Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

We cry for justice, but what is deserved is not always given. Sometimes the unfairness is due to lying, cheating, or political opportunism. Many imperfect situations, however, are not based on intent to harm. These are human stories where no political or legal action is possible. No crime has been committed. In such cases we can only accept the terms life allows, make the best of things, and find whatever “good” is present.

Here is an essay I wrote in the early days of this blog, now revised. The story tells of a situation in which life offers raw, rude, unchosen materials and asks us, in effect, to build something worthwhile out of the resources at hand:

Dr. Gerald Stein - Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago

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A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of…

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The Ultimate Love Test: A Story That is Too Gross For Comfort

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This story is about true love and nausea. Not a typical combination. And no, I’m not talking about butterflies in your stomach when you fall in love “at first sight.” My topic is something else entirely. More like, what would you do for love?

If you believe in love and enjoy love stories, you should read on. But, if any discussion of queasiness leading to vomit makes you sick, then you probably should go back to reading War and Peace, which I’m sure you were doing just before you landed on my web log.

I suppose I might call this post, “How my wife and I survived England and Denmark,” or at least a couple of bad meals we had there many years ago. But I don’t want to cause an international incident here, and I happen to like the Brits and the Danes, so I’ll stick with the fact that the story leads back to what people are willing to do for each other when they are happily married. Be patient.

The tale starts in Denmark; Copenhagen to be exact. We’d just had a lunch of smorgasbord at a recommended restaurant. Smorgasbord is a buffet of hot and cold dishes, cooked vegetables and salad, pickled fish, and things like that. The sumptuous repast was at a culinary establishment on the famous Copenhagen pedestrian shopping street known as Strøget: tons of stores and restaurants, lots of fun, and no vehicular traffic. We finished the meal feeling great and started to walk, perhaps for three or four blocks. Then it hit me without warning. But unlike what happened to me, I will give you a flashing yellow alert: there is still time to bail out on the story. I won’t hold it against you.

My stomach is actually pretty strong. I probably haven’t vomited in decades. Maybe even back to the day in question. But there was no anticipatory alarm here like the “two-minute warning” in American style football before the end of the game, no signal that something bad was going to happen with enough lead time to easily remedy the situation. I could feel only the kind of rumbling that occurs in horror movies just before the monster leaps out of the swamp.

A quick decision was required. While I might have tried to go into the nearest shop, I’d then have to explain my situation and attempt to persuade someone to let me use the W/C (water closet) or as those of us in the USA call it, the washroom. There was the possibility that language would be a problem, since I didn’t speak Danish. By then the stopper would have popped out of the volcano. So I did the only thing that made sense. I ran as fast as I could back down the Strøget to the restaurant we’d just visited, and to the W/C whose location I knew precisely.

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You’ve probably read stories about people who have done incredible things to save the life of a child. Little old ladies who find the strength to lift cars — that sort of thing. Under pressure it is sometimes remarkable what a human being can do. Put another way, the stage was now set in the middle of Copenhagen for a triumph of the human spirit!

Back in the day I was a reasonably fast runner, not for distance, but for speed on a short track. But this was not just any day, this was probably the greatest day of my modest athletic career. I ran with some combination of frenzy and desperation, leaping over small (very small) children, dodging couples holding hands, maneuvering around the slow-walkers. I think I created some sort of vacuum, with paper and tiny objects being swept into my wake as if they were following me down the street, just hoping to catch up, or attached to me by invisible strings. Passers-by noticed me and some were sufficiently astonished by my pace that they stopped to applaud. Even to this day I am certain that I set a record in the 800 meter run. Unfortunately no judge was there to testify to my achievement, stop-watch in hand.

I did make it to the W/C in time. Thank God no one occupied it. I felt spent afterward, as if the life had been sucked out of me. How I dragged myself off my knees I don’t remember. But I do recall that my wife had caught up to me by now, sitting down beside me on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant and putting her right arm around my shoulder. And, in the way only a woman can do, made it all better, leaning into me, stroking my hair, even though I was probably not at my most fragrant. We just sat there for a bit, as she tenderly ministered to me until I had a little strength again. Really something. Something, to my great good fortune, that I’ve been the beneficiary of, in my wife’s loving hands, too many times to count.

But relationships demand reciprocity and it isn’t always enough just to say thank you and buy your beloved some candy. The chance came sooner than you might think, days later on our European vacation. London was the location, at a time when British culinary art wasn’t thought to be very artistic. A restaurant again. Another vomit story.

Once more, the guide-book promised a lunch that would be both enjoyable and reasonably priced. It was steak and kidney pie for Aleta, an old English specialty, followed by some sort of pudding for desert. I had something different. We enjoyed the afternoon touring the Tower of London, then back to our room. Apparently, the pie-pudding combination had taken on the shape of a giant basketball being heaved down the elevator shaft of my wife’s digestive system. It was some time before dinner that it bounced off the bottom and rushed back up. Aleta assumed a fetal position on the bed, complaining of a stomach ache. And then, in a split-second, she dashed from the bed to the sink that was in the middle of our cheap, W/C free compartment; lowered her head and filled the basin with the half-digested meal. The love-of-my-life turned back slowly and staggered the couple of steps to the bed, plopping down into a heap; feeling better, it’s true, but certainly not her best; relieved by the release of the toxic stew that had been inside of her.

There was only one problem. A kind of big problem. The steak and kidney pie, the pudding, or whatever these things had become, were resting comfortably in the basin, just waiting there. Smelling awful, they had taken on a yellow color that was not their original hue. The drain was too small for the curds to pass. Clearly, I’d failed to read the fine print in the hotel’s brochure: “Cesspool available at no extra charge.” Something needed to be done.

I suppose that I could have tried to summon the management of the place we were staying in, but that would have meant waiting and watching while they fashioned an on-the-spot remedy. Aleta was in no state to be disturbed. Besides, the staff wouldn’t have offered any different solution than the one that occurred to me, unless they had some sort of scooping utensil to ladle the foul-smelling goop into a bucket. That sight might have made my wife feel worse. No, there was really only one thing to do.

No gloves were handy, so I simply reached into the basin with both hands, past my wrists, up to my forearms, and started to crush the vomit curds. The drain was tiny, so some serious massaging was required. In time the job was done. I rinsed the wash bowl, soaped my hands, and sat down. We didn’t go out that night. Aleta felt much better in the morning and life went on.


Pretty romantic stuff, right? Yet couples are bonded by just such experiences. They are remembered, usually with a laugh, and take the shape of markers along the journey that partners make on life’s uneven road. A life together is a bit like walking down a book-bounded corridor in a library, where each volume contains the description of only a single moment in your time together. In a funny way, these incidents become more than incidental, enriching your marriage and telling you what you mean to each other; transforming you, if you are lucky, into who you want to be and informing you, once again, who you want to be with.

By coincidence, Mother’s Day is this weekend, and my wife is a mother to our two wonderful children. Mother’s Day focuses on relationships, not only of the parent-child kind. There will be lots of children (and husbands) bringing mums to their mums and wives, lots of greeting cards sent, lots of hugs and kisses. Our kids will shower Aleta with affection on the day itself and she deserves every bit of it.

But, my dearest, as you revel in your children’s attention, I’d like you to ask yourself one question: has anyone else ever been willing to crush vomit for you?

Sweetie Pie, I just wanted to say, perhaps in a kind of yucky way, that I love you.

As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding. Literally.

This blog was inspired by blogger Daniel Wall, in particular his amusing story This is Really Gross: You Probably Shouldn’t Read It! I have borrowed one stylistic feature of that essay, not to mention a crucial aspect of the topic. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Daniel. I hope that you approve!

The first photo is The Red Arrows Cupid Formation at the Bournemouth Air Show 2009 by D. Everett. The Runner by Jason Goodger follows it. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final photo is my wife Aleta, taken by a secret admirer (really) when she was in college. It simply showed up in her mail box one day, with no explanation. Lucky for me, the admirer didn’t make himself known.

Moms on Mother’s Day

Nurturing, caring, loving, concerned, patient, compassionate, expressive, reliable, watchful, tender, giving, interested, independent, graceful, affectionate, accepting, enthusiastic, encouraging, strong, wise, and kind

or

preoccupied, worried, stressed, indifferent, cold, selfish, shrill, overwhelmed, judgmental, angry, impulsive, erratic, hard, numb, inconsistent, weak, troubled, vain, dependent, clumsy, clueless, and cruel.

As a parent and as a child, here’s hoping you came out and come out on the right side of this.

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Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (detail) by Caravaggio

Coming to Terms with What Cannot be Changed

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A beautiful, but not always wise friend once told me a story of infinite wisdom. She married a widower with children when she was in her mid-30s. The kids had fond memories of their departed mother, so the house was filled with art objects, furniture and photographic reminders of the deceased.

Additionally, the widower maintained relationships with many people who knew his late wife. The maternal grandparents, of course, wanted to spend time with their daughter’s children. The husband’s parents did as well, and lived close by. Everyone held the departed in high esteem and affection. She had been an extraordinary person, now achieving a kind of virtual sainthood due to her early death.

When my friend (who I hadn’t seen in years) told me all this, I asked what it was like to reside among the living reminders of her predecessor; in the midst of the physical mementos of her husband’s previous wife.

It’s like living with a ghost.

How do you do that?” I replied.

First, you make friends with the ghost.

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Indeed, what else was possible? How could the almost palpable presence of this woman be denied? To ignore or discourage discussion of her or suppress her memory — put away the photos and other objects — would be a disservice to the children and risk their alienation.

Surely, the only way forward was to “make friends” with someone she never met, a ghost guaranteed to defeat her if my friend chose to create a competition.

Special days like Mother’s Day remained difficult. On such occasions she suffered the reminder of never giving birth to a child, but also that she was not the “real” mother to her husband’s offspring. Still, the best solution required honoring this woman’s memory; and the part of her living in her offspring and in their father’s memory.

Sometimes life offers limited choices. Those situations must be accepted even if one wouldn’t have chosen them freely. My friend decided to recognize the woman who came before her: see her in the good qualities the children displayed — their beauty, their kindness, and their intellect — just as she came to think of her husband’s first wife as having encouraged a loving side of him she now enjoyed as his second wife.

As I said, in all of this my “not always wise” friend was very wise indeed.

The top image is a Hand Drawn Ghost by Milonicia, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second painting is The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft by Salvador Dali. It came from WikiArt.org.