Last Day

Late last year my favorite person in the whole world had a stroke. Ever since then she’s had several seizures, another stroke, and has been in and out of comas. When she did come to, she was completely confused, and, basically, “not there”. Although her body lingered on, I was already mourning the loss of her essence. For all intents and purposes I had given up hope for my Aunt Betty. Even if I had lived next door rather than 3000 miles away, I knew we’d never gossip and joke again, and that devastated me.

Then the other day I was on Facebook and her daughter-in-law contacts me via her I-phone. She says Aunt Betty is walking and talking again! She sends me a photo of her, and she looks great.

The head cold that had been stopping up my sinuses so completely that I wasn’t convinced I even had nostrils promptly disappeared, and it hasn’t come back. It was a miracle. Because I was given back the person I love most!

She asks if I want to text with her. God, yes! And we chatted for about 15 minutes. It was definitely her. We have insider jokes and ways of talking that can’t be replicated. It felt like she had been resurrected. It brought tears to my eyes.

I knew that this was a gift that I shouldn’t take for granted. Who knows how long it will last. So I made a point of telling her everything I wanted to tell her but couldn’t all these past months. “I think of you every day.” “I love you very much.” “You are my favorite person in the world.” “I’ve always been very grateful to have you in my life.”

And what really, really got to me was that she told me she was proud of me. That’s a huge deal. At seminal moments in the 24 years since my mother passed away, I’ve often wondered if she would be proud of me, and of course there’s no way to know. So hearing that from Aunt Betty, the next best thing to a mother, meant everything to me.

They will be moving her to a less intensive part of the hospital soon, and hopefully she’ll then have a phone in her room. But in the meantime, my sister and I sent her flowers. I figured she could use some color to offset all that New England snow. I’ll also be sending her some photographs.

But I’m still in shock. Things like this just don’t happen. A dear friend of mine would call it a mitzvah. All I know is I’m beyond grateful that I had the opportunity to say all those things that I needed to say to her. Because of that, whatever happens now, I’ll be at peace.

And this profound life lesson got me thinking. Technically I have that gift with everyone I love. They’re still here. But they won’t always be. I should make the effort to tell everyone what I need to tell them as if it’s their last day on earth.

Actually I’ve always known that on some level, but I take people for granted. It’s a bad habit that many of us have. So I decided to invent a holiday for myself. I’m calling it Last Day. I’m going to celebrate it on the last day of every month, because that will be easy to remember, until such time as it becomes such a habit that I don’t need to designate a special day.

On Last Day, I’m going to make an effort to tell people I love just how much they mean to me. I’m going to do it until they’re sick of hearing it. I’m going to talk to these people as if this is our last day together, ever. Because some day, inevitably, it will be. But this is not meant to be a depressing holiday. Not at all. It’s a celebration, because I’ve been given the gift of knowing how important these conversations are.

May I never forget.

Happy Last Day, dear reader, and thank you for making this blog so special.

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[Aunt Betty’s flowers via ftd.com]

Hospice = Hope

Yet again the other day I heard of a family being offered hospice care for a loved one and turning it down. There seems to be this prevailing mythology out there that hospice means you’re giving up hope and trying to rush someone along into the afterlife before his or her time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Accepting hospice for someone who is terminally ill can be the kindest, most compassionate thing you can do for that person and for the family.

First of all, just because your relative is in hospice does not mean they can no longer receive care from their primary care physician. It also doesn’t mean that this person is necessarily going to die. It only means that there has been a diagnosis of terminal illness. If remission occurs, that’s fantastic! People can go in and out of hospice multiple times if needed.

Furthermore, hospice staff is not some type of death squad. They are quite often the most caring and dedicated medical professionals you’ll ever meet. They do not focus on death. On the contrary, they focus on quality of life for everyone involved.

Hospice offers a variety of services, including counseling, pain management, and palliative care. They provide dignity, comfort and emotional support. Their staff includes nurses, doctors, home health aides, social workers, chaplains and bereavement counselors.

At this, the most difficult time in your life, why on earth would you turn down any type of support? Your loved one deserves to live a dignified and comfortable life all the time, even toward the end, if that’s what this happens to be. Hospice means that you want the best for that person. Don’t pass these services up. I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t extremely grateful for them if they chose to take advantage.

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[Image credit: floridahospices.org]

Shocked

I heard this story once about a guy on a subway, stuck in a car with a man and his five obnoxious kids. The father sat there and did nothing as these kids ran around jumping on things and shouting and just generally making a nuisance out of themselves. Finally the guy couldn’t hide his irritation any longer. He said, “Can’t you get your children under control?” The father looked up and said, “We just found out their mother is dead.” Just like that, the man had a change in perspective and was no longer irritated.

I’ve been thinking about that story quite a bit in the last few weeks. As I’ve been running my errands, passing people in shops and on the street, they probably were looking at me and thinking I was basically like them, because I smiled and was courteous, as per usual. But in fact I was in turmoil. When you experience great tragedy or are in chaos for whatever reason, it doesn’t always show on the surface. If it did, mentally ill people wouldn’t be able to walk into crowds and start shooting.

Now that the shock is finally wearing off for me, I can express what it felt like because it’s still fairly close at hand. First of all, I felt completely isolated from everything around me, like I was in a big plexiglass bubble. I was completely numb. I couldn’t feel the sunshine. I couldn’t taste anything, but that was fine because I had no appetite. If the wind was blowing I didn’t feel it. Everything seemed as if it were at a distance. I would hear birds chirping and people mowing their lawns and it sounded exceedingly strange. How could life be going on without me going along with it? How could everything have stopped moving for me, but still be fast-paced for everyone around me? I couldn’t concentrate. And my God, the exhaustion was overwhelming.

When you’re in shock it’s like being in a vacuum. You’re deprived of all your senses except for sight, and what you’re seeing makes no sense at all. You know this isn’t normal, but it’s the place you are in, and you cannot see a way out of it.

Now when I pass people on the street I look at them and wonder if they’re crying inside. I wonder if they’re trying to feel again. I wonder if their smile is genuine or a courteous reflex. Of course, there’s no way to know. But just in case, I’m going to make an extra effort to be kind.

I suspect it will take me a long time to fully recover the loss of my loved one, but a few days ago the birds stopped sounding strange to me, and I actually felt the sun on my face. So perhaps there’s hope for me yet. I’ll take more of that, please.

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[Image credit: w8themes.com]

Looking Forward

In a couple months I will be going up to visit my favorite aunt in Connecticut. I’m really excited. I haven’t seen her in ages. I’ll also be spending some time with a young lady who has been like a daughter to me. That is going to be great fun. I’m really looking forward to it, and it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t had something to look forward to in quite some time.

Maybe that’s what’s been missing, that feeling of anticipation, of good things just over the horizon. Somehow I’d lost that along the way. I’d sunken into a resigned complacency.

In better times I used to travel out of the country every two years or so, and I’d spend many many months learning about my target country, reading as much about it as I could get my hands on. I was a sponge, soaking up every tidbit of information available. I’d hate to spend all that time, expense and effort only to find out upon returning home that there was something absolutely amazing to see right nearby and I’d missed it. So I’d really do my homework, which made the build up toward the travel almost as exciting as the travel itself.

Expectation, eagerness, hope. These are things that should be a regular part of a healthy spiritual diet, and I look forward to feasting upon them for the next few months. Connecticut, here I come!

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Me and Aunt Betty

Contemplating Suicide? What I’d Say to a Jumper

Recently someone I love very much told me that she had attempted suicide a couple of times in the past year. This broke my heart because I had no idea she was suffering in silence. Having struggled with depression my whole life, I know what it’s like to want to throw off that thick blanket of despair, and I know that sometimes it seems like there is only one irreversible way to do so. But that’s the thing. Once you’ve made that choice, you can never make any other choices, ever. How can you be sure there aren’t better times just around the corner?

I can also speak with a little bit of authority on this subject because as a bridgetender I cross paths with people attempting suicide several times a year. I’ve never actually spoken to one of these people. Either the police rescue them before they jump or they make good on their attempt.

I’ve often thought about what I’d say if I came upon a jumper on my bridge and no one else was there. I’m not trained in any way so I’m probably the last person that should be thrust into that situation, and I’d avoid it if I could, but if I had no other choice, what would I do to try to convince them not to take that last irreversible step?

First I’d introduce myself and ask for his or her name. Then I would say, “I don’t know why you’re here, and I don’t know why you want to jump. I’m sure you have your reasons, and they’re none of my business. But I’d like to tell you that this is probably the most important conversation I’ve ever had in my life, because I think you are important in this world. I think you have value. I really believe that every day you impact and influence people and you probably don’t even realize it. Some day, a month, a year, a decade from now, someone will cross your path who will need your influence. If you’re not there to do so, that person may never have the future he or she deserves.”

“I also think that things can change on a dime. You never know what tomorrow will bring. But if you jump, you’ll never get to find out. One thing tomorrow can bring for you is help. Someone to talk to. People who will take you seriously. And they are out there. I promise. We’ll make sure you get a chance to talk to those people, if only you stick around to do so.

“The fact that you’re still listening to me means that you are having second thoughts. That’s good. That means you still have choices. You can still not jump, and then you have a whole world of possibilities. I can tell you this. Every single jumper, without exception, screams on the way down. That means they regret their decision the minute they step into thin air. But by then it’s too late. And that sentiment has been universally confirmed by the rare people who survive jumping off a bridge. They say they wish they had never done it. Can you imagine that feeling of terror? Wanting desperately to take something back but not being able to do so? Would you want that to be the last feeling you have? I don’t want that for you.

“I can also tell you that it’s not as easy a way to go as you might think. See that concrete and wooden fender system down there? I’ve heard jumpers hit that thing, and you can hear their bones break all the way up here. That sound will haunt me for the rest of my life, and now that I know your name, it would be even worse. But even if you miss the fender system it’s bad. Your organs are lighter than your skeleton, so when you hit the water, your skeleton rushes past your organs, forcing them all to move up into your chest cavity. I can’t imagine that type of pain. It’s a horrible, horrible way to go.

“I don’t have all the answers. In fact, my life is pretty messed up. But I really do believe there’s more out there for you than this. You wouldn’t be feeling so hurt or scared or depressed or angry about your situation if you didn’t believe you deserved more, too. Don’t take away your chance to find out what’s out there. Right now you can go in any direction you want. Left, right, forward, backward, up or down. If you jump, all you’ll be left with is down. If you feel like you have no hope now, imagine how you’ll feel when you’ve only got one direction left to go.”

I don’t know. Maybe that would be the wrong thing to say to a jumper. Maybe it would do no good. But that’s what I’d want to say.

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The Immigration Issue in Reverse

Yesterday I wrote about the many circles of hell the average woman on this planet has to pass through. Believe me, this is not the first time I’ve contemplated this topic, and at one point I was doing well enough to consider trying to help.

It’s the personal stories that get to me the most. Women with dreams and aspirations but no hope because they aren’t allowed an education. Young girls promised in marriage to men that they do not want. Women whose spirits are crushed when they discover that that overseas job that they took to help their families is actually a sex trafficking racket, and they are now trapped in a web of violence. Grown women who are not allowed to leave the house without permission or an escort.

A few years ago I had a steady job, and a house, and this nice clean guest room that was empty the majority of the time. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could save just one of these women, give them a future where they had choices and opportunities and all the options that I take for granted?”

I got excited, thinking about filling my guest room with life and hope and possibilities. She could learn English, go to school, get a job, and then stand on her own two feet, free to marry or not, have children or not, go anywhere, or not.

Sadly, how would I find a woman like this? She probably wouldn’t be able to speak freely, and the men in her life probably wouldn’t let her go willingly. Perhaps a refugee camp would be the place to look.

But after doing quite a lot of research on the Department of State website, it became distressingly clear that it would be nearly impossible to sponsor someone. It either has to be a family member, someone you marry, someone you’re going to adopt, or someone you’re going to employ. There are also diversity visas for countries with low immigration to the US, but the applicant must have a high school diploma and two years of work experience, among other things, and that doesn’t fit the profile of the type of woman I had in mind.

We complain about illegal immigration quite a lot in this country, but imagine desperately trying to get in and knowing you’ll never be able to. The system is against these women, both on her end and on mine. And it’s a moot point now, I suppose, because I no longer have the house, the guestroom, or the financial ability to help someone other than myself.

But sometimes I imagine myself reaching out my hand across the water to one of these women, and she’s got her hand outstretched as well, but our fingertips remain mere inches away. So close. So damned close…

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Bridge Symbolism

Having worked on drawbridges for over 12 years, I’ve come to know how strongly many people feel about bridges in general. Just publish your plans to demolish or replace one, and brace yourself for the public outcry. People love to walk and jog across bridges, and many’s the time I’ve witnessed marriage proposals. Fishermen often have their regular spots staked out, and people love to hop out of their cars during bridge openings to enjoy the weather. For some inexplicable reason, the mentally ill are drawn to bridges as well.

Another strange thing about bridges is that people view them as bigger barriers than regular streets, even if they are fixed span bridges with no chance of causing a delay. People will not hesitate to take a 10 minute drive on an interstate which has the same length of road without exits as even the largest of bridges possesses, but if their route contains a bridge, that same 10 minute drive is viewed as a hassle to be avoided.

What do bridges symbolize to people? In the tarot, the bridge card means progress, connections, and stability. Often people view bridges as the only way to reach a destination, and therefore bridges are a way to overcome obstacles. Bridges also represent transitions. “Crossing over” is a euphemism for taking that journey from life to death. Perhaps that’s also why so many people use bridges when they’ve made the unfortunate decision to end their lives, a decision which, speaking from personal observation, is made far more frequently than is reported in the media, and is also a decision which they instantly regret, judging from their screams on the way down. You can be fairly certain that any bridge that you cross that is more than 40 feet above the water has been a place where someone has died.

Perhaps my favorite bridge symbol, though, is that of hope. If you can just get over that bridge, you may find yourself in a better place on the other side. Some bridges are harder to cross than others. If you’re afraid of heights they can be scary. If feeling the surface shaking below your feet unsettles you, then your crossing can pose a challenge, but trust me, that challenge is deceiving. You do NOT want to be on a rigid and inflexible bridge. Not if you want to live. So in some ways bridges can represent a struggle, but one with the prospect of better things on the far shore. I find that inspiring.

If you’re reading this, welcome to my most popular blog entry! The fact that it’s so popular has me flattered and also confused. So I’d love it if you’d tell me why you’re here in the comments below! Thanks!

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Calling on the Youth of the World

I look at the state of the world these days and I think that there’s quite a bit out there for people, especially young people, to be angry about. The economy is horrible. The environment is even worse. Politicians are increasingly corrupt and I think there’s a lot of reason to lose hope. The future looks pretty bleak. Is there any wonder why violence is increasing and people are becoming more radicalized?

But there’s good news. You don’t have to sit back and let the disaster that my generation has visited upon you simply wash over you like a tidal wave. You can make a difference. Rather than resort to violence, despair or radicalization, you can make another choice.

If you are in a group, whether it be a church youth group or a club or organization of any kind, suggest that you do the two things that fly in the face of all this negativity: educate yourself, and then educate others.

How can you do this? That’s the beauty of it. Your movement can take many forms. Perhaps you should start by reaching out to another youth group that is so completely different from yours (or so you may think at first) that you can’t imagine socializing with them under normal circumstances. If yours is a Christian group, reach out to an Islamic group or a Jewish group. If you’re a dance troupe, reach out to the disabled. You get the idea. Offer to do things with the other group to get to know them. Socialize with them. Attend events together. Do team building exercises. As you get to know each other, you’ll soon discover that life isn’t a matter of “us” versus “them”. We’re all in this together.

Once you’ve become a cohesive team, take what you’ve learned and direct it outward. Speak at schools. Perform at festivals. Talk to the media. Tell them what you used to believe and then what you’ve come to realize. No group of people is uniformly evil or bad. We can work together for positive change. It’s going to be your planet long after we fools who are messing everything up are dead and buried. Create this world in your image, not in ours.

For a better world, explode stereotypes rather than pressure cookers. The future is your marathon.

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(Photo credit: http://www.wilderdom.com)

Crossing Paths with Myself

Today I drove through a part of the city that I hadn’t been to in years. 25 years ago I went there every day for work. So today I could almost see myself walking into my old office. And there was my old car in its parking space. And there I was, sitting at the picnic table where I used to eat lunch while reading a book.

It occurred to me that people leave an emotional signature behind them like an airplane leaves a contrail. I was so unhappy back then, so lonely. And I hated my job so much that the first thing I’d think every morning was, “I don’t want to go.” Driving through there brought it all back to me. I wish I could talk to that old me and tell her that things really would get better, that I wouldn’t always feel that hopeless and discounted and adrift.

This is why I get so angry when someone commits suicide. How can you know? Not only is it a selfish act that hurts everyone who is connected to you, but you’re depriving yourself of the potentiality of life. You have no way of knowing what the future will bring, who you will meet, what opportunities will present themselves to you.

Think of the person you were 20 years ago. Could that person have imagined where you are and who you are right now? Most likely not. And as far as I am concerned, that’s what gives me hope during the hard times, and adds to my excitement when things are going well. Life is one big surprise party. You may as well stick around. There just might be cake.

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Image credit: http://www.simplythebestcoaching.com

Stuff Like This Never Happens to Me

Rumor has it that a former coworker of mine found a bag of money on the side of the highway and came in to the office and retired the very next day. I also used to work with a nurse who won a million dollars from a McDonald’s game. She continued to work, though, which astounded me. And everyone hears stories of people who find priceless works of art at yard sales. Or someone builds a better mousetrap and becomes a millionaire.

How often do things like this really happen though? How many of these stories are apocryphal? It seems that none of us can resist passing these stories on. Maybe it’s because for those of us who struggle to remain at the top of the heap in the struggling lower class, it gives us some hope, however unrealistic, that there’s a way out.

Poverty is like a bucket of crabs. You spend your whole life trying crawl over the top of all the crabs below you, and the rim of the bucket is in sight, and then someone’s claw grabs your leg and pulls you right back down.

So my question is this: is it cruel to pass on these rags to riches stories, which give false hope? Does it prevent us from seeing our lives realistically, coming to accept them as they are, and maybe savoring those brief moments of joy that do come along? Or, on the other hand, are these stories the only things that stand between us and utter despair? In other words, do we give up and resign ourselves to our lot in life and finally reach some form of acceptance, or do we dream and strive and swallow the opiate of the masses and hope that we will be one of the rare ones who overcome?

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