Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Reverie

In this season of promise and expectation, my thoughts go to the myriad of Everyday Angels that surround me, my powerful circle of love and hope. You all, who have given me so much, will be in my heart forever.  I know you will be richly rewarded for your gentle kindnesses and loving generosity.  Especially those of you who know my many flaws but love me anyway, thank you for being role models of compassion.  Your humanity inspires me.  I pray that you all will be showered with blessings.

No matter what, I am so grateful for my children and the many treasured Christmas memories that revolve around them.  Throughout the years, you four, individually and collectively, have given me more joyful moments than you will ever know.   There is nothing you could ever do or say that could change my love for you.  That love is for eternity.

December is such a busy month, and not just because of Christmas.  In our family, we have significant dates on both ends of the spectrum of life.  I have two precious grandchildren born in December.  And, sadly, my husband Dennis died in December, five days before Christmas, twenty years ago this month. Our kids were 6, 8, 15 and 16.  I was 39 and he was only 40.

His death was a hideous shock.  He was an active guy, slim and athletic.  But he apparently had congenital heart disease that was never picked up.  The worst thing I have ever had to do in my life was witness the suffering my children endured at his loss and not be able to fix it or make it go away.  Every subsequent family milestone that I went through alone at first was excruciatingly painful, then gradually faded to a dull poignancy.

We have four grandchildren now, will have five in February.  He would have been a marvelous grandfather, because he was a big kid at heart.   He was always up for playing a game, reading a story, going for a walk or making up silly sayings. 

A tugboat pilot, he was very good at his job.  But it was a career he had been caught in, not a career he had chosen.  At 17, a neighbor gave him a job at Circle Line, the Manhattan sightseeing boats, as a line catcher, the lowest job on the pier.  (This neighbor just happened to be a VP at Circle Line).  Dennis was a reliable, hard worker and popular with the other guys, so he easily worked his way up to deckhand.  Because he was ambitious, he studied for and obtained his pilot’s license, a notoriously hard accomplishment.  He became a captain at Circle Line and then a pilot on the tugs.   

But what he really wanted to be, more than anything, was a high school gym teacher.   He would have been fantastic.  He loved kids and he loved sports, he was a natural.  When I “helped” our kids with their homework, I was shrieking maniac within 15 seconds.  He was endlessly patient.  But he never had the luxury of quitting his job to go back to school, he had a family to support.  So he settled for being an autodidact and was quite learned in many subjects, especially the Civil War and geography.  We used to challenge each other to Jeopardy.  Getting comfortable on the sofa, our younger son would sit between us and keep score.  We’d turn the show on and most of the time it would be neck and neck.  But if I won, it was usually just because I had a faster mouth.  He was always a good loser, whereas if I lost, I would pout.  It was years before I could watch Jeopardy again.  It just made me too sad.

He was a die-hard New Yorker, something that had bonded him with my grandfather.  These two complicated men had a genuine respect and fondness for each other.  And like my grandfather, not-so-deep-down, Dennis was a quiet romantic.  His favorite movies were West Side Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Quiet Man and Dog Day Afternoon, all films about flawed men with huge capacities to love.   He had a soft spot for animals, with their helplessness and unconditional affection.  He was especially fond of an obscure TV movie from 1969, J.T.   It has only been broadcast once or twice since (although it is available here on YouTube, in 4 parts).  J.T. is set in Harlem, a touching but raw story about a lonely boy who secretly nurses an injured alley cat while trying to cope with the challenges of inner city life.  Dennis saw himself in that little boy and talked about comparisons often.  Although he had his melancholy streak, he was incredibly funny and had a sharp wit, but plain old slapstick, like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, could leave him crying with laughter.  

Golf was such a passion that he would have pitched a tent out on the green if he could have.   He was a great athlete and probably could have played professional baseball if he had had the encouragement and support he needed as a kid.

Twenty years is an awfully long time. We had been married for 17, known each other for 20, had four wonderful children together.  He had a hard life and dealt with many challenges, some more successfully than others.  He was a very good man at heart, but I know he always wanted to be better.  He was always striving.  I am so sad for him that he has missed so much.   Sometimes it seems as though he will walk through the door any second.  It happens far less now, but I still find myself occasionally thinking, “oh, I have to tell Dennis” and then I remember.  I think he would have been very proud of my accomplishments.  It feels desperately unfair that his life was so short.   But I want to believe he is in a place of happiness and healing, far better off than I can comprehend.

Merry Christmas, Dennis.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Fragment of a painting, Shooting Star, by

Thank you Lord, for making Yourself one of us.  Please strengthen our faith in You.  Please make us worthy of Your love and of each other.


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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pray and Laugh

I didn't exactly forget to put up a Pray & Laugh post last Friday, as I said I was going to do each week.  It is more a matter of still contemplating how I am going to apply it.  Some issues it has occurred to me I need to pray about are deadly serious and certainly do not lend themselves to a subsequent laugh.  But I still agree with my comrade in cancer from last week that it is essential to do both in order to heal.  It is still a work in progress.  However, I'm not going to worry about it.  I know we will work something out together, with quiet inspiration from God, and it will fall into place. 

There have been several things on my mind the past two weeks.  But the situation that seemed to loom the largest (and most expensive) was the fact our boiler was broken.

When I bought my 80 year old house 14 years ago, there was much that needed repairing or replacing.  The non-handyman who had owned the house before me left an awful mess of inept 'repairs'.  Although I had paid a professional house inspector a significant amount of money and he had certified the house as in adequate condition, he was, let's can I put this?  COMPLETELY INCORRECT.  The washer was illegally hooked into the sump pump.  The roof needed immediate replacing.  The attic conversion to two bedrooms and a bathroom had been done with no township permits and was not up to code, therefore two days before closing we found we could not get a Certificate of Occupancy.  And that is just the tip of the list.  I was naive and trusting.  You might also say I was a smug, smarty pants know-it-all.  Or an ominous combination of all, blinded by French doors, the sun room, the fireplace, the Craftsman built-ins, original get the picture.

Follow the picture to the full basement, three quarters finished, with a built in bar, pool table and separate laundry room.  On the far wall of the finished space was a door.  And behind that door was No Woman's Land.  It was dark, dank, held dozens of shelves loaded with tons of man-stuff like metal and wood.  There was a work table to do the kind of work that I, myself, certainly would never do.  And there was...The Boiler.

In an eighty year old house that had only had three owners in it's lifetime, you can expect radiators and an old boiler and that is exactly what I had.  But it kept us warm and had been certified OK by the House Certifier, so I didn't give it a second thought.

Nine years ago when my carbon dioxide detector went off one afternoon, with brilliant logic I said to myself "Gosh, the carbon monoxide detector is going off.  The new toaster oven that I just bought must be defective.  I hate it anyway, I will just get rid of it and get a new one."

I know I am hearing some groaning out there.  Before we go any further, let me remind you from kindergarten to high school to college, childbirth ed training, nursing school and graduate school, I have about 22 years of education.  But back to our story...

I pitch the harmless and helpless toaster oven out and buy a new one.  Boy, those were the days.  Sigh.  Dumb AND well off.  At any rate, lo and behold, the carbon monoxide detector goes off again one afternoon.  "Gosh" I think, "There must be something wrong with the carbon monoxide detector.  I better get a new one."  So I get myself a new, ceiling-type CM detector.  And what do you think happens?  Why, THAT detector was broken too!!!  What are the odds?!?!

My sister was heading over to visit, so I asked her to run into Target on her way by and pick me up a new detector.  She got a plug in one this time and I didn't look at it until after she left.  I plugged it in to the kitchen outlet and the reading shot up to 50 ppm (parts per million).   Safe is ZERO.  Finally showing a modicum of the intelligence I supposedly had, I went down to the basement, back to the scary boiler room.  Before I could even plug it in, I was already woozy and nauseous.  But out of morbid curiosity, I had to know.  The number zoomed up to 375.  Even I knew this was bad.  I opened all the basement windows on my way out, hit the Emergency Off switch for the furnace, got the dog and high tailed it out of there.  Next call was to the boiler guy.

The boiler guy was the same one who had installed the boiler fifty years earlier.  Our children went to school together and I was friends with his wife because of that.  He had a good reputation and offered a turn around time of one day.  Best of all, I would have a new boiler and that issue would not be a problem for decades.

For decades.  Right?  So why did I have no heat less than ten years later?

Because that is the story of my life, that's why.

The first repair person that I called two weeks ago came in dressed like someone exploring a spill at a nuclear power plant.  He gave his dire-you're-lucky-you're-not-dead speech and estimate of $13,000.  I was still sobbing when he left.

The next repair person was arranged for me by a high school classmate.  His technician was funny and kind and thought he had found the problem, but it wouldn't stay lit.  After a few more tries like that and a week of very cold nights, it was determined we did indeed need a new boiler.  No one could figure out why the old one gave up and the guy who had installed it for me was now in his 90's and the business was closed.  The question was moot anyway.  I had just gotten out of the hospital and we were freezing.  I didn't know how I was going to pay for it but the owner of this second company, along with his tech and my classmate, worked out an incredible deal for me.  They worked for hours on Thanksgiving eve, until almost 9 p.m., to make sure I would have heat again. Despite my snarky comments, once again I was blown away by the amazing kindness and generosity of truly good people.

The Prayer

I am so incredibly lucky to have the support of friends and the support of their friends.  This care has seen me through many crises, not just the boiler debacle.  But I know while we are warm this Thanksgiving and have much to be thankful for, there are far many more who are suffering right now.  This prayer is for those who do not have access to warmth, the where-with-all to get help or do not have help available at all.

For Those Who Are Cold This Night

Lord, I thank you for the warmth and safety of my home and for putting in my path people who could and did help me.  Please comfort those tonight who are struggling to survive without this consolation, those who are cold or homeless.  Allow your love to spark in their hearts, to give them hope and the resources to seek help.  For those who cannot reach out, for those who are too beaten down or too unwell, please give them some sense of relief or healing.   Let them feel the blanket of your love and peace surround them.  Open the eyes and hearts of those of us passing them by, that we might be aware and provide whatever help we can or, at the very least, to pray for them.  I humbly ask this.  Amen.

The Laugh

Because I love to laugh, I admire and envy all the comic geniuses who have treated us to their many and varied gifts.  As far as I am concerned, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore are two who are at the top of the list.  These brilliant men ironically led tortured, unhappy lives.  But, luckily for us, they have left a legacy of hilarious performances.  This is one of my favorites, "The One-Legged Tarzan".  


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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

If I allow myself, I can have a splendid wallow in the muck of all the tough things I am dealing with.  MS.  Stage 4 cancer.  Severely diminished financial status.  Worst of all, most painful of all, estrangement from people that I love.  People I will always love and miss terribly.

There is a big however, however.  (giggle)  I am surrounded by an incredible, amazing, brilliant aura of love and support that is indefatigable.   This network includes childhood friends from growing up in the Bronx. My beloved cousin Steve, a stable, affectionate presence since I was born.  Classmates ranging from grade school to grad school.   Friends from my days as a young mother and La Leche League leader.  Friends from a lifetime of jobs, notably B. Dalton Books, The Asbury Park Press, teaching childbirth classes at Jersey Shore Medical Center, Healthnet.  Friendships that grew through our children’s friendships.  Friends from church.  Friends who used to be neighbors.   Friends I met through other friends.  Fellow writers.  These are true friends, not acquaintances.  These are people who have cried with me and for me, joined in prayer with me, laughed with me, shared their love and lives and individual gifts with me.  Most importantly, these are people who have never let me forget I am loved.  They bring light and joy to me as effortlessly as you would take a breath.  And when I express amazement and gratitude at their friendship, they express amazement that I am surprised.  It is a funny, continuous circle of “You love me?!?!  But why?!?  You are the one who is wonderful.  No, you are the one who is wonderful!  No, you are the one who is wonderful!”  And on and on.

Make no mistake, I have many, many low moments.  I am no Pollyanna.  Constant pain is overwhelming and can obliterate all sensible thought.  Fear of the unknown, of the future, or of the lack of a future, sneaks up on me, leaving me breathless and sick to my stomach.   Thinking of the losses I’ve experienced can make me bitter and full of self pity.  Animosity from people I love has been astonishing and heartbreaking.  There are many desperately down times and I have to struggle awfully hard to rise up.  Some days I barely make it.  But awareness of the incredible affection and sincerity of the dear ones around me holds me up, keeping me from sinking completely.  I know it sounds corny, and the phrase has been in more than a few song lyrics, but they give me the strength to keep going when there is so much threatening to drag me down.   

It is the dedication of all these remarkable people that gives me the capacity to say I have SO much to be thankful for.  Because I truly do.  I hope all of you reading this have as much to be grateful for as I do.

Happy Thanksgiving!! 

1 Corinthians 13:8


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Friday, November 22, 2013

Praying/Laughing Friday

I met someone the other day that I believe is one of those people God puts in your way for a reason.   Although he was an utter stranger, he knew something of my struggles.  And he gave me two words of advice for survival:

1)      Pray 
2)      Laugh

It was as simple as that.  He swore those two efforts are what got him through his own difficulties in the past.

So I am going to try to make this a once a week thing.  Praying/Laughing Friday (I know, I know, it is an awful title; I haven't been able to think of anything clever).  Even as I type that I think about all the things I think are funny that would seem horribly sacrilegious paired with prayer.  I also think of all the weeks when I have no idea it even is Friday.  But I am going to give it a try anyway.

(P.S.: Anyone with a better title idea or other suggestions are welcome.)


For today I have just included some quotes from the Bible that have always been a struggle for me to follow.  Love my enemies?!  I want their faces to fall off and their tongues to fall out.  Ok, maybe just the tongue part, they can keep their faces.  But love?!

According to Jesus it is cut and dry:

Luke 6:27-28

27 Jesus said, "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."

And just how is love defined, anyway? 

1 Corinthians 13

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

As I said in my last blog post, it breaks my heart personally and globally that we human beings do not treat each other better.  We’re all guilty of it, although I do know some people who seem exceptionally benevolent. 

So here is my prayer for this Friday: Pray for those who mistreat you, because love never fails.


What I have attached here should be a public service video for parents.   

When my boys were little, I was a total nutrition fanatic.  I made my own snacks.  I only served wheat bread (when the boys had white bread for the first time, they thought it was cake.)  After I found out Ryan had traded his homemade granola bar for a Twinkie at school, I actually wept.  Yep, I was ca-ray-zeee.  And I turned my boys into the world’s worst eaters.

By the time the girls came along, I had pretty much given up and let them eat what they wanted.  And wouldn't you know, they developed varied and healthy food choices, all on their own.  So I fully support Bill Cosby’s philosophy in this hilarious video. 


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Saturday, November 16, 2013

We Often Hurt the Ones We Love. Even the Ones We Don’t Love. So Why Do We Do That, Anyway?

Online today I read an interesting statement.  “When someone tells you they are going to be brutally honest, “ it was observed, “they usually mean they are going to be more brutal than honest.”  It was a timely remark, as I have recently been on the receiving end of just such a verbal mugging.

Days before I was scheduled to have a malignant tumor removed from my left breast, I received an e-mail from someone I loved and trusted implicitly.  It had been a while since I had heard from them, but I hadn’t really given it much thought.  It never occurred to me that something was wrong, I just figured they were busy.  Then I discovered accidentally that this person was upset because I hadn’t called them after they had some minor surgery.   When I learned this, I sent an e-mail to apologize.  I tried to explain what had been going on in my head and I asked, affectionately, if we could put this behind us and move on.  Under ordinary circumstances, I told them, of course I would have called.  But the circumstances hadn’t been ordinary.  I had just discovered I had cancer and I was out of my mind with fear.  One of the worst aspects of chronic and/or serious illness, I have found, is how it can take over your life.  While you are acutely ill, it is easy to become very self-centered.  I had multiple sclerosis, lymphedema that had crippled my legs, a gall bladder abscess, which left me with a drain coming out of my abdomen and, now, metastatic breast cancer.   I can no longer drive or walk more than a few steps.  I am in constant, debilitating pain.   My career and financial security have gone up in smoke.  With all this swirling around me, I was consumed with anxiety and depression.  So this person’s surgery, relatively minor but, of course, important to them, just did not register on my radar screen.

I am ashamed and embarrassed to be so self-absorbed, but my friends have expressed their understanding and have been supportive and patient with my preoccupation.  They know this isn’t my usual nature and they are helping me ride it out as I find my way through this health nightmare.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, this one person had no such empathy and had been nurturing a horde of grievances for months.  They were just being eaten alive by their growing anger.  So they decided this was the perfect time to let me have it.  In response to my conciliatory e-mail, under the guise of ‘being honest’, their devastating reply contained a list, with dates, of my many, many, many faults and failings, going back over a year.  This was written with such venom and bitterness I was literally left breathless.  I was horrified by my perceived crimes, which included my selfishness, my hygiene, my weight, my housekeeping, my decision making, my life choices and my parenting.  I was even faulted for having cancer. 

I was stunned by the malice.  And grieved that I had been so out of touch that I had no idea this person had harbored such a consuming rage.   Unaware, I had readily trusted them with my most private thoughts, welcomed them into my home, believed we were the closest of friends.  Yet all the while they were seething with resentment, blame and judgment that gradually escalated into a frenzy of 1600 furious, wounding words.  Nowhere in the message did they mention having any sympathy for me, there was only blame for how my misfortune angered and embarrassed them.  My friends all offer, constantly, to help me with shopping, cleaning, laundry, or just keeping me company.  And they do all these things for me cheerfully and generously.  But another notable omission from the e-mail was any indication of a desire to assist me in any way, except by telling me what to do and what I had done wrong.  It actually had been like that for years.  But because I loved this person, I had chosen to turn a blind eye to that.  Now, in the face of this brutal verbal attack, I realized how blind I truly had been.

Almost immediately, the shock and hurt of this censure set off a myriad of MS symptoms, which happens when I am particularly stressed.  A course of IV steroids is what helps a bad MS relapse, but as I was heading into surgery, this was out of the question.   I realized I had to deal with the situation with compassion yet as much distance as possible.  I was devastated that I had upset this person so much and, just as bad, had been so clueless about it.   I sent a brief email in response.  I did not even attempt to defend myself against the accusations, which were a ranting mix of exaggerations, unreasonable expectations and flat out fabrications.    Here I was at one of the lowest points of my life and this person chose to make sure I knew they thought I was a gross, unsanitary, obese, selfish, slatternly embarrassment.   I knew it would be pointless to initiate a debate and defensiveness was not what I wanted to communicate anyway.  I wanted to express my shock and sadness at having been so out of touch.   I couldn’t hide my distress at this terrible battering by someone who purported to love me.  I ended my message by telling the person I would pray for them.  I was praying that they would receive some relief from the incredible anger they were holding.  But I added, to my sorrow, please do not contact me again, as their malicious words were simply too hard for me to move past in the foreseeable future.

As the days passed I was haunted.  Especially now that I have Stage IV cancer, I have been giving a great deal of consideration to the life I have led and the life I am leading.  Life in general, actually.  What possesses a person to launch an attack like that on anyone, never mind someone they supposedly love and someone who was terribly ill?    What did it take to choose the ugliest of words, the most wounding accusations and fling them out there?  Why would you want to intentionally hurt and embarrass someone, anyone?  Why do people deliberately and casually do mean, even cruel or evil, things? 

This whole concept prompted me to do some online reading.  It was no surprise to find there are practically as many reasons as there are people.  But, excepting severe mental illness or brain damage, a few common scenarios bubbled to the top.  When it is a one-off thing, fairly uncommon and out of character for the perpetrator, probably the most simple explanation is that the sender is just plain old garden variety mad and is lashing out in retaliation.   For people who are chronically abusive, elemental theory makes a case for low self-esteem.  You feel bad, so making someone feel worse will perk you right up, the kick-the-dog-syndrome.  It is crucial to some people that they feel “better” than those around them, prettier, thinner, more attractive, more successful.  If you are looking down on someone, you must therefore be superior to them.  Feeling superior helps to temporarily mask feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  And feeling superior is essential to their self-worth.  Another possibility is personality disorder, especially narcissism.  For a narcissist, it is all about them.  With little to no empathy for others, they often don’t even realize how hurtful their words and behavior are.   There is the sad/mad deal too.  The person feels sad or hurt but really has never learned how to express that in a mature or effective way.  So they lash out instead of discussing the issue.

Who knows what the thought process was behind the terrible, hurtful message I received?  No matter what the cause, what is sad and scary is how common and accepted meanness is, whether it is being rude to a waitress, not holding a door, cutting someone off in traffic - or writing a wounding e-mail.

I read Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” while I was in college over forty years ago and it made a huge impression on me.  Clearly my experience does not compare to the Holocaust and I know Arendt’s reputation has declined over the past few decades.  But the phrase she coined, “the banality of evil”, from the first time I read it, has stuck with me.  Even though some now denounce it as a cliché, I believe it is an apt and accurate definition.  Evil acts are not always, or even usually, done by drooling, crazed maniacs.  Much of the cruelty in this world is perpetrated by ordinary, and ordinary looking, every day people.  People who look just like you and me.  In fact, they often have been people just like you and me.  And, I realized as I was analyzing the question, in at least one case, it was me. 

I had a dreadful, bitter disagreement with my brother about two years ago.  We had not been close for a long while.  At the time, I believed he had acted badly over something that had been important to me and I told him just what I thought.  I told him with few words, but, to my disgrace, they were well chosen to inflict as much pain as possible.    He replied to that message, but I didn’t read his response, so I’ll never know if he responded in kind or kindly.  I was already ashamed that I had been intentionally spiteful and I did not want to perpetuate the negativity, so I deleted his reply unread.  We haven’t spoken since.

I want to tell him how sorry I am, perhaps by post card, as he probably wouldn’t read a letter.   But I wonder if such a gesture would be more self-serving than anything.  We all know, unfortunately, being sorry or saying I’m sorry does not undo the hurt we inflict.  You can’t erase those words once you’ve seen them or heard them or sent them.  The damage is done after they’re out there.  Human beings have such an enormous capacity for goodness and compassion.  How horrible that so often we choose to be deliberately hurtful instead.  We do terrible things to each other on both a personal and a global scale.

My mother once gave me this piece of wise advice:  never, she said, put in writing something you would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper.  Although, sadly, I did not always follow her caution, she was absolutely right.  If anyone else ever saw the horrible e-mail I sent my brother, they would be shocked and I would be mortified.  Because no matter what he had done, no matter how angry I was, there is no excuse for the awful things I said to him.  A reasonable adult would have stuck to the facts – I don’t like what you did and I thought it was hurtful.  Instead, much like the malicious message I received, I went for the maximum cruelty factor.  It diminished me.  It made me an instrument of hatred and discord.  This is no news bulletin: if more of us thought before we spoke, the world would be so much of a better place.

In response to one of any number of atrocities in the world (how grossly ironic that I cannot remember which one it was) I created this banner for my blog several years ago:


Why is this so hard for the human race to do?

I will miss the person who hurt me so badly, but our relationship has been irretrievably damaged.  While I am getting over the initial shock, the betrayal of trust has left me sad and wary.   At the very least it has given me a lot to think about regarding the way we all treat each other.  As I move forward, I hope I can remember, and model, my own words.


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