dog (or dogs) before one ever goes outside. A simple “sit” or “stay” inside the door is the same thing as stating “Alright let’s bring this meeting to order.” Walking a dog is a meeting of minds. Teaching a dog how to walk with you takes practice and consistency. That doesn’t mean you need to control their every action, at first focuse on those that contribute to the greater goal of having “a good walk.” A dog tugging and pulling and wandering off-trail every twenty feet is not necessarily a happy animal. Nor is a dog left to fend for themselves in the presence of strange or unfamiliar dogs. Some will work it out, but they can also wind up being dominated or intimidate, setting the stage for future fears. Set expectations in all these situations and life will be better for everyone. “Is your dog good with other dogs?” is a polite and simple question to ask. And be smart about time: keep human meetings and dog walks under an hour. Honor expectations and be rewarded with loyalty.
Vary the routine. Dogs do love a bit of routine. But they also get bored if there is nothing new along the way to see or sniff. So whether you’re walking your dog, making dinner for a spouse or managing a department of eager employees, it always helps to vary the routine. Change it up. Make it fun. That includes the bedroom. Woof woof.
It costs money to feed a dog right. The shelves at your local pet store are filled with row upon row of dog food bags and cans. All claim to be best for your dog’s health. But one must remember that much of what is available in both human food and dog chow is often manufactured from the lowest possible quality of available ingredients (such as sugar or carbs) while runing light on real food including genuine protein or vegetables. Ironically, it can be cheaper and better for you to shop the “perimeter” of a grocery store where food is loose and real rather than purchased prefabricated and sold in boxes, cans or other marketing tools that only raise the cost. A dog’s life can be better on a raw diet just like us. And when it comes to the rest of life, these principles hold true when buying products or creating services to sell to your customers. Authenticity is the name of the game, these days. And healthier for everyone. That’s as true for the information we consume as the food that we eat. Best to check it’s real before gobbling it up.
Have a plan and communicate it. When you buy a puppy (especially a stray or rescue dog, which you should) you can never quite tell what their prior experiences in life have been. Some arrive with fears and baggage from mistreatment, But just like people, these tendencies can often be healed through communication, kindness and loving direction to build trust. Knowing how to do this can require the help of a dog trainer. That dynamic is just ike a human resources department brining in objective, outside help in the form of specialists to talk about sexual harassment or other critical management policies. In every case it matters that we use consistent, clear language and develop a plan that everyone understands so that both the dogs in our life and our fellow associates know the importance of respecting the plan.
Know your limits. Sometimes it is tough to handle all the things that raising dogs or managing associates can throw at us in a day. Thus it is important to know when to “back off” and calibrate our own emotional stability before proceeding to the next steps. With a dog, it can be enormously helpful to crate train them because animals need time to regain a sense of control in their own space. On the human front, many companies now realize that granting associates the right to govern their time or engage in recreation actually brings them back with fresh attitudes. The byproduct of this approach is that it gives managers and executives a reasonable respite from constant demands, and they need time to recreate as well. That’s a wise way to go about the whole program. Productivity can actually increase by giving people license to expand their minds and relieve stress. it’s all about knowing your limits and respecting those of the people (and the dogs) with whom you work.
Embrace the cause. Walking your dog is an important tool for their health and wellness. It balances their body and minds because many breeds retain instincts to move and hunt and play. Embracing this as the “cause” for the walk really can put you in tune with the dog you love. It can open your eyes to their world. And while sniffing out dead frogs in the grass seems gross from a human perspective, to a dog that activity is like finding a cold, unclaimed Snickers bar in the back of the company fridge after moving the ice that’s been sitting there four months. We all love surprises. Embrace the cause of joy no matter how simple it can be. And nothing beats a truly cold Snickers.
Get out more. Taking your dog new places is an exercise in collaboration. Helping your dog meet new people or other dogs is a great way to socialize them and improve their ability to handle diverse circumstances. Bringing your dog to a local coffee shop will often produce many interesting encounters as people ask if they can pet your animal. If that’s in your dog’s nature, it can open up all-new human connections as well. Recently I encountered two obviously homeless men sitting on a bench outside a coffee shop. Both lit up with joy at the sight of our dog’s wagging tail and happy expression. She did not judge the men by their appearance, nor did they object to her over-exuberant and somewhat nippy greeting. So get out more. It’s a compassionate thing to do for you, your dog and for other people in this world. It’s also good for your soul at work or in life to go out for lunch with friends or even all alone and keep an open mind to talking with others.
Forgive your dog and forgive yourself. No animals acts perfectly all the time. While we try to raise “perfect pets” that mind our every command. But occasionally they’ll still pee on the neighbor’s lawn when you’re not looking or threaten to run after a rabbit of squirrel. Our pets can be a bit ADHD at times, drawn to distractions or possessed by their instincts. First and foremost, you need to learn to forgive them. And in the process, you’ll learn to forgive yourself for not raising a perfect pet. There’s especially no reason to be cruel to animals as a means to assuage any inner guilt or disturbance in your emotional matrix. It is clear from all the abandoned or abused pets in this world that too many people take out their aggressions on innocent animals because they have not found healthy ways to deal with their own inner torments. If you have these instincts and can’t find ways to be patient with you dog, then human relationships are not going to be any easier to manage. The same goes for projecting prejudice or fears on certain breeds of dog, or for that matter. That brand of prejudice parallels resistance to human cultures or races of people different from our own. Until people learn how to overcome these fears or prejudices, the world becomes a battle for control that never ends. Thus it is important to learn to forgive yourself, how to manage internal conflicts and how to change your ways and attitudes. Your pet and the people around you in this world will no doubt return the favor with kind appreciation.
It’s a gut-wrenching moment, saying goodbye to a child on a college campus. But some colleges really know how to handle it. To their eternal credit, I recall the method by which the University of Chicago manages that transition for parents and students. The entire crowd present for the opening remarks from the college president is marched around the block toward the Quad, where the kids are siphoned off and sent through a set of arches to be greeted by upperclassman who cheer their welcome. The parents are shunted off to a consoling feast of food and alcohol at the center of campus.
Tears dry quickly when the chords are so suddenly snapped. And the process is inevitable if you want your child to succeed. We work so hard as parents to teach them to be independent and then blubber like fools when we finally succeed? The world is so full of contradictions.
The more difficult transition for our family during my son’s freshman year in college was coaxing my wife through the initial rounds of chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. She’d already been through procedures of hysterectomy and excision in the abdomen earlier that summer. We did not know what the results would be, or where the next steps would lead us. It would entail eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and it was tough. The poison drugs gave her a swollen face and a reddish complexion as if she were perpetually blushing.
Yet she was determined to attend Parent’s Night at the college. So we drove into the city with her mother and father sitting in the back seat of our car. Her father was a big fan of the entire University of Chicago experience. Years before my son became a candidate for admission, my father-in-law wandered Hyde Park and studied its history. He felt genuine pride at the fact that his grandson had worked so hard in high school and gotten accepted into the prestigious school.
So the trip down to UC was supposed to be a passage of joy. But my wife was sick as hell from the chemo treatments. She was so stubborn that I knew she could not be convinced to stay home. So I kept watch on her in the passenger seat as we drove down the Eisenhower Expressway into the city.
Her lip quivered a few times, and she had every right to be scared and exhausted from her treatments. But I still felt she needed to get a grip. I whispered to her quietly. “Evan needs you to be strong,” I told her. “This may be one of those times when you have to just suck it up.”
It sounds cruel, but the message worked. She sailed through the evening like the trooper she was, keeping a smile on her face and dishing out hugs to the new friends and parents we met at the University. Evan was thrilled we could attend. And then it was time to go home again.
A few weeks later my son came home to visit the family over Thanksgiving, I was driving him back downtown when he confessed to a tension inside himself that he could not fully describe.
I asked: “Is it mom? Are you worried about her?”
“Well yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “I feel like I have this anvil on my chest.”
Coming home and coming out
That evening he did not attempt to describe what was going on. But I knew he’d eventually come to grips with whatever was vexing him. It took a couple months, actually. But during his trip home in mid-winter we went out to dinner with our family and shared the news that he is gay.
The news and perhaps the timing was a shocker to my wife, who was in the midst of eleven cancer treatments that were slowly eating away at her health. Ultimately the chemo drugs would clear her of cancer for two full years. The doctors would proclaim her cancer free. The treatments had worked. For a while.
In the moment of our son’s revelation, my major concern was family stability in the face of all that challenge and change. My wife turned to my daughter and asked, “What do you think of this?”
My daughter was quick to reply. “I think we both like good-looking men.”
That evening after everyone was in bed, I reached out by phone to a gay friend for some perspective on my son’s coming out. My friend arrived at my door a half-hour later with a look of deep concern on his face. I shared the night’s events and told him about my son’s orientation. He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I was worried it was something serious, like Linda getting sicker.” That was a welcome show of assurance. I’d had hints that Evan might be gay over the years. The first showed up as early as fifth grade. I called my brother that day and told him, “You know, I think Evan might be gay.”
“If he is, he is,” my brother replied. That was the attitude of our entire family as the years went by. “Evan is Evan,” we all repeated. He’d grown up loving music and excelled at cello, earning top honors at the Illinois State Youth Music camp at University of Illinois. He ran track some, and played soccer a couple years. But he was ultimately drawn to acting and theater, an interest that carried all the way through four years of college. The roots of his being were there all along, in every respect.
Perhaps you understand the roots of your particular child as well. Sending them off to kindergarten or middle school, high school or college is however an admission that it takes more than a set of parents to help them become who they eventually will become.
Freshman year went generally well for my son. As for us, those quick tears the first day of school hardly affected our vision of what we wanted for our son going forward. His grades were good. He’d signed on to join a fraternity. He loved living in the city and would take off on a trip to China that next summer.
What it’s all about
Every step along the way is about more than just about going off to school. It’s not even about kids leaving home. It’s about growing to learn, and learning to grow. That’s true for the parents saying goodbye as well as those eager, perhaps frightened students.
You may feel split to the core at the feeling of loss. All those years of raising them around the house, hosting their friends and feeding them sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lemonade on hot summer days. Time passes. We wipe the counter of their messes. Memories of diapers and bottles and pacifiers fade. They are replaced with smelly sneakers and college duffle bags tossed in the entryway on the day they come back home from school… and disappear again with friends to convene late into night. It can make you wonder if you matter. And you do. But you can cry all you want, this is life.
Wipe those tears and be glad for the normality of all that pain and loss and joy mixed together. Take pride in the fact that you help make it all happen. And thrive.