Category Archives: the Right Kind of Pride

Acceptance

2013-12-25 12.17.28Prologue

Before the fourth anniversary of my wife’s passing March 26, 2013, I reached out to my children and family on her side to see how everyone was doing. The fact that four years had passed struck me somehow differently than in previous years. I thought about what four years of time had meant in other stages of life. High school. College. All so significant. 

Ad it felt like I was “graduating” in some way from the grief experience as well. So I began writing the following essay but did not get to publish it before the date of her passing. So I held onto it for a week. And during that time my son Evan, who has been through quite a bit of challenging grief scenarios, expressed some confidence that he was built back up in some ways. I discussed things with my daughter and sister-in-law, who both process grief in their own way as well. And my mother-in-law and brother-in-law. And through these discussions the conclusion of this essay was drawn. And here it is. 

Some periods of life seem so much more important than others. It’s tempting to think about life in chunks.. Those elementary years making friends for the first time. The middle school years overcoming awkward physical and social changes. High school with its epic call to become someone liked and respected..Then college comes along, quickly followed by the climactic launch into real life.

 What is it about a four year periods that that seem to change us so much? Freshman. Sophomore. Junior. Senior. We even assign names to each stage. 

Four years is a long time. That’s 1,460 days. 35,040 hours. 2,102,400 minutes. Depending on how one’s brain tends to process time against other factors such as stress and other emotions from pain or joy, every second can feel like an eternity in some stages of life.

This is especially true when a period of four years marks a rite of passage for someone you love. That’s why people hold graduation ceremonies. One is a graduate because the process has been gradual

We tend to remember the passage of years whem someone familiar to us dies or “graduates from life,” we might say. My own mother died in 2005. Twelve years ago. My father passed away ten years later, in 2015. I was his caregiver all those years he lived on as a stroke victim. During a significant portion of that time I was also caregiver to a wife who passed away from ovarian cancer in 2013. That was four years ago. March 26.

I’ve written at length about our lives together. Published a book chronicling our journey. Those who knew her still share fond memories. She is not forgotten. Her memory is cherished by many. 

Our family reeled, of course, from her loss. During the last four years the healing process for me has involved a number of changes. I worked for myself a good portion of that time because it was one of her wishes for me. It also turned out to be a time for healing. When I needed relief from work, I took it. Unconventional at that stage in life perhaps. But necessary.

And in the process of self-employment I learned a lot about what like I do and where my strengths and weaknesses really are. 

For my children, the past four years has been an entirely different experience in grief. My son lived in New York for most of that time. Losing his mother gutted the young man in many ways. We’ve talked about the things he did to compensate. Some of them healthy. Some of them not so much. It has been a wrenching process in any case.

My daughter was in the early part of her 20s when her mother died. Now she’s turning 27 years old. Some of the big events in life for a young woman are coming up. Thus she misses her mother in distinctive ways from the two “guys” in the family.

We’re all likely familiar with the stages of grief in life. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And acceptance. I would argue that the first four are stages from which we seek to successively graduate, and not always in neat categories or specific order. And people graduate from some things in life at different times. 

It’s the acceptance that constitutes our graduate degree when it comes to getting through and over a big loss in life. It’s a difficult subject to master. Acceptance is just one of the many degrees we earn in life. 

A recycled life is worth considering

IMG_1287The choice to move from my home of twenty years was not an easy decision to make. It was the childhood home of my children, and a healthy degree of sentiment was attached to the place as a result. It was also the home where my late wife and I spent so many years, and she passed away within its walls.

For three years following her death, I tended the gardens and built new water features in the backyard she loved. My daughter and I ranched monarchs from the milkweed plants, just as my late wife had done. These were important remembrances and real-life transitions, symbolic and otherwise.

Home

So the significance of that home was not lost on me. Yet there grew in me a need to change and start anew, to recycle some things in my mind.

In fact, I had many dreams in which I was moving, or had just moved and was trying to make sense of what my values were about in those dreams. In some of those sleepy time imaginings, my late wife was actually present as an observer to my behavior. I took that presence to mean there was a responsibility to my children in my decision. Her memory was obviously precious, and her dreamtime presence still presided over the place.

Away

And yet, she had told me in many ways that she understood my priorities in life as well. There was one early morning, perhaps a month before she died, when she woke me with a sheet of paper bearing detailed descriptions of how she wanted me to work for myself, and try new things. That was not some hidden message. That was direct consultation. It was also a sign that a month out from her passing, she knew more than she was telling anyone else.

That courage in the face of death was also not lost on me. It emboldened me to be brave and forthright about her passing. I had to take care of myself in order to care for our children. Sometimes that strength was a disservice, and I missed important cues of need and hope. Yet it was also best for me not to sit home and brood. So I went out on dates not because I wanted to forget her, but in acknowledgment that I love companionship. It is how I am wired. It is why we were married for 28 years and why we dated four years before that. It is also why I eventually met a woman and fell in love again.

History

It should be known that all that history added into my decision on whether to keep the house or not. In the end, I felt like that chapter in life had completed itself. There was a period of grieving and processing that lasted three years after her death. Yet I did not think that staying in the home would add anything more to that line of thinking.

The tougher question was whether it was a disservice to my children to sell the home. I will admit that I made that decision based on my own mental health. The thought of “losing” the home caused some suffering to my kids. We gathered in our basement and went through their prodigious collections of things stored there, and determined that not all of it needed to be kept. So we chose some important keepsakes and those have moved with me into a new home.

Stuff 

When I dug deeper into the multitude of boxes and collectibles stuffed into closets and basements and under staircases, I realized that my wife had kept just about everything about their youth. Entire books of homework and certificates of achievement. Old music scores and massive books of drawings, notes and cards. These I sorted through over a period of weeks. In fact, the process had begun years ago, and there have been many waves of examination and trips to Goodwill, calls from Amvets and Vietnam Vets for clothes pickups. When my wife told me a few weeks out from her passing, “Chris, I’m sorry about all the stuff,” I had no idea what she was saying. I learned the hard way.

And I had to deal with the real deadline of selling the house when it came into being.

That had taken place in stages. First, my now-fiancee and I examined the option of building onto my old place. But that was expensive, and impossible in some ways without a difficult two years in construction plan. Instead, we decided to work together and build the financial credit and equity to look into another home, one we could buy together. Start fresh.

And that happened fast.  Then after her lease was up October 1, we moved her stuff into my home for 10 days and stored her furniture. Then we moved her stuff again down to the new house and most of my furniture with it too. All that was left were two outside lawn chairs and a whole lot of closets full of disjointed memories.

Digging out

I worked like a bugger to clear out all the remaining stuff. But in the end, I missed the closing deadline. That caused the buyer’s realtor to panic and get a little angry with me. I called my realtor and apologized to all parties involved. I’d done my best but needed more time because I’d had no idea how much stuff there really was to move out. So the lawyers talked and it was agreed to hold back $5K and charge me $125 per day until the house was completely cleared out and cleaned.

That cleanout turned into 12 yards of eclectic dumpster material hauled away at an early hour by the Waste Management Bagster truck. I begged them to come that Friday morning to take it away. They told me they could not provide any guarantees. So when they pulled past my headlights at 6:00 a.m. the day I’d targeted for actual closing I heaved a giant sigh and cried with my head on the steering wheel. But there was still a lot of work to do.

Decision-making

Because the decision-making that had gone into those big bags of stuff was not easy. It’s a difficult thing to throw away the drawings your kids did in childhood. Yet we can’t keep all this stuff. None of us can. Last spring I cleared out the home where my late father had lived for 38 years. We filled up two 15-yard dumpsters. It was a massive job. It also slammed the door on any sentiment we might have felt toward all but a tiny segment of belongings from his home.

I realized that if I had not performed the act of clearing out that home and cleaning it, someday my own kids would have had to do it. I can tell you, that’s not easy, and it’s not fun. It also can have a demeaning effect on the memory of your loved one.

Owning too much junk is not a virtue. Dispensing of someone else’s junk is not a joy.

Even my own collection of CDs went spilling into the maw of those green bags. When I called the Junk Genie to come help with the final stages of the cleanout, even more formerly precious possessions were tossed into the garage. Then my fiancee and her son swept through the backyard collecting garden stuff and all kinds of other detritus.

Pickers

Along the away, a phalanx of metal pickers made my house a regular stop on their daily routes to find marketable metal objects. I was a fertile source of those objects. Even the metal poles that rested in the rafters of my basement as well as an ancient Kenmore stove that had lurked beside the ironing board all twenty years of owning the home were collected by the pickers. So while I created a load of junk, some of it went to good use as well. I was grateful for these newfound and somewhat transient friendships. But I have kept their numbers as well.

In the end, it felt like I was recycled as well. New beginnings are not a bad thing to consider in life. While somehow I wish loss never had to occur in life, the fact of the matter is that it does.

Controlling your instincts to keep everything

Which means sometimes it pays to take control of the losses you need to create, and empower your own existence by moving things along. That example can help others clean up the debris in their own lives. Because while junk in an old home is a physical thing, those of us that have moved a few times also recognize that there is emotional junk we need to move along as well. A recycled life is worth considering. Sometimes real love of self and others waits on the other side.

 

 

The ch-ch-ch-changes we need to make when talking about cancer

We read news of the death of David Bowie from cancer and what does it tell us? That he “lost his battle” with the disease.

It’s time for some changes in that sort of language. I’ve watched several people dear to me die from cancer, and they did not lose the battle. They won time instead.

Time to live. Time to consider the importance of the people they loved. Time that mattered.

Cancer is an indiscriminate condition that can cause death eventually. You don’t get it because you’re a bad person, but bad habits like smoking can cause it. Yet cancer can also come along because you’ve spent too much time in the sun, or had the bad luck to carry a certain cancer-causing gene. So to suggest that you’ve lost the battle is to make a pitch that the battle was lost before we ever knew it was begun.

Well, that’s rather true for all of us, isn’t it? Life itself is a pre-existing condition. Yet in defiance of that truth, we’ve all been living with a health insurance business that parses that fact for its own profit. And we deal with drug companies that jack the price of life-saving drugs simply because they can. It goes on and on.

Pushing through the market square,
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over,
We had five years left to cry in

News guy wept and told us,
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet,
Then I knew he was not lying

That means it can be an expensive battle to live, to pay for the right to continue one’s life. That’s immoral on its own, of course. But every time someone dies from cancer it seems we repeat that meme about “losing the battle” ad hominen (against the person that died) and ad infinitum (there but for the grace of God go I.)

david-bowie-5-1024x616.jpgSo stop it. Make the ch-ch-ch-change in yourself when you speak of someone dying from cancer, or any other reason. They did not lose a battle against a disease or anything else. They won time to the best of their ability. And we should all honor that.

As for the memory of David Bowie, many of us had no idea he was sick. But even famous people deserve privacy. Perhaps something reached out to me through the cosmos however, because two weeks ago I printed out a bunch of chordsheets of his music and began playing his songs. Moonage Daydream is a tremendously cathartic bit of music to rip on guitar. It brings us back to those moments in life when music props us up against the perceptions of the world.

18345-david-bowie-637x0-1Bowie and I go back to the Ziggy Stardust album, which I revered as a sophomore in high school. The androgyny of the character and his person both fascinated and terrified me. At the time, it was not acceptable in any form to be considered feminine by those terms. Not in the tiny farm town where I lived.

I didn’t necessarily have the instincts to publicly display my curiosities. But like many young men I tucked my manhood between my legs and looked in the mirror wondering what it would mean to look like or be a woman. I have photos from that period when my facial features were delicate. Not yet a man. But no longer a boy.

To some people, such behavior and curiosities are abhorrent, wrong and unbiblical. Yet the courage of people like Bowie to bring those instincts to grace and acknowledgement have indeed changed the world, and for the better. The very idea that people all fall into plain and distinct categories is false and dangerous. It is the fascism of singularly self-directed purpose, and not godlike at all. Art, by contrast, explores the unspeakable. It sings it loud. Brings truth into the light.

Nature as well is both creative and forceful in its diversity. A society that collaborates with the forces of nature is a healthy one. The elements of the world that suppress and tries to murder the fact of diversity is one that fights against none other than itself. Men like Adolf Hitler, for example, made up their own version of reality. They try to cover their fears and insecurities with willful terror and murderous intent.

david-bowieAnd that’s why David Bowie matters. His music and his leadership together changed the world. If anything, he battled a few  s0-called demons in the process. But given the fact there are actually no such thing as real demons, he battled what the world threw at him instead. And in many respects, he won. And that’s the right kind of pride.

That’s the inspiration we can take from the passing of David Bowie. He forged a creative path that enabled him to overcome many fears about the world. He was born David Jones and chose his stage name from the inventor of a knife, it seems. Then he used it to cut both ways. There’s a powerful lesson in that.

A friend just texted me lyrics from the song Heroes. “We can beat them, forever and ever. We can be heroes, just for one day.” And that’s the best example of all. Thank you, David Bowie.

Grieving in dream time

We all know plenty of people dealing with loss in their lives. A friend loses a child in the latter stages of pregnancy. Another grieves over the death of their parent or a sibling. We lose people to cancer, or car accidents, suicide or heart attacks. All these losses are carried with us in many ways.

Most recently my father passed away. The day he died I entered his room and cried heavily over the man who raised me. I also cried for the relative valor with which he suffered 13 years of stroke disability. The loss of his ability to communicate robbed our family of valuable time with him. We also lost a share of family history since he was unable to tell stories of his youth or his experience.

And a few years ago, my wife died of cancer after eight years of survivorship. We had been married for 28 years. That’s a lot of shared history as well.

Just a year before my wife passed away, my father-in-law died from complications related to heart problems.

And ten years ago in 2005 my own mother passed away.

All these losses have been processed in different ways. Yet all of them have converged in some way in my dreams.

Shred of guilt

Whether we like to admit it or not, there is often a shred of guilt that goes with losing someone we love. Working through that brand of guilt alone can take years. We might wish we could have done something more for the person we loved, or been there more. We might have wanted to tell them with more urgency how much we loved them.

None of these feelings are foolish or unwarranted. They are the very real consequences of having loved, and having lived. It is simply impossible to have lived perfectly, of having never forgotten to say “I love you” when it counts. So it takes time to grieve through these feelings as well as the raw loss of someone in our lives.

Asking forgiveness

FamilyBefore my late wife passed away, I sat down by her bed and told her that I loved her and asked forgiveness for any wrongs or ways that I might have disappointed her over the years. All relationships have some degree of failure in their mix. I thought it important to let her know how much I appreciated our time together, and to apologize for my own shortcomings. Her doctor had advised me to be absolutely positive in her last few weeks. Yet we’d been through quite a few things together, and I positively wanted to tell her how I really felt. That included a bit of confession. We all try our best, but love requires that we admit some of our shortcomings along the way.

Recurring dream

Perhaps that is a brand of emotional w0rk we must always do on our own. The one recurring dream (every few months) that I have in relationship to my late wife is that she has returned somehow from the dead and I am in no way prepared to deal with that.

The dream typically finds her rising from apparent death at the funeral home to re-enter her life. I encounter her at parties or other events and don’t know how to engage. Awkwardly, I’m challenged in those moments to know what to do because I’m in a new relationship.

This is a painful dilemma in a dream world, much like those moments when you are trying to run away from some threat and are unable to move your feet. Dream interpreters say that not being able to run away in a dream… is a sign of general anxiety in your life.

That’s exactly how anxiety works, of course. It can focus on any topic, but it also invents its own realities. And so, in relation to grief, it brings that person back on the stage of your life as if they were alive again. “What do you think of this…” it wants to know?

Bad dreams and divorce

The anxiety of dealing with loss in a dream world is similar in some respects to a person living through a real life divorce. Rather than grieving through bad dreams, however, one is forced to grieve that relationship every time you encounter a former spouse in real time. That can seem like a bad dream in more than one way.

It takes just as much time to grieve through that kind of loss as it does to come to grips with the death of a sibling or a loved one. None of us can completely separate ourselves from the reality of a divorce any more than we can divorce ourselves from feelings of grief or loss with someone that has died. It’s part of your subconscious thoughts whether you like it or not.

Dealing with loss

In relation to our experience in loss, overall I feel our family has tried to deal with these experiences in healthy ways. Obviously, the pain of children grieving a lost parent is a different thing from a husband dealing with the loss of a wife. I think some of the guilt I am processing relative to my late wife is a shared empathy for my children in having lost their mother. The dream in which she returns to life reminds me that my work in helping them is not over. Nor should it be. She returns to me in dreams so that I remain sensitive to the fact that I am responsible as their living parent to keep her memory alive for all of us.

Rather than a nightmare, such dreams are instructive and healthy to the grieving process. In many ways, our family has found positives in our life celebrations together. We are not afraid to recall both joyful and amusing aspects of my late wife’s personality. She loved to tease but could also be petulant about certain subjects or beliefs. These dichotomous aspects of her personality do keep her memory alive. They can also be shared with others because they are honest. We can be unapologetically real about her memory.

Sharing burdens and friends

1509152_10204571857793222_4147884275556153224_nAlso, my companion Sue is respectful and loving toward our needs. Being a companion to a “widow,” as she has done,  is not always easy. For both the spouse and the new companion, it can be difficult living in the shadow of someone so loved. Sue has treated my children with respect for their mother’s memory. She has grown to understand them better as people as a result, because learning about their mother has helped her understand their own characteristics and values.  And in our relationship, I have been very honest with Sue about my feelings in the 2.5 years since my wife passed away.

We did not leap into categories of emotions too quickly. It has been a prolonged “honeymoon” if you want to call it that, since we met and starting dating. That’s a necessary fact of our respective situations.

Sue was working through pain from a previous relationship when I met her. I was in active grief from having lost a spouse. I believe we’ve helped each other through, and grown as people as a result. We treasure relationships with both our sets of friends, and some of these groups have merged successfully, to the point where we no longer define friends as “Mine” or “Hers.”

Protection and risk

11169852_10205615038072077_292278208289650118_nThat is the protection. The risk is the investment in time and love we have made in each other. We have discussed the weight of that investment on several occasions. Dating in your 50s is not like dating in your 20s or 30s, when there are families to build and children on the horizon. Yet there is still an investment in the future. Even during the few years we’ve been together, we’ve felt changes in our bodies, hearts and minds.

We’ve also ached in real time over the challenges our children face and have shared the ache across family ties as well.

Through all this shared experience, it’s never been my process to compare Sue to my late wife Linda. The relationship we now share is clearly built on its own foundations. As stated, however, these foundations do draw from our respective pasts.

And interestingly, Sue’s actual first name Linda. She’s simply gone by Suzanne, her middle name, for her entire life. I first learned this fact in the first few months of dating her when her bike slipped and we visited the Urgent Care facility to get her checked out. The registration desk asked for her name and she stated, “Linda Astra.” Then she spun around to say, “I forgot to tell you. Linda’s my real first name.”

That was an odd little moment. But it was not lost on me.

Caution signs

We likely all know situations where in which the deceased spouse can become something of a legend or a saint in the lives of those who carry on their memory. Sometimes that sainthood can produce dysfunction among stepchildren or in other relationships where the new person in the family formula is constantly measured against the parent or loved one who went before.

That can create a “bad dream” in which people refuse to accept or show love to others. It’s much better to acknowledge that we all need each other. Those relationships may be in new or different ways those in the past, but that can be a good thing.

We have this one life to live. It is best to make life better for one another every way you can. That’s almost better than the Golden Rule.

 

Understanding the Relationship Algorithm

What follows is a brand of simple, straightforward advice on how to have better relationships.

The Relationship Algorithm (RA) is a tool to help you open communications, build respect and sustain love through all the years of a relationship. The Relationship Algorithm is a formula one takes to either tear down or build up a relationship. It works like this:

Relationship Algorithm: Negative Direction

Relationships break down because they are subjected to a series of negative responses.

Complaint to or about a person is most often the catalyst that starts a chain reaction of negativity that can tear down a relationship. Complaint is a form of insult. Insult is a lack of respect. Lack of respect leads to lack of trust. A lack of trust undermines the ability to love. The inability to love reduces the will to communicate. When communication fails, the relationship is over.

Here’s the quick synopsis of that Negative Relationship Algorithm:

RA/N: Unhealthy or Constant Complaint >Form of Insult > Lack of Respect > Lack of Trust > Inability to Love > Unwillingness to Communicate. 

 

The Better option: Relationship Algorithm––Positive Direction

By contrast, a Positive Relationship Algorithm places communicate at the forefront. From there, a healthy chain reaction can occur that affirms the love in the relationship and builds on positive emotional feelings. Constructive emotions such as trust, respect and positive dialogue produce a relationship that is healthy and progressive in nature.

Here’s the quick synopsis on the Positive Relationship Algorithm.

Desire to Communicate > Ability to Love > Building Trust > Showing Respect > Complementing the Partner > No need for Complaint.  

Within this spectrum of constructive relationship tools, there are also tactics that can help you work within each component of the Relationship Algorithm to build positive dialogue.

Solving problems using positive direction

For example, imagine a couple has challenges discussing financial issues. A negative response is to complain about money issues or disrespectfully accuse the other person of mistakes or abuses. That insulting approach leads to reduced trust, lost love and reduced communication. That’s how fights over money begin and continue.

By contrast, a healthier way to engage in financial discussions is for both people in a relationship to separately write down their financial concerns. Then carve out a time where both parties can give full attention and communication to the subject. If necessary, get a babysitter for the kids if you have them. Turn off the cell phones and shut down the computer (unless you want to use a spreadsheet for discussion.)

Agree not to threaten, accuse or complain during the initial discussion.

Always show respect

Promise at all times to show respect on the issues at hand. If additional information is required to make a decision, make notes and agree on a timeframe for action or answers on each topic. Focus on establishing a consensus about each issue on the table. If that’s not possible, and you need to consult with advisors or professionals to organize or solve your financial (or other) problems, agree to make that appointment and engage in no complaint on the subject until that issue can be resolved.

Likewise, do not engage or impose the “silent treatment” on your partner following discussion of relationship (especially financial) problems. This is a form of silent complaint and a true lack of respect. In many ways saying nothing is far worse than having a fight.

Also, be especially aware of Passive/Aggressive behavior, in which one person baits the other with kindness or passivity to gain an advantage, and then turns on them with assertiveness or even violence to overwhelm or win a fight. That is obviously an unhealthy, unfair and unproductive way to relate.

It is always important to be aware of your own emotional intelligence in these categories.  Avoid using scare or manipulative tactics to get what you want. That is no way to resolution or healthy compromise where needed.

Patience, respect and positivity pay dividends

Some problems take more time than others to resolve. Again, if one person feels additional discussion might be necessary to clarify their position or provide updated information, be sure to begin from the communication side of the algorithm, not the complaint side. This prevents the negative feedback cycle from turning into a stress factor between two people.

As our financial illustration shows, a good relationship algorithm always begins with communication, not complaint. Even this simple guideline can be enough to control potentially negative feelings and get people working toward positive response to challenges and needs within a relationship.

The Relationship Algorithm can work wonders if you keep these positive goals in mind.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a memoir about character, caregiving and community, the positive aspects of cancer survivorship and facing challenges in life. The book is available on Amazon.com. 

RightKindofPridecover
The Right Kind of Pride is a book by Christopher Cudworth about the importance of character, caregiving and community in this world. It is available on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

One long breath

CrowdThere were more than 2000 people milling around the start line of the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in our hometown. My racing instincts from long ago sent me out to a quiet street for a one-mile warmup jog. It had already been an eventful week getting my house ready to host 12 people for Thanksgiving. I was looking for a place, I suppose, to take a deep, long breath before doing the race.

Perhaps my mind was trying to take in a bit too much information at that moment. We had scheduled a Memorial Service for my father Stewart the night before Thanksgiving so that family could visit and join in celebrating my father’s life and grieve his passing.

Me with folksAll those years of caregiving for him were not quite over. There were still financial issues to manage, and the sale of his home to discuss. All that functions like a practical soliloquy that must be sung in order to gain closure.

But the emotional bank accounts remain open forever, and it is best to invest some time sharing memories with others, and learning how they view the life that has passed on. This is particularly true for a parent, as not everyone has the same perspective on what they mean, and how they should be honored.

As principal caregiver, my role kept me close to my father all those years after his stroke in 2002. He lived a full decade after my mother pass away in 2005. My job had been support for her initially, which quickly transitioned to full caregiver after her survivorship with lymphoma and pancreatic cancer came to a quick close in November 2005. That meant a full-time caregiver was necessary to join Stew in the home.

Stew and OlgaNot knowing what to expect after those quick changes, it struck me one day while walking into the home of my father that there were no real rules to this game. I was in charge of his life in consultation with my brothers. That meant there were always bills to pay and issues to discuss about his health and needs.

Sometimes that made it difficult to address much else in life. Stewart was not fond of making small talk when there were things bothering him. That list and how to address it could take quite a long time during my visits two or three times a week. He’d lost his ability to speech due to the stroke, which meant that we had to engage in a series of yes or no questions to ascertain his concerns. Early in the stroke recovery he’d quickly grow frustrated. His emotions were also hair-trigger thin at times, setting him off on a session of arm waving and barking “NO NO NO!” whenever I failed to get the questions right.

Stew and Evan and EmilyThere were many times I’d try to push the conversation toward something more pleasant such as memories of his that he might like to share. That was a tough gig too, because we could easily stall if I did not guess the name of the person involved in the story he wanted to relate. Even before his stroke we all had problems not knowing all the friends and family he thought we should know.

“Dad,” my brothers and I would say, “I never knew that person…” we’d reply, and he’d get frustrated and demand, “Yes you do!”

But we seldom really knew them. My father was a highly social man and had many acquaintances from golf and bowling and work and life in IMG_4900general that we, his sons, had never actually met. Or if we had, we did not remember them. Which was worse?

That meant it was a work in progress over the years moderating discussions with my father. It hurt me to hear that my brothers were frustrated with their visits. Stew would store up a memory bank full of things he wanted to share and try to communicate it all in one grand session rather than being patient and happy with a few satisfying stories.

There was a whole lot of life lost after my father had his stroke. He’d share photos and get bits of information out, often in beautifully abstract Stew and Evan and Emilyfashion. But my dad always was an impatient man in some respects, and one could go there with the best intentions to have a nice talk and come home hurt by the exchange.

His caregivers had the same problems. But we ultimately made it work for thirteen years. He lived in his own home until the very week he died. All three of his other sons made it for a visit by circumstance, and my father passed away on a Saturday afternoon.

All this was coursing through my head as I warmed up for the race. It felt like I’d been inhaling and dealing with the stress of trying to please him for so long. Now it was over, for the most part.

We held a nice memorial service with both laughter and tears.

And on Thursday morning I jogged up the quiet street away from the crowds. The air was clammy and grey. I felt tired and slow. And as I reached a spot near the river I stopped in my own tracks and began to cry. Tears fell down on the wet sidewalk and I told my father that I loved him.
Stew and Olga.jpgEarlier I sat in McDonalds before warming up. My cell phone had some photos sent to me by my daughter and son the night before. They were photos of my father holding each of them in his arms. Truly, those images felt like yesterday. I felt sad at the time that had passed yet thankful for those memories. He was a wonderful grandparent and a good dad.

That’s about all you can say. The rest is part of one long breath we take throughout this life. It seems we’re always holding our breath for what comes next. Which is why I encourage you to let out a little air. Breathe out and let the air come back into your soul a bit. Breathe in the essence and reality of the people around you. Because they want your attention. They love you. The demands of life can wait. They seriously can.

Then take one long breath and smile. It’s worth it.

 

What to expect from a class reunion

For some people a class reunion is a joyous occasion and an opportunity to connect with long time friends. For others, class reunions are bring on the worst kind of trepidation. Dread of encountering people you don’t like, or who don’t like you. Being nervous about your popularity, present or past. Worries over looks, weight or success in life can bring about anxiety, even depression of fear. Justifying yourself in the eyes of others is not too pleasing to some.

It need not be that way of course. Most people come through reunions relieved and unscathed, because somewhere between the fear and joy lies reality.

Yes, there are almost always people who arrive at reunions prepared to judge the relative success and youth of others. Perhaps the most amusing movie of all about this process is the chick flick Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. The two slightly daft gals discover their true talents by the end of the movie, but not without some grievous pain in the process. One even finds true love.

Changing traditions

Reunions for both high school and college are designed to bring people back together. This long tradition is changing with the advent of social media where people now connect without benefit of a reunion of any sort. Every day of the week can be a reunion if you want it to be.

Even so, as the years go by perspectives about what it means to reunite typically tend to change. The vagaries of life almost demand it. My brother once offered this advice to me before the occasion of my 20th-year high school reunion. “You might actually like this one,” he observed. “By now everyone’s had their ass kicked at least once.”

Interestingly, that year I attended not just one but three separate 20th-year high school reunions. One was for my actual graduating class. The second was for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved away from a high school out in cornfields of Illinois. And the last was a reunion for the class with which I would have graduated had I not moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois in the 7th grade.

Guess which reunion felt the most tangible? Perhaps you know. That reunion back home in Pennsylvania put me back in touch with kids that had shared grade school and middle school together. We all know those connections are earthy and real.

Yet the two actual high school reunions delivered on promises of old friendships as well. I actually served as emcee at the first reunion I attended. Frankly that was not much fun. Gaining the attention of people deep into discover of old friendships means you’re basically a distraction. It was pretty much an evening that felt like consistent rejection. I promised myself not to take it personally. Anyone else in charge could have had the same experience. But I’ll confess that it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

Life interventions

I missed the 25-year reunion because my late wife was sick with cancer. The milestones of life and death do not pay attention at times to our own plans and schedules. Missing that reunion served to instruct me how many years had actually passed.

It’s a strange feeling to so many people when the years come crashing down on you. As a high school product of the 1970s, it’s pretty easy to find song lyrics predicting the passage of time. Pink Floyd does both a service and a disservice to this topic of time passing with these lyrics:

“But you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking…

And racing around to come up behind you again…

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older…

And shorter of breath, and one day…closer to death.”

It’s a humbling reality that none of us lives forever. We laugh and play through our 20s even into our 30s. We come to grips with financial and family realities in our 40s. By our 50s we either stay marriage or lose a spouse to divorce or death. The kids grow up and you feel exposed to the winds of life, and one more reunion can feel like the wind knows all your secrets.

New growth

But some of us ignore that wind and stick new seeds of self into the ground. We weed away concerns and learn what faith really means in the context of a full life. We forgive ourselves and others, if we’re lucky and smart. Women tend to choose close friends and confirm their sanity. Men learn to forsake their concerns over athletic prowess and begin to take pride in the facility of their negotiations over self and ego.

Humility is a grace in two forms. It takes grace to jump those hurdles of worry and distrust that trip us up in life. As the Bible says, the world is full of stumbling blocks to enlightenment.

Then there is the grace it takes to handle intentional and unintentional affronts to your character. Sometimes people can’t help themselves with their words. They say things that echo old habits of insecurity or arrogance. The words come out of their mouths as if they had not grown away from that long-ago character or situation lurking around in their sub conscience. Be it a class clown or a brilliant student, we all absorb character aspects that are not always easy to manage. Even as years pile up it only takes a word or two at times to bring bad associations to the surface.

Playing nice

That’s what makes it so difficult to know what to expect from a class reunion. Will people be nice or not? Will they accept the person you’ve become or impose some assumption of character upon you in awkward, even vicious ways?

Sometimes the opposite happens. While attending that reunion back in Pennsylvania I was taking a breather from encounters with long lost friends by nursing a drink in a far flung corner of the VFW hall where we gathered. Just then a quiet man walked up to me and said, “Chris Cudworth?”

“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s great to be back.”

We talked a bit and slowly we recalled details of our association together. I remembered sharing gym class and a few other experiences with the guy. He was not one of the so-called popular but we spent a lot of time together. “The thing I liked about you is that you treated everyone as equals,” he told me.

Values and insecurities

That’s a value that I’ve held from the earliest phases of my life. With insecurities of my own boiling around inside, it made sense in not to push others about their flaws. All people deserve respect. I have indeed forgotten that value at times and shamed myself and others in the process. That is my confession.

But a reunion is a great opportunity to make good on any of those transgressions in life. It’s amazing at times that people who have crossed us, or whom we have crossed on our own accord, can become friends when false pride and fear is relinquished. The right kind of pride enables us to look for these opportunities for reconciliation and forgiveness. It can also protect us when we try to make good and find people unaware or unwilling to find paths to healthy, mature relationships.

You can probably expect a little of both from most reunions. We all travel the same path in life, but every person has to actualize at their own pace in life.

The best thing you can do, and the best thing you can expect from any reunion is a forgiveness for any wrongs in the past and a joy at someone acknowledging the person you are in the present.

Christopher Cudworth is author of The Right Kind of Pride; Character, Caregiving and Community.