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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Old country roads are magic to me

I walked 14 miles of silent back road Sunday

I didn’t intend to walk that far but the horizon kept whispering, further

I’ve always been drawn to country roads

As a teenagers, we drove the graveled web that stitched together farmhouses sprinkled over hollers, hills and river bottoms where I grew up

Either in my best friend’s Old’s 88 or my totaled out Buick with a bumper sticker that read, “Don’t laugh, Mister, your daughter might be in here.”046f6434d5883fff01f30e8fad5dc98d

Rickety plank bridges from times when pickups were slower and smaller

We ran them big and fast with a thunk that probably should have scared us, but we had no regard for safety, dry rot, or poor aim

At each crossroad, for fun we flipped a coin, leaving it to heads, the devil and lukewarm beer how lost we could get

So many corn, soybean and hay fields they came to be something I barely noticed but would later miss

My friends argued over whether John Deere or International made a better tractor; some outlier always made a case for Case

As a town kid I had no opinion other than that I liked the color red

In later years, in more pensive moments, I headed back home

Turned off the blacktop, appreciating nostalgic detail

Cicadas screeching, heat heavy like damp cheese cloth and manic June bugs bouncing around off their meds

I turned off the headlights, drove by moonlight, glancing at the cooler of beer in the back seat

Gravel popped under my tires as I rolled to a stop. The night was silent as a falling star.

Backing off the road, snug against a farmer’s gate cinched shut with rusty wire

The smell of rain in the air, the most beautiful scent in the world

Slipping in the Patsy Cline CD that I’d saved for this moment

Patsy’s song make me long to feel everything, love, loss, the heat of a sweltering honky tonk, loneliness in the middle of the night

Patsy and Hank Williams and scratchy old songs are what truly make country roads magic to me

I imagine people listening to them on dates when those old records were new

When pickups were slower and old bridges were sturdy

When they poured beer from buckets

And country roads were just called roads

The Monster who steals souls

basquiat 01Volunteers at sunrise lifted by the gift of giving

Laughter and stories of meaningful moments

Suddenly hushed by a lonely announcement

The Monster left a corpse in Starbucks

Another in the street near trash bins

Another and another and another emptied and discarded

The Monster came from the East, stalking the forgotten

As silent as a sleepless night

The volunteers recognize one they know among the lost

Whisked away in the brief release of freedom

Her jail cell held the monster at bay, but he waited

Patiently. Doing push-ups in the parking lot

 

 

GO, EMILY, GO!

Emily’s most memorable soccer goal didn’t even count.

A referee’s whistle had shrieked play dead. But Emily saw an opening. She swiped the ball from a startled first-grader, bit her tongue, and dashed away. As she shepherded the ball 1909537_1067852741867_5373733_ntoward mid-field I stood from my lawn chair and laughed, “Emily, go back, go back.”

What Emily heard: “GO, EMILY, GO!”

She raced by, oblivious to me and chuckling spectators.  What the hell, I thought. I yelled, “GO, EMILY, GO!” Two other parents joined in.

Emily mistook–or imagined– laughter for cheers. There was nothing but open field before her. She stopped about six-feet from the goal, giggled at the ball like a cartoon villain with ill-gotten loot, and kicked it into a dusty net. Alone, an over-sized T-shirt hanging like a nightgown to her shin guards, Emily poked her fists in the air, hopped in a circle, and grinned at the sideline.

At the far end the field a 14-year old referee and a group of puzzled 6-year-olds stared at the odd little girl, wondering if she would bring the ball back.

***

My daughter graduates from high school today.

She leaves Bishop Leblond High School earning a 3.87 grade point average in her final semester. During her time there she was a star athlete in three sports — basketball, soccer and volleyball. She was active in campus ministry and student government. She soaked up her time in school.

That’s the Emily who will be honored. But she is more than that. And for me, for a parent, this day is more than that.

Late at night my daughter calls me without hope that things will get better. She weeps that she is too exhausted to go on.  She is intimidated by exams. School doesn’t come easy to her and she wonders if the effort is worth it.  She won’t admit it but she worries too much about what people think.  She sometimes loses herself in resentments, and falls into gossip.

Emily may dive for loose balls, suffer turf burn and  endure elbows to the face, but afterward she is a hypochondriac who worries over every bruise and discoloration on her body.

I treasure this Emily, who is afraid, overwhelmed and at times self-centered. The Emily who wants to give up fills my heart.

Because she never does.

***

If I’m honest, this day isn’t only a celebration. It’s a day singed with fear. It’s a self-centered fear. A fear that I won’t be around to comfort her, to provide guidance in this next stage of her life.

But Emily has already helped me cool that flame.

***

Resilience is the word that comes to mind.

I’ve heard that a lot, usually when my children have gone through something difficult, especially when it’s something I’ve put them through. People will say, It will be OK, kids are resilient.

Perhaps no one has taught me more about resilience than that girl in the graduation cap.

What does a dad say in the gaping silence after his daughter’s final high school basketball game?

“We lost by three points,” she sobbed.

Being a father seems to be a series of these silent moments. I usually fill them with too many words. It has taken me a while to learn that with Emily all I really need to do is listen and remind her that it will get better.

The morning after that last game, I called Emily, ready to comfort her more, offer more advice. She had bounced out of bed already gushing about soccer season.

The junk food run with friends Tyler and Jaclyn probably did more good than my advice.

***

Of course, Emily will have her heart broken by more difficult events than a basketball game. She already has. Her parents’ divorce. Her dad moving out of state. I still haven’t recovered from that one. But she has. So has our relationship.

It was much simpler when resilience meant this long-ago conversation:

  • Who won, Dad?
  • Did you have fun?
  • Yes.
  • Then you did.
  • OK, I’m gonna go get a snack.

***

As a parent, I must resist the temptation to, well, parent.

I can’t fix the the damage that comes her way. The most dangerous ground to tread is trying to fix the damage I’ve inflicted. Emily lets me know every day that we are good.

Emily is the compassionate, resilient person she is in part because of the struggles she 11695772_10205372836265692_3783235018256364375_novercomes, not despite them. She has an openness to people who live their lives different from her and she has held on to her principles in the face of criticism because she’s seen those around her struggle.

I do, however wonder at her response to betrayal, defeat. Suffering can often chip away at the light inside us and leave cynicism, resentment, mistrust. It has been my singular pleasure to see her always come through, different somehow,  but not hardened, always whole.

 

I love watching my daughter play sports. That will always be our closest bond.

Watching her prowl the passing lanes for steals on a basketball court is like watching a fox 1909537_1067852381858_5127982_nhunting rabbits. Watching her mastery of volleyball is like meeting an alien being with knowledge beyond me. And Emily on a soccer field is a display of uninhibited joy.

It is made all the sweeter because I have been there when it wasn’t beautiful. That’s what a dad gets to do.

I am shaking my head at that grade point average.

All the sweeter because I know that somewhere inside she’s fighting against a voice telling her she’s not smart.

Over the years I’ve told my overextended daughter to cut back, to drop a sport, to quit a team, to quit a job (you can work the rest of your life). I’ve lectured rest, rest, rest.

She says, OK, Dad.

Then she points out a new bruise on her knee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Tidings of Acceptance and Peace

cropped-lanterns.jpgThe first hint of silliness came from a coworker who said “Bless you,” when I sneezed. She waited, expecting a thank you, like a bellhop looking for a tip.

She became further irritated later when she sneezed and I didn’t bless her.  I don’t think Pope Gregory the Great, who started this little superstition during the Bubonic Plague, expected it to become contentious. And if Medieval denizens were correct, my soul might have escaped through my nose when I sneezed, so I had more important things to worry about.

In an effort not to offend, I wish you Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas, or Happy Christmas, or Merry Holidays. I hope I’m covered. Oh, and Happy Saturnalia to my pagan friends. Sorry Jews, you haven’t made enough fuss, and Hanukkah came too early this year.  And Kwanza, well people who celebrate that are used to being ignored.

Some Christians (too many)– in a world filled with real problems — are again grinding their teeth about the expression “Happy Holidays,” which is not a new expression. I remember it when I was a kid. I always assumed it was a succinct way to cover Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year. I see it on Facebook: “If you still say Merry Christ then repost this…”

I’m not sure who’s not saying Merry Christmas, though. I hear it about 10 times a day. Our Muslim president said over and again on TV last week. My Jewish friend at work even said it to me.

There are rumors that atheists out there are snapping at every person who deigns to wish them a Merry Christmas, but I haven’t met these people. And I know atheists; I live in California. Legendary American freethinker, Robert Ingersoll, would probably have at most poked fun at Christmas’s lumbering presence. I’m sure he would have congenially said “Merry Christmas” back to well-meaning Christians. He made his point while keeping long friendships with his Christian opponents. Granted, atheist author and scientist Richard Dawkins might take a crankier approach.

However, if non-Christians have any reason for discontent, it is the protest from Christians who feel they are being oppressed in a country where they are the overwhelming majority. It’s like the coach whose football team is up 60-3 and still complains to about officiating. I have never understood why any religion feels the need to be the one, true path to salvation. Likewise, why does the way someone celebrates or greets others at this time of year untitled.png1matter.

Several 24 hours ago, I stopped drinking. The first approach of Christmas was reason for anxiety. This was a season during which whiskey flowed and I had done more than my share of damage. On Christmas Eve I felt as fragile as a the decorations on the tree. I did my best to shrink Christmas like the wool Reindeer sweater your great aunt gave you. It was in my interest to watch it pass like any other day. I read a slender book by the environmentalist Bill McKibbens called the Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, in which he called for simplifying, and then simplifying more.  His advice was exactly what I needed as I tried to make a big, loud drunken holiday into something small, quiet and sober. A holiday that had promised regret and disappointment now was simple and reflective. I observed Christmas.

I have continued to be something of a wallflower at the Christmas dance, keeping my distance from the noise and size of the season.

I am not opposed to Christmas. It is my wife’s favorite time of the year. My children’s too. My daughter’s bedroom looks like a scene from the film “Elf.” We don’t live in a Christian country, but most Americans are Christian. This holiday will never hold the warmth, comfort and magic of childhood.  I sought that in  deceptive warmth of my special Christmas bottle (which ended up being bottles), but I always ended up filled with regret, and sorrow, a failed father who couldn’t remember his children opening presents.

I see no reason to concern myself that this season doesn’t fit my expectations. I have made it an exercise in acceptance, a reminder that all I have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition. To do otherwise would be a waste of energy and peace of mind.

Christmas concerts have been renamed winter concerts. There are no more manger scenes or Christmas trees at schools. On the other hand there are no Menorahs or Stars of David either.

If parents are concerned about the presence of Jesus in their children’s lives, they can do something about that at home. Those who clamor for Christmas and prayer in their schools claim they are only concerned about their children, but I suspect they want things the way they used to be, when they were kids. This desire is as old as civilization. The result is, too. The only thing that stays the same is change. No matter how much we want it–no matter how much whiskey I drank– we’re not going back. The reason is, the next generation doesn’t care. They don’t know any different, except from our stories, and those get boring after a time. They don’t care what their concerts are called. Mostly, they don’t want to sing in them. They don’t notice that there are no Christmas decorations at school. They have them at home.

When we look a little deeper at the past we will find that things weren’t as different back then as we remember. Our parents talked a lot about times gone by.

Our kids share one very important thing with us. We didn’t care much about what our parents did when they were young either.

All we wanted to do was open our presents.