From a Boy into a Man

child

He was a nice-looking young man, married, with warm brown eyes that always looked down, as if afraid meeting someone’s gaze would let them in to a place where he didn’t want to go.

His needs were simple – to explore grief-related issues regarding the recent death of his father-in-law. But in therapy, as in most things in life, those simple things can become complex fairly quickly, whether we want them to or not.

Almost 2 months into our sessions together, J had a major disagreement with his wife, during which he revealed to her that someone had sexually abused him as a child for almost 8 years.

Though this rape by his stepbrother occurred nightly, no one in the house was aware of it. If they were, it was neither acknowledged nor stopped.

While J described his rape at the hands of his abuser, I was bereft of words. The details were horrific. The most heart-wrenching part for me was to see the little boy J in the adult J’s eyes; to see the anguish, pain, bewilderment and betrayal that cried out from those many years ago. In my presence, for the first time in his life, J shared the details of that loss of innocence. He bared his soul. The little boy’s eyes beseeched me to understand, and to not betray or judge him. The hurt in his eyes mirrored what I felt he must see in my own.

Suddenly, I felt a single tear trace its way slowly down my cheek as I listened to J’s story. With that, my soul embraced his and wept. J told me later that my single tear meant more to him than anything I could have said at that moment. It validated him as worthwhile, and it told him, without words, that I walked with him in his pain.

tear

Inside the grown man who had to sleep with the lights on and the bedroom door open, who could barely touch his wife without remembering another kind of touch from his stepbrother, who felt safer in downtown Baltimore than inside his own home, was the little boy who wanted desperately to love and trust and be loved, but felt compelled to withhold himself to be safe.

As a wife and mother, I saw J as a little boy who was ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened to him, who felt responsible for allowing the abuse, and who still struggled with the fact that no one had protected him.

In listening to J’s story, I heard about the desecration of one person’s dignity; yet, I was also witness to the strength, resilience and courage of a little boy. J’s spirit could not be broken. His soul, the very essence of who he was, thrived. I was determined to fan the flickering flame of J’s spirit until it was a bonfire.

As a psychotherapist, I saw that the abuse and its secrecy brought with it shame, low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, depression, guilt, and PTSD. Where to begin with a man who was stuck developmentally at about 8 years old?

After working with several behavioral modification techniques and guided imagery, I asked J if he had any neighbors or relatives who were about 8 years old. With a picture of a nephew in J’s mind, I asked him to compare the little boy to J’s abuser in size (the perpetrator had been large for his age). I quietly asked if a boy the size of his nephew could have overpowered J’s abuser. Awareness dawned in J’s eyes; it had not been a fair fight,, and there was nothing that any little boy could have done to overpower his attacker. In that moment, J began to forgive himself for not stopping the abuse.

Further into J’s therapy, I suggested that he write a letter to his mother, who had never acknowledged the abuse. J continually struggled with their relationship, and whether or not to have his mother as an influence in his daughter’s life. The relationship was adversarial at best, with only limited communication. The letter writing was for healing, rather than toward the eventual mailing of the letter.

letter

It took several weeks, but at the end of a session, as he made to leave, J put a few handwritten pages face down on the desk. When I read it privately, I cried. J told his mother exactly what happened for all those years; how all he ever wanted was her love and protection. He explained how he realized that he wasn’t responsible for the abuse, and that he was not a bad person. Instead, he was a human being with value who deserved to be loved. J pledged that he would spend the rest of his life protecting his daughter from harm, and becoming a better man. What happened to him would never, ever happen to her.

J’s story does not end here; his recovery would be a complex process. He never mailed the letter, but eventually told his mother all about the abuse during a heated phone call. She responded by denying such a thing happened, and called him a liar. While J hoped that his revelation would finally give him a loving, compassionate mother, he was not surprised by her reaction.

The breakthrough, however, was in J.

The little boy’s voice had finally been heard, and in the release of his secret, his heart was opened to healing. J’s journey was long, with more work and more struggles as he integrated this new J into his marriage. Yet it now included hope for the future. The man could finally forgive, love, and accept the little boy.

The shadows in dark rooms no longer held a threat; J’s eyes saw them flooded with brightness.

My heart saw a little boy at last grown into a man.

Seeing with the eyes of the heart…

man on beach

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The “Greatest Therapist Award”

Tabitha

The handwriting is looping, the capitalization non-existent, the ragged piece of paper torn on one edge, but with a faint flower at the top. It looks like the effort put into the note is considerable, the pressure of the words seen through the paper from the other side.

It is childlike. It is simple. It is a priceless treasure given to me upon my departure from Community Mental Health that I keep under glass on my desk.

No, it wasn’t written by a child. It was written by a 31-year old woman – a patient for 2 years. A woman-child. A woman whose emotional maturity was paralyzed in early adolescence, when she had several children as a result of sexual abuse by her father…abuse that her mother never stopped. A woman who never finished junior high and who ran away to get away from the monster at home, only to meet more of them on the streets and under the bridge where she slept. Where she did what she could to eat and to take care of her children until Child Protective Services removed them and placed them in Foster Care.

No protection for her, but at least there was for her children. And for the children with different fathers from severed relationships who came after that.

Rape. Childbirth. Physical abuse. Homelessness. Death of one of her children and institutionalization of another. Arrests and incarceration. Drugs and alcohol. Prostitution. Multiple suicide attempts and hospitalizations. Emotional abuse.

Self-esteem: zero. Worthlessness: 100%. In her mind, that is. And in the mind of the bruiser of a man whose son she raised as her own, who beat her up regularly, even though she took any and all that he threw at her.

But she never left. Why?

Where could she go?

She had no job – who would hire her? She had no high school diploma, with her jail time checked honestly on every application. Applications where the handwriting would look like it looked in the note above.

But she loved the squirrels outside her window, and had names for each one of them, and when her boyfriend killed one with a BB gun when he was drunk, she carefully dug a hole and buried it while he slept off the rage and the drink.

Until the next time.

Non-compliance with therapy appointments and medications until she realized that I saw past her bravado and resistance to the little girl underneath.

She was hard to like, but her survival instinct was easy to admire.

For several months, she never missed an appointment. I looked over her shoulder while she filled out applications with an agency that was willing to hire people with an arrest record. We picked out an outfit together for her interview, her boyfriend there to have the final approval on what she wore.

She didn’t get the job.

But she finally got a driver’s license so if another opportunity presented itself, she would be ready. She started to study for her GRE but didn’t have the money to sit for the exams. A fairy godmother took care of the fee at the local office that registered people for the review classes that she got thrown out of for being disruptive.

She always had difficulty with anger management, but she was also sleep deprived, since everyone around her did whatever they could to prevent her from studying. She passed all but one part of the exam for her GRE anyway, and got a tutor for the higher math.

Her father got a cancer diagnosis, and she struggled mightily with whether to go see him to tell him that she still loved him as a daughter, or to go see him to kill him for the despicable horrors that he visited upon her as a little girl. Normal feelings for what she had been through, and I daresay far above anything her father would have felt.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, for me, a chance at another job, this one in higher education. One with a secretary to answer the phone and a computer to make appointments, with time off and supplemental help. Nothing like the limited resources of Community Mental Health that wore people out.

For someone who was exhausted with compassion fatigue, it was a relatively easy choice.

But it was so terribly hard to leave the patients in my case load. And she was one of them. Right when she seemed to be making some headway, another person who she had slowly, hesitantly learned to trust was abandoning her.

Who to save? It had to be me. Because I cannot “save” anyone but myself, and I needed to give some of the compassion that I so easily poured into others, to myself.

So everyone was transitioned to new psychotherapists whom I thought would be a ‘good fit,’ and I had enough advance notice to properly ‘terminate’ my clients.

I wish I could tell you that she passed the final portion of her GRE, left what would hopefully be her last abusive relationship and found a full-time job.

But I can’t.

I don’t know what happened to her…not even if she kept her appointments with the new therapist. Not every story has a happy ending, or at least an ending that we are a part of or even privy to.

But I do have the tiny stuffed green frog she gave me on the last day, one she got from a McDonald’s Happy Meal. And I have the “Greatest Therapist Award” next to me on my desk.

Not to remind me of my award, but to remind me of the special woman-child I was so privileged to work with for 2 years.

To remind me of what a survivor looked like…a woman so tough that she was still standing, a woman so gentle that she named each of the squirrels in her back yard.

Thank you for gifting me with a glimpse into your life and sharing things that no one else knew. For keeping a small shred of hope alive even when the voices all around you ridiculed and berated.

I wish you happiness and warmth and smiles; sunshine and rainbows and sweetness.

But most of all, I wish you love.

Pure love. Of yourself and from someone good and decent and kind.

You deserve nothing less.

The privilege was mine, lovely lady. Be well.

You are in my thoughts and in my heart…go out and shine!

frog

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When Will the Heaven Begin? – Ben Breedlove

ben breedlove II

Ben Breedlove died on the evening of December 25, 2011.

He was 18 years old.

Ben grew up in Austin, Texas with his parents, older sister Ally and younger brother Jake. When he was young, Ben was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, a condition in which thickened heart muscles cause the heart to work harder. At 4 years old, Ben had a life-threatening seizure; the first time, in Ben’s words, that he ‘cheated death.’

Ben talks about his first brush with death:

“There was this big bright light above me…I couldn’t make out what it was because it was so bright. I told my Mom, ‘Look at the bright light,’ and pointed up. She said she didn’t see anything. There were no lights on in this hall. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. And I couldn’t help but smile. I had no worries at all, like nothing else in the world mattered… I cannot even begin to describe the peace, how peaceful it was. I will never forget that feeling or that day.”

In May of 2009, he had a pacemaker inserted.

In November 2010, Ben created the OurAdvice4You channel on YouTube (38 videos, 61,000 subscribers) to give out teen-aged relationship advice, and in May, 2011, he launched BreedloveTV as a companion channel (17 videos, 31,500 subscribers) to answer questions messaged to him from teenagers around the world.

In the summer of 2011, during a routine tonsillectomy, Ben suffered cardiac arrest, the second time he cheated death.

On December 6, 2011, Ben cheated death for the third and final time, when he passed out in school and awoke surrounded by paramedics preparing to use a defibrillator to revive him.

Ben recalls his dream or vision after this third brush with death, where he woke up in a silent, while room without walls where he “felt that same peaceful feeling I had when I was 4 – and I couldn’t stop smiling. I was wearing a really nice suit, and so was my fav rapper, Kid Cudi… I then looked at myself in the mirror. I was proud of myself, off my entire life, of everything I have done. It was the BEST feeling.”

Ben said in the dream, he thought of lyrics from a Kid Cudi song that said, ‘When will the fantasy end, when will the heaven begin?’ Kid Cudi sat him down at a glass desk and told him, ‘Go now.’

“I didn’t want to leave that place. I wish I NEVER woke up.”

A third YouTube channel was created by Ben on December 18, 2011, a week before he died, titled TotalRandomness512. This channel hosted the two-part video, “This is My Story,” which can be seen below (over 13 million views).

In them, Ben sits silently in a room, using note cards to tell his story. At the end of the videos, Ben asks: “Do you believe in angels or God?” then answers with a smile, “I do.”

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On the evening of Christmas Day, 2011, according to one of Ben’s friends, Ben received a new video camera for Christmas and went outside, anxious to try it. He experienced light-headedness and shortness of breath and passed out in the yard. His parents called 911 and administered CPR until the EMS arrived. All resuscitation attempts failed and Ben was pronounced dead at the hospital.

He was 18 years old.

His parents agreed to donate his organs and tissue in order to help others.  “Ben would have wanted to continue helping and inspiring others,”
commented his mother.

News of his death was covered by media outlets around the world, including Fox, CBS and ABC News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, MTV and People Magazine. His funeral on December 29th was streamed live on the KXAN website.

Breedlove Family

Breedlove Family

Kid Cudi wrote that he “broke down” when he saw Bens’ videos. “This has really touched my heart in a way I can’t describe; this is why I do what I do. Why I write my life, and why I love you all so much. We love you, Ben. Forever. Thank you for loving me. …To Ben’s family, you raised a real hero, he’s definitely mine. You have my love.”

“It’s exciting to know that Ben planted a seed in people’s minds
to begin thinking about things that really do matter in life,”

Ben’s mother told ABC News at Ben’s Memorial Service.
“You know, we all have hope. Everyone has challenges,
but we have a real hope and he saw that.
He felt the peace of God when he had those glimpses
into heaven and heavenly presence.”

On January 1, 2013, Ben, along with 4 others, was honored on a Donate Life float in the 124th Tournament of Roses Parade.

Today, October 28, 2013, the book “When Will the Heaven Begin: This is Ben Breedlove’s Story” by Ben’s sister Ally Breedlove and Ken Abraham will be released as a celebration of his life.

Eternal rest, Ben Breedlove, and may perpetual light shine upon you.

You will be remembered by so many of us with love.

You are an inspiration to millions.

Your have gifted life to others.

Be well, Ben. Be well.

And yes, I believe in God and in angels.

And I know now that Heaven begins with you.

ben breedlove

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Related posts: My Last Days: Meet Zach Sobiech
Remembering Talia Joy Castellano
The Last Lecture

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Tuesday Travels — Houma, Louisiana

Katrina

“For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,

ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Mt 25:31-46

In September 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I spent 2 weeks in Louisiana volunteering as a mental health professional with the American Red Cross, followed by another 2 weeks in December. I was assigned to the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center, one of 3 counselors to provide services to the 1,000 Katrina victims who were housed there, along with offering emotional support to the other Red Cross workers, the Southern Baptist Convention folks who provided meals, the Civic Center workers, and the visiting National Guard.

The people were primarily from the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, the poorest of the poor, without the means to evacuate the city when mandated to do so. I met so many wonderful people: resilient, strong of faith, kind-hearted – people who had nothing, yet who had everything, and were filled with gratitude. Their words echo still:

• A young man, his leg amputated after waiting 5 days for his rescue: “They made me leave my dog, Yogi, but I left him enough food for a week. I never should have left him.

• A young woman who nursed her invalid father-in-law, who had served at Iwo Jima, long after his son had left the marriage: “Miss Theresa – always remember to look up, toward the Lord. He will make all things right.”

• The Southern Baptist cooks: “Miss Theresa – sit down and eat; you look exhausted.”

• An articulate man in his 30s, dressed in ill-fitting, donated clothing: “Miss Theresa – are they going to shoot us?” [referring to the National Guard, ever-present with their weapons]

• A man on the brink of suicide, with nothing to live for: “That was my godmother’s name – Theresa – maybe she’s been watching over me and will help me to find my brothers.” [They were found in Alabama.]

• An elderly, barefoot woman in a walker, while I fitted her with shoes: “Get up; you shouldn’t be on the floor. They don’t have to fit that good. ” [It is a privilege; her calloused and twisted feet told the story of her life.]

• A veteran of Somalia and the First Gulf War: “I don’t need a peacekeeper, Miss Theresa. I just need the National Guard to apologize [for an unfounded accusation]. I’m a human being, just like them.”

• An uprooted shrimper, who lost his boat and only means of support: “When you go North, be a voice for us poor in New Orleans; we are still valuable and good people.” [I kept my promise to you, Eddie. Even now.]

When my deployment was finished, I made the rounds to say good-bye to my new friends, the people from whom I had learned so much. When I reached Booker T and Betty Lou, a couple in their 80s, displaced with their 7 children and some of their 43 grandchildren, they were packing, hoping to head to Texas to start a new life. Betty Lou grabbed hold of me, closed her eyes, and sang a Negro spiritual, hugging me tightly and brushing at my shoulders.

One gnarled black hand, where every crevice had been earned, gently grasping one younger, smoother white one, both baptized with our tears. Booker T took both of my hands in his and sang hymns of praise, thanking God for sending me to him in the depths of his despair, when he most needed a friend, in answer to his prayers.

I think Booker T got it wrong. Standing in the midst of 1,000 people, as Booker T and Betty Lou held me in their arms (wings?), my prayers had been answered, and I felt at home.

Circles of Grace – sacred ground – a community of the heart. Home.

A drawing given to me by Eddie, an evacuee who stayed at the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center where I volunteered.

A drawing given to me by Eddie, an evacuee who stayed at the Houma Terrebonne Civic Center where I volunteered.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,

a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me,

ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Mt 25:31-46

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In the Presence of Holiness

rain

While I attended optometry school in Philadelphia, students worked on cadavers for our Head & Neck Anatomy class. I was apprehensive about how I would react to this new experience, but intrigued at the same time. My group was assigned to an 80-year old woman who was covered by a thin white sheet.

As I stood at her left side, I noticed her uncovered hand. It looked exactly like my grandmother’s hand – shriveled, marked by age spots, calloused and worn. A snapshot of her life.

In that moment, I saw her differently. She was no longer a cadaver, but someone’s mother, wife, sister, grandmother, daughter. She had loved and lost, hoped and dreamed, laughed and cried. A part of the human community, she mattered.

With a respectful air, I drew down the sheet and started the dissection. When I cut through the layers of muscle to the blood vessels, I paused. The branches of the arteries and veins were quite delicate and beautiful, laid out with a precise purpose in anything but a random, haphazard way.

I knew I was in the Presence of God, and of Holiness. All of Creation lay before me.

In the most unexpected and humble of places, I felt at One with the human race.

I will be forever grateful for the final gift that this woman offered. In her death, she taught us about the miracle that is life.

I named her Grace.

Circles of Grace. Sacred Ground.

Thank you, dear lady, for you.

May you rest forever in beauty and in peace.

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Echoes of Darkness Sheathed in the Light

In Memoriam – Mom
April 25, 1928 – February 29, 1988

[written March 1, 2009]

I thought it had passed.

Just yesterday, I remarked to my sister – “This is the first February in 21 years that hasn’t been brutal.”

Then this morning, just the mention of the phone call in the early morning darkness, when Dad told me you had died and I said, “Good” – (Good for who – me? You? The echo of guilt lingers still…) – brings back the grief like a wave crashing into rock, and I am pulled under in an instant, drowning.

The well of grief swallows me, the darkness returns, and I ache with loss – the emptiness – the missing of you – the longing for your closeness – (Me? The one who hated hugs? The one who now hugs all those in need, desperate for their/my/your touch?).

My right hand trembles, my teeth chatter, and I rock…I ache…I mourn.

My tears flood the emptiness with despair, until the well is filled to overflowing, and just when there can be no more left, the flood gates open with a rush of white-hot tears – searing, scalding, scarring – as they traverse the channels carved in my soul.

I escape then, but to where? A place of quiet, of gray, of nothing, where no one or no thing exists…where no one or no thing can hurt.

I am numb.

I cease to feel, to breathe, to mourn…quiet, waiting, collecting, remembering, forgetting. I want to stay in this nothing, where the past and present blend, simply waiting. I could spend eternity here, neither warm nor cold, neither black nor white – nothing.

But then a soft white light burns through the fog – slowly, steadily, purposefully – coming toward me. And when I turn from it, it envelops me with warmth, an embrace, a distant memory, a familiar voice, a whisper. It seeks, it flows, it permeates, it dissolves, it heals – slowly, completely. It restores breath into my lungs, it touches my hand and the trembling ceases.

The crying stops and I return. Depleted, yet complete, filled with the sense that love hurts and heals, devours and regenerates, erases then re-creates, takes away only to be made whole.

If I love, I risk.

cala liliesl

My losses seem legion, but my blessings lift me to a place I would not have seen had I not been buried. The tears that drowned me in their ending are transformed into the healing waters of a baptism, a beginning, a grace.

I hesitate – these wings have weight – do I want what they hold? A familiar stirring inside me – a blossoming – a peace – a knowing that this is right and good. The weight will be lifted when I surrender.

And I hear the whispered promise – “I will be with you, always.” – and I feel Your embrace lift me up, then release me. I soar back into life, toward the light and Your promise, and I know I am who I am because of You, because of Your love.

Of whom do I speak? Of my Mother? Of God? Of His Mother? It matters not; only that I return. Only that I remember Your voice as I reach out to those in need. That I am present in their pain – that I quiet their tears – that I wait in their darkness – that I am their light and their hope as You were/are/will always be to me.

Lift me up, so that I might lift them.
Love me, so that I might love them.
Give me hope, so that I might bring hope to them.
Guide me, so that I might guide them.
Give me Your words, so that I might speak them.
Give me Your hearing, so that I might listen to them.
Heal me, so that I might heal them.

Remember me, as I remember You.

I am who I am, because of You.

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Related Post: Remembrance

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Thursday Re-View — “The Welcome Angel”

bhmpics

bhmpics

I met Dannie when her social worker discharge team brought her to my office after more than a year in a residential mental health facility. Probably in her mid-thirties, but looking much older, she was petite, wiry – all coiled muscle – with high cheekbones that validated her ethnic background. Her long hair was held back by a headband across her forehead. Her shoulders were slumped, her skin a pasty gray, with a shuffle in her reluctant steps. Her voice was deep and scratchy, the type that country music would describe as “whiskey and smoke.”

We had nothing in common.

She remained standing after I invited her to be seated, looked up for the first time, met my eyes with a spark in hers and informed me: “You have 5 minutes, and then I’m walking out of here.” Under the spark in her gaze was pain, made all the more marked by the deep circles under her eyes.

I was wrong; we had quite a bit in common.

As I worked with Dannie, I came to know of her struggles with addiction – to alcohol, to prescription drugs, to family conflict and to abusive men. Her present boyfriend was soon to be released from prison, and the rescuer in her struggled with letting him back into her life. I reminded her that if that was her decision, she risked losing the progress she had made with staying sober, not having another suicide attempt (she had two prior to our meeting) and remembering that she, as a human being, had value and worth.

I so hated to see this strong woman – the one who told me that this boyfriend was better than some of her others because “he always made sure to hit me where no one could see it” – lose ground in her healing and recovery. But I believe in the autonomy of my clients – and Dannie needed to feel in control of something, even though I believed that taking control in this instance would be to refuse his coming back to live with her.

Life, like therapy, is never without setbacks, and a new concern was a health issue that flared up, with a prognosis that offered only maintaining her present health and not letting it decline, rather than any type of cure. Coping with that, along with the depression, addiction and everything else, became a daily task.

One day, in Dannie’s latest update on her continuing family conflicts, she asked my opinion about something. Apparently when Dannie went to her mother’s grave site, she saw a wrought iron angel lawn ornament stuck next to the headstone, the word “Welcome” in big letters. Dannie was horrified and appalled, especially since she found out later that it was her very own sister who had put bought this for their mother, when her sister had a few too many beers. Dannie removed it and threw it away, only to return a week later to find another one in its place.

Wasn’t that terrible?

Welcome Angel

She looked at me, at once aghast, angry, yet expecting no less from her family. Then, I saw it – the faintest gleam in her dark eyes, that fiery spark that only Dannie had after a life filled with 10 kinds of despair. The edges of her mouth curved up a bit, and she looked down at the floor. But I could see her shoulders start to shake. I couldn’t help it – this therapist started to laugh, struggling to keep it private, since Dannie wasn’t looking at me.

Her eyes met mine and we both burst out laughing at the same time; a rollicking, easy, raucous laughter that, I found out later, had quite a few of the other offices in the hall wondering what in the world was happening in Theresa’s office. Dannie and I were bent over, laughing, until tears ran down our faces. An angel in a cemetery – okay; but a welcome angel?

The absurdity of it caught us both, and in that moment, for Dannie and me, there was nothing else but our sharing joyously in something macabre, yet somehow, in some way, making sense in the larger scheme of things. It felt good and it felt right; it was beautiful. We collected ourselves, then were able to segue perfectly into her own fears about dying, a topic which she had always skirted in the past.

Unexpectedly, I left that job to take another position that I felt called to, and with a month until my departure, I said my goodbyes to Dannie. I felt certain she would be in good hands with the therapist assigned to take over her case. Our 5 minutes that turned into a few years was done, and I was proud of her progress and transformation. When she thanked me for saving her life, saying that she’d never forget me, I answered that she did the work, and that it was a privilege for me to have been part of even a small portion of her life journey. I also mentioned that whenever I saw a wrought iron welcome angel, I would think of her and the laughter we shared.

Not long after, I heard that Dannie had passed away. “Oh no…” My sadness was immediate.

I was afraid to ask, but I had to ask, how she died. A suicide? No. An overdose? No. As a result of physical abuse? No. The answer – “of natural causes” related to the condition we knew about. Her body shut down; it was time.

I breathed a sigh of relief. At the time of her death, Dannie was sober and still living on her own, having refused to take back the abusive boyfriend. It was unfortunate, but it was a good death. Yes – a good death.

Now, whenever I see an angel lawn ornament, I smile, think of Dannie and send her a prayer. Sometimes, I can almost hear her laughter, but then I realize it was only the wind. (Maybe. Then again, maybe not…)

Thank you, Dannie, for the gift of your generous and strong spirit. You mattered. You made a difference. You shine in my heart, and in my memory.

Someday, find a way to let me know if you were met on the other side by a Welcome Angel…

Somehow, I think the answer to that is yes.

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Eyes of the Heart

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;
what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

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For more than 8 years, I volunteered for the Make-A-Wish Foundation (MAW), an organization that grants the wishes of seriously ill children.

One visit brought me to Amber, an 8-year old terminally ill with a fast-growing cancer. She had been born disabled along with severe craniofacial abnormalities. She was small for her age, her misshapen head covered with a few straggly wisps of hair. Her feeding tube and 2 catheters didn’t slow her down; she attached, emptied and re-adjusted them in record time.

As with all the MAW children I met, her eyes held an innate wisdom far beyond her years. Her wish was to go on a shopping spree at a huge mall about 3 hours from her house.

On an icy morning in the middle of winter, another MAW volunteer and I picked up Amber and her family in a limousine. Upon our arrival at the mall, representatives met us and whisked Amber into the main entrance on a red carpet. Since she tired out easily, they had a wheelchair waiting, but she never did sit in it.

streetsie.com

streetsie.com

For 5 hours, her ear-to-ear smile never left her face. She was beautiful. She bought gifts for her family, a TV, a VCR, portable CD player, CDs, stuffed animals, Disney videos, a bicycle, hand-held computer games, clothes, toys…everything she wanted. Her favorite item was a camcorder, which she held against her chest, close to her huge heart, all the way home.

Her plans were to film her family so that during the month of quarantine following her upcoming bone marrow transplant, she could watch home videos. Her parents told me she watched them over and over in the hospital, including some of her riding her new bike in the snow before the transplant. Amber often fell asleep in the hospital wearing the headphones of her CD player, even though the powerful chemotherapy had caused her to lose all the hearing in one ear, and 90% in the other.

A few months later, on my birthday, Amber succumbed to the cancer.

At her viewing, while I kneeled at her coffin, I noticed the angel pin I had bought her when we first met, twinkling on the lapel of her blouse. Seeing that, my heart broke. Suddenly, I remembered Amber’s blinding smile on her shopping spree, when she was so very beautiful, happy, smiling, at peace.

The eyes of the heart saw no disfigurement, only the shining beauty of her soul.

Rest well, dear Amber. Sing loudly, smile brightly, and dance to the music that rings in your healthy ears.

And know that you are the prettiest little girl that I’ve ever been blessed to meet…inside and out.

cherub III

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Thursday Re-View — “The Last Good-Bye”

Ira Byock, M.D., a nationally recognized authority in end-of-life care, says there are only four things left to say that matter most at life’s end (indeed, while living as well):

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
Thank you.
I love you.

These words have the power to transform relationships, whether to heal connections at the end of life, or during day-to-day living.

As you know from several of my earlier posts (Dancing with Chopin, You are My Sunshine), my past work in Hospice was a profoundly moving part of my life journey, a vocation to which I hope to return.

I was called to a nursing home to be with with Mary and her family as she entered the final stage of life known as “active dying.” It was only a matter of a few days. Cancer had ravaged her middle-aged body to the point that she looked much older than her years. Mary was kept sedated most of the time because of the constant pain, only occasionally coming out of it to become partially aware of her surroundings.

Mary was a widow with two children, both in their mid-thirties – a daughter who lived in North Carolina and a son who lived at home to care for his surviving parent. Mother and daughter had a falling out some years ago, and their relationship was strained at best. Mother and son were close, and Tom was always at his mother’s bedside. The most time away was perhaps 5 minutes for a bathroom and coffee break. Without a family of his own, Tom was devoted to his mother. The staff told me that for the past 6 weeks, he had never missed an 18 hour day at his mother’s bedside; they often had to force him to go home for some rest.

As hours stretched into days, Mary’s coma deepened and her body temperature rose, her moments of lucidity few and far between. The attending physician noted that Mary’s core temperature was 108 degrees; he had never seen a person live with a temperature that high. For days, I watched Tom talk to his mother, telling her how much he loved her and how he knew she could beat this cancer. Mary’s doctors had explained to Tom that her organs were shutting down – her death was imminent; his head understood the facts, but his heart could not – would not – accept them. She was suffering and I found myself wondering why she was hanging on to life when she was in so much pain.

wrongfully injured

wrongfully injured

I gestured for Tom to join me in the hall.

“You need to tell your mother that it is alright for her to go,” I counseled gently. “That you’ll be okay here without her…”

He pulled back, shocked and a little angry. I was asking him to give his mother permission to die; the person he loved more than anyone in the world, the person he needed more than anyone in the world. It went against every feeling of normalcy, safety and love that coursed through him. He couldn’t find words.

“Your mother is suffering. I know you want her to be with you forever, but her body just can’t do it anymore. She needs to hear that you’ll be okay after she’s gone.” I paused. “Does your sister know just how sick your mother is?”

Tom explained that he had called her 2 weeks ago, but heard nothing since. She wasn’t even planning to come to see their mother one last time.

So that was the reason Mary struggled to stay; she needed to hear from her children – both of them – that they would be okay. Only then could she drift away, finally at peace.

“Tom – please give me your sister’s phone number. It’s essential that your mother hear her daughter’s voice. Would you like me to call her?”

He nodded his head, eyes filled with tears, then turned to go back into his mother’s room. Changing his mind, he instead went through the door marked “exit” and ran out of the building.

While I stood looking at the door, hoping to see Tom, one of Mary’s nurses came by. I told her what happened. She was as surprised as I; Tom was never absent from his mother’s side, let alone in her last few hours. She left to get the daughter’s phone number.

Anna, Mary’s daughter in North Carolina, answered on the second ring. I introduced myself, told her I was at the nursing home with Mary and advised her of the doctor’s prognosis. If Anna wanted to say good-bye, it had to be now. Her answer was crying on the other end of the line, and in her tears, I could hear regret, shock, fear. And love…I could hear love.

I explained that Anna didn’t have time to get here from North Carolina, but that I would hold the phone to Mary’s ear so that her mother could hear her voice. Even in a coma, hearing is the last sense to leave, so I felt certain that whatever Anna wanted to say to her mother, it would be heard and accepted. I told her Mary was suffering and needed Anna’s permission to die.

As I held the phone to Mary’s ear, I could hear Anna’s voice cloaked in tears. As Anna continued, Mary’s eyes remained closed, but her body visibly relaxed. At one point, I saw her lips turn up the tiniest bit, and I knew Anna had been understood. After a few minutes, I softly told Mary that I was taking away the phone. Then I spoke to Anna and described what I had seen, telling her that she had given her mother a wonderful gift and blessing. I thanked her and promised that Tom would call her in a while.

Out in the hallway, there was no sign of Tom. I went to the nurse’s station for his phone number. No answer, so I left a voice mail. Fifteen minutes later, another voice mail, asking that he please return to the nursing home. I went to sit with Mary and noticed that her right hand kept grasping the sheet into a tight knot. As I held her other hand, I explained that Tom had to leave but that he would be back.

Please, I prayed silently, please bring Tom back. In my heart, I begged Tom to return because this time, his mother needed him.

After a half hour passed, I looked up to see Tom in the doorway. He looked exhausted but determined as he entered the room. He leaned over Mary and whispered in her ear, tears streaming down his face as he clutched her hands to his heart. Her agitation disappeared as he continued, his words known only to mother and son. Finally, totally spent, Tom laid his head on their joined hands and closed his eyes.

I leaned against the wall in a shadowed corner of the room, listening to Mary’s breathing grow more labored. The intervals between breaths grew longer, until after one long exhalation, the room stilled, the only sound Tom’s choking sobs. It was over.

As the physician pronounced Mary’s time of death, I reached out to touch Tom’s shoulder in communion with his grief.

An ending and a beginning. Sacred Ground. Holy Words.

Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
Thank you.
I love you.

I offer these words up to my friends and relatives; indeed, to humankind.

But most especially to Mom and Dad, to whom I should have said all of these things while they were alive.

Please do the same, today.

Honor the Circles of Grace all around us.

hug

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Hero Dogs of 9/11: Legacy

Hero Dogs Of 9/11: Legacy

Ten years after the World Trade Center attack,
the working dog community comes together to honor the dog teams that worked at Ground Zero.

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Related post: A Few Thoughts on First Responders

Mychal’s Prayer
We’ll Never Forget

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We’ll Never Forget

9 11 tribute light

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Related posts: A Few Thoughts on First Responders

Hero Dogs of 9/11
Mychal’s Prayer

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Thursday Re-View —- “Wounded Hearts”

estherdaniel

estherdaniel

The young father walked down the hall, each of his daughters holding one of his hands. He looked to be in his thirties and his daughters, perhaps 3 and 5 years old. They were dressed like little princesses – dresses with skirts that puffed out, patent leather shoes and white socks with embroidered flowers and ruffles. Their mood matched their father’s – quiet, determined, serious. It was almost as if his energy flowed into theirs and they became one. You could barely hear their footfalls in the long hallway, the lowered lighting bathing them in softness from behind.

Late at night, a special visitation, they were on the Trauma-Neuro floor of the hospital where I worked. They were on their way to see their wife and mother.

In her thirties, she was in her prime – physically fit from the bicycling that was her passion. Each year, she bicycled several times a year for different charities that were close to her heart. Today’s was for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where they provide care and find cures for sick children at no cost.

Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way for a visit.

Earlier that day, as everyone was packing up and leaving the successful Bike-a-Thon fund-raising event, the young mother was struck by a small panel truck that barreled through an intersection without brakes. Med Evac flew her to our trauma center. But it was too late… In spite of all that modern medicine had to offer, massive head injuries left this young wife and mother brain dead. Her family was here to say good-bye before she was removed from life support.

When gathering her things together before her family arrived, I looked at her driver’s license, seeing her smiling eyes and the words “Organ Donor” stamped on its front. She would still be giving of herself after death, and several of her organs were already designated to people across the country.

Late at night, a special visitation, her husband and two daughters were on their way to say good-bye.

As I watched the small family enter her room, I couldn’t help but think of all that she would miss of her daughters’ lives – kindergarten and grammar school, getting their driver’s license and experiencing their first kiss, senior prom, graduation, college and another graduation, their weddings, the births of their own children – gone forever in an instant. A tragedy unfolding in the privacy of her hospital room…

Trauma-Neuro was always quiet at night; those with severe head trauma were often kept in a medically-induced coma while their brain swelling was monitored. I walked toward the only other person near-by – a young resident who had been looking at the wall of monitors behind the nurse’s station. He stood still, staring off into nothingness. Tears welled in his eyes.

I placed my hand over his clenched fist that rested on the counter.

“I shouldn’t be like this,” he ground out without even looking at me, wiping a stray tear from his cheek with his free hand.

“How can you not be?” I offered quietly. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor this family needs right now.” I hesitated. “You’re exactly the kind of doctor medicine needs.”

As he dropped his chin to his chest, I felt his fist relax, as we stood together, both hearts weeping.

I heard a muffled “thank you” and looked up to see the young family standing just past the nurse’s station. The man’s eyes filled with tears, he slowly turned and walked away, his back stiff as he held his girls’ hands. As they walked down the hallway, passing through the shadows, a soft light bathed them in a familiar shape – wings??? – before they exited through the door.

Angel wings VI

Sacred ground.

Time stopped. A mother who bicycled for charity, breathing with life support until her family said good-bye and her organs were harvested; two little girls in ruffles and bows, their lips quivering with an unnamed fear; a young husband and father walking toward an unthinkable future in agonized disbelief; and, a physician who now understood that not all stories have a happy ending and that sometimes the simple one word question – “Why?” – is so terribly vast and complex that any acceptable answer defies human comprehension.

At that moment, I heard the soft strains of Brahms’ Lullaby echoing from the hospital’s public address system to announce the birth of a new child in the maternity wing.

As one life ends, another begins in the eternal cycle. An ending to be mourned and a beginning to be celebrated. Second chances made possible by the gift of life from a selfless woman.

I celebrate all of you for coming into my life – the mother and father, their daughters, the doctor…and yes, even the new baby. I keep you in my heart awash with blessings.

Interconnected. Circles of Compassion. Circles of Grace.

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I Wasn’t Enough…

Hubble Telescope

Hubble Telescope

I wasn’t enough.

When she came for her first counseling session, everything about her screamed a hard life. You could see it in her slumped shoulders, how she shuffled her feet, the weary sigh when she collapsed in the chair, the emptiness in her eyes. Her deeply lined face with its weathered features belied her chronological age of 37. If that wasn’t enough, it was confirmed in the ankle bracelet that peeked out from the ragged cuff of her jeans.

“Tell me why you’re here today.”
“My parole officer sent me.”

“How can I help you?”
“I don’t know if you can.”

She was under house arrest, her license had been suspended, and she’d been through this before.

That’s how our therapeutic relationship started. Trust was going to be difficult. I asked for her patience while I got through an initial history, since she hadn’t been through this before with me. Polite but distant, she waited for whatever was to come. She’d get through it; she’d been through a lot worse.

Family history is important; we are the sum of our experiences. A therapeutic tool known as a genogram is something I perform with every client/patient – it is a family tree that shows marriages, divorces, step-children, siblings, relationships, suicides, substance abuse, imprisonment, mental illness – all important ways to know where the person is coming from, in order to determine where they need to go, and how to get there.

Hers was a very common story for the general population our county mental health clinic served – never knew her father, had an alcoholic mother and several half-siblings, had been sexually abused by an uncle and physically abused by a stepfather, dropped out of high school, had her own child when she was 15, battled alcohol and prescription drugs off and on for the past 20 + years, and was married to an alcoholic. She had several arrests for DUI and shoplifting. Her teen-aged daughter was pregnant and living with an abusive boyfriend.

Oh – and she always wanted to be an artist.

She was depressed. No surprise there. Whether she got depressed when her life fell apart, or her life fell apart causing her depression…her use of alcohol and other drugs only complicated matters. It’s hard to know which came first, but depression and addiction go hand in hand far too often. And they were tough to beat…

Textbook – depressed mood, hopeless, helpless, emotional withdrawal, difficulty falling asleep, but sleeping excessively, weight gain, trouble concentrating, not interested in any social activities. The fact that she had been clean and sober for almost a month was wonderful, but terrible at the same time – these feelings were raw and painful; unwanted and unfamiliar; after all, for most of her life, her feelings had been numb from the drugs.

“I’d like to make a deal with you,” I said to the eyes that grew more wary. “How about if I hold onto your hope until you find it again yourself?”

“Okay,” came out softly, along with a slight sense that perhaps I was the one who needed help, rather than her.

Her parole officer wanted her to talk with someone about how to deal with her husband, who wouldn’t stop drinking with his buddies at their house several nights a week. It was too much of a temptation for her; she craved the alcohol even though her husband put a combination lock on their keg; she desperately wanted the Oxycontins and Vicodins and Percosets that her daughter offered her, but still found the strength to refuse. But she was losing ground…

Where to even start? Here, it was one day at a time, one hour at a time. By the end of the fourth session, she had managed to get her husband’s beer nights moved out to the garage, along with the keg, and to tell her daughter to not bring any of the meds when she came to visit. They were giving her some grief about it, but she stood firm.

Baby steps? No. In actuality, they were huge. She took control of those two things in her environment, and her sense of empowerment brought a smile to her face and a slight squaring of her shoulders.

“I’m so proud of you!!!”

She covered her face with her hands, sobbing. “No one ever said that to me before.”

“Well, they should have. You are a strong, courageous woman; a survivor. Right now, as is, you are enough…”

Her blue eyes, glistening with tears but clearer without the effects of the drugs, met my gaze with something different, something lost that was slowing being found.

With hope.

For an instant, I saw the beautiful young girl she would have been had all of the terrible things not dragged her down and worn her out and bruised her soul. Innocent, expectant, full of hope for the future. It was staggering. It was humbling.

Sacred ground. She felt it too.

Palette of Memories Josephine Wall

Palette of Memories
Josephine Wall

She missed her next appointment, but when I called to reschedule, I could tell she was excited about something. She had just gotten off the phone with her parole officer; he arranged an interview for her at a local family run convenience store that took part in a county program for ex-offenders. It was part-time, but a start. Plus, it was in walking distance from her house. The interview was next week.

Hope. There it was again, tinged with a girlish excitement.

We spoke briefly about what she might expect from the interview, and what she planned to wear. I congratulated her again, wished her luck, and assured her she would be fine. She signed off with a breathy, “See you next week.”

And that was the last time I ever heard her voice.

When I came in to work on Monday, my supervisor showed me her obituary in the local newspaper. Dead, at 37 years old.

Why? What happened? I was in shock as I relayed our last conversation in full.

I called her husband, looking to offer my condolences, and hopefully, for some answers.

They had some friends over for a party to celebrate her job interview. She cooked lots of food and seemed happy and excited. He remembered drinking too much and falling asleep on the couch. His daughter woke him up and asked if he’d seen her mother; she was nowhere in the house, and the keys to the truck were gone. At first, he didn’t understand.

When they found her, she was already dead. By her own hand.

A. Successful. Suicide.

I couldn’t speak.

He mentioned how much his wife had liked coming to her appointments at the counseling center, and that she seemed to be doing better.

I asked him if I could help in any way; he said no, but thanked me for calling, and for helping her.

I hung up. Helping Her? Hardly.

Suicide meant that at that moment, for a reason that we would probably neither know nor understand, she had been in such emotional pain that she just wanted to stop hurting; she just needed to escape. She hadn’t been thinking clearly enough to realize that the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness would pass; that they were only temporary; that she would get through it and survive, just as she always had.

Survive and thrive. Clean and sober. Perhaps at a new job. Or so we had hoped… Or so I had hoped…

The tenents of good practice dictate that involved staff and supervisors hold a “psychological autopsy” for any patients who suicide. We sat around a conference table on speaker phone with administration at our other office. I presented her history, from start to finish, along with treatment plan, progress, appointment schedule, recommendations, contact with her parole officer and family, patient compliance. Every detail.

Why? What happened? What could we have done differently?

Nothing. But she committed suicide. Everything? No, I knew that wasn’t true. Delayed it, perhaps. But change takes time, and there hadn’t been enough of it…

After about 25 minutes of this, I started to cry. In front of 2 supervisors, and over the speaker phone “in front of” the CEO of the county mental health offices and two attending psychiatrists.

“She has a name; she’s not just a case.” I struggled on. “And for just a brief time in her 37 years, she felt good about herself. It wasn’t long, and it obviously wasn’t enough, but it was something.” Silence in two rooms filled with people. “And she was important…”

I couldn’t sit there with it being so impersonal. We health care professionals do that so often by necessity; we need to retain distance and objectivity in order to do our job well. It’s not about us, but rather always about the patient.

But I had to remind them, and myself, that she lived and loved and hoped and dreamed and fought as long and as hard as possible. And I admired her for that. And I loved her for that. And I would remember her for that.

Be well, lovely lady. You touched my heart. I know that you are free of any of the torment that weighed so heavily upon you, and that your eyes and thoughts are clear. And that you have hope again…

Paint with bright colors, with abandon, with your heart…and paint outside the lines, without limits or restraint.

My time with you was too short, but it was my privilege.

And remember – right now, as is….you are, and always will be, enough.

Eternal rest, grant her, O Lord, and perpetual light shine upon her.
May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.

spotonlists

spotonlists

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Of Ladybugs and Dragonflies…and Love

There are signs.

Signs of our departed loved ones telling us all will be well and that there is life after death, if we only have the faith and willingness to believe.

For Mom, it’s a ladybug. ladybug

When she died 25 years ago from breast cancer at the age of 59, (see “Remembrance”), Mom left behind a husband, 2 daughters and 3 grandsons. Speaking for myself, her “baby,” I was in total shock, having spent the entire month of February driving to the hospital after work and watching her suffer. After her death, I was totally drained physically, emotionally and spiritually.

One of the first things we did as a family without Mom was to drive 8 hours to my best friend’s wedding in North Carolina, the wedding that Mom promised to bake her delicious Italian cookies for (what is a wedding without countless trays laden with homemade cookies made from recipes handed down through the generations?). Needless to say, my family was happy for my friend who called my Mom and Dad her “adopted parents,” but the absence of Mom was a raw ache, an emptiness, a longing that went unfulfilled.

During a rest stop, Dad, my sister and I stood stretching our legs before getting back into the car for the long ride home. As we spoke about how much we missed Mom, a ladybug landed on Dad’s shoulder.

Mom had always loved ladybugs; if one was inside the house, she would bring it outside and place it gently on a flower. If one landed on her, she would simply let it stay put until it flew away. Mom knew that ladybugs were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and had been called the “Beetle of Our Lady,” its name linking itself to spiritual ideals and mothers. To her, that sent a powerful message of devotion and love.

A ladybug on Dad’s shoulder…while we were talking about Mom…at our first outing as a family without her. Each of us looked at the ladybug, looked at each other, and without saying a word, started to cry. Somehow Mom found a way to let us know that she was with us.

Ever since then, in the past 25 years, ladybugs have visited my Dad, sister and me when we most needed the comfort. Dad would call us up on Mom’s birthday and mention that a ladybug was on his morning newspaper, or in the bathroom during the Christmas holidays – Mom’s favorite time of year – when he most missed her, or on the passenger seat of his car when he had a doctor’s appointment. If my sister was going through a difficult time, even though it might be the dead of winter, she would call me up and say, “Guess what I’m looking at right now, on my windowsill?” and I would answer, without missing a beat, “A ladybug.” Mom came through again and again.

After Dad died and I was particularly sad, having to make some big decisions without having either parent to ask for advice, I found myself driving to work and saying out loud, “I really need a lady bug sighting.” I thought of my ladybug collection at home that reminded me of Mom – pins, coffee mugs, journals, bracelets, note cards – but they just weren’t enough. I really, really needed her. As I slowed for one of the three stop lights in my town that foggy morning, I noticed something strange about the car in front of me. I blinked, then got a better look as I came to a top. It was a Volkswagen Beetle automobile. I’d gotten my driver’s license in one when I was 17 years old. But that wasn’t why I smiled. The Volkswagen Beetle was a red one with huge black spots painted on it. A car painted to look like a ladybug idling at the stop light. The ladybug sighting that I just asked for out loud – big enough just in case Theresa missed it.

I looked down and shook my head. Why was I not surprised??? [Note: I never saw that car again.]

For Dad, it’s a dragonfly.

flora goddess of flowers and spring

flora goddess of flowers and spring

Following Dad’s funeral Mass last year, we all proceeded to the mausoleum where Mom was buried. As my sister and I, our immediate family, and the rest of those who had come to pay final respects to Dad entered the marble building, for some reason, my sister turned around and looked at the wall of windows that covered its front. Just then, a beautiful dragonfly flew in and landed on the framework of the door. Quite large, it was a beautiful, iridescent blue (Dad’s favorite color, as well as the color of his eyes). It simply rested there, motionless. A cousin of mine turned to my sister and asked in a voice tinged with wonder, “Did you see that?” as they looked at the visitor. My sister nodded, unable to speak. When she told me about this later, I had no doubt that we had just received our first message from Dad.

In choosing the dragonfly for his sign, Dad chose a symbol of light, one of a select few creatures that are supposed to carry a deceased person’s energy to their loved ones, often seen as a harbinger of change.

This week, the final chapter in the managing of Dad’s estate took place when we had the closing for the sale of his house. My sister and I hoped that we would find a young family to bring the house alive, to transform it once again into a place of brightness and love and happiness. We got our wish when we met the couple who bought it, along with their young daughter. The conference room was filled with people – attorneys, realtors, secretaries, the buyers (the family) and the sellers (my sister and me). It was bittersweet – a relief, after a year, to have this last task completed, yet also very sad, to have this last task completed (see “Who Will Remember?”).

As we sat across the table from the family, my sister addressed the harried and exhausted looking mother, who had just finished telling us that they closed on the sale of their own house late the night before. “Your sweater – are those dragonflies on your sweater?” The woman stretched the front of the garment out so that we could see its print. Multiple dragonflies fluttered across it in bluish-purple beauty.

Dragonflies.

My sister and I both started to cry. As we brokenly explained what/who the dragonflies represented, the woman’s eyes filled with tears. “Well, I guess we know this was meant to be,” she softly commented, pulling her sweater more closely around her, almost like a hug.

She was correct. Dad was here to say that his house was being passed on to the right people, and that he was with us always. I would like to say a ladybug landed on the desk at the same time, but that didn’t happen. The dragonfly was enough.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, for sending your love. Continuing bonds can never be broken.

There are signs. Our loved ones never leave us. We must simply open our eyes and our hearts will be filled.

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This is How I Will Remember Dad

Dad as a little boy

Dad as a little boy

He was baptized by monks.

When you spoke with my Dad, that was one of the things he was most proud of in his life. Oh, he was proud of his wife and 2 daughters (his “girls”), his three grandsons, his four great-grandchildren, too. But he always returned to the monks…

Both his Hungarian parents entered the United Sates (separately – they had not yet met) through Ellis Island in the first decade of the 20th century. His Mother came here all by herself when she was 16 years old, with $28 in her possession. His father had even less. His parents – my grandparents – eventually met, married, and had 4 children. My Dad was the youngest, born almost 10 years after his oldest sibling. And yes, where he grew up in Union, New Jersey, he was baptized by monks.

He grew up on a farm of almost 90 acres, where my grandmother had a beautiful garden, a spring where we used a pail to fetch clean water, cows that Dad used to milk and manage to have fun at the same time by squirting near-by cats, and an outhouse that had rhubarb growing at the back. Things were a lot simpler then.

Dad played high school football when they wore leather helmets and decided differing opinions mid-field. In his senior year, World War II raging, he joined the Navy on September 16, 1943, a day before his 18th birthday. His school gave him his diploma even though he only finished 2 weeks of his senior year. He was an A student, anyway.

Basic training was in Great Lakes, Michigan, which must have been interesting for a farm boy who had always walked to school and had never been away from home. In addition, he joined the Navy not knowing how to swim. But there was a war on, and that was unimportant in the bigger scheme of things. After Basic, Dad was one of three sailors out of 500 chosen to go on to Texas A & M for training in what would become the nuclear submarine program, but he refused. Why refuse what was such a golden opportunity? Because this 18 year old man has recently met the 15 year old girl who was to become his wife.

Before leaving for the war, this sailor in his dress blues went to a small park in Pennsylvania with a friend, where he saw a pretty young girl with black hair and dark eyes across the gazebo. When he asked his friend who the girl was and said he was going to marry her, his friend laughed and told him he’d never get past her mother – the protective, unsmiling woman beside her.

We know how that turned out. Dad did get introduced, the now 16 year old girl wrote to him during the war, and they got married (Mom was 18, Dad was 21) when he returned home after the war was over. They were married in a beautiful church ceremony with money Dad had saved by selling his cigarette consignments while in the Navy, at a reception with beer, root beer, and sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. Dad promised Mom he would buy her a new dress every week. Romantic – yes. Did he manage to keep his promise? No – which Mom never let him forget, but he did give her so much more.

Mom & Dad

Mom & Dad

Dad apprenticed as a furrier, then worked at a company that manufactured tools such as scissors, tweezers and nail cutters. Then, this young couple decided to venture out on their own by opening their own business. First, they bought an old house in a small town that didn’t like outsiders. In fact, they had to retain an outside attorney (this was almost 60 years ago) to close the sale because my parents’ ethnic background and religion weren’t easily accepted (sound familiar?). After the purchase, they found white sheets and hoods in the attic, which they hurriedly threw out. You get the picture…

They knocked on doors in the garment district in New York City until, after mocking laughter and countless doors slammed in their faces, one Jewish jobber (Bless him…) took a chance on them and offered to send them work. Their business – manufacturing women’s’ and children’s’ blouses, had begun. With a stranger and a handshake. No contract, just their word. In a business relationship that lasted for more than 2 decades.

We lived in a small apartment over the blouse mill. My parents employed almost 30 women and one man for 23 years. Many were single mothers who needed to put food on the table; others were disabled in some way (epileptic, partially sighted, learning disabled). The hardest workers made enough money that some of the men in their lives came to “have a talk with” my father, angrily asking why Dad allowed them to make more money than the man of the house. Dad simply explained that their women earned it. Enough said!

Earlier than most men, Dad treated women as his equal and respected anyone’s hard work and desire to get ahead. By the time my older sister and I were born, Dad was surrounded by women at work and home, so it’s a good thing he could survive in the midst of those hormone shifts!

Memories of Mom and Dad getting up by 6 am and Dad still being downstairs at midnight, doing book work… He made smart investments and saved money, but we still managed to drive almost an hour away once or twice a month to try out the hamburgers at some new type of restaurant known as McDonald’s. When he’d fill up the station wagon’s tank with gas, sometimes we’d get a few ice cream squares, cut them in half, then share them between the four of us. Plus, Dad found that he could save a lot of money by repairing all of the machines in our factory by himself, so the smell of soldering and polishing wafting upstairs was common.

As things settled down and he knew the factory was going to “make it,” Dad started to take us on actual family vacations to Atlantic City, New Jersey and Williamsburg, Virginia. Wow – that was the height of luxury to stay at a motel near-by. And to actually eat out every day??? Heaven. By the time my parents retired from their business, their travel had evolved into Spain, Italy and Greece. They always taught us that we needed to broaden our horizons and meet other people to better understand the world.

They weren’t perfect parents – I’ve never met a perfect human being – but they were very good parents. Mom taught us that “ladies don’t drink, smoke or swear,” (those childhood messages stick with you, don’t they?) and to always wear clean underwear in case we were in a car accident. My sister and I couldn’t date until the magic age of 17, and I worried that no one would ask me out. (A few brave souls did). We were taught that if God gave us more (of anything – intelligence, money, opportunity, etc.), then we were obligated to give more back (to society) in return. Dad had a temper (yelling, never physical) and could be stubborn, while Mom had a tough time forgetting if someone did her or anyone in her family wrong. But they were smart, hard-working, compassionate, generous people who believed in God and their country.

The blouse factory was a family business, one that saw my sister and me working every summer, as well as in the evenings after we did our homework. We were a family unit, and my parents always gave good advice, with no agenda other than our best interests. I asked my parents’ advice until the day each of them died. They never led me astray.

Family

Family

They would also throw high school graduation parties for nieces or nephews if relatives didn’t have the money, buy someone a washer and dryer to make that person’s life easier, or loan money to those in need. Education was very important to both of them; they always said that education was something that no one could take away from you.

My sister went to beauty school and obtained her real estate license; I went to undergrad, optometry school, then grad school (wow – that’s almost 12 years of higher education; one could question my sanity!). All 3 of their grandsons graduated from college. Their 4 great-grandchildren (another one is almost here) already have college funds started.

The American Dream.

From grandparents who came through Ellis Island (Moms’ parents also came through Ellis Island, from Italy) to a man who quit his senior year in high school to fight in WW II and a woman who had to drop out of high school after her sophomore year in order to earn money for her parents and siblings during the war…

What a wonderful legacy Mom and Dad left behind… And I miss them terribly. Next week, another family will take possession of Mom and Dad’s house, another chapter closed.

But I was able to give one last gift to Dad, after I held his hand in the driveway where he fell (see “Remembrance II”).

One of the priests at the college where I worked – a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross – traveled almost 2 hours to say his funeral Mass. He never met Dad, but he knew him from almost 4 years of working with me, and he had the entire church crying about how important Dad’s wife, “girls,” grandsons and great-children were to him. And he allowed my sister and me to dress Dad’s casket with the pall and bless it with holy water as well. Three times – Dad’s favorite number, representing the Trinity.

So for this man of faith who was so honored to have been baptized by monks – add to that a funeral mass celebrated by an ordered priest. A fitting validation of a good and decent man…

By the time the veterans played Taps at the cemetery and we were given the flag, our time together was done. He was finally with Mom…their bodies together in the mausoleum, their spirits together in another plane, at long last.

Rest well. You did good. The world is a better place for having had you in it. And at the end of life, that’s all we can hope for.

Thank you for all of the sacrifices, the guidance and the love. I hope to make you and Mom proud.

____________________________________________________________________

TAPS
Daniel Butterfield – music
Horace Lorenzo Trim – lyrics

Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.
Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know
God is nigh.

______________________________________________________________

You Are My Sunshine

empty wheelchair

__________________________________________________________

I arrived at the nursing home too late.

My position with hospice was in Loss & Bereavement; that is, to help terminally ill patients prepare for their death and to be available to the families before, during and after the loss of their loved one.

When anyone would ask what type of work I did, and I would answer “hospice,” the reaction was almost always the same – “Oh – I don’t know how you do it – I would never be able to…” With that, they would look down, words trailing off, sometimes physically stepping away from me. I understood.

But for me, being with someone approaching death is sacred ground. No filter, no mask, no falseness. Just that person stripped of everything the world deems important, yet at that moment, more genuine. More authentic. Unpretentious. Beautiful.

When I met Walt, he was a resident in a nursing home.  Patti, his aid, brought me to his private room to introduce me. He was in his mid-70s, thin gray hair in wisps around his almost bald head, eyes rimmed with dark circles, face sunken and pale. His wheelchair, placed close to a window, bathed him in sunshine. The photograph on his bureau showed a strikingly handsome man, tall and thin, with blonde hair, casually holding a golf club, looking off to the horizon, smiling. 

Now, his body was bent and misshapen, knees drawn up, fingers curled into fists held tight against his chest. His head was angled toward his right shoulder, his whole body ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis.  He showed no awareness when Patti introduced me and his eyes – a clear, bright blue that belied his age – never left a picture on the far wall.

“That’s his wife. She died a long time ago. They never had children.”

She was quite pretty, dressed in a uniform that a flight attendant might wear in the early years of commercial flying – perhaps Pan Am or TWA. The only other item on the wall was a handwritten 8×10 sheet with words to the song “You Are My Sunshine” written on it.

“That was their favorite song. They used to sing it to each other,” Patti explained.  “He can’t speak because of his stroke, but if he gets agitated, we sing it to him; it seems to calm him down.”

So began my relationship with Walt.  I would visit him twice a week – him in his red cardigan sweater, slumped in his wheelchair parked in the sunshine, me seated next to him.  I would read to him, talk to him, sometimes just sit with him, while he would look at his wife’s picture.  Once, when I hummed “You Are My Sunshine” and gently held his hand, I thought I saw the briefest of smiles, but then it vanished.  It was probably just wishful thinking on my part.  There never seemed to be any change in Walt’s disposition.

One week, our hospice team was particularly busy with new patient admissions and I was unable to make my Tuesday visit with Walt.  On Thursday afternoon, I stopped at the nurse’s station to sign in.  As I rounded the corner and headed to Walt’s room, I saw Patti coming toward me, her face drawn and tired.

“Walt took a turn for the worse this morning,” she said softly.  “He died, not more than five minutes ago.”  She stepped aside so I could enter the room.

I stopped.  Walt’s wheelchair was by the window, empty.  I’d never seen him anywhere but in his wheelchair.  I looked around, searching for something – anything – familiar. My eyes finally found Walt, lying on his twin bed, facing the wall.

I stood at the foot of his bed and said a prayer, but it didn’t feel like enough.  I moved the foot of the bed away from the wall and knelt where I could see Walt’s face.  His eyes were closed, his wrinkles smoothed out; he looked like he was peacefully at sleep.  I reached out and clasped his hand, my fingers gently intertwined in his.

My eyes were drawn to the photo of Walt on the golf course and the one of his lovely wife when she was a flight attendant.  I closed my eyes.  As if watching a movie, I saw Walt – young, handsome, smiling – get up easily from the bed and walk towards a beautiful young woman dressed in blue.  They stood facing each other, holding hands. Staring at each other.  Smiling at each other.  Loving each other.

With carefree laughter and beaming smiles, they turned and walked away, hand in hand, bathed in golden light.  They were together again, as one.

As I looked down at our hands and smiled through my tears, I began to sing.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

Good-bye, Walt. Thank you for the privilege of spending time with you. Go, now – happy, whole, healthy – and rest in peace.

_________________________________________________________

The Shoulders of Giants (Once Again…)

On this, the first anniversary of  Dad’s death, I chose to repost something from almost 3 months ago. My feelings stand.

img206

I’ve said it before – at times, my naiveté astounds me.

  • Licensed Professional Counselor – check.
  • Loss & Bereavement Specialty – check.
  • Survived Mom’s death 25 years ago, when she was only 59 years old – check.
  • Working through the grief process (and it is a process) for Dad, who died not quite a year ago at the age of almost 87 years old – check.
  • Prepared for the grief involved in no longer having a parent alive – not even close.

Everyone grieves differently. It depends on your relationship with that person; if you’ve lost someone before; whether their death was far too quick, with no time to say good-by or agonizingly slow, with unbearable suffering; expected or unexpected; natural or by suicide; your age; and, whether you’re male (like to take action) or female (want someone to listen). The list goes on… There’s no set “process,” per se – no time frame or stages that must be followed in the correct order. Some people act like nothing has happened, while others are prostrate with grief. Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger with lots of people (including God), until hopefully – finally – some measure of acceptance.

My patients often ask when they will have “closure,” and I answer honestly there is no such thing as closure, only survival. They will survive.

My head knows this. My heart struggles to keep pace.

Mom’s death was 6 months after her breast cancer diagnosis, after having suffered through a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, surgery, and a 29-day hospital stay. The fact that she was only 59 years old and my close friend made her torment agonizing to watch; so much so, that I actually asked her physician if I could end her suffering (and mine) by just letting her drift away with extra morphine. He shot that option down quickly.

Dad’s death at almost 87 years old was sudden. Two weeks before he died, on Father’s Day, we noticed he was slurring his words. We took him to the doctor, got him a bright red 3-wheel walker and made plans to either move him downstairs in his home (one floor, no steps) or to have him move in with my sister. That was all underway when I got the call that Dad passed away. He was walking down his driveway to get his newspaper, a morning ritual, when he collapsed. The neighbor called 911 when she saw him lying there, but he died “instantly.” (Do doctors tell that to everyone to ease their suffering? Just wondering…)

The shock of Mom’s death shook me to my core. Admittedly, after 25 years, I still light a candle every day in her memory. I don’t know how long Dad’s death will sit so fresh and raw; it’s been less than a year.

But this I do know – I was totally unprepared for the separate grief that comes with no longer having a “parental unit.” It’s unique – it’s different – it’s terrible – it’s lonely – it’s frightening.

I feel abandoned, lost, adrift, disoriented, incomplete. There’s no one to watch my back or to be my cheering section or to give me a safe place to fall.

Where is my anchor? Who will advise me, guide me, forgive me, support me, challenge me, love me unconditionally? Who will comfort the little girl in me, the lost child, as only my parents could?

I once told Dad when he was really missing Mom (which was for the entire 25 years) that he and Mom had given me everything I needed to be a success, that I had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” They were my giants.

“If I have seen further…it is by
standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

~ Sir Isaac Newton

He liked the thought of that and remembered with gratitude all those who helped him along the way.

I shared with him something I felt while at the Baccalaureate service the night before my grad school Commencement. While I sat immersed in the joyous music that filled the cathedral, I could almost sense two lines of ancestors standing behind me. They were in pairs, from my shoulders, back and up, until I lost sight of them. Without turning around, I could visualize them. Somehow I knew that one line included Mom, my maternal grandparents and the rest of her family, while the other line was my paternal grandparents…on and on and on. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, all dressed in different clothing that gave a clue to their work, some younger than others, some faces lined while others were smooth. They were all smiling. Generation after generation after generation.

I have been schooled well.

The best psychotherapists are those who have been through pain. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author (1932 – 1996), reminds us that “in our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”

Who better to sit with you in the darkness than a wounded healer?

I have sat with people who have lost their child (the worst loss), spouse, parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, married lover, colleague – but never someone who was grieving the loss of both parents as a “unit.” How is that possible?

But now, as is always the case, I will be able to sit with someone who no longer has parents – as one person said to me, “Welcome to the Orphan’s Club” – and empathize with their longing for wholeness.

But a broken heart empties us of all that we might hang on to, often too long, so that it might be filled up with something greater and more wondrous that we could ever imagine or think ourselves deserving of. When I am tired enough of struggling, I will once again accept Your glorious grace. I will once again accept the plans You have for me. I know You understand.

Help me to be Your Counselor, Defender, Teacher, Listener, Instrument, Vessel, Comforter, Starfish Thrower (thank you, Diana), Harvester, Secret Keeper (bless you, T), Heartsong, Wellspring.

“Much is expected from those to whom much has been given.”
~ Luke 12:49

Dad’s favorite saying, as well as the way he always signed off on a letter or in a card – “Keep the Faith.” I’m doing my best, Dad, but I still miss both of you more than I ever thought possible.

Like I said, I have stood on the shoulders of giants – Mom and Dad the biggest and most important of all. They lifted me up so I could soar.

Your Circles of Grace – those Circles of Compassion – widen.

My thanks.

One Year Ago…

June 29, 2012: Remembrance of Dad

I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell.

The same hand that had once changed my diapers, given me a bottle, taught me how to ride a bike and drive a car, that fed me my first (and last) piece of liver, that cut my hair into a pixie, that held onto me when I crossed a road, that gave me away in marriage, that slipped me money at the beginning of every month, that signed the checks for oh-so-many years of education, that taught me the importance of giving…

I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell.  In disbelief.

That Friday morning, ready to leave for work, the phone rang.  Dad probably couldn’t wait until my Bluetooth call while I was on my way to work; he must have had something important to tell me that happened on this date, from the calendar he kept with all family events (big and little) catalogued.

Something very important.  My sister’s voice – hysterical, sobbing – “Dad’s dead.”

I calmly called Michael, who told me to wait until he got home from the office; he didn’t trust me to drive.  On our way there – on our way “home” – I knew it would take at least an hour – I prayed that you would still be there when I got to the house.

How could I have prayed for what I saw when I arrived?  The State Trooper was just leaving as I flew out of the passenger seat and ran across the lawn – the same lawn that you mowed on your John Deere, a special handle screwed into its casing so you could drive your grandsons around with you 30 years ago – to the figure half-hidden by the hedge, covered with a thin white blanket.

I heard someone wail in anguish and didn’t know it was me – your baby of 58 years.

Where was the dignity in this?  Dad – my father – a World War II veteran – lying in his driveway, in the sunshine.  (Thank goodness for your being covered; lupus doesn’t like sunshine, remember?)

I held your hand in the driveway.

It was right where I had seen Mom standing at your side, oh-so-many years ago after she died, as Steve, Alex and I pulled out of your driveway; by the flowering tree Mom loved that nestled the bird feeders you kept filled for the songbirds and squirrels.

The diamonds in Mom’s ring sparkled in the sunshine as my fingers entwined with yours, your strong hands, nails neatly trimmed, relaxed…at peace.  My tears fell onto our hands, a baptism, a cleansing of our relationship, joined with Mom in a bond not unlike diamonds that would only strengthen with the weight of time passed.

There was a dignity in this, of a sort…a communion, a joining, rather than a separation…  A quietness…a birth…an arrival upon the heels of a departure.

You were already being greeted by the God whom you so loved, along with Grammie and Grandpop, who sang the words of Matthew 3:17: “This is My Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”

A trembling voice echoed off the walls of my broken heart: “This is my Father, in Whom I am well pleased.”

In Memory of Peanut

Peanut & Freddie

Peanut & Freddie

In Memory of Peanut
1998 – 2012

[ aka Peanster, Peanutter-Butter,
Pretty Pug-nosed Princess Peanutter-Butter ]

I was not prepared for the pain of losing you.

My son Alex will remind me in no uncertain terms that I never wanted any cats as pets. We already had Misty (a black lab), and I thought she was enough. When I came home one day from work and went to use our front hall bathroom, Alex and his Dad told me I couldn’t use it. So naturally, I asked why the door was closed, then opened it. Inside – two small kittens, a brother and sister from the same litter. One black and white with huge eyes (Freddie) and one tiny with orange/beige fur (Peanut).

I was upset. The only two things in the world that make me wheeze and have trouble breathing are cigar/cigarette smoke and cat hair. They couldn’t stay in the house.

It was them or me.

When things calmed down a little (when I calmed down a little), we all reached a compromise: the kittens could stay on our screened in porch and sleep on the padded hot tub cover. Padded pillows from our lawn chairs were arranged on top, along with food and water bowls and a litter box. They slept together, all curled up in a circle, like yin and yang.

Each night, after we came in from the hot tub, before bed, they came inside for a while to play on the carpeted floor of the den. Each night, the time inside got longer – 10 minutes, a half hour, two hours… They were so cute and so much fun, and the wheezing seemed to be getting less frequent the more I was exposed to their fur.

One night, I relented. Let them in for good. That’s when the two fur balls took over our house, and our hearts. Even Misty seemed to accept them. Peanut was Alex’s and Freddie, with his big eyes, was mine (after all, wouldn’t an optometrist choose the one with big eyes???). Our family had just expanded.

Peanut was always frail; in the first year of her life, we often had her at the vet, trying to find out why she was so tiny. Some breathing problems, lots of blood work and tests, but nothing ever too definite. She would always stay “petite” (like me) with a delicate appetite (unlike me).

When Alex’s Dad and I got divorced, and I moved out, we decided to leave the cats with Alex and his Dad, to keep things as stable as possible for Alex. I actually had my attorney put a stipulation in the divorce agreement to make certain that I could “cat-sit” several times a year.

Wasn’t I the one who gave my family the ultimatum – it’s them or me? Ummm – I guess that was me – so long, long ago.

Then, Alex went away to college, and ultimately, about 2 years ago, Peanut and Freddie came to live with me for good.

I was not prepared for the pain of losing you, Peanut.

You purred the loudest of any cat I had ever known and you looked upon everything that didn’t interest you (which was most things) with a certain disdain. Hence, “Princess.” But you also wrapped your self around my neck when I walked around the house, and stretched out on my legs or chest like a Sphinx when I was watching TV. You were light as a feather – a fur ball – and I loved you.

Each night, you and Freddie slept at the bottom of the bed, all curled up. Sometimes, you slept all night on my husband’s shoulder, paws stretched straight out. If he happened to move the slightest bit over night, you were highly affronted, glaring at him in no uncertain terms until he stopped moving and you could return to your beauty sleep.

You were a treasure. A beauty. A princess.

During the day, you held court on the couch, ensconced on my most comfortable pillow. No one dared disturb you. If I was at my computer, you would hop onto my desk and lay across my keyboard, causing all kinds of gibberish to appear on the screen. I would lift you off, trying to avoid your icy stare. We compromised and I put your cat bed on the edge of my desk, so we could be together while I worked. Cans of compressed dust remover littered my desk; that soft, long fur got into all the cracks and crevices of my computer and printer.

Then, your daily routine started to change.

You lost weight, getting recurrent upper respiratory infections. We kept taking you to the vet and you seemed to improve with the steroid shots and the appetite enhancer. You ate better, but developed an allergy to the meds and scratched your chin to an open sore, so we stopped the medicine. We had another follow-up visit at the vet in another week.

One night, after getting up to go to the bathroom, I got back into bed and put you back on my shoulder where you had slept. I remember that your breathing was so loud – labored – that I moved you to the foot of the bed to get more sleep.

But your breathing was too labored and irregular…

I woke up my husband (who sleeps through anything) and told him something was terribly wrong. We hurriedly got dressed, then I wrapped you in your favorite soft blanket as we drove the half hour to the 24-hour emergency vet hospital. It was early, early morning, and snowing.

I can still feel your tiny claws digging into my leg on the way there. But your breathing calmed a bit.

Once there, when I mentioned “respiratory distress” to the receptionist, the vet flew out from the back and hurried you into an exam room while I had to sign a paper saying whether I wanted extraordinary measures taken if anything serious would occur while at the hospital.

Ridiculous – but I signed it; all you needed was some oxygen and another steroid shot and you’d be good to go. We could work at my desk tomorrow and you could wrap yourself around my neck, purring so loud in my ear that it soothed any stress I might have.

The vet came back into the room where we waited. At first, I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand her. Something about tests and blood work and oxygen… I thought we had explained all of that, and we agreed on going ahead with getting you better.

Still, I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand her.

Your condition deteriorated rapidly. Your organs were shutting down – it sounded like congestive heart failure. You were dying in the other room.

Should we prolong your life (your suffering) or consider your comfort? I was used to this from working with Hospice; it was an easy choice – no suffering, please. (Easy? Who am I kidding? It was torture.) The vet was compassionate, saying you had coughed up a lot of blood and things were moving fast.

Could I say good-bye? Yes, but I had to be ready to see that you were on oxygen.

When I entered the hospital area, you were in a small glassed off “cage” or bed on the bottom level where oxygen was being pumped in. There was a small opening big enough for my hands for when I wanted to pet you. You were lying on your favorite soft plaid blanket, your fur wet and matted where you coughed up blood, showing how thin you really were.

I stifled a cry and dropped to my knees on the linoleum floor so that I could see you and talk to you. When you heard me, you actually dragged yourself around toward my voice, then lay back down, spent. It must have taken all of the little energy you had left, but now you were facing me, and I could pet you.

My Peanutter-Butter. My Princess.

I told you I loved you and I thanked you for your years of love, and said that it was okay for you to go toward the light. I told you that Mimi (my Mom) would be there, but realized that you never met her; she died before you were born. So I told you instead that our beloved Misty would be there to greet you. I reminded you how much Freddie loved you and how much he would miss you, but that someday, we would all be together again.

Your eyes were already fixed ahead, directed toward me but not seeing me – looking beyond me at a place where I couldn’t follow. You were already leaving, but waited just long enough to say good-bye.

It was enough – it was too much; I had to go. You were already well on your way, eyes unseeing, breathing labored. So fragile yet so beautiful. Let the doctor help to end your pain. I couldn’t see for my tears.

In the time it took me to sign papers for your cremation, you were gone. Forever lost to me, to Alex, to Freddie.

When we drove home, the snow had stopped and it was daybreak. I couldn’t go into work, I hurt so much. When you didn’t come home with us, Freddie went to the dining room window where you both sometimes shared a bed. When he didn’t find you there, he never went into the dining room again until more than a year had passed. He looked for you for a few days, then settled into an uneasy loneliness. He’s more anxious, as if a part of him is gone (it is). Sometimes he fixes his gaze at a spot above my head, or into a darkened room, and stares, listens at attention. As if you’re there, looking back.

Perhaps you are…

Peanster – your ashes are in a carved wooden box on the mantle, with your name on it. But when I opened the card that came with your cremains and saw the bits of fur they had included, just like a lock of a loved one’s hair, I cried uncontrollably. I couldn’t – and still haven’t – touched it. I also don’t want to let Freddie near it; I’m not sure what he would do if he caught your scent. That we be too cruel a thing to do to your brother.

I miss you. I thank you for coming to me in a dream not so long ago after I mentioned to my husband (yet again) how much I missed you. Be healthy and happy, Peanster. I thank you for the gift of your life. If you can, please let Freddie know you’re okay somehow. I explained to him what happened to you, but for any of us, that clinical information is not always enough.

I love you, Pretty, Pug-nosed Princess Peanutter-Butter. Someday, I’ll meet you at the Rainbow Bridge.

_____________________________________________________________

The Rainbow Bridge

When a beloved pet dies, it goes to the Rainbow Bridge. It makes friends with other animals and frolics over rolling hills and peaceful, lush meadows of green.

Our pets do not thirst or hunger. The old and sick are made young once more; the maimed and the ill become healed and strong. They are as healthy and playful as we remember them in days gone by.

Though happy and content, they still miss someone very special, someone they had to leave behind.

Together, the animals chase and play, but the day comes when a pet will suddenly stop and look into the distance…bright eyes intent, eager body quivering. Suddenly recognizing you, your pet bounds quickly across the green fields and into your embrace. You celebrate in joyous reunion. You will never again separate. Happy tears and kisses are warm and plenty; your hands caress the face you missed. You look once more into the loving eyes of your pet and you know you never really parted. You realize that though out of sight, your love had been remembered.

And now, you cross the Rainbow Bridge together…

~ Author Unknown ~

The Greatest Miracle in the World

“However, I am not that sort of a ragpicker.
I seek more valuable materials than old newspapers and aluminum beer cans..
I search out waste materials of the human kind,
people who have been discarded by others, or even themselves,
people who still have great potential
but have lost their self-esteem and their desire for a better life.
When I find them, I try to change their lives for the better,
give them a new sense of hope and direction,
and help them return from their living death…
which to me is the greatest miracle in the world.”
~ Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World

If there is any one thing that being a Licensed Mental Health Professional can teach you, it is that every single person you meet has a story. Some are easier to detect, while others are cloaked in near perfect images of success. The complexity of these stories is enhanced by gender, socioeconomic status, culture, genetics, upbringing, faith tradition, age, marital status, family situation, education…the list goes on.

But every person has a story…

In my work, I am privileged to be a co-journeyer with another person when they choose to share even a small part of their story. The details of some of their stories can crush you; I often find myself marveling at their strength and courage. Indeed, I do not know if I would still be standing if I had to go through what some people have gone through. And yet many of them retain their inherent goodness as they keep pushing forward…

The single mother whose younger son was tragically killed in a car accident by his older brother, which she was reminded of each time her oldest son came home from school…

The woman whose father had sexually abused her since she was an infant, with whom she had three children, receives word of his terminal cancer diagnosis and is torn between wanting to forgive him and wanting to condemn him…

The man who never told anyone else about his molestation when he was a little boy at the hands of his stepfather…

The former gang member, his body covered in tattoos, crying about how his mother died in her native country without knowing that her son left the gang and started a new life…

The teenaged girl, left pregnant from a brutal rape, whose daily morning sickness reminded her each day of the horrific incident…

The Viet Nam veteran who was plagued by flashbacks of his best buddy being blown into pieces right next to him…

The teen-aged girl, without siblings, who lost both her parents within 6 months of each other – her mother to cancer, her father in a car accident…

The woman who suffered from schizophrenia and refused psychotropic medication, who was evicted from another apartment every 3 months…

The woman who committed suicide because she could not see a way out of an abusive relationship…

A successful business woman who was now living out of her car because of her husband’s secret gambling addiction…

A young woman who would seek shelter in a closet during every thunderstorm, unable to forget how her mother used to bathe her in scalding hot water to try to cleanse her daughter of her fear…

“Each of these individuals and everyone else in the world
still have their own pilot light burning inside them.
It may be very diminished in some,
but…it never, never goes out!
So long as there is a breath of life remaining,
there is still hope…and that’s what we ragpickers count on.
Just give us a chance and we can provide the fuel
that will be ignited by any pilot light,
no matter how diminished it may be.
A human being…is an amazing and complex and resilient
organism capable of resuscitating itself
from its own living death many times,
if it is given the opportunity and shown the way.”
~ Og Mandino, The Greatest Miracle in the World

We are resilient, we human beings.  And we are even better when we are joined in our pain by someone who cares…by someone who believes in our worth…who does not judge us, but rather sits with us in unconditional positive regard…who holds on to hope until each of us finds it once again…by someone who is simply present.

So I will continue to be present with those in need, whether those dying at the end of life or those dying while they pretend to live. I will search out those who have been discarded and slowly help them to believe in their worth. If I can find them, then they can find themselves.

And in our connectedness, together we will transform their diminished pilot light into a burning blaze that shines brightly for all to see.

Circles of Compassion and Grace. Remembering the Ragpicker’s instruction by following his very own:

Laws of Success and Happiness

~ Count your blessings. ~
~ Proclaim your rarity! ~
~ Go another mile. ~
~ Use wisely your power of choice. ~
~ Do all things with love. ~

And remembering that we humans are indeed the Greatest Miracle in the World…