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.

 

 

 

How We Survive (poem on grieving)

I once visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

It’s a strange place, full of odd, gothic sculptures, many of which didn’t make me feel any better about death. For instance, I could have done without the skulls with bat wings and couldn’t figure out why anyone would want them on a relative’s grave. Unless Herman Munster was buried there. It might work then.

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When I was younger and hadn’t lost anybody close to me yet, death was a fascinating abstraction to me. I was as obsessed with it as your average Egyptian pharaoh. I read all the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unexplained” books. I attempted out-of-body experiences, astral travel and lucid dreaming. I even climbed over a cemetery wall on a Friday the 13th during a full, blue moon and sat in a freshly-dug grave with a Ouija board and candles. ALONE. Nothing happened, aside from the heebie-jeebie’s of my own imagination.

I stood in that grave and cursed the devil, daring him to appear to me. I was that crazy. For some reason, I desperately needed to know if there was something beyond this life. I had what little faith had been gathered from my mother saying The Lord’s Prayer to me at night as a child. (They didn’t go to church regularly.) But I needed proof.

Looking back, I think my obsession with death mirrored my love of youth. I was acutely aware even then of how transitory youth is, and how many doors opened because of it – professionally, romantically, and otherwise. But as time passed and death actually came to meet me, most notably in the sudden death of my brother and only sibling, I stopped investigating and making a pageantry of it and instead became more obsessed with living completely, with celebrating life, knowing I would grow old and die someday, too. I still feel that way. As Joseph Campbell once said, people aren’t as interested in the meaning of life as much as they are in living passionately and purposefully, and experiencing their lives completely. The human heart can endure anything except endless monotony; years and years of dull, identical days. The worst enemy of sadness isn’t happiness. It’s fun. Good, old-fashioned, seat-of-your-pants, exhilarating fun. Newness. Exploration. 

So, because I honor life now instead of death, I don’t remember those flying skulls at Pere Lachaise as much as I remember graves like this one. 

Pere Lachaise

What a message. A lifeless body breaking out of a stone tomb to hold up a rose. Now that is honoring the spirit of a loved one. 

Shortly after my brother died, I wrote a poem called How We Survive. Of everything I’ve ever written, it has traveled the furthest. I’ve received dozens of very touching emails from gracious people taking the time to let me know it helped them through the worst part of their grief. If you’ve lost someone you love, I hope it does the same for you. Grief is a terrible burden to bear. I lost my father last December, so I’m walking that road again, and doing my best to live up to my own poem.

Peace.

How We Survive

If we are fortunate,
we are given a warning.

If not,
there is only the sudden horror,
the wrench of being torn apart;
of being reminded
that nothing is permanent,
not even the ones we love,
the ones our lives revolve around.

Life is a fragile affair.
We are all dancing
on the edge of a precipice,
a dizzying cliff so high
we can’t see the bottom.

One by one,
we lose those we love most
into the dark ravine.

So we must cherish them
without reservation.
Now.
Today.
This minute.
We will lose them
or they will lose us
someday.
This is certain.
There is no time for bickering.
And their loss
will leave a great pit in our hearts;
a pit we struggle to avoid
during the day
and fall into at night.

Some,
unable to accept this loss,
unable to determine
the value of life without them,
jump into that black pit
spiritually or physically,
hoping to find them there.

And some survive
the shock,
the denial,
the horror,
the bargaining,
the barren, empty aching,
the unanswered prayers,
the sleepless nights
when their breath is crushed
under the weight of silence
and all that it means.

Somehow, some survive all that and,
like a flower opening after a storm,
they slowly begin to remember
the one they lost
in a different way . . .

The laughter,
the irrepressible spirit,
the generous heart,
the way their smile made them feel,
the encouragement they gave
even as their own dreams were dying.

And in time, they fill the pit
with other memories,
the only memories that really matter.

We will still cry.
We will always cry.
But with loving reflection
more than hopeless longing.

And that is how we survive.
That is how the story should end.
That is how they would want it to be.

The Healing Power of Children

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In his song The Things We’ve Handed Down, Marc Cohn sang to his unborn child, “Will you be a sad reminder of what’s been lost along the way? Maybe you can help me find her in the things you do and say.” The “her” he refers to in that line is his mother, whom he lost suddenly at an early age. He sang about her again in the song Saints Preserve Us, an intensely pain-filled song.  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvd6kXIfAl0)

Grief is perhaps the oddest and most complex emotion. At the moment of death, when the world is crumbling around us and we can’t imagine life without that person, we are certain we’ll never be happy again. That feeling persists for a time, often a very long time, but then, as if by magic, it gets a little easier. We catch ourselves laughing, or having several sadness-free minutes. That realization is often followed by guilt, as if we are somehow betraying our lost loved one by allowing ourselves to be, not even happy, but just “okay” again. It’s a relief, like not being physically sick anymore. We take normal health for granted until we lose it and start praying to just stop throwing up or feeling pain. The same is true of the heart, except that after losing someone, there’s a new normal. The old world dies along with that person, and we slowly build a new one. 

I was in Vancouver one year, helping a friend make an independent movie. We were driving through a canyon between Vancouver and a town called Cache Creek. At points, this canyon had very high, vertical, rock walls on either side. It was beautiful to drive through in daylight, but ominous and claustrophobia-inducing at night. I was given the task of picking up an actor (Paul Jarrett) in Vancouver and left a little late, so I had to drive through the worst part of the canyon in the pitch black of night. The darkness started to play with my mind. I had both of my parents then but started having very dark thoughts about how I would handle losing them. Like anyone we love, they defined me so much, I didn’t know who I would be without them. Paul, who was a little older than me, asked if I had children. At the time, I didn’t. He said, “Start your own family. It won’t make it easier to lose your parents, but they are the best possible kind of distraction from the pain.” He was a wise man.

I now have two children, one and four years-old, and Paul’s words returned to me just this morning. I lost my brother and only sibling when I was 34 and he was 37, and my father last December. Suffice to say I have more than my share of sadness at the moment.

Since my father died, I have been feeling my brother’s death more intensely than I allowed myself to before because they were so intertwined in my mind and memory. So much falls away as time passes, and all we’re left with is memories. 

I was playing hide-and-seek with my eldest daughter this morning. She was looking for me and I saw her come around a corner very furtively. It reminded me of a photograph from 1965 or so of my brother coming around a corner in exactly the same way. I had always been amused by that photo because he looks so timid, as if worried someone was going to jump out and scare him at any moment. He may have been playing hide-and-seek with our father or mother when that photo was taken. It was then that the sadness hit me, right in the middle of a game. The sadness of how far my brother fell from that state of perfect innocence.

None of us can avoid that fall. It’s inevitable in this world. We all must grow up and “put away childish things” as the old poem says. But my brother fell a lot further. He started using marijuana at the age of thirteen and went right up (or down) the ladder to harder drugs, until he died of an overdose. He had spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, had very few teeth left, and was covered with menacing tattoos. Only I remembered the fair-haired boy who built sand castles with me in the sun at Venice Beach. 

My daughter found me in the closet where I was hiding. She laughed as she always does. I smiled but couldn’t seem to muster a laugh. She noticed and her smile dimmed. I always hate that. I don’t want her to know about death yet. I even told her my father moved back to Ireland. As far as she’s concerned, he’s still alive and skipping through the shamrocks over there. She’ll learn about death and the other harsh realities of life soon enough. I picked her up, walked into the other room, and sat with her on the floor, her arms around my neck. I smelled her honey hair, savoring that hug, but unable to stop thinking about my brother, wishing his life would have been different, wondering how and why he could have gone from a curious, happy, fun-loving child to a drug addict, convict and overdose statistic.

I’m pretty good at hiding my emotions. I didn’t cry so I don’t know how she knew something wasn’t quite right, but my 18 month-old toddler also came over and put her little arms around me, too. I was now swallowed by hugs from my two girls, just when I needed to be. She’s a loving child so this isn’t unusual, but it was just what I needed, just when I needed it. I could feel the scale inside me, one side holding sadness and the other love. They teetered back and forth for a moment, but the love side eventually won, and I was able to get back to the business of living, and loving my children without sadness tainting happy moments. Emotional instability is a terrible burden to hang on children. I will not let that happen. As Lee Greenwood sang, hearts aren’t made to break, they’re made to love.

Happiness and inner peace don’t win on their own. We need to allow them to win. If we don’t choose them for ourselves, who will? They’re the greatest gifts we can give ourselves, and our children.