Looking into the eyes of courage: A life-changing reunion

8163f188-56c8-49ab-984e-89f1d69d5c10-4083-000008fd644bbcaf

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.

674A199A-CE0E-4FD9-AA8D-D9325BF78756

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.

A70A6BFD-6330-420F-A377-3975BEADE999

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/

1B8F16A0-3E8E-4D09-96E0-25B525A85D94

Advertisements

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.

Getting past this ‘God shit’: Recovery of an agnostic

Lost-Highway-In-Blogging

I believe in prophecy. Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And once in a while they pass the secret along to you and me.
I believe in miracles, something sacred burning in every bush and tree.
We can all learn to sing the songs the angels sing.
I believe in God, and God ain’t me.

Steve Earle

I didn’t have much starch in me the night I went to my first meeting. I had publicly humiliated myself, and more important, lost my way as a father, the only true moral compass I had left.  Alan (not his name), a recovering alcoholic, was gentle with me as he picked me up in his car. I was talking rapidly, nervous and eager to do this thing right, afraid of looking foolish. As we approached the doors, I stiffened and found what little bit of defiance I had left. “I don’t want any of this God shit,” I said.

Alan grinned kindly and said, “That’s Ok, you don’t have to think about that right now.”

No one enters those rooms on a winning streak. It was a strange mixture of fear, anger and brokenness that led me to the tables after 23 years of very determined and passionate drinking. A looming court date, a waiting jail cell, and a brutally honest court-ordered drug and alcohol counselor left me little wiggle room.

At the time I thought my agnosticism was principled. But If I’m honest, I was probably still looking for a way out. I had known for some time that my drinking was a problem. I had said it aloud to myself late at night when I was alone and at my worst. But now, despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain was telling me to run.

I stayed that night. I kept coming back for a variety of wrong reasons. I wanted to show people that I wasn’t that guy, the drunk fool. I wanted to prove to my kids that I could change. I had to get that damn sheet signed for my probation officer. Through it all I flinched at each mention of God.

Eventually–I’m not sure when it changed–I was coming for the right reasons. Not for other people, but for myself.  I realized that if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to lose everything–even my life.  Tolerating a little God talk seemed a small price to pay.

Today, five and a half years later, I am still sober. I’m still not sure about God.

Almost a year into sobriety, when I was on the pink cloud of recovery, a friend who is a Benedictine monk asked me to define God. I said, “Oh, no, I’m not touching that.”

I felt my heart pounding as he pressed me: “Come on, try!”

I insisted that I was perfectly comfortable not naming my higher power. I’m not superstitious but I was still pretty fragile. I didn’t want to mess with a good thing.

But my friend wasn’t letting me off easy.

I thought for a moment and then looked at him. “It works,” I said, “That’s my answer. Whatever is keeping me sober is not me and it’s working.”

He grinned broadly, like I’d passed a theology exam.

I remember when I struggled with the second and third  of the 12 steps, I considered returning to church. A Catholic priest, who had been in recovery for a long time, warned me, “Don’t let it interfere with your sobriety.”

His message was that my relationship with the Church and my relationship with a higher power were two entirely different things and I shouldn’t confuse them, especially when the most important thing in my life was on the line.

For those who are curious, alcoholics and addicts who have found a daily reprieve through the 12 steps have admitted, in Step 1, that we are “powerless over alcohol and that our lives are unmanageable.” In Step 2 “we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The italics are mine. Frankly, I never have gotten past the possibility and mystery in the word “could.” And I never needed to. My first sponsor asked me if I could accept that it was possible, not even likely, that something greater than myself could restore sanity to my life. Of course, I admitted, there was the slightest possibility.

I’ve stayed sober for a lot of 24 hours on that slightest possibility. For a while, my God was a Group Of Drunks who didn’t judge me and expected better from me. Sometimes it was the Great Out Doors. It didn’t really matter what or even if I believed as long as knew God ain’t me. I learned that almost everything in my life is beyond my control. One thing I was certain of: what I had been doing wasn’t working. I had to change my entire way of thinking, let go of self-will and accept life on life’s terms.302811_3913001063340_2085956480_n.jpg

In Step 3, “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

These days I meet people who want to stop drinking. But like me five years ago, they say they are turned of by all the God talk. My response is that perhaps the 12 steps isn’t for them. There are other options. Or maybe if a little God talk is too much of a burden, then perhaps their not ready to quit yet.

I grew up in a family that was certain about God and religion. I, however, have grown comfortable with doubt, with mystery and uncertainty. I have accepted the fact that I will probably go to my death unsure of God’s existence.

My higher power could be sobriety. Sobriety is not simply abstinence. It is knowing that each day is another chance to get it right. It is letting go of resentments and fear, trying to make amends where I can, and to live with gratitude. It is seeking not to judge lest I be judged.  I find it liberating to make decisions by asking whether I will be more sober. You could say it’s a form of prayer. I get into fewer conflicts. I’m a better husband, a more patient father. I’m even nicer to referees when I coach basketball. I’m more honest, more aware of my shortcomings and more willing to acknowledge my strengths. I tend to be more forgiving, less anxious about tomorrow and less likely to regret the past.

There have been times in the past couple of years, mostly during financial crisis, that sobriety was all that stood between me and the abyss, when sobriety seemed to be all that I had, when sobriety got me out of bed in the morning.  If that isn’t a higher power then I don’t know what is.

I told Alan I wasn’t having any of this God shit. But I endured, I tolerated, because my sanity and my life depended on it.

God isn’t necessarily the word I use, but a lot of people on this journey with me do. And they have convinced me that it is a miracle I’m sober today.

I guess you could call that faith.