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 wife is 53 and I like it — bad spelling and all

My wife looked forlorn when she said, “I’m going to be 53…”

I’m glad my wife is 53 today. If she were 40 or 30 or 20, she wouldn’t be with me and I wouldn’t be with her. I wouldn’t know the joy I felt when she first noticed me (I’d been trying to get her attention for a while). There are a few other reasons why I prefer a 53-year-old J.J.10624940_10202503353164951_4538244234849287657_n

  1. Her name is actually J.J. Leibrock Madden. Call me selfish or sexist but that’s way better than any name she’s ever had.
  2. The night eight years ago when I realized I was in love with her, I hung up the phone, walked into the kitchen and my knees buckled. I sagged into a chair and whispered, “So this is what it’s supposed to feel like.”
  3. One time, as we waited for a table in a restaurant, an elderly woman approached and said, “Excuse me. I couldn’t help noticing how in love you two are. You’ve made my day.”
  4. I get crazy insecure. I think about all the things other men have given her, the places they’ve taken her, that I couldn’t begin to give her. It’s not an attractive trait, but there is something strangely exciting about it. I’ve never cared enough before to make myself miserable like this.
  5. She chose me not them, my friend Carol always reminded me. I will never be her first love, but I get to be her last.
  6. I don’t think I have single attractive feature. Crooked face, decidedly unmuscled body, bird legs, skinny arms, other personal deficiencies I’d rather not talk about.  But she finds something! Which means she also doesn’t give up on a difficult task.
  7. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. My children love her. I could stop with that, but my children would say, “Jeez, Dad, you can’t come up more.”
  8. She loves my children. When they call they’d rather talk to “mom” not me.
  9. She votes – always.
  10. She doesn’t vote Republican
  11. She makes decisions that are against her interests, because other people’s are more important (Guess I could have just said, “See #10).
  12. She was high school valedictorian but never taunts me when I do really stupid shit.
  13. She has wrinkles from all the sun and wind and worries and smiles.
  14. She hates mean people.
  15. She’s figuring out that “Fuck ‘em,” is always the right answer when dealing with mean people.
  16. She doesn’t get too upset when I give her unsolicited advice about saying “Fuck ‘em!”
  17. She say “Fuck ‘em!” when she encounters Trump supporters (I guess I could have just said see #15)
  18. She is a FANTASTIC liar. “You’re not gaining weight Danny, You’re really smart, Danny, That joke was funny, Danny, You’re a good singer, Danny…”
  19. She smells really good.
  20. She doesn’t think I smell bad.
  21. She’s a feminist.
  22. She’s a bad speller when she’s mad or horny.
  23. She’s a bad speller a lot. That’s all I’m saying.
  24. She doesn’t freak out when I freak out.
  25. She finds my keys so I stop freaking out.
  26. She has a 7-year chip and her sponsor had to tell her to stop taking so many service commitments. Leave some for someone else.
  27. She has cool tattoos.
  28. She gets excited about fruit.
  29. She’s cooks like an artist.
  30. Sometimes she gets sad and has to stay in bed all day.
  31. She laughs a lot.
  32. She buys me all the hummus, avocados and chocolate I can eat.
  33. She is the mysterious, tan, blonde California girl I fantasized about in junior high.
  34. She doesn’t get mad at me unless I am a complete dick. Which is never. Haha! Just kidding.
  35. She likes the TV show Supernatural
  36. She lets me have a crush on singer Brandi Carlile, even though she has a better chance with Brandi Carlile than I. She thinks my crush on Larry Bird is a bit much.
  37. She doesn’t always agree with me (that would be boring).
  38. She wakes up pretty, no need for makeup. And, thank god, no need for hairspray.
  39. Her hair is beautiful and I find it on my clothes when I’m at work.
  40. She’s way too hard on herself but she gets better each day.
  41. She’s way to easy on me but she gets better each day.
  42. She hurts when other people hurt.
  43. She loves Draymond Green.
  44. She promises she won’t leave me if President Obama appears and asks her to run away with him. See #18.
  45. She thinks George Carlin was a genius.
  46. She loves British TV and speaks in a terrible British accent that sounds like someone just back from the dentist.
  47. She loves to swear. She is proficient in “all the words you can’t say on TV.”
  48. She growls when I tell her surfing isn’t a sport. She’ll think it’s funny that I just pissed off every surfer who reads this.
  49. She is a hard worker (which makes us a perfect match, because I’m lazy)
  50. She gets exasperated when I turn on REO Speedwagon music (because I know it exasperates her.)
  51. She always says exasperate when she means exacerbate.
  52. She flips me off when I correct her grammar.
  53. She has shown me that second chances are always possible, and that in love moments are more important than years.

Happy 53rd birthday, JJ!

 

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.

The fortitude of a forgiving child

My daughter’s birthday sneaked up on me like a sun shower

The joy of wishing her a happy day was IMG_0203mussed by my momentary forgetfulness

But even if she knew the truth she would laugh it off in goofy style

That’s OK, you’re an old man, she’d snort, you’d forget your own birthday

Our children forgive us, I remind myself, once again wiping regret from the rear-view mirror

They root for us to do better, even when we cause their greatest pain

You have to work with malevolence to replace partly sunny with partly cloudy

They squeeze us tight when the rest of the world turns its back

And love us when we don’t love ourselves

They blink away tears and wait for our light to shine on them again

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry of Damaged Wood

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”Chinese Proverb

When I lived in the Seattle suburbs it seemed that every wind brought a power outage. Young, fresh, evergreens toppled like stemware at a toddler’s birthday party.

Spoiled by soft living in saturated soil, the roots never reached deep enough to hold their ground.

6c5e5f09a999e8010bd1679d751970b7Replanted in clear-cuts, the emerald trees glowed in the dawn’s light off my back deck. They were certainly beautiful and they drove up property values, but there was something lacking –untested– in these feathery trees adorning housing developments.

The towering Douglas fir I saw on a hike high in the Cascades lacked their symmetrical grace.  It was bony and naked from where the shadows began up in the canopy down to where I stood on a cushion of dry needles. Its was pocked by beetles and blackened by memories of forest fires. Leaning eerily into the steep slope of the mountain, most of its branches jutted off to one side. It and sister trees grew out of a long, narrow ridge, the earthen remains of an ancient sequoia corpse, a “nurse log,” returning it’s nutrients to the next generation.

The suburban trees were likewise more sleek than the massive tulip poplar that stoically haunted my front yard in Missouri. A dark wound gaping from the massive trunk oozed bees. Late at night I imagined it home to demons.  One jagged branch careened over the neighbor’s house like an unfinished freeway off-ramp. Leprous bark crumbled in chunks.  It was a rough tree that had lived through rough times — tornadoes, droughts, ice storms, lightning strikes.

No one writes poetry about pretty suburban trees. Naked Douglas firs, scarred by forest fires, living off death, and homely tulip poplars possessed by demons, those are more romantic.

Today my wife and I celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary, the wood anniversary. We live high on a hill where the wind always blows. There is nothing smooth or lush about either of us. Rather than topple, we lean into the wind – or more often into each other.

JJ is strong because she has been abused, scarred, burned – by relationships, circumstances, tragedy. Her face is creased by wind and sun and sorrow. Her eyes sparkle with a joy that only someone who has experienced despair can know.

JJ and I both are among the 51 percent of Americans whose first marriage ended in divorce.

We both came out of that experience damaged,  dried up, our trust eaten away. We lost friends. I lost family. Some might say we nearly lost everything.

I’m not sure if it matters which tree  is JJ and which tree I am. I’m from the Midwest so I guess I’ll be the Tulip Poplar, the battered tree with the bark falling off. I’m bi-polar so a few bees buzzing around inside is an apt metaphor. Wind and ice and drought and lightning out of nowhere have made me patient.  I know soft rain and warmth outnumber storms. Children eventually gather around, and one day the exact right person comes along to see beauty.

JJ is lovely like the fir high up on the mountain, straining for light. She is damaged by memories, secretly alone at times even in a crowd. She leans into life, sheltering everyone around her. Haunted as she is by it, she still finds nourishment and transformation in tragedy.

There are many discussion about the state of marriage in our country. The statistic above is quoted often. Social change is blamed for stealing the institution’s sanctity.

Today, none of that matters to me. Not today. Today  is about wood. It’s about miles of roots that hold true when wind and rain and lightning blast from all sides, roots that find sustenance and water when there’s none to be found. And bark toughened by time, elements and those who would do harm. And heart, soft but enduring.

It’s about broken branches and nakedness and dark places inside.

It’s about poetry.

Our marriage is not easy. Finances, unemployment, addiction, sickness, fear.

Drought, tornadoes, forest fires, lightning, pestilence.

The problems have always been there. They will be tomorrow.

So will the trees.