America, authors, beauty, children, depression, divorce, family, Life in General

Breathing Underwater-or surviving giving a shit.

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So I’m having a bad day, like you do. It’s not so much that bad things are happening to me as it is that anything that does happen is being processed through my filters as emotional torture. You know the kind of thing, someone is rude at the grocery store and you can’t let it go, someone else has four dogs off the leash on a walk in a state park where it is clearly marked ‘no dogs’ and when you mention this, you get a condescending, “Thank you,” before the bitch returns to her loud cell phone call while her dogs harass the wildlife and poop on the trail and as much as I’d like to I can’t bring myself to drop kick one of the canines into the stream, (the rules don’t apply to them after all) my daughters are criticizing me for ______ (fill in whatever works for you cause I am not alone in this), there’s a dead fawn on the road where everyone speeds like idiots because it’s their god given entitlement to kill everything in their path because they want to go fast. Pretty soon I’m stuck on the ‘people suck’ loop and I’m crying for no apparent reason and contemplating returning to drug addiction or wondering if anyone will notice if I just move to a remote village in the Abruzzi.

But no, people need me here. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. I get overwhelmed by the sheer annoyance of not being able to end it all because eventually someone will need help moving, a recipe, a ride to the hospital, or a babysitter. And I, sigh, will raise my hand and volunteer.

Being needed is a blessing…and a curse. I suppose that’s because the required minimum—making small talk with people who watch reality TV, showing up at family events to be mocked by your siblings, listening to your father make racist jokes that he thinks are funny and innocent without taking his head off, and not letting the general public’s general bad behavior ruin every outing—take so much energy.

Okay, it saps my life strength. Over the years I’ve come to dislike people, not all of them of course, but the more I paid attention and shifted what is important in my life from surface success to actual kindness and decency on every level, the more disappointed I became.

So recently my 82-year old father and his wife were moving out of their home of 30-something years in Atlanta and the entire nasty pack up and move fell onto my only sibling left on the east coast, I decided I’d better go help. My oldest daughter, knowing that if I had to sit a house with Fox news blaring all day without emotional back up I might actually commit patricide, courageously offered to come and help.

Now there’s nobody who collects shit and hangs onto it more efficiently and pointlessly than wealthy white folks. I kid you not there were a dozen full sets of china, countless boxes of unused and unopened stemware, expensive suits and dresses with the tags still on them that were out of style in the late nineties, and three punch bowl sets, one of them with 52 cups. When my step mom said she wanted to keep it, I asked her how often she was going to have a garden party with 52 guests. She shrugged and said, “Who knows?”

I do. I know. Never. I used to entertain like that, but no more. Fact is, it got to the point that I realized I was throwing parties, spending thousands of dollars and weeks of effort, to entertain people who didn’t appreciate it at all. I think I swore it off after the time I used the Limoge china at a garden party only to find two broken plates shoved under chairs the next morning and cigarette butts ground out on my patio. Enough. And after years of taking in every orphan who had no where to go on holidays, including them in my family celebrations, putting them up, buying them gifts, and cooking for twelve, pretty much every one of those people completely blew me off when I divorced the last husband. My response to that when I climbed, still  bleeding, out of the back of the closet where I’d been licking my wounds was ultimately, “Good riddance,” but it took a while to heal from that poison arrow puncture.

It’s come to the point that I’m in danger of becoming a recluse, which is fine, because my husband is the same way, but eventually and inevitably….somebody is going to need a hand cleaning their apartment so that they get their deposit back and I have all the pine-sol.

So after I get back from doing my good daughter deeds in conservative hell and I’m having this bad day, I’m driving around looking for a place I can pull over and just curl up in the leaf litter alone for a good hour or so of self-pity, otherwise I’ll go swimming with rocks in my pockets, when I get a text from older daughter. ‘Have you talked to my sister? She’s at the clinic at school.’

Time to be mom and shut down all concern for self. I turn the car around and drive to campus, find the clinic, and then find X-ray where she’s having her head examined, literally. Parking is a bit a challenge, but once I work that out I start trying to find a way to get into a building that was clearly designed to confuse and confound the non-student-or-faculty-visitor. Still fragile and feeling like my nerves are stretched thinner than five hundred feet of frayed, tangled dental floss, I see two young women sitting on a bench outside the building. They are hugging, one’s head tight into the other’s shoulder. I do not know if they are friends, lovers, or strangers thrown together in some difficult moment, but it does not matter. What I see is love, compassion, real connection. Tears start streaming down my face and as they both look up at me, I say in a choked voice, “That makes me happy. I’m having a really bad day and that really makes me happy.” I am aware that I look and sound like an emotionally unstable wreck and while I learned long ago that experiencing my emotions honestly is a strength not a weakness and that I cannot control what others think, I am just hoping that I don’t freak them out.

And then the miracle happens. They both make eye contact and smile with authentic warmth, the one with her head down says, “Oh, I’m so glad!” with such enthusiasm that the fog in my head and heart dissipate in an instant, clearing so that the light on the dogwoods around us and the shadows of the ferns on wall shine with fresh beauty. They were just as beautiful a moment before of course but as I said, my filters, like sunglasses smeared with pond scum, would not allow me to experience it.

I continue past them, tears coming harder, but joyous now. Yes, my pain and my fullness are my strength, I know this, and sometimes, just every once in a while, some one else sees that too.

My daughter turned out to have a sinus infection instead of leaking brain fluid, so…that’s good, and most important. But almost equally elating was the look on her face when I came into the exam room. The shy, almost child-like smile that let me know she was glad I could be there even as she told me I didn’t need to come. She doesn’t need me, this one, she was born independent, but she was still glad for my presence.

And that’s why I will continue to volunteer to be dragged over the searing coals of the emotional exposure BBQ. Few people in our lives will appreciate the percentage of effort or the sacrifice of our personal happiness that giving up our own peace of mind just to care—for them and their world—costs us. That’s okay.

I’m glad I went to help my Dad, even if my blood boiled at his willful ignorance and apathy. (We don’t recycle, it’s too much trouble. Global warming is bullshit.) I’m really glad I took a small portion of the responsibility off of my sister, the one of the four of us who always does what’s right. I’m glad I get angry when people treat others or their environment with disdain and arrogance. I will endure the exhaustion that comes from fighting for others who can’t fight for themselves and for a future I will not live to see. I’m glad that I can speak through tears when I needed to stand up to someone for treating me or others badly. So many people see those things as weakness, as unnecessary, as overwrought, or they just plain resent you because caring or calling them out makes them uncomfortable.

Too fucking bad.

It’s just who I am.

Weepy, overly-emotional.

Sensitive.

Human.

Alive.

Bring it.

Shari, May 15th, 2018

Continue reading “Breathing Underwater-or surviving giving a shit.”

art, beauty, children, divorce, family, Life in General

Losing Diamonds, Finding Love

 

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getting it right

 

We were in Hawaii when my sister’s first husband proposed to her. She didn’t know it was coming, but I did, so I took my four year daughter and followed them out to the beach where we could watch from a discrete distance. Creason was so amped up with keeping a secret that once he dropped to one knee she took off running toward them before I could stop her. After a quick glance at her aunt’s hand she turned and came running back. As soon as she was within shouting distance, she yelled, “He gave her a ring with three sparkles!!”

Sparkles. Call it like it is kid, three sparkles.

My first two husbands didn’t bother to get me a ring. The first marriage was over in a year or so, and I was glad to be clear of it. An expensive ring wasn’t that important to me as a ‘thing’ to own, but as time went on with husband number two and I gave up career opportunities to grow, deliver, and raise two beautiful girls, I realized that it would have been nice for their father to have taken the trouble to maybe make me feel like he noticed the imbalance of that equation with an effort at making me feel appreciated. It didn’t have to be anything expensive, even though he could easily have afforded it, just having him put the thought into trying to make me happy would have been nice.

So for twenty something years I bought my own diamonds while I was working and attending events where I could justify wearing such a thing, even if that justification is as weak, lopsided and pathetic as a two-legged table. Come on, nobody needs a diamond, the money would be far better spent feeding hungry children or a college education. (He didn’t pay for the college either it turned out, if only there had been some clue!)

Yet most women—well, privileged American women—expect a diamond as an engagement present. Out of three marriages, only my third, current, and final husband bothered to observe the tradition, and he, in classic Joseph style, did it right. Popped that little black velvet box open in front of my eyes while we were making love, thank you very much. My ring is a very special piece, and it only matters that I know that. I do not wear it to impress anyone else. He could not have found anything to make me feel more like his treasure.

See, there are big-but-flawed diamonds, there are the ‘we got money very recently so I have this impressive looking but lower quality yellow’ diamonds, mostly favored by women who bling their cell phones and carry tiny trembling canines, and then there are the only thing I wanted. A pre-blood-diamond, brilliant color, flawless quality, uniquely framed by a magnificent filigree nineteen-twenties Cartier setting. It brings me joy every time I look down at my hand, because of what it represents, love, romance, commitment, and most importantly, that I am a precious to a gem among men.

So, when I recently left a rope of diamonds necklace in a hotel in San Francisco and realized it wasn’t coming back, it was a twinge, but not worth hysterics. It’s just a sparkly thing after all. Okay, about fifty sparkly things, but nobody’s ill or dying, I won’t go homeless or not eat, and the looser my neck skin becomes the more I wonder about the wisdom of accenting it anyway.

Then, in the same week, I went to pick up a prescription and was told that my health insurance had been cancelled. Surprise! The promise of medical care is a much scarier thing to lose than diamonds, trust me, just ask the millions of Americans who will be joining that group soon. Phone calls to find out what had gone wrong and why I hadn’t been notified were fruitless, or went unanswered after holds exceeding an hour, so I set out to find the physical office and people whom I hoped could explain.

Three locations, two building complexes and several waiting rooms later, I was told that my insurance should actually be valid, the only problem was that no one had finished the paperwork transferring it from southern California to Central California, though it had been ordered over a month before and was ‘on someone’s desk.’ So, I was currently uninsured due to a clerical error. If I had come down with a staff infection, been shot by some NRA sponsored mental patient, or been hit by a drunk driver, I would have been shit out of luck and financially ruined. Ah, America is number one, I do NOT think. ‘Oh well,’ seemed to be the general attitude of those allowed to screw us for profit. I was informed that I could call tomorrow and try to get someone to fix the situation, (remember I was already on hold for over an hour more than once with that very same number before finally giving up) or I could wait among the several dozen people in the waiting room for someone who could finalize it today.

Feeling strangely untrusting, call me crazy, I opted to wait so I could vent at someone’s face. The building also housed a clinic and the large waiting room in which everyone had been given a number that came up on a screen when the powers that be deigned to see you—much like the DMV, was filled with melting down children, parents clinging to their last nerve, hacking coughs, angry and frightened citizens with issues like mine, and a sprinkling of the homeless who were there for some agency of some sort.

It was this last category that fascinated me. I watched as one man, probably in his early seventies, carrying a huge, dirty backpack, greeted several other of this forgotten tribe. Without exception hugs were given, concern was expressed, help was offered if possible, but more often it was condolence or sympathy. Things are tough out there on the street and, no matter how much people like us pretend not to see the suffering, it doesn’t make it any less brutal for them.

The elderly homeless man started a conversation with a nice family sitting near him. They looked a little uncomfortable but were very polite to this cheerful, well-spoken elder who primarily addressed the son, a young man of maybe 14. I truly wished I could remember all that was said. He talked about how lucky the boy was to have a family who loved him. I started to listen when I heard him ask the kid if he knew he was loved. When the boy said yes, the older gentleman said, “That makes me so happy. That makes me all waggily in the tail.”

The phrase caught my attention and I started to pay closer attention. Here was this man with nothing, literally, but the clothes and the pack on his back but I’ve seldom seen a more positive person. I wish I had written down all he said, but it went something like this.

“I know I’ll find love today and everyday, and when you know that, it gets easier and easier. When I get something to eat, you know what I do? I go out and find someone to share it with. It might be cold by the time I find someone but that’s what makes my day, I know I will find love.”

After a few minutes he was called in and stood up, bracing himself to shoulder that heavy pack. I stood up as well.

“Sir?” I called. He stopped and turned. I opened my wallet, pulled out a twenty and said, “Please get yourself something to eat and find someone to share it with.”

I was so moved by his grace and plight, that I had to turn away quickly to hide my tears. But he followed me and when I sat down, he bowed graciously. “Thank you, thank you,” he said, with a huge grin. He turned to the family and bowed slightly to them as well. “Wonderful to speak with you,” he told them, “You are a beautiful family.” Then he turned back to me. “Bless you,” he said, but before he could say anything else, my number was called and I escaped before openly weeping with shame that in this country of obscene wealth, so many people sleep on the concrete in the rain.

The administrator who helped me was wonderful, kind, patient and we shared some amazing stories while she completed the paperwork, I thanked her for the help and the conversation and went on my way.

As I climbed into my car I thought again about the diamonds that I lost, and felt nothing. Yes, they cost money, yes they are gone, but I would not waste life looking for them or regretting their loss.

So this week I lost some diamonds permanently, my health insurance temporarily, and I found someone who lives with the conviction that he will find love if he looks for it. I found someone who believes that love is ever-present, even in the darkest of situations.

A man who will never have diamonds or gold.

Or even a warm, safe place to call his own.

His smile and his clear-eyed kindness woke something in me.

It gave me a gift, a treasure, a memory.

Of this amazing human who spends everyday looking for love.

And today, like everyday,

He found it.

 

Shari, January 3rd, 2018

 

cancer, children, family, Life in General

The Honor of Weeping.

 

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My very special friend, Daniella.

For many years I have been one of the directors of a charity that assists pediatric cancer patients and their families. In that time I have learned so much about myself, suffering, kindness, courage, life, and most importantly death. I cannot now look at a child and not imagine the possibility that they might not make it to adulthood, or even their teens. It infuses every experience with the radiant reminder of true importance, a glowing reminder of the moment most precious, this moment.

There are so many memories that stand out. The director of the charity had already lost her own child, and yet she had the courage to face this unthinkable journey with others, again and again. But then came the call, she needed to talk, to weep, another of our kids was dying, and she just couldn’t fathom it. She wept, and then went on to hold other mothers’ hands and help them through the journey. Again and again. I stand in awe.

I remember walking down the halls of City of Hope and hearing screaming, I remember one of the nurses, while we were there decorating the ward for the holidays, exclaim, “I hate Christmas! So many kids die.” Because, she went on to explain, the terminally ill have a tendency to hold out for a special date, maybe a birthday, maybe Christmas, but then they let go. The nurses can do nothing but try to comfort, ease pain, hug family that are enduring the unthinkable in a constant state of shock. And when it’s over, they get back to work, clearing away the evidence of a loved patient who they may have known for years, and the room their lives once occupied returns to empty, until the next child comes to fill it. They return to work and start all over again. I stand in awe.

The Pajama Party, which we hold every year, patients, current and alumni, are invited. Each patient and their siblings receive pajamas, slippers, and many other fun gifts. Hundreds of people attend. We have a dinner, a raffle, games for the kids, and then Santa! My favorite doctor greets and embraces family after family with a huge smile and genuine joy, often remembering a child who is no longer with us by sharing a moment with the parents who lost them. I stand in awe.

When it became clear that a 12 year old who loved photography that we worked with was not going to make it, the doctors and nurses organized an art show for him. His lovely photos were displayed and sold to help his family with the horrific bills that would be all they were left with after they buried their child. My favorite photo was a shot down a city street with the sunset in the distance, he called it, “A Door to Heaven.” I remember standing next to the doctor as he talked to the young artist, who had received a huge platelet donation that day so that he could get out of bed and attend this event. They joked about him enjoying his cocktails. I stand in awe.

I remember one funeral, for a boy of eighteen, who we had been assisting since he was nine. He had lost an arm in the long hard process but he was the best hugger I ever met. He also had an amazing voice and he sang Wind Beneath my Wings at one of our fundraisers when he was only 11, not a dry eye. I remember his friends carrying his casket, the stunned loss on their still too young faces. When they sealed the casket at the gravesite, his mother, whose entire life for nine years had been caring for her gravely ill son, kept on straightening the drape on the casket as gently as if it had been a blanket she was tucking around him to keep him warm. The gesture was so intimate and it was so strange to me that such a large crowd of mourners were watching, that I turned away and looked to the sky to give her a sliver of privacy, though I doubt she even knew or cared for anything in that moment. That last, horrible, powerless moment when she could do no more. I will never forget the sound that she made, it wasn’t a cry, or a sob, it was from her very soul. It was a long, drawn out sound that rose and fell and vibrated the air around her. Keening. That sound is part of who I am now, I hear it when I think of these families and what they have endured. I stand it awe.

And then there are the children themselves, to a one they were the bravest, most accepting souls I have ever met. It’s as though they were finished with being mortal, they didn’t ‘need’ to be here any more, it was time for them to move on to the next stage. To a one they taught everyone around them what was true and important. To a one they offered a sense of perspective. I stand in awe.

Which brings me to the reason we began the charity. Desi. This girl, who at nine was diagnosed with a cancer so severe that the doctors gave her a five percent chance of surviving a couple of months, lived two years. In those two years, she got well enough to do many things, including going horse back riding with me, something I had promised her when she was very ill. This child, this exceptional human being, never lost her faith or her courage. Multiple times when we thought it was the end, she fought her way back, and she never missed a chance for a laugh. When a child is at the end, they are attached to machinery that counts their breaths per minute, and when it goes to zero and stays there, that’s pretty much it. So there she was, with her loved ones around her, watching the monitor, praying, comforting each other, when the monitor went from 5 to 2 to 0. They all leaned in, watching to see if this was it, after so much suffering if it was time for her to go home. No one breathed, everyone was drawn toward the bed, curling physically downward to be close to her, waiting, when suddenly, Desi’s eyes flickered, and she very weakly, but distinctly, formed an o with her mouth, and said, “Boo!” Everyone straightened up, laughing and relieved, she actually pulled through that time. I stand in awe.

But it was a short reprieve, and she was back in the hospital a few weeks later. When she finally, quietly, slipped away, only her mother was in the room with her. She told me that she knew that her daughter had died, but she didn’t call the nurses, she didn’t leave or reach out, she just sat quietly beside her daughter’s body and waited, thankful for the time she had with her, she told me that the thing she felt the most, was honor. She said she was honored to have been Desi’s mother. I stand in awe.

I still am a part of this charity, though now that I am not living in Los Angeles, I cannot take part in the active service as often as I would like, though every time I return to LA, I make it a point to go to City of Hope and donate blood and platelets, and visit with some of my friends there. I hope to find another place to fill where there is need when I settle wherever I may land, but my life is irrevocably changed already, my sense of perspective has forever changed. Things I once thought important are now laughable to me. My own children, who often accompanied me to events and the hospital to visit with the kids or help decorate for holidays, are markedly better people because of their experiences there. We are endlessly grateful to those children and those families, they have given us the gift of perspective that softens life somehow, makes the little things easier to bear, to release, to set free. I am not afraid to die, what better gift could I ever receive?

And sometimes I weep, just to think of them. Sometimes I smile when I recall their courage, and always I respect and admire the people who lost and lived to love and give back, almost every one of them turn to helping others in some form. I think of the remarkable human beings who care for these children every day, again and again, and never lose their ability to grieve each devastating death. Doctors and nurses who weep for the loss of every child they have cared about, and for, sometimes for years. I stand in awe.

Mostly, I remember the things I’ve learned so completely, that they are a part of who I am now.

That beauty can be found in a ravaged face. That love never dies. That your heart can be torn from your body and you can be glad to have had the capacity to feel that much, because the choice to not would have meant that you would never have have had that someone in your life at all.

I weep often, but not forever.

I care more fully, now.

I judge less, and look closer.

You never really know someone else’s story.

Especially the end.

You don’t know what might shatter your heart.

You might not yet know that you can survive it.

You can live to feel only honor.

You can make a difference for someone else.

I stand in awe.

Won’t you join me?

 

Shari, November 9th, 2017