Tag Archives: suffering

Look for the Good

This post first appeared on Sobriety Junkie at reneweveryday.com.

“I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory,” My aunt said. “Look for the good.”

Earlier this summer, back on the weekend before the 4th of July, I had the opportunity to take my children back to Connecticut to visit my mother and the other members of my family whom they rarely see. In fact, before this trip, they hadn’t seen their grandmother Kayko since December of 2010. For months they’d been anxiously anticipating the trip, which I, at the same time, was quietly dreading.

I wasn’t dreading the trip because I don’t love my mother (or my aunts and uncles and cousins who all remain in or near my hometown in central Connecticut). I was dreading the realities I knew I’d have to face.  I knew that my mother, at 86, and her sister and brother-in-law, who live right next door, had all suffered serious health setbacks since our last visit in 2010: diabetes, dementia, prostate cancer, and many of the other ailments that attend the realities of aging.

On our second night in town, my mother insisted we make the trek over to visit my aunt. I say trek because visiting my Aunt Pauline meant helping my mother navigate a flight of stairs, a curb, and a driveway: No small feat for a woman who had beaten breast cancer not once, but twice, lost a section of her pancreas to surgery on a benign tumor, and was now managing type 2 diabetes, which often caused her a great deal of pain in her feet and legs. Should I live to be 86 and have 1/10th the fortitude of people like my mother and my aunt, I will certainly count myself as blessed.

Walking into the bedroom where my aunt was convalescing (as I understood it she’d grown so weak and frail she’d only been out of bed twice since they’d brought her home from the hospital the previous October) was like walking into a scene from a 19th century Russian novel: the low lighting, the stillness, and the silence which was interrupted only by the soft-spoken broken English of my aunt’s home nurse, Maria, a Ukrainian immigrant who had once been a doctor in her homeland but now spent her days in America caring for the elderly in their homes. The only distinctly modern touch in the room seemed to be the chrome of the hospital bed my uncles and cousins had bought to make my aunt’s time at home more convenient and bearable.

Witnessing the irreversible deterioration of any elderly loved one is disheartening. Witnessing my aunt Pauline’s demise was especially disturbing to me because she was truly the matriarch of recovery in our family. We have a long standing joke in our family that all of the men are either practicing or recovering alcoholics and all of the women are either treated or untreated “Al-Anons.”  Some 40+ years earlier, when my uncle’s alcoholism had taken him to a bottom from which few thought he would ever recover (two bottles of gin a day in the basement of that very house), my aunt sought solace in Al Anon. Within a year, my uncle was committed to a VA hospital in Connecticut and told he would die if he ever drank again. At least that’s the way I heard it as a kid, and what I recall is that he emerged from that hospital sober and, thanks to God, AA, and a sponsor, has never taken a drink since. What’s more, the nuclear family within our extended family of alcoholics that had been the most decimated and demoralized by this disease would emerge to be the model for the rest of us who sought recovery–all, in my mind, because my Aunt Pauline took the first step of seeking help for herself.

What I remember even more clearly from my childhood years is that once my aunt surrendered to the fact that she could do absolutely nothing to save her husband but everything to save herself and raise her three sons, I never again heard a negative word about other people, places, or circumstances leave her lips. She was not only the matriarch of recovery in our family, she was the patron saint of unsullied optimism. A very strong but simple daughter of Polish immigrants, she was always cheerfully interjecting the most annoying of clichés into situations the rest of us took far too seriously: “Give him the benefit of the doubt,” “We’re only human,” “Nobody’s perfect,” “Forgive and forget,” and on and on and on. I can still hear her voice and see her smile as a younger woman to this day. Even as a teenager, I often wondered how a woman who had been beaten down psychologically and emotionally for so many years could emerge from the ashes so full of optimism and enthusiasm for life, and all just because she went to a few meetings a week with like-minded people.

Later that evening, after we had all spent a half hour or so with my aunt, Maria offered to take the children out to the living room to watch TV. Pauline had already turned to my son and asked him, “How old are you?” at least three times, and it was beginning to freak him out. Eventually my mother, too, decided to take a break and join the nurse and the kids in the front room.

Alone with my Aunt Pauline I wondered if she even understood who was sitting beside her in the room now. To my surprise, within moments of everyone leaving, she turned to me and said, “You look good, Gregory, and you have beautiful children.” So, she did know who I was. Never one to accept a complement very graciously, I launched into a monologue about the kids. I told her, as I’d told so many others, what a gem my daughter Gracie was, how I honestly wondered if she weren’t simply an angel sent down to look after the rest of us. I told her what a good heart my son Adam had but that he also had a rather mischievous spirit and that he kept me on my toes every moment he was awake. And then it happened: The seemingly weak and heavily sedated Aunt Pauline lying under the thin veil of a bed sheet held the palm of her left hand up to silence me and became as lucid and firm in her tone as a perfectly healthy 20-something. “I don’t waste my time looking for the bad in people, Gregory. Look for the good.”

Within moments she lowered her arm to the bed, turned her head away from me, and, as if returning to a conversation in a far distant and possibly kinder place, said, “I like my room. I hope I never have to leave my room again until its time.”

It was in that moment I felt I understood why it had been so important for me to make this trip after more than a year away: To hear my Aunt Pauline affirm, one more time, that life is good–even as she lie dying in the room she loved so much. Her admonition was full of not only wisdom but also guidance. I’d been told many times in many ways by many people in my life to “look for the good” in others, but my aunt Pauline had just given me a reason that was more inspiring than any I’d ever received from mentors or read in books: To look for anything other than the good is an utter waste of time.


No Pain, No Gain

“No pain, no gain.” I’ve endured that taunt since high school. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve always had an extremely high tolerance for physical pain. I once caught an entire high school baseball game with a broken wrist and played left field in another on a broken ankle. I played high school football games with everything from
broken fingers to a torn quadricep. Add alcohol to this disposition in early adulthood, and you end up in your fair share of barroom brawls—replete with face-scarring, broken-bottle swipes, bloody noses, black eyes, and enough face-first collisions with concrete to permanently dimple any chin. Nothing to be proud of, for sure . . . unless, of course, you’re an active alcoholic in need of another tall, barroom tale to tell.

What did I “gain” from all of that pain? On the one hand, not much—not until later, in my late twenties, when I rigorously studied the martial art of Aikido for three years in Japan and learned, for the first time in my life, the true importance of conflict avoidance. On the other hand, physical pain does teach you one valuable lesson: Time heals all that can be healed. Most cuts, bruises, and breaks (if not critical or life threatening) do mend—less and less efficiently as you age, but mend they will.

Emotional pain, however, is entirely different. Time alone has never been enough to heal my emotional pain. For years, from the age of 11 to 38, I had the instant cure for feeling anything; alcohol—properly abused—could dim, dull, or dissolve most any emotion I didn’t care to confront: relationships failed, I drank; my father died, I drank; my wife and I ended our marriage, I drank. I will never forget the sunny morning I left my first wife after 8 years of marriage. I loaded up a newly purchased pickup with my feeble belongings, hopped on I-35 in Kansas City headed for Des Moines and cried all the way to Kearney, Missouri (about 20 minutes outside of KC) where I pulled off, loaded up the cooler in the back seat with beer, and began a three-year celebration of my freedom. That celebration ended one night in 1993 when I fought the law and the law won. That night also marked the beginning of the end of my ability to cure everything with a drink.

What then? What do those of who have never allowed ourselves to feel a genuine emotion do when suddenly, as full-grown but under-matured adults, we are forced to “feel?” If we hope to stay sober and survive, we do exactly what we should have begun to do the day we took our very first drink: Grow up.

For me, and I’m only taking responsibility for my own experience here, “growing up” has meant much more than simply trying to behave in a mature and responsible fashion. That would never have been enough to keep me sober. For me, growing UP has quite literally meant growing upward spiritually to a genuine relationship with a higher power I choose to call God. Time alone has never healed a single emotional wound for me, but time + prayer + meditation + action on a daily basis has made it possible for me to say, in all honestly, I am current with the souls around me and quite content to die in my sleep tonight if that’s what’s in the script.

In subsequent posts, I hope to talk more specifically about how that very formula (time+prayer+meditation+action) has delivered me on more than one occasion from the often dismal shores of emotional pain to the much brighter side of personal gain. I’m hoping that some of you, especially those of you with longer periods of emotional sobriety, will share your own strategies for dealing with emotional setbacks—strategies designed to benefit the newcomer. In other words, I’m hoping we can all join in an active discussion of the solution.

Good-Bye, Sweet Boy

On November 16, 2009, my young friend and former neighbor, Darrin Z., passed away after battling cancer for over a year. He was ten years old. In the fall of 2008 he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma. Healthcentral.com provides the following description of the condition, which echoes the last year of my little friend’s life with eerie accuracy:

The most common pediatric malignant brain tumor (10-20% of all pediatric brain tumors).
Occurs more frequently in boys than in girls. Peak age is about 5 years old. Most occur before 10 years of age.
Signs include headache, vomiting, uncoordinated movements, and lethargy.
Can spread (metastasize) along the spinal cord.
Surgical removal alone does not cure medulloblastoma. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often used with surgery.

If the cancer returns, it is usually within the first 5 years of therapy.

Source: healthcentral.com

I first met Darrin six years ago, when my wife and I moved into our current home with our then eighteen-month-old daughter, Grace. Darrin was the middle of three children, and we fast became friends with his parents Dave and Tonia. They were clearly the more executive parents, with two children already in school and a toddler only a few months behind Grace.

From the very beginning, Darrin proved to be an angel, the calmest and most unassuming of all the kids. What I remember most about Darrin is the way he would quietly enter my garage on a sunny weekend afternoon and just “hang out” while I cleaned and tinkered. He didn’t require special attention or entertainment. I don’t remember him ever asking me for anything, though he was most appreciative whenever I brought home Batman or Spiderman coloring books and sound story books from work. (At that time I was Editor-in-Chief of Meredith Books, and we were actively licensing the rights to produce such books as Hollywood churned out super hero sequel after super hero sequel.)

And it was that simple memory of the quiet, unassuming Darrin alive that overwhelmed me at Darrin’s visitation. I’ve been to dozens of visitations and funerals in my life, but never one for a child who didn’t live long enough to become a teenager. I was not prepared for the emotions that would overwhelm me—emotions that were more intense than the ones I’d felt at my own father’s funeral after his battle with cancer. I stood for a long time in front of Darrin’s casket, and for a portion of that time, I stood there arm-in-arm with Darrin’s father, Dave. The two of us, who had stood in our front yards commiserating about money and work and the state of the nations numerous times while our kids rode bikes or played catch (while Darrin ever-vigilantly watched after my little girl Gracie to ensure she didn’t fall on the concrete or wander unknowingly out-of-bounds and into the street), the two of us briefly stood arm-in-arm before Darrin and cried. There wasn’t much to say nor was there much that needed to be said. We were both fathers with sons and daughters. Dave and his wife, Tonia, knew we loved their kids and all that they and their kids had taught us about raising our own children in the three plus years we were neighbors. Now, after an often hopeful but always touch-and-go battle, one of us was gone.

I stood before Darrin for a long time, and finally I prayed for him one last time, as I had prayed for him daily for over a year, every morning, without fail. I stood before him a long time and wondered how, how on God’s green earth, his parents had the strength to stand beside him for hours and greet all of us who had come to pay our respects. I wondered if I would have had the strength to stand there ten minutes if it were the end of my own child’s heroic battle everyone were coming to acknowledge. And Darrin’s battle, with all of its ups and downs, was the kind of heroic that transformed many of us. Never will my own suffering seem so unique after following this little man’s journey as it was so deftly captured by Tonia on her son’s care page.

Before I finally walked away from Darrin for the last time, Tonia walked up beside me and said, simply and frankly, “It’s a journey, Greg. It’s a journey,” as if she’d been reading my mind, as if to offer me a glimpse into the source of her own transcendent strength.

A few days after the visitation, on Saturday evening, I attended a service at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. The church’s pastor, Mike Householder, spoke at length about suffering. As he did I noticed Darrin’s name in the weekly program under the section listing the names of those “for whom we mourn.” A few minutes later, Mike made reference to the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts and then posed the question that has stuck with me every waking moment since he first uttered it: Is your faith bigger than your suffering? The implicit message being that, if it is, if your faith truly is bigger than your suffering, then there is nothing you and God can’t walk through with dignity and grace—with the knowledge that at the end of the journey, all will be as it should be. Clearly, Dave and Tonia’s faith, like Darrin’s bravery throughout and his refusal to give up until the very end, is and has been bigger than their suffering, and I pray that it remains so in the days ahead.

Good night and good-bye, Sweet Boy. Your journey lives on in all of us who knew you. Because of you, Darrin, and your mom and dad, and your big sister and little brother, and the utter dignity with which you have all faced these trying days, some of us may one day come to know a faith that is bigger than our own suffering.

Darrin and his sister, Emily, hanging out with me and neighborhood kids in my driveway during a visit back to the old “hood” earlier this summer