Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments

The Strange Metamorphosis of Me

For the past couple of years I’ve been dealing with some medical issues that, until now, have been a minor nuisance at best. As whatever this is has progressed, I find myself now in a strange, uncomfortable place. A place where my obsessive need for control of things in my life is being woefully ignored by some more powerful physical entity at play inside my brain, I guess. Or my spinal cord. I’m still not really clear on the exact mechanism at work here, which only serves to add to my frustration.

I slept for about an hour last night. I woke with spasms and cramps in my legs and arms and it was the pain that kept me awake. I couldn’t get comfortable and so I kept trying to reposition myself and it really can be physically exhausting to do that. So I lay awake and my mind started racing and so on top of the physical stuff, I had trouble quieting the thoughts enough to even try to sleep. It’s been a rough few weeks. The spasticity and weakness that once was confined, at least to a large extent,  to my lower legs seems to be on a progressive path and is now affecting my hips and trunk. I’m in physical therapy twice a week and we’ve been working those areas to try to maintain some strength. But my physical therapist had kind of a frank discussion with me on Monday and broached the subject of the possibility of needing additional assistance sometime in the future. That’s not something I’m willing to contemplate right now. I’ve fallen a couple of times over the last month so I’m sure that’s part of his reasoning. The falls haven’t been too bad. A few cuts and bruises but certainly nothing terrible. Balance has definitely become more of an issue. Still, I feel like if I just put the work in with physical therapy and focus on what I’m doing I can somehow figure this out. He says that’s not really how this works, but I’m thinking maybe this is a situation where my stubborn streak may come in handy. 🙂

At 44, I feel like I’m in the this awkward phase of life right now where my body is starting to degenerate unevenly. I’ve always been really healthy and so trying to get used to this has left me feeling exceptionally vulnerable, which I quite dislike. I worked my ass off to earn two black belts in two different forms of Martial Arts and a brown belt in another. I have always loved working out and feeling physically strong. And now I can barely make it across a room without using walls or furniture to keep my balance. I look down at my legs and I command my foot to move and it stares blankly at me, limp and utterly useless.

OK, even I’m bored with this nonsense now. The one thing I can do right now is maintain some defiance and snark. I will figure this thing out eventually, and until I do I’m going to do things my way. I now have to wear braces on both legs. They cover up my tattoos, which is annoying, so I had tattoos put on the braces themselves, because fuck you neurological disorder. You are not me. I will not lose my identity to you, you feckless thug. I’m so badass. Heh.

braces

Blessings, Deep Thoughts, Life with Kids, Teachable Moments

Childhood Friends

I really don’t have much to say today. I just wanted to post this picture of my son and his friend Mia. She lives behind us and she and Jack are thick as thieves. I love childhood friendships. It reminds me of my friendship with Steve, the little boy who lived across the street from us when I was growing up. Steve and I were joined at the hip as kids. Of course while we communicated via plastic walkie-talkies and two cups attached by a string, Jack and Mia have mastered the art of FaceTiming each other long after lights out. Times have changed. But the importance of childhood friends has not…

Jack and Mia
Jack and Mia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me and Steve
Me and Steve
Blessings, Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments

In Which I Return and Talk More about Karate

Wow. It’s been a wicked long time since I’ve posted here. Sorry ’bout that. Been busy. Life got in the way, as it tends to do. Some of you know by now that I’ve been very preoccupied with a new writing project (which you can read about here), so my attention to this blog has been lacking at best.

Anyway, this is going to be a short one, but today I wanted to write about one of the last things I wrote about on this blog: martial arts. AND, you guys, this is so cool: I recently purchased a Wacom Bamboo tablet and though my artistic abilities are, um, nonexistent, this thing lets me create illustrations to go along with my posts. Illustrations! So accompanying today’s post will be the first of my experimental illustrations. Cool, right?

Ahem. So, martial arts. Readers of this blog know of my deep love for martial arts that dates back to my early childhood. (Click here if you have no idea what I’m talking about. Go ahead. I’ll wait.) I walked into my first dojo when I was 11. Over the years, I’ve gone to a variety of schools and studied a number of different styles. My latest foray into the Arts came in April 2011, when my husband, my son, and I all joined American Cadre Karate. Again, if you’re familiar with this blog you know that I have a history of finding my way into or back to the Arts after particularly traumatic or otherwise life-changing events in my life. It’s like the universe is somehow handing me something to hold onto during tough times, and it has always, always managed to ground me in a way that nothing else can.

Finding American Cadre was no different. We started in April 2011, just four months after the death of my best friend, Paul. (You can read more about that here.) Paul’s death left me broken in ways I can’t even describe. It was a brokenness, a sadness, I internalized because I didn’t know what else to do with it. When I joined American Cadre it gave me an outlet. Eventually, of course, I was able to take my sadness and grief and turn it into something positive and productive, but studying at Cadre filled a void for me that I desperately needed. It got me out of the house and doing something physical, but it also filled an emotional void. It once again ignited a passion for the Arts in me that I had been missing since I’d last studied more than a decade earlier.

Through the years I’ve had some decent karate teachers, but I’ve only ever had two great ones: Bob Beatrice, at South Shore Academy of Martial Arts, and Shihan Scott Fuoco, at American Cadre. And by extension, the other Cadre owners and teachers I’ve had the privilege of working with–Shihans Dana, Reesie, and Kevin, and Sensei Marco–have also played a pivotal role in my life as a Martial Artist now. These men and women have all taught me by example what it is to live the Martial Way, and for that I am more grateful than words can convey. Shihan Scott has an uncanny ability to know exactly what kind of workout I need, and he never fails to deliver. And like Bob Beatrice, he pushes me in a way that instills a confidence that I not only need, but one that I thrive on.

Over the next 2 years I studied at Cadre, I grew physically and emotionally and I was blessed to take the journey with my husband and my son. The people at our dojo became our friends, and eventually an extension of our family. And for me, the dojo itself became something of a safe haven. I had the keys to the dojo. That’s not a metaphor, like “I had the keys to the kingdom”; I actually had the keys to the building itself, so I could go work out when ever the spirit moved me.  The dojo was a safe place for me to go if I needed to get out of my head. I’d blare the music and work the bags or do kata and just lose myself in it. As much as I loved my time in the dojo with my fellow Martial Artists, I also cherished those times when I could be alone in the dojo and just escape the outside world.

So you can imagine my distress when, in April of this year, because of reasons, the dojo closed its doors. We were told that it was just a closing of the physical space and that the school would in fact be relocating in early summer over at the RAC (the local gym). Oh boy. I’ve been here before. I’ve been part of a dojo that relocated from its own space to a gym or some other already established place and I knew full well that the dynamic was necessarily going to change. I’m not good with change on my best day, so this hit me hard. To me it felt like a loss, one in a long line of losses over the past couple of years, and it shook me to my core.

Two months of not working out left me physically sloth-like and emotionally drained. But happily, June 1 arrived, and the dojo did indeed reopen as promised at its new location. Things are different; it’s no longer American Cadre, but rather Raynham Martial Arts. That’s a little sad to me, because I had come to have great respect for the other owners whom I may now never get to work with again. But Shihan Scott and Sensei Jon have helped guide us fairly seamlessly into our new reality, and I am deliriously happy to be working out again.

Getting back into a routine was not easy, especially since I spent the 2 months of our dojo limbo in a state of near-constant inertia. Alas, once I got moving, I felt awesome. And now, for your viewing pleasure, I present an illustration of how working out makes me feel. Enjoy.

workoutfinal

(click pic to embiggen)

Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments

9/11: We Remember

As we stop to reflect on the anniversary of the attacks on America, it is obvious that the world is as scary a place today as it was on that day 11 years ago when life changed forever. Everything these days is measured by 9/11. Events happened pre- or post-9/11. We are certainly not as innocent as we were before that day. That innocence, that naiveté, went up with the smoke that rose as the buildings were brought down by so much hatred and intolerance. While we are not the same people that we were back then, changed by the images of death that haunt us still, changed by the voices of the unfortunate souls whose only mistake on that day was being American, we have, I believe, lost some memory of the horror. Some would say that’s a positive thing, a necessary means to going on with our lives; others would say that’s a negative thing, a step that ensures a repeat of the horror as we let our collective guards down.

That day still lives with me. Not a day goes by that I don’t think, in some way, of the souls that were lost that day, or of the insanity that ended so many lives. Not a day goes by that I don’t fear something awful is about to happen to us, to Americans, yes, but more importantly to mankind. How many deaths, in how many nations, under the guise of how much nonsense, must happen before we burn ourselves out? Before we lose the essence of our humanity, and once and for all become something less than human. No God justifies this kind of hatred. My God, your God, is weeping these days, as he opens his arms to more casualties of our intolerance. How did we get here? And is there any going back?

America watched in horror that bleak Tuesday as it was cruelly and cowardly attacked by an enemy who lurks in the shadows. Over the days that followed I struggled with the reality of what had just happened to our country. I watched or listened to the news greedily, trying to understand. I continued to work, I kept in touch with my colleagues in New York, and I did what I imagine many people did those first days after the unspeakable tragedy: I cried and I prayed.

What I noticed over those first few days was how deeply everyone was affected by the attack on our nation. People were numb and nobody wanted to be alone. I noticed that people were going slower in the days that followed. No one seemed to be in such a rush anymore. Perhaps we were all looking around a little harder and starting to understand how precious life really is. Or perhaps we simply forgot how to function normally after witnessing the worst kind of evil on our own soil.

I noticed, too, that people became more willing to touch, to weep, and to get close to their fellow human beings. Personal space just didn’t seem important. I watched as perfect strangers became perfect friends.

It doesn’t matter who you are in America. Every soul in this country was touched by this unspeakable tragedy. Whether or not we were directly affected, we were all touched. We had for so long been insulated from this type of evil. We have an ocean on either side of us that had generally protected us from this type of terror. These unspeakable acts happen in other places. Now it’s been brought to our shores. It’s come into our home. How can we ever feel safe again?

Ground Zero, New York became a war zone. The skyline was devastated almost beyond recognition. There was a palpable absence where the mighty Twin Towers once stood and a grief-laden silence hung in the air and traveled through the ether to touch every corner of our world.

There are reasons to be incensed at our government’s actions in dealing with rogue regimes. But none of that matters right now. Our government has never been perfect. But the one thing those cowardly terrorists didn’t count on was the fact that while we’ve long felt free and easy about the world in which we live, and while we may have become a bit too complacent, when you attack Americans we fight like cornered animals. What they don’t understand is that we don’t live in America, America lives in us. The American Spirit and American Resolve are mighty and powerful, and when you incur our wrath the fabric of our society is not torn, but rather made stronger.

The pulse of the country was weakened that horrible day. It became faint even as we held our collective breath in anticipation of more violence. But it remained detectable and rebounded stronger than ever. The heart of America makes it so.

Let us not forget.

Favorites, Teachable Moments, Totally Random

The One with The Book

I recently finished reading a book that was recommended by friend called “Many Lives, Many Masters,” by Dr. Brian Weiss. I devoured the book. And by devoured I mean I purchased it just before 6:00 one night, started reading around 10:00, and after a few interruptions to take the dogs out, make tea, check on my sleeping son, and answer nature’s call (after several cups of tea), I read the last page about 5 hours later.

First let me just say that I love when people recommend books to me. Love it. If someone takes the time to mention a certain book, it means it had some kind of effect on them, and that’s all the information I need to give it a try. So, thank you, Mat, for suggesting the book in the first place.

When Mat told me about the book, I searched Amazon to see if there was a Kindle format I could download instantly. It took me a long time to embrace the Kindle. I like holding a book in my hand, the physical act of turning pages, and having the ability to underline passages and take notes in the margins (which, by the way, is why I’m totally banned from borrowing library books in my hometown). I finally got one for Christmas and I have to say, I love it. I carry it everywhere because it’s a lot easier to load into my purse than a 300-page hardcover. And, admittedly, it does enable me to electronically highlight passages and make notes, so that’s cool. But it has had the negative consequence of chipping away at my patience when I want a book instantly (or at ridiculous hours of the night when the bookstores are closed and I suddenly get the urge to read something RIGHT NOW) and it’s not available to download. Such was the case with “Many Lives, Many Masters.” But, as usual, that’s the universe telling me to stop being an asshat and take a breath. So not being able to download it gave me the opportunity to take my son to a brick and mortar bookstore and spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon browsing the titles. He chose a Disney bedtime stories book, and I came away with the Weiss book.

The book is Weiss’ story of how he reluctantly partook in past-life hypnotherapy with a young patient and how, ultimately, he came to discover some pretty powerful insights. The crux of it was thus: Our bodies live one life, but our souls live many lives. Each reality our souls take on is purposeful and has a far deeper meaning than we as humans can comprehend. There are lessons we need to learn in each incarnation, and our present existence is meant to lift our souls to a higher plane.

Several things struck me. First, his belief that as souls we choose our next life and everything that happens in it. At first I was sickened by the thought. Why, for instance, would anyone choose to be abused, raped, abandoned, murdered? Why would they choose to be addicts or to be infected with any number of diseases? It makes no sense. But the deeper meaning is that we choose such hardship in human form to enlighten our souls and to help others in some way. I’m still leery about that one, but if I can strip the human emotion and pain from it, it makes sense on some level. Second, that souls tend to reincarnate in clusters, and so the people you’re closest to in this life, or those with whom you share some bond, are likely those with whom you’ve traveled (proverbially speaking) before. That one I could wrap my head around a little better.

Not usually my cup of tea, but I have to say I was quite drawn in by it. I give it two thumbs up, for what it’s worth. Actually the book reminded me a lot of Arthur Rimbaud’s work…only far less dark. I didn’t so much want to stab myself in the neck with a sewing needle after reading Weiss. Such is often the case after sitting with Rimbaud’s words for any length of time.

Anyway. The book was amazing on so many levels. I was at once fascinated and disturbed by Weiss’ words. Parts of it felt like a warm embrace; other passages made my blood run cold. But my appetite for a deeper understanding is voracious to be sure.

Oh, um, full disclosure: In addition to finishing “Many Lives, Many Masters”, I also started a book called “My Best Friend Is a Wookie,” a memoir by a guy who became obsessed with the Star Wars movies at age 7 and whose main objective at that tender age was to become a Jedi Knight. Hi, my name is Michelle, and I, too, was a charter member of the Star Wars fan club. (I had a membership card and everything.) I strove to procure The Force, which I was so sure could protect me from the evils of the world. Plus? I really wanted a lightsaber and to hang out in the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda, just lifting shit up with my mind all day. So, yeah, I’m enlightened enough to have been captivated by Weiss’ work, but I’m also a fangirl geek at heart. Just wanted to put that out there, lest you mistake me for highly evolved. Heh.

Blessings, Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments

The One with All the Karate

I live in a subdivision called Whippoorwill Estates.  It’s a great neighborhood, full of young families. I love that I’m able to raise my son here. Nothing gives me greater joy than looking out my office window onto the front yard, watching my son and his friends play wiffle ball, their laughter echoing along the quiet streets of our neighborhood.

If I had one complaint about living in this neighborhood, it is thus: My neighbors are ridiculously obsessed with fitness. Obsessed. There’s a bit of a Stepford quality to the neighborhood, really. I’d be offering a conservative estimate if I said 90% of my neighbors belong to the RAC, our local gym. And it’s not at all unusual to see any number of them power walking through the neighborhood in their spandex shorts and tankini tops, iPods secured to their hips, Asics sneakers all shiny and white, staring intently ahead, exhaling loudly as they pound the pavement, pedometers counting each step taken, each calorie burned. Being the polite neighbor I am, I will always give a smile and a wave as I sit by the pool, hoisting whatever the frozen adult beverage of the day is. I offer a hearty greeting as they chug past me. I’m all, “Heeeeeeyyyyy, nice day for a run.” And they’re all, Run, Stare, Grunt, Repeat.

Actually, not much of that is true. First, I never rarely tip my elbow during the daylight hours. Second, my neighbors, while most are in pretty remarkable shape and do belong to the local gym, are not the asshats I just described. It makes for a far better anecdote, but really I have the coolest neighbors ever. And honestly? Living here has inspired me to loosen my grip on indolence and embrace movement once again.

The thing about me is this: I’m 39 years old. I have a 5-year-old son. Most of my exercise these days comes in the form of chasing my very active child around during the day. And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Still, I’ve become dissatisfied with my quasi-sedentary lifestyle. I really do need to get back into some kind of routine. Power-walking around my neighborhood probably not gonna happen though…

I wasn’t always so prone to inertia. I’ve always been quite active. I’ve played various sports, love to ride my bike, enjoy swimming and skating. But the one thing I truly developed a passion for was martial arts. I started studying martial arts when I was a kid. I was 11 when I walked into my first dojo. Over the next few years I went to a few different schools and learned a couple of different styles. I had several surgeries over the years that interrupted my training, but I always went back to it with renewed vigor and intensity.

I never really found the perfect place for me until 3 days after my 23rd birthday when I walked into South Shore Academy of Martial Arts (SSMA). By this time I had really become interested in the philosophy behind it all, but most of the instructors I’d had never really touched on that. Bob Beatrice was the owner of SSMA. I talked with him for a few minutes before I sat to observe a class. He explained that he taught an eclectic mix of arts, but the main style was Uechi Ryu, an Okinawan karate. I’d never heard of it, but as I sat to watch the class I fell in love with the balance between the fluidity and the rigidity. It was a perfect mix of yin and yang. I signed up that day. For the next several years I was at the dojo 5 or 6 days a week. I rose quickly through the ranks and I started teaching kids classes. I loved everything about it. I loved being more confident in my ability to at least protect myself against an attack, but it was more than that. I loved being in the gi (karate uniform). I loved being in bare feet (I’d never wear shoes if I could get away with it). I loved controlling my breathing and my movements. I loved kata, which were so graceful and fluid, but perfectly functional. And I loved sparring. Bob Beatrice was a hard ass. He never let me (or anyone else) get away with anything. He inspired a confidence in his students that defied explanation. If there was anything we claimed we couldn’t do, he’d kick our ass until we did it 50 times in a row.

Eventually I had to stop training with Bob. A career opportunity arose that took me out of state and I was no longer able to continue training at the place and with the person that had changed my life forever. I will always be thankful for what I learned during my time with Bob.

A (not so) brief (not so) non sequitur:

Friday night, hot and muggy in the training hall and there we were: just another workout, any typical sparring situation. We were all lined up according to belt order and the way it worked out, I had a little time to warm up. I could stretch and bounce around somewhat. I didn’t have too much trouble keeping clear of the lower belts’ feints and kicks. It felt good. There was a clean sort of breathlessness in enjoying the give and take of it, the searching, the easy routine of the blocking and the counter-attacks. I was pleasantly fatigued and confident by the time when, in the rotation, I found myself paired with Tony.

Tony had been my regular sparring partner for about 3 years. He and I worked well together and never cut one another slack. We had tested together and always challenged each other to bring our best to the table. It was never an easy workout with him, but it was always an honest one. I felt safe on the floor with him, confident that while we go full contact, he is skilled enough not to hurt me. He had that same confidence in me. A year after I started sparring with Tony, I had a sparring accident with my instructor that left me with a fracture over my left eye and a broken collar bone. It was a freak accident, and completely my fault for panicking in the middle of a routine move. If not for Tony, I may never have sparred again. I came back to class 2 days after it happened because I didn’t want to psych myself out of something I loved so much, but I had a much harder time putting the sparring gloves back on. Tony’s patience helped me over that particular hurdle.

We squared off and bowed to each other, touching gloves to signal our readiness to begin. My being the lower rank dictates the roles we play. I’m supposed to lead the attack against the higher rank. So I moved in, back straight, reaching out with exploratory little feints, hoping to draw him out to exposing himself to a real attack. I guess we were both feeling good that day. We moved faster and faster together, our arms flashing and smacking agreeably into each other in the air, our legs pistoning out into kicks we guided away from ourselves, torquing our torsos deeply, looking for a way to slip inside each other’s guards.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun, you know. Despite this – and I don’t care who you are – if you go long enough it really does tear into your endurance. Your movements become more deliberate as your wind erodes, and you have to put everything into your decisions. It’s the envelope again, it’s raising your limbs when you really don’t think you can anymore. It’s finding a reason to go on.

I don’t remember how it happened, but we finally ended up in a situation where I’d just finished trying something, some combination or other, and I was looking at him to see what he would do. Tony came at me then, sliding in low and smooth and utterly fast, faster than I knew how to handle, too fast for me to do anything other than watch him come at me with that side kick of his that slips out to the side and hooks in at the last moment. It did its thing, unwinding like a crafty tight curve ball and I watched it disappear beneath my guard into my side and I just bent over involuntarily, folding up like a piece of heavy machinery done with its job. I stood outside of myself and observed my body falling, and there was nothing I could do about it. I simply watched as the wind left my lungs with a surprised Unnnngggghhh and felt the floor slam into my knees as I hit the ground.

I have to say, it was interesting. The pain didn’t seep in until just after. And it never went away. It was a sharp pain, complaining in my ribs when I breathed or tried to rise from a reclining position.

I’m telling this story because there are things that slip in and surprise you, and later, you think about whether you really should have been taken by surprise. And sometimes you can even watch these things as they happen. Is it useful to remember them? Is it useful to recall the failure and the loss? Is there any point in turning those memories over in your mind? Is there something useful in reliving how you’ve been hurt, even (or especially) those times you did it to yourself?

The easy answers are either “yes” or “no.” But if I refer back to my personal philosophy of thesis and antithesis yielding a more realistic synthesis, I can see that the answer lies somewhere in between. It depends.

The irony of the timing of my previous journeys into the world of martial arts is not lost on me: Both times I started studying martial arts occurred after I had been physically attacked. At 11, when I walked into my first dojo, creepy neighbor guy had by then already stopped doing creepy things to me. At 23, when I first walked into the dojo that would spark my true passion for martial arts, I had already sustained a vicious sexual assault that would leave emotional scars far deeper than the physical ones I endured. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that had I timed things better I could have avoided the fate that awaited me regarding these experiences. No matter the training, at 8 years old it’s unlikely I could have defended myself against creepy neighbor guy and his unfortunate pedophilic tendencies. And even a decade later, I’m not sure all the training in the world could have defended me against the men who held me down in that squalid basement apartment that night.

No, I don’t think martial arts could have saved me from those things. But what studying and training has given me is a confidence in myself that I’m not sure I would otherwise have. It’s given me solid ground, peace, and contentment. Not to mention the ability to look my neighbors in the eye as they jog past my house on their way to whatever marathon they’re running this week. Heh.

I’ll try to pull this thing together with a timeline: I recently started training again. My husband and I, along with our son, Jack, joined American Cadre Karate several months ago, and once again this journey has changed my life for the better. Physically, of course, I have already begun to feel the effects. My wind and endurance have increased. I feel better physically than I have in a long time. I feel stronger, more confident, more focused. Shihan Scott and Sensei Marco train us hard, and I’m blessed to be able to share this passion with my husband, and especially with  my son.

The training is difficult…physically, to be sure, but also emotionally at times. There was a time when we first started training at American Cadre that one of the instructors came at me quickly and got me in a front choke hold, expecting I would use the technique he had just shown me to extricate myself. I had a moment of panic as a flashback hit me hard and I forgot for a moment where I was. The memory was sharp in my chest, rising, and when I thought about it there was no surprise in the thing at all. But I got through it, and I’m stronger for it. I know I’m safe in the dojo. And I’m so thankful that at this point in my life I’ve found teachers who once again inspire me and stir my passion for an art that I love so much.

Aaron and I tested for our yellow belts last week. Physically it was the most challenging test I’ve ever taken. But that just makes me more grateful. There’s no better feeling in the world than earning that belt, I mean really earning it. I thank Shihan and Sensei after every class. I thank them for pushing us, for challenging us, for teaching us. My gratitude runs deep.

And thanks to my newfound zeal for working out, I’m starting to sag less in all the right places. So I’m pretty thankful for that as well!

Deep Thoughts, Loss, Paul, Teachable Moments

For Paul, with Snark and Sadness

What I’ve discovered about life is thus: Sometimes the lessons it has to teach come at you at a hundred miles an hour and knock you down so hard you think the world’s gone off its axis. Such a lesson was handed to me in the early morning hours of December 20th. I had just drifted off to sleep when the ringing phone startled me awake. In the past, my phone has been known to ring at the craziest of hours. People who know me know I write at night and that I’m often awake until 3 or 4 in the morning, and they have always felt free to call. More recently, this has become less and less frequent though, so when, at 4:43 a.m., the phone rang I rushed to answer it thinking something might be wrong. Two possibilities crossed my mind instantly: something happened to my grandfather or something happened to my friend Paul Monroe, who had been in the hospital since the previous Monday.

I met Paul 25 years ago when I started attending Hope Lutheran Church. He was my Sunday school teacher. Later, we taught Sunday school together. We also ran the church youth group and served on the church council together. He sponsored me when I participated in a 3-day spiritual retreat called the Walk to Emmaus. As I got older, our friendship grew. Paul had never married and had no children. I joked that he was like a father to me; he scoffed and said he was more like an older brother…or a quirky uncle.

I worried constantly about his health over the last few years. He developed congestive heart failure 7 years ago and ended up in the hospital for a month with a myriad of issues.  I moved down to the south coast a few years ago. A year and a half ago, I found him an apartment close to me so I could help him. He was a fixture in our home, often coming for dinner or to watch a football game. He spent every holiday with us. My son called him Uncle Paul. He was as big a part of my family as any person with whom I share a strand of DNA. More so in some cases…in many cases.

Paul was also my tax preparer. He did amazing work. He had a solo practice for as long as I knew him. When he started to get sick and could no longer work as much, I took him down to apply for disability benefits. He didn’t have health insurance. I helped him apply for Medicaid. But as his health failed, he grew weary. He did nothing to help himself. He never followed through with getting insurance or disability benefits, and so he never received proper, regular medical care. Every so often he’d end up in the emergency room with a new infection or fluid build-up around his heart and lungs. Every time he’d come home from the hospital I’d tell him he couldn’t keep doing this. He had to do something to help himself. He had to fight because he had a very good chance of living a pain-free, long life if only he would take care of himself.

Each medical emergency with him got me more and more frustrated. Why didn’t he understand that I was afraid for him and that I couldn’t help him if he wouldn’t help himself? Given his medical situation we had talked many times about the importance of having one’s affairs in order. Paul’s parents were both gone. He had no siblings. I knew he had a cousin, but he hadn’t spoken to any member of his family in well over a decade. He had me down as his next of kin for the hospital. He spoke of drawing up a power of attorney, but we thought there was plenty of time. He did have a life insurance policy to cover his expenses if anything ever happened. He had put me and our friend Dave down as beneficiaries.

I talked to Paul nearly every day for the past 15 years or so. Sometimes they were brief conversations, other times they were hours-long talk fests that touched on everything from religion to politics to the Sox-Yankees rivalry. Being from New York, he was a lifelong Yanks fan. I liked him despite that. Debating is what we did. We agreed on mostly everything, but he liked to argue the opposite side of most topics, just to keep it interesting. Over the last year or so, I became accustomed to calling Paul every couple of days just to see how he was doing. If he happened to be unable to take my call he knew to call me back as soon as he could because the one time he didn’t, I went over there to check on him and had to call rescue when I found him on the floor unable to get up.

On Friday, December 10th, my husband and I stopped by his place on our way back from running some errands. He looked tired, but otherwise OK. He was having some trouble getting around, but that was nothing particularly unusual. I called him Sunday to check in. He didn’t answer. I called again later that day. Still no answer. I knew he was busy with some work he was doing so I certainly didn’t panic, especially considering I’d seen him just 2 nights before. When I tried Monday morning and still got no answer, I started to get concerned. By the afternoon I was ready to head over there when I got a call from the hospital. It was Paul. He was calling from the emergency room, waiting to be admitted. His landlord Ken had gone down to Paul’s apartment to deliver some mail. When he knocked, he heard Paul call for him to come in. Ken went in and found Paul on the ground. He’d been there since late Friday night. Apparently after we had left that night, he’d gone to bed and woke up a few hours later with some neck pain. He’d been dealing with a pinched nerve. He sat up on the edge of the bed and got a little dizzy and had fallen out of bed. He had little upper body strength because of the pinched nerve and was unable to pull himself up. He remained on the floor until Ken found him more than 2 days later.

He sounded remarkably well for someone who was as severely dehydrated as he was. After telling him how utterly relieved I was to hear his voice, I admonished him once again for not taking better care of himself. I told him that once he was released and feeling a bit better, I was taking him back down to reapply for disability and for Medicaid. On Wednesday, there was talk of discharging him. On Thursday, I called to see if he needed anything. He was feeling quite sick, which he figured was from a new medication they had started him on. I understood all too well how that can leave you with no desire for visitors, so I told him I’d call to check on him the next day. He still wasn’t feeling well on Friday. By Saturday, he was quite sick. They took him off the new medication thinking that would help. He called me Sunday afternoon to tell me he had switched rooms. He sounded unbelievably weak but he said he was feeling a little better. I told him I would come up to see him the next day, Monday, if he was up to it.

My phone rang at 4:43 Monday morning and when I saw the hospital’s name on the caller ID, I knew something was wrong. Because it was so early in the morning, I figured maybe they’d had to take him into surgery, or perhaps he’d taken a bit of a bad turn. A nurse asked me to hold for the doctor. I waited. The doctor came on and explained to me that Paul had been found unresponsive in his room. A team performed CPR, she explained. As God is my witness, I fully expected her next statement to be that they were able to bring him back and that he was resting comfortably. Instead, I sat down hard on the couch as I heard her say that they had been unsuccessful. She was sorry, she said. He was gone. I felt sick as the nurse came back on the line and explained that they needed to perform an autopsy to determine the exact cause of death and that the medical examiner would be calling me within a day or two. She gave me the name and number of a woman I needed to speak to in order to secure the release of Paul’s body. I shivered when she said it. I don’t think I blinked for more than a minute.

I hung up the phone and just stared at it. Did that really just happen? Maybe I was dreaming. I was on the cusp of sleep when I heard the phone. Maybe it was all just a bad dream. I sat on the couch and stared ahead until the sun came up. I rose from my seat around 7:00 to get some water but my knees buckled and I hit the floor and just started sobbing. I knew it wasn’t a dream. It was the start of a giant nightmare.

I have spent the last 2 weeks dealing with my friend’s death. I haven’t had time to wrap my head around it, to even think about the loss. Paul and I had talked about how important having one’s affairs in order was. The problem is, he never got his in order. He didn’t have a will. He never made his specific wishes known. I don’t know if he wanted to be buried or cremated. I don’t know if he wanted his remains kept here or brought to NY. I don’t know anything, and yet the responsibility for this man’s final rest has been left to me. I have had to make decisions these past 2 weeks that I never even contemplated. And I have had to do it blindly, because he left me no instructions.

The first thing I did the day after he died was go to his apartment to look through his files, hoping and praying I’d find something there that would guide me in the right direction. I found his insurance policy. But no will. No directive as to what to do with his body. As I searched through his desk and his computer I found myself laughing and crying at the absurdity of the situation. I imagined him in heaven saying, “Oops, my bad. Ah well, you’ll figure it out. Just don’t screw it up.” That, by the way? Is totally something he’d say.

I spent that day at his apartment, making lists of things I needed to do, people I needed to call. I quickly became overwhelmed. I took a breath and looked around me. Paul was a brilliant guy. Extremely well-read, and curious about everything. He was also a 12-year-old at heart. He loved Looney Tunes and comic books. He had an outrageous stuffed animal collection. He had all the Star Wars collectible glasses from the late ’70s. A Three Stooges poster adorned the wall in his office.

On the serious side, he also had a fairly large client base, and all of these people are going to have to be notified because he was in possession of sensitive financial information for all of them. A quick scan of his computer and my heart sank as I realized he didn’t have a master client list. That means that when I get through the business of laying my friend to rest, I’m going to need to go through these files one by one and contact these folks. That is just beyond comprehension right now. Thankfully, I won’t have to face this task alone. Several people have offered their help. I thank God for them, because I know I couldn’t do it on my own.

I went to the hospital the day after Paul died to collect his personal items. His wallet, his watch, his glasses, the clothes he was wearing when he was brought in. While I was there I spoke with the head nurse. She was the one who had called me so early that morning. She’d been on duty when he died. She told me more details about exactly what had happened. I stood before her horrified as I listened to the details of his final moments. I had assumed by the way they said he’d been “found unresponsive” that he had passed away in his sleep. I was wrong. The more precise details of his death I could have done without because it’s all I’ve been thinking about since she told me.

After another pretty sleepless night that night I awoke, ready to work, to get through this and do what I had to do. A third dimension was added to the nightmare when I received a call from the hospital asking if I had the name of an undertaker that could take possession of his body. Not having any idea what I was even going to do at that point as far as burial versus cremation, I said I didn’t yet have a name to give her. Her silence told me there was more to it. When I asked if there was a problem, she said that they really needed someone to take the body. My understanding was that he had been moved to Boston, to the medical examiner’s office, so I was confused. She told me the medical examiner had come out to the hospital. “So his body is at the hospital?” I asked. She said it was but that there was a problem. Paul is a big guy. She explained that they didn’t have a “cooler” large enough to accommodate him. “Where is he now?” I inquired. She told me he was in the morgue. “What’s he doing?” I asked. I don’t why I asked that or what I expected to hear, but her response was a punch in the gut. “Decomposing,” she said. She could sense my outrage, I’m sure. What the hell did she mean he was decomposing? How were they not able to accommodate him? I told her I would make some calls and get back to her as soon as possible.

Not being a blood relative, I wasn’t sure what I was legally allowed to do. I asked my husband to help me call some funeral homes and explain the situation. By this time, after having found no directives by Paul and being pretty much forced to make a decision quickly, I had decided the most practical thing to do was have him cremated and plan a memorial service after the first of the year. He knew I want to be cremated and I don’t remember him having a particular problem with it, so I figured he’d be fine with it for himself.  And that would give me time to do things right, to honor him as best I could. The funeral director at a funeral home near the hospital said that as long as the medical examiner signed off on the release of the body, that they would cremate him. A few calls later, the medical examiner signed off, and the funeral home transported his body that afternoon. My husband and I went over there that evening to do the paperwork. When the funeral director told me Paul was there, I wanted to ask to see him. I went back and forth about this in my mind, wondering how I would react. I wasn’t sure it would be a positive thing. Ultimately I decided I didn’t think I could do it. I’d have one more chance the next day when I went over there to choose an urn and pick out memorial cards. I started writing his obituary that night. I can’t believe the things I’ve done in the last 2 weeks.

With each passing hour since Paul’s death I appear, inexplicably, to be gaining a firmer grasp on my own life. It’s weird, really, because I would expect the exact opposite to happen. I should be unraveling, on the cusp by now of complete madness. Instead, I’m spending my waking hours making sure Paul is taken care of. I’ve spent a lot of time at his apartment, cleaning it out, making phone calls, doing what needs to be done. I went to the funeral home to make final arrangements and make final choices on the urn and prayer cards. I asked my pastor and friend, Ken, to come with me. He picked me up and we drove over together. I was quiet during the ride, but only because I was thinking three steps ahead, planning what needs to be done next. These circumstances suck, but this is what I do best. I organize. I keep lists. I plan. It’s what I’ve always done to maintain some semblance of control in my life. Since I found out about Paul’s death, I’ve organized every aspect of what needs to happen. Sometimes I’ve walked through it blindly, and certainly at first I walked through it numb, but it’s been an efficient operation. I have file folders containing pertinent information. I have important phone numbers typed on a master list and also stored in my BlackBerry.

I’ve made countless phone calls. There are so many people to call. Right now that’s the most difficult part for me. Because his death was unexpected, everyone wants to know what happened and I’m finding that recounting those details is grueling and exhausting. I’m feeling physically and emotionally drained. I haven’t slept much. And I keep forgetting to eat. I find myself breaking down at the strangest of times. Each day since it happened I’ve started crying in the shower. I guess it’s because it’s the one time during the day that I’m surrounded by silence and there’s no chaos, and it’s just crashing over me during those times. I think that’s OK though; I think it’s healthy. If I didn’t allow myself to feel that sadness and grief, if I held it in, it would become much more insipid and destructive, I think.

If I didn’t think Paul would haunt me, I swear I’d have had him buried in a Red Sox cap. My heartbreak is tempered right now by my anger at his refusal to help himself. I’m angry that he died. That sounds awful. To be angry at him. But I am. And I have spent the better part of two weeks trying to navigate the chasm between the devastation and rage I feel about Paul’s death. It is, I’ve determined, an exercise in futility.

Deep Thoughts, Teachable Moments, Uncategorized

On Having One More Day

I recently read Mitch Albom’s book For One More Day. I’m a big Mitch Albom fan. For all the sentimentality and sticky sweetness at times, the words he writes ring true for all human beings. The themes of his works touch the very nerve of humanity. Our fear of death, of our own death, keeps us from living as if each day could be our last. As a result, we often miss opportunities, precious opportunities, to tell those closest to us how much we love them. We miss opportunities to do well and to live to the best of our ability. We miss opportunities to make the most out of the absurdly short amount of time we are given in this life.

So, I was thinking about with whom I would want to be given the opportunity to spend one more day. I was thinking about things I would do and say. Some–well, most–of my answers were borne out of some sense of regret. Regret that I failed to say things to these people before they died. Regret that I failed to spend more time with these people before they died. In at least one case, regret that I chose not to spend more time with this person before she died because the process of her dying scared me to the core. Her name was Esther and she was my elderly neighbor when I was kid. I learned from her death, and became more acutely aware of the fragility of life. Ultimately, her death enabled me to be strong when my grandmother learned she was dying some 10 years later. Ultimately, Esther’s death allowed me to be there more fully for my grandmother. I thank Esther for that, though my guilt still runs deep that I could not have learned the lesson earlier.

People with whom I would spend one more day:

My grandmother: The person I miss the most in the world. I spent a lot of quality time with her when she was dying. Time I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Tuesdays were our day together. My grandfather had various errands to run on Tuesdays, so I would go over and sit with my grandmother. It was precious time, though not always easy. There were days she was sick, days she was tired, days she was scared. On these days, I sat in the chair next to her and held her hand. We spoke softly until she drifted off to sleep and then I’d just watch her. I’d watch as her chest rose and fell, as her eyes fluttered beneath their lids. I’d listen to the rhythm of her breathing, and I’d mutter silent prayers to God. I’d bargain with Him, praying that if He’d only let her live long enough to see my cousins graduate and to meet my unborn son I promised to do better, to be better. Whatever He wanted, I’d exclaim. And on the good days, the days she was feeling nearly human, we’d sit and talk endlessly about whatever was on her mind. We’d hold hands on these days, too. And I’d always lean over and kiss her forehead when there was a break in the conversation. While these were the darkest of days, I would choose to spend one more of these days with my grandmother. I’d want her feeling good, of course, but being with her during her final journey was the greatest gift for me. Truer words were never spoken than those spoken between us on those Tuesday afternoons. I embrace that time now; I miss it dearly. I miss her dearly. I would give anything for just one more day…

Tony: Tony taught me the game of cribbage. It’s a game I love to this day. I would spend one more day with Tony sitting at the kitchen table, a plate full of Esther’s zucchini in front of us, playing cribbage until our hands were too tired to hold the cards.

Esther: Tony and Esther raised me as much as anyone. I spent a lot of time at their house, listening to their stories. I would spend one more day with Tony and Esther at their house. I would eat Esther’s home-cooked meal, and we would listen to the music they taught me to love so much: Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, Perry Como. We would watch Lawrence Welk…and The Love Boat, of course.

John and Mrs. A: My best friend’s parents. Some of my greatest childhood memories include John and Mrs. A. I spent a lot of time at their house. Their door was always open—literally—no matter the time of day or night. Someone was always up in that house, and we were always welcome to come walking in just to hang out. I would spend one more day with John and Mrs. A, dancing, playing cards, and watching Jerry Lewis movies. I would make it Labor Day. And we would flip pancakes onto the ceiling.

My dreams often allow me to fulfill my wish of spending one more day with the loved ones I’ve lost. As I slip from consciousness at night, they live on in my mind’s eye and I am with them again.

Love you, Gram. Miss you. (3/25/23 – 4/12/06)