The Joy of Reunion

reunitedI arrive at the bus station after midnight to collect my college daughter for Thanksgiving break and find myself ensconced in a scene that resembles a Hallmark movie.

Families waiting in street-lit darkness are unable to conceal their excitement as they jump from their parked cars at first sight of the incoming bus that would deliver their babies back home.

Girls hug unsuspecting brothers who are in turn befuddled by the uncharacteristic gesture of affection from a sibling rival. Fathers show vulnerability of emotion. Mothers grin and squeal, beyond ecstatic.

Tears blossom in my own eyes as I watch love unfold in micro-bursts all around me. Generosity of spirit abounds in these reunions. Not a single trace of stress or apathy affects anyone in this moment. It is pure love. Emotional gold.

Principessa and I are alone for the ride home and we chat without pause, catching up in a way that can’t be accomplished in our weekly phone calls. There is touch and expression and presence to satisfy my hungry soul. I soak her up like a thirsty sponge, knowing that I will surrender her to an eager family, dog included, who will launch at her when we walk through the front door.

Sisters reunite with giggles, telling stories into wee hours, long past a rational bedtime. But this mother will never suggest sleep over loving connection. I sit stealthfully at the bottom of the stairs, listening with satisfaction and a full heart.

These are the moments to live for. These are the memories to cherish when babies are grown. We may lament their departure from the nest, but recognize that the space and time between us provides a new gift – the joy of reunion. We aren’t privy to it in the days of constant togetherness.

In days of yore, I would sell my right arm for a moment of solitude. Now, the frequent aloneness stretches me to a point of discomfort. But I remind myself to be flexible, that I will not break. Like the potential energy stored in elastic materials as the result of their stretching – the more stretch, the more stored energy. The more I let go, the more I appreciate the rebound of love.

The thrill of loved ones coming and going is a new joy. A new bounty to be thankful for at this year’s holiday table.

Letter to My Future Daughter-In-Law

daughter-in-law-Dear Future Daughter-In-Law,

I don’t know you yet, or even if you exist.  But I think about you a lot.  You’ve influenced so many of my parenting choices while raising a son.

I was thinking of you when I taught my son how to do laundry at the age of 6, and to make his own meals and clean the house.  He will not assume that these jobs belong to someone else – especially not a female companion.

My son was raised to be self-sufficient for his benefit and for yours.  He is capable of a great many things because his father and I allowed him to try and to fail.   But he is not perfect.  Please don’t berate him for the things he doesn’t do for you or your house or your children.  No man can be everything. And every man needs appreciation.

I’m sure he’ll complain to you about the fact that he never got an allowance and always paid for the privilege of using a cell phone.  Perhaps you had a similar upbringing, or not.  Together, you will have to decide if this is a good idea for your own children.  Will you think of it as an undue burden or as a worthwhile discipline?  Will you be the saver and he, the spender?  Just remember that money has only the meaning and power you assign to it.  Don’t let it come between you.

I wonder about your parents too.  What values did they instill?  Will we all get along when we sit across the table from each other at a family gathering?  Or will it be stressful work to endure each other?  As a daughter-in-law myself, I know that it is a lifelong practice to find balance with extended family.  But it can be done.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t fear the time when I have to surrender my boy to you.  I know you won’t be ‘taking’ him from me because he has already begun his process of separating.  But I also know that he will defer to you, as he should, and that you will have a greater influence on him than I.  I won’t be that stereotypical interfering mother-in-law. I will respect you and commit to seeing what my son sees in you.  All I ask is that you afford me the same generosity in return.

I hope that we will love each other and be equally pleased in gaining our unique relationship.  But even if this is not the reality, we still have something very important in common- we love the same spectacular boy who deserves the best we can give him.  Let’s, at the very least, agree to unite where he is concerned.

My dear girl, I am praying for you.  May you honor and learn from every experience that leads you to my son so that when the time comes, you will recognize and appreciate the gift that was groomed especially for you.

When Life Takes an Unexpected Turn

emergencyOne almost hopes that when you arrive at the Emergency Department of a hospital, the triage nurse will be as incredulous as you are about your current medical crisis. The reality is that she’ll look, listen, and feel to determine if you’re dying at the rate you think you are and inevitably give you the same instruction as the other ten people who have settled in misery in the waiting area – Take A Seat.

These healthcare professionals aren’t heartless, just desensitized, and thus, not easily alarmed unless you have stopped, or will soon stop breathing. Clearly, Husband’s situation is not impressive enough so we queue up in line like customers at a deli counter, waiting for our number to be called. Husband and I joke that he should have led with reports of chest pain in order to bump him up on the list of priorities.

An absurd Monty Python scene comes to mind as I speculate that one could saunter into the ED holding one’s severed limb and still fail to elicit more than a raised eyebrow from the stoic nurse. “Merely a flesh wound” she’d say.

Into the wee hours of the morning, Husband and I played the waiting game, only occasionally being interrupted by this test, that doctor…A diagnosis revealed itself and necessitated further workup, guaranteeing an all-nighter. We were hostages to the system and ever so glad for the privilege.

Despite the uncomfortable circumstances, it was easy to be grateful. At times like these, when one brushes up against mortality, priorities have a way of lining themselves up. Most days I’m apt to complain about traffic or the dishes that have been left unwashed. On an average day, the minutia take on importance and carry me off to a place where no triviality is too small to annoy me. But at the hospital, amidst an endless stream of medical crises, I am contrite.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think there’s room for improvement in the health care system. Whilst seated in a flimsy plastic hospital chair that makes my buttocks numb, it crosses my mind that an upgrade in the comfort of this waiting space in which people spend many stressful hours is not out of the question. But the thought trails off like a feather in a light breeze and is easily replaced with more pressing concerns like, ‘Will my loved one survive the night?’

I listen through drawn privacy curtains at an argument between a delusional drunk patient and a doctor over the patient’s perceived rights and the hospital’s responsibilities. I watch the police officers, active players in this drama, as they attempt to contain the inflammatory situation. I notice the worn expression on the nurse who started her shift at 3 a.m. And I think, no one here gets paid enough.

At sunrise, Husband was released from the suspended animation of the ED and sent home to recover without the comfort of medical supervision. He is freshly wounded by an acute awareness of his brush with death and is faced with the task of establishing a new modus operandi. He cannot go on pretending that he is the same invincible athletic man that he thought he was one week ago.

This is unfamiliar territory for Husband who is used to more glorious challenges like triathlons and ultra-marathons. But I anticipate that his history of achieving BHAGs will serve him well as he climbs his way back to health. He will draw from a well-established arsenal of resources, both external and internal. He will utilize patience, emotional fortitude, an elevated level of self-care, and a sense of humor. These skills belong to him from years of training and will be applied to his current condition.

There will be no medal ceremony at the end. And the ‘end’ may be obscure. But there will be a prize – the same prize we get every day without much of a mention. LIFE.

The Language of Dis-ease

UnderwaterTreasure2Illness and injury get no respect. They are the pariahs of the human experience, cast off and despised as adversaries or at the very least, inconvenient truths. If we took the time to acquaint ourselves with these repudiated occurrences, we’d not only lessen our misery but also emerge as victors who have captured an extraordinary prize.

My career allows me to work with the infirm on a daily basis. As such, I am privy to the language of dis-ease, which, I would claim, is one of the richest and most complicated languages of any I’ve heard.

Dis-ease speaks in unlimited dialects unique to each person – a language unto itself that can only be fully understood by the person to whom it is being spoken. The problem and the blessing is that most of us aren’t fluent in this language. Even those, or especially those, who suffer chronically, struggle to understand the messages of their dis-ease.

A young woman has cancer but is in denial. Months past her diagnosis she won’t let her thoughts attach to the idea that her body is under siege and could inevitably succumb. To do so would feel too vulnerable – like opening the front door and setting out a welcome mat. She pretends that she is the same woman now as she was before, fiercely self-reliant and insanely productive.

As many do, she mistakes denial for survival mentality and thinks that if she refuses to let cancer change the outward appearance of her life, it will not change the inner.

“Good idea.” we agree. “Think positive. Don’t give in.” We look on dis-ease as the ultimate enemy – the criminal who robs us. But dis-ease is not the enemy. Our resistance to it is the actual thief.

A man has had surgery after an accident and will be out of commission for weeks. He has felt angry and impatient. He berates himself for the imagined avoid-ability of it all. This is akin to thinking that one could skip 7th grade if only one had been more careful.

There are lessons to be learned from difficult times that simply cannot be passed over. Setbacks are perfectly-placed opportunities for learning. How would we learn true patience if we weren’t frustrated beyond sanity? How could we know the depths of compassion from others if we weren’t ever desperate for help?

In my children’s elementary school they set aside an educational block called WIN – What I Need. During this time, the students break off into groups tailored to an area of deficiency. Life School has What I Need. Naturally, we’d rather go to recess than to WIN. But on that one day, perhaps a very difficult day when we’ve all but given up, something clicks and we GET IT. We get that we need to:

accept help
face mortality
learn how to prioritize
ask for what we need and want
shed vanity
learn how to channel anger and jealousy
surrender our agenda…….

The lightbulb turns on and we realize what life, our teacher, has been trying to teach us all these years. We have seen this problem before – back in ‘Relationship Breakup Class’ and in ‘Becoming a New Parent Class’, and in ‘Loss of a Job Class.’ It took another crisis for us to see it, but it all makes sense now. Life, the best teacher ever, refuses to give up on us. It keeps presenting us with new opportunities to learn.

Sister found me half-asleep, curled up on a couch in a quiet room away from the other partygoers for whom I had been pretending to be well. Ever so tenderly, she covered me with a blanket then silently crept away. A single tear materialized and a relaxed rush of emotion spread through my aching body. This one simple gesture was an enormous gift of caring that moved me and saddened me. How long had it been since someone had mothered me? How long since I allowed someone to try? Sickness was the circuit-breaker that blew my fuse, presenting the darkness I needed where I wouldn’t otherwise choose to shut down the overload.

If illness is knocking at your door, you can pretend you’re not home but it won’t go away. It’s there FOR you. Everything that happens TO us happens FOR us. Perhaps, instead of cursing dis-ease, we could thank it. Even if we don’t clearly see the lesson plan, we can be assured that there is one and can be grateful that this teacher has shown up to present it.

If we refuse to stretch our awareness and refuse to relax our grip on our incomplete understanding of life, we risk becoming bitter and fear-filled. Anxiety reigns in those who believe in ghosts. Dis-ease doesn’t want to hurt us and leave us empty-handed. It’s not looking for a fight, this sheep in wolves’ clothing. It wants us to grow.

Sometimes dis-ease brings us to the brink of death and dysfunction in order to see. Don’t be afraid. Open your eyes. Look with your heart. Let your mind expand. Find the gifts that are hidden beneath the surface like buried treasure.

There is beauty in dis-ease. I insist. I’ve seen it. Not in the person who ‘survived’ for the sake of living and returning to a premorbid state of being. The real beauty is found in the vulnerable one who dares to surrender to the message. The one who says, “I accept this poker hand and I raise the bet. I bet that even if I don’t win the pot at the end, I will still have learned something about playing the game. And I am content with that.”

BOO! Who?!

scaredI’ve never enjoyed scary things. Halloween, haunted houses, thriller movies, and ghost stories make my skin crawl. People who revel in being frightened tell me about the satisfying adrenaline rush they get when they’re scared out of their wits. Here, we have to agree to disagree. Feeling terrified = bad.

Until this weekend, I hadn’t realized how far the scope of my faintheartedness extended. Husband thought he’d done a good deed by surprising me with a visit from Principessa who was supposed to be seven hours away at college.

There I stood, at the crack of dawn, half asleep on my feet in the kitchen. Stealthily, Principessa crept around the corner and planted herself silently in front of me. I thought I was seeing a ghost.

When I tell you that my brain stopped working, I’m not exaggerating. My body went into full-blown terror mode. My mind literally could not reconcile what my eyes were seeing.

When I managed to unfreeze myself, I began screaming repeatedly, “OH MY GOD!” until my brain unstuck itself and released a cascade of word salad that had my family laughing their butts off. The video that Husband took to capture the moment validates a breakdown of the senses so complete that I’m still reeling from the after-shocks.

For the remainder of the weekend I felt a little off-kilter. It was like playing that game where you return to a room and have to guess the one thing that has changed. In the weeks that Principessa had been gone, I had become accustomed to the uncomfortable feeling that her absence created. The empty seat at the dinner table, the lonely bedroom, the random pile of shoes that never moved. And now, here she was, in the flesh!

Like a new mother, I snapped multiple photos of my first-born with a desire to capture every nuance of her being. Principessa might as well have been an exotic bird – such was my renewed incredulity of her beauty and perfection. She would catch me staring at her with a silly grin on my face, so completely enamored of her that I had to fight the urge to squeal with delight.

The peaceI felt at having my entire brood together under one roof was indescribably satisfying. My heart and mind breathed a sigh of relief, creating a relaxation response that informed me of the low-level anxiety I’d been harboring since launching Principessa.

This emptying of the nest is teaching me all manner of things about resilience and balance and priorities. I could say that I’ve valued my time as a mother up to this point, but I’d not understood the concept of cherishing until the moments began to slip through my fingers as quickly as grains of sand.

My daughter is absent in form but has never been closer to my thoughts. The less she needs me, the more I long to take care of her. The more I say goodbye to her, the more it hurts because I know that the next time I see her she will be an even newer version of herself – one that may challenge my unrealistic urge to keep her all to myself.

Principessa wondered why I didn’t have more questions to ask her. In theory, I wanted to know every detail of her new life. But her very presence was enough to convince me that all was well. She exuded peace and confidence. My girl had matured at warp speed by gobbling up the buffet of opportunities available to her as a college Freshman.

We parted with mutual endearment. “I wish you could be at college with me,” she said, which made me wince. Even when we are exactly where we’re meant to be, doing what is best at the right time, we can’t help but long for the presence of our loved ones to share in the joy of the experience.

But this time belongs to her. I wouldn’t dream of inserting myself into the forefront of this adventure. Instead, I will take my place at the back of the book, buried amidst the pile of ever-growing bibliographic references that contribute to the captivating story that is her.

Faring thee well now.
Let your life proceed by its own design.
Nothing to tell now.
Let the words be yours, I’m done with mine.

‘Cassidy’ by the Grateful Dead

The Grace of Parenting

mother_child_4Bringing my daughter to tears on the first day of Middle School was not one of my shining moments. More

Letter to University from Mom

collegeBoundDear University,

You are about to receive a gift. We call her Principessa and she is my daughter. To you, she is just a statistic – one set of criteria that met with approval for acceptance into your esteemed institution.

Principessa will be leaving all that she knows to join you several hundred miles from home. She will be on her own for the first time. I don’t expect you to parent her or to take over for me in my absence. But I do expect you to provide her with what she needs to survive and to thrive over the next several years.

I hope you fulfill the promises you made when you wooed her into your fold – a solid education that will lead to job prospects, a safe environment, and ample diversity and opportunities to stimulate her personal growth.

This seems like the least I can ask for my financial investment. Which, by the way, is significantly higher than many of her fellow classmates. For instance, the athlete with the coveted ‘full boat.’ Apparently his physical skills are more highly valued than my daughter’s passion and talent for nurturing children and her long-standing desire to become a teacher.

My husband and I will pay an inflated sticker price for the reward of our daughter’s college education. To say that I’m not bitter or worried about the ability to afford this would be a lie. But I’m willing to bury my negativity in exchange for her ultimate success and happiness.

University, you have no idea how special my daughter is to me. And I get the feeling that you probably don’t care – except for caring that she reflects well on your reputation. Don’t worry, she’ll do you proud, just as she has done for us all these years.

Principessa is one in 17,000 to you, but she is one of a kind to us, her family. Please be good to her. She deserves the best you have to offer.

Sincerely,

Mom of the college Freshman

The New You

brand-new-you1

image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

The Watered-Down Italian

italian heartOne can’t be Italian everywhere. I hadn’t realized this until it came out of my mouth as a disclaimer for my fire-y personality.

At an after-work gathering, I let my hair down and began to tell animated stories, sans censorship with plenty of wild gesticulations. I was rewarded with a circle of wide eyes, dropped jaws, and robust laughter. The collective response was one of surprise. ‘We had no idea about you,’ they remarked, and I hoped it was well-intentioned.

Being raised in a purebred family in a homogeneous environment, I was steeped in Italian culture. It was a generation during which travel or relocation outside of a 20-mile radius was unheard of. When I grew up and married a non-Italian, or ‘mutt,’ as he is affectionately referred to, it was a bit of shock to the system.

My first dinner with husband’s family in their dimly lit dining room with china place settings and soft music was a stark contrast to my own house with bright lights and multiple concurrent conversations. I distinctly recall the indigestion I suffered as a result of the undivided attention I received when speaking. Why did everyone stare at me? Attention felt like scrutiny, not respect. Thus we blended cultures, and to this day, struggle with our opposing communication styles.

Growing up Italian was a gift I took for granted. There is sense of security when one is enfolded in an expansive culture. Absent is the pressure to be anything other than oneself. Unlike some of my classmates who struggled to identify with a certain group during heritage week, I knew exactly who I was and where I came from. There was no ambiguity in my ancestry.

But as I aged and became self-conscious, the dilemma of trying to be acceptable in the world took over. I surrendered some of my passion in the name of political correctness. I tried not to scare people with opinions that had always flowed freely and without inhibition. I cut and pasted myself like a paper doll in order to ready myself for the world.

The arrival of children renewed my desire for cultural connection. I wanted to pass on the sense of security that comes from inclusion in a like-minded group. It hasn’t always been easy in a modern and blended family. My kids are watered-down Italians who, gasp, refuse to make homemade pasta with me. But they are proud of it none-the-less and eat it with enthusiasm.

We all look forward to our annual family reunion. It’s a time and place where Italians can be fully Italian and those that aren’t, (we call them wannabes), do their best to survive the level of intensity that radiates from a very passionate people.

I love my blended country in which cultural dividing lines are blurred enough to allow for inter-racial marriage. We combine the best and worst of many worlds and end up with a whole new set of people who are, hopefully, a little less exclusive and prejudiced. But I also love that I have a pedigree – even if it gets me into trouble once in a while.

Advice for the Graduate

hat tossing ceremony at graduation

hat tossing ceremony at graduation

Dear Graduate,

On this occasion we hear a lot, maybe too much, about perseverance and accomplishment.  We endure cliche speeches about blank slates and new horizons.  None of it is untrue.  This is the perfect time to turn regrets into opportunities as you start afresh.

I hope you will use this time to SEE your life, not judge it. Resist the urge to reflect on how you could have been or should have been different. You have always been perfectly you. There are no mistakes. You may want to do things differently in the future and that’s okay. But let the reason be because you love who you’ve become and what you’ve learned – not because you dislike who you used to be.

Be proud if you’ve succeeded in the classroom or on the field.  But be more proud if you’ve walked a path of integrity.  Have you been a good friend?  An honest worker?  A helper?  If you haven’t met with success in these ways, make this your new goal – to be a quality person in the world.  Of all the things you’ve learned over many years, this is the most important.  The world doesn’t care what you do – it has a job for everyone.  But it does need you to bring the best you’ve got.

Value what you’ve been taught but give yourself permission to unlearn.  Loosen your grip on core standards and cookie-cutter expectations.  Embrace the freedom of greeting each new experience with an open mind and a generous heart.

Graduation is magnanimous but it is not the last ending nor the last beginning.  You are an ever-evolving being in an every-changing world.  Stay present.  Let go.  Savor each moment lest you miss your life.

Graduate, you have finished a chapter of your life.  It was a big one.  Remember that it was only part of your story.  May your history inform your future only to the extent that it lends perspective on your choices.

I wish you success by your own measure; joy that cannot contain itself; and love that bursts forth from within you, reflecting in everything and everyone that surrounds you.

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