Looking into the eyes of courage: A life-changing reunion

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An intimate moment between Trish and Hakan, who traveled from Sweden

It’s not very compelling to read that I was indifferent about going somewhere.

My journalism professors would call this a “bad lead.” No hook to draw the reader in. “Indifferent” isn’t exactly a power word, more of a lame adjective where a good verb would coax the reader along.

But it fits. I’ve been a flimsy cliche. I recently agreed to go to a reunion but with the qualifier that “I’m not really a reunion sort of guy.” Like those people who boast that they don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” do I somehow think this makes me superior?

What it makes me is insufferable. And full of shit. Some friends from an adventure more than three decades ago showed me that.

I am a member of Up With People Cast C ’86 and we aren’t an indifferent group. One of our own is enduring a decade of suffering that should break the spirit. Instead, she has transformed it into spirited poetry, a lyrical lesson in whole-heartedness. Trish Wilson-Geyling and her family lost their youngest member, 8-year-old Rudy, in July 2017. He died suddenly from a congenital heart syndrome. Before he was born doctors said Rudy would not survive without utmost medical intervention. In a blog called “Rudy’s Beat” Trish chronicled the joy and exhaustion, beauty and terror, adventure and mystery of her family’s short time with the buoyant little boy who possessed the same bottomless supply of smiles as his mother.

 

 

The words of Trish and her husband Rolf invited us in as they savored every moment, every smile, every tear, every overwhelming fear. They asked for our prayers when holding on to hope demanded more hands. Trish’s writing expressed the heaviness of fragile hope, but it never outweighed mindfulness, faith and gratitude. Upon Rudy’s death Trish wrote, “The doctors would have counted it a victory to have him home for six weeks. We had him home for eight years.”

Two months after Rudy’s death, before they had time to unpack their grief, life ambushed the family again. Trish was diagnosed with ALS, the progressive and incurable attack on the body commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

I gasped “Jesus!” when I heard. It was up to him if he took it as a prayer or a reprimand. What more could one family endure?

Although leveled by the news, Trish kept writing Rudy’s Beat, digging deep to balance twice the grief with her singular presence in the moment. As always, her posts were packed with photos of a family clearly in love with one another.

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Trish and her son Max

Updates on her treatment were stirred in with tales of daily life, celebrations, kids starting school and memories of Rudy. And gratitude, always gratitude. As the ALS progressed, word spread across social media. It was time for a reunion. More than fifty of us would meet in Santa Barbara for “TrishFest!” The rest of our cast would show up on FaceTime and cell phone speakers. Our mission was to be there for Trish, but I don’t think anyone was surprised that it was Trish who ended up being there for us.

I mistook cynicism for wisdom, or for keeping it real, when it was simply a disguise for insecurities. My take-it-or-leave-it coolness about attending the reunion was camouflage for the self-centered silliness of the 19-year-old in 1986. A reunion is a good place if you’re not careful to compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.

However, I forgot a few things. My fellow cast members are among the kindest people I know, and it was ridiculous to think my dark thoughts would not be extinguished by the brightest smile in our cast, still at full power and untouched by illness.8C178468-E589-4FB2-98E6-722EE99F5FEA

When we returned from our year with Up With People we learned that our experience was inexplicable. Even those closest to us stared blankly, like we were telling them about a dream we had the night before. We were a 100 kids between 18 and 25 from more than 30 nations and states, who traveled the world performing music and dancing for crowds, even though many of us weren’t that talented at either. However, some were so gifted they made the rest of us better. We were our own roadies, merchandisers and PR. We lived with families in each town we visited, even if we didn’t speak the same language. All of this was a wedge. It opened our way into communities for the real work. Cast members served at schools and nursing homes and homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We visited prisoners and addicts, and felt the grace of people who were ill, stigmatized, disabled and dying.

One of our greatest accomplishments was showing people everywhere we went that a bunch of kids from different backgrounds, cultures, and nationalities, saturated in hormones and without the benefit of fully connected frontal cortexes, could get along and do some good.

Mostly, we learned to show up.

It is not hyperbole to say that TrishFest was life-changing.

My oldest daughter Annie came with us to the reunion and her sister Emily surprised us, showing up from Missouri. They finally experienced the rowdy hospitality of Cast C. Emily hung out with the cast drummer for whom she was named, and Annie mingled like she had traveled with us.

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Emily and Emily

After so much time apart our cast hugged like linebackers. Happy anxiety charged the air with impatient affection. The laughter was pyrotechnic. Trish entered in her wheelchair with a smile that I could swear made the lights flicker, and turned a rented house into a sanctuary where we could be both riotous and reflective. She liberated us to unleash the power of our vulnerability, to carve away all the emotional callouses of middle age.

Quiet conversations in corners, home-cooked food prepared by our children, raucous tequila shots on the patio, jam sessions with Trish and Rolf’s astounding children. Stories that justified gray hair, wrinkles and wisdom. One friend recalled that there were a few times on tour that he wanted to kick my ass; I grinned and nodded. “I remember, and you should have done it.”

We went to church with Trish and longed to have her faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were a cast known in our day as trouble-makers. Sometimes it seemed like the rules were a disobedience to-do list. What we were doing was too important to be taken seriously. Last week we were almost as unrefined, crowded into a house, as we were long ago, cramped on a bus.

We surrounded Trish with stories, songs, photographs and prayers. We looked into the eyes of courage and felt braver for it.

Trish wrote that she wished Rudy didn’t have to live with such frailty and lamented that he left them so soon. She wished she didn’t have ALS and that her family didn’t have to walk through it with her. Her family has a deep capacity to love, she said, but of course that comes with a deep capacity to feel pain. It comforts her, though, that life has become “second nature” to them because of what they have come through. They have gained a certain “expertise.” She calls it “Rudy’s legacy.”

Being with Trish broke us open and renewed us. Her presence in our lives, even from great distances, is a gentle challenge to stay broken. Remain vulnerable. Don’t let the protective callouses grow back. Don’t allow fear to rule us.

Our “official” reunion is in two years. As she left, Trish beamed through exhaustion, and said “maybe I’ll be there to see you.”

I plan on showing up.

Check out Rudy’s Beat: https://rudysbeat.com/

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Maybe we don’t have a gun problem

It’s a social problem not a gun problem.

For sake of argument let’s accept this as fact.p407329091-5

So, how have the people who make this argument — and the people who voted them into office — decided to “solve” our social problem? Let’s take a look:

  • Deprive healthcare — including mental health and addiction services—to millions of Americans — elderly, working poor, college students, children;
  • Demonize African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ and people living in poverty and homelessness with the ease that Ronald Reagan condemned the USSR;
  • Spread terror and bottomless grief in the streets, with tacit permission for  unchecked violence against minorities by poorly trained and over-weaponized police officers
  • Cut education funding except for the most privileged students, emptying the financial aid till for graduate students, and mocking intellectuals with the dog whistle “elite.”
  • Steal the spirit of children by measuring elementary school success on lazy, racially and economically biased testing and shrugging as all but the highest scorers fall through chasms, not cracks. Then blaming it all on teachers, gleefully slashing away at their dignity, resources and economic security;
  • Smugly foment desolation and despair by cowardly terrorizing undocumented human beings, breaking up families, and turning a back to any and all suffering;
  • Demolish the social safety net of our society to build a multi-billion-dollar vanity wall, shovel money to obscenely wealthy people who hoard like addicts down to their last benzos, and kneel in blood before an engorged NRA;
  • Flippantly compromise national security by encouraging and participating in attacks on our democracy, mounting a frontal assault on the credibility of law enforcement, and taunting the unbalanced leader of a hostile nuclear power;
  • Publicly glorify sexual assault, domestic violence and pedophilia like it’s a challenge on a game show, running candidates for national office and placing people in the highest levels of government who are a daily insult and trauma to survivors;
  • Take out their sexual inadequacies and tortured hang-ups on women by chipping away at their health care decisions, access to contraception, and freedom to work in a safe environment for a fair and equal wage;
  • Rig elections with gerrymandering, eliminating voter rights earned through heroic non-violence, and throwing up endless roadblocks for poor and minority voters;
  • Bulldoze natural treasures, the arts and anything else that offers moments of beauty, insight and contemplation in the midst of their culture of fear and chaos;
  • Numb a nation to truth and poison it with cynicism, through an infinity of tweets and reports from their “State-Run-Network” that fattens the basest instincts of a cult-like following;
  • Sow mistrust in a free media — the non-negotiable principle of the Founding Fathers, more  important than guns at the conception of any revolution against tyranny;
  • Claim fiscal conservatism while joyfully casting a trillion dollars into the deficit in a single year;
  • Raise aloft White Supremacists as paragons of character, while condemning peaceful protests behind a veneer of parody patriotism, and the laughably disingenuous euphemism “All Lives Matter”;
  • Undercut science, which holds answers to great medical breakthroughs and any hope of a last-ditch rescue from our centuries-long homo-sapien suicide by climate change;
  • Throw exorbitant parties and golf trips, (public embezzlement of taxpayer money) while ignoring the dead and suffering from hurricanes, wildfires — and yes, gun massacres.

All of this “healing” comes with the tag line “… in Jesus’ name.”

They are right. We don’t have a gun problem. It’s a Republican problem. It’s a conservative problem. It’s a problem of apathy and willful ignorance. It’s a Trump problem.

We have a social disease.

It requires aggressive treatment: Marching, picketing, screaming I’m mad as hell, making reasonable arguments with a calm invincibility to inevitable teeth-gnashing attacks, running for office, halting all infighting, forming a wave that no sane person would surf  or stand before, holding our politicians’ faces to the fire, being kind to one another;

And voting.

By any means necessary.

 

My Dear Friend: You are courageous, no matter what the disease says

The back home area code was curious, then your mom’s voice, which I hadn’t heard in more than 20 years. 

People like us protect ourselves with a skill tested under fire: denial. As quick as a fright it clicked into place, like armor, when your mom said you were in the hospital. That’s not unexpected, but I’m sure she’s fine, I thought, ignoring distress signals from my brain.

“It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.” 

A jolt like Everclear blurred everything. You are on life support. Our shared peril will not bind us for much longer. Oh, my friend, why didn’t you call, like so many times before, before succumbing to the cunning, baffling, powerful demon that possesses us.

You always ask, brightly, genuinely, How are you doing? How’s you’re beautiful wife? You listen. And you are gracious enough to allow me to listen, to suffer with you, as you suffer with me. 

Our conversations are open and raw and challenging. And I hope healing. Together we have clung to sobriety, shared parenting advice, cooled one another’s anguish, gushed about children and voiced our deepest fears. Mostly we laughed.

Over the past year there has been a quiver in your voice — fear, desperation, even panic. Every time we talked I reminded you that none of us has to do this alone. Many people want to help. As always you apologized for bothering me. As always I told you to stop. And as always you told me over and over how good a friend I was, that you know I will never turn my back or judge. You said you appreciate that I am a straight shooter who tells you the truth even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

 I am looking at a photo, you know the one, our handful of high school friends, arm in arm, smiling into the camera, just after graduation. Often, people look back at photos like this and wonder, What was I thinking at that moment? I don’t have to wonder. I had firm plans for later that night, to get drunk for the first time in my life. It had dominated my thoughts all day. It would dominate my life for the next 23 years.

You don’t seem to remember that I was a drunken disaster that first year at college, it was you who never judged or turned your back, no matter how belligerent or sloppy I was. You were the straight shooter, giving me the honesty I needed. You accepted apology after apology and took care of me when I passed out on your couch. Then, the next morning, you forgave me again.

So I am sorry, so very sorry for what I put you through. I am fortunate that you are my friend. I can’t say it enough; you have done so much for me.

A couple of decades later I stopped drinking, or more accurately, many people helped me stop. Not long after that, you courageously called and through tears asked me how I did it. I introduced you to a lot of people who fell in love with you and helped you do the same.

You have struggled so much with this. It certainly hasn’t helped that along the way some people you cared about have hurt and betrayed you, but you kept trying against all odds. You have never stopped fighting a terminal disease, praying for the remission that I have today, a remission with no guarantees. Through it all you never stopped loving. Loving with the passion of a great romantic poet– your children, your parents, your sister, family and friends. I’m honored to be on this list. And we all love you in return.

In our talks you told me that you felt like a failure, unworthy of the love of so many people. Especially during relapse.  I tried gentleness. I tried the raised voice of a coach. I begged you to see what I see, what we all see. I shook you from 2,000 miles away, trying to make you understand. Like a child, you asked if I was mad. Please, always know, as I have told you countless times before, that is an impossibllity. You recently called me at 3am and asked me if you were calling too late. Of course you were. Not because you woke me, but because I was worried that you were up at that time. In our previous phone call we had joked about how nothing good happens after two in the morning.

 Dearest friend, once, following a relapse, you wept and told me that you had thrown away all the time that you had been sober. 

I’m going to say this again, for what appears to be the final time.  Not only no, but hell no! You are wrong. Those moments, hours, days, months, years all counted. They mattered. The measure of your courage is how you continued to pull yourself up in the lonely darkness of despair.

We never had a chance against addiction until we surrendered and admitted we were powerless.  Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a novel we both love, said, “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” Regardless of what this disease made you believe, you are courageous.

Today, my dear friend, I am suffering mightily. I am not “handling this,” as some might say. 

I wish you had called. I would have asked you to rest and let me carry your burden for a while. I would have told you to stop apologizing. I would have told you that you have helped me as much as I help you. We have been in this together for a long time. I would have said once again that I could never be mad at you. I would have told you not to be afraid.

I would have said I love you.

I told our mutual friend yesterday that I feel like I’m driving without a steering wheel, veering between weeping and some facsimile of composure.  Of course, you know that she told me to talk to my sponsor. Risking reprimand, I told her I don’t have one right now, haven’t even been going to meetings much. I have, however, attended regular meetings since the heartbreaking phone call from your mom. I don’t speak up much because I’m not sure I can hold it together. I think I’ve been looking for answers but I leave puzzled and angry.

I met a man recently who told me about a philosophy exam he took in college. He was confronted with an essay question that simply asked, “Why?” He answered, “Why not?” and walked out (He received an A).

That is my question right now. Why not me instead of you? To say I am blessed by God implies that you are not. For me that is personal heresy.

In recovery we talk a lot about accepting life on life’s terms. I have a feeling I will be trying to renegotiate these terms for some time. I weep not for my loss but rather for the loneliness of  those days before your family found you.

When your mom called she said she knows I understand. Honestly, I think at best I know that you have come to this place through no fault of your own. You came here at the end of a brutal, terrifying, lifelong battle against a disease that most of us don’t survive. 

But understand? Today, more than ever, I must admit, I don’t think I will ever understand this disease.

Jacob’s reminder to dance

Yesterday I wished my cousin Brian happy birthday on Facebook.

On his page I saw a photo of a younger Brian, but the photo was too natural, not like the posed senior picture’s of the 1980s. It was Brian’s son Jacob. I sagged at my computer. Father and son shared a birthday.  Jacob leaned easily against a brick wall, tattered jeans and flip flops. He didn’t appear to have a care in the world

The tears surprised me.

Jacob died a little over a year ago after a struggle with substance abuse.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t know Jacob as well as I would have liked.  We talked when I ran into him at the grocery store where he worked and we occasionally joked around during the time he played soccer with my son.12631559_1224193100928116_8414144582599671273_n

He never knew about my strongest bond with him, a longing from afar to reach out and help, to let him know I had been there. I fantasized that he might see it in my eyes, or feel it in my passing presence.

I wear a red band on my wrist with Jacob’s name on it. It’s also inscribed with the words, “Forever laughing,” a reminder of a young man who glowed with humor and irreverence.

Tugging at the band, I realized the sudden tears were for loneliness.

Jacob was alone when he died. His father was alone when he found him. Loneliness can swallow entire families.

I remember the depths when no one could reach me. I was alone in a room full of people who loved me. No matter how many reached out to me, it didn’t matter until I decided it was time to reach back. No one could have lifted me up until I was ready to be lifted. Then there is the loneliness of the ones who strain and long and ache to help, and are filled with fear and regret and helplessness. 

That is the great terror of parenting. My kids are grown and I can try to teach all the lessons I have learned from horrible decisions. They have witnessed some of my worst. But they must make their own way and their own mistakes. They must solicit my advice before they will receive it.

No matter how much we love others, they must want help. That can be a paralyzing proposition. Our peace depends on staying in the moment, doing the next right thing, neither regretting the past nor agonizing over the future.

The red band reminds me of acceptance.

Khalil Gibran wrote: “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”

From what I have heard and witnessed, Jacob lived his life with a reckless charm that drew people to him. I’m sure only those dearest to him knew his fears.

I try not to let fear govern my days and I often fail.

I must find a way to live like my cousin Brian who, even in the aftermath of the greatest tragedy a parent can endure, still smiles and bursts forth with a laugh that must ring truer than any to grace the ears of God.

There is an afterlife, right here and now. Our loved ones walk among us in the stories we tell.  Jacob’s friends are still posting photos and jokes Jacob would find hilarious, and stories of his exploits still make the rounds. No doubt he still breathes life into water skiing trips, holiday dinners, and family milestones.

The red band reminds me of joy.

I remember as a child, I used to find comfort at funerals. Even though it was a time of haunting sadness, there was something sheltering about the way my expansive family set everything aside to turn its sympathies inward, like a huge canvas tent in a purple storm. It is good to know we are not alone when we are lonely. Even if no one can truly reach the depths of our pain, it is good to know that so many want to suffer with us. Priests called it the Paschal Mystery. The Buddhists simply say “Life is suffering.” God didn’t want us to suffer, but he showed us that we could find some semblance of meaning in it. We can stay in the moment and hold those we lost close. Someday, someone will ask us for help, and instinctively we will be ready because we have suffered, because  we have lost, because we have mourned.

We will be ready because we have been there before them.

The red band reminds me of compassion.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

Like so many people, I long to reach out and ease my cousin’s pain. I am content to know that he is sheltered by a great tent. I hope that he finds strength in family and friends. I hope he remembers that many people want to help carry his burden even when they cannot possibly understand the depth and breadth of it. And I know that he will repair his injuries by caring for others.

The red band reminds me of healing.

Jacob was a special young man and one doesn’t ever recover from losing someone of his character. But imagine how Jacob would laugh to see his dad dance.