When Someone Great Is Gone

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My father-in-law and our youngest

In the early hours of the morning, our family got smaller. My dear, 88-year-old father-in-law passed away peacefully at home with his nuclear family close by. It was three weeks to the day the oncologist told him he had perhaps one to six months left. But Jim was always a little impatient and ready to get on to the next thing, so he left us sooner rather than later. He was not one to dawdle and he hated to be late.

I first met him at a restaurant for a family dinner when my husband and I had only been dating a few weeks. That night is largely a blur to me except for the memory of Jim sitting next to Steve at the table. At one point, I looked over and saw he had his arm around the back of Steve’s chair and was leaning in close to talk to him. I knew then that Steve was a keeper. With a loving, engaged, affectionate father like that, how could he not be?

Jim loved to tell a story. At parties, he’d be in the center of a crowd holding court. Sometimes he would tell the same story again, but he’d tell it with gusto as if it was the first time you were hearing it. Not too long ago, he began a familiar tale and we must have given him a collective facial groan because he immediately said, “I know you’ve heard this before but I don’t care. I love telling this story.” And so he did. It was the story of the day my husband was born in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. He got to the point in the story where events in the labor room were gaining momentum and he recounted again the nurse saying to the doctor viens vite and then he reminded us again (although we already knew) that viens vite means come quickly. Jim shared dozens of stories with us over the years. And having traveled to more than 100 countries in his life, he was a man with myriad stories to tell. Every painting in the house he shared with my mother-in-law, every piece of decor he’d hauled or sent home from other countries had meaning. He surrounded himself with tokens and trinkets relating to memories.

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Jim and Marlene in their custom painted golf cart

He loved to buy mementos and gifts almost as much as he loved opening them himself. I’ve never seen a grown man relish gift opening the way Jim did. Christmas will never be the same without him. Each year on his birthday, he requested homemade butterscotch pie, and my mother-in-law would dutifully oblige to create the dessert she says requires every pan in the kitchen. I decided today that henceforth we shall continue to celebrate Jim’s birthday on April 17th with butterscotch pie. Steve and I will also be carrying on Jim and Marlene’s tradition of grog, toasting with a drink at 5 p.m., because it’s important to celebrate every day with the people you love.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Jim had on my life. After a successful career at Caterpillar, climbing up in the ranks to land as Vice Chairman back in the 1980s, Jim enjoyed sharing what he loved with people he loved. He put not only his two children through undergraduate and graduate school, he also paid for graduate school for his children’s spouses. That wasn’t enough, though, so when our sons were born he created educational trusts for them, which have allowed them to attend private schools for children with learning disabilities that Steve and I might likely not have otherwise been able to afford. Jim shared his love of travel with us too by taking us on incredible vacations to England, Norway, Alaska, the Galapagos Island, and the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Then, as if all his generosity hadn’t been enough, he and my mother-in-law flew the six of us to Tanzania last December for a glamping safari because they wanted to hear our stories even if they couldn’t be there to share in them themselves. Because of his generosity, I was able to stop working when our oldest was born and to stay home to raise our sons, to be there for them for whatever they needed, from occupational therapy to dyslexia tutoring. So much of what our little family of four has and is comes as a result of Jim’s kindness.

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On one our fabulous family vacations

His show of love and affection didn’t, however, just arrive through financial means. He was loving and supportive always in all ways. He regularly read my blog and when he came upon one he really appreciated or that really spoke to him, he would send me an email. After one post I wrote detailing the struggle I was having trying to decide if or how to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, he sent me this message:

You are being too hard on yourself. Have a birthday party and pay attention to your therapist. You are loaded with good qualities.

My father-in-law gave without expecting anything in return. He never offered unsolicited advice. He never said an unkind word to me or my sons. He was a tall man with a heart that must have taken up 5 feet in his 6 foot frame. He lived his life his way, which was never halfway. I admired that and often dreamed of being able to emulate it.

On the occasion of Jim’s 80th birthday, I wrote him a letter and told him how much he meant to me, how he had changed me and my life, and how grateful I was to be part of his family. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could offer to the man who ostensibly gave me a life greater than I ever dreamed I would have. It breaks my heart to know I won’t hear another one of his stories or get another one of his hugs at the end of the day but, dammit, I am one lucky lady to have been part of his final inner circle.

We’ll see you again someday, Jim. You might have to wait a bit, though, because we want to make it to 88 too. We’re not ready to viens vite.

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The luckiest ones

 

The Permanence of Impermanence

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Saw this pink flamingo slowly dying on the street this morning. Wonder if someone is missing it? 

You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.

My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.

When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.

Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.

Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.

This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.

Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.

Deep Thoughts on the Nature of Carrots

Deep bunny thoughts, anyone?
Deep bunny thoughts, anyone?

The first quote my sister messaged me from Bunny Buddhism was this one about carrots.

The carrot may be eaten, but it is never completely gone.

Now, in terms of Buddhism-themed quotes, this one was admittedly not one that grabbed my attention immediately. It’s a bit abstract and not as easily applicable to my life as some of the others, so it was not one of the ones I marked. Still…as a first impression it was good enough. I knew I would buy the book because, holy cow, it’s bunny Buddhism. What could possibly be cuter than that? Penguins wearing knit sweaters? Babies and puppies napping together? The only thing I had previously experienced that was nearly that darling was the lawyer our son Luke told us he’d hired, Harry Flufferpants, Esq. And you have to admit that a teacup Pomeranian wearing a black, satin top hat and monocle and sporting a distinguished handlebar mustache comes pretty dang close to deep thoughts about bunniness.

Still…this particular bunny quote threw me, perhaps because I’m nothing if not pragmatic and I could not see the immediate wisdom here. I mean, let’s face it. If you consume a carrot, it is gone. Gone into the depths of your acid-machine stomach where it will in fact cease to exist in its current state. It will emerge later,  but it’s not going to be recognizable and you’re not going to want to stop to reflect on it. Or at least I hope you’re not.

Harry Flufferpants, Esq.
Harry Flufferpants, Esq.

So what exactly is the meaning of this quote? Although I’ve been sitting and reflecting on it for a while now, I am stymied. When I apply it to a life experience, like travel, I can make some sense of it. You take a trip and it ends, but the memory of that trip is never gone. You could also apply it to a person. You know a person and they leave you, but they’re never completely gone from your mind. Is that the lens through which you need to examine this widom? Perhaps the author was thinking of my husband who has an incredible memory for meals in obscure restaurants decades ago in foreign countries and would never forget an eaten carrot (even if he can’t seem to remember that I asked him to pick up carrots at the grocery store)? I’m drawing a blank on this one, and it’s vexing me. I never studied philosophy or religion, so I have nothing to go on. And I really hate feeling obtuse.

As I was searching for an answer to this mental puzzle, though, I found this quote that might help.

The wise bunny becomes wise by asking what he does not know.

So, I am asking. Can you help me become wise?

 

 

 

Sour Grapes Just Make Bad Whine

Go Broncos!
Go Broncos!

“The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.”       ~Vince Lombardi

So, we’re Broncos fans in this house. As you can imagine, the Super Bowl tonight was not exactly the game we were hoping for. We started off hopeful, quickly became disillusioned, slid right into disappointment, and from there rapidly devolved into depressed. And that was all before the end of the first half. Our sons, especially, were not handling the game well. At one point they vowed to stand out in the freezing cold yard until the Broncos scored. After 15 minutes, they gave up and came inside after hearing me drop a particularly fervent expletive. I guess we were all having a rough time. The game continued from bad to worse to appalling. The Broncos were handily outplayed. Seattle and their incredible defense had their best game, while Peyton Manning and the Broncos had their worst. Anything that could have gone wrong for the Broncos did. I started hoping the zombie apocalypse would interrupt the game and save us further disappointment but, alas, it did not.

As it became increasingly apparent how the game would end and as our entire family began spiraling into the pit of despair, I made a choice. I decided that if I wasn’t going to watch my team win the big game perhaps I could turn it into a win all the same. Instead of getting more upset, I reined my emotions in and modeled the attitude of gracious loser. I reminded the boys that every game has a 50% chance of ending in a loss, and today was not our day for a win. I reminded them to Look for the Good and Keep a Grateful Heart, just like our family mission statement urges. We talked about ways to do just that. So instead of ending the game with sour grapes, when the clock finally ran down and the blue and green confetti rained on MetLife Stadium, we ended it happy for Seattle’s first-ever Super Bowl win and grateful for a record-breaking season with Peyton Manning at the helm of our Broncos. Are we sad that the Peyton didn’t get to end his unbelievable season with a Super Bowl win? Absolutely. Are we bummed that we won’t get to enjoy a victory parade in Denver for the team that worked so hard for its fans all season long? Of course. But it isn’t the end of the world, and acting like it is would be an unfair example for our sons. Life is full of defeats, some of them crushing losses like the one the Broncos suffered tonight. Teaching our kids to accept disappointment is every bit as valuable as celebrating victories with them…maybe more so.

Our guys didn’t win the Super Bowl, but tonight I feel like we had a little victory all the same. Peyton Manning is not a failure because he didn’t get this Super Bowl win. He still had an unprecedented season that is worth celebrating. We have a tendency to focus only on the outcome and not the journey, and that’s not right. We don’t all get a Lombardi Trophy to hoist and we can’t all be Super Bowl MVP. After tonight, though, I hope our boys are on their way to becoming gracious losers because in this day and age it’s harder and harder to find those. Next year though, just for the record, I’ll be perfectly okay with it if we have to teach them to be gracious winners instead. The world could use some more of those too.

Thanks for a great season, Broncos!

In The Grand Scheme Of Things

You can learn a lot from the tiniest of things.
You can learn a lot from the tiniest of things.

I turned 45 years old at exactly 2:12 a.m. today. After a restless night, I was awake quite early this morning as the sun began to rise. I found myself thinking, while the rest of the creatures in my house slept, about how old I thought 45 was when my own mother was 45 and I was a whopping 19 years old. Back then, 45 seemed ancient. At 45 my mother was recently separated and embarking on a new life, one she probably never had expected when she was just 19. Now that I am 45 I can attest that I do not feel as old as the Sphinx. That 19 year old girl still lives inside me. She’s just been roughed up a bit on the outside and the extra 26 years have widened her eyes.

I had a wonderful birthday. Started my day with a 20-mile bike ride that I never would have been able to do 10, or even 20, years ago. Followed that up with hours spent lounging by the pool with my family and good friends. Throughout the day, dozens of well wishes popped onto my Facebook page from friends new and old, each one a little present in itself. For dinner we grilled out and I got to open more gifts than I probably deserve at this advanced age. And, as the day wound down, I headed up to the boys’ room to read to them just as I do every night (for as long as they continue to ask me to).

It was then that I noticed one of our four African Dwarf frogs was not doing well. It was upside down at the top of the frog tank, one of its buddies hanging close to its side helping to keep it up at the top of the tank. I told the boys that he (they’re all named after dwarves from The Hobbit) would not likely survive the night. It was a tough moment that we all knew would come someday. We did not expect it to be today. We purchased these frogs three years ago. Truth be told, they’re more my pets than my sons’. I’ve been the froggy momma. I clean their aquariums, feed them, talk to them. They are my precious charges. Seeing one belly up hit me harder than it should. After all, it’s just a frog, right? Everything has to die. I know this. I’ve been expecting these small amphibians to perish ever since the day I brought them home.

But today, as I celebrate having enjoyed 45 amazing years on this planet, watching a little creature struggle in his final moments was poignant and poetic. I tell my boys all the time that life is death. There cannot be one without the other. It is the one black-and-white truth we are guaranteed. Everything that is alive will at some point die. Nothing and no one escapes. If all goes well, we are wise enough to cherish our moments and lucky enough to have a plethora of them to recall. But it all comes down to this. We come into this world and we leave it. The life of that darling little frog is no less important than mine. It’s as much a part of the grand scheme of things as I am. Its passing on my birthday, as heartbreaking as it is, is simply a reminder that my days are numbered too. I must remember not to squander them. The next 26 years, if I’m granted them, will pass in an instant. Then I will be 71 as my mother is this year and looking back on 45 and wondering where the time went because I still feel that 19 year old girl inside.

Some Questions Cannot Be Answered

A horrible event gripped the Denver community over the past week. A ten year old girl went missing on her way to meet friends just a couple short blocks from her home on her way to school. As soon as it was determined that her whereabouts were unknown, an Amber Alert went out for her. Now, seven days later we know she is gone forever. The details of what happened in her last few hours here on earth are unknown, but the disturbing end she met is obvious. When the news broke that a body had been found (“not in tact” was the terminology the police used) less than ten miles from where police had found her abandoned backpack, I knew. I think we all did. The unspeakable would be spoken to her parents.

Before I became a mother, I thought these stories were sad and tragic. I could keep perspective about them, though, because I didn’t have parenting experience myself. Now that I have children of my own, though, children who are around the age of the young girl who senselessly murdered this week, the pain is visceral. My heart breaks for her parents who will undoubtedly go over and over in their heads what they, in retrospect, wish they would have done differently that day. They will ask themselves myriad unanswerable questions. Why hadn’t they walked with her to meet her friends? Why didn’t they realize sooner something was amiss? Why did it have to be her at all?

You’ve heard the expression “the truth shall set you free.” Well….the truth is that life is filled with mystery, uncertainty, chaos, tragedy, and barely imaginable acts of horror that can never be explained, much less understood. Yet, we continue to try to find meaning where there is none. There is no way to fix the loss these parents feel. There is no way to bring Jessica back. But, I find some comfort in my own life in accepting that some things in life are out of our control. I wish I could tell Jessica’s parents that they did nothing wrong. They were doing everything right, giving their daughter the freedom to grow and become independent, and the unbelievable happened because sometimes things happen despite our best intentions. Some questions in life cannot be answered. And, any question surrounding what happened to this sweet girl is among those questions. I hope her parents find some peace someday, the kind of peace that can only come when we accept that we are not in control on this big spinning ball. We’re just not. Control is an illusion and we need to let go of it.

File It Under “Typical”

The license in question…and, yes..the info on it is correct. Well, all of it except the vision restriction.

I spend most of my life in a perpetual eye roll. It’s probably not the best look for me, yet the habit persists. I used to be able to control it, or at least curb it during inappropriate situations, but now it’s second nature much like breathing or sucking my stomach in when I get out of a swimming pool. Just a bit ago, I found myself in an eye roll that was likely visible from space. The magnitude of my annoyance was so great that astronauts aboard the International Space Station could have seen the whites of my eyes if they had been looking.

Last Friday morning, I decided that my exercise du jour would be an inline skate. It was cool when I left the house, so I donned a light jacket with a pocket. When I got to the parking lot near the path, I loaded the jacket pocket with all the usual necessities….chapstick, my ever-present iPhone, my Nano (which has all my best music on it because I save the memory on my iPhone for apps), and my driver’s license because you never know when you’re going to be exercising alone, become the victim of some completely bizarre tragedy, and need to have your body identified. I skated a bit longer than usual, so halfway through my skate the temperatures had climbed and I didn’t need the jacket anymore. I wrapped it around my waist to transport it back to the car. When I got back to the car, I had just one thing on my mind. A venti Cool Lime Refresher from Starbucks. So, I peeled off my skates, slipped back into my flip-flops, and headed off to Starbucks in mental turmoil about whether I’d use my expired gold star card or not.

On Friday night, I was digging through my wallet looking for something and realized my driver’s license wasn’t there. I remembered I had taken it out for my skate, so I checked the back pocket of the jacket. The license wasn’t there. Curious. I then thought I remembered putting it in my purse (and not in my wallet where it belonged), so I began rifling through my bag. Not there either. I searched my car, the garage, the kitchen counter. I mentally retraced my steps. I scoured both the purse and the wallet again. It appeared to be gone. I told myself that I would give it the weekend to turn up and then call it quits and face the dreaded line at the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles.

Well, the dang thing did not miraculously hop back into my wallet over the weekend, so this morning it was time to face the executioner. Armed with my passport, a current credit card bill, and our checkbook, I prepared myself for the misery that is Driver’s License Hell. Amazingly, there were only 6 people ahead of me when I arrived. When I was able to approach my surly clerk (from what I could tell while I waited, there were 4 surly clerks and 1 pleasant one), I handed over my identification, took the vision test which I passed with flying colors sans corrective lenses courtesy of LASIK 6 years ago, and shelled out $21 for a replacement license. When I was finished, the clerk informed me that my license “should arrive via mail in 30 days.” This comment induced another epic eye roll. I have to wait 30 days to discover what hideous portrait the camera dude was able to come up with? Sigh. I took my temporary license (a flimsy 8″ x 4″ piece of paper) and went home annoyed at myself for losing the real thing. The photo on the license I lost was taken in 1999 when I was 31 years old. I liked that license because I looked, oh, about 13 years younger in it.

Well, I’m sure you know where this is going. This afternoon I got the mail. I opened an envelope addressed to me and guess what I found there. Yep. My original license, the one I lost, the one that wasn’t due for replacement for another two years. (This is when the eye roll visible from space occurred.) Some kind soul had found it along the path where it had fallen from my pocket and mailed it back to me. Typical. What does today’s experience teach me? It teaches me not to be so timely when I replace lost items. It also teaches me that the next time I skate I leave my license in my car. If some horrific tragedy befalls me while I’m skating, let the coroner ID my body. That’s his job anyway.