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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The Flinch: Startled by your forever absence

I am startled

It’s the same jolt I would feel if you snuck up behind me.

It’s not your sudden presence that makes me flinch, but the absence, forever absence

IMG_0728Grief isn’t overcoming me in waves, leaving moments between surges to gasp for air

Like some warped science experiment, it’s forcing me to relive the shock. Im afraid to breathe

Again and again I hear the sudden news that you are gone — forever.

You passed away, you transcended, you’re with God now

Comforting words, they feel like a trick, setting me up for the next bolt of pain

You are dead. I say the words out loud and fumble for acceptance, while my hand longs for the phone

I need to talk to you; we weren’t finished,  not even close

I love you, I’m  proud of you, you don’t have to be afraid,  be kind to yourself, you made me a better person, we can work anything out

The flinch snaps my head back; a sharp pain travels from my eyes through my face into my shoulders and chest. It leaves me nauseous.

I’ve lost you again

I would much prefer the waves

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Nemesis

My nemesis is always near, aware of my weaknesses

I am sleepless and lonely; he comes with such cunning it seems he was in the room before me

D399981D-A4FB-4F50-A571-5E0CA6A5E688-718-000000BAA56AC705At first he is the flicker at the edge of my vision, then surrounding me like a prize fighter

Fleeing is not the answer;  he rides my shadow, amused by my haste, as if it gives him credibility

He mocks me if I hide, aggressively exploiting my self-pity with hypnotic voices in my head

I am most most vulnerable to his persuasion when mind and body feel neglected, starved, resentful, exhausted

I slip into his deceptively powerful arms until it’s too late; my lungs feel a reflux burn and my lips go numb with panic

He whispers in my ear words that stir an evolutionary urge

Fight! Conquer Me!

But I have been trained, disciplined to persevere

I surrender.

My nemesis sighs, releases his grip and is gone

 

 

 

You returned to me on a sunless morning

Man with unbrella on rail track in the rainy weatherRain, my old friend, it is good to see you again
We meet at the back door and sit in easy silence
You tell tales of our times together
Your snare drum brush on my tent
In a forest with no sky where Ents drank from ancient waters
The times we got drunk together
Me on my whiskey, you on white lightning
You were a ferocious drunk, people hid from your purple face
You ripped the sky until my hair stood on end
In my long lonely days, you stayed for months
Like sad country music you let me know
The darkness was authentic, and shared
Remember when you surprised me after my last college exam
We danced in a burst of relief and I impersonated Gene Kelly
It was a comfort to know you were here when I awoke this morning
There is a patch of blue to the north
I resent the sun.

Mysteries

I am grateful for forgiving children

That the hangover this morning was allergies

My son called me a hero today

Though I was the source of his greatest pain

Those who love me say congratulations

But pride in myself is misplaced, even dangerous

Today I am a miracle, a mystery beyond

Intelligence, will power, character or discipline

It is best not to ask too many questions

 

 

Surrender is my superpower

There’s a certain surrender to a criminal background check. Even if I know they won’t find any sexual offenses or violent crimes, I hold my breath when the woman takes my fingerprints. I guess that feeling will never go away.images (1).jpgsurr

The woman smiles and says, “That’s it.” I joke about the high-tech way they do it now days,  like a mini-copy machine. No ink to wipe off my finger tips. I smile slightly as I reach my car. It’s nice to go free this time, clean fingers and a clean conscience.

The late great comedian George Carlin said, “I get a nice safe feeling when I see a police car and I realize I’m not driving around with a trunk full of cocaine.” 

That’s sort of the way I feel these days. When I see a police car, I enjoy the way my heartbeat remains steady.  The DUI is too old to be a concern on background checks. No beer cans to hold below the line of sight, no bottles under my seat.

Six and a half years ago, I really had no choice but to surrender. The highway patrolmen, his face about three inches from mine, demanded, “How much have you had to drink, Sir!” I think he already knew the answer well enough for his purposes. When you’re drinking out of a Big Gulp cup, you really don’t know how  to answer that one. I replied, “I don’t know.”

A few weeks later a group of people listened as I said those words in a different context.

“I don’t know how I  got here.”

“I don’t know how to stop drinking.”

It would take a while longer, but they nodded and smiled when I admitted “I don’t seem to know anything.”

I grew up in a culture of self-control. When I failed, I was told to work harder. My teachers, at every parent-teacher conference,  said I simply needed to apply myself. I tried and too often failed to “win” the pretty girl. My church told me to suppress my urges. I used to wonder if my good deeds would outweigh the impure thoughts and “self-abuse” when it came to the question of hell. When I developed “nervous tics” in junior high (not until my 30’s would I learn it was Tourette’s), a neurologist told me I was high-strung. Mind over matter. I could will myself to stop.

Surrender, quitting, giving in, was a sign of weakness.

I am not complaining. My childhood was like most. However, there are times in life when self-control, will power, hard work or mind over matter are not the answer.

For me it was drinking. I worked hard, didn’t show up late at the office. I didn’t even get hangovers. I told family and friends I could control it. I think people who are not alcoholics have a superpower. They might as well be able to leap a tall building in a single bound. They don’t have to say, “I can control it” anymore than they would insist that they can control themselves at a water fountain.

I could drink in moderation. Of course my idea of that was four drinks a night. I would stop at four each night until one night I didn’t.  I plowed on through to eight, or nine or maybe even 12. I gave it up for periods to show others that I could. Once I gave it up for Lent. It was pretty easy. But on Easter I embarrassed myself. I had willpower. Actually most alcoholics do. Problem was, for the stretches that I wasn’t drinking, all I could think about was that I wasn’t drinking.

I wrestled with this cunning, baffling chemical like Jacob and the angel. It’s been said that alcoholism is a low-level search for God. I believe that. Once in a while I would find that perfect buzz for a few precarious moments.  There was a longing in my drinking that felt sacred and traditional.

“If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction,” said author Ann Marlowe, “I’d call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time…addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn’t an innocent one. It’s about stopping your passage to the future, it’s a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to users.”

Toward the end of my drinking, I feared I might have ruined a good thing. But I refused to give up. I knew when the time came I would be able to stop.

I grew up understanding surrender as weakness, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that. However, nowhere in the dictionary definition is weakness mentioned.

Merriam-Webster: “to agree to stop fighting, hiding, resisting, etc., because you know that you will not win or succeed.”

Jonathan Franzen said, “It’s healthy to say uncle when your bone’s about to break.”

The second definition: “to give the control or use of (something) to someone else.” Alcoholism is a lonely condition. For that matter many of life’s travails are. Rugged individualism is overrated.

An Alcoholic is often described as a person with a huge ego and a tiny self-esteem. The ego said I have this under control. The self esteem said I can’t go on without it. Surrender said, I’m defeated, please help.

Surrender is a great relief in a world that demands that we hold onto life tightly with both hands. Surrender gives us permission to let go. It says we don’t always have to win. Today I can surrender the last word in an argument. Surrender allows me to slow down and let the aggressive driver have his waysurrender on the road. Surrender gives me patience. Surrender provides the humility to make amends. Surrender is the wisdom to go through grief rather than around it. Surrender is falling in love.

Perhaps its greatest gift is the ability to acknowledge fears and failure without dwelling on them.

It’s OK to look at the past, but it’s not polite to stare.

Surrender is the willingness to be rigorously honest.

Walt Whitman rejoices at the scientific spirit, “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.”

My background check hasn’t come back yet. There will be a six-year-old DUI on there which could cost me the job.

But on the bright side, I don’t have any cocaine in my trunk.

The Divine Revelation of Suicide

Suicide occurred to me like divine revelation–obvious, certain and irrefutable. I was lying in bed next to my wife when I realized that all those well-meaning people who say it “is not an option” are wrong. Of course it is. I recognized so clearly that I had been granted too much life span. My capacity for joy, my talents, my ability to provide for my family had been finite. At 46, a bipolar episode and the subsequent depression had exhausted me. For months I had been crashing deep10563127_10202444202846230_1914226759642794028_n into sleep, or medicating myself with midnight Netflix.
Self-absorbed and terrified I devised the obvious way to slip out of the picture, a one-night relapse. Binge drink myself to death.
Instead, like I have done for years when the urge to drink has come over me like religious fervor, I told someone. This time it was my wife. I told her my whole plan. Inside my head, my self-worth was self-evident. As soon as I spoke, I recognized the path of destruction I was preparing to leave behind.
I haven’t considered myself a good father in the past year. I told my wife my kids love the idea of who I was before. She told me I was wrong. But even that is better than what I would be leaving behind.
I told my wife she deserved better than me. That’s when I experienced the truly divine revelation of what it means to be loved.
I am still battling the depression, with the help of puzzled doctors. Of course, the death of Robin Williams last week gave me pause. I mourned his genius but more important I wondered if he like me felt like his time had run out. I of course am no Robin Williams but I shared with him a history of addiction, which is a disease of loneliness. I was saddened by his death and the loneliness of it.
It is a common saying that the mind of an alcoholic is like a bad neighborhood, you shouldn’t go there alone.
In recovery we rely on one another to fight the cunning and baffling demons. We pick up a phone. We go to meetings. We talk to sponsors. With luck we have the support of family. Yet suicide is not uncommon in our ranks.
Some would call such an act selfish, for the grief and suffering it leaves behind.
I would not judge so harshly, because in my encounters with clinical depression, I have become self-centered and isolated, turning harshly upon myself to the point of obsession. I don’t think the Catholic Church teaches this anymore, but when I was growing up I learned that suicides went directly to hell. Some religious people still believe that.
Addicts often choose “spirituality” over religion. It has been said that religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell.
Spirituality is for people who have already been there.