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 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.

My ‘identical’ twins

When my twins Joe and Annie were younger, people would ask if they were identical. I responded, incredulously, “No, one of them has a penis.”

Annie was wrestled into the world. Stuck midway through a cesarean section, she breathed enough fluid into her lungs to be whisked away to intensive care. Joe stayed behind until the drama had passed and entered without incident. His cries were immediate and perfunctory. Down the hall, Annie, jerked away from the syringe in her throat, and screamed like a heavy metal singer, furious that she didn’t know obscenities yet.

Their personalities somehow took root in that sterile maternity ward.1472032_954293744585379_9042237155128976525_n Annie and Joe are 18. In the past few weeks they graduated from separate high schools in Missouri and California. I don’t get asked if they’re identical much anymore.

Imperturbable and private, Joe is quietly devoted to what is important to him — whether it be his dreams or the people he cares about. His wit is so dry one can miss it if not paying attention. He once woke me with an early morning phone call to tell me, “Bon Jovi has a new album out,” knowing I despise Bon Jovi.

Few have ever plumbed the emotions beneath Joe’s protective shell. He has mastered the sideways, one-armed hug and the barely perceptible response to “I love you.” He holds his tongue, but Joe does not suffer fools easily and he finds them in the majority.  He is tireless in his efforts to improve as an athlete. Always the first to practice and the last to leave, he rises at dawn to lift weights, and races the sunset to get in a few more lonely minutes on the soccer field. Joe is famished for books and eager to explore whatever he can touch, taste, smell, hear, see or breathe. Secretly subversive, he once answered “Jesus” to every question on a religion test because he had been told that Jesus is the answer. His senior class voted him “Most Friendly.” Joe’s loyalty is a river that flows with friends made in elementary school. He is polite to everyone and authority figures call him an impressive young man.

10953185_998949013453185_4412459498509844893_nAnnie, my ivory-skinned, blonde-haired daughter, bursts into a room and bellows, “I am a strong, independent black woman!” Where her brother finds conflict impractical, Annie seeks it out as a matter of principal. She throws punches at all injustice — real or perceived — from “You messed with my friend!” down to “You ate the last avocado!” Politeness is reserved only for those who deserve it. If Annie likes you, she is in love and will battle for you as fiercely as a honey badger. If she doesn’t, her shoulder is as cold as sleet on a lonely highway. Unlike her brother, Annie thinks books are boring and snarls, “I don’t have an imagination.” But she is wrong. Her humor is that of an improv comedian, and her photography of friends, beach and sun is touching. Annie is angry, sad and joyous, and she doesn’t wrap it inside. Like good rock and roll, it is tantalizingly near to spinning out of control. As for those authority figures that gush over her brother, some admire her fire and humor but many don’t like her bad attitude. Annie’s response: It’s not a bad attitude, it’s my personality.

Raising twins is an adventure, but not in the cliché way: chasing toddlers, changing two sets of diapers, quieting two voices of colic, disciplining two kids.

It has been an adventure of discovery and respect and understanding. Parents, especially fathers who don’t have the bond of motherhood, must pay attention, learn explicitly who their children are. A counselor friend once told me that we must give as much attention to detail when we are praising our children as we do when we are disciplining them. I shouldn’t stop at telling  my daughter she drew a pretty picture of a horse. I should tell her exactly why. I like the the purple mane, and  her choice of a polka dot tail is dead on. I’m sure her senior art teacher was very impressed.

I have two middle kids, the stereotypical lost children. Joe was always too easy. He seldom drew attention to himself.  I call it “flying under the radar.” In a family of four kids born in a period of three and a half years, he was often lost in the chaos. Annie, well, she was the chaos. She demanded to be the center of attention, and her anger could be exhausting.

When their mom and I let our children down, first me, hitting bottom with alcoholism, then two years later when we11080870_805448552837677_3560485897729465283_o filed for divorce, the twins updated their personalities, same software, improved virus protection. Annie’s anger scattered like a hair-trigger shotgun, indiscriminate and unpredictable. She found the obscenities she sought in the maternity ward. Joe grew quieter and smiled cautiously. As far as he was concerned, nothing had happened worth talking about.

My twins have taught me that raising children requires the attention to detail of a dermatologist. Each personality is blessed and cursed by nuances and blemishes that it is my occupation to notice. I stumbled and misread Annie and Joe, but eventually learned patience and faith.

I repeated to myself time and again in the jet wash of Annie’s anger and disquieting still of Joe’s withdrawal that my children loved me no matter what. Annie refused to come to my house and there were times when she would rage for entire days. As difficult as it was when custody was being squabbled about, I never pushed her to come see me. I knew she had a right to be angry. To this day Annie has a temper, and the secret to our relationship is knowing not to draw my line in the sand too soon, but not to wait too long. It is precarious business.

Joe’s protective shell was perhaps more confusing. Early on I tried coax him to talk only to be met by a stiff arm that Marshawn Lynch would envy. Joe stared at me, smiled tightly, stared at me some more, then said, “No.”

Three years ago, I was suddenly let go from my job at St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kan., without explanation. Without references or much severance, I scrambled and failed to find a job. I moved to to California to be with my wife after two years of long-distance marriage. Annie came with me, plopping down in a large new high school. She has thrived as a California girl. Our relationship, though still volatile at times, has blossomed in this adventure. Joe calls me almost every day to talk, or sometimes we simply sit in silence on the phone, finding comfort in one another’s presence. Once in a while he calls to update me on Bon Jovi. He will move here next month to attend Santa Rosa Junior College with his sister, where he will play soccer.

There is paradox in Annie and Joe. They often come to the same place in life, but they take very different roads. Neither takes the experiences of life lightly. Joe was in the car with me on the day I was arrested for the DUI that led me to embrace sobriety. He was 11. In his stoic way he learned from the terrifying moment. He asked questions, he learned about drug and alcohol abuse. I tell my children that fear of following my path is not a good enough reason to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Their decisions should be for more proactive and positive reasons. Joe listened. He decided to take care of his body. He chose to abstain in order to pursue a soccer career, to be a good student.  As a result, this year his high school named him a “Drug Free Superstar.” Annie? Well, she will never eat pot brownies again.

In the end, Annie and Joe are not exactly opposites. They share some of the most important traits. Their affection for one another is high on that list.

Annie loves her brother for his unspoken loyalty to her. She admires his calm demeanor and quiet charisma. The way he finds the path of least resistance puzzles her, but would be a restful choice if she could sustain it. She bristles at the suggestion that she envies his single minded commitment to his goals. His ability to stand back and wait for life to come to him is admirable. But Joe’s cool waters are too still for her. Annie needs flotsam and jetsam, something to crash into. When there is stillness the scent of spray must hang in the air, letting her know that another wave is looming.

Joe loves that his sister still calls him Jofes, the name she used when they were toddlers. He finds joy in Annie’s showmanship, the way she walks through the world humming at its beauty and yelling at it’s ugly. There is a thrill in the way she speaks her mind.  But Joe wouldn’t know where to begin emulating her. He doesn’t find her very practical, and there is discomfort with the emotions that leap from Annie like a California wildfire. Joe is dry but not combustible.  Annie is exciting, but Joe doesn’t want to be that exciting.

Despite living 2,000 miles apart, Joe and Annie have never lost their connection.

I have never stopped paying attention.