One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several survivors become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …

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The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.

Ghosts.

Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.

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Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”

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We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.

 

A Remarkable Recovery From Unspeakable Grief and PTSD

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Some stories stick with you. The word “heartbreaking” is not enough to describe them; nor do “resilience,” “survival,” and “overcoming misery” say enough.” Yet all those words apply.

The therapist in the tale who helped enable a positive conclusion was Donald Meichenbaum, Ph.D. He related this account in a video focused on finding meaning in the aftermath of trauma: PTSD & Complex PTSD: Ways to Bolster Resilience. 

Don’t read further if you wish to avert your eyes from tragedy, but understand this: you cannot know of the treatment that allowed for a redemptive, healing story unless you face it.

The woman: a young, bright, intelligent mother. A good mother. Her husband was away on a business trip. Home held only her daughter and herself. An intruder could be heard downstairs. Mom entered Vicky’s room and they hid in her closet. The burglars left without going upstairs. The event upset both Vicky and the mother, worried such an episode might happen when the husband/father traveled once more to make his living. The adults installed a security system and alerted the police. They lived in a safe neighborhood. No reason to expect another forced entry. Still, the man insisted his wife get a gun, just in case. She did not like firearms, but relented. The night stand next to her bed harbored the weapon.

Time passed. The man traveled again. Late and stormy darkness. Noises downstairs. Was the mother dreaming, reliving an imaginary or remembered version of the home invasion?

No. No. No. Not again.

Yes, again.

The mother urgently reached for the gun and moved toward her bedroom door to go to Vicky’s room, just as she had the first time. Vicky came running and pushed the mom’s door open. It struck the mother’s hand and the firearm discharged. Vicky died immediately. The mother sat with her dead daughter for 24-hours until the husband returned.

No words are possible. The parents’ lives were forever changed. Guilt, horror, marital separation, grief, depression. Even loving friends became unavailable, unable to bear the story. Alienation and isolation. As the mother saw it, a life not worth living. She deserved to die.

What is a therapist to do? He can never undo the tragedy, but perhaps he can help the survivor to find a reason to live, a meaning for the rest of her life. Here is what Meichenbaum did:

The psychologist knew his job was first to establish a therapeutic alliance, to show compassion, and accept, not judge. He needed to allow the patient to tell her story as she was able, permit its unfolding, not push. A plan to prevent the woman’s self-harm was created. The therapist allowed his emotions to be touched. His own tears came as he listened.

The psychologist asked a question to understand more about the loss. The client had said that Vicky was “special.”

In what way?

She was wise beyond her years.

The first session ended and the doctor arranged a second appointment in two days’ time. Meichenbaum made a request. He said he would be “honored and privileged” if mom brought in a photo album of Vicky, but only if she wanted to: no pressure. He wished to get a further sense of who the child was.

Reviewing the pictures together was painful in the extreme. Yet this marked the beginning of the doctor’s effort to embed the only moment the mother focused on (the accident and death) within a broader narrative of Vicky’s life and her own life: to pull his client out of the single instant of horror into the stream of her ongoing existence — perhaps to create a potential redemptive story projected into the future.

This is not to suggest any kind of treatment would ever erase the pain or guilt completely. Yet, it might still be possible to help the mother give Vicky’s memory meaning. And perhaps to transform the patient’s life in the process.

The therapist asked his client another question. Two, actually. He wanted to know what this child (who was “wise beyond her years”) might say to the parent’s wish for oblivion:

What advice would Vicky give and what would happen to the memory of her if you kill yourself?

The mother affirmed the obvious answers which had escaped her: Vicky would not want her to die. Moreover, the memory of Vicky would also die with the death of the one who knew her best. Meichenbaum’s questions led her to realize she might do some good in the world, something to perpetuate Vicky’s memory and give meaning to the child’s short life. Treatment continued. Mom became a public advocate for gun locks and gun safety, thus transforming her loss and honoring Vicky.

In part, Donald Meichenbaum assisted the patient to fashion a new story of her own life different from one ending with two deaths. She became aware her time on earth was not yet completed. And that Vicky’s impact on the world offered a potential future, if only the parent gave her daughter a metaphorical life — gave voice to what her daughter’s death could still achieve.

This is not at all to suggest the mother wouldn’t have traded anything — anything — to get Vicky back. Yet, the mom might yet continue her existence with a constructive narrative of redeeming value in spite of complicity in the child’s loss.

Meichenbaum is famous for asking questions — for creating a Socratic Dialogue with his patients. He did not give his patient advice, but led the conversation so she might grasp the next rung on the ladder of recovery, not simply be handed it. Therapists should know “directions” from the counselor don’t produce as much “ownership” of the treatment process, nor as much motivation to change, as occurs when he helps the client uncover her own way, not just follow advice.

Might you also find your own way? Might the rest of your story be one of value?

What do YOU say?

The photo is titled Pedra do Baú — Compos do Jordáo. The author is Izabel Tartari and it was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Anticipation and Realization: Can Expecting Disappointment Reduce Your Pain?

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My mother used to say, “Anticipation is greater than realization.” She uttered the phrase more than once, always unprompted. It was as if she were giving me a warning about the disappointments of life, the hoped-for moments that wouldn’t fulfill my expectation of them. Certainly, she was speaking of her own pain-filled history. Her strategy was not to predict too much good from events and especially from people, for fear of adding to the list of letdowns. In doing therapy I heard many others tell me they adopted a similar defense, the better to buttress themselves against the world’s assaults. Simply put, don’t get your hopes up, they would say. Otherwise you will be ripe for dismay.

I am no blind optimist, but I think mom was wrong. First, I’m not sure you can effectively steel yourself against all the blows of life. If Death is an opponent with an undefeated record, Life is sometimes your best friend and at others your worst enemy. He will lift you up and tear you down. Even in a lucky life like mine “there will be blood.” But since I like the heady experience of those times life lifts you off your feet, I must pay the cost of admission to the airport. These are the terms of the contract we accept by taking our first breath. We do well, if we can, to bounce back when defeated, since the future may hold more glorious and unexpected flights.

Secondly, many of the injuries we suffer are impossible to anticipate except in an abstract way: we know people will leave, we expect occasional betrayal, we recognize nobody wins every game, on and on. Only a fortune-teller knows exactly how and when. Thus, in a moment of pain, we are taken by surprise despite our preparation. Moreover, we risk wasting our days in a state of general worry or dullness, bypassing every chance for love, kindness, and accomplishment. Expecting disappointment rarely reduces the hurt, but the strategy guarantees little possibility of joy.

My most memorable experiences were impossible to fully forecast. A trivial example: as a kid I looked forward to attending a NY Yankees baseball night game against the Chicago White Sox on May 18, 1956. I couldn’t wait until my Uncle Sam took me. The thrill I imagined weeks in advance was amplified a thousand fold when the mighty Mickey Mantle hit one home run batting right-handed and another left-handed, a feat rarer than pitching a no-hit game. I can still picture the port side clout, as if carried by a rising tide, the ball aglow in the arc lights until the spheroid struck the right field upper deck of old Comiskey Park. But for the impediment of the rafters I thought it would reach the moon.

I have been moved to tears by music, by the birth of my children, and amazed that I could move many of my high school classmates to tears by a speech given at one of our class reunions. A crackling physical electricity of athletic performance passed through my body on one occasion — a sensation I never knew possible. I’ve enjoyed luck in love and friendship as well as heartbreak and betrayal. A business partner and friend stole tens of thousands of dollars from our enterprise. My parents are both long dead. A lifetime of movies, books, conversations and observations did not prepare me for these sensations and emotions when the moment arrived. Life is about taking action and being surprised and being grateful despite the fact there is no free lunch.

Some hunker down in their shelter of straw thinking the big bad wolves will thereby be held off. I’m here to tell you I know of no fool-proof defense against injury and no Teflon-infused clothing to deflect the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” What we are offered is a life of imagination and fear and effortfully summoned courage and friendship and tears and laughter and loss and taking chances: in other words, of winning and losing. If you think otherwise, well, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sample the menu of life. Not all the dishes are tasty, but even some of those you don’t like are informative, and knowledge is usually desirable. Don’t make the highlights of your life the things you buy for yourself. Do make some of those highlights the gifts (of all kinds) you give to others.

The best events cannot be anticipated. And don’t glut yourself: a gourmet meal should be a special treat, not a routine pattern of diminishing novelty. The greatest art, music, and literature become old if revisited daily. I wouldn’t want to attend a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony even once in three years. Celebrate the rare occasion. Become an enemy of routine. Do look forward to some things, be they goals worth working for, a date with your sweetie, a trip, or a once a year get-together with old friends. Anticipation has magic, as we note in the lives of children every Christmas. Don’t become like the worker in a candy factory who grows tired of chocolate by eating too much.

The world is not your oyster, but there are some good bites. No one gets out alive, yet brave souls seize the day. On a fine afternoon your bite will feel like more than enough. You might even uncover a pearl.

The top image is called In Anticipation by Albert von Keller. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Man Who Didn’t Give in: Sir Nicholas Winton

 

“I work on the motto that if something isn’t impossible, there must be a way of doing it.” So said Sir Nicholas Winton when asked how he saved the lives of 669 children. Sir Nicholas died yesterday at the age of 106. Before you give up on whatever challenge faces you, get to know his story. The video documentary (above) includes a 2014 interview of Winton. I wrote this essay in 2009: To Save One Life is to Save the World/

Looking for Answers Where There are only Questions: Relationships that Haunt Us

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Shoulders exist to look back over. We can’t help ourselves. Ghosts — those who are absent — hang out behind, in blighted corners of the mind. Oh, they might be with someone else or in purgatory, but they are just as surely gone in either case. Not forgotten, but gone.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light; from the sadness of the ending to your recovery.

We hope to scrape off the sticky relationship-residue, caustic to the soul.  We search for a satisfying explanation of why things ended. You want to know what happened, bottom to top, left to right, inside out.

One fights to squeeze understanding out of the wet cloth of the past. It seems impossible to reach what is behind you. Your arms are too short, your shoulders resist. Hard as you try, no feat of strength lifts the fog or warms the clinging chill of loneliness. Nor does total comprehension come to you. It feels as though sadness or anger shall follow you all the days of your life, and certainly preoccupation with the way things died. Perhaps the objective side of you knows otherwise, but you are hip-deep in the subjective. A future will only be visible when “night-gloom and damp” are burned off by dawn. It seems infinitely far away: an event that is in front of you while you are twisting your body to look at what is receding.

Allow me to walk with you from the darkness to the light. Yes, I am repeating myself.

We begin by trying to figure out why he left or why he cheated or why he wasn’t satisfied. Or why we weren’t satisfied when we “should” have been. We despise our mistakes and our stupidity. Guilt wracks us even if there is no reason for self-blame. We speculate for hours and nights and weeks: why did he criticize and judge us or vice versa? Why didn’t we say something when we could have, before the lights of love or friendship went out?

Why didn’t he tell us? Should we have read his mind?

Why did he embarrass us or we humiliate him? Why, despite everything we did to please him, were we “not enough?”

How did it  happen and might it have been otherwise? The “what ifs” are inescapable. What if we had done more or less? Spent more time or less? Smiled less or more? Set limits more or less? Been affectionate more or less? Been more diplomatic? Not given up so soon?

Remember, I am beside you on the walk.

It feels unique. Crucifixion is personal: singled out on a planet of seven billion. The world goes its indifferent way to the right and we are left, the fetid road kill of a random act of cosmic unkindness.

Wallace Stegner knew our pain. His 1967 novel, All the Live Little Things, reveals the topography of the dark night of the soul. His character, Joe Allston, has seen too much, sustained too many losses. A sixty-something married man living in the ’60s, his self-deadening fortifications against pain are penetrated by two emotional gophers who burrow under his Spartan guard: a young man who reminds him of his dead son and a young woman named Marian, full of ebullient life.

Marian accepts the world and does not judge or complain. “Live! Suffer! Enjoy! Wake up!” She is irrepressibly at one with the natural world as it is — with the terrible and wonderful consequences for her personally. She knows weeds and flowers are entangled, and to poison all the weeds of life will just as surely kill the flowers they surround. The platonic, but tender relationship between Joe and Marian opens Allston, nibbles away, and strips him bare, permitting fatherly affection for this young mother. Her glow warms him and he cannot prevent his guard from dropping, his soul from becoming vulnerable. She stimulates a new state of his being: the joy, pleasure-pain of experience, but also the exquisite awfulness love always exposes us to: the terror of loss he tried to bury by not allowing anything to matter too much.

Joe describes himself:

I am concerned with gloomier matters: the condition of the flesh, susceptible to pain, infected with consciousness of consciousness, doomed to death and the awareness of death. My life stains the air around me. I am a tea bag left too long in the cup, and my steepings grow darker and bitterer.

If you are struggling with loss you will find a soul mate in this haunted intellectual. Take solace in hearing another’s voice capture your feelings. His is a life bathed in loss, struggle, and resentment. The generation gap between himself and the “flower children” of the ’60s leaves him caustic. He has been at endless war with the creatures and weeds that would undermine his garden. He is the parent you are or you had — the one who judges and cannot surrender.

Joe is cursed by his thought process: he does not let an event pass without reflection and close inspection. Allston’s struggle is, like all of ours, unique but universal. He thinks we expect too much of life. Each one of us demands permanence where none exists. We pave over our heart’s driveway, hoping no pain will penetrate the concrete slabs, no cracks will ever form. One seeks relationships for lasting assurance and discovers the seeds of their endings present in their beginnings. Jobs start and end. Children joyfully explode into our world, only to leave for their own. The championship crown is for this season only. Next year someone else will wear the laurels.

Human lives — all lives — are in transit, so best to realize that every worldly destination is temporary. If one can, at least occasionally, “get” this, then you will make the most of life and its passing beauties. Yes, you will still stare over your shoulder and struggle with all the questions about what happened and what you might have done. The look back is both unavoidable and required to liberate yourself from what you’ve lost. The passage of time does the rest of the healing.

You can visit this psychological “yesterday,” but don’t stay, lest your backward glance prevent you from escaping the fog of grief and moving through to whatever the new day will offer.

Remember, we never get all the answers. Even if we were able to question the long departed, like Odysseus in the Underworld, the answers received might or might not satisfy, in part because the departed don’t know themselves: both their answers and their self-knowledge are imperfect.

After a while, the questions matter less. There is solace in this. Other people, other causes, laughter and loveliness can enrich you, reducing the need for the scoring key to yesterday’s test.

Your twisted neck wearies of its unnatural position. “Face forward,” wisdom whispers. “The race is in front, not behind. Life goes on. Comfort exists in what is still possible. Joy may yet be yours.”

The photo is called Looking Back. It is the work of Bill Nicholls and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Loss of Someone You Love

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When you have sustained a personal loss others provide consolation as best they can. If it is a death, there is a funeral to attend and a home to visit. If it is the breakup of a relationship or a marriage, there are phone calls, email, and visits, too. Plus, in almost all cases, an off-stage sigh of relief from the friend or relative who was not so close to the departed; relief that it didn’t happen closer to their heart and their home. But what is life thereafter for those who are most bereft?

You know some of it because you’ve lived it or read about it or seen it on stage: the tears and/or anger, the grieving process, etc. I’m not going into that which is well-known to most people, but rather some of the things you might not think about that happen when someone terribly close is gone; and how the life of one remaining behind can be changed. The items on the list may or may not happen to you, but they do happen, at least occasionally, for more than a few.

First, however, I want to emphasize that while we are not all the same in dealing with loss, the time it takes is usually measured in months, not years. That said, anniversaries of the death, holidays, and other significant events at which the departed is absent can be very tough, especially the first few times through. And the long shadow of an important life can reappear even years later, although without the emotional wallop, as a rule. Just to emphasize, this is something almost all of us get through, painful though it is. And, as you will see at the end of this essay, it can also be a thing from which you learn and grow.

Now to the less often discussed experiences that you might have while going through the grieving process:

  • Fatigue. Loss can be like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of you. You may feel tired, need more sleep, or simply have a general lack of enthusiasm and joy. The sadness is well-known, the spirit-draining weariness is less frequently discussed, but can go on for months.
  • Dullness of Thought. Whether you have a razor-edged brain or the more ordinary kind, you just might find that your usual sharpness is compromised. Perhaps you will be more forgetful, perhaps slower to process ideas, or just less in command of the executive functions that your mind typically does automatically.
  • Seeing the Loved One Who is not There. The days will pass and you will usually do the usual things. Let’s say you are filling up your car with gasoline at one of those petrol stations that also include a convenience store, filled with some snacks and sundries. As you are staring off into space while holding the gas pump, you see your deceased father walking into the store to pay for his gas. You literally can’t believe your eyes, and yet it seems to be your dad. You wait for him to exit and, indeed, it is a stranger. For other survivors, a similar circumstance occurs when they hear the voice that is not there. These are usually not hallucinations, but simply a part of the survival and grieving process.
  • Reaching for the Phone to Call the One Who is not There. Something happens in your life that would normally cause you to call, or email, or text the person who is out of your life. Maybe it is news of sports or a personal achievement, a surprising event, or perhaps you want some advice. A second later you realize that the contact will be unavailing. It is either impossible, if the person is deceased, or unwanted, if your former love no longer wants you.
  • Thinking about What the Deceased has Missed. My Uncle Sam, who died at age 50 in 1970, loved technology. He was creative and made things with the digital dexterity of an old-time watchmaker, although that was not his craft. He was the first person I knew to have a tape recorder (big reels in those days before cassettes and digital recording), a window air conditioner, and a Kodak camera that gave you a photo seconds after you took it, an advance we now take for granted. He was also a rabid fan of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. Over the years, as technology has progressed, I have occasionally thought that he would have loved to live today to see and use it all; maybe even to play a part in changing it for the better. And, in 2005, when the White Sox won the World Series, he would have been in heaven. Then again, maybe he was.
  • The Inability of Others Who are also Bereft to Help You Grieve. The most poignant and difficult examples of this feature of loss come in families where a parent has perished or fled to parts unknown. If the family still includes a loving parent, the children are used to going to that mom or dad with their problems, assuming the kids are still relatively young. But now they find that the person who provided consolation is himself or herself laid low by the very same loss from which the children seek relief. Part of the reason that therapists are useful is that they have not been struck by the identical calamity and therefore have the emotional energy and perspective that the remaining parent temporarily lacks. In a way, the children of parents who are also grieving the same loss have sustained a double blow: the literal absence of one caregiver and the altered capacity and emotional support of the other.
  • Changes in Continuing Relationships. The demise or permanent absence of someone important can change relationships among the survivors. When a parent dies who served to block family differences and ensure that “everyone would get along,” those submerged conflicts can burst out. It is a bit reminiscent of the multiethnic countries of Eastern Europe or the Middle East who were ruled by a dictator, until the dictator was overthrown and sectarian strife broke out. In some other families — those where favorites were played by the parents — I have occasionally seen the passing of the parents permit the siblings to get over their grudges and become closer now that no one is present to “stir the pot” to a boil, setting one child against another. Then there is the departure of a central figure in a group of friends to another city. His or her loss can, in effect, be the loss of the glue that held the group together; or, it can be the opportunity to reform the group and perhaps add someone new.
  • The Death of a Child. This is the terror that haunts every parent who ever loved his or her little flesh and blood. Again, each situation is different, but I will comment on two possible outcomes only. Some folks effectively deaden themselves to their surviving children or to any new child who is born. Consciously or unconsciously, they are steeling themselves against the possibility of still another emotional wound. Blame, too, can raise its ugly face. If one or the other member of the couple believes that his or her partner “caused” the death by action, word, or inaction, the marriage itself is at risk. The suicide of a young person too easily sets off this chain of events. Yet it must be said that many of us have also tried to deaden ourselves after the loss of a romantic love. Time usually softens our hearts and fuels the courage to try again, but not always.
  • Meeting Someone Like Your Lost Love. My wife and I have made wonderful friends in the University of Chicago’s four-year “Basic Program” for adults.  One is a man named John Kain. For Aleta, John is more than a friend: he reminds her of her father, who died in 1968 before I had a chance to meet him. She describes John and her dad as “the kind of men whom everyone wishes to have as a friend, the salt of the earth.” Thomas Henek’s funeral drew hundreds and I am convinced he must have been the genuine article: someone you could trust, a person who believed in fair play, and an unprejudiced man raised in a prejudiced home; a man who lived a principled life with strong, but not inflexible opinions, a sense of humor, and, above all, the kind of guy you wanted to have next to you in war-time (he was in the infantry in WWII) — a buddy who had your back. Aleta says that talking to John saddens her not in the least, but makes her feel good because of his likeness to her father. Perhaps you will be so lucky after someone essential passes away, that years later you can, in effect, benefit from his likeness in a new relationship such as hers with John.
  • The Loss of Your History. We’ve all read history books with dates, statistics, events, and conjecture about what caused those occurrences. Usually historians wait a bit before writing books, in part because one needs some perspective to understand how the puzzle pieces interlocked and how the dominoes fell against each other before they stopped. Such books have the advantage of distance, but unless they are written by someone, now usually aged, who lived that history, one tends to miss the authentic voice of the person who was there. Moreover, written history does not take the form of a novel, and is necessarily more concerned with the big picture than those particular lives in which you or I might be most interested. Oral and video history projects, as well as photographs and home videos keep some of that alive. Yet, inevitably, there are things one wishes to know too late, even if you have interviewed an older parent or relative and kept the recording in a safe place. There are always new questions about times that were very different from the time we live in today. Parents and grandparents also are typically our only link to the days before video cameras were in everyone’s pocket.
  • The Undead Feelings about the Dead. In the superb 1970 movie I Never Sang For My Father, starring Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas, the first voice we hear is that of Hackman as the son of Douglas: “Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship.” Such a death, where issues between child and parent were never resolved, finds the survivor struggling to heal himself alone or with the help of others, but with no ability to talk things through with his deceased progenitor. As a therapist, it was often my experience that my patients didn’t even know the extent to which they were still haunted by the neglect, criticism, or frank abuse of a late mom or dad. Indeed, on occasion, someone who was victimized only felt “safe” after the perpetrator’s death. Only then could her conscious and subconscious defenses drop enough to permit exploration and full awareness of the mistreatment she suffered. To some degree, there was still a small child within her (metaphorically speaking) who was terrified of what would happen if she talked about the thing she knew was never to be mentioned.
  • The Things You Said or Didn’t Say. Conscience can be a troublesome trait. Your words or actions — the things you believe you ought or ought not to have done while your parent was alive or your lover was still with you — are now put in “your permanent record,” as teachers of my grade school era would threaten from time to time about in-school misbehavior. This can happen even if your parents or your lover weren’t the best, but made you feel that it was you who were at fault. You will see this played out realistically in the movie I just mentioned, I Never Sang For My Father. If you cannot find the movie, read the Robert Anderson play of the same name, upon which it was based.
  • Unsolved Mysteries. Regardless of how much time you spend in therapy or hours on your own considering and reconsidering the actions and words of someone you loved — romantically or otherwise — more than likely there will be elements of understanding that elude you. Realize that you need to observe limits on how much time you spend reflecting on your past. You must live the only life you have in the present, regardless of what has been lost. As the great black Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
  • Empathy. Though no one would choose to grow by experiencing loss, we tend to learn more from sadness than happiness, especially about the human condition. There is a depth that can come from loss and knowing that you can come out the other side. No life is clear sailing all the way. Losing a close friend, lover, brother, sister, or parent not only can enhance our ability to be kind to others, but also to be kind to ourselves. More than that, it silently speaks to the folly of believing that the accumulation of wonderful material things is more important than spending time with those you care about, while reminding us that those objects can be replaced, but a life cannot be.
  • Appreciation. A recent episode of the great TV comedy series, The Big Bang Theory, presented Bob Newhart as the ghost of the just-deceased “Professor Proton;” a man whose science show for children had inspired two of the program’s main characters, Sheldon and Leonard, to become physicists. Both of them had come to meet and know their childhood hero in his old age, and were troubled by his loss. Sheldon, when he is “visited” by the ghost, believes the Professor to have returned in the manner of Obie-Wan Knobe, the Jedi Master of the Star Wars films, who “lives” posthumously as a mentor and guide to Luke Skywalker. Sheldon is a brilliant but very self-involved and condescending young man, something the Professor is wise enough to identify. Proton responds to Sheldon’s grief with the suggestion that he begin to show appreciation to those still alive and around him while he can.

If there is any positive message in an ended love, I think the Professor had it right. The human heart does tend to heal, as the history of our shared humanity reveals. The danger is in ignoring the terrible fact that no one will be here forever. Loss reminds us to get on with life, to do what is most important, and to show and tell those we love just what they mean to us. Time sometimes is generous with us and gives us lots of opportunities. But Father Time does not put out printed departure schedules for the passengers on his train. We do not know when the wild and wonderful, up and down ride of life will end.

Don’t wait for the right time. The right time to show appreciation is right now.

The above photo is a U.S. Department of Defense photo essay taken by John Crosby. It is not about a permanent loss, but the emotion seemed to me to fit this topic. According to Wikimedia Commons, “U.S. Army Spc. Nathan Martin hugs his father a final goodbye before the 3-19th Agribusiness Development Team’s Afghanistan departure ceremony on Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, Indiana, Sept. 25, 2010. Martin, assigned to the Security Force Platoon, is saying goodbye to his loved ones one last time before deploying.”

 

Lessons in Saying Goodbye: The Farewells of Carlo Maria Giulini

Giulini

Meaningful farewells are rarely easy. Some people hide their emotions, others are overwrought. Here are two examples from someone you will relate to: Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005), the famous Italian musician whose 100th birthday anniversary we are celebrating this year. His model of how to handle parting might nudge you to rethink your own.

The first farewell was both heart-rending and public, beginning with a rehearsal and then in performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in March, 1971 when Giulini was its Principal Guest conductor.

Fred Spector, a now retired CSO violinist, told the story in 2001:

We were doing the Verdi Requiem and we knew that his mother had just died (unexpectedly, while he was in Chicago). He walked out on stage (to rehearse with us), starts to conduct the Requiem and stops. He was crying and he said “They want me to come home. What good is that? My mother is dead. It is more important that I have this experience with you and the Verdi Requiem and think about my mother.” And now he’s got us all crying, the whole orchestra in tears. “That’s more important because then I can experience and think about my mother in this marvelous Requiem.”

That is kind of what this man was about and those were the greatest performances I’ve ever played of the Verdi Requiem, bar none…. We wanted to get that feeling that he wanted for his mother.

Giulini said goodbye in a different way when he accepted the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to begin in 1978. It would mark the end of his 23 year association with the Chicago Symphony, the orchestra with which he made his American debut in 1955. The announcement came about one year before his final CSO concerts.

The conductor handwrote a letter to the Orchestra itself shortly after the news became public, and he eventually would make the rounds of the various staffers at Orchestra Hall to say a personal farewell when he returned during the 1977/78 season, before taking on his Los Angeles duties. Here is a portion of his April 16, 1977 letter:

My Dear Friends,

Circumstances made it that during the week of your deserved rest I was regrettably unable to personally meet with you. In a sense, this may have been a blessing in disguise, since such a meeting would have produced in me so many emotions that I would have been overwhelmed. That is why I am writing this letter to each and every one of you.

How long has it been since we have been together and made music together? At times it seems it was so long ago and at others, as if it were yesterday. In all of these years, so much music and work was translated in a rare and precious manifestation of friendship and collaboration between us that transcends the level of dutiful professionalism and indeed represents the true spirit of our calling as musicians. In the course of our long association, a rare and precious relationship developed among us — much as the one that existed among my quartet companions of my younger days (when I was a violist). A relationship that springs from excellence, love and dedication to the noblest purpose of music — of which we are the custodians.

For the music and work we did together, for your trust and loyal support, for all the feelings of joy and fulfillment we shared, and for what we have been able to transmit to music lovers, I thank you most profoundly.

There is not much more for me to add — because I am sure that you will understand both what I feel and what I mean.

You will continue to occupy a special place in my heart as you always have,…

As for the future… it is in the Hands of God.

Until we meet again, I fraternally embrace each and every one of you and wish you all the very best and —

Godspeed.

Carlo Maria

Thomas Saler* wrote of the rehearsals that preceded the conductor’s last CSO performance on March 18, 1978:

“Chicago was the most beautiful moment in my musical life,” (Giulini) said. “It is in my blood, not just in my heart.” Ever the Italian poet, Giulini expressed that sentiment to his musician friends at the first rehearsal before those final concerts. “For me, Venice is more incredibly beautiful every time I return. And so, gentlemen, are you.”

For more on Giulini see: A Man Who Refused to Judge.

*Thomas Saler, Serving Genius: Carlo Maria Giulini (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 86.

Why Endless Sadness Usually Has An End

Rings_in_blue

When you are heartbroken, as most of us have been, it feels as though you will never recover. The loss of a parent or friend or lover can feel irreplaceable; indeed, is irreplaceable. The end of a job can be humiliating and frightening. The emotional pain feels that it will go on into infinity. It is hard to remember ever feeling better, and hard to imagine that the pain will ever stop.

But usually it does. Not in a moment and certainly, not soon enough. But things change and one’s mood usually lifts. Life goes on. Other events and people come to occupy the empty space inside of us. Not always, but for most of us, most of the time.

Sadness is especially hard in the dark months and sometimes the result of them for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder. The world breathes the gleeful air of the holidays while we reach for the last oxygen tank in the store only to see someone else get there first. It is hard to sustain hope when we seem invisible to the world around us. And yet, hope is still there if we have enough time and courage.

I am no Pollyanna in saying this. I have had my own sadness and loss. I have lost both parents and good friends, two of the latter in the last year. I have been betrayed by someone who stole $80,000 from me and my business partners. A college romance once left me bereft. I have treated many people devastated by needless cruelty, black depression, and the blunt force of ill-fate.

Mostly we recover. After all, we are the offspring of a genetic line of our predecessors who survived their own set of calamities, overcame hardship, and produced offspring who eventually led to our own emergence from the womb. We are not, or at least most of us are not, the children of people with little resilience. We come by our survival and recovery quite naturally, even if it remains hard-won.

Still don’t believe me? Then I have an exercise for you. Make a list of all the bad things that have ever happened to you. Try to remember how you felt when you experienced financial loss, betrayal, cruelty, severe accident or injury, the death of someone close to you, and getting dumped by a person you loved. Do not include any event that happened as recently as the last year or so.

Now, as you think back, did these things finish you off? Do you feel as terrible as you did in the first throes of your calamity? Did you kill yourself (obviously not)? Aren’t things at least a little better and, just possibly, much better? Perhaps you even learned something from the experience. Perhaps you even became more understanding, wiser, found a better job, or met someone else to salve your wounded heart. Maybe you discovered that you had more strength and resilience than you imagined.

I am not making light of your suffering. Nor am I suggesting that everyone recovers as I’ve described. And yet, most of us do, most of the time, even without therapy.

Yes, there are scars. But most scars slowly fade with time.

On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because, take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived. (Chris Cleave, from Little Bee)

As Lord Byron wrote in Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates…

Perhaps you know the Sufi tale of a great king who asked his wisest advisors to fashion a ring that would make him happier when he was sad and, simultaneously remind him that even good fortune is only temporary. After much consideration these wise men asked an artisan to forge a ring for the regent. What was inscribed on it was very simple:

This too shall pass.

The above image is called Rings in Blue by Giulia Ciappa and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Jefferson and the Loss of Someone You Love

Thomas jefferson

I was not prepared for the shock of it. It was an event I’d feared since my father’s heart attack when I was 12 and had thought about frequently as he aged. But the notion of the stroke-out death of my 88-year-old father in the year 2000 would be a surprise — would catch me up-short — was not anticipated, despite all the people I counseled in their grieving. It was the difference between knowing about a thing and living it.

Nor could I have imagined the almost animal-like pain, the inarticulate state of being words can’t describe, and the feeling of emptiness following; something like an ache at the cellular level, a kind of psychic moan.

And then fatigue, for months, as if, in his death my father had taken my life’s energy with him. My children eventually asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?”

And even when you do recover you are never quite the same person you were before. One’s life becomes “before and after:” before you went to school and after, before you learned to drive and after, before you married and after, before you had children and after.

And yet, the event itself, the death of a parent before the death of his child, is a commonplace. It is the way things are supposed to work. Beyond a certain age, we all know it will almost certainly happen. We see it happen to others. But this observational experience does not bring it home, make it real.

I can still tell you the name of the first person I knew to lose a parent. My classmate Marilyn Levin, some time around sixth grade. The event made an impression, a scary impression. And then, in high school, Michael Karsen’s mother died. You note these things with a shudder and don’t know what to say to your classmate. Perhaps you say you’re sorry or say nothing or ignore the person — avoid eye contact. All because it is so terrible and, you think, “It could have happened to me. It still could.”

And finally, if you’re lucky, it happens only much later. By which time, again “if you are lucky,” you have gotten old enough that your children recognize you are aging; that at some point you too will die. And now you have another reason to stay alive: to spare your children the pain of your demise.

No, spare is not the right word. Postpone is.

Life is like a relay race, batons passing from parent to child, to their children, and on and on. It has been going on since the beginning. It is the least remarkable thing about life, that it ends. And yet, it is the most serious and dreaded thing, as well.

If you live long enough, then you realize life eventually becomes a series of goodbyes, departures. Not the life of your childhood, which was a constant flow of hellos, arrivals.

But what if you lose your spouse at a very early age? That is not “supposed” to happen. The third President of the United States knew about this. When he was 39, Thomas Jefferson’s 33-year-old wife Martha died. The couple had been married just 10 years.

thomas Jefferson paper

Both of the Jeffersons enjoyed reading aloud to each other. One of their favorite books was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Martha was trying to read a portion to her husband as she lay dying, trying to convey her feelings about the separation soon coming. When she became too weak to speak the words, she began to write them:

Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on —

When even this became too difficult, her husband picked up the pen and completed the passage from memory (see the image just above):

and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!

Jefferson is reported to have fainted when his spouse died. He was carried from her bed. For three weeks he didn’t speak or leave his room. Only his daughter Patsy was finally able to bring him out of himself. She later wrote:

He walked almost incessantly night and day, lying down only when nature was completely exhausted on a palette that had been brought in during his long fainting fit. When at last he left his room, he rode out, and from that time he was incessantly on horseback, rambling about on the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods, and those melancholy rambles. I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief.

For the rest of his life, Jefferson kept the small piece of paper on which he and his wife had their last literary dialogue. The paper and a lock of his wife’s hair, captured in an engraved locket he had made for the purpose, remained in a secret drawer next to his bed. Jefferson never remarried, although there is evidence that he did have a sexual relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

Thomas Jefferson Locket

Thomas Jefferson became President 19-years after Martha’s death. He would die on July 4, 1826, the same day as his friend John Adams, the nation’s second President. It was precisely 50 years after these men signed the Declaration of Independence, a document drafted by Jefferson.

Thus, the nation lost two of its founding fathers in 24 hours. But that is a different kind of loss and a different kind of story.