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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My friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

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.

 

Celebrating a friend with too many birthdays to count

Happy belly-button day, Carol.

It dawned on me early this morning that this old recovery expression is necessary for a life like yours. The day you came into the world is a birthday, but one of too many to count.

Your life was an expanse of birthdays that surprised like the painted skies at sunset that captured your imagination.85814E1B-243E-41C6-A6AA-C0F238A1928D-2682-0000048BFA8DC5E8

When you braved that first day of kindergarten and realized it would all be OK. The day you met your best friend and became so inseparable that for the next 15 years you moved as one, like starlings in flight. The slumber parties, first crushes, sneaking out at night, sticking up for each other when boys were mean. Every time you discovered something new in yourself, whether strength, or joy or pain, was a birth — or perhaps I should say re-birth.

You were reborn on the day you became a mother — each time — devoted Lauren, adventurous Jack, stalwart Lexy.

A new light shone each time you bragged about “the monkeys” or told the story of some misadventure, or worried about them– each time they crossed your heart.

When you planned their birthday parties it was up for debate who anticipated the events more, your children or you, with your detailed plans and child-like impatience to unwrap their happiness.

You had a gift for making each experience feel like the first time: when you sought your parents’ advice, confided in your sister, reunited with sorority sisters, or picked up a friend at the airport after months apart. Every time you said, “I love you” it was new.

You were born again when you discovered wit and humor and laughter and their healing power.

I recall the night when we kicked back and stared up at the stars on the old Arkoe road. Mind you, we were looking through the windshield of my parents’ station wagon, which you had crashed backward into a ditch after a 360 degree spin on ice. We landed with the front end jutting straight toward the sky like a rocket ship awaiting launch. You sobbed, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God!” But we both giggled when I said, “Hey, look, there’s the Big Dipper.”

Over the years we would laugh our way through worse predicaments.

You were renewed every time you laughed–and when you made all of us laugh.

Especially your capacity for finding humor in dark places, when you didn’t know if you could go on. The laughter that brought moments, days, weeks of healing, helping you loosen your grip on a life that demanded more from you than was fair.

There were sobriety birthdays when you found reprieve, and a deeper kindness. The first day you asked  for help was a new beginning as was each moment of grace that followed. And those courageous re-birthdays when you shouldered massive decisions to stand up for yourself and start over.

The times when life abused you and knocked you down were relentless, but you were reborn, sustained mostly by a love that was more relentless–for your children, your parents, your sister, all the people blessed by your playful, generous spirit.

Today is the first time that we celebrate the anniversary of your birth since you were taken from us. A band of your high school classmates are gathering to celebrate the day and all those unmarked moments that created you. Facebook posts are calling out to you. Phone lines are connecting your friends.

However, we haven’t seen your last birthday. They will continue to come too fast to count.

When your children remember a surprise party or an adventure with a mom who never forgot what it was like to be a teenager, you will take on new life. When someone shares a piece of advice from you, hard-won wisdom, it will be like lighting a candle. Even now as we grieve, you are vivid and alive in the tears and smiles, in the way we miss you. We long for the celebration we experienced when we were with you.

You came alive last week when I told the story of how loud you screamed when I donned a ski mask and tapped on your car window with an axe after a night watching horror movies. And again when your friend shared with me your last breakfast together, what she had learned from you and how you held your mother’s hand in your final days at the hospital.  When your friends gather and inevitably remember a night on the town, or a Royals game, or a simple “no hair, no shower” breakfast between two friends, there will be more reasons to celebrate your endless births.

Happy belly-button day, for now, my friend. Until you are born again tomorrow.

 

 

My flawed tattoo: A reminder that letting go may be the only way to hold on

The artist wasn’t accustomed to creating imperfect tattoos, but I asked for imperfection; a single word scribbled on my forearm like a IMG_0902note from someone – a note too someone.

No computer font, so precise and formal, or florid script, so graceful and expressive, would do. I explained why my tattoo should be flawed. As artists are want to do he found meaning in my request.

He went to work with pencil and talent and returned with something perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise.

My dearest friend died recently. Her body gave out and for the final two weeks her only response to doctors and family was a strong heartbeat.

I called from 2,000 miles and a friend placed the receiver to her ear and promised that she could hear me. I sang Bob Marley, off key.  Don’t be afraid I said, I love you, it’s ok to loosen your grip now. Then I joked that she was never much good at letting go.

In our marathon conversations we often talked about the word, now as permanent to me as addiction.

I promised that after our final farewells I would get the tattoo in honor of her and how hard she tried, but also as a warning to me. My friend died because she was sick, but her illness was a wild animal feeding off fear, more aggressive as her trust in the taming power of the word faltered.

The cunning baffling demon – our shared peril – conquered her because she thought she could conquer it.

It’s Ok to go, I told her again — we will all be fine. Your fight is ended.

I have to believe that she came to understand. As her heart weakend, she became resigned to her fate. She finally let go; somewhere beyond the silence, her ragged breathing and failed body, she accepted the blessing.

She was powerless and her life had become unmanageable.

Now we who love her are left to find our way through the over-analysis, guilt and regrets of grief. Or we can find acceptance in all that she was: vibrant and ill; strong and weak; engaging and lonely; a beautifully imperfect person who sought — too often — to please everyone she encountered, blinded to the impossibility of such a feat.

I must not be deceived; I look at the word on my arm to recognize the arrogance of believing I had the power to save her, to prevent her suffering and death.

She and I used to joke that people who are able to drink in moderation have a superpower. They might as well be able to fly, because we can do neither.

My tattoo is fresh and new today, the single word is simple and rough-edged. I remember my friend and long for one more phone call, to laugh and cry and learn answers to unanswered questions.

I try my best to reconcile her struggle against life and escape from herself with the liberation in death from all fear and torment. Maybe the word, so elusive to my lost friend, will provide me with faith, or maybe not.

I look at the tattoo and one thing is certain.
For today, “Surrender” is my superpower.

Sneaking back to Church

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic ChurchThe toll of Sunday church bells clears away the fog of early morning. A zombie, wearing slept-in basketball shorts and stained T-shirt, I shuffle in flip flops to mass at the the church a block away.

I look at my feet and wonder what is happening as they take me across a hushed street, up steps and through a Spanish archway. I’m late so I crouch into the nearest seat. My interruption is covered by organ music. Maintaining my irreverence credibility I slide my butt back and forth like a toddler on a pew polished smooth by decades of pious asses. 

I feel slightly dizzy–unmoored–like when I forget which direction I’m going. Can’t remember when  I last attended mass and I’m unclear about what I expect. I guess something other than burrowing in a dark room for days, torturing myself over what I could have done different, how I didn’t see it coming.

This colorful, spacious church is different from the stoic, small-town brick house of prayer in which I grew up– but oh so familiar: the smells, the music, the cadence of prayers.

 I like the pastor immediately. His voice makes me comfortable. It’s his last Sunday. He is retiring. He speaks easily and unsentimentally to the parishioners he’s served for 20 years about turning over his ministry to a new priest.

Having no expectations begins to feels like freedom, less self-conscious. Freedom is a new experience for me inside the formality of a Catholic Church, I realize, not listening to the lector reading from the Epistle of Paul.

Long lapsed and out of favor I ease back in my seat during the kneeling parts, still remembering the words. Comfortable with the mystery of doubt, I’m agnostic about what they profess.

I’m experiencing the beautiful buzz where holiness and heresy meet.

But like the alcohol that killed her, this high won’t last and it won’t wash away the pain..

“Who do you think I am?” Jesus asks from the Sunday reading.

I settle in. I enjoy playing amateur biblical scholar.

It’s a trick question, I interpret on the fly. The Apostles’ answers don’t matter. Jesus, a man, a teacher, a friend has done his best; he has no expectations or claim to what comes next. What they do with his teachings and his name — spread peace or wage war, open hearts or close minds– is beyond his control.

Who do you think I am? he asks, knowing what they will seek in his name: whatever they most desire.

I don’t wait around for the bread and wine forbidden to me by church law

Grace has found me.