Living Well, Dying Well

In December of 2014, my father died after five years with Parkinson’s and Dementia, and breaking his hip, then being tortured by a grossly incompetent medical staff at Kaiser Permanente’s hospital in Panorama City, California. I won’t go into detail but it was a real trip to hell and the staff were the demons running it.

My dad died on December 21st, his young dog died without warning four days later on Christmas Day (also from a brain problem, ironically), leaving my mother completely alone. Then, as if all that weren’t bad enough, her house was burglarized. She not only felt sad in her empty house, but afraid, too. 

As I was dealing with the burglary, my father’s sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been dead for four months but nobody noticed because she was an agoraphobic recluse. She lived badly and died badly. A tragic end to a tragic life. More irony (or something more) – she died within a week of my father, even though she was twelve years younger than him, and she didn’t even know he had passed. It was as if my father’s soul, free of that broken body, found her and said, “Come with me, sis. This is no life for anyone.” Maybe his dog died to be reunited with him, too.

We will all die, and usually badly, in physical terms, from some diabolical, incurable (is there any other kind) disease or combination of them. This is the inherent courage of living – knowing the end will come, but waking up, getting cleaned and dressed, smiling at strangers, and making the most of every day anyway. We all deserve a medal. There is valor in just staying positive and living life knowing the end will come, whether or not we believe in heaven and the continuation of the soul.

My father’s miserable last month of life, made infinitely more miserable by the ghoulish staff at Panorama City’s Kaiser Permanente hospital (with a few rare exceptions), would have been completely hellish except for one moment at the end, after the morphine drip that would end his life had begun, when somehow, he opened his eyes and searched for me in the room full of friends and family. A friend said, “Mark, he wants you.” I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, crushed that I wasn’t able to save him. I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him and held his hand. He couldn’t speak because his throat was ravaged by numerous botched tube placements. (Another thing Kaiser stole was my father’s right to say goodbye.) He pursed his lips, pulled me close, and gave me the last kiss he would ever be able to give me. I hugged him and told him I loved him, that it was okay to go, that I would take care of mom, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I asked if he understood and he nodded yes. I thank God for that moment now, and am still baffled at how he was able to reach through his brain diseases and all the drugs flooding through his system to give me that moment. A golden moment if ever there was one. I have despaired greatly since his death, about how he died, so without that the despair would have been infinitely worse.

Which brings me to my point – dying well. That moment said everything there was to say about my father. He had a rough upbringing in Belfast, Northern Ireland, with loveless parents, crushing poverty, and almost daily fistfights, but he never complained. He came to America and started a business that flourished for 35 years while others rose and fell around him. He lost his stomach to cancer at 45 and was cut down from 200 to 150 pounds. And again, he never complained. He never complained or made the slightest whimper in the hospital despite his hip and femur being broken in four places, despite his throat being so dry his tongue cracked open, despite the hospital staff making every mistake it was possible to make out of a combination of incompetence and heartlessness. And he didn’t complain as morphine ended his life. Instead, he reached for me and gave me a kiss.

I thought of my dad when the actor Gene Wilder died recently. He was asked in an interview why he didn’t act anymore during his final decades. He was sent scripts constantly so demand for his talent was still there. He said he didn’t like all the cussing and vulgarity. Decency and integrity like that is almost non-existent in Hollywood, where money and attention are usually the only factors considered when making a decision.

Gene Wilder suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease during his final years. He said he rarely went out because children still recognized him as Willy Wonka and he had trouble smiling so he didn’t want to make anyone sad. He didn’t get bitter and hostile because life was dealing him a terrible hand. He was good, sweet and kind to the very end despite his troubles. He lived well and died well.

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While writing this, a scene from the Robin Williams movie Patch Adams came to mind. A patient (played by Peter Coyote) was very angry and bitter that he was dying young. Patch was determined to help him make the transition more peacefully. Here’s the scene:

When I was in my early twenties, I climbed over the wall of a cemetery one night and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles, trying to summon up something, anything, that would prove to me that there was something beyond this life. I had been told that Ouija boards could be dangerous portals for demons, but I didn’t care. My faith in God had been destroyed by atheistic philosophers like Bertrand Russell and I desperately needed to know if we were immortal or worm food. I chose that night for this “seance” because it was Friday the 13th, and not only a full moon, but a blue moon, too. I figured the timing couldn’t be better. But nothing happened. I sat in that hole in the ground in dead silence until I felt enough like an idiot to pack it up and go home.

But maybe something did happen. My brother had a troubled life filled with drugs and prison and died of an overdose at 37. My mother had breast cancer twice. My life wasn’t exactly easy, either. Maybe demons stay below the radar and do their damage instead of making flashy displays like they do in movies. Life doesn’t feel like nothing to me. It feels like a mystery. It feels like a struggle between good and evil. I can feel the devil push me one way and God push me another. We can write it off as imagination or believe in something larger than ourselves. It’s always our choice.

But no matter what the ultimate truth is about the afterlife, there’s one thing I know – life wasn’t given to us to spend it in misery and sorrow. It just feels right to be happy, generous, kind, loving. I don’t understand people who spend their one, short life buried in greed, anger and/or hatred. Such a waste. Kind of like having a sumptuous meal prepared by the world’s greatest chef then pouring ketchup all over it.

Timothy Leary said dying is one of the greatest things any of us will ever have the chance to do. He was right. How we die is perhaps the largest reflection of who we truly are, beneath all the surface behavior and easy words. Depending on how we live, we will die with integrity or despair. *

My goal is to have the same smile on my face on my final day as I do today. Death shouldn’t extinguish the light within us. It already takes enough.

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  • Erik Erikson’s stages of psycho-social development.

 

Positive Thinking and All That Crap

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We are so bombarded by meme’s with inspirational quotes on all of our various forms of social media, they become white noise after a while.

Yeah, yeah, “I’m great and wonderful and I can do anything.”

Yeah, yeah, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone-it, people like me.”

As you more intuitive readers may have guessed, I’m afraid I’ve become a bit jaded by it all. Maybe it’s because I did all that. I ordered the Anthony Robbins tapes. I read the books. I said the affirmations. And maybe all that work did the trick because (not to brag or nothin’ but) I spend most days working my patoot off and feeling capable and confident. Maybe I just have the luxury of yeah-yeahing when I hear yet another amped-up, overly enthusiastic person jumping up and down and telling everybody they need to snap out of it because I’m no longer sufficiently down in the dumps.

But sometimes I can get a little negative about being positive. It’s more rare these days but it still happens once in a while. I just decide to let myself wallow in unpleasant feelings, as if I need to give them reign for a while so the me I like better can emerge even stronger again later. Let the wildfire of negativity burn the old, dead, fallen ground cover so sunlight can touch the soil again and allow for new growth. Something like that. Then again, I could be full of doggy doo-doo. I am not immune to the verbal gymnastics people do to protect their comfort zones, no matter how miserable they are there. 

Anyway, I was in that yeah-yeah mindset yesterday when a talk show came on TV with another motivational success coach guy. (I wish I could remember his name but I didn’t write it down.) I thought, “Ah, Jeez. Not another one” but I was in the kitchen so I couldn’t change the channel, which is a good thing.

Then he said something that made sense. Something I hadn’t heard before.

He said every day we should do three things upon waking –

  1. Repeat positive affirmations tailor-made to what we’re trying to accomplish. (He didn’t have me yet. Same old same old. Yawn.)
  2. Prayer and affirmation. Pray for what we want, then say thank you to God for sending it, the same way we would thank Amazon for getting a package mailed out quickly. (Even this didn’t win me over yet. Telling people to pray isn’t exactly unusual. It was the next one that got me.)
  3. Think of the things you know you must do but fear the most, then DO THEM FIRST. (Wham-o. That one alone is huge, but as a follow-up to the previous two, it’s humungous.)

The problem is most people who use positive affirmations and prayer don’t do anything else. They expect what they want to land magically in their lap. They don’t do what they know they should because, well, that stuff is hard! And prayer without action is as useless as pennies under a miser’s mattress. 

I’m going to stop before I’m accused of trying to be a junior Tony Robbins. I’ll just leave you to it if this sounds good to you. Here’s a good article to get you started on picking the affirmations that best apply to your life and goals. I hope (you make) all your dreams come true. 🙂

http://liveboldandbloom.com/09/quotes/positive-affirmations

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Two Worlds (poem) – Childhood and Charlottesville

Here’s one of my first attempts at poetry, written during my (overly) dramatic and (unnecessarily) tumultuous late teens or early twenties. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t just a choice between serenity and strife. In fact, life always fluctuates between the two. It’s how we handle the episodes of strife that matters most. Wayne Dyer said we all need to have an “insular Tahiti” – a place inside ourselves the world can’t touch. Otherwise, pain will invade us completely and overwhelm our ability to cope or even imagine being happy again, like thinking a storm will last forever and the sun will never shine again.

As a kid, I loved a toy called the 3D View-Master.

I didn’t have video games or an iPhone. We only had a couple of TV channels, and except for afternoons and Saturday mornings, only adult shows were on, so we kids back then were much more easily entertained. I would crawl inside those View-Master slide worlds and live there, so much so that my mind today is a panoply of the idyllic scenes the geniuses behind this toy created. My childhood wasn’t perfect so this escapism was a blessing and a relief. I suspect the mental vacations into the View-Master slide worlds must have been even stronger for kids living in worse circumstances than I did. The fantasy inside the little binoculars versus the real world they were born into.

I’ll be using 3D View-Master slides in part to illustrate this poem. Enjoy!

Two Worlds

Two worlds have I known along the path of this life –
one of serenity, the other of strife.

The first world I knew was a magical place
of warm smiles and laughter and kind-hearted grace.

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Of meadows and tulips, wood shoes and white blouses.
Of bread trails and bonnets and gingerbread houses.

Of blind mice and windmills and Little Jack Horner.
Of Winnie and Tigger and the tree at Pooh Corner.

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Of fun-loving pirates and billowing sails.
Of serpents and mermaids and friendly, blue whales.

My young eyes saw the world as a sweet, gentle place
without hatred or killing over nation or race.
There was no better or worse, only different from me
and it made life enticing, a grand mystery!

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I remember gazing in wonder, unexamined and pure,
at the indigo sky. Oh, the thoughts it allured!
So many places someday I would see!
So many people to share it with me!

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But the wind-spinning freedom which was my young world
grew shrouded in darkness as adult years unfurled.
And the strangest thing is I never noticed peace die.
I just knew it was gone and I didn’t know why.

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Thus began the long years of searching for answers,
questioning poets, musicians and dancers,
politicians and teachers, gurus and sages,
spending my youth between dusty pages
to recapture a feeling, stolen or lost,
and hold it again, no matter the cost.

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Many years have passed now. I’ve grown old and gray
and I watch the games that my grandchildren play.
I can hardly recall how my youthful heart yearned
and I won’t bore you with stories of the lessons I’ve learned.

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But I will tell you this – joy isn’t somewhere “out there.”
It cannot be studied or found anywhere.
It’s something you’ll either let in or you won’t,
something you give to yourself or you don’t.

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Do you hear what I’m saying? All the searching’s for naught!
All that you need, you’ve already got.
There will surely be pain. That’s life’s one guarantee.
But how much we suffer – that’s up to you, and to me.

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Post-Script: Not to end on a negative note, but as I was looking for photos to illustrate this, the domestic terror attack in Charlottesville yesterday was heavy on my mind. Maybe that’s why I chose this poem to post today. Nobody starts out hating. May we all retain the joy and appreciation of differences we had as children, and create an America we can be prouder of. 

 

The Illusion of Control

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An elderly, divorced woman lives across the street from me. In the ten years we’ve lived here, she has never said hello or even looked over, not even at our two girls, who are three and six years old. I can understand adults not trusting other adults, but it takes a special kind of misery to be unfriendly to children. Fortunately, they don’t care. Neither do I really. The only time I get upset is when someone is blatantly rude to my kids. If someone is nasty to me, I’ll let karma take care of them. If they’re nasty to my kids, I become karma.

My family and I get along with all of our other neighbors. In fact, they’re more like family to us. We watch their houses and pets when they’re on vacation, and they do the same for us. We buy each other gifts on holidays, etc. So in such a friendly neighborhood, this lady really stands out. I was oddly comforted the other day when I found out that her strangeness was not limited to me and mine. One would think everybody would want to be courteous to neighbors because they’re the ones who are going to call the cops if they see someone climbing in their window. (Or not.) But, sadly, that is not always the case.

For instance, her neighbor two doors over is a retired fireman. My wife calls him a “cuddly grouch” to his face because he pretends to be grouchy but really isn’t. He always laughs. He picks on me with firehouse humor constantly and is delighted when I fire back. But I found out the day his dog died that he’s a softy on the inside. First of all, it was a Bichon Frise,  probably the least masculine dog in the world. He was destroyed for weeks when it died. He walked that dog every morning. Anyway, the point is, he’s a very kind man.

The strange neighbor, knowing how kind he is, asked him to take her garbage cans out on trash day because she was going on a business trip. She probably knew better than to ask me. When she came home, not only did she not thank him, she chewed him out for putting her trash cans back in “the wrong order.” There’s a black one for trash, a blue one for recyclables, and a green one for garden waste. He was apparently supposed to memorize what order they were in. She was actually livid about it, even though she left no instructions regarding trash can order. 

Clearly this lady has an OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) or three, but I think many of us are guilty of this kind of behavior, albeit in smaller ways. I know I am. If we have a real problem in the major areas of life – relationships, money, career, health, parenting, etc. – and feel like we’re out of control, we fixate on smaller things that are controllable.

I once saw a guy freak out about not having enough whipped cream on his latte at Starbucks. Not just, “Hey, can you put a little more whipped cream on this for me, pal?” No, no, no. It was, “Is there a goddamn whipped cream shortage or something? What’s wrong with you?” I would be willing to bet big money that his life was out of control in some other way. But that latte was controllable. He could get that right. Others obsess about their lawns, or parking their cars in the same spot, the same way every day, or being obsessively neat. 

The government is also guilty of low-level OCD’s. They can’t stop gang violence, drug trafficking or street crime, but dang it, they can drive those smokers into the ocean! That’s something they CAN do, then they won’t feel so impotent about that other stuff, and people may actually stay off their backs a little about wasted tax dollars.

Fortunately for my conscience, I’ve never been unfriendly to my “mean neighbor.” After all, she may be buried in pain about events in her life and I’m only seeing the symptoms. When we first moved in, another senior widow who lives next door seemed unfriendly and would sometimes yell over the fence about minor noises. At first, we dreaded the years ahead, but we kept saying hello and inviting her over for dinner until she said yes. Over time, we unearthed a great personality and learned that she was just sad, not mean at all. Her husband passed shortly before we moved here, and her son lives out of state so she was probably just very lonely. I’m proud to say we have alleviated that loneliness considerably, and she filled a terrible void for my wife when her mother died suddenly of a massive stroke at the age of 52 eight years ago. She loves our kids like they’re her own grandkids, and she and I even have the same sometimes scandalous sense of humor. We visit back and forth constantly. What seems like grumpiness is often just sadness in disguise I hope the same thing happens someday with the lady across the street, but so far, she has left me hanging when I’ve waved to her. She doesn’t even look over. I find it pretty humorous usually.

Not to play junior psychologist here, but it seems to me that my neighbor would feel a lot better if she rose up against her own inner tyrant and put the damn trash cans in the wrong order on purpose, if she accepted the fact that life is messy and always will be. If she would have surrendered to that immutable fact earlier, her marriage might have worked out. A house should be clean enough to be healthy, and messy enough to be happy.  So should a mind. 

There are things we can and should control, and things we can’t. Christians say, “Let go and let God.” Alcoholics say, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That philosophy is so old and overused, it has become a cliché, but cliché’s become cliché’s for a very good reason – because they’re absolutely true. 

I once started to get upset with my girls when I discovered them digging a hole in the middle of the front lawn because the X on their “treasure map” (the one they just drew) said the treasure was “RIGHT THERE!” I almost yelled, “No! Stop! What are you doing? You’re ruining the lawn!” But I didn’t. I took a deep breath and remembered I’m raising children, not grass. I even helped them dig the hole in the new lawn I had just planted. And when they weren’t looking, I went and found an old brass box in my office I knew they hadn’t seen yet, loaded it with coins and covered it with dirt in the hole so they’d have actual treasure to find. The look on their faces when they discovered it was worth fifty holes in the lawn.

So tomorrow, I’ll keep my girls from doing backflips off the roof, but I’ll let them run as fast as they want to, while praying they don’t fall and chip a tooth. I’ll do my best with my career but probably won’t get half as much done by the end of the day as I wanted to, as usual. Then I’ll comfort myself with the knowledge that I did something – moved a little closer to the goal – which is better than nothing. I’ll straighten up the house and be okay with the fact that it will be a mess again a few hours later. 

Besides, even if I did get all my ducks in a row, they’d just wander off again anyway. I mean, because, you know, they’re ducks.

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Gratitude (poem)

A segment of this poem appeared in the books Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul, and Chicken Soup for the Soul – Older and Wiser. I hope you enjoy it!

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Poets, it seems, are often too dismal
as if life and all in it were truly abysmal.
I too often strive to soothe worries with rhyme,
dwelling on sorrows and the passage of time.
When there’s so much to celebrate, to chance and explore!
Seems very ungrateful to wish there was more.

Say I wrote all my troubles, one by one, in a row.
How much further the list of my blessings would go!
Just look at this glorious Eden we live in.
Can you think of one thing we haven’t been given?
Miraculous! Perfect! Not one thing is wrong.
Still, men find every reason to not get along.
We have moonlight and sunsets and rainbows and flowers.
Deep, starry nights and bright, happy sun showers.
Wondrous creatures, every kind, shape and size.
Birds singing to greet us each day when we rise.
Such wonder and mystery without and within.
Well, I’m too full of love to hold it all in.
My heart feels as though it may split at the seams.
It can barely contain all my plans, hopes and dreams.
I’m completely astonished, awakened and free.
I’m everything that life should be!

I climb up a mountain to breathe in the air
and leave behind with each step one more useless care.
The sun ripples like laughter across the wide sea.
I smile at a flower and it smiles back at me.
The wind lifts a scent from the meadow below
and reminds me of the first girl I kissed, long ago.
I kneel in the clover, feel my spirit expand.
A bright butterfly stops to rest on my hand.
The clouds, ever present, yet no two the same
give lively imaginations a game.
“Look! A sailboat! A rabbit! An angel! A swan!.”
And it’s the best kind of game because no one’s ever wrong.

Everyone should have a special place like my hill
just to rest and let the mind roam free where it will.
Far away from the traffic, the noise and the dust
in the crystal clear sunshine of a world they can trust.
Life’s easy to master when we strive not to worry
and snatch up the whip from the cruel hand of hurry.
When we stop struggling to accumulate more than we need
for the god with the insatiable appetite – greed.
You can’t take it with you. That old line is true.
And you know, when it’s all said and done, we won’t want to.
For when our old, mortal husks fall away and are buried,
all we’ll need is the goodness and love that they carried.
So relax into life, breathe deep and let go.
Attain what you need but don’t sell your soul.
For it’s a treasure far beyond the mere baubles of men
and once lost, much harder to earn back again.

Just a few thoughts from my heart to yours
hoping that one or maybe two will endure
to make some dreary day a little bit brighter
and the load that you carry, perhaps, a bit lighter.
Though the author claims no special wisdom or power
to lecture from atop some ivory tower.
I’m just one more soul, no different from you,
whose made all the mistakes and a few new ones, too.
But somehow survived all those nights without end,
my tired, tattered spirit refusing to mend,
wondering what so much pain could be for,
the spiritual carnage of a personal war.
For it’s in punishing ourselves that we can be most unkind
and the most torn, fearful battles take place in the mind.
But the hardest climb leads to the best, brightest view
so this is my humble message to you
like a bottle set adrift on some far, lonesome shore
from my small, solitary island to yours . . .

Though we may never meet, we are friends through this poem.
In this way, we can never be truly alone.
For though we’re apart in time, place and name,
we are joined in the same, sanctified mortal game.
We may differ in doctrine, language and race
but in the most sacred ways, we have perfect grace.
We both dream and love. We both bleed and cry.
And as sure as we’re living, we someday must die.
So now, while the grapes are plump on the vine,
take time to laugh and savor the wine.
Turn your heart to the beauty that’s in and around you.
Walk gently, with love, and the same will surround you.
You’ll surely see further the farther you go.
And remember – it’s pain which helps us to grow.
For with all of its sadness, its heartache and strife,
with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.
Yes, with all of its sorrow, it’s a wonderful life.

 

The Antidotes for Sorrow

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I got together with a friend and his wife on Saturday night that I haven’t seen for over twenty years. He and I met on a train in Paris when we were in our twenties and ended up traveling around Europe a bit. He was from Texas and a long-haired hipster. I was from California and looked very clean-cut but was really a hedonist. We traveled together for a month or so before he went home and I continued on around Europe and the Greek islands for several more months. 

Though it was difficult to pull off, I’m glad I took that six-month backpacking trip, for many reasons. I wanted to do it while I was still in my twenties. I saw all the things I had read about in history books. I made friends around the world I’m still friends with today. It expanded me as a person in many ways. It made me braver because I learned that the world is as open or closed as we are. i.e., we create our own reality, get what we give, etc.

Another reason I’m glad I took that trip is that it was the last gasp of innocence in my life. My family was healthy. Everything still lay before me. In the years since, there have been quite a few bad experiences. I know we all have our lists of horrors, and I hate to present mine, but there’s a higher purpose for it. I promise. Here are the lowlights of my last twenty years –

Shortly after I returned home, I was at a park showing a friend photos from the trip when a man was robbed and murdered not twenty feet from us and he died in my arms. The bad guys got away. That messed me up good.

A good friend died of leukemia, unrecognizable from bloating and jaundice.

My brother and only sibling died of a drug overdose.

My mother barely survived breast cancer twice.

My wife lost her mother to a massive stroke only three years after we were married.

My father, always the life of the party and an amazing singer and storyteller, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Dementia, was whittled down to nothing physically and mentally over five years, broke his hip, and spent an agonizing last month in a torture chamber called Kaiser Permanente Hospital (Panorama City, California) being abused by callus and grossly incompetent nurses and doctors, and couldn’t even say goodbye because his throat was so ravaged by botched tube placements. He died on 12/21/14.

Without warning, his perfectly healthy dog and now my mother’s only companion, died on Christmas Day four days later, as if wanting to be reunited with my father. (I wrote about it in a story called The Rainbow Bridge in the Chicken Soup for the Soul book My Very Good, Very Bad Dog.) 

My father had a sister in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who was a recluse. She had always made my father feel guilty for leaving her and coming to America to seek better opportunities and start a family. “I’m your family, not them,” she would say. “You should be here taking care of me.” She told him her life wouldn’t have been so hard if he would have stayed. Like most people with tragic lives, she blamed everyone but herself for the way her life turned out. She never dated or married, never drove a car, never had a job, and never left the city of Belfast. My father sent her money to alleviate his guilt but when he developed Parkinson’s, he started to forget. Of course, that’s when we heard from her. When she found out he was sick, she never called again. So I felt no compulsion to let her know he was dying, or even tell her he had died. But I knew he would want me to so I wrote her a letter asking her to come out to California all expenses paid, to start over, let bygones be bygones, etc. Months passed and I didn’t hear back from her so I figured it was just her being her.

Then, in April, four months after my father died, I got a call from a Belfast policeman. He said, “I hate to tell you this, son, but your aunt is dead on the floor here, and judging by your letter, which was in a pile of mail inside her door, and the expiration dates on her food in the refrigerator, she died in late December or early January.”

She was such a recluse, nobody knew she was dead for four months. A neighbor finally realized he hadn’t seen her bringing groceries in and knocked the back door. It was unlocked so he opened it and yelled her name, then the smell hit him.

By pure coincidence, she died within two weeks of my father, as if her house – the house they shared as children – was my father’s first stop after being freed from his broken body. As if he said to her, “Come on, sis. This is no life. Come with me.”

It was a tragic end to a tragic life. I arranged her funeral to restore some of the dignity she had lost lying dead on the floor of her bedroom for four months. Fortunately, I had the help of two absolute Godsends – my maternal uncle and aunt, Billy and Jennifer, who live in Northern Ireland.

The day after she was buried, my mother’s house in California was burglarized. Along with the usual items, they stole an old make-up case my mother kept every letter my father ever wrote to her when they were young and still unmarried. He had moved to Canada before America and begged her to meet him there. He even proposed in one of those letters. I had never read them because I thought my mom wanted to keep them private, but after my father died, I was interested in seeing who he was before I or my brother were born. The burglars were too dumb to figure out how to open the simple latches on the case so they just took the whole thing, hoping there was jewelry in it.

My mother called to tell me about the burglary. The police were there when I arrived. She and I discovered the missing case together. She looked at me with tear-filled eyes and said, “They took all my treasures.” I hugged her, then went into the other room and beat the living hell out of a bed. The next day, I searched every trash can in town hoping the burglars opened the box and threw it away when they saw there was nothing but old letters and photographs in it – worthless to them but priceless to my mother. I also made fliers and posted them all over town offering a $5000.00 reward for the return of the case and letters, or information leading to the arrest of the slugs who stole it.

I wrote a letter to the local paper and it got picked up by every news channel in town. My mom was interviewed repeatedly about it because of its Nicholas Sparks-esque plot. She used to read those letters to my father when his mind was buried under those diabolical brain diseases to remind him of who he was, and who they were together.

So . . . back to my friend’s visit. He was a wild man always joking around when we met twenty years ago in Europe, and he still is. It is impossible not to laugh with him. His wife is kind and gracious, with an infectious laugh. We all laughed until our faces hurt. And then it hit me, I hadn’t laughed that hard that long since my father died. Not often enough, anyway.

After they returned home, Mark sent me an email saying, “I know you’ve been through some horrible stuff lately, and we can always talk about that, but my job is to make you laugh and help you forget.” 

Another good friend from high school named Bob also told me that the best antidote for all the pain life sends our way is pure, unadulterated, full-tilt, edge-of-our-seats, mind-clearing FUN.

It’s true. Laughter washes sadness from the heart like water washes away dirt from the body. The problem is laughing is the last thing one wants to do when depressed. Depression takes work. We must keep our head down, fight the urge to smile, round our shoulders, and sigh a lot. If we would just do a hundred jumping jacks or run around the block, we would have no choice but to feel better, at least a little bit, because the mind follows the body’s posture, but we won’t. Depression feeds on itself. It even feeds on the desire to be free of it. 

It took me a while to learn this one. I was a serious SOB when I was younger. My friends then would often say to me, “You think too much.” I would usually have some obnoxious, depression-defending response like, “It’s the human being’s frontal lobe and our willingness to use it that separates us from the animals.” But I understand now what they were trying to say – that I was ruining my enjoyment of life by overthinking everything. There’s a lot to be said for pure experience. Pure fun.

I also understand now what a line from an old song called My Back Pages (written by Bob Dylan, sung by The Byrds) meant – “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” Youth really is wasted on the young sometimes. It takes so much for most of us to rediscover the joy we had naturally as children, before all the excrement came down.

I have finally not only learned but APPLIED what I learned – that depression and sadness are as strong as any prison wall and must be broken out of the same way, by finding friends who make us laugh, and who get our humor. By seeking Fun with a capital F.

Laughter is the wrecking ball. Real happiness sends the demons scattering, knowing they’ve failed. Not just opening the curtains that keep the light out but tearing them off the wall is an act of victory as surely as those soldiers planting the flag on Iwo Jima. And joy should be the reward for surviving pain. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell said people don’t really care about “the meaning of life” as much as they want to “feel the rapture of being alive” – to know that they’re spending their lives in the best way possible, the same way we want to spend our money wisely. Time spent depressed is the worst use of our time. Grief has its place and time, but it must be emerged from at some point completely. Walking around with a giant hole right through the middle of us is an insult to life, ourselves, and everyone trying to love us.

Below are a few photos that demonstrate the kind of joy I’m talking about. The kind of joy good friends, God bless them all, remind me of. The kind of joy we should seek every day to chase away the depression that threatens to consume us after the most horrible losses. Life is to be lived, my friends. Completely and passionately.

I suspect at that final moment when death comes for us, we will realize how precious every moment was, and regret every moment we spent wallowing in painful memories and grief. We’ll wonder why we didn’t do all the things we wanted to do, why we let ourselves live a half-life, why we didn’t trust our talents and the path they take us on completely, why we didn’t tell our friends and family we loved them more often, why we “tip-toed through life just to arrive at death comfortably.” Why, why, why, why, why. Those are why’s we don’t want to have.

To anyone who made it through this long blog post, you’re a rare breed in this fast food world. I wish you peace, happiness, and that thing that makes them both possible – Fun.

 

 

 

Perspective

(Warning: Content may be unsettling.)

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I was an insurance adjuster once, a truly unremarkable job that required a lot of driving. To make matters worse, I worked in Los Angeles, which is world famous for heavy traffic and road rage.

I was on my way to a job in the older part of downtown L.A., a burglary at a business with a very generic name, something like “Acme Industrial.” As soon as I got on the freeway, just like clockwork, some guy started tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I looked down and saw I was doing the speed limit, so I didn’t speed up and I didn’t move over. I wasn’t in his hurry. He drove past me and, as expected, flipped me the bird. I flipped him one back. We exchanged F.U.’s and he was on his way, tailgating someone else up ahead. 

I reached the job and parked, still a little frazzled from the freeway. I entered through the back door. I stopped in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Three grim-faced men in white smocks looked at me. One was rolling out a corpse on a stainless steel gurney. The second was transferring another body from a gurney to a platform which slid into an oven, the interior glowing a searing an angry orange like a portal to hell. The third was sifting ashes in what looked like a cookie pan near the side door of the furnace, chopping it up into a fine powder. 

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Half a dozen corpses were lined up at the rear of the room, the last line they would ever wait in. It finally dawned on me that I was in a crematorium. I felt an impulse to turn and go back outside when one of the men spoke. 

 “Can I help you?” 
 “Uh, yeah. I’m here about . . . the burglary.” 
 “Oh, you need to talk to George. I’ll get him for you.” 

He left me alone with the corpses and the other two men, who solemnly returned to their work. An old woman with wispy, gray hair lay naked several feet away. Her pale blue eyes were dry and vacant like dusty glass ornaments. Somebody’s mother, I thought. Somebody’s wife. I turned away and asked the other two men, “Do you guys ever get used to this?”
“Yeah,” one of them said, “After a while, it’s just another job.”  

The man came back and said “George will be right out” then rolled the wispy-haired woman to the oven door. I had seen enough. I went outside and stood in the sunlight.

George came out and we talked business. When we were done, I asked him about his job, if it ever bothered him. He told me the same thing – “You get used to it.” I asked him how. I had to know. I had a feeling I might need to. He said, “It’s not really a matter of how. It’s like being a cop or a soldier. You either turn your mind off or you go nuts.” 

A few minutes later, I was back on the 110 heading back to the office. I turned on the radio. I needed to hear some music. I found a bombastic classical piece, the kind you’d want to hear while skiing downhill fast with icy wind in your face. It washed my soul like morphine washes pain from the body. 

I called work, said I wasn’t feeling well (which wasn’t completely untrue), and drove to the beach. It had never been more beautiful.

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On the way home, I looked in my rear view mirror and, just like clockwork, some guy was tailgating me, yelling, his face all twisted up. I moved over and let him drive on past. 

 

Art credit – Crowded Beach by Jan Matson