Don’t You Dare Look Back, Just Keep Your Eyes On Me

So the new adventure begins for me soon. The moving van will arrive to pack our belongings and make the long trek across the country. I will pack my puppy and my great kid and my Mary Poppins snow globe up in his car and send them on their way to meet up with me in a few days. The car will be en route and I will be too soon. To quote the Peter, Paul and Mary song, I’m leaving on a jet plane; don’t know when I’ll be back again.

Emotions and feelings are flooding my senses now. These past few weeks every time I’ve done something, every time I’ve talked to someone, every task I’ve tackled, every thought I’ve had has had a pounding beat behind it: the last time, the last time, the last time. I don’t know if I’ll ever visit my father’s grave again. I don’t know how many of the people I interact with on a daily, weekly, monthly basis will ever cross my path again. I don’t know if the roads I’ve driven on for years will ever be beneath my feet again. I don’t know if the local radio station (the great CBS-FM led by the equally great Scott Shannon) or the local television station (WNBC and the morning crew which wakes me up and entertains me every day) will be available for me to listen to or watch where I’m going.

I don’t know if the sun setting on Point Pleasant Beach will look the same where I am, or if I’ll see the Atlantic Ocean again. I don’t know when I’ll get to go to see the Somerset Patriots again, that wonderful minor league ball team that has $1 hot dog nights, fantastic seats behind home plate for $10 and encourages people to get up and do the chicken dance between innings.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see the wonderful women who help me keep myself presentable when I visit their salons. I don’t know if I’ll get to talk again to the great and beautiful woman at Dunkin Donuts who hears my voice say “hello” and knows what I want to order that day without me telling her.

And I don’t know when I’ll see my DC girls and my Burke cousins and my best friend, Jimmy Courage, again and that is the toughest part of all. The person I am, the person I was, the person I became, the person I’ll always be could not exist without their support and friendship and kindness and love. And I know – because I wrote about it recently – that social media means we are all only a click away from each other. But even if I didn’t see all these special people often, it’s the idea, the notion, the life raft I cling to that I could see them when I wanted or needed. And now it will require more effort, more planning, more money, more time and spontaneity and “just because” will be removed from the equation.

So even though I’m sad, I’m also happy that there is a great future waiting out there for me. There’s a new adventure, a promise of new experiences, a dream of a happily ever after. And isn’t that what we all want? We want to know, or at least hope, that our best times are not behind us, that beyond the blue horizon waits a beautiful day. I believe that; I have to believe that; I will believe that.

Off I’ll go soon. Wish me luck and know when I leave here in a few days that, like Peter Pan, I’ll be headed to the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

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So Long, Farewell

So I have arrived at that point in my life so beautifully described by Robert Frost in his glorious poem The Road Not Taken. I have come to where two roads diverged in the wood and I have chosen the one less traveled by, a decision I neither ever thought I would make nor take lightly now that I have made it.

As a lifelong resident of the east coast and a person who is a New Yorker by birth and, even though I have lived in New Jersey for many years now, a person who will always be a New Yorker in my heart and soul, I will be leaving my home and everything I have known to head across the country to a new city, a new state, a new way of life. I am a charter member of that sandwich generation that cares for our parents and our children simultaneously and what I am doing and why is because of that.

If you are someone who is blessed to have one or both of your parents, you know that eventually, inevitably the role of parent and child is turned on its head and we begin to parent our parents. Aging can be a cruel process where your mind, your heart, your core tell you “yes, I can” but the realities and the frailties of our bodies cannot be ignored. And my mother, a very healthy 85-year-old woman, all things considered, needs not to be alone any longer.

For years, my sister and her husband have tried to convince first my parents together and then my Mom alone after my Dad left us to move closer to them. They wanted to participate in her care, to help share in the process and to spend more time with her at a time in all of our lives where the days speed by and the years seem to go even faster. And, truth be told, the past more-than-a-few years have not been kind ones to me for many reasons, each accompanied by a story I am tired of telling and the outcome of which doesn’t change no matter how often I recount it. The opportunity to do for my mother what she has done for me, for my sisters, for my great kid and niece and nephew all of our lives as well as to turn the page in the story of my life, to start a new chapter which may have that happy ending I’m still looking for was impossible to resist.

So we’ve sold our homes, are purging, sorting, donating, repurposing and packing our pared down belongings and will be headed to our new adventure in a few weeks. Life will be different for sure where I’m headed but I like to think I can and will adapt and grow and flourish in this new garden I’m planting myself in.

Most of the people I’ve shared my news with have been incredibly kind and happy for me. Even though they’ll miss me, they are genuinely supportive of this and want what is best for me. Others are surprised at my decision and view it through the prism of their experiences and I understand that but cannot let it factor into my hopes, dreams, excitement, challenges or – ultimately – belief that what I do and why I’m doing it and what it will mean for my family and me is right.

So many of you I know on social media are people who have befriended me or reached out to me because of some mutual friend or connection or some other commonality. And that I am part of that large social media community means I will never truly lose touch with anyone. All of you who have agreed (or disagreed) with things I’ve posted, who have supported my writings, who have stepped up with a kind word or thought or prayer, who have sent me private messages of comfort and professed public support are woven forever into the fabric of my life and I will never, ever not be grateful to you.

So please wish me well, know I am a mere keystroke away, believe that I won’t be gone forever and trust that I know how blessed I am to be surrounded by so many good people in my life. Until we meet again, thank you all.

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Be Sorry For the Right Reason

So yesterday I went to a funeral Mass – the first one since my darling Dad left us 6 years ago – for a good man, a great man who was beloved by so many and who had been so kind and generous of spirit to my great kid and me over the years. The church was filled with family, friends, acquaintances and admirers, all there to honor this man and the legacy he left behind.

One of his eulogists talked about how much this man had accomplished in his life, how he gave and gave and gave even when he had nothing left to give. And then he talked about how the last day or so of this gentleman’s life he said that he was sorry to everyone who came to see him. His apology was not for anything he had done, or any hurt he had caused anyone. He was saying he was sorry that he wasn’t strong enough to fight any longer against the horrible disease that racked his body. I believe – in my heart of hearts – that he was trying to tell those he loved that he had done the best he could and hoped they could understand that he knew his time here was coming to an end.

That concept made me fill up with tears. Not only could I understand the sentiment – because my Dad had in essence let us know at the very end that he could not go on any more – but it made me think about how much of our time, our lives are wasted either being sorry for the wrong things or neglecting to reach out to those who we love and who love us to share how we feel with them.

I spent far too much time in my ill-advised marriage apologizing for things great and small because it was easier to do that and keep the peace than deal with the underlying issues and my inability – then, not now – to stand up for myself. And it’s an easy habit to get into, to say “I’m sorry” without even thinking about the words or why we are saying them.

We all hurt people occasionally, hopefully unintentionally, and those times warrant an apology. But we should focus instead on sharing out affection, our appreciation, our love for those we have chosen to surround ourselves with throughout our lives. I have tried so hard to do that these last few years, to tell people who have given me so much, both material and spiritual, that I am humbled by their kindness. That I appreciate their unconditional and unwavering support. That their words of encouragement lighten my load and lift my spirit. That I hope that their investment in me as my friend is worth it.

I have not always been successful in this pursuit. There are some people, very few in reality, who are not receptive to apologies, nor inclined to offer them. But I keep trying because I must. I want no words unsaid, no apology not offered, no kindness not repaid, no loose ends when all is said and done.

What I want is to be able to do what this good and kind man did and have my only apology when my time comes be that I cannot fight any more, that I wish I had more time with them, that I wanted another day, another chance, another beginning, another goodbye. I want my “I’m sorry” to mean what it meant to this man whose passing we mourned yesterday. Because, in the end, the love we take is equal to the love we make.

Goodbye, Mr. Hoos, and thank you for being a shining example of a life lived well and a heart and spirit filled with kindness and love.

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A Day In the Life

So I heard a story so profoundly sad recently about an acquaintance and all I could think was of The Beatles’ song A Day In the Life. The opening lines – “I heard the news today, oh boy” – kept running through my head. I can’t shake the sadness I feel and the whole thing has made me wonder about the safety net we all should have and what happens if we don’t.

For many years, my parents went out several times a week to a local restaurant. It was really the equivalent of Cheers for them because they knew everyone and everyone knew them. When they walked in, the bartender – the great and glorious Lenny – had their sodas waiting for them at the bar. (They always sat at the bar for dinner so they could chat and interact with the folks around them). Over the years, my great kid and I would join them there several times a month and got to know – although not as well as my parents – the eclectic mix of people who populated the bar.

One of these interesting people was a gentleman who always tipped his cap to the women, chatted up anyone who sat near him and had unique stories to share. He was a bit of a loner, coming to the bar a few times a week to have a burger and a few beers and then head home. He shared with my Mom once that he was estranged from his daughters and that it pained him so.

When my darling Dad died, they hung his picture at the bar for years in honor of his memory. My Mom, a baker of muffins and the occasional cake, would always bring a muffin for Lenny (because she loves him so) and then started bringing a muffin for this gentleman as well. He was always grateful to my Mom for what was really just a small gesture.

As I’ve shared before, the last conversation I had with my Dad about 2 hours before he died was him asking me to promise I would always give my Mom flowers from him on their wedding anniversary (a promise I am proud to have honored and always will). On my Dad’s first anniversary in heaven, I went with my Mom to the restaurant to celebrate my Dad’s life by having dinner and toasting him with our glasses of soda. I brought her a huge bouquet of tulips and reminded her that they were from him.

This gentleman was seated across the bar from us and he must have asked our friend, Lenny, what the occasion was. Lenny explained that it was my parents’ anniversary and that I was giving my Mom those flowers from my Dad. (I found out about this conversation from Lenny after the fact). As we finished our meal and got ready to leave, we asked for the check and Lenny told us that this gentleman had paid our bill to honor my Dad and to make my Mom smile. And we couldn’t even thank him because he had managed to sneak out without us noticing. His gesture of kindness and generosity was extraordinary, a lovely thing to do by someone who truly was not someone we knew well at all.

This restaurant closed a few months ago and Lenny had left and moved too far away a few months before that so we had lost touch with this man who had been so kind and who so appreciated the smallest of conversations with the person sitting next to him at the bar.

And then, a week or so ago, I heard that this man had died. He died on his 70th birthday and he died because he chose to end his life that day. And that makes me so deeply sad.

We never know what is going on in someone’s life or what thoughts are raging in someone’s head or what pain is piercing their heart. We only see, we only know, we can only react to what they tell us. But hopefully we all have parents, siblings, children, clergy, acquaintance and friends (whether real or the social media kind) that make up our safety net. We are not alone, we should not be alone, we do not have to be alone. And that this gentleman did not think he had someone to lean on, to reach out to, to ask for help or comfort or a kind word makes me weep that the world has lost a kind soul.

If you need help, if you need a shoulder to cry on, if you need a hand to hold, if you need a prayer, whatever you need, I beg you to ask. Please don’t let fear or shame or isolation or the passage of time deter you from reaching out. Don’t let time or distance or the walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from hurt limit you. We are all in this together. It is easy to be a friend to those you know. It is harder to be a friend to someone you don’t really know but the rewards are enormous. The good you do will come back to you so many times over. To quote the genius of Stephen Sondheim, “people make mistakes . . . thinking they’re alone . . . someone is on your side . . . no one is alone.”

Rest in peace, Bob. And, with thanks to Sarah McLachlan, “you’re in the arms of the angel. May you find some comfort here”.

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Choose the good

So I read a book recently which talked about the concept of remembering what we can deal with and forgetting what we can’t. I wish that were as true as it sounds but there are some bad things I wish I could forget but don’t. (And I suspect you all have that same problem as well). But it’s the randomness of remembering the kindnesses and happy moments and uplifting experiences that manifest themselves when you least expect it and hopefully propels you to choose to remember the happiness.

I remember a time when I was still married and being yelled at by my ex over something so trivial (but fueled by alcohol consumption on his end into something major) on a Saturday night. My great kid, just a young boy at the time, got between us and told him to stop yelling at his mommy like that. It shut my ex up (temporarily at least) and made my heart both burst with pride at how protective he was of me and break at the same time at the horrible behavior he had to witness as such a young age. I choose to cherish the instinctive protectiveness and love he had for me.

I remember a time when I had made the decision to end my marriage and had to go to my parents and tell them. I was sick inside at having to share that with them although, truth be told, they knew it was coming. My parents could not have been more supportive and offered to do anything and everything they could because they wanted my great kid and me to be happy and safe and able to look forward. (Although my father’s suggestion of the 4 of us plus a dog and a cat all living together in their one-bedroom appointment was a bit of a reach but he was one who focused on solutions, rather than problems). It was a day that I anticipated being painful but that does a disservice to my parents who I knew – in my heart of hearts – would always support me. I choose to remember how they lifted me up and empowered me with their words and hugs and prayers.

I remember a time when someone I loved dearly and trusted even more spent a morning speaking to my great kid when he was broken and brokenhearted over something his father had done. (And my ex is no better a father than he was a husband or friend). I absented myself from that conversation because I loved my son enough to know I was not what he needed at that point. And that talk helped and even when the person who spoke to my son ultimately disappeared from our lives and left a world of problems in his wake, I was grateful for those times when he had stepped in and cheered my great kid up or offered advice or encouraged him to try new challenges. I choose to hold on to the good and kind things he did for my boy.

I remember a time, the last Saturday my Dad was alive, and I was in the lobby of the hospital frantically trying to find a flight my sister could get on that day to fly home to be with him. The frustration of that and the overwhelming sadness of knowing that no matter what we did, my Dad was not going to make it knocked me to my knees. And my cousin – my second mother – Cooky walked in, looked at my face and came up and hugged me and let me sob on her shoulders until there was no more crying left in me and I could get my resolve back and do what I needed to do, no matter how sad I was. I choose to remember that she empowered me, anchored me and comforted me that cold March day in St. Peter’s Hospital.

I remember the day recently when I had to take my beloved puppy to the vet to end his suffering. The heartbreak of having to make this decision, the pain of having to tell my great kid that he would not see his dog again, the weight on my heart of having to end my dog’s life to spare his suffering was crushing. And during those last minutes when he was slipping away and I was holding him and talking to him and crying, the vet tech reached over to me and held my hand through the whole process. I didn’t know how badly I needed that until it happened. And although the whole day was heartbreaking, I choose to remember the kindness and compassion of my vet and her assistant to help my puppy go over the Rainbow Bridge and to comfort me and my broken heart.

I could go on and on with instances like these because they are moments that have made an indelible imprint on my memory and my heart. When it’s a choice between remembering painful times, moments of betrayal or doubt or fear or sadness, or remembering that perfect gesture, word, deed, thought, I will also choose to remember the good with the knowledge that God put that person in our lives at that moment for a reason. We all have a choice. Choose the good.

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Easter Blessings

So today I am filled with both joy and relief. My 40 day journey through Lent via my blogs to so many people who have changed my life for the better has come to an end. I am filled with joy for the affirmation of how many blessings I have been given from all the wonderful, compassionate, caring and kindhearted people my God has placed in my life. I am not certain I deserve all the goodness I have been given through my friends and family but I will do my very best every day to live my life in honor of the gifts they have bestowed upon me.

And I am relieved because it was an emotional journey for me. I could have written so many more blogs thanking so many more people for their presence in my life and, to anyone I may not have singled out directly, please know that you are thanked endlessly. It was emotional and humbling because – when face-to-face with all that has been done for and given to me over a lifetime – it makes you realize that none of us is ever alone, even when we may feel that way. There is goodness out there waiting to be found and we can all be an agent of change.

It would be far too easy to let your heart harden and to turn inward when faced with adversity or disappointment, when challenged by what seems to be an obstacle we cannot overcome, when people hurt or wound us. But what I have learned from my last few years, years I readily acknowledge have been some of the most difficult years of my life, is that you cannot let your past define you. That you can and should reach out and accept the friendship and kindness and love others offer you. That there is no shame in making mistakes or in failing. The only shame would be in not letting others help you rise above it all. Pay it forward as I promise all of you I will.

So I will end this Lenten journey by quoting you some words from a song by the great Leonard Cohen. Don’t focus on the flaw you perceive. Let the light in.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

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Day Forty – My Great Kid

So this is it. The last blog in my 40 day journey through the Lenten season. I’m writing this on the day before the most holy and glorious day in the Christian year, the day we celebrate because it is so joyous. And the most glorious and joyous part of my life, since the day he was born, is my great kid.

When he was about 3 he started calling me Ellen – instead of Mommy – for about 6 months. When I asked him why, he said that everyone called me that so it made sense to him that he should too. It somehow evolved into him calling me Donna over the years (the reason why somehow eludes me) and now he calls me Beautiful. How can you not adore the kid who does this?

Starting from when he was little, he had a huge heart and a soft spot for those he felt were wronged. He would kiss the hand of any woman he liked and draw beautiful pictures to thank people for things. He made me elaborate handwritten cards for all occasions in which – even as a young boy – he promised to love and take care of me forever.

I have told this story before but it bears repeating because it epitomizes how he lives his life. One Christmas Eve we were waiting for Mass to start and my son’s classmate and his mother were across the aisle from us, in a small row saving some seats for the Dad and his classmate’s autistic sister who wouldn’t arrive until right before Mass started. When an usher repeatedly try to seat other people in the seats without listening to why they were saving them, the mother began to cry. My son – this amazing kid – got up, walked across the aisle and sat with her and his classmate to fill up the row so that the usher wouldn’t bother her anymore. I know they still remember his kindness and I still do, some 15 or so years after it happened.

He adores my mother and has flown across country more than once to surprise her on an occasion. When he is at school in Vegas and she heads to Salt Lake City to visit my sister, he always drives up to greet her at the airport and – even if he is just able to spend a few hours with her – will do the 6 hour ride there and back at a moment’s notice to make her happy.

He couldn’t spend enough time with my darling Dad and loved every chance he had to shadow him everywhere we went. Those last few months of my Dad’s life when things here were topsy-turvy and we never knew whether we’d be spending the day in an emergency room or a rehab center or taking care of him at home, he was there every step of the way and I know I could not have managed it without him. And as my Dad left this world one early March morning, he was there holding his hand and telling him how much he loved him and that it was OK to go. Because he knew in his heart of hearts that when you love someone, you need to love them enough to not want them to suffer any more. And that’s a hard lesson for an adult to learn, let alone an 18-year-old. He was my rock, my touchstone, my foundation then as he is now.

He has worked hard, and harder, to be a great student, a great social citizen, a great friend. He will graduate soon with a double major and a minor and wants to pursue a career that will allow him to be socially responsible. He does virtually any favor anyone asks him and spent long days and weeks last year volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ campaign. He worked hard recently with his fraternity brothers to raise money for the Jimmy V Foundation and is very involved with the student government at his school.

As a parent, we all want our children to have a happy and fulfilling life but we also know that it is not something we can control and that our kids need to learn life’s lessons on their own and hopefully grow and flourish from them. I hope – as a single parent – that I have given him the same tools my parents gave me in my life: hope, faith, honesty, compassion, caring, a love of animals, a belief that hard work pays off, character, determination, the knowledge that I believe in him and always will, and the willingness to be as great as his desires take him.

So thank you to my parents for teaching me how to be a parent, thank you to God for entrusting me with this boy, thank you to the friends and family along his journey who have been there for him and with him. And thank you to my great kid – my Brendan – whose birth, life, wishes, dreams all made me the person I am today. He is my everything and I hope he will always know that.

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