It’s the connections that matter

I have a headache this morning.  And as I’m drinking my coffee, I’m glad for the pounding in my head.  It may not be pleasant, but it’s a reminder that I’m still alive.  I still am connected to my body.  Thank you, Headache, for reminding me not to take all those days I don’t have a headache for granted.   It wasn’t so long ago I was beset by headaches and body aches daily, the result of which contributed to feelings of depression and despair, but I think was my body’s way of telling me I needed to pay attention to it and how desperately in need I was of better self-care and healing of past emotional pain.

When I went to pick up my daughter from drama club Monday night, I realized I was parked next to the mother of my daughter’s best friend.  I left my other two daughters at home with my husband.    I knew that we had to tell our daughters about their (ex-) Uncle’s passing.  I was unsure of their reactions and I was slightly apprehensive about when and how to tell them.

I decided to get out of my car and walk over to this mother, and say hello. She invited me to sit her car while we waited for our daughters.  Her other children were in the back, and they were giggling and I greeted them with a smile.  And the mother asked me, with her friendly, warm, Middle Eastern accent, “Hello, Casey, how are you?” in her characteristically melodic way.  I swear, if words could smile, that phrase does when I hear her say it.   I told her quietly about the accident, being very careful not to scare the kids in the back of her van.   She was very empathetic and we talked about it a while and about our feelings of still being connected to people who’ve left this world before us.

I told her I had been thinking of her over the weekend (this was true) and realized at some point I wanted to thank her for inviting my daughters and I to stay for dinner (the first person who ever did that in about 3 years) one night a few weeks ago.  She said, “Oh, it was our pleasure. And I want you to know, in my culture, my home is your home.  You never have to call a week in advance to come over, you just come over.”

And then it struck me, then and there, that I am missing something big:  a sense of feeling included, a sense of feeling like I belong, that my presence is not only tolerated, but cherished.  That I, my husband and my daughters are like a part of her ‘family’ is a treasured gift to me.

In my experience, most people don’t cherish each other like that.

They haven’t welcomed me deeply like that.

They don’t stay with me like that, without having to ask them to.

I noticed the physical and emotional distance that people prefer to keep.  I respect other people’s boundaries, but I find it difficult to cope with sometimes. This distance has always been painful to me.

But when people bridge this distance and make it okay for me to get close, I feel this incredible sense of love and caring that is medicinal to my soul.

Though our daughters were in different after-school programs that ended at different times, my friend stayed with me until my daughter was done, a half-hour after her daughter was done.

I can’t tell you how much that touched me, that she stayed waiting with me for no reason other than to just be present for me with four kids in her car, just because she wanted to be there for me.

When my daughter came out, we hugged, and she kissed me on the cheek.  And I kissed her on the cheek, too, something I don’t do with American-born and raised moms, even though I’ve known some a while – because, you know, that would be weird.

I don’t know if she knows how much I am in awe of her.  She has such grace and presence and compassion and love and I’m so grateful to her for her kindness.  And it occurred to me just now how amazing she really is.   I’m reminded of a story she told me not so long ago, about her childhood home in Palestine.  One day, when she was 3 years old she was hanging out in her home, just being a 3-year-old, doing what 3-year-olds do.  The next moment, a bomb tore through their kitchen wall.  She still remembers pointing to the gaping hole in the wall and crying and sputtering.  After that, the family fled to Sweden, where her parents still live.

I’m amazed at the grace and gentleness and warmth in this person.  Her husband, too, has a gentleness and grace I just don’t see in much in these parts.

I was so, so grateful for her presence Monday afternoon.  It helped me feel more at ease and stronger, especially since I hadn’t yet broken the news to our daughters.

I told my oldest in the car on the way home.  I wanted her to have a chance to process this quietly, before we told my other two daughters, who are more emotional in their responses.  My oldest was stunned a little, but didn’t cry and she worried about that.  She even asked me, “is it all right that I felt like crying when they told us they might take away the music program, but I can’t cry for Uncle David?”

I said, “Of course it’s okay.  Whatever you are feeling or not feeling is okay.”  Later, she said, “I liked uncle David.  He was amazing! ”

And she’s right.  To my daughters, he WAS amazing.

Any time family get together (dysfunctional though we may be, we spent a lot of time together over the years to keep the 13 children my siblings and I have close), whether for birthdays or for holidays or swimming over the summer, the girls would see uncle David.  When we did have summer soirees, he and my husband and my younger brother were usually in the pool with the kids, throwing them from the shallow end to the deep end, squirting them with water, carrying the younger ones on their backs from one end of the pool to the other.

It was harder breaking the news to my other daughters.

My middle daughter had already suspected something terrible happened.  I sat down and held her in my arms because she was already melting down about her science fair project (long, boring story) and I told her I had to tell them and my littlest one the news.   She covered her ears and said she didn’t want to know and cried.  When I told them, my middle daughter relaxed (it was bad, but it wasn’t the worst, for her) she was still tearful and my littlest one hid her face in the couch and cried.

It was hard, but we got through it.  I’m glad I cried all day Monday so that when it came time to tell them, I cried a little with them, but still stayed put together.

Last night, though, I was showing stress fractures.  I was feeling exhausted and cranky.

I decided to go to an Al-anon meeting, the first one in a couple of weeks – the incessant snow storms have been making it impossible for people to get out to the Tuesday night meetings.  It started snowing again last night, but I wasn’t going to let a little snow stop me this time.  I needed to get out of the house and be with other people for a time.

I was one of the early ones, and the two other people there didn’t expect a large turnout due to the snow.  But surprisingly 14 people showed up.  Apparently other members were eager to get to a meeting, having missed a few due to the snowstorms too.   I told a few of the early arrivals what happened, not certain I wanted to just hold it in during the meeting.  I had a feeling that it might have kept me preoccupied and unable to listen to other’s sharing.  And it helped.  I wasn’t planning on telling them what happened, I didn’t really need to anymore.

Interestingly enough, the meeting topic was on serenity.

It turned out that one of the other members, who I told moments before the meeting, had asked for some prayers, not only for someone in her life, but for me, too.  I realized most people didn’t know what she was talking about, so I decided I was going to need to say a little something about it.

I was feeling surprisingly serene, despite the stress I was feeling just a half hour before the meeting.  Other people shared what serenity meant to them, their desire for and struggles with achieving serenity because they couldn’t cease the endless chatter in their heads, even when they tried to meditate.

When it was my turn, I told briefly told them about the accident, and asked them for prayers for my sister and niece and nephew and his family.

I told them that even though this accident happened this week and I was going to go to a wake and funeral and it was going to be anything but serene, I knew that at that moment, I was feeling serene, being there in the room with them.

Something came to me with a quiet conviction as I was talking to them.  I said aloud to them:

“I feel most serene when I am making art.  For me, it quiets my mind and it is meditative and it lets my inner child come out and play.   It feels like I’m on this tiny island in the middle of a vast sea, this safe place where I am feeling centered.

And I realize something:

I don’t have to have all the answers right now, and it’s okay.  I don’t have to know what is going to happen in the future right now, and it’s okay.   I can’t even know what is going to happen the moment I walk out the door when the meeting is over, and it’s okay.  I know I can handle it and I don’t need to worry about it now.  That’s what serenity means to me:  Being okay with not knowing, without having the answers. “

*

I went to bed last night feeling really peaceful.

There were no tears.  No fears.  No heartache.  No anxiety.

I thought about David and wondered how his last moments were on earth before the crash, but I’d like to think he is joyful now because his consciousness is now free of his human body.

I felt open spaces in my heart and my abdomen.

I snuggled up next to my husband and wondered at the beauty of that feeling and wish I could stay open like that all the time.

But I know me, I close off to it.  I don’t want to, but I know I do.

And it’s okay, too.

For now, I accept that this is how it is for me.  I open and close.  Open.  And close.  Open. And close.

I’m simply grateful I can recognize that I do open and allow Life and Love to flow, unimpeded.

Maybe someday I’ll simply just forget how to close.

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About Casey

“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ ~ Jack Kerouac, On The Road Again
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2 Responses to It’s the connections that matter

  1. Casey, this is a beautiful post which covers plenty of ground but I just want to pick up on the theme of warmth and hospitality in the first half of the post. Don’t you find it strange that the warmth of your Palestinian friend is characteristic of developing countries lacking the affluence of western countries? Markets tend to erode the caring nature of people by making available market based alternatives to care, for example, we buy Long Term Care Insurance instead of having to rely on our family to look after us when we get older. In other words, the wealthier we become in material terms the more spiritually impoverished we become.

    • Casey says:

      Good morning Malcolm,

      I really wish we could talk about this in a coffee shop somewhere, because I’ve got some eye-popping stories to tell and it’s best said with lots of nonverbal expression and laughter…but I’ll have to write it all out instead. You’ll miss all the best parts.

      Do I find it strange that the warmth of my friend is characteristic of developing countries lacking the affluence of western countries? No. But only because I’ve known that money warps people for a very long time.

      My mother is staggeringly rich, now, though she wasn’t always. There was a time when my mother had to go get the government cheese, because my step-father was laid off for a time.

      My grandfather was a fiercely intelligent man (literally was given a position in intelligence in the Army rather being sent overseas during WWII) and if you knew him, you never wanted to get on his bad side because he had money and power and the smarts to win. He was a probate lawyer, but also a general contractor and built homes, and a shrewd/lucky investor (for instance, there was one investment that made a lot of money when everyone else lost money). He had one daughter (my mother) whom he spoiled and she grew up to be a narcissist, a power and money hungry woman. The men she chose to marry were the opposite of my grandfather.

      My biological father (who I am close to, emotionally if not geographically) was a wild boy from what I hear. He was kicked out of a town by a judge once for causing trouble (go dad!). I am sure I inherited 1) my grandfather’s intelligence and 2) my father’s wildness and non-conforming attitudes. From my mother, I inherited her wilfulness and grandiosity (which i am working hard to overcome – by my grandiosity has to do with intellectual arrogance/pride more than anything else).

      I’m a college educated professional on the outside. I have been quietly subversive most of my life.

      In my grandfather’s later years, of course, he mellowed into a caring person, but in his younger years, I’d only known him to be ruthless. All my life my mother was using my grandfather’s power and money as leverage over my and my siblings heads. If we obeyed, everything was fine, if we did not, we’d be kicked out of the family and any financial support would be terminated. I’d gotten on his bad side once or twice and let me tell you, it would have been crushing if you did not expect that kind of thing (I did, so while it hurt, it could have been way worse).

      My siblings followed the rules and I skated a thin line between obeying and not. I was threatened with being disowned a few times in my life, and once in writing by my grandfather. That was a hell of a good time (not!).

      Case in point: I didn’t follow the rules so I could not live on campus at the private university I wanted to attend, though my tuition would have been paid for. My brother, who did follow all the rules (and was a boy), was given his tuition and room and board paid for at the same university.

      While I got accepted to the private university I wanted to attend, I had to turn it down. I could not, in good conscience, be indebted to my family for the $25,000 a year tuition (I would not hear the end of that). And because I could not fathom how I was going to study at home in the midst of my mother’s frequent fighting with my stepfather and be expected to work at my mother’s catering business, too.

      While it broke my heart, I turned down a private university education, and instead, was able to enroll at a local big 10 state university and pay for it largely by myself (and some small scholarships I’d earned by writing kick-ass essays). I will not complain, I eventually did go work for that very same private university for 3.5 years…so it wasn’t all bad.

      What happened in my family though with regards to my aging grandparents before they died? We kept grandpa at his home with my grandmother until the last week of his life, The last year of his life was an interesting decline from this cognitive giant into a delusional person wearing a diaper. Some of the things he said were quite funny, though often poignant. His last week he was at the university hospital I worked at. I went everyday after work to go see him. One time I watched my mother spoon-feeding my grandfather soup. It was all kinds of poignant and it was a humbling thing, to see my mother caringly feed him (a side of her I seldom saw).

      He died one week before his 93rd birthday. My grandmother stayed at home until the last few months of her life, but her dementia set in a lot earlier and she needed more hands-on care than my mother could provide. My grandmother never wanted to move in with my mother, but she was forced to move next door to my mother in my sister’s old house after she had a bad fall in her own home. She was a stubborn old bird and didn’t even want to move next to my mother so she could be kept a closer eye on, and that resistance spoke volumes to me about the strained relationship my mother and grandmother had for each other (I suspect my grandfather treated my mother much better than he treated my grandmother…).

      ***

      Anyway, my siblings now all sit in their 2500+ square foot, lavishly furnished homes but have been bankrupt of real empathy and warmth and caring for a long, long time. Two of them are divorced and remarried. In both cases, I know the family money-tainted mentality and the failure of the husbands to live up to the outrageous narcissistic expectations of my sisters contributed directly to their divorces.

      My three sisters chronically complain about having to work to keep up with the bills and never having enough time or money and are constantly run ragged with all they try to provide for their children (who have everything they need materially and too much of what they do not). They make decent money (or have it given to them by my mother), but they opt to have someone else raise their kids while they go to work to pay for their nice homes and vacations. Only one of my sisters said she wished she didn’t have to work so that she could stay home with her son, but she sadly admits “I just can’t give up the money”.

      I try to have conversations with them and I’m sure you can imagine we never go beyond the surface of things.

      My brother (a lawyer) and sister-in-law (a doctor), both work and they can afford a nanny for their children. Don’t even get me started about that….

      I feel like my family forces themselves to put on a good show of being successful, but the underlying anxiety is palpable…

      I live in a much smaller home built in the 70s, in a blue-collar neighborhood by choice. I had the option of having my grandfather build me a home, somewhere in the vicinity of my mother, like two of my sisters have done in a golf course subdivision), I politely declined. On principle. After seeing what happened when my eldest sister went through after having to live next door to my mother, I could not, ever, sell my privacy and freedom for anything.

      Sometimes I have feelings of regret for that decision, especially when I have three daughters sharing one bathroom and one sink while my siblings have multiple bathrooms, walk-in closets and room to spare.

      My husband and I used to make 95 K, before kids. He was a mechanical engineer, I was the laboratory supervisor of a small medical genetics lab run at a private university hospital.

      I gave up the career I worked so hard for, for my daughters. I wanted to raise them myself. I didn’t feel right leaving them with my mother-in-law day after day to go work for a job I stopped feeling connected to.

      My husband, after two layoffs, decided, with my encouragement, to go get a massage therapy license. And he’s so incredibly happy now, helping people heal instead of working with computers and on mechanical things.

      Does it feel good to be broke and in debt and have to pay 700 a month for an insurance plan that doesn’t seem to pay for much? No.

      But I get to be with my daughters in a way my mother didn’t want to be there for me, in ways that my sisters can’t be there for their kids.

      I’m richer than my siblings in ways you can’t measure. I’m happier and more relaxed in ways that my siblings are not.

      So…well, I feel I’ve said a lot (as is typical of me), but I wanted you to see the picture I am trying to paint.

      I’ve had a very odd existence and I’ve walked away from tremendous opportunity a number of times.

      I have had to deal with the consequences of such choices and remind myself, at times, I’m living my values, not anyone else’s.

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