I once knew a girl, not thin and not tall.
How she’ll be remembered—not that way, at all.
Janet McJudgerson, with her lemony face.
All pinched up and pious and with nary a trace
of love or compassion but I’ll never tell
since all of my life I knew her so well.
She stared back from the mirror and hated my hair.
My lips and my waist size, and how could I dare
leave the house in those clothes? With friends such as those?
Who loved me despite of the zit on my nose.
Janet McJudgerson saw every small thing through a lense so distorted
I looked over my shoulder and wondered, aloud,
“Will I ever, or never, fit in with her crowd?”
And then something magical, loving and true…
A thought came to me, “hey you, just be you.”
And then I began a journey so long--devoid of a map—so much could go wrong.
A step at a time, I made my own pace
unpacking and thinking—I found a new place.
Confidence, courage, compassion anew.
I honored my feelings and said “oh, fuck you,”
to every dark thought and critical view.
One day, some time later, came a knock at my door.
A shadow, it stood there with a girl, about four.
They meant me no harm when they came a-callin’.
The shadow and girl just seemed so crestfallen.
I opened the door, welcoming them.
“Come in, my good friends,” I said, waving them in.
The Shadow demanded some answers, you see.
“I’m in charge of this girl. I protect her from ‘me’.”
He meant ‘you’ pointing at me, he said it, plain.
“Whether ‘me’ or it’s ‘you’, we’re one in the same.
She’s the little girl ‘you’, whose heart you held dear.
Whose love and her loyalty, you never feared,
until you began trying to be someone else
and love everyone—except for yourself.
I nodded and listened, considering all,
of this girl here, before me, not thin and not tall.
And then I did something—held my arms out
Welcoming her…to embrace
that I’ve loved her so much, my whole life—she is me!
And Janet McJudgerson, well,
you know, what could be?
She hugged me back, and she
She told the shadow, “I’ll stay for a while.”
So we could catch up and chat as dear friends,
and make peace with myself and my heart, once again.
When I was a much younger “me,” I was blessed by a wise woman; a mentor and friend, named “Becky.”* We met on a summer evening at one of our community concerts and I think we just recognized a kindred spirit in the other—a special friend for each of us. For her, I was someone she could share her great insights and, for me, she gained an eager learner.
As our friendship blossomed and we got to know each other, she shared that she married her high school sweetheart much later in life. They had some silly ‘tiff’ after graduation—and were so angry at the other that they each married different people. Soon, both realized their enormous, prideful twin mistakes and spent years living out of guilt, shame and obligation. Finally, their souls emerged and they created a path back to each other.
She explained to me what she learned over this personal journey; the key to a life-long love was that, together, a couple needed to share equivalent parts of “like,” “love” and “lust”. By marrying other people, she and her high school sweetheart learned, very well, a very real truism. Try-as-you-might, if you and your partner don’t share a magical and equal mix of abundant respect, affection and passion, it is not a match for a lifetime.
So, after finding their way, again, to one another, the couple restored their love and life, together. They married in a simple ceremony in their backyard. All became right in their world.
Becky’s experiences, as she described them, became a guiding light to me. I was, myself, a fresh-faced, recent divorcee’ who had once married the not-right-for-me person. We most certainly didn’t share the attributes that made up this charmed, proverbial three-legged stool—like-love-lust. So, I held Becky’s lesson up as my new “Gold” standard for which all romantic relationships would be measured against.
You know where this is going, right?
More life lessons and further insights to shift all that I thought I knew.
And, of course, yet another reason to belly up to the bar for more Day Drinking on a Monday.
Over time, I was offered precious insight and a gift. A couple of them, in fact. Allow me to unpack each, one at a time.
Becky’s story underscored what happens when we put someone in place of…whatever it is, for whatever reason. We may feel it’s the “right time” or “we’re lonely” or “finally successful” or our “biological clock is winding down.” Then as is inevitably the case, we meet Mister or Missus Almost Right. Sometimes we meet the person who fits us at the moment but then we go through a transformation, whether following a sentinel event or a personal vision quest. After that, no matter how hard we try, our vision and vibration just no longer matches the other person. They are simply Almost Right or may even become totally wrong for us.
Some people carry on this way for years—enduring each other. Or, they find a peaceful (or otherwise) way for co-existence. You’ve met those couples. Some even really portray themselves as happy and maybe they are. They can also be the couples, however, who live double lives—as swingers or with active Grindr accounts…but that is a whole other chapter.
Typically, the disconnect stands there as a light post. Every time some major event happens, every time some glorious insight or discovery is made, some thought or another comes to mind that leads down a certain path. In Becky’s case it led her, always, to her heart and then her heart took her by the hand and led her to thoughts of her high school sweetheart.
Maybe there isn’t someone who got away. Maybe it’s just that feeling of knowing you are not equally yoked. Or, maybe you are so afraid of rejection and abandonment that you just always become disillusioned with your partners about the time you fear they will leave you—because you always sabotage things.
Whatever the reason you feel a person is Almost Right, take some time to figure it the fuck out. Don’t go rashly caterwauling off to Jamaica with your online match or someone you’ve been keeping on the back burner for an easy escape. Find a trusted, licensed masters- or doctoral-level therapist to explore the “why” of your discontent. Be courageous. Be bold. This path will always, always lead to self-awareness, personal growth and enriched relationships. Even if your marriage ends, you will inevitably do so with far more grace and dignity and in a way that allows for a thoughtful conclusion and transition for everyone involved.
Along the way, I was given a second gracious gift. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a fourth pillar emerged. This powerful lesson taught me the very real truism that while a lifelong match must be one with whom you share lust, love and like—meaning you share equal parts passion, affection and mutual respect—there is a fourth essential element, loyalty.
Now, it would be simple and trite to reflect this pillar as being just about sexual and emotional fidelity. And while it is, indeed, about those things, it is also about developing such an abiding sense of faithfulness to the other person that the thought of betraying their trust at any level is wrong.
In your blended family, are you sliding money to your biological (grown) children to keep them afloat after promising your partner that the last time was the last time?
You are being disloyal.
Have you just swapped one addiction—alcohol—for another—porn, or shopping, or, collecting whatjamacallits...or just whatever...?!
Kahlil Gibran, one of my favorite philosophers and poets, proposed that the best partners are the guardians of the others’ solitude. That is true, however, what is also true is that your partner is not your parent…or your child.
Each of us is responsible, as grown-ass-people, to show up, maybe bruised and battered from past emotional encounters but wholly present and accounted for. A proverbial life jacket may be offered but we have to put that fucker on—or keep it on, as the case may be.
You cannot save another or, literally, be saved from your own burning platform. That is especially true if you happen to be the one constantly setting fire to it yourself. It just makes you an emotional arsonist.
Anyone who has gotten to recovery, whether as an addict or codependent, will tell you, first hand, that true healing comes from taking responsibility for healing one’s self from within.
We can and should ask for help. Conversely, we should offer affection, kindness and encouragement to each other. But true inspiration to make a lasting, sentinel shift comes from within.
So as the importance of loyalty—and its essential role in lifelong partnerships—emerged for me, I thought back to Becky’s story. This pillar existed for her, too. She and her high school sweetheart were both disloyal to their former spouses, for a time, with one another. Both realized it and took time to step away from each other. They took separate, introspective paths. Later, one spouse died from cancer and the other divorced.
After a period of therapy and contemplation, Becky and her high school sweetheart reconnected. They began once again, this time free and open, full of lust, love, like and loyalty to one another and the life they would create, together.
These four essential pillars—my prayer is that you discover them for yourselves. I pray that you never settle for Almost Right. That you hold out, trusting that you are meant to be blessed with lifelong, lasting love, and live every day as though you already have all that you need.
What a gift, indeed.
In my travels and my career, I’ve been blessed to be alongside a strange fraternity of souls. Membership is by initiation, only, and that is by losing a beloved, in a shocking, sudden, and catastrophic event. The wisest among them, a parent who lost a child in the PanAm flight #103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, offered precious insight when he observed following that terror event, there emerged a contest of sorts among the survivor families.
Some began comparing the enormity of their individual losses to one another. These survivors contended that loss of a spouse was less of a loss because one could marry again. Or, the loss of a parent in this tragedy was even less so because it was an event to be expected at some point. Ultimately, the loss of a child or children was the worst of all. When still others challenged that belief, saying one could have more children.
He said that everyone started coming together when they stopped comparing their losses and accepted the tragedy and the collective violation for all the survivor families. Together, they became a powerful political force, leading a movement to enact stringent airline safety and security rules, as well as improved aircraft hardening standards. These benefit people and families in such positive ways that will ripple through the generations. That is the power of recovery in action, but I get ahead of myself.
So, I return to my experiences that led me to Day Drinking. These insights were emblazoned on my heart, sparking a chain reaction within me exploring recovery from one of the Big Three: The loss of livelihood, loss of a loved one or the loss of one’s own health. I was blessed to be alongside my father, who passed too soon but after a lengthy illness in which I was his primary caregiver. His loss, hard as it was to recover from, felt like only part of the grief story following the loss of a loved one.
Comparing my own experience, I was given the blessed gift of time to “brace, brace, brace” (as they say before an aircraft lands, hard). What about the loss of a loved one after a sudden, catastrophic event? There is no warning. No time to prepare. At. All.
Over this COVID Pandemic, I’ve lived vicariously on the internet. To take the place of face-to-face human bonding, I’ve joined several groups on Facebook, and through one of them, I made friends with Bethany.* One day, out of the blue, she PM’d me (that’s a private message, if you happen to be light on the lingo of social media).
My best friend, who was also my niece, died a year ago, this December, while she was nine months pregnant. I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get over losing her. But anyways, for about 13 years before she came back to Kentucky she lived in Washington State, like you.
I am so very sorry for your loss. Words cannot express it, properly.
I have a story I want to tell you. Forgive me if this is going to be long and boring, lol.
Of course she did. It answered my silent question: How do I describe grief recovery following sudden death of one’s soulmate? How do I do that without, please, please, having that happen to me or mine? I felt like Abraham from the Old Testament of the actual bible, trusting the angel and laying out Isaac, his son, in a test. No, the angels answered. We don’t want this story to be all about your recovery.
We want others to tell their stories, too. About how they got back up into the saddle and rode on through life following their own losses. Life will knock us down a time or two. The trick is to love and live through it all—to have courage and faith, even when things don’t make sense. Especially then.
Oh, thank God, I thought, because so much of the inspiration for this story came about after hauling my own ass up, after loss. Not long after my imaginary conversation with the universe, Bethany showed up and trusted me with her story following her own sudden, shocking loss-of-love story.
I had a niece that was just two years younger than me. We stuck together like glue. She was my best friend.
Years ago, she met a guy on the internet that was almost 40 years older than her and she packed up everything at 18 and moved out to California to be with him. He convinced her to have nothing to do with her family. She would sneak calls in every so often. Later they moved to Washington and eventually settled in Clarkston. One evening she had a massive domestic issue and called me to get her home to us, her family in the south.
She eventually divorced this man and lived with me. Finally, I had my best friend back. She was told she never could have kids and that always weighed on her. She met a nice guy from Florida. She said she was not leaving her family again for any man. So he moved here, and low and behold, she got pregnant at 37. It was fantastic. Her due date was Christmas Eve. She moved out of my house and in with her boyfriend, the father of her baby, a week before Thanksgiving.
On December 3, her boyfriend called me to say she never made it home from work even though she had just called him to say she was on her way. She worked in the Kroger pharmacy. He drove to Kroger to look for her and found her dead in the car. They rushed her to the hospital to save the baby who was full term but the baby just passed. Come to find out she had a problem with an artery in her heart and it stretched and just burst, killing her right away. They just didn’t make it in time to save the little girl. My world has not been the same. I cry almost every day and it’s been over a year.
I guess what made me want to tell this story is every time I see you say something about Washington State, thoughts of her come to mind. She used to send me pictures of the little trips they would take, [like] going camping, visiting Forks (she was a huge Twilight fan), and her favorite, taking trips to Seattle. It helps to have good memories of her and I’ve spent my whole life never hearing much about Washington until she lived and worked there and now you. It’s just odd how things like that work.
Yes, odd, indeed. An empath’s heart is blessed (or cursed, as the case may be) with the ability to feel or experience things without having to actually go through them. This has been supremely true in writing this series of stories on grief recovery. I wrote her back, immediately.
I'm honored to hear your story. I want to know these things. And to know you can think of her and remember her and now I can remember her with you. Do you dream of her?!
I do. Funny you ask. I had a dream a few months ago. It was the most real dream ever. It was clear and it was her. I asked her if there were dogs in heaven. She told me she was aware when it happened and saw herself. She says she started saying the “medical prayer” and that’s weird because I have Googled it and there’s no such thing. She was going to school to be a nurse. But why would my mind make up the words “medical prayer”? …. And then the other day I dreamed I passed her in a vehicle and she waved at me.
About the time Bethany first shared this story with me, I’d accepted a job in Central Washington, near where her niece—whom I always thought of as her sister—lived for a time. In fact, I would think of Bethany’s “sister” as I drove into town. As soon as I had time, I promised myself I’d follow up, again. This new job was just so all-encompassing, Bethany and I kept trying to sync up to talk more about it but the timing was never right.
Yet, her “sister” would not be ignored. I would be dropping down on Highway 82 into Yakima, so beautifully flanked on each end by Mount Rainier and Mound Adams. They stood like bookends at either side of the valley and out of the blue, my thoughts would ramble back to her. In all the hubbub surrounding my new job, I’d completely forgotten what sex the baby was but the vision kept popping in my head of a brand new baby, all wrapped up in pink, being handed over for eager arms to hold.
In our earlier exchange, Bethany shared with me that it was difficult to grieve the baby because, whether true or not, she felt that the baby was the cause of her sister’s death. The pressure of the late term pregnancy was more than her heart could handle. I wondered about her and I wondered if Bethany began grieving the baby, finally.
It’s important to say, at this point, that this is most definitely Bethany’s story, but it’s also partly mine, too. In my second week at this new job, my mother died.
It wasn’t unexpected but it still weighed heavily on my family. After a few more very uncomfortable weeks at my new job, I realized that it was not the place for me. The organization I worked for was going through tumultuous change—they were certainly not ready, yet, for my work as a marketing communications professional.
Conversely, given my professional experiences over the prior six years, I was completely unable to work with this group of people as they navigated their journey through those five dysfunctions of a team, as author Patrick Lencioni, observed so well. I abruptly unraveled a home purchase and decided to pick up where I’d left off with my life, eight weeks prior, returning to my blissful slice of heaven—my life and family in Gig Harbor, WA.
I was reeling from so much personal loss and tremendous professional disappointment—I felt I was standing amid the shards of my career, not unlike the remnants of a burning building. Oh. My. God. Where in the actual fuck would I go from here?
Where were you when you last left our story? Seemingly out of the blue, probably the same heart space where I thought of Bethany’s sister and her adorable baby, came this obvious question.
If you’re going to retrace your steps, where were you eight weeks ago?
The answer came to mind immediately: Thinking of Bethany’s story.
So I PM’d her again. Apologized for my long absence and asked if we could talk. My best guess was to pick up where we’d left off in our messaging. Where was she, now, in her grief journey? I wondered how she would characterize this loss, this gaping absence of her sister, I mean, niece, who was her lifelong best friend. Of course, we didn’t start there. We re-wound her story to childhood.
“When my mom was in her early twenties, she had my second half-brother, Cori’s Dad. My mom married my dad several years later, giving birth to my brother, sister, and then finally me at the age of 40, just two years before Cori was born. Cori’s Dad was always more of a father figure, really. He and I have always been close,” she explained. “All of us made up a close family. We’ve remained in the same town, here in the mid-South, for many generations.”
What a blessing, to maintain extended, close relations, with family. Anyone, anywhere, knows that it takes commitment for families to all get along and not fall prey to silly peccadillos or intrigue. “My niece, Cori, was more like a sister to me, not a niece. We were only two years apart in age. We were raised together and since the time I can remember, we did things like have sleepovers and we just shared everything,” as if in answer to my unspoken thought. It explained why I always considered the pair as sisters, not aunt and niece.
She recounted the horrible night that they lost Cori. How everyone ended up at the hospital. How the paramedics and ER team knew they couldn’t save the mother but tried desperately to save the baby … and couldn’t do that, either.
“Some of the family said that I should have gone to the hospital and seen her lifeless body in order to say goodbye,” she admitted, finally. “I just couldn’t do that.”
That was a good decision. “One of the other family members told me she looked like an empty shell of herself. And yet, she still wore her nametag from work. It had spots of blood spray on it. I just couldn’t have seen that.”
Time heals all wounds, right? Yeah, fuck that.
“It’s been a year, and I’m still not okay,” she said. “I’m not okay.”
We talked round and round; Bethany explained that at the time Cori died, she had a new boyfriend. “I poured everything I had into him, and naturally, he broke up with me, almost immediately.” It was just too much for a new beau to carry. No one who signs up for Date-dot-com can handle that within the first few weeks of meeting their match.
Can you imagine adding that to your online dating profile?
Hi there…I’m a Libra, I love to watch Dirty Harry movies, and, oh, my sister will die, suddenly, within a month of our first date.
After the New Year, Bethany began seeing a grief counselor. He was just helping her unpack her loss and then the COVID pandemic hit.
“Everything stopped, like time stood still,” she said. “After a few weeks, the practice staff contacted me offering to do our sessions by ZOOM. I couldn’t do that.” So, she focused on other aspects of her life.
A few months later, she accepted a great new job. She is a mortgage loan officer and now does her job, virtually, for an out-of-state company. She also met a new boyfriend, and full-disclosure, he knew about her loss. More importantly, by the time she met him, Bethany had focused her grief and her energy in their rightful places. He was not assigned as her immediate, total and complete focus to replace the sudden and shocking loss of love caused by the tragic death of her sister.
I thought a lot about the gift of time. While she feels she’s still not okay, and that is totally okay, I’m still so proud of her. Not that she needs me to be so, but I am, anyway. Time has, indeed, marched on. Bethany has gone about the stuff of daily living. She may feel she’s wallowed but one might view it, differently. She’s continued on in her career, she’s continued loving others, and also working through her grief by staying in touch with her therapist. As a note, Bethany will soon be returning to in-person private appointment grief counseling sessions. All healthy. All reflecting that she has, indeed, accepted the gift of time.
As we talked about her plans, my vision of the baby, swaddled in pink, kept coming to mind.
“Did you know what she was having?”
“For a while, I was the only one to know, because I was the one to plan her gender reveal party,” she explained. She waited for a while to tell everyone, including the baby’s father. Cori had a miscarriage a few months earlier, so she wanted to just give it time.” I thought more about the gift of time and how it is a precious gift that, instinctively, Cori also knew.
“Not that it matters any more, but she was having a girl. And, I was so excited before it all happened. I was never going to have children, myself, and having this beautiful little girl was going to be so special.”
Did Cori want Bethany to accept that baby, and her heartfelt loss, by the act of visually receiving a pink bundle of joy into her arms?
Within a couple of days, I was amid writing her story and just got to a place of pause. Not surprisingly, that evening I PM’d her to check in.
Spent the greater part of the day writing about you and Cori. Felt her all around me, looking over my shoulder. "Uh, Bethany didn't say it like that!" I was LOLing all day!
I dreamed of her last night! I said “just keep letting me hug you because I don’t know when I’ll see you again.” … Last night’s dream was a simple hug and not wanting to let go.
What a miraculous, magical moment with her sister. I’m so very, very happy that the veil of heaven dipped enough to allow this experience for Bethany. And, okay, so the agnostics and pragmatists among us will assure readers that this is just Bethany’s way to work through her grief. It’s her subconscious mind playing out imagined conversations in order to let go and heal from such a tragic, sudden loss.
What if it’s both? What if there is magic and there are angels and there is a vibrant, active life on the other side of this one? And, what if they blessedly, benevolently, get special permission from the heavenly powers-that-be to help us work through our grief during our dreams and in our subconscious minds?
Imagine that, for a moment.
My father, who was world-renowned for his “Wes-isms” had this to say of the arduous, difficult experiences of life … “This, too, shall pass.” It’s often messy, full of fits and starts, back-tracking, outright fuck ups, and yet, it passes. One day, we wake up and the burden has lifted. We’ve done the work we needed to do…not shoving it out of sight or sweeping it under a proverbial rug. We’ve gone about the business of daily living because, well, the alternative we know would break the hearts of those we love, in this life and the next.
And, if we’re really, really fortunate, their positive influence remains. Their memory continues to live on within our hearts as our constant companions. Their influence ripples through the generations. I am absolutely certain of Cori’s memory doing so in Bethany’s family. In all the nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and, well, everyone, for generations to come.
This, too, shall pass.
Have courage. Have faith. Even when—especially when—things don’t make sense. Continue on, dear loved ones.
Rhiannon* is a beaut’ from New Jersey; she’s another friend I was blessed to meet via social media during the COVID pandemic. It’s true that birds of a feather flock together, even virtually. One of our twin interests brought us together in a Facebook group. We bonded over a discussion about lobster and how that when she regained her sense of taste after cancer treatment, she would visit Maine and eat lobster along the entire coastline. I agreed on her wisdom, noting we shared that passion and immediately offered to be her wingman. And, that’s how it is with Day Drinking buddies. We form friendships, instantly and anywhere.
In January of 2020, no one expected to become so isolated and overwhelmed from the sea change caused by the pandemic. It was a tidal wave, hitting unexpected, and immediately made virtual shut-ins of us, all. It became a time of deciding on the future, of sifting through what was past and what would come—all completely dependent on our own choices. By Fall of last year, Rhiannon decided that the place she needed to be was with her mother.
“I chose to move into my mother’s home,” she explained. “I am blessed to have her still healthy and living independently, but she is over 80 years old. During the pandemic, since I’m single and was living on my own, I thought she needed me. Little did I know how much I would come to need her.”
The COVID pandemic brought chaos and confusion, in the form of a sudden and decisive sea change to our lives. In Rhiannon’s case, later last year it also brought cancer. “In November, right after I moved home, I felt a lump on my neck. I refused to speak the “C”-word but immediately made an appointment to see my doctor. I got an in-person appointment in record time.”
The next couple of weeks brought a flurry of appointments, tests, including a biopsy, which confirmed her biggest fear, cancer. “I’ve always been a positive, social, and active person. This felt like the lowest point in my life. I was recently divorced, at a certain age, living with my mother, isolated from all of my friends, unemployed, and then I was diagnosed with cancer. It was most certainly not where I’d planned to be at this time in my life.”
Rhiannon’s words echo those of so many of us over this past year. All of our plans, our visions for ourselves, were thrown into sharp relief amid the glaring, stark reality we found after the pandemic began. And, her experience was made all the more frightening with a cancer diagnosis. Studies continue to show that social support makes an enormous, healing difference during cancer treatment. But how would Rhiannon make and sustain those connections amid the COVID pandemic? Her mother, supportive and loving, could not possibly be the sole source of encouragement during this time.
“Well, my day-to-day quarantine family was pretty small. It included my mother and my dog, Cha Cha,” a little 16-year old Chihuahua, who herself developed a facial lesion during the early period of Rhiannon’s cancer diagnosis. “Thank God, it was just a tooth abscess but I was just beside myself, at first, thinking that she, also, might be facing something bigger. It felt like just my luck.”
So, Rhiannon took to social media and in particular, Facebook. “Up to the presidential elections, social media earned its reputation for being the place where everyone’s political drama and differences played out. And, don’t get me wrong, I’d done a bit of that, myself. Yet, I had a large network of friends, from my life’s journeys. Facebook allowed me the platform to share updates, photos, even talk through my fears and even my guilt, over this cancer experience.”
Guilt? Over cancer? How is that even possible?
Rhiannon can laugh about that…now. “Well, my father died of cancer, himself, because he smoked all of his life,” she explained. “I’d smoked but quit years ago and after that had always taken good care of myself. I ate right, exercised and limited my alcohol intake. I had a great job, in child development and education. I had a good life. But, after I found the lump, I just kept thinking I brought this on myself. It was my smoking that did this.”
Ah, don’t we know ourinner critic? I call her “Janet McJudgerson.” For me, I’ve learned she is that judgey internal narrator who is either quiet or loud, depending solely on the amount of grace we grant ourselves. Rhiannon was diagnosed with tonsil cancer, the most likely cause of which was her former smoking habit. However, since quitting smoking she was conscientious about her health. It was because of that her cancer was detected, early. It was diagnosed as being at stage two, and had not spread beyond her neck and tonsil area. That was an important bit of very good news.
“OK, I finally got my OFFICIAL diagnosis,” she explained in her social media post announcement to her tribe of friends. “Squamous cell carcinoma on the tonsil and lymph nodes. Okay…Chemo and radiation. I’m GONNA fight. I will NOT give up. Not gonna lie. It’s been hard but I’m not gonna go down without fighting this shit.”
She shared her story of what she thought caused her cancer. “I posted that if anyone of my friends still used tobacco to please quit, now,” she said. The other side of sharing her story was the encouragement she received from her network of friends. They urged her to let herself off the hook about having previously smoked cigarettes. And then the cards and letters began arriving.
“Everyone began writing to me. Words of encouragement, of love and support. It meant so much. On my really bad days, I read them over and over again.” She made a scrapbook, saving each one of the cards and letters. She posted her gratitude to friends, showing off the scrapbook, then even more positive bolts of light in the form of handwritten mail would arrive at her door.
At the outset, Rhiannon talked about the dreaded “C” word as if it had four letters. Yet, as she talked about her journey, there were many other letters beginning with “C” that came to mind. Courage for her fight and also a sense of compassion for herself and for others going through similar experiences. And, as she completed her cancer treatment, there emerged a specific energy, a confidence for her future. To hear her talk about what lay ahead for her was just down-right inspiring.
“Well, first, I need to just focus on my physical health,” she explained. “At five-nine, I’m only 125 pounds following treatment and I’m working on gaining weight.”
Oh, what a problem so many wish to have, I thought, myself at barely five-three and definitely beyond 125 pounds!
She then posted about her next steps to her friend network.
“Goals! I need to get my health in order. 2nd. I need to figure out my employment THEN my love life. #imtrying.” She sure is. The encouraging comments, in response, were simply love-filled.
These were just a sample of them:
“It will all come together one day at a time, sending prayers.”
“You can do it!”
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you,” Walt Whitman.
“It is important to set goals for yourself. We all do that. You got this honey!!”
“Rhiannon, each & every day things fall into place at the right time. Trust in this. Much love & prayers and positive energy to you every single day. Love you!”
I observed that “Then the universe says, ‘oh dear, hold my glass, I’ve got this’…and a change of plans ensues!” And that’s because methinks she may get the boyfriend before she lands the new job. But in whatever way it unfolds, she has the creativity (another “C” word) to consider her future, forward, and a healthy life beyond cancer.
This sort of visionary philosophy got me thinking and we talked about the law of attraction, specifically, about the concepts of “attachment” versus “effortless detachment.”
“I had to let go of holding onto a specific outcome regarding my cancer,” she explained. “But to just simply have faith that it would all work out, however it worked out, and to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.”
Author and poet, Kahlil Gibran, observed, “Doubt is a pain to lonely to know that faith is his twin brother!” It struck me that Rhiannon had worked through her fears to have a deep faith in her healing journey. For some, like my father, his healing from cancer resulted in his passing. He was free from pain, illness and will forevermore be found in football huddles, inspiring the QB during audibles. Rhiannon’s healing is different. Yet, she also experienced both physical and spiritual healing.
Faith. In the outcome. Whatever the outcome.
I’m so excited to visit Maine with her–whether we start at the tippy top of the state, or work our way up from Boston.
I know it’s going to be one hell of a culinary journey with my friend, the Lobster Girl.
*Names were changed to allow for privacy.
Several years ago, author and pastor, Gary Chapman, released his book and teaching series, The Five Love Languages. It was all the rage.
I took the quiz, read the book, and tried like crazy to fit myself into one or another category.
The closest I came was to finally throw my hands up and decide that there is a sixth language of love (and life) out there for us to know and speak fluently.
No gifts, no pretty words, or time spent together, or even doing something nice by mowing the lawn or enjoying a fahncee dinner out, or even just holding hands…none of that stacks up to…
Tell me I’m pretty, but look at all the other pretty girls (and boys) who walk by.
Show up once in a while to mow the lawn or take me out to dinner. But ghost when the oven goes out or the teenager runs away. Things that really need fixing take time.
Which leads to quality time. It’s actually about time. It’s not about, as the Air Force calls it, touch-and-go landing and take-off drills.
And don’t buy me off with gifts. That’s just poor form.
With complete respect and deference to Pastor Chapman, all five of the love languages are wonderful. However, if you really read his book and take his lessons to heart, you’d understand none of those languages are spoken in silos or in absence of the greater truth.
Love is a verb AND a noun.
We are not just in LOVE. We show up. Every day. Even when, or maybe especially when, the oven goes out and the teenager is AWOL.
A friend once said to me, “When words don’t match actions, that’s a lie.”
As a result, I’ve defined an “Actions” unspoken language. It’s active, dynamic. In fact, it’s always evolving and adapting. It hones by listening and looking at all situations and people to see them and understand them for…what. They. Are.
Not what we wish, or yearn for, or delude ourselves into thinking they are. Actions don’t bet on the come. They let things unfold and simply be. Actions respond and adapt to show (not tell) actual love for others as well as one’s self.
People who speak this language do laundry for a busy friend. They plant flowers or spread beauty bark or sit quietly beside a neighbor who just lost a beloved pet. They make sure a friend who underwent a medical procedure has something to eat. They also honor birthdays and other special days with a thoughtful remembrance, as well as time spent, together.
In short, those who are adept at this sixth language of love, know. They know how to adapt and speak the other five love languages, at the same time, to those they care about.
Reading actions is an essential skill to apply when interacting with people who can’t speak any love language because they are speaking the languages of grief, anger, fear, addiction, or mental illness. Abusive, hurtful people only hurt other people. If you don’t speak this sixth language of love you only enable them…and yourself.
I say that because the actions of hurting people speak for themselves. I’ve learned that one the hard way. If you speak the language of “Actions”, the kindest thing you can do is step out of their path.
Or, you will get run over.
The other five love languages are based on the assumption that one is fundamentally of sound mind (and heart) and not lugging around a lifetime of unresolved personal baggage. Take time to truly know yourself. Make peace, as much as possible, with your past.
In allowing actions to speak for themselves, it becomes fundamentally easier to see and appreciate people for who they really are. You see them, not for whom you hoped they would be nor are you seeing them for who you jumped to conclusions over. It’s an essential part of speaking this language, fluently. I’ve learned that one the hard way.
People who speak the Actions language…show up with clear minds and open hearts. A person fluent in this language is confident in his or her ability to both respect and maintain personal boundaries.
Actions people—they don’t bargain in things like shame, guilt or fear. They don’t offer ultimatums, whether to stand by, do something NOW, or to get or be something, for you, now. They play the long game. They are patient, kind, sometimes they are even frustrated, but they are love, personified.
Are you the guardian of your heart? Are you a steward of your dearest relationships?
If so, you speak this sixth language of love.
Actions are everything.
Words and gifts, or a car wash or a special meal now and then…those things are nothing without the consistency of the whole. It’s synergy. The sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the actual parts. It’s synergy because it takes all five love languages, working in tandem. Real love includes words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, gifts, and acts of service. Performed consistently. Over time.
The ability to speak this language, the language of actions, reflects an even greater truth.
You have worked your shit out. You are a grown up. You know you are enough. You are whole, complete. As. You. Are.
I don’t know any language that gives as much back to others as to yourself.
So, make a plan. If you’re not there yet, figure out how to speak this language. What’s your path to fluency? It’s usually not that hard once you say, out loud, you need to figure it out.
“Embrace it. Release it,” as another friend once suggested. I pass this nugget on because it’s pure gold.
You can do it. Just take it one step at a time. Don’t Judge yourself or others along the way. Janet McJudgerson, as I call my inner critic, doesn’t speak ANY love language. Letting go of judgement allows you to just figure out what is right for you in order to feel good and whole, in this moment.
Once your feet are planted firmly on solid ground you will soon have this special language well, in hand. Do that.
Stay the course, because soon enough you will be fluent in this essential language of true love and life.
For me, my caregiver role at the time was wholly about my father, my young son, my golden retriever with multiple allergies and my full-and-a-half-time job! My dad came to live with my little crew after a heart episode made him unable to drive and care for himself. Along with congestive heart failure, he was also living with cancer. Those first few weeks with him at my home were like caring for a 250 pound toddler.
Over the time I cared for my father and juggled my other roles, I learned a few things. Certainly throughout this two-year period there was never a moment I didn’t know where I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to be doing and who I was to be caring for. While, for sure, I am a human BEING, at the time I was very focused on the “Do’s” in my life where my responsibilities as a caregiver were concerned. As a result, I became just as intentional regarding the things to DO to restore my soul, each and every day. Over time, I came to group those things into FIVE categories.
I made this the first thing for a reason. I was only eight months into being a single mom when he arrived. I was still working out what the “new normal” was and then he showed up. We all had to figure it out, me especially. In the weeks that followed, I had to be intentional about dedicating time to laugh and lose myself in the moment. I didn’t really know what “fun” was for me, at that point. So I started, here:
When I got my first cold after dad came to live with me, it became immediately obvious the vital importance of taking care of myself. Yet, OMG, how hard is it to take time out to do things like crawl into bed at 7:30 PM…on a Saturday night? I got real and got over my self-righteous, martyrdom-ridden self and figured out what kept me on my feet so I could fulfill my roles and be a whole, present human being instead of a shell and automaton.
Things that were important for me to take care of me included the basics, like time for sleep, preventative health appointments, eating regular meals and exercise. But other things came forward as important for me to do. These were things like getting a massage, bringing home a bouquet of grocery tulips, taking time for a cup of coffee (or a glass of wine) with friends—without children, dogs or dads present. It wasn’t any one thing, it was all those things that made up my definition of taking care of myself. Yours may look totally different and that’s okay. What’s important is that you figure it out.
After you’ve had some fun and taken care of yourself, you will have replenished your emotional reserves a bit. In the process you’ll figure out how-to set up additional help and caregiving resources. It’s an opportunity to determine the highest and best use of your time. It's important to note that after being in my home about a year, my father did so much better that his cancer went into remission for a bit. It became obvious he was lonely and bored while my son and I were out of the house during the day.
So, I moved my father moved into an assisted living facility that was two miles away from the house. Before that, I would have people check on him, but it just didn’t meet his needs for social engagement with his favorite thing: Other people. I also needed help with my son and the dog from time-to-time, in order to get out for fun and self-care. So I got busy and found the help I needed.
Here was an example of my typical day: In the morning, I woke early to fold laundry and get ready for the day. A couple days a week, I had a morning caregiver come in to help my son get off to the bus. Other days I’d drop him at the before-school care but this allowed him to sleep in. I'd leave the house to drop off laundry and have breakfast with my dad.
Some of my FAVORITE times were watching him and his buddy, Bob, hold court at the breakfast table checking out the ladies as they made their way to their tables. Oh, it was funny. After work, I stopped by dad’s to pick up any dirty clothes, went home, made dinner and washed clothes. Went back to say hi with my son, check meds again and we brought fresh clothes with us.
It was a balancing act between the things I kept and the things I shed: I did laundry. I got help with Samuel in the morning. I laid out medications and helped stay on top of those because it kept me close to him and helped his physicians. I got someone else to clean my house and another person to mow the lawn. I also asked friends to stop by and see my dad or be his “date” at functions that I couldn’t attend. It was good for us, all.
Okay, this seems like a simple thing to do, however, as caregivers we’re B-U-S-Y. Being present, to listen, engage in conversation and be responsive takes conscious effort. When I was rested and my soul restored, being present was a LOT easier to do and I’m so grateful for it. I learned that my dad’s best times to visit were:
Early morning and also right at/after meal-time. He could sit at the table or we’d move to the sofa and he would talk to me about what happened during the day and then wander off to regale my son with memories of his life that were both funny and inspiring. I will always remember my father telling my son the story of when he shot a cobra’s head off while overseas in the Marines. It was hilarious and I’ll always remember him saying, “Son, I shot that sucker’s head off!” I will also always remember how it sparked a long conversation about wildlife during war.
Any place that his walker could be stowed away. We had the best conversations on a long drive or over dinner at a restaurant. I also learned the law of attraction by asking him to keep his eyes peeled for a parking spot and laughing, out loud, because we ALWAYS found rock-star parking.
Watching football. My dad’s famous saying was “Two times of the year!” He was the ultimate scholarship boy, playing football for the infamous Chuck Taylor at Stanford University. We’d sit down for a game and talk football strategy the whole game. He loved that time and so did my son and I.
If you spend time together, time that you are really present, you’ll find those things that help engage and honor your loved one. You won’t regret anything when the time comes, and I promise you that time will come sooner than you think.
Worry is a wasted emotion. If you can change the outcome then focus your energy on doing that. If not, the worry and regret won’t help you deal with it. This is where faith comes to the rescue. My faith tradition is that I am a Christian. In my faith, my God promises he will never leave me or forsake me. Whether religion or natural laws of the universe, faith in the outcome, whatever the outcome.
The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Let go of worry, regret, the past, doubt, whatever is weighing you down. The gift you give yourself and others ripples through the generations.
As part of that, I need to do my part by doing things that fill my emotional and intellectual reserves. For me, along with fun, self-care, asking for help and being present with my loved ones, it also included quiet, contemplative time to hear that still small voice within me.
Some hurts, some worries are big. Without delving into each of our personal lives and family histories, some things must be worked out with the help of a professional therapist or counselor. But be active, take time to face it, deal with it, and make peace with it.
My dad came to me sick and broke. But the miracle was that his employer continued to pay him. I was a single mom with a six-year old boy, a golden retriever and a full-and-a-half-time job. When my dad came to me it was after my parents divorced at 35 years of marriage. There were decades of unresolved issues in our less-than-functional family. But we made time to enjoy each other. We both let go.
Once upon a time, a man woke to find himself in a dark and squalid place. It was a dreadful prison. How he got there and what happened before, the man did not know. When sorrowful wailing from the other prisoners quelled, sometimes he dreamt of blue skies and fair, salty sea breezes on his face. All too soon, the gloom would return—hauling him back to his fecund, dank cell.
During one of his endless dark days, the man received a visitor. Her blazing, calculating presence descended into his cell. It was an Envoy to the Emperor who ruled this kingdom and its prison. She was escorted by a small entourage of black shadows and had a proposition for the condemned man.
“The Emperor recently created a new game,” the Envoy explained. Her violet breath left ice daggers hanging in the air, almost stabbing the prisoner’s face.
“You get to choose your part,” she offered. “But be warned, neither is good and you will most likely die.”
“What if I don’t die?”
“You will be set free.”
So the man accepted. Surely, it would be better than languishing in his prison cell—not ever knowing why he got there in the first place and without hope of escape.
The man was taken to a Magician’s Lair. He was cleaned, fed, and readied for his entrance into the Emperor’s coliseum.
“You are fortunate,” the Magician said, holding two black vials of potion. Vapors rose from each bottle and twined into what seemed like a nose around the prisoner’s neck. “The Emperor allows you to choose your part in this game. Which do you want to be, the Matador or the Bull?”
Not knowing what the game was, he chose the only thing he knew, to be the Bull. The Magician handed the prisoner one of the vials and nodded for him to drink it down.
Immediately, he was transformed into the Bull. He felt a savage strength as it unleashed from within as he circled his holding pen. A gate opened and for one brief moment, the Bull stood still. He considered that, for a moment, he actually didn’t need to charge into the ring. Hearing a roar from the crowd in the coliseum beyond, the Bull made up his mind and ran toward the sounds that beckoned him.
He knew he was immense and powerful. However, he also knew that the odds were against the Bull. His giant size and reckless power were soon hobbled by a half-dozen of the Matador’s guards, called picadors. They hurled spears, stabbing the Bull. At the same time another group, called banderillos, waved flags to distract and confuse him.
And then the Matador entered the coliseum. An opulent, well-dressed showman, he was the ring master, flipping his red cape to taunt the injured Bull. In a desperate grab, the Bull surprised the Matador. He tore through the fiery fabric, coming dangerously close to his adversary. A gate magically opened for the Bull to find an escape from the fighting ring.
The Bull’s nose billowed out large plumes of steam as his sides heaved with torturous exertion. The Magician and the Envoy appeared and at the same time, the Bull changed back into a man. Those wretched spears clattered to the ground and he was free of his painful lot, though still injured.
“Tend him,” the Envoy ordered.
The prisoner was given a night’s reprieve and returned to his dark and squalid cell. The Magician gave him a blanket and, along with dressing his wounds, offered the man another magical vial. This time it was full of a healing potion. Little did the prisoner know it was also a bringer of dreams.
As he slept, the man became the Bull again and saw the many times he charged those who he felt threatened or frightened him, including those he loved. Even when he was in the wrong.
In his dream, it was almost as if he stabbed himself. He kept driving the spears in further by fighting imaginary opponents of his own creation. He woke in the night and thought deeply about his dream.
The next day, the prisoner returned to the Magician’s lair. Again, the Envoy’s icy countenance gave little away. The man stood before her awaiting whatever came, next.
“You fought valiantly and pleased the Emperor,” she said. “Again, you can choose. Who do you want to be in today’s bullfight?
“The Matador,” he answered, inwardly congratulating himself. Certainly, being the Matador had to be a wise choice in the bullfighter’s ring.
As the Matador, he stepped into the coliseum and was immediately afraid.
The enraged Bull charged and the Matador directed his picadors and banderillos to distract and stab him. They weakened the Bull, both by injuring his body and his spirit. As the Matador, he was grateful. Otherwise, he knew the Bull would surely kill him. Yet, that didn’t feel right. This painful advantage removed all the joy of an honest victory.
It felt like a lie.
The Matador positioned himself at the open gateway to the bullpen, waving his red cape. The Bull charged in an angry rage, tearing the Matador’s cape while running safely out of the ring. He realized it was the same fight as the day before, though this time from the Matador’s perspective.
Again, he was transformed back into a prisoner, standing in dirty rags before the Envoy and the Magician. The man was certain they would punish him for showing mercy to the Bull.
“Why did you let the Bull run through the gate?” The Envoy demanded an answer. She seemed only dismayed, not angry.
“It felt unfair,” he simply replied.
“You have pleased the Emperor, immensely, for your good sport. We look forward to what you choose tomorrow in the ring,” and with that the prisoner returned to his cell. This time, he was uninjured anywhere in his body. Still, the magician gave him a potion to drink.
For his part, the man was grateful because he felt injured inside his soul.
That night the potion again did its work. His dreams were of the times throughout his life when he had taken advantage of customers, or been unfaithful to friends, lovers, and family. He saw how he damaged those he should have held dear but he now understood how he also harmed himself.
The man woke in the night and thought about both Matador and Bull for a long, long time.
By the next morning the prisoner puzzled it all through and remembered. He knew exactly why he ended up in the prisoner’s cell.
He put himself there.
And he found himself in the bullfighter’s ring for a third time.
A booming voice called out over the coliseum, “Choose.”
He became two beings—both the Matador AND the Bull. When gazing across the arena to a magical mirror that encircled the fighting ring, it showed just the man in both reflections. There was no Bull. There was no Matador. It was just him.
Then he became himself, as one whole person. The man looked high into the far reaches of the stands, shielding his eyes and searching for the Emperor.
“It doesn’t matter whether I am the Matador or the Bull. I’ve tortured myself, regardless.”
Before him now stood the Emperor, the Envoy, and the Magician. They waited for the man to say more.
“I don’t need to charge headlong into every encounter. Not everyone is an adversary. Not every situation is a fight,” and he stood, thoughtfully for a moment. “Nor do I need to gain unfair advantage and harm or betray others in order to win.”
Immediately, the trio before him were transformed into three great arch angels. The man knew they were his special guardians and teachers.
“You were sent to rescue me.”
“No,” they answered in unison. “You did that for yourself.”
“Where do I go, now?” the man asked.
The angel who played the Emperor stepped forward, as he seemed to be the leader.
“Wherever you want,” he said. “You dreamed of blue skies and fresh salty breezes. Maybe start there.”
Whatever he decided to do or wherever he meant to go didn’t matter as much as the fact that the man was now free to live and love as he chose—with an open, faithful heart.
While I was growing up, my father was completely at a loss of how to handle my more-than-a-little crazy mother. So, when I was five years old, he dropped us at mom’s childhood home along the shore of Dyes Inlet in Puget Sound. Then he became a super commuter.
To-and-from Chicago, Illinois. In the 1970’s.
He proudly announced to all and hung a plaque on the wall when he became a charter member of the United Airline’s Mileage Plus Club. Of course he did.
As if she would only ever focus her crazy-pants-ness on him. Never her young children. Nope. Never. Not here. Not us, no way. Okay, so then each year starting around Thanksgiving, the holidays were this eclectic fusion of a Hallmark romance movie crossed with Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation. The best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into one. Hot. Mess. Dad would arrive home for more than just a weekend and, well, mom proclaimed, “let the games begin.”
I always knew that if I could just live with my Dad, without mom, everything would be simply, wonderful.
Let’s completely ignore that back then a man was not typically the sole, custodial, divorced parent of young children, especially daughters. Especially when trying to assure himself a place in the workaholics’ hall of fame. You see, he was running from his own fears of rejection and abandonment and working himself beyond exhaustion in his business, every day.
He did the best he could at the time. Even though he wasn’t physically there, he gave me what I needed to grow my ass up and get out of that house as soon as possible.
Despite his physical absence, I innately knew that man loved me and my sister.
Years later, I found out. I was right.
Everyone has a rite of passage in life. I will always mark a “before” and “after” through caring for my father as he declined, went into a brief remission, relapsed, and died of cancer over a two-year period. He lived in my home and then during his brief remission, I placed him in an assisted living community. When his cancer returned, I just didn’t want my young son to witness his death.
While I was my father’s caregiver and Samuel’s mama, it was all-consuming but I pretended it was nothing. That last six months, my life was completely regimented. I woke around 430 AM to fold laundry, pack my son’s gear for school and welcome the morning babysitter a little after 6 AM. Then I left for my dad’s place to drop off laundry and sometimes have breakfast with him and his buddy, Bob.
With just minutes to spare, I’d leave for work. Yes, actual work. I worked as a marketing communication professional and helped open our community hospital that same year my father died.
I unwound a similar routine, each evening. I’d pick my son up from after school care, drop by dad’s to get laundry, get home, make dinner, do more laundry, and sometimes go back to visit dad for a little bit with my son and the dog. Did I mention I also owned a fur baby?
Oh, yeah, forgot that bit. Can you blame me?
So, needless to say, life with a son, a father, a golden retriever, and a full-and-a-half-time job made for never a dull moment. My days were FULL with loving, working and keeping the clan motating in the right direction.
After the hospital opened, I was particularly close to the ER staff. They welcomed my dad, often. He was what they called “a frequent flyer” to the ER and the irony was not lost on me. Every. Minute. Of every day. I knew where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing in order to fulfill all the promises I needed to keep to all those I loved.
With Dad’s presence, my holidays became happy for the first time, ever. I could say “Merry Christmas” and really mean it. We enjoyed two Thanksgivings, two Christmases, and celebrated two birthdays, together—since ours were just a day apart, they were always a big deal.
The hospital ER staff welcomed my father for the last time right after our second birthday celebration. He went in on a Friday with a cold and died on a Monday.
In the end, it’s just the beginning
My life was blessed with the arrival of my father when he joined our little family—just me, my son and the dog. We ‘skooched’ over to welcome him and we lived and laughed and lengthened our days, together.
There was nothing left unsaid. There was nothing left undone.
The end of his life was the beginning of my grief and my recovery from absolute exhaustion. Over time, I finally acknowledged my role as the ultimate caregiver. In the end, I finally began my transformation and ultimately, my metamorphosis.
After all those years, I trusted my gut. And, I was right.
Life with my Dad was simply, wonderful. Hard, exhausting, exhilarating and wonderful.
Dad would say, “Honey, it just bothers the shit outta me that you always have to do my laundry.” And, I replied, “The day I no longer do your laundry will be a very sad day for me.”
And, in fact, it was…but just for me. As my father breathed his last I assured him that he would once again be on the field—standing in the huddle then on the scrimmage line to hear the QB call audibles.
I still miss my dad. I feel him near me, often, yet know he is in a far better place. To this day, his imperfect-but-perfect love and his positive influence remains my constant companion. I am a better, inspired person for all that he taught me in life. I pray the same for you.
If you are living with illness, whether yourself or as a caregiver, I hope you live life fully and that those you love say the same of you.