It Had To Be You

So today is my parents’ 61st wedding anniversary, both a happy and a sad day for us. Happy because – in this day when more and more marriages seem to have a shelf life equivalent to how long a quart of milk will last – how many people achieve any kind of loving longevity. Happy because my parents weren’t just married for 58 years when my Dad died, they were crazy in love with each other, best friends, pieces of a puzzle that always fit together.

But it’s sad because – like any good love story you watch on a movie screen or read about in a book – you don’t want it to end, even though logically you know it must. My Mom, God bless her, doesn’t look at today as a sad day. She thinks about the happy times, all the years they had together and all the memories they made,  when so many others never have love at all, or have it cut short by illness, or grew apart and never reconnected. My Mom has always been a glass half full person, something I aspire to be and work hard at becoming.

I have 2 stories to share with you, stories I’ve never told before, one for each of my parents. I share them to honor them and to try and demonstrate how much they truly loved each other.

In May 2001, my Mom became very ill with chest pains and was admitted to the hospital, where quickly we learned she needed quadruple bypass surgery. They told us to let her talk to people that night (and we did, putting the phone near her ear and letting her speak  to her grandchildren and my sisters) and that – if she made it through the night – they’d perform the surgery the next morning.

Eventually I sent my Dad home to rest and I was back at the hospital at the crack of dawn, resting my head on the side of my Mom’s hospital bed, holding her hand and trying to sleep a little while we waited for them to take her to the operating room. Finally they arrived and I accompanied her there. She had no fear, no apprehension. She believed she was in the best hands possible at the great St. Peter’s Hospital and that all would be well. But . . . as she was wheeled into the room, she stopped the attendants and called me over. “In case anything happens”, she said, “take care of Dad for me”.

That’s all she could think about. She was more worried about what would happen to him, the man who burned a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven when he forgot to take the plastic off the cheese slices, than she was about whether she’d survive. And, honestly, I knew what she meant because my Dad would have been truly lost without her. He wasn’t the same person when she wasn’t around. There was an emptiness in his eyes that only her return could take away.

And fortunately she not only survived, she thrived and has done so very well in the 13 years now since she had the surgery. She looks at every day with optimism and joy and embraces what life either has to offer or throws your way. She rocks our world.

And now for the story of my Dad. As some of you may know, I was the lucky one in my family, the person who got to spend that last night with him in the hospital. We talked a lot that night because we knew, we all knew that the end was very near. So I read him his favorite Bible passages and we talked about what kind of life his grandkids would have and how sorry he was that he wouldn’t see it. I told him he was the best Dad ever (although I think he already knew that) and that it was OK to stop fighting the fight if he was ready to go.

About 5 hours before he died, when he really began to struggle and his ability to speak was becoming compromised, he gestured me closer and he said to make sure my Mom always had flowers on their wedding anniversary. It was the next-to-last thing he ever asked me to do; the last thing was to call my Mom and my sister at 5:00 a.m. and tell them he wanted them at the hospital. They came and he was gone by 8:00 a.m.

So today I honored my Dad’s wishes and bought my Mom a big bouquet of her favorite flowers and told them they were from Dad. I know that he knows I did it and that he’s proud of me. And I made my Mom happy today and he knows that too. How many people get to play a small part in a great love story? I did, I do, and I always will.

 

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A Time To Every Purpose, Under Heaven

So I sit here and look forward and back at the same time and take stock of where life is for me these days. Life has been a roller coaster for me for a long time now but whatever the bad, it’s always balanced – and often trumped – by the not-just-good but sometimes the spectacular.

I have a major birthday coming up soon, a milestone that many of my high school friends and I are hitting at the same time. So I have a lot of company in assessing where you are when you can no longer pretend that you haven’t even reached the halfway point of your journey yet. If I was a football game, I’d be in the third quarter (but hoping that there would be overtime played).

I don’t know that I can or want to try to do justice to all the things I’m thinking about these days in one blog so I suspect I’ll be writing a few of these. As some of you know, I was very blessed to have a great job writing for a financial website for a long while, an empowering experience for me and (I think or at least I hope) a good use of my skills in trying to help others. But the site shut down temporarily, as many start-ups do, and my writing muscle, the one that keeps my brain sharp and my mind engaged, has fallen into disuse and atrophied a bit.

So I want to stretch again, to capture my thoughts and memorialize them not only for me but one day for my great kid to read so he can know some of the stories that we all tend to not share with those we love because we don’t want to worry them or make them think that we haven’t got it all under control. (Although I don’t know anyone who has it under control these days. Do you?)

Normally, I’m not one to want attention drawn to myself; not comfortable with it and never have been. There are others around me who not only bask in being the sun around which the planets revolve but seek it out. Not me. And I realize that putting pen to paper – or in this case – fingers to keyboard – and talking about both the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the great joy coupled with the overwhelming sadness is the antithesis of not seeking attention.

But try I will to see if anything I’ve done or thought or questioned or missed or tried or failed at while time not only marches on but seems to be racing away from me these days might resonate with you. Because I always think that – no matter our background – our similarities in how we think and reason, feel and doubt, try to move forward and sometimes have to step back, and hope against hope make us more alike than our differences will ever separate us.

So even if I’m the only who reads this (although I can always count my on Mom and my great kid to partake in my musings, no matter whether it’s done because they’re legitimately interested or have embraced their guilt-induced obligation), I already feel that my long-neglected writing set of tools are at least headed back to being used. And as my birthday approaches, that’s a great gift to give myself. Stay tuned because – no matter what – I always believe that the best is yet to be.

 

 

 

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What Will You Pay More For In 2014?

When you put together your 2014 budget (and you’ve done that or at least thought about it, right?), you usually have to make some assumptions about what certain things will cost you. While there are a number of fixed cost items (your mortgage) that you can budget for, other things – food and gas, for example – have prices that can and do fluctuate.

Here are the things that will likely cost you more money in 2014 according to the people who should know about such stuff. According to Forbes.com, economists in America think that the U.S. inflation rate for 2014 will be slightly below 2%. But all of the following things are likely to increase at a higher rate than that.

I can’t recall a year when anyone has ever said the price of food is going to decrease and this coming year is no exception. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food prices are expected to increase overall by about 3% this year. But that’s just an average. Some individual food items – mostly staples – are going to increase by even higher percentages.

Bread and cereal will increase by a much higher percentage, primarily because wheat and flour prices have gone up significantly just in the last quarter of 2013. And although some might not call it a staple, chocolate is for a lot of us and a cocoa shortage in 2013 is helping fuel predictions of nearly 25% increases in the cost of chocolate products this year. What can you do? Back in May, my blog on PrimeRates gave you some suggestions about how to save money at the supermarket without sacrificing quality. It’s worth taking a look at some of our prior suggestions about tips you can follow to trim your food shopping bill.

Clothing is also likely to increase this year, particularly clothes made of cotton. Bad crop conditions have increased the cost of cotton and, naturally, this is being passed on to you as the consumer. DailyFinance.com is predicting 5-7% increases in cotton and cotton-blend clothing in 2014.

If you’re thinking of buying a new house, home prices should be increasing this year. After a number of years watching prices decrease because of the global financial market meltdown in 2008, the housing market is finally started to rebound and that – coupled with continued low interest rates – means that buying a house will cost you more in 2014. US News.com reports that real estate analysts noted that home prices increased about 11% nationwide last year and that trend is expected to continue into 2014.

Cable and satellite television prices are also going up this year. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the average cable bill jumped from $48 in 2001 to $128 a month in 2011”. Since providers like DirecTV and Dish Network announced price increases just before Christmas (way to get positive press, guys) averaging about 4% for DirecTV and about 5% for Dish Network, now – more than ever – is the time to consider cutting the cord from cable television. In my PrimeRates blog last April we reminded you that more and more households are cancelling their cable television packages (because of the ridiculously high costs and packaging requirements) and instead watching movies and shows on online video subscriptions or pay as you go services. If you haven’t thought about pursuing that option, now may be the perfect time to get a better deal at less money to help your 2014 budget.

Is there any good news I can offer you on 2014 prices? Yes, actually, there is. According to experts, gas prices are not only expected to not increase, it’s very possible that they’ll decline in 2014. At least for that, we can give thanks.

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The Mirror Has Two Faces

So I write this on the evening of yet another birthday, a day that seems to arrive more quickly with each passing year. I have never been a fan of birthdays and maybe that makes me the odd one out. I have always felt a sense of sadness, of being alone on my birthday. And it’s not for lack of attention because people shower me with love and affection. My mother, of course, and my darling dad when he was still here. My sisters. My great kid. My friends.

And now, with the advent of social media, more people than ever reach out to me on my birthday and say such lovely things, things I’m quite sure I can’t measure up to but which are nonetheless so deeply appreciated and treasured. On days when I’m not at my best, I take a virtual walk down the memory lane of Facebook and see the words the special people in my life have written and they help me deal with whatever I’m dealing with, or remind me that I am important to some people, that I matter in this world which is so filled with transitory images and useless knowledge and endless rhetoric. And I thank people for that with the grateful face I show to the world.

But we all have two faces, don’t we? The face we put on when we leave the house in the morning, to deal with what the world has to throw at us that day. The face we put on for the public even when we’re struggling with sadness, or coping with an illness, or worn out from too much worry, or stressed because we can’t turn our minds off. Because – and maybe it’s just me – I think we’re all programmed to some extent to be brave in public, be stoic, be assured, be calm. When you ask someone how they are, do we ever expect to get an answer other than “fine”?

What if someone really said to you what they were really feeling behind that public face. What if they said to you, I’m awful. I’m in pain. I’m brokenhearted. I’m weak. I’m disillusioned. I’m hurting. I’ve been betrayed. I’m angry. I’m sick. I need help. I need you. What would you do? What would anyone of us do?

Our lives are lived sometimes inside a little bubble that shields us, we think, from the bad stuff. We assemble a house of cards to try and make our lives appear to others – or maybe even to ourselves – that all is well, that we are safe and sound. And that will get you so far for so long. But it only takes a single pin to pop our bubble of security or a tiny gust of wind to knock down the house of cards, to open the doors and let the light shine into the dark corners of the stuff, big and small, we never share with others.

Why do we do that? Are we afraid of being perceived as weak? Do we think others have burdens worse than ours so we don’t want to contribute to the load they carry? Is it pride, or shame, or guilt, or fear, or the hope that tomorrow may just be the day when the page turns, the dawn breaks, the worries subside. Maybe it’s all of those things. Or maybe – as one of my very smart DC girls once told me – we live in a world where there are too many Eleanor Rigbys. (I promised you, Dolores, that I would never forget that and I never have and I never will). All the lonely people. Where do they all come from?

Right now I am struggling, trying to manage too many crises, juggling too many things, trying hard, trying harder and solving nothing. Right now, as I take stock of where I am now and where I was on my last birthday, it’s hard not to be discouraged. I have trusted foolishly, I fear. I have made some good decisions but also some bad ones, terrible ones. I have succeeded in a tiny writing career this year, a passion I’ve had since I was a teenager and one which I have finally been able to explore with a little success, more in the way of accolades that financially. I have survived the scare of an illness and been given a new appreciation of life and its random nature and its ever-dwindling days.

I am a deeply religious person, a very spiritual being. I go to church regularly. I say my prayers every day and I never ask for anything for myself from God except to please show me the way. I try to live a good life every day. I make mistakes but I try not to make them again. I am surrounded by so many examples of courage and grace and strength and hope that it makes me ashamed that I am not stronger or braver or more determined right now than I am.

Not that long ago, I talked to my Mom, bemoaning the fact that I was alone. Telling her I was tired of living in a world full of couples. Not everyone you see as a couple is happy, she told me. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, she said. And she’s right, of course. But still, I see the public faces of happy couples and I wonder why not me? I spent too many years married to someone who I shouldn’t have been. The man I loved more than any other became sick, became sicker and was gone in a few months and there is still a spot in my heart where he resides and always will. Another man I trusted cheated me, stole from me, ruined me, a setback I am still recovering from all these years later. But I survived all that. I have to believe that there’s got to be something still ahead of me, some person who will love me the way my Dad loved my Mom, the way my cousin Dom adored my cousin Cooky, the way I see so many of my friends talk about their husbands or partners or boyfriends.

And so far there hasn’t been and maybe there won’t be. And maybe it’s just because it’s my annual take-stock-of-your-life inventory that causes me to wonder. To lower my guard. To show you the face that is never out there in public. To share my insecurities, my hopes, my fears, my worries. Maybe tomorrow I’ll regret it. But for tonight, I’d like to think that maybe it will inspire you to not hide behind the mask of happiness when you have a day where you really need someone to hold your hand, to tell you tomorrow will be better. Maybe it will convince you that showing vulnerability, asking for help, sharing your woes is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Strength because you are reaching across that bridge of being uninvolved that we all hesitate to cross. Strength because you are saying to others that you don’t want to live the solitary life, detached and afraid to reach out. Strength because you realize that being Eleanor Rigby is no way to go through this life when there are so many hands to lift you up, so many voices to say the right thing, so many ears waiting to listen, so many hands to hold yours, so many arms to hug you, so many prayers waiting to be said for you.

So remember that it’s okay to let the world look at your other face. Trust that you are not in this alone. Remember that we are all a community, a brotherhood and sisterhood of shared experiences and hopes and dreams and fears. Try to see behind the face that I show you, that everyone shows you. Because I think we all, deep down, want to let someone else in.

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Angels Are Among Us Every Day

So I’ve been finding myself praying a little more these days, asking for some guidance as I struggle with some issues. Asking for help is not a thing I’ve ever been comfortable with but I’ve been trying hard, so hard to work on that and I think I’m succeeding. My sister told me recently that my attitude, my outlook had changed a lot in the last few years and I was so delighted that she shared that with me. I was in a dark place for a while, sad and tired from a tough situation I had gone through. But I had worked my way through it, ever so slowly and to know someone else had recognized my metamorphosis made me want to keep working, keep evolving.

And I have to think that my Dad has been the angel on my shoulder, whispering in my ear when I need a word of advice or giving me hug in my heart on a day when I’m sad. Because my Dad – and my Mom too – always believed in the power of angels and how they manifest themselves in our lives every day. We just need to pay attention to know they’re there.

Years ago, when my great kid was a little guy and on the bowling team at his school, we decided to stay after his bowling was finished and have something to eat at the little snack bar at the bowling alley. Cheeseburgers, fries and sodas. I ordered the food and brought it back to our table and we started to eat, talking about how much fun he’d had that cold winter day at bowling.

And then someone caught my eye. An old man sitting a few tables away by himself. Dressed poorly in clothes that didn’t appear warm or clean, he had no food or drink in front of him. When he saw me look up, he smiled at me and then turned to look at some teenagers shooting pool. He looks hungry, my great kid said, and I agreed. I walked over and told him I was headed back up to the snack bar and could I bring him something back. Could I have a sandwich and a soda, he asked. Of course, I said, and headed over there to order the food. A few dollars worth of stuff but when I brought it to him, it was as if I had served him something much more expensive. He thanked me and started to eat.

I turned around and headed back to my table and when I sat down, I looked back over. And he was gone. Literally gone. In the 15 seconds it took me to cross the 10 feet or so back to my table, he had vanished. I looked around. I got up and walked towards the entrance to see if he was headed outside. Nothing. He was gone.

I told my Dad that story when I got home. And he told me that it was Jesus putting an angel in my path to give me an opportunity to share what I had, to practice the tenet of do unto others. I knew it was true. I knew this man had been sent to me for a reason.

My Mom got on the phone after I told my Dad and shared a similar story with me, one I hadn’t heard before. She took the train to work every day and one day, running late to the office, she walked right past someone who needed some money. And it bothered her all day. Because she almost always assumes the best in someone and it would never occur to her that someone asking for money might not be legitimate. When she went home that night, she looked around at the train station but didn’t spot him.

The next morning she got off the train and there he was again. She stopped and gave him $5 and he thanked her and asked her name. She told him hers and asked his name. He told her and thanked her for her kindness and that he’d pray for her. She went to work, she told me, feeling much better that she’d been given another chance to make up for passing him by the previous day. And I bet you can guess what happened after that. He was never at the train station again. He was put there, she believed, for the same reason the gentleman was put in the bowling alley to talk to me.

How often do we encounter people by chance? We share a moment with someone, or a brief amount of time and we remember them much longer than it would seem normal. We have opportunities placed in front of us every day, to share what we can, to say a kind word, to be a shoulder to lean on, to be the only one who smiles at  that person all day. And it’s easy, too easy sometimes to miss these little opportunities, to not even be aware when they present themselves.

And so it came back full circle to my Dad. A month or so ago I had a health crisis in the early hours of the morning. Panicked, I called my Mom (after my great kid had headed off to school, of course. No sense in worrying him before I knew what was wrong). Would you come here please and go with me to the doctor, I asked her. And 30 minutes later, she was at my door and 10 minutes after that we were at the doctor.

I had worked myself up into a state of panic, foolishly it turns out by surfing the web and googling my symptoms on WebMd. (Don’t do that, my doctor told me. No good can come of it. Advice taken.) But I was nervous, so nervous when I walked into the waiting room with my Mom. We sat down and waited to be called. And then my Dad, my angel gave me a sign.

For those of you who knew my Dad, you’ll know that his favorite song was The Bee Gees singing More Than A Woman. Only he could never understand the lyrics so he always called it Baldheaded Woman (as we all still do in my family). There was no music playing when we walked into the doctor’s office. But we sat down, as her first patient waiting to be seen, and her staff turned on the music. And Baldheaded Woman was the song we heard.

I looked at my Mom and she looked at me and we knew I would be fine. We knew my Dad was with me, letting me know I would be fine. (And I was and I am.) But if my Mom and Dad hadn’t showed me how to be open to the moments placed in front of me, I would have thought it was just a lovely coincidence that his favorite song came on. And maybe some of you will  think it was just random that that song started playing. I don’t expect everyone to see what I see, or believe what I believe. But you’ll never ever convince me that my Dad wasn’t there that day. Look for your angel. Be open to the possibility. I was and my life is richer for it.

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That Thing You Do? Don’t Do It.

So about a month ago, my great kid asked if I’d get tickets to go see the Big Apple Circus while it was visiting our area. Since I’ve enjoyed our visits there as much as he did, I was all in. And then he asked me to include my Mom (who is not a circus person at all) to come with us, as next year he’ll probably be off at college somewhere far away and we won’t be able to do this again as a family. God bless my Mom who said something to the effect of that while she really didn’t want to go she would because she truly wanted to make him happy, because she knew how much he enjoyed it in the past when we’d take my Dad every year to see the circus. And so off we went.

While we waited for the show to start, we started talking about everything and nothing at all and somehow got on to the subject of Disneyworld. We started talking about his senior trip there and how it started off great but that by the end of the week, when he and his classmates had been together 24/7 for 5 days with little sleep and too much excitement from the theme parks and rides, they were all sick of each other. And I remarked, innocuously I thought, that it seemed that could happen to anyone who spent too much time in too close a proximity without any kind of break. I reminded him that sometimes when he and I go off on vacation together, we’re snarling at each other several days in, each retreating to our separate corners of our hotel room, looking for some personal space of our own.

I thought I’d made a good point, trying to show him that the scenario that played out when he was in close quarters with friends was just one of those things, that it happens all the time. But I was told nicely but clearly that I was way off base.

Mom, he said, you know that thing you do when you try to rationalize when things go wrong for me and put a spin on why it happened because you think you’re making me feel better? You’re not.

Wow. Talk about a light bulb moment. It didn’t even occur to me to disagree with him because he was spot on. It’s something I do, do a lot apparently, even more than I’d like to think. Because I don’t like confrontation with people, I don’t like unpleasant conversations. So I try to explain away bad behavior, or broken promises, or hurt feelings, or an empty feeling in your soul whether it’s directed at me or at someone I love or hold dear.

And it got me thinking about how often or how much of this others do. How much do we rationalize things, just to get through the situation, or to make it another day, or to put up with a bad relationship because we’ve got kids or need that second income or don’t want to be on our own? How often do we concoct excuses for what passes as acceptable behavior these days? And why?

I am loath to engage in self-analysis (just another one of my projects to work on) so I can only surmise why any of us rationalizes what we do, or what others do, or what we allow others to do. And I think it’s that we all to some extent want to go along to get along. Aren’t we surrounded by enough strife and turmoil in the exterior world? We hear hateful words from partisan talking heads on news channels. We read stories, too many stories of innocent children and adults being killed by the proliferation of guns in our society. We live, too often it seems, in a virtual world, a world of Facebook and Twitter where we have friends who aren’t friends at all, and we comment on what people say because we think what we have to say is valuable, and we engage in heated discussions over things that ultimately don’t matter, that don’t change anyone’s mind, that are not important in the long-term.

So sometimes, when presented with a real life dilemma, a problem that manifests itself in our real world, in our home, or office, or your car sitting next to someone you love, our instinct is to smooth things over, to let the water close back over that pebble of a problem thrown in, to swallow the words we want to say and instead smile and agree. Goodness knows, I did this for far too many years with someone who didn’t treat me well and it became a learned behavior, a crutch I fall back on even to this day. I didn’t say things I should have, I don’t say things I should. And it pains me to say that, to know that I’ve let this become part of my life.

But maybe, just maybe my son has learned from my behavior and seen what it can and will do to a person. He’s seen that my explaining away everything in my attempt to soften the blow, to make his way easier, to spare him some of the hurt feelings and brokenhearted days and sleepless nights I’ve experienced have not done what I thought they would or should but instead ricocheted right back to me. And it’s made him smarter and more attuned to his feelings than I was at his age, than I am even now. He stands up for himself. He tells people when they’ve hurt his feelings. He is not shy to confront if confrontation is called for. He is the person I always wished I could be.

So while I’m not happy that I’ve been reluctant to do more for myself than I have, if it has helped my kid take the opposite tack and put him on a path that will make him more surefooted than I am, more resilient, more open and accepting and protective of his heart and his feelings, than any discomfort or second guessing I could do for the way I’ve lived my life is fine with me. Because paying that price to see him become the man he should be is a price I’d pay 100 times over.

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Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Today is December 21. Four days before what should be the most uplifting day on the Christian calendar. Four days before we celebrate the birth of a child. Four days before we spend time with family and friends to celebrate joy and love and peace on earth, goodwill to men. And I’m having a very hard time dealing with it this year.

I am not mad. Mad is what I get when someone cuts me off in traffic or when I see someone being rude or when I’m lied to. I’m beyond that. What I am now is scarily, irrationally angry. Not only over what happened last week in Newtown but over the continued defense of guns and the blaming of the media and video games for the murder of 26 people last week.

I hadn’t really talked about it that much, the way I feel that is, with anyone but my mother and my great kid. And then, last night, one of my wonderful high school friends (thank you, Carol!) posted a question on Facebook, something to the effect of “I can’t get into the Christmas spirit this year. I feel guilty feeling happiness after all that has happened this year. Does anyone else feel this way?”

And it made me weep because I’d been feeling that way too and, in the way I think too many of us do, hadn’t reached out to talk to people about it. But there were so many signs around me, of people struggling to feel happiness that I don’t know how I didn’t notice.

My great kid celebrates Christmas for almost 2 months. The day after Thanksgiving, the decorations and tree come down from the attic and he spends all weekend decorating our little house so that it twinkles and shimmers and sparkles (and smells like evergreen trees, thanks to Yankee Candles) and everything stays in place until the 3rd or 4th week of January. But this year, even he didn’t feel the Christmas love. The decorations stayed in the attic, and stayed, and stayed. I finally started asking when he was going to decorate and they finally made their way to our living room about 2 weeks ago.

And then that’s where they sat until 2 days ago. The boxes holding ornaments and tinsel and lights and stockings and snowglobes remained unopened, pushed up against the wall. What a sad sight it was. And I asked him once or twice what his plan was and he was very non-specific. So I didn’t push because I thought to myself that if my great kid can’t get into the Christmas spirit, who am I to push him? He needed to do it in his own time, to find his own Christmas spirit and joy, and he eventually did.

We all, I’m sure, have had individual and family issues and problems this past year. 2012 has not been one of my most memorable years. I’ve had some health problems and my dearest friend has gotten sicker and sicker throughout the year. I’ve seen highs and lows this year and, even when things were very low, I went to sleep every night saying the same prayer I have said almost my whole life. “Thank you, God, for everything you have given me”. And I meant it, and I mean it. Because He has given me so very much.

But still, still I’m sad. And it’s a combination of things. Hurricane Sandy, I think, started me on this path. I was very lucky and very blessed to have suffered no damage more than losing the food in my refrigerator when my power was off for a week. But I look around me and see the devastation in the places I love at the Jersey shore, the houses boarded up, the boardwalk gone that I walked on a few short weeks before the hurricane, the businesses shuttered, the near-empty restaurants. And I look at 2 of my high school friends, women I’ve known forever, who lost almost everything in the hurricane. I see reminders almost every day by people posting photos on Facebook, or on television showing us the skeletons of buildings that used to be homes, or hear stories of people who still have no heat, no hot water, no electricity, nothing.

I’ve helped, or tried to help, as much as I can, although others have done much more, I’m sure. And I’ve made a point of frequenting any business or restaurant open at the Jersey shore, and done much of my Christmas shopping at the local stores and boutiques there, to make sure they know that people support them and that they’ll still be there, open and thriving, when the shore comes back. And I was starting to feel better, starting to feel a little bit of the Christmas spirit.

And then, last Friday, I was driving my Mom down to the cemetery, to visit my darling Dad’s grave. The radio was on, white noise in the background, and we were talking about everything and nothing when we heard the announcer start to weep, as she reported that 26 people were dead in a school. And we both started to get teary and I remember having to blink and blink again to get the tears out of my eyes so I could keep driving safely. We both kept saying “How could this happen again?”

And it does, and it will continue to, unless things change. I don’t want to get into a debate on what should be done. My position on that is very clear if you read my Facebook page at all. But what I do want, for me, for my great kid, for my Mom and my sisters, and for all of you, is for us to get some Christmas spirit back.

So here’s what I’m going to try and remember this Christmas season, one different from any other our country has celebrated. Whether we agree or disagree on how to deal with what has happened, the fact remains that we live in the greatest country on earth that allows us the freedom to live our lives and speak our truths and celebrate our religious holidays and look forward to better days.

As for me, I am surrounded always be people who love me and lift me up and I will find my Christmas spirit and hope in them. I have my great kid, who inspires me every day with how kind and compassionate and brave he has become, how he takes care of me and my Mom not because he has to, but because he wants to. I have my Mom, who always knows the right thing to say, who took us in when we had no power for a week during Hurricane Sandy, who treats us to dinner far more often than is necessary, who remembers every family member’s birthday with a card, who taught me how to be a good mother.

I have the memories of my wonderful Dad, who lives in my heart and soul every day. I still talk to him and ask him for advice and help and sometimes he helps and sometimes I’m not sure  he hears me (because hearing was not his strong point his last few years, as any of his family members can attest) but I still talk to him because he’s still the best man I ever knew.

I have been given a wonderful opportunity this year to write professionally (and get paid for it too), something I have yearned to do since I was in high school. I’ve been able to visit friends near and far, and talk to those I haven’t visited. I have attended my 40th high school reunion and was humbled by the gratitude and love showered on me by my DC girls, who thought the Facebook reunion page I created and the postings I put up were some kind of hard work, instead of a labor of love. I reconnected with a friend from high school who we had tried to track down for 30 years and had never been able to find, and I wept with joy when she showed up that day. I became friendlier, and then friends, real friends, with girls I had never said a word to in high school because our schedules and lives were different. And I thanked God for the chance to see them all and be 18 again, even if just for the day.

I am grateful for waking up every day now, after going through surgery and being told I didn’t have cancer by my wonderful doctor. I am blessed to have been able to spend Thanksgiving with my second family, the wonderful Vernolas, who took us in and made what could have been a lonely day one of the highlights of my year. I have been lifted up by people who have many more troubles than I do and who have inspired me to be better and do better.

So I may not have as much Christmas spirit this year as I’ve had in the past but, when I take stock of what I have and know that I have the power to make someone’s day or maybe even their life better by giving what I can give, listening when that’s what they need, holding their hand when they’re sad, I have to believe that a better Christmas awaits all of us. And maybe it will be next Christmas, if it’s not this one. But it will happen. We’ll feel optimism again. We’ll become motivated to do something to stop the violence and hatred in our world. We’ll remember what one of my DC girls said last week, that there are too many Eleanor Rigbys in this world and that it’s our calling, our duty to reach out to that person, to be kinder to them, and be kinder to ourselves at the same time. That it’s okay to feel happiness again. To believe that better days are ahead. To have hope and optimism. To ask for peace in our hearts and souls. To love and be loved. As the wonderful Prayer of St. Francis says, Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Be that instrument and bring peace to yourself, your family, your neighborhood, your world. And know that my life would be so much emptier if you all weren’t in it.

So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

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