Farewell, Kate

Today I attended the funeral of a friend. As with all difficult situations, when faced with them, I write. Had I had the opportunity (and the courage to actually read it aloud), this would have been her eulogy:

Most people don’t stay in touch with co-workers once they leave a job. Oh, we all have good intentions, but typically, when we leave a job, we leave the people we work with, too.

Not so with Kate.

There’s a saying that goes something like:

“People won’t remember what you said,

People won’t remember what you did,

But they will always remember how you made them feel.”

I was engaged to my husband when we were working together, and I remember a particular instance early on when she calmed me at work after having had a “run-in” with the music director at the church where we were to be married. I don’t remember what Kate said specifically (although I’m almost positive she had some choice words describing the music director), but I remember the feeling, how truly concerned and sympathetic she was. I felt calmed and validated and knew that we were bound to be friends.

She and I met as coworkers eighteen years ago, when we were known as “assessors,” which sounds far more impressive than it really was. Our work required travel to and from Flint, Michigan on a weekly basis, leaving Sunday afternoon and returning Thursdays. Our days were spent “assessing” and our evenings were spent eating out and spending a good deal of time at the hotel bar with all the other assessors, followed by cards or movies and always conversation in each other’s’ rooms. It was like college all over again.

Needless to say, we all got to know one another pretty quickly, and Kate and I immediately connected.

She was easy to connect with. She shared easily, and was a great listener. And she remembered everything.

The next years for me are a blur: marriage, work, one baby, and then another. But through it all we kept in touch. And she was always interested in what was going on with me, with my husband, and my kids.

She and I always joked that we both had this uncanny ability to follow each other’s trains of thought. We could have a conversation and jump from one idea to the next, and still manage to come back to the original thought, resolving them all. We were like a couple of stoners, without the drug. Invariably, one of us would say, “I’m with ya’…” when the other would start to digress. It always made sense to us, but I’m sure someone observing would have thought we were a little eccentric, or drunk. And sometimes they would have been right.

I was describing Kate to a couple of my friends the other day and described her as “my smart friend.” She was so smart, so well-read, educated and so willing to learn. I loved and admired that about her. I truly feel that being her friend made me a better person because she opened my eyes to books or ideas I might never have considered. But, regardless of her education and intelligence, she was never condescending. (I’m hoping she didn’t refer to me as her slow friend…)

The last time I saw her she received the news that she would need a third round of chemo. I felt as if I was intruding when the doctor and nurse came in the room, but she was unshaken. I was in awe at her strength at receiving the news: she did not cry, or get angry, just signed the paper and expressed her disappointment at not being able to go home. Even when she called her husband, she was calm and ready for the next step. But she was tired. We hugged good-bye and promises were made to reunite at City Theatre, where we had been season ticket holders together for the past six years or so.

I’ve thought about this visit a lot since I heard of her passing and I came to the realization that with Kate there never was any drama, and I believe this is what defined her as a friend. She didn’t get upset or angry if months went by without a phone call, she didn’t act different or begrudging when life’s circumstances like marriage or kids came into the picture, even if she was yearning for those things for herself. She catered to her “slow friends.”

It’s strange, because Kate and I didn’t see each other very often, but I will miss her. I will miss having her ear, and following her trains of thought, and watching her face light up sharing some story about her daughter. I will miss going to shows and having to actually read the program because she’s not there to share the background she already knew. I will miss my smart friend.


Living for the Dead

I lost a friend to cancer this past weekend.  Her battle was brief, having been diagnosed with leukemia this past July.  She leaves behind a husband and six year-old daughter.  Unfortunately, I am no stranger to death and grieving.  Seven years ago, in the span of nineteen months, I lost my older brother, mother and father.

Because of this loss I feel a deeper connection with the human condition, but mostly, I live for those I’ve lost.

Losing someone obviously makes things you shared with them more poignant: a bracelet bought together, a song on the radio, or simply preparing a recipe in a mixing bowl where countless other recipes were prepared.  And I miss them.  Terribly.  I consider myself a recovering griever, because I don’t believe you’re ever “done” grieving.  It just takes different forms.

The thing that surprises me most, though, is that, years later, I’m inspired by their deaths.  I appreciate my life more and want to live it better because I know they would want to have had the opportunity to do the same.  I am a Christian, and believe in an afterlife, but who really knows?  I like to believe that whatever is on the other side is far superior to what we have here, but when you start to look, really look, it’s not too bad here, either.

My brother ran cross country in high school and college, and when I run, he inspires me.  I feel my heart pumping, and listen to my breath; I feel the sweat on my brow.  My mom was a kind soul and she is with me whenever I deliver food to a sick friend or drop a birthday card in the mail.  My dad was a fixer and when something breaks, I do my damndest to figure out how to put it back together again.

All my friend Kate wanted to do, after having received three rounds of chemotherapy and being in a hospital room for over two months, was see and be with her precious girl and husband.  She didn’t want a fancy car, or new clothes.  She only wanted time with those she loved and who loved her.

Every morning I wake up I’m given 24 hours.  Time to run, time to enjoy good food, time to work, time to feel all the good and all the pain, and time to be with loved ones.  Time to smile at a stranger, time to watch the leaves move in the wind, to feel the sun on my face.  I’m painfully aware that my brother, my mother, my father, Kate and countless others don’t have that opportunity and that my time is also limited.  Hell, I may not make it through the 24 hours.

So I live for them.  Because they can’t.  Because I know they would want it to be that way.  They would want to be an inspiration, not a source of sadness.  They inspire me to soak it all in, to take chances, to write.  And I love them even more for it.

See you on the other side, Kate.  Until then, I will live my life for you and every time I kiss my precious boys, you will be there.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Jalal ad-Din Rumi

Concrete Lesson

A few mornings a week, I jog at our high school’s track around the football stadium.  Currently, they are in the process of renovating the school so there is constant activity as the workers tear down and build.  Leading to the track near the end zone of the field is a cement tunnel, which will be used by the players to run onto the field and will be the entrance from the new athletic complex. 

A few days ago, one of the workers was sanding the smooth wall, producing a cloud of dust and dirt (so much for getting outdoors in the “fresh air”).  Today, the sanding complete, the same man was applying a coating of what I assume was sealant on the wall and I thought, as other workers are laying bricks and moving earth, “Who would have thought a cement wall would require so much TLC?”

Jogging in circles on a cool fall morning, sweating but energized, I wondered if other people gave themselves the TLC that they deserve.  Aren’t we so much more valuable than a cement wall?  And much more vulnerable?  Here’s an excerpt from concretethinker.com:

The design service life of most concrete buildings is often 30 years, although buildings often last 50 to 100 years or longer. Most concrete and masonry buildings are demolished due to obsolescence rather than deterioration.  Concrete, as a structural material and as the building’s exterior skin, has the ability to withstand nature’s normal deteriorating mechanisms as well as natural disasters.

Huh.  Natural disasters.  Doesn’t sound like concrete needs any TLC at all.  I recently re-posted a cartoon on my Facebook wall with the following caption:

Patient:  Doctor, I don’t feel well and I don’t know why.

Doctor:  I want you to meditate, twice a day, for twenty minutes, exercise every day for 30 minutes, avoid processed foods, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, spend more time in nature and less indoors, stop worrying about things you can’t control and ditch your TV.  Come back in three weeks.

It’s really not hard to comprehend.  Pretty simple, really.  But for many of us, we are too entrenched in this fast-paced, immediate-gratification culture and change is hard.  But we can start small.  Recently, my husband and I removed the drawer in our refrigerator meant only for cans in an effort to eliminate diet soda from our diets.  Small move, big change.

You are not a concrete wall, designed to withstand natural disasters.  Anyone who has witnessed the birth of a child recognizes that the human body is a miracle.  Maybe if we remember that, we will give it the TLC it deserves.

Listen to the doctor, and if you need to, just pick one thing to change.  Appreciate the miracle.





Buddy Brainstorm

What a week it was: Visiting a friend in the hospital being treated for leukemia, finding out a family friend, two years younger than I, died after a year-long battle with cancer, not getting the job I was hoping for, and remembering my brother on what would have been his 53rd birthday

The week culminated with a date with my 80-something mother-in-law to see “Buddy,” a musical about the late Buddy Holly: his rise to fame and unfortunate early death.  I couldn’t help but see the parallels between this story and the ones that played out this past week: a life, in its prime, cut short without rhyme or reason.

The last half of the musical was mostly dedicated to Buddy Holly’s  last performance before getting on that fateful plane during a winter storm. With him at this performance was Ritchie Valens (only 17) and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, who also both perished that night.

I was struck by a strange feeling as I was clapping along with this “concert” and really enjoying the performances:

Everyone in the audience knows how this story ends

but we are still having fun, clapping and singing along.

And I thought, isn’t that a wonderful idea of how we should live our life in general?  Everyone knows how this story ends but we can, and should, have fun.

Wouldn’t it be better if we were able to be more focused on and enjoy “the now” instead of what might be?

My mother-in-law and I did. All because of a very young man who dared to be himself, and fought for what he believed. He, like some other people I have known, died too early, but was very rich.

Here’s to enjoying the now, the show, and the ride.

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

Open.  Energized.  Disillusioned.  Humbled.  Grateful.

Nothing but yoga can unveil all these emotions for me.  No exercise, no drug, no one person.  I continue to be amazed with my practice and this ancient art.  It’s interesting and unfortunate to me that most people think of yoga as positions: twisting your body into them, the goal being to look like a human pretzel.

However, it is so much more.  It is pushing yourself to places you never thought you could go; it’s challenging yourself, yes, physically, and, as a result, mentally, as well.  You can’t do a headstand (or even touch your toes) if you’re not willing to fail, to take baby steps and be content with that, to recognize that your body behaves differently every day into the next.  You can’t get discouraged by the person next to you who seemingly effortlessly goes from a down dog to a back bend and back, again.  Ultimately, you develop the ability, at the end of a difficult practice, to let go, to sink into the floor and enjoy the benefits of your hard work.  To not feel your body, but feel only your presence and your breath.  To focus only on the light and energy within.

This is why they call it “the practice” of yoga.  It is hard work and never ends, because each practice contains a lesson.

I will be starting yoga certification training next month, and consider myself to be an experienced yogi, having practiced now for six years.  Today I grabbed my mat and headed to the studio for a more advanced practice than is typical for me.  I found I was not so experienced.  It was a challenging class with challenging poses that required strength and stamina.  Many I had never done before and many I could hold just for a second or two.  My classmates were the experienced ones.

It was humbling and exciting at the same time.  Thankfully, I have had years of practice so although I felt discouraged and self-critical initially, that melted into motivation to learn.  I was nearly brought to tears while in shavasana, feeling somewhat ashamed of my smugness yet thankful for this new awareness.

Yoga means union.  The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is “to add”, “to join”, “to unite.”  I understood its meaning fully this morning, experiencing all these emotions in an hour-long practice.  I left invigorated, yet spent.  Reflective, yet motivated to learn more, to write, to soak in the day.

One of the most exciting benefits of yoga is when your practice starts to extend beyond the mat:  when you are faced with a difficult situation and find yourself just focusing on your breath.  When you allow yourself to just “be where you are” and not have self-imposed limits, criticisms or comparisons.  When you are grateful for these lessons.  This is what yoga is.  It’s not positions, it’s not being able to stand on your head.  The positions are a means to an end.  And the end is an ever-evolving process that leads to peace and gratitude.  Loving the lesson.

So even if you can’t touch your toes, go get a mat and practice.  You’ll get there.  And you’ll enjoy the ride.  I promise.



Lingering at the Door

There’s a definite chill in the air.  The football field and basketball courts are eerily quiet, the only players on the tennis courts are middle-aged women, apologizing for bad shots and waiting patiently for serves.  There are no children on the church lawn, readying for a game organized by the camp counselors.  Everything is suddenly different.

I sent my sons off to their first days of middle and senior high today, and am painfully aware of the passing of time.  Neighbors down the street recently dropped their youngest at college, and if the past decade or so has been any indication, we will be there in a blink.

I’m thrilled for my oldest, who is entering that period of life that most of us remember as the “glory days.”  When you are not quite an adult but no longer a child.  When your body is at its absolute best, when you might experience that first love, and you still have the security of your parents’ home, with no mortgage payments or taxes to pay.  At the same time, this will be the time when he sets the foundation for his life, when bigger choices will be made, and when his subconscious will store that angst of forgetting to study for a test or find a classroom, the stuff of recurring adult dreams.

As a parent, I almost feel that at this point, my job is done for him.  The groundwork has been laid, for the most part (although I do wish he’d keep his room a bit neater), and all that’s left is supporting him in his endeavors and giving nudges when needed.  I get to enjoy the man he’s becoming.

Time is a funny thing.  Yesterday I wanted to soak up every second with the boys, knowing it was limited.  Somehow, the dishes could wait, the laundry could stay in the piles in the basement, dinner was whatever they wanted, as long as we ate it together.  Any of us who have experienced the pending death of a loved one or said a long good-bye to someone knows the feeling: saying good-bye makes everything more poignant and forces us to say and do those things that are truly important.

“The best things said come last.  People will talk for hours saying nothing much and then linger at the door with words that come with a rush from the heart.”  ~Alan Alda

If only I could remember that feeling every day, and recognize that the passing of time doesn’t just happen when I say good-bye, when I look back or when I celebrate a new beginning; it is happening every second.  Why wait until I’m at the door?

Everything is different now.  My kids are older.  I am older.  I am blessed to be able to look back and be pleased with what I remember and what I’ve done (except the room thing).  But I also have the benefit of this moment.  With practice, I will learn to use it wisely.  One of these days, I will get it right.

“Time is getting shorter

And there’s much for you to do,

Only ask and you will get what you are needing

The rest is up to you.

Plant your love and let it grow.”

~Eric Clapton