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 friend isn’t gone; she’s still setting me straight

Over the past couple weeks I have felt a frightening loneliness. I was angry for digging myself into a hole that felt catastrophic.

I take that back, wrong metaphor. There was no digging; that would imply effort. Rather, I invited the loneliness in, a charming bully that posed as solitude.

I needed someone to help me make my oppressor leave. I couldn’t tell my friends at work, even when they noticed a change in me.  I couldn’t bear the way they would look at me. I said I was tired, hadn’t been sleeping, which was true. I talked to my wife, vaguely, and she gave me answers. I got angry. Strangely, I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.

I instantly knew who to call. My friend Carol. As sudden as the thought evaporated, I wept. IMG_0734

The same day that the loneliness moved in, I received a photo of Carol’s newly completed grave stone.  Her family had gracefully designed it with the words “I love you more than bunnies,” chiseled in script beneath the names of her children.

It has been two weeks since I received the photo. Carol died a year ago yesterday. I’m not sure how I didn’t see the connection.

When Carol died, I had the word “surrender” tattooed onto my forearm in her memory. It’s situated so that I see it continually throughout my day. Each time, I think of her. Surrender is central to recovery and most daunting. It’s scary to admit that one’s life is unmanageable and to trust people who say that giving up control promises freedom. Carol and I talked about surrender a lot. She had moments of clarity, but then someone or something would descend and fill her with fear. She grabbed control with both hands and tied a knot.

I believe Carol did ultimately surrender, in her last days, while in a coma. She held on with all her might but after nearly two weeks a change came over her. She found someone to trust. The children she had raised—she was often astonished by how much she loved them—would be alright. It might take time and suffering, but she trusted them. Then she surrendered her life.

Surrender has  transformed my life. Accepting life on life’s terms, finding comfort in mystery, learning  to loosen my grip on life, not asking too many questions about what disturbs me, these practices have not always made life better but they have certainly kept it from getting worse.  However, I confess, I have not accepted that compulsion and fear loosened their grip on me but took  Carol. I am not comfortable with that mystery. I have too many questions and no one to ask. I am angry at this disease.

When I stood in my bedroom on that day when  I received the photo of Carol’s gravestone, it felt  like she was standing next to me, gushing about her children. Our friendship was an adventure of unbearable pain and intense joy, deep truths and shallow deceptions. I did a lot of talking–too much–trying to reach my dying friend. But then, Carol would come back with a gush of wisdom. When I was insecure, overwhelmed, afraid she set aside her greater suffering, even hid it, to point out my foolishness and hubris.

We listened, argued, talked over one another, then she would silence me with a cheap shot, using my own words against me.  Or she would blurt out something snarky that made me laugh and and touched my heart at the same time.

I felt Carol in the room with me again earlier this week. She told me to get off my ass, stop blaming lack of sleep, my introversion, my “disconnected” feelings and go out and make friends. Stop feeling sorry for myself.

I did what she told me. I talked to a friend with one of the most generous hearts I have ever encountered. She makes my days better simply by being in the same building. Like Carol she minimizes her own hardships to lift my spirits. She thinks I don’t notice.

I talked to another friend who is working so very hard to recognize those moments of clarity in her own unmanageable life. We are tight. Our conversations are profane and profound, hilarious and honest, and filled with much love.

At the end of a rough day yesterday, I stopped on the way home to get something to drink. I walked past the beer section and grabbed a Coke.

As I opened the cooler, I saw the word “surrender” on my arm.

Thank you, Carol, for being there for me.

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.

Rumbling down the Hot Wheels Highway

The rumble up through the seat loosens my bones and I am a child again

The curvy, sun-glistened highway, a strip of orange Hot Wheels track

I sit high in the cab like a boy in his father’s lap, unable to reach the pedals

It is impossible to say the word “truck” and remain an adult

Alone, driving through a landscape of steep hills, vineyards and draws

I imagine I created it all to fit around my winding highway

Truck. I say it again aloud, enjoying the way it feels in my throat

I have no choice but to drive slow, at risk of shifting the load

There is something comforting in that, my normally lead foot is meditating

At the end of my drive, a mother-in-law will boss me as I unload

I downshift

Slower

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.

 

Thin and thick places: A ghost story from a skeptic

“Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.”
Jim Carroll

My Uncle Orville was standing at the foot of my bed. He had been gone for so long I didn’t recognize his features. I sensed him, like when you know someone familiar has entered a room.  Then, in the shadows — of my mind or the dark room I’m not quite sure — a silhouette materialized,  short-cropped hair, square stature, big shoulders. When he told me what he came to say, his voice was rough and calm. I mumbled a bleary response and laid back on my pillow.  My heart jerked too-late. Startled awake, I looked back to the spot. Orville was gone.

The noxious weeds along the dirt lane seemed to make the heavy summer day even hotter. The cattle were nervous and uncooperative at first, perturbed at the idea of movement on such a day and they kicked up dust. My uncle had stationed my cousin Kelly and me at the crossroad and gave us the task of waving our arms and hollering so the lumbering cattle would turn up the winding road toward fresh pasture.

The bored cows settled into a resigned gait under the able hands of Orville and my laughing  cousins who darted in amid the herd with switches in their hands, barking unintelligible orders. My face bloomed with embarrassment as I tentatively wondered which cow I should yell at and if there was a proper way farmers waved their arms as opposed to cheerleaders. As the town kid among my country cousins every step I took seemed awkward. I flinched at stumbling cows, or jumped clear when one shuddered or kicked up its hindquarters, sure that it meant to trample me when in reality it was more concerned with the biting flies bouncing in the cottony heat. I could taste the fear in the back of my mouth.
The calf‘s ghost-white face was funny at first. I was relieved to see such a small animal in the sea of beef. It trotted through the dust, underfoot, drooped head swaying sadly. A small, skinny, black body; blotches like patches hid its eyes in the overexposed daylight. With sudden confidence I yelled louder and stepped forward, “Hey, calf!” In the distance I could hear my uncle suddenly yelling something, but I couldn’t make it out over the groaning cattle. The calf kept coming, oddly indifferent to my boldness. My uncle kept yelling, jogging up the road toward me in his dusty work boots. I kept bossing the calf. Orville’s voice grew more urgent.
I looked back just as the calf crashed into me. Air painfully exploded from my body and the sky above me and road at my feet did a sickening somersault. I slammed into the ground, confused. In the dizzying pain,  I still had time to feel embarrassed.
Orville was immediately there, his hand touching my shoulder. He gently chuckled the warning I hadn’t understood: “Blind calf.” I tried to speak but my wind had not returned and besides it was taking all my concentration to hold back tears. “You’re going to be OK,” Orville said, and I knew I would be.
But Orville would not.

I remember the whispers of my parents a couple of years later. Something was wrong with Orville. Doctors were puzzled at first. It turned out to be leukemia. The cancer took him quickly. At 49 years old, this strong, kind man was gone. At his funeral mourners had to stand out in the street because the church was overflowing. Tales of big and small kindnesses flowed for days on end. I remember wondering if the sadness would ever go away.

“Tell Martha I’m fine.” That’s what Orville told me ten years after his death from the foot of my bed in Seattle. Martha, his widow, had long since remarried another good and kind man. I immediately doubted what had happened. I have always been a pretty skeptical person. My first reason was, “Why in the hell would Orville pick me?” That one still gnaws at me. So I waited. I waited three years before I passed the message on to Martha, worried about what she would think. When I did pass the message on, I was halfway about it.  I let my dad tell her, adding “for what it’s worth” to the end unsure of how it would be received, and a little ashamed of how long I had waited.

Then, it happened again. This time my grandfather, Al Madden, who had died back when I was in high school, showed up in a dream. “Tell Norman his dad is fine.”  Quick and to the point. Grandpa was never much of a talker when he was alive and honestly I was always closer to Grandma.  I was a little scared of my Grandpa. My cousins used to taunt me when I was little that Grandpa didn’t like me because my family had lived out of state. I was a nervous kid anyway, so I usually cried.

The Norman we’re talking about here is my dad’s first cousin, who had recently lost his father. I had gone to the funeral because Norman was close to my dad.  I returned home to Seattle and had the dream. This time, I figured what the heck, nobody would get hurt by passing on the message. Norman didn’t really know me that well. If he considered me crazy, so what. For a time, I like the idea of Grandpa looking out for his grieving nephew, and it made me feel good to help him out. In my writer’s brain I could almost see the two of us getting into a pickup and driving over to Norman’s house to give him the good news. That’s just the way things work in my head.

The ancient Celtic mystics told of “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we are able to glimpse the divine. Old tales even tell of people travelling between the two worlds.

When I doubted my experiences with Orville and my grandfather, my mother told me I probably received those messages because I was open to them. My mother no longer believes that of me.

It’s more likely that I collided with myself on that hot dusty road so many years ago, a bleating calf, terrified and blind, stumbling forward into the darkness, chasing ghosts in my own head, desperate to see something, anything, and to fit into his own herd. Perhaps my Uncle Orville and my Grandpa knew I had encountered enough insanity and would be so eager to please that I would likely speak of what I heard in the night. Maybe they knew that I’d seen enough ghosts that one more wouldn’t be such a leap. Or maybe not.

I don’t know if the Celtic mystics believed in “Thick places.” They were Irish so if they didn’t they should have. I have had far more experiences with Thick Places. Places so crusted over with resentment, animosity and fear that the divine has no chance of  breaking through. Places so toxic that even God doesn’t dare tread, choosing instead to wait outside. I know people — families, lifelong friends — who no longer speak to one another because they judge their own sins superior to others.  They find people they once loved unredeemable. I don’t know where such people believe their stories are going to end? Probably the grave.

I never checked to see how my Aunt Martha or Cousin Norman received the messages. I never really wanted to know. Once shared, the messages no longer belonged to me. It’s possible that this was my way of rationalizing  and returning to my comfortable position as skeptic. Regardless of whether I believe, I know deep in my heart that Orville certainly was the kind of man who would not want his family to worry. And knowing his sense of humor he might find it funny to use the little guy who was scared of cows to pass the word. My grandfather was a rough man in his later years as he battled emphysema, bone cancer and congestive heart failure, but his midnight message made me reflect on the kindnesses he showed me, how he used to walk me around the backyard, cane in hand, when I know it caused him a great deal of pain. It reminded me that  my cousins were just having fun with the kid who cried all the time, for what cousin could resist that. I always thought my Grandfather a wise man. Perhaps he knew that there are blessings in simply sharing good news with another person. Maybe Norman wasn’t the only one who needed that message. Or maybe it was all just a dream.

Whether you believe in them, it is good to seek thin places. Or at least be open when you rub up against them by accident. The mystics never claimed they were to be found only on high mountains or in great cathedrals. I for one have learned that ghosts in dusty and dark places can take my breath away.