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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Day Thirty-Nine – My Mom

So as I near the end of my Lenten journey I have saved the very best people for my last two blogs. I have either no words or far too many to talk about my mom so I will try to land somewhere in the middle and only hope that my musings can do her justice.

My mom met my dad when she was 18 years old and has loved him every day since then.   Her fate and future were sealed – and my life here on earth a result thereof – when her cousin, Sugar, introduced her to my dad, a young guy who lived in the same neighborhood. He was her world, she was his and my sisters and my great kid and my niece and nephew are theirs.

She lost her own mother when she was pregnant with me, a tragedy I know she still feels so deeply. She lost her father a few short years later and, having had my dad until I was well into my fifties and being still blessed to have her, I cannot imagine the strength and hope it took her to go on.

When my dad worked two and sometimes three jobs when we were kids, my mom was the person who kept it all together. She pinched pennies and made do when there was nothing to make do out of because she was raised during the Great Depression when people knew what sacrifice meant. (On a side note, it would not be a bad thing if we went back to the mindset of “saving for a rainy day” instead of the mantra too many of us seem to embrace these days which seems to be centered around the word “now”.)

She made us great birthday parties and cut our bangs when they got too long by using scotch tape and scissors to save money. (And if you’ve ever seen any pictures of me with my bangs 1/4 inch long, you’ll know she did me no favors by doing that!) She instilled in us a love of books by taking us to the library all the time and my favorite past time to this day is still to spend a Saturday afternoon reading a good mystery. Anyone and everyone was always welcomed at our house and somehow, no matter how many people came or how little money there was, she managed to feed and entertain everyone who was there.

She made sure we had a Catholic education and when my younger sister started kindergarten, she became a teacher at that school. In those days, we lived in a very Catholic neighborhood and – unlike today when so many Catholic schools have closed because of dwindling attendance – our school was overflowing with children. She’ll correct me if I’m wrong on this but I seem to recall that one year her first grade class was made up of 68 children! Having her teach in our school was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that when we were home at 3:00 pm or during Easter vacation or all summer, she was there with us. The curse? When you got in trouble in school (which I seldom did), the teacher would threaten to send you to your mother instead of to the principal’s office. Going to see my mother during school hours was never something I wanted to do.

On Sundays she and my dad got us all up early and made sure we all went to Mass together. If we had behaved at Mass, she’d stop at the pretzel cart at the corner and buy us soft and hot pretzels, a real treat. We always had matching dresses and hats on Easter Sunday, freshly starched school uniforms with our white saddle shoes polished to a shine, food on the table, and love all around.

My mom is the person everyone turns to for advice, a corny joke, a memory, a laugh, a hug, a pep talk, a favor. She gives and gives and gives and asks for so little in return. She is generous beyond all measure and has rescued me – all of us, really – so many times in every way possible. Everything I do, including writing this blog for the last 7 years, is to make her proud of me, to show her I have learned the lessons – both spoken and unspoken – she has taught me, to live my life the way she has, to yearn to have someone love me one day the way she has and always will love my dad.

She is my hero, my guardian angel, my inspiration. She is my mom and I love her.

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Day Thirty-Eight – My Sisters

So as I write this I’ve learned there is something called National Sibling Day. (Another Hallmark-created holiday, I suspect.) I have two sisters, both younger than me, who are both very much the same and totally different. We all share the same DNA, from the Burke and Gilbride and Hughes families.

We often talk about how, when we were young, we didn’t realize we were poor because we had so much love and fun and excitement in our lives. Our parents took us to church carnivals and the New York World’s Fair. We spent almost every weekend at my aunt’s house in Levittown. She had – what was to us – a huge house with a big back yard and a tiny little pool she had bought so the three of us could swim. She bought a color television (which was a novelty in those days) so we could watch the Wonderful World of Disney in color. We shared glasses of orange juice and buttered rolls on Sunday morning after church. And we had the best time, never realizing that we went there every weekend not only so my darling Dad could help her (a widow) with mowing the grass and repairs around the house but so my parents had a place to take us that was fun and cost no money. And it worked because those weekends are a defining memory in my childhood and I feel certain they are for my sisters as well.

My sister, Bridget, is the ultimate lover of animals and has been a great mom to her many dogs over the years. She was a year behind me in high school and we were both on the same bowling team. Not only were we equally terrible at bowling but we were always the last team to leave the bowling alley on Friday night because we had spent far too much time having fun and fooling around and eating french fries and watching my sister send the bowling ball down the alley by pushing it with her nose. Like me, her closest friend is one from high school and you can’t put a value on how important it is when you know someone who shares so much of your life history. She is smart and has a wicked sense of humor. One of the nicest things she ever did was to throw a 60th surprise birthday party for her husband, Jimmy. They were high school sweethearts who had ended up married to other people and then reconnected again later in life and got married at the glorious Paris Hotel in Vegas. Jimmy had never had a birthday party in his whole life and she got all his friends from the old neighborhood and all our relatives together to celebrate his birthday. It was a great and loving gift that she gave him that day.

My sister, Barbara, has worn many hats in her life. She is a baker extraordinaire (and if you’re in the mood for the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever had, visit her online cookie store My Kids’ Cookies and feast your eyes on all she can bake). Although she lives with her husband and two kids on the other side of the country, she comes back to visit all the time and is a whirlwind of activity any time she’s here and just about wears all of us out. She’s got a perfect eye when it comes to designing a home and any time she gives you a suggestion (always prefaced with “This is what you’re going to do”, a line that we all both take very seriously and tease her about all the time) about how to improve your house or your work or your life in general, she’s right. One very early morning I was having a panic attack and mistakenly dialed her (at 6:00 am her time) instead of my great kid and she stayed on the phone with me and talked me through it. She is generous to a fault and has stepped up and helped me solve problems and resolve dilemmas and move forward when I needed someone to help me get my life back on track.

So many people don’t have siblings (my great kid among them) or have lost their siblings over the years. The memories you share with the people you have known longer in life than any others are the memories that you carry in your heart. My parents raised us to be strong and kind women. I hope they’re proud of the job they did.

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