Tag Archives: true love

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.

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Acceptance, Surrender, and Renewal


Me with My Ex-tended Family at Oceans of Fun in Kansas City, August 3, 2011. Adults from L to R: Me, my friend and my daughter

My divorce has been final for well over a year now (since 7/9/10), and it’s been more than 2 1/2 years since I first launched this blog. If there is one simple truth I’ve learned over the past 30 or so months, it is this: acceptance is a matter of the mind, surrender a matter of the heart.

I’ve actually found it relatively easy to accept certain realities as they’ve presented themselves since April of ’09. I didn’t freak when my then wife of 6 1/2 years and the mother of my kids said she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore. I’d been there … more than once … I got it: People fall out of love. (Reality check for all who think they’ve got a lock on their spouses: You’ve got a firmer grip on the wind, my friend.) Having been fickle in love myself, I was able, mentally, to accept my wife’s twist of fate, although the thought of our kids having to go through a divorce twisted my guts into a million tiny knots. And, when the time came, when she finally said she was going to actually file, I was able to accept fairly readily what I’d suspected all along: That there was a Him, though she continued to vehemently deny it. Thanks to Facebook, I later verified pretty easily that The Him showed up oh-so-coincidentally at about the same time as the papers. Bitter? Maybe a tinge, but it was all pretty transparent and quintessentially predictable. Few go through a divorce without that little bit of added support on the side we tell ourselves we need and so well deserve. And, on the first of July 2010, when she finally moved out, it came as no surprise that it was The Him’s house that she moved into. All of this, intellectually, I was able to accept.

What threw me for a loop, what wasn’t so easy to accept and what my heart wouldn’t surrender, was that my kids would now have a new male influence in their lives. Sadly, the fact that my Ex had a Him in her life almost came as a relief; someone else would be looking after the mother of my kids in my absence (how 1950’s of me). But the fact that they, my by then 7-year-old daughter and 4- year-old son, might be influenced by someone other than me was torturous.

The torture began, ironically, with the fact that my kids liked The Him and The Him liked my kids. Intellectually, I could accept that this was, indeed, a good thing for all concerned. But at a more gut, or should I say primal, level, I’d have rather gnaw on the veins in Him’s neck like a rabid wolf than surrender to a new normal that included someone other than me winning the hearts and minds of my children—however much or little.

Luckily, The Him turned out to be a good guy from the very beginning. In fact, within weeks of the divorce, The Him contacted me on Facebook in a boldly standup fashion and suggested we meet so he’d have the chance to become something other than “the other guy” (The Him) in my mind. This won my respect instantly and less than a month after the ink was dry on the decree, I invited The Him to my house, along with my Ex, for my son’s 5th birthday party. That day he became a guy named Jason, who had two daughters of his own, and somewhere down the line, my Ex became Meg again. Over the course of the next year, we (Meg, Jason, me, my kids, and his kids) would share a number of holidays and birthdays together in the spirit of showing our kids everything was OK, and that life could be conducted in relative normalcy even if our circumstances weren’t those of the normal majority–whoever and wherever they are.

And that spirit, the spirit of putting the kids well-being before all else ALWAYS, is what made the picture at the top of this post and, for me, the ultimate surrender possible. At some point in the past year it became painfully apparent to me that no one was likely to do greater harm to my children than me if I didn’t get over myself. Today, every time my jealousy rears its ugly head, every time I want to take a stand of some selfish sort and proclaim myself king of the parental jungle, I simply ask myself: What will harm the children less or benefit them more, me making my point or me shutting up and surrendering my self-serving emotions to a greater good? Nine out of ten times, my ego doesn’t have a leg to stand on. And I’m happy to say, nine out of ten times, I’m able to take the high road and either catch myself and shut up or correct myself and make amends as soon after I’ve said or done something stupid as humanly possible.

The Boys Upon Arrival at Oceans of Fun in Kansas City: Adam, Jason, Me, and Tom.

Consequently, one afternoon this summer, shortly before my son’s 6th birthday, Meg and Jason and I were actually able to sit down in my kitchen and plan a trip to Kansas City we all agreed would be great fun for the kids. When my friend and Grace’s godfather, Tom, discovered the trip included a Royal’s baseball game and a day at Ocean’s of Fun, he asked if he could join us. So, on the 2nd of August, Tom and Jason and I and the kids piled into a van and drove to Kansas City to watch the last place Royals get drubbed by the last place Orioles. The next day, on the 3rd of August, Meg drove down and joined us for the afternoon at Oceans of Fun and dinner that night on the Country Club Plaza.

All the kids, big and small, with Meg behind the camera: Adam, Claudia, Jason, Me, Grace, Tom, Carter.

The Clan at Dinner that night on The Plaza: Jason, Claudia, Meg, Adam, Grace, Me, Carter, Tom.

The supreme irony: Nine years earlier, on the 3rd of August 2002, Tom had stood up with Meg and me as one of my groomsmen in our wedding, which had been followed by a brief honeymoon right there on that very Plaza in KC, and not once during our trip this summer did any of us realize that day at Oceans of Fun actually marked the anniversary (our ninth) that wasn’t—a sure sign to me a few days later that we’d all achieved an unspoken sense of closure and renewal.

Winstead

Grace and I at Winstead

Grace, Claudia, Tom shakin

Winstead

Grace and Adam at their first Major League baseball game.

Tom and the girls; it was 107 degrees farenheit at game time (7:05 pm).

Adam.

Grace.

Tom and the kids, out in left field ... as usual.

The kids and I on the Lazy River, where we belong.

Emotional Pain: A Source of Hope, A Prompt to Love


I clearly remember the day, in eighth grade, that Mary Beth H. broke up with me. I was crushed, truly devastated … or, at the very least, my ego got hammered. This meant I would no longer be seen in the hallways of McGee Junior High School holding hands with Mary Beth as I walked her to class. This meant we would no longer plan secret rendezvous in the stairwells where we could “make out,” and, as often as not, be discovered by someone like my basketball coach, Mr. G., who would later rib me about my breathless moments with Mary Beth in front of the entire squad, a ribbing which, he may or may not have known, brought me great pride because Mary Beth was undoubtedly the most sought after hand to hold in the entire school. This meant we would not talk for hours on the phone at night, mostly about nothing and until our parents told us to hang up but not before we would promise to meet somewhere in town over the weekend. Two full days apart was, of course, more than any young couple should have to endure.

Mary Beth and I had been “going steady” for well over two weeks the day she dumped me and, in my mind, reduced me to a hapless loser, a status only reinforced by the fact that she was dumping me for my cousin, David H., a veritable Fonz at McGee since he was very handsome and very cool and could grow a full mustache—no surprise since, as we all knew, he would turn sixteen in the ninth grade and have a car before anyone else.

I did everything you’d expect an eighth-grade boy to do once I’d been dealt the hellish blow—I spoke at length to her friends and mine about why, about what I could do or should have done differently, about the possibility that this was a mistake and what were the chances we’d “get back together” sometime soon. I cried openly, I hoped privately, and eventually I hated venomously with all my heart. I worshiped her very being and spat venom at the thought of her freckled face in the same breath and always behind her back.

Losing Mary Beth was not the most tragic event I’d experienced up to that point in my life, and I’ve experienced many others since that are far more tragic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever felt emotional pain as deeply and purely as I did that day.

I did unwittingly learn a few lessons about pain management in the hours and days that followed. My mother allowed me my share of tears and a week-long period of mourning (i.e. lots of moping around), but she would not allow me to miss school the next day so I could avoid Mary Beth and the shame of seeing her walk the halls with my cousin. My father, too, consoled me as only a father who was a union foreman could: “Ah, you’ll go through a hundred Mary Beth’s before you’re twenty.” But he would not allow me to skip basketball practice that day or the next, even though my cousin David would be there to flaunt his victory … on and off the court. They were insistent I wake up each day and “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” Ultimately, my mother would say the one thing that would stick with me throughout my life: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”

In the eleven years since I returned to AA, I’ve watched a lot of recovering men face this type of rejection and even helped a few walk through the emotional pain that goes with it. Recently I watched a man I sponsor grieve so torturously over the end of a relationship I honestly thought we might lose him, not to alcohol but more likely to a bullet. At one point, however, I reminded him that if he didn’t hurt so badly, if he refused to open himself to the seeming agony, it would only mean that he didn’t care—not only about her, but more so about the mysteriously wonderful phenomenon of loving and being loved. I begged him (as so much spiritual literature often instructs) to embrace the pain and become one with it, not as a form of punishment or self degradation, but as an act of hope.

It’s been my experience that emotional pain is often just that, a sign of hope, hope that we will one day experience the joy and sheer bliss of loving and being loved unconditionally again—if not by the person breaking our heart, then by someone else. The pain shows we still care.

Loss of love is painful mainly because IT, the loving, once seemed so pure and unconditional. That lingering pain that follows the end of a relationship mostly represents the desire to have IT back—not necessarily the person, but the experience of IT, which, in the aftermath of a failed relationship, is falsely associated with the person who has usually long since stopped loving us in a pure and unconditional fashion. Again, my mother: “Why would you want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you anyway?”

In the handful of suicides I’ve known intimately this past decade (all of them “alcoholic” suicides), hope of ever again loving someone else in a pure and unconditional fashion seemed lost. These suicides had lost loved ones, family members, friends and more with extreme apathy—not because they didn’t care about and love those people purely and unconditionally at one time, but because they had completely and utterly lost hope that they would ever regain the ability to love and be loved in that way. Why they had lost that ability, why they seemed to fall victim to an extreme state of anomie,* is not for me to conjecture. I simply witnessed that they had, by their own admission in every case, completely and utterly lost hope. As one of these dear friends attested before his death, there was no pain, nor was there an absence of pain. There was simply a complete absence of hope and therefore nothing to prompt or prevent any kind of emotional pain. No hope, no pain. No pain, no gain … emotionally or otherwise.

As my current marriage inches closer and closer to its own end, I hope to draw some valuable lessons from the losses I’ve both experienced and witnessed these past 50 years. First and foremost, I hope to wake each morning with a firm commitment to “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.” If past experience has taught me anything, it’s that a failure to rise up and DO is a sure-fire prescription for emotional suicide. I continue to wake each morning at 5 so I have time to meditate and hit the gym before I leave for work at 8. I endeavor each day to leave my emotional issues at home to the best of my ability and commit my focus to work while I’m there. I continue to play, read, laugh, and work with my kids in all the ways they’ve come to expect—as much for my sanity as their protection. And, I hope, to the best of my ability, I continue to respect, and maintain an appropriate level of civility with, my wife, whom I still count as a great friend. None of these efforts is perfect nor do I perform them in absence of that often gut-wrenching pain that accompanies impending loss. I’m not always fun, and I’m not always patient. But I force myself to try to be when I recognize I’m not. I’m far from perfectly civil or perfectly respectful; I’m just as capable of anger and resentment as ever. But any time anger wells up, I try like hell to squelch it (or call my sponsor), knowing full well if I indulge it, I’m the only one who is likely to suffer. I am way beyond those days when I could unleash my own wrath and enjoy it or walk away from it without consequence. Another sign of hope, I think.

It’s also my position that emotional pain is not only a sign that we still hope to experience love in our lives—with or without the person we perceive to be the cause of our pain—but a prompt to redouble our efforts to love those who remain faithfully connected to us. Ironically, I pity those who have not loved or cared deeply enough to have experienced extreme and debilitating emotional pain. For me, not having suffered that level of loss at least once would represent a life unlived. The key is to recognize the pain for what it is (a sign of hope), embrace it, and ultimately unearth a solution from it that will propel us into yet another not-so-well-lit dimension of human experience.

* social instability resulting from abreakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and anxiety that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals

Moment of Clarity #2: True Love


In true love, there are no victors and no victims—only the genuine pursuit of time well spent.